Saturday, July 23, 2011

J.B. Chicoine: Novelist

I just changed my header title from Aspiring Novelist…Practicing Writer to Novelist & Practicing Writer. I’ve finally decided to own up to it.

I’m a novelist, and I have completed novels to prove it. And they’re good, and not just my family and friends say so!

And yes, I am also a practicing writer—don’t you just love the ambiguousness of that statement?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

So, What Exactly Have I Been Doing?

Over the past weeks, I have been spending much less time blogging (a great diversion during ‘writer’s block’), and a whole lot of time writing—finally. Some of that time has consisted of re-writing—not simply revising—earlier work. As a result, I have come to realize something very empowering. I have progressed as a writer!

When I completed my first novel over 20 years ago, somewhere deep down inside—as proud as I was of it—I knew it was crap. I couldn’t define exactly why, but I knew it was. I stuck it in a drawer and there it remains.

Exactly 4 years ago, I gave voice to another story that wouldn’t leave me alone. I hadn’t a clue about good writing, but that wasn’t my focus. I simply had a story I wanted to tell. My husband was out of town for five weeks and I decided to share that story with him. When he called every evening, I read what I had written. I had never felt the serotonin levels spike the way they did the summer I wrote Girl Running. I LOVED WRITING. As an added perk, after 17 years of marriage, I surprised and impressed my Todd.

Then I wrote the sequel, Portrait of a Protégé. Still, I didn’t know the ‘rules’ of good writing and so my words and the story had free reign. When I finished, I loved the story, but I knew my writing had problems—and I had no idea what they were, let alone how to fix them. It was frustrating, but didn’t stop me from writing some more.

So, I moved on. I finished the first draft of Story for a Shipwright two years ago, simultaneous with my blogging debut, and I started to learn and to revise.

Now, I’ve gone back to Girl Running and Protégé. Oh my goodness, what a revelation. Now I can see the problems: I was in love with:
• Long, convoluted sentences: the more semi-colons and em-dashes; and; as; but;—not to mention however and nevertheless—the better! (you see what I mean)
• Big, obscure, eye-rolling words (words that even I can’t remember what they mean)
• Switching POV willy-nilly. Oh my! Talk about head-hopping
• Long, descriptive passages filled with adverbs and other modifiers

• Passive voice and weak verbs
• Pointless scenes
• Back-story info dumps
• Redundant dialogue tags
And the list goes on and on…including my whopping 150+K and 120+K word counts

However, I did find some good.
• Some strong characters with good potential
• Moderately tight plots
• Good, well thought out dialogue, much of it salvageable (even if it was buried in long descriptive tags.)
• Some nicely turned phrases that I could easily recycle
So, that’s what I’ve been up to—writing for the fun of it, finally knowing how to bring out the best in these stories. I am so excited to find joy in my writing again!

…and thanks to Michelle David Argyle at The Innocent Flower who continues to post honestly about the emotional ups and downs of writing versus publishing, helping me sort out my own expectations.

Dumbbell Syndrome

She is sitting. The dry grass bristles beneath her little hands. On either side of her, she can see patches of concrete alternating with dormant lawns all up and down the street of ticky-tacky houses. She’s in a carefree, three-year-old state of mind, thinking only of her playmate a few houses down. She sings her name as loud as she can, over and over. From the house next door, a man steps onto his front stoop. Whiskers pepper his chin and strands of hair hang from one side of his balding head. His face plumps as his eyes squint.
“Shut up, ya dumbbell!” His words startle and silence her.

Although she does not know what a ‘dumbbell’ is, in that moment, she does know three indisputable realities. She is a dumbbell. She knows a dumbbell is not good. And she is all at once aware that everyone else knows she is a dumbbell.

She is immobilized. She cannot cry, though she wants to. She remains perfectly still; perhaps no one will notice the dumbbell still sitting on the grass. She sits there for a very long time.

She boards a Greyhound on Long Island, venturing off on her own for the first time. She is headed to New Hampshire to visit her brother. A trip all by herself feels precarious, but she’s doing it anyway. She is eighteen after all—practically grown up. In Hartford, Connecticut, she needs to switch buses. A Vermont Transit Bus parks in the spot where she believes she should board, and so she does.

As soon as she takes a seat, and as she watches the driver ready to put the bus in gear, she is overcome with panic. Is this the right bus? She reads Vermont Transit overhead, but she is headed to New Hampshire. She should ask the driver if the bus stops in Claremont, but she cannot make herself move, let alone speak. Somewhere inside she hears a voice, Shut up ya dumbbell!

For five hours, stop after stop, she is immobilized, never knowing until the last moment if she will ever arrive at her destination.

She reads a review of her writing, something she has bravely poured her heart and soul into. Her chest pounds with such discomfort that she stops breathing. She is reading a blur of isolated words strung together with venom. They make no sense and she squints harder, trying to understand. Now, they come into focus. Shut up ya dumbbell!

Lessons Learning

For the past couple weeks I’ve been writing up a storm. I haven’t had this much fun stringing together words since before I started querying. After a long dry spell, depression break, I was beginning to wonder if I’m a writer at all—perhaps this writing thing is just another one of the many projects I have undertaken and completed, and now it’s time to move on. I hated to resign myself to that, butwell, writers write, and I wasn't writing. At all.

There are a number of creative outlets I enjoy and have become proficient at, some of which I have never gone back to, but the two endeavors to which I always return are painting and writing. Art has always had the upper hand. There is something about the visual that allows me the immediate satisfaction of knowing I’ve improved. It’s tangible. I can see it in front of me. I still see the flaws, but the results are good enough to pleasantly surprise me. Being married to an accomplished artist helps—he’s always there, with validations. He’s honest and I trust his opinion.

Writing has been an altogether different experience. Yes, I am one of those insecure artist types, always looking for validation within a very subjective realm. How will I know if or when I’m good enough? And ‘Good Enough’ for what? To impress friends and family? For publication? Will my husband or my sister tell me? Or perhaps a fellow writer. Perhaps an agent, reviewer of publisher?

If I’ve learned a lot about myself over the past few years of writing and blogging, I have learned ten times as much in the span of two months, while writing nothing—while not even being able to read because I allowed it to make me feel even more inadequate. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

• I hate feeling as if I have wasted time with nothing of value to show for it.
• I have learned that ‘value’ is very subjective.
• I’ve learned that the ultimate validation only exists in the form of self-acceptance.

• That the euphoria I experience when fully immersed in writing can not be reduced to words. It can not be measured against the critical eye of another.
• I love my stories, and I love my characters and I love the imaginary worlds I have built.

All of these are things I already knew intellectually, but now I’m finally getting it. I know I will continue to have my moments, but at least I can refer back to this post, where I have declared it to the world…