Tag Archives: Novel-in-progress

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!

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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.