Sep 29, 2014

Revising the Novel: A Physical Act

I'm three weeks and about sixty pages into the 4th revision of the novel, giving myself anywhere from 1-3 1/2 hours per morning, a minimum of four mornings a week. That's not much time if you think about it, and I aspire to have that number reach an even 4 hours per day, 5 mornings per week--but there are, in fact, bills to pay.

I'm learning more than I can express in a single blog post, so I'll continue this "Revising the Novel" series for as long as I can. Today, I want to share what I've learned about the physicality of writing by saying this: I've never written anything before that actually made me feel tired like this novel does. Not sleepy...not "out of it," but flat out tired. Novel writing is a physical act. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, it requires actually creating an entire moment out of nothing and then maintaining that discipline for hundreds of pages. It is for this reason that I don't worry when I write only 1 paragraph in 1 hour, or just 3 pages in 3 hours. This is slow and steady work, or as Haruki Murakami writes in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: "To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don't necessarily end up so."

I just finished Murakami's book on Audible and will likely listen to it again (it's quite soothing while I'm in the car). Brad has the printed version, which comes in handy for quotes and seeing how Murakami structured the prose sections on the page. But more than anything, this book has been a perfectly-timed gem as I prepare to run my first "race" in two weeks. Mind you, it's just a 5K...but it's the warm up to what will be my first 10K this winter. And it's certainly the first time I've PAID to go running (the absurdity!)...

I have no idea quite why this burning need to run competitively (if only in competition with myself) is just now taking seed. Why couldn't I have watered this in, say, my twenties? Apparently I had to wait until after two foot surgeries, two stress fractures and dislocations in my feet, one metatarsul break, and three extraordinarily painful bouts of plantar fasciaitis (one of them occurring right now, courtesy my Wonderland Trail adventure). Of course, the writer in me knows exactly what this is about--discipline, fresh air, and achieving a state of mind necessary to feed my creative spirit to push through the barriers. Murakami talks about it as splitting rocks, which feels about right: "I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another.”

So when I think about the novel as splitting rocks, and when I try to make sure I'm getting 8 hours of sleep a night and 4 days a week of exercise, it is not because I'm selfish or unaware of cutting other priorities out of my life in service of these. (Dear friends: I miss you. Dear pint of beer: Please stay chilled.) It is because it's my job. How I live my life away from the desk absolutely informs the quality of my abilities to write when I am at the desk. My ideal day, in a perfect world? This: 6-7 breakfast and meditation, 7-8 silent reading, 8-12 writing and lunch, 12-1 email (blick!), 1-4 exercise, 4-7 shower/cook/eat, 7-10 reading/meditation/down time. Murakami puts this nicely: "I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring."

And with regard to endurance, which writing a novel and running naturally require: "The only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be...Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—-and for me, for writing as well." Which is why I never compare myself to other writers and...hopefully...to other runners.

Sep 25, 2014

A Room of My Own

After completing The Wonderland Trail, I more or less packed up my fall and winter clothing, my kitchen essentials, and my entire office (including most pertinent books) and moved it all up to Mercy Me Hill in Manville, Virginia.

First things first: I still live in Celo in an Airstream. That is not a sentence I am willing to revise. But I’m engaged to someone getting in-state tuition two hours north across two state lines. We’ve fashioned a compromise where in we base ourselves out of his place until he graduates, but return to the Airstream once a week when I teach a memoir class in town. With any luck, we’ll be in the Airstream for Brad’s 6-week break between semesters, too.

Second things second: Manville, VA—much like Celo, NC—isn’t technically a “place” according to the post office. But according to local signs and local language, it is by all accounts a place and a quite unique one at that. Mercy Me Hill is the name of the 150 acres of family land in Manville that Brad grew up on, and while the house we’re in is still dotted with aging school photos and 1980’s decor, it’s a home nonetheless and a private, warm, dry, spacious one to boot. If we weren’t here, it would sit empty (as it has for many years already), so it’s a win-win and I feel lucky to share a space full of so many Quillen family memories.

Third things third: Brad and I want to live in the South Toe Valley, perhaps even Celo, after he graduates. We won’t have much moolah, but we live so simply that we don’t anticipate needing gobs of it right away and we’re both ok with the Airstream for an inbetween period of house-hunting.

All of which brings me to the subject of today’s post: a room of my own. All writers know about the famous phrase, “a room of her own,” attributed to Virginia Woolf. The Airstream was a long-inspired dream perhaps even informed by that phrase, and it’s a place I will always associate with confidence, independence, discipline, dreaming, peace, and writing. I hope that never changes. But here at Mercy Me, Brad prepared a room from which I conduct most of my work. So far, I’ve operated my Writer at Large business from this desk for a few successful weeks and I’ve taken my novel out of the drawer with steady momentum. I’ve read. I’ve prepared lectures. I’ve planned classes. I’ve meditated and done yoga. All of which is to say, it’s a good space…and nearly the same square footage in this room as half the space of my Airstream, if not more.


Giving up full time in the Airstream, in the South Toe, against the ridgeline of my beloved Black Mountains, is something so hard and fragile I can barely type these words. But getting companionship, growing my relationship, and having a spacious room to call my own brings an immeasurable return. Here are few snapshots of the room, and in the coming weeks I hope to focus on the land and surrounding hills.

My reading corner. Quite possibly my favorite spot.

Two desks--one for working, one for brainstorming.

And my very own closet. It's the little things, eh?

Sep 22, 2014

Revising the Novel: Finding a Good Reader

Countless essays have been written about the importance of finding a "good reader" for your writing. Lots of these articles focus on horror stories, too--the friend who turned into Punctuation Satan (i.e. useless), the professor who stole the plot line, the guy who always criticized but never turned in his own work...you've heard it all before. But how do you know when you've found a good reader for your work, and is that reader always the same person no matter your project?

I got to meet with my author friend last week for our first attempt at being "readers" for each other. We're both far along enough in our careers and our practice as writers to know that we were feeling each other out and finding our way toward, perhaps, a common style of critique. It was a wonderful situation to walk into, because here was someone whose work I respect, whose personality I greatly enjoy, and whose insight I value. I didn't have to feel nervous, because I knew if we weren't a good fit, we'd both recognize that and just finish the bottle of wine and call it a good evening.

Our guidelines before meeting were simple and informal: send 20-30 pages by a certain date, meet a few days later, and discuss "general direction and structure." We both agreed we didn't need "line-level" feedback. When the time came to discuss our work, we stayed true to our intentions. After all, we both have many other pressures on our time and schedules and were equally hungry for useful feedback. But the point I'd like to make here has more to do with balancing the conversation. There's a fine line between sticking to your guidelines and leaving the door open for discovery. As with writing, giving good feedback needs to both follow a track and leave space for deviation.

So as our conversation wounds its way through the "general direction and structure" of each of our stories, what I took heart in most of all was the fact that we were each able to intuit where the conversation needed to eddy. These moments of pause, these chances to "think out loud" and zoom in on a moment or opportunity on the page, are were the real magic of "finding a good reader" come in. They also require more than just "a good reader"...because you have to be a receptive writer in order to get the message, too.

From one of these moments, I learned that a character in my novel, Sergeant Major Chaffen, doesn't need to be as complex as I'm trying to make him appear. I learned that even though I know how the novel is going to end, I don't need to write this particular character as though he knows, too, and I certainly don't need to use him as a prop to inorganically hint at what's to come. As my author friend told me, quoting Henry James: "A novel is an impression, not an argument. You can't make a point. You just have to reveal what's there."

...which is really what a "good reader" does, too--helping you see what's there, and by extension, what isn't.

Sep 18, 2014

Revising the Novel: Out of the Drawer

Readers of this blog who also write or enjoy discussions about creative process, might enjoy previous posts along this theme of revision. Use the search box on the lower left sidebar of this site to search for "Revising the Novel" and a series of other posts will show up.

I put the novel "in a drawer" for almost six months, April through September. With the exception of one single night in Ontario when, amongst writing friends who wanted to share current projects, that document had not been opened on my computer until last week. On September 10th, my first day back at it, I still did not re-open the document. Rather, I started with a new document and blinking cursor in Word; Hemingway's "white bull," as he was known to call the blank page. I wrote that way for three mornings, working on scenes never before rendered--although a few had been hinted at in the old draft. An editor I hired last spring had convinced me that I needed to rework the timeframe, starting a few days earlier than my old draft, so at least that much was decided for me. Whether or not that starting point will stick is beside the point. Her suggestion helped me find a way back in; invaluable.

Working for 2 1/2 to 3 hours each morning, I was able to write 700-800 words per sitting. This felt slow enough to assure myself I was working deeply, but not so slow as to feel discouraging. After three mornings, I had two chapters with content never before written in this story, but content that felt true and right to my characters all the same. Many more minutes were spent staring at the screen than actually typing, but each time my fingers quieted across the keyboard I tried to be patient with myself. It's not easy to create an entire world from scratch, my inner voice reminded me. There's no advantage to rushing.

On the fourth morning, my new scenes reached a point in which I knew I needed to pull something from the old draft and re-work it into the present. But even at this juncture, I did not allow myself to cut and paste. I knew I wanted to look at the scene of Nathan home on leave, when he takes his wife Tenley to Micaville Park...but I couldn't remember where I'd placed this in the old draft. Rather than re-read the old draft (which would have influenced all voice and content decisions moving forward with the new draft--something I'm expressly avoiding), I used Word's "Find" function and typed in "Micaville Park." Within seconds, I located the exact paragraph I needed, all without getting wrapped up in "the old stuff."

Next, I re-read the scene, kept the document open on my screen, then overlayed the new draft document on top so I could rewrite the scene word-by-word, toggling back and forth between docs. Some lines are nearly the same. Many are not. But what I lost in time but not cutting and pasting, I gained tenfold in new material and more precise rendering and understanding of my characters on the page. Hardly a loss at all. Such confidence, however short-lived (or even accurate), came as a balm. After six months of uncertainty--Would I have anything to write when September rolled around? Would I be able to see anything new, anything different?--a few good mornings at the desk were better than any kind of therapy (chocolate therapy, psychotherapy, or otherwise).

This week, I put two more mornings in, generating 1,000 new words during one session and re-working several thousand more words (from the old draft) on another session. The morning that yielded several thousand words, by the way, actually feels like the least developed part of the story. The words moved quickly because I was re-working a lengthy scene from the old draft that simply has to be in the new draft. But the wiser part of me knows those pages need more attention because I have a different understanding of my main character now. How the scene will change, I'm still not sure, but I'm setting it aside for the weekend to let my subconscious do its job. And as for precisely what I know about my main character that I didn't know before--well, that's got my tongue tied, too. I guess it's time to do more digging.

Even still: I have four chapters and almost 30 pages now, and will meet with an author mentor this evening to discuss our new work. Each day forward feels teetering, scary, and exhilarating all at once. I don't know if what I'm writing is well-written and I certainly don't know how much of it will actually make it to a final draft...but I do know that I'm writing again, and in the moment of creation, that's something I can believe in.

Time and distance, those greatest of teachers for any writer, will yield more clarity. Meantime, discipline is my old and faithful best friend. For now, what that means is at least 4 mornings a week will be spent on the novel, from roughly 7:30-11am or until I get 700-1000 new words in each sitting. Anything above and beyond is bonus, and if the author mentor and I find we're a good fit for each other's current creative needs and queries, perhaps I'll even have the benefit of weekly consolation, criticism, feedback, and camaraderie.