Like Thinking in French

I took French in junior high and high school and plodded through three semesters of Russian in college. I never learned enough to think in either language. I was too busy in college. High school is a different story. Five years is a lot of time to have learned so little. I  should have been thinking in French.

Becoming a good writer is like learning to think in French. The more you practice, the better you get. Eventually, good writing becomes second nature. Then the writer’s mind is free to focus on more interesting elements–like pacing, plot and character development. With experience, these things become second nature, too, and the focus turns to new ways to improve the writing.

I’ve spent hours ripping the work of the writers in my group apart, listening to what others said about the same piece, and noting things they saw that I missed. I apply what I’ve learned from them and the books about writing I’ve read when I listen to novels on my runs. Now that I’m paying attention, I see the same story-telling techniques in movies and television dramas. Whether I’m reading, watching, or writing it myself, thinking about how the writer has crafted the story is great practice.

For more than a week now, I’ve devoted every spare minute to After Christmas Eve. The group critiqued Until Thanksgiving as I wrote it, and will do the same with this one. The fourth chapter came together just hours before the submission deadline for our next meeting, so they’re reading the first four chapters now. Since then, I’ve written three more chapters.

Am I following the chapter summaries I wrote up? Mostly. The first four chapters came out almost exactly as planned. They picked up and left off at different places than I’d envisioned, but the gist of the story didn’t change. The fifth and sixth chapters were not in the original outline. But after I wrote the fourth chapter, they were needed to get me from where I was to where I needed to be. I returned to the outline with chapter five–now chapter seven in the book. Confused? I was, too, but I worked through it–you’ll never know the difference when you read it.

Two group members sent me comments because they can’t make it to the next meeting. I’ve also heard from my “alpha- reader” who always gets a first look at anything I’m working on. They affirmed my belief that After Christmas Eve is different from either of my previous books. It’s actually good! (Bwahahahahahahaha!)

My harshest critic in the group sent a marked-up document chocked full of praise. Reading the comments made me cry, not that that’s a particularly difficult thing to do. I’ve gone back to those comments several times since the rejection message I got yesterday.

Until Thanksgiving was my practice book. I had no idea what I was doing when I started writing a story that changed half a dozen times. The more I learned, the more I changed things around. The end result feels almost like an accident and is much better than I ever envisioned. I’m proud of it and whether it ever gets published, don’t expect that to change. But it was for practice–an opportunity to try things I was reading about and learning from the critiques.

Everything about writing this book feels different. Having the outline and chapter summaries helps a lot. The bigger difference comes from everything I’ve learned since writing Glass Houses. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

Something else is going on with my writing. There’s an honesty now that hasn’t been present before. I’m not exactly sure why, but have a theory. I’d love to hear if other writers share this experience. Here’s what I think is happening.

The one piece of writing advice I’ve heard my entire life is to write about what you know. Glass Houses surely fit that bill. It’s a memoir. Until Thanksgiving started out semi-autobiographical, but quickly took on a life of its own. Still, nearly all the settings are places I know well from the time I lived in DC, a time that intentionally matches when the novel takes place. Incorporating this superficial knowledge was writing what I knew. Or so I thought.

Superficial details and amusing anecdotes from my life enabled me to feel like I was writing about what I knew. Anything else of me in that novel is entirely accidental. Seven chapters into After Christmas Eve, I see that those trivial details kept me safely away from a collection of things I’m going to call “my truth.”

After Christmas Eve is set in a time and place I’ve never experienced. Except for Philip, a supporting character in Until Thanksgiving and the protagonist in this novel, nothing is familiar to me. The settings exist only in my imagination. With no superficial contact to the story, I’m reaching deep inside and tapping into things I know in my gut. My truth.

That’s my theory, anyway. There’s definitely something happening that wasn’t happening before. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it going until I finish the book.

You can bet your sweet bippy I’m looking forward to our next meeting. Sure, I want to hear the praise. But I’m also eager for suggestions to make a good story even better, and I know they will have them. They always do. Besides, they know I expect it. Most of them read what I say here on…

My Glass House 😉