Category Archives: On Writing

I Like It. Now Add Suspense.

What will happen next?

What will happen next?

So, about two weeks before Hurricane Sandy and three weeks before our fire, I had a consultation with the brilliant Arielle Eckstut, agent, entrepreneur, and one half of the amazing husband-and-wife team known as The Book Doctors.  I’d first met Arielle and her husband David at one of their famous (in the literary world) Pitchapalooza workshops, held at Montclair’s beloved Watchung Booksellers, back in January.

I’d just come from the pitch slam at the Writers Digest Conference, where I’d successfully pitched my adult novel to five different agents. (To be clear: by “successfully,” I mean they had all asked for pages, not offered to rep me.) Anyway, I didn’t feel I needed to work on my pitch for that book, but wanted to try something new.   So, the night before the Pitchapalooza workshop, I wrote a brand new pitch–just for the fun of it–for a book I had not written yet: a YA ballet novel which would become Twice the Dazzle.  To make a long story short, David critiqued my pitch and then told me to let him know when the book was done. Nine months later, I emailed him with just that news. He read a few chapters and suggested I have a consultation with his wife, which is just what I did.

Arielle helped me tweak the pitch letter and fine-tune the list of agents to-be-queried.  Then, after reading several excerpts of my actual book, she gave me some great advice.  She loved my writing, she said; she liked the characters and the story too.  But …

“You play all your cards in the first hand.”

Meaning, via the dreaded info-dump trap, I had given away my characters’ back stories and motivation in the first chapter.  Suspense was the thing my book needed. Entice the reader along, Arielle encouraged me, trickle out clues as to why they might be this way and what happened before. Draw the readers in with the suggestion of what a glance, a touch, a turned back might mean later on.  Lead up to a big reveal. Make BIG MOMENTS your landmarks.

So, I got right to work. For example:

The first chapter (which used to be a prologue) involved the seventeen-year-old twins, Oliver and Olivia, simultaneously flashing back to a traumatic moment from their childhood, when their mother had abandoned them in a taxicab.  For some reason, I was convinced that I had to begin with this scene; it shed light on the twins’ own relationship as well as both twins’ relationships with each of their parents. You saw Mom’s mental illness, Dad’s brutal temper, as well as Oliver’s delight in wearing the tutu that chubby Olivia couldn’t squeeze into (foreshadowing both the gay theme and the weight struggle/body image theme). All in all, an exhausting two and a half pages (artfully handled or not).

What I needed to do, Arielle had explained, was take the story of the early trauma and hint at it, revealing it organically later on. She’d helped me figure out where and how to do this, and also–since I wasn’t going to start with the flashback any more–where I should start the book in the first place.

When the hurricane hit, I was about two thirds of the way into my revision. I barely took a break though.  As soon as we were staying with friends-with-power, I resumed the process. Then came the fire. Then the work screeched to a halt. Twice the Dazzle, about seven eighths of the way revised was dangling in the air. Until now.  I had a conversation with my husband last night, during which we agreed that, while the kids and the various home-reconfiguring issues need to be my priorities right now, as well as my therapy practice, I can’t put the book aside–not when I’m this close to the finish line.  Of course, I can’t quite do what I did before the fire, which was write the whole time my kids were in school. But I can still write, even if it’s an hour or two here and there. I can still finish this thing and be ready to query by, say, February.

I’m beginning today by putting the new, improved, post-Book Doctor Consult Chapters 1 (Olivia’s voice) and 2 (Oliver’s voice)  here on this blog for curious followers.  Comment if you like.  Know that I’m around here somewhere, trying to make it all work.

L

House Fire Chronicles: A Very Brief Update

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This beautiful painting by Zoe was on the wall in our playroom.

Thank you all so much for your kind wishes, hugs, prayers, meals, gifts and really fabulous hand-me-downs (I love Montclair!).  We are so grateful to the wonderful friends who gave us their comfortable third floor for the past month.  We are also missing them a little bit now, as we’ve moved into a rental house that is just about two blocks away from our actual house.  We feel very lucky, even though the day we moved in here some men in trucks arrived to dig a huge hole in the front lawn in preparation to clean up an oil leak (this originated from the neighbor’s tank which was removed about a year ago).  I write this, by the way, to the beat of a jackhammer outside my window.  No biggie;  it will all be over in a week or two, the guy smoking a cigarette on my porch tells me.  Besides, I have to say again, I am so grateful to be here, this close to home.   It meant a lot to me that, while we’re waiting to move back (a year from now), our orientation to the town is basically the same as usual.  Close to school, close to neighbors, close to the construction, which should begin sometime soon.  Zoe is back on her old school bus and both kids are right around the corner from their friends. 

This would be more heartbreaking, I think, had our place just burned to the ground with all our stuff inside.    Instead, all our stuff is mostly intact, caked with soot, ground through with smoke-stench, but still there.  In a strange way, this has given me a chance to say goodbye.     

 Though the air inside good old 14 Victoria is really not safe to breath, though it is a darkened horror show, full of broken glass and other hazards, every few days, I put on a mask and sneak in to see what treasures I can rescue—a drawing that’s not too charred, an old favorite stuffed animal (I was able to scrub it fairly clean in the machine, though it still smells like smoke), a bra (seriously).  My clandestine game of search and rescue is coming to a close soon.   The place has been picked over and inventoried and assessed by salvage and content experts one of whom eloquently declared our stuff to be “toast.”  Read: not worth trying to salvage.  Which we’re now ready to hear I think, ready to move on. 

The next stage I think, is demolition.  Or something like it.  Stay tuned.  A phoenix is on the horizon.

My apologies for not blogging much these days, not following much and posting the same thing on FB and WP.  It’s not just a case of laziness or being overwhelmed.  I am writing, though mostly my book—which is keeping me sane—and limiting the time I spend at the computer.  The kids need it more.  And me.

Love,

Lisa

What are you Waiting For? Limbo vs. the Meantime.

“I’m waiting to hear.”

“I’m waiting to find out.”

“We were hoping to close before the end of the month but the buyers are stalling.”

“The doctor thinks it’s benign but we won’t have the results for another day or two.”

“My son applied to sixteen colleges.  We won’t hear until February.”

What are you waiting for?  In my case, there’s the writing-related waiting: for my teenage beta readers to finish with my YA novel so I can fix it and submit it; to hear from the couple of agents I’ve sent query letters to.  Then, there’s the family waiting:  to learn what my husband’s next job will be, to find out my daughter’s schedule, my son’s teacher—so I can get on with the back to school shopping already.  And of course, as it is for so many free-lance moms, though we’re loathe to admit it (sometimes), I’m waiting for school to start so I can get something done.  (Of course, back in June, I was waiting for summer to start so we could all relax a little!)

For review: I can’t shop until I know their schedules.  I can’t revise until I’ve gotten feedback.  Hear that message?   I can’t do X until another person does Y.   I’m in Limbo.  You’ve probably saidthat to someone recently.  If not, I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Webster’s defines Limbo (the secular definition) as “… an intermediate or transitional place or state of uncertainty.”

Limbo is a hard place to be.  Your life has been hijacked; everything is on hold, your eyes fixed on the uncertain future.  You’re a prisoner to the whims of others.  Checking your voicemail, the mailbox, the email, again, and again.  It can be a recipe for anxiety, irritability, and depression.  But guess what?  Limbo doesn’t own you.  You can choose to be free.

I know a woman who has survived cancer, bravely enduring the diagnosis and the painful, sickening rigors of treatment.  Then more treatment to make sure the first treatment really worked.    Then more tests and continued monitoring.  The waiting is never over for her, but somehow she refuses to see it that way.   “I can’t live my life in fear of the future.”  She has children who need her now; she has a husband, and a job, now.   She takes pleasure in her family and her garden, in beautiful weather and in rain, in cooking and in reading.  She gets scared sometimes, sad sometimes, and frustrated with people who try to make her dwell on illness when she’s focused on health.  But mostly she lives now, surrounded by people who love her, who appreciate her joie de vivre and who join her in the seizing of each day.  She’s grown strong on the love of life, exchanging hats for headbands, losing the headbands as hair grows back in.   Maybe one day it will be gone again, but now is what matters, her children and husband and friends.  The little things, like a phone call or an email that hasn’t come yet, some editor’s elusive approval—these wouldn’t faze her.  She may yet have all the time in the world, but she won’t waste a minute of it in Limbo.

I try my best to learn from this and I’m getting better.   When I start to get anxious and hyper-focused on the future—on the parts I have no control over (whether an agent will fall in love with my protagonist, whether I can make a feuding couple hear one another, whether my daughter will make friends in middle school)—I do a few things:

  • I sing.  In the shower, in the car, with my kids:   show tunes, the Beatles, Queen, Journey, Katie Perry, Taylor Swift, The Little Mermaid … anything.  Just sing.  It feels good, and I actually read a      study once that found singing enhances your mood.
  • I treat myself as if I were my own client.  I nurture myself, reality check, point out my own strengths or the strengths of my kids if it’s their uncertain futures I’m worrying about.
  • I breathe—like a yogi.  Full disclosure: I don’t do yoga, (the only reason being the time; if I have it to spare I’ll dance, which I never get to do enough).  However, a yogi friend of my husband’s taught him a series of deep breathing exercises, which he taught me.       And though this is third hand stuff, the deep breathing really does      help get me out of future-panic mode and back into the moment, the      present.
  • I read.
  • I connect with people I love and miss.  You know—the ones you’re too busy and angst-ridden to see?  Hearing about their lives takes you out of your own.   Cheer them on, console them if they need it, share yourself, laugh together.  Be in the moment together.
  • I think  about my mom, how she worries about me and my family just because we’re her children—how silly I think she is for doing it.  Everything is going to be fine, Mom, it really is.  And saying it to      her, I believe it.
  • I play with my kids.  Because they are the moment.
  • I hang out with my husband (oh yeah—him!)

These things are the opposite of Limbo:  they are how I make the most of the meantime.

When my father was dying, when my mother and I knew it would be soon, we were in a very trying kind of limbo.

“It’ll be any day now,” said the visiting nurse.  Any day now seemed like a pretty big margin of error.   In any case, we were in a holding pattern, as my mother described it.  We didn’t want to go too far or commit to anything.  We were determined to be with Dad when he passed.  The waiting went on for two whole weeks.

Then, the night before he died, my mother and I watched a movie together on the small TV set in the living room.  Though it wasn’t a comedy, the relief of doing something besides wait got the better of us and soon, we were both in stitches, enjoying each other, enjoying this small piece of life, though my father was leaving us gradually in the other room.*

We hadn’t abandoned him; he was in the care of a nurse who’d get us as soon as we were needed.  But during those two hours, we were free from Limbo, making the most of something beautiful in the meantime … life.

What about you?  When you find yourself in a holding pattern, what do you do to celebrate “the meantime?”

Blog vs. Book Part 2

Unlike some dedicated bloggers who announce their hiatuses (hiatae?) in advance, I just up and took one without planning to, without any word at all.  Though I thought I’d start blogging in earnest again as soon as I’d completed a draft of my novel, once I had that draft in hand (in my docs) my momentum picked up, rather than slowing.   A draft is only a draft, after all, and a completed, submission-ready novel is quite another thing and I wanted that other thing ASAP.  I became obsessed—remain obsessed (as I think you have to be to finish any book) with that goal of completion.  (I know: many novelists say you’re never really done; there are always possible revisions to make, but I’m talking about that stage when you can finally query an agent re: “my completed novel.” )

Once I’d finished what was really a second draft (meaning the first draft with all notes-to-self replaced by actual writing, a real ending and finally, finally, a title (more on that in a moment), that goal seemed imminently doable.  The next milestone—right before the point where you can revise with intent to query—was the “done-enough-to-give-to-beta-readers” point.  I can get there by the time my husband gets back from his business tripI can get there before my daughter leaves for sleep-away camp (and my son needs me to actually hang out with him).  I can get there by the time my mom gets home from Russia (she’ll be so proud of me and so surprised that she’s got a new book to read!).

It became a race against the ordinary events in my life, a race against myself, my stamina, the clock, sleep.  As a writing mom with kids home for the summer, work is all about brief periods of intense focus, then lots of big vats of pasta so my kids can have all their friends over and won’t miss me if I need to keep writing.  But when I’m done writing for the morning or the afternoon, my kids have me.   We make up dumb songs, tell each other stories, dance around the kitchen, swim, read to one another and, of course shop (which is sometimes fun with kids, other times not, but it’s important for kids to learn to take the good with the boring).  In other words, even when my writing takes center stage, kids are top priority.  For example, my daughter had a bad scare when she was convinced that a cookie crumb was lodged in her lung; believe me, I dropped everything to make her tea and hold her hand while she coughed tearfully away.  A blog, on the other hand … well, a blog is not your kid.

To be perfectly frank, this blog, the blogosphere in general, dropped completely off my list of priorities.  And, unlike past occasions, I didn’t feel a lick of guilt about it.  Partly that’s because I believe my fellow bloggers–those I follow and who follow me–would not only understand, but would be cheering me on as I’d cheer for them.  We’re a group of supportive women (mostly) and men (still a nice handful) who respect one another and know that each of us is an adult (mostly) and that we all have goals that may sometimes take up all our energy.   (Though it’s only been ten days since my last post,  it feels like much longer; I haven’t been reading, commenting or even going on She Writes.)

All that said, I’m returning to this blog after an unannounced hiatus, because it matters to me.  The blogs I follow matter to me.  I am curious to see how they’re all doing, what’s up with my fellow novel-writing bloggers, what’s happening in Australia, Lebanon, Alaska, Calgary and The Blue Ridges (for a few examples).  What people are thinking vis à vis gun control, post Aurora; about the Boy Scouts’ sad and curious choice of encouraging homophobia.  I’m eager to see how the new bloggers I know are doing and enjoying the colorful visuals of the photo-blogs I follow.  (Please check out my blogroll in the lower right hand corner!)

Please note that I have added a second Novel Excerpt page for anyone interested in checking out my new Y.A. baby:  Twice the Dazzle.  It took finishing the book to come up with a title I felt was right!

Thanks for your patience and all your support in the past.

Lisa

P.S. If you didn’t catch the original Blog vs. Book post from March 15th, you can read it here.

A Stench in the House … Someone Must be Writing.

The other day, I posted about my friend, Emmy Laybourne’s newly released YA novel, Monument 14.  So, what about my own YA novel in progress?  Rightly or not, I feel I owe my followers at least a tiny explanation.  Here’s what I meant to do after that “Ghost Blog” post, in which I explained the reason I was slacking off on my blogging was that I’d given myself a June 15th deadline for finishing a draft of my YA novel.  After making my deadline with flying colors (which I actually did, but more on the later) I was going to write a big victory post announcing the completion of the draft, the launching of the new revision phase and possibly throwing in some resolutions about how much more religiously I was going to blog, it being summer and all.

Well, here’s what happened instead.  I finished a draft on June 12th, a couple of days before my deadline, but rather than posting about it to celebrate, I dove right into the revision process without even coming up for air.  The reason being momentum, of which I had tons seeing as I’d been eating, sleeping and breathing the world of my twin protagonists, slamming through that last chapter, that final delicious moment when Olivia gets her dazzle on after 17 years of being outshone by her talented and dynamic twin brother Oliver.  I didn’t want to blog about it, talk about it, write about the process of writing it or do anything but just keep on writing—starting over at the beginning!  And let’s face it, is there anything more fun and exciting than combing through and tightening up a big 288 page mess that you made?

Writing a first draft can be scary.  Even though I used an outline and tried to stick to it, there were times when I got lost and self doubt consumed me.  What if I couldn’t finish?  What if the plot just didn’t work?   I admit it; there were lots of doubts and lots of periods of time where I’d finish a chapter and the thought of filling in the blankness ahead was so daunting,  I had to force myself to sit in the chair and write.  I did a lot of procrastinating, sometimes using the blogosphere itself as an escape.  I didn’t use a writing group because I find that getting feedback as I make up the story tends to hold me back.  I do better when I just write the whole thing, revise a few times and then test it out on people.  A first draft is for you, the writer.  It’s the progression through the whole story, with lots of notes-to-self (can this be told as a flash-back?  Do we even need the zany, mad-cap aunt?) woven in.  A second draft is the one you can start sharing with your writers’ group, or your mother or your husband or that one devoted friend who likes to read anything you seem to put on paper.  A second draft is the one where someone besides you can read the story and kind of get it; it’s the one before the third fourth and fifth drafts you might give to some beta readers—where it starts to count.

Nevertheless, a first draft is a huge milestone.  Before, you had an outline—better than a blank page, but still just a big map with no guarantee of arriving at your destination.  Now …

  • You know your outline works at least well enough to get      you from starting point A all the way home.
  • You have a beginning, middle and end and hopefully a      bunch of stuff to work with in between.
  • You no longer have just a story in your mind to invent, you have a book to tinker with: hundreds of pages of material      to tweak, sort, toss and turn into something potentially magical.
  • Best of all, since it’s for your eyes only so far, it’s      okay that it’s a mess … for now.

My friend who is a creative writing professor recommends leaving your first draft alone in a drawer for a few months while you work on other projects.  The idea is to come back to it with some distance and be able to clearly see what works, what doesn’t and what just needs to be deep sixed.  I think this is good advice.  However, I’ve got this momentum right now and I don’t want to waste it.  With this draft in hand, the fears, the tendency to procrastinate vanished and momentum was hard to break.  I still had about a week left before my kids’ summer vacation arrived to cut short my writing time, so instead of taking a breather from my book, I plowed on.

With the second draft, things happen more quickly.  If I have an hour, I can rewrite a whole chapter or a scene that doesn’t work, or write the sick aunt out of the book altogether.  If I have thirty minutes, I can pick a pretty OK section and make it pretty good.

On the downside, since I can’t wait to finish this draft and the going is pretty easy (for now), it’s really hard to stop and do other things.  Like laundry and dinner.  And getting immunization records for summer camp.  The other day, I’d been multitasking:  cooking dinner, folding laundry, helping my daughter pack for a camping trip, when I stole a “few” minutes to revise the chapter I was working that morning.  In retrospect I did smell something foul as I sat there, but for better or for worse, I was too focused to care what it was.

My son is much more independent than my daughter and therefore less likely to come up to my “writing room” when I’m working (when I’m up there, he can usually sneak in some precious unauthorized moments on the Wii).   I knew something was up when I heard his little feet padding up the stairs.

“Mommy,” he said, “I think there’s a stench in the house.  It’s starting to hurt the inside of my nose.”

A stench?  Indeed there was.  It was the wok full of broccoli and other assorted vegetables that I’d walked away from twenty minutes earlier and was now blackening away in a malodorous disaster.  (Yes my husband was home, as was my daughter, but their allergies often preclude stench detection.)

So this is where I’ve been, writing, revising, burning broccoli, letting wet laundry sit for a few days racing to get out a draft that someone can actually read.  I am in a big hurry to get to the end for reasons I’ll disclose in another post, but I must say, I am at last enjoying the process.  I think many followers are in the same boat with their own books, or somewhere in the vicinity.  Godspeed to you all.  Best of luck and keep me posted on your process!

“My friend’s Book Signing” Or “Why I Can’t wait to read Monument 14”

Me with fellow supporters of Monument 14; Emmy (the author) is on the far right

Sometimes other people’s successes are just as invigorating as our own.  Last Monday, after leaping substantial childcare hurdles, I was fortunate enough to help my friend Emmy Laybourne celebrate the release of her new post-apocalyptic YA book, Monument 14.  Here’s what it’s about in a nutshell:

“Fourteen Kids.  One Superstore.  A Million things that go Wrong.”

And I have lifted that word-for-word from the inside flap.  I can tell you how I know the book is going to do well.  First, my daughter’s best friend read the blurb and demanded to read the book at once, though it’s YA and she’s just eleven, so her mom and I thought we should read it first.  Then I’ll buy her a copy of her own.  Second, Monument 14 has already been called “the next Hunger Games” in The Grindstone.  Third, on the day of the book signing, I arrived late because of traffic, only to discover that the book store which held the event had run clean out of the book, as had the nearby Barnes and Noble!  My friends and I had to check out three different book stores to find copies, at which point we raced back to have Emmy sign our books.  That said, I haven’t read it yet because I’m still reading my book group book and I want to read Monument 14 uninterrupted.   I can’t wait though.  I know Emmy is a fantastic writer because we were in a writers’ group together briefly.  I had an opportunity to read one of her works in progress as well as benefitting from her wise insights on my own work.

Anyway, after the book signing, a group of us—Emmy’s family and friends from inside and outside the publishing world—went to a bar to celebrate over beer and munchies.  I wish I could describe the feel of love, enthusiasm and pride everyone felt just to share in the victory.  As an unpublished writer, and not the only one in attendance, I felt a few things in addition to awe at Emmy’s grand success.  One was a sense of hope.  Not that I expect to be as successful, but this night made me feel that yes: completion, representation, and publication are within the realm of possibility.  I also felt reassured that—despite all the remarkable new devices proliferating and the apps that go with them—people still like books.  Period.  They will buy them and hold them and treasure them and … can you imagine someone trying to sign a Kindle?  And hand it down to their grandkids?  Nuff said.

I also had a chance to talk with Emmy’s editor, one of the nicest young women I’ve met, who just gushed about her job, reading and discovering books.  I talked with Emmy’s publicist too, another unpublished writer, just as nice, about the writing, submitting, and wishing process.  The whole evening made me feel positive and proud and enthusiastic about this whole business of being a writer.

“Ghost Blog” or “Please Stand By …”

Okay, so this post is mostly for my followers, who may or may not have noticed that I haven’t even touched this blog for a really long time.  The June 15 deadline for finishing a draft of my YA novel still stands, which is why I’ve been focusing only on that.   (Oh yeah and my kids.  And husband.  I meant kids and husband.)  This is just a quick post to share a few awesome things that have happened in the interim.

  •  The Edgemont school production of Annie, for which I was honored to do choreography, went off last week, not only without a hitch, but so splendidly, I cried at all four shows.  Both casts were fantastic, but the Friday cast was especially dear to me, because my own Zoe starred as the curly, carrot-topped orphan herself.  (Though not-especially-carrot-topped in this case!)  Her photo tops this post with friends in “Hard Knock Life.”
  • My unpublished-unagented-but-finished-for-now novel, Birch Wood Doll was named a finalist in the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel competition.  This was so exciting I actually screamed when I realized the email wasn’t a form “thank you but no thanks” rejection.

Dr. Susan Swartwout, the publisher of Southeast Missouri State University Press, who sponsors the contest, gave me some wonderful feedback which I will use when I revise again, which I have decided to do.  

  • Last but not least, a very special friend of mine who will remain anonymous just gave me the thrilling news that motherhood is in her future. 

Anyway, I’m on target to finish my draft and will return to more regular blogging, reading and commenting very soon. 

Story of a Dog Called “Munch”

This week, since next week is Spring Break for my kids and I’ll have almost no writing time, all my focus has been on my book.  Hence the blog neglect.  But I did wanted to post something light and fun.  I came up with an idea of a dog story from my memory, because strangely–the more my children ask for a dog–as friends get dogs, and families with dogs arrive on my street–the more conscious I become of being a person without a dog.  After all, you either are a dog person or you aren’t.

Well, once upon a time, I was a dog person. As a kid I loved them and routinely demanded one despite our apartment building’s prohibition against them.  I’d let the biggest, sloppiest dog jump up on me; I’d shriek with giggles when it knocked me down and smothered me with dog kisses.  So you can imagine my delight, the summer I was ten, when my family stayed in a house just down the road from a farm where there lived seven lively, full grown dogs.

Our first day there, after we’d unpacked and my mother had begun inspecting the kitchen, my father and I were sitting in the living room, reading.  Suddenly, the front door swung open and Blue the Hound came plowing in.  Didn’t stop to sniff or scratch: just streaked through the house and blasted out the back door.  My dad—a diehard dog person if ever there was one—looked at me and I looked at him and we burst out laughing.  It was clear that the dogs ran the place.

About a hundred yards from the house was a decent-sized lake, used by everyone with a house in the area, unofficially presided over by a German Shepherd known as Munch.  Munch loved to swim, loved to be with people swimming.  Most of all, he loved having people throw things into the lake for him to retrieve.  Tennis balls, Frisbees, sticks, oars–anything.  Munch would hurl himself into the water with a euphoric wo!  and swim like a maniac out to whatever you’d thrown.  He’d grab it in his teeth, swim back to shore with just as much gusto, drop it at your feet and pant with anticipation, ready to go again.  It could go on for hours if you let it.

Most people got tired of throwing things for Munch after a while, even a dog-lover like my dad.  After seven or eight rounds, he’d say something like: “OK, Munch, that’s all she wrote,” and go sit on a deck chair in the sun.  In this, I could relate to Munch.  Adults were always ready to move on when you still wanted to play.  But Munch was a happy-go-lucky guy who never personalized the fatigue of adults; he’d just shove the play thing over to the next person and wait for him or her to spring to action.

Though I was always ready to play, Munch usually chose me last for practical reasons.  Munch’s favorite retrieval object was a canoe paddle with half the handle broken off.  Had it been whole, it would have been about as long as I was tall, so I just didn’t have the power to throw it more than a couple of feet.  Munch could make it twice as far in one bound.  He liked me, so he’d humor me and make a deal of running the yard or so into the water.  But he’d try to bring the paddle to someone else next time if he possibly could.

Nevertheless, I loved Munch.  His face was sweet, pretty for a German Shepherd, with the warmest brown eyes and widest smile. He was considered the lesser of the two Shepherds, Denver being the larger and more majestic–pale gold and black where Munch’s coat was ruddier, muddier.   Denver was dignified, with better training, while Munch was wilder and more humble: never too proud to go through someone’s garbage if he suspected the remains of a sandwich.   When the two dogs wrestled, it was always Munch who started it, though he was way outmatched.  Denver seemed to enjoy himself well enough but he always had this tolerant air– Haven’t you had enough yet?  On the rare occasions that Denver wouldn’t wrestle, Munch would handle it the same way he did with people at the lake.  He’d try the next dog, and the next, until he found one who was ready to go.

There was this one day, when my mother and I had arrived at the lake to discover a smashed-up Jeep, right there in the grass between the road and the sandy bank. Our house was far enough off the road that we’d heard no accident the night before; no one from the farm had stopped by to report any disaster.  There was no one hurt inside, no broken glass on the road, no tell-tale skid marks: just this crumpled mass of metal and rubber, off to the side where it was in no one’s way.  Whatever had happened had clearly been taken care of except for the remains of the car.  A mystery, but nothing we felt we needed to pursue, so we moved ahead onto the beach and spread out our towels.

It was already very warm that morning, though it was still too early for most of the vacationers to be out.  There was no one there but Munch, lying on his belly near the water’s edge, fondly gnawing his canoe paddle.  He lifted his head and gave us a brief dog-grin, slapping the sand happily with his tail.  Apparently, the Jeep was already old news to him; he’d probably finished sniffing and inspecting it long before our arrival and had moved on.

Munch let us swim and enjoy ourselves for a little while.  He knew how to bide his time, knew better than to look desperate right away.  When he finally approached us, we could see him hesitate for a second.  Do I bring it to the kid who likes me but can’t throw?  Or do I risk annoying the lady—who could do without me but whose arm isn’t half bad?  There was a slight air of apology in the glance Munch gave me as he dropped the paddle at my mother’s feet.

“Aw, Munch,” she said, “We just sat down.”  But she was smiling; he really was a sweet animal.

Mom got to her feet, picked up the paddle (using only her thumb and middle finger at first, careful to avoid the dog-drool), and followed Munch to the water’s edge.  I was impressed with the distance Mom got that day.  She knew: the further she managed to throw, the fewer times she’d have to do it.  At last, she told Munch, no more; she was going back to her towel and book.   So I took a turn.  The stakes were higher than usual.  Aware that I was Munch’s last hope, I put all I had into my throws.  By the time my arm got tired, Munch was getting bored anyway.  I was good for a laugh or two, but he craved a challenge.

I got into the water while Munch stood on the beach, deliberating.  No one else had arrived and there was no question that my mother—now thoroughly engrossed in her book—was done with him.  Munch turned toward the road.  He looked one direction, then the other, and finally fixed his gaze on the jeep.   His tail began to wag lightly.  We saw hope register in his muscles as he trotted over to the grass where the mangled vehicle sat.  Munch dropped the paddle before the car, backed up the respectful distance he gave all his prospective playmates, and sat, full of anticipation.

We laughed; what was he expecting—someone to emerge from the rubble and throw the paddle?  Or did he believe that the jeep itself might rise to the challenge?  After few minutes, he got up, shoved the paddle a few inches closer—like he often did with people who weren’t immediately responsive—and sat again, tail thumping.

Fifteen minutes later, when my mother closed her book and joined me for one last dip, Munch hadn’t budged.  Nor had he half an hour after that, when we packed up our things and prepared to go back to the house for lunch.  Munch barely glanced our way as we passed him.  By that time, he’d rested his head on his paws though his eyes were still watchful.  Munch was in it for the long haul.

Hermes on the Path

As noted in an earlier post, I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams. 

Hermes on the Path

I happen to be the sort of writer who loves the onslaught of ideas that hits me daily, who feels trapped by outlines.   Yet that very onslaught makes me the sort of writer who MUST have an outline.  I know this because the first draft of my completed adult novel weighed in at 711 pages.  It took me five years and sixteen revisions to get it down to 300 pages.  I just don’t have that kind of time any more (not that I did then either).

This time, I started by envisioning a query letter, went ahead and wrote the “plot summary paragraph,” and used that as inspiration.  I allowed myself to write fifty pages, just enough to get a sense of my twins, their family and relationships, then forced myself to write an outline.  As you’d expect, this was when the process really started to take off.

I’m following my outline in the same way you follow the path on a hike through the woods.  Sometimes the path is clear; sometimes there’s a fallen tree across it.  When you go around the tree, you discover another path, partly covered by moss and vines, but leading somewhere nevertheless.  You check it out, because you’ve got a feeling it might be something worth exploring.  Five times out of ten, you’re glad you did.

There’s a big difference between planning and doing. Who hasn’t traveled somewhere new and arrived to discover that the weather is warmer, colder, or wetter than they expected?  Who hasn’t had to buy an emergency raincoat or Infant Tylenol?  Who hasn’t arrived home and unpacked a heavy sweater or swimsuit that never got worn?  Packing for the journey, you take informed leaps of faith, but only when you get there do you see what’s practical, plausible.

It’s the same way with plot points in an unfinished novel.  My outline keeps me grounded in my knowledge of how the book ends as well as some Big Deal Events that will transpire along the way.  For example, Dad and Oliver have a huge row–over his dancing and orientation–which leads Oliver to leave home (Big Deal Event).  Later Oliver is taken in by a Brooklyn couple in exchange for cleaning their home–which he considers eons beneath him, but does because he has no where else to go (also a Big Deal Event).   But why–in a city full of friends and family–does he have no where else to go?  How is it that there’s no alternative for a budding ballet star but becoming a houseboy?

To answer that, I had to look for off-path tools.  One example is a beautiful Persian cat named Hermes–the pet of a friend Oliver stays with–who triggers an unforseen but severe allergic reaction.  Hermes is not in my outline, but Oliver’s handling of the situation is essential to the plot.

As Oliver’s image grows sharper, so do my instincts as to how he should grapple with the specific obstacles in his path.   Regarding Hermes (pronounced like the designer, not the Greek god), Oliver toughs it out for as long as he can, consuming large quantities of antihistimines, refusing to admit how much he’s suffering.

‘After three days, I’ve found some solace in the right dose of Benadryl and Advil Cold and Sinus.  The sneezing subsides, though I’m wired now, twenty-four hours a day.  The mania helps my dancing.  I’m back on top in terms of jumps and turns and attention too, though my heart is usually racing to beat the band.  When I do sleep, I awaken with my eyes glued shut, the cat’s tail languishing against my neck like the scarves that bear his name …

‘Hermes the Cat becomes a metaphor.  If I admit how he affects me, if I admit I’m allergic, then I’ve admitted defeat.  My father wins …’

Oliver is starting to flow for me, more quickly than Olivia, partly because he is less like me than she is.  I’ve spent so much time writing as him, trying to learn him (speaking to and remembering those who have inspired me to create him).   It’s Olivia I’m working on now.  Today’s task will be to flesh out the story of the twins’ mother, who is very ill.  I have yet to determine her ailment, only that she is largely incapacitated as a parent.  I’ll use Olivia’s narration for this, which should help me refine her voice and character.

In any event, as long as I know I can revise my outline as needed, sticking in devices like Hermes along the way, I’ll never feel constrained by it.

License to Write Outside Your Self

I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams.  

License to Write Outside Your Self

William Styron took on Nat Turner , made his version of the rebel slave real to readers.  Anne Rice did the same with the Vampire Lestat —an undead male of her own fabrication from 18th Century France.  In White Teeth, Zadie Smith did this with people of multiple ethnicities, only two of which she shared.  In She’s Come Undone,  Wally Lamb wrote so convincingly as Delores, a young, troubled girl—got inside her head, made you feel as if you were Delores—that I had to keep checking the front cover, incredulous that a man had written the book.

It happens all the time: a writer brings to life a character who is unlike himself or herself in many ways and manages to pull it off masterfully.  Without stereotyping (though unfortunately, that happens too).  Verisimilitude is so important in fiction, so in such cases lots of research is imperative.  But still, how does a writer justify taking on a character with whom he or she has little or nothing in common?  How does a writer feel entitled?

The twins in my WIP are both compilations of people I knew when I was dancing, with traces of some of my adolescent psychotherapy clients mixed in.  I made my character sketch over a year ago, but as I’ve been writing, the twins’ personalities and identity struggles have evolved and gained dimension.  But knowing them better actually highlights how different they are from me, especially Oliver.

Olivia is easier, she’s a female, pre-professional ballet dancer whose body is different from that of the ideal ballerina.  Though I am biracial and she is white (the twins are of Irish and Italian descent, which I’ll address in another post), though Olivia is plagued by other people’s criticisms while I suffered most from my own negative body image, I can speak as her with some authority.  I know what her toes feel like after a long day at rehearsal; I know what it’s like to get your period in the middle of pas de deux class when your partner is the guy you have a crush on.

Olivia’s twin brother, on the other hand, is removed from my personal experience in many ways.  Oliver is not only white, male, seventeen, and a math and physics whiz (who uses these skills to perfect his dancing), he also has the classic ballet physique (unlike his sister, unlike me).  And lastly, most importantly in this story, he is gay.

Being gay is not generally a strike against a guy in the ballet world itself; Oliver knows plenty of others like him as well as having strong role models who are out and proud of who they are.  But outside the ballet world—at his “regular” school, in his family, he’s faced what any LGBT or questioning teen might face, including bullying peers and a parent who can’t accept him.

Oliver has every advantage in ballet: turn-out, Feet (with a capital F, meaning gracefully high arches, a ballet dancer’s prize), musicality, extension, elevation—the list goes on.  He would seem to lead a charmed life.  But the twins’ homophobic father is determined to stop Oliver from pursuing the career he is clearly made for.  Dad, though supportive of Olivia’s ballet dreams, has other plans for Oliver: a career with great financial rewards, hopefully in finance or engineering.  It isn’t always clear whether Dad’s protests against ballet (for Oliver) are a smoke screen for his anti-gay sentiments.  In any event, Oliver’s biggest conflict is longing to be accepted and loved by his father, even as he claims and is claimed by Ballet—a world his father disdains.

When I was dancing I knew so many guys like Oliver: beautiful, talented, and bright, who seemed to have it all together now that they were a world that loved them for their gifts without judging their orientation.  Often these were the guys I had crushes on in my youth–both before and after I learned that my affection was unlikely to be returned.  Sometimes I was jealous of guys like this because I believed they held all the power.  (Which I will explain in yet another post).  But I only saw these real life “Olivers” in the context of the studio, not with their families, not in settings where they’d been discriminated against or attacked.  That side of the story I didn’t learn much about until I worked as an adolescent psychotherapist.

Of the kids I saw in my practice who were gay, bi or questioning, I am glad to say that a good percentage of their parents were supportive of their orientations.  (Peers tended to be more of a problem.)  Some parents were dismissive though, refusing to believe the child’s statement, others were in denial, believing that this was a “phase.”  I knew only one angrily unsupportive father of a boy who had come out.   This man made a point of not attending family sessions, though I tried to get him in.

What is compelling for me about Oliver is how he longs for his father’s love and approval, how not having it takes a terrible emotional toll no matter how supportive the ballet world is.  (Contrast that with Olivia’s situation: in Dad’s eyes she is perfect, but the ballet world cannot love her as she is.)  Oliver’s cross to bear will always be the condition of not being the son his father wanted.  I think this is something that many people can relate to.

Writing this book is a process–sometimes thrilling, sometimes kind of scary, but it’s less scary when I remind myself that this is only a first draft.  When it’s done I get to revise, which is the fun part.  In the meantime, I’ll do as much research as I can, let my characters speak—no matter how different they are from me—and grant myself license to tell their story.