Category Archives: Writing

More From the Writing Process Blog Tour

You can read my contribution to the Writing Process Blog Tour here.

This week, check out responses from the awesome writers I tagged:

Mary Claire Marck

and

Bev Patt

scribe

Neither of these writers is an old man with a beard, but I love a good woodcut.

 

 

 

 

If you are a writer, I hope you get something you can use from these writing process blog posts. If you’re not, I still hope you get something you can use. I apply advice from athletes, chefs, and people in many other fields to my work all the time. What strategies or inspiration from people in other fields do you apply to your own work?

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Thursday Thoughts: Coming Soon

If you have superpowers of observation, you’ve noticed that the url for this site has changed. That’s because I came to a big decision yesterday about my online presence and because my husband, who is my webmaster extraordinaire, can’t stand not to act on a new idea immediately.

I had big deadlines last week, and the little things were piling up, so I’ve devoted this week to handling all those little bits and pieces, one of which is the direction I want to take my blog. Stephen is also my idea guy extraordinaire (I made a really good investment when I married him), so we blocked out time on Monday night to brainstorm. He had a million great ideas, which I considered for about 48 hours. Many of those hours were spent mildly freaking out about how much I have to do and how little time I have to do it.

Late yesterday afternoon, I realized the problem, the thing that was making me feel like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. I could do so much awesome fun stuff with this blog, but my goal isn’t to be a professional blogger. It is, and always has been if I’m honest, to be a professional author, which requires a whole different approach. Blogging regularly has been terrific discipline for me over the past year and a half. It’s made me accountable for the time I spend reading and writing. It’s helped me get comfortable sharing my thoughts with a wider, sometimes unknown audience. Every “like” was great for my self-esteem. It’s been great fun. I would absolutely recommend it as a discipline to anyone who wants to force himself or herself to write and to share that writing.

But it’s time for me to take it in a new direction. I started this blog partly as a defense of historical fiction, but it doesn’t really need me defending it anymore. Obviously, there’s an audience. Obviously, it will sell to the right people. As an author, I don’t need a blog specifically devoted to historical fiction anymore. I want to write about other things, too, on the blog and in fiction. One thing that ultimately made academia a bad fit for me was the constant pressure to choose one itty-bitty narrow thing and study it to death. That’s not me: I’m interested in everything. In the final analysis, I just don’t have the time or the desire to do the kind of intensive blogging Stephen and I talked about on Monday night. It would take away too much time from the work I get paid for and from the work that feeds my soul, both of which need to take precedence.

What I need now is an author website with an embedded blog, so over the next few weeks, that’s what I’ll be transitioning to. I’ll still be blogging on a fairly regular basis and talking about what I’m reading and writing, but this makes me feel a little freer to choose the topics that are relevant and helpful right at the moment. To be honest, it feels a little weird to have a url that’s just my name, but whatevs. As blogging helped me get comfortable with putting my work out there, I hope this new website will help me get comfortable with putting myself out there.

Thank you for all the support and interest you’ve expressed over the past year and a half. And please keep reading.

 

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Wednesday Words: “What Do You Do?”

I hate that question. I really, really hate it. I don’t work for a company (well, I work for several companies), and I don’t have a clear job title. Also, I’ve done jobs in the past that I’m not currently doing, but they’re still a big part of who I am. Do you stop being a teacher and a librarian just because you’re not doing it for a paycheck? I don’t think so; that kind of thing doesn’t get out of your blood easily. I hate the question because it makes me feel like I should have an easy, pat answer, and I don’t, so when I start to try to explain, “Well, I write curriculum…and novels…and I, uh, edit some stuff. Content and line,” people’s eyes start to glaze over, and I feel like a fraud, like I don’t do a “real job.”

I was quite gratified to discover that other people hate this question, too. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene’ Brown writes:

“I used to wince every time someone asked me this question. I felt like my choices were to reduce myself to an easily digestible sound bite or to confuse the hell out of people.

Now my answer to ‘What do you do?’ is ‘How much time do you have?’

Most of us have complicated answers to this question. For example, I’m a mom, partner, researcher, writer, storyteller, sister, friend, daughter, and teacher. All of these things make up who I am, so I never know how to answer that question. And, to be honest with you, I’m tired of choosing to make it easier on the person who asked” (113-114).

While this is something men struggle with, too, it immediately made me think of the following passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

 

“There is no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of women. There are no yard measures, neatly divided into fractions of an inch, that one can lay against the qualities of a good mother or the devotion of a daughter, or the fidelity of a sister, or the capacity of a housekeeper” (84).

Oh, but how we all love yardsticks. And how people love to ask questions we don’t yet know the answers to or which don’t have quick and measurable answers or to which we couldn’t possibly yet know the answers. People love answers. Answers are more comfortable than questions.

So how do you answer this question? What do you do?

Brown, Brene’. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Ed. Susan Gubar. Harvest-Harcourt, 2005.

 

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Thursday Thoughts: Make-Up Work

I didn’t wear make-up to my book club on Tuesday night. I only brushed my hair. I realize this is not a big deal for many of you, and I admire you so much for that, but it was a big step for me. This has to do with writing, I promise.

I resisted make-up for years, like I resisted anything else that smacked of “fake.” I resisted it until I was in about eighth grade, when, in true adolescent girl fashion, that stunning self-confidence that had buoyed me through childhood fell away almost overnight, leaving me scrambling for something to replace it with.

All of a sudden, I cared. I cared so much. I couldn’t figure out why boys didn’t  want to “go out” with me (“Where are they going?” my parents would ask. Hah. Hilarious, Mom and Dad.), like they did with other girls. I’m sure I was not alone in this, but it felt quite isolating.

I found an answer in make-up. I wore so much more than I ever needed, so much more than I ever wear now, and now I know I didn’t need it. But I thought I did. It was more than a mask. It was a shield. It became a habit. If I’ve ever left the house without make-up in the last *counting* eighteen years, I don’t remember it.

I don’t wear much make-up anymore. Along about eleventh grade, I realized I was no good at applying it. Three shades of eyeshadow were really more than I could handle, and blush was just never going to look right on a really pale girl with freckles. Later, I developed allergies to everything and didn’t wear lipstick for years because it’s just about impossible to find lipstick without soy in it.

In several of the books I’ve read recently about managing your time as a writer, the authors talk about time wasters. One of the things readers are encouraged to do is trim their beauty routines. Because, really, does your computer care? Mine is already pretty short, and this is in no way an attack on make-up. Used well, as a tool and not as a master, make-up can be a good thing. I get dressed and put on shoes and do my hair and make-up (almost) every day even if I’m not leaving the house because it makes me feel more professional and energetic. It makes me feel like I have it together, even if I don’t.

Tuesday’s Make-up-Free Book Club was almost an accident. I didn’t feel well and slept late on Tuesday morning, I was already behind from Monday, and by the time I woke up, I just wanted to get to work, so I threw on clothes, ate breakfast, and did. Somehow, despite still not feeling well, I managed to get everything on Monday’s and Tuesday’s extra-long to-do lists done. I kept meaning to do my hair and make-up, but I didn’t have time. By 4:00 in the afternoon, it seemed like a bit of a waste.

I considered skipping book club. If I wanted to finish that day’s tasks, then the choice was between going sans make-up or not going at all. I got a little twinge of bravery, and it helped that I was feeling reasonably confident and that I’d gotten used to seeing my own reflection without make-up all day. Also, my hair was not doing anything too crazy. Also, I realized I don’t want my daughter to get the idea that women can’t/shouldn’t/don’t go out in public without make-up ever. I want her to see it as a tool and not as a master, which means changing my own habits because children are always watching, always internalizing the rules that aren’t really rules because someone made them up and they can be unmade up. I don’t want her thinking she’ll reach an age at which she’ll always need to adjust her face before showing it to the world.

I decided the issue was really whether the book club wanted to look at my face or hear my thoughts. I don’t think anyone even noticed a difference.

I asked Stephen when we got home if he’d noticed that I didn’t wear make-up.

“I never notice if you wear make-up or not,” he said. “I don’t really notice much about your appearance. I always just see you.”

Some women might not like that. I think it’s maybe the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.

“Then why do I even wear make-up?” I asked, pushing the point.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s your issue.”

It always has been. But Tuesday night was a big step for me because I chose everything (completing tasks, seeing friends, discussing books) before I chose my appearance. When time wouldn’t let me have it all, I chose the important things first. I felt proud of my breakthrough, and I felt a little of that childhood confidence return.

 

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Wednesday Words: On Courage

I’ve been reading shame researcher Brene’ Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection because perfectionism is one of my many personal demons. I also have an issue that’s been causing me a lot of personal distress lately, an issue involving public perception and criticism and ownership of women’s bodies, an issue I’m not sure how to talk about in the most effective way yet. Rest assured, I will talk about it, if only because I’ve been told that the best thing to do is ignore it, let it go, you can’t change it, no one will understand. And that’s what women are always told: You have to just ignore it. People don’t mean anything by it. The problem, of course, is that words have meaning, whether anyone means for them to or not. And some of us were born with our “Ignore” buttons permanently jammed.

So here are today’s words, in which I hope you will find meaning.

“The root of the word courage is cor–the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary” (12-13).

How do you define courage?

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Thursday Thoughts (On Friday): Time Management

Thursday Thoughts are coming to you on Friday this week because I was traveling all day yesterday and didn’t get a chance to write them. I was thinking of them on Thursday, though, and discussing them while road tripping, so it counts.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about time management lately and how to get writing done when I also have other responsibilities. I’ve been reading the reflections of writers I relate to, who have the same types of responsibilities I have. Here’s what I’ve come up with: my work is real work, even if it’s freelance and even if I do it at home and even if I’m not the primary breadwinner for my family. I still have to do it. I still need steady work hours. It still has meaning. I do have some flexibility, but I do not have time to drop everything every day (or even, maybe, ever), to do things other people think I should do or to serve careers other than mine. I don’t know why this is such a tough concept for me to accept, but as I’ve read the thoughts and experiences of other women, it’s been getting easier.

I’m a people pleaser, in my heart, so actively thinking about the choices I make about how I spend my time is key. (I say “in my heart” because, while I care deeply what other people think of me *wrist slap,* I generally don’t care enough make major modifications *self five.* Really, I would like it best if other people would greatly approve of my doing exactly as I please.) I don’t have to accept every invitation. I don’t have to be at every function. I don’t have to be everything to everyone, and I don’t have to feel guilty about it because most of the time, how I spend my time makes no difference to anyone but me and my sanity and the quality of work I’m able to put out, which is ultimately what I’m responsible for.

I know many people struggle with valuing their own time and valuing their own work and not falling into the people-pleasing trap, no matter what field they’re in. How do you handle this?

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Wednesday Words: Waxing Poetic on Language

This week’s Wednesday Words comes to us from Shannon Hale’s 2003 novel, The Goose Girl, which is a retelling of the fairy tale of the same name. Ani is learning to speak the languages of animals.

“Very good,” said the aunt. “You know, most people wouldn’t notice that. You can hear the tiny differences and imitate them–that’s your talent. But it takes work, too. You have to learn what it all means, like studying any foreign language. And it’s not just sounds. Watch how that one there bobs her head and moves her tail. And holds still. It all means something” (7).

Most of writing really is just hard work. But, like any skill, at least a little bit comes down to talent and instinct. I could work hard all day long at being a performance athlete, for example, and I wouldn’t be a very good one because I don’t have a single bit of talent or instinct for it. I’ve studied other languages, so I know that part of working with any language as a writer or a speaker comes down to identifying and copying the little things and then learning to use those little things in the most effective way. I think you can have an ear for language the way you can have an ear for music or an eye for art.

Talent is pretty worthless unless you put the time in to learn to use it, though. Talent alone will get you nowhere fast. That’s where this quote led my thoughts, anyway. Where do they lead yours?

 

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Thursday Thoughts: How Many Words Does It Take?

I’m on the third draft of a work in progress, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how my writing process goes. It seems like I’ve heard a lot of other writers say that their first drafts are always really long, so much of their revision time is spent cutting. I am the exact opposite, and I haven’t heard anyone else say they go short to long instead of long to short, so now I feel like a big weirdo!

My first draft of this novel was in the 40,ooo-word range, and my second draft was in the 60,000-word range. About three-quarters of the way through the third draft, I’m right around 73,000 words. Someday, I will hit that magical 80,000-word mark, which is not really magical, but it is the magic number I have in my head that says, “This is long enough but not too long.”

Maybe I go short to long because I’m impatient. I want to know what happens! Now! I don’t want to wander around in details until I know what happens. Then I can wander around in details, figuring out that these people actually do wear clothes and I have to describe said garments at least a little bit.

Maybe I go short to long because putting words on the page is hard, yo. I do not have words just spilling out of me.

Sometimes I think maybe it’s a big-picture versus details thing. I need to see the big picture before I can see the details. Maybe the long-to-short people need to see the details before they can see the big picture, and then they need to cut all the details that don’t fit the big picture.

It could be a leftover from my academic writing days: outline, topic sentences, supporting sentences, details, evidence.

I don’t really know why I do this, but I can’t imagine getting it done any other way.

Are you a short-to-long person or a long-to-short person? Why do you think that is?

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Why Are We All Mad Here? (Part 2: I Say It With Love)

For Part 1 of these musings on Eternal Mysteries I Solved While Researching, click here, or scroll down.

I wrote last time about how I figured out a few things about my native land of Upcountry South Carolina while researching my forthcoming young adult historical novel. I finally came to the conclusion that many of its charming eccentricities (I say it with love) could be traced back to the idea of threat.

South Carolina was not an easy place to live in the mid-eighteenth century, for a variety of reasons, and people throughout the colony lived with a lot of fear from a lot of different sources. Due to the climate, South Carolina had an extremely high rate of death from infectious disease. A settlement plan designed in London and based on that of the British Caribbean colonies meant the colonial government was philosophically isolated from its neighbors to the north and geographically isolated from those to the south. Wealthy white South Carolinians in the Lowcountry lived in constant fear of slave uprisings, while the impoverished Scots-Irish in the backcountry formed a literal human shield between the more prosperous Lowcountry and the frontier.

Part of my inspiration for the book came from the prevalence of dystopian young adult books in which the protagonists live in constant fear for their lives. But that happened, I thought. That was real. At least in a sense. Most eighteenth-century South Carolinians did not expect to live long, and many anticipated violent deaths. As I researched the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-61), I discovered how far the violence went: few left alive and not a building left standing west of the Congaree River. Many of the causes could be traced to the Charlestown government, which, ever fearful of a slave uprising on its own turf, refused to send help to settlers on the frontier once the war began. I’m generalizing about complex situations, of course, but it seems to me that the conflict between the Lowcountry government and interests and the needs of what became the Upcountry could go a long way toward explaining that characteristic distrust of government intervention and a tendency to guard local interests at all costs.

Quite unintentionally, I also learned a lot about the history, and thus the charming eccentricities (I say it with love) of the Presbyterian church. I am a Presbyterian by marriage, so I don’t take the way we do things—”decently and in good order, without undue haste or undue delay,” as I’ve been told many times—for granted. I did not mean to spend so much time on the history of Presbyterianism, but it happened completely by accident. I discovered why we must vote on everything, including at what height the tornado shelter signs may be placed and what Sunday shall be deemed worthy of the church picnic. I discovered why we must all vote on everything, sometimes many times. I discovered why we split every three seconds so that there are eighteen different versions of Presbyterians, many of which resemble each other in one way only: form of government. Constant voting. I’ll give you a hint: it goes back to the bottom-up organization of the Scottish clan system, even as the top-down organization of many denominations born in England can be traced to feudalism.

You learn a lot by writing books.

In other blog news, I’m planning something a bit different from here on out. This is the first semester (I still think in semesters and probably always will) I’ve spent as a full-time writer, so I’ve struggled a bit to get my schedule down. When I was teaching, I had a regular blogging day, but now that I can do it any old time I’ve been remiss. I’d also like to post more than once a week, so I’ve decided Tuesdays will be my day for new articles, Wednesdays will be an intriguing quote from something I’m reading, and Thursdays will be for thoughts or questions I’m pondering. As always, I invite you to chime in.

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Why Are We All Mad Here? (Part 1: The Research Kaleidoscope)

They had lived on frontiers, and people who live on frontiers prepare themselves in life for death.

-Ben Robertson, Red Hills and Cotton

We are a hill people, threatened eternally by men from the plains.

-Ben Robertson, Red Hills and Cotton

I’ll be the first to admit I often begrudge the work of research. I’d rather read novels any day. I don’t read much memoir because I have enough issues of my own. And, again, I’d rather read novels.

But you know what is magical about research? Those aha moments when it all comes together and you find connections among things you never would have dreamed were tied together. Those moments when the random crystals in the kaleidoscope come together and form a clear picture, and you’re amazed you ever lived without knowing it was there. Those moments when you discover answers you weren’t looking for.

I slog my way through research, love-hating it the whole way. As a writer, it’s part of my life, no matter what I’m working on. As a person who has always needed to know why things are the way they are, it’s a necessity. Sometimes I think of those kids who love to take things apart and put them back together just to see how they work. I’m like that with people and society, and research and writing have always been my methods. There’s no better way to answer the question why than through historical research.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a young adult historical fiction novel coming out in October 2014. It’s set in my backyard—my real backyard, not my backyard in exile, which barely even counts as a backyard to a person accustomed to acres of wooded foothills—because there’s nowhere better to set a novel than a place where you know exactly how the trees bend, and what the underbrush looks like, and how the creek water feels in winter (because your brother once told you in the middle of February that he had total faith you could jump that creek if you got a good running start off the high bank). I’m going through a terrible phase of homesickness, the kind that clenches my stomach and freezes my heart, and I don’t mind admitting it to anyone, wherever they live and whatever their interest in convincing me that one place is any better for me than another.

The book is set in backcountry (what we would now call upcountry, though at the time backcountry was anything outside the bounds of Charleston and the Church of England) South Carolina and in Cherokee Territory during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-1761).

In the writing, I discovered so many answers to questions I didn’t know I had. Aside from the realities of its setting, the novel is not based in fact. But to make the setting real, I had to learn so much about the people who lived in backcountry South Carolina in the years just before the American Revolution. To learn about them, I had to learn about the people they came from. I’ve said it before: it’s not enough to know only the era you’re writing about. I needed to know what formed that time and those people, and to do that I had to go back several hundred years, up the spine of the Appalachian Mountains to Pennsylvania and the northern port cities, to Ulster and the siege of Londonderry and its blood oath, to the forced removals of people groups from southern Scotland, to Robert the Bruce and William Wallace and the constant threat of the English from the plains—a threat that followed the Scots-Irish to North America.

There’s one question I’ve always wanted to answer about my backyard of upcountry South Carolina: Why are we so weird? As a culture, as a group, why are we so staunch in our beliefs about morality, so distrustful of government intervention, so unapologetically conservative? I can call it weird because I am one of us, because I am weird in enough of my own ways, and because I know we’re all rather proud of our eccentricities, as long as that opinion isn’t coming from outsiders. But why exactly do I grit my teeth when people who hear I’m from South Carolina immediately tell me how much they love Charleston?

In my research, I found the answer in a single word: threat. Deeply ingrained, generational constant vigilance doesn’t go away, even when there’s no longer a need for it. I have been away from this research, working on other projects, for about a year, but a completely unrelated book—a home reference guide, of all things, brought it back to me, and the broken shards in the kaleidoscope shook into place.

In Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, a part reference guide/part memoir/part history, Cheryl Mendelson writes:

“[M]y paternal grandmother was an equally fervent housekeeper in a style she inherited from England, Scotland, and Ireland…[Her] home felt like a fortress—secure against intruders and fitted with stores and tools for all emergencies.”

Of course it did, I thought. My grandmother’s home gives off exactly the same vibe. Of course it does. How could it not?

Continued thoughts on “Why are we so weird?” and how history helps us answer the eternal whys in Part 2 of this post, coming next week.

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