Do What You Can—CoronaLife Day 348

Everyone I know is hitting the pandemic wall. As we approach a year of CoronaLife, many of us have exhausted our reserves of patience, grace, and stay-insidedness. I, for one, have actually felt worse anxiety and stress since the vaccines came out, a desperate feeling of “so near and yet so far.” Like starving on the street and seeing food on the other side of a shop window.

So seeing as I—and many of us—am mentally and emotionally drained, it is hardly surprising that my creativity has crashed and burned. As much as I want to get to writing, I just have nothing in the tank nor the quiet space needed to go there. I am far from alone in this—many, many writers have commented on the same phenomenon. They have the time to write, but just…can’t.

Not being able to write drives me to berate myself often. The lack of productivity makes me feel not like myself, further unsettling me in this time of upheaval. So what’s a writer to do?

Do what you can.

For me, I decided to turn to non-fiction and my favorite hobby, genealogy. Many years ago, I published a book on my father’s side of the family. I began one for my mother, but never seemed to complete it. This month, I decided to try and get to THE END.

I have revamped several chapters, including updated information newly discovered since last time I looked at it, including indicating which ancestral couples have DNA matches to them. I am now wading through the rest of the chapters, finding them in various states of disarray. Some are written but the source citations are missing, some are partly written, and one hasn’t even been started yet.

Years ago I made a hasty mistake that has come back to haunt me (and would cause all of my college professors to cry). I failed to source my notes. You see, my mother’s line leads back to royalty, so a number of her families have a substantial amount of scholarly research on them. I read some of the works, jotted down notes in my genealogy program, made note of the book’s citation—and didn’t cite page numbers. Even worse, I didn’t cite which pieces of information came from which book, and just had a long prose piece on each person that mixed all the info together.

I have placed orders with the Interlibrary Loan people (who got these books for me before), and hopefully as they come in I can scan them quickly and reunite facts with sources. With my luck, all the books will arrive at the same time, and then I will have only 2 weeks to go through 6 books. I also ordered 2 books via ILL that were completely new and I will have to read in full to write the chapter that I haven’t even started yet.

So far, my plan has been fruitful. I am making progress and feeling productive. A little bit like my pre-pandemic self.

So for all of you, writers or not, who are struggling to feel more like yourself, know that aspiring to pre-pandemic productivity and goals right now may be making you feel worse rather than better. And if it is—as it was with me—take my advice and reset your goal:

Just do what you can.

Writing Process Relativity

Last week I wrote about how time is relative. Specifically, I noted that I can accomplish about 4 times as much work in a child-free hour as a child-full hour. I’ve since noticed that the writing process itself is subject to the time-warping effects of relativity. Some parts fly past, some drag–even if they take exactly the same amount of real time.

I don’t do much in the way of outlining and prewriting (although I am trying to do a little more with my latest WIP), so that doesn’t take me too long. I think if I tried detailed outlining I would find the process tedious and draining, which I why I steer clear. While I admire the authors who can write a scene-by-scene outline, I just cannot get the passion for basically writing the book before I write the book. If I tried, that would be a part of the process that would seem to move at a snail’s pace for me.

Some writers say the first draft drags for them. For me, the first draft is fits and starts. Some days the words flow so fast I lose track of time, I am so immersed in the story. Other days the words don’t come and every time I look at the clock it seems the hands haven’t moved. But even though this is one of the physically longer time frames in the process, it does not move slowly for me. I tend to make steady progress, so I feel good about it.

The revision is where time relativity really can come into play. I find large-scale revisions such as moving scenes, deleting scenes, writing new scenes or new parts of scenes to move quickly. I have more of a big-picture brain, so I enjoy this part of the process a great deal. Probably why it seems to go quickly for me.

It’s the small-scale edits that drag for me. The typos and the grammar and the punctuation and the sentence-level structure. Grammar-type issues such as punctuation have never been my strong suit, and, although I am learning, it is still a struggle. The reading the book out loud edit always takes a long time, but it is completely necessary for me. One time I found that my global search-and-replace had failed to change my protagonist’s name in 4 different places. I never would have caught that without reading out loud. My mind, when reading silently, had inserted the correct name all the previous times I had read it–and I was on the 7th major revision at that point!

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the revision stage, I make a list of all the things I need to do. For a while, this list grows instead of shrinks, since often changing one thing will lead to more changes further downstream. Then the list seems to stall, as if I cannot check off anything no matter how hard I work. But then a miracle of relativity happens, and one day I look at my list and there’s only one or two things on it! I experienced that with the non-fiction genealogy project I am working on for my family. Just this weekend I looked at what had been a very long list, and realized I was on the second-to-last thing! What a thrilling moment to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

How about you? Which parts of the writing process fly for you, and which are like pulling teeth?

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Contents and Endnotes and Index, Oh My!

I’m embarking on a new venture—non-fiction. It’s a whole new world.

As you may know, I am heavily into genealogy. Several years ago, I compiled all my data into a prose format to distribute to my father’s family (I’m still working on writing out my mother’s). Now, I have more information, and I am updating the book. But this time, I am working on it with an eye towards a wider audience.

Now, I know that genealogy books do not appeal to the general public. However, to that sleuth searching for their family, for that one missing link, a book about their line is pure gold. I cannot thank enough the people who have helped me on my quest, nor can I fully describe the joy of finding a treasure trove of well-documented information.

I want to give others that “family tree high.”

My intention is to fully source the book with endnotes and citations, so anyone reading the book will know the primary source of the information. Wherever possible, I will include pictures and scans of those sources. And I will put it online for as reasonable cost as I can so that others can access the information easily. I also intend to donate copies to local historical societies and/or libraries with genealogical collections. I want this information to be found.

But writing this book is much harder work than I thought.

Not the content itself—writing about each family lineage and couple is pretty easy, as it is chronological and all the information is right in front of me in my genealogical database. It’s the rest of the book that’s making me a little nuts. Like the Table of Contents. And Endnotes. And Index. Oh my.

My version of Word (2007) insists on creating my Table of Contents for me. Which would be very nice if I could figure out how to do that. It’s got something to do with “Styles,” but I have yet to get the details right. I need to sit down and figure it out because once I do, Word will supposedly update the Table of Contents as page numbers change. But so far it has been a headache and I long for the days of the old Word where I could do it myself without my computer freaking out and trying to think for me!

The Endnotes are fairly easy—soooo much easier than on a typewriter!—but I had forgotten what a pain it is to cite every fact on a page. Haven’t done that since my Master’s Degree ten years ago. However, citing everything has been a wonderful way of double-checking my sources within my own database and finding holes I still need documents to fill.

Then there’s the index. What a Herculean task! As far as I know, there is no shortcut to doing this in Word. I have to go through each page of the manuscript and enter each name into my Index database, along with the page number. And if I end up adding or deleting things and those page numbers change, what a headache to go in and fix! If anyone out there has and helpful hints at this, please leave them in the comments.

So there you have it—my latest project. It’s growing alongside my fiction works-in-progress. I’m juggling this book project, two fiction WIPs, several short stories, the weekly blogging, and querying for a third fiction project. I’m kinda busy! But I prefer having multiple projects—it keeps me from getting burned out.

Do you switch between fiction and non-fiction? Does it help keep you balanced?

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The Art of the Collaborative Writing Process

I talked last week about collaboration agreements and creative control, but people often ask me about the process of working with a collaborator. How does it actually work? After all, writing is usually a solitary pursuit.

Truthfully, every collaboration partnership will find the process that works best for them. In non-fiction, the most common partnership is where one person provides the knowledge or expertise while the other does the actual writing. It can work this way in fiction, too, where one partner who loves research provides the details the other writer needs to make the book’s world pop.

In fiction, probably the most important consideration is voice—the novel must have a consistent voice and feel to the writing all the way through. The exception, of course, is when the writers purposely want two distinct voices or points of view in the structure of the story, such as alternating chapters from different characters’ POV. In the vast majority of cases, however, the book should feel “whole,” with no indication that multiple writers had their fingers on the keyboard.

The best way to achieve this is to have one writer be the primary writer. The primary should be the writer whose natural voice best fits the purpose and tone of the story. This will mean less revision later for reasons of voice, which is one of the harder things to edit and revise for if it is not strong from the start.

The primary writes the first draft; then the secondary takes it and makes edits, additions, suggestions, etc.; then it returns to the primary to be “polished” into the proper voice. Some may choose to have the secondary write the first draft and then the primary work it into the right voice in a rewrite, but I believe that is an inefficient process. The primary would almost certainly have to do a complete rewrite of every chapter to get the voice the collaborators want.

In my collaborative fiction project, I am working with two other writers. We each bring different strengths to the table. I am the primary writer, because my voice is the one we liked best for the project. I tend to focus on character and emotion. One of my collaborators, Jim Kempner, is excellent with plot and research. My other collaborator, Jeff Pero, is a line editor with a great nose for writing action. So our process goes something like this:

We all hash out the outline of the book. This was an enormously fun part of the project, full of synergy and enthusiasm. I then wrote the first draft. Then Jim took it and added detail and description and poked holes in the plot and logic, which he then mended. Jeff took it from there, checking for grammar but also policing the pacing and action. We all, of course, also kept an eye on character and dialogue and all the other things we writers need to juggle!

After Jeff, it came back to me, and I polished it, massaging all of Jim and Jeff’s inserts into the voice of the book. Then we all sat down together, read it out loud, and made line-by-line edits.

And that is how the three of us wrote our book, The Egyptian Enigma.

Have you ever worked with a collaborator? What was your process like?

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