Sunday, October 15, 2017

Getting Back on Course

The past few months have been charging ahead at a break-neck pace. Life threw a series of curveballs, and I’ve been scrambling. I hardly celebrated the publication of my fourth novel in June, which took 23 years to complete. Before I knew it, leaves were turning yellow and orange and days have blurred together and are now navigated by meeting schedules. It feels as though everything is in chaos: the cringe-worthy political landscape, revelations that have me re-evaluating my long-term career goals, and the sundry life events that remind you stability is a precious, fleeting thing. 

Keeping up with 3 blogs, marketing myself as an indie author, exploring new territory as I face the latter half of my career, and keeping up with the everyday grist got to be unwieldy. I beat myself up for it. As my husband works a second job some evenings, I pour out my heart in my journal and reiterate lists of things I can’t lose sight of: appointments, to-do lists for my writing life, and notes for recipes. Most of the time I’ve felt like I’m spinning my wheels. I had lengthy time-outs in the world of Skyrim. After downloading the special edition, I gave Skyrim a final play before retiring it. Those sessions were a balm as I struggled to figure out the path forward. 

And finally, just like that, the Muses returned. It was sunny weekend—the last few warm days of the season. I had finally caught up on some reading and prepared the post for Savored Words, my food blog. I’ve been struggling with conceptualizing my fifth novel, which will be set in Down East Maine during the War of 1812. As I gathered history books for research and revived some genealogy research, I longed for that magic moment where I lose myself in worldbuilding. Hours pass and as the sun’s light shifts across my dining room table, I sit there, taking notes and turning pages. It’s been a routine since childhood. I immersed myself so deep in a world that the day would pass and I’d be stirred out of my reverie to have dinner. Today I balance cooking with research—a good excuse to roam the kitchen and stretch every so often. But the spirit of the experience remains the same. There’s a certain euphoria when the Muse arrives, an ancient joy that I look forward to the moment when a story takes shape and in a spark, has a soul. 

I know who the central characters are going to be in the fifth novel. Stark visuals are forming about how they dress and how they speak. I’m only in the early phases of doing research for the novel, and the project is complicated by its external components: a cookbook of family recipes inspired by our heritage in Eastport, Maine, and a short story to connect to the novel from a modern perspective. I hadn’t given much thought to figuring out our family tree, but once we discovered a connection to smuggling, it suddenly became a lot more interesting. I’ve never included much in terms of personal reflection in my other stories. I love finding the extraordinary women who’ve been marginalized by history and give them a voice to tell their tale. That’s always been my gig. I didn’t expect to find myself blending fiction and family history, but here I am. I'm hoping that next month, I can dive in and do a draft zero of this novel for NaNoWriMo. We'll see if time is kind. 

My third and fourth novels were based in deserts. I look forward to going back to the seafaring spirit that drove my novel about GranĂ­a O’Malley in Dark Lady of Doona. There’s something about being out on the water that feels like home. It took me a long time to recognize it and embrace it. The closer I get to the past, the more I realize how comforting the sea is. I love the moments when, drifting off to sleep, I still feel the swells and wakes after being on a boat for a few hours. Ultimately, I see myself moving northward—back to Maine for my family, and taking root where the story began. It’s a journey that reveal its secrets over time, and I look forward to gazing out from the same coves as relatives from generations ago who I’m only just beginning to understand. 

Draft Zero

I was having lunch with a writer-friend recently, and she mentioned a great term that helped me put NaNoWriMo into sharper context: Draft Zero.  

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2011. In each case, I’ve cut the majority of the manuscript once November passed. I wrote more than 56,000 words for the initial round of my third novel, Whiskey and Rue, and only 6,000 of those words made it into the final version that was published. Some writers panic at the thought of extensive revisions. I used to as well.  

The value of a 30-day freewriting session became clear while reviewing Whiskey and Rue. Carefully thinking out each scene can be restrictive. Any online writing forum, be it a group on Facebook or Google+ or elsewhere (I miss you, Scribophile—I hope to come back soon!), will have debates between “plotters and pansters,” i.e., those who plot out every detail in their notes and those who just sit down and write. For most of my works, I’ve had detailed notes and chapter outlines. Whiskey and Rue is the first instance in which I didn’t. I attribute it to the wonders of NaNoWriMo.  

During that 30-day frenzy, scenes came to life that I doubt would’ve appeared if I had stuck to my meticulously crafted chapter outline. Some of the inspiration was from my own Muse; some of it came from prompts from the NaNo Sprints Twitter account. Their often funny prompts spawned a handful of quirky ideas that somehow fit right into the novel. A writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog provided me with the last three pages of the story. It’s a puzzle that formed in sections. If I ran out of ideas for a chapter, I moved on. I leapt ahead whole chapters to capture a scene that would fit in sooner or later. But the end result of NaNoWriMo—not really a first draft.  

My friend’s concept described it perfectly—you can’t read draft zero through as a complete arc. It’s a series of ideas that eventually coalesce into a real draft. For me, it takes three real drafts before I feel ready to show it to beta readers and editors. Draft zero is shown to no one.  

Draft zero is a mess.  

You pick through the pieces—finding the gems among the dross—and save them.  

It isn’t wasted time. None of the discarded words are. All practice is beneficial, even when you don’t save much of it. It’s the same with sketching for me, though I (regrettably) practice that much less.  

Draft zero can be the source of the best kind of inspiration; it just needs work. Veteran authors implore, admonish, and plead for new writers to be patient and work through several revisions before self-publishing. And I have to admit, when I see the special offers for publishing newly scribbled works right after NaNo is over, I cringe. Better to focus on the special offers for editorial services. A manuscript critique. Something that shows the process of the writing life for real.  

For me, there are always works in various stages of development. There is at least one draft zero to pick up when it’s ready. A manuscript in full form, going through a first deep edit. There’s always something to work on, and it’s great to be able to shift gears and work on another novel when I realize it’s time to give a work a time-out for a while.  

Draft zero may need to live in your desk drawer—okay, old phrase—may need to live in the cloud—for a long time before you can work on it again. Like a barren planet being terraformed, or a peaty single malt scotch (I’m looking at you, Lagavulin!), draft zero needs time to reach the perfect state of being. No matter what, whether you hit that 50K or not at the end of the month, draft zero has the potential to be a winner.  

(Originally published December 2014)