The Hours

I am attending the Santa Barbara Writers Conference TODAY. Excited. Nervous! I haven’t posted here in a while, party because I have spent the last few weeks preparing. I… wrote a 1-page synopsis of my novel. Wrote out a three-line pitch and went over and over and over it. Chose stories I’ve written to bring to the workshops (whether I have the courage to actually present my work and be critiqued by a bunch of total strangers, that’s another story). Spent much too long going through my wardrobe and assembling an outfit for each day…

I haven’t been doing much actual fiction writing. This worries me.

dance tix

A couple months ago I went to see two dance performances: Alvin Ailey at the Arlington in Santa Barbara, and the Trey McIntyre Project at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Both were gorgeous. I especially liked the Trey McIntyre Project’s adaptation of Titus Andronicus, one of my favorite Shakespeare tragedies, in which Titus coerces his enemy to eat a pie made out of her sons. I saw my first Titus when studying abroad in London, as a groundling at the Globe, and I was so close I got to rest my elbows on the stage and actually saw one of the actors slip a capsule of fake blood between his lips! In this performance, the three dancers used flowing red fabric to symbolize the deaths, and the female dancer stuffed a stringy, play dough-like substance into her mouth.

When you’re a dancer, you put in a lot of time practicing. I danced in high school, on my high school dance troupe, and we practiced every day after school. Plus weekend rehearsals for performances. Other girls, more intense than I, took additional classes at outside dance studios. An easy estimate? 10-20 hours per week. A professional dancer? I don’t know, but I could easily guess 40-60 hours per week. (“Black Swan”? It’s not just a profession, it’s an obsession.)

Dance Troupe

My high school dance troupe sweatshirt and worn-in ballet and jazz shoes.

So when I take a break from fiction writing to do synopsis writing, and pitch writing, and sometimes no writing, even though I’m working toward the very writerly goal of attending and making the most of a writers conference, I get worried. Worse, I log my hours when I do write fiction daily and realize I only write for 6-10 hours per week.

When I spoke to my mentor recently, he said it sounds like I’m getting things done. It seems like I’ve got a good groove. And it’s true—on a normal day, I wake up and write in the morning. Creative writing only. I don’t let anything else get in, for at least an hour. Then I go to work, and then come home and eat dinner and walk the dog. Evenings are for marketing, blogging, emails, research, etc.

Except when I’m doing something like preparing for a conference. Or building a website. (More on that to come—I’ve decided it’s time for me to have a real author website with a domain name and branding and so forth. Yesterday I had a photo shoot for my author photo!)

But, no matter how much I accomplish, there is this niggling feeling that I should be doing more. No matter how much I write, I always feel I should have put in more hours, another thousand words. Like a professional dancer, shouldn’t a professional writer work for 40-60 hours per week? How will I ever become the writer I want to be if I don’t put in that kind of time?

One beautiful day stands out in my mind, when I wrote for 5 hours straight and didn’t notice the time passing. Another day, where between writing, reading, and critiquing, I had a full 8-hour day of writerly life (this blog post). Why are these so few and far between? Could I, even if I had the time and the money, write for 8 hours a day? Or write for 4 and do the rest of the necessary stuff for 4?

And, regarding the conference, have I prepared enough? Am I going to make a fool of myself? Botch my editor/agent meetings and any other important encounters? Is it really time for me to attend a conference? Perhaps I need six more drafts of this novel.

I wonder if I will always feel like I should be doing/should have done more.

But I suppose a writer must strike a balance between what she wants and what she is capable of, just as she must strike a balance between writing and all the other aspects of life. Perhaps I’ll find some answers to my questions over the coming days, as I immerse myself in workshops, panels, and lectures, surrounded by writers.

Dance sweatshirt

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Art, the Messenger

I discovered the video “To This Day,” based on a poem by Shane Koyczanwhen reading the blog Synapsis & Synopsis. This well-designed animation tells a clear, powerful story in an aesthetically pleasing way, while sending a strong, accessible message.

Haven’t we all dealt with bullying at one time or another in our lives? If not bullying, exactly, we certainly have all had to find and make friends, enter or leave social groups, and learn how to participate in social dynamics.

This video moved me because of the experiences I have had in my life, and for the messages I would like to send with my own work. My novel features a college girl who must learn to navigate the treacherous social situations in her sorority. Female relationships often include bullying/cyberbullying and back-stabbing while women vie for popularity, and my book incorporates these themes. I know as an artist you cannot control how your work will be viewed or the impact it will have. However, my hope is that the young women who read this book will reconsider how they treat each other. I hope they might change their views and actions, and try to boost each other up, rather than tear each other down.

Recently I picked up Tammara Webber‘s Easy at the library. While the book prominently features a love story, there were several elements of confidence and learning to stand up for oneself, emotionally and physically. The protagonist experiences near-rape within the first few pages of the book, and she spends most of the book in fear of her attacker. *Spoiler alert* She takes self defense classes and ultimately triumphs–in a final confrontation with her attacker at the end of the book, she not only fends him off, she uses her new skills to give him a bloody nose. I had no doubt that she would stand up to him in court. At the close of the book, I enjoyed the way her love story reached a happy ending, but I was more impressed by the way she had grown. 

Easy

In the pages following the story, there were discussion questions. One of them was, “Did reading Easy make you want to learn self-defense?” and my answer was a resounding YES. I absolutely felt a heightened sense of awareness of the issues women who have experienced rape face and wanted to take action to protect myself. I haven’t signed up for self defense classes yet, but I have become much more aware of the message “90 percent of self-defense involves reducing the risk of attack in the first place.”

Visual media and the written word are two powerful forms of art. The video moved me and strengthened my desire to impact the conversation on bullying among women. The book inspired me to take action and change the way I live my life. This kind of impact is what I aspire to in my own work.

A Little Love

So I’d meant to post this on Valentine’s Day, and then things got hectic. But it’s still February – we may as well call it the month of love – and it’s never too late for a little love, right?

A Little Book of Kisses

In the celebration of love of this month, I am reminded that I love my job(s) and I am incredibly lucky to lead the life I love. Love for my family and friends and fellow writers! Love for the wonderful people who encourage, support, and make my writing possible.

Happy Valentine's Day

A Valentine’s Day present I made for my amazing boyfriend. I’m all about embossing these days!

Valentine’s Day was a great reminder to celebrate all of the things and people that I love, not just one day a year, but every day.

Open Book of KissesI am chugging along reading the YA/NA books I picked up at the library. Three and a half down, six and a half to go… I am trying desperately to finish them before March begins, as that is the official NaNoEdMo and several members of my writers group and I are having a little competition to support each other in getting in as many hours of editing as we can, perhaps well beyond the 50-hour mark.

So far, I have had no brilliant ideas for my ending. The books I’ve read do have the common triumphant end, though I have seen lovers dying and series where the drama just drags out. For some reason I feel like if I manage to read all ten books (and maybe the two others I’ve got a library hold out for) then I’ll have what I need to make a miraculous revision when I finally get down to it.

I’ll admit, I’m frustrated by the time it seems to take in between each draft to get myself geared up and ready to revise. So far it’s worked well – each revision has been drastic and something I’m proud of – but I do wish I could shrink the process, the same way I’ve been shortening the time it takes to finish a draft. But since the subconscious doesn’t work that way, I’m working on relaxing and allowing it to do its thing, and in the meantime, devouring these books.

To finish my 12-book goal by March 1, that’d be approximately two books per day, and I’d have to do nothing but read, which isn’t going to happen. I’m sad about this. But I’m going to just read as much as I can before I jump into the revision and then see if I can’t read and write at the same time… Here’s hoping 50 hours in a month will be easier the second time around!

50 Hours COMPLETE

It’s OVER! And yes, I did it. I completed 50 hours! The members of my writers’ group all hit the 50,000-word mark and then some, as well.

NaNoEdMo Minutes

I feel: accomplished, relieved, sad.

On the final day, I had 45 minutes left to go, and I finished in an easy and controlled manner somewhere around 8pm. It was somewhat anticlimactic actually. No insane stressful rush to complete by the deadline. But this was great, because it meant I’d planned well, worked hard, and created a workable schedule for writing. Once I got used to pushing past the hour, I could keep going easily. I still encountered moments of stress, of course, in working things out to get my hours, and in sacrificing other things – but this is part of being a writer, too.

In my minute-count, I allowed myself to include bathroom breaks (only short ones) and the moments where I might look, to an outsider, as if I were staring off into space but my mind was going full-throttle. There is a character who makes paper cranes, slow when she begins to learn and fast by the time she’s done hundreds, and I included the 2.5 minutes it took for me to make a crane, to see how fast I could do it. I did not include snacking, and when I went over my mark by 2-3 minutes I rounded down.

The process was highly effective. My first two drafts took 6 months, my third 7 months, and this one will take no more than 2. Likely less, especially if I keep up the hours/day I’ve been doing. Yes, by the fourth draft, I should be revising faster anyway. But the time commitment definitely had something to do with it.

Will I keep it up?

On December 1st, the thing I most wanted to do was not write. I took the day off, went to see “Lincoln” (fun fact: I was born on his birthday), and relaxed. On the second day I went to a Christmas party and blogged. But today I returned to an hour/day at least, maybe more. I wouldn’t know what to do with my time that’s more worthwhile than being entrenched in my novel.

Lessons in Arbitrage

When I decided to go see a movie with my dad and he suggested “Arbitrage” I had no idea what he was talking about. Maybe I don’t watch enough commercials, or maybe this movie was aimed at a different demographic (is Richard Gere the Leo DiCaprio of my mother’s generation? Suffice it to say I was the youngest one in the theater by at least ten years), but he told me it was a drama about a high-powered money mogul and I agreed to go. (*Note: according to the fabulous Wikipedia, “in simple terms, [arbitrage] is the possibility of a risk-free profit at zero cost.”)

Gere’s character, Robert Miller, gets into some seriously tight spots (manslaughter; a financial “hole” of hundreds of millions in the company he’s trying to sell) and somehow this man gets out of everything. Miller’s adept navigation of his circumstances is due in no small part to his empire, the wealth and name he’s built for himself, and the intelligence that got him there.

I was listening to NPR and I heard a chat with the screenwriter, Nicholas Jarecki, on creating Miller’s character. This guy is all the things we’re supposed to hate, and yet. As you’re watching the movie, you can’t help but hope he figures a way out of the mess he’s gotten himself into. One of the ways Jarecki accomplishes this is building the character’s motivation from the outset.

My dad called Miller “evil,” but I don’t know. Not a nice guy, certainly, not someone I’d like to meet, but his motivation is strong enough that you can at least understand why he does what he does. As Gere put it in an interview with NPR aptly titled “Richard Gere On Playing A Jerk You Want To Root For,” “…when you spend time with even supposedly monsters, there’s a human being there. And in storytelling, you’ve got to find that human being.”

This is something I’ve been discovering in writing my novel. I started out trying to create characters you would hate, but I had to make them real. Human. I’m still working on this, and I’m learning from Jarecki and Gere and how they did “Arbitrage.”

I think I’m going to take my mentor’s advice and stick with this novel. Revise it. Again.

Image from nanoedmo.net.

Apparently there is not just a NaNoWriMo but a NaNoEdMo – that’s National Novel Editing Month. The official one takes place in March, but why not try for 50 hours in November? While my writers’ group members log their words, I might log my minutes…

A Novel Critique

Last week I had a successful critique for Draft 3 of my novel, and I am so grateful to my readers. This group of very intelligent and supportive people read through the entire 300+ page draft, wrote notes, and joined the critique with thoughtful and honest comments. Over the past few days I have also had a personal calls with people who weren’t able to make the crit. Thank you to all my readers for your encouragement and the effort you’ve put into this.

We discussed everyone’s favorite scenes, favorite moments, the world-creation, and the construct of being popular in this novel. And the main things I have to work on are, let’s see – the beginning, the end, and my protagonist’s character arc. No big shakes, right? For some reason I thought that by the fourth draft I might be working on things like, I don’t know, expand this scene, cutting this specific scene. Sentence structure, refining dialogue – well, it seems the dialogue is one of the strengths, and wordsmithing on the sentence level doesn’t happen until oh, about draft 8.

With previous drafts I was getting comments randomly, and there was no dialogue between critiquers, so it was hard to be sure what I wanted to take and what I didn’t. This critique was so great because people talked to me and to each other, so I got to see clearly what was disagreed upon and what everyone thought was a necessary change.

Hard copies of my draft with notes from my readers.

When my mentor said he thought I should cut the first 60 pages, I wanted to tear my hair out. Apparently it’s a common thing for young writers, not to begin where the story actually begins. (I hate to think of myself as a “young” writer, even though I am, and I was so sure I was starting where it really begun!) I’ve let that little dagger sit for awhile and have gotten used to the idea. Thinking about okay, how might I do that? I brought the question to critique, to general agreement – yes, much of the beginning should be trimmed (a nice way to say, cut). The question – to prologue, or not to prologue – remains. (How often do people really read prologues? I do, because it’s usually part of the fiction. I’ll admit, however, I hardly ever make it past the first few pages of a forward.)

Usually for me critiques go one of two ways. Excitement, inspiration, I want to work on this immediately. Or deflation – it will never be what I want, I can’t even look at this right now. My general feeling after this critique is okay, here we go again. I’m elated that it went so well, afraid I’ll never get it published (sure, each draft has been significantly better than the previous, but still so riddled with issues), and ready to work on it again. I’ve heard many different forms of advice, one of them being that you should never begin work on a piece directly after a critique. You have to let it sink in, work in your subconscious, so when you go back to the piece, you have a place to go. To me, two months seems like forever. I feel like I’ve been away from my novel for a long time. But two months isn’t really that long. Often, it’s advised you take much more time away to get perspective. I have short stories that I’ve been working on for years, and the most recent drafts could never have happened back when I first wrote them.

A lovely gift from my friend, critiquer, and fellow writers’ group member. I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible support of the amazing people in my life!

What I’m getting to, is whether or not I should do NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month – November. Next month. I’m afraid that beginning a whole new project in the middle of my first novel is a crazy idea. At the same time, perhaps the time away would give me needed perspective. But if I begin a new novel, isn’t it only that much longer to publishing my current one? It’s a great thing for craft, to be writing and writing and getting perspective and writing some more, but a person could spend her whole life doing this and never publishing.

I’ve had the idea for my next book for a long time. It’s been brewing in the backround, and I’m starting to get excited about it. Several members of my writers’ group are going to participate. We even have a word counter up on the blog. I so want to participate in this race, be inspired by some healthy competition!

My mentor is adamant that I don’t step too far away from this novel. “You’ve worked too hard,” he said, “To let this go.” Perhaps I can use the buzz of NaNoWriMo to speed along my revision. A whole new draft in a month? That would be amazing. I just don’t know if this is a process that can be sped up.

Why I Write

            When my aunt lent me the novel Trouble, by Kate Christensen, she told me her husband thought it was a page-turner and though she herself hadn’t thought so, I might. I decided this recommendation warranted reading the book, and as it turns out, I did go through it pretty quickly. It may not belong to the literary highbrow, but what I loved about it was the speaker’s authenticity, her vulnerability.

(SPOILER ALERT)
In the wake of her decision to divorce her husband, protagonist Josephine Dorvillier joins her rock star girlfriend in Mexico. There she meets and experiments with a young man. She returns to New York when her jaunt is cut short by her friend’s suicide.
I enjoyed the emotional exploration of the mother-daughter relationship, the female friendships, the failing marriage, and the fling. I could see how the raw narrative might give a woman in a similar position insight into her own life. Personally, I gained insight into the way I sometimes let my thoughts run away with me. I saw the character’s insecurities and identified, because I’ve been there, and though I have never gone through a divorce nor endured the suicide of a best friend, I identified emotionally. The message that everything will be all right is not original, and often it is something refuted, something fought against. But it is powerful.
And this is what I aim to do with my own writing – if I could write one piece that changes one person’s life, that would be enough. Though what I want, of course, is to write many pieces that change many people’s lives. To write something that allows someone to look into herself and accept herself. To write something that someone would read and forgive himself. That many might read and embrace each other. The hope that I will do these things – that is why I write.

Writing Breeds Writing

            I always feel better after writing. When journaling for myself, writing is a release. What started as venting about my annoying little sister when I was ten has morphed into something that, no matter when or for how long, always makes me come away more relaxed. When writing fiction, I have that overwhelming and powerful sense of creation. This is bigger than me.
After writing something for the magazine, I feel accomplished. Even little blurbs, even ones that will go to press without my name on them. Of course, the ones that have my name on them, and the longer the articles are, the more accomplished I feel. I have a sense of relief. A momentary reprieve from the constant nagging need to Do Something. And then, in the wake of accomplishment, I feel drive. I am motivated to do more. What can be next, what more could I write, what longer piece?
            The week before last at the internship was fabulous. On a Wednesday afternoon, my editor comes over to me and asks me if I want to write a blurb. (I love how she asks me – as if I’d say no!) Then she says, I’m sorry to throw this at you, but the woman for you to interview is on the phone Right Now! No time to prepare – this was new. I’ve worked under deadline, felt like I had no time to write, but I’ve always had time to prepare. Luckily my editor is wonderful and always gives me a head start – what direction to go in, a few questions to ask – and the woman I interviewed was lovely and loquacious. I had a good draft done by the end of the day – just needed to put in some pricing – and I had it e-mailed to my editor that night, so it was “on her desk” by the next working day.
The following afternoon, I had an in-person interview. With a tape recorder and everything. It was brief, and there will be no byline, but I will know that my work went into a feature article. It is also incredibly thrilling to be given these assignments, because it serves as validation. It means that somebody has noticed how hard I’m working, how much I want this, and it means that the work I’ve been turning out has been good enough to warrant more. Certainly it was a hyperbolic introduction, as the editor must have wanted my interviewee to feel comfortable and not foisted off onto an intern, but her praise made me want to dance. “Taylor is one of our star interns,” she said. A star intern! Really, it just makes me hungry for more.
            Today, I got assigned a 500-word article. The longest yet, in a whole new section! I battle worry that for one reason or another, it won’t actually happen. But mostly my excitement is pervasive.