Epic Projects

It’s probably no shocker that I have an affinity for epic projects. I’m a novelist, after all. Novels are projects that often take a year or more and god-knows-how-many hours of work before anyone reads them, plus another infinite amount of work before they’re decent enough to show to the general public. And I’ve never been very good at writing short stories: even the paragraph-long documents on my computer are mostly intended to be the beginning of novels.

As if that process weren’t punishing enough, I have a tendency to take on epic projects in other areas, too. When I was 12 or 13, I was sitting around bored in a genealogical library somewhere waiting for my parents to get done researching when I came across a book called Reading Lists for College-Bound StudentsThis book included a list of 100 of the “most often recommended” books. At the time, I was planning to go to Harvard (I had no idea what Harvard was really like, but I was smart, and Harvard was where smart people go). I figured I should get on that. I copied the entire list out into a notebook and spent eighth grade reading spectacularly age-appropriate books like  The Glass Menagerie and The Stranger by Camus. (I also read 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, so it wasn’t all a baffling trip down existential lane.)

I actually did quite well on this list, eventually. By the time I graduated high school, I’d read more than half, and a college career that included Great Books courses and English classes knocked out a lot of the rest. The very last books on the list–five or six, including Native Son and Don Quixote–are still on my reading list today. I fully intend to read them someday.

When I was in college, the American Film Institute released its “100 Years…100 Movies” list, and I decided I needed to expand my cinematic education. I’d probably seen 20 or so already. Thanks to the college library, some understanding roommates, and a lucky Film Club showing of Birth of Nation (abridged, but close enough when you’re talking about a silent Ku Klux Klan epic), I watched all 100 before graduation.

A year or so ago I decided it would be fun to listen to all the number-one Billboard songs from 1942 forward. When I have a slow day, I add some more songs to a YouTube playlist I’ve put together. So far, I’ve made it to the mid-eighties. I watch a few videos when I wake up in the morning, or play them in the background while I do a task that doesn’t require full concentration. The forties were eye-opening (you wouldn’t believe how many songs I thought were just children’s songs were actually the top of the charts during World War II), and the seventies were a slog, but now that I’m into an era I remember, I’m sure I’ll finish this one eventually.

This attraction towards epic projects also has a darker side. Several years ago, stuck in a job with too much down time, I decided to transcribe my diaries. All 28 volumes.  That one was an epic waste of time. Though it was enlightening to really read them all through, if I’d just read them–and scanned them into the computer–I could have cured cancer by now.

And way back in fifth grade, when I was going through my first bout of depression, I designed what has to be the weirdest, saddest epic project of all. When I was 10, we moved from a small town in Minnesota to an army base in Germany. A year later, I still ached to go back, to a town that I remembered as safe and stable, unlike the constantly changing, unfamiliar world of the army. When my Minnesota best friend sent me a yearbook from what would have been my fifth-grade class, I sat down with all five of our elementary yearbooks and made a big chart. The chart tracked which kids had been in the same class together–for instance, Jeremy, Misha, and I had been in Mrs. Sutherland, Mrs. Lindquist, and Mrs. Blomme’s classes together before being split into different classes in fourth grade. It took forever, but eventually I came up with a small list of pairs of kids who had been in the same classes five years in a row. I guess this project was partially inspired by my budding love for math and statistics, but mostly it was a pathetic grasp towards continuity, an attempt to find a piece of this world I could understand. Looking at little black-and-white pictures of my old classmates was a lot easier than trying to mend the fights I was constantly getting into with my two current best friends.

The secret about my epic projects is that most of them (well, except the novels) are easy. They take persistence, and they may expand my mind, but they aren’t difficult to actually do. They’re something to turn to on the days when my to-do list is too daunting, when even the simplest tasks are turning out much more complicated than I thought. They’re a way to feel like I’m accomplishing something without really moving forward. They’re comfort tasks. And as long as I can keep them in their place, on the fringes of my life but not at the center, I’ll keep taking them on.

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What Developing Writers Should Read

Some of the books I’ve found most helpful as a writer, roughly in the order that I think a person should read them.

1. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. The “development of a writer” stuff really gets going in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown and continues through Betsy’s Wedding, the last in the series. Read these to learn some basic truths about writing (never neglect your writing, be persistent) and to see the wonderful support she gets from her family, friends, and partner. Though Betsy makes mistakes sometimes, this is essentially a portrait of the ideal way for a writer to grow up and develop.

2. Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. I once loved these books so much I typed out Wild Mind so I would really absorb its lessons. These days, I rarely return to them. But I found them invaluable for teaching me to keep my hand moving and to write what I’m really thinking.

3. Stuff like the stuff you want to write. If you want to publish your work, you need to read what’s already out there. If you’re writing short stories, read a lot of short stories. If you’re writing fan fiction, read a lot of fan fiction. The more recent the better.

If you’re not reading the kind of stuff you want to write, it’s easy to, say, think that a contemporary retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” is a fresh idea, only to discover that there are already several books out there based on that premise. Or to write a children’s book from the perspective of an adult (rare these days). If you’re only reading older stuff, you may write a story that feels like it’s from the 1990s, or the 1890s. The definition of “recent” depends on the genre, but for young adult fiction, I try to concentrate on books from the past three years.

The flip side of this is that whatever you like to read is probably what you should be writing: if you love European literary fiction, don’t write a romance just because you think it’s going to be easier. Romance has its own set of conventions and you need to really know them before you can write a (publishable) romance book. In almost any genre, the rules can be broken, but you need to know them first.

4. Okay, back to advice books. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Lamott is hilarious and low-pressure but also gives it to you straight. It’s been a while since I’ve reread it, but I think it works for both beginning and more experienced writers.

5. On Writing by Stephen King. Just a good, general, all-around writing book. If you think that successful writers are mysterious and perfect, King will show you otherwise. One thing I like about this book is that it covers the whole spectrum of writing advice: King’s development as a writer, the nuts and bolts of adverbs, and advice on publishing.

6. The Emily books by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, but especially Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest). If the Betsy series shows the ideal development of a writer, the Emily series shows the (almost) worst-case scenario. Emily has to work for her success. Her guardians forbid her to write fiction, and even once that ban is lifted, Emily often writes late at night in a cold attic room by the light of a single candle. Though she does have a mentor, he’s not always encouraging, and one of her closest friends constantly belittles her work. Read this series to learn about persistence and to feel better about your own obstacles.

7. Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. If you write, but don’t feel like a “writer,” read this book. I love her advice about connecting with other writers and how to build a life that feels like your vision of what a “writer” is. Particularly valuable for people who feel stuck in a day job, or in their identity as “student,” “mom,” or “bartender.”  Her craft advice is pretty good, too, but it’s the lifestyle stuff that makes this book invaluable to me.

8. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This book on screenwriting finally helped me “get” plot. The writing isn’t always great, and he’s sometimes dismissive of certain types of “artsy” films, but his advice is straightforward and simple (though not always easy) to follow.

9. Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. I like the time-management advice in this book, which is basically “even two minutes counts.” The chapter on “Dead Weight–What You Can Ignore” was good, too. Take the craft advice and his frequent “always” and “never” tips with a grain of salt.

10. Writing the Breakout Novel and accompanying workbook by Donald Maass. I’m not sure I’m even ready for this one yet. It makes you think HARD about the novel you’re writing, examining your characters and plot, adding layers, etc. Even a few hours spent with this book will make your book richer.

Have you read any of the books above, and do you agree with my recommendations? What other books have you found helpful as a writer?

Saturday Morning: How I Learned to Grudgingly Appreciate Routine

If you look up the word “adult” in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of my parents.

My parents have systems for everything. They keep Day-timers. They keep an inventory. They Dewey Decimalize their computer files.

They love routines and habits. And so I resist routines and habits like a stubborn toddler. Nothing strikes fear in my heart like the idea of doing something every day. “Just make it part of your routine!” well-meaning people will say about some desirable habit: flossing, eating vegetables, cleaning the tub. “Make it something you do without thinking, like brushing your teeth.” Even that doesn’t make it sound any easier to me. I mean, sometimes I brush my teeth before my shower, and sometimes after. If I’m running late, I’ll do it at work, and on the weekends, sometimes I don’t do it until noon. And sometimes, before bed (whispers) I’m too lazy to do it at all.

But somehow, in the last few years, I have finally developed a routine. And I like it. When it gets disturbed, I miss it. It’s my Saturday morning routine, the routine I follow any day when I’m not working.

On a typical Saturday, I wake up between 7 and 8. I don’t use an alarm on any day of the week, unless there is something Very Important (flight, doctor’s appointment) happening first thing in the morning. I think I have set an alarm maybe 5 times so far in 2013. I have the type of job where if I come in 15 minutes late, I can just stay an extra fifteen minutes in the evening.

So, I wake up. I make oatmeal with peanut butter and brown sugar (it’s really good, I swear) and eat it while either reading the Internet or reading a book. I don’t rush myself at this point in the day. I rush myself enough on weekdays. On weekends, I read until I feel ready to move on.

By 9 or 9:30 I’m usually ready to exercise. I put on my exercise clothes and dance for 30 minutes to one of my workout playlists, trying to work up a sweat and use as many muscles as I can.

Post-workout, I often read the Internet a little more until I cool off and am ready for a shower. Then I go to the library to feed my book addiction. I don’t spend much time at the library, just long enough to drop books off and pick up my holds.

By the time I get home, it’s usually 10:30 or 11. I put on water for a tea. I put on my around-the-house shoes, a pair of glittery Old Navy sneakers. I find it easier to be productive if I’m wearing shoes. I open Scrivener, the program I use to write.

If I’m feeling procrastinate-y, I might mess around on the Internet a little more. But it’s getting later, and it’s time to get serious.

My goal for a typical writing session is either 1,000 words or 2 hours of revision. I got this idea from Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, which is a book I recommend to anyone serious about writing.

Since I tend to write too much and then need to cut down, I usually end up doing 2 hours rather than having a word count goal. I get my cup of tea. I set an online stopwatch for two hours. And then I write.

Two hours feels like a good chunk of time to me. It’s satisfying. I feel like I’ve made progress. Sometimes, I’ll keep going after two hours, or come back to the book later in the day. But after I’ve done my two hours, the choice is up to me. I can write more. I can read one of the books I picked up at the library. I can take a nap. After the two hours, it doesn’t matter. I’ve earned the title “writer” for the day.

And I guess, if it helps me feel like a “real” writer, I can live with a little routine.