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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Guest Blogger: A Writing Challenge in Six Weeks--with Cherries!

This guest post was graciously contributed by Marjorie Farrell. When she told me about the writing challenge she had accepted, I thought it would be great for Books in Northport, and she rose to that challenge, as well.

Meeting the challenge!
A Writing Challenge in Six Weeks, With Cherries

Fourteen years after first attending the Clarion summer-long writing workshop (then at MSU, since relocated to UCSD), I reconnected with the group.  They were running a fundraiser Write-a-Thon competition for scholarship money, helping other students to afford the expense.  It was not a competition against other writers, but a competition against yourself.  The challenge was a promise to write for 43 days—the length of the actual UCSD workshop.  We could choose to promise a specific number of hours, days, words or stories.  Supporters could pay any amount per unit.  On a whim one morning I emailed the request to a friend who attended the same workshop. “Let's do it,” she said.  Now I had to back up my brave talk.  Could I do it?  I have written haphazardly over the years, never feeling anything was good enough to send out.  My stories never made it past the first draft.  Was this to be an awakening, a trial abandoned by week two, or a fresh start?

Below is a week-by-week summary of my journey.

Week 1:  Sent e-mail to potential sponsors.  Set writing goal so sponsors would know I was working to earn their money.  I'm a busy person.  I figured I could swing 1 hour a day.  I spend that much time making coffee, drinking it, eating a morning snack. I can write at the same time.

Where to start.  I've thought of nothing new.  Check my various notebooks, sketchpads, backs of envelopes.  Still nothing appealed.  Inspiration didn't jump out of the hedge and embrace me over the weekend.  I had counted on that happening. In desperation I grabbed a copy of a short story I wrote last summer in a mystery writing class at the Old Arts Building in Leland, MI.  I couldn't use the story itself for a starting point.  It had been given to us as a map to lead us into character writing.  The plot wasn't mine, but the final characters were.   I plucked two of them whole out of the story, set up my locale (Leelanau Peninsula) and tweaked the characters a bit.  As I don't have a plot, I decide not to write in linear fashion, but rather write scene by scene, character backstories, and to research events as they occur to me.

Week 2:  I still need a plot.  By midweek I don't have one yet.  I'll write the characters, I thought.  Maybe they will give me the plot.  Two people.  One, a young man new to the area, looking for work.  He is heavily tattooed.  Why?  Symbolizes his search for something.  They tell reader he is an outsider.  The sheriff is female.  I name her for my friend in New York who says Northport, MI, looks like Cabot Cove, ME, in Murder She Wrote.  I have no name for the guy.  I like the name the teacher gave him, but can't use it.  I write up a list of names.  No good.  I try naming him after my husband.  No.  I am in Naming Hell, having a devil of a time.  This never happens.  I am good at names.  Oh, I need a literal Devil in the story.  Name him after my husband?  No.  The young man's name comes to me.  He lives in the Midwest, his mother was a flower child.  She named him Prairie.  When she moved here in the 1970's she legally changed her last name to a small Midwest bird.  Perfect.  Nothing silly like warbler or chickadee.  I try out Wren or Sparrow.

Week 3: I need a plot.  One still hasn't shown up.  I write the devil-arriving-in-the-community scene.  Why is he coming here?    I read an article about early summer weather in March leading to a poor cherry crop.  I write the young man character.  Why is he here?  What about all the tattoos?  I need a crime to solve.  I need 2 crimes--one real world, one alternate world.  The town has 2 levels of characters.  The Devil will be in disguise.  The Devil doesn't just show up in the real world with tail and pitchfork.  Maybe he is a devil, not The Devil.  This has become a fantasy/magical realism/mystery story.  The Sheriff and young man are mother and son.  Bingo.  She is an Earth Mother.  He is Genius Loci, protector of the region.  Devil is threatening what?  Loki (or is it Loci) are Norse.  What culture are my other alternate reality characters?  Is it OK to mix them?  Are there two Loki?  One is the protector, the other is a wicked, mischievous Loki.  He causes trouble because he can.  It is his nature.  In mythology, Loki caused the death of a beautiful god by tricking a blind man into shooting the god with an arrow wrapped in mistletoe.  That is hardly a mischievous act.   My first reader (husband) says that Genius Loci is normally a benevolent, protective spirit.  The idea of an evil one is interesting, but mixing of Loki/Loci seems odd.  I must find a reason for these similar named, but different spirits to be here at the same time.

Week 4:  I need a plot.  I have a crime, maybe.  The wicked Loki causes strange weather to hamper cherry crop.  Why?  Genius Loci needs to win.  How?  I need a chase scene with loaded cherry truck.  The cherries splash out of the bins in the truck bed onto the car behind, just like what happened to us.  Is there a bet with the Loki?  Maybe a chase scene and Genius Loci wins.  Look up how to drive a truck.  Find out why cherry bins are not lidded for transport.  I feel like writing more about relationship of mother and son.  I email a snippet of the story to my Write-a-Thon group.  I get interesting responses.  Two people say the mom/sheriff/earth mother is the most intriguing character. I decide to have her live in an old church, like I do.  Our Fearless Leader says then the church becomes a character in the story.  I like that idea.  I had planned to have the strange weather be a character.  Sometimes reading groups can be helpful.  I usually don't feel that way.  On reflection, I like the idea of 2 Loki characters battling each other.  Change devil to wicked Loki.  I've have given myself a headache.   I'll work out the cultural/mythological details later.

Week 5:  I need a (real world) plot.  A crime.  I read newspapers, magazines.  No crime I feel like solving.  I am unhappy and bored.    I clean my house.  I miss my company of the last week.  I go to Northport shopping.  I go to Leland shopping.  Again, I notice the cemetery that has a lakefront view.  It has intrigued me for years.  How did a valuable piece of land become a cemetery instead of a home site?  Isn't someone losing tax money on it?  Are cemeteries taxed?  When was this cemetery started?  Was there originally a church next door?  I go home and look it all up.  No, cemeteries aren't taxed. I continue to research the history of that cemetery.  I have an idea for a real world crime.  Someone wants that piece of property to develop it.  Who?  What will they do to get it?

Week 6:  I have two plots.  One real world, one alternate.  I make notes on how they will cross.
End of Write-a-Thon assessment:  my story is rough, has gaps, too many scenes not put into story yet, but it is a good start.  Now I will fill in the holes, tie up the ends and SEND IT OUT.  I give myself until Thanksgiving to finish it and send it out.

I begin to think there might be a novel in it.  I daydream.  Maybe a series?  What about a mini series for TV?  A movie?  Anime?  Action figures?  Come back to reality and realize I still have to finish and polish the darn thing.  AND SEND IT OUT. 

We attended the Traverse City Film Festival during last week of Write-a-Thon.  I wrote early in the morning for one hour before leaving to stand in hours long lines to see great movies that likely will never show up in major theaters.  I think about incorporating Alfred Hitchcock's first movie (a silent film) in the story line.  The wicked Loki has a small part in the movie.  Purpose?  It lets the reader know he is long-lived and recurring, other worldly.  I need to write a small scene or two to create his back-story.  Then, decide how much to include in the story.  Inspiration is truly everywhere.

What I have learned: 
1.  Most important for me was building the habit of writing.  I put it at the top of my to-do list everyday.  One hour.  I try to make it first thing after breakfast.
2.  It is mostly all there in my head already.  If it is not already there completely, it is out there waiting for me to find it, or it is easily researched. 
3.  Keep a pen and notebook by my computer.  Random thoughts about the story will pop up out of sequence.  Also, random thoughts about birthday cards, groceries and hair appointments will pop up—always when the phone and the calendar are across the room.  If I get up, I lose the writing rhythm. 
4.  I carry a notebook and pen with me so I can write notes to myself about things that I see or hear.
5.  Read newspapers, magazines, other books.  Look around me, pay attention when I am out doing the day-to-day stuff.  I find characters, plots, inspiration everywhere I look.  I only have to open myself to it.  I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt.  It said, “Be careful what you say in front of me. You may end up in my novel”. 
6.  Then I only have to write it and SEND it out to magazine publishers.  A novel may come, a series may come.  Finishing a short story and sending it out is the first step.  I cannot swim if I don't get in the water.

In total, I wrote 72 hours (I count research as writing), nearly doubling my 43-hour goal.  In addition to writing those six weeks, I also:

Cleared out my Mother-in-law's house to put it up for sale.  She passed away in April. I held a two-day yard sale at my Mother-in-law's house.  We plan to put the waterfront property on the real estate market before summer's end.   Readying the house and running the sale is harder to do than I expected.  Everyone knew her and has stopped by.  I thought I could write while running the yard sale.  Ha.

I cleaned our house in preparation for a visit from the great-nieces, or as we call them, The Great Nieces. I write extra to make up for time I will play tourist with them.  We have a fun time with The Great Nieces visiting.   I make lists of places and events we visited which I may want to include in the story.  I was hoping to show them the cherries slopping out of a truck onto our car, but that didn't happen.  Guess you can't plan something like that, no matter how cool the visitors are.

I cleaned house thoroughly for Northport Home Tour to raise money for scholarships.  I finished planting the meditation garden in the front yard.  I visited nurseries to buy pots of plants to set on deck and steps.  I never got around to planting them myself.  The day of the Home Tour we had 271 people through the house in 6 hours.  It was fun.  We love to talk about our art, music and our old church house.

In six weeks I have proven to myself that I can write.  I can write and I can get a lot of other work done, at the same time.  It isn't all one or the other.  I learned to prioritize.  What has the earliest deadline?  Always make sure the hour (or more) of writing gets top priority.  Life really is a movable feast, to slightly misquote Hemingway (another Michigander, I learned). I  have to pick and choose.  Time is included in that banquet.  I simply have to choose when.  I'm 65 now, 14 years older than I was when I attended the writing crash course.  I am 14 years stronger, experienced and wiser.  That time is now.

Marjorie Farrell, long-time reader, writer, photographer and general bon vivant artist, has retired with her husband to Northport.   They have family here and have been long-time visitors.  They love the Peninsula and now proudly call it home.  Her favorite word is joy.  Her favorite fruit is peaches, sadly not cherries.  She has no favorite color.   Or maybe, it is cherry.


P. J. Grath said...

A friend’s e-mail today read in part “This a wonderful and inspiring blog. Just what I needed today as I am pressing the refresh button on my own writing.... (I tried to comment on the blog page but I could not read the first group of letters needed to prove I’m not a robot...)” Sorry you couldn’t leave your comment, Marilyn, but I’m putting the relevant part of your e-mail here for Marjorie to see.

Marilyn also asks if she and Marjorie have met, and I couldn’t remember. Here’s a reminder about Marjorie, though: she’s the one who did the demonstration at Dog Ears Books in November 2010 of furoshiki cloth wrappings. Here’s where to find that post:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this writing
opportunity, Pamela. It
helped me to pull together
my own thoughts and feelings
about writing after this

Thanks also to your friend
for her comments.

P. J. Grath said...

Marjorie, I'm the one to be thanking you! When you told me about the challenge, and I asked if you would write something about it for my blog, I had not imagined the wonderfully detailed and self-revealing story you gave me. Maybe you would be a guest blogger again sometime? Keep that possibility tucked away in a corner of your mind, please. And, again, thank you!

Dawn said...

This is interesting. I think some of us (me) have a rosy view of writing, in fact, of doing anything artistic..that it's all inspiration just flowing, when obviously that's not reality at all. And I admire her for slogging through the difficult times rather than waiting for inspiration to strike.

P. J. Grath said...

The old saw about creativity (who usually gets credit for this? does anyone remember?) is that it's 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. Another truism often quoted is that 90% of success is showing up for work.

Walt said...

I can't really quote this accurately enough to do it justice, and I can't even tell you the artist's name. (I really must get back to the Dennos so I can write it down). But they have a small exhibit in the hallway outside Milliken auditorium of some etchings (I think), and an artist's statement.

The artist says, very approximately, that she's tired of people praising her "God-given talent" as though she herself has nothing to do with the quality of her work, and that no one seems to realize how many terrible drawings she has had to produce over the years in order to produce the relatively few she considers worthwhile.

I want to be able to quote that accurately to send to my drawing instructor, who I know would appreciate it and may not have seen it yet.


P. J. Grath said...

After Bonnie Jo Campbell's reading this afternoon, one audience member asked her if she ever came back to her work-in-progress surprised by what her characters had been up to in her absence, and she said she wished that would happen for her but that it never did. She even said (to my utter amazement), "I'm not that good a writer. I'm just a good rewriter." She said that the minute she walked away from her desk, her characters went on break and didn't get back on the job until she did. Well, I can think of many writers who would be much better writers if they would work at rewriting!

Dawn said...

I thought that was another enlightening moment and good insight into the mind of a writer...who is...actually....a very GOOD writer. Regardless of how she feels about it.

dmarks said...

Good ideas in this post.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn and dmarks, good to see you here. Dawn, GREAT to have you IN PERSON yesterday at the bookstore--though we agree we need more visiting time the next time!

Marjorie said...

I have enjoyed the comments
on my guest blog. Thank
you all very much. I needed
to dispel for myself the
idea that the creative muse
shows up when you need her
and that if the completed
work wasn't perfect the
first time, I was not a
good enough writer. Now
I understand it can be and
should be fixed. I love
Bonnie Jo Campbell's idea
that it is important to be
a good rewriter. I have
learned so much from my
writing challenge and these


P. J. Grath said...

Well, this guest post has been a resounding success! Inspiration, encouragement, appreciation--it's good to recognize and share with others. Thank you all!