Extracting the smell of an 18th century Bible in the Spangled Bedroom at Knole House. National Trust/James Dobson
I’ve just returned from a trip to my home state, where I engaged in a lot of high-powered thrift store shopping, my cousin’s favorite sporting activity. I don’t buy very much on these excursions, because whatever I purchase has to be either shipped or schlepped back to California, a transaction that depresses the carefree, low-risk joy of the acquisition.
But I’m always in the market for reading material, so when I’m in a thrift shop, I check out the books. The prices at these stores can’t be beat, and often there’s something I can be tempted by.
The biggest problem with books at thrift shops (compared to used book stores, which are a whole different kettle of fish) is that you never know where those books have been. Continue reading
This word cloud was built from the text of this post.
Last week my critique group talked about “empty” words—the words we don’t need and don’t notice we use too often. My go-to favorite unnecessary word is “just,” a word I discovered that I’d used 368 times in a 127-page (so far) manuscript. By the time I finished searching and replacing it with a blank space, I’d cut 250 words from my text. Other favorite empty words we found: really, actually, and well.
The problem with finding empty and overused words is that unless you know your favorites and keep a diligent eye out for them, you don’t really (see what I mean?) notice them as you type. They’re in there before you realize it, and they’re invisible to you when you reread your work.
A fun way to discover what words you’re using a lot is to build a word cloud, which shows you at a glance which words you’re using most in your text. Scrivener has a built-in feature for this purpose, but if you’re not a Scrivener user, there are other ways to do it.
Several free programs will build word clouds for you. Continue reading
“Nuns at a Calder Show, Los Angeles” photographed by Imogen Cunningham when she was 70
I was on public transportation the other day when two women—neither of them young, but both of them younger than I—sat down on the seat behind me. They didn’t hesitate to use their outdoor voices on the train, so consequently I learned that one of them is writing a novel, and the other envies her friend and wishes she could do the same.
However, she said, she’s too old to start now.
For any of our wonderful followers who might feel the same, or who know others who might feel the same, let me first draw your attention to Ida Pollack, who had a book out to her editor for revisions when she was 105. Helen Hooven Santmyer hit The New York Times best seller list and became a celebrity at 88 for her novel . . . And Ladies of the Club. And Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first of the “Little House” books, Little House in the Big Woods, when she was 65 and the last one when she was 76.
Clearly, as long as you’re not dead, you’re not too old to write a novel.
But the conversation between these two friends on the train made me think about the writing life—a slow and often tedious process filled with (sometimes years of) revisions and then years of submitting and rejections before the hopeful author finds the editor of his/her dreams. Continue reading
People like rituals. Some sports stars don’t wash their lucky socks during the season, or always eat the same meal before a game. Actors tell each other to break a leg. Spiritualists burn sage to cleanse a room of evil spirits.
Writers have their rituals, too. They sharpen their pencils and line them up. They crack open a new notebook. They put on the same playlist while working.
There’s a kind of magic that comes with habitually picking up a favorite pen or sitting down every day at sunrise (or moonrise, take your pick). Ritual is emotional preparation. It sets the stage for accomplishment and entices your muse to dance across it. Sometimes when things don’t go well, ritual can trick you into cooperating. But not always. Because ritual is tangential to actually writing, it doesn’t always work.
Al and Roey Stickles dancing at the trailer park: Sarasota, Florida 1946. Photo courtesy of State Library and Archives of Florida. www.flickr.com/photos/floridamemory/7157828142/
I’ve started writing a scene that I think will be pivotal in my book. It’s a scene in which my hero and heroine have sex, but the sex will propel them into a new stage of their relationship. My critique partners have emphasized that it’s important that I show why my heroine has been unwilling to move forward quickly with the romance—she won’t move in with the hero—even though she must make a decision soon about whether to return to her old job across the country. If she goes, the relationship dies.
So to write this sex scene with as much sensitivity and weight as it needs, I wrote a scene that sets it up—my heroine tells the hero about her mother, and in so doing, reveals her feelings about family, home, and security. I wrote this scene from the hero’s POV, because I wanted readers to see his reactions to her story, and I wanted him to ask the questions I thought readers would be likely to ask if they’d been in the room with her. I spent some serious time on the scene, and it’s not bad. I’d give it maybe a B-.
Cupid and Psyche (1817), by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
I’ve been chugging along on my WIP for a very long time. For a while, Life intervened. But even after I got Life wrassled to the ground and stomped on, that WIP just didn’t cooperate. No matter how I tried to gas it up and drive it someplace, it went nowhere. And as I don’t have to tell most of you, nothing is more depressing than writing 500 new words and deleting 600 old ones every day. A person starts to wonder if she’ll end up with an empty tank and no place to go.
But over the last few months, things have turned around. The book’s going okay. It isn’t there yet, but these days I’m writing 500 words and deleting 50. That’s what I call progress.
Until yesterday. Yesterday I looked at my blank page with fear and loathing. I’ve come to that spot in the book where my characters need to have sex.
I hate writing sex scenes. I know they’re supposed to be like any other scene, where things happen and characters grow or change, or the plot moves (or maybe that’s the earth) and so on. Continue reading
Don’t let your manuscript expire in the cold of winter over this holiday season
Now that we’re well into December, I’ve been squaring away travel plans and thinking about Jilly’s post on not letting your WIP go stone cold dead over the holidays. I’m planning to take my laptop with me, but it’ll just be dead weight in my suitcase if I don’t open it up and turn it on. Will I have time to write between the demands of old friends and a three-year-old? Jilly said that even five minutes is enough to jot down a note or a thought that you could expand later. That’s probably true for a lot of people. It takes me a lot more than five minutes to get my brain into the book. It takes almost five minutes just to boot up my laptop.
I’ve tried various techniques in the past to boost my productivity. I envy the writers who write one, two, or even ten thousand words a day. Is a five-minute sprint worth the effort, or should I just invest in a pack of Post-Its? How can I cram some decent writing time into my holiday vacation time?
While pondering this question, I sought enlightenment from the masters and found an interview with Joss Whedon, he of Buffy, Firefly, and Avengers fame.