Feeds:
Posts
Comments

     It is difficult, if not impossible, to catch all of your own mistakes in a piece of writing. The large errors are easy to find, but the little things–the typos, omitted words, wrong use of there, their, and they’re–these are much harder to catch. The reason is that our brains are overly helpful. The brain knows what is wrong or missing and helpfully supplies the right word as we read, regardless of what is on the page.

     I know this. I teach this. Every year I tell this to freshmen students, encouraging them to find a peer or relative to read their papers before turning them in. So why do I think I am the exception to this rule?

    Part of the reason is probably that I am reluctant to ask a reader to proof a 100+ page manuscript for tiny errors. It’s one thing to ask someone to read for theme and whether or not the story works, it’s quite another to ask her to make sure I have all of my articles in place. This is not to say my friends aren’t willing–they are. They’ve said so. I just don’t want to ask.

     The second reason is because I teach this. I get paid to find these errors in the papers of students. I should be able to find them in my own work–right? It’s just so hard to believe that they would be so very visible in everyone else’s writing and so very invisible in my own.

     The final reason is time. I am pretty good at estimating when I can get a rewrite done. I even build in a little extra time for those inevitable family emergencies, but I don’t leave a lot of wiggle room. The truth is if I laid the story aside for a few weeks and looked at it fresh, I’d probably find a lot of my little errors. I’ve certainly found them in other drafts I’ve had to leave for a time. I just don’t budget enough time.

    So why is this so important? Because it’s the small stuff that can cost an author. Those little errors give an editor an excuse to pass on a manuscript, and with piles and piles of manuscripts to go through they are looking for excuses to stop reading. Of course, having a grammatically perfect manuscript doesn’t take the place of having a compelling plot or well-rounded characters, but it can give you an edge–and in today’s market, a writer needs all the edges she can get.

     As a result of all this, my manuscript will get to my agent a little later than I promised. I’m not happy about that. I just sat through a conference where the presenters stressed the importance of meeting deadlines. Lucky for me, it won’t be too late due to the efforts of a good friend who is going to give up a free evening to proofread for me. I owe her chocolate.

     Every now and then, I don’t recognize myself. It happened just yesterday. I was working in my rose garden–pulling weeds, clipping off dead branches, and spreading mulch. When it was done, I sat back to look at it, and it looked pretty good. Then all of a sudden, I saw my garden through the eyes of the college student I used to be, and I wondered, “Where did that come from?”

     You see, I grew up in apartments. I didn’t garden. I didn’t sew. I didn’t cut hair. In fact, I had few domestic skills of any kind and no real interest in acquiring any. When I think about what I was like then,  I find myself looking at who I am now–the at-home writer mom who sews, bakes, and gardens–and wondering how I got here from there.

    Of course, part of the answer is necessity. I grow roses, because I like roses. I would have cut roses in my house every day if I could–but buying roses is too expensive. This same rule of supply and demand led me to develop most of my current domestic skills. I took up sewing so I could make Halloween costumes–the nice kind that cost so much–and so I could dress my toddler in one of those red velveteen Christmas dresses with the three inch lace. (One experience sewing with velveteen got that out of my system.) This summer I am going to learn how to make jam because my family has become fond of blueberry jam, and blueberry jam is one of those specialty jams where you pay twice as much to get a jar that holds maybe four servings.

     This same reasoning can be used to explain how I started writing. As a kid, I got tired of reading fantasy stories with one token female character, so I started making up stories for myself–stories with female protagonists. If you think about it, I’ve never really stopped.

     Perhaps my old self would have despised who I have become, but I have learned some valuable lessons along the way–not just sewing, cooking and gardening–but lessons on problem-solving and perserverance. My mother did without a lot of things like roses and blueberry jam because we were too poor to afford them. I am also too poor to buy such things at the store, but I have learned that if I want them badly enough to put in the time and effort to learn something new, I can have them. Not only that–the homegrown roses have a better scent.

     On my back deck are a pair of shrubs, still in the pots I bought them in. They are blueberry bushes. I don’t just intend to learn how to make  jam. I am going to grow my own blueberries. My old self would probably look down on me for that, but then my old self wouldn’t have blueberry jam.

On Juggling

     My sister used to juggle raw eggs. She would stand there in the kitchen deftly passing the eggs from hand to hand with one eye on my mother—because the whole display was aimed at her. Mom hated the willful destruction of perfectly good food. I would watch with wide-eyes, torn between admiration and horror. I had already been indoctrinated with my mom’s hatred of waste. One day, I asked my sister to teach me how to juggle. We used rolled up socks. (I wasn’t yet egg-calibre.) She tossed me one little sock ball and I bounced it from hand to hand—easy. Then she tossed another. This time it was harder, but with some concentration I was able to juggle the two back and forth. Finally, she added a third…and suddenly there were sock balls bouncing everywhere.
     Well, the years have passed I’m still struggling to learn how to juggle. Of course the balls have changed in size, number and importance. Instead of socks, I juggle kids, writing, home, bills, church, PTO & etc. Unfortunately, my skills haven’t improved that much from when I was a kid. I can concentrate on one thing—say writing 1500 word a day/5 days a week—and that’s pretty comfortable. I add another—still good. I can even manage a third with only a stumble or two…so I keep going. A few people come along and helpfully toss in some balls that I’ve overlooked. Suddenly it feels like I’m surrounded by a group of people pitching balls at me and smiling encouragingly as I try madly to keep them all in the air. And then all the balls fall at once.
     These last couple of months have been filled with the resounding thud of falling balls. Only it turned out I must have been juggling flaming torches because when they fell I found myself putting out fires. When I had gotten most of the flames extinguished (or at least down to a few sullen embers), I finally looked at my blog and realized I had written a resolution to write a new blog every week—in December. That’s one ball that rolled under the couch.
    So now I am back at it, carefully adding one ball at a time without any of the rest falling. Today, I am writing this blog. Tomorrow, I will restart my exercise program. I have managed to lose track of my eldest’s progress report, but honestly that’s hers to juggle—she’d just like me to do it for her. Today’s world encourages juggling—it practically demands it. And I still find myself mesmerized whenever I meet a really good juggler. However, I am still mediocre at best. Luckily for me, my sister is still an excellent juggler of all things including life, and she still gives me tips.

     It’s a bit early for New Year’s resolutions, but I have resolved to update this blog more often. Of course, the bar is really low here since I have only been updating it once a month—so if I manage one more post a month, I’ve doubled my output. However, the goal is to update it once a week.
     My last blog was about National Novel Writing Month. I am pleased to report that I did it. I completed 52,542 words of a brand new story by the end of November. I have to admit it was hard. I never really appreciated before how busy I get in November. There were birthdays to celebrate, parent-teacher conferences to attend, the end of a middle school marking period—which meant a lot of scrambling to finish up late projects. (I am not sure why that involved me so much, but it did.) Finally, I had an entire Thanksgiving feast to cook during the last weekend, and some shopping to do afterwards. By that last weekend, I was still 6,000 words down. My marvelous reading buddies were starting to call me to make sure I was going to make it. I’m still not sure how I managed to.
     So, what did I learn from this? I learned I really am a compulsive editor. It was actually painful to not go back and change things. I had to allow myself to at least fix the typos or I would have broken down completely. I found that I tend to overwrite. I had never noticed it before because so much of it gets deleted when I start an idea over. At over 52,000 words I was still only a third of the way through the story. I was tempted to give up on it, but in the third week the story suddenly took off and became an obsession. It haunted me until I sat down and wrote out all the plot points in a two page list. Now, it is still driving me, but at a more reasonable rate. I am continuing to fast draft the rest of the manuscript—though I did allow myself to drop back to 1500 words a day (weekdays only) instead of the 2500 words I was attempting with NaNo. Finally, I discovered I am more productive when I force myself to continue forward without looking back. Of course, the real test will come when I sit down to pull the whole thing into a workable manuscript. (Oh, I found out that I use ‘of course’ a lot—I mean REALLY a lot.) At the rate I am writing now, I probably won’t begin revisions until mid to late January.
     Two things I loved about NaNoWriMo were the reading buddies and the letters of encouragement. It was very motivating to see all my buddies posting their word counts. I also enjoyed hearing their stories. The excitement was contagious. The letters were also motivating…and simply great reading. I joined two regions and one of my municipal liaisons sent  wonderful, encouraging letters that seemed to speak to exactly what I was going through. I have no idea how she found the time to write them. The director’s letters were also fun, but I think the best letters were the ones from guest authors. I discovered two or three authors whose books I simply must read (I made a list), and I received letters from two of my idols, Gail Carson Levine and Robin McKinley. Yeah, I know—they were just form letters, but there was something heart-stopping about opening my email and seeing their names in my inbox.
     The most important benefit of this experience is that I am writing again on a regular basis. I discovered that when I had to I could find the time to write. I broke through some bad habits that were blocking productivity. Best of all, I am loving what I do again—because, face it, writing is the best career in the world. I would do it for free…and right now I do. All in all, I am glad I did NaNoWriMo. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to write.

NaNoWriMo

     I looked at my blog and realized I haven’t posted in a month. October was a crazy month full of sickness and school meetings. November promises to be even crazier as I have signed up for NaNoWriMo–which for the  nitiated stands for National Novel Writing Month. Yes, I have signed up to write a 50,000 word novel in a single month.

     The thing about me and writing is this—I am a compulsive editor. I cannot help myself. I edit as I write my first draft, I edit all through my revisions (which is when I am actually supposed to edit), I edit my edits, I edit as I am printing copies for my critique group, I even do minor changes while printing the hard copy of the final draft to send to my agent. I cannot stop myself.

     I know…I know…editing is a good thing. We are supposed edit, and most of the editing I do isn’t a problem. However, I have recently started worrying that I am editing my stories to death before they even make it onto paper (or, in this case, the computer screen). In my last project, I became so fixated on getting the first five or six chapters right that I spent about year doing them over and over and eventually lost the thread of the rest of the story. Yes, I actually managed to edit a project to death. This is why I have decided to seek help.
     Of course, every good rehabilitation program involves a partner or sponsor and mine is NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo actively discourages editing as you write. In fact, I have already received an email ridiculing my internal editor and calling her names. I have over thirty reading buddies on the site who will know if my word count starts to drop off. A few will even suspect why, and at least one of them is likely to call me on it.

     I am giving my current project a well-deserved rest and pulling out a shiny new idea for this experiment. It’s an idea I’ve had in my files for a while—another fairytale retelling. I am planning to write the first draft straight through WITHOUT EDITING AT ALL. Yes, that’s right. It will be an adventure in pure creativity. I can’t wait.

     So now you’re all sitting there saying, “Sure, she SAYS she’s not going to edit, but as soon as she starts looking back through what she’s written, she’ll be reaching madly for the delete button.” But, see, that’s the trick—I’m not going to read through it. Once I write it down, I am planning to leave it on the page and go on. I have no idea what I am going to get if I write headlong like this. I don’t even know if I can create a manuscript that fast, but I’m dying to find out it.
     So…I have the idea; I have the program; I have the people. There is nothing left, but to start writing. Wish me luck.

That Fall Feeling

I love the autumn. I guess that’s pretty obvious from the picture on my blog page. When I was growing up, there wasn’t much of a fall season. It seemed to go from summer to winter in about a week. By Halloween we were trudging through snow in our heavy coats, flashing our costumes at the people who opened the door. The place I live in now has a regular fall season full of colorful leaves, sharp cool air, and crisp apples. As I said before, I love it.

Surprisingly, I’ve never actually set any of my stories during the fall. The one I’m working on now is close, but it’s set around the beginning of the school year and the storyline should wrap up before autumn well and truly starts. The idea that is percolating in the back of my mind (The story I will start whenever I manage finish what I’m working on now) will take place primarily in winter.

But here and now it’s fall, and I am having a hard time concentrating on everything I have to do. Instead, my attention drifts out the window, and I keep finding excuses to go outside. I think I’ll let my revisions go for a day, load my toddler in a stroller, and go for a walk. I can call it research for that autumn book I’ll write one day.

My kids are all back in school which means they are bringing home homework—every day. I heard yesterday that the reason for this is that the superintendent of our school district decided that all the children in the district, regardless of grade, should have homework ever day. The rationale is that it’s to prevent students from falling behind. I am not sure whether I agree with that. Depending on the environment the student comes from, supportive or unsupportive, I suspect it could lead to some students falling farther behind faster.

Whatever the reason, I am now spending hours at the dining room table working with my children on homework. The homework my younger girls bring home gets done pretty fast. Generally, it’s just one or two worksheets. My oldest is a different story. At first she claimed she didn’t know whether or not she had homework. By the time I found it all, she felt there was too much for her to do it all by the end of the week. As a result,we spent most of last week in a take-no-prisoners battle over doing homework. I tried logic with her (there aren’t a lot of jobs for middle school dropouts), bribes, threats, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement—you name it. Homework consumed my evenings. Along the way, I found I had a few myths that needed to be dispelled.

  • Myth #1: I can gather them around the table, and they will work while I go from child to child, helping. It’s a pretty picture isn’t it? Well, the truth is that they all want my help at once. Also, if I get caught up in helping one child, the rest are guaranteed to wander off and play until I can rope them back together again.
  • Myth #2: If I spread it out over the days of the week, it won’t take up too much time on any one day. You’d really think it would work that way; however, the truth is that not all days are created equal. Some days are busier than others, and the homework has to be shunted to the next day. These conflicts can come from the schools themselves, who schedule open houses and PTO meetings during prime homework time, not realizing that if I’m there talking to teachers, I am not at home helping with homework. Regardless, of what happens during the week, everything is due on Friday. So Thursday evening ends up entirely devoted to finishing it all off.
  • Myth #3: The homework from my daughter’s middle school should only take an hour and a half per week. This one came from my daughter’s principal. I have the handout to prove it. I don’t know where he gets his numbers, but they’ve got to be based on the assumption that the child perfectly understands the problem, concept, book, etc. (Which kind of makes me wonder why he/she would need homework.) If the child doesn’t understand what she is doing, it takes a LOT longer. I spent hours last week teaching my oldest daughter everything I know about fractions—so much so, in fact, that I am beginning to wonder what, if anything, she is learning in class.
  • Myth #4: If I tell them that they have to finish their homework before watching TV or playing computer, they’ll work hard and get it done faster. Okay, this has worked with the younger two. Unfortunately, my oldest has already figured out that by the time she gets done with all her homework it’s bedtime. There is no time left to watch TV or play computer.

I have one belief that I have yet to put to the test.

  • Myth #5: If I establish homework routines now, they will become habits and will continue even if I am not around to supervise. I have no idea about this one. I haven’t gotten there yet. I do know that in previous years when I taught night classes, nothing of that sort happened while I was out of the house.

A friend of mine told me that her mother, who was a teacher, believed teachers should be able to teach the students what they need to know in the seven hours that they have them at school. And I must admit that it seems unfair to sit the kid down after seven hours of learning, which is nearly equivalent to a full-time job, and expect them to do even more work. Nevertheless, that’s what I do—every day.