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Archive for November, 2010

Getting The Story Down

Just yesterday I completed my first novel. And yes, my feathers are a bit fluffed right now knowing that I made it through the beginning. The middle. And the end (I often have problems with endings!).

It took a full year to write this first draft (after all, life does get in the way), and of course I realize that the hard part has only just begun. Now it’s time to go through the entire manuscript page by page, do necessary revisions, then draft a dynamite query and synopsis. Then begin the process of pitching it to the right agent.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: There is a terrific site on Writermag.com called “Critique My Query.” Check it out if you are in the process of writing that all-important query. The information given by Marla Miller is essential.)

But the novel, the story, is complete. And that’s what I want to address this month. The importance of just getting the story down. 

Although I have written fiction before, I’ve basically been a nonfiction writer the last twenty-five years. A nonfiction writer with a bad habit. That is, I tend to edit my work as I go.

And that’s not a sin, if you’re a nonfiction writer. After all, it’s important to tweak that lead so you know where the article is going. And oftentimes, you need to fact check things along the way. And thank God for cut and paste! How often have you noticed a source’s quotation fits elsewhere, or one paragraph makes a better transition with another one further down, or you see that the third or fourth paragraph makes a better opening, or a perfect ending? 

So revising and editing a piece as I write it hasn’t normally been a problem for me. But I also knew that, when writing a creative nonfiction piece, such as an essay, or a fictional story, that stopping the creative flow to check for just the right word, or research a fact, or revise the lead is not good. How did I know this? Because all my literary heroes have told me. Every time I’d read their advice in magazines or books, I could almost feel their slap on my hand! “Just get the story down first,” they’d say. Time and again. So I knew it. But kept doing it anyway.

That is, until I started this novel. I knew the story wouldn’t flow if I kept interrupting it.  But at first, it was like keeping a smoker from lighting up when the pack and lighter is right at their fingertips. And I admit there were times when I’d actually minimize the window and jump right online to research something, like a year, or what my character would most likely be wearing in 1962. I had to, right that minute, find this out before continue writing. But each time I did this, I could feel the sting from my heroes on my hands, and hear them scream, Now stop that! And I knew I had to, if this story was going to continue moving from chapter to chapter.

So this is what I did: I began to bold or highlight a word or sentence that needed changing or researching, knowing that when the chapter was complete, I’d give myself permission to then make the change or addition. *But never during my prime writing time, which for me, is in the morning. So when it came to finding just the right word, or give more detail to that scene, I’d do this later in the day, or the evening when my husband was busy having his way with his beloved remote controller.

And it worked beautifully! My story moved on, almost seamlessly. I also kept a notebook to jot down changes, details, additions (or subtractions), that I wanted to make later during the revision process. 

Having done this now, I can honestly say this is probably the best advice I’ve ever received as a writer. So I am passing it along, from one writer to another.

 Just. Get. It. Down. Worry about all the details later.

And one more thing: Heed the advice from successful writers. So you can be one, too!

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Writing About Your Life

So my writer friends and I were discussing the topics of memoirs the other day and I was saying how hard it is to be a writer. Particularly when writing the “personal” stuff because you really have to let yourself out there if you’re to write with any kind of emotional depth, which can only come with raw candor—being honest with yourself and your readers. I was telling them how I was at a party soon after my memoir collection, Confessions of a Not-So-Good Catholic Girl, came out, and, without having actually read the book, a woman, a nonwriter, commented on what she’d heard about it. “Yeah, well, I’ve done a lot of things in my day, but I’d never WRITE about it!”

She didn’t say this meanly, just matter-of-factly.  I forced myself not to respond with, “That’s too bad.” Not meanly, just matter-of-factly.

Because she doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Sure, it hurts to write about those events in our lives that still sting, even just a bit. Yet, how cleansing, and rewarding, it feels when we do! This woman’s comment conveys exactly why she is not a writer and demonstrates what set us writers apart, as well as underlines our importance in the world.

After all, if there weren’t writers to document all the “stuff” that happens to us as human beings, we’d learn nothing about, or from, history. Or from each other. We writers are not only necessary in the world, we got guts, folks. Damn straight.

Here are a few excellent examples to emphasize my point:

From Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: “We all have a dream of telling our stories—of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

From Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Secret Life of Bees: “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

And finally, this one, from the book Inviting the Wolf In, by Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis: “As much as we need to tell the difficult story, there are those who need to hear it. For many, the fact that these topics might be spoken of, serves as a beacon of hope or reassurance that they are not alone. In a world where families suffer prejudice, economic hardship, illness, accident, and untimely death, listeners need ways to understand and acknowledge their suffering as part of the human experience, not be denied its power or the necessity of their coming to grips with it.”

So, two years later, am I sorry for anything I revealed in my book? Not at all. I not only have fond memories of sitting many mornings at my keyboard getting the stories down, reminiscing the good— and the not-so-good—adventures, I now have a collection of emails and memories of wonderful voice messages thanking me for writing it, adding that it “made me laugh” or “made me cry” or “I could so relate!” And especially, “You made me think differently about things.”

Wow. All that, along with a more peaceful mind. Because, you see, when you write it out, you no longer possess it, hold it in. It is released to the Writer Gods, who then spread your hard-earned wisdom throughout the world.

Some people bake pies. Some knit. Some paint . . .

Others tell stories. Preserve histories.

And if they do it right, make a profound difference in other people’s lives.

Pretty cool, huh? How very lucky, and privileged, we are to be writers.

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