Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Gift of Critique

One favorite line I use when teaching writing classes is from the poet John Masefield: "Great art does not proceed from great criticism but from great encouragement." I do believe that encouragement is essential. My best feature as a dissertation adviser, in my view, was my ability to make my graduate students believe in themselves and just keep on writing. Get it down on paper, and we can fix it up later. We can't fix up something that exists only in someone's head - or doesn't yet exist at all.

But I might be ready to change my mind about Masefield's edict. On Wednesday night, I received great criticism on my novel-in-progress from a new writing group I've joined, as my old, dear, most beloved writing group is currently transitioning to a format based more on mutual support (that is to say, encouragement) rather than the biweekly critique sessions that structured our encounters for the past 22 years. So I joined a new group to seek out the critique I continue to need on my work. For how can a writer know if she's succeeded in connecting with her readers if she doesn't actually find some readers and ask them what they think?

On Wednesday night I had a powerful reminder of how great criticism can be. I received brilliant comments both large and small and left not only with a sense of what the book lacked but a plan for exactly how to address each problem noted.

I don't want to give away details of the plot at this point, but here are the kinds of comments I received.

There are inconsistencies between how I set up certain relationships at the beginning of the book and what I delivered as the story unfolded, a result, of course, of my learning more about the characters after living with them during the writing of the book. Now I need to go back to those first chapters and make them comport with the later ones.

The big reveal of the book is powerful and a surprise for the reader: "I didn't see that coming." Good! Nonetheless, I need to do more to prepare the reader for it, so that the reader reacts with seeing how totally RIGHT this moment is, rather than being puzzled by it. I'm going for "Yes!" rather than "Huh?"

The time frame needs more clarity: when exactly does Hunter start to change? Can there be more red herrings that Autumn and her family entertain in their wonderment about why he now acts as he does?

The particular way that I chose to heighten the significance of Autumn's key choice at the end of the novel requires the reader to swallow an enormous coincidence: can I achieve the same effect in some less contrived way? (I hope so!)

If the book opens with Autumn on her way to an appointment with her orthodontist dad, should we have additional mention of her braces throughout the book? (Yes! And what if she has food stuck in them during the crucial dance scene?)

I use the word "that" far too often. "She noticed that he had changed" could just be "She noticed he had changed." (I spent a solid hour yesterday eliminating dozens of "that"s - in one case, four in a single sentence. I always like to start with low-hanging fruit, easy cosmetic changes, as I let the big deep ones simmer).

So: thank you, thank you, thank you ,to Jen, Jenn, Vanessa, Laura, Michelle, and Tracy. May we all be grateful to those who give us the gift of truly beautiful critique.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holiday Hoopla

 In order to avoid sitting around anxiously fretting about what critique group suggestions I'll receive (tonight!) on the novel that I wrote so fast and furiously last month, with so much love and hope and fear, I'm filling my days to the brim with the activities of the season. I'm fortunate to be a member of a faith community that finds so many ways to celebrate Christmas.

So far:

 I helped the youth bake cookies to serve at fellowship time to the congregation and to share when we go caroling to shut-ins. Great was the chaos, of course, and tasty were the results.

I clapped my hands off after the youth Christmas play, written by my fellows St. Paul's UMC members Rebecca Glancy and Amy Abshire. Our church has as its mission statement To openly share creative opportunities to grow in Christ's love through worship, fellowship, service, and learning. We take the "creative" here very seriously, and usually we write our own Christmas plays. I wrote a couple myself, one based on my picture book One Small Lost Sheep, and one a new script about a chronically delinquent and deficient star who gets chosen on Christmas Eve for the most important assignment of all.

I clapped off what was left of my hands at the Christmas Cabaret put on by our little church singing group, the AnthemAires, who always delight us with stunningly beautiful settings of music, audience participation, and hilarious stage business.

I organized our Mitten Tree, which we decorate with warm outerwear to donate to the homeless shelter. I used to run our Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless drive, but now the homeless shelter prefers us to give in a different way. In the Shoebox days, I wrote a song for us to sing in worship: "Deck the halls with old shoeboxes [you can supply the fa-la-la-la-las], Fill the bottoms and the topses. Fill with gifts to give the homeless. Thus we share the joy of Christmas." My new song to usher in the Mitten Tree era goes: "Oh Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches! Oh, Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches! With hats and socks and scarves and gloves, we give to share our Savior's love. Oh, Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches!" The tree is now filling up nicely.

I hunted all over to find a doll stroller to give to the needy child who had requested it on our church love wreath. Finally, my clever daughter-in-law searched for it online and informed me it was in our Boulder Target on aisle E-5. Sure enough, there it was!

I babysit so that Christopher and Ashley can rehearse with the choir for the upcoming choir cantata, and Christopher can perform with the bell choir; he's one of those amazing bell ringers who can sub for anyone who is absent and ring two bells in each hand. (I was one of those non-amazing bell ringers who alerted the congregation to every wrong note by my constant grimaces of traumatized terror).

What else? The women's Christmas luncheon is coming up this Saturday. I'm the one in charge of organizing the caroling for the 21st. We'll all go to church on Christmas Eve at 6:30, and Christopher will return to play for the 11:00 service. I'm going to preach the sermon and preside over the service for Epiphany Sunday the beginning of January. Writing sermons has become quite the hobby for me. If you want any sermons written to order, just call!

Just as Carly Simon sang that she didn't have time for the pain, I'm trying to make sure that I don't have time for revision jitters. Just time for holiday happiness with my beloved church family.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sprint Results

To those of you who start a new life on the first of the month, as I do, happy new life! And isn't it satisfying when the first of the month falls on a Monday? Double newness!

The results are in for my ten-day sprint to finish a full draft of my novel-in-progress. Bottom line: I did it. I wrote close to 40,000 words in November, which, added to the 4000 words I already had written on the project, totaled very close to my target goal of 44,000 words for the manuscript (the same length as my most recent novel, Zero Tolerance). Final word count on the manuscript in its current form: 43,539.

Now, while close to 40,000 words in a month falls short by 10,000 words of the goal my NaNoWriMo-ing friends were aiming at (a full 50,000-word novel from start to finish in 30 days), it's definitely the most I've ever written in a month before. Now I have to decide what I think about writing so much in such a concentrated time frame.

It was definitely hard work. I needed to write for my early morning hour, and then write AGAIN, and then write AGAIN to get it all done. I gained three pounds in the course of the month by neglecting fitness (though a week of frigid temps and heavy snow didn't help, as did purchasing not one but two tubs of cookie dough from a boy at church who was selling them as a marching band fundraiser ). I was more tired. I was more stressed.

For a while I felt the quality of the writing might be suffering. I worried that the story might be getting progressively off track and that as the words kept mounting up, it might be heading more and more in the wrong direction. I didn't have the other 23 hours of my day, which I usually do, to reflect on where it was going wrong and why. I just had to keep writing word after word, page after page.

But then I decided I was mistaken about my sense of misdirection. When I got to the end of my draft, it was about 8000 words too short, which contributed to my sense of its being less fully realized than my books usually are. But at the same time I had the blinding realization of exactly what the story needed: a few crucial scenes, which after I wrote them added up to just about exactly 8000 words. It helped rather than hurt that I reached the end so quickly, so that I could survey the whole thing from the vantage point of completion, and see what it needed. Speed didn't end up compromising quality. At least that's my verdict right now. I'm expecting writing group comments on December 10, and if it did, they'll let me know.

I feel exhilarated. I did so much more than I ever thought I could do! I do feel ready to turn my attention elsewhere for a while, say, to family, fitness, and Christmas. But that's as it should be.

My conclusion: while I still plan to be an hour-a-day writer for the rest of my days, a sprint once in a while is a positive thing, a chance to stretch and grow, to feel my writer lungs engorged with oxygen, to feel the muscles in my writer legs burn, to feel those endorphins lighting up my writer brain.  I would do it again.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ten Day Sprint

One of the most useful tools I have for myself as a writer is the distinction between a sprint and a marathon. A sprint is the specialty of the hare: a fast, concentrated, full-on race toward a goal. A marathon is the specialty of the tortoise: an inch-by-inch plodding forward toward a distant horizon.

I'm definitely more of a tortoise. Anyone who calls her blog "An Hour a Day" is a tortoise. I treat writing as a marathon, where I succeed through slow, steady, sustained activity. My literary hero, Anthony Trollope, was a tortoise. He even describes himself in that way. In my favorite lines in his wonderful autobiography, he writes, "Nothing, surely, is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare. The hare has no chance. He loses more time in glorifying himself for a quick spurt than suffices for the tortoise to make half his journey."

But this month I'm a sprinter. I'm imitating my friends who are engaged in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and trying to get an entire novel written in 30 days. Well, maybe I'm both a marathoner and a sprinter. I'm trying to get a sprinter's amount of work done each day, but I'm trying to be a marathoner and do it every single day. Maybe this is the worst of both worlds: the sprinter's exhausting burst of speed repeated day after day after day. Or maybe it's the best?

Because I didn't exactly follow my own plan in the first part of November, I'm now in serious sprint mode. I need to write 2000 words a day for the next ten days. This doesn't sound so bad. I'm used to writing 1000 words a day. But my writing group friend Leslie pointed out that there is a HUGE difference between 1000 words and 2000 words. Especially if that volume of words needs to be produced every single day. In order to do it, I have to put in a good writing session in the morning and ANOTHER good writing session in the afternoon No self-glorifying rest upon laurels for me.

The beauty of the sprint, however, is that its duration is limited. I have to work hard, yes, but only for ten days. I couldn't sustain this pace for much longer. (Even as I write this, I know that the vast majority of people in the world work MUCH MUCH MUCH harder than this all the time. But we writers are a uniquely whiny bunch.) A person can work hard for ten days, right?

Even marathoners can enjoy the exhilaration of an occasional sprint. And then collapse in a little heap afterward before returning to the tortoise's less stressful pace. I'm hopping, leaping, and bounding off to race through my quota now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Last June I had a new furnace installed in my house.

Last night the new furnace stopped working.

Snow was falling, and the outside temperature was heading toward a low of 1 degrees.

I was not pleased.

The first thing I suspected was that we had forgotten to change the furnace filter. We (read: I) have forgotten to do this before. One summer, when I had been living in my little house for two or three years, my AC froze up completely on a hot day. I looked out at my deck and saw that the pipe/cable/line leading to the big round AC thing was completely coated with ice. I called a very expensive repairman. He kindly informed me that there was such a thing as a filter on the furnace/AC and that it was supposed to be changed once a month. Who knew?

So now I did know, and I started changing it, not once a month, but sometimes, or rather, making my son Christopher change it for me. Unless I forget. Then we don't change it. And bad things happen.

I sent a delegation of furnace-filter shoppers to Home Depot. They returned with the right-sized filter for the furnace and replaced the old horribly filthy one. Hooray!

Except: the furnace still wasn't working. The inside temperature of my house had reached 59 degrees, then 58, then 57.

I began making phone calls, starting with the 24/7 emergency service number of the guy who installed and warrantied the furnace. I got a recording saying that he was unable to take my call at this time but would get to me. As of this writing, he has never yet gotten back to me.

I called every emergency 24/7 furnace repair number I could find in the Boulder area. No luck: apparently 24/7 doesn't include 9 pm on a frigid Saturday night. Finally, I called Precision (the same folks who first told me about the existence of furnace filters). Friends had told me, on that occasion, that Precision is too pricey. But guess what? An actual human being answers their phone even on at 9 pm on a frigid Saturday night. She suggested some things we might try before we went to the expense of a service call. We couldn't figure out how to make them work. And so at 11:15 last night, a lovely young Precision repair guy showed up to fix our furnace.

The problem WAS the furnace filter. With the clogged filter, the furnace was running so hard and long on these last Arctic days that it overheated and shut itself down. So it was all my fault, as is so often the case with my life woes.

The heat came back on: blissful, blessed heat. How good to feel warm air blowing at last!

Friends: change your furnace filters, if not once a month, at least once a season. It will save you frantic late night phone calls and a pricey service visit (that was worth every single penny). Be happy that you have heat. Heat is such a good thing to have on a bitter cold night. All the other problems in your life recede for a while if you don't have it and seem inconsequential (for a few hours, at least) even after you get it back.

Hooray for heat!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NaNoWriMo Faux

As some of you know and others do not, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. It's an official program, founded in 1999 and growing every year, where writers - both professional and amateur - commit to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch during the 30 days of November. Many of my friends are doing NaNoWriMo this year. They announce their daily word count on Facebook: 1571! 2383!

I've never signed up as a participant in NaNoWriMo, but I've been tempted by the writerly solidarity it fosters: all of these people all over the world writing frantically to meet this arbitrary-but-crucial deadline of 50,000 words by November 30. The genius of the program is that deadlines do matter; they so often make the difference between achieving our dreams versus never even taking the first step toward reaching them. Support and encouragement are crucial, too.

This year I actually have a novel I need to write this month, so this would have been a near-perfect opportunity to plunge into the festive NaNoWriMo waters. I balked chiefly because I had already written the first four chapters of the novel six months ago, when I submitted them to my publisher for the contract, and the NaNoWriMo commitment is to write an entire novel from start to finish in that time frame, not to continue and extend a work in progress. So I thought I could sort of do NaNoWriMo Faux - my own knockoff NaNoWriMo, where I channel the energy and enthusiasm of my fellow writers while doing things my own way.

So far, I have to say, I do not have the word counts on my project that my friends are posting on Facebook. Fake NaNoWriMo is not working as well for me as Real NaNoWriMo is working for them (or at least for those who are heralding their daily word counts on social media). Here are some possible reasons why.

1. I have a lifelong habit of writing only around a page a day. Given that my handwriting is so tiny, this may add up to 1000 words, but probably more like 750.  So this would be a huge leap for me. Then again, that is the whole point of NaNoWriMo: to take a leap you've never taken before. Many of its participants have a lifelong habit of writing no words a day at all.

2. I write by hand, so I have the additional task every day of transcribing my words onto the computer. This takes a lot of time, though also occasions some very good revisions as I type. People who write directly onto the computer can skip this laborious extra step. Although I write directly onto the computer all the time for work, email, blogging, I've always written all my books by hand and I'm not willing to deviate even for NaNoWriMo.

3. Because I have an actual book contract on my project, I have the (very damaging!) thought as I write that it really ought to be good. That kind of thought works against NaNoWriMo's goal which is: Just get it done! Worry about how good it is later! So the nagging critical voice inside my head, which NaNoWriMo is supposed to silence, slows me down.

4. Finally, and most important, I didn't actually sign up for NaNoWriMo. Fake is never as good as real. I've become obsessed with walking because of my new little Fitbit pedometer which logs my daily steps and keeps a tally of them online. I forgot to take my Fitbit to Sheridan for my recent Wyoming trip; without it, I lost all interest in walking. What was the point if my Fitbit wasn't recording each step? Pitiful, but true. I know NaNoWriMo would have had the same motivating effect on me for writing as my Fitbit does for walking.

But the point of this post is not to convince myself why I can't do what others - many others who have full-time jobs and demanding family responsibilities - are doing. The point is to remind myself that if they are doing it, I can, too. If the real NaNoWriMo-ers are writing up a storm, this fake NaNoWriMo-er can, too.

Off to write!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wind City Books

I had the happiest possible stay in Sheridan, Wyoming, talking to terrific kids at three different schools, writing in the Java Moon Cafe, writing in the Cowboy Cafe, writing in the public library, walking along Goose Creek, and making new friends who are dear to me after just a few days, or even hours, together.

My travel plans had to change, so I ended up renting a car to drive home from Sheridan rather than returning by private plane. I started driving yesterday after my final assembly of the day, with a plan to spend the night in Casper and then drive the rest of the way home the next day. I am usually the world's pokiest, most timid driver, but it was so easy to sail along the deserted highway at well over the 80 mph posted speed limit. I felt like Mr. Toad, heading out on the open road in my gleaming new motor car.

When I arrived at Casper at dusk, I wasn't sure where to stay, where to eat, what to do. But as I turned off I-25 onto Central Street, what should I spy but a most inviting "clean, well lighted place": the Wind City Bookstore. It was open until 6. A parking space with no meter was right there in front of it. And so I went in.

Ten minutes later the co-owner, Vicki Burger, had called ahead to Glen Rock to see if there was a room for me in her favorite hotel (there wasn't, and she sounded as disappointed as I was); she had also given me a couple of restaurant recommendations. When I shyly pointed out to her that, although the store most commendably had not one but two copies of my friend Jeannie Mobley's fabulous book Katerina's Wish, they had none of mine, she ordered Kelsey Green, Reading Queen on the spot.

I asked her for a book recommendation, since how could I not buy something from the world's most helpful bookstore lady? "What kind of book do you like?" she said. "I like books about middle-aged women following their dreams,"I replied. She led me to a memoir, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons by Mary Beth Baptiste. It's sitting beside me on my desk right now.

So if you are ever adrift in an unfamiliar city, hope they have an independent bookstore, and set out to find it. Right away you'll be home.

Oh, and buy a book while you're there, too.