Wednesday, September 07, 2016

IWSG: Summer Surprise

Whenever writers are deep into a project, doubts can surface. Luckily, we have many resources that can help to motivate us to recenter our purpose and faith, to sharpen our analytical skills, and to persevere.

Last month, I celebrated finishing that first real draft of Rivers of Stone. Rereading this draft, though, was not a celebration. The middle section sagged for it needed to cover four years. 

I could fudge the dates, but in historical fiction, real dates matter. Especially if the story pulls in characters based on persons who actually lived in that specific time. So while a four-year gap may not matter in worlds that are entirely made up, a historical setting changes the game. 

First I asked was this section really essential to the story itself, my character's development, and the resolution of issues and themes throughout. 

Next I acknowledged the time and work that this additional planning, research, writing, rewriting, and editing will involve. I let go of deadlines. Writing my novel is not really a linear process, say like making bread, the steps sharply defined beginning, middle, and end.

On the positive side, what's next is very clear. This pantser, someone who writes and discovers the story as it unfolds, is going back to work to tell the rest of the story.

Today's post, a part of a monthly commitment to the Insecure Writer's Study Group (IWSG), will hopefully encourage other writers to persevere. Maybe those who like to read will come away with a sense of what goes in to writing and finishing a story -- at least for one writer. 

Stop by to read what other IWSG writers have posted HERE -- and enjoy the diversity and celebration we writers are sharing.

Monday, August 01, 2016

IWSG: About community

Today, August 1st, is our anniversary. About 41 years ago, Allen and I began our adventure together. I look back and think we were impossibly young and didn't know the challenges that lay ahead. He wrote stories; I wrote poetry. He believes in me and gives me the courage and sense of security to simply write. 

He always says that writing is not an activity that requires a community. He's that kind of writer who reflects and writes very slowly, one word at a time, and he tells beautiful stories. In public, he's charismatic, putting on the public face of an entertainer. But he prefers the life of a hermit. I know other writers like this.

Allen and me, Los Angeles, 1975

When I write, I'm rather a sprinter. Gosh, look at those fingers fly over the keyboard. I write and revise, loop back and revise again, a rather circular process until the story sings. In public, I'm shy. My persona is rather that of a manager and teacher, charged up to get things done. I love working with others, even committees, that sense of accomplishment when I can help motivate folks to get things done, whether at work or through volunteerism. But I also prefer the quiet life at home, surrounded by books (increasingly Kindle-based) and close to my computer.

Enter the internet. For the internet has brought me a wonderful sense of connectedness to other writers. My current favorite groups include the Facebook group Ten Minute Novelists, because this group of hard-working writers focuses on craft, just like the Insecure Writers' Support Group. 

Online writing groups, like our group, the Insecure Writers Support Group, the Internet Writing Workshop, and the challenge-based community of NaNoWriMo (I'm a first time camper at Camp Nanowrimo this year), and even Google+ introduce me to other writers and help me dig more deeply into the craft of writing.

Although I'm not very good at writing my own promised quarterly author's newsletter, I subscribe to any number of writers who send out frequent e-mails full of insights about writing. Perhaps too many, for my inbox is typically full. I tell myself I'll catch up tomorrow.

And that's my lament for today's post for the Insecure Writers Support Group. How many tomorrows will there be? 

Both Allen and I are now in our seventies, older than average writers. My ideas for future writing projects stretch out to infinity. Do I have regrets for all those years I worked for corporations and in academia and wrote poetry and short stories in snatches? No. Mostly not. For I did not have the courage to simply let go of that worry: Who will pay the rent? How will we eat if I do not work at a job that has a regular paycheck?

But since retiring just eight years ago, I've been writing. Each book I finish is a celebration. Those issues I care about -- a sense of history, how the human spirit survives despite obstacles -- are embedded in my stories. 

Later this morning, we'll leave on our first trip since March. We're driving up to the mountains near Colville to explore that territory that fur traders once took for granted. A man-made lake now covers what was once an early Hudson's Bay Company fort, but the mountains remain.  

Meanwhile, whether you prefer to write alone or write somewhat connected to others, I challenge you to write those stories that are closest to your heart.  

And why not visit a few other writers who are a part of this monthly check-in for the Insecure Writers Support Group.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

On memory and revising . . . one scene.

Frank E. Henry, c. 1920
So many times I think of my grandfather as I write. I was the oldest girl, tall and awkward. He took me out hunting, talking softly of the tracks we spotted and teaching me how to walk in the woods. 

Neither of us would guess how his memory walks with me even today.

I thought of my grandfather today as I wrote and revised this passage from Rivers of Stone, a story about Catriona (Cat), a young girl disguised as a boy, who works for the Hudson's Bay Company in mid-19th Century Canada.

    Jacob was awake when Cat and Kitchi returned to camp, carrying five snow geese, skinned and with the bones removed. Kitchi squatted by the fire, Cat beside him. He showed Cat how to wrap the flesh of the birds over branches. He staked the birds over the fire to roast, taking particular care with the liver.

    “You could have taken me with,” said Jacob.

    “Maybe next time,” said Kitchi. “You were sleeping.” He used his knife to saw off a piece of the partly cooked liver. “You want some?”

    Jacob shook his head. “I’ll come back when the bird’s cooked. I don’t eat no blood.”

    Kitchi smiled and ate the liver. “Good.” He turned to Cat and lowered his voice. “Eat light if you have to. Better to not eat at all. That way, your body listens for danger.” He tipped his head at Jacob now walking back to Stores. “Be careful with that one.”


Now this is only a few paragraphs, so you might wonder how much time went into revising this passage?

I wanted to doublecheck a few things, most important how to cook the birds. One way is to roast the bird in a hole, dug into the earth and with coals on top. My grandfather taught me how to spit the birds and cook them more quickly over an open fire.

But then I found background on native culture that reinforced my idea that nothing goes to waste. These people are too hungry. Another article suggests that before hunting, warriors would not eat at all, partly a spiritual preparation and partly to ensure the body stayed at full alert.

As I wrote, I remembered an incident with a beloved native poet, Tim Bowman, now long gone. Tim had invited me to talk with a group after a reading. I hovered on the outside of the group. He finally said, "Beth, come join us. Didn't you see me tip my head?" Such signals replace speech, but I would have to know that. Being outside native culture, I had waited. 

My other research about native culture suggests that all that is known is not shared outside the community. My hope is to not overly romanticize what I do not know.

And that's this week's report on the revising. My goal is still to finish the edits/revisions by the end of the year. May your own projects go well.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Revision and more revision . . . Barn Owls or Cougars?

This month, I'm working on the first real read through of Rivers of Stone. I wish I could report that each day is relatively the same as before, but some sections require deep revision and other days additional research. Yesterday's challenge was to accurately report Cat's dream and hint at her fear of abandonment.

My first draft had her dreaming of the scream of a mountain lion. Preliminary research suggests there may have been some mountain lions (cougars) in the rolling pine forests and swampy marshlands at York Factory in Upper Manitoba. But the sightings are quite rare and tend to be word-of-mouth. Here's that mountain lion sound:

If there were few mountain lions in Upper Manitoba, could I use an owl's scream instead? What really does a barn owl sound like? Does it sound like a woman's shriek? I never could have answered these questions without the internet!

But apparently, barn owls do not travel as far north as York Factory. Instead, swampy owls and barred owls (not barn owls) make their home around Hudson's Bay. Unfortunately, their attack calls sound 'cozy' compared to the barn owl. 

So after all this research, I'm back to the cougar. Here's the passage from Chapter 14, Rivers of Stone:

The morning the Fur Brigade left began dark and cold, with the men scrambling to bring cargo down to the landing and to fulfill the last directives from Mr. Hargrave. Shouted orders, groans, and a few curses filled the air as those who were leaving York loaded the boats and canoes. A few of the voyageurs held out for a last farewell from their native wives, the children clinging to their fathers, but Dougal stayed away from Cat.

Cat was afraid she would cry. Last night she had heard an cougar shrieking in the night. Everyone was right; it did sound like a woman screaming. The men had laughed uneasily; perhaps it was a bad omen for those who were leaving this morning. Cat still thought she could have slept by the river, with nothing between her and the wild creatures but a carefully tended fire. She could have kept up with the deadly pace Dougal had described. She was sure of it.

Available on Amazon
What am I reading this week? L. A. Meyer's Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy caught my eye. 

The title pulled me in first because my current wip, Rivers of Stone, features Catriona, a young woman disguised as a boy. Bloody Jack is also written in roughly the same era as my book.

After reading that first paragraph, I was hooked. Meyer uses an engaging and delightfully earthy first-person narrator (somewhat rare in historical fiction). For example, Jacky's reaction to signing on that sailing ship as a ship's boy? A girl what's born for hangin' ain't likely to be drowned.

My thoughts exactly.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Reaching: About a Reading

Available on Amazon
This week, Allen Dorfman, my hubby, talked about his book, Reaching, to a small group of retired military men, some with experience in World War II, some served during the Korean War, and one during the Vietnam era. 

He began by talking about how his memories of his service in Vietnam and his stories have somewhat mixed as nearly 50 years have passed since he was in the Army there, during the Tet Offensive in 1968. 

Allen, Vietnam, 1968
He told of marching across those rice paddies towards a treeline, knowing the enemy was there, waiting for their platoon to advance. Sometimes the enemy soldiers were chained to trees, high above them. 

One particular day, their platoon moved in on a bunker that was firing on them. Because Allen was the squad leader, he and two others surrounded and attacked the bunker, firing heavily as they entered.

The lone, young soldier was dead. He had been left behind, injured, medicines and photos of his family arrayed beside him. 

The Vietnamese interpreter, called a Chieu Hoi (former Viet Cong) and assigned to the unit, sat down with Allen and translated the many documents, including personal letters written by the soldier who had been killed. He had missed his family and hoped to marry when he returned. 

The Chieu Hoi picked up the helmet and gave it to Allen, saying: "This is not a war souvenir. I want you to keep this as a memorial so you will know the enemy we fight are people too."

One day, we will go again to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D. C., and Allen will put this helmet there. A memorial.

Friday, July 01, 2016

IWSG: Seemingly Insurmountable

On the first Wednesday of the month, a few hundred writers (including me), all fans of the Insecure Writer's Support Group (and famous founder Alex J. Cavanaugh), blog about some issue we've been preoccupied with.

So this month, I'd like to write a little about revision goals. Especially when those goals seem insurmountable. Even though I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer more than a planner, my basic revision process is to:

  1. Think about what I'd like to accomplish.
  2. Set a deadline.
  3. Break that large task into smaller pieces.
  4. Set a daily goal of hours worked (or words completed).
  5. Try to work methodically until the overall goal is met.
  6. Try to get feedback at key points from readers I trust.
  7. Forgive myself if I don't make my goals every single day.
I want to revise Rivers of Stone, now that the unwieldy dratted first draft of roughly 90,000 words is finished. I did fall into one section and thought I would never climb back out! Now, that first draft is done -- complete with photos, maps, drawings, notes, and questions mixed throughout the story. 

I stepped away from immediate revision and let the rough draft rest for two whole weeks while my beta reader reads. I remained in limbo, between writing and actually revising, uncertain of the next step to take -- until an e-mail from Kristin Kieffer at She Writes popped into my inbox, inviting me to participate in Camp Nanowrimo. 

Now July 1st marks my first ever immersion into Camp Nanowrimo. 

This morning well before anyone else woke up, I printed out the first 25 single-spaced pages and dug in. How exhilarating! 

What's my process? 
  1. Print those pages.
  2. Read the first chapter out loud.
  3. Stop whenever something doesn't sound right and make notes or revise with a pen right on the paper. **
  4. Read aloud. Repeat #3.
  5. Repeat #4.
  6. Reread from the beginning until this chapter is 'finished'.
  7. Move on to the next chapter.
** Those who know me well know I work primarily on the computer, so writing notes on paper slows me down and lets me 'see' what needs revision. I also keep a daily work diary for notes on characters, or missing research, or unanswered questions, or just random thoughts. 

Somehow being accountable to Camp Nanowrimo to report those words completed/time spent revising each day sets me up for the entire month. I may not finish all revisions by month end, but I will be closer to that goal of completing this story, Rivers of Stone, the third book about the indomitable McDonnell family.

And that's the point. We go forward, develop processes that work for us, share what we learn, and we write. We writers are part of a larger online community of writing challenges and resources. I'm grateful for every nudge, every word of encouragement, every tip for success. 

This afternoon, a woman who looked vaguely familiar stopped me to ask, "When will your next book be ready to read?"

If she only knew. Just maybe by the end of the year!

Monday, June 06, 2016

Monday Musings: Disposable?

Many of the writers I've met online talk about the difficulty of balancing 'real life' with a commitment to writing. Some work full-time and write early in the morning, late at night, or on weekends. About half chase the dream of being traditionally published; others self-publish and take on the added challenge of marketing their own work.

I've spent the last three years researching and drafting my historical novel set in 19th Century Canada during the fur trade era, Rivers of Stone

Tonight I printed out paper copy for the first read through of the entire mss (some 90,000 words), and realize anew the level of work ahead to revise, edit, and copy edit. I almost would rather go camping near Banff as we did last summer.

Breakfast view near Banff (Camp 2015)

That's almost. For this morning at the gym, two friends asked when my next book would be finished. I keep saying this year. As a self-published writer, that's a big commitment. I'll sink back into the story, the fur trading culture, the rugged mountain crossing in winter, my heroine's dilemma. I'll edit again and again, questioning every level of story structure plot, conflict, characterization, and emotional resonance. Maybe by the beginning of winter, September or October. Wish me well.

This week I was inspired by a writer I know. 

Annette Drake's blog post "Disposable or Indispensible" tracks that moving journey of a writer who works for a major company in a big city and yet commits herself to being a publisher and professional writer. 

Not with those hesitant steps that may someday lead to success, but with heart-stopping leaps of faith to navigate the world of self-publishing. She asks what is it that brings joy to our lives -- Our families? Our jobs? Our writing? What is it that makes us indispensible?

Here's her new cover for Trombone Girl, formerly Bone Girl. Annette's books (and audiobooks) are well worth a read, as is her post. 

See her page on Amazon or visit her website.