Oct 29, 2014

Finding Fall

Yesterday, Brad and I took a mid-afternoon break to climb one of the hills at Mercy Me.

"Look!" I said, pointing to the steep slope above the shooting range. "There's Fall! Right over there!" I dashed through the field, brushing pods of milkweed that sent late-season fluff into the air.

"Really?" said Brad. He chased after me.

"Really," I said. "I promise. That's Fall. I can see it. I don't know where Winter is and I don't know about Spring, but I know Fall when I see it." This is what we do: speaking in hyperbole, asserting ecstatic proclamations ranging from absurd to juvenile, making a big deal over something as ordinary as the hill Brad stared at every day of his childhood.

"How do we get there?" Brad asked. 

"Straight through!" I plunged into a tangle of branches and vines, leaves crunching underfoot. Like explorers, we were off and running.

Still in the Appalachian Mountains, our home here is quite similar to Celo in terms of the ecosystem and the geographic features. Mixed hardwood forest unfurls over smooth-topped hills and mountains, clay-like soil and abundant undergrowth doing their job to keep the compost barrel of Mother Nature churning. The highest mountains in the East aren't at our back door, but I take heart in the fact that it's still the same string of mountains--just a little less dramatic.

At the top of the hill, we lay down in the piles of leaves and looked up. Pin oaks and hickory trees rose high into the sky, brilliant yellow leaves a-flame. A gust of wind rolled over the hill, shaking the trees. Rainbows of color rained down.

"First one to catch a leaf wins!" said Brad.

That's harder than it sounds. It's also harder than it sounds to be away from a land you love...even if it's only two hours away by car. What can I say? I have stories in the Black Mountains and I can see my way through them each time I look out my window, walk the dog, or stare at the ridge line of the Blacks cutting across the sky. I used to be really good at forging new stories, exploring new places as soon as my feet hit the ground. Now, all my energy for story goes into the novel, as it should. The idea of learning a new place exhausts me, the task daunting because I'd insist on doing it with my previous degree of research and specificity.
(steeper than they look)

Neither Brad nor I could catch a leaf that afternoon, but in time that didn't matter. The forest waved its hands around us. The hill slept beneath our backs. And somewhere on the other side of the holler a train rattled along the river while the neighbor's cattle offered their chorus of moo's. It all felt right, even with the sad stone in my gut that misses home.

We've been putting in long days of supremely focused work. I have somewhere between 80-100 pages on the novel, having started from scratch 7 weeks ago and my business is bringing in more work than I can accept. Brad is officially in the remaining 50% of the degree program that has a 50% failure rate (his program of study is hard!) and continues to receive high marks. Progress for both of us is slow and steady. If we weren't here to point it out to each other, we'd likely miss it on our own. Winter is coming. More time for hunkering down. It's good to be in love, to have such company, to delight in our deepening relationship as we build a new life together one season at a time.

Oct 27, 2014

Revising the Novel: A Resource

When I first began drafting the novel in June 2012, I knew only one thing: Write. I had no sense for structure, not sense for balance between flashback and present narrative, and very little understanding of the actual physical and psychological energy drafting a novel requires. I suppose that's good, because I might have held myself back that ignorant summer, cutting the novel off at the cord. I even recall seeking feedback on those early pages. I had to, due to a deadline from an agent. The feedback certainly helped me continue believing in my story, but those early scenes and pages have come so far from their original structure. My friends (who had drafted novels before) thankfully knew better than to provide line-level feedback. They listened for the pulse of the story and they looked for catchy moments that might hook an agent. They were wise to do so.

Since then, I've tried to keep my process as transparent as possible--both for myself and for followers of this blog. I needed help drafting my novel and, while I had a lot of support and there were countless "how to" books I could buy, I never found an expose voice that "told all" through the highs and lows and dead ends in between. To that end, today's post is a recap of most my version of these "tell-all's" so far. Searching through my posts over the past few years (I know, I know, I should be "tagging"), I was surprised (and proud!) of how many kernels of advice I'd been able to put together, adding up to something I might even call insight. I hope these provide a resource for others, and I'll continue to title all novel process posts in the future with the subheading "Revising the Novel" for easier searching online. Here goes:

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.