Monthly Archives: February 2021

Writing a silk purse from a sow’s ear

I DON’T WRITE CLEAN COPY

For my kind of extreme plotter, you might think everything would be planned down to the last jot and tittle – before writing.

It seems that way for some scenes I’ve written – I know exactly what I’m doing when I go in, and then I do it, polish a bit, and get out – and we’re done.

Because having the content and the outline and the knowledge of where a scene will go can make it easier to see what fits and what doesn’t, as I go.

Unfortunately, they’re the minority of my scenes.

Another set of scenes takes more work because there is a lot to include, and the correct path through all the necessary points can take me a while to organize.

And then there’s 32.2.

The sow’s ear of the title.

Oddly enough, a scene for which I had plenty of content.

But it came out of my head very oddly, as almost a single long piece of dialogue, a phone call no less, with the banter between Kary and her best friend writing itself as I eavesdropped.

Very realistic – I could SEE them talking, SEE the little connections, the friendship, the gentle poking when one person thinks they know better what the other needs, a scene you might overhear at brunch, or in a park, or while watching the children on the swings at the playground…

And it was wrong

Very wrong.

Boring – to me!

And I could see a reader doing the thing writers dread: skimming. Skipping ahead to see where the meat starts again. Not seeing the content because it was in the form of a dialogue between two women.

Just getting to the realization of what was the problem took me days.

Because there was nothing obviously wrong, and I write dialogue all the time, and it wasn’t particularly bad.

Good dialogue doesn’t guarantee great scenes

Almost a thousand words of good, realistic but compressed dialog.

You hate to give that up – and it took quite a bit of practice to be able to do that in the first place, create dialogue that gives the reader necessary knowledge in the form of a story.

I almost did what I never do: let it stand, leave it to the beta reader, move on and come back to it later, live with what I knew was highly imperfect (in my standards) because I had no idea what was going on that produced it.

But I did know:

The brain fog was thick on the ground and I couldn’t see over, through, or around it.

And this is what I produce when I can’t think: ‘almost’ writing.

It depended too much on the reader’s previous knowledge.

There was not enough scene-setting.

And it repeated things the reader already knew – a capital sin if done in any quantity: do NOT give readers an excuse to start skipping!

I bit the bullet, lowered the dose of a medication I thought might be the culprit for the recent fog increase (it was), waited for a couple of days until, thankfully, the head cleared.

Then I took all of the scene except for the initial paragraph, and put it in another file in the Scrivener project, fully prepared to dump the whole thing if necessary.

And I was able to get back to work – because I was darned lucky.

My greatest fear in life is that I will reach one of these points, know something is wrong, and never more be able to do what I’ve been doing to analyze, understand, and, fingers-crossed, improve what I’ve written, from the first gasp to the final zinger.

I’ve had this happen before to a smaller extent – I had to learn to write every kind of scene (and there are more kinds, I’m sure) – and since I’m still writing, have emerged every time.

But brain fog is more insidious than exhaustion, and you can’t just rest it away.

Brain fog scares me

It alters my essential self.

This time I found the cause, and it was something I could change. There are consequences, of course – in this case more physical pain – but I have other alternatives for physical pain, even if I’m trying not to use them (to spare liver and kidneys from having to disassemble those molecules and get rid of them); in the worst case, I can just tough it out, do some of the physical things such as stretches or (in non-pandemic times) immerse myself in the therapy pool’s warm water, wait until it passes if it has a specific cause…

Do not recommend your favorite remedy for brain fog – thanks, but I’ve tried an awful lot of things over the years that didn’t work, and I don’t have the stomach to try more. Assuming you even have one – brain fog is a particularly difficult ‘symptom’ to treat because it is so vague and amorphous and non-specific.

It’s a Catch-22: you need to be able to think to work yourself out of brain fog, and you can’t think until you’ve worked yourself out of brain fog.

Sometimes the passage of time helps.

Sometimes the disappearance of a physical illness, or its successful treatment or management, helps.

Sometimes – the scary part – you’ve lost that part of yourself and it isn’t coming back.

And sometimes you figure it out.

Once that cleared

I took a hard look at what I had been ‘creating,’ that conversation that repeated things unnecessarily.

And I got to work.

I went back to process: I’ve detailed my Left Brain righT method before; I still use it, tweaked a bit but usually to add a detail, not change something already there, seven-and-a-half years later.

Step by step I followed my own prompts for considering, choosing, refining – including much smaller amounts of that big chunk of realistic dialogue – listening to the bits as I locked them in (to make sure the language flows), defining the structure, doing the work I call writing fiction, and little by little, 32.2 emerged from the shadows of a disaster.

It started doing what it was supposed to do, and I got less scared.

Until the next time.

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Tagline, logline, pitch are the hardest writing ever

A PLOTTER SHIFTS WORD ONE TO CHANGE WORD LAST

One of the hardest tasks a novelist faces is answering the question:

“What is your book about?”

And every writer will face that over and over and over.

I’ve saved this post from Writers in the Storm since 2013.

When the novel you’re trying to describe is going to be as long as Gone With the Wind, and tops out over the course of a trilogy at around a half-million words, reducing ‘about’ to a few words is a feat that brings most writers to their knees.

The lucky ones, traditionally published, probably don’t have to/get to make these decisions (for which they trade complete control of their work and pitiful royalties forever) – because their publisher makes the decisions for them (usually without much input from the writer), and then, again for the lucky ones, uses the results to market the book.

I’ve known since the beginning

Which is why I spent a long time learning exactly how to achieve the ending I wanted for Pride’s Children: and ran scenarios from beginning to end over and over until the beginning made the ending, in my mind, inevitable – and I was ready to write the definitive version.

The process is a time loop for plotters like me, and doesn’t determine the words readers will ultimately get – only the story that I want to leave in their minds, the life lived, the consequences of the choices, the necessary paths.

As in a play, what the theater-goers see as spontaneous and happening before their very eyes needs to be so completely memorized and rehearsed that the actors never say a word out ot of character.

Other people write differently; this is how I do it.

What I’m trying to say here is that I have many versions of tagline, logline, and pitch, created and struggled with over the years since 2000, but I’ve never comfortably answered the question of ‘about’ when asked, and stutter like an unprepared schoolgirl when it comes up.

But I hadn’t dared. Which seems silly.

Those who forget the past (or ignore it) are condemned to repeat it

All that happens is you have to keep doing it, over and over, like Groundhog Day or Russian Doll, because the question doesn’t go away.

Can’t go away – as long as there are readers.

Why now, halfway through NETHERWORLD?

Because I am exhausted from fighting this particular battle, and stuck in the deep chasm of having to write what I planned to write way back then.

Because challenges not faced come back to haunt you.

And because I think I got it.

Finally.

Sidetrack for a minute into the writer’s greatest fear: Appearing ridiculous

Also sometimes known as biting off more than you can chew.

And choking on it.

But what I didn’t know in 2000, when what I’m about to post was almost as clear as it is now, except that I wasn’t sure, hadn’t put in the hard work to make sure, that I could come anywhere near to achieving what I was setting out to do.

As you probably know, mere appearance never works.

Failure is fine – there is no shame in attempting to become an astronaut, and not making the cut (I did, and didn’t). But you have to try, and you can’t skip steps. And you can’t wish for proficiency when what you need to do is find a way to learn (ie, the 10,000 hours trope, which is really a lot more hours if that’s what it takes).

Delusions of grandeur, Impostor Syndrome, Fear of Failing

They take their toll.

Why does it matter so much?

Because the world has removed so much of what I can do that what’s left is pitiful.

Because I have this one thing that I value, that keeps me sane, called writing.

And where I have all the control and all the responsibility, because not a word goes out without my say-so.

So I thought about all of this, and worked on it for months, and then let it sit.

I’m ready to let them be public, even though some will not be fully realized until the end of Book #3:

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Tagline: Pride’s Children is

The Great American Love Story.

Logline:

To safeguard a powerful actor, a damaged writer must first salvage herself.

Pitch:

When a reclusive bestselling novelist crosses paths with the rising actor of his generation, she finds her capacity for obsession is not dead. The friendship that develops when his next movie films near her rural refuge, and he fulfills his promise to visit, creates a challenging bond that threatens to destroy her. But when America’s Sweetheart decides she’s the one who will engender with him Hollywood’s supreme dynasty, can the writer navigate the razor’s edge from friendship to forever love, and save his unborn children?

Mission statement: what you are trying to achieve

To make the mainstream reader live three lives so closely from the inside, right behind the eyeballs, that reading Pride’s Children is a roller-coaster ride which makes the ending inevitable and utterly believable.

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For better or worse, they are now on record.

The writing proceeds.

I’d never googled myself – just did

Ye olde PhD thesis.

APPARENTLY COMMENTS DON’T COUNT

And I say that because mine are ALL OVER THE INTERNET. With my name on them. You must have seen some.

Some of the places that turned up, some expected, others not:

http://www.spacefacts.de/bios/candidates/nasa9/english/ehrhardt_alicia.htm

https://www.bookdepository.com/publishers/Trilka-Press

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2017/11/review-prides-children-purgatory-by.html

Featured Writer on Wellness: Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

https://www.trentonian.com/news/most-will-remember-where-they-were/article_50320d0b-2357-536a-a5f5-812fd5b08bfb.html

Alicia Butcher-Ehrhardt was descending the stairs of her Hamilton Square home, preparing to home-school her three children.

“I came downstairs, and my husband and two boys said, ‘No school today,'” Butcher-Ehrhardt said. “We watched it together as a family.”

Her 9-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was sitting with her father watching television when the attacks occurred.

“I sort of understood what was going on,” she said. “I was scared, and, I don’t know, it felt weird.”

She said that she’s feeling a little better now, but she’s “still uncomfortable with what happened.”

Her mom isn’t surprised.

“It’s the end of an era,” Butcher-Ehrhardt said. “It will be a huge change in the way my children have to grow up. They normally feel safe. This will make a big dent.”

The writer’s Kindergarten: cut and paste

WHEN STUCK I GO BACK TO BASICS

And I’m writing this post now for two reasons:

  1. I just had to go through this – again – and other writers might need the same trick
  2. When I woke up this morning and reached for something on my desk, I disturbed the page I used (photo above), scattered all the little pieces of paper, and realized I don’t need to keep them around forever, even if they did rescue me.

I’m an extreme plotter by nature and by practice and by brain damage.

Things have to be organized so I know what goes in each scene, because I can only work with the content of ONE scene at a time (and yes, if you’re wondering, I have used this trick on paragraphs, beats, and scenes as well, when my brain refused to do the organizing internally).

When I got to the current piece in the middle of the WIP, I realized that, inexplicably when I stared at it, the next scene was NOT ready for my ‘process.’

I came to a standstill

For several days.

Abortive attempts to write the next scene failed to make that scene gel, despite having a title and the usual nubs I use to attach words.

Since I was worrying about politics, and in the middle of getting vaccinated for the coronavirus, it took me a while to track down the reason: when I was doing the Great Reorganization of 2007 (GR07), I had had the same reluctance, created something that sort of worked at the time (a list of scenes covering what would happen in this part of the story), and decided to DEAL WITH IT LATER.

Unusual for me, but I was trying to get to the end of GR07, we had half the way to go, and I only had a few more days of the concentrated time I had been saving for the reorganization.

I believe in football American style they cause it punting.

In 2007 I moved on

Never thinking that it would be 2021 when I got to this point in the writing.

I was young(er). Naive(er).

Trying desperately to take that original rough (very rough) first draft of the whole story to the next level – which required the complete reorganization AND a committed devotion to upping the quality of my writing (no, you are never going to see that draft).

and it worked

I moved on. GR07 became the reality.

By dint of work, the writing problems got solved one by one.

Pride’s Children PURGATORY was written and published in 2015 (yeah, I’m slow), and I immediately moved on to NETHERWORLD.

I believe they call it a poison pill

Maybe not so bad.

But a buried little landmine all the same.

Because there was a reason. I know it now and I knew it then: this piece was going to be very hard to write.

And, as is usual with such, incredibly important.

I couldn’t handle it in 2000, when the story came to me.

I couldn’t handle it in 2007, except to realize there was no way around it, and I would have to deal with it during the writing of the second book (nameless at that point).

And I couldn’t handle it at first when it got to be late 2020 and I hit the red flag marking the mine.

I couldn’t even have written this post.

You can’t skimp on the hard parts when you write

The hard parts are WHY you, and not someone else, is telling this story.

The hard parts are where your writing should shine, and, given enough work and time, where they will.

If your story doesn’t have hard parts well executed in it, it’s not going to be the best book you can write.

Because you shirked.

I don’t shirk.

I kick and scream and complain and try to find ways around the roadblock and hope some insight will just remove it.

And then I admit it needs the work, and I do it.

On this one I had to go back to Kindergarten

Yup. Basics. Writing things on single lines. And cutting the sheet into real-life strips of paper.

And rearranging those strips, edited as necessary (in pencil), into the RIGHT order, with the right words, plus any surrounding fill text, until the whole emerged.

Somehow.

That’s the level I have to go back to when things get really bolloxed up for whatever reason.

Eventually, it works, and I find it all amusing. Sometimes I blog about it.

But you’d think that by now I’d be out of Kindergarten, wouldn’t you?

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The slow approach of some kind of normalcy

Davis greenway on my trike ride, winter 2021

LIFE HAS TO GO ON

It is starting at the opposite end of society: those vaccinated most urgently are the older people, who otherwise have an appalling death toll from Covid-19 if they get sick.

The fear has been very real among those of us with co-morbidities, who in normal times could look forward to a bit of retirement and the presence of children and grandchildren at the end of a life of labor.

This community went from people who had dinner with other people in a catered dining room several times a week to an entire building of people whose food was delivered in takeout containers every day. For almost a year so far. We have accumulated (and tried to recycle) countless containers, with the dining services having trouble, it seems, buying the same container shapes every day.

There is only so creative one can get with plastic takeout boxes.

Why the light at the end of the tunnel?

Because, if all goes well, most of us – of around the 250 people in Independent Living in one main building, 15 cottages, and 16 ‘garden apartments,’ will receive the second dose of the Moderna vaccine this Thursday, and two weeks later will achieve the maximum protection that can offer us.

We’re not sure yet what will change once there are a bunch of us in that state: the precautions will still be in place, a few people won’t have been vaccinated (including some staff – I don’t understand why they are not jumping on the chance to be protected), and the fear that ANY encounter with another human being might end up being terminal will be muted a bit while we wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

A reversal – normally vaccinations are for the young, and we elders have a lifetime of toughness to protect us.

Anyone who was alive for the 1918 flu is now over 100 years old.

I’m writing now because the suspense is at its maximum

None of us want to be the ironic case of the last old person to get Covid-19 and die from it – that won’t happen for a while but it’s worth pondering.

So those of us who believe in vaccines and modern medicine, however imperfect, are being very careful for the next three weeks or so.

I have a doctor’s appointment in March, and it will be the first time I’ve gone off campus feeling safe in over a year.

I desperately need new glasses – but have refused to make optional medical appointments with people who will be close to my face and body while their breathe could be my end.

Ditto dentists – you won’t believe how carefully I have been brushing my teeth so as to avoid any unnecessary visits (and have eschewed the necessary cleanings) for this year: I don’t want someone, even someone masked, gowned, and with a face shield, that near to me.

I have some experience, having caught the flu in 2018 from the only time I’d been out of the house in months, but decided to accompany the husband to his eye-doctor appointment: someone left a flu virus in that waiting room for me.

So the stress level is still high

And we look askance at the crew of men painting our halls and installing new carpets (first upgrade in 20 years) – and going home to their families every night. They need the work, the facility needs the facelift, but we don’t need all those people we’ve never seen before (thanks, guys!) wandering our halls.

This last Friday was the first time testing of all the staff revealed no new cases in quite a few weeks. It may be just random luck.

Or it may be that the staff have already had their two shots + two week wait, and are now as safe as they can be. I hope so, for their sake. They are very nice people. And there are almost as many of them as there are residents (we have higher levels of care in the same building, which increases our staff requirements). 200 or so.

(Still don’t understand why any of them would refuse the vaccine against a deadly disease they could transmit to the older people they work for.)

The public stress changed

From worrying about the election and the devoutly-wished disappearance of the previous mob, to wondering how the current administration is going to manage to reverse so much damage.

But I no longer watch – it’s politics as usual, the grownups are in charge, and I can’t do a thing.

The grownups are at the helm of the current actual focus on getting control of the pandemic. Another place I have limited reach and scope.

Since I’ve blocked all the people who are science-deniers, my only remaining advocacy point is to remind them that THE DISEASE IS MUCH WORSE THAN THE VACCINE.

A few have legitimate concerns; most should just make sure their doctors know their problems, and they are watched for a time after the actual injection to have a quick response if they have the exceedingly rare anaphylactic reaction. EXCEEDINGLY RARE.

But I’m so tired

Months and more months of stress have taken a real toll on the writing (and the other parts of my life, which I try to ignore).

I have only just regained some semblance of a normal sleep schedule with melatonin in tiny amounts at bedtime and my Daylight therapy box in the morning as soon as I get up. Now I’m wondering when I can get off the regimen, because the melatonin always makes me a bit groggy, and that is the enemy of me writing fiction.

A couple of weeks of better sleep is not enough for a year of stress, but I’m getting there.

The work proceeds apace

Yesterday I managed to take all the notes I had accumulated in 2016 on the critical medical topic which is an intricate and ineradicable part of this section of NETHERWORLD’s plot, and make sense of them: they were very badly written in the original source – and that is now behind a paywall!

So I’m feeling proud of myself for documenting everything so well that I was able to figure out what I needed, from what I gathered over four years ago in another state!

When I do research, I carefully retain the link or other source information, in the great fear that I will forget where I found something and fail to attribute it correctly, so my paranoia has served me well.

And some form of exercise occurs occasionally

I got a trike ride, a short one, this weekend – because the outdoor pool has glass in it from a broken table top during last week’s windstorm, and is unusable, even in the mild weather we had (they still haven’t told us how the heck they’re going to clean it up, they who put glass-topped tables near the pool in the first place!).

And I get out of the apartment to pick up lunch or somesuch on Maggie, my MAGnesium Alloy Airwheel S8 (a bicycle seat on a hoverboard – google it) a couple of times a week. Not nearly enough exercise for anyone, even disabled and chronically ill, but all I can manage.

The great outdoors in California in the wintertime is still great.

So that’s the report from a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) for today

I can feel, on re-reading my words, that the stress is lower.

How goes it with you?

If you are offered the vaccine, and don’t plan to take it, I’m curious how your thinking is going. I promise to be civil.

And otherwise, along with MY children, I hope everyone will be protected by a vaccine as soon as possible – I’m tired of living like this.

Not tired enough NOT to continue to take every precaution, but you know what I mean.

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