The Sheer Terror of the Blank Page

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ballpen blank desk journal

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

It’s been a long time since I started a new novel.

Well, maybe not as long as it seems. I had an aborted attempt around a year ago. But I’m really zeroing in on novel writing now, and I’m discovering something I probably knew, on some level, but didn’t really, y’know… KNOW. Namely, that when life with a two teens, a tween, and an eight-year-old just entering serious activities smacks into writing, everything suffers.

(But writing suffers more than the kids. I’ll never apologize for putting them first.)

2019 has been an intense year–much of it the best possible tension–a cavalcade of good things raining down on me! And I am so very grateful for it.

But nonetheless… intense.

I’ve always been a burn-the-candle-at-both-ends person, but lately I’m really feeling how little is left at either end. I’m dropping balls all over the place. I forgot a piano lesson, people. And a doctor’s appointment that I scheduled on a day off school to make my life less complicated.

I’ve been struggling to get momentum going on a new novel. I’ve been working on that this week, as best I can, and I’m coming to some new insights. I’ve known for a long time that for me, starting a major fiction project is like getting a huge machine in motion. It’s agony at the start, and as I slowly grind into action, the motion itself clarifies things, which clarify more things, and so on, until I’m writing as fast as I can and making notes to myself for things that will happen a dozen scenes down the line.

But first, I have to invest the time to get that motion going. And it is an intense effort that really does require big blocks of uninterrupted time.

2019 has been a year of interruptions. Some were cause for celebration, others for tearing my hair out. There was a period of 3 weeks this fall, for instance, when 2/3 of the weekdays I had one half or the other of my kids home, because the public & parochial schools don’t overlap their teacher PD days. Ever. It’s like the school systems put their heads together and went out of their way to make PD days consecutive rather than concurrent.

I have been philosophical. Well aware that I only have 3 1/2 years left with my oldest, I am trying to be present in the moments of my life.

But that means ignoring not just writing, but also the Mount Everest of laundry in need of folding. Yes, yes, the kids should do it themselves, but they only get half of it and they mismatch and do it wrong and it’s harder to fix it than to do it myself in the first place!

Ahem. Back to the point at hand…

There’s a conventional wisdom among writers that you have to get the story down, no matter how bad it is–you have to turn off the internal editor and allow yourself to write a crap first draft. I’ve never bought into that. Crap drafts are harder to fix than good ones.

Unless, of course, you have no draft at all because you can’t get the momentum going. And then yes, maybe it’s time to exile the internal editor and get the story on the page.

I also realized that what makes a first draft is so terrifying to me is that literally everything is up for grabs. The major backstory event that kick starts my protagonist’s journey could be caused by something she did, or by something another character did. There are positives and negatives to both ideas, and which one I choose impacts how her present story unfolds. What time of year did event A happen? Because I have to count X number of months/years forward from that in order to figure out when Event B in the present will take place. What, precisely, did Character C do to cause my protagonist’s problem? I need to know, because her story is all about fixing it.

And every time I set out to answer one question, I discover a dozen more that need answering in order to settle the one I thought I was working on.

So for right now, my job is to decide on anything–this little thing, that little thing. Create some little anchors. Because the more anchors I put down, the more solid the framework becomes. And the more solid the framework, the clearer the picture. And the clearer the picture, the more possible it becomes to write.

(Who said there’s no world building in contemporary fiction?)

Book Review: THE PERFECT SON

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White-ThePerfectSon-21053-CV-FT-v4jpgThis year I’ve been volunteering with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association as a host for the “women’s fiction cafe,” which is done on Facebook. Instead of asking everyone to read a book in advance and discuss it, this is a chance for authors to stop in and give people a taste of the book, its themes and locales and inspiration, which (we hope) will make people want to read it.

(By the way, if you’re interested in learning about new books through this format leave me a comment so I can be sure to invite you to the cafe weeks! Click here for next week’s!)

The first author I worked with was the lovely and ebullient Barbara Claypole White, whose enthusiasm endeared her to me, as did her flawed but lovable characters.

Barbara has a new book available now: THE PERFECT SON, and I’m pleased to say that it’s my favorite of her books so far. Here’s my Goodreads review:

Haunted by memory of his abusive father, Felix Fitzwilliam has always held himself at a distance from his teenage son, Harry, who, although brilliant, struggles with Tourette’s and other neurological challenges. But in the wake of his wife Ella’s heart attack, Felix has to take over as primary parent. Lyrical and filled with hope, THE PERFECT SON is the story of these two men learning to trust each other enough to admit their weaknesses and grow together as men.

It’s an unspoken assumption that “women’s fiction” must be about women. Barbara Claypole White expands that definition to encompass the story of two men loved by a woman. Felix and Harry are deeply and realistically flawed characters, and I spent every page holding my breath, hoping they would live up to their potential for good. Sometimes they didn’t. But their love and their commitment to their family and each other always brought them back. To watch them grow as human beings gave me hope for humanity. That is what this author does so well: writing stories of hope in situations where too often in reality we see only pain or hardship. This is her third book and my favorite so far.

Monday, Barbara will visit us for a Q&A. She’s such an interesting lady, and extremely personable, so I hope you’ll stop by!

A Different Kind of Book Club

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This week, I am hosting/moderating an online book discussion about Lisa Verge Higgins’ novel, Random Acts of Kindness:

With the remnants of her past rattling in the trunk of her Chevy, Jenna Elliott abandons her Seattle home determined to start life anew. Her journey compels her to the door of two friends: Claire, an ex-Buddhist nun and cancer survivor, eager to escape her overbearing family for what may be her last chance to fulfill a dream; and Nicole, a professional Life Coach who can’t even control her own teenage son. But what starts out as an impulsive road trip soon becomes an inexorable journey to their past, as the women grapple with who they were, who they are, and the strange twists that have now set them on the road to their hometown of Pine Lake. There, Jenna discovers that her random act of kindness has rippled out into the world like a stone dropped into a deep pond, coming back to rock her life—and those of her friends—in ways they never expected.

It’s a little different than most book clubs. We don’t expect you to have read the book. In fact, we just want to encourage people to come over and meet the author and visit with others about how this idea–random acts of kindness–has played out in your life.

I’ll be posting questions for Lisa Verge Higgins midmorning every day, and in the afternoon she’ll be asking us to share on topics close to her heart and the heart of the book. And what Cafe week would be complete without a book giveaway? Leave a comment on any of the discussion threads and you’ll be entered for a drawing!

If you enjoy fiction, I hope you’ll spend this week with me at the Women’s Fiction Cafe.