Deadlines

I see you out there, rolling your eyes.

“Deadlines?” you’re thinking, “What is she talking about? Nobody commissioned this novel she’s writing. She doesn’t have any deadlines.”

I beg to differ.

For one thing, I finished my online UBC course this week (hooray!) and the final exercise was to work out the timeline for writing this draft of the book. “Start with an end date,” suggested the instructors, “work backwards.”

That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’m giving myself one more week to finish my outline (deadline: Nov. 4), then I’m planning to write 1000 words per day, Monday-Friday. Since I’m aiming for a manuscript of 90 000 words, I’ve set my deadline for March 31, 2017. The first date is my mother’s birthday; the second was my grandmother’s. So that’s cool.

But! Not only am I writing a novel; I also write short stories. This is not just a form of writerly procrastination. If my stories get published in literary magazines, it’s going to be far easier for me to find an agent or a publisher for my novel. Accordingly, I’ve been shopping around a couple of stories to Canlit magazines. There are two ways to submit stories to magazines: you can follow the regular submission guidelines, or you can enter your story in a contest. The big advantage to contests (other than glory and prize money, obviously) is that they offer a ready-made deadline. This week, I sent out a story to the Malahat Review’s “Open Season” award, whose deadline is November 1st. Cross your fingers, folks!

As if that weren’t enough, I’ve got another deadline approaching. I’m a member of a writing group, so every few months I’m expected to submit a work-in-progress to be critiqued by my peers. This is an opportunity to knuckle down and produce a reasonably-polished piece of writing so that I can receive feedback from other writers. Next week, it’s my turn to submit a piece. That’s right; November 2nd is yet another deadline, and I’ve been editing another short story to send out to my group.

You see? My weeks are not an unending, measureless expanse of time.

I have plans. I have goals. Yes, I have deadlines.

 

 

Tools of the trade

I love pens.

I love Post-its and Sharpies and notebooks and paper clips.

It’s not quite an addiction; let’s call it an appreciation. I love the smooth flow of ink from my fountain pen and the tiny giddy rush when I use the special corrector pen to change something I’d written in erasable ink. There’s the satisfaction of colour-coding my work with highlighters or the gratification of corralling my piles of index cards with binder clips. There’s the quiet thrill of cracking open a brand-new notebook and smoothing down the glossy paper, inhaling the faint chemical fragrance of glue as I lean in to inscribe words on the faint virgin page.

Heady stuff, right?

I have been known to make the occasional pilgrimmage to stationary stores in other countries, picking up cheap Waterman fountain pens in France or stocking up on Muji products at MOMA in NYC. If supplies are running low and there’s no trip planned, I can always rely on eBay. I’m not a big shopper, but I can easily lose an hour browsing in a decent papeterie, filling a basket with various writing implements and adorable desk accessories.

You may be shaking your head; you may be dubious or baffled by my fascination with the tools of my trade. Or maybe you’re nodding in secret understanding. Maybe you’re a stationary appreciator, just like me.

 

Taking the long view

It turns out I’m not a patient person.

I know, right? Shocking. You’d think that motherhood and teaching and 40 years of living on this planet would have taught me patience.

I know that writing a novel takes a long time. I mean, duh. People ask me “when I expect to be done?” and I smile, shivering inside. I’ve been working on this novel for so many years that it sometimes feels like I’ll never be done, that I’ll keep writing and changing and deleting and writing some more, forever and ever.

Writing is amazing and revelatory and challenging and meaningful, but it’s nice to actually finish something!

The truth is, I’m a long way from the finish line. I’m working hard on my scene-by-scene outline but I’m coming up against some hard truths about the road ahead and the amount of work that’s still to be done.

During last week’s virtual “office hours” for my online course, one of the writing instructors casually mentioned that “an author might take two or three months to finish an outline.”
Well, the top of my head just about blew off.
Two months?
Just for an outline?!
I’ve been exasperated with myself for needing two weeks!
So yeah, another reminder that patience is required if I’m going to do this right. When will I be finished this book? I can’t answer that question yet. I can’t even say when I’ll be done this outline, but it’s fine. I’m learning to keep the long view in mind.

Scene selection

It’s happening. I’m doing it. I’ve got a fresh pack of index cards and I’m filling them in, one scene per card. I already know a lot about what’s going to happen in my novel, but I don’t know everything. That’s apparently about to change.

This week’s assignment for my online creative writing course is to map out the middle of the novel, scene by scene by scene. This means a whole bunch of decisions to make, especially since I’ve got two main characters who both have stories to tell. I can’t get away with skipping plot points or fudging details; now is the time to nail down my plot. Every single scene needs to contribute to the overall story and propel the narrative forward.

This is a big challenge because there are so many threads to track! I’m sorting out character development and conflicts, ups and downs and complications. I have to keep the whole story in mind but break it up into manageable scenes.

Once I’ve created a card for every scene I can think of, I’m going to lay them all out across my dining room table and put them in order. Then I should be able to see what’s missing and fill in the blanks with more scene cards.

This whole process is tiring and exciting and overwhelming and powerful. I’ve been working at this project for years but this is the first time I’m laying out all my pieces in such an organized, definitive way. Once this process is done, I should be able to go back to my drafts and see exactly what to keep, what to add and how to stitch it all together.

Then I just have to write the damn book.