Category Archives: Writing

Ebbs and flows

In my writing, I’ve noticed, I go through periods of high energy and periods of low energy — ebbs and flows.

There are weeks in which I wake up every day hungry to write, with ten different projects bubbling away, and not enough time in the day to get everything done. Those are the best weeks.

But there are also weeks in which I wake up every day and search for any excuse not to write. I have to read this blog first, or drink this cup of coffee, or go to the grocery store, or go swimming. Oh, and I definitely need to pluck my eyebrows before I can even think of sitting down to work. Eventually, I run out of stupid ways to procrastinate and am forced to reckon with the blank computer screen. Getting words onto the page is like pulling fingernails and the hours tick by slowly. Those are the worst weeks.

The past few weeks, I’m happy to report, have been a high-energy period. I’m revising a manuscript of a novel, I’ve finished a short story, I took a stab at sketch comedy writing (challenging!), and I’m cooking up ideas for new things all the time. I’ve gotten up every day this week excited to get writing. I love that feeling.

The blahs can be tough.

The blahs can be tough.

But the life of a writer, like any other job, has its moments of difficulty and boredom, and sometimes those moments stretch on into weeks, even months. Last month, for instance, when I was waiting for a few trusted friends to get back to me with their comments on my manuscript, I felt stuck, unmotivated. I couldn’t work on the manuscript without hearing my readers’ comments. I had started a short story but didn’t like where it was going. I didn’t really feel like blogging. None of the books I was reading were inspiring. I felt… blah. The blahs, by the way, are kryptonite to creativity. When you’re not feeling inspired by anything you’re reading or watching or thinking, it’s hard to drum up good material. But the thing is, you have to push through the blahs, as blah-y and treacherous as they are, and keep forcing yourself to write. Even when you feel like you have nothing to say. Even when you hate everything you’re writing. Even when you’re bored by yourself.

The good news is, if you force yourself to push through the down periods, you’ll eventually come out on the other side. This game is cyclical, you see. There are highs and lows. After a low period, eventually, you’ll once again find yourself with things to say and not enough hours in the day to get everything on paper. This is a relief, because it’s a reminder that the blahs are conquerable. The only way they can stick around forever is if you give into them and stop writing.

So — don’t stop writing.

Hate reads and inspiration

I have a confession: I read a lot of blogs that make me angry. And here’s another confession: I don’t plan on stopping. But not for the reason you might think.

First of all, let’s talk about hate reading. I have a theory that anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet (yours truly included) will eventually accumulate a couple of hate reads along the way. This is a documented phenomenon. Last year, Jezebel (the notorious comments sections of which may themselves serve as a hate read, in a pinch) posted an article called “The Art of Hate Reading,” in which the author discusses the habit of “visiting a website, Twitter feed, or Facebook page for the express purpose of ridiculing — or indulging your disdain for —the author and/or content.” I do this. Oh, do I do this. I have a whole section set up on my Feedly reader devoted to these so-called hate reads, and they’re the first blogs I read every morning. They get the blood pumping, you see.

My Feedly reader - note categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I've already read the Hate Reads.

My Feedly reader – note separate categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I’ve already read the Hate Reads.

But I don’t like the term “hate read,” because I don’t really hate these blogs. Hate is a strong word, right? Hate should be reserved for murderous dictators and people who club baby seals and the CEO of American Apparel, and so on. But blogs? This stuff doesn’t really matter. You can’t allow yourself to feel real bile when reading a blog because people say all sorts of ignorant and/or provocative things on the internet, and if you went around reacting emotionally to every instance of stupidity, I’m convinced you’d drive yourself batty. So I don’t hate these blogs that I read, but I do find them baffling, crazy-making, and frustrating. Often, I want to reach through my computer screen and shake whatever ignorant sod pecked out the words that I’m reading, but I never feel actual hatred. What’s the point? Haters gonna hate. (Science has proven it.)

The flip side of hate reading is that if you stick around long enough, you’ll get exposed to communities and ways of thinking that you’ve never before encountered, up close and personal. This can be off-putting, but also fascinating. I think of reading these blogs as a type of amateur anthropological study. Consequently, the exposure to communities of crazies on the internet has informed my thinking and, more importantly, my fiction writing. After all, it’s the extreme examples of weirdness that I find on the internet that provide fodder for some of my more interesting characters. If you spend enough time on blogs, reading posts and comments, you start to get a real sense of how certain people — people you’d never meet in real life — think and talk. And that’s a pretty valuable resource for a writer. You know that old chestnut “write what you know?” If you stick to only writing about people you know in your own life, the landscape of characters in your fiction might start to get a bit dull. Of course, it’s not that everyone I know in real life comes from the same background or holds the same beliefs, but generally, there’s some truth to the saying that birds-of-a-feather flock together (and I don’t mean that in some weird, covertly racist way). The fact is, the majority of my close friends are American, around my age (late 20s, early 30s), highly educated, politically moderate, agnostic, or liberal, and non-religious and/or non-devout (or, if they are religious, I’m not aware of it). Trust me, they’re all fascinating, wonderful people and they make my life infinitely better. But you don’t come across a lot of surprises when you hang out with people with similar backgrounds and beliefs to yours. That’s where the internet comes in.

My husband thinks it’s bizarre that I read blogs that have no actual relevance to my life, but I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not about to stop now, no matter how awful the content. This morning, for example, I read this comment on a blog that I peruse occasionally:

When you say your friend mouthed off about homosexuality, do you know exactly what he said, and how he said it? 

I ask because while I agree with your observations that freedom of speech should be sacrosanct and that Catholics have the right to believe (and, in my view, should proclaim) that homosexuality is an evil perversion, I also believe that we should not pour vitriol on those who are tempted into such a life, but rather should help them repent from it.

It seems to me that it is all too easy to forget one half of the maxim ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, and easier still to express one sentiment in a way that crowds out the other.

If your friend was among the homosexuals at the perversely-named ‘pride’ event, trying to befriend them and at the same time enlighten them about the immoral and destructive nature of their activities, I salute him, and condemn those who set out to silence him with their drugs. I pray they didn’t sodomise him while he was under the influence, and if they did, that the does not now have HIV as a consequence.

I think if I had read this almost comically ignorant comment a few years ago, before I was an old pro at hate reading, I would have choked on my morning hardboiled egg/done a coffee spit-take/slammed my forehead on the keyboard repeatedly, etc. But now, I just find it fascinating! I mean, if I ever need to create a well-meaning but outrageously homophobic character in a book, I know exactly how he’ll talk and exactly how he’ll spell the word “sodomise” (the British way, apparently). You can’t make this stuff up… but you can learn from it and use it in your fiction.

So, to my fellow hate readers, I say go forth and hate read. And then take all of your frustration and pour it into great writing. That’s what I’m trying to do.

[By the way, I don’t want to name names regarding the blogs I read, mostly because I don’t want to drive traffic to their websites (however modest that traffic may be), but also because I’d feel bad calling out specific blogs, no matter how insane their authors are. But let me direct you to a meta-hate-read, the wonderful website Get Off My Internets (GOMI), where hate-readers come together in actual forums to discuss the bloggers that most irk them. The phrase “get off my internets” (as opposed to “stay on my internets”) is directed toward bloggers who have crossed the line from entertaining to obnoxious — but really, we don’t want these people to get off our internets, because then what would we hate read with our morning coffee? I’ll give you a hint: I spend some time in one of these forums. Not saying which one. I don’t write anything, but I lurk, and read what other people have to say about a certain irritating, self-promoting blogger I follow. There’s something validating about finding out that others are irritated by the same behavior on the internet. Don’t judge me.]

My first published short story

Exciting news: the first short story I’ve written since high school has just been published. Earlier this year, I entered Narrative Magazine’s Winter 2013 Story Contest and won Second Prize, which was a great and gratifying surprise. Now, my story, Seven Waves for Good Luck, is up on Narrative’s website, for those who care to read it. I think you have to sign up for a Narrative account to read the story, but it’s free and easy, and they don’t send annoying emails (they’re a non-profit literary magazine). I hope you enjoy!

First novel vs. second novel

In the last eight months, I’ve finished two manuscripts of novels. Maybe that sounds braggy, but I don’t mean it to, since neither manuscript is published, so I might as well have spent the last eight months eating bonbons and napping on the couch. (Not to be defeatist about it, or anything.)

Reading a Jo Nesbo book in Mozambique

Reading a Jo Nesbo book in Mozambique

Anyway, I’ve noticed an interesting contrast between the process of writing my first novel and the process of writing my second. You know how they say that when a woman has her second child, the baby just pops right out? The second novel is kind of like that, too. Way easier. The first one was this long labor process of creating, writing, editing, and nitpicking — and I had no idea what I was doing the entire time. With the second one, though, I felt like an old pro, from start to finish. I cranked that thing out in a few months, edited it in a few days, and I guess I should probably be thinking about a third manuscript now. Yikes.

The biggest difference between my first novel and my second, though, is how I feel about the two. I have more confidence in my second novel. I want to tell people about it. I feel proud of it. None of this is to say that my first novel is bad, but just that novel writing has a fairly steep learning curve, and your later products are most likely going to be stronger than your earlier efforts. You learn the tricks of the trade. You develop your voice. You think more critically about plot and pacing and dialogue and all of the elements that make a novel readable (and, hopefully, saleable).

I hope that my confidence in this second piece of writing pays off and that agents and editors feel the same way, when it comes time to send it off. For now, I’m taking a few days off from novel writing while my trusted readers peruse my manuscript — but expect to hear more about it in the coming weeks and months.

America

These next two weeks will be light on blogging because Al and I are going back to North America today for two weddings: one in Canada and one in Mexico. We’re also stopping in DC for a few days, so our itinerary is Ottawa –> DC –> Mexico City, which I like to think of as The Greens’ North American Capitals Tour. I’m especially excited to go back to America and be reunited with normal tasting Diet Coke, roads without potholes, sidewalks you can actually walk on, public transportation, H&M, gummy vitamins, the Eastern Standard Time Zone, and other luxuries. I’m also excited to finally see Ottawa in the summer (I’ve heard good things) and go back to Mexico City for the first time in over ten years. So, I’ll try to update you guys when I can, but things’ll be fairly whirlwind, so don’t expect frequent posts.

north america

In the meantime, for those of you who aren’t aware, I have been writing for a great new TV website, Previously.TV, covering one of the hottest perennial messes on the ABC lineup, The Bachelorette. If you’re inclined to enjoy fairly unforgiving TV snark, please check out my posts here.

One other thing to keep you guys occupied while I’m gone: this genius tumblr that has been making the rounds of the internet: Hipsters Who Dress Like Jackie from Roseanne. Incredible.

Okay, so I’ll see you guys when I see you guys!

Book review Tuesday: An ode to Stephen King

Quick note before I jump into the normal Tuesday book talk: I am so upset, like everyone else, by the Boston Marathon bombings. I lived in the Boston area for three years and love that city, even though its people can be a wee bit prickly – hey, that’s part of its charm. I feel blessed that none of my friends who still live in the Boston area were hurt in the bombings, but I know that a lot of other people weren’t so lucky. My heart hurts for everyone affected by the bombings, and for our country. I take some comfort in stories like this, about the kindness that springs out of tragedy. Hang in there, Boston.

Today’s book review is a salute to one of our greatest and yet most maligned authors, Stephen King. I never considered myself a real King fan until the past year or so, but now I take every opportunity to defend the guy when he is smeared by schmancy literary types. I think Stephen King’s a genius, and I don’t care who knows it.

I became a Stephen King fan after being exposed to his work by Al’s dad and step-mom, David and Ginger. They live in Bangor, Maine, the same little city where King lives in his grand — and perhaps slightly spooky looking — red house with white trim and spidery front gate.

Stephen King's house in Bangor

Stephen King’s house in Bangor

Whenever Al and I are in Maine visiting family, I insist that we take a run or a walk past King’s house, first, because it’s awesome, and second, because I live in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the man himself.

David and Ginger also happen to be big Stephen King fans and have read most of his books (and there are a lot of them). I hadn’t read any of his books when I first started coming to Bangor, but I had seen a bunch of the movie adaptations: Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery, Dolores Claiborne. I remember for my birthday one year (I think it was my thirteenth) I had a sleepover with a bunch of girls during which we ate pizza, drank pop, and watched Carrie. My birthday is four days before Halloween and thus, I had some sort of “spooky” party nearly every year, so it seemed appropriate. Carrie, by the way, is an excellent — and SUPER scary — movie. That last scene? Holy mackerel. Gets me every time. *Shudders.* (By the way, they’re remaking Carrie and, to my surprise, it doesn’t look half bad).

Anyway, it wasn’t until Ginger gave me King’s 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that I began to really appreciate Stephen King. I read the book in early 2012, just as I was starting to eke out the rough ideas that would eventually become my first manuscript, and it was incredibly inspiring. On Writing is part memoir, part practical writing guide, and it includes a post-script discussing Stephen King’s horrific accident in 1999, when he was hit by a van while walking along a rural road in western Maine. Shortly after reading the book, in February 2012, I wrote this short review on Goodreads:

As someone who is about to embark on the slightly terrifying (but very exciting) journey to become a professional writer, I find King’s story immensely inspiring. His message is that to succeed in writing on a professional level, one must be persistent, dogged, and, to some extent, rigid. He insists on writing a minimum amount each day, for example, which is probably difficult on some days but has obviously worked to his advantage, considering how prolific he has been and continues to be. The book was also engaging because of King’s personal history: he writes about his struggles with alcoholism and his recovery from a near fatal car accident, but he also writes movingly about his relationship with his wife (who convinced him to get his draft of Carrie out of the trash can and give it another go) and reflects personally on some of his books. His writing advice tends toward the basic, in terms of grammar, structure, syntax, but the process-based advice is valuable. I especially like his perspective that stories exist in the universe and are waiting to be unearthed, and it is through the process of writing that we uncover them. Highly recommended for would-be writers and fans of King’s books.

Re-reading what I wrote then, it’s striking to me how much of King’s advice I have followed over the past year, and how helpful I’ve found it. For example, King writes a minimum of ten pages (or 2,000 words) a day when he is working on a novel. If it takes him an hour to do that, fine; if it takes him all day, fine. He explains:

On some days, those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.

Since I started writing my first manuscript, I’ve followed King’s formula: 2,000 words per weekday, minimum. It’s worked like a charm. I started a second manuscript last week and so far I have almost 29,000 words written. Thank you, Mr. King, for the excellent advice.

King also stresses that to be a good writer, one must read a lot and write a lot. Check and check. I love that my compulsive, drinking-from-the-fire-hose-style reading — a former guilty pleasure — is now part of my job. And I love the way King discusses how reading helps us become better writers:

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose — one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development  the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy — “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” — but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened, in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Oh, I could go on and on about all of the utterly practical yet deeply inspiring advice in On Writing that has helped me so much over the past year, but I’ll let you read it for yourself. It’s a wonderful book.

stephen_king

After reading On Writing, I decided to delve into some of King’s fiction, and so over the last year I’ve read Bag of Bones (spooky but a bit long), The Dead Zone (a classic, also a bit long), and Salem’s Lot (creepy and, well, a bit long). Now I have The Shining sitting in my Kindle queue and I’m looking forward to reading it. Now, say what you will about King’s flaws — he’s long-winded, his dialogues can be cringe-worthy, why do all of his books have to involve a writer living in Maine?, his prose can be a tad clunky at times — but I dare anyone to argue that the man’s not a storytelling genius. Think of all the classic stories that came out of his brain, stories that are now so entrenched in popular culture that they’ve become truly iconic: Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Misery, The Shining, The Green Mile, Christine, Salem’s Lot, Needful Things, Thinner. I mean, you know you’ve made it when Family Guy does an episode parodying a movie based on one of your books, or Eminem works a reference into one of his songs (“I cannot grow old in ‘Salem’s Lot!”). Seriously – one dude, Stephen King, has come up with all of these stories. The mind boggles at the creativity.

As a writer, I feel indebted to King for his practical wisdom and for the admirable example he’s set: he’s prolific, he’s dedicated, he’s humble, and dang, he’s a unique thinker. I encourage you all to check out King’s work — starting with On Writing, if you’re at all inclined toward putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) — and see what you think. I’ll leave you with some of King’s closing wisdom from that book:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy… Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

Drink and be filled up.

Revising. Again.

I am back at revising my novel, hopefully for the final time. Exciting! It has been a long and challenging process, but I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. This week should hopefully be The Week that I send the damned thing off to agents. Finally.

So, in order to focus, I won’t be blogging today. But I’ll be back with new and fascinating things to say later this week.

For now, I’ll leave you with this article in the New York Times about writers, including Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon, and the temptations of the internet. (See? This is why I have to sign off now.)

Lady of Leisure

Yesterday I took a break from writing. Well, not entirely. I wrote a blog post in the morning, and then frittered away an hour reading blogs and news, and then I went to the gym, and then I got a pedicure and had lunch with a friend. And then I came back home and thought, What shall I do now?

The reason I took the break from writing was because the previous evening, I had finished the latest round of revisions on my novel and had sent it to one of my readers/critics to look over before I did anything drastic, like send the manuscript off to agents. Now that my revisions were done, at least for the moment, I didn’t feel like writing anything, but I also didn’t feel like just sitting there, useless. I had to think of something to do.

I thought, Maybe I’ll pick up my knitting again. I have some nice knitting books and I figured I could do some knitting exercises and practice a bit before attempting to dive into the world of sweaters and bunnies. I searched our apartment and realized that I had not actually brought my knitting needles to South Africa. I brought the knitting books, but not the knitting implements. Which is like me, really.

Then I thought, Maybe I’ll read. But I read every day, a lot. All the time. I had just spent my entire pedicure reading (and ignoring the pedicurist’s snarky comments about my dry heels). A crossword puzzle? I do those every day, too, when I watch TV or listen to podcasts. Watch TV? Too defeatist. Cook? It’s 3:45 pm. Go for a walk? I live in Johannesburg, so that’s not gonna work. Go to the gym? Already did that.

Photo on 2012-07-29 at 14.15

Sigh.

The problem is, there’s this urge in me to always be doing something, to always be busy, to always be thinking. It’s hard to suppress it. At times when there is genuinely nothing for me to do – for example, when I am waiting for feedback on my manuscript – I feel that I must occupy these quiet periods with something useful, or at least creative, or else I am just taking up space, and then what good am I? Point being, I could definitely never be a Lady of Leisure. I would go bonkers. I’d probably end up institutionalized by how bonkers I’d go. But I realize, of course, that this is a good problem to have: deciding how to pass my afternoon when there are no demands on me. But, to be honest, it’s a struggle.

Eventually, I decided to compromise by watching Brideshead Revisited (the 1981 miniseries with Jeremy Irons, not the ghastly movie version with Michael Gabon – the horror!) and doing a crossword puzzle. Not exactly what you’d call productive, but at least I’m not watching The E True Hollywood Story: Lindsay Lohan (again). Eventually, I ended up planning and cooking dinner. I made this, one of my all-time favorite Middle Eastern dishes, which I used to chow down on with some frequency when I lived in Detroit. It turned out well, but next time I’d add sultanas, I think.

Anyway. I really wish I had brought my knitting needles.

Revising

Oof, you guys, I don’t have much energy for blogging today, since I’ve been working on a bunch of side writing projects and — sigh — revising my novel.  I got some really great feedback from the few people I gave the manuscript to for comments, which is fantastic . . . but implementing those comments? UGH.

This process of revision is all for the good, because my novel is going to be so much better when I’m done revising,  but it’s hard. I’ve ended up rewriting whole sections, adding in weird plot twists that I didn’t see coming, and fleshing out relationships between characters.  This takes effort, but it also takes more thought than just writing with no plan, which is how I wrote the first draft of the novel.  Revising requires me to think hard about other people’s reactions to what I wrote and try to find a way to integrate changes, some of which are narrow and others of which are quite broad.  So it’s a process that forces me to be creative while forcing the story into certain constraints that will make it work better.

In short, it’s exhausting.  But it’s almost done!  So now I am going to let my brain rest and enjoy a little get-away with Al.  We’re going to the hilariously named Hartbeestpoort and are eating dinner here tonight.

Catch you all later!

Pinterest

Bad news: I’m sick.  I think I’ve run my immune system down with too much rich food, booze, and exposure to my crazy family.  (Sorry, family.  But you know you’re crazy.  This is news to no one.)  Anyway, I woke up yesterday with a sore throat, headache, and cough, and the situation has deteriorated.  This means that today I’m overloading on tea, Emergen-c, and reruns of What Not To Wear.  I’m also distracting myself with Pinterest.

You guys know what Pinterest is, I’m sure.  It’s one of the most mindlessly addictive websites I’ve encountered in, well, ever.  Unlike Facebook, I never run out of things to look at on Pinterest.  Unlike Twitter, Pinterest requires no reading.  Or thinking.  Or processing.  You can just sit there and pin, pin, pin. Mindless.  Comforting.  Wonderful.

Except I got up almost three hours ago and I’ve done literally nothing all morning except pin.  And the thing is, am I ever going to make or buy or do any of these things I’m pinning?  Like, what are the odds I am going to make these butterfinger and cookie dough cheesecake bars?  Or this sock dog? Or this bracelet?  I mean, I’d have to buy beads.  And string.  Come on.

Am I gonna make this? Probably not. But maybe.

Am I gonna make this? Probably not. But maybe.

But there’s something nice about pretending that I’m going to do all of this stuff.  The thing is, before I quit my job at the law firm, I always thought that when I started writing, I’d have tons of free time to, like, upcycle filing cabinets.  Turns out, that is not the case.  Even when I finish my writing obligations fairly early in the day, I don’t really feel like “creating” anything more ambitious than dinner for me and Al.  Maybe this is because I use up my creative energy writing, but when I’m done, I kinda just feel like sitting on the couch and doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book, or watching something stupid on TV.  I mean, more power to these people who spend their free time upcycling things and making animals out of socks, but that’s not realistic for me.

Oh, well.  Maybe today I’ll motivate and finally get around to making that tee-shirt shopping bag I’ve been meaning to make for all these years.  Or maybe not.