Pulling at the memory of a dream is like yanking on the thread of a sweater. On rare occasion, you find the right piece to gently pull and it fixes the problem in the sweater, moving it toward a more perfect piece. However, most of the time when you pull, you simply watch the sweater unravel before your eyes until there is nothing left but the feeling of absence in the air and a long ball of yarn on the floor. That's what it's like with dreams sometimes. There is nothing left but the haunted ghost of an experience that was so real that it must have happened, even if it was to someone else somewhere else, and yet the memory is murky and faint. If only you could get to that place and tell that story, your life might feel more complete. And yet it always eludes you, moving just beyond the extent of your grasp.
And so it was with my dream this morning. It was a good one--a good story, anyway. It was not such a good dream to experience. In fact, I awoke with a pounding headache, feeling hot and frantic with gritted teeth. However, from what I do remember about it, it was full of time travel and mystery and a young girl who had to be saved in order to protect the world from an inevitable apocalyptic collapse far in the future, and so it violated several of the rules I've created since I wrote my first manuscript during NaNoWriMo last year: (1) No world building components--everything must be tangible and present right here in this world (2) No crazy savior attempts. (3) No parallel universes or other complicated crap that would be difficult to negotiate. (4) No overdone cliche tropes.
Now that I'm looking at that list, I'm considering the possibility that I might never again write another major fiction piece.
And so the truth, if I'm really being honest with myself, is that I am still taking time off from my manuscript. Oh, yes, I have tinkered with it here and there, and I've opened at least 30 different word documents in an attempt to rediscover the sweatery substance of that story, but it seems that once I started pulling on the threads, the whole thing began to unravel and I haven't been able to figure out how to heal the whole piece. I've been doing a lot of reading, which I do not consider a fruitless pursuit, but each time I've sat down to actually write--to really do something with my manuscript--I've found myself in a frantic need of doing laundry or cleaning or some other task that was suddenly so urgent that it could not wait the couple of hours (or days, as the case may be) that an initial revision process would take.
The story feels like the sand dollar in the photo above (though not nearly as lovely)--it's pure and (potentially) beautiful, but with the sand and the salt and the water, it's a bit hard to see it clearly. And even worse, as you try to take capture its essence in an image, what really happens is your own damn shadow keeps getting in the way.
Despite the current stalemate between the story and me, a friend shared an awesome post by Courtney Summers about what to do during the writing process. I found her revision tips to be extremely useful, and I particularly liked her idea about reverse outlining. Of course, my primary problem is that I don't in fact know what the point of my story is. As I discussed before, the story I thought I was writing (back in the days when I was pantsing it and loving every moment of the glorious word count frenzy) was quite different from the one that is now on the page. It's as if the story is still unveiling itself, but unfortunately as time passes, I feel farther and farther away from its secrets.
My current plan? To participate in the James River Writers Conference, and to have a draft and pitch ready by then. I have no idea how I will get there, but I figure it's better to have an action plan, especially with the start of a new school year and the promise of a busy semester.
How do you handle revisions? What do you do when you've lost your way? At what point do you seek out an editor? Are there any writing books that have helped you? I'd love any suggestions and feedback that you have.
First, an apology for my recent inconsistency with posts. I’m discovering, as I'm sure many of you already have learned, that travel makes posting systematically quite challenging. But it is summer, and what is summer for a teacher if not a time when routine is turned upside down, right? Summer is also a time for adventure.
This week, our adventures have taken us to Connecticut and then to Maine to vacation and visit family. We’ve spent the week in a “camp” on a Maine lake. It’s been breathtakingly beautiful. The weather has been perfect and we’ve explored Schoodic Point, Cadillac Mountain, and other parts of Acadia Park. We indulged in lobster and shopped at L. L. Bean. Today we head to Connecticut to spend time with family before returning to Virginia.
Among other things, I got to see Stephen King’s house in Bangor. Here are a couple of pictures of our brief visit.
The truth is that in addition to vacation and preparation for the revisions that (finally, after a million distractions and delays), I have spent a tremendous amount of time this week considering the way that we handle race issues in our writing and in our classrooms. The Trayvon Martin case has brought to mind the way that race relations function in our society and more specifically in our schools. How can we teach children to talk about race and culture (which must be a necessary step in the process to end potential fear and scorn of the other) when we as a nation seem incapable of discussing it? How can we help students learn about and overcome their own biases and prejudices when we consistently ignore our own? I’ll consider that issue in a future post about addressing racial and cultural diversity in the classroom. These are questions that have weighed heavily upon me in my teaching career, highlighted by recent events which I am still processing, but promise to share in the near future.
Coming next week: a post on teaching Divergent by Veronica Roth in the classroom! I’ll include specific ideas, a project, and materials.
They don’t tell you just how much time you’ll spend with your palms pressed against your head screwing up a perfectly good hair day as you mentally spin out a series of chess moves. They don’t tell you that you’ll be sitting in a restaurant smiling politely at your dinner companions nodding along as you pretend to listen while secretly asking yourself, “Does that thing I’m doing with the dog in Chapter Three really work?” ~Libba Bray
First, a confession: my summer is not turning out the way that I had planned. In fact, it is even busier than the school year, and I find myself missing the routine and predictability of school. (Though I’m teaching a summer prep program, I find that it does not have the same amount of routine comfort.) Additionally, as I know other educators do, I find myself feeling frustrated by my inability to get through the millions of projects that I had planned to take on this summer. I imagine you know the feeling all too well. But enough complaints—the point is that I’m working on being more flexible, both with my schedule and with my writing. I had planned to finish another revision of my manuscript by mid-June, and here it is a few days away from July, and I’ve hardly made any progress on the one I started.
As I spent the day last Sunday sweating and panting along a ten mile "strenuous" hike, I contemplated how hiking is like writing. When you’re first feeling your way along a new trail, everything is a bit uncomfortable. The pathway is there, but it can be hard to find and even more difficult to follow. It’s hard to know how to best utilize the bit of energy you have, and at times the task of simply moving one foot in front of the other can feel insurmountable. And yet you keep on trudging, and if you do the same trails multiple times, you learn the patterns of them. Though it doesn’t necessarily get easier, it does get much more manageable. And all of that time putting one foot in front of the other (while gasping for breath, as the case was this last weekend) helps to generate some new ideas.
This is what I’ve learned about the revision process: sometimes revision is not about writing—sometimes it’s about living. Sometimes it is about waiting. Most of all, it is about patience and endurance. I’m a pantser instead of a planner, so I love sitting down with no road map and writing until the story comes together. When I first began revising, I continued the pantsing method, which I wrote about here. However, I’ve finally realized, six months into the revision process, that without some careful planning and mapping, I could be revising ten years from now with little progress. A Google search about pantsing revisions (can you tell that I’m lost?) led me to this awesome blog post, which helped me confirm that I do in fact need to plan, and that a lot of the “revising” that I was doing earlier is still part of the writing part of the process.
As we hiked through the woods on Sunday, I found myself picking my friend’s brain (which is the brain of a bioengineer with a background in physics), and although I did no writing that day, some of the ideas that we discussed will likely have a fundamental impact on the framework for my manuscript. As I maneuvered around rock faces and between crevices, I was struck by the simplicity of ideas, the way they knock you over when you see a slogan you’ve seen a million times or, in my case, when you break the seal on a newly purchased item. I was amazed by the power of brainstorming and working through hypothetical situations.
The struggle with this latest revision has been a long one, and while I was wallowing in the doldrums of I-don’t-know-what-my-framework-is, a friend shared another great blog post by Libba Bray about the process. I found this one, aptly titled "On Writing Despair," incredibly consoling as I clutched my little laptop and stared at the screen for an extended period of time. It’s long, and funny, which goes a long way when you’re in the midst of the doldrums. The best part of that post is the fact that there is no clear solution. There is simply endless struggle to find and tell the story that is there.
As we came down the mountain at the end of the ridge hike last weekend, I found my mind drifting toward simple things like water and butterflies and deer. My story and all of our brainstorming faded into the back of my mind and I focused on my breathing (which had finally transformed from the harsh panting to a calmer breath). I let the ideas bounce around in my head, unattended, and I have let them continue to marinate this week as other tasks have taken my time.
And so, as summer stretches on in ways that are fun but fundamentally different than I had planned, I am working on being flexible and on forgiving myself for not meeting every goal I have set in place. I'm learning just how accurate the term process is when it comes to writing, and I'm realizing that many factors impact that process.
Lately I've been pondering when to open the door…
My latest revision is calling my name, and yet I can’t seem to get settled into working on it as part of the nanothon (check out the nanothon—happening right now!—at http://nanowrimo.org/en/breaking_news/its-marathon-day) until I write this post.
Sometimes the only way to learn is to do something too soon. To take a leap before you’re ready. Sometimes that’s the only way to leap. To stand there on the edge, shaking, would make the next step impossible.
I realized a bit late that I may have “opened the door” on my manuscript prematurely (thank you, Stephen King’s On Writing, for helping me figure that out). It’s taken me a while to figure that out, but now that I know, I’m working through that reality. It’s time to close that door again for a while.
I loved Laini Taylor’s post on April 9th about writing the wrong scene. The truth is that’s what I’m settling down into my chair to do today—I will write a lot of wrong scenes. At this point, the best thing that I can do to figure out the details of the world I’m spinning in my head is to write until those facts crystallize in my mind. As Laini says, “I am busy practicing the discipline that not every scene I write needs to end up in the book. You write to find the story.” Check out Laini’s post at: http://www.lainitaylor.com/2013/04/the-world-will-end-if-you-write-wrong.html. She finishes by highlighting the fact that despite all feelings to the contrary, the world will not, in fact, end, and better yet—some of the scenes might actually work out to be the right story after all.
That’s exactly where I am right now—writing the wrong scenes and feeling like the world (at least the one I’ve created, and my own personal one) might end. I’ve done all of the “easy” revisions, and I even reconstructed significant parts of the plot, which I considered challenging at the time, but I’m discovering that this is the truly challenging part.
It’s tricky to see—and, more so, to describe—the fringes of the world that glitters and dances in my mind. The edges are hazy like the periphery of my dreams.
Here’s to the haze and to believing that the world I see can come alive in the minds of others through the amazing power of words.
So I’m going to close the door for a while and meditate on the images dancing in my mind. I’ll flex my fingers, arch my back before hunching over my computer, and type my way into communicating the reality of this story’s world. Even if that involves writing a lot of wrong scenes before finding the right ones. Best wishes to all of you doing exactly the same thing right now! Comment and let me know how your journey is going.
From Stephen King's On Writing: "The most important [discovery] is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
From Carleen Brice's "Tips on Writing and Working Full-Time," which is linked below: "I’m a little concerned about getting back in the habit of using my time wisely (no more Real Housewives for me!), but because I wrote my first novel while working full-time I know something important: it’s not really how much time we have, it’s what we do with it."
It’s here… April 1st! It is with both excitement and apprehension that I accept that fact. No, I’m not talking about April Fools’ Day, though each year, I remember a bit too late the relevance of that fact. This year, I’m interested in today because it is the beginning of Camp NaNoWriMo! Interested in participating? Check out http://www.campnanowrimo.org/. Or are you already participating and need their latest advice? Today’s post with encouragement is here: http://www.campnanowrimo.org/news/lets-get-started.
Participating in NaNoWriMo this past November (at www.nanowrimo.org) gave me the opportunity to finally devote large quantities of time to writing fiction. I started several days into the month, naively unaware of what a difference those few days could make. I realized too late that November is an extremely difficult time to make all of that extra work fit into an already packed schedule—Thanksgiving especially threw me off track and made me feel a bit frantic. However, as is often true, being naïve was advantageous—it gave me the courage and blind determination necessary to push through at any cost and meet my goal.
I finished my word count goal on November 26th and felt victorious. That lasted about half a minute, after which I began looking into the next steps of the process. I quickly discovered what all writers know entirely too well—the writing, challenging and draining as it might be, is certainly the easy part. It’s networking, establishing an “internet presence,” navigating twitter, and being to prepare a platform and put together a query letter that are the real obstacles (not to mention revision, as I’ve discussed on here in the past). If you’re interested in reading about the art of using twitter effectively, check out http://septuagenarianjourney.wordpress.com/. Jay Squires, the author of that blog, has a series of vivid posts that detail the nuances of tweeting and twitter. I have so much to learn! Phew!
Each passing day (in the wee morning hours and in the evening), I find myself searching for more time to research, read articles, read fiction—not to mention read, reflect on, write comments for, and score the latest batch of essays for my primary job, my teaching career. The more I explore, the more time I need.
The article “Tips for Writing and Working Full-Time” by Carleen Brice offers some useful encouragement and includes links to some other helpful sites: http://writerunboxed.com/2013/03/26/tips-for-writing-and-working-full-time/. I’m working on finding a balance between the rigid schedule approach and the “drink the Kool-Aid” approach.
The truth is that I am excited, especially after the past few months of looking at all of the other aspects of writing and publication, to get back to simply writing (not that it’s simple, but it’s direct and pure and a whole lot of fun). Good luck to all of the other NaNoWriMo campers!
So here goes! Day 1 and counting…
"that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have..."
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.