My Writing Process Blog Tour

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Revisions. I always think I’m done before I really am.

Just when I was trying to come up with a blog post, my friend Pamela Hunt reached out and “tagged” me for a blog tour all about the thing I was having a really hard time doing that day: writing.

That’s how things have worked with Pamela from the outset. She is a generous champion of my work who has connected me with editors and agents. She has been a tireless and insightful reader. She even landed up moving right to the setting for some critical scenes in my first novel, Camp Lejeune Marine Base where she now lives, teaches yoga, mothers her sons, and writes. Before she even unpacked, she sent me photos and literary descriptions of her surroundings so I could keep working. The writing on her blog, walkingonmyhands.com, continues to inspire me with its honesty and heart-grabbing sentences that mark her unusual journey through life.

Here goes, then, with my answers to four questions about my writing.

1. What am I working on?

The short answer: two novels, my blog, and a collection of essays and stories that exist in drafts ranging from a few lines to almost complete. I’m revising my first novel, Casualties, and doing research and early sketches for my second. The work on Casualties has pushed its way to the fore right now for some exciting reasons which I will save for another time because I don’t want to jinx anything.

That sums up my projects. The real work, it turns out, is actually doing the work which, as author Patricia Park pointed out in a recent Grubstreet.org interview can be akin to running a marathon: “There are so many parallels between marathon training and novel writing: doing speed work, building endurance, learning to pace yourself, saying goodbye to your social life, fighting through the (mental, physical) blocks. And then gunning it for the finish line.”

I’m not sure the parallel holds up all along the line but the need to build endurance and to push through mental and physical blocks resonate with me. When I started down this road, I never gave a thought to the physical blocks. Now I work out just so I can sit or stand at my keyboard. As for “gunning it” at the finish line — I have found that the finish line is where I must be my most patient, my most humble. I’m never done when I think I am.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My novel, Casualties, joins the growing body of fiction that deals with the impact of our most recent wars on those who fight and those who wait at home. The protagonist, Ruth Nolan, however, is a departure. She is a mother and successful defense industry executive who depends on those wars for her livelihood. We haven’t seen a “coming-home” story from this perspective yet.

When it comes to my blog and essays, any differentiation probably comes down to ears, eyes, and voice. There are no new stories under the sun, so they say. But not one of us sees or hears the world around us the same way. I try to remember that every time my inner voice screams “this has been done!” Sometimes she’s right and that pushes me to look deeper and work harder to find the unexpected.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I wish I knew. I have thoughts. I have ideas. I love figuring them out on the page. Writing teaches me about myself, about the world I live in. It can start a conversation that takes me in new directions. I’m basically an introvert with a big mouth. When it comes to fiction, I am struck by a person or a dilemma that won’t leave me alone. Writing is the most fun — and the most frustration, pain, sorrow, joy — I’ve ever experienced in an individual pursuit. I am so glad I get to do it. I get anxious when I don’t.

4. How does your writing process work?

It continues to evolve and I think that is an important part of the process itself. You try things. If they work, great. If they don’t, move on. There are a few cardinal rules I follow:

Get dressed. It’s work, damn it. I need to show up like I mean it. Also, I’ve run out of excuses for greeting the UPS guy at 3 p.m. wearing fuzzy pink slippers and my green plaid bathrobe.

Plan. At the end of each month, I print out a calendar for the next month and identify all the blocks of time available for writing. I list the things I’m aiming for that month, e.g, a new chapter, revisions, essay draft, research, submissions, queries, etc. and prioritize. The month almost never turns out as planned but this exercise calms me. It lets me see how lucky I am and how much time I do have and it motivates me to use it well. It also results in, well, results. Maybe not all I had hoped for but perhaps more than what I could have accomplished if I hadn’t been intentional about the whole thing.

Routine. My basic writing day goes from 9 to 3 and two days a week I have some evening time. I always have my journal up first in the morning and leave it up all day so I can pull from it ideas I had, or add to it, or scream into. I usually continue from where I left off, rather than extensively editing what I wrote the day before. I make notes about revisions I want to make and save them until I’ve completed a draft. Most of the time.

Don’t be a slave to routine. This is my reminder not to freak out when the stuff of life upends the routine. Write when I can. Grab every minute. Let go gracefully when it is time to let go.

I’ve tagged four wonderful women writers to continue this conversation. Next week, they’ll be sharing their writing processes. Check them out!

Rae Padilla Francoeur. Author of the memoir, Free Fall, A Late-in-Life Love Affair, Rae blogs, reviews books, and runs the New Arts Collaborative, a creative marketing business that works with artists in creative and entrepreneurial ventures. She has written three novels and is at work on a second memoir. Link to her blog here.

Judy Reeves. “Writer, teacher, writing practice provocateur” is the tagline on Judy’s blog. She has authored three books for writers and is at work on a new project based on workshops she has conducted, “Wild Women, Wild Voices” due out in 2015.

Janice Wilberg. Janice’s essays have appeared in Newsweek, the Modern Love Column of the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Salon.com, and the anthology, “Precipice, The Literary Anthology of Write on Edge, 2012.” Find her at her award-winning blog, Red’s Wrap.

Anita J. Knowles.  Anita studied film at USC, blogs, and is at work on her first novel. She writes with the kind of originality and honesty you’d expect from a woman who pulls no punches and constantly challenges herself. I’m hoping she’ll share the interesting experiments she’s been doing in her own writing process lately. Link to her blog here.

 

 

 

 

 

“Next Big Thing” Blog Tour

As I mentioned last week, there’s a viral blog event going around called “The Next Big Thing” in which writers give a glimpse of works in progress by answering a set of questions. I’ve been tagged by two fellow writers. Rae Francoeur is author of the memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair.” Find out about her Next Big Thing. In addition, I’ve been tagged by Matt Coyle, author of the thriller “Yesterday’s Echo,” due out in May. Click here to read more about Matt and his book. I’ve tagged three folks too and you can find out more by clicking on their links at the end of this post.

And for some insight on my “Next Big Thing,” read on.

What is your working title of your book?

Casualties.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I started with an entirely different story, about a woman who leaves. That’s all I had: her name, her face, and her departure. I knew that everything leading up to her departure was rooted in a past I needed to uncover. When I realized that she lost her only child, I realized I was writing one of my about my worst nightmares with the idea that if I could figure out what would happen under the worst conditions for my characters, I might learn something. There is nothing that happens to Ruth, my protagonist, that couldn’t happen to any one of us.

Environmental factors played a role too. I live in San Diego, a nexus for the military, defense industry and civilians. You learn quickly that there are no real boundaries between these groups. Individuals — neighbors, strangers, family members — cross from one to the other as they make difficult decisions and try to do what is right for themselves, their families and the country. What can often be invisible elsewhere in the country is very visible here.

What genre does your book fall under?

I aimed for what editor Amy Einhorn calls, “the sweet spot between literary and commercial.” This is a novel that a book club could sink its teeth into.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

This is fun!

Ruth: Julianne Moore. Helen Hunt. Diane Lane. Cate Blanchett.

Casey: Aaron Eckhart. Dennis Leary. Willem Dafoe. All three are a little too old to play Casey but all of them can play that combination of intelligence, seediness, and heart that would bring Casey to life. I love them all, by the way…

 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Before single mother and defense industry executive Ruth Nolan can bury her only child, a Marine who has committed suicide, she must choose whether to salvage what remains of the life she has built, or risk it all by helping war-zone contractors harmed by her firm’s negligence.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am seeking representation and have been excited about the initial reception. We’ll see where that leads. I am open to all possibilities.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Too long!!!! The first scenes in what became my first draft are dated 2003. However, what I consider the real first draft happened in 2007 when I tossed out 600 pages. What remained formed the heart of the book that has emerged.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Like Kristin Hannah’s Homefront, Casualties brings to life the cost of war paid by those who fight and those who wait for them, but goes further, delving into the largely invisible world of the defense contractor and the tragedy of military suicides. The story, however, is not a story of war, and the book does not advance a political agenda. Like the novels of Ann Patchett (State of Wonder), or Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior), Casualties keeps the focus on the conflicting desires of its characters and the choices they must make.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My husband was the one who inspired my confidence and challenged me making it possible for me write full time for the past two years. He has never wavered in his confidence in me and I draw strength from that daily.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ruth’s story is only one of the stories told in this book. When she flees from her California home with her son’s ashes, she encounters amputee and would-be conman Casey McInerney, a veteran of the first Gulf War with his own demons. As they journey across the country, they force each other to face the grief, guilt, and fear that have governed their decisions for longer than either of them realizes. They help each other take the first steps toward making peace with themselves and the ghosts of those they’ve lost.

Now I have some wonderful writers for you to check out. Next week, or very soon, they will be posting answers to questions about their latest projects as part of the Next Big Thing blog tour.

Pamela Hunt, freelance writer and author of “Walking on My Hands,” a blog in which she shares her journey toward “learning to live with grace.” She’ll talk about her novel, a work-in-progress.

Gail Chehab, author of The Echo of Sand” and, most recently, “Simple Gifts.”

Melanie Hooks, screenwriter and freelance writer, will discuss her work-in-progress. (Link to come. Stay tuned!)

Welcome

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The man in this picture once told me something I have never forgotten. “Don’t be afraid to say no to people when you have to, but don’t say no to yourself.”

He said this just after he hired me as a reporter for a paper called the Gloucester Daily Times, the daily that served Cape Ann, an island about 40 miles north of Boston and a world unto itself. I must have looked confused or maybe he just wanted to be sure I understood because he went on.

“There are going to be days when you’re heading home and you’re tired, or you’re on your way to cover a story and you’re running late. That’s when you’ll see something out of the ordinary, maybe a group of people gathering unexpectedly, a fire engine rushing by, a child or an animal doing something that everyone would like to see. These are opportunities. You can stop, find out more, take that picture and make your page that much better. Or, you can keep going. That’s saying no.”

He was talking about the job, of course. I was 21 and Peter Watson was doing one of the things he did best: mentor. He offered his experience and insight but then let you decide whether to use it or not. I confess there were times when I did not. Shame still flickers when I recall hearing a story idea from one of my readers and then forgetting it until I ran into her again, when it was too late. And on a glorious summer day, I shot one funny, beautiful, or telling photo after another, only to find I had forgotten to reload my Canon AE1 after my last deadline. [Digitals were still in the distance at that point.]

The lessons were painful but effective. In saying no to those opportunities, I let him down, made life more difficult for my editors and everyone else who had to put out the paper. And the residents of Rockport, who opened their pages every day to Page two found less than they would have if I had seized the moment or had been prepared for the lucky photo op that came my way.

It was the regret, though, that lingered. This is what Peter was trying to tell me. You don’t get those opportunities back. I was haunted for longer than you would expect by the missed opportunities because the ones I had the sense to grab taught me so much.

Peter and his beautiful family remained in the center of my life even after I left the Cape and, eventually, journalism. No matter what I was doing, though, opportunities came, often disguised as inconveniences or things that seemed outside my comfort zone or simply things I thought could wait: jobs, love, a cup of coffee with a person I’d just met, writing. Writing always fell aside. The urge to put off, avoid, give into fear or fatigue has continued to reside in me like a virus, ready to flare.

Peter died on November 24. The last time I saw him was in May. We’d said our farewells inside the house but he called to me and I waited while he walked toward me. It was not an easy walk. His balance was compromised by the tumor in his brain and he was very tired. But he took one step after the other. He put his arms around me and hugged me, harder and longer than he ever had before. He said, “Good bye, old friend.”

We talked often and I planned to see him again but it didn’t happen that way. I am so grateful to him. He could have stood in the doorway and waved, pretended that this moment was like any other but he didn’t. He acted on whatever instinct made him come to me and say that good bye.

A week after he died, when the grief was raw, the month of December looked completely different than the one I had planned. There was a eulogy to write, a trip east to plan. Family was coming, there were errands, gifts and for a time it seemed overwhelming. That was when another friend I have known and cherished for most of our lives, Rae Francoeur, got in touch with a proposal. She knew I’d finished my novel and was submitting it to agents. She told me that if I had my blog up and running, she could “tag” me in something called The Next Big Thing Blog Tour. The problem: I had to have my blog up and running in time for the new year.

I could say no. For over a year, my blog has been languishing on my hard drive and in drafts on WordPress. What would a few more weeks matter? Then came the echoes of Peter’s words.

This time, I know there is no one I will be letting down if I don’t do it. The world is not waiting breathlessly for another writer or another blog. But I also know that regrets sharpen with every year that passes. The opportunities to connect, to grow, to try something new, don’t always come when we want them but they come. I can say not now and tell myself there will be other moments like this one. Or I can say yes and see what happens.

Yes.

Check in next week for the “Next Big Thing Blog  Tour.”