Saturday, October 31, 2009

I did it!

I signed up for National Novel Writing Month! Eeek! 50,000 words in one month. More words than I have ever written on any single project before in my life. Eeek! I'm going to be a busy girl this month so the dishes may not get done in a timely manner, the laundry put away or the kids perfectly coiffed. Oh wait, that's how it normally is around here. This month I will have a good excuse!

I will probably be MIA for the month of November, but I'll try to at least update you on my progress.

Looks like those homemade Christmas presents I was hoping to make will have to wait until next year. I can hear my many family members breathing sighs of relief all the way in Virginia. Next year you guys are totally getting crocheted wallets or something equally awesome and homemade. This year, it isn't going to happen.

Is anyone else planning on writing a novel this month? If so, "friend" me on the nanowrimo website. My user name is "elizabethmc."

Have a great November!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What time is it?

I should be doing so many other things, but I really just want to write to you, dear reader. I foolishly thought that the kids going back to school would mean that I would be a lady of leisure, cruising around in my minivan looking for things to keep me busy while the children learned things and the baby napped peacefully. I do a lot of driving in the minivan, but it is not what one would call leisurely. First I drop off Emma at school, then Charlie gets dropped off next door at his preschool 20 minutes later. By the time Charlie is out of the car, it's a mad dash to race home, feed the baby, get him to sleep, and then conquer something on the To Do list before having to wake up the baby and go get Charlie again. Here's my current To Do list:
  1. Pick up pictures at Walgreens
  2. Make ghost costume
  3. Make Halloween cookies for Emma's school picnic today
  4. Make "Harvest Moon" mac and cheese for picnic
  5. Do laundry (when is this not on the list?)
  6. Finish shopping for Teddy's b-day presents
  7. Return & renew library books
  8. Finish Teddy's baby book (only eleven more months to go!)
  9. Write novel (only 200 more pages to go!)
  10. Knit robot
  11. Make "super baby" costume for Teddy
  12. Make pumpkin muffins for Charlie's Halloween party
  13. Get Teddy's one-year portrait made
  14. Make cake for Teddy's b-day
Ahhhg!!! This list is stressing me out. Clearly knitting the robot can wait. But everything else is sort of time sensitive. Gone are the days when I could look up at the sky and guess cowboy-style what time it is. Now, I feel like I live by the clock...ten minutes until Emma needs to be at hour until I pick up Charlie...five more minutes and I have to wake up Teddy from his nap so we can wait at the bus stop.

Mommy confession time: A few weeks ago I wasn't at the bus stop in time to pick up Emma. I thought I had left at the same time I normally do. I must've lingered a little longer helping Charlie with his shoes or getting Teddy into the stroller. We were also foiled by finding trash billowing around our street due to tipped over trash cans. Charlie and I stopped to pick up the trash, and I was feeling all superior, like we were the neighborhood heroes. I may have even said, "Look at us, Charlie. We're the neighborhood heroes." What an idiot. While we were picking up garbage, Emma was riding the bus all the way back to school where she would have to wait in the principal's office for me to come get her. She said that when she saw I wasn't there to get her, she just told herself "it's going to be's going to be okay..." over and over again. She said she still cried a little despite her best effort to hold it in. Who's the hero now? But then she said she had fun waiting in the principal's office, so I felt a little less horrible when I heard that. The crazy thing is, I had no idea I was even late for the bus. Charlie and I were outside playing soccer looking for the bus to come. We didn't realize we had missed it until Brandon came running out of his office building, yelling for me to go to school to get Emma. (Yet another reason it's a good thing he works across the street from our house.) The principal's office had called him when they couldn't reach me at home or on my cell phone, which was conveniently located in my purse on the kitchen table. Stupid billowing trash. Clearly my lateness has nothing to do with the fact that I always forget to wear my watch, and has everything to do with the trash. I think it's safe to say I will not be winning mother of the year this year. Maybe that's why I'm over-compensating with the Harvest Moon mac and cheese and hand-knit robot?

I have five more minutes and then I have to get ready to pick up Charlie from preschool. We'll have a few hours to hang out and make Halloween cookies and watch Magic School Bus and then it will be time to go outside and play soccer while waiting for Emma's bus. Then we'll have an hour until we have to bundle up the baby, cookies, and the mac and cheese to go to Emma's Halloween picnic. Then it will be bath time and bedtime. At that point I will probably look around at my piles of laundry and dirty dishes and wonder why I couldn't manage to accomplish anything today.

The truth is I'm getting sort of resentful of all the cookie/muffin/mac n cheese making that having children seems to require. I love doing this stuff, but it is sort of taking over my life and I feel like my novel is going to die a slow death, quietly being suffocated by a giant casserole of mac n cheese.

I know scrapbooking is probably not as pressing a To Do List item as it might seem. However, I feel compelled to finish Teddy's scrapbook because I made baby scrapbooks for the other two children and I don't want him to feel shafted. I feel like if I don't make the scrapbook by his one-year b-day, which is on Friday, then it will never get done. Sort of like the thank you notes from Emma's birthday that are languishing on a bookshelf in the playroom. I still haven't showered and it's already time to pick up Charlie from school. I don't feel like I'm managing my time well. Should showering be at the top of the To Do List? Is laundry more important than Halloween costumes? What is the statute of limitations on a thank you note? I feel like I need to let something go....what should it be?

I am thinking about signing up for National Novel Writing Month in November. I'm hoping that doing something crazy like this for one month will force me to put the novel writing front and center and push the mac and cheese making to the back burner (pun, sadly, intended). Signing up for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is called by us nerds, basically means that you promise to write 50,000 words (or roughly 200 pages) in one month. Gulp. That comes out to about 6 or 7 pages a day. That will be a HUGE commitment. Would signing up help me get my priorities in check or would it just be yet another thing to feel guilty for not doing? That is not a rhetorical question. Please tell me what you think I should do!

Thanks for listening! Now to make some sugar cookie ghosts and pumpkins with Charlie...

Friday, October 16, 2009


If you ask me anything right now I'm likely to say "yes" just so you'll go away. "Mommy, can I have a vanilla milk box?" The Horizon ones that cost like a buck per ounce and are reserved for lunch boxes only? "Sure." "Mommy, can I have chocolate?" "Yep." "Mommy, can I watch Magic School Bus on the white couch with my wet muddy rain boots on?" "You betcha."
It's Friday afternoon and I am worn out. My day of driving people to and fro in the 41 degree, raining nastiness is almost over and I can practically taste the glass of red wine I will be pouring later this afternoon, I mean tonight. I just got home from teaching "Intro to Architecture" to Emma's kindergarten class. My throat is sore from yelling architecture at everyone.
It is amazing how tangential the kindergarten brain is. I held up a poster of Dulles Airport and said, "Dulles Airport is an example of modern architecture." And a little girl raised her hand and said earnestly, " dad was going to Dallas...." And then dozens of other hands shot up as her comment triggered a kindergarten thought cloud of Dulles airport related comments. "My cousin lives in Pittsburgh," said another little girl. "Great," I said. "I guess you must have flown to Pittsburgh to visit her?" "No, we drove." And this would pertain to Dulles airport how exactly? It would've been hilarious, except no one was laughing and the crowd was getting feistier by the minute.
The next poster I held up after Dulles Airport was of the Washington Monument. I asked if anyone knew what this building was. One little boy's hand shot up before anyone else's. If anyone knew the answer it appeared to be him. "Pennsylvania!" He said with total confidence. even close, guy. Maybe this was some continuation of the Pittsburgh comment? Ay yi yi.
Do you think they got the difference between Doric and Ionic columns? Has anyone ever remembered the difference five minutes after anyone has explained it to them?
I was not meant to teach little children things. I think my own little children have learned things by osmosis, but I'm not the type to sit them down and teach them things like Doric and Ionic columns and about Dulles airport. Even Teddy has already suffered the consequences of my lack of ability to transfer knowledge to young people. People keep asking him to high-five. For some reason everyone expects an almost-one-year-old to be able to high-five. When Teddy disses people, leaving their hand hanging there in the air, I am the one that feels like the loser. Why haven't I taught Teddy to high-five? What's wrong with me? Teddy can do all sorts of other things, but high-fiving has slipped through the cracks somehow.
Lately, I've been trying to teach Emma (and myself) how to draw. I bought this book and it is proving a very useful tool. Here are some of our first drawings:

My shorty horse

Emma's bird

We had signed up for a parent/child drawing class, but it was pretty lame. We went to the first class and I made the executive decision not to continue and just to do our own drawing class at home. So far, so good. And the twelve bucks I spent on the book certainly beats the $95 the class was charging. Plus, now I no longer have the bother of trying to figure out childcare at 5:15 on Wednesdays. Emma and I can do our class any time we want.

Maybe I need to buy a book about how to teach Teddy to high-five?

I have been enjoying the drawing book because I love the way it makes you look at the world around you. Basically, the book teaches you to look for the "five basic elements of shape" in everything you are trying to draw. The five basic elements of shape are: dots, circles, straight lines, curved lines, and angled lines. First you practice drawing these five elements, then you draw pictures that combine all the elements. When you break a picture of a horse into dots, circles and lines, it makes it seem so much simpler. You're not drawing a snout, or whatever you call a horse's nose, you're just drawing a curved line.

It's amazing how you can trick your brain into drawing something that you never would've thought you could draw. I see so many parallels to this in writing. Like, let's say I'm trying to write a scene where a little girl discovers for the first time she was adopted. My brain would typically want to write this scene very straight-forwardly. I might have the girl walk in her parents' bedroom, discover a letter lying on the floor, read the contents of the letter which conveniently details the specifics of her adoption, maybe the girl drops the letter in disbelief and runs crying from the room. Anyone could write that scene. Anyone's dog could write that scene. It's the most obvious, trite, boring way to imagine that particular moment in someone's life. But if you trick your brain, if you tell your brain that you're not writing about a revelatory, huge moment in someone's life, but instead you're writing about a swimming lesson they took once, the one where everyone was jumping into the water and swimming towards the instructor, everyone except your character. Maybe you tell your brain that that's all it has to write. No big life-changing revelations have to take place, brain, only swimming (or not swimming as the case may be). Tell what the bathing suits looked like. Were the children's eyes stretched into ellipses behind their goggles? Were the bathing suits saggy? Did belly buttons show through their one-piece suits? These are the writing equivalents of the five elements of shape. Pretty soon your brain will sneak in a revelation without you even telling it to. And the scene will feel truer and less like a dog wrote it than if you had tried to write straight on. And that's pretty much the goal of any writer: writing stuff that is true and doesn't sound like a dog wrote it.

Signing off for's a quick writing exercise before I go:

Write anything you want, just make sure it includes the line "and then there was a knock at the door." Write for 15 minutes or until Magic School Bus is over.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Take Chances! Get Messy! Make Mistakes!

As I write this, the kids are watching their daily dose of Magic School Bus. At the end of every episode, Ms. Frizzle reminds my kids to "take chances, get messy, and make mistakes!" I am finally deciding to take her advice.

I was working on my "novel," really at this point it's more of a collection of words, about 100 pages of words and sentences and chapters that are sort of like a big tornado of ideas and characters and scenes. Up until now, I've been trying to reign in the tornado, to make it follow my own Doppler radar of a plot. Today, I decided to just let loose and stop forcing myself to write the story chronologically.

This is really scary because it means that if things change drastically (which it seems like they sort of need to), I have to rewrite most of what I've already written. Ugh. I decided to change the setting from New York to DC for one thing. Once I put my main character in a neighborhood in DC that I know really well, it was like she just came to life for me in a new way. She just popped into shape like our caterpillar pop-up tunnel. So, it seems like that was probably the right decision. I also toyed with the idea of changing her from an only child into the oldest of seven. (!) It felt so fun and free to write that version of her. I think it might suit her better than being an only child. And I love the idea of writing her mother as this person with millions of kids. That is not too much of a stretch for me to imagine. I kind of like the idea of writing about a mom who has more children and more problems than myself. Maybe it will make my own life seem like a piece of cake.

Now my kids have moved on to doing crafts in the playroom. They definitely took to heart the "make messes" part of Ms. Frizzle's advice.

It's frustrating to think that I will have to rewrite so much of what I've written. I'm such a slow writer and my time to write is at the mercy of naps and preschool lunch bunch and how tall the piles of laundry are at the moment. I wanted writing a novel to be like a long car trip, like if you just log the hours and point yourself in the right direction, you'll get to your destination. It turns out it's not like that at all. Or maybe it is like a long car trip, but with lots of hitchhikers coming along for the ride, making you go the wrong direction just for kicks and forcing you to stop for lots of unplanned Subway sandwiches and bathroom breaks along the way.

I think I remember Virginia Wolf saying that she created her characters and then dug out caves behind them. Maybe my problem is that I've been focusing on plot, where I should've been focusing on characters and digging out their little caves? How can I make them do stuff when I don't really know who they are, what motivates them? Is that what Virginia Wolf meant by caves? I see it less as digging out caves and more as chiseling a sculpture. You're not digging, your chipping away what shouldn't be there and shaping what should be there, until there's a character who resembles a real person, a person you want to read about for 350 pages or so.

I just opened my favorite book about writing (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott) and looked up what she has to say about plot. Here it is:

"Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen. Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens?"

So, thank you, Anne Lamott, for confirming what I already suspected.

I am like two pages away from finishing Jennifer Weiner's newest novel Best Friends Forever. I've really enjoyed reading this book and I've been taking mental notes about what Weiner does that I like so much, so that I can copy it. One thing I've noticed about her books is that she writes really short chapters. Basically her chapters are one scene long. I tend to stay in chapters for-ev-er. I trudge through chapters dutifully, heroically for twenty pages or so. It feels like I'm staring up at Mt. Everest from base camp when I see the cursor blinking underneath the words Chapter ___. If Weiner writes short chapters, why can't I? She's in, she's out and she's onto the next thing. It's almost like cheating. Short chapters keep the action moving and help her jump from one character's point-of-view to another's without having to do a lot of exposition. I feel like half of my chapters are scaffolding holding the scenes together. Scaffolding is not so interesting to read, and it seems like short chapters bypass a lot of that noise.

So, my writing assignment tonight (after spaghetti and meatballs, after baths, and three kids are snoozing) is to start a short chapter about my character who for now lives in Washington, D.C. and has seven children. To get me going, I'm going to use a writing prompt or a "story starter" as we used to call them in elementary school. Here is the prompt. Feel free to join me!

Use this as your first line:

"Behind her the noise escalated."

Write for 15 minutes (or longer if you're in the groove). I'd love to read what you write, so please share! Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!