Sunday, September 29, 2013

Writing by Firelight (or trying to at least)

Quick synopsis: there's a writing metaphor and some agent advice in this post.

Yesterday was the first full day of Operation: Get the Novel Finished. I am staying in a lovely cottage on the Scottish coast near Banff until the end of October. It is beautiful and, above all, quiet. As many of you know, the past year has been a challenging and frustrating one for my writing. Getting my older son through his senior year of high school and all the attendant anxiety about college admissions as well as the first year of homeschooling my younger son, created a huge challenge to finding time to write.

Added to that was a change in the flight path of the airplanes that land at SFO. After more than a decade of living near the airport without problems, the FAA changed the buffer zone for departing flights and suddenly we went from one or two airplanes flying over our town each week to more than a hundred A DAY flying almost directly over our house. When we bought our house over a decade ago, one of my concerns was the proximity to the airport, but we were assured that the planes rarely come over the town, and that held true until the FAA changed the rules two years ago. And the planes are LOUD - our town is built against a granite mountain and is a perfect bowl shape, so the sound ECHOES and the house vibrates. And when SFO gets backed up or there are flight delays in other parts of the country, the planes go overhead as often as every three minutes for more than an hour. They start at 6 in the morning and continue until after midnight. They interrupt the flow of my thoughts so completely, it is like getting a phone call every three minutes while trying to write. Plus the anxiety of never knowing if each day is going to be mildly distracting or, when I sit down to write, it's going to be an every-three-minutes kind of day. Forget about being able to write in my preferred environment - total silence - at a minimum, I have had to wear noise cancelling headphones while I write. And forget about listening to my preferred choice in writing music (Yo-Yo Ma's cello concertos), the only thing that keeps me from hearing the planes is the constant drone of white or pink noise. Sometimes it's bad enough that I have to use ear plugs with the headphones.

And added to ALL that, was the pressure of having an agent who wants to see the novel when it is done. You may remember that I met Jeff Kleinman, head of Folio Literary Management, at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop last summer. What I didn't write about was that we hit it off really well. Folio has been at the top of my list since I started looking for an agent, so I was thrilled to send him the novel after the workshop. Though he liked it and me and had some lovely things to say about my abilities as a writer, he also had some problems with the novel and decided to pass. However, he told me that if I wanted to revise it, he would love to take a look at it again. Because he'd put his finger on some things that had started to bother me about the novel's structure, I told him that I was going to stop querying and take some time to rework the book, and that I would, when it was finished, take him up on the offer to look at it again. He wrote back almost immediately and said, "Great. Here's where we start: define your premise." Thus began a back and forth between us that lasted for a few months while I struggled to define what my book was about, finally realizing that, since I couldn't articulate it clearly, succinctly and in a few sentences, that the premise wasn't as well-defined as I'd hoped. I finally realized that I was going to have to take some time to rethink the novel. All while one of my dream agents was waiting to read it and the airplanes were flying overhead and kid #1 was facing burnout from 12 years of constant education and taking 4 AP classes and having to get applications in on time, and kid #2 was needing me to create a curriculum and oversee his education and stressing about whether we had done the right thing (we have, he's much happier AND getting a better education), and I was frantically trying to give the novel the space it needed while constantly looking at the calendar and thinking, COME ON ALREADY!

Anyway, long story short (I am a novelist, this is how I roll): back in January, I finally figured out what I needed to do with the novel (I'd been concentrating on the wrong character's story which resulted in almost zero tension or risk to the narrator who is the main character - not good) and was able to get back to work. I spent four months reworking the first chapter until I felt it was solid. Then I went to Lit Camp, where Janis Cooke-Newman declared that it was a near-perfect first chapter. That was when I knew I was ready to contact Jeff, tell him what I was doing, and send him the pages. I'd gotten the book to a place where I was happy with it. No matter what he said, this was the direction I was going to be pursuing. Fortunately, Jeff LOVED the new direction. "Are you done?" he asked. No, I said, but I knew where I was going, had it pretty much mapped out, and expected to be finished by the end of October. "Great!" he replied. "Send it to me when it's finished! Can't wait to read it!" (he really does use all those exclamation points).

(Incidentally, if you got to my blog by searching for Folio or Jeff, and are thinking about querying him, you should know 1) he responds VERY QUICKLY (sometimes in a matter of hours, and at all times of the day (I know someone who got a rejection from him within 2 hours on a Sunday evening after 11 pm East Coast time) - the way I knew I'd hooked him with the new first chapter was that it took him a couple of days to get back to me - if you're going to query him, make sure your premise is ROCK SOLID before you send it, and 2) he can be brutally blunt - when we were going back and forth over my attempts to write a premise statement, he pretty much told me that one of them completely sucked. If you can't take that kind of bald-faced, not sugar-coated-in-any-way feedback (and several people at Squaw couldn't), he is not the agent for you.)

A few days after Lit Camp kid #1 and I got on an airplane and flew to Aberdeen, Scotland, so he could check out the university because he'd applied and gotten accepted and wanted to know if he could actually be okay going to school so far from home. Both of us fell in love. Him with the school (it was founded in 1495, if that doesn't get you excited as a history major, nothing will) and me with Scotland (again). I'd spent a week here when I was in college - Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow - and loved the country and (now) how quiet it was. So when kid #1 decided he was going to choose the University of Aberdeen and our family decided to take a couple of weeks before term started in September to do a family vacation in the UK, I also decided to find myself a quiet little cottage and spend the month of October finishing up the novel without any distractions (and also to be available in case kid #1 ran into any emergencies in his first month of school (he has Type-1 diabetes and felt more comfortable about his choice of schools if I stayed longer) - it's much less expensive than having to purchase a last-minute airplane ticket and fly 18 hours to get to him).

So here I am. Living in a cottage for the next month in the midst of 500 acres of Scottish farm country with nothing to do except finish the novel. It is quiet and peaceful and the Scottish countryside is one of those places my soul calls home.

Yesterday was my first day even looking at the novel in over a month. Planning our trip and kid #1's departure for college, coordinating all the details of flat rentals and car rentals and who wanted to see what and making sure the mail got held while we were gone, etc etc etc felt like I was planning troop movements rather than a vacation and took up all the available creative space in my brain.

It turned out, the break was a good one. It gave me some perspective, so that when I read through what I've written so far, I could see it with fresh eyes, see what was actually on the page rather than what I'd wanted to do or thought I was doing. And, most importantly, see that it was working.

But then it was time to start writing again. That was a bit of rough going and it took some time yesterday for the words to start coming back. However, I found a metaphor to help explain the process!

The cottage has a coal-burning multi-fuel stove for heat, and I've been trying to figure out how to use it. I can build wood-burning fires without a problem. Fireplace or stove, doesn't matter. I know how to burn wood. Coal is a different matter, I found, and requires a different set of tools - I haven't figured it out yet, but I'll get there. The metaphor, though, is about what it takes to build a fire, and is very much what this writing retreat feels like.

To build a good fire, you start out with a super-quick burning material, like newspaper, and a quick-burning material, like small twigs or a firelighter stick. But you can't build a fire with just those materials because they burn too quickly and will smother if you try to put something larger on top of them. So you need a medium-burning material, like branches that are about an inch or so thick. You need these because they will catch fire from the burning of the kindling and paper, but aren't heavy enough to smother the flame or cut off the flow of oxygen. Because fire is also all about how much oxygen is getting into the mix. Too much and the flame will go out or burn too fast too early and consume all your quick-burning materials before anything else catches. Not enough, and the fire will smother and go out. Once you've got the fire going, you can start adding the heavier, slower-burning materials - like logs or coal. These are the pieces that are going to make the fire burn hotter and longer, the ones that will really keep the fire going, but you can't start out with them. They are too big to catch fire just by holding a match against them. Go ahead and try it. Even if a log is completely dry, the most you'll do is singe it.

As I struggled yesterday, I realized that trying to get that fire started was exactly what I was doing with the writing after being away from it for so long. I couldn't just jump right in and expect to blaze away for several hours (that's not the phase of writing the novel is in anyway), I needed the quick-burning materials (like this blog or my journal) to get the words flowing, and I needed the medium-burning fuel to build a base so that I could get to the days I know are coming, the days when I will spend eight hours straight in front of the computer and still come back for more.

Building the writing was exactly like building a fire. I wrote the invocation to the muse that had come to me in the middle of the night, then I opened the novel document and wrote a sentence. Then there was nothing. Then a few words. An hour later I had a paragraph. By the end of the day I had nearly two pages.

Not bad for a first day. And now...onward.

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