Finding Time To Write: Reflections On My First Residency

I just spent the last month in a writer’s heaven.

 

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The Vermont Studio Center is the largest artist residency in the United States. Each month, 50 selected writers and visual artists from across the country and globe are offered unrestricted time for creative work.

I got to be one of them!

VSC provides private studios, room and board, conferencing with Visiting Artists, readings, craft talks, and presentation nights—all on its beautiful historic campus.

The first week, I was pinching myself.

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Maverick Writing Studios

Amazing things happen when you get the chance to step out of your everyday life and write in a calm environment designed to limit distractions and obligations.

I learned a lot about myself as a writer.

I tested my mental stamina. I had time to just sit with the mess of words and ideas and try to shape it into something coherent and interesting. I learned how long it can take to write one decent paragraph, only to delete it the next day.  I had the time and space to immerse myself in a fictional world. 

Sometimes it was magical.

Other times, anxiety-provoking…What if it’s no good? Am I wasting my time?

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My studio overlooking the river.

I met with Visiting Writing, Noy Holland, to discuss my short story in the revision stage. I got to spend time with other kindred spirits talking about the artistic process,  rejection, failure, inspiration, and epiphanies.  We shared stories, laughter, and tears.

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Resident Photos by Howard H. Romera

 

 

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Reading a new essay, “The Geometry of Grief”, at Presentation Night.

 

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Image Source: Busy Building Things

Finding time to pursue your passion amidst the demands of your present life is likely your number one challenge…or complaint.

But sometimes it serves as an excuse.

Saying, “My dream is to write a novel, but I simply don’t have the time right now,” is likely untrue, although it may feel that way.

As E.B. White once said:   “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

While there are definitely periods in our lives when we feel especially stretched, finding time to write is possible if you make it so.

I’ve been writing and publishing since my late teens. That means I’ve written through college, graduate school, teaching career, raising 3 kids, homeschooling, and helping elderly parents.Developing Reading and Writing Through Author Awareness: Grades 4-8

There were times I was insanely busy, stressed out, or depressed. There were dry spells—sometimes long ones.  There were also stretches of times conducive to creativity that resulted in publishable work.

Still…I wish I had accomplished more. (That’s Miss Perfectionist talking, so you can just ignore her.)

We all have the same 24 hours in a day.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”  ~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Here are my tips for carving out time for writing:

Be a Time Sleuth

The first step to making time for writing is to scrutinize your daily/weekly schedule. 

Can you wake up earlier before work or getting the kids off to school?

If early morning doesn’t don’t work for you, try writing in the evenings or late night hours.

If you commute by public transportation, consider that time. Keep a notebook with you for ideas and brainstorming.

Can you make time on the weekends?

Look for time suckers you can give up (or cut back on): The biggest one is the Internet Blackhole. Scrolling Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Endless newsfeeds. YouTube pet videos. Binge watching TV. Really.

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Schedule your writing.

This next step is key. Once you find the times when you can write, mark it on your calendar.  That’s right: you’re making an appointment with your muse. Begin with 15-minute blocks. That’s not long enough, you say? Believe me, the minutes add up. Consistency, more than quantity, matters at this stage.

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Think of writing like exercise. You need to show up at the gym or class—whether you feel like it or not— in order to make progress. You can’t show up once a month and build muscle.  Consistency leads to making a habit. The writing habit will help you achieve your goals. Show up, or as Stephen King said, “Butt in the chair.”

Designate a Writing Place

The great thing about writing is that it’s portable. I write in my home office, on the family room couch, in libraries and coffee shops. I’ve written in airports and on long bus rides. The place depends on my mood, what I’m writing, time of day, and schedule. Having a designated place to write, however, can help you build the habit. By associating a specific place for writing, your train your brain to switch into writing mode. Doesn’t matter if your place is a closet, office, or shed. Claim your space. Make it look and feel nice.

                               Sunny corner table of library = novel writing.

 

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…Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. ~Patti Smith, Devotion

Set Goals & Deadlines

The process of trying to produce a piece of writing can be—no, make that will be—frustrating and discouraging.  To stay on track you need to:

Define goals

Making a plan

Tracking progress

Set deadlines

Reward yourself

Again, the exercise analogy.  If you just say, “I’m going to get in great shape”, you’ll likely to give up before you run the first race. You must make a plan with incremental milestones along the way. 

Same idea for writing a novel. You start with the end goal in mind, then work backward. Name the date you want to finish by (I know, that’s really scary). Then break down the big goal into several small steps. Approximate when you’ll reach each step. Anticipate obstacles. Reward yourself when you arrive. Yes, you’ll likely have to adjust the steps and deadlines. The important thing is having a roadmap. (Thank you Kendra Levin for this advice.)

“Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.” ~ Danie Shapiro, Still Writing

Plan a Writing Retreat

Once you’ve made time to write, limiting distraction is the key to producing. A writing retreat can be a great way to jumpstart, revive, or finish a project.  Some writers occasionally cloister themselves in a hotel room for a few days to binge write. I know two women who designed their own retreat by renting a cabin in New Hampshire. Poets & Writers Magazine has several classifieds ads for rentals in beautiful settings that cater to writers.

If you think you’re the right point in your life or career to pursue a writing residency, here’s a has a comprehensive listing.

How do you make time for writing or other creative pursuits?

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Nighttime at VSC

In the Beginning: Where and How to Start Your Story.

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The End of the Affair (1951)

 

In last month’s post, I explored the essentials of a satisfying story ending—“surprising yet inevitable”.  The opening of a story, however, is not inevitable, though it can be surprising.

 Just like on a new date or job interview, the writer has one chance to make a good first impression. Whether it’s an essay, short story, memoir, or novel—the opening sentence, paragraph, and page is the first impression.

A strong beginning can seduce the reader. A long-winded or boring opening can have the opposite effect. The reader (or editor/agent) loses interest. There will be no second date.

 Let’s look at ways to help you get your story off to the best start.

Arouse Curiosity

Consider this example.

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

This is the opening lines of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You (2014)

This simple opening sparks several questions. Who is Lydia? How did she die? Who are they and why don’t they know? Whose point-of-view are we in?  The entire novel unfolds from these two sentences.

Here’s another example from Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin that evokes surprise.

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.”

And: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.”  from Ray Bradbury’s , Fahrenheit 451

Begin as close to the inciting incident as possible.

The inciting incident is the event which turns your protagonist’s life upside down in either a good or bad way.  The inciting incident launches your character into the main conflict of the story.  It’s the engine of your story that sets events in motion building to the climax.

Let’s say your story is about a woman who wins the lottery but doesn’t want to tell her husband about this sudden windfall. 

The inciting incident would be when the woman realizes she has the winning ticket. Instead of starting the story with her marital history, or her love of gambling, you might start at the moment when she realizes she’s finally hit the jackpot.  This is the tactic I took in my published short story, “The Ticket”.

There were only six numbers to check, but, just to be sure, Dolores put on her reading glasses.  On the kitchen table, the newspaper was opened to the all-important page.  Dolores lined up her ticket with the newspaper numbers, and compared them with such deliberation that one would have thought she was half-blind. Dolores read the numbers aloud, slowly, succinctly, like she did when calling for Bingo.  “9…14…21…24…26…30.

 

100 Years of Solitude The opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude makes quite a first impression. It includes hints of two inciting incidents.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

And how about this one?

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“They shoot the white girl first.” 

Begin with the End in Mind

Writer/entrepreneur Stephen Covey’s sage advice works well when crafting your story beginning. In his 7 Habits of Effective of Effective People, he explains:

Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.

When writing fiction, the opening is your where you plant the seeds for your plot to grow.  Knowing your destination can help you build a strong beginning. 

The meaning behind Harper Lee’s understated opening in To Kill A Mockingbird is not realized until the climax of the book. The author masterfully weaves the end into the beginning.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury…When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

To emphasize this expert plotting device when teaching the novel, I have my students reread the opening after they finish the last chapter. They are always amazed by the cyclical structure of this classic novel.

Pick the right POV

Try to establish a distinct voice or tone, especially if you are using first-person point-of-view.  Charles Dickens does it matter-of-factly in David Copperfield by confiding to the reader.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

My YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, opens with a statement from the 13-year-old narrator, Talia.

Eight is my favorite number. I think it’s a beautiful number; it has two-way symmetry, it’s an even number, it’s in my birth date (September 18th) and it’s the color of a blue sky.

More examples of openings with a unique voice or tone.

“I lived with the same cat for nineteen years–by far the longest relationship of my adult life.” 

A Man and His Cat” by Tim Kreider (The New York Times 2015)

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

Limit Backstory

A common mistake in first pages is including too much backstory.

Backstory is exposition as opposed to action. It’s info that the reader needs to know which happened prior to the story.

Don’t overload your reader with background details that could easily be put in later on (or not at all). Use exposition only at the point in the story when the reader absolutely needs the information. Otherwise, every line in the opening should move the plot forward.

It’s helpful to get reader/editorial feedback on your story draft. You may find out that your opening really happens on Page 3…or 10, as I did with my first novel and a recent one in progress.

Begin with the Introduction of an Interesting Character

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All these examples immediately make me want to find out more about the character.

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”     

George Eliot,  Middlemarch 

“He had jumped a radio tower and a cliff in Norway, but never a bridge. He chose a Wednesday morning when the fog was expected to burn off early and called in sick to work.”                                                                                                              The Casual Car Poll” by Katherine Bell (Ploughshares 2006)

“Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.”   

George Orwell, Animal Farm

“There was once a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.”  C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it.                        Ingrid Law, Savvy

“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the KGB.”                                                                                                                        “This Old Man” by Roger Angell, essay from The New Yorker (2015)

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”          Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

 

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While an intriguing first line may hook the reader, you still need to sustain attention. So consider this checklist for your first page.

  • Introduces a compelling protagonist
  • Introduces setting
  • Introduces conflict
  • Conveys tone or mood
  • Raises questions in the reader’s mind
  • Involves some action

You can learn a lot from studying the masters. Pick an anthology of stories and read just the first paragraph of each one. Which stories pull you in?

Poets & Writers Magazine just published noteworthy beginnings from 12 hot-off-the-press books.

Some of my Favorites Opening Lines

 

“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was such a girl and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago. ”      The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi.

What’s your favorite opening line?

 

Love At First Write

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I’m enjoying a new romance. 

I can’t stop thinking about my love. I’m anxious when we’re apart. Our dates give me a high. The relationship feels shiny and new; so far I see no flaws.

You’d probably say I’m in the “honeymoon phase”.  And you’d be right.

My new love is not a man, though, (or even an adorable puppy).

It’s a novel. One that I’ve just started writing. We meet almost every day—at my desk, in the library or coffee shop. Sometimes in bed.

Previously, I’ve been through two long-term book relationships, each ending with publication.  I’ve had a few breakups along the way. And another relationship that ended after the honeymoon stage. Before meeting my new novel, I was separated from another one in-progress, 3/4 through the first draft, a story I believed in and still do.

So what happened? 

I hit a rough patch—the inevitable muddy middle and couldn’t find my way out. And then life intruded, taking away my time. Then bad stuff happened, taking away my words. The bad stuff gave power to my inner critic, The more time passed that I hadn’t worked on this book, the greater my despair. We lost our connection. I began to associate the story with pain and loss, so that every time I opened my laptop, my chest tightened.

I decided to take a break.

I went exploring. Studied my craft. Sought advice. I looked for inspiration. I nourished my soul. My heart opened. Then, when I wasn’t looking, I bumped into an old acquaintance.  The idea, notes, and first chapter had been sitting in a file for 6 years. And it still looked good. I felt a spark.

“Let’s meet for coffee,” I said.

Now I hear the main character’s voice in my head as I’m falling asleep.  I imagine future scenes of our story. I reread every word spoken so far. Sometimes while driving, I get so absorbed in thinking about the plot, I forget where I’m going.

Still, I worry about our future.

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Just like some people are in love with the idea of falling in love, some people are in love with the idea of writing a novel. But for most, it remains just an idea. Writing the damn thing is really hard work. It takes a lot of time, self-discipline, and know-how. So you really need to fall in love with the story, at least in the beginning. And that’s just the writing part. Getting published requires a whole other set of know-how and connections. Even though I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, have studied the craft, won awards, and been published, I still find the process difficult, particularly trying to develop an idea for 300 pages…and doing it well. 

Of course, I am not alone in this struggle. And neither are you, if this is what you hope to accomplish.  Read enough author interviews and you’ll hear a similar lament. Doesn’t matter how many books they have under their belt, either. The spark of the new is exciting. It fuels ambition and optimism. But like any long-term relationship, you will hit a bump somewhere. You run out of things to talk about. You’ll partner’s flaws become magnified. Then one day you sit down at your desk and say, “What was I thinking?”

You fall out of love.

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There’s plenty of advice out there on navigating the midlife crisis of a manuscript (or any part of it, for that matter). As I noticed how similar my behaviors were to someone newly in love, I looked to the advice offered by marriage counselors to see if it might apply to writing through the rough patch.  Here’s what I found:

l.  Remember why you fell in love in the first place. 

    When you are stuck, rewind to the beginning. Write your mission statement for the novel. Think about the magical parts. Outline its future. Imagine the scenes yet unwritten.

2. Know that every relationship goes through rough times, some harder than others.

    Getting writer’s block, feeling stuck, disliking what you’ve written, are parts of the process of building a solid story. Calling it quits is sometimes necessary, but first, you have to ride the wave of uncertainty. Expect it. Make friends with it.  

3. Make time to nurture your relationship. 

    Saying that you’ll finish your book when the kids are in school, when you can quit your day job, or when you finish re-doing the basement, rarely works. You’ll eventfully, find another reason why “now” is not the right time—real or imagined. So strike when the iron is hot, even if that turns out to be 30 minutes a day or two hours on a Sunday. Meeting once a month is not enough to make progress. A year from now you’ll regret not having started.

4. Take a break if necessary.

     After putting in time and effort and you still feel stuck, try starting a new writing project. It’s like having a fling with no consequences. (What fun!) Then return to your book with renewed energy and fresh eyes. See how you feel.

5.  Get help.

The writing life can get lonely.  Working on a novel brings frustration and self-doubt no matter how experienced you are.  Don’t go at it alone. Find a critique partner. Join a writer’s group. Take a class or workshop. Attend a conference. Read guidebooks from those who walked the path.

5.  Don’t give up— at least without a fight.

    Sometimes the first novel is a warm-up, a learning experience. It becomes part of your past. Even great ideas may fizzle in execution. And not all books should be written. If you do decide to break up, at least you know you gave it your best. Then, you have to figure out what to do differently the second or third time around.  Maybe you’re hoping to finally meet the Right One. But how will you know? Writing a novel is as much a process of discovery as it is an act of creation. You will learn things about yourself. You’ll discover truths. You may create something you never thought possible, something more whole, real, and satisfying than earlier attempts.

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The beginning of any relationship is both exciting and scary. Starting a new job, moving to another city, adopting a dog, making a new friend, all carry uncertainty.  In a romantic relationship, this is amplified. Does she like me for me?  Can I trust him? Is she the one? Can I commit? Will he still love me when I’m sixty-four?

Unlike humans relationships, a romance with a novel puts you in control. The book will never abandon you.

And you always have the last word.~  

 

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