Writing a novel is a challenge. So what about writing a novel with a partner? Bigger challenge? That would depend on the people involved, which brings me to the topic of this blog—our method of co-writing a novel and how our partnership works.
OK, listen up, it’s Christmas time: time to give me a big Christmas present. I’m going to be hitting 60 pretty soon. Chances are I’m not going to be a big world famous author. I’m probably going to end up like millions of other writers, writing in obscurity, hoping to share their thoughts, their selves with others.
You see those day calendars for writers with motivational sayings on each day of the year. It is now my newest aspiration to have my words of wisdom on a day calendar. I’ve got all kinds of sayings, most of them unprintable. But one saying I do have stems from my procrastination and I find it helpful myself. So if there is anyone out there in cyberspace reading these words now it’s time for my Christmas present: tell someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who can get me on a calendar so I might help my fellow struggling writers. Imagine this:
December 22, Larry Jenkins,
“Get off your ass and sit down and write.”
Now, isn’t that the most perfect writer’s saying? Tell someone!
Writing a blog about writing is kinda hard to do when you haven’t been writing.
Why haven’t I written anything?
I wonder if the lack of motivation has to do with the book being “done”. This happened to me once before when I wrote my very first novel back in the mid 90s. I started it in college in Advanced Creative Writing and was required to turn in an outline. The outline was fun to create, but then I had to actually write the story.
When it was finished, I met with an agent at a writing conference, and she said it needed to be longer. So I plotted a subplot and forced myself to the computer to write the scenes. I sent the book out again to agents and editors, received a few handwritten notes, but none squealed, “Send it to us now!” So it’s sitting on my shelf in a box.
Since then, I have completed two other novels (also unpublished) WITHOUT plotting, and the excitement lasted up until the final word. Lack of motivation wasn’t a factor.
So maybe it’s the holidays?
I kinda doubt it—one of my novels was written in November—NanoWriMo. I don’t think I can really blame the holidays.
Back to lack of motivation. It was important for me and Larry to plot the end to be sure we gathered up all the loose pieces and tied them in a pretty little bow. But the spontaneity is gone. I can’t leave any more ridiculous cliff hangers for him, nor do I face the challenge of making sense of his.
And then there is also the lack of looming deadlines. The critique group doesn’t meet again until mid January.
The urgency is gone.
The fun is gone. Maybe that’s an overstatement. I love reading Larry’s parts. I’m sure there’ll be some enjoyment in watching the scenes unfold.
And yes, it’ll be fun knowing we've written the last word.
Which brings me back to motivation. If I can find the time, yeah, I might work on it. Or not. Maybe a post-holiday (rested) brain will enjoy the process more.
So, here’s looking forward to the New Year complete with deadlines and motivation.
Last night we were babysitting two of my grandchildren, Jake, 4 years old, and Emma, 2 years old. They are both angelic little ruffians. Jake and I built a Lego tower. We were admiring it as I steadied it with my hand. Emma pushed her shopping cart full of imaginary groceries over to look at our handiwork. She put her tiny finger on mine, which was sporting a purple nail from being injured weeks ago.
“Owie?” she asked, looking at me with the sweetest concerned expression. I almost melted when she leaned over to kiss my “owie.”
That perfect moment is one I won’t soon forget. It wasn’t a weepy, break down and cry moment. It was more of an “AHHHH” moment.
But, how could I describe it to anyone else? I’d love to be able to write good enough to relay to others how that little kiss made me feel. I’m not sure it’s even possible.
Becky has a fit when I try to write something “sappy,” but I try anyway. She thinks I’m wasting my time and that my talent lies in writing humor, which, I guess, evokes emotion. I want my writing to touch someone in some way. I want them to remember or think about something I’ve written for a while after they’ve read it.
For now though, that little kiss makes everything feel better.
After a meeting, a coworker asked, “How’s the book coming?”
“Well! We just went through chapter 26 last night at the critique group.” I had to take a deep breath to keep from gushing. “We’re so close to done!” I allowed myself an unworklike-atmosphere squeal.
“So how many chapters will there be?”
“We figure about 32.” This time the squeal was internal and sounded a bit like a child on a WHAM O Slip N Slide.
We are THIS CLOSE (picture me holding my fingers up, about a quarter inch apart), and I’m PUMPED. A year ago we didn’t know if we could finish it. Six months ago, we didn’t know if the structure could hold the weight of the ending. Six weeks ago, the ending didn’t appear on the blueprint.
But it does now. This weekend we hammered out the last of the details, and now all that’s left is the writing.
And it’s the Holidays.
November and December make writing difficult. Our attention is so many places: work, parties at work, how to get your work done AND go to the parties, how to get caught up. The garbage we eat this time of year (and by we I mean I) totally saps our energy. All of this is followed by collapsing at the end of the day exhausted. On the couch. With a bag of potato chips, because you (again, I) don’t want to cook a real meal.
But of course that’s not all of it. There’s the baking, the shopping, the wrapping, putting up the tree which takes FOREVER, dragging it out of the attic, reading the instructions, putting the limbs in the wrong place and starting over, lights that won’t work, broken ornaments to vacuum up, ad infinitum.
So when are we expected to write? Realistically, can we get this novel done and be sending it out to agents by April 1? That was the date I figured we could hit if we stuck to one chapter every two weeks.
But I didn’t figure in the Holidays, the demands of family, and the demands on your energy.
Or the demands of your writing partner (and again, I mean me).
Larry needs a break, not only because of the season, but because I’m a bully. I shouldn’t push others the way I push myself. He and I are so much alike that I forget we have some very dramatic differences; primarily that he has far more family responsibilities than I do.
So for the Holidays, I’m going to lighten up. No more bullying for me. I plan to chill out, have some eggnog, turn on Sinatra, snuggle up on the couch with some hot chocolate…
Okay, who am I kidding? I don’t know how to lighten up, never have, and I don’t like eggnog. I’ll keep writing when I can find the time.
But no nagging. That’ll be my Christmas gift to Larry.
It’ll be a challenge, but I think I’m up to the task.
Ok, I’d like to expand on my writing partner’s last blog.
When we get a negative response on one of our submissions Becky gets really bugged by it.
My take on the subject: so what? Not everyone is going to like everything. I don’t like poetry. If someone gives me poetry to critique I’ll do my best, but my overall response is going to be something like, “I don’t get it,” or “It didn’t rhyme.” Everyone knows I’m a barbarian with no appreciation for poetry. It doesn’t mean the poetry’s no good, it just means but that I don’t care for it.
There are a few reasons for a negative critique.
1.Your writing is a piece of crap.
2.Your critiquer doesn’t like that sort of material for one reason or another.
3.That person just sat through a painful critique on their own literary masterpiece.
4.They didn’t read it carefully.
Every critique is valuable, but I tend to average out the comments and set aside the odd comment. Don’t take things too hard. Don’t overthink things. Don’t dwell on the negative. Fix what you can and move on. Write what you want to write and say what you want to say in as precise and pleasant way as possible.
If you like it, great! If they don’t like it, so what?
I’ve mentioned the critique group that Larry and I belong to. The value of feedback is immeasurable, and even when we receive something that is clearly well intentioned, yetnot complimentary, we keep putting our stuff out there for review—we want to make it as good as we can. Is that a fun part of the writing process? Sometimes, not so much.
Recently we received a critique on one of our chapters that started like this: “I did like some of it” then “I tried not to sound too harsh.” This immediately alerted me to cowboy up and jam my hat down over my ears. I don’t take criticism well, so even the mildest of the most constructive type still pulls the blood from my face.
It’s not that this person’s input isn’t helpful, and it’s not like I haven’t heard these comments before from others. Yes, I realize that every now and then we turn in something which can’t possibly compare to the unqualified genius of previous submissions.
Then the critiquer said, “Maybe it's just cause you were working so fast, I have more problems with my stories if I do that, too. The chapters were coming hard and fast when this was written, so maybe slowing down will help.”
It was an absolutely well intentioned comment from a very nice person, and I know he/she wouldn’t deliberately be unkind. So why am I still twisting in the wind when I read it a weekago?
Well, because the chapter in question has been written for over a year, and then rewritten a couple times recently. I even blogged my concerns about this very section in Perfection Omelet with a Side of Frustration.
THAT’s what I find so upsetting—we’ve put an enormous amount of time and effort into half a dozen pages over several weeks, and it comes back with the comment, “Not your best work.”
Yes, I have us on a time schedule, the critiquer is right about that—we’re pushing ourselves, but that’s not the same as hurrying through. I’m still as difficult and anal and controlling and perfectionistic as I’ve ever been, as I’m sure Larry will attest.
Then what’s going on here?
Maybe we’ve spent too much time on it. Maybe it’s been nitpicked to death. Maybe we’ve sucked all the life right out of the thing.
So what now?
Well, I need to reread comments from the others in the critique group and see what they had to say. Is this an isolated opinion? Or is this same sentiment voiced elsewhere? And maybe I’m just suffering from the human condition—remembering the bad stuff far more vividly than the good.
Now that I’ve managed to exhaust the bronco, (or in this case, beat it to death), I can take off my cowboy hat and get down to some serious rewriting.
Or not. Let’s see what comes out of the gate tomorrow.
“Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate,” said Johnny Depp’s character Jack Sparrow.
For me, treasure is a favorite novel I’ve read until the binding breaks—and better yet, unexpectedly finding a new favorite novel. This weekend, I woke early and decided to read instead of knocking around the house, making noise, and waking my husband. I went to the bookshelf, to my I-want-to-read-that-someday section, and pulled down a thin novel titled P.S. Your Cat is Dead.
I didn’t know anything about it, but with a title like that, how do you not give it a shot? An hour and a half later, I decided I ought to get out of bed.
What exactly did I find so compelling? Structure grabbed my attention first, followed by short paragraphs, immediate conflict, and humor.
The main character lost his girl friend, his job, his apartment’s been robbed (twice), he received an eviction notice because they want to tear down the building, and his cat is sick. In spite of one horrible thing after another happening to this guy, the author manages to write it in a way that elicits smiles and occasional chuckles.
Aside from being only a pleasurable read, can it also serve as an education? I want to write a book that takes hold and hangs on like this one did me. Specifically:
oPacing – how can I read that long and totally lose track of time? Because the story moved ahead in enormous leaps. You barely catch your breath before the next big thing happens.
oPage Turner – I had to know what happened next. I’d thought about getting out of bed a couple times, “when this chapter ends.”
oHumor – the sneaky kind, turn of phrase, developing organically out of the character’s personalities
oOH CRAP moment – So far I’ve run across only one, but it was HUGE. I suspect there’ll be more, because I’m only about half way through.
Now I need to finish the novel to see if the last half is as good as the first, how the author wraps it up, and if he’s able to maintain the humor—it has turned a bit dark.
It may or may not be my next favorite novel. But if it fails me, I’ll go back to my bookshelf, pull down another novel, and settle into the recliner for a long afternoon of treasure hunting.
People ask me, “Larry, how do you come up with this stuff?”
My stock answer is, “I don’t know. I just do.”
But actually, I do kinda know—with imagination and practice.
For instance, a major league baseball pitcher throws thousands of balls a year to earn his place on the mound, and a quarterback doesn’t hit a receiver with pin-point precision accidentally.
I’ve been exercising my imagination since I was young, and it began with iced tea. I didn’t know what caffeine was at the time, how it affects you, or how you get it.
Apparently, my mother didn’t either.
I drank the amber refreshment year round and well into the evenings. Many nights, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep but didn’t know why. Those nights I’d toss and turn and rearrange until I eventually drifted off.
Soon, I began making up stories instead of executing bedtime gymnastics. I slew dragons and shot it out with gangsters. I climbed mountains, fought pirates, rescued people from bank robberies, and rode dinosaurs.
As I grew older and my interests changed, so did my stories. I rescued damsels in distress, wooed princesses, and fought for the hand of many fair ladies. I struggled through championship games, receiving the winning touchdown pass or making a last-minute, impossible basket to win the game.
Then I began planning the stories I would play in my head that night based on something that happened during the day or something I saw on TV. I’d think about what could happen, and why, and how the other characters would react. Something big always happened, and something was always at stake—and I was always the main character.
My bedtime stories evolved into daydreams, and those daydreams have found their way onto paper or the computer screen. My “imagination muscle” has been exercised enough through the years that it kicks into action at the slightest urging. And now I’m co-writing a novel. That’s how I “come up with that stuff.”
No matter where I am, I always think I’m half an hour from anywhere else in town.
But there’s rush hour. Stop lights. Trains.
I don’t spend a great deal of time planning for delays. There I am at work, it’s 3:30, and I’m leaving for an appointment across town at 4:00. There’s a train, so I take the long way around, which has more traffic lights. At 3:45 I’m not even halfway to my destination, and I begin to sweat. At 3:50, I start spending more time staring at the clock on the dash than I do at the road. At 4:00 straight up, I careen into the parking lot on two wheels, jam my vehicle into park, and race into the building, breathless up to the receptionist, who can barely make out what I’m saying because of all the gasping.
Blogging is like that for me. One blog a week, that’s all I’ve got to do. Larry will do the other. I’ve got time.
When I sit down to blog (like leaving for my appointment) I think they will always take the same amount of time to produce. I’m as opinionated and narcissistic as the next person; surely I’ll be able to think of something about me and my writing to put on a page. Something interesting of course, because I’m all of that, too.
So here I am, careening into Tuesday with no blog, and apparently not as opinionated, narcissistic, or as interesting as I think I am, because instead of flying onto the screen like they should be, the words drip out like from a spigot that needs a new washer.
In retrospect I should have started thinking about this blog last week when I finished my other one. Or started yesterday. Or the day before.
But here it is, and as I try to catch my breath, I have to wonder if I’ve learned anything.
Yes and no.
Yes, because I should start earlier, and no because no matter how you well you plan, there’ll always be rush hour, trains, and stoplights. Maybe I can outsmart my personal delays by planning to do two blogs for next week.
That way I’ll have one in my back pocket for days like today when I’m nothing more than a leaky spigot.
How do you know when something you’ve written is funny? The short and simple answer is that you don’t. Just because something is funny to you doesn’t mean it’s funny to other people.
When Larry and I got serious about finishing this book and actually trying to publish it, insecurities started chomping at my gut—What if you’re not really funny? What if people are laughing to be polite? What makes you think you can do this?
How did I react to my namby-pamby self? I went where I always go when met with a challenge—books. And it turns out that there are precious few about humor writing—most talked about essays and magazine articles, but none on writing a funny novel. Of those I purchased (I think two), they both say that humor is wildly subjective, and, I’m paraphrasing here, “Good luck with that.”
Drama is different. Everyone would agree that a 9-year-old boy getting stung to death is tragic and tear jerking. But not everybody would agree that A Confederacy of Dunces is brilliantly amusing. To me, the wittiest thing about that book is the title.
What I learned is that humor writing can’t be learned. Writing itself can—here’s how you construct a sentence, here’s how you build a paragraph, etc.
Humor, though, comes from your characters, the situations they find themselves in, and from the authors ability to construct the story. As authors, we need to make sure we set our characters up well for comedic opportunity and to write every sentence as visually and actively as possible. And if it makes us laugh, then hopefully, our readers will be amused as well.
The first word is the hardest word to write. When you one-finger-type you can’t waste words without knowing what you are going to say. I don’t usually sit at the computer to write without knowing what my first line is. I sit around and think about what I want to say or play the scene out in my head like I’m watching it on TV. My teachers used to call it daydreaming—like it was a bad thing! I call it prewriting, and I think it’s a very good thing.
When I finally sit down and the words start tiptoeing onto the computer screen, they sometimes take the story in a different direction from where I imagined it would go. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m already writing. The story is flowing, and it takes me to basically the same ending. But sometimes it just goes where it goes, and I’m along for the ride not knowing where the next turn is until I get there. Sometimes it’s a rollercoaster ride, sometimes a leisurely Sunday drive. Either way, it’s an adventure.
And all because of iced tea. Oh yeah, I didn’t tell you about iced tea yet. I’ll tell you about that later.
Uh oh. I haven’t written a blog this week. What the heck am I going to write about? Maybe I’ll do it in the morning. What if you can’t think of anything then either? Then you’ve lost another day!
I had this brief conversation with myself over homemade tenderloin and half a jar of pickles.
Generally, I don’t even sit down at the computer until I have a first line or a theme in mind. But tonight is different. The rest of the week is totally booked, so I need to get it done tonight.
When stricken with writer’s block, advice is to just start typing whatever comes into your mind. So I sat and stared at the living room throw rug waiting for something to enter my head. Kitty litter. Who wants to hear about that? Cold air. Darkness at 6:00 pm. Thanksgiving’s on the way, and I have to snap four pounds of beans.
See how this doesn’t work? If any of our characters were domestic, sure I could draw off my crazy-cat-lady, dull, domestic existence.
I did write a couple scenes today. But for those, I wasn’t really trying. I whipped each of them out in about 20 minutes. One, I’d thought out ahead of time, but the other was almost entirely off the cuff. No idea what I was going to say when I started typing.
And that’s what’s fun for me. That’s how you discover new characters or new quirks in old ones. In all the time we’ve been working on this novel, I’ve only scrapped one scene and rewritten it before I sent it to Larry. So why isn’t it working with a blog?
Maybe it is. I’m over halfway to my word count.
What do I do when I need a scene and am producing garbage? Start from a different angle, a different point of view, or even at a different time. For the blog, I stated what was on my mind, which was basically, “I have nothing to say.”
In my opinion, there’s no point in producing garbage. Get up, do something physical, wash your hair, play with your toes. Let your subconscious rest and the scene will come to you.
Unfortunately for me, scenes usually present themselves when I have a head full of shampoo. So when that happens, I chant the main idea until I dry off, or make up a ridiculous song outlining the scene, or do a little dance. That way when I get out of the shower, I can run for the computer.
You do what you gotta do, and that’s what does it for me. Everybody else needs to find their own inspiration.
But if you want to try my way, put some of those little adhesive fish in our tub.
Last night Becky and I were working on sequencing scenes in several chapters. Things were all coming together at roughly the same time and Becky was getting a little confused. After we got things in order, Becky wanted to know what time each character showed up at a location. (A great idea)
If character J gets there after character I, and character B is 10 minutes behind, then B would have to have left slightly before character C. Character E has to be gone before J sees character A, or A won’t get there until long after I has left. But what if C leaves first? Then C and B would get there at the same time.
You can see how confusing it can get, and we labored over our character’s comings and goings for what seemed like forever. Finally, we got it all worked out, and once again we proved that old rhyme: I before E except after C.
We’ve done it—with stubbornness and perseverance, we’ve done it! Okay, who’m I kidding—it had more to do with timing and luck, but we’ve reached a short-term goal just the same. We are now three full chapters ahead to send to the critique group.
Whew, after all that hard work, time for a break right? Sort of. We took a bit of a holiday Saturday and drove for an hour to hear author Julia Durango speak on plotting. But the best part of the day? Spending drive time talking shop with my writing partner—no niggling thoughts of dirty laundry, a lawn full of leaves, or litter boxes. Just enjoying like-minded conversation.
The topic that dominated most of our chatter centered around characterization. Larry watched a program about the most memorable TV characters, and he wanted to know who mine were from sitcoms…immediately I thought of Carla and Cliff Claven from Cheers; Klinger from MASH; Larry, Darrel and Darrel from Newhart; and Les Nessman from WKRP in Cincinnati. (Interesting how mine were all from the 80s…did I stop watching comedy in my 20s?)
He agreed with many of mine, and threw in a few from the program and of his own, including Archie Bunker, Kramer from Seinfeld, Frazier, and pretty much any role played by Don Knotts.
We have a common liking for quirky and over-the-top. After all, what is comedy without quirky? We applied what we like about those characters to our own.
Are our characters over-the-top? A few, yes, but they can’t all be quirky—we need comedy foils for balance and contrast. Our main character is quirky, but not the quirkiest. Does that make him boring? I hope not.
Does it matter that our main character is a foil? I’m choosing to think not. He’s developed from a passive whiner to an active protector of his lady love. Although he may not have followed the “Hero’s Journey” as Julia described, his character has changed for the better, he’s learning something, and he’s good for a laugh or two.
After all, that is what we’re going for, right? The laughs.
To quote Hannibal from the A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together!”
Our plan: finish Chapter 24, and get deeply into 25. We did even better—after hammering 24 into place and getting into 25, we were out of novel to revise, and had to switch gears back to production. We’re nearing the end, and the big question that remains is this: How do we pull together all the loose ends?
As previously indicated, we’re not fans of outlining—it totally inhibits spontaneity. The book has been a joy ride up until now, precisely because we didn’t know what was going to happen to the characters next—just like it will be for readers of our finished novel. Each chapter unfolded to us organically with a sense of humor and calculated orneriness.
So, most of our meeting turned into a brainstorming session full of “What if?” “Where is (insert character name) when this is going on?” and “That has to happen during the day, and currently it’s night, so we have to move or rewrite it.”
Larry squirmed, paced, and muttered, while I pecked on the computer and jotted notes on a legal pad. We both had our heads in the game, and were determined to plan our ending (dare I use the word outline?), so we’d know which scenes we needed to work on, and in which order, so we can wrap up 25 with a sense of direction, and with momentum, move on to 26.
As much as I cringe to say it, outlining at this point is a MUST. There are too many ends to tie up, too many characters doing too many things, and we do want it to end certain way, which both of us agreed on a long time ago. So have had the end game in sight for months—getting there with all the players in the place at the right time is our current challenge.
And we think it’s whipped. I typed up my notes and shot them off in an e-mail to Larry, so each of us, with an outline (shudder) in hand, can jump in and pick a scene to write as it moves us.
I’ve been a carpenter for over 41 years, and I don’t know how many times people—really intelligent people—have said to me, “I could never do what you do, build buildings. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Really, it’s pretty simple. You take one thing and attach another thing to it, then another to that, and another to that, until you’ve put enough things together to have a house, or whatever it is you’re building. Simple! The only secret is that you have to know where to put what, and that’s just a matter of research. When you find out what attaches next and how to attach it, you’re set.
But, if you don’t know the where and how of it, you’ll be tearing down doors, knocking down walls, and jackhammering out foundations until you get it right.
That’s just how writing is for me—I can’t get the research right. I’m constantly remodeling chapters, demolishing scenes, moving paragraphs, busting away sentences and selecting different words. I might have a pink carpet and orange walled sentence, but I can’t see it. My rafters might be in upside down, and I know it doesn’t look right but can’t figure out what’s wrong. The mortar of my paragraph might be too watered down, but I have no clue.
When I run a scene with a faulty foundation by Becky, she sees the problem so I can put in the needed reinforcement. So, this team writing is working out for me. I’m feeling more confident that our novel will survive an editor storm with replacing only a few shingles and pieces of siding.
“Water for me please,” I said to the waitress as I organized our printouts for the meeting.
She turned to Larry, “Sir?”
“I’ll have coffee.”
I looked up to see if he was joking. Larry never drinks coffee. We had an extended conversation once where he told me that not only did he not like the taste of coffee, he didn’t really care for the smell of it, either.
“Wow, you must’ve had a hard day if you’re ordering coffee,” I said as the waitress scribbled on her pad.
“What? No. Wait. Did I order coffee? I don’t even like coffee.”
The waitress looked up.
“Coke. Regular Coke.”
Oh, great, I thought. His head’s not in the game, and mine has been pounding all day, so I planned to rely on his mental prowess—my plan spiraled downward, crashing into flames, scattering little charred bodies and rubble. On the upside, at least I didn’t have to cook my own supper.
The waitress walked away shaking her head, and he said, “You know, I haven’t had a Coke all day. Maybe that’s what’s the matter with me.”
“Well, I hope that fixes it. We can’t leave here until Chapter 24 is done.”
“What did you just send to the critique group?”
“So we’re not ahead at all?”
You know what, folks—this whole idea of getting ahead was a good one. And we both really, truly meant it. It’s just been a tough month for both of us in different ways—maybe him worse than me, what with the whole coffee incident and all.
Knowing the work we needed to accomplish, we didn’t even bother with small talk. We had four newly written scenes, some previously written scenes, and we had to shuffle the mess together into some kind of logical order.
The challenge for us at this point is that so much happens to so many people in these last few chapters of the book, that some of the scenes could be—and are—happening at the same time, which is challenging to write. Chronological is the comfortable way to go, but we’re fighting the chicken/egg question in a few places. So, what order do we put them in?
Finally, after an enormous amount of discussion, we decided, in places that order is less important than pacing, we'd intersperse lighter scenes among murder and mayhem to allow readers to breathe. We also deleted some of the older scenes that didn’t really forward the story.
After making another big X across a page, Larry said, “Wow. Un-writing is easy!”
Agreed. A little too easy, considering how difficult it was to come up with those scenes in the first place.
We broke up the meeting with a plan—we need to write two more scenes before the chapter will be complete. I deleted about 5 pages worth of old, useless scenes, and added a new scene, about ¾ of a page, back in. We're not getting very far very fast.
I am a recently retired carpenter. In my everyday world for the last 40 years, I’ve dealt with a wide array of colorful characters, most on the rough side. And our way of communicating with each other might seem to be a little blunt to an outsider. “Hey, get your ass over here and grab that rope.” “No need to be an ass hole about it.” “Just shut up and do it.” At the end of the day everyone goes home tired but happy. Tempers do flair occasionally, things get heated, but we are all big boys and can deal with it.
Now, in my writing world and dealing with my critique group, I try to smooth out my rough edges. I stutter and stammer around when giving a negative critique while searching for the right word or phrase to replace, “Piece of crap” “Makes no sense at all” or “This is totally stupid.” Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. I never know how sensitive these people, mostly women, might be. They could already be having a bad day, and my comments might set them off.
I also recognize that they pussy-foot around giving me a critique. Sometimes I have a little trouble deciphering what they’re saying. “A little wordy” might mean “Cut the whole damn thing and start all over.” We are all trying to play nice.
But! With Becky and me, we can pretty much call a spade a spade—although she might call it “That card with those little black shovel looking thingys on it.” Sometimes we measure our words, but usually we can just say what we’re thinking. She isn’t shy about blasting me for something stupid I’ve written, and I feel free to be honest with her.
Maybe that’s why we work together so well. We don’t waste our time saying how, “This didn’t move me” or “It didn’t hold my interest” when “This is a piece of crap” says it more clearly.
After all, as writers, aren’t we supposed to communicate clearly?
October has been difficult for me. If I’m not careful, Larry will be the one telling me to get off my butt.
Yes, we knew that the going would be getting rougher. Yes, we planned to write like crazy people and forge a few chapters ahead. Yes, we agreed to produce, produce, produce.
Has that happened? Heck, no. Why not?
My lack of production isn’t because I’ve been doing anything constructive or fun instead. My house looks like somebody hosted a Super Bowl party then abandoned the place. My yard and gardens have run totally amok and are in appropriate disarray for Halloween. Even my grooming has suffered. I plug in the flatiron and ask myself, “Does my hair really look that bad?” and unplug it. “Concealer? I know it’s in my bag somewhere…” Screw it. “Do these greens match?” I put them on anyway. And don’t even ask me how many times I’ve forgotten to apply deodorant.
Truth is, I’ve felt like CRAP for about two weeks and have no idea why. I can barely drag myself out of bed to go to work—the bags under my eyes are enormous. All I want to do is sleep—I fantasize about sleeping, nap when I can, and plan my day around bedtime.Even now I’m thinking about smooth, cool, freshly laundered sheets.
And when I do try to push through and write anyway, it’s garbage.
Yeah, okay, so I pushed a little yesterday, because I knew that I needed to e-mail a final chapter revision to Larry for his approval before I could send it to the critique group. Knowing that I’m the one holding up progress has been my ONLY motivation.
True, I’ve had a couple of bursts of creativity and produced three new scenes, but that’s not enough to get us ahead. We’re still just maintaining.
So what’s the answer? Quit working, and live in my mom’s basement like a parasite? Myhusband probably wouldn’t care for that. Quit working and leech off my husband? Hmmm. That sounds compelling…
Life. Family. Responsibility.
I don’t know what the answer is. I suppose that I’ll push when I have to and sleep when I can. Maybe I can dream the next scene, perfectly executed in my subconscious—
—but then I’d actually have to get out of bed and write it.
I hear these comments all the time. Okay, maybe not all of them all the time, but some of them some of the time.
Yesterday my wife Pammy and our 14-year-old grandson, Blake, were shopping for my granddaughter’s present for her second birthday.
Blake, mortified at the thought of his friends seeing him in the doll aisle, grouched and grumbled all the way until “Peek-a-boo!” sounded from the shelf beside them.
He stopped dead in his tracks. “They’re motion sensored!” That familiar feisty smile came across his face, and before Pammy could say, “Don’t you dare!” Blake ran down the aisle,flailed his arms in front of the displays, and roused a chorus of peek-a-boos from the baby doll choir.
Blake was delighted with his performance. Pammy was embarrassed. An elderly couple at the end of the aisle chuckled at Blake’s antics
And I had another gem I can use in a story someday.
Some people seem to think I’m socreative and so imaginative, but it’s really only a matter of keeping your eyes and ears open, and keeping track of the little gems people give you in your everyday life.
But, if someone wants to peg me as brilliant for retrieving something like this from my memory for the sake of one of my stories, I’ll just have to learn to live with the praise.
I thought that outburst would make me feel better, but it didn’t. Odd.
Larry and I were going over the next chapter to hand out to the critique group, and I just really don’t feel good about it. It feels rough. There isn’t much humor. Typos, scene order, points of view, WILL THE ERRORS NEVER END?!
Finally, after vehemently lamenting the quality of our work for the gazillionth time, Larry said, “I don’t think it’s that bad,” grinding my verbal stampede to a halt.
Yes, it’s true that I’m a perfectionist. A nitpicker. Impossible to please. I know these things about myself, and although I try to suppress the tendencies, they occasionally ooze out like cheese from an omelet.
But could he be right? Really? I decided I should open my mind to the possibility.
After Larry corrected a five-line paragraph in which I’d started four of the sentences with the word “He”, he continued, “I think we should just let the group have it and see what they say.”
Giving it to the critique group before I’ve massaged, hammered it, and coerced it into submission makes me uncomfortable, and it’s because I don’t take criticism well. Oh, sure, I sit at group and smile and nod, but my stomach churns when I hear, “I don’t buy that,” or “Not your best chapter,” or “I’m lost.”
So what’s a girl to do?
Didn’t help that time either.Darn it. Maybe I can learn from Larry’s laid-back wisdom and just see what the group says. Maybe their critiques won’t be bad—maybe it’s just me.
A writer should have good communication skills…right? Their communications are crystal clear, precise, and easy for anyone to understand.
I have a confession to make. The other day in our bi-monthly revision meeting, Becky and I both realized that rather than revising one chapter every two weeks to turn in to our critique group, we need to get several chapters ahead so we can start up writing again.
And we each said so. But not in the same words. I didn’t know what the hell she was trying to say and she didn’t understand what I was saying. Until it clicked in both of us. Then we both felt stupid for being so stupid. We agreed that we need to meet more often and produce more. The problem is that I haven’t been carrying my share of the load lately. I know it. Becky knows it.
She was trying to extract from me a commitment to put in the time it takes. But she was trying to do so in a way that wouldn’t make me mad, and I don’t know why—she’s usually pretty blunt. I thought she might break an ankle dancing around her words, trying not to piss me off. She was so cute at it that I chose not to understand. So she tried again, being very diplomatic, even political about it. Same result. She looked tormented, trying to regroup and find, yet another way, to say it.
So I let her off the hook. “What you’re trying not to say is that I need to get off my ass.”
Her relief spilled into a flood of laughter as she agreed that that was exactly what she was trying to say—or not to say.
Until now, writing this novel has been a relative breeze.
Relative is the key word. Writing a novel is challenging in many ways, and to name few:
·Making time to spend with your keyboard.
·Crossing your fingers that good health holds out long enough to finish the chapter by deadline to send it to the critique group.
So, it’s been easy in that we haven’t had to work at the plot. We’ve just been writing, having fun, and the plot has developed organically.
Until now. Conundrums are rearing their Kraken heads more frequently—one monster we recently battled was scene order. I handed Larry a chronologically challenged printout of our chapter and asked, “Will you fix this, please?” I’d totally messed it up.
Wearing a puzzled expression, he flipped pages back and forth. He numbered the scenes for me to reorder. He looked at them one more time. “No, wait, this one has to come first.” He scribbled out numbers and renumbered them.
Now I can fix it. Easy meeting. We’re done, now, right?
He reviewed the whole thing and said, “It can’t work this way because this part should actually come at the end of the book, right before the final scene.”
I’m sure my mouth dropped open. “So our characters have twenty-four hours to tie up all the loose ends before the final climax?” Sorry, no can do.None of our characters is Jack Bauer.
We discussed loose ends. We discussed plotting. We discussed method.
He suggested we pick up the pace and write further ahead of what we’re giving the critique group, so we can work these things out under less hairy deadlines. More meetings, more plotting, and more production.
The main character’s house has become an issue in our story. We haven’t given enormous detail about the floor plan and furnishings, primarily because I find description of that sort mind-blowingly dull to read, so we’re trying not to write that way. I mean, PLEASE don’t spend three paragraphs describing the grandmother’s chenille bedspread unless it moves the story forward.
Recently we discovered that there is, after all, a critical need to describe the layout of our protagonist’s house. A bad guy shot at the good guy through the living room picture window. I wrote about the bad guy’s position with the high-powered rifle on a hill behind the house. Larry said, “It can’t happen that way,” and proceeded to explain why not, complete with a diagram of the house and street.
First of all, the diagram of Larry’s imaginary house did not match the one I had in my head. The living room can’t be at the end of the house, because we have a scene where somebody sneaks from one end of the house and through the living room on the way to the second bathroom.
We settled that by adding a bedroom and bathroom to the drawing. Then Larry said, “Okay, the shooter can’t be behind the house, because…” and refers back to the diagram.
Forced to rely on my drawing “skill”, I pulled out a sheet of clean paper and drew a crooked rectangle with hash lines to indicate rooms, a large picture window, and most importantly, the location of the recliner and television, which are critical to the scene.
Finally, after MUCH discussion and a few more alterations to the floor plan, we concluded that we were both wrong. For things to happen like we said they did, the shooting scene had to be heavily edited. We kept my new house rendering and Larry’s shooting position out front. We also have to back track a chapter and fix our lead up to the shooting.
Up until this conversation, I considered the floor plan overkill and chose not to quibble about the details. Did we really need to agonize over every aspect of each room in the house?
I maintain the answer to that is no, that we didn’t need to agonize over every single detail—until the house itself became a character.
I would like to address the whole question of point of view as it applies to our novel. Nearly all of our characters, at one time or another, are center stage with us inside their heads. Is this typical? To have so many points of view? No, not typical, but also not unheard of.
One scene between Bella (the mob boss’s daughter) and Kelly (the main character’s girlfriend) was written from Bella’s point of view. We managed to communicate the necessary information to move the story forward, but in a fairly dull exchange with more “telling” than “showing”.
Changing the POV to Kelly breathed some life into the scene. She’s lying in bed at 2:30 in the morning when her doorbell rings. Who could it be? No good news can come at that time of day. Should she answer it? Somebody’s trying to kill her boyfriend, and maybe they’re trying to kill her, too, but would a bad guy really ring her doorbell? Kelly has been living in constant fear, which we found added to the tension and humor of the scene, making it much stronger.
Now we’re trying to decide about another scene between two bad guys, each thinking that they have the upper hand. How should we choose? By the character who has the most to lose? By our favorite bad guy? By who could make it the funniest?
I’ve seen writing exercises where you’re instructed to write the same scene from different points of view. To do a whole novel that way would be time consuming and exhausting, and I’m just not interested. What I am interested in is telling the strongest, most amusing story we can, so occasional exercises in point of view are bound to be expected.
So what did we decide about the bad guys? We don’t know yet, but I’m thinking we could go with the character who can communicate the most information in the smallest amount of space.
Then again, we may go for the laugh. It’s still a work in progress.
Oops! Maybe she was a bigger fan of bat guano than I thought. Okay, there is a time and a place for everything, but that just wasn’t it. (I do know that sometime before the end of the novel she will find a way to sneak it in.)
In spite of me marking out Becky’s bat guano, our last meeting was pleasant. She is usually a very pleasant person, but near the end of the meeting she started grilling me about everything! Who, when, where, how, who knew what, and when did they know it?
She didn’t see the scene as saw it when I wrote it, basically meaning the scene I wrote wasn’t written well enough to be clear readers. How could she not know it was a patio door? Sheesh, I see it so clearly in my head!
After what felt like a high-level Senate interrogation, I now know the problems with it, and can—hopefully—fix them. Any time the reader (in this case, Becky) has a question, there is a problem.
Now I can rewrite the scene, and it shouldn’t be referred to again as bat guano.