I’m feeling much better about my novel this week, despite my nerves this weekend. This Monday in class I shared 4 pages from the book. This was a bit of a milestone for me – the first time anyone had looked at a draft of something from this novel, or any of the work I’ve been doing in the last few years. I still have a buzz from the anxiety going in. I was worried beforehand about what the response would be, but the input from the workshop turned out to be very helpful. The course has a mishmash of people from different backgrounds and talents, so they were able to catch little details like – “malpractice” is different from “negligent malpractice” and “a broken eardrum doesn’t release enough fluid to drain down your neck”. And the group seemed to read right past the names I gave the characters in the story without blinking. For some reason I had the irrational fear someone would say – “that name’s ridiculous!” or “you spelled his name wrong!”. My biggest stumbling block has been naming my badguys. I have much appreciation for Julia’s help on this. Her suggestion that they be named after the insurance code they fall under saved the day. My readers all approved of “The Fives” (for Section V) as an appropriately ominous name for the baddies.
Sometimes I do feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of technical details that go into a book. Another member of the group has been researching her story for 10 years, and while she’s become a real expert on the topic (which of course I can’t reveal on this blog), I think it makes her sad to know that a lot of the work she’s done will never make it into the final book. I don’t want to spend 10 years studying gene sequencing, the legal system, and medicine, but I do need to know enough for my characters to sound like authorities and pass the B.S. test for readers. My story is science fiction, which means that when I need to I can invent workaround technologies that “don’t exist yet”, but I think the closer I stick to the real world, the more the characters and their problems will resonate with modern readers, so I’m doing my best to stick with what I think will actually happen in the future. Having a sounding board of writer-scientists and writer-lawyers reading my book is invaluable. Even hearing the thoughts of someone who’s closer in age to my characters makes a tremendous difference.
I’m also following the advice of the instructor to read fiction while I’m writing. One of my personal writing heroes on this book is Michael Crichton who, in Jurassic Park, perfectly straddled the line between telling a story the layperson could understand and including enough details to sound authoritative. I read the book when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and even I understood it (mostly). Unfortunately, his most recent, Next, seemed to sacrifice character development and plot to service the Gee-Whiz science details. (or maybe I’m giving Jurassic Park too much credit?) Another writer I’m paying close attention to now is Stephen King. Yesterday I picked up The Stand, which I’ve heard many people say is his best work, and so far I’m impressed. The book begins with a mutant flu virus with a 94% mortality rate. King doesn’t bother (at least so far) getting into the hows or whys of the virus’ creation. Instead he focuses on the character’s responses and the believability of the world around the epidemic. The book is riveting and scarier because of the vagueness of the science involved. The book’s realism comes from his specificity on the characterization. He doesn’t hesitate to use brand names and describe ailments in gruesome detail. It’s making me seriously rethink the amount of detail I want to include in each scene and where that details needs to be focused.
So overall, I’m getting some great insights from this writing workshop. My word count is still sadly low, but with luck the prep work I’m doing now (still working on that chapter by chapter outline) will mean less rewriting down the road.
As we look forward to the coldest weekend yet this fall, I'm looking forward to a weekend of writing, studying, and eating some healthy comfort food. Here's a photo from a recent trip to Le's in Harvard Square. Chicken Pho soup, with extra veggies and all the seasonings. Yum!
Work on my novel has come to a complete standstill as I try to figure out where this story is going and what approach I might take to get there. One thing my writing workshop has done, for better or for worse, is bring me face to face with my deepest fears in writing – the fear that if I read something better than I’m writing I’ll become completely discouraged and stop writing, the fear that if I plan my story out in advance I’ll have done all the fun work and won’t enjoy writing after that, and the fear that being around other writers who are working on more serious subjects will tempt me to abandon my work and switch over to a more literary story. After a month of classes it seems – my monsters are real! Because I’m feeling, today, like the well is completely dry.
How does one keep writing, even with the growing suspicion that the thing she is writing is total crap? Is it possible to do good work without feeling excited about it? I think I see a few tactics for getting out, but they’re strategies I’ve used before and the projects I used them on are still unfinished. How do I know whether to trust the strategies and hope this book is stronger than the previous ones, or to distrust the strategies and find some other way out? These are the options I’m considering:
1. Operation: Rewrite – start over from the beginning and rewrite it all with a stronger focus on the science aspects. Keep to the original Michael Crichton-esque thriller tone and build a tight, fast moving plot around that. My concern with this one is that I might not know enough science to make it interesting and the story could get dull.
2. Operation: Mrowsky – completely reshape the story to include a detective (who sooner or later invades everything I write). Throw in new locales, new characters, new themes, and the kitchen sink to make it more of a literary genre piece. I worry these are all distractions that are keeping me from writing the story I started with and this book will keep on morphing and never end.
3. Operation: EditorKill – kill my internal editor and just keep writing without any heed to what I’ve already written. Just push through until I reach the end of the story and then go back to edit later. This one will be tough in the workshop because how will I bring in anything for people to look at?
Whatever approach I decide to take, I need to do it soon, because my homework for class is a chapter by chapter outline of the whole book AND I have to bring in something for people to read on Monday. Much as I struggle with the assignments, I’m committed to giving this class the benefit of the doubt and trying out every assignment. And, I can see that ultimately this is the time when I should finally figure out what I’m writing about. 20k words is a hefty chunk of book to write without any end in mind.
What I want for this novel is above all else for it to be fun to read. So what's the fastest way for me to get back to having fun writing it?
Happy Monday! I hope everyone’s been doing lots of fun fall activities. Mine was loaded with fall –
Friday night Greg and I celebrated the end of the week in Boston’s North End with dinner at our favorite restaurant – La Familia Giorgio. This restaurant is great for gourmets and gourmands alike. The portions are huge, but also made when you order so everything is as fresh as possible. They also make a wheat pasta every day, so it puts a moderately healthy spin on a bowl of noodles. Every time we eat there I have to order the pasta with olive oil and garlic – total comfort food – but I mix it up with different add ins, this time calamari. Every dish is enough food for three meals, but we still order an appetizer of stuffed eggplant, because it’s too good to miss. (and for dessert pumpkin cheesecake – delicious!)
Saturday we finally made it to an apple orchard, something we’ve wanted to do since early September. After much deliberation we decided on Parlee Farms in Tyngsboro. We were just in time to pick at least 6 varieties – Golden Delicious, Macoun, Gala, Empire, Macintosh, and several others. All were very ripe, as next week is their final week of pick your own, but there were still lots of apples left on the trees. The apples were expensive there, but I would definitely return, maybe even earlier in the year for berry picking. The grounds were clean, the hay rides to the orchards were frequent, and everyone was friendly. The all important fresh fall snacks were inexpensive and delicious – $3.50 bought us 5 mini cider donuts and a bag of kettle corn. We were tempted by the hot apple pie with ice cream and the hot cider, but after “tasting” 3 or 4 apples out in the orchards our bellies were just too full. Later today I’ll post some photos from apple picking. The farm has a petting zoo with funny little goats. They were battling each other for the attention of the kids and their hands full of food. The goats have a “goat walk” in their pen that goes 20 feet up into the trees with a platform and food at the top. The walkway doesn’t have any rails or protection to keep them from falling off, but the goats are sure footed and every few minutes we’d see another one start up or back down. There was plenty of easier food to be had on the ground with all the kids bending over the fencing to feed them, so the goats must enjoy the exercise of climbing up.
On our way back Saturday afternoon, we cut east to check out the crowds in Salem. Unfortunately, my phone was dieing at that point so I didn’t get any photos, but there were plenty of spooky sights to see. I love Salem at any time of year, but in October it’s like a whole different world. The streets are filled with people of all ages in costume, and random ghouls and corpses wander the streets handing out flyers or just scaring tourists (/me). This trip we discovered an art studio with moody paintings of Salem landmarks like the House of Seven Gables and the Witch Museum. I would’ve liked to get a postcard or print by the artist, but all the ones in the shop were originals and too pricey for us in the current economy.
Sunday was mostly a low key day. I cooked a big pot of chili and turned some of our apples into an apple crisp. The sun is setting very early here now – by 6pm – so before it went down yesterday, I made an effort to get a quick walk on the bike path, and look at the wildlife around Spy Pond. I’m looking forward to November 2, and the extra hour of sleep, but it’s going to mean the sunlight ends before I even leave work during the week. In the last year, my group at work has moved to a different floor where I don’t have any windows or natural light during the day. I’m going to have to find a way this winter to get regular periods of natural sunlight in every day, and possibly a full spectrum light for my desk.