Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 7: Better ideas persist

As I work on Nobody’s Hero this National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been pulling from material I have already written. (Don’t worry, I’m not counting any of it in my 50,000 goal.) It’s funny how some darlings you love become obsolete when a better idea comes along. Take this piece I discovered — and essentially rewrote — on Monday:

“The Mornays knew how to show up in style, with Darin in bespoke Tom Ford and Lilah in a crimson evening gown that strategically hugged in some places and flowed in others — Dior had won her business for this year’s gala. Around her neck glistened a spectacular diamond necklace that was so heavy it had once almost caused a cracked collarbone. But Lilah contended the twice-weekly pilates and calcium supplements she was taking had solved that problem.

“Meanwhile, Pru fidgeted in an emerald satin dress with an attached translucent cape. It was overly dramatic and not at all her style, but it was the only gown Dior had in their Centropolis storefront that would hide the bruises from her last night out fighting crime. Her mother had raised an eyebrow, made a politically insensitive allusion to the Muslim community’s dress code, and eventually thrown her hands up with an admission that ‘It’s your money and your body, so dress how you want.'”

Since deciding that Pru’s gala ensemble would be a high-tech hostess coat developed by Foster, the Q to Pru’s James Bond, the final paragraph not only describes the wrong clothing but also robs me of being able to paint a maddening but funny scene of when Pru’s Dior-draped mother sees her daughter role up in pants to an old-school charity gala. And let’s face it — it’s always better to show, not tell. 

Better ideas persist!

This is…NaNoWriMo 2018

Happy Nov. 1, everyone! While Americans binge on turkey, us writers purge on paper in an effort to compose 50,000 words’ worth of a single project in the 30-day period known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Many of us will make it, but we’ll sacrifice sleep, socializing and sometimes sanity to do it.

Last year I worked on my now-represented novel, Omaha, in an effort to get it ready for my agent. This year, I’m settling into a different kind of story — a Chuck Palahniuk-style satire called Nobody’s Hero that examines identity through the lens of an accidental vigilante — and I can’t wait to see what my uninhibited fingers type out.

Like most years, I’m not alone in my struggle. Tim Harnett, author of Reve and my writing buddy of the last three NaNoWriMos, plans to work on the second book in the series he began writing last November. I’ve hopefully convinced Cody Bridges to devote some energy this month to either Gin or The Phrenologist, two books he’s talked about writing for a while now. Partnerships during the month are almost requirements for success: No one quite gets the fervor of the month like someone in there with you. Plus, I’m competitive.

Luckily, those in my life who aren’t NaNoWriMoers also understand how much energy 30 days of creative outpour takes. Last year my friend Ally let me work for eight hours straight at her office in Seattle on Omaha (you could say it was partly born in the same place as Jeff Bezos’ rockets). I have a long list of people who wait to read the final product — though after edits, that means it’s April by the time I’m comfortable with them taking a peek. The Man with Time on His Arm has already offered to spend a quiet “creative day” with me and asks routinely if I’ve been writing. After all, he’s inadvertently helped me figure out a few plot points. Mom and Dad are used to my phone going straight to voicemail some November nights.

This year I plan to post every day on Convincing the Muse. They might be excerpts of what I’m working on or something completely separate that came to me. Maybe it’ll just be a song I’m using to set a mood when writing or a vignette based on a photo I took while daring to take my hands off the keyboard. All I’m saying is, stay tuned.

And let the writing begin!

Writespiration: Love thy characters (via @angiecthomas)

I should be editing the full manuscript of my book, Omaha, before sending it out to my beta reader book club, but I’m not. At first I thought my procrastination was out of exhaustion — I dedicated the entire month of November and first week of December 2017 to it, and since then have burned out on it. It happens.

But then I read this tweet from The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas:

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This was the second time I had seen her refer to the love she has for Bri — even going so far as to say she likes her more than The Hate U Give‘s main character, Starr. I remember feeling that way about some of the characters I wrote back when I was penning books while pretending to be taking notes in freshman year of high school. But with Omaha, I can’t say the same.

The fact is, none of my characters evoke my love. Or any feeling, for that matter. Omaha, Plunder, Varsity and Flax are like the people I hung out with in middle school: Now that the obligation to stick with them is over, they bore me and I have little to say to them (or make them say to each other, as the case of writing has it). It’s not a tangible feeling like hate or dislike, but one of indifference, which is possibly even worse because it means I have to build emotion from scratch instead of just tweak it from one thing to another. Unlike when I used to write in high school, no amount of dream casting has helped — though I’ll admit it’s a nice diversion envisioning Samira Wiley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Beatriz and Lin-Manuel Miranda armed to the teeth with skill-enhancing microchips in their brains and running around post-exodus Chicago streets.

So thanks to Thomas, I’m going back to my draft to see where I became numb to these characters and figure out ways to fall back in terrible, conflicted love with them. How can I expect readers to feel something for them if their own creator is indifferent?