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November 30, 2006

Bread Crumbs in the Forest

by Nancy                        

If you're a real writer, you keep a journal. At least, that's what I've been told.  So every couple of years, I start one.

I wrote this on the first page of the last attempt:

Every time I start writing a new book, I think it should be easier than the one before.  It isn't.  In fact, writing a book seems to get harder and harder. I'll keep a journal this time to help myself remember the process, the techniques, the sources of inspiration so I won't have to start from scratch the next time.

That journal lasted 37 pages before it petered out. The rest of the pages are blank.

Now here I am, a year later, plugging through the first 100 pages of a book that's due in March, and I'm cursing myself for not keeping that journal a little longer so the work of creating a new story wasn't such a slog.

Mind you, I did leave myself a few bread crumbs. Like this:

I'm reading someone else's book right now, and it reminds me that it's so much more compelling for the reader to see and hear a new character speak for himself rather than having other characters introduce him by talking about him.

And even more mundane, yet practical:

Don't let (the protagonist) sigh.  It makes her sound weary.  Dreary, not dynamic. A quick retort has more energy.

And here's something that feels ripped from Carolyn See's book, or else I'm smarter than I think I am:

Dialogue is such a struggle at the beginning. It seems as if nobody has anything to say to each other. Then I realize it's because they don't want anything yet. They need their own agendas, and suddenly they're chatty.

It's actually nice to be reminded of this useful stuff by me, for once, not by my critique partner. Or my editor. Or my daughter, who often reads my early pages and gets this look on her face that makes me wonder if I left a hunk of cheese under the sofa.

Okay, rewind to Thanksgiving morning when I went to the basement and blew the dust off the old electric roaster. This particular turkey roaster has been in my family for--believe it or not--60 years.  (We replaced the electrical cord twice, and the asbestos lining seems to have crumbled away, so it gets very hot on the outside, but otherwise it's perfect. Really.)  But when I lugged the roaster up to the kitchen and opened the lid, a cold stab of fear plunged down through my chest.

The roaster was empty.

It seems I had lost the precious cookbook, the original cookbook that had not been separated from the roaster for three generations.  After 60 years, I was the one who managed to misplace this key component of the Thanksgiving experience.

Naturally, this kind of roaster isn't built anymore, and the cookbook was the Rosetta Stone. What was I to do? I couldn't possibly figure out how to make a turkey without the directions that came with the appliance!

I did some fast internet research (bless you, FoodTV.com!) and consulted my tattered Joy of Cooking. But with the guests already on their way, I couldn't delay for long.  I had to get the turkey started.  I had to make up my own recipe.

I wish I could say it was the best turkey ever. But it wasn't.  It was good, but not great.  Flavorful, but a little dry.

Yeah, I wished I hadn't lost the cookbook.

Fast forward to a few days after Thanksgiving. A writer friend sent me a review from Publisher's Weekly that included the line, "fans of Nancy Martin's Blackbird Sisters Mystery Series will enjoy" this book.

As far as I know, this is the first time my work has been mentioned in such a context. My first emotion was pleasure.  Hey, it's nice to be recognized.

Because I'm a writer, though, the pleasure did not last long. It quickly morphed into:  What does this mean?  Have I arrived at last? Or am I officially over the hill?  Is this one of those, "Get me a young Julia Roberts!" moments? (Yes, most writers are unattractively needy and paranoid and obsessive.)

A supportive friend e-mailed soothingly. "It means you're the standard by which others are judged."

Standard?  You mean, as in . . . average?

Finally, I pulled myself together. The reality is, getting mentioned in somebody else's review doesn't mean anything.  Nada.

And the turkey roaster? Oh, dear. The plug caught fire as we were making the gravy.  She's a goner. Without the cookbook to keep her complete, maybe the roaster just felt it was her time to go, too.

So I'm back to Square One on the new manuscript, trying to figure out how to do it from scratch--without a cookbook, without drying out the turkey too badly, without making the story too . . . average. I'm also trying to put a few more notes in the damn journal. Live and learn, right? Plus the paranoid and obsessive traits are actually helpful.--They prevent me from sending in a manuscript until it has been revised and polished ad nauseum.

But if anyone has any more practical tips for making those first 100 pages scintillating, I'm listening. I can use all the help I can get.

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Comments

No help for those hundred pages, but for turkey. Brine the turkey for 6 hours in 2 cups salt and 1 gallon of water (I did it in a baking bag inside a stock pot, roast at 400˚F for 45 minutes on the back, turn, continue roasting for another 50 minutes. Absolutely the most moist, tender, flavorful turkey I've ever tasted.

I have a tip for those first 100 pages. Keep a writer's journal.

(ducks and runs away)

Nancy-

Please forgive me for interrupting for a Not So Special Announcement, but:

NaNoWriMo Count as of 1:20am this morning:

59,980

Links: http://www.nanowrimo.org/userinfo.php?uid=124870

It's done. I quit. Pardon me while I pass out....:)

Back to Nancy's regularly scheduled Blog.....

Nancy - hang out with some high school kids - you'll get at least 100 pages right there. Uh, but I guess you'll have to do it as a Blackbird flashback. It could work.

William - good for you! That's a lot of words, man. I'm having trouble coming up with 600. Care to share any of them with the class? Nancy is looking for a page or two...

William! We're so proud of you! You're kinda like Janice for me.--An inspiration. I'm trying to draft the first half of this *%#! novel, and it's taking me 3 months.

Ramona, I know where you live, y'know.

Nancy,

I guess bad publicity is better than no publicity, but how would you like to win this award?

http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/books/11/29/books.badsex.ap/index.html

Thank you, Rebecca, but this is nowhere near Sharable yet!

Nancy, you know better than I do, just crank it out. Believe me when I tell you, Victor Appleton and Franklin W. Dixon would sneer at this manuscript. Leslie Charteris would snarl at the hyperbole. The prose is so purple it's almost black. I made the mistake of going back and reading a section the other night and almost trashed the whole thing on the spot. But, a very good friend of mine once passed along this wisdom: "You can FIX crap. The goal is to get it done." Not real sure who said that, but I'm pretty sure it was NOT Larry the Cable Guy.

Then again at this particular moment, you all could have a lot of fun with me. "William, what is your name?" Ummmmmm.... "Starts with a "W", William." Yeah, okay, errrrr... "Ends with an 'M', William." Yes, yes, I know this one, give me a second, it'll come to me.....

William, I would like to add my kudos. 59,000+ words is an accomplishment to be sure. I love your link to Nanowrimo, too.

I just hope none of your characters sigh, because Nancy doesn't like that.

William: way to go!

Nancy, I don't keep a journal either. I think the book is the journal, with the names cleverly changed, in case anyone finds it who you wouldn't want reading your journal.

I weep for that roaster. Weep.

Harley, I just got a phone call from Daughter #1 (who is now ensconced in her very own office at a law firm---applause, please!) who suggests we send the roaster to the Smithsonian. It's still sitting in the kitchen. I can't bear to throw it into the trash.

Josh, even I would blush to win that contest. A "seething and nameless brew?" Not one self-respecting romance novelist would use that.

William, when a box of my very first book arrived on my doorstep, I took one out, sat down with a red pen and began to read---and change words on the first page. So the re-writing is never done. But I've learned to give up at a certain point. The big challenge is getting that damn first draft. You've heard all the talk here about mimosas, right? Sounds like you deserve a few this morning!

You know Nancy, if you would write down all the pearls of wisdom, you too could publish a book on how you write (ala J. Evanovich). You actually had some helpful comments up there!
I've started carrying a small micro-recorder so when I'm reading something that strikes me - a thought, a wonderful phrase or description, something that made me laugh--I record it on the spot.
My recorder is doing as well as your journal! LOL

William - 59,000 is a huge milestone. That's a full book in many circles. Congrats.

Nancy - I don't keep journals either. I know I should but, shoot, by the time I'm done writing in my journal I'll be too spent to create.

As for the sighs - I just notice that, too, in rereading my current ms. A sigh made her seem so dishwater ragged. Interesting. And I think those first pages deserve 3 mos or more of attention. It's when you're at the end, like I am, that the words fly by. But by then your characters are all old friends and you don't have to strain to hear them talk.

Love the blog! As usual, so insightful.

I am not a writer, but oddly enough the two blogs that I do frequent are writer blogs. Hmm. All the inspiration may get me writing yet...

Either way, as a concrete answer to your question about the first 100 pages, I always enjoy your passages about Nora's inherited wardrobe (I have become such a girl). I google the designers and fashion references. I get a glimpse of 20th century fashion history and a sense of Nora's family history.

I admire all of you. I appreciate that you put so much into your craft. Few things are as irritating than reading a book where it seems that the author is just capitalizing on their name and phoning it in. Though I am guessing that there is more to it than that, maybe publisher pressure...

Nancy,
I'm glad I'm not the only one; I am compelled to purchase all manners of journals and start out on fire then the novelty fades and I "forget" to write in it.
I'm sorry to hear about the passing of your turkey roaster.
Keetha

Cheryl, you're one of our most articulate and thoughtful commenters. I just assumed you were a writer!

Those damn clothes of Nora's---what a mistake I made when I put those in the first book. Now there's all this clothing research to do! Never thought I'd know so much about couture. (She types, as she sits in yoga pants and a threadbare shirt from Target.)

Keetha, I like your blog, though. Isn't that kind of a journal? (Although I'm with Harley--the book itself ends up being the journal.) I see your another Food Network devotee. I love the Barefoot Contessa, for some reason. I wish I'd come up with that name!

I'm not a writer, either - just wish I was - but I could never keep up a journal. I've tried several times, with determination and good intentions, and it always peters out.

Nancy - so sorry about your roaster. Maybe you should check out one of these:
http://www.nesco.com/products/?category=700/kw_g_roaster/&subcat=500&id=83

I'm a fan of Nora's clothes, too - so we appreciate your angst in reasearching!

Nancy, I have all the faith in the world that you'll finish your pages. Just imagine how better you'll feel when they're finished!

Great post today. Hang in there.

Nancy~if I can pull an A from A&P, you can most definitly write 100 pages!! All I have to do is memorize and spit it back out. You have to be creative and entertaining. Put on some Jimmy Choos for inspiration!!!

I believe in you!

Thanks Nancy, you made my day.

I have never kept a journal call me paranoid but I was always afraid it would be found. I also would lose intrest in about a week. I prefer to just sit and write out the story.

I know you will find your inspiration and finish. Good luck.

A DIETER'S CHRISTMAS

'Twas the night before Christmas and all round my hips
were Fannie May candies that sneaked past my lips.
Fudge brownies were stored in the freezer with care
in hopes that my thighs would forget they were there.

While Mama in her girdle and I in chin straps
had just settled down to sugar-borne naps.
When out in the pantry there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the kitchen I flew like a flash
tore open the icebox then threw up the sash.
The marshmallow look of the new-fallen snow
sent thoughts of a binge to my body below.

When what to my wandering eyes should appear:
a marzipan Santa with eight chocolate reindeer!
That huge chunk of candy so luscious and slick
I knew in a second that I'd wind up sick.

The sweet-coated Santa, those sugared reindeer,
I closed my eyes tightly, but still I could hear
On Pritzker, on Stillman, on Weak One, on TOPS,
a Weight Watcher dropout from sugar detox.

From the top of the scales to the top of the hall
now dash away pounds now dash away all.
Dressed up in Lane Bryant from my head to nightdress
my clothes were all bulging from too much excess.

My droll little mouth and my round little belly
they shook when I laughed like a bowl full of jelly.
I spoke not a word but went straight to my work
ate all of the candy then turned with a jerk.

And laying a finger beside my heartburn,
I gave a quick nod toward the bedroom I turned.
I eased into bed, to the heavens I cry
if temptation's removed I'll get thin by and by.

And I mumbled again as I turned for the night
in the morning I'll starve....'til I take that first bite!

Couldnt stop myself, SusanCo

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