On January 1st, I launched myself into 2012 with a quiver of resolves and reminders and goals. On January 5th, my husband received news he would need surgery, again. We had four days to get ready, which we spent permuting and combining and “borrowing trouble.” Our worries weren’t unfounded.
The surgery was worse than we expected and my husband’s two-day hospital stay turned into eight. Unbelievably, the operation on his left lung was more painful and difficult than his quad bypass back in November. Recovery-wise, we were back at square one when he finally came home.
The good news: his left lung is fine. The bad news: his right lung isn’t and he’ll need the same surgery in about a month.
This weekend he was better enough for us to get away for a short trip. We went to Colonial Beach. Because the weather was gorgeous, we explored Westmoreland State Park. I hiked down to Fossil Beach, a scrap of wild beach at the widest point of the Potomac River.
As a kid, I often scooped up ancient shark’s teeth at Chesapeake Beach and Breezy Point. They were tiny little things, about the size of my fingernail. My sister remembers filling Mason jars with shark’s teeth.
Fossil Beach was windy and deserted except for one person. A young man wearing hip waders and a cargo jacket had been on the beach since low tide, searching for teeth. He showed me the contents weighing down his deep pockets: shark’s teeth as big as the palm of my hand! The fossilized eardrum of a whale! Whale vertabrae!
How did he find them? I asked in awe. You have to get in the water, he said. Only teeny little teeth wash up on shore. Although it was 65 degrees that day, the river was still January-chilly. I couldn’t see myself wading for hours and digging in freezing wet sand.
I walked up and down the beach and here is what I found. Yes, that is a turnip washed ashore. It’s the the same old story–no matter how long I look for buried treasure, all I find are turnips.
Since life has handed us turnips, I should make turnip soup. But I don’t like turnips (my mother would sneak them in with boiled potatoes, thinking I couldn’t tell the difference). And the last three months have been like turnip soup every day.
Still, the weekend was rewarding. My husband ate like a registered hog and slept soundly in the Potomac Sunrise room at Bell House. I watched the sun rise over water that rippled like a million nickels and thought how lucky I was to see a new day begin.
The year is still young. Though we know more difficulties lie ahead, we’re hopeful we’ll find something wonderful and unexpected. It will probably mean standing in the ever-shifting river, searching blindly, but the best things take some effort. They are seldom washed up on the sand, just waiting for us.
A quilter once said every quilt brings its own set of rules. I think that’s true of all creative projects, including novels.
I thought I had novel-writing down pat: take notes in a daily journal, create scene cards, make a loose outline, write a chapter-by-chapter outline, and, further into the novel, make a subplot-theme-braid-timeline. All this is in addition to the notebook filled with character sketches, background information, and research.
None of those systems worked for the novel I’m writing now. I did take extensive notes in my journal at the beginning–so many the first entries look like an academic paper.
The outlines didn’t work. I spent the summer chasing various leads that ultimately led to dead-ends. Despite the logic of my outline, the novel refused to go there. Scene cards? Pfft. No matter how many I wrote and arranged and re-arranged, the scene cards proved useless. The subplot-theme-braid-timeline became so unwieldy I couldn’t get a handle on it beyond keeping track of the passage of time.
Halfway through the summer, the novel made an unusual demand. Write a paper, it said, to define what the heck you’re doing. And so I stopped and wrote a 17-page paper that helped me focus the particular kind of book I was writing (and hope to write more of). I didn’t use MLA, no footnotes. But it was paper-y enough to allow me to organize my thoughts.
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve. I made a pledge that I would finish the first draft of the book by year’s end and the only way I could do that was to work all day and well into the night (I finished the book with an hour and a half to spare!). I went to bed feeling lighter. I’d done it.
But I woke up New Year’s Day with a sense that revision would not be a piece of cake now that I had a good first draft. I figured the novel would tell me what needed to be done. I was right.
Write a revision guide, it said. There are too many pieces and themes and characters and parts to keep track of. Write another paper.
And so I did. I spent two long days at the computer, pulling material from my journal (so far, 60 single-spaced pages), from the summer paper, and from the background information in the notebook. I had too much information in too many places, half of which I’d forget about in the revision process.
The result? A 20-page “guide” that helps me focus all those early thoughts, middle discoveries, and last-minute ephiphanies. I have in one place my themes, my conflicts, my structure. Yesterday I started revising. As I read through the draft, making notes, I referred to the revision guide. Yes, it’s very helpful.
All this makes me wonder about the hundreds of books on writing out there. Story maps and compasses, heroes’ journeys and three-act structures, the definitive how-to-write-a-novel-in-30-days. I think some pieces of those various processes work again and again, but not all of them.
I also wonder about my own process. I keep trying to pin it down–maybe write a book myself on writing one day (doubtful). But the process that worked for one book doesn’t seem to fit the next project. Everything I learn about one book doesn’t necessarily translate to the new book.
After more than 100 books, you’d think I’d know what I was doing. And I did, for many, many of those books. I worked with a set of rules that was right for those projects, the biographies, the series books, the contemporary school stories. But not the books I’m writing these days.
I kind of like the not-knowing. It makes each project a fresh new challenge, even though it the process is much slower than it used to be. I need a full year to write a novel now, and much of that time is spent figuring out its particular set of rules, which the project only doles out every so often.
My work is teaching me that I don’t know everything about process, and that I must be patient (so hard!) and wait. If I hurry, I’ll blunder down wrong paths. Each project has its own time-table, it’s own set of rules. Be still and listen, and your project will tell you what it needs.
I checked out an older issue of Writer’s Digest magazine from the library (March/April 2011), interested in an article by Christina Katz called “50 Simple Ways to Build Your Platform in 5 Minutes a Day.” The article is also online if you want to check it out.
I thought only politicians and activists built platforms. Writers too? I loved the idea of creating a platform that sums up my new direction in my work.
The article was divided into 50 little boxes that described ways to promote your book, much of it online. Things like post ads and affiliate links, grade yourself on HubSpot to gauge the how effective you are on various social media. I felt dismayed. Yet another article emphasizing the necessity to spread yourself all over the Internet to promote your book.
Supposedly these 50 suggestions only take five minutes a day. But you’d have to keep tending the previous tips and would spend a lot more than five minutes a day online. And wouldn’t you have to build a new platform for each book you wrote?
Then I read #22: “Put your Passion into Action.” “Take your passion online and put it to work . . . take five to write a quickie mission statement about why you’re on fire about your topic.” Now this was more like it! My work in the past few years has been evolving in a particular direction and I am passionate about it. I like the idea of creating my own mission statement to focus these ideas.
The platform I build will, I hope, be more far-reaching than the here-today-gone-tomorrow splattering of social media. In order to put it into action, I’ll have to leave my computer, go out into the world and connect with people in person. Not just at book-signings and school visits–yes, I want to sell my books, but that isn’t my only purpose.
That’s what I believe a writer’s platform should be–something bigger than the book, more important than posting ads and checking HubSpot, something substantial and lasting.
Something that requires more than five minutes of effort.
A photo an hour. 10,000 steps. Baking and cooking. Whew! But at least I’m making time to blog because that’s writing and an old superstition says to do whatever you want to do every day during the next year on New Year’s Day. So you might want to re-think throwing in a load of wash.
I love my new camera! We’re having a serious love affair. I’ve already taken a photo for my first e-course assignment, a macro photo with the background blurred. I’m a fool over de-focused backgrounds and lo and behold I actually made one of them purty pictures!
New Year’s Day means some traditions, like taking the tree down. Some people leave theirs up till January 6 or St. Patrick’s Day (by accident). Just so you don’t take it down before January 1–or it’s bad luck.
Of course we had Hoppin’ John, sauerkraut, and cornbread. The sauerkraut is my husband’s Pennsylvania traditional dish. We were supposed to have collard greens (symbolizes a bounty of folding money) but he hates them. We did have black-eyed peas (symbolizes an increase in coins) and I fixed hominy, too. I need to get my cast iron skillet seasoned. That hominy looks awful pale. It didn’t help I took the photo in Color Accent mode, which picks one color to highlight and desaturates the rest.
Today I made cinnamon rolls, cornbread, two loaves of banana bread, cookies, and vanilla pudding. Most of the baked goods are going out the door to neighbors. Since the oven was on constantly, I divided my walk to keep from burning stuff.
It was 63 today. I heard robins singing and found dandelions in our yard. It won’t last but my heart won’t break if it never goes below 32 and we don’t see a flake of snow.
Last pic I can show before it gets too late to post today. I enjoyed recording my day in photos. I think I’ll like doing Project 365. Join me?
I spent New Year’s Eve in my office, just me and my computer. The only light came from my monitor and the small green tinsel tree in the window. Determined to finish my novel (first draft) by year’s end, I wrote 15 pages yesterday, the last 10 after we came back from supper at our local Chinese restaurant. I stopped a couple of times–once to talk to my dear friend Connie, and again for our tiny little celebration (Sprite, chips and dip, cheese and crackers, cookies).
This morning I woke up feeling lighter. Nothing really has changed since last night except I have a completed first draft. Our problems and health issues didn’t magically go away because I put up a new calendar. But the new year always brings hope.
This year I decided to learn to take real photographs and edit them. I know, I said I believe that my raw unedited snapshots best represent the moment, because real life isn’t edited. I still believe that. But mostly I have bought into the myth that I can’t take decent photos, I can’t learn manual controls, I can’t figure out any photo editing program. That word can’t has to go! I’ll be 60 in July. Learning to take beautiful pictures will be my present to myself.
So this is my plan: First, I’m doing Project 365. Take a photo a day. I’m not sure how I will post them. Maybe on Flickr (something else to learn). If you’re interested, you can join Project 365 officially and post your photos there. Some will go on my blog. Some will go in an album.
I’m kicking off Project 365 by taking a photo an hour on New Year’s Day. Project 365 means carrying your camera everywhere, every single day. I worry about repetition since my life consists mainly of cats and keyboards, but hopefully I’ll be able to distill my day into a single photo.
I have a new camera, a Canon Powershot S95, with manual controls. To learn those controls, I have signed up for an e-course. I write more about that later. I’ve also purchased Photoshop Elements 10 (I have PSE 6 on this computer) and I’ve signed up for another e-course that begins in February on learning Photoshop. I also need to learn how to work more with WordPress (like making my photos bigger), and set up a photo-sharing account with Flickr or Photobucket.
That’s a lot of learning. There will probably be days when I wished I had gotten a rose tattoo on my ankle for my 60th birthday like my sister did.
Meanwhile, I’m off to take more photos. The day is a’wastin’.