The Sheer Terror of the Blank Page

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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?)

Enough

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My word for 2019 is “enough”: I am enough, I am doing enough, I am good enough, this moment is enough.

It’s a combination of learning to recognize the goodness in saying “no” and of living in the moment, being present in my own life instead of always feeling dissatisfied.

I’m working on it.
But I don’t often feel it. Which is why I want to mark this moment. I just finished revising a particularly difficult and climactic scene for my novel. It’s a scene that marks the culmination of a particularly sensitive plotline. It was good before, but it was a leee-ttle bit melodramatic. And now, after today’s work… it’s really good.

When I finished, I said, “Now I’ve done enough today.” And I meant it.

Bizarre Dreams

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I had a bizarre series of dreams last night:

1: I couldn’t get apps to close on a smart device. (Anyone who knows me knows this is particularly bizarre because I don’t use a smart phone.)

2: I couldn’t find the right pair of contacts.

3: We drove up Scotts Bluff (one of the settings in my road trip novel), but the drive was so steep, I was certain we were actually inverted and I a) couldn’t believe we weren’t falling off and b) couldn’t understand how my risk-averse husband was so blase about it.

But the last dream was about a magical realm set in the world of one of my previous novels. When I woke up, I thought, “That would make a great back story for a new novel.” And I couldn’t get back to sleep for excitement thinking through the possibilities.

Since finishing my big novel revision and sending out a bunch more queries last week, I’ve been feeling a big void in desire and interest in novel writing. Partly because I’m still waiting for those great outdoor days off I promised myself. (Kayaking. Today. Even if it’s only in the 50s. Because hey. It’s not raining, and there are only a couple weeks of school left!)

But I haven’t been freaking out about my lack of desire. I figured it’d come in its good time. And now I believe it has. Because now I have two novels to develop and choose between…plus the one I tried to write last winter that I still think is a good concept, but needs more development.

Which makes this week a win, I think.

I. Hate. Waiting.

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Cover artI had this blinding revelation a couple of days ago: I loathe waiting. Waiting in lines, waiting in doctors’ offices, waiting for people who are habitually late, waiting for a check, waiting for my star to ignite.

I keep paper and a pen in my coat pocket so if I get stuck in line at Aldi, I can brainstorm songs or problem solve plot and character motivation. (Although it mostly just lives there, because lately I’m doing all my grocery shopping with a preschooler, and when a preschooler is crawling under the cart and running up and down the aisles pretending to be Superman, you just can’t retreat into your head. Recently I went to a consignment store and tried on some clothes, and the clerk asked me if I wanted the big room so I could bring Michael in with me, or if I wanted him to wait outside. She thought he might run off if he stayed outside. I said, “I’m more worried about your store.” But I digress.) I take my computer almost everywhere, because I live in dread of having to wait fifteen minutes with nothing at all to do. Because, you know, no smart phone. Besides, writing is a much better use of time.

But this year in particular, waiting is really sticking in my craw. Which is ironic, given that I wrote a whole book about how great an experience the waiting associated with Advent can be. And also ironic, given that I consider self-discipline and delayed self-gratification some of my strongest personality traits.

I don’t like feeling helpless. I don’t like wondering why, when I work so hard, certain goals seem so very elusive. I don’t like frustration—and there is a lot of frustration in waiting. Especially open-ended waiting. The kind experienced by writers in the querying process, for instance. And oh, the second-guessing. The reading into the silence. The internal conflict when your friends’ numbers come up and they get called out of this purgatory, and you’re still stuck here.

I try to pray my way through it, to see it as an answer to a different prayer—“Lord, help me to be humble.” Because waiting definitely humbles a soul. It’s a reminder that an awful lot of things are completely outside my control. That truism about “work as if it all depends on you, but pray as if it all depends on God” got its popularity fair and square.

I try to be philosophical, in other words—but sometimes it’s so hard. I keep thinking, as hard as I work, certain things should have happened by now—unless I’m doing something wrong. And then I wrap myself in knots, trying to figure out what that “something” is.

There is no solution to this conundrum. Sometimes you really have no choice but to wait…and wait…and wait. Sometimes I am able to be reasonably peaceful about it. More often, my brain clings fast to the frustration and gnaws on it in the background of everything I’m doing. But I can at least appreciate, if not always find comfort, in seeing the spiritual connection between my ordinary life and the spiritual season I’m walking through, as we embark upon this second week of Advent.

A Novel Accolade and Lots of Kid QTs

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I intended this 7 Quick Takes to be all about the kids, but first I have to share a piece of really exciting news……

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_ Rising Star Finalist BadgeMy novel, The Wine Widow, made the finalist round of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s inaugural contest, the Rising Star! All novels are a labor of love, but when you’re trying to write one around the edges of paying writing gigs and musical composition–oh yes, and raising that gaggle of destructicons, I mean boys, and a chromosomally-gifted girl…well, let’s just say this is an affirmation I cannot even put into words.

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So how does one celebrate such a moment? Well, if you’re Kate Basi, you:

  • don’t have time for a shower after your Jazzercise video
  • take four kids and go visit a friend and her adorable baby
  • take four kids to swim lessons
  • practice for a flute recital
  • watch 11 kids at choir practice because the regular sitters are out of town
  • fall into bed and lie awake for hours because you can’t sleep.

I know. You all wish you were me. Admit it. 😉

Treehouse 12

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So–on to the kids. Michael’s speech therapist wants him using three-word sentences now. So last weekend, he somehow hurt himself following Nicholas around the basement. He came upstairs wailing. Christian made him say “I want booboo.” As in booboo kiss. When the fireworks were over, we said, “Did you fall down?”

Michael said, “I…want…faw.” And we all laughed.

From such moments are born games like the I-Want-Fall game, which has become all the rage in our house:

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We cleaned the upstairs this week, which might have gone faster if I hadn’t discovered the archaeological dig of clothing in the boys’ closet. By the time we were done we’d found all the missing dress clothes and gotten Nicholas’ new(ly rescued from the uniform closet) school uniforms hung neatly: summer clothes, then winter clothes.

This got me thinking about something counterintuitive I’ve discovered in the four years since Alex started at the Catholic school. When the kids have a non-uniform day, I cannot find anyone. You would think the clothes being distinct would make the people more distinct, but the reality is the opposite. I’ve come to the conclusion that when they’re in uniform there are less distractions from faces. Has anyone else experienced this?

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Speaking of archaeological digs…this morning while putting away dishes, a Corelle-type lid slipped out of my hands and smashed spectacularly on the counter/sink/floor/drying dishes/spice rack. As I was sweeping up the pieces, Nicholas (who else?) asked, “Why don’t you glue it back together, Mommy?”

“Oh, there’s no gluing this back together, honey,” I said. There was nothing bigger than a thumbprint left of that thing. “You can’t put things like this back together.” Then honesty compelled me to waffle. “Well,” I added, “archaeologists put things like this back together sometimes, to see what things used to be like.”

And suddenly I had this vision of some ancient Greek woman dropping a pitcher, cursing a blue streak as she cleans up the mess and throws it in her trash heap, and then looking down from Heaven and face-palming as those foolish post-modern scientists try to put her trash back together.

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I was trying to get Michael to come to me one day this week. He’s reached the stage where he doesn’t come just because you say so. It has to be a game. So I said, in my best jokey voice, “Michael, bring that bottom over here.” A beat. “Oh, I suppose you can bring the rest of you too.”

Nobody got the joke. Sigh.

___7___

Oh yes…Alex has joined the ranks of the vision-impaired.

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Have a great weekend!

The Distance From Fiction to Reality

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Novel writing is a bit touchy in our house. My husband supports my writing, but fiction makes him a little nervous….and with good reason.

When I was a kid, I didn’t play. I built houses and castles out of brix blox, and I read, drew and wrote stories. At night, instead of going to sleep, I would lie in bed and “pretend.” On the playground I preferred to withdraw from the other kids and spend the time in my head, imagining stories.

I grew out of it enough to make some friends in high school, to enjoy the usual teen stuff. But in a lot of ways, I continued to live in my head, imagining myself as my main characters. I wrote love stories, and as my understanding of life grew, so did the complexity of the inner life. And then, my expectations of real life began to mirror what I had created in the inner. As you might imagine, real life never measured up.

Still, it’s one thing to live a fantasy life when you’re single. Getting married raises the stakes. When I really started writing in earnest, I got into trouble. Mundane reality began to grate on me. I loved my husband, but compared to the richness of the world in my head, our life seemed dull and prosaic. I didn’t want to quit writing at night; I resented being forced to exit my dream world to spend time with my husband. I spent all my free time living in my head, imagining the novel in more and more detail, creating characters, linking their back stories. If you’ve never experienced the buzz of creating a world and having it take shape under your fingers, it’s hard to communicate the thrill. Perhaps some of my fellow writer/readers can help there. It’s exhilarating, fulfilling…but if you let it overrun reality, it’s the worst kind of self-indulgence.

Fortunately, I recognized the trouble before it did too much damage…in part because Christian didn’t mince words in pointing it out. I had to make a painful sacrifice and stop writing fiction altogether for a while. It was the only way to break the thrall. And when I began again, I placed limits on myself—limits often stretched, but which nonetheless did their job.

The good thing about writing in a house full of kids is that they don’t allow self-indulgence. Children are a limit less elastic than any I could self-impose. These days, my problem runs the other direction: how to get enough concentrated time to get the momentum going in the first place. But recognizing the richness of my life, the heart-stopping beauty in it…I’ll take that option any day.