Monday, July 12, 2010

Progress on the Prairie

From time to time, it is a pleasure to report on positive things. Two weeks ago I wrote about the Top Ten items on my mind, and Numero Uno was the major re-write of the novel that has been kicking around in my head, and taking up time and effort at retreats and BIAW challenges over the past few years. I also promised to report on my progress occasionally.

Herewith is Progress Report #1:

In the third week of June, I met a deadline by submitting the first twenty pages of my novel to the instructor of a novel-writing workshop held this past weekend. Because it was a re-write, not a revision, it felt like a rough first draft.

I have now set the first crucial scenes of the story in 1958, which has moved all the subsequent action back in time by twenty years from the setting of the first draft. That required some research to make sure that I was not referring to things not yet in use, or practices not common at that point in time. This move was necessary because of a critical event that set in motion a serious misunderstanding between the two main characters. This happened in a way which would not have been credible in the 1970's, an era when many new kinds of communication media were beginning to appear. Although we were not using electronic mail back then, it had become more common to make a long distance phone call than it was in the fifties. When I pick up the story again, the next generation of the family is reaching adulthood in the early 1980's. Even then, email, cell phones, and texting, etc. had not come into common use. I have been having a great time reflecting on the way we used to do things back in the fifties, and also in the eighties.

Gail Bowen, the author of the Joanne Kilbourne mysteries, was our workshop instructor, and the class was limited to sixteen (one more than originally announced). The workshop was not long enough for everyone to read the work of every other participant, but we described our stories in class, and in the evenings most of us read from our revised submissions. Each person had a one-on-one session with Gail, and we received notes and valuable feedback from her. This was a great motivator for me. With her encouragement and suggestions for improvement, I am revved up now to take my story to a more complex level than I had previously imagined was possible. She made me see that I am dealing with deeply emotional subject matter that warrants careful and sensitive attention.

What else did the workshop deal with? We met for almost three hours Friday evening, and an hour and a half both Saturday and Sunday mornings. During those sessions, Gail shared many useful tips on the craft of writing, including the basics of plot, which Aristotle called “the first essential,” also pacing, writing beginnings and endings, and much general advice drawn from her own experience. The rest of the day was devoted to revision based on our individual discussions with her, and generally forging ahead with our manuscripts.

Gail also stressed the importance of finding our best time to write and then sticking to it on a regular basis. She gets up at 4:00 am every morning to write. Her twelfth mystery, and fifteenth book, The Nesting Dolls, will be out by fall. She generously read from her manuscript Saturday night, and it promises to be as good as her previous titles, many of which have been made into movies.

We had one important assignment the first day. We had to develop a short description of our novel which could be used as an “elevator pitch” in case we are ever asked what we are writing about, or if we set out to pitch our work to an editor or agent, as I intend to do this October at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Gail recommends strongly that this statement, which should include the theme and a brief description of the plot, be posted up where we can focus on it as we write. This was a very good exercise, though more difficult than I expected since I had already spent some time at an SRW retreat discussing and developing this very thing. Seems it is something I should examine periodically to make sure I am still on track! After I have further refined my pitch, I will include it in my next report; I have come to the conclusion that if I commit to regular (perhaps monthly?) progress reports, I will have the external deadlines that I need.

Was the information received at the workshop brand-new or unfamiliar? Not entirely. Much of it I have heard before, but the greatest benefit was having a successful author relating the material to her own or other writers’ works, and illustrating with examples how this wondrous act of writing a novel can actually happen. The roundtable discussion with my fellow writers was also inspiring. I came away feeling that writing this story is worth doing, and I have a renewed commitment to keep it at the top of my list of priorities.

What’s happening in your writing life? Have you been inspired recently by an activity, event, or person, to keep plugging away or perhaps even step up your effort? Have you run into difficulties that one of the Prairie Chicks or someone visiting here might be able to suggest a solution for or send an encouraging comment your way? Please feel free to do your own progress report today.

6 comments:

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Your workshop sounds amazing. Nothing like spending time with other writers, especially multi-published ones like Gail Bowen, to inspire you. I'm glad you're excited about your project, have a plan for it, and are ready to take it to new heights. Good luck with the writing, and good luck with getting it ready for the Surrey conference in October.

Unfortunately, I can't say I've been particularly inspired these days. My WIP came to a crashing halt the other day, but I think I know my problem. I haven't done sufficient pre-writing to know where the story is going. I also need to figure out exactly who my characters are. I was trying to use some shortcuts and that just doesn't work for me. So it's back to the drawing board! Sigh.

Jana

Helena said...

Hi Jana,
I think I've spent more time where you are now than anywhere else!

One thing Gail suggested to me was to do an exercise where I would take the key revelation and write an extensive analysis of how that piece of information would affect my four main characters. She even said to set aside a whole day for each character, and write about how he/she feels, what the immediate reaction is, and how each person responds to it (deny, run away, confront, anger, sadness, etc.). In the case of the couple whose initial misunderstanding has set up this whole situation -- how has this affected each life? For instance, Laura has kept a secret and deals with it by not dealing with it, buries her feelings, whereas Gordon has never been able to completely trust a woman again. In other words, an in-depth look at how four lives have been shaped by an event in the past.

I guess that would qualify as pre-writing, and I need to do more of it. I actually feel that my whole first draft was one long pre-write!

Good luck with that next stage.

Janet said...

I sense a great deal of enthusiasm back in your 'voice', Helena! Love to hear that - and no wonder with such a great conference and author input. So happy for you - I hope you keep us informed (I love "Progress on the Prairie) and that you surge forward on getting your story finished, polished and ready for Surrey!!

I'm glad you mentioned 'best time to write' as I've been trying to schedule my days so that I have time for writing when I'm best prepared/enthused about writing. For me, that's evening. 4am? There's such an hour? I always envy those that can get up at that horrible hour and put in the time at the computer - but try as I might, my body just refuses to cooperate. So, go with the flow, right?

Great post, Helena - are you planning on sharing your elevator pitch with us?

Helena said...

I knew the 4 am thing would boggle you, Janet! I can't go to bed early enough to make that adjustment in the morning, but she does. 9 pm is getting late ...

I think I could manage 6 am if I didn't go for my walk at that time, and when I get back, there's the whole breakfast / look at the headlines in the paper / check email and blogs STUFF. So, I sometimes ignore 9 am which is really my best time to get started, if I don't get too distracted with those other things. (I don't even try on my Prairie Chick Monday -- that's a good morning to browse the blogs!)

Yes, I will get up my nerve to share my pitch at some point when I feel it's ready. Gail added some neat insight to the situation in my story which I want to ponder for a bit.

I'm glad you detected the fresh infusion of enthusiasm, because I really am feeling it!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Wow, Helena! That workshop sounds fantastic! Congrats on meeting your deadline - that always feels great, hey?

Helena said...

You've got that right, Joanne. I had just started my re-write, and they moved the deadline up three days. I could have done some more copy editing -- I missed a few things that were obviously in need of clean-up. At least I wasn't submitting for publication! Now, that would be nerve-wracking.

Hope you are at a good place with your writing!