Over the summer I started a new book, banging out enough for a proposal then kind of put it aside when the sagging middle showed up early. Being well-acquainted with that particular pain in the ass, I knew it was just a plot problem in search of a solution. So I went to a writers retreat, and with the help of a friend, hammered the issue into submission. With copious notes and a new outlook on the project, I felt ready to jump back into the swim, then my day job reared its ugly head. Suddenly, time became of the essence, and again, the manuscript moldered. Still, I told myself I’d get to it as soon as things eased up, and then another work-bomb exploded immediately followed by a family crisis. All of a sudden, writing became as superfluous as whipped cream and a cherry (in most circles anyway), and I knew if I was ever going to get back to it, I’d need to resolve what was in front of me first. Not that that realization made me feel any better. I fact, I still felt quite the slacker. Because In the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t the day job or the family or anything else I could use as an excuse. I knew it was facing that sagging middle again, and I was terrified the plot prop I devised would hardly lift it an inch. And therein laid the rub.
To be a writer, one has to write, and no one has shouted that louder than me. But how can I preach the mantra of writers’ write when I had a novel just lingering in my hard drive, bereft? Was there something genuinely wrong with me, or was I just a hypocrite? Because surely one can’t still be a writer and not write at all?
Real life intrusions aside, every writer faces dark moments when the impetus eludes them, and I’m not referring to what’s commonly known as Writer’s Block. What I mean is when the will to write is gone, when doubt overwhelms you, when you can’t even think of yourself as a writer. Most often, times like these occur after a rejection, whether from a teacher, editor or agent, but more likely from a rebuff totally unrelated to anything literary. Rejections of this kind cloud judgment and sap confidence, eating away at the one fact that should always keep our writing mojo in perfect sync: that in the literary world, it’s never about you. It’s always about the work, and it’s that work that sustains us. No matter how terrible or disappointing or unreliable things seem, at least there’s the writing, being the one reliable recourse that will always shape itself to our moods, and more than likely, become better for it.
Okay, enough wallowing in it. Ass in chair, bitch. Now.
One of the nicest things about living in the Northeast is the stunning weather we enjoy each fall. Sunny, crisp days, cool, sleepable nights, it’s a welcome respite after the hot, sweaty summers. We get to wear our new sweaters and boots, festoon our homes with bright mums and pumpkins, go apple picking and lose ourselves (and occasionally our kids) in corn mazes, grab a mug of hot and liberally-spiked cider, ooh and aah over the changing leaves, while the scent of wood-smoke settles like incense over our towns. But guess what? Here it is, nearly the middle of September, and I’m still wearing sandals, the cicadas are still chirping and I’m still running the air conditioner. What is this–Miami? Christ- this is New Jersey! What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on?
Look, I totally believe in global warming–not that it’s a belief system as some deniers swear it is–and I’m almost convinced carbon dioxide is the New Oxygen. But I want Autumn. I want Autumn so bad, I’m willing to give up my $65 pedicures until next spring so I can bring out my boots. I’m willing to stand atop a mountain and screech Al Gore invented the Internet! if it’ll bring it any sooner. I’ll bury my swimsuit in the back yard and break my beach umbrella over my knee if the temperature will drop twenty degrees. I want to make pot roast and chicken soup and hot cider because I can’t stomach any more Caesar salad and iced tea. But most of all, I’m sick to death of bugs, moths, spiders, and mosquitoes, and the fact their very existence keeps me from entering through my front door when I’m out after ten PM because they’re flash-mobbing around my porch light. There used to be a bat hanging from my awning taking care of those bastards, but I haven’t seen them in a month. They’re probably so sick of summer too, they’ve already gone into hibernation.
Damn, I’d be happy if I could just blow-dry my hair again.
I know why this is happening. I know why Summer can’t make peace with Fall and give up the whole thing already. I’m fairly certain one or the other has dug in on the opposite side of the aisle and is refusing to budge. Apparently, yielding to Fall will look like they’re “cooperating,” and we just can’t have that, no way, no how. So don’t expect Christmas or Hanukkah this year, either. Unless, of course, it comes with sunscreen.
Yessiree friends, reality sucks, and it’s the wise novelist who knows this, and precisely why we choose to retreat from it so often. Which is why every now and then it’s beneficial to go TO a writer’s retreat, which I am this weekend…
Imagine dedicating an entire day to writing your book!
Whether you long for a quiet place to work without interruption or you crave the inspiration & energy that ignites when writers gather, the Write Now Writers Retreat at Old York Cellars Vineyard in scenic Hunterdon County, NJ is for you!
Join our writers retreat where YOU get to decide how to spend your time!
Leave your worries behind. Write Now Writers is a distraction-free retreat designed to keep you moving forward on your manuscript. Designated writing areas are no Wi-Fi, no phone zones. With no interruptions, you have no excuses.
This is your time to write!
Spend the day working distraction-free or participate in these optional activities:
You’ll enjoy writing in a beautiful outdoor environment sure to spark your muse. Indoor provisions also available.
Retreat also includes a delicious picnic lunch and snacks.
But the real part that sold me was…
You can even win a bottle of wine!
Okay! I’m there!
Want to Write? Love to Read?
Mark your calendars for
the 8th annual Create Something Magical Conference.
Whether you’re indie published, traditionally published, not quite published, or simply love to read, in all and all genres of fiction writing, we have something for you. Join us on March 18-19, at the Renaissance Woodbridge Hotel in Iselin, NJ
2017 for a magical event!
See Liberty State Fiction Writers for more info!
Most writing follows a certain form, whether fiction or nonfiction. Newswriting and creative non-fiction are fact-based, humor amuses, biography chronicles a life. Fiction tells an invented story, whereas, genre fiction adheres to certain inherent strictures, ie, mysteries leave clues, romance relates a developing relationship, horror shocks, fantasy world-builds. Readers expect when they pick up a thriller or an autobiography or a true crime that it’ll follow whatever form’s intrinsic to that genre, but what if you want to define what you’re writing even further? This is what I call writing for context, or putting that extra level of specification into your writing–for clarity, for authenticity, to strike the right mood. Shall I explain?
Historical fiction is one of the best examples. Aside from not including an HD TV in your Victorian drawing room, certain phrasing and references will lend you writing more credibility, as well as anchor your reader in the era. The best way to get this is to read works not so much about the time of which you are writing, but from the time. For example, from the 18th century, Jonathan Swift or Henry Fielding, 19th century, Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, early 20th, Sinclair Lewis or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pay attention to the cadence of their dialogue, their use of phrasing, their historical references, the position of their wording. He was a hale fellow, or Shall we meet at half-past seven? will lend a certain credence to your writing. Now, no one will expect you to construct your exposition with thees and thous, but if you’re writing about 18th century Quakers, you might expect to see a few of those whiskered words in their dialogue.
Another example is writing in the first person. I find this type of writing gives you the most license to experiment. Take the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. In this novel he writes from a the perspective of a 15-year-old with Asperger Syndrome. He includes the protagonist’s tics and phobias, sprinkling the narrative with logic and math, numbering his chapters with only prime numbers. By writing with this context in mind, Haddon places us firmly in the character’s mind, and makes the experience resonate long after we put the book down.
There are many examples I could go into to illustrate this principle, but basically, it’s almost like Method Acting, or maybe even a little bit like time travel. As soon as you sit down to write, put yourself into the mind of your character, in both time and setting, and let it lead you down its little garden path. If it’s engrossing enough, your minions will soon follow.
In past posts we’ve explored from preparing for a writing project, confronting the blank page, priming your plot pump, getting past your slumping middle, to wrapping it all up and sending it out the door. But what if you’ve got the will and the way, but you still can’t get your motor started? And what if you’ve got it started, but can’t figure out how to shut it down? Or what if you’re stuck in that sagging middle, and it’s got you so daunted you want to hurl the whole kit-and-kaboodle against the wall? Then maybe it’s time to give both the laptop and the sheet rock a break, because you know what they say: when all else fails–retreat!
No, my dear writers, I’m most certainly not saying you should quit. Five noogies to the head for even considering it! What I’m saying is perhaps you need a change of venue, to step out of your everyday and try a different milieu. Where would you go? Why don’t you try these…
1. Writers Colonies – If you’ve got the wallet for it, writers colonies or residencies are about as close as you can get to literary nirvana. Usually in a picturesque location or town, at a college or camp or hotel, they give you uninterrupted time to write, plot or just stare off into space. Many come with social activities so you can network with fellow writers, some even come with stipends, others you have to qualify for. Check the wonderful website Agent Query for their list of colonies and residencies.
2. Writers Conferences – Every writer should attend at least one a year. I certainly do, have for years, and if you just happen to be in New Jersey in next March , you might want to take a look at Liberty States Fiction Writers’ “Create Something Magical” Conference. It’s for one day, but take the weekend and bookend the schmooze, panels and workshops with some serious writing time. Writers Conferences can range from an afternoon to a week-long series of events, many of them grouped by genre, such as the Romance Writers of America in the summer, or the Backspace Writers Conference in New York this November. Full of workshops, editor/agent appointments, panels, readings, book fairs and the chance to meet some of your favorite authors, if you don’t come out energized and ready to attack the page, then perhaps you’re in the wrong business. Again, here’s another look at Agent Query, and their rundown of upcoming conferences.
3. Book Expo America – BEA is one of the premier industry events if you are any way connected. If you’re a bookseller, agent, editor, librarian, educator, book club member, writers’ organization officer or published author you can’t afford to miss it. Held over three days in May, last year in Chicago, but next year back at the Javits Center in New York City, anyone who is anyone in the industry is there. After one hour trolling this convergence of Every Publisher in the Free World, if you don’t feel like closing down that WIP to get in the game, then stay home on the porch. You ain’t gonna be runnin’ with the big dogs.
4. College Literary Festivals – Held by the English Department at a college or university, these usually weeklong events hold readings and signings for writers and readers alike. If you’re alumni, this is a good way to connect with your old professors who no doubt have a line on the writers attending, so you never know who you can meet. I go back to my alma mater twice a year for their festival held during their MFA residencies, meeting many of the visiting writers. I even had dinner with Francine Prose one night, though being one of twelve at her banquet-seating table, I doubt if our conversation went past pass the salt.
5. Create your own – Batton down the home hatches and take off for the weekend, to a vacationing friend or family member’s house, to a off-season cottage by the lake or ocean, to a campsite up in the mountains, or even a bargain-basement afternoon with the laptop or legal pad at the library or Barnes and Noble cafe. Perhaps even send the kids off with the spouse to the zoo and stretch out on the back porch, a glass of your favorite libation at your side, letting all those ideas in your head bounce off the trees, the alleyway, the horizon. It doesn’t take much, just a firm commitment and the time to percolate, and perchance, of course, to dream.
You get up at the crack of noon, saunter to your desk wearing nothing but your PJs and that smug expression, munching on multigrain pretzels and bouffe from Trader Joe’s. While the rest of us actually BUILD something, you’re hoisting your feet atop your desk to “ponder” and “plot,” your baby-soft fingers tapping the laptop with Call me Ishmael, or It was the best of times, it was the worst of times or other such blather. Instead of putting those keys to work by shaving some stock and buying on margin you’d rather “create,” not even bothering anymore to print your “genius” and pack it into a respectable manuscript box to ship off USPS. Even ink and paper are too much trouble for you anymore! Now we’re all about “attachments,” and “uploads,” and “streaming,” even calling “creative” such linguistic aberrations as blogs and podcasts and tweets. And in your ennui, you can’t even bother to bind your books anymore, leveling them to some ethereal creation called an e-book, packing them on a virtual bookshelf while your compensation floats through cyberspace to directly deposit itself into your bank account.
Oh it’s the life, fooling us all, and getting money, it appears, for nothing.
Be warned: we are so onto you.
Been working hot and obsessively developing another project the last few weeks. When I do this I so live in my head I’m apt to leave lights on or subsist on string cheese and blueberries because I can eat them with one hand. Because of that I’m giving myself a pass tonight to let my mind wander. I have too many topics rolling around the fertile landscape of my brain to settle on one, so I’m treating you to a virtual sampler of each. Think of it as the Jones version of the Olive Garden’s ‘Tour of Italy,” except not about chain restaurant Italian food or really anything to do with food at all. Please don’t ask me to explain…
~ Why is it harder to write in the summer when it should be easier? Okay, I”m a college professor, right? And I “theoretically” have the summer off (except for the summer class I’m teaching, which really is cake next to my usual load). So my brain should be my own (mostly), and I should be able to sail through what I’m working on, producing so many pages a day I’d best keep a fire extinguisher near my desk. Wrong! Phuque moi! Could it be the sun shining through my window? The fact I have no schedule? The lure of the beach? Distraction by a shiny object? Or I’m still trying to get to know my characters? Hmm…I going to have to think about that one. Where’s the string cheese?
~ You can lose weight on summer fruit. (All right; I lied about the food reference, but here’s living proof I write by the seat of my pants.) I live in the heart of the South Jersey farm belt, and you can’t drive more than a couple of miles without either passing a farm or a farm stand. This morning I happened to visit the latter, where I purchased tomatoes (early, but there’s nothing like a Jersey tomato!), cukes, blueberries (another iconic Jersey crop), cantaloupe and peaches, both yellow and white. Lately I’ve been gorging on berries and melons and cherries, instead of the usual snacky-type foods, and in the past month I’ve lost seven pounds! Of course, this may have something to do with the 1725 calories I’ve been allowing myself to eat, the half-hour of daily exercise, and the frequent swims in the ocean BUT! I have had more than a couple Bacchanalia events and let me tell you, the Yuengling hasn’t been lonely!
~ Beer tastes better in summer. That’s all I got. Any other commentary on that topic would be redundant.
~ Socks suck in summer. I haven’t worn a pair of socks since, oh…probably early May. I hate the fricking little cotton casings anyway–hate the way they bunch up under your instep, hate the indentations they make on your shins, hate how the heels always wear out when the rest of the sock can go for another 10,000 miles. But MOST of all I HATE folding them. Hate! Hate! Hate! Just sayin’.
~ I love the sound of birdsong at dusk. The sun has set, the western sky is stained red, outside a soft breeze is blowing and you can finally shut off the A.C. and let in some fresh air. You venture out on your porch or you open your car window, or maybe you’re out for a walk and there in the bushes, the trees or on an overhead wire is a whip-poor-will or a mockingbird or who knows what kind of bird, only that their song is lovely, a tiny gratis pleasure on a soft summer night. What else can you possibly need?
If you’re a writer, then it’s no secret that unless you’re J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, or well on your way to becoming either, you’re probably making part of your living doing something else. For me it’s teaching college. It’s a profession I came to by default, after being laid off after many years in the corporate world. Luckily, I had already secured my Masters of Fine Arts degree, which enabled me to jump right into teaching. Nothing I’ve ever done has given me more of a sense of accomplishment and worth than seeing students benefit from what they’ve learned in my classes, and after five years, I’ve come to love it. And I’d better, because I’m sure not in it for the money.
You see, I’m an adjunct professor, who is a contractual, contingent teaching professional with same level of education as “full-time” faculty, often with the same accomplishments and experience. The quotes are my own, not to denigrate those who are permanent, but to distinguish them from the adjuncts who more often than not, work twice as much and sometimes three times as long to earn less compensation. That’s because adjuncts often have to travel to multiple campuses to teach, as most higher ed institutions will not give them more than 9 credit hours, and the usual full load of 12 would then compel them to pay our health insurance. Contingent faculty now comprise close to 70% of all teaching professionals on college campuses nation-wide, deeming us one of the most educated workforces toiling for poverty wages, with thirty-one percent of part-time faculty living near or below the federal poverty line. To add insult to injury, we’re not even considered “part-time” employees, so we’re routinely denied unemployment and disability benefits when both are deducted from our pay. This is because we’re lumped with full-time educators, who traditionally receive a year’s worth of pay on a ten-month schedule. State governments don’t seem to recognize if we don’t work, we don’t get paid.
After working within this reality for many years, I felt I needed to do something about it. But what? I could bitch on social media, complain to my friends and to my fellow professors, write comment after comment on articles on adjunct unfairness. But how would that affect a practice so ingrained and only getting worse? I realized if I wanted to bring about real change, I needed to get off my ass and work within the system, or no one would ever listen to me. So when I saw the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local adjunct union was having an election at the main college where I teach, I entered my name in the ballot for the executive board.
And hot damn–I won. And just in time too, as our current contract was set to expire. I and my team are now in the process of negotiating our new two-year contract, and for the first time in my new-ish career, I’m actually helping to bring about real change. So what does all this have to do with my case for Hillary Clinton? Lots, because it’s taught me two things: the world is a cruel, unforgiving place. But nothing beats the power of negotiation.
This is really, really important in light of what’s going on in the Democratic Party right now. I was raised as a progressive, and I’ve always been proud to call myself a liberal, no matter how much conservatives like to make a dirty word out of it. And because I am a liberal, I’ve been a fan of Bernie Sanders for years, long before many of his supporters caught their first viral video about him. I admired his stance on almost everything–the big banks, free college tuition, the Trans Pacific Partnership, universal health care –but mainly because he speaks truth to power. It impressed me he ran one of the most successful and honest campaigns in history, shunning PAC money for the average $27 donation. What’s not to love?
Yet I didn’t vote for him in New Jersey’s June primary. I voted for Hillary.
Why? Because I thought she was the best possible candidate? No. (That’s Cory Booker, yo!) Look, I’ve had my problems with the Clintons way back to Bill’s first presidential election. (Yes, I’m old enough to have voted in that.) As a staunch disbeliever in capital punishment (New Jersey has since abolished it), I still can’t get over his flying back to Arkansas from the campaign trail to sign the death warrant for a mentally-impaired man. And the whole Monica Lewinsky affair–not the impeachment which was bullshit–still sticks in my craw. But Bill isn’t Hillary, and at times, I find the connection unfair. And even if it isn’t, she has long had her own history of social service and activism, way before she ever met Bill, in children’s rights, civil rights, and women’s rights. She’s been a First Lady not just content “stay home and bake cookies,” but also a Senator, a Secretary of State, and the first woman to win a major party’s nomination — which if you think isn’t significant, just goes to show you how far women have come to make it almost seem routine. Hillary’s smart, savvy, worldly, and quite frankly, knows her shit. But none of that’s why I voted for her. I voted for her because I knew the numbers were with her, and she ‘d win out over Bernie in the end.
Reality — check.
Now that Hillary’s got the nomination, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to vote for her in November. Why? Because I’m a realist, because she’s capable, because I’m not caught in a cult of personality, because party platform is bigger than any one candidate, and hopefully with her comes a slate of change down-ticket. And to all you Bernie-or-Bust holdouts, who think that a vote for Hillary is a sell-out, that a vote for the Green party will somehow make a statement, that voting for Trump will bring on “the revolution” sooner, that a single vote can’t matter, that Bernie didn’t do something significant by forcing the MOST progressive platform in the DNC’s history, that one sweep of the convention floor won’t tell you how much the Democratic Party stands for inclusion, that don’t know a roll call on the convention floor is the way a convention is supposed to work, that all politics is local and real democracy ENDS at a presidential election, that shouting someone down and not allowing them a voice only creates dissonance, that government works best when both sides come together and work it out, that the DNC doesn’t get it. Really? Then what other party currently competing has a real chance to actually affect change for you? I mean–seriously?
Get over yourselves.
The United States, my friends, is a Work in Progress, not perfect, but certainly worth perfecting. Again, Hillary’s not perfect, but she’s not intractable either, and if you think electing her opponent would be better, or that sitting the whole thing out will leave you pure so you can stand on your principles, well, let Sarah say it for you.