Stepping up my writing journey

For months my manuscript has lived only in the deep recesses of my laptop.  Today I turned on the printer, loaded it with paper and hit Print.  It spun out all 175 single spaced pages of text that I have generated over the past two years.  It’s only the second time I have printed the entire document.  The first was for my own editing purposes.  Just seeing the stack of paper over an inch thick was a revelation.  It really looks like it could be a book.

Molly with manuscript

All summer I have been preparing for this day.  I have been reliving our bicycle tours yet again, refining them chapter by chapter.  Mornings go by in a blur as I look for gaps to fill, research obscure facts, obsess over verb tenses and ponder how best to string the stories together.  A new working title emerges, Life Cycling.  Navigating adventure and constant togetherness at 12 miles an hour.

It occurs to me that to date nobody has read these pages but me.  The only exception is the chapter I sold to a magazine a few months back.  The larger work has remained under wraps.  Until now.

Inserting the bundle into a mailing envelope and handing it over the counter in the post office makes it final.  It is now out of my hands, winging its way across the country, destined for my writing coach.  Who will read it.

Molly ready to mail manuscipt

It feels good.  I’ve kept this to myself long enough, it’s time to seek input.  By no means is it a complete manuscript.  It has a weak beginning and no real ending.  In between it lacks structure.  But I believe in this project.  I can feel it.  One day it will be a book.

I’ve signed up for eight bi-weekly sessions of personal coaching via email with Mary Carroll Moore, starting in October.  My copy of her book, Your Book Starts Here, is heavily annotated and highlighted.  I’ve taken two classes from her at The Loft.  Her weekly writing emails continually provide new insights.  I feel strongly that she can guide me through the stages of morphing my collection of chapters into a compelling read.

I now have a month to clear my head, take a break and wait.  Wait for the initial report to come back from Mary.  I know I will hesitate when that email first comes through.  I will open it with trepidation.  Hold my breath.  And eagerly prepare for the next step of this journey.

The One that Got Away

The scene still lingers vividly in my mind. The aged house hasn’t been loved in a long time. Its pale green exterior has faded to a color even more vague, paint chipping off the narrow clapboard siding. Tall grasses fill the yard, and the wrap-around porches on two floors of the house are no longer quite level. Window shades and drooping curtains attempt to keep the outside at bay. But the air of neglect is not quite complete. The house still maintains a modicum of respect.

Stately trees stand guard between the house and the street. The morning sky lends a deep blue backdrop to their spring green. Sun warms the air and leaves twitter in the wind, casting dappled shadows.

Adjacent to the house are three trucks. Parked in the yard, side by side, facing the street. Each a different color. They have not moved in a long time. These are vintage models. Their long hoods extend well in front of the cab, with a graceful rounded front end. The grass hides the grills that must be there. Sunlight glints off their roofs.

It is a classic scene, but I realize it too late. We have just resumed cycling after breakfast in a Taqueria down the street, and I am too consumed with moving on to stop and take a picture. By the time I regret the omission I am well down the road.

I’d like to report that I have mended my ways. That I have become more vigilant about seizing the picturesque moments that present themselves. That I have increased my awareness of the slices of Americana I pass. That I have a photo collection representing the tidbits of life I have seen on our tour. But I haven’t. And I don’t.

I’m a writer, not a photographer. My eye is not honed to frame just the right elements for a pleasing presentation. Instead, I compose sentences in my head. I dream up titles for my blog posts. I work out just the right words to describe the scene, succinctly and economically. I consider the components of my book, actively living the life I am narrating into a memoir on wheels. My mind works as hard as my legs on tour.

Molly cycling Texas

I still haul my camera around. I make it my mission to document the personal side of our tour. While Rich focuses on his birds, I try to capture the memories. Or perhaps more accurately I am recording scenes to solidify them, images that I can revisit when massaging the words to describe the experience.

Yet still some get away. So I leave you with my written image. The one that is etched on my mind, not in my camera.

Writing’s Unexpected Rewards

In a world dominated by rejections, victory is all the sweeter.  When the email arrived, informing me that my piece “Late Arrival” had been accepted for Northland College’s WritersRead event, my heart danced.  As a writer, I celebrate any success, no matter how small.  Even seeing my work linger longer than usual in the “In Process” status of a publication’s submission process constitutes a win in my book.

I’d heard that the event was “a hoot.”  A friend who has read several times described it as “the best party for writers and readers anywhere.”  I was excited for both the opportunity and the entertainment.  But I woefully underestimated the impact of being a participant.

Nineteen pieces were selected for reading at the late January event.  Eight of us were from Duluth.  Sheer distance precluded our attending the scheduled rehearsal, and we were encouraged to arrange our own.  Little did I suspect that would set the stage for reaping the true value of the event.

As a group, we descended on the Spoken Word Open Mic night at Beaner’s Central Coffeehouse.  It was packed, due to an earlier political rally, and it was a long time before any of our names were called.  But one by one, we made our way up to the small stage, took a deep breath and read our pieces to an audience.  Just knowing there were friendly faces among the crowd was a boost, and certainly having live listeners was good preparation for the real thing.  I admired the quality of the work in our group, and relished their comments afterwards.

Just for good measure, a smaller group of us gathered in the black box theater at UMD about a week later.  This time we were reading only for ourselves, with the benefit of immediate feedback, discussion and do-overs.  I was beginning to get a feel for the generosity of these seasoned writers, and the unending support they gave one another – including me, the neophyte.

The evening of the event, participants gathered beforehand in the stainless-steel kingdom of the college kitchen.  While being treated to fresh pizzas made on the spot and sipping wine, we mingled.  In the quirky informal space it was easy to feel the spontaneous camaraderie among this collection of writers.

As promised, the event attracted a good crowd.  I marveled at the enthusiastic support for writers in the small northern communities along Lake Superior.  They were a lively and receptive audience as we each got up and read our piece.  Being second on the program quickly dispelled my nerves and I could settle in and enjoy the remainder of the readings.  The genres covered nonfiction, sudden fiction, micro-fiction, twitterature and poetry.  Each reader brought something unique to the event’s theme, “Gut Instinct,” rendered through humor, wit, poignancy and suspense.  I felt honored to be among the talent represented there.

The Duluth contingent heartily congratulated each reader from its numbers.  At the conclusion of the deliveries, we naturally clustered together.  Relishing the experience, snapping group photos, recalling snippets of the stories to savor, we ended the evening on a high note.

Duluthians at WritersRead

By pure happenstance, I met up with the bulk of the Duluth writers at breakfast the next morning at Café Coco in Washburn.  We swarmed a long table and spent the next two hours talking writing.  The spontaneous and genuine conversation was encouraging, supportive and friendly.  Despite my novice status, I felt a sense of belonging.  These people were here for me, as I was for them.  We all had something to share.  We all had something to give one another.

Duluth writers at Cafe Coco

I drove home filled with inspiration, ambition and gratitude.  Being selected to read, what I considered my “win” was only the beginning.  I felt like a writer.  I felt like I belonged.  I had a new source of support for the lonely act of writing.  I couldn’t wait to write more, work harder and submit more.  Even if it meant more rejections.

Note: Wisconsin Public Radio recorded the WritersRead event, and aired it in two installments.  Click here to listen online or download the recording for the first hour.
(Shameless plug – my reading is 8:48 into this recording)  Click here for the second hour of readings.

Writing Retreat

The snow crunches under the wheels of my car as I move slowly down the drive.  Pulling up in front of a rustic building, I exit my car to find chickens pecking the frozen ground and horses neighing across the way.  Surrounded by crisp cold air, I hurry into the office to confirm my reservation and pick up keys to the Tree Lodge.

The cluttered office and scruffy environs matter little.  This is a retreat after all, and I intend to install myself in the cabin for some serious progress on writing my book.  I am soon joined by Kristina, and we quickly make ourselves at home in the two story dwelling.

Molly by Tree Lodge

Billed as a place to retreat from the busy world, Shire in the Woods hosts 7 cabins in a square mile of woodlands in central Minnesota.  Although it’s possible to see bits of the other cabins through the leafless trees in winter, the environs exude seclusion.  We are self-sufficient with the food and supplies we have brought, and stock the cabin with firewood to fend off the winter chill.

It doesn’t take us long to get down to work.  Despite the simplicity of the place we welcome the modern wifi, plugging in laptops and tapping away on our keyboards.  Kristina graciously helps me navigate the murkiness of my material, teasing out themes and probing my purpose to help me organize my stories about bicycle touring.  In time, my premise statement evolves – an elusive concept I have been pursuing for months.

Molly and Kristina on writing retreat

Kristina pursues her own project, finding an agent for her heart-tugging book for infants and nursing mothers, Sweet Moments: Celebrating the Bond of Breastfeeding.  It’s amazing to find we can work in isolation right across the table from one another.  The camaraderie furthers our work, rather than inhibiting.  Warm meals of whole foods and sharing our passions flavor the progress.

Morning brings clear skies, below zero temperatures and restorative sunshine.  Huddled by the fire, sipping tea and coffee, we labor on.  Keystrokes are punctuated by periodic conversation, questions and diversions.  When my work drifts off course, Kristina gently guides me back into focus.

Kristina walking the trailNoontime takes us out for fresh air and an explore.  Totally confused by the hand drawn map of the trails, we strike out for ourselves choosing the most obvious straight path.  When it becomes as twisted and convoluted as the map, we just go with the flow.  The sun warms our faces and the blue sky outlines the tall trees that make wispy shadows on the new dusting of snow.

Kristina’s departure to meet the afternoon school bus and resume her motherly role leaves the cabin empty and quiet.  So I bury myself in continuing the work I started.  Soon I am plunking down post-it notes on a poster board, positioning and moving them around to find order among the chapters.

Storyboarding

I’ve never spent time alone in a cabin in the woods before.  Not even our own cabin.  I tend the fire, listen to the clock tick, eat my dinner while perusing other peoples’ memoirs and sip my cold white wine.  The wifi is just strong enough to allow me to listen to Pandora music, with periodic pauses to buffer.

My final morning is cozy and warm.  I have finally mastered the wood stove and heat pumps out faster than my work.  Still I putter with my storyboard, certain that I have not yet found the right flow.  But I’m infinitely farther along than I was two days ago.  I haven’t written a single word, but I’m finding the glue.

I have Rich to thank for this writing interlude.  He found the Shire and presented it to me for Christmas.  Perhaps he sensed I was losing my way on this book.  I haven’t solved all its mysteries, but I’m ready for forward momentum again.  Taking time out to retreat from the world with the help of the right writing partner has put me back on my path.

I Just Couldn’t Do It

It’s high time I got back to writing.  After five weeks on the road and a family reunion week, I have finally carved out some time to pursue my craft.  And I’m headed to my favorite and most productive writing venue, Amity Coffee.  There I can escape the distractions of home and focus on the words assembling on my computer screen amidst the buzz of conversation and the cacophony of sounds involved in preparing elaborate coffee drinks.  I am anxious to get rolling.

But it feels all wrong.  Sunshine has replaced the earlier showers.  The fresh clean outdoor air contrasts with the closed atmosphere of my beloved coffee shop.  Most of all, the lake beckons.

The shop may not be for me this morning, but I’m not about to deny myself that latte.  “To go, please,” I append my order.  My joy in walking back outside affirms my choice.

Brighton Beach rocksI find just what I’m seeking a mere mile from home.  Rocks.  The Rocks, of Brighton Beach.  Big boulders where I can nestle into a chair-like cranny.  The morning’s wind has stirred up the lake, delivering endless waves bouncing off said rocks.  The sound alone is enough to envelope me.  I feel the solitude despite others clamoring among the rocks around me.  The wind on my face is refreshing, offsetting the warmth of the sun pouring down.  I was right to come here.

Writing at Bright BeachI forgot my sunglasses.  Neglected to bring my camera.  But I remain.  I procrastinate by trying to capture the splashes with my cell phone.  Pen and paper replace my usual keyboard and screen.  And it feels good.  The tactical exercise of forming words manually is in harmony with the natural elements that surround me.

It is yet to be seen what I can accomplish on my self-assigned writing task.  But I enjoy the moment.

I will return to my coffee shop another day. Today, I just couldn’t do it.

 

A Student of Writing

Help!  Writing my way through chapters of my book, I just know there’s a lot more to this than I’m prepared to handle.  I find myself drawn to courses on improving my craft. I drool over every email offering classes with literary talent and fine institutions.  I yearn to learn.  But many come with a high price tag, and dates far in the future.  I’m anxious for more immediate tutoring.

Thanks to a posting on the Lake Superior Writers Facebook page, I found Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s class called “Making a Scene.”  It sounded wonderful – “how to set it up, how to bring out the line of action, and how to intensify the conflict along with the characters for a satisfying chapter end––all of which will keep your readers turning page after page.”  And the kicker?  Only $7 which included lunch.  Sponsored by the Crosby Library Friends Foundation it meant a 100-mile drive each way for the 3-hour workshop, but I was game.  Best of all, it was only a few weeks away.Kate teaching class

With a long history of teaching at the Loft Literary Center, Kate proved to be the seasoned professional I hoped to find.  Her knowledge was extensive, with the ability to call up examples and authors at will for illustrations and further study.  She conveyed her deep knowledge with ease and gracefully invited participation and comments from the 20 students in the library classroom.

It was all I could do to keep up with the rapid information coming my way, scribbling as fast as I could yet trying to absorb the wisdom at the same time.  Tying in a few writing exercises helped us all put it to use immediately, to reinforce her points.

Here are some nuggets from the class:

Think of CATS to remember the four basic components of a scene:

  • Characters – need multiple people interacting
    • Show how the characters are different through their actions, how they argue, things they treasure, family background
    • What attitudes do the characters bring?
  • Acting on a desire – establish what the main character wants
    • Don’t mistake motion for action.  What characters do must have consequences
    • Actions complicate the problem and must make the reader uneasy
  • Tension – a conflict or a problem
    • Set it up early, develop it, have a turning point
    • The problem must matter to the main character
  • Specific place and time
    • Where are they and why?
    • What things are in the room?  How does the lighting affect the mood?  What characters are present?

Other tidbits:

  • Think about how to make your story as tight as you can for the reader.  Don’t give them anything they will skip.
  • Be as specific as possible.  Get descriptions into your nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs.  “She slammed down her coffee.”
  • Using flashback or description – does it break up the flow?  You may need to get it in through dialog or imply what happened.
  • When ending a scene, you need to leave a character frustrated, his or her needs not met.  There needs to be something more that will pull the reader along.
  • Worry is your friend in writing.  Give readers a reason to read further.
  • Let yourself write badly.  It takes many drafts to get ready to submit to an agent or publisher.  In your first draft you are writing the story for yourself.  In the next draft, you can shape it and use the ideas you generated.  Refine it in subsequent drafts.
  • Read aloud to get the feel of your story.  It’s best to read to an audience; you can tell immediately where it needs tightening.

Making a Scene writing classKate made sure to connect with each of us personally.  She was happy to talk to me about my book, gave me some thoughts to consider before class started, and answered my more specific questions at the end.  The three hours went by quickly, and I left with new tools in my writing skills repertoire as well as renewed inspiration.

There is much to be gained from these short learning opportunities.  Each time I connect with a writer, I learn something.  I aim to take advantage of as many of these local offerings as I can.  And I can’t help but continue to dream about the in-depth classes.  I’m still very much the student.

Note: Kate St. Vincent Vogl is a fiscal year 2017 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Grant recipients are asked to use their talent to benefit the community. In this case, local writers were the lucky beneficiaries!

Tropical Writing Retreat

This is true vacation. Two weeks away from the trappings of home life, immersed in a different culture, and transported to a Costa Rican tropical climate is enough to slow down and let life just happen. Or is it?

Molly on SUP

The realities of the intense sun and heat relegate any rigorous exercise to the early hours of the morning. We're talking 5:30am, to get the maximum amount of pre-sun time. It plays perfectly into my preferred workout routine, so I happily hit the trails for a run at first light. The ocean is at its quietest in the mornings, so I plunge in for my open water swim. I may follow that with a kayaking adventure, boogie boarding or my first attempt at stand up paddleboarding. But even after all that, the clock barely registers 10:00am.

Molly with latte

I linger over breakfast then stretch out my daily latte at Pura Vida Ride with some solid reading time in one of the shaded wooden rockers overlooking the beach, basking in the rising ocean breezes. I'm doing pretty well at this relaxation thing, I think.

And then it kicks in. The need to do something. That irrepressible drive and desire to accomplish. Afternoons are best spent out of the sun, engaging in less strenuous pursuits. What could be more fitting than doing a bit of writing?

Being practical, I have carefully arranged story deadlines around this juncture. Yet here I am with time on my hands that needs filling. I soon find ways to incorporate my vacation surroundings with writing. New venues for pursuing my craft materialize. Inspiration springs forth. And the occasional iguana saunters by.

Writing on the beach
Beach view while writing
Writing with iguana

One contest entry and two magazine story submissions later I'm feeling pretty good about this writing interlude. I'm right on target with my goals to get my writing in front of new editors and contest panels each month. And I've done some tinkering on my book as well.

Who says vacation has to be all play and no work? I'm quite pleased with my tropical writing retreat.