“You are capable of more than you think.”

They say in marathons, it helps to have a mantra. Something you can repeat in your head, return to when the going gets tough. This Sunday (i.e. in three days, ::gulp::) I will run the New York City Marathon. I’ve only one run marathon before, the Chicago Marathon in 2014, and something tells me it’s a little like childbirth. Your hormones and your brain work to trick you into doing it again.

nanowrimoThe day before the Chicago Marathon, I went on a shake-out run with some the running world’s biggest rockstars, and before the three miler, they shared with us plebes their tips. The one that stuck with me was about the mantra. I hadn’t given that much thought before, but I figured, well, if Deena Kastor says you should have one, I guess I’ll come up with something. I went with a classic for that race. Run the mile you’re in. When at mile ten, I started freaking out at the idea that I wasn’t even halfway done, I came back to that line. Run the mile you’re in. It quieted the crazy-talk that was creeping into my head. Just run the mile you’re in, Jenn. Sounds simple, but it helped. That’s all a marathon is, after all. One mile after another after another. If you take each one at a time, it’s almost manageable. Run the mile you’re in.

The mantra carried me through that race. Helped me sneak just under my goal of completing the marathon in four hours. But the truth is, it did more than that. It spoke to more than running. It spoke to my writing. The thing is, when you look at a big task like writing a novel . . . it’s pretty easy to freak out. No way can I write that many pages, that many words. But if you break it down into pieces  —  one page at a time, fifteen hundred words a day, revising one chapter at a time — you will get through it. Run the mile you’re in.

After a marathon, a lot of runners remark that they feel sort of depressed. This big thing they’d worked toward for so long is over. Now what? I wanted to avoid those feelings this time around, so I decided to embark on another epic challenge. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. By the end of the month, my goal is to have a first draft of a new project. Fifty thousand words, more or less. Eeeek, right? While I’ve participated in years past, it’s been a while since I’ve written quite so much in a compressed time period. The whole thing makes me a little nervy, but also a little . . . excited. A lot like the marathon.

Which brings me to my mantra for this year’s big race, one I hope to apply to my writing as much as to this Sunday’s run. You are capable of more than you think. I’d be lying to you if I said the training for this year’s marathon was easy. In the midst of training runs, I was traveling to promote The Distance to Home, moving across the country, and dealing with a range of nagging injuries. There were many Sunday mornings when the alarm went off and about the last thing on earth I wanted to do was get out of bed and go run for two to three hours. I’d get out there on the path as my legs woke up. The first few miles were always, always the hardest. And then something happened. Nearly every time. It got better. I discovered something about myself that I needed to discover, that was applicable in many more areas of my life than just running. I was capable of more than I thought. And I kept going, even when it didn’t get easier. Even when the last few miles were all-over leg pain and involved some walking breaks. I didn’t give up.

I don’t know how Sunday’s race will go, to be honest. While I’d love to best last marathon’s time, I have a feeling that’s probably out of reach. That the crowds will be too big for me to get going at my normal pace. That my hip flexor and my hamstring may not be in the mood for all of the 26.2 miles. But I hope that I remembered what I learned this summer about myself.

We are all capable of more than we think. In writing, in running, in so many things. Surrounded by fifty thousand people this Sunday, running through all five boroughs of New York City, that’ll be the line I cling to when the going gets tough. And it will. It’s a marathon, after all.

On gratitude

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches (ahem, where did fall go? how is it almost winter already?), I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. 2015 has been quite a year, and with 2016 right around the corner (finally!), I have a lot to be thankful for. My three page long acknowledgments passage in my debut novel doesn’t even come close to encapsulating my gratitude.

Something tells me this blog post won’t either, but I’ll give it a try.

  • I’m grateful for the people who’ve surrounded me with love and comfort and superb listening skills: my husband, friends, and family who’ve been on this long journey with me for years and are finally seeing it come to fruition.
  • It’s been a year of ups and downs. More ups than downs in the end, but man, perspective is everything. When I found out in January that my book was canceled, I didn’t know how things would turn out. I didn’t know if my book would ever see the light of day. Even though I had nothing to with what happened, I felt guilty, like I’d let people down. My agent. And especially my friends and family who’d finally been able to attach a date to this thing I’d been working on for years. Having that whisked away just sucked, plain and simple. Of course, everything collapsing in the depths of Boston’s epic worst winter ever didn’t make things any easier. Thankfully, my story had a happy ending–truly the happiest. I’m so grateful for my agent and editor–and my best friend for saying that the best way to resolve my pity party was to come to France with her and her family. Indeed, it was!
  • On those short and dark (but somehow never-ending) February days, I told myself (and my husband) so many times: I just want to be published. I don’t care if Kirkus hates it. Or if it sells only a hundred copies. I just want it to be real again.
  • Fast forward nine months, and I’ve found myself (of course) wanting the moon for my book and getting carried away as I see other people’s starred reviews and shiny promotional material and feel very  . . . overwhelmed. I’m trying really hard — this’ll probably be a New Year’s resolution — to remember back to when all I wanted was for my book to be out in the world. It’s still happening in 2016. I got what I wanted. Be grateful, Jenn. Deep breath. I am. I have so much for which to be grateful.
  • I’m thankful for all the amazing authors (the experienced and the loads of newbies) I’ve met this past year, especially the Sweet Sixteens. It’s so nice not to feel alone in this bewildering and awesome experience. I’ve made so many friends and read so many fantastic 2016 titles. Next year is going to be ah-mazing.
  • I’m grateful for my VCFA buds, who keep me real and grounded in the craft of writing, the one piece I do have control over.
  • I’m nervous and excited and grateful, yes, that too, that 2016 is just a few calendar page turns away.
  • As always, I am grateful for chocolate, especially

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Names, names, names

Of the many things I have to do as part of creating an entirely fictional world, naming my characters is one of the trickiest parts. I don’t just mean the main character(s), but also all of the people in my main character’s world. Since I tend to write in first person, I’m in my character’s mind and body, and so I’m supposed to know the names of all the people she/he knows. This means I have to come up with a LOT of names!

I have a tendency to change names as I’m working through the story. (Thank goodness for the “find and replace” feature.) I wish I could say that all of my names are steeped in symbolism and significance, but the truth is, they aren’t. For me, it’s important that the names sound realistic for the time and place of the story, and also that they stand apart from each other– can’t have too many starting with the same letter.

As I’ve been working on my latest work-in-progress, a young adult novel set in a New England boarding school, I realized that my character (like I did in high school) knows nearly everyone in her school by name. What this meant was that all of those characters, even the ones that appear briefly, should have a name. So “that girl from my Chem class” had to become a real person. But how to come up with a ton of names without spending FOREVER creating and deciding on them? (Truth: I can easily spend an afternoon poring over name books and website of the top 100 first names for a particular birth year. It’s a super fun thing to get lost in and call “work,” but…. perhaps not the best use of time).

New solution!image2image1

My nephew’s commencement book! (He graduated over the weekend from UConn.) Over 100 pages of first, middle, and last names to mix and match. Who knew this thing had a purpose beyond graduation day (as we sat in the stadium watching a thousand young adults receive their diplomas)?

 

Here’s to hoping the next time I have to name a random and very minor character, I don’t spend two hours doing it.

Revision, or That Thing I Love to Hate

It’s undeniable. No matter how wonderful anything I wrote seems on the day I wrote it, a day later it’s lost its luster. A few days later? A month later? Hoo boy. I start to see it for what it is: something that needs work.

That’s where revision comes in. What I’ve discovered by talking to many other writers about their processes is that no two processes are alike. What I’ve discovered works for me, but even then, I’m not sure it’ll work for the next book. Each book is essentially its own beast that I must wrangle into submission. And then repeat.

That said, I still feel like I can learn from other people’s revision processes. For me, the niggling thing I hate about revision is that it’s not as quantifiable as first drafting. With a first draft, I can say: I wrote X many words today, therefore I am done. With revision, I guess I could say: I deleted X many word today, hurrah! Except… it doesn’t really have that same feeling of achievement.

Because I need some sense of accomplishment, and because I’m wading through a 150-300+ page word document day after day, it’s essential for me to break it down.

1. Hence the list! The list is very key to my revision process. It’s visually pleasing! I can cross things off! Aha, I have tackled you.

2. I can add things to the list as I go along and discover more things that need work.

3. But how do I even know what needs work?

4. Personally, I can’t revise until I have some distance from the manuscript. If we’re talking tiny line edit changes and tweaking words, I can do that the next day, but for big picture things, it needs to sit. Stephen King suggested putting your draft aside for at least a month upon writing “the end.” If it works for him, I decided it works for me.

5. And so far, so good. But what do I do in the month away from my book? What if I want to take a peek?

6. NO, Jenn. No. No peeks allowed. If you really want confirmation that what you wrote is brilliant, genius stuff, by all means, send it to your mother. And then find something else to keep you busy until a month is up.

7. When I’m gearing up for revision, or needing to take a break from it, I find it helpful to return to a couple writing books to get me in the right frame of mind. Some of my favorites are: Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight (soon to be released in a new edition), Kate Messner’s Real Revision, and John Truby’s The Anatomy of StoryIf I’m needing a real pick-me-up, then Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. And every couple years, Stephen King’s On Writing.

8. I also tend to read a lot for pleasure in the month after finishing a draft. And, okay, some Sims might happen, too (for a few days max!).

9. When I finally reopen the manuscript after a month or so has passed, I try to read it once through without doing anything to it. Just to remember the story and see what’s actually on the page. The next time I read it, I have a pad of paper next to me and I start a running list of all the things that need work. We’re talking macro level here (tiny sentence things and typos I’ll fix as I move through).

10. Then the list gets typed up. And printed out. And that’s when the accountability begins. As items on the list are tackled, they get crossed out. I tend to skip around the list for things that feel achievable in a given moment or day. Often, I tackle some of the smaller things first (something limited to one scene, for example) because honestly, IT FEELS SO GOOD TO CROSS THINGS OFF!

11. There are always those little pervasive things — the big picture stuff that really affect every little bit of the manuscript. Like, say I need to tone down one character. Or add a nuance to a relationship, in a way that doesn’t affect the plot or main story arc. I tend to save those for the end, as I make several passes through the manuscript, tweaking and tweaking.

12. The final stage of my revision is the one that I think a lot of other people do not do, but which is so essential to my process. I read my ENTIRE book out loud. (I am not looking forward to doing this with my 300+ page behemoth WIP, yet it must be done.) The reading aloud stage holds huge value for me. It’s how I catch accidental tense switches, typos, repetitive word choices, moments that unintentionally echo, etc. I also think it’s helped develop my ear for dialogue.

13. After I feel I’ve taken the book as far as I can, I share it with my beta readers — my critique buddies. Many of them have read several of my books now, and I hold their feedback in high esteem. It’s so essential to see what another person finds in your book that perhaps you didn’t intend to put in there. And sometimes discover genius things you did that you’d never give yourself credit for. Love, love, love my critique partners.

14. What comes next? I sift through the feedback from my critique partners. Some of what they say will jive with each other, so I know it’s stuff I need to work on. I start making a list (oh dear, another list!) and gear up for the next round of revision.

15. Repeat with critique partners, agent, and eventually editor…. and then voila! It’s done!

16. I’m sure I won’t be one of those writers marking up their now-published book with a pen before readings. Right?

17. We’ll see.

Writing Wisdom from an Unlikely Source

Filling the well — taking breaks from writing for other activities that surreptitiously somehow feed the writing — is essential to me as a writer. I need to read outside of books that necessarily inform my work or my practice of writing. I need to legitimately get outside, away from it all. (Easier said that done in this evil, evil Boston winter.) I need to hang out with friends, watch movies, listen to This American Life, cook, travel to France at the last minute, etc. For the past week, I’ve been reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, a little bit at a time before bed every night. This morning I finished it (because it is due at the library and I already have enough fines).

There is this passage in the chapter, “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” that completely resonated with me when I read it last night. It so nailed what I think people in many creative careers (like comedy, but also writing) struggle with, which is separating the joy of the process and the work itself, from how the work is perceived by the public (sales, critics, “success,” etc.). Her answer: ambivalence.

 

“I will say it again. Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look. I realize this is extremely difficult. I am not saying I am particularly good at it. I’m like you. Or maybe you’re better at this than I am. You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, “I made it!” You will rarely feel done or complete or successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that likes to sit at the head of the table, and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone else’s. It doesn’t matter how much you get; you are left wanting more. Success is filled with MSG. Ambivalence can tame the beast” (p. 223-225).

– Amy Poehler, Yes Please

On writing and running

I can’t be the first writer to compare writing a book for training to and running a marathon, but as of last week, I can at least say I’m qualified to write about it. It’s been a week and a day since I ran the Chicago Marathon, my first marathon (and probably not my last). The soreness is gone, I can walk like a human again, and I’m down a few toenails, but the memories are a strong as ever.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like to round the corner onto Columbus Dr and see that the finish line was in sight, but maybe it’s fair to say that it felt a little like sitting on the beach at Watch Hill, and seeing my agent’s name on my cell phone (she only calls with good news). The end was in sight, or sort of. Because of course, I soon learned that selling the book was one of the many steps toward seeing that book in print, toward holding it in my arms like a baby and sniffing it. (No I haven’t been able to do this yet, but heck yeah, I plan to.)

The thing about writing a book and running a marathon is that anyone can do it, but only some of us ever do. It takes training and persistence and grit and time, always time. There are things you can control (lacing your sneakers and going out there whether you feel like it or not, getting your butt in the chair day after day) and things you can’t (the weather on race day, the cover your book eventually gets, who is assigned to review it). At the end of the day, all you can do is put in your best work, your best effort and put your faith behind that.

As I toed the start line (okay, as I stood in my place in the middle of corral F wondering if I should’ve stopped by the porta potties), I couldn’t help but ponder this one piece of wisdom that Bart Yasso shared at the previous day’s shakeout run. Run the mile you’re in. Well, duh. Pretty hard to run the mile you already ran. Or the mile ahead of you. But of course he was right, so completely right. It’s so easy to look back–at failures, mistakes, the things we wished we could change–and so easy too, to look forward, to gaze into the future trying to figure anything out. It’s hard to stay in the moment. And it’s that way with writing, too. I’m always fighting that inclination to go back, fix the work from the previous day, previous week. Or to jump ahead. To get so lost in all the things I still have to do for the piece that I’m simply overwhelmed.

Run the mile you’re in. That was my mantra for the race. As the crowds cheering us on and the thousands of runners around me distracted, made me forget the pace I had practiced, in all those long solo runs, running around and around a nearby pond, I came back to that one line. Run the mile you’re in. It’s that way with writing too. Write the sentence you’re in. The paragraph. The page. The scene. The chapter. That’s all you can do. All you have control over. That blank page in front of you. Everything else falls away as you focus in.

As I’ve spent the last week sitting on my butt (I mean, recovering), I’ve been trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned from marathon training to writing. Putting in the time. Accepting the results. Not every run is perfect. The first mile can be rough, but that doesn’t mean you won’t end up cruising, flying on that third mile, or as I surprised myself to find sometimes, that thirteenth or seventeenth mile. Same goes for writing. A tough start to the session can yield amazing gems, words you didn’t know were in you, revelations in a scene you couldn’t have anticipated before planting that butt in that chair.

Run the mile you’re in.

Thanks, Bart.