Posts Tagged ‘writing’

My (not so) Great American Novel

December 2, 2009

If anyone out there is still listening, I apologize for my eight-month absence, but I’ve finally given birth (prematurely, I might add) to my first novel thanks to nanowrimo, a dandy little exercise in pain, humiliation, self-motivation and the limitations of caffeine.
Bottom line, it meant tapping out about 1,700+ words a day during the entire month of November, which is complicated by the fact that it is my second-busiest month of the year at work and full of other friendly distractions, like Thanksgiving. I spent almost the entire month about 2,000 words behind (you can track your progress on the site), but, thanks to some marathon sessions over the long weekend, I managed to finish a day early and several words over the 50,000-word goal (instead of a day late and a dollar short, as is my wont).
I admit I hesitated at signing up, at committing to having a short novel (and 50k is short) by the end of the month. I have rooms full of unfinished projects, piles of yarn and fabric and paper and books, with two abandoned master’s degrees lodged in there somewhere. The Spouse just rolls his eyes when I announce a new goal. But I really wanted to do this. I wanted this off my Life List. And I somehow managed to pull it off.
It is, of course, my roman à clef, my thinly veiled autobiography (well, maybe 30 percent of it anyway), which Maud Newton (who is attempting a similar feat in her own first novel) in a well-timed blogpost suggests that we all have to get out of our systems before we can do any REAL writing. As a measure of what constitutes real writing, Maud leaves it to her hero, Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”
Wanna read it? Well, you can’t. This baby is UGLY. It isn’t even close to being done. There’s even a bunch of stuff that I’ve got to get rid of, little stories and anecdotes that pleased me at the time but don’t do anything to move the plot forward. In fact, the more autobiographical parts are the least interesting. I was at my best during November when I sat down and just let the characters loose, when I was able to get out of my own way, as Jane puts it. For a few glorious moments, it actually got to be a little Zen.
I hope to have a full draft by the end of December, and then I’ll start the real rewrite, including a bunch of research, fact-checking and some field trips.
I’ll definitely do it again. Next November, I’ll issue a call for y’all to join me.


In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to…

December 1, 2009

About Blogging: Have you Wordled lately?

December 16, 2008

Unmitigated, who is always good for something interesting, has introduced me to Wordle, which generates “word clouds” from any text that you provide. And so here is my latest:


I had no idea I used the word “just” so much. I need to quit qualifying my ideas. Verrrrrrry interesting.

On attracting readers: Content — and crap

September 8, 2008

Big du-uh of the day: The writing blogs I checked all agree that, for driving readers to your blog, you must have a steady stream of Great Content.

Oh, fine. That’s just peachy. While such advice might work for some of you great minds out there, I frequently have days — like, TODAY, for example — when the contents of my skull must resemble COTTON CANDY.

So how does one jump start the old gray matter? Freelance Folder has a particularly good list of some original suggestions, including:

Write ‘crap’ without feeling guilty. We tend to assume that great writers write great stuff all the time. Face it — they don’t. Professional writers write even when nothing but crap comes out because they know that it’s part of the journey to getting the real gems. Steve Allen said to “write for the trash can,” meaning write without reservations about what people might think, just to keep your writing skills in shape. Try it when you’re feeling stuck — it really works.

I know this to be a widely used technique, because I have slogged through enough blogs that are comprised largely of “crap” — and their poor authors don’t know the difference. If they’d taken another look at their posts on another day, they might have seen the bits of gold glittering through all the dross. They don’t care enough about their writing to make it better.

Certainly, writing “on the fly” is one of the heady hallmarks of the Blogosphere, where everyone shoots from the hip, often in hopes of provoking a debate. But I’ve found I’m much happier with my posts when I let an hour — or a day — lapse between hitting “Save” and “Publish” (or, in a few memorable cases, “Delete”).

As one of my English teachers always intoned, “There’s no good writing, just good rewriting.”

And if you’re still stumped for content, I have the perfect, never-fail, crap-proof solution:

Please tell me a story. PLEASE. We’re all children at heart. We all love stories. A good story will help me tell my own story. Tell me about your best day, your worst boss, your biggest disappointment, your scariest moment, your first job, your brush with death, or fame. Tell me how you overcame your agoraphobia, your cancer or your eating disorder, or how you knew when it was time to leave your marriage. Please, tell me how you managed to cope with this grab-bag of experiences called Life.

I promise I’ll read it. PROMISE.

On attracting readers to Ye Olde Blogge Syte

August 28, 2008

Without question the most productive move I made as a newborn blogger was putting up a post at BlogHer looking for other middle-aged women bloggers. (And I clicked on a WHOLE lot of links just to get to that point…) That led to a lot of discussion, some fun developments and some great links with some very interesting women. I’d like to repeat that feat, if possible.

It’s not that I think I’m the non plus ultra in blogging. For every ten mediocre blogs I trip over, I generally find one blogger whose interesting life experiences, sparkling prose and off-the-wall observations make me want to delete everything I’ve ever written. Some of you people can WRITE, and you make me want to be BETTER. And the feedback I get from you is making a more honest woman out of me.

So, I have decided that, rather than sitting around crying in my beer (my favorite pose of late) over my moribund blog stats, I am going to perform one act of blog enhancement per week (along with shaving my legs and conditioning what’s left of my hair). And I have found many bloggers who are happy to help me with my resolve, which is one of my favorite things about the Blogosphere. Unlike most of the self-obsessed homo sapiens I bump into all day long, ya’ll ain’t stingy!

My most recent attempt was prompted by One Cool Site — one of several links I picked up from the very smart Dumb Little Man — who pointed me in the direction of Google site verification. After several abortive attempts, I am now verified under both my blog names, although I’m told it may take a few weeks for any results to appear.

I’ve also, at the suggestion of Problogger, reached out this week to a couple of blog cooperatives and will sift through my blog for a pillar post or two to send to some zines.

Okay, you blogging veterans: Is any of this going to help, or am I just spinning my wheels? Are any of these widgets or embedded functions effective? Of all the advice you’ve bumped into out there about expanding the reach of your blog, what has been the most productive? Help a girl out, okay? I’ll be happy to do a follow-up post about my experiences with any suggestions.


About Blogging: Finding a voice, chapter 2

August 11, 2008

Hel-lo! I was very surprised at the response to my last post about finding a voice. It actually sat in my file for several days after I first wrote it, and I almost didn’t post it. I thought it sounded a little whiny, and I didn’t think anybody had such issues but me. Not so. It was one of my most-viewed posts ever, so finding a voice is a topic of concern for a lot of bloggers.

I still think that list by Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to start, and I was particularly taken by two of his points. I’ll expand on them in two posts. The first:

Sound like yourself. “The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child.”

When I am writing or even speaking comfortably, I know I sound like my father. He was 49 years old when I was born (a fact that I only began to appreciate when I turned 49) and lived a very colorful, although not entirely successful, life. He was, at various times, a tramp, a bootlegger, a businessman, a municipal judge, a rockhound, and an amateur archeologist/geologist/theologian. (The tension created by that last combination was particularly interesting.)

The youngest of eight children of a itinerant politician and his long-suffering wife, Dad was on his own by the time he was 15, riding the rails with hundreds of other men, looking anywhere for work and being taken advantage of in ways that I can’t begin to imagine.

He wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, but that simply wasn’t possible, so he scraped together the means to attend pharmacy school, where he learned Latin. He would recite to me dirty limericks in Latin, laugh uproariously and then refuse to tell me what they meant, although I did finally learn the meaning of one of his favorite phrases, “Illegitimi non carborundum.”

His speech was anything but ordinary. People weren’t poor, they were “impecunious.” Couples didn’t shack up, they “lived together without benefit of clergy.” I wasn’t picky, I was “persnickety.” Occasionally I’ll be talking with someone, and they’ll give me a curious look, and I’ll realize I’ve just used one of my father’s words or phrases.

He came to religion late in his life, as much to please my mother as anything, and taught Sunday School classes to those even less churched than he. But his background as a scientist never left him. My older brother always called him “the Old Skeptic.” He had a prominent gap between his front teeth, like the Wife of Bath, and his favorite contemplative pose was leaning on his arm, a thumbnail wedged between those teeth.

He was proud of the small business he built and where we all worked to help out, but the invasion of the big chain stores ultimately forced him to close his doors. A childhood of neglect and poor nutrition plagued him all his life and finally caught up with him in his sixties. He died in pain and afraid, not certain of what was going to happen to him. I saw it in his eyes.

He encouraged his children to think for themselves, and insisted we not expect anyone to take care of us, not even him. In an area and an era that offered young women limited acceptable choices, he made me feel like I could do anything.

Mother’s voice? I seem to remember endless variations of NO, usually delivered in a way to make us feel guilty and ungrateful for asking in the first place.

“Why do you always tell the kids no?” my father asked her once.

“Because I want them to stay little,” she replied. (I think that answer alone could account for at least one of my years of psychotherapy.) My two older brothers had blown her off by the time they were teenagers, which left me as her chief object of disappointment.

So the two major voices of my childhood were a tug-of-war of “Yes, You Can” and “No, You Shouldn’t.” I feel that tension still, every day, and managing tension can be the bedrock of good writing. So I suppose I should be grateful for that tension, and exploit it in my writing whenever and wherever I can.

What childhood voices are in your head?

About blogging: Finding a voice

August 8, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut (via Good Tithings and SDSU — Thanks!) has a great summary of what makes good writing, as well as a good writer:

1. Find a subject you care about. “Did you ever admire an empty headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.”

2. Do not ramble, though.

3. Keep it simple. “Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.”

4. Have guts to cut. “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

5. Sound like yourself. “The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child.”

6. Say what you mean. “I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say.”

7. Pity the readers. “Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient readers, ever willing to simplify and clarify — whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”

What a great, pithy list. No excess fat here, just hard, lean advice.

So why is it so difficult?

I’ve been a writer of some sort (student, journalist, screenwriter, diarist, flack) for most of my life, and I’ve blogged for several months now, not exactly daily but quite regularly. But I still haven’t found a voice, a particular point of view. Occasionally a topic or a writing project will resonate with me, but I have a hard time isolating whatever thread it is that is vibrating in me. It’s slippery.

I’ve always been interested in women’s issues, particularly those surrounding whatever age I happen to be or am approaching at the time. But sometimes that seems, well, narrow. Books are always good, but there are (by my informal estimate) about a million book bloggers out there who are doing a fine job without my input. What about American culture? Health? Fashion? Politics? Nah. No fire there.

A mentor of mine, a wonderful professor, years ago clearly saw the coming of the Internet technological revolution. He alerted all his students and colleagues, he was there at the station, he was ready, he was motivated — and he never figured out a way to jump on the train. He watched it as it passed him by.

I think I know how he felt. I’m watching this amazing parade go rolling on, full of color and light and sound, and I can’t seem to find a way to fully join in. I feel like I’m just paralleling the parade.

On second thought: Do men ever worry about this stuff? Is this just me, the ever-dutiful daughter, asking for permission again? I’m not going to stop writing, so maybe, hopefully, over the course of things, I’ll slip into my own personal drawl.

This is probably a question for a beginning creative writing class, but I’ll ask it anyway: How do you/did you find your voice?

About blogging

May 22, 2008

ByJane has a thought-provoking blog on, well, blogging. “Blogging is just another genre of writing, not inferior or superior to any other in and of itself,” says Jane, who advocates for good, well-considered blogging and against any mentality that would make blogging some kind of ugly stepchild of “real” writing.

May I commit a sort of sacrilege and paraphrase Annie Dillard, who should know about such things, in The Writing Life?

Putting a [blog] together is interesting and exhilirating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself… Read the rest of this entry »