Really, I wrote THAT?

Dear Readers,
I’m back, and I apologize for the long absence. Something unexpected happened– I had a baby! I found out I was pregnant 19 days after finishing NaNoWriMo, and it turned out to be a rather difficult pregnancy. I was sick for about 7 out of 10 months and didn’t feel much like writing. We also moved in the middle of all that, so it’s been a wild and crazy ride. Now our baby boy is here, and I love my new job description of stay-at-home wife and mother. This work has definitely taken a first priority to me, and I can’t imagine anything more rewarding. But with all that said, now that I feel healthy again, even though our life doesn’t currently have a very normal “routine”, I have decided that I want to get back into writing life… and the start of a new year seems a good time to begin.

So tonight I pulled out a box of my old stories and essays, and began to read over them to see if they were any good. My hope is to clean them up and submit them somewhere, if they are worth cleaning up. What I have found, once again, is just how true it is that you change and mature, and it definitely effects my writing in various ways. As could be expected, I had a few moments of “Wow, I really wrote that?” and “I really thought this was good?” But not all my reactions were ones that I expected.

The first essay I picked up I have also set aside. I wrote it when I was a rampant baseball fan and my love of the sport leaps off the pages. While I still love baseball and follow it pretty avidly, I am not into it nearly as much as I was, and I just don’t have the passion or desire anymore to make something of that essay.

The second paper I picked up was a story. I hadn’t read this story in over a year, so I was able to look at it with pretty fresh eyes. What jumped out to me was that, while it had a great beginning which pulled me in right away, it started to get boring on page two and lost me completely by page three. I couldn’t even read further than that because it was so bad. All description and summary, and no scenes. Then when I started doing scenes again they felt completely random and thrown in, and included characters the reader really didn’t know or have any emotional ties to. Then on top of all that, I put down one of the character’s very emotional story– their whole life story– right in the middle after all this. The thought in my head was, “why would I, as a reader, want to read this life story, when I don’t even care about the character yet?”
The interesting thing about this story is, I still like it. It’s rough, however, I feel it is redeemable. This story came from my heart in a very real way. The idea for it arose from the place that I grew up, the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. The various scenes came to my imagination as I wandered in the woods on the long, lonely walks I used to take. And the main female character, though not identical, is very similar to me in looks and personality. However, I did not take the beauty and strength of those scenes and put them into my story. I don’t know why. If I do that, I think I will have a very good story, and I have strong hopes regarding the final outcome. I think the idea is still good and I like it, just the execution left much to be desired. I am excited to try my hand at it again.

The third paper I picked up was another essay. This one I felt was pretty good. Good description, dialogue, and I still care deeply about the subject matter (my brother’s wedding.) The only flaws I found with it were mechanical– run-on paragraphs, repeated words, grammatical errors. I think it is a good essay with a lot of potential– but I am not going to submit it anywhere, because the subject matter is too personal. Personal on a different level from the story I mentioned above. That story is from my heart, and contains many similarities to myself and the environment where I grew up. But it is not identical, and that is only me. This essay involves a lot of people, and it is not fictionalized in the least. It contains immediate and extended family, and my thoughts and judgments contained in the essay are pretty raw. I think this one too, I need to set aside.

The fourth paper I read was very short, just a quick, witty description of a fish-fry I attended the summer I spent in South Dakota. It reads pretty easily, has some very nice descriptions, and shows the joyous abandon of a 20-year-old college student. What struck me about this piece was simply that it had been written. I realized, much to my surprise, I never would write such a thing today, much less show it to anyone. Why? Because it is a witty, raw and honest description of the things I saw, the people I spoke with, and the feelings and emotions I felt. It is very real, and the reading of it made me feel very vulnerable. I do not hold back what I as thinking and feeling that day, and while it contains nothing bad, I would not want to share myself so freely today. If I share myself freely, it is through the medium, as discussed above, of a fictionalized world and I am portrayed through the eyes of a character. I no longer have that joyous abandon. I am far more cautious now. While in some ways perhaps that is good, to be honest, it makes me a little sad.

So far, this is the material I have reviewed and my initial feelings regarding it. Have any of you ever gone through a similar experience (taking a prolonged absence from writing, and then coming back to it and reading some of your old stuff?) What were your feelings/impressions?

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NaNoWriMo– 30 Days that Changed Me

I suppose all writers go through them, and I am no exception.  Seasons of apathy, lack of motivation, and feeling uninspired.  For the past few months that is something I have been struggling with.  That is why I have had such a prolonged silence on my blog.  It’s hard to maintain a blog about writing when you’re not.  Life just felt boring, monotonous, and the fire and passion to write were not there.

What changed all that?  NaNoWriMo.  For those of you who don’t know about it, NaNoWriMo is a challenge for writers all over the nation and the world to write 50,000 words in 30 days during the month of November.  That sounds daunting, and it is.  It breaks down to an average of approximately 1,700 words per day.  Every single day.  They have helps on their website– pep talks and forums and ideas to help with writers’ block.  When you sign up with their website they give you a page where you can track your progress visually with a graph, which is pretty cool.  You can connect with other writers, also, and see what they are working on.

Anyhow.  I wasn’t planning to do NaNoWriMo this year, partly due to lack of motivation, and partly because I wasn’t sure what to write about.  I had a half-baked, semi-new idea I considered, but there was a tangle in it I just couldn’t seem to work out, and anyhow, I wasn’t sure I even liked the idea.  Finally, however, in the last week of October I decided to go for it.  There was no particular reason for this, other than the thought that perhaps laying aside other distractions and focusing strictly on one thing for 30 days might help and inspire me.  Those thoughts lurked at the back of my mind, but I’m afraid my attitude was really, “what the heck?”

So on November first I jumped in with both feet, and was off and running.  The idea of NaNoWriMo is to simply write.  Not edit.  Just write.  A lot of it will be terrible.  There will be mistakes, typos, errors.  Don’t stop to fix it, just get words down on paper.  So for the month of November, that is what I focused on.  To my surprise, it went remarkably well.  I started liking my story more and more as I wrote it, and growing more attached to my characters and felt a growing desire to develop their world.  I felt like a writer again as the inspiration continued to flow throughout November.  All of the excitement, passion, joy of writing flooded over me again and I couldn’t wait to keep working not only on my story, but on other projects as well.  To say that NaNoWriMo ignited my creative fire again would be a true and accurate statement.  I passed 50,000 words on November 24.

As so often happens when writing a story, there were surprises.  Some of mine included: the story going directions I hadn’t planned, characters doing things I had not foreseen, and that tangle I spoke about above working itself out seamlessly after I started writing out the idea.  I was also surprised that the inspiration kept coming.  At the beginning, I wasn’t sure I had enough idea to cover 50,000 words.  Turns out I had more than enough.  But probably the biggest surprise was the personal turn the story took.  I never planned from the beginning to include any of my personal journey in it.  But my characters went through an experience I have gone through, and suddenly as I was writing about it I realized I understood these emotions so well because I had experienced them.  In that moment it hit me, I was writing my own journey here… and I was glad.  Events which transpired in my own life, but I was unable to write about before, suddenly I was writing about them through my character’s eyes, and in the process, finding release and healing.  I feel like I can write about them through my own eyes now, and for that, I rejoice.

It is faulty.  However now that it is written I can see many of those faults very clearly and work them out.  I am excited about the direction it is going.  I am eager to continue working on it and see where it ends up.  Even if it doesn’t ever get published, or go anywhere, the journey of writing was well worth it.  53,500 words and 30 days changed me.  I am a writer again, more whole than I was before.  That is an indescribable gift.

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What is Your Point of View?

There are a lot of decisions we, as writers, need to make as we are preparing to write a story. One of the most important is which point of view to tell the story from. There are a lot of different options. Some of the most popular include: first person (told by the narrator using first-person “I”), second person (putting the reader into the story using the pronoun “you”), and third person, which uses a detached narrator who refers to the characters as “he”, “she”, “they”, “them”, etc. Within these categories there are multiple sub-categories, but I won’t get into all of those here.

When I find something that works for me, I tend to stick with it, so I can predictably say that most of my writing uses the third-person omniscient voice. I like that a lot because I feel it is just as effective as any of the other voices, and it seems simpler to me.  With first person, I face the challenge of making sure my main character ends up at all the major events, or at least hears about them and is then able to portray them in an interesting way. Character consistency becomes all the more important, as well. I know for me, character inconsistencies stand out glaringly in the first person (far more so than in the third).  And as far as second-person goes, I think stories really need to be specialized to make that narrative voice work, and my stories don’t tend to go in that direction.  Second-person can be an effective voice, I know, but I think it is harder to make it work.  

When thinking about this particular question I always think, why I would go to the trouble of writing a first-person narrator, and coming up with all the additional factors needed to make that work, when I could just use a narrative voice that already knows everything and can be everywhere as needed? That’s what the third-person omniscient means, in a nutshell. Of course, you can use a limited third-person voice, as well, based on how you want to write the story– but I prefer just having a narrator that knows all and is anywhere you need it to be– and yet is so subtle you don’t really notice the narrative voice, at all. That is always my goal.

That brings up one of the challenges that comes with third-person, however: writing it in a way that you feel like you are part of the story, not being told it by some unseen narrator.  That is one way I can tell a good story; when the narrator is invisible and stays invisible.  But sometimes there will be certain scenes where the author breaks the “third wall” and directly addresses the readers– a big no no in third-person.  Oddly enough, one of the best examples of this that I have found is from Louisa May Alcott in Little Women, when she gives a “lecturette” on being kind to old maids!  I was surprised the first time I read that, because Louisa May Alcott is in general a superb author.    

Which point of view to tell a story from is one of the most important decisions to make as a writer– it changes the whole tone and effectiveness of the story. Some stories do cater to different voices, and I am willing to admit that it might not be right for me to pick third-person omniscient as often as I do. That’s just the one that works best for me.  

All this to say, it is a momentous decision to pick a narrative voice and then stay consistent with that voice. Which voice do you prefer, and why?  


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Another’s Shoes

I picked up an old notebook yesterday and read over some of the notes I made regarding my NaNoWriMo story in 2008.  I have not looked at or thought much about that story in years.  After the initial spurt of writing I laid that story by and did not go back to it for a year or so– and during that year I had so grown and changed that I could not get back into the story the same way as before.  So I took what I had gained from the experience of writing it and laid the manuscript aside, not sure if I would ever pick it up again.

But today I as I was looking through that notebook I came across some of the detailed character sketches I had made for that story– and suddenly I felt again the charm and excitement that beautified my writing during that magic November.  Suddenly, I remembered how it felt to walk around in those character’s shoes.  As I was transported into that world again I suddenly felt myself seized anew with the desire to write that story and share those characters with the world.  Those characters are living, breathing people to me– people with struggles and pain and joy and triumph.  They are not perfect, they are intensely human– perhaps that is why I love them so much.

When I was writing the story that November, I came closer than I ever have before or since to falling into what Louisa May Alcott referred to as a “vortex”.  (One of her most famous vortexes lasted about three months, and the result was Little Women.)  For those 30 days, I literally lived in a different world.  Every event that happened to me I saw through two sets of eyes– my own, and my character’s.  Every experience I went through I considered from my character’s viewpoint.  Some things made more sense through my character’s eyes than my own, which was a cool thing to discover.  I thought about Veterans day and Thanksgiving… how did he celebrate, where did he go, whom did he encounter, what significance did it have for him?  I thought about his daily life as I walked to and from class.  Class time was spent scribbling notes about my story in my notebooks or on random bits of paper.  Evenings were spent with these notes spread out all over my bed or the sofa while I added to the story on my computer.  The thing seemed to take hold of me day and night.

I truly felt so much like I was in another world, like I was walking in someone else’s shoes, like I was, at times, thinking with someone else’s brain.  When that happens, it is a pretty incredible experience.  That is the gift of writers.  Those characters came alive for me.  And they live still– though the story needs a lot of change, and must be thought-through and worked out, yesterday’s experience confirmed to me that I still want to work it out.  So we shall see… we shall see what comes of it.  

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