Jennifer Neri's Blog

Back of every creation, supporting it like an arch, is faith. Enthusiasm is nothing: it comes and goes. But if one believes, then miracles occur. Henry Miller


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Oh my aching stomach!

Being a writer and a reader are two very different things. For some of us those lines cross paths on a daily basis, and I know many readers would never consider writing, just as I’ve met a few writers who don’t read (sorry–but I don’t understand you guys).

As a writer, sometimes it’s difficult to turn off my reader. Very difficult. And sometimes it’s difficult to turn off my writer when reading. Am I confusing you yet? I’m beginning to confuse myself! 

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That’s what this post is all about. Knowing when to turn off either the reader or the writer switch. 

What sparked it was a writer’s meeting I was at yesterday and a comment I’d received in my submission from another writer. He wrote to me that I use heart and stomach problems way too often as a signal that my character is distressed.

I explained that these were generic terms I put in and only go through in the final final stages of a draft to make the writing more original, and if that’s not possible I reduce the amount of stomach’s flopping in a given scene to only the moments of highest tension.

Another writer interjected at that point and said that as a writer when she reads about hearts skipping beats and knots in stomachs it drives her crazy, but as a READER these cues are invisible.

And this is of course true. At least I believe it is.

And yet, at the same time we writers don’t want to be so dull that we can’t think of anything past stomach pains when trouble is coming.

This roused a discussion about the physical symptoms of stress. I for one had done some research on this particular subject in the past, because I’d gotten really bored of myself writing chest tightening so often. And yet, the symptoms for stress are not unique. Our body will respond the same way over and over to various stresses: “Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper.”* 

It’s up to us as writer to try our best to have unique writing, and it’s up to the reader in us to know when it’s okay to leave in a generic invisible cue. Now, if only our writer and reader selves would just listen to each other!

How about you: how do you handle the physical reactions of your characters to tense moments in your writing? Have you ever noticed an onslaught of aching stomachs and pounding hearts in your own writing? And do you agree that sometimes these cues have a place in writing, or do they just plain drive you crazy?

 

*quote taken from: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm

 


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A full circle

I’ve been re-writing, re-plotting, and re-drafting, the majority of a novel I wrote eight years ago. Shocking when I think it was that long ago that this project came into my thoughts and I began to write it. It took me one year to write that first draft. It was the first idea that spurred me into being a writer.

My grandmother’s death at the time was the inspiration for the premise. While that hasn’t changed at all, the story line has a lot. As have some characters. And motivations. And arcs. When I returned to this particular work last October, I thought it was an easy fix, and I thought it was basically done. Silly me. But once I’d ripped it apart, I realized I’d gone to far in to turn back or give up on it.

But, that didn’t mean I didn’t want to. Especially as I have another novel I put on hold to whip this one into perfection (ya right! lol), and as I have ideas aplenty, I often wondered why I’m trying to fix something so broken when I can just start fresh. Well, the thing is, I think I just want to prove to myself that I can do my very best with it rather than dump it, and another part of me thinks it’s a great novel, one that many people can relate to. It’s a novel about death, or rather about how the living cope with death. And it’s a novel about stories, and how we each have one, and the choices we make as we travel down the road of that story.

I’m never steady in my belief in my own work. Sometimes I think it’s terrific, other moment I think it really sucks. The last few weeks I’d been thinking, okay, I’d better give up on this novel, the premise stinks, there’s too many characters, and it’s not plausible. Normally, I push through these moments, but this time I came very close to throwing in the towel.

And then three weeks ago my family and I buried my paternal grandmother. I was very close with her, all of my childhood, and even much of my adult life was in a shared residence with her. We even shared the same house during the pregnancy and birth of my first two children. The topic of my novel became too close, not something I was able to revisit during her illness and death.

About two weeks ago I sat down to work, and still, I questioned the story. This was a first–normally distance gave perspective, it allowed me to see flaws and solutions, not just garbage as I was seeing this time.

Yesterday, we buried my maternal grandfather. It was a swift death for him, a quick service. In three weeks, my two last living grandparents died, and I saw vast reactions to death. I saw my own different reactions to their deaths. Those around me responded differently. My parents come from different backgrounds, and I witnessed traditions that were quite different in each of the services and funerals. And it made me reflect on my grandmother’s death all those years ago, and how I felt at the time, and the story my mind created to cope with it. And I thought, “here I am again.”

I’ve come full circle, and yet, I’m a different person I was then. A lot has happened in these eight years, a heck of a lot, some wonderful, some terrible, and I’ve been thinking about this novel on and off during these last forty-eight hours since my grandfather’s death. Maybe this too is a coping mechanism, an avoidance technique. But it doesn’t feel like it. Because in thinking about these deaths, I’m thinking about my emotions, and I’m thinking that I really want to finish this novel after all. Right now there’s a sureness in me I haven’t felt since its creation. A sureness that I know the story I have to tell, and that I’ll be able to do it just right. Maybe I just had to live a little more before I was able to figure it.

As a side, this blog has been a little quieter than usual, a little more down than usual. Here’s hoping for a steady gait over the next while. And I hope all is well with all of you.


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Structure

I’ve been writing on and off for close to eight years.

Does it sound like a long time to you?

It does to me. But, really, it hasn’t been.

In that time I’ve written about ten or so shorts, won a few awards for some, had a few published, wrote for an award-winning magazine for some time. I’ve also drafted two novels, of which I’m editing one right now.

Is it an accomplishment? Depends how you look at it. Some days, I think, wow, I did all that, while having three babies, and never ever having more than a few hours a week to write, and taking a whole year of hiatus more than once. But other days, I think: eight years! Really! That’s it???

As you can most likely tell from my recent post I’ve been in the second place lately more than the first.

One of the difficulties I’m having is getting a grip on structure. I thought I had a tight handle on it: I have my three acts firm in hand. My set-up, my catalyst, my in-limbo time when we wait for the MC to make her decision to act, launching her into act two where we follow her journey, through her false high at midpoint, and into the resolution of act three.

My problem now lies in scene structure, and in making sure each element is in place within each scene.

This morning I’ve drafted a checklist for my self:

  1. Scene setting
  2. Scene goal stated
  3. Scene structure (beginning, middle, end)
  4. Is it clear how I want my character to appear in this scene and does the dialogue, action, monologue reflect this (ie. Weak, strong, frustrated, alert)
  5. Emotional arc
  6. Delivery of info in proper order
  7. Conflict and stakes apparent
  8. Check for order of stimulus : response (something that I get backwards often–weird!!!!)
  9. Resolution and new situation at end of scene (unless is moving into scene sequel)
I’ll print it out once it’s complete and go through each scene making sure that I can tick off each of these items.
How about you: How do you handle structure of your WIP? 
Is there anything you would add to this list?


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Am I doing something wrong?

Last night I had a temper tantrum.

I realized it was going to be summer vacation in three weeks! I was supposed to be just about done my WIP at this point! The summer was going to be for beta readers and then a final round of adjustments. The thing is, you see, I’m nowhere close. I mean I’m so far from the final product that I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever make it to the end.

“I must be doing something wrong!” I yelled. “How can I be working on the same novel for so long and still be editing the beginning?”

The problem is I keep having new story, and when you have new story you have to go back to the beginning and write in this new story. 

The result is that I’m still editing Part 1. Then of course I have Parts 2 & 3 to tackle, right?

I’m often frustrated lately, I feel stuck. I’m not blocked, I’m working every moment I have, but I keep re-working things until they will be to my liking and I’m at the point where I feel this will never happen. I’m scared that the new story situation will never end, and although I fundamentally know this is not true, it still feels like it. In addition, like most of us, I feel that I just don’t have the necessary hours of work time to bring this WIP to its completion.

I ask you, are you resigned to the fact that writing a novel requires time?

I tell you that I’m not. I still fight it, giving myself unrealistic deadlines, thinking that there must be a way to do things more efficiently. And every so often I do wonder, Am I doing something wrong?

 


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Multitasking, does it work?

One task at a time?

That’s almost unheard of! Unacceptable! A waste of time!

Do I agree? No. Not really. I believe in living in the moment. I believe in experience. In one thing at a time.

But, the real question is do I multitask? Yes, I do. All the time. In fact, I am almost never doing just one thing at a time. I can’t–I’m a mom of 3. If I did one thing at a time we wouldn’t make it out of pyjamas before noon.

Truthfully, I can’t blame it all on my kids. I have a lot I want to accomplish, and one day just isn’t enough. So, I create hours by synching them together.

Does it work? Yes, I think it does. I can’t see a way around it, actually. The danger, for me, lies it letting too much of life get done by rote. But that is not the nature of this post.

One place I haven’t multitasked in a long time is writing. I try to focus on one element, or even multiple layers at a time, but all in ONE work. Working on more than one piece felt too scary, too dangerous. Would I lose some of my connection with my WIP? How could I focus on more than one world at a time? Would my voices cross from one novel into the other? Would thematic elements shuffle? Would details get lost? And so on; you get the idea. So for the last six months or so I’ve been focused solely on editing one work.

While the process is going well, and I love it most of the time, a part of me finds this very painful. I love to draft, and not having drafted anything in all this time is driving me nuts! My brain is on overdrive, creating story after story, character after character. Some of them return again and again, others disappear after a brief appearance.

I ignore them, scared to lose myself in them. I fear a new draft would result in my becoming oblivious to my current WIP. But, I have begun to consider to let myself write a draft. If only to quiet myself, so that I can focus on my editing. Perhaps a set amount of free-writing time each day? But, can I be focused enough to turn away from what I will begin writing, so that my current WIP does not suffer?

Maybe I am fooling myself that I can do this. Just the thought of sitting down to write a new drafts gets my blood flowing, and my brain immediately goes into that trance like state of immersion where everything is created. And I haven’t even begun.

I ask you: Do you ever work at two different pieces at the same time? Have you been succesful doing this?

 


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I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. Choo-choo!!!

Writing is hard work. It’s time-consuming, energy-consuming. It’s not the type of work that ever goes away. It can haunt you in the middle of the night, intrude of your thoughts at any time of day — no matter what you are doing. (Kind of like being a mom, if I think about it.)

Sometimes, when I am reading my work, re-writing, editing, I see something that doesn’t quite fit, or doesn’t flow, or doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t, or doesn’t. And sometimes, I think, it’s not major, it really doesn’t matter. Why spend time on it when there are places in my work that really need attention?

This doesn’t last long. Often, the thought is never even completed. I can’t let anything be in my work that I don’t think is the best I can make it today. I can’t coddle myself, and say, ah, you’re right. Even if no one else thinks it can be better – I know it can.

I am coming to terms with the type of writer I am. I will spend a day on a page, adjusting, making it right. And this means progression is slow. And I’m hard on myself. I don’t let anything slide.

That said, I’m trying something new. I am trying to move along in my work, attempting to get myself further in, and not allow myself the indulgence of getting all blurry-eyed over the location of a coma, or whether a paragraph should be spliced, or whether the cadence is just right. I’m pushing myself, altering things quicker, not staring at the words so long, not playing so much. And it’s working. I am progressing faster, and at the same time I am happy with the quality of my work — I don’t find it any less substantial, or weaker at all. I’m still not coddling myself, I’m just being more diligent. I’m glad my patience was yelling at me, telling me to get a move on.

Sometimes, perfectionism is just another form of procrastination.

 



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It’s Alive!

Writing is solitary. We enter the world, look around, and something grabs hold of us, demands that we tell its story. We sit, and we write. We read what we wrote, we write some more. Sometimes, we think we have reached perfection, or near to it, other times we think that the story, the way we are writing it, the way we are telling it, is not coming to life. So, we read books, we go on-line, and we try to do better.

I learn in bursts. My grasp of the craft is not incremental, it’s stepwise. I learn best by spending time with my work, reading it, asking questions about it. I’m very satisfied with where my current project is headed, I see what it will be, I see how to make it that way. What I did not see was the beginning, where it began. I have learned over the last two weeks that I was attacking it in the wrong way, but I will save that post for another day.

Writing is solitary.

But, it is only after my last round of brainstorming with my writing group that my opening is finally manifesting in my mind — it’s coming to life. Without that discussion, the volleying of ideas, the bantering, the rebuttals, the encouragement, I would still be reading a scene that didn’t do what I wanted it to do. Now, I am letting my subconscious build. It sends me reflections that I mold and manipulate, and then send back down for another round, until it will be ready for me to put down on paper.

Writing is solitary, but thank goodness I don’t have to do it alone.

 

 

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