Thursday, October 22, 2009

I'm back


It's been two months since my last post. Not at all what I was hoping for, but life sometimes takes interesting turns.

When I left off, I was writing fiction daily and making good progress on my novel. Then I had a thought (that touch of ADD reared its ugly head). If I am going to write a book, I might as well tell the story that had the biggest impact on my life over the last decade. That story, worthy of putting down in memoir form, involves a previous incarnation of myself.

I once had a farm in Africa.

Wait. Wrong story.

I once had a cheese factory in Colorado.

There we go.

Ten years ago, my wife and I created a cheese factory out of thin air. With no experience and even fewer expectations, we began making cheese and marketing it under the Bingham Hill brand. Our first batch was a hit, earning us a gold medal at the American Cheese Society annual competition in Napa Valley.

We then watched in amazement as our cheeses became an overnight sensation. Well-known food and wine publications featured them on their covers . Catalogue giants sparred over who would get to feature them in their holiday catalogues. Elegant restaurants and fancy cheese shops included them on their menus. We grew by leaps and bounds.

But then, due to a comedy of errors and tragic misfortune, it all vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The lawsuits have only recently been put to rest.

Losing Bingham Hill Cheese Company was a near-fatal blow. But with a bit of distance, I came to realize that our journey makes quite a story. There is entertainment value in our successes and failures, and I bet others would enjoy hearing our tale.

So I wrote a query letter outlining my story and submitted it to a dozen literary agencies. Almost half of them requested a full proposal, which surprised me to no end. I quickly pounded out a proposal, including a 30-page writing sample, and submitted it to a couple of the agencies. But then I immediately regretted doing so.

After reflecting, I realized I had rushed the writing sample and had done my book concept an injustice. Getting it right would require slowing down.

So now I've spent the last several weeks trying to figure out the correct tone for the story.

The good news is, I'm getting close. And when it's just right, I will submit my proposal to the remaining agencies and see where things go.

If the memoir takes off, the novel will have to wait. But if it fails to get off the ground, I'll return to fiction. In which case, I may be the first person to ever proclaim the following:

"I always have my novel to fall back on."

I hope to resume regular posting here. However, I may have to re-title my blog. Can I get a little help?


Friday, August 21, 2009

So many books, so little time

Fiction writing has been on hold for the last week.

I received interest from a few literary agencies in a nonfiction book I'm writing. I sent out queries to a dozen agents and received requests for full proposals from three of them. Very exciting.

The book is a memoir of my experiences as owner and cheesemaker of Bingham Hill Cheese Company. The company rapidly rose to national prominence and just as quickly crashed and burned.

I spent the last week writing the proposal and will send it out Monday or Tuesday. At that point, I can resume work on my novel.

While the development interrupted my work flow, the process of writing the proposal was valuable and instructive. Working on two projects at once has helped me become a more disciplined and productive (albeit schizophrenic) writer.

Wish me luck.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Writer's Block

The inspiring view from the Poudre River Trail

I'm having a terrible time getting back into my story today. I seem to have hit a wall of sorts, which comes as a surprise, considering how well things went last week.

I blame it all on John Steinbeck. I've been reading his book, "Journal of a Novel," which is a compilation of letters he wrote to his editor during the writing of "East of Eden." The book offers glimpses into Steinbeck's state of mind as he worked through his manuscript.

What I've learned is that in writing a book, there will be periods of progress followed by periods of stagnation. When his productivity slowed, Steinbeck was no different from me. He procrastinated. He doubted himself. His optimism waxed and waned, and he alternated between seeing the importance of his work and being frightened that he'd produced a valueless pile of.... um...paper.

Here are a few excerpts:

July 6, 1951

...I feel just worthless today. I have to drive myself. I have used every physical excuse not to work except fake illness. I have dawdled, gone to the toilet numerous times, had many glasses of water. Really childish. I know that one of the reasons is that I dread the next scene, dread it like hell...

October 22, 1951

So, we go into the last week and I may say I am very much frightened. I guess it would be hard to be otherwise - all of these months and years aimed in one direction and suddenly it is over and it seems that the thunder has produced a mouse.

Last week there was complete exhaustion and very near collapse. I guess to anyone who has not worked in this way it would be hard to conceive this kind of slow accumulated weariness. I don't know of any other work that requires month after month of emotional as well as intellectual concentration...

October 27, 1951

...Yesterday's work was no good. I had to throw it out. I made a bad mistake in saying when I would be finished and now I find myself trying to make it when I said I would. I'll have to stop that - stop it cold. This book is more important than the finish...

The way I see it, Steinbeck condones today's lack of productivity as an inevitable step in the writing process. I feel so liberated. So literary. But right now, I'd rather feel like a published novelist, which would require breaking through this block and putting down some paragraphs.

Usually when I'm stuck, I take a brisk walk along the river and get my thoughts in order. I use the break for multiple purposes, as this is also my opportunity to exercise and listen to music. I recently expanded my exercise regimen by picking up a pair of river rocks and using them as makeshift hand weights. Regulars on the trail must see me as half mad, shirt off and headphones clamped over my ears, swinging stones over my head and curling them back and forth as I power walk down the trail.
me and my stones
Sometimes I use the stones as potato-shaped drumsticks and play along with the music in my headphones. I get a lot of smiles when I do this. But this way, I'm sure to be in shape should Dave Matthews finally grow weary of Carter Beauford's playing and ring me up.

The rocks fit me so well that I've claimed them as my own. I keep them stashed behind a bush and retrieve them at the beginning of each walk.

But I've finished my walk now, and I'm back at my desk procrastinating by writing this blog entry.

That's it. No more posting. Time to work.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Hard" writing versus "soft" writing

Window to another world
900-year-old cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

I'm back from family vacation, and as predicted, I returned with a clear head and renewed creative energy.

Unfortunately, finding time to write during our trip was all but impossible. Days were spent driving to destinations, setting up and taking down campsites, cooking, cleaning, soaking up the natural world, and getting back in touch with my family.

I suppose I shouldn't be disappointed in my output during the trip. It was a vacation, after all. The break was regenerative both for my family and for me, so it served its purpose well.

Through our travels, I rediscovered the beauty and diversity of the Colorado landscape. From the remote solitude of the Flat Tops Wilderness to the jagged 14,000-foot peaks along the San Juan Skyway, from the shops wedged against the cliffs of Telluride to the 700-foot dunes in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, I was amazed (again) at what lies in my backyard. We visited half a dozen places I would feel comfortable calling home some day.

But it was Mesa Verde that left the most lasting impression. I visited the park as a nine year old and wanted to return primarily for the benefit of my children. It was a surprise that I was the one who couldn't stop blathering about how incredibly cool the park and its ruins are.

More than once, I pictured myself in the yucca sandals of the Anasazi Indians. I scaled the canyon cliffs and subsisted on venison and pinon nuts. I experienced the dangers of a life with predators and disease and perpetual drought. I lived a life of practical beauty through the artifacts left behind: arrows, sleeping mats, impressive masonry and pottery - all preserved in the dry mountain air and the cliff dwellings themselves.

Corny? Probably. But the place affected me. Perhaps as a kid I hadn't yet developed the imagination necessary to fully appreciate a place so rich in history.

The photos and the memories and the time with family are treasures that will last.

As for the writing? I don't feel that the lack of words typed equates to a lack of progress. I found that my downtime was just as valuable as sitting in the chair.

Writers talk of "hard" and "soft" writing time. Hard writing time consists of sitting at a desk and banging out words. But writing a novel requires time away from the computer as well. It is during those "soft" times - those quiet moments of reflection - that breakthroughs are often made.

Some of my better ideas have come when away from my desk. I might be walking along the river, doing yard work, or staring into a campfire. It is during these moments that unlikely connections are drawn, plot ideas come together and characters take shape. It's all part of the process.

I returned to writing Monday with a voice I didn't know I had. I pulled adverbs and adjectives from my draft and stripped sentences bare. The remaining skeleton told a story that was previously buried in excess verbage. The few descriptions I left cut through the clutter and stood tall. And the words flowed. I re-wrote Chapter 1 and tied it into Chapters 2 and 3. I outlined future scenes and made a plan for going forward.

On Thursday I submitted a draft of Chpater 1 to my online writing classmates. I've only received a few comments so far, and the criticism is on the mark. I need to be clearer when I'm entering flashbacks and I need to expand some of my background concerning characters' relationships. When living a story night and day, it is easy to forget that readers are not privy to what is in my head. As a result, I was lean on details in a few places.

But there were comments from readers that encouraged me as well. My imagery seems to be effective. I have painted a believable picture of the mental state of my principal character. Descriptions of scene are working. I find all of this very helpful, since I have not previously shown my writing to anyone.

In summary: from a writing perspective, my vacation was a success. I made progress on my novel without having to type a word. Now it's time translate that progress into sentences. I intend to submit Chapters 2 and 3 to my class in two weeks, so I have plenty of incentive to get on with things.

Write on.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Writing on the road

(photo of La Garita Wilderness)

This week, my family and I will embark on a 12-day road trip through western Colorado. Stops will include:
  • The Flat Tops Wilderness
  • Glenwood Springs
  • Aspen
  • Marble
  • Paonia
  • Telluride
  • Mesa Verde
  • Durango
  • Weminuche Wilderness
  • La Garita Wilderness
  • The Great Sand Dunes
  • The Royal Gorge
  • Cripple Creek
My challenge will be to continue writing without disrupting our family vacation. Also, I hope to move forward with the online novel writing class. I am scheduled to submit the first 5,000 words of my novel on August 8 for review by my classmates.

I plan to write on my laptop and communicate with my class via Iphone. I have a converter that will allow me to plug my laptop into the cigarette lighter. Ideally, I will rise early and write while my wife and kids sleep. Perhaps I can also get some writing done during drive time (laptop perched upon the steering column???) Maybe my wife should drive...

Vacations have always been a period of renewed creative energy for me. Whether it is the change of routine, the extra sleep, or the new sights and sounds, my mind seems to wake up when I leave home. Hopefully, this trip will be no different.

Early in my marriage, my wife and I joined her parents for a week on the Gulf of Mexico. I was working on a recording of my songs at the time and had been stuck on lyrics for months. I found inspiration on the beach and wrote most of the lyrics for my record that week.

Likewise, I have done some of my best writing in ski lodges, airports, hotel lobbies, and the like.

Come to think of it, those same times have served to renew my relationship with my wife. Maybe she's the reason I feel inspired.

Here's to dramatic vistas, effortless narrative, and sharing a tent with my wife.

Friday, July 17, 2009

My new favorite song

"Geraldine" (live) by the Yellowjackets
from the album Twenty Five

When I hear this song, I am a young romantic living in Boston during the 1950s. I rise in the afternoon and spend my evenings smoking Chesterfield Kings at the jazz club below my apartment.

Those were the days. Except I wasn't born yet.

Brand new day

Yesterday was a day to be forgotten. After undergoing hideous, disfiguring surgery, I spent the day in bed doped up on Vicodin and watching Andy Griffith re-runs.

I posted last night that nothing could stop me from writing 1,000 words a day, not even a dental implant. I stand corrected. After that post, I fell asleep and never looked back. I start this morning a day late and 1,000 words short. Can I make up my lost progress? Time will tell.

But I emerged from my pharmaceutically-induced fog as a more humble and insightful writer. The things I have seen! The horrors I have known! Today I leave my demon behind and switch to ibuprofen. With a clearer head and a sorer jaw, I will continue on with my novel.

Expect a progress report this evening.