For the last day of poetry month, something I love from Czeslaw Milosz about how it felt for him to write the stuff.
I am no more than a secretary of the invisible thing
That is dictated to me and a few others.
Secretaries, mutually unknown, we walk the earth
Without much comprehension. Beginning a phrase in the middle
Or ending it with a comma. And how it all looks when completed
Is not up to us to inquire, we won't read it anyway.
The second draft is begun. Read-through went well -- which means that I don't hate it, not that it doesn't still need significant work. I'm happy with the characters and their motivations and am feeling good about the arc of the story. Now I have to figure out how to tie all the loose strings together or pull them out. There are also sections of dialogue that read like Little House on The Prairie (even worse I mean the show and not the book) that need major attention.
And if you don't give a damn about the writing and have just come here to find out what I'm listening to now, I won't disappoint you.* Some new-to-me inspiration, some old favourites to let my brain rest. And a little motivational cheer right off the top, because the second draft does mean that it's hardcore now:
*Ha - Is there anyone who is coming here to find out either?! Pretty sure you're all related to me and are fuelled by obligation.
Disclaimer: I realize what follows is not important in the grand scheme of things, or even in the small scheme. I'm lucky to have this little molehill of a problem, but this is a writer's blog after all, and we have a tendency to conflate and make mountains out of this tiniest little ideas.
So it's been a week since I finished the first draft of my second novel and, if I'm being truthful, not an entirely wonderful one. I know how ridiculous this sounds. "Waa. I finished my work. I accomplished my goal." But I feel like this is a part of the process that not many people talk about because they feel like whiners in mentioning it. I will now commence whining.
The rush of finishing the first draft lasted maybe 36 hours. And then I started to wonder if it was all just terrible schlock. And what was I even trying to say? And is this even original? And will anyone care? On and on and on until I couldn't stand the snarky tone of my own thoughts, and the only remedy, to read it from start to finish and check, was something I told myself I wasn't going to do right away.
I promised myself a proper break from the book--three weeks to a month of not looking at it--so that I can feel separate from it again before I get back to work. I am finding this self-imposed hiatus incredibly difficult to stick to. I want to read it, to know what's there and if some of it is good. I want to start tinkering and rewriting to fix what isn't.
I didn't give myself a break the last time I wrote a first draft of a novel and it had some deleterious results. I spent the next five years in a rewrite maze, trapped and completely lost, like Jennifer Connelly in that stairs scene in Labyrinth. So I know I need the overview, the pan-out, but I also feel addicted to telling the story, Everyone who knows me knows that I am pretty straight-edge, but I feel like I kind of know what withdrawal might be like now.
I'm trying, during this forced break, to take a look at some short stories I wrote that need polishing, to catch up on some seriously good books I missed out on while I was writing, to flesh out a few new thoughts that might become stories or poems. It's a distraction, sure, but I would be lying to say these things are satisfying me. The writing I poured so much of myself into for the past eight months is up on a shelf, and after that amount of energy and time and brain power and emotion put into it, I can't help but feel like the best part of me is away on the shelf too.
Blah. I know it will pass, but right now I am feeling these post-first-draft blues.
I have no brain for reflection right now, so this is just a quick post to mark this eventful day. Draft 1 of novel 2 done! Excuse me while I WOO! (Let's not think right now, about all the revision ahead of me.)
Funny thing:, I was so close to finishing it as I sat across from one of my favourite people (also a writer, Emily Saso) and then we could have high-fived and looked around at all the other people toiling away at their coffee shop-cum-offices and been very smug indeed. But alas I did not write fast enough and so I finished it at home alone twenty-five minutes later. Because writing is a solitary task, it's hard to know what to do when that final sentence is written. For sure I typed that final period with gusto. And then, because I felt like busting a move, I made myself this eclectic dancey playlist. And if nothing ever comes of this book, at least you've got a few kickin' jams out of the deal.
Let's get this out of the way right off: If you came here with the hope of finding a tidbit about how to power through and finish your work in seventy-two hours or three weeks or some other arbitrary set amount of time, I apologize. I have zero helpful advice about how to finish anything on a deadline. But If you are like me and have an open-ended schedule and about 1500 blocks of time no longer than half an hour each, I will let you in on a secret. You can still write a novel.
Take this for example: for the past three months or so, I've been lugging my laptop with me to my oldest daughter's early morning folk dance practices. I sit in a chair outside the gym and listen to the Maple Leaf Stomp and get down as many words as that half hour practice allows. I try not to worry too much about whether they are going to be good words because time is limited and if I did, that would be at least 27 minutes of my time gone. Sometimes I manage seventy-five words, and sometimes Miriam Makeba comes on singing Pata Pata and I write almost 500 words and at least half of them aren't garbage! That happened this morning and when I looked around wanting to high-five someone, there was no kid willing to indulge the crazy writer lady.
So, yeah, it's not a perfect scenario, by any means. You will probably not have any momentum to carry you along, so every time you sit down to work, you really will have to force yourself. But it is possible to make progress this way, it just takes a little (okay, a lot) longer. Anyway, this is all to say that this bits and bites first draft writing process is nearing completion, so if you see me out in some random situation with my laptop (riding the bus, or out on the playground with the kids after school, or waiting in the doctor's office) and I raise my hand, it means I am done (!!) and for god's sake, don't leave me hanging!
An update: Closing in on 50,000 words of draft 1, novel 2. As I mentioned before, this time around, I’m trying strategy. I’m writing with (and sticking to) a detailed outline, mainly because this time I’ve got three kids and, let’s face it, no time to mess around. But it’s still taking so much longer to get to the end of this draft. Writing my first novel, I blurted out 75,000 words in two months. Sure, back then I was a terrible, unpracticed writer, but I was on a roll!
Nothing could stop me. Mother to none but my faithful dog and suffering no distractions except the crazy upstairs neighbours and their love of the Black Eyed Peas, I blasted through page after page. I will admit to getting sidetracked more than once trying to find music that would both drown out Fergie and annoy the upstairs ladies right back. Thank you, Xavier Rudd and your didgeridoo. (That sounds like a euphemism. It’s really not.)
This time around, there’s no Black Eyed Peas, no upstairs neighbours, just these three really loud kids of mine.
A snapshot from earlier today: youngest making play dough spaghetti, screeching for me to pretend to eat it, which I do while trying to write, headphones on. The middle one tugs my arm, mouths words at me, words mainly about his thirstiness just as I’ve returned to my seat after pouring a drink for the eldest who is now, whistle wetted, singing along to some Meghan Trainor song at the top of her lungs. I pour the juice, sit back down and turn the volume up, hoping to fade them out, put myself on a more peaceful plane, trying to move my mind away from all the noise happening outside of my body and into the quiet inside of my head. That’s where all the words are. And music is how I get there.
I started this first draft with my usual suspect singer-songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, Neko Case, Rufus Wainwright. On days when I wanted less words: Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock. If I really needed to bash some words out, just Bim-bam, skim-skam, jim-jam Romp, I had Cab Calloway. But somewhere around the 30,000 word mark, I got tired of music saying the same things to me it always had. I wanted new, needed new, had to have new.
During this output phase, this highly creative first/second draft stage when I fire out so many ideas all at once, I get a little intense about new creative input coming back to me. I aspire to a complete circuit — output, input, repeat. Reading is normally my main input. But reading other writers’ sentences at this stage, while I’m so hard at work stringing together my own, it’s too much distraction for me, like singing some quiet little Woody Guthrie ditty while the radio blares Madonna.
So tonight, as many nights before, after the kids are asleep and my writing is done for the day, I go exploring — hours spent following a weird six-degrees-of-separation trail through the Spotify catalogue. I’ve discovered so many new-to-me artists in the past four months. My music taste has gone from a sort of advanced singer-songwriter vibe back to the weird mix of styles I remember jamming to as a kid, giant headphones plugged in, in a world of my own, flipping through the family record collection looking for my next song.
It was an eclectic mix to say the least. Some of the albums I remember best: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Cats The Broadway Musical, Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling, the soundtrack to Star Wars, Sesame Street Fever, The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, ELO’s Face The Music which I always put on at Halloween because it had one very spooky sounding song on it, Anne Murray’s There’s a Hippo in my Tub, Kim Cairn’s Mistaken Identity, The Muppet Show Album, Harry Nilsson’s The Point, Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports, Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and David Lee Roth’s Crazy From the Heat. See? Totally weird. And not all of it good (ahem, DLR and your Just a Gigolo) but still, yeah!
Yeah for my parents mashed-together record collection into which they later incorporated my older sister’s favourites. Yeah for sitting in one place for more than an hour, just dropping the needle, listening and looking at cover art, reading lyrics. Yeah for sometimes sneaking the records upstairs and playing them for my little brother on my Strawberry Shortcake portable record player. We will always have Wild Thing by The Troggs switched from 33rpm to 45, he and I. And yeah for weird and eclectic, both then and now.
Otherwise, I listen to the same songs, that say the same things, and call up the same memories. Sometimes that’s good — comforting and necessary and familiar enough to be background music. (I will find you again, my singer-songwriters, when it comes time for editing.) But for now you’re not in my mix. Now I need my tunes to change me a little bit, to get me to the quiet place in my head where the words come from, and to make those words new.
And now, a few songs if you need some fresh input:
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately turned into something I wrote about. You can read it over on Medium - There is a boat. (And if you do like it, share it and please hit the heart button under the piece to recommend it! Every heart helps.)
Over on the great website 49thshelf.com, my novel was named Can't Miss CanLit and my writing compared to Alice Munro. Sheesh! So happy to share the list with other amazing Canadian writers. Go ahead and root for the underdog, we deserve a few cheers. Check it out:
Hey, I'm back with something to say and it hasn't been six months since the last time! That must mean that I have more time than I know what to do with. Or it means that one of my kids is sick and I didn't get dressed today and I'm spending that extra fifteen minutes here.
Things are going pretty well with the second novel. I am finding it surprisingly easy to rack up a good word count every day. It feels weird, actually. Maybe it's because it's been a long time since I wrote novel-length and I'm not fussing (as much) over every word like I do with short stuff? Or maybe it's because it's a first draft and I'm not worrying about the details as much as I do during other drafting rounds? Or maybe it's because I'm writing with a solid scene-by-scene outline this time, an actual map of where I want to go and how to get there, unlike last time when writing my novel felt like Emile Hirsch looked when he acted his final scene as Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild? Or maybe I'm just writing easy sentimental garbage. In any case, I'll find out sooner than I was expecting to because at this pace, I'll be done my first draft in a few months.
I haven't been posting here with any regularity because it's always the last thing I turn my writing attention to in a day and lately my days are filled with novel 2.0 and short stories (and it all has to happen in the two hour window of baby nap). I am happy to report that the novel is actually progressing and two stories are done and submitted. Hopefully, in six months to a year I will have good news to tell you about them! Anyway, just wanted to say that the blog is still banging on, just not with any semblance of a rhythm. As a bonus for checking in, here's a quick list of books I've really enjoyed reading in the past year, in no order at all. If you've read any of these, please share your thoughts, good or bad (bad is always more interesting!).
A short little piece I wrote many many months ago, about the heaviness at the end of love, is up at Flash Fiction Magazine. Check it out if you have two minutes to spare!
A number of years ago, I read a book by a writer about writing and the gist of one of the chapters was that if you were not compelled to write every day, then you weren't really a writer. I accepted this as truth, probably because I was at an impressionable age, and also because the romanticism of the idea appealed to me. Thereafter, every day when I didn't or couldn't write made me feel like I was just a literary pretender. I still feel it. Whenever people ask me how my second book is going, and I have to admit that it isn't really, not since before the littlest was born, I feel like such a hobbyist.
I have good intentions. Each morning I really do believe that I'll be able to sit down for an hour at least and get some writing work done. And by the time 9 pm rolls around and I still haven't spent any time writing, all I want to do is drink my glass of wine and fall asleep. Someone once suggested I wake up at 4:30 in the morning and work for a couple of hours before the kids get up. And that was such a genius plan. All the way up until the alarm went off. Obviously, I have to get real. I am not going to have a regular productive hour to myself every day, not if I also want to be any good at keeping my kids healthy, safe and entertained.
Does that make me a fake writer? I don't think so. I think it makes me a writer who, like so many other writers trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables, has another job that eats up most of my daytime hours. Whoever wrote that chapter about real writers having to write every day must have been a very well-paid professional.* But, if I don't ever write, then nothing gets written. (I don't have the square footage for infinite monkeys or typewriters, after all.) So, how to go about writing this second book?
If you came here looking for some revolutionary new writing technique, I am about to disappoint you. This is the incredibly mundane answer I've come up with: Open the W.I.P. file. every morning. Whenever a few moments are available, work on getting down one pretty good sentence. That seems like something I can accomplish. And now, when somebody asks how things are going with the second book I can at least say, "Slowly."
*Unfortunately I can't remember who wrote it, or from what book.
I read an article a few months ago with the very best title: Stop Using Poet Voice. It's a must-read for anyone who's ever been to a literary reading or had the intention of participating in one. If you don't know what Poet Voice is, be very glad, and then read this description from the article.
“Poet Voice,” is the pejorative, informal name given to this soft, airy reading style that many poets use for reasons that are unclear. The voice flattens the musicality and tonal drama inherent within the language of the poem and it also sounds overly stuffy and learned. In this way, Poet Voice does a disservice to the poem, the poet and poetry. It must be stopped.
And it's not just poets that read their work like this. Poet Voice is everywhere. I attended a reading a few years back with a panel of authors, one a well-known Canadian fiction writer, the second, a British writer of historical romance, and the third, another Canadian writer whose book was about dissociative identity disorder. Obviously, they presented a range of material (a traumatic stillbirth, a getaway on horseback, a dialogue between the main character's ego personality and one of the alters) but they all read their chosen passages in an exceedingly slow, very nearly monotone. I understand the motivation. We all want to be taken seriously and Poet Voice does sound deadly serious, but it's also incredibly boring and makes us all sound pompous.
But here's the thing. I'm going to read publicly from Fathom Lines at the end of October and I, like so many others, am slightly uncomfortable with the sound of my voice. Obviously, I'll be recording myself a lot in the weeks to come, because I'm a nerd, and to ensure I'm not even close to doing Poet Voice. But give me some advice. I know there are actors and teachers and singers who read this blog occasionally--all of you have normalized the way you use your voice in public. Any tips? My writer buddy Emily suggests that I not use different voices when I do dialogue bits. Hahaha! She's obviously been to some more entertaining readings than I have!
This is funny and kind of related: Nina Millin does a dramatic monologue of Beyonce's Single Ladies. Enjoy!
Word On The Street happened yesterday at Harbourfront. Book lovers came from all around for the bargains, the signed copies, the readings, the chance for one last sunburn before we all head back to our hidey-holes with our book stashes to wait out the interminable winter. It was a fun day by the lake, and even though there were kinks with the new location, all the sailboats made up for them.
(Can I also say how nice it was to be on the other side of the table this year? Being an exhibitor last year was a great experience, and I did sell a decent amount of books, but elevator-pitching is not my favourite, and WOTS 2014 was like the Groundhog Day of elevator pitches for me. It didn't help either that my table-mate was a writer of vampire fantasy with an entourage who kept bullying in on my 36" of table space. H.E.Double Hockey Sticks.)
With Word On The Street's new location came a new feature, a collaboration between sculptors and writers called Sculpting New Reads. Word On The Street challenged four artists "to create a new art installation inspired by the themes of their [assigned] book, using the festival site to engage audiences." (For a great rundown on one of the pieces that was part of this installation, check out my good pal Emily's post Words (and giant pipes) on the street)
I don't know what the other presentations were like, but the one I saw (Newberry/deWitt) needed a facilitator, someone to ask really great questions and get the creatives talking about their work and how artists inspire one another. During the very brief chat following the unveiling of Newberry's Giant Pipe, Patrick deWitt mentioned that the classic fairytales and oral lore of Eastern and Central Europe inspired his new novel Undermajordomo Minor. And nobody was prepared or brave enough to pick up and riff on that idea, to say "Yes! Writers inspire writers, and stories inspire other stories, but can you think of a time when you were influenced by another art form? What about music, visual art, dance?
As a poor substitute to knowing what deWitt's answer might be, I give you mine, and ask yours in return. Nine years ago, I wrote a whole series of poems about VanGogh's Cafe Terrace At Night that thankfully never saw the light of day. (They are so so bad.) My short story Riesenrad is a slightly more successful example. The narrator is loosely based on the woman that Joni Mitchell sings about in The Cactus Tree.
Now your turn. If you've never acted on the inspiration, that's fine too--has the work of someone else ever made you want to write a novel/break out the paints/tour jeté down the hall? And, if you're interested in this kind of thing, check out a great essay by Andrew O'Hagan, Writers in love with other art forms, or just ponder this little snippet:
Half the job of a working writer is to seek and maintain his own affinities. You’ve got to know where to lay your empathy and why. And you’ve got to know how to recognise the kind of material that releases your imagination. You don’t always find those things in other novelists: often, indeed, it will be the artist in the next field, the craftsman, the expert, the sportsman, the hero in another line, who will pump fresh air into the recesses of your talent.
Erin Bedford, writer.