Saturday, November 29, 2008

That actually worked

50,000 words in a month. A month in which, incidentally, I blew an entire day and a half on fretting over and then celebrating the election, not to mention did my share of cleaning up an incredibly messy house and preparing Thanksgiving dinner for eight.

Six or seven weeks ago, I was having trouble writing despite my passion for my project due to a paralyzing perfectionism. I really, really, SO MUCH want to get this manuscript just right. It's a big story, with characters I could happily write about for years, maybe even a decade or two. And I've gotten such good feedback on it so far--contest success, praise from industry professionals who've seen a snippet of it--that it paradoxically made me freeze up. As in, what if I can't make the entire story live up to the strength of the premise and the opening chapters? What if I'm not good enough to do my own story and my beloved characters justice? So I was feeling my way through the manuscript at a snail's pace, maybe 500 words a day, agonizing over every sentence and sweating the structure of every scene. It had to be just right before I could go forward.

But then two things happened. The first was attending Donald Maass's master class at the Surrey Writers Conference in October. We spent most of the three-hour session taking apart a scene from our manuscripts we thought needed improvement and finding a way to strengthen it. I was amazed by how much my scene improved through the exercises Maass gave us, how much subtle changes enhanced the conflict and deepened the emotional impact and sensory vividness of the scene. It made me see that I was going about it all wrong in my effort to write a perfect draft, that there was nothing I couldn't improve AFTER I'd written it. (Yes, yes, I'm on my fourth manuscript, and you'd think I'd know that by now. But I'm still getting the hang of editing for story structure as opposed to style.)

Then I decided on a whim to try NaNoWriMo. I knew I needed something to push me out of slow motion. I didn't think I'd manage 50,000 words, but if I could just make it to 25,000, I'd be in so much better shape than I was 10/31. So I sat down with a pile of index cards, plotted out the scenes I knew I would need to get me to the end of the manuscript, and dove in. When I finished a scene, I grabbed the next card from the stack and wrote what it told me to do.

It shouldn't have worked. It's contrary to how I've always written in the past, and, really, there's no logical reason anyone who was barely managing 10,000 words/month should suddenly be able to do 50K. But I kept at it, and found myself enjoying writing more than I had in months. I was living my story again, wanting to grab everyone around me and babble about my characters and how much I loved them. (I resisted the urge. Mostly.)

I'm sure I'll have to rewrite many of those 50,000 words, but that's OK. I'm confident I've found the bones of my story now. The rest, I can fix. I'm not going to go back and look at them yet, lest I paralyze myself again with the urge to tinker. NaNo got me through Act II and into the beginning of Act III. I'm going to take a day or two to plan out Act III, make those scene index cards a little more detailed, and then I'm going to plunge back in. Not quite as fast--50,000/month IS a bit excessive. But I think I can manage 25,000 without neglecting the rest of my life, and at that rate I'll have a draft to start polishing by sometime in January.

So, all in all, NaNo worked better than I'd dreamed.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Heaven and Earth

Heaven and Earth (1990) is one of the Harlequin Historicals Kathleen Eagle wrote early in her career. I wish she'd written more of them, because historicals are just so much more my thing than contemporary romances, and this is a good one. Set in the 1840's, it's about a woman widowed on the Oregon Trail when her husband, a minister with dreams of serving in Marcus and Narcissa Whitman's mission, dies on the trail. When she is left behind by the rest of her wagon train, she's rescued by a Metis trapper of French, English, and Cree descent. They're attracted almost from the beginning, but they have to come to terms with the differences in their backgrounds and worldviews amid the strife that arose when Americans were first beginning to settle the West in large numbers. It's not a new or unique story, but it's told well, and Eagle has the knack of convincing you her characters will build a happy future amid the challenges and conflicts of their world.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Normally I avoid the kind of books that get reviewed on NPR, snapped up by book clubs, etc. But The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008) sounded intriguing enough when I heard about it on Morning Edition that I decided to make an exception, and I'm glad I did. It has just about everything that makes me happy in a read--a lively community of characters, a vividly developed historical setting, a romance arc, an ability to deal with serious business without taking itself to seriously, and, last but not least, a happy ending.

The book takes place in 1946, when Britain is just beginning to put itself back together after WWII. The heroine, a London newspaper columnist, begins a chance correspondence with a man from the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans during the war. It's a purely epistolary novel, deftly written in a pleasantly old-fashioned voice. (Shaffer, the primary author, died after the book was accepted but before publication--Barrows is her niece.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Miss Darby's Duenna

Miss Darby's Duenna (Sheri Cobb South, 1999) is an old-school traditional Regency romance of the light comedic romp tradition, and it's delightfully well-written, even if the hero's disguise as an old lady made about as much sense as no one noticing Superman looks just like Clark Kent without glasses, and even though the villain turned into the hero of a secondary romance plot awfully quickly. In other words, a good, relaxing read, but more about the fun than the realism.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I think this is a minor corollary of Murphy's Law

Sometimes, no matter how accurate a historical novelist strives to be, she just cannot track down some detail or other. Such as, say, any kind of description of the appearance or character of a minor historical figure. Eventually, the aspiring novelist decides to make it up, or at least to extrapolate based on the thin evidence she can read between the lines when he makes an appearance in the biographies of the more prominent.

"Hm," thinks the writer. "He seems to be the one everyone else spoke to, even when they weren't speaking to each other. He had a long and apparently successful career as an ambassador, which would imply that he was, well, diplomatic. And he was the youngest of a large family. I bet he was mellow and easygoing."

Satisfied with her deduction, the writer pens two chapters wherein this mellow, unflappable man plays a large part. Throughout his scenes, our boy is calm and capable.

A few days later our writer stumbles across a line or two describing the gentleman in question in a biography of one of his more prominent relations. That calm, unflappable man? Actually, the family drama queen.

Well, I already knew I'd have some serious rewriting to do once NaNoWriMo is over...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates (2008) is Sarah Vowell's rambly exploration of the early years of Puritan settlement in New England and its impact on American culture on through to the present day. And I had a lot of fun reading it because I kept imagining it in her voice.

The key word here is "rambly." Linear this book is not, and I wonder how much sense it would've made to someone who didn't go in with a fairly solid grounding in American colonial history. Then again, maybe her audience is only other history geeks like me and it doesn't matter.

Anyway, if you like Sarah Vowell, you'll like this book. Reading it made me wish I could hang out with her and geek out over historical crushes and obsessions, because she talks about John Winthrop, Roger Williams, etc. just the way I talk about the Duke of Wellington, Eugene de Beauharnais, etc.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Reputable Rake

A Reputable Rake (Diane Gaston, 2006) is a Regency historical romance with one foot in high society and one in the London underworld. The heroine is an unconventional young woman who, when one of her maids is unhappy at her work and believes herself ruined because of previous sexual escapades, decides to train the maid to be a courtesan so she can at least have a better life than that of a common streetwalker. Along the way she picks up three more pupils and draws the attention of her neighbor, a rake who is trying to reform.

The courtesan school isn't quite so implausible as it sounds--it's not 100% realistic IMHO, but it didn't go so far that I lost my ability to suspend disbelief, and I enjoyed the book for its engaging characters, both the hero and heroine and a larger and better-rounded cast of secondary characters than you often find in romance these days.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why (Amanda Ripley, 2008) is at times a harrowing read, but if there's one book I've read this year that I'd recommend for everyone, this is it.

Of course, that's mostly because anyone reading this could theoretically find themselves facing an earthquake, a tornado, a tsunami, a terrorist attack, etc., while most of what I read is more driven by my personal quirks and interests. But the value of The Unthinkable isn't just in its universal topicality, but in the amount of surprising and usable information it contains. E.g. people rarely panic in a disaster--they're more likely to go numb and not act until it's too late. But authorities have a bad habit of not training and informing the public about risks out of fear of creating panic...which just makes the numb phase worse, because the more information people have, the better and more quickly they respond. (Which is why military and medical personnel tend to do well in disasters--not because they're a higher order of being, but because they're trained to think in a crisis.)

So. From now on I'm going to leave the office immediately when the fire alarm goes off instead of grumbling to myself about how it's NEVER a real fire and waiting a few minutes to see if it'll stop before going out into the cold and rain. And I'm also going to actually look at the safety cards on airplanes and notice where the emergency exits are. Because when you look at fires or plane crashes with only a handful of survivors, it's often the ones who paid attention and heeded warnings.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

In The Year of Living Biblically (AJ Jacobs, 2008) an agnostic who describes his background as "Jewish like the Olive Garden is Italian" decides to follow the Bible as literally as possible for a year (8 months focused on the Old Testament, 4 on the New).

I first heard about this book several months ago, but I didn't put it on my holds list, because it sounded like Yet Another Gimmicky Lifestyle Change Memoir. But someone on my LiveJournal friendslist recommended it, so I gave it a try. I'm not sorry I did. I mean, it is a Gimmicky Lifestyle Change Memoir. But it's funny, engagingly written, and managed to make me think all the same. Jacobs follows obscure ceremonial laws and visits a snake-handling church (though he honors his promise to his wife not to pick up a rattlesnake himself), but he also tries not to lie, gossip, or speak ill of others, and he muses upon how to love his neighbor in a New York apartment building and what to do when two laws come into direct conflict. And it made me realize that even back when I was a much more literalistic Christian, I wasn't so good at the not gossiping, avoiding of convenient white lies, etc.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Big Sort

Seattle is a happy city today. People danced in the streets last night. I exchanged words of jubilation with total strangers...and that's RARE. Northwesterners are normally a reserved, standoffish lot. Closest thing to this was the M's run in 2001, and even that happiness wasn't quite so joyous or universal.

Most of my friends' Facebook statuses and LiveJournal comments were in the same celebratory vein. But for some of my relatives and old, old friends--we're talking high school here--last night felt like the end of the world. They feel, well, pretty much like I did after the Bush v. Gore verdict in 2000, or on election night in 2004. They're my fellow Americans, but I don't understand them. Sometimes I feel like there's no overlap at all in what we love about our country or in the future we desire for it. And if it weren't for the fact I grew up in their world before leaving for college in Philadelphia at 18 and gradually adopting most of the politics and worldview you'd expect from someone who went to an elite college and chose to spend her adult life in liberal cities, I'd have no contact with people like that--people on the other side--whatsoever. (And, boy, was that a long and convoluted sentence.)

It wasn't always this way. Thirty or forty years ago, communities weren't so segregated by ideology. Close elections were close all over the country. But now, prosperity has enabled greater mobility, and we as a nation have self-sorted into communities who think like we do, worship like we do, play like we do...and vote like we do. It's a natural phenomenon--it's human nature to want to be part of a group that shares our values. But it's become so extreme that it's threatened the fabric of our democracy. Even in those close elections, most counties are landslide counties, where the winning candidate has a margin of victory or 20% or more. And so our politics have become more contentious, because politicians and their constituencies are so divided and tribalized that there's no desire for compromise. At least, that's what Bill Bishop contends in The Big Sort (2008), and I confess I recognize myself in its pages. Obama's victory seems to run counter to Bishop's theories to some degree, however, so I'll be watching Bishop's blog to see how he analyzes it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

NaNo So Far

It's going pretty well, better than I'd expected, really. I've written 3807 words in two days, which puts me a little ahead of schedule--I need about 1800 words/day if I'm to get to 50,000 by 11/30, assuming I don't write on Election Day or Thanksgiving.

What I don't know yet is whether it'll be easier or harder to churn out 1800 words or so on a weekday. On the one hand, my life is more scheduled, what with the job, writers group on Mondays, choir on Wednesdays, etc. However, if I decide to write on my lunch hour, I can shut the door, let voicemail take the phone for half an hour and enjoy blessed peace and quiet. At home, that's hard to do while my daughter is awake. I get stray bits of time here and there when she's happily by herself or playing with my husband, but I never know how long that will last, and the "happily by herself" times are rare. I'm not sure how it happened, but we two strong introverts produced an extroverted child, and she likes to have someone to play with her or at least answer her questions and listen to her stories.

The strange thing is that I don't think writing in these 15 or 20-minute snatches is hurting my work. If anything, it keeps the story toward the front of my mind as I cook, do laundry, shop for groceries, etc.