Oct 23, 2014

Revising the Novel: Interruption

Don't get me wrong...five days on the road with Brad with overnights in Hokie alumni households is a pretty freaking great experience (and conveniently, much of the trip can be written off as a business expense). But man-on-man does that length of time away from the desk wreak havoc on routines.

Rockville, Maryland. Who knew?

Here's the good news: First, as indicated by the above photograph, yes, Brad clearly has Zombie potential. It's good to know what I'm marrying into, Zombie-potential being high on the list of priorities for lifelong mates. Second, as indicated by my tone of voice--I don't feel guilty about not working on the novel right before, during, or right after the trip. Which is to say, as much as I missed revising and as much as I hate interrupting my momentum, the fact that I don't feel guilty means that I've finally built enough of my foundation as a novelist-in-progress to trust it will still be there when I come back. There's no fear of the novel getting ripped out from under me. There's no worry that I've interrupted something so gravely, I can't get it back. Rejoice!

With a final push through these next four days (yep, still working 10-hour days), I'll be caught up and ready to deal with my characters Monday morning. And if I'm not caught up? Monday morning is still novel time. No bones about it. The list of things to do between now and Monday morning is long, but I know enough about balance and the writing life now to understand that the list also has to include exercise and unstructured down time if I am to be of any use to my characters. If that means I fall slightly behind on work again, so be it. I'm still meeting my deadlines, so ultimately the only real source of pressure is coming from myself. (What's new?!)

Onward we go, into fall and into the weekend of work...into my growing obsession with training for a 10K...into my novel and its upcoming muddy middle...deeper into love and deeper into life. Can being busy possibly feel this good? Yes, yes it can. The key? Knowing how to balance the equations. I'm still learning how to be my best boss and, ideally, that means not working on weekends. But I've just traveled and I've got to be flexible with myself. Work + exercise + play = novel potential. The number of hours spent on 1/3 of that equation is to high right now, but there's balance in the very near future and--BONUS!--tonight I get to meet with my author friend to swap critiques on our latest work. We'll discuss her new short story (amazing!) and my newest 34 pages on the novel. Yes, wine will be involved.

Oct 20, 2014

James Salter on Knowledge & Observation

I'm pleased to report that the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival was a delightful success, to my eyes at any rate, as a participating author and workshop leader. Small and focused, here is a group of writers and readers dedicated to improving craft and deep discussion. Clearly, the focus was on making the festival free and/or very affordable to the public, and if you're obliged to travel for such events, I recommend this festival for writers in particular. The advice given there was solid, specific, and accessible. Who doesn't want that?!

"Big name" authors brought into festivals don't always make themselves visible or available to the public. In fact, I've rarely been at one (or participated in one) where the keynote speaker appears much before or after his/her main event. That's understandable--they're not getting compensated for that time and they usually have other things to do. Understandable as it may be, I suspect this fact is sometimes still a little disappointing to festival attendees and participants alike.

Ellusiveness was not the modus operandi of this year's F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival's big name, however, which meant attendees and participating authors alike had ready access to James Salter. At Friday night's kick-off event, featuring 4 veteran authors and myself, James Salter sat in the front row. Exchanging a few words after the reading, he slipped his 80+-year-old hand into mind and looked at me. "I could stand to read more of your work," he smiled. "Impressive."

Did I blush? I must have, though I blush more now to admit that I'm not scholar of Salter's work. Brushing up on his background a bit over the course of the weekend, his compliment took on greater significance and I felt humbled, honored. Later, during his craft talk and "master class" at the festival, I was able to slip in a question. I asked James Salter how his imagination works. This is a question I always try to be able to answer for myself, as a fiction writer writing far from the realm of anything I've personally experienced, and so I'm always eager to hear how others address this topic as well.

I learned two things from James' answer: First, he, too, describes imagination as that thing we employ when we don't know the answer, or don't know what comes next. For me, it's the gateway (or perhaps the invitation) to write my way toward something I can believe in, toward a truth that feels authentic. To James, it's sometimes a clue that he needs to rely on other tools--the tools of his life experience--instead, or perhaps, more. When he spoke, James also used the word "invention," which I thought was particularly thought-provoking. He described having to imagine/invent information or moments in a novel in order to bring an idea to completion. But--and here's the second thing I learned--for an author such as as himself, imagination is secondary to "knowledge and observation." Knowledge and observation, James said, guide him through nearly everything he lives and writes. Because his fiction doesn't stray too terribly far from what he's experienced, that makes sense. But I had never thought of placing these three things--knowledge, observation, and imagination--on a spectrum before. I've lectured about where research meets imagination, but James' answer gave me more terms to work with and consider, adding good old fashioned "observation" back into the mix.

Observation, of course, is such a close friend to every writer that it's easy to forget it's a skill that comes in hand most especially during those long, silent, solo hours at the desk. For a writer, observation is always there, the logbook pages always filling, the "recorder" always ready to save impressions, and the eye always keen to those things others often miss. For most writers, I'd argue, observation is second nature; so essential to who we are, we don't even know how to separate ourselves from it.

Which is perhaps why, when I talk about research and imagination--my two main tools--I've forgotten to mention observation altogether. It's worth bringing this back into my consciousness, though, as my "war stories" are really just "people stories." And what do I observe day after day after day? People. How people behave is the gateway to the shared predicaments of the human heart, which--in my opinion--is a topic any story or novel must address, whether sideways or head-on.

Oct 16, 2014

F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival

Reading in our nation's capital has privately been in the back of my mind ever since Flashes of War released almost a year and a half ago. This weekend, I'm happy I'll be in that area for a series of public events. If you know writers, readers, or--most especially--veterans in the area, please share this information with them.

  • Register for my one-hour writing workshop, "What is Flash Fiction & How Can it Improve Short Stories & Novels?" at the Rockville Memorial Library. Class meets 10am-11am and 4pm-5pm on Saturday, October 18 and more information can be found here.

  • Meet the Loyola University Maryland's publisher at Apprentice House, Kevin Atticks--and join us both for a reading and conversation Monday, October 20th at 7pm in Baltimore, Maryland at The Ivy Bookshop. Free and open to the public.

Oct 13, 2014

Jogging Writer: Tips for First 5K

I knew I needed to run slow. I knew the rush at the start would make my breathing ragged for the first few minutes. Secretly, I feared I'd come in last. As it turned out, what I knew or thought I knew didn't matter one bit once my body eclipsed my mind. Such strange relief--after five weeks working 10-hour days, often 6 days a week, something else was telling me what to do. I liked it.

To be sure, I did entertain clear thoughts: Be careful on this footbridge because it rained last night. Step on these rocks to cross the creek, rather than going through the water. Save yourself for the final uphill. But for the most part, those tips came to me from a hopeful and wise voice inside--nothing demanding about it. This was the first race of my life, after all, and in the face of plantar fasciatis that allowed me only 4 runs in the last 8 weeks (with a 93-mile backpacking trip in between), I had mixed feelings about competing. Originally, I set a goal of coming in around 30 minutes for the 3.1 miles. In the wake of the injury, I decided 35:00 would be more fair, as I didn't want to set myself up for failure on my first timed event.

The bell rang and off we went! Within the first 1/10 of a mile, I was nearly alone on the trail. Two kids ran behind me, somewhere. Ahead, I saw a woman wearing pink, her impossibly toned thighs and thin waist a marvel of smooth skin and fabric. Just ahead of her, darting into the woods, was the spandex ninja--a tall, lean man with gray hair and all-black race clothes. I reasoned I wouldn't see him again until I crossed the finish line. It wasn't long before the woman in pink dipped out of sight and I was alone in the woods, absolutely certain there were no other adults behind me on the trail.

AMS Fall Foliage 5K 2014

The terrain was familiar, old single-track trails and logging roads in the South Toe Valley where I typically run anyway. But the adrenaline rush, the 33 other runners, and even the early morning hour were not familiar, and while I mostly enjoyed myself, I also faught to calm my nerves. Dad had given me great advice before we took off: "Just breathe. Just beat one person." I liked that. One person. Surely I could beat one person, right? While I knew enough to know most runners are in it to beat their own personal best or personal performance, it's also a competitive sport by nature. Even the humblest racer hopes to beat one person. The other advice I received came by way of Thrive magazine, which suggested envisioning the butterflies in my stomach in the shape of a chevron. I took that visualization one step further and pointed the chevron outwards and forward from my belly. If ever there was a time I slowed, I only had to conjure the furiously flapping butterflies and let them tug me along. And tug, they did.

The other thing about the terrain, and this relates to my pace--this was a trail run: 3 creek crossings, 2 grassy fields, 200 feet of elevation gain on rocky terrain, and a few old gravel roads connecting it all. Hardly impossible, but not a treadmill, either. Given this, and aforementioned plantar fasciatis, I felt good when I came in with a time of 32:12. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Curvy and slow, but off I go!
About 3/4 of a mile in, I rounded a bend in the trail and glimpsed the woman in pink. Beyond her, perhaps 1/10 of a mile further, the ninja darted in and out of sight. Slow as a two-ton train, I passed the woman and puttered uphill. Surely she was the mother of one of the children flailing behind me. Passing her was no victory; she had to be a sympathy runner. With thighs like that, I couldn't imagine any other reason she'd be moving slower than me. I spent the next mile and half completely alone, no ninja in sight. I had no intention of passing him, but his presence did give me mild reassurance I was at least running the right direction.

With help from cheering fans at trail junctures along the way, and Mom, Dad, and Brad surprising me at the red barn by the cows, I made it toward the home stretch. One hill lay before me and it was no easier than I thought it might be. That finished, I heard cheering at the finish line through the woods and the end came into the view. The ninja had finished not too terribly ahead of me, as I could hear the cheering when he completed his race. Another runner--someone who had finished much faster than I--was actually running the opposite direction of the race and high-fiving people. I reached up to high-five him and, startlingly close behind me, heard another slap of skin on skin.

The woman in pink? I couldn't be sure. I leapt over the mud puddle and ran through the first set of orange cones at the finish. Onlookers cheered and I slowed to a stop. "No, no!" someone called, "Keep GOING!" Confused, I realized the onlookers were at the start of the final stretch and the finish line lay some thirty meters ahead. I let loose an ungraceful, loud, "FUCK!" and sprinted across the proper finish line. About forty-five seconds later, the woman in pink crossed as well.

I learned so much--and I'll have to paraphrase here--but more than anything, I understood immediately that the race you run is the race in your mind. I had convinced myself the ninja had magical powers when in fact he was a 60+ former competitive runner. I was certain only two kids and the woman in pink were behind me, when in fact I came in 24th out of 33 overall. And the woman in pink? Hardly a mother. Like me, it was her first race. She was a twenty-something from Charlotte training for her first half marathon. We high-fived at the end and she shook her head. "I couldn't catch you," she said. Did I smile? Maybe. But I told her good job, at any rate, and I meant it.

While the 5K was fun, I'm not sure it's my ideal distance. I enjoy running slowly and for long periods. If healing continues, I'm hoping for a 10K in November and a 1/2 marathon in March. Perhaps a 5K here and there for training, but mostly I'm interested in the slow and steady. How will it all pan out? Only one way to know...