The Terrifying Incident of the Blank Page

My underarms prickled with sweat. I could hear my own breathing, shorter and faster. My stomach clenched. I wanted to get away, but I couldn’t move.

adult-black-and-white-body-271418 (1)

In front of me sat a glowing, 13-inch screen. It was blank. And it was my job to fill it.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had days when thoughts sludge through your brain like cold honey. That empty white rectangle waiting for a thousand words is a nightmare. And while many writers have faced this horror and lived to give us hope, sometimes their pithy advice needs substantial clarification.

All Writing is Rewriting

How often have you heard some variation on this axiom?

“Writing is 85% rewriting,” says the encourager. “Fill that page without fear because whatever you write will be turned inside out and upside down anyway. You might as well get started. Nothing to lose!”

You Can Fix Bad Writing, But There’s No Fix For A Blank Page

Sound familiar? It’s another gem intended to inspire writers. This is for the writer afraid to sully the pure white page with their imperfect prose.

“But that’s perfectly fine!” says this particular voice of encouragement. “Bravo! What a great mess! Now let’s fix it.”

I Drank the Kool-Aid

No, it’s not another writing-related axiom, I just mean that I believed the two I’ve already mentioned, wholeheartedly. And they were very effective. They powered me through the first draft of my first novel. When I felt stuck, I just kept writing, because whatever I wrote could be made better at some later time.

Then one choice changed everything.

Truth is Harder Than Fiction

I decided to revise my second novel for publication. And like the hapless teenaged victim in a horror film, I soon realized that the first fright was not the climax of the story, but just a hint of what lay ahead.

Somewhere along the way, I had extrapolated from my inspiring axioms that populating a blank page is the scariest part of writing.

Well, as it turned out, 39,762 of my own inadequate words were even more frightening than a blank screen. I spent hours in front of my computer shifting a few sentences, making notes, and reformatting chapters.  But I was frozen with fear in front of that glowing screen. I had never done this before, not with a project of this magnitude. Could I really do it?

Fight or Flight

I finally had to make a decision. Would I battle my way toward a better manuscript, or as I had done with my first novel, shove this second project to the back of a closet and start something new? I chose to fight. My goal of being a published author could not be realized by filling the back corner of my closet with first drafts.

As I slowly, uncertainly, awkwardly started revisions, I began to appreciate what I had not understood before.

“All writing is rewriting” doesn’t necessarily mean that the stages of writing are progressively easier. It means that a piece of writing is a constant work in progress until it’s placed into the hands of the reader. It means that no mediocre sentence, lousy characterization, weak story structure or poor edit is the final word.

I didn’t have to get it all right when I wrote my first draft, and I didn’t have to get it perfect with every revision choice either. But I did have to keep writing. And I knew I could do that. How did I know it? I had made it through the first drafts of two novels.

I knew how to keep writing.

Home Free

Well, okay, not quite. Revising is hard work–don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. But once I had faced my fears about tackling revisions, I took the same approach that had carried me through the end of writing my first drafts.

I made a plan and worked at it a little each day. When I got off track I didn’t beat myself up or quit. I adjusted my plan and kept working. I found bits of time here and there to write and worked as quickly as I could for that small amount of time.

Now, a couple of months later, I’m just weeks away from finishing this once terrifying stage of writing. Or should I say rewriting?

ksignature21

P.S. I’ve read that most writers prefer one stage of writing over another. Would you rather write a first draft or revise something you’ve already written?

Advertisements

A Tale of Two Novels

Are you stuck in the middle of writing your first novel and can’t imagine ever writing “the end?”

Maybe writing doesn’t “fit” with your life right now. Or you can’t find the time. Or the confidence.

I understand.

It took me nearly a decade to write my first novel. My second novel took six months.

fashion woman notebook pen

Why the difference? Did I take a course that taught me how to write faster? Is there a tip, trick, or 10-step method I can share?

Nope.

I know. You’re not surprised. Those were dumb suggestions. And you’re not dumb. You know as well as anyone what it takes to finish a writing project. You plant your backside in a chair and do the work. Writers write. Right?

Yep.

So, I don’t have a formula or any sure-fire novel writing tips, but I’d like to share my experience with you. So much of what I have learned and continue to learn as a writer is gleaned from authors who take the time to share their knowledge.  Maybe my story will help you.

Context Matters 

During the decade that I  started, stopped, dreamed about, and restarted my first novel, I had five kids, moved three times, and began homeschooling our children. I didn’t have much spare time. (Or sleep.) Any free time I had was usually interrupted so many times it wasn’t truly free. I longed to write that first novel, but for many years it seemed impossible. In the end, it took me a full year to write the first draft, and that was after years of planning, plotting,  outlining, starting, stopping, and beginning again. Did I lose all the distractions when I was writing my second novel? Were there fewer demands on my time?

Yes and no. My children were all older when I began the second novel. They were all out of diapers, able to dress and feed themselves and play alone or together for extended periods of time. For the first time in over a decade, I could work at least a half hour without interruption. If I stayed up late it was usually by choice, and I could sleep later in the morning to make up for it. However, I was still a full-time homeschooling mom of five kids. There were plenty of demands on my time. But, I had learned something about writing and time when I wrote my first novel.

What did I learn?

Every Minute Counts

I had to ditch some fantasies in order to write faster. Dreams like eight hour writing days, or week-long retreats. I will never, in this season of my life, have long stretches of time in which to write. Not consistently anyway. In fact, the only consistent feature of my writing time is that it’s inconsistent. The time I have available changes from week to week, sometimes from day to day. You know what is consistent?

I have time. It may be five minutes. It may be an hour while my kids play in the backyard. It may be five minutes five times throughout the day.  It may be two hours in the morning before everyone else wakes up. It may be thirty minutes at the library while a kid finds books. It may be four hours on a weekend night when I decide to stay up late because I can sleep in the next morning. I have time. I can write a sentence or two in five minutes. And every sentence moves me closer to typing “The End.”

Yes, you’re right. It is often hard to write in erratic spurts. It’s frustrating.

But here’s the truth. I’ve chosen this life, with these priorities. If I want to write, I either do it within the constraints of my personal circumstances or, like I did for many years, I use the constraints of my personal circumstances as an excuse not to write.

I chose to write. I wrote a few minutes one day. I wrote a few hours the next night. I mined my life for precious nuggets of time that I exchanged for words on a page. At the end of six months, all of those minutes added up to the first draft of a new novel. 

I learned another valuable lesson from writing my first novel.

What I Can See Determines Where I Will Go

When I began my first novel I just wanted to write a book. My ideas about what happened after the first draft were a little vague. Oh, I knew it would need editing, an agent, and a publisher, but in the end, I just wanted to finish the novel. And in the end, that’s all I did.

It’s true that I had other priorities and plenty of distractions during the ten years it took to write my first novel. It’s also true that elongating the early planning stages and meandering toward the finish line were natural consequences of limited vision.

In contrast, when I committed to writing my second novel, I started with the furthest end goal I could imagine. I wanted to be a published novelist and publish regularly for as long as I am able. I imagined myself fifteen years in the future with ten to fifteen published books to my credit. Then I worked backward from that point to the present day. I noted the goals I would need to achieve along the way. By the time I  began writing, I had a far different mindset than when I started my first novel. Completing my manuscript was just one step toward a long-term goal. That final destination inspired me to make the most of spare moments and write quickly.

Finally, writing my first novel gave me something I couldn’t get any other way.

Experience Boosts Confidence

Doubt poked and prodded me while I wrote my first novel. Will I really finish? Who do I think I am, a real writer? Other people write novels, not someone like me. Can I do this?

I had never written a novel before. Some days I got stuck and feared I would never get unstuck. Other days I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with my brain. Some days I struggled to type one sentence. Many days I thought writing was a miserable waste of time. I slogged through to the end for two reasons. I didn’t want to turn forty with this dream unfulfilled, and I wanted to finish telling the story I had started.

Thanks to that experience, when I started my second novel there were several things I knew to be true. First, I can write a novel. Second, some writing days are brilliant, others are miserable, most are somewhere in between. Third, since my work needs revision no matter how well I write, it’s better to write quickly than to write like I can get it perfect the first time.

As for those questions I had while writing my first novel? When I wrote my second novel I had answers. Yes. I will finish. Yes. I am a real writer. (Exhibit A: Me, sitting here writing.) Yes. People like me write novels. People who are older, busier, less educated, better educated, less likely to do so for a variety of reasons have written novels. Yes. I can do this. (Exhibit B: Completed first novel.) Yes. Yes. Yes.

It never once crossed my mind that I wouldn’t finish my second novel. When I take my son to the playground across the street from our house, I don’t doubt that we’ll cross the street. We can’t reach our destination if we don’t cross the street. Similarly, I can’t be a published author if I don’t write a book. There was never any doubt. But I had to slog through the first book to earn that confidence.

If you’re struggling to finish your first novel, bear in mind that it might just be a warm-up for everything that comes afterward.

  • If you haven’t yet done so, clarify your goal. Are you just trying to finish a book, or do you have aspirations beyond writing “the end?”
  • Be honest with yourself about the limitations of your current context so that you can figure out how to work with them.
  • Look for untapped pockets of time to devote to your project.

While there’s no guarantee that subsequent books will be easier to write (sorry!), finishing your first novel will teach you valuable lessons about how you work best and give you the confidence that you have the ability to finish.

What comes after might just be a different story altogether.

ksignature21

Homeschool: Standards are Good. Flexibility is Key.

Chronic illness. Professional obligations. Faith. Safety. These are just a few reasons parents homeschool their children. Some families travel or move a lot, so homeschool

close up of woman working

makes more sense than irregular attendance or constantly changing schools. Many students don’t thrive in a traditional school setting. Other children are prodigiously talented and need unusual amounts of time to steward their gifts.

Whatever the reason for their school choice, all homeschooling parents enjoy one common benefit — flexibility. And it’s not just a perk. It’s key to maximizing the potential of homeschool. We structure our days, weeks, and months in a way that works best for our entire family and for individual members.

The teen who needs two years to complete Algebra can work at a slower pace. A child who devours mathematics like candy can finish a complete grade level of math in one semester and happily move on instead of dragging it out over an entire year.

Last week, my eight year-old began and completed her cursive writing work book in two days. The workbook that was supposed to take her a couple of months of daily practices to finish. The next day she neatly wrote a letter to her aunt. In cursive. On college-ruled notebook paper.

Then there’s my fourteen year-old son who just this past week finally managed to write (in print) a legible letter to his grandfather in one try. And for the first time, reading his letter did not require a magnifying glass. In fact, the only thing he had to rewrite this time was the word “readable”. (Because it wasn’t.)

Goals help keep us on track, but sometimes we adjust expectations to accommodate our individual children.

When I first taught him handwriting, I assumed he’d stroll through the practices like his older sister. Patient. Meticulous. Neat. But he struggled with handwriting from the beginning, even as he leapt ahead two grades  in math. So I scrapped the plans that had worked for one child and simply required that he learn to sign his name in cursive and that his print be legible. Good enough.

Every school year we alter our plans multiple times: we slow down; speed up; double back; skip; rearrange schedules. Goals help keep us on track, but sometimes we adjust expectations to accommodate our individual children. Plans and standards are important. Flexibility is crucial.

Last month one of my children told me that Pakistan is in South America. (Not the same child who once told me that Toronto was her favorite U.S. city.) A younger child continues to refer to Africa as a country.

No problem. We’ll make time for reteaching in geography. I know at least one child has space available in her schedule.

ksignature21

Trying Something New: Reading List 2018


I love to read, always have.

As a girl I plowed through all of Louisa May Alcott’s novels and anything by L.M. Montgomery.  I devoured biographies of Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and George Washington Carver. I read everything on my shelf, on my older brother’s shelf, and on the acres of white wooden shelves that lined a wall in our home.

pile of books in shallow focus photography
Thanks to borrowing limits, my childhood bedroom did NOT look like this.

I checked out stacks of books from the school, public, and church libraries, and from the university where my father taught. And I used any spare moment to read.

I read the daily comics in the paper after breakfast. I read as soon as my schoolwork was finished, at night with a nightlight, in the bath, and even at the dinner table when I could get away with it.

Sometime around second grade, I developed a taste for mysteries. My brothers’ Hardy Boys books led me to  Nancy Drew. Then I discovered Trixie Belden, moved to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, then Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, and so on. These were the books I turned to for relaxed reading during summertime. Outside of assigned school reading, I didn’t read in any other genre.

Then, Life Happened

In the decade after college, I had five kids and my reading took a back seat. I did read a lot of quality picture books — and reread them approximately 1,234 times. As my children grew older, I revisited classics from my childhood like Black Beauty, Little House on the Prairie, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Any spare reading time was given completely to my old favorite: mysteries.

After a few years of this literary diet, my brain began to feel a little flabby, so every now and then I varied the genres I chose, and threw in some meatier options. A friend mentioned Outliers on social media so I read it and several other books by Malcom Gladwell. I reread Anna Karenina. (It was even better the second time around.) I branched out — and enjoyed doing so — but I still wasn’t fully satisfied by my reading.

The diversity was nice, but the choices were haphazard. If a title caught my attention, I would add it to my bedside pile. Otherwise, I fell back on old, easy favorites.


“I knew that varied and frequent reading nourishes good writing, so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening.”


I always had a vague mental list of books I wanted to read: books that were well-reviewed in various publications; books that friends recommended; books mentioned during an interesting radio interview. I would read a few each year, but always suspected that I could find time for more. And I knew that varied, and frequent reading nourishes good writing so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening. My habits weren’t leading me to the kind of reading I desired.

Making a Reading List

So, this year I decided to be more intentional about my reading choices. Instead of reading whatever title came to mind when I was ready to start a new book, I made a list of books I’d like to finish before the year ends. I divided the list into fiction, non-fiction, poetry, books related to writing, and books related to my practice of Christian spiritual disciplines.

I chose some books because I’ve wanted to read them for a long time. Others I had never heard of before I sat down to compile my list. My selections are influenced by my personal taste, what my older children are reading for school, Pulitzer lists, and friends’ recommendations.

Fiction Reading List: Classics, Contemporary, and Middle Grade

The fiction selections are a mix of classical (Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Macbeth by Shakespeare) and contemporary (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.) And, because I’m currently writing a middle-grade novel and I read aloud with three grade-school-aged children, there are several middle-grade books on the fiction list as well, including The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, and a biography of E.B. White.

Nonfiction Reading List: Biography, Criticism, and Poetry

A couple of my nonfiction selections are Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah Moore, Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior. My poetry list includes collections by Gwendolyn Brooks, Malcom Guite, and Li-Young Lee. DIY MFA, by Gabriela Pereira and On Writing Well, by William Zissner are two of the books I chose to move me forward as a writer.

Finally, I’ve selected several books and chapters from the Bible for personal study and reflection. In all, I’ve assigned myself over thirty books to read.

Will I finish my list before January 1, 2019?

I’m not sure it matters. But I do know this: steady, deliberate effort accomplishes far more than the slapdash approach I’ve taken in the past.

Anyway, finishing a list isn’t my goal.

I want a new habit of intentional reading.

I want a reading habit that will stimulate my thinking and feed my writing. Consistently working my way through this list will get me there whether I actually read every book or not.

 

ksignature21

Do you have a personal reading list?  If it’s online, please leave a link in the comments. I’d love to take a look at it!

Want to see my full list?
2018 Reading List
Or you can use the 2018 Reading List menu tab at the top of my Home Page. (I’ll update the list as I finish each book.)

Wasps and Leaves

All Quentin wants to do this morning is rake leaves.

gray pathway surrounded by green tress
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

“Will you get up really, really early in the morning with me so I can finish raking leaves in the pile and jump into it?”

He asked me this last night, his words tripping over each other. His little hand tightened on my forearm as he waited for my answer. It’s been deliciously cool lately–a presentiment of fall in the early days of July–and the mornings are especially fine.  I said yes.

So this morning we slip outside while the house still sleeps. First, I go to the backyard and kill a wasp that lies on our deck, stunned by the unseasonably cool temperature. Last night six–six!–wasps invaded our home, darting about the kitchen, ricocheting off cabinets and thumping against light fixtures. My husband and I followed their droning, armed with shoes and brooms. The younger children fled to an upstairs bedroom.

In the kitchen, my husband was relentless. He smashed two at a time above the sink. He climbed on a bar stool and crushed one on top of the cabinet. One he swatted out through through the open door. The last two died between a shoe and the wall.

My husband shook out the broom and returned it to the laundry room. Our  daughter put away the shoes. The two youngest flung open the door to their shelfter, and stuck their heads out, looking about with more caution than they use to cross the street.

Later, my  husband discovered the front door ajar. The eight year-old was careless when she went out the door to the playground earlier. That’s how the wasps got in–less than one inch of unnoticed space between the door and the doorjamb.

I was relieved. There was no nest in the house, no torn screen, no need to worry about wasps buzzing into my children’s rooms at night. Just shut the door.

My husband didn’t share my relief. An open door while we went about our business in the illusion of safety worried him. A wasp is a pest. An open door could destroy his world.

This morning, when I stand in the kitchen looking out over the deck, I see the fat wasp lying on the wood planks just on the other side of the sliding door. I know he’s just sluggish from the cold; the rising sun will revive the little menace. After a bash from the same broom that killed his brothers the night before, his crushed body slips between the slats. One less threat to my children’s tender skin.

My son is happy the wasp is destroyed. He flourishes the rake, a bacchanalian flavor to his excitement. I settle in a chair and watch.  This morning the energy seems to tangle and punch beneath his skin. He bounces around the yard, up on on his toes–I should tell him to stop, put your feet down and walk properly–but I can’t bear to interrupt. His joy delights me.

He has a vision: a pile of crisp leaves and a flying leap into a soft, crackling landing. He springs around the yard, stroking, pulling the rake across the grass over and over.

He doesn’t stop to ask why only this tree is dropping leaves in the middle of summer, or to wonder why the leaves are so riddled with tiny holes they look like rounds of delicate lace when held up to the soft morning light. He doesn’t notice the strips of bark dangling from the trunk, exposing tender tree flesh.

He just sees providence: shower of leaves; crisp pile; soft landing.  

ksignature21

A Still Small Voice

I.  A Still Small Voice

If ravenous winds didn’t claw your house apart
Turn it upside down
And shake everything loose–
Every dark crevice and dust-filmed corner robbed of their secrets–
Would you still, even now
Just be sitting there on the porch, cool evening,
Begging for a revelation
While a quiet breath brushed your hair,
Stroked your delicate neck–
Oh, LORD, please, LORD,
just one small sign.

K. Ashby

ksignature21

Life With Five Kids

It’s like herding cats into the shower, then feeding them caviar from gold-plated bowls monogrammed with diamonds. (Okay, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that it’s sometimes crazy and expensive.) Thankfully, there’s a lot of joy and laughter as well. And most of the time, it’s just plain fun. Way more fun than anything to do with cats, who, let’s face it, are best viewed from a distance.

It’s also an experience that garners a lot of unsolicited comments and questions from strangers, observations like:

Boy, do you have your hands full! I heard this a lot six years ago when I shopped with all five kids–an infant, toddler, and preschooler in the basket, the two eldest trailing behind. As observations go, it’s not brilliant, but it’s accurate. This declaration often contains a hint of incredulity, not unlike:

Are they all yours? This is usually asked with some hesitancy and a bit of awe, as if the speaker can’t quite fathom the idea of one person having so many children. It’s often blurted out, the first thing that comes to mind, apparently, when they see our little circus-in-a-shopping-cart make its way through the aisles of the bargain department store. The best response is a perky smile and an equally perky, “Yes, they are!” before bolting. Because the next question is likely to be:

Have you and your husband figured out what causes this yet? So funny. No, it’s not, actually. It’s staler than the snack-bar popcorn we leave in our wake when we flee in our bright red shopping cart. It’s so bad, it’s not even a contender for Worst Dad Joke of the Year. (Not a real contest. I googled it.)

In my fantasies, I respond with wide eyes, and an eager tone, “No, we haven’t, actually. Would you take this pen and paper and draw some diagrams or something? We’re not real smart people. Pictures help.”

In reality, I grit my teeth behind something resembling a smile and remind myself that we all need a little grace sometimes, bless our hearts. Speaking of grace, here’s another favorite:

I could never do that! This exclamation comes from one of two very different perspectives. The first is typically a fellow mom with one or two young children. One neighbor, the mother of a two-year-old girl and an infant boy, was nearly speechless when she saw the kids and me leaving for doctor appointments one morning. We were perfectly groomed and appropriately attired, a glowing testimony to calm, competent motherhood.

“How do you do that?” she asked. “I can’t believe how hard it is with two kids. How do you manage five?”

While I longed to modestly accept the implied compliment and pretend for a moment that our outer appearance told the full story, I had to fess up: the hour or two before we made it out the door was not the prettiest moments in our family’s history, and we would  return home to rooms in a condition usually seen on The Weather Channel’s post-tornado coverage.

“Besides,” I told her, “I don’t care if you have one child or five, it’s always one more than you had before, and that takes some getting used to. Give yourself a break.”

The second sort of person who says, “I could never do that!” when they see me with my five kids, usually has a tone altogether different from the first. This is the person who sits near us in a restaurant and sees my toddler cover the floor with food, watches me knock a glass of ice water off the table and all over my infant’s carrier seat, and listens to my baby shriek his need for a nap while we wait for our check. The only thing this person doesn’t see is the forty percent tip I scribble onto the receipt before I hustle everyone out of the restaurant.

I’m one of five kids! Strangers don’t typically volunteer information about their family and childhood, but when they’re from a family of seven and see us out in public, they go out of their way to talk to us and even swap a few stories with my kids about growing up in a large family. This remark is related to:

We have five kids! This always comes from empty-nesters and is always said with joyful nostalgia. We’ve encountered them at a performance of The Pirates of Penzance in Tennessee, in a Manhattan restaurant, and in our Virginia neighborhood. These people are a tonic. In the midst of wrangling five young children, I see on their faces and hear in their words the sum of their parenting years: challenging, yes; also sweet, and gone in a flash.

Going out in public with five children, especially when they’re young, is challenging. Everything takes three times as long; it’s often exhausting. Strangers are sometimes exasperating, and frequently delightful. Kind of like my herd of five cats.

ksignature21