This year, I am participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month! The concept of NaNoWriMo is pretty simple: your goal, as a participant, is to get 50,000 words of a new novel down during the month of November. This requires writing at a pretty brisk clip (something like 1700 words a day), but considering that when I wrote my last two manuscripts, I made myself write 2000 words a day, Stephen King-style, it shouldn’t be TOO difficult.
I was initially skeptical of NaNoWriMo, when I first heard about it last year, because I figured I didn’t need it. I had just moved to South Africa, was already knee-deep into another manuscript, and didn’t need any additional motivation to hit the keyboard. I was a newly minted writing machine, after all. These days, though, as I am slowly crawling out of the pits of a writing slump, I decided I needed the kick in the butt to start a new project that NaNoWriMo provides. And so, here I am, five days in and 9700 words down. And you know? I’m feeling pretty jazzed about it! I don’t want to say too much about what I’m working on (I’m superstitious like that) but it’s a new genre for me and it’s really fun.
It’s not too late to throw your own hat into the NaNoWriMo ring. If you need inspiration, here’s a great little pep talk by one of my favorite authors, Rainbow Rowell (who, as you might recall, wrote the truly lovely Eleanor & Park).
I’m well aware that the pace of my blogging has really fallen off since South Africa. I’d like to say that this is because my life here in London is so much fuller, but that’s not entirely true. It’s definitely partly true — I am no longer effectively housebound, like I was in Joburg! — but I also spend a fair amount of my day doing things like participating in a one-woman Sons of Anarchy marathon (hey, it’s paid work, lay off me!), knitting, cooking, and reading, so it’s not like I have that many pressing errands to do in my day-to-day life. The truth is, I can be a bit lazy when it comes to blogging.
Another thing that has kept me from blogging is that I’ve been in the Slump to End All Slumps, writing-wise. I’m in limbo with a lot of my projects right now, waiting for people to get back to me (which can fairly be translated to: “waiting to be rejected”). It’s kind of demoralizing. I wrote here about how, as a writer, I experience ebbs and flows, but really, for the last year, it’s been mostly flows. Then I hit this major ebb a few weeks ago, and it sort of threw me for a loop. Weeks dragged by in which I had to force myself to write even a few hundred words each day, and I hated every single one of those words. There were even a couple of nights where I let myself cry, rather self-indulgently, and told Al that maybe I should just give up this whole writing thing and go back to being a lawyer. Al talked me off the ledge, but really, I was never on the ledge. I was peering at the ledge from afar, but I wasn’t actually going to go up close to it. Really, I just felt like complaining. I know in my heart that even when writing sucks and I feel like everything I produce is crap and everyone hates me, it’s still better than being an attorney. But it’s worth acknowledging that it’s not all sunshine and unicorns, either. Writing is hard. Rejections are really hard. Who knew?
The thing is, though, I’m not going to give up. If all the writers of the world gave up because they hit a month-long snag in which things didn’t go their way, we’d have no books. Plus, maybe this monster ebb is a good thing, in the great scheme of things. The interesting thing about this period in my life is that it’s genuinely challenging me. It’s been a while since I’ve had to struggle to make things happen for myself: I graduated high school, went to college, graduated college, secured a job, worked for a year, went to law school, secured another job, and worked for three years. And then I quit that job, walked away from all the support structures that I had built around myself during my brief career as a lawyer, and embarked on something that required me to build all necessary ladders and bridges for myself. This is what entrepreneurs and writers and artists have to do, but it ain’t easy, and it can be discouraging. But if there’s one thing I learned growing up, it’s that you don’t give up on things just because they are hard (thanks, Ma and Dad for forcing me to do all those sports I was terrible at!). So, I’m keeping on keeping on. Just thought I’d let you guys know.
Also, I am happy to report that I think I am finally breaking out of my über-slump. The other day, I felt a tiny spark of inspiration and rode that wave for three hours, finally finishing a draft of a short story I had been dawdling over and feeling lukewarm about for weeks. Since then, I’ve felt my mojo coming back, bit by bit, and that’s a huge relief. And, in other news, I’m also feeling excited about the fact that Al is taking me to Oslo this weekend for my birthday. He kept it a surprise until last night (although he gave me really cryptic clues along the way, many of which had to do with Detective Harry Hole), and now that I know where we’re going, I am beyond excited. I will report back next week on our Nordic adventure.
Enjoy your Friday and weekend, and keep on trucking.
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.
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.
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.
As a writer, I feel that it’s part of my job to constantly read. Which is good, because I would do this anyway. Even during my law school and attorney days, after long days of reading dry-as-a-bone legal documents and cases, I’d come home and read fiction for hours. In fact, looking back over my twenty-five or so years of literacy, I can’t remember a single period where I wasn’t reading at least one book for pleasure. Simply put, I can’t imagine my life without good books.
In that spirit, and in the interest of keeping things spicy here on the blog, I am going to introduce the occasional book review. I can’t promise the reviews will be weekly or even monthly, but I’ll try to write about books that struck a chord with me.
Over the past few months of intensive international travel (first to Asia and now to Africa) involving long hauls on planes, I’ve torn through quite a few excellent books, some of which I’ll probably discuss here eventually. But one of these books in particular struck just the right note of being inspiring, entertaining, and educational: My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme.
My Life in France is Julia Child’s memoir, which she co-wrote with Prud’homme, her husband’s nephew. It covers the early years of her marriage, when she and her husband Paul were newlyweds living in post-World War II Paris, all the way through Julia’s immense success as a cookbook writer and TV personality, to Paul’s death in 1994.
Along the way, Julia and Paul lived in a number of places thanks to Paul’s job as an exhibits officer for the US State Department, including Marseilles, Norway, Germany, and Washington, DC. But it was Paris that stole their hearts. It’s clear from Julia’s writing about her time in Paris that the city, even in its bedraggled state after the war, was her soul’s true home. The city energized and inspired her. She loved the language, the people, the wine, and, most importantly, the food.
Julia started off as a novice in the kitchen and, inspired by the food in France, decided to teach herself to cook. She describes the initial process this way:
Surrounded by gorgeous food, wonderful restaurants, and a kitchen at home –and an appreciative audience in my husband – I began to cook more and more. In the late afternoon, I would wander along the quay from the Chambre des Députés to Notre Dame, poking my nose into shops and asking the merchants about everything. I’d bring home oysters and bottles of Montlouis-Perle de la Touraine, and would then repair to my third-floor cuisine, where I’d whistle over the stove and try my hand at ambitious recipes, such as veal with turnips in a special sauce.
Eventually, Julia went on to the Cordon Bleu to receive her formal training. She then began to collaborate with two Frenchwomen, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, on a cookbook designed to teach American home cooks how to make French food (which later became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which sits on my own bookshelf today). The rest, as they say, is history, but it was great fun to read about how she made the transformation from home cook to famous chef, author, and television personality. Part of the secret to her success, as it turns out, was good old-fashioned obsessiveness and attention to detail. The lady did not give up until she was happy with the result, and it paid off.
What I loved most about this book – apart from its absolutely charming descriptions of day-to-day life in 1950s Paris and the mouthwatering dishes that Julia both created and consumed – was the picture it painted of Julia’s marriage to Paul. They had a true partnership. Paul encouraged Julia in her cooking, helping her to set up her kitchen at home and later to photograph her dishes for her cookbook manuscript. And Julia supported Paul in his career, which was often frustrating and demoralizing.
They also had a tremendous amount of fun together, traveling the French countryside, cooking, eating, and enjoying each other’s company. Julia describes traveling in Italy with her family, without Paul, and how different it felt from her trips with Paul:
Paul and I liked to travel at the same slow pace. He always knew so much about things, discovered hidden wonders, noticed ancient walls or indigenous smells, and I missed his warm presence. Once upon a time I had been content as a single woman, but now I couldn’t stand it! . . . When we returned to Paris on May 3, I fell into Paul’s arms and squeezed him tight.
Julia and Paul both worked hard but also greatly valued their time with friends and family. They hosted parties, organized weekend getaways, and attended dinners. They cultivated close relationships with a variety of people and were loyal, thoughtful friends. Perhaps my favorite paragraph in the entire book is the following, describing Julia and Paul’s decision to travel to France in 1963 to see friends, despite Julia’s incredibly busy TV and writing schedule:
“I just don’t know if we have the time for a trip to France right now,” I sighed. Paul nodded.
But then we looked at each other and repeated a favorite phrase from our diplomatic days: “Remember, ‘No one’s more important than people!’” In other words, friendship is the most important thing – not career or housework, or one’s fatigue – and it needs to be tended and nurtured. So we packed up our bags and off we went. And thank heaven we did!
I love that attitude, don’t you? Al and I also try to prioritize people over other things – life is so short and relationships are so precious – but this can be difficult to remember when career and chores and other stresses threaten to overwhelm.
This book felt particularly of the moment for me when I read it a few weeks ago. Like me, Julia accompanied her (supportive, loving) husband to a new place because of his job. She was not content to be a housewife and so she set out to do something productive and enjoyable with her time. For Julia, it was French cooking, and for me, it’s writing.
I wrote a bit here about how I’m trying to take a page out of Julia’s book and throw myself head first into my work, my marriage, and my new surroundings. So far, so good, although I feel confident in saying that Johannesburg in 2012 is a bit more of a challenge in the charm department than Paris in 1948. But even if Joburg isn’t my soul’s true home, it may just be the place that I start to make my dreams come true. And I’m so grateful to Julia Child for the inspiration.