Sunday, August 23, 2009

Writing for a Touchdown

Football has had unexpected influences on my writing life. I didn't always know I cared about it.  But when I lived abroad for a year, researching my English ghost story, Tournament of Time, I realized I missed the sport. Neither soccer nor rugby quite seemed to inspire me. I came home to Houston and began watching football like a lifetime fan— writing my novel after work every afternoon and evening, except for Monday Night Football. When the opening music filled my one-room apartment, I swiveled away from my typewriter and toward the screen.

When I met my husband-to-be, two things about him struck me immediately. He believed in my dream of writing for children, even though I had only published some magazine pieces for adults up to that point. And he loved football. We discovered this mutual passion on our first date—the night before the Super Bowl. Needless to say, we watched that game together.

Unfortunately, my characters refuse to play football. I knew my main character in The Perfect Shot was an athlete with a strong sense of fair play. Wonderful, I told myself - he can be a quarterback. "No," Brian replied. "I'm a point guard." I said "Nonsense - there are no point guards in football." "You're right," he told me. "I play basketball." So I had to master basketball plays and terminology in order to write that book.

Now I'm writing about another athlete in Permanent Record. Once again I assured myself that I could write about a football player. But Ramón informed me he was a shortstop, and produced photos and baseball cards of his heroes to prove that he lived and breathed baseball, not football. So, once again, I'm struggling to familiarize myself with a sport that's not one I know intimately. But someday, I assure myself, I will write about a football player, and not have to do so much research into unfamiliar territory.

So why my fascination with football? As I was writing Simon Says, about a group of teenagers at a boarding school for fine arts, I was surprised when my main character, a painter, felt compelled to paint a moment from a football game his father dragged him to:

All I want to do is paint the receiver, hanging in mid-air, his fingertips brushing the rough, pebbly texture of the ball. He knows that three defenders, each one twice his size, are about to crash into him, but he makes himself tune them out, straining to clasp that ball to his chest and bring it safely to earth with him.

Maybe that’s why I feel so drawn to football - every time I write a manuscript I love and send it out, it seems as if a whole squad of editorial readers who reject it, and critics who dislike it, are leaping up at me like those defending players. But I hold onto the manuscript - yard by yard, down the field, editor by editor until I find the right one, and then its publication is my touchdown and a letter from a reader my extra point. And none of the tackles and rejections along the way matter any more.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shower Writing

My writing retreat is drawing near the end - back to the real world with its distractions. But there's one technique I must remember when I'm struggling to make time to write: the power of standing in the shower, especially a long one while I wash my hair.

When I lead writing workshops, I often tell the attendees that, if they run into a situation where they're not sure what to write next, they should walk away from their computer or pad of paper, and do something that will get their hands dirty (weeding, or working on engines are two good activities). As soon as the imagination knows your hands are too grubby to write, it lets loose a flood of ideas on how to get past the current writing blockade. Then you trick your imagination by having a pencil handy that you don't mind getting muddy or greasy, and write down your idea before it can get away. But showers are even better.

I spend my time in the shower thinking about my characters - not about them taking showers, but about what they're doing in the upcoming chapter. I allow them to carry on conversations and take action - apparently, the notion that I can't write while my hands are covered in soap or shampoo frees up my imagination wonderfully. Whole scenes write themselves. The trick is to get out of the shower and write them down immediately. What I write doesn't have to be perfect; I just get what I've imagined down on paper. Then, after my hair is brushed out, I can keystroke it into my Mac and tweak and polish as I go.

Presto: my imagination is satisfied, my drive to move forward with my manuscript is satisfied, and since a shower a day is good for one's health (and for the comfort of everybody in one's vicinity), it's a terrific way to make good progress every day.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Making Yourself Write

When I was in college, I had no trouble whatsoever making time to write. In four years I wrote four novels, had a paying newspaper job, was active with the theatre group, and graduated with three majors (my university didn't offer minors). One of those novels was even ultimately published, once I had learned a good deal more about novel writing. But the point is that I must have known how to manage my time - taking all those classes successfully and enjoying myself with the theatre crowd and doing a great deal of writing.

When I got out of college, I took part time jobs, lived cheaply, and kept on writing both fiction and journalism. After I became a full-time writer, I usually managed to produce more than one book a year, balancing the novels with shorter nonfiction books. But somewhere along the way I discovered I was having trouble getting the writing done.

First it was because I was in a terrible auto wreck, and my right wrist was seriously damaged. (I am very right-handed.) It took almost four years to find the right surgeon (who had just gotten FDA approval for a prosthetic wrist joint) to repair the damage. During those years I struggled to write, and was generously helped by writer friends who gifted me with dictation software for my Mac. That software got me through the crisis of deadlines that had to be met despite the injury. Several of my editors were more than understanding, but publishers can't wait forever, and I refused to be permanently sidelined by my wrist. Fortunately, after the surgery, my wrist is back to typing energetically, at all hours of the day or night.

But since then I've found it more and more difficult to overcome writing complications. Case in point: I am on a writer's retreat to make serious headway on my new novel. I got out of bed yesterday morning with a swollen, painful left ankle. It had been fine when I went to bed and dreamed about my characters. But sometime in the night, I (or my teddy bear) did something to it. Yesterday, I barely managed a page of usable writing, because my ankle hurt enough to make me sick to my stomach. I tried taking Advil, I tried propping it up (a pillow on the top of a cooler makes a very nice ankle support), I tried to lose myself in the book, but it just wouldn't work. I went to bed hoping the ankle pain would disappear as mysteriously as it had appeared. 

But when I woke up this morning - I think you can guess what I found. That's right - I hobbled to my computer with my ankle still hurting. And I asked myself: what magic had I employed back in college to accomplish everything? I distinctly remember taking some rather serious spills off my bike (just a ten-speed, but you can still fall hard when you're pedalling full out and hit a city pothole). I'm sure I was sick, and I know I slept in and missed many a morning class. But I never missed a deadline for either a paper or a newspaper article, and I finished one novel for each year I was there. What did I do?

I honestly can't remember, but today I decided that, with that sublime confidence that only a teenager can possess, I must simply not have cared whether I was sick or injured. I had writing to do, so I did it. And today I did just that. I told my ankle to just sit there and be glad I wasn't walking on it, and I wrote. And I produced 8 good pages today. And this blog entry.

Of course, I'm going to have to hobble to bed, and I know I hope again that the pain will miraculously disappear, but even if it doesn't, I'm determined to rise and write again. That's the only way to finish a book.

And an ankle has very little to do with the writing process, after all.