Novel Progress

kayak hh

Here’s a pic of me not doing my writing (BAD, Stephen!), but kayaking alongside dolphins (not pictured) in Hilton Head, SC, July 2017.

I recently visited a friend I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years and one of the things she asked me was how my novel was coming along, and I realized this is exactly the reason why I need to post about this process on social media.  If everyone knows I’m writing it, even friends I rarely get a chance to see, then it helps keep me focused.

So here’s an update.

In March I presented my draft to my writing group, the excellent and talented members of Jersey City Writers, and got some really useful feedback.  I was slow in implementing it due to the demands at school, but once summer started it became my main focus.  So help me God, I will have a revised draft finished by the end of summer, one that is ready to present to agents and publishers, or ready to publish on my own.  We’ll see…

Part of the problem with my original draft was that I wrote it for NaNoWriMo without planning much of it out.  Now, I love NaNoWriMo for all the enthusiasm it generates for writing, as well as the bonhomie it stirs up among those crazy enough to attempt writing a novel in a month.  However, I am not a pantser in any other aspect of my life, so I shouldn’t have supposed I could be one as I novelist.  I should have begun the process of writing this book with a formidably well-parsed outline.

But I didn’t.

So now I’ve taken the feedback from my writing group along with what I know of my characters and their general story, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time organizing the flow of their tale to address some of the readers’ issues, adding some rather dramatic plot points that seem so obvious now that I’m ashamed I left them out initially.

I did quite a bit of searching online for useful ideas as part of my outlining reformation, and  I want to give a shout out to Katytastic, a YouTuber (kat_tastic on Twitter) whose video I found particularly helpful.  I use Scrivener for most of my longer works of writing, and this video demonstrated a really smart way to outline using Scrivener’s features that I hadn’t used before.  After watching her video and putting her strategies to work, my story seemed so much more solid.

Now that I’ve got it fleshed out a bit better, I’m back to writing it.  And trust me, if you’re reading this blog right now, then I will let you and all the rest of the world know when it is finished, because as much as I love my dear little fictional Ohio town of Villandry, I’ve already got three more novels I’m itching to write and as many protagonists getting pissed off at me for taking so long.

And a memoir.

And maybe a play.  We’ll see.

For now, though, please check out Katytastic’s “Outlining with Scrivener.”  (BTW, I really can’t figure out why the link starts the video in the middle.  I don’t seem to be able to correct it…but you can manage to drag it back to the beginning, right?)



Recess: Children’s Stories for Adults (A Jersey City Writers Genre Night)

Greetings, all!

It’s been a busy three months since my last post.  The start of the school year always demands my full attention, but a few months in and I usually find my groove.  Now I can manage to blog a bit.  Oh, and write a novel!  Finished the first draft of my second novel thanks to the kick in the pants provided by NaNoWriMo and the creative energy and support drawn from the hundreds of thousands of others who participated.

More on that later.

JCW Bear says, "Come to Genre Night in Jersey City, because I make a dirty martini that will change your life!"

JCW Bear says, “Come to Genre Night in Jersey City, because I make a dirty martini that will change your life!”

I’ve also been buoyed lately by the camraderie and smart, really useful criticism I’ve experienced through the Jersey City Writers.  Lots more on this wonderful writing group to come, but before I get ahead of myself, I wanted to invite you all to a really fun event the group sponsors.

Every other month they host a “genre night” where short works of a particular genre are chosen by a panel of judges to be read aloud by professional performers.  The next genre night — which happens to be tomorrow (12/2/15)! — is “children’s stories for adults.”  Here’s the description from their Facebook invitation:

Please join us for a whimsical literary reading event where you can pretend to be a kid again…because “adulting” is hard.

Think Curious George slaving in a cubicle, or Green Eggs and Ham and Boozy Brunch, or the Pevensie siblings discovering a nightclub in their wardrobe instead of Narnia. Plus candy, coloring and stuffed animals, because when you’re an adult, why not?

You know you want to, right?   Because you’re just never too old.

For all the details, click here for the Facebook invitation.

And even if you can’t make it for whatever reason, why not just go ahead and like the JC Writers page — your inner-child will shower you with gifts and joy if you do.

Reflections — a reading of memoir vignettes from the Jersey City Writers

memoirflyerIt was Joni Mitchell who “looked at life from both sides now” and saw a different view from each side, but it was bell hooks (I think) who said that you’ll never get to the truth of any story until you look at it from at least seventeen sides, far more than the usually requisite two.  In that spirit, I invite you to join the Jersey City Writers‘ night of memoir fragments to hear stories from thirteen writers; not quite seventeen (sorry, bell), but I think you’ll hear thirteen very distinct voices from thirteen very different lives that might scratch against some interesting truths about our common humanity nonetheless.  I’m very proud to say that this will be my first public reading in Jersey City, a city I’ve come to love despite being a die-hard Hobokenite.  I’m excited for others to hear the works of the Jersey City Writers, a group of extremely talented people who inspire me every time I attend a workshop, a writing marathon, a prompts night…or any number of the other fantastic writing events they sponsor.

Please come out for it — I know you’ll be entertained, moved and impressed.

6/17, 7pm, Brightside Tavern, 141 Bright Street, Jersey City — FREE!

And apropos of nothing, here are two versions of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.”  Every now and then I’ll watch young Joni sing the cute song she wrote, and it’s beautiful, but it’s clear that old Joni understands it so much more.  She gives it the weight and truth that her younger self could never fully know.

“Something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”

New year, new reads

My apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert for being cheeky with her book.  It's just that is was sitting there on the chaise longue begging for a little fun.

My apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert for being cheeky with her book. It’s just that it was sitting there on the chaise longue begging for a little fun.  (from a b&b outside of Ithaca, NY, September 2013)

Alright, no more excuses.  I made my apologies for being a lame-o blogger back in September and then fell through yet again, mostly due to demands at school taking up the majority of my time.  What can I say?  I’m a teacher, it’s my job.

It is a bit of a let-down to myself, however — I mean, it’s not like it’s anyone else’s responsibility to follow through on my dreams besides me.  So let’s just get back in the saddle, shall we?


Since this summer I’ve been working on a project that is centered around characters in the historical reenactment community, specifically the world of Napoleon.  It started as a screenplay, but my characters had a bit of a coup, sat me down and told me that they really felt that they always saw themselves in a novel.  They asked if I wouldn’t mind reformatting their existence, but I said no; I’d already invested too much time and money in the adventure.  But do you know what they did?  They staged a walk out!  I was informed by two different Napoleon impersonators (in my head) that they would no longer show up to work if I put them into a movie, at least not before their book was written first and film rights to it were legitimately established.

Lesson: Be careful if your characters are crappy actors who earn their living pretending to be megalomaniac conquerors of all the known world.  They’re bossy.

But — dammit! — they’re right.  I’ve been a reader of novels since I was four years old when, self-proclaimed genius that I was, I believed myself vastly superior to my peers for being able to read books with no pictures in them.  Time has humbled me (believe me!), but the fact remains that I’ve been a novel reader for 32 of my 36 years, and if there is a format that I understand more or less intuitively, that’s it.  I love watching movies too, but I’d never written one prior to this.  In fact, I’d never even dreamed of attempting it.

The reason I did attempt it was due mostly to fear: I have feared writing a novel.  No, that’s not accurate, because it’s not the writing of it that’s scared me.  It’s the sharing of it; the fear of putting it out there to be rejected, of criticism, of not being good enough.  And I don’t mean ‘good enough’ in terms of commercial success; I mean that I won’t be as good as Toni Morrison, or Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner.  That I won’t plumb the depths of profundity or create a new aesthetic.  (Having a Masters degree in literature has been a bigger stumbling block to becoming a writer than just about anything.)

So my novel’s characters have challenged me to exorcize that demon.  I have spent way too many years reading works that were written before 1945 by writers who aren’t just part of the canon, but part of the pantheon of The Artists of The Ages.  I need to stop aiming for that level, and I need to embrace the fact that achieving less than canonical status is not failure, because if I don’t accept that, then I won’t produce anything.  At least not anything other than my boxes of journals.

Here’s the plan.  I’m going to spend a lot of time this year reading new(er) fiction authors.  I restructured the syllabus of my spring semester class to focus only on writers from the last 40 years.  They’re still mostly pretty canonical (Morrison, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie), but my students deserve some tough writers to wrestle with.  In any case, their voices are more contemporary and will give me as much to consider as my students.

Furthermore, I’ve joined a book club in my neighborhood — The Hoboken Readers’ Circle — that is centered around a mix of eras and authors.  We’ll be discussing Matthew Quick‘s Silver Linings Playbook next week, and Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country for Old Men next month.  I’ve happily not seen the film version of either book, so they’re completely new to me.  Looking forward to the new neighborhood acquaintances and friends to be made through this group as well.

I’ve also signed up for The Wall Street Journal‘s new book club.  Each month a different author will choose another author’s work that has been an influence or inspiration to him or her.  In February, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)  will lead a discussion of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  Not only had I already had this book recommended to me, but Gilbert writes that Mantel’s historical novel helped her to craft the narrative of her own latest work of historical fiction.  Given that my own novel focuses around present-day people obsessed with the past, her praise of Mantel spoke to me.  The book club discussions will take place online and via Twitter.  I’m sure I have no idea how that works — I have a Twitter account but haven’t yet figured out what makes it so popular — but I’ll bone up on it before the end of February when the discussions begin.  Oh, and I haven’t actually read Gilbert’s writing either, but I don’t feel right engaging with her about Mantel’s work if I haven’t read her own — so I just downloaded Eat, Pray, Love to my kindle and will start reading it tonight before bed.

The ambitious menu of readings that I’ve established for the next few months, although edifying and surely entertaining, won’t help me to craft my own characters if I don’t continue to write.  So I’m going to.  I’ll post my thoughts about and reflections on the books I’m reading here on this blog, giving particular attention to the writerly lessons I take away from each.  I’m going to attend the Jersey City Writer‘s meetings with more regularity and keep sharing my work since that’s the thing that scares me most.

Napoleon wannabes (in my head), I hope you’re happy.  You’ve demanded, I’ve responded…now help me see this thing through until you exist on a printed page.

For those of you reading this who exist in the real world and not in my head: stick with me.  And please feel free to encourage me to stick with myself.