Cure Homesickness: Write a Novel

Two years ago I began writing a story.

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We had moved from our home on the central California coast to Virginia, and I was homesick for the mountains, the cool coastal air, the golden evening light–the familiar beauty of our former home. For several months, I used my writing to capture memories of California, fearful that I would forget the sensory details that photographs could not capture. I wrote essays, poems, short stories, and scribbled a lot in my journal.

The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

I even decided to try my hand at a middle-grade story for my children. Our former home with it’s three acres of old farm land, trees made for climbing, a creek, and fog rolling in from the bay each evening was the perfect setting for adventure. It would be a gift for them and a creative exercise for me.  The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

Soon I had a collection of scenes and character sketches, but no vision for a unified story. I put away the pages and turned my attention to other work.

A year and a half later, while reviewing files of unfinished writing projects, I took another look at the patchwork pieces I had written for my kids. I edited a lot. I wrote some more. It was fun, so I continued, one scene at a time, not really sure where I was going.

Then, one day (which is how so many stories start, after all) everything changed.

I was doing something mundane like stirring a pot of chili and I  realized how the entire story would develop. There were plenty of details to fill in, but I understood enough to sketch additional characters and chapter summaries.

This was no longer just a fun story for my kids. I had a new novel to write.

Sixteen chapters later, I’m on track to finish my first draft by the end of June. I have pages of adventure for my kids and a wealth of sensory memories for me. Soon, I’ll have a complete novel for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the current draft.

It’s one of the original scenes that I wrote two years ago involving a rather strange minor character. In it, four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission.


Mrs. Terry had turned her back on them and now faced the field. In the distance, a grey roll of fog crept toward them from the sea.  Birds fluttered in and out of the tall grasses, filling the evening air with their cries. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds. Over all, three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. Mrs. Terry kept her left hand on her stick while raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her slight body, she cried out,

Draw a peace over this teeming field–

Wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

Waiting on breathless wing for summoning.

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm, soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she must say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least, she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her, Mrs. Terry was happy to continue.

“Well,” she said. She turned her back on the field and faced the low mountains that rimmed the far, western side of their property. There the sun seemed to hesitate on the mountain tops, bathing their house and the land below it in the last lingering rays of soft light.

“The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think?” She sighed.  “It’s a wonder anyone bothers.”

She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Kerith expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. Mrs. Terry shrugged, and smiled at them.

“Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. Great buildings, music, art. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think? I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.” She shrugged. “Unfortunately, my creative talents are limited to mediocre knitting and decent cooking.”

But Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!” The exquisite evening light made her want to capture something of its beauty. She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, paints, pencil–anything–and create.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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Book List 2018: April Update

As April ends, I thought I would offer a few comments on what I’ve read so far.*  The entire

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Reading List 2018  is available through the menu at the top of this page.

Want to know why I’ve assigned myself a list of books to read this year? This post explains all.


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson — Highly Recommend
If you read only one book from this list, please let it be this memoir. Read it to learn about the problems in the American judicial system, problems that exploit and traumatize our most defenseless populations as well as their families, communities, and participants in that system. Read it for the inspiring memoir of one man’s service to the most vulnerable members of our society. Read it to recognize, as does the author, that we all need some measure of mercy in our lives.

Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics), Emily Bronte — Recommend
It’s a classic novel. It’s dark and intense. The characters will rouse your emotions and try your patience. If you like quality historical fiction with a dark side, give it a try. If, like me, you read it in high school and hated it, give it one more chance. I’m glad I did. (Read more about that experience here.)

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, Anthony Doerr — Highly Recommend
“Meticulous craftsmanship” is my first thought when this book comes to mind. It’s a theme throughout the book and it’s a perfect way to describe Doerr’s WWII tale of a blind French girl and an unusually gifted German boy who eventually meet in occupied France. Each chapter is finely wrought. Characters are slowly, exquisitely developed. The story is relentlessly fascinating. If you’re skeptical of the accolades heaped upon this book, let me assure you: they’re well-deserved.

The Magician’s Elephant, Kate DiCamillo –Highly Recommend
I enjoyed reading aloud this middle-grade novel with my eight year-old and six year-old. It has a varied cast of distinctive, evolving characters, including an orphan boy and an unexpected elephant, both yearning for home. It’s a story of longings: for relationships and community; for forgiveness and redemption. It’s also a story of perseverance, compassion, and a little bit of magic.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White (Ala Notable Children’s Books. All Ages), Melissa Sweet — Recommend
This middle-grade biography was a surprise addition to my reading list, a gift for my kids that I decided to “just thumb through” then kept reading. It’s a fully illustrated biography incorporating White’s childhood journals, letters, photos, and manuscripts as well as the author’s original collage art. White’s journey from a curious boy who loved words to beloved author of children’s stories is a pleasure to follow, especially when artistically embellished with such rich and varied primary source material.


Currently Reading: Macbeth, William Shakespeare; Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman;   The Green Ember (The Green Ember Series: Book 1), S.D. Smith;  Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More ?Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, Karen Swallow-Prior; Acts (of the Apostles)

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How to Write a Novel in Ten Years

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If you’ve read it, you know. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

 

I recently read a Pulitzer Prize winner that took the writer about a decade to complete. What a coincidence!  My first novel took me nearly ten years to finish. Now, I doubt Anthony Doerr followed my process when he knocked together All the Light We Cannot See, but if you’re looking to write a novel and want to take as long as possible, here are a few tips.

  1. Spend a year or two (or more!) dreaming about writing a novel. It’s very important that you not actually write at this point, unless you write about how much you want to write a novel. Other important activities include fantasizing about any of the following: scoring the highest advance ever paid out to a debut novelist; holding a hardbound copy of your novel in your hand; winning a Nobel Prize; your hometown awarding you the key to the city; adoring fans trampling booksellers to acquire your latest release, etc. It may also help to spend time with other people who “have always wanted to write a book!”
  2. Procrastination by Preparation. There’s so much to do, it’s amazing that anyone ever actually writes a book. First, you should read about writing. Books on craft, genre-specific writing advice, industry magazines, and memoirs can keep you busy for years. Reading blogs about writing is also useful. Write short stories and blog posts to help you “develop your voice.” If you run out of ideas feel free to revisit the first step. Don’t start until you feel ready.
  3. Wait for Validation. Should you really try to write a novel? Isn’t that for real writers? If you hang in there long enough, a spouse, friend, coworker, or your mom may give you permission to call yourself a writer. Then you can start. If you feel ready. (Note: this never actually worked for me.)
  4. Begin without actually writing. Spend as much time as possible researching, world-building, creating character sketches, and plotting. Tell yourself that you’re a planner. Then spend at least a year planning to write.
  5. Allow life events to interfere as much as possible. Have five kids and decide to homeschool them. Obviously, your priorities will shift. Spare time to write will dwindle. Move three times in three years. (I’m having traumatic flashbacks, so I’ll just leave that there.)
  6. Look at the time! Realize that you have been “working” on your first novel for nearly eight years. Mid-life is not as far away as it used to be and you don’t want it to arrive before your novel does.
  7. It’s time to write. Recognize that you have planned, plotted, and sketched this thing to death. There’s nothing left to do but actually write. (Don’t panic. Keep reading.)
  8. Share your dream. Choose someone who doesn’t care if you’re really a writer or not. Choose someone who will cheer you on if you want to be a writer or a world-famous butter sculptor. They’re so supportive, they hold you accountable to your writing plan.
  9. Sit down and write. Oh. It’s hard. Wish you had started this eight years ago. Stop and write a detailed outline for the entire novel because your insecure, rickety train needs rails. This might take a month or two.
  10. Sit down again and write. It’s still hard. Do it anyway. Let your friend hold you accountable. Write some more. Repeat until you finish your first draft less than a year later. It’s pretty awful, but you read Bird by Bird when you were procrastinating six years ago, so you know this is okay.

I can’t guarantee a Pulitzer Prize, but if you follow my plan, you will certainly take many years to complete a novel. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn a few things along the way. Writing your second novel may just be a different story altogether.

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Spring (Finally)

This poem lay dormant for months, seeded in the waning days of autumn, when I wrote Anthem.  Finally, spring is here with “A shout of triumph / An anthem of joy.”


Tight, verdant buds dot the naked limbs laid bare in winter,
and a chartreuse film covers the ground greened in new grass
raised from the teeming dark.

K. Ashby

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What’s So Great About Wuthering Heights?

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I first read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I was eighteen, more than two decades ago. And, until recently, I’ve never wanted to repeat the experience. My recollection of that initial reading is not pleasant: a winter-dark moor; a disappointed, malevolent lover; a lot of death.

However, when my two eldest children were assigned the novel for school, I began to wonder if a second reading might change my opinion. As a fiction writer, I figured Bronte had plenty to teach me, whether I enjoyed her book or not. Also, I  wanted to know why it’s considered such a great work of literature.  So I read it again, and began to find the answers to my questions within the first few paragraphs.

From the hearty enthusiasm of the narrator to Heathcliff’s glum countenance and his aged servant’s cranky piety, the characters immediately engaged my emotions. As a reader, I was, in turn, curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages. Character after character was introduced, each as distinctive as the last, and I heartily despised most of them, yet still found myself interested in the resolution of their stories. In fact, my interest held–no matter how I felt about each character–long after the final word was read.

As a reader, I was in turn curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages.

Yet, Bronte was more than just a clever portraitist. Nearly every principle character suffers and reacts accordingly, changing in appearance, attitudes, and actions. She has wrung from them any contribution they could make to the themes and progression of her story. Yes, there is a background character or two that serve little more than to nudge the plot forward, but considering the depth of more than a half-dozen characters, the insipidity of an occasional minor role is hardly worth mentioning.

As a writer, I found myself wondering if the characters in my current work are as vivid. Would they grip a reader’s attention like Bronte’s cast? Are they really changing as the story progresses, like Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley, or are they just propping up the plot? I  recalled equally potent characters from other works and made a note to examine them as well: evil Cathy Ames from East of Eden; despicable Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; the virtuous and stalwart heroine of Jane Eyre, by Emily Bronte’s sister, Charlotte.

Bronte’s use of setting is just as skillful as her characterization. Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption. As a reader, I enjoyed the sensuous details because they did more than supply helpful images.  They complemented the complex characterization, unifying the whole story.

As a writer, I marveled that Bronte endowed her setting with as much emotional heft as her characters. I realized that I too often use setting as a frame for my narrative–a pretty but simple bit of orientation for the reader. 

Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption.

I’ll risk the accusation of hubris to venture one criticism. Bronte’s narrative technique was sometimes distracting. She uses a first-person narrator to relate the story, but he reports most of the narrative as it is told to him (in first-person) by another character, who at times relates to him what has been told to her by several other characters, both in person and by letter. (Yes, it was rather confusing.) More than once I had to look back a page or two in order to remember which character had taken over the first-person voice. As I writer, I think I would look for an alternative way to overcome the limits of first-person narration or choose a different perspective altogether.

In the end, Bronte won me over completely. Her settings are masterful and communicate nearly as much to the reader as the characters. That is significant indeed because even the most disinterested of readers will not remain impassive when encountering her characters. A reader may groan, laugh, despair, exult, or throw down the book in disgust, but they will respond. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for more.

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Wuthering Heights is FREE for your e-reading device or app:
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Holy Week: Hope and Resurrection

How does the hard and frigid soil,
packed from winter’s brutal toil,
think that spring will ever show–
unfurl above, thread below?

What tiny hope stirs in the deep
to resurrection’s vigil keep?
What life beneath is waiting there–
renewal’s meat, drink, and air?

It’s Adam’s dust, from Adam shaken,
soil to flesh, the flesh then taken
back to earth for life above–
warmed, reborn by perfect love.

K. Ashby

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Previously:
Holy Week: Nature Tells the Truth
Holy Week: Perfect Love

Holy Week: Perfect Love

XV.

What cracks the husk
so that hope pushes its green head
up to the light,
and frail threads wend downward
to mine the rich dark decay
of yesterday’s life?

K. Ashby

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Previously:
Holy Week: Nature Tells the Truth