Revision under way

Just after the new year, I finished the first draft of my last novel, as yet untitled. (It had a title, but the story that emerged made the title obsolete, so I’m still in search of a new one.) I deliberately set it aside for a few weeks to get some distance. Yesterday, I decided it was time to start.

I made some changes late in the novel that will require me to re-arrange the beginning. Some scenes need to be rewritten. Some will be replaced with new ones; others will be cut entirely. I wanted to make the structure visible so it would be easier to understand how changing one scene would affect others.

I first thought I would use the blank wall in my home office to map the structure. Color-coded sticky notes and swim lanes would do the trick. Trouble was, I ran out of wall 1/3 of the way in. Today I transferred the physical notes into a spreadsheet. Manipulating cells isn’t as enjoyable as having something I can touch and feel, but at least this is portable, which will be good when I travel on business.

Tomorrow, I’ll print the entire draft and start reading it and marking it up. For the first time, I’m eager to revise. Usually, I’m so sick of a story by the time I finish the first draft that revision is a torment. I don’t know why this feels different.

Two Weeks

I have been away from the blog for too long. It has been over two weeks since my last post, aside from the two announcing speaking engagements. I don’t count those.

It took me two months of blogging to get even a little bit comfortable with the practice. It took me a week to start doubting myself again. I started posts, then deleted them. They weren’t deep enough. They weren’t significant enough. Someone else has already said what I’m thinking, only better. Who cares what I think? All the same old negative self-talk.

The excuse for the past few days has been that I’m too busy. I’ve got two speaking engagements to prepare for, one of which is right around the corner. I’m busy at work. I’m revising my novel. I’m writing something new for my critique group. I don’t have time to blog.

Truth is, I can find the time. I’m not asking that much of myself here, only that I  experiment and get comfortable showing my work without revising it out of existence. It was working, too. Here, in my critique group, in my company, I was starting to show my work without fear. Since I stopped writing for the blog, the fear has started to return, and I’m starting to get anxious about what I write. I can’t let that happen again.

Banal. Lacking Insight.

pexels-photo-265152

In the spring semester of 1988, I signed up for a creative writing class in poetry. I remember the year and the season because a friend had died in a car crash the previous December. I remember the class because of the professor’s comments on one the poems, about the death of my friend, that I turned in as part of my midterm assignment.

“Banal.”

“Lacking insight.”

Thirty years later, I wish I remembered his name as clearly as I remember his marginalia, so I could properly curse him.

I stopped going to class, forgot to drop it, and failed it. There were multiple reasons—depression, illness, money problems—but “banal” and “lacking insight” didn’t help.

Several years later, I started frequenting a coffee house that hosted regular poetry readings.  Listening to poems that ranged from godawful to brilliant inspired me to try again. Some poems came into my head fully formed, others required an enormous amount of work. One that I wrote for a friend’s wedding took almost twenty hours over the course of three weeks to write. I was never prolific. I averaged perhaps a poem every two weeks, until August of 1998, when I wrote this one:

Sunset

Day opens her veins into an
Unforgiving sky absorbs the last drops of
Light seeps scarlet stains into
Dirty smokestack gauze oozes across the
Horizon slowly betrays day’s trust to
Night seeps into my eyes

With the exception of greeting card epigrams, I haven’t written a poem since.

“Sunset” revealed more about my mental state than I was comfortable with confronting. I’d only intended to experiment with enjambment, but this is a poem informed by clinical depression and a rapidly necrotizing marriage. I didn’t want to risk more material like this bubbling up from my subconscious.

In time, I convinced myself that I actually couldn’t write poetry. I dismissed the fact that I’d written dozens of poems, had one published, and had given readings that were well received. I told myself that the successful poems were flukes.

My poetry was banal. Lacking insight.

I even told people that I didn’t like poetry, which was patent horsefeathers. I threw away the paper copies, and now I only have seven from that period. Eight, if you count a limerick about a man who had carnal relations with chickens.

And so I have not written poetry for almost twenty years. Earlier this month, though, I started thinking about trying again. Some thoughts and ideas are better expressed in verse, and besides, I feel incomplete as a writer without being able to write poetry. I asked Carolyn to get me a copy of a book I used to have:  A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, by Mary Kinzie. I’ve started to read it, but I’m already stumped on an assignment from the preface. Paralyzed, almost.

What if it’s terrible? What if it’s banal? Lacking insight?

It probably will be, as rusty as I am. But I have to limber up somehow. I’ll write as many crappy poems as I have to in order to find my voice again, and start writing good ones.

 

Notes on “The Apology”

The Apology” was inspired by the song, “Cheap Whiskey,” on Martina McBride’s debut album. The song is about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism having driven away “the light of his life.” I wanted to explore what might happen if he decided to apologize, and discovered that the apology didn’t make anything better.

In the first draft, there wasn’t much more to it. I felt like it was thin as I wrote, so I introduced additional characters: four customers and the cook. It wasn’t terrible, as first drafts go, but my critique group suggested that I cut the other characters. Removing them made me realize how thin the characterization was, especially of Margo, and that gave me a clearer vision of the story.

Margo, especially, was little more than a cardboard cut-out. What was in her heart and mind when Nehemiah walked in? What would it do to her to hear an unwanted apology? Deepening my understanding of her also gave me fresh insight into Nehemiah. These insights changed the story for the better.

What I’ve learned from this is not to clutter my scenes and stories with extra characters. The other customers, Margo’s brother; I’d put them all in as scenery, basically, and then I’d felt obligated to give them something to do. They distracted me from the heart of the story. In my next first draft, I’ll be ruthless about keeping the scene focused on the only people who actually matter.

Small Assignments

puzzle-pieces-1182532-1279x852

I set a goal of writing three blog posts this week, and I finished one, but the second one completely got away from me. I wanted to write one more thing about my experience in the Pentecostal church, but then I had to explain something else in order for the one thing to make sense. The something else also needed to be introduced, and that introduction had half a dozen components, and so on. And I kept thinking, “This topic is just so big; I don’t know how I’m going to boil it down into a single post.”

I stepped away from it for a little while this morning hoping that doing some chores would generate insight—it happens that way, sometimes—but alas, when I returned to the page, the topic was still so big, and it grew even longer as I worked. I took another break, and picked up Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There, I found my answer:

“The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments.”

If the topic is too big, don’t boil it down. Break off a piece. And if that’s still too big, break off another, until you get something small enough to write. I don’t have to tell my whole life story in one page.

Image by Stasi Albert.

Slower

Rough-Road-Ahead-Slow-Sign-K-9771

I have posted something every day for 35 days. When I started the first two week challenge, I didn’t think I’d succeed. That I’ve kept it up for five weeks is an amazing run for me, and I’ve proud of myself. Now I know that I can maintain a daily posting schedule if I want to.

That said, I’m going to back off daily posts for this week. I’ve got a hectic schedule ahead of me, and I don’t want to add unnecessary stress to my life. I’ll be happy with three posts, not counting this one, between now and next Sunday night.

Blogging: a personal history

pexels-photo-265152

Yesterday’s post was my 100th since starting this blog almost six years ago.

That’s right. It took me five years and ten months to post 100 blog entries. I wrote almost half of them in the last twelve months, and more than half of this year’s posts have been published in the past four weeks.

Pardon me, I get excited about metrics.

My desire to write a blog goes back almost to the beginnings of the term “blog” itself. I started my first blog in 1999, shortly after my divorce. I used a personal web page from my provider, and it was so obscure that wayback machine doesn’t even have it archived. I hadn’t even heard of Blogger at that point, and WordPress was years away, so it was a static page, hand-coded using HTML 4. For feedback, I provided an email link.

I wrote mostly about liberal politics, but I might as well have been posting random words from the dictionary for all the attention it got. No one read me. I had no idea how to draw readers. The one and only time I got a response was on September 12, 2001, after I wrote a post critical of the sentiment that one must not disagree with the President after the September 11 attacks. Someone emailed me to call me a traitor, and offered to kick my ass.

I suppose I should have been afraid, but I was actually thrilled. Someone had read me! Someone I didn’t even know!

Unfortunately, that was about it in terms of audience engagement. I eventually moved to Blogger and embedded LiveJournal into it, but all the action was within LiveJournal. Eventually, I shut down the blog. Without an audience, why bother?

The desire persisted, though, and I made half-hearted attempts a couple of times. I tried blogging about Scrum, but I felt like I didn’t know enough to write about it. I’d lost interest in writing about politics, because increasing polarization meant I was only talking to people who already largely agreed with me. I didn’t feel like anyone was interested in reading about my life in general.

Now I’m blogging every day but I’m still not sure what I’m doing. When I started the daily blog challenge four weeks ago, I thought I’d write mostly about agile software development. But when I get home each night, work is the last thing I want to think about. My posts about my experience in a Pentecostal church were well-received, so maybe I should write more about that topic. It would be good fodder for the novel I plan to write next, and maybe exploring that part of my past will be good for my psyche.