April 25, 2017 – For someone who hates to cook, I sure write a lot about food – probably because I like to eat.
Now I’m writing about Pakistan and Afghanistan, and drooling onto the pages, because the food there was so fabulous. Qorma and kebab and gulab jamun, oh, my! I savored fresh naan cooked in a cylindrical tandoor, the dough slapped against the walls, and pulled away with big hooks as soon as it puffed a little and browned, large fragrant flat loaves that we called “elephant bread” because they reminded us of elephant ears.
And I especially fell in love with Kabuli pilau, a lamb and rice dish with raisins and carrots and pistachios. Oddly enough, I’ve never tried to reproduce it at home. But here’s a recipe for those so inclined.
The chances of my finding Kabuli pilau in Montana – or anywhere in a thousand-mile radius – are minuscule. I may just have to try that recipe myself.
April 24, 2017 – And now, my favorite part of writing – editing.
Because 99 percent of the time, writing is just a slog. Every so often you get that paragraph that works from the get-go – at which point, you stop and sacrifice a small helpless animal to the writing gods. But now the slog is over. The first (okay, zillionth) draft is done, and now I get to make it better. Much more to the point, I’m no longer working alone.
This week, I got the proposed revisions for the WIP from my editor, in the form of five single-spaced pages of conceptual edits, and the ms. with line edits. Many, many line edits. I hear enough complaining about editors that I guess some people don’t like this part. Me, I love it. It’s as though someone just handed me a road map that shows a very clear path to a better book.
That path involves cutting through a lot of underbrush of passive voice, confusing passages, inadequate scenes, etc. Some of that will involve an ax. Some, scissors. By the time I send it back to the editor, I hope to be wielding only a scalpel. Hear that faint screaming? It’s the summary execution of darlings. Good riddance, I say.
April 17, 2017 – OK, this writer needs vacation.
I know, I know. We’re supposed to write every day. For an example of why that’s a good thing, one need look no farther than James Lee Burke, with his two Edgar Awards, thirty-some novels, and named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He frequently reads in Missoula, and each time he mentions writing every day, I slide down a little in my seat.
So, yeah. I went on vacation; headed to Yellowstone with the sweetie and my daughter and my son and his family. Woo hoo! No day job and no writing for a whole week!
I last three days. Then, I sneaked down the lodge, broke out the iPad, and whacked away at the WIP for awhile, feeling much better when I re-emerged into the world of leisure. What can I say? It’s a sickness, maybe; a compulsion for sure.
Today, it’s back to the day job, and some more writing, too. (Although, much of the weekend was devoted to the latter.)
So – not every day for this writer. But most days for sure.
March 29, 2017 – One good reason to put a manuscript aside for awhile is the way all of its annoying errors leap out at you when seen with fresh eyes. Typos, for instance. (On the first page? Really? Banging head against wall.) And inconsistencies.
For instance, one page references the black smoke pouring from the World Trade Center on 9/11; a few pages later, the smoke is white. (More head-banging. Ow.)
This set me, at an ungodly early hour, to watching videos of that day. The good thing is that both references were right – the smoke was black immediately after the planes hit, but boiled up in huge white clouds when the towers collapsed – making it easy to tweak the sentences into correct submission.
The bad thing? Reliving that day, the sense that our whole world was changing. And now, knowing that sense was right. Dammit all, anyhow.
March 19, 2017 – The most amazing thing has happened. A novel that I’ve worked on off and on ever since traveling to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 has finally sold. The first version was (rightfully) rejected all over the place. I rewrote it, collected more rejections, and almost by accident turned to writing crime fiction, which did sell. Those novels had another, perhaps more valuable, quality – they taught me how to write: how to plot, how to develop characters, how to structure and pace a novel. After writing three of them, I took advantage of a monthlong residency last year in Mexico (thanks, 360 Xochi Quetzal!) and took one last whack at what I’ve long called “the Afghanistan book,” overhauling it completely, in essence writing an entirely different novel. As the above shows, the new approach was worth it. And the whole process underscores the old saying that all writing is rewriting. Amen.
Feb. 24, 2017 – It occurred to me, as I don a spring coat for a 30-degree day with snow in the forecast, that I’m projecting like mad with Book 6. It’s set in that delicious edge between spring and summer, when the wind finally loses its sharp edge and turns soft and caressing, when the sun warms instead of mocks. February, especially in Montana, is way too early to think about spring. And yet, as the ice slowly recedes from the streets, as bare patches of earth appear, all of us here are acting as though daffodils are about to sprout at any moment. The most hopeful sign? It’s no longer full dark when I hit the coffee shop at 7 a.m. That alone makes the heart sing.
Feb. 20, 2017 – Well, I’ve done a terrible thing. I wrote as long as I could tonight, but when I stopped, Lola was still in Lincoln, Montana. I’m afraid she’s going to have to spend the night there, because I was at the stage where I nearly had to prop up my eyelids with toothpicks. Lincoln, of course, was where the Unabomber was living when he was arrested. He was long gone by the time this story takes place, but I like to imagine that, a couple of decades earlier, Lola could have ferreted him out on her own, handily beating the FBI to the punch.
Feb. 19, 2017 – Ran eight miles today, the farthest since last summer, and the first time in many weeks without the hated-but-necessary Yak Trax that keep me from ending up on my butt. Didn’t die. And, after a couldn’t-be-helped break of a few days, got back to the ms. with 1,500 reasonably solid words, including a nicely developing plot twist. Nobody died there, either. Yet. Gotta savor these days, aching calves and all.
Feb. 14, 2017 – After years of writing in Word, I switched over to Scrivener for my last book.
It took some getting used to, but there was much to love. All of that organization, imposed like magic upon my chaotic process! I could just glance over at the left-hand column and see my chapters adding up. Very satisfying.
But I spend a lot of time writing in coffeeshops, where I prefer to use my tablet, rather than toting my laptop around. And it turns out that the (somewhat) recently released Scrivener app and I, we are not friends.
So for Book 6, I’m using Google Docs, which has many of the disadvantages of a Word document – i.e, one long, cumbersome doc, with the added disadvantage of feeling even clunkier. But it’s portable. Huge up-side. And, its very clunkiness has proven an unexpected benefit. Because of it, I’m not tempted to zip back and forth in the doc, endless nitpicking as I go along. I just plow forward.
The process reminds me of that E.L. Doctorow quote in a Paris Review interview: “It’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
That’s how Book 6 feels, each day a contained bit of progress, all darkness and mystery ahead, but just enough light to get to the next scene.
Feb. 7, 2017 – Just an observation about the weirdness of writing. Last year, when I was blissfully unemployed and thus with all the time in the world, I struggled mightily with Book 5. That sucker fought me on every sentence. Each day I left my writing chair feeling as though I’d been punching myself in the face.
Now comes the first draft of Book 6, coinciding with my return to the day job, and with my writing time squeezed into hourlong chunks. And what happens? Book 6 rambles merrily along, surprising me daily by seeming to know exactly where it’s going. (Although I’ve probably just jinxed it by writing that sentence.)
Anyhow, go freaking figure.