So How's the Book Coming Along?
I'll be honest: Until yesterday, I'd started dreading that question. Not that it was coming from all directions, of course, swarms of eager readers hungry for a progress report. It was usually Adrian, asking casually but interestedly over dinner. Or either of my parents; maybe a friend here and there. In the last few weeks, my responses turned vague: "Oh, it's going," with a laugh, or, rolling my eyes, "You know, still stuck in character development," and if anyone asked what that meant, character development, I would wax passionately about how I couldn't write the book until I really knew my characters. And that's true; I believe it whole-heartedly. The problem was that I still didn't really know all but the main character, whom I'd written some forty pages to figure out, and the process of doing that for every other character was daunting enough to mire me in I'm-writing-a-book-in-THEORY Land.
The truth is that I got lazy. I got lazy and I got scared, and one fed the other until until both grew swollen and distorted, claiming way too much power over me.
After talking this over with Adrian two nights ago, I woke up yesterday determined to defeat those twin beasts. Only one weapon would work: discipline.
I decided I'd spend an hour reading a few writing blogs for inspiration, and eventually landed on Chuck Wendig's blog, Terrible Minds. On one of the comment threads, someone mentioned Rachel Aaron's book, 2,000 to 10,000, about how to dramatically increase daily word counts. (My goal has, indeed, been 2,000.) I scurried over to Amazon, where the book was available for under two dollars on Kindle, dowloaded the Kindle app on my laptop, and purchased the book. But before I even opened it, I saw that I had another book in my download list: 90 Days to Your Novel: A Day-by-Day Plan for Outlining and Writing Your Book. I bought the book maybe a year and a half ago, when the pull to write was strong but my time available to do so was poor: I set the book aside after reading 12 pages and promptly forgot about it.
What the hell? I thought, and started reading.
The book is thorough, asking you to spend a minimum of 2-3 hours a day, every day, on specific assignments. The first four weeks are geared exclusively toward developing characters and a detailed outline, and the next 60-odd days are for writing the book, scene by scene. There are some writers--including me, in the past--who would cringe at such a structured approach, call it bullshit, argue that it derails creativity and the joy of discovery. I'd say to those writers that any approach is a good approach if it gets the job done. And the reality, which I found through my work at RTC, is that developing an outline--while no doubt a pain in the ass up front--is intensely liberating once the writing begins. When you don't need to labor over the logistics of your story-world, you're free to simply create it, and isn't that why we do this, anyway? For the joy of creating?
So here is my commitment (made official by the cheesy writing contract I printed out and signed for myself): Every day, seven days a week, I will complete the book's daily assignments. I will work when I'm tired, when I'd rather be doing something else, when I'm hungover, when I'm PMSing, when I have RTC projects, when friends are in town, when I'm out of town. I'll complete the assignments even if it means waking up early or staying up late, declining a dinner invitation or rescheduling a workout. And to hold myself accountable, I'll blog about it here--maybe not every day, but when an assignment produces something I think might be interesting (in general) or useful (to writers). If you're stalled on your own book or have been thinking of getting started, join me!
Yesterday's Day 1 exercise (which I was skeptical about, because what did it have to do with my book, or even fiction) was to write down as many early memories as possible in 2-3 hours. A paragraph for each. Here were a few of mine:
1. I’m in a house before the Plymouth house, smaller, with brown carpet. Mom locks herself out, leaving me alone, and panicking, she tries calling for me to unlock the door. “I can’t reach!” she remembers me calling back, perhaps already with that odd British accent I affected for a time. I remember the strangeness of being alone, perhaps for the first time, and the last for a long time after. I hadn’t realized until then the comfort of always having an adult who loved me within calling, touching distance, and now, in some way before language, I realized that such aloneness was not only possible but inevitable: I would not always have my mother or father or Nanny beside me. It was possibly the first time I realized I was a person, on my own; that I continued to exist even when my version of the world—my family—was gone. I think what scared me more than being alone was how unfamiliar everything became because of it. Despite, I’m sure, having run in the house countless times before, taking for granted that this was my space, that nothing could go wrong, I now felt overwhelmingly cautious, afraid to move for fear of falling, to touch for fear of breaking. I also felt I was failing my mother by not being able to let her back inside, the same feeling I would have years later when Dad tried to help me with my incomprehensible math homework—ashamed at not being able to do something my parents wanted me to do. [Strange. This is the first time I’ve articulated these things.]
2. The Labs were constantly having puppies in our backyard. I remember sitting in the dirt in the chainlink-encased dog run, once Mom and Dad said the puppies were old enough to be held. Shiny and black, the occasional golden one, their closed eyes slick with their mother’s saliva. I remember the warmth of them, held gently to my chest; their smell, earthy and metallic and new; the smoothness of their foreheads and tiny bulbs of their spines; the wary closeness of first Leigh and then Precious. We picked up one puppy after another, dirtying our t-shirts, cooing. Children drawn to new life, compelled to protect it, helplessly in love. Our hearts broke again and again as puppies were sold or given away, and we inevitably lost the intensity of our interest once the ones we kept grew older. We didn’t have at all the same closeness to our dogs that we do now. We took them for granted, these gentle, hot, matted beasts in our backyard, stroking their heads when we were outside but forgetting about them entirely once we were inside. Until they had more puppies, and then they became new to us again.
3. First crush: Kyle, in second grade. Little crew-cut blond boy, the only blond in our class. Ms. Lozano kept a tray of loose-leaf paper at the front of the classroom, and with some kind of early understanding of How To Get A Boy’s Attention, I made sure to retrieve paper often, crossing in front of his desk each time. I remember how intentionally prim I walked, chin held high, palms facing the white tile floor, perhaps the six-year-old equivalent of an adult woman’s slow, hip-swinging sway. When I was assigned to sit next to him—I think the desks were long, made for two—I was thrilled. But Kyle was crass, telling me a joke whose punch line was the middle finger, and my first crush dissolved into disappointment. [As a side note, it’s fascinating to “see” how much is internalized about male/female interaction even at six years old. I clearly thought I needed to move in a certain, ultra-feminine way to be found appealing by him, but I also thought he broke an unspoken agreement between men and women by swearing in front of me. Where did these ideas come from?]
Today, the Day 2 assignment was to take two of yesterday's written memories and expand them into full scenes, taking care to use sensory detail and avoid passive voice. Here's the before and after of one:
That day, AJ was angry at me for being late taking him to school. He liked getting there around 8:15, whether for a club meeting or just to be with his friends, I can’t remember, whereas I couldn’t fathom arriving before the prescribed 8:45. We drove down Del Mar in silence, start-stopping in a long row of afterschool traffic. It was January 20, Nanny’s birthday, and we were having a party for her that evening. I was hungry and, at the last minute, decided to stop for Quizno’s. As I turned right into the parking lot entrance, a noise like thunder came loud and close, with no clear cause. AJ and I looked at each other, perplexed, and in the next moment the Explorer was rearing up on the left side and AJ, who hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt, was above me, throwing his legs over the dash and gripping the leather handle above the door to keep from toppling over on me. Just as the sound of our car being hit came before the understanding, I heard my screams before I recognized that they were mine. Oh my God! I kept yelling. Oh my God oh my God oh my God, a wild screech. AJ was so calm. I learned then who we are in crisis: he, levelheaded and quiet, and I, out-of-body with shock and adrenaline.
I twisted the dial so that when the lead singer of Dashboard Confessional belted, “Your hair is everywhere / Screaming infidelities . . .” he was actually screaming, filling the silence between my brother and me.
AJ sat stiff and tall in the passenger seat of my Ford Explorer, staring out the windshield at the row of brake lights before us, all the afterschool traffic from Alexander and United High Schools converging on the intersection of Del Mar and McPherson. I’d gotten him to school late again. Later, at least, than he’d wanted. Whether for a club meeting or just to be with friends, he’d wanted to arrive at 8:15, half an hour before school started. My friends didn’t arrive until just before the bell, sometimes after. What did it matter, I figured, if he got there at 8:30? He’d still be part of a group, milling around the Magnet hall or one of the empty classrooms, whereas I’d be alone for fifteen minutes—awkwardly, conspicuously, brutally alone. Who was really compromising here?
It was January 20, Nanny’s birthday, and we were having family over for cake later. Nanny was turning eighty-nine. If you didn’t know her, you wouldn’t read the dry humor on her face; you’d simply think, by her seriousness, her lack of a smile, that she was unhappy. But really, she was like a teenager rolling her eyes as she gave her parents that year’s school photos: she thought it was all vastly unnecessary, but she knew it meant something to us, so she’d let us sing to her and would even blow out her own candles.
But six o’clock was hours away, and I was hungry. I thought I might also buy AJ a sandwich from Quizno’s, bribe him into forgiving me. I flicked on my blinker and hung a hard right into the entrance. We were just off the road when a noise came, loud and close, as if someone were shaking a thin sheet of metal right in our ears, filling our heads with thunder. AJ and I glanced at each other, baffled, and I opened my mouth to say something, assured by that moment of kinship. Then, in a way my mind couldn’t compute, AJ was rising above me, throwing his legs over the dash and gripping the leather handle above the door to keep from falling on top of me. The loud noise and what was now happening—my car tilting up on its left side—remained disconnected for another split second, until I finally realized we’d been hit, we were rolling over, and no force of will or feat of physicality could stop what was now in motion. And just as we’d heard the original boom without understanding its cause, I heard my screams before understanding they were mine. The voice, after all, if you could call it a voice, sounded nothing like mine. It was wild, screeching, coming from a dry, deep place far from the mouth. OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD! the voice shrilled, over and over again, and the moment I realized it was mine was the moment I returned to my body, realized I was on my left side, hands still on the steering wheel, and AJ was twisted up into a kind of fetal position above me, staring down with wide eyes, saying my name. The passenger window was a skylight over his right shoulder, and soon it darkened as someone wrenched the door open and pulled AJ out. I was next, scrabbling, crying. Movies played in my mind: gas tanks leaking, fallen cars exploding. But no one, none of the dozen or so people that surrounded us, seemed worried about that. The car was like a wounded rhino, no longer a threat.
I think somebody asked me for my phone number, called home for me. Police arrived (though, oddly, I don’t remember an ambulance), and as sense returned, as I stopped shaking so violently, I became aware again of the traffic on Del Mar: windows open, heads craning out, gaping. A friend’s mom here, biology classmates there—I would have so many voicemail messages, I thought nonsensically. Finally, I noticed a truck, stopped while several guys who went to my school stood at the hood, heads in hands, talking to police. The truck was still more or less at the point of impact—the shoulder of the road, where I hadn’t even thought to look before making my sharp right turn. People did that sometimes, avoided the snaking line of traffic by speeding down the shoulder toward the eventual right-turn lane at the light. My boxy little Explorer had emerged from the stalled line directly into their path. We hadn’t stood a chance.
I remember the fierce throb of relief when my mom arrived and pulled me to her. She looked at the upended Explorer and shuddered, holding my shoulders, examining my face. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she kept repeating.
I nodded. “I’m fine. AJ’s over there.” I pointed toward the curb ten feet away, where AJ was sitting, elbows to knees.
Fresh horror washed over my mother’s face. “Oh, my god,” she said. “I didn’t even realize—I didn’t know he was with you.”
I felt a curdle of shame then for how completely I had monopolized everybody’s concern. In the car, AJ had not screamed. Not wearing his seatbelt, he had simply reacted, and when he spoke, it was to say my name, to pierce through my cries to ask if I was hurt. And now here he was, sitting with calm disbelief, waiting for our mother to realize he was there, too. It’s said that no one knows how they’ll respond in a crisis, but if those unpredictable responses say anything about who we are, I was profoundly disappointed in myself.
When we got home, aunts and uncles and cousins were already there—Nanny’s birthday party had begun. We sat at the round glass breakfast table and told the story, talking over each other, and AJ imitated my screams; I grimaced and nodded at the accuracy of his impression. But already, by telling the story, we were asserting some claim over it. We were able to laugh as the illusory sense of our control returned. It wasn’t until I was in bed that night, in the quiet, cool darkness, that the fragile bravado faded and I let myself cry—not for what had happened, but for everything that might happen still.
* * *
Tomorrow's exercise revolves around character--taking three "characters" from the original list of memories and fictionalizing them, creating one-page bios for each and then inventing at least seven additional characters and doing the same. It's going to be a long but good writing day.
What about you? If you're a writer, what's your pre-writing process? And if you're not, play along anyway: what's one of your earliest memories?