A Decade? Embarrassing Timeline Confessions of a Part-time Novel Writer

My manuscript is done. It’s a thrilling thing to say—not only that I finished a draft, but that all 100,000 words are what I want them to be (for now, until I revise with an agent and editor) and ready to send off. You’d think I’d be shouting this to the hilltops!

But I worry that after ten years no one will believe me. Even my poor husband probably says “That’s great!” just to humor me. Other people ask, “Wait, is this still your Peter Pan novel?” Still.

I’ve wondered myself why it took so long. I wrote my first full novel during grad school in only a year; how did a second novel take ten? True, that first novel was not so great and has deservedly stayed on a shelf, but come on: Nikki, what in all the vast cosmos have you been doing for the past decade? So I dug into old files and blog posts, looking for word counts and date stamps that would piece together the mystery. Read more

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On Icebergs, Novel Writing and Journaling

Tip of the Iceberg
Tip of the Iceberg — Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS

It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but I’m going to make an embarrassing confession about its application to novel writing: for the longest time, I didn’t get it.

See, I had approached writing a novel like so:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Start writing chapter 1
  3. Keep writing until you hit “the end”
  4. Go back and revise a million times until it works

Was the underside of the iceberg just all the stuff I cut from each draft? I honestly didn’t give it too much thought. I know every writer crafts differently, so I figured this was one of those things that other writers did and maybe it didn’t apply to my process.

Or maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t have enough process yet. Read more

Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part III)

You can tell a lot about a person from the obvious pieces we’ve discussed in the last two posts: their features and their name. Even without knowing energy types we could probably identify apple cheeks as fun, puppy-dog eyes as sensitive, sharp chins as determined, and long faces as serious. Similarly, we make natural judgments about a name that are often true.

(One beta reader commented, after learning my artsy character Phil is short for Theophilus, “I was a little surprised that he goes by Phil as opposed to Theo. Theo sounds artistic, but Phil sounds kind of carefree/humorous which also seems to fit him.” Later, when she learned Wendy had been the one who insisted on calling him Phil, the reader said it made perfect sense.)

Today we get to dive deeper—into the invisible influence of astrology.

Character Sun Sign

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Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part II)

Okay. Your character has a face and an energy type! This is exciting stuff! You’re well on your way.

Next up, not surprisingly, your character needs a NAME.

Now, sure, you could just give him or her your favorite name, that one that was a little too wild to use on any actual children or say out loud all the time but you know would be just too cool in print. You could. Maybe. But I’d like to convince you that the best choice is a name that perfectly fits the character.

We do this with real children. In fact, if you’re currently trying to decide on a name for your upcoming bundle of joy, this info I’m about to share might be even more invaluable. I certainly wish I’d known, for example, that the letter Z signifies “aggression/conflict” before I gave a certain child of mine a name that starts with it—except that, of course, it is exactly the right name for that aggressive little kid. And luckily the other letters in his name have to do with thinking and wisdom. Fingers crossed he grows into those soon haha.

Believe it or not, characters can embody their names just as much—whether or not you understand the name in advance. For example, with my Peter Pan retelling, I chose to stick with the names Wendy and Peter, and it was amazing how much personality came with those names that I didn’t realize ahead of time. I “crafted” their characters years before learning anything about nomenology, and yet the names are dead on.

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An Instagram Tour of the West Coast

As we crossed the Willamette River with downtown Portland on our right, I couldn’t help holding my phone up to the open window and trying to snap a shot between fences and railings and pillars. And of course, a second later, I had to upload the image to Instagram and play with the square cropping and the filters and the brightness until I was smiling at my accomplishment: a little 600×600-pixel souvenir uniquely mine.

I’m still not sure what it is about the filters and such that make me so addicted to Instagram. I often put my phone in airplane mode just so I can edit photos to my heart’s content without overwhelming the people who follow me (in airplane mode, Instagram saves the image to your phone but can’t update to the social media; this might be cheating, but I’m in favor of it). There’s something about choosing a “feel” and “tone” for each picture that makes me super happy.

So as I thought about how I could recap our five-day adventure, I thought Instagram might be a perfect way to show it.

Oregon Coast

We took an elevator down into a huge sea-lion cave, ate seafood on a pier, and camped in a round canvas-lined yurt near a lighthouse and a coast full of soft white sand dunes. The ocean was way too cold unless you had a full-body wetsuit, like the surfers we watched, but our kids had a fun time rolling down the hills while I searched for starfish and anemones along the jetty. No starfish found, but lots of squishy-looking sea-green anemones and spiral-shelled hermit crabs.

Coastal Redwoods

Here the beach sand was gray and coarse. It was strange to me how the trees actually didn’t seem much taller than they had in Oregon, maybe because I’d been expecting them to be even taller or maybe because my vantage point on the ground didn’t do them justice. At a coastal trail head we stopped at (but didn’t hike, since it was 10.5 miles round trip), the path was deep brown, almost muddy from all the moisture but still firm enough to walk on, and ferns and moss covered everything but the trail itself, some ferns shooting up into the air and others spreading out wide.

Avenue of the Giants

The forest here was drier than along the coast, giving plenty of places for walking around and exploring and poking at banana slugs. We also discovered plenty of tree houses or tunnels carved into redwood stumps for visitor amusement.

California Highway 1

South of the Avenue of the Giants, there’s a turnoff for a scenic drive that’s easy to miss. Highway 1 wound us through forests in a serpentine, nausea-inducing route until it suddenly opened to the coast, taking us along the ocean line high above the waves on grass-covered cliffs. Along the way we found little towns like Fort Bragg, where we stumbled on a classic car show while our pizza baked.

San Francisco

Our stay here was way too short, but we managed to squeeze in a drive down the windiest street and then dinner (our third day in a row of clam chowder!) and sightseeing on Pier 39. The view of San Francisco, Alcatraz, and a little herd of sea lions was awesome; even Instagram can’t do those justice.

Monterey

This region wasn’t what I was expecting. The trees and plants were rougher, sort of scraggly looking as their jagged silhouettes jutted out to the sides. The rocky shores seemed as if someone had hacked at them with a huge dull knife that hadn’t cut all the way through, leaving plenty of cracks and crooked edges. And the houses were a mix of styles: some with the painted siding and wood shingles we were used to seeing all along the coast next to others with the red-tile roofs and stucco exteriors of a more deserty local.

Point Lobos

At a marine reserve just south of Monterey we discovered a herd of thirteen harbor seals on a rock close to shore (in the first picture, it’s the little island on the left side in front of the cliff side). They were all different shades of brown and spotted darker or lighter (some of them had spots that were almost white) to blend in with the rocks. The shoreline was pebbled instead of sandy, the sea weed was glossy, the wildflowers short and small, but all of it was multicolored and beautiful. If only we could have gotten as close to the seals as to the squirrel that came begging for treats!

From Big Sur to Ventura

While we didn’t stay completely true to Highway 1 all the way down, we kept to it as much as possible. For long stretches the fog thwarted our view, making it feel pointless to be driving next to an ocean we couldn’t see. But every time the sky opened again we felt compelled to stop for more photos. We also stopped to watch goofy-looking creatures called elephant seals flip sand onto themselves as they lounged on a beach far from civilization. Sandy beaches for people were somewhat scarce, but we finally found a great place to stop in Santa Barbara: Leadbetter Beach with a great little cafe right on the sand. Wish I’d taken a picture of the yummiest shrimp tacos I’ve ever had.

Hollywood

Monday morning we had only a couple of hours to spare before rushing to LAX, but we stopped along the Walk of Fame to get pictures of El Capitan Theater and the little Disney ice cream shop next door. The street was blocked off for the premiere of Brave and the Disney store had tons of scaffolding outside for some kind of remodel, but I managed to click shots of a few details that I wanted.

University of Southern California

This stop was purely research, but the kids amused themselves at a fountain outside one of the libraries while I photographed the McCarthy Quad. I loved the landscape details of Los Angeles, like the huge strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees, leaving them smooth and pale yellow and bare underneath; the scruffy beards of the palm trees; and the purple blossoms of the jacaranda trees that littered the lawn beneath them and infused the air with a gorgeous fragrance.

All in all, the photos don’t show enough of what it was like, especially the wildlife. The harbor seals were my favorite by far, watching me as attentively as I watched them. I wish I had pictures proving how ridiculous the noses of those elephant seals looked or audio of the strange roaring/honking/barking/growling of the sea lions (the wind obscured the sound every time I tried to record it).

But still, I love my little square souvenirs.

A Research Drive

Let me tell you when research becomes not only fun but outrageously exciting.

Image

It’s when you travel to research the setting of your novel in person.

For years, I’ve been wanting to drive down the West Coast, from Portland to Ensenada, just like my characters do in the novel I’m now querying. Finally, it’s happening!

I partially credit post-cruise blues. The day we got back, we were ready for another vacation. It didn’t take much convincing as far as, “Want to miss three days of work and camp along the coast with the kids?” But forking over the funds to fly to Portland, rent a car, and fly home from LA? Well, since the novel hasn’t sold yet, we’re calling it an investment and a leap of faith.

Maybe this research trip will create big changes for the novel. Maybe it will only add that “touch of verisimilitude” that Stephen King suggests in On Writing. But either way, I am so thrilled!

One goal that I have for my writing is that readers will feel like they’re there , and so far when I’ve written descriptions I’ve done my best to make guesses, based on what I could Google or imagine, but nothing can substitute for gathering input from all five of my senses at once, experiencing the climate, the vegetarian, the weather, the beach sand, and everything else for myself. I want readers to experience that amazing drive down Highway 1 vicariously through my novel, and now I get to make that happen!

The cruise, by the way, was awesome. And while I didn’t work on my new novel quite as much as I thought I would, I did get some fundamental storyline questions figured out, so I’m very much excited to press forward with a new manuscript, too, even while polishing my “finished” one with setting details.