Friday, November 28, 2008

Thankful for new things

I am thankful for many things. Yes, all the usual suspects: family, friends, health, employment. But this year I discovered new things for which to give thanks, things I had never before considered part of the list:

That not making Thanksgiving dinner (for only the second time in 26 years) means I do not have a turkey carcass taking up space in my refrigerator the next day.

That my daughter and her boyfriend are taking turns, during their Epic Journey Through Patagonia, sending reassuring emails to their parents (yes, we threatened them) and that the one he sent yesterday morning covered all the important stuff: Hey families, made it safe and sound to Puerto Madryn. We're going to go see some whales today. We'll try to keep you updated.

That my son and his girlfriend spent the last two nights here, as well as a good part of each day, and I still really like her.

That Adam Sandler's movies have improved somewhat since the last one I was forced to watch.

That my son knows how to make a fire in the fireplace, and did.

That after going to three different grocery stores on Thanksgiving Day, none of which had any frozen pumpkin pies left, it was no big deal to track down a can of Libby's pumpkin goo, read the recipe on the label, label, label and make my own. It was delicious.

That Pillsbury makes the crust so I don't have to. Hey, it was more than enough nonsense making the Oreo crust for the grasshopper pie.

That my son's friends feel welcome in my home and don't hesitate to drop in without notice for a piece of pie, or two (this is not new, the excess of pie is).

That, as much as I loved spending time with everyone while they were here, all those people are gone now and I can relax and enjoy the balance of what I had thought was going to be a very quiet holiday weekend spent writing.

Ahh, and as I finish typing this, here comes a new reason: That my daughter has inherited my tendency to go on and on and on, and does so even in email:

Hey there families! A and I have made it safely to Trelew. We went whale watching yesterday in Peninsula Valdes and it was absolutely incredible. We saw so many whales, and they were all really close to the boat, some even passed under the boat! They were Southern Right Whales, and some were up to 16 meters long, which is about 50 feet! We also got lucky enough to see a few of them jumping out of the water, which was probably the coolest thing ever. We have lots of pictures! Today we are visiting a dinosaur museum and hanging out in the city of Trelew, which was founded by the Welsh. Tomorrow we go to see the PENGUINS!!!!!! From there we will keep heading south until we get to Puerto Natales. Happy Thanksgiving (A is silly and forgot to say that yesterday)!! Love you and miss you!

Yes, many new things this year for which to give thanks.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pictures from on high

I really like the way the Mac handles pictures. Here are several my daughter took* last week during her three-day trek on Aconcagua (ref. previous post). I still can't quite believe she was there, that she saw and experienced all this. But there she is, with Aconcagua looming in the background:

*Edit to correct photo credit:  Her BF took some of them. Notably, the ones of her.

She captioned the one below: "This photo is of Puente del Inca, which supposedly when the Incas couldn't cross this river, they prayed to the gods and this rock bridge magically appeared the next day. Pretty cool looking."

Standing in the glacier. Obviously, it's the time of year when it melts a bit.

She said this is: "Our nifty little stove and pot!" And I thought, Oh good, she's learning how to cook. Or at least, how to boil stuff.

More glacier:

Aconcagua. The highest peak outside of Asia:

My daughter, hiking across a glacier. She's turning into a mountain goat:

More glacier:

Very pretty reflection in the lake:

Her host sister said this looked like meringue:

Daughter's boyfriend, hiking across the glacier:

Obviously, I've been playing way too much and not writing enough. I'm having a very tough time concentrating so far this weekend.

I'll go have a stern talk with myself now. Really.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Climb every mountain . . .

My daughter has been climbing again. 

Here she is several weeks ago on "a mountain behind the Cerro Arco," trying to scare me into an early grave.

And doing a damn fine job of it.

She called last night to tell me about the latest adventure. This time she and her boyfriend decided to do a three-day hike and climb Aconcagua (6962m/22,841ft), the highest mountain outside of Asia and one of the Seven Summits. For reference, Mt. Everest (8848m/29,029ft) is the highest mountain in the world.

No, they didn't go all the way to the top.

They started in Mendoza (761m/2497ft), where they've been going to school. Along the way they hiked across a glacier . . .

"Really? You walked on a glacier?"

"Yeah, it was pretty amazing.  It comes down the mountain and across a valley and back up the mountain again. We didn't walk across the river part of it, that would be stupid. Too slushy."

"Did you have a guide?"

"No, you don't need a guide. There's a path."

Oh, of course.  A path across a glacier. Silly me.

. . . to a base camp (3300m/10,827ft) and camped in their little tent . . .

"That little nylon tent I saw on your last blog post? Didn't you freeze?"

"Our little tent is very cozy."

. . . then hiked up to Plaza Francia (4200m/13,944ft) another base camp. And they saw an avalanche.

"At first, it looked like this huge white mist, billowing up and spreading out, like something out of a Stephen King book, coming to get us."

"It was coming at you?!"

"No, mom, it was a mile away. You'd have to see a picture. We weren't in the path of it or anything. And you could hear it. Like rumbling thunder. Wait until you see the video I took. So awesome."

Uh huh. Awesome.

I remember she had problems with altitude sickness back in July on the hike to Machu Picchu (2400m/7875ft -- and I thought that was a big climb), so I asked whether that had been a problem. She said, "Not really. Usually after a climb I'm starving, but when we got to Plaza Francia I could only eat half of my peanut butter sandwich, so that's one sign. And I had a headache, of course. So it wasn't too bad."

Then she told me the trail just opened on November 15. Before that date it's too cold and too dangerous. Gee, so glad they didn't do anything dangerous.

Next Tuesday they leave for Chile and points south. Where they will see penguins. Oh, and did I mention the ten-day hike they have planned in Torres del Paine National Park? Sounds lovely, doesn't it, camping and hiking in a national park? Innocuous even. 


Once I got off the phone, I decided to do some research. Because by comparison, writing more pages in a thriller seemed like such a tame activity. Here are some pictures of Torres del Paine I found on Wikipedia, that calming informative presence on the internet and a friend to mothers everywhere:

Looks benign, doesn't it? And the flora looks so non-toxic and, um, highly edible:

I'm sure it will be perfectly safe. No worries.

Time to go write some soothing fiction about killers and conspiracies.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Oh, something shiny!

I had a very interesting weekend, thanks for asking. There is a person in my life, let's just call her my older sister, who has a tendency to be outrageously generous for no apparent reason. And I never know what might set her off. For instance, last weekend I casually mentioned how nice it was that my son had left his laptop at home when he went out of town for the weekend. And how nice it was to be able to use that to write on for change, sitting comfortably on the couch, rather than at my desk using my PC. Seemed like a perfectly innocent comment at the time. I had no idea I had just revealed an unacceptable deficit in my arsenal of writing tools she then felt compelled to correct.

So I was mightily surprised on Friday to receive a box from FedEx that contained a shiny new MacBook. Especially since I've never used a Mac. Once I had sufficiently recovered from my shock, I called to thank her and asked, "Why a Mac?"

She said, "Well, I have one and really like it, so I thought you would too. Consider it an early birthday present."

And I said, quite reasonably, "But my birthday is still several weeks away. And we stopped giving each other birthday presents YEARS ago." Seriously, we always call each other, but that's the extent of it.

To which she replied, "Whatever." Sometimes she acts like she's still twelve. Regardless, she's still older. Then she said, "You really needed a laptop. Besides, Macs never crash."

Okay, just for the record: I have never crashed a computer.

So I spent the weekend trying to figure out how to use the darn thing. After ten minutes trying to find the power switch, and realizing that waving my hand commandingly over the keyboard wasn't having the desired effect, I decided to read the manual. Things got easier. Lucky for me, there were also online tutorials. So I proceeded to conquer internet connections and email and MS Office 2008 for Mac. And Bubbleshooter. Yes, it works on a Mac. Damn it.

Then I remembered I had heard a bunch of writers talk about a fantastic writing program (compatible only with a Mac) called Scrivener. It had been touted as being a really good way to organize all the bits and pieces of a large ms. I figured I could use some help in that area. So after some research, and more tutorials, and because two shiny things are always better than just one, I decided to try the free 30-day trial version.

Oh. My. God.

I'm not even sure how to describe it. Except maybe to say that Scrivener might well be worth all the considerable aggravation of re-learning how to do EVERYTHING on a computer. I might even forgive the Mac's pitiful substitution of a "backspace" key for a real "delete" key. WTH, Mac users never make mistakes worth deleting?

I digress. My ms is now broken down into not only chapters, but scenes within each chapter. And each scene has a notecard thingy with a brief synopsis of the scene (a synopsis I had to write, but let's not quibble). And I can now view a corkboard with all these notecards on it or switch all that info into an outline. I haven't even figured out yet how to input all the info this thing can assimilate. It can even do pictures. And if I want to move a scene, I just grab it and move it. And the notecard automatically moves with it.

It's amazing. It's also amazingly easy to see, looking at these notecards, when a scene works and is doing everything it's supposed to do. And when it's not. [sigh]

Yes, this all took a lot of time. Especially since my old version of Word is so old it's not even compatible with Office 2008. I swear I saw the new program roll its eyes and heave a sigh of disgust before pronouncing my ms to be incomprehensible. I'm pretty sure that was a technical opinion, not an editorial one. So I had to improvise just a wee bit. But I entered all of the old pages, even the ending, and the updated page count thing over there reflects that and not any new pages. So, great progress, just no new pages.

Of course, this means I'm going to have to come up with a new reward for when I finish. Whatever it is, I'll be sure not to mention it to my older sister.

Friday, November 14, 2008

It's all downhill from here

"The first draft of anything is shit."
-Ernest Hemmingway

That makes me feel so much better.

Well, the great reconstruction -- the reckless slash-and-burn, um, that is, the careful re-reading, editing, re-writing and general whipping into shape of the old ms and copying it into a new document -- is at an end. There are several dozen pages that didn't make the cut (my page count is significantly lower than when I started, which is disheartening), but they needed to go. There are also a few dozen pages I've written that go at the very end and that won't get added until I actually reach the end. Yes, I've written the ending. And I like it. For now.

Going through this painstaking process of reconstruction has been an educational experience. I can see where there are great gaping holes in the plot and where things need clarification and expansion. The story needs more action and more suspense and more conflict -- no, that's not quite accurate. All of those things are there in the story, I just haven't yet managed to put them on the page.

Interestingly, there is a lot more sexual tension than I remember writing. Oh well. Still, this is not a romance. I've never been all that interested in the fictional romantic Happily Ever After and there won't be one in this book. I'm fascinated by the journey -- if these characters survive that, they can go off and do whatever else they want with the rest of their lives. Really.

So. Now comes the hard part. The slow part. The agonizing process of pulling pure crap out of the murky depths and boldly exposing it, slapping the stinking fetid mess of it onto the blinding white scrutiny of the page. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any other way to write the rest of the story.

What the hell, if it worked for Hemmingway . . .

Sunday, November 09, 2008

9 Nov: This is not working

This daily reporting nonsense is not only making me crazy, it's hurting my writing. I realized today that last week I pasted in a scene "as is" that should have been re-written -- because I was anxious to report that I had made progress. Idiot. Eventually I'll have to go back and re-write it. Or maybe delete it. But not now. Now is for going forward and making progress and reaching The End.

So the daily post part of the plan has been scrubbed. I'm not convinced anyone reading this is all that concerned about daily page totals anyway, just that I'm writing. The posts over here will go back to being about whatever, whenever.

For me, writing is not a race or a contest. And I can't make it be something it's not. I can't sacrifice quality for volume. Sometimes writing means sitting quietly and thinking, plotting, seeing and hearing and knowing a scene before it turns into words on the page. I need to write it in my head first. That's my process. It works when I let it. This month is about remembering how to put words onto the page again, and then regaining the discipline to actually do it. Thank you, Merry, for sending the poem. It made me realize I don't need to reinvent the wheel, just put it back on the cart.

I still have my (rather short) long-term goal, that feels amazingly good, and I'm still focusing intently on writing this entire month. I do kind of like the page count tracker thing over there in the corner, so I'll leave that and update it as I go. It reminds me there is an end in sight, however distant. But if it becomes irritating, it's toast.

My determination to accomplish this goal has not wavered. If anything, it's stronger now than it was a week ago.

7-8 Nov: a much needed break

On the 7th the week caught up with me, big time. After work, I had to do some stuff in preparation for a Board meeting the next day and then realized I HADN'T READ ANY FICTION FOR MORE THAN A WEEK! *gasp* No wonder I was feeling cranky. I was exhausted so I picked up the fluffiest book I could find and tried to read. Instead I fell asleep on the couch at an embarrassingly early hour.

The 8th was five and a half hours of meetings, with a break for lunch, and hanging out with some of my favorite people, other writers. Big changes on that front in the coming year. I've relinquished one responsibility [happy happy joy joy] but am taking on another. And while part of me is wondering why the hell I can't just keep my mouth shut instead of saying, "Sure, I can do that," a larger part of me is excited and happy about the new challenge.

But all that talking and listening just wears me out and I needed to hibernate for a while afterward to process everything. So I finished reading the fluffy book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

No writing. Didn't even think about the book. And I needed the break. This effort is teaching me the truth of something I've always suspected but never actually tested: I am not a seven-days-a-week kind of writer. But I'm also discovering that there are times (of the day, of the week) when I had thought I couldn't be productive, and I was mistaken.

Back to it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

6 Nov: trying to focus

Re-writing. Heavy editing.
Trying not to drown in this muck.

New pages: 5-ish? I've lost track.
Total pages: 82

Write a blog post?
Oh please. I'm busy here.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

5 Nov: reflections on race

Here is a truth I rarely acknowledge about myself: Sometimes words and ideas get stuck in my head. And there is nothing I can do to get them out, to let others take their place, until I put them in writing. Sometimes it matters to me that others read them, sometimes not. Whether that is OCD or simply the mark of a writer, I neither know nor care. But these words were there and now they're here. And tomorrow [today, by the time you read this] I will be able to regain focus and allow others to fill the space -- with any luck they'll be words that belong in the book I'm supposed to be writing.

For me, and for many people I know, the Presidential election was not about race. I can't tell you how many times in the past months I've heard people say race didn't matter in this election. I don't think any of us were being disingenuous, but we were profoundly mistaken.

Anyone who knows anything at all about me knows I supported and voted for Barack Obama -- in the Democratic primary as well as in the general election. In order of importance, I based my decision on the following: He's a Democrat. I agree with much of what he said about issues. He is extraordinarily intelligent and articulate. He seems genuinely passionate about implementing change in ways that I think will improve this country. His spouse is completely awesome and she thinks highly of him. He's young and energetic and charismatic, yet also calm and confident, a natural leader. And, oh yeah, he's "black" and wouldn't it be amazing and historically significant to elect a black President.

I didn't vote for him because he's black, any more than I would have NOT voted for him because he's black. His racial makeup, define or describe it how you will, had virtually nothing to do with my decision. Neither, for that matter, did his religion.

Maybe I'm just terribly naive, but until Tuesday night I assumed the majority of people in this country felt the same. Oh sure, I know there are plenty of bigots and racists -- all over the country, not just here in the South -- who would never vote for a black person no matter the office. Especially not for the office that is arguably the most powerful in the world. I like to think those people are a minority. Then again, I also like to think I can eat chocolate with impunity.

But my assumptions about the importance of race changed Tuesday night, watching black people react to Obama's election. Seeing Andrew Young, one of the most gifted orators of our time, so overcome with emotion he could barely speak. Seeing Jesse Jackson with tears streaming unchecked down his face. Seeing all the (predominantly) black supporters gathered in Chicago's Grant Park, obviously in the grips of powerful emotion and overwhelming joy.

Okay, I know the Bush years were awful and many of us were desperate not to have four more years of the same, but these people were reacting to much more than having escaped the prospect of that.

And then I saw Oprah Winfrey in the crowd. She wasn't there as a superstar. There was no hoopla, no bright lights spotlighting her, no reporters lining up for an interview. She was standing patiently with friends, waiting to hear Obama speak. Just another face in the crowd, her quiet presence so unremarkable it was stunning. And the expression on her face. I can't even describe it. It was as if all her wealth and power and celebrity, all her very impressive accomplishments, were in that moment meaningless. Insignificant when measured against Obama's achievement that night. She was there not as Oprah, but as a black person. Standing witness to what for many was an overwhelmingly important milestone in history. American history. Certainly I had known this event would be cause for celebration. Deservedly so. It was the depth, the intensity of emotion it brought forth that caught me off guard.

Right then, everything inside of me took a sharp breath and held it and became very still and then a quiet voice in my head said, simply, "Oh." And I couldn't believe I had not realized until that moment how very much race does still matter in this country. How very important it is, not just to small-minded bigots, but to those who have suffered, in too many cases are still suffering, because of it. And how very mistaken some of us were in our assessment of its continued weightiness.

Barack Obama was not elected solely by black voters. Millions of white Americans had to believe race was not a pejorative issue -- in fact, many considered it to be irrelevant -- in order to vote for a man in an election in which, for millions of black Americans, the race of that man was of vast importance.

And I can't decide whether that's ironic or hopeful or somehow just heartbreaking.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

4 Nov: being present in the moment

I tried to write, really I did. But how can you not watch history in the making? I wanted to be a part of it, even if from a distance. I wanted to see the numbers add up as choices were made and voices were heard. I needed to witness Andrew Young, a man I came to admire and respect during the years I lived in Atlanta, brought to tears and near incoherence by the significance of and his gratitude for this day. I needed to hear the graceful and gracious concession of John McCain and the eloquently hopeful acceptance of Barak Obama. It was not a night for turning off the TV.

There were numbers more important yesterday than pages in a manuscript:

  • North Carolina elected its first female governor, a Democrat.
  • North Carolina elected only its second female US Senator, sending a Democrat to fill a seat held by Republicans for the last 36 years.
  • It appears North Carolina narrowly gave its electoral votes to a Democratic Presidential candidate for the first time since 1976.
  • And the United States elected its first black President.

I've always been proud to be an American. Watching those results last night, I was proud of Americans.

There are times fiction can't hold a candle to reality. I couldn't not watch.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

3 Nov: Monday, Monday . . .

. . . sometimes it just turns out that way.

On Monday I was an employee (exhausting day) and a viewer (LOVE that dancing show) and a friend (very long phone call).

I was not a writer.

I imagine tonight I will be a concerned citizen. Perhaps I'll be able to multi-task, concentrating on fiction and reality at the same time. We shall see.

I want everyone who comes over here today to say, "I VOTED!" It will make me feel better about my lack of progress.

Monday, November 03, 2008

2 Nov: headaches and waterfalls

Sunday I woke up with the mother of all headaches. Not to mention the yelling father and four screaming kids and six barking dogs of a headache. Enough pain to last all day. Which it did. I did not want to write. It hurt to think. If I hadn't known people were expecting to see some progress, I wouldn't have done it.

So mostly I focused on editing. Copied good stuff from the old ms and pasted it into the new. In the correct order. Deleted a lot -- can't believe how bad some of it was. Added and tweaked a bit -- rather pleased by how much I've learned. Net result: 2 pages of new writing. Total ms now at 51 pages.

I also took a long nap. It helped.

Oh, and I also slashed the hell out of, um, that is, edited a synopsis for a friend. Who may someday forgive me. [sigh] The things I do.

I can't express how much I appreciate you all coming over here to check on me. As a special thank you bonus, and because I know these updates are mind-numbingly boring, here are some pictures of Iguazu Falls in Argentina (or perhaps the Midwest, if you're looking at Wapak's map) that my daughter took while she was there several weeks ago:

Sunday, November 02, 2008

1 Nov: a good start

Okay, I can already tell it is going to be irritating as hell to write a post every day. Maybe I could do one every other day? No, I know. That wasn't the deal. Every day it is.

So yesterday, before I could write, I had to clear the decks. Really. I recently took an online quiz about distractions in your environment. It was interesting. I realized I have way too many things in my space that are distracting me. So I gathered up all the stuff I had taken out of the closet in there, but had not gotten around to actually doing anything about, and shoved it all right back into the closet. And closed the doors.

Then I had to go to the grocery store to stock up. I know, you're thinking this was just a delaying tactic, but it was actually quite essential. For instance, last night at 10:00 when I realized I hadn't eaten dinner yet, it was very helpful to have something quick and easy I could zap in the microwave.

When I am this intensely focused on writing, I tend to lose track of things. Like eating. And going to bed. Good thing The Wonder Dog is staying with His Favourite Person this weekend.

So yesterday, last night really, I wrote eight new pages. I'm slow and that's a decent output for me. And I copied over four old ones. So the new ms now has 12 pages in it. Including an excellent new scene, with two new characters. One of them dies. That's a good start and I'm happy.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Getting Serious, Setting Goals

Okay, time to get serious here. About writing. I've decided November is going to be devoted to writing and not much else. Well, except for the day job and the cooking and cleaning and laundry and the holiday baking and shopping and hiring a different roofer because four unsuccessful tries to find and fix that damn leak is enough already and of course I have to GO VOTE and then watch election results and . . .

Start over.

I've decided November is going to be devoted to writing. I've also decided I need a deadline. I function really well with deadlines. The day job is all about getting things done by a certain date. I might put things off-- okay, I always leave things to the last minute, but I never miss a deadline. Perhaps I've become too dependent on that and lost the ability to be truly self-motivated, but I know I function well that way. The deadline has to be something that matters to me, one with consequences. And some accountability.

I've been advised that it's a good idea (we'll see about that) to make all this public. Nothing like a big dose of public shame and humiliation to get your muse to sit up and pay attention, right?

So this is what I've decided:

  1. On 5 January 2009 I am going to send a submission to an agent. Even if I'm not done writing the book. And since it will kill me to send a submission of an unfinished book, it WILL be finished by then. Why this date? No one in publishing does much during the holidays and it seems the first reasonable date. Coincidentally, this is also the date I'll probably put the house on the market. What the hell, live dangerously.
  2. Once I send off the submission, I will buy myself a laptop computer, something I've wanted for a very long time. Someone suggested chocolate, but food rewards don't work for me. I want a laptop.
  3. Every day in November, I will put up a short post here, detailing my progress, or lack thereof, with daily page counts. [With my method of formatting, the finished book will be roughly 400 pages; at 250 words per page, this will result in a standard 100,000 word single title novel.]

Now, one note about "progress." I've already written a huge chunk of this book. But it's a mess. No really, it is. Most of it is terrific (yes, humility in action here) but sections of it are out of order and parts of it have to be deleted and other parts have to be re-written. So I'm going to start over. What I mean by this is that I'm going to open a new document and start writing. There's a scene I want to put at the beginning that I haven't written yet -- it's been in my head all week and it's good -- and I'm going to start with that. Then, as I get to a part I've already written, I'll copy and paste it in, editing as I go. So at first, page counts may seem very impressive. Don't get used to it. I don't write that fast. So things will slow down.

Feel free to stop by occasionally and chastise me if I haven't made much progress or haven't posted about it. Really.

And now that I've spent all this time writing about writing and not actually, you know, writing, it's time to get started. Right after I eat lunch and clean up the kitch-- ARRRGH!

Focus. Need to focus. I can do this.