Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Book?

As I near the end of the first draft of my novel in progress, tentatively called

"Writing Scared" at GSDCTE last October
"Writing Scared" at GSDCTE last October

THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD, I’ve been looking back at this diary for a reality check on where I was a year ago. I came across an entry in which I wrote about a talk I was preparing for the Greater San Diego Council of Teachers of English.  I titled the talk “Writing Scared,” a feeling any serious writer should understand perfectly. “Writing IS scary, unless there’s no chance for growth in it,” I wrote, “and in that case, why bother?”

“In the years I taught college composition, I used to tell my students that it was easy to think of a writing assignment, or indeed any challenge, in a way that would overwhelm them. The trick is to whittle down big problems in smaller ones that aren’t overwhelming and that can be handled one at a time. Is a ten-page paper on the Russian Revolution too scary? Well, how about one paragraph on the lives of serfs? And then how about a paragraph on how the revolution was supposed to improve their lot? Can do! And then, how about…well, you get the picture. Lo and behold, eventually you hit page ten.”

The fact that writing never stops being scary is tied to the fact that it never gets easy, and to keep the fear under control requires figuring out the baby steps every single time, whether it’s for a short paper or a full-length book.

At the time I  wrote the diary entry I quoted from above, I was percolating an idea for a new novel.  Everything about the project terrified me–the subject matter, the lack of a really clear idea of the plot and characters, the setting, the historical period, the work.

The work. Oh, yes. Writing a novel is a huge and utterly draining undertaking. I was apprehensive about going there again, and then, as always happens, the project took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go.

A year later, the book that had me talking to English teachers about writing scared is now nearly finished. It’s not so scary any more, but the next one…?   As I said a year ago, “Some things never change…. It’s pretty big, pretty scary. Can I whittle it down into do-able pieces? Awfully glad I think so.” Do I know for sure?  Not until it’s done.


Instructions from My Imagination, Revisited

The Greek Muses
The Greek Muses

This morning I was going through old diary entries seeing if there was anything in them I might be able to adapt for the “blog tour” that will be starting in a few weeks for PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER.  These days, most authors don’t tour when they have a new release, because, quite frankly,  there’s not much bang for the buck in spending several weeks in hotels and running up bills in restaurants just to go from bookstore to bookstore or other small venues doing talks and signings. Unless you are in that small group of authors who can fill auditoriums wherever you go, you’re better off  trying to make a success of online promotion.

Anyway, I found one diary entry from a little less than a year ago (September 3, 2009) that really gave me pause.  It’s called “Instructions from My Imagination”:

Some people may picture the Muse as a creature with a toga and a crown of laurel (which I like to think of as a Laurel Corona). She sits on a writer’s shoulder and sings inspirational songs while accompanying herself on the lyre. My muse isn’t like that at all. She’s more like a drill sergeant barking orders. Get up! Get to work! Stay put! You have a novel to write! With all my novels, it was like getting instructions from my imagination, instructions I had no choice but to accept.

I’m not saying I don’t love my Muse. She has never let me down (although, as for all authors, the Muse’s relationship to our unwritten books is yet to be seen). But writing is a real taskmaster, and writing a book feels like going to a very, very long boot camp.

Long indeed. I realized the other day that I have written four full-length books–three novels (THE FOUR SEASONS, PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, and my in-progress work, THE LAWS OF MOTION) and one narrative non-fiction work (UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH) in six years. I have never not been writing a book since the beginning of 2004, and in some cases, most notably with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, rewriting and heavy editing overlapped with creating the first draft of THE FOUR SEASONS.

Those are some pretty serious marching orders! So I’ve been appreciating the fact that, with the first draft of THE LAWS OF MOTION done (and with no editor yet to take the place of the Muse), I have no orders at all. I’m back to having only one full-time job, teaching humanities at San Diego City College, and it is really a treat to be able to give it my full attention. Who knows? I might actually do some reading for pleasure this fall. Play a little more tennis. Get back regularly to the gym. Read more than the headlines in the paper. This could be fun!

Okay, so here is the reality.  I did stop writing for most of that semester.  I  did do a little reading for pleasure (including more than the headlines), played tennis and went to the gym at least sometimes. It was great to give my classes pretty much undivided attention, and except for some unexpected health problems, I had a strong semester.

Then the drill sergeant showed up again.  I made it to early December without letting myself go back to the world of being an author.  By then the idea for THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD, my work-in-progress was taking over my waking thoughts, and I was once again, as Diane Ackerman calls it, “coming down with a book.”

So let’s update one of the above paragraphs: I have written five full-length books–four novels (THE FOUR SEASONS, PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, THE LAWS OF MOTION, and the nearly finished THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD) and one narrative non-fiction work (UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH) in seven years. I have never not been writing a book since the beginning of 2004 (except for a few months last fall),and in the last few months, dealing with revisions of PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER and THE LAWS OF MOTION  have overlapped with creating the first draft of THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD.

Marching orders, indeed!  Though it’s still like bootcamp year round,  I’m managing my time better.  This time around my year-long forced march comes complete with stops for coffee and lunch with friends. It comes with lots more time for exercise and R&R.  The Muse is still a drill sergeant, but sometimes she’s having a little trouble finding me to boss around.

It’s Sunday morning. I’ve been writing since 6AM. It’s a beautiful day, and perhaps I can convince the Muse to put on some sunscreen and spend the day with me.  Tennis, anyone?


A Blog for Xanthe!

My second novel, Penelope’s Daughter is coming out in a few weeks (the launch is September 24, and official pub date is October 5).  Those who read it will note that the dedication is “to all the children left bePenelope's Daughterhind when mothers and fathers go off to war.”

That dedication came from my heart after spending so much time with Xanthe, the heroine of the novel.  She is the daughter left behind when Odysseus went off to Troy, the daughter he does not even know exists, because Penelope was too early in her pregnancy to be able to share the news.

I thought a lot about what it means to dedicate a book in this fashion. I do not want it to be an empty gesture, an easy thing to say and no more.  I am still pondering how to use the platform the novel could provide, as a means of advocating for the dedicatees (is that a word?) So far the best idea I have come up with is to create a website for readers of the book (and others), focusing on resources and information that will help increase awareness of the difficulties faced by children of our own service personnel deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

It’s very much a work in progress, but I launched it today.  Take a look at Xanthe’s World, and if you have ideas, please let me know.  I disable comments here because of problems with spam, but I’d love to hear from you! If you don’t have my email address, there’s a link on the “Contact” page of this site.


Lacing Up My Shoes

I’ve recently taking up running again after a twenty-five year break. I can’t remember exactly why I stopped–something having to do with small children, a full-time job, and a nasty bout of viral pneumonia that sidelined me for months.

I suppose the biggest psychological factor was that I never really enjoyed running all that much. It was more about wanting to be on the other side of it, to spend the rest of my day having done it, rather than actually wanting to go out and have the experience. I ran so slowly I called it “going out for a trudge” because I didn’t think that even the rather laconic term “jogging” applied to what I did. Running itself was always about no more than getting to the end.

It’s been interesting to see how different it is now. Twenty-five years is enough time to watch a lot of things happen to one’s body, plenty of time to realize that there are nothing but bad reasons at my age to wait one more day, week, or month to get started on something good for me. And so I did. I got out a pair of trail shoes I’d bought a fewsneaker_cartoon years ago because they looked cute with jeans, and went down to my local YMCA for a course entitled “Running 101.”

My partner wondered aloud why anyone would need a class to learn to run. but having been a sturdy, athletic boy growing up in rural America, he figured it out for himself, like most kids do. I was an overweight pre-teen in the 1950s and no one cared if I could complete a fifty-yard dash, or do ten sit-ups, for that matter. After all, someone has to come in last. And yes, those are both things I remember not being able to do, although admittedly I didn’t get the point of bothering to try. Is PE over yet? That was the only question I had.

With my cute shoes on, I and my classmates headed out for a twenty-minute run on the first day of class. I was left in the dust by a group of people most of whom are about half my age, and by the time the twenty-minute run/walk was over, I was the last to finish of those who ran (some started out walking). The operative word, however, is “finish,” not “last.” Four weeks later, I’m just behind the fast group and running more than 5K in every class.
I don’t know what to attribute being better at it now than then. Maybe it’s that this time I feel more investment in taking control of the quality of my life rather than putting it off until later. I don’t really have a goal other than living in the best body I can. Ironically, the one goal it never would have occurred to me to set–to enjoy the sport–might actually be realized too.

One thing my previous experience with running taught me (other than the fact that I could indeed do it, if not happily or well) was to make analogies from running to the other tasks I face. The 10K (6.2 miles) organized run was just gathering steam in the 1980s, and I ran quite a few of those. Even today, more than two decades after my last one, I still find myself thinking, “this is like the mile 2 mark,” or 4, or 6. Each marker went with a state of mind and body that correlates to getting any kind of big project done.

Like writing a novel. I often ask myself, “so where am I in this process?” and think I am at 3K or 5K, or blissfully, at 6.15, with only the last few steps to go. But I’ve noticed this time around there’s another analogy as well between writing and running.

Every run has its own pattern. For me the first few minutes are the hardest. Every time I wonder whether I have it in me that day. By ten minutes, I’m feeling tired, and I’m still wondering the same thing. Then everything starts to click, and I can go for quite a while at a pretty good clip without feeling as if I need to stop. Now and again, I reach a point where I think “this is hard,” but most of the time I can power through it. If not, I stop, but usually not for more than a few seconds. Take that pattern, stretch it out over a year or more and–well, what do you know?–sounds just like writing a novel.

I’ve been in the huffing and puffing stage for a while with my novel-in-progress. I just could not hit stride and I’ve been dallying by the wayside trying to regroup. Now, however, I have my second wind and I’m off again. I’ll finish later in the fall than I had first thought, but the road ahead looks clear.

If this were a 10K, where would I be? Probably about mile 4, with 2.2 to go. A time to be both discouraged at how much lies ahead, and excited that I really am, once again, on the route and making it to the finish.