Staying In Charge

A single subject spiral notebook, a few pens, a print-out of my scenes…
That’s generally all I need, to travel with my book-in-progress.
But a BIG trip, the kind that takes a couple of weeks and allows serious writing time—THAT requires a laptop.
And a laptop requires a charger. And a charger, if you’re going abroad, requires one of those electric current adaptor things.
Eight hours on a plane (nine, if you count that second leg of the journey, Heathrow to Edinburgh), and that pesky little message rears its ugly head—
The laptop’s out of juice! It’s going to shut down!
Darned if that stupid adaptor isn’t PACKED in my checked luggage! Who knew I’d need it so soon?
And damned if the laptop doesn’t give up the ghost, right in the middle of a layover at Heathrow.
No problem (I tell myself between deep yogic breaths)—everything’s saved. I’ll charge at the hotel.
Upon arrival in my room, I whip out the converter.
The darn thing won’t plug into the wall.
Oh bloody Hell…
I start trying different wall outlets. For some reason, it DOES fit one, but not the others. Whatever…
But the light won’t go on.
It’s not charging! Argh! My Kingdom for a charger!
I turn to my young, technically-inclined traveling companions…
Alas, they’ve drifted off to sleep. (Who can blame them—it’s been a long night).
And the next morning, when finally we’re all awake and breakfasted, it is revealed to me that there’s a little SWITCH on the back of the adaptor, which needs to be flipped one way or the other, in order for it to work.
Who knew THAT?
I share this with you, dear reader, as a cautionary tale, lest ye forget to put the converter in your carry-on bag…lest ye know not of the switch on the back.
But rest assured, it’s also a tale of hope. Books CAN be written on-the-go.
Just don’t forget and leave that adaptor or the charging cord in your hotel room.

Gracious Sentiments

Some wonderful old letters my grandmother kept in her jewelry box since God knows when.
Gracious sentiments from a day when folks put real effort into their letters, and recipients saved them as keepsakes.
Life was uncertain. Any letter you wrote might be your last.
And since letters were meant to be saved and re-read, it was desirable to keep the tone encouraging, even when the news was hard.
Guess what—life is STILL uncertain, like it or not. Maybe we should pay more attention to the words we choose to use.

The Importance of Rewriting

“How’s the book coming?”

“When will it be done?”

To answer a question with a question, have you ever written a long paper?

A thesis, perhaps, or a term paper or legal brief? One that really mattered to you? Maybe you’ve tried your hand at a short story, and discovered just how challenging that can be. Even just an important letter home can be a big endeavor.

Ok, so when you think back on that little writing project, did it end up taking longer than you thought?
(Maybe you’re even thinking, “that thesis wasn’t a ‘little’ project! It was many pages long)!

Well, how long did it take you? Did you rework the wording, to be sure it captured what you wanted the reader to take away? Did you take time to mull over your choice of words, and tighten up the paragraphs to ensure one idea flowed clearly to the next? Maybe it took longer than you guessed it would. Or maybe you’re just a whiz-bang at this stuff, in which case you could be cracking out novels yourself, and if so, then I urge you to go for it!

Or maybe you’re one of those folks who wanted to write something but abandoned it because it was just too hard. Because life got in the way with all its interruptions and you were just too busy to take the time.

Does any of that strike a chord?

Good! Then have mercy! Consider that the tale I’m telling required extensive research, some of which had to be done in person because it couldn’t be found in the library or online. Consider that after I whittle it down, this book looks like it’ll be a good 300 pages in length. Every word of it must be carefully chosen to match the cadence of speech and the voice of my character, who lived 130 years ago (seriously, that rules out a whole lot of modern-day phrasing). I have to look up word origins, as I work, and read a lot of old books, to get the “voice” of this thing. Consider the time it takes to construct a tightly-woven plot and complex characters.

Portions of this manuscript have had to be rewritten maybe 10 times. And no, that’s not an unusual number of times for an author to rewrite. Just ask Stephen King!

So, in answer to your questions—
Yes, the book is “written.” It’s been written for some time. But it’s still in rewrite.

No, you can’t read it yet, unless you’re one of my beta readers, helping me vet the key scenes (and even the beta readers don’t get to read the whole kit and kaboodle of this manuscript, till I’m satisfied it’s DONE.

Yes, I do have an agent waiting, and I’ve promised myself I’ll submit it to her before the end of this year, 2018, come hell or high water.

“What are you waiting for?” Several friends have asked. “You know that agent’s interested…why not strike while the iron is hot?” My answer— I want to be sure the manuscript gives a clear vision of my story, the way I want it told. Might as well give it 100%. If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.

Thanks for your patience.
I think this endeavor is worth my time.

John’s Story Travels

Everywhere I go, I bring my writing. Everywhere.

The few times I’ve allowed myself to become separated from it, it’s led to a brooding creative doldrums, from which no progress can be made….a day without sunshine.

The absolute worst, (and how could I let this happen) is finding myself with some substandard, borrowed, low-on-ink ballpoint, scratching words on a soon-to-be-forgotten napkin.

Normally, i tote the manuscript on my person or in my car, the laptop on which it resides packed in a sturdy canvas tote, along with a pencil case stocked with easy-grip gel pens, highlighters and my favorite, a fine-tip writing sharpie. A single-subject spiral notebook in which I document my conversations with my editor and outline my scenes. All orderly, every item in its place.

But travel presents a problem. A laptop is a lot to tote around. And even though it’s backed up to the cloud, I worry about it getting stolen, or wet, or dropped on that long downhill jog to the beach. So, I’ve left it behind!

I thought this would be hard. But it’s freed me instead. I’m learning all I really need is a spiral notebook, a couple of pens, scene outlines, and such details from my prior draft as deserve to remain in the story.

When I get home, I’ll tackle the task of assimilating my travel pages into the manuscript.  Till then, I’m learning the art of working remotely. But please don’t feel too sorry for me—my characters and I are on the beach.

The Hot Springs at Big Bend National Park, on The Rio Grande

The  bathers in the photo below are on the Texas side of The Rio Grande. That green grass right behind them is Mexico.  The River is quite narrow in this spot…both physically and metaphorically.  There has always, ALWAYS been commerce across the river…”commerce” including both legitimate trade and smuggling.

Back in the day, believe it or not, the smuggling was not just in stolen longhorn cattle, but also candellia wax. Yes, WAX! Seems like a strange thing to smuggle. But because of the way it was taxed, it was cheaper  not to declare it.

The Hot Springs hasn’t made its way into John’s story (at least, not yet). Though the water here is delightfully warm, and not hard to imagine our hero and his campadres coming to take a dip.

Connecting With Other Writers

Recently I met up with Kathleen Kent, author of four books, including The Dime, which is about to become a TV series.
At Interabang Books, to listen to Joe Lansdale, author of Jack Rabbit Smile, tell the lowdown about making a novel into a film.

Spending time either in conversation with or listening to the experiences of other writers has helped me to understand this work I have taken on.  It helps make it seem all worthwhile.  People like Kathleen and Joe help put things into perspective for me and, ultimately, my soon-to-be readers.

By the way, Kathleen’s third novel, The Outcasts, is set in Texas just a decade before the events of my own book.


On Writing the Truth

I go after buried truths like a paleontologist digs for bones.
A few ribs here, maybe a spine. A tooth or a claw there. Not much to go on, perhaps. But with patience, out of that rubble you can build a whole dinosaur.
Sure, you might have to whip up a few plaster fakes, where actual bones have turned to dust. But in the end, when you wire it all together, you get a skeleton. Intact and real.
Some well-intentioned people, including good instructors, have told me just to make my story up. “You’ll have to write it as fiction,” they say, “because you can never know what truly happened.
Just go for emotional truth.”
As if throwing the pile of bones together just any old way would do…!
Well, it won’t! (for me at least).
My book is a tribute to the very real life of my main character, John. I uncover bits of fact, one by one, and examine them.
Dust them off. Line them up. Wire them all together. Build as much of the dinosaur as possible.
True, I wasn’t there in 1885 and I can’t know exactly what happened. Some facts are just plain lost, and no amount of digging will ever turn them up.   These missing bones, I improvise as best I can. But ALWAYS based on what I know. Always, from the “real bones” of the true story.
The backbone: the remote West Texas Big Bend of the 1880’s. The railroad has recently arrived, linking Big Bend with the outside world, and it’s now possible to travel by rail all the way to California.
The ribs: the characters who populate the story, with their real names and ages, and appearances (to the extent I have photos to tell me what they looked like).
Where they lived, their ages and occupations, as gleaned from genealogical research and personal writings.
The small bones, unique to this project: family lore handed down through the generations. How the brothers were running off to Los Angeles but ran out of money on the trip.
How they fell in with a West-bound herd of drovers, ending up on the G4 Ranch in Big Bend.
And a few precious lines of dialog, repeated to me by my dad, as his father had told him. “Johnny, stay here till the hair blows off your head. I’m going to California.”
Set all this against the backdrop of the weather, a brutal winter, and a drought where no rain at all fell for a whole year.
String all of it together. A story emerges. Sure, it’s partly fiction, but it’s also very real.
(the featured image for this blog post I call “Mountain Scenery.” A photo I found in John’s own trunk, taken somewhere in Big Bend.

On the back, he’s written, “my old pasture,” which I believe was supposed to be funny. Some pasture, right?  This photo is part of a collection, all found in John’s trunk, which I have donated to The Archives at Sul Ross State University.These pictures are a mystery. I’ll tell more about them sometime, in another post. One cool secret about this one is that there are people in it! Can you find them? )

The Transformation

Struggling authors need your sympathy.
The difference between a first draft and a final manuscript is huge, and I suspect that for most of us, there may be a lot of intervening drafts.
In my case, it’s taking forever. I spent a couple of years researching my subject and learning the craft of fiction writing. And I’m not even counting that time, as I look at the many months I’ve been messing with the manuscript itself.
Merely telling folks “how long it’s taking” is starting to feel akin to confessing my true age (which I never do, ‘cause I’m permanently 48).
And by the way, back at the beginning, when I was a freshly-minted novelist still wet behind the ears, I figured I could write this thing in a year. Yes, you got that right—an entire novel in a single year. Ha ha. But not so funny now that, um, “several” years have passed and I’m still deep in the rewrite.
I work on my book at least a few hours, every single day. And yes, it’s slowly taking shape (emphasis on “slowly”). And it’s great!
But what a struggle, revising scenes, tweaking the words to get them just right… And then, to my horror, I sometimes find I have to delete them!  Yes, you heard that right. “Killing your babies,” one of my writing teachers called it.
Sometimes, an entire scene has to go. Why? Because it just isn’t needed, to make the story work. And I don’t realize it, till after it’s done. And maybe it’s taken weeks to write. Damn!
Man, it is just so HARD to write what I’ve plotted, and what comes out on the page is often different from the outline. Sometimes it’s just plain better. And nothing to do but go with it! Watch as the story evolves, and see how the tweaks I’ve made affect the chapters still to come.
So, one thing I need you to understand is that writing a novel is not journalism. It’s not reportage. You don’t just crank the pages out and that’s your draft.
I’d venture to say that an author who can just crank out a book is about as rare as a photographer’s model who never needs airbrushing.
Those pimples and freckles are somewhere. And it takes an artful touch to whisk them away, so our final impression can be satisfying.
So much sweat goes into this.
Be patient. I think it’ll be worth waiting for.
(The featured image for this blog post is a page of Stephen King’s edits from On Writing, by Stephen King)

A Tall Order

It’s a tall order, writing first person narrative through the eyes of a sixteen year-old boy.
Especially a boy who lives in 1885, in rural Texas. (I’m a city girl, myself).
Every word, (even curses, slang, terms of endearment) must be in 1880’s vernacular, and no ten-dollar words when a one-dollar word will do.
I keep having to think how boys talk! So few words! And a glance or a shrug can say so much…
Real places and events are the backdrop for John’s story—the family farm in Wrightsboro, the Los Angeles land rush of 1885, and the rail lines, then new, linking Texas with California, Chicago and points east.
Kansas City, where Texas herds were shipped by rail, and Chicago, where Bill Cody parades live cowboys, Indians and buffalo down crowded city streets.
The main characters are real people. To the extent possible, I’ve captured their true-life appearances and personalities, relying on photographs and personal writings for guidance on how these people thought and spoke.
Town names, some of which were different back then,local landmarks and weather… all as real as I can make it.
From a family elder, I got juicy details like the actual name and description of Eagle, John’s sooty-colored, homely horse. Hairy-Hooved, but smart and much beloved of our hero, John.
It’s hard writing what’s real. You have to study, study, study, till you can describe experiences you’ve never actually had, and sound like you’ve lived them.
Shoeing a horse, birthing a calf (omg, so incredibly messy and enough fluids to fill a bathtub and no I’m not kidding)…lassoing a bear and dragging it to death (you would not believe how hard that scene has been to write, and how many drafts it’s taken).
Every step of this takes longer than I think.
But this is not some flight of fictional fantasy, where I can make up a universe to suit my story. (Not that a fictional story would be easy. I’m just saying I don’t have the luxury of being able to depart from the known parameters of truth that form the scaffolding of this tale). Anyway, here I am, grinding through the truths of 130 years ago. Getting down to the gritty heart of the matter and trying to make it real.

How It Went

Everybody’s asking, “how’d it go in New York?”
First answer: “It was AWESOME!”
Second answer: “Let me explain…”
You meet an agent who likes the beginning of your novel and the gist of your book synopsis…
Awesome! You made somebody smile. Somebody who reads manuscripts all day for a living.
That’s HUGE.
BUT…now you have to go home and make a ton of edits. Maybe you still have chapters in the second-draft stage. Maybe the agent suggested some changes.
Changes, by the way, can be hard. Ripping out sentences or paragraphs or pages that took months to build, and inventing something new to take their place…you might as well be ripping flesh from your own arm. It takes willpower beyond imagination.
Anyway, there’s a lot still to be done on my book.
Even once it’s “done” (and done-ness is as hard to determine as the consistency of the interior of a made-from-scratch cake), THEN you can send the whole entire novel back to that agent, to read and CONSIDER.
Upon reading the whole thing, they might love it, or they might vomit!
Ha ha, flow chart here…if they vomit, you’re done. At least with that agent.
If they love it, then maybe they’ll try shopping it around to publishers, to see if anyone’s interested…
It’s possible the agent may not find a publisher who wants it or is ready for it.
It’s a long, long process, and the outcome uncertain.
Just having a meeting with a literary agent “go well,” does NOT equal a book contract!
Have I just knocked you over with a feather?
So, the answer to everybody who’s asking, “When will it be published?”
Can only be, “Do you read tea leaves?”
In a nutshell: awesome weekend in New York.
Yes, people said nice things about my manuscript, which I am totally stoked about.
I also received some good constructive criticism.
There remains a lot of work to be done.
The agents were great. Truly insightful, and I enjoyed meeting them.
Four agents in one day, one at a time, plus an editor…an exhausting slew of meetings.
I even got to sit next to an agent at dinner- two nights in a row. Awesome.
But…do you read tea leaves?  ‘Cause I don’t.
Having said that, I am bound and determined this thing’s going to get published.
But the time has to be right. Every word in place, and every comma.
You wouldn’t want to read it any other way.
Don’t rush it.