Wednesday, September 28, 2016

More Structure = More Spontaneity

Hi friends! The semester is well underway and I've been buried beneath my novel and my memoir (I'm writing a memoir?!) and all the other things that take over a graduate student's life.

In the meantime, my nonfiction class has been reading and learning about John McPhee, the grandfather of nonfiction--and let me tell you, he knows his stuff!

McPhee breaks down his writing process in this New Yorker article and in this Paris Review interview and the main thing that comes across is his love for STRUCTURE. According to him, "Structure is not a template. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it."

In the article, he writes about the computer software (that was essentially designed FOR him) that he uses to organize his notes into sections. Then, once he has those separate sections, he can sit down at his desk and focus on JUST THAT SECTION rather than getting bogged down with an onslaught of information and data.

"Structure liberates you to write," he says in the interview. "You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside."

Meanwhile, I was swimming in the second draft of my novel, and I could barely see what way was up or down. It was while lamenting about this to my fellow writers at an SCBWI meeting that one of them mentioned Scrivener.


"It's a lifesaver," she said. "It'll totally help you get organized."

I had heard about this writing software from another friend, and I'd even tried my hand once, but it had been a while since I'd used it. I decided to give it another try.


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As you can see from these pictures, Scrivener has all kinds of great tools that help writers visualize their story (many of which I haven't even figured out yet!) This helps writers understand the structure of the whole thing, and also allows us to hone in on one particular section/chapter/scene--very helpful when you're 30k words in!

Thanks to Scrivener, I just finished the second draft of my novel and sent it to my advisor today! 152 pages and 42,600 words! Whoo!

I've even found Scrivener to be helpful in writing smaller pieces, like a lyric essay or a short story.

The moral of the story is that STRUCTURE=FOCUS=FREEDOM. Writing and stories come from a place of deep inspiration, but eventually we've got to sit down and wrangle the beast. Tools like Scrivener help us do that dirty work!


Monday, September 12, 2016

Horseback Writing: A Writer and Her Muse

Normally, college students move into a dorm with their laptop and a few bags of clothes. But not Karissa Womack. She moved to college with her horse, an Appaloosa named Willow. Karissa got Willow when she was just 13 years old, and the pair grew up together, riding out into the woods on adventures and even competing in hunter jumper shows. When Willow suffered a hoof injury, Karissa had to give up on competing. But she did not give up on Willow.

Now Willow is 18 years old and Karissa is a graduate student studying creative writing at the University of South Florida. Karissa continues to fight for Willow every day. While most graduate students spend their weekends relaxing by the pool or throwing back beers at the bar, Karissa spends any extra time she has at the barn with Willow, mucking her stall and taking care of her sensitive hooves. They still enjoy walks together in the nearby nature preserves.


Karissa and I lived together during our first year of graduate school. When I first went to the barn with her, I peered into Willow’s stall and saw all of her equipment—saddles, medicine, etc. That's when I realized how much time and money keeping Willow costs Karissa. I realized all of the sacrifices that my friend has to make in order to upkeep a pet as energy intensive as a horse. I can leave for the weekend anytime I want and leave extra food for the cat, but Karissa can’t leave town without making sure that someone’s going to take good care of Willow. She doesn't just worry about paying her own rent and groceries. She’s also got to pay Willow’s board, her feed, and her medications, not to mention general horse maintenance such as farrier bills and supplements. This is a lot more financial responsibility than most 25 year olds have to handle! But Karissa does it without complaint. She loves nothing more than driving out to the barn early Saturday morning and spending the day with her best friend, giving her the best treatment possible and going for long rides through the woods.

Recently, Willow suffered a life-threating colic--a major gastrointestinal condition--that nearly killed her. Luckily, she was able to get to the Equine Medical Center of Ocala right away where vets tended to her immediately and essentially saved her life. 

While Karissa is beyond grateful that the surgery was successful, she is now saddled with over $10,000 in debt. Her credit cards are maxed out and she’s taken out a care credit card to help with the costs, but she is still looking for donations through her GoFundMe page. Any amount helps!



Meanwhile, both Karissa and Willow look forward to the day when Willow will be back home in her barn, happy and healthy enough to go on long rides through the grassy paddocks, like the two of them used to do. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Go Team Go: Writing as a Team Sport

This time last year, I was happily banging away on the first draft of my novel. Every evening, I delighted in sitting at my desk and writing my story. I was captivated by my characters, and frankly, enamored withfiction.

Fast forward to the present moment, and it’s way harder to arrive at my writing desk with the same amount of zeal as I did last fall. The honeymoon period is definitely over.

Image result for writing is hardAs you all know, I had a summer full of all kinds of adventures, very few of them having anything to do with sitting at a desk and writing a novel. Towards the end of the summer, I was complaining to a writer friend about how little progress I made on my novel. 

“My gears are creaky,” I told her. “I can’t get into it.”

It seemed liked everything I wrote was dry and forced, and I couldn’t seem to get into a groove. (I wanted my strange writing groove from last fall to magically reappear!) She was in the same position with her novel—re-working a full draft—and we decided to schedule a writing date to move forward on our respective projects. She would come to my house and we would hold each other accountable to write for several hours. And write we did, dammit.

Since that initial writing date, all of the progress that I have made on my novel has been with her in the room. Once or twice a week, she comes over with some snacks and we chat for a while before setting the timer for one hour. And every time that alarm goes off, we’re surprised by how fast the time flew by. And every time she leaves my house several hours later, neither of us can wipe the silly grins off our faces. We’re doing it. Slowly but surely, these novels are getting written. It’s taking a lot of time and elbow grease, but it’s happening.
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When I told her how different my writing process was for this draft than the first one, she laughed and made a really good point.

“We’re at places in the revision process that are not the most fun,” she said.

We’re not just dreaming up characters and fun situations to put them in. We’re sweating and toiling to turn those whimsies into masterpieces. (Or at least into some kind of finished product. Whether it’s any good or not remains to be seen.)

I still love my characters, but I see how complicated crafting a compelling story actually is. You cannot simply string together a few curious incidents and call it a novel. Readers need so much more than that to connect to a story in a meaningful way.

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The storyline I mapped out over the summer is in constant flux. Every time I sit down to write, my perfect plot is in danger of taking an unexpected turn. Characters act out in unpredictable ways. What I thought was the climax has shifted. Characters that I thought were minor have become major, and vice versa. Things come up that I didn’t prepare for, like hurricanes and broken arms. And then what?

The truth is, I’m dealing with a living, breathing animal with a mind of its own. For the first time, I am beginning to understand the fiction writer’s dilemma of striking the delicate balance between controlling the narrative and letting the story take the reins. It’s an amazing and beautiful and scary process.


All the confidence that I had in my novel when I first started has leaked out of my brain, which makes it hard to return to the manuscript with the same gusto I once had. But luckily, I don’t have to feel like I’m in it all by myself. Although I’ve shared work with many writers over the years, I’ve never had an active writing partnership like this one. I’ve heard of other writers who always write together, but I had never seen the value in it until now. I’m grateful for my writing partner who knows when to talk shop and when to get down to business.   

So much of writing has to be done all by our lonesome. So why not try to make it into a team activity?  It's not as if I can't write on my own, but it's just more fun this way! 
Remember! Always use the buddy system!!
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Speaking of which, check out my BUST interview with my friend and client, Thelsuice Gonzalez, as we discuss the process of working on her memoir as a team.