A writer’s early roots: What we read & what we write

A young Daphne DuMaurier (Source; Wikipedia)
A young Daphne DuMaurier
(Source; Wikipedia)

This morning I had a very odd experience.  I had the privilege of peering in to the mind of a 16-year-old girl – or should I say a 16-year-old writer.  And the most peculiar thing of all is that it was me.

A bit of backstory: when I was in high school (lo these many years ago) I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist – but I also had a very practical side and that practical side won out in the university program selection process.  I had my very best marks in biology, chemistry and analytical trigonometry in my senior year, and you can guess what I studied in university.  And to tell you the truth, that health science degree and the Master of Science have stood me in good stead in my career evolution from health communication, to health & business writer, to creative non-fiction writer, and now into fiction.

But in high school, my English marks weren’t far behind my math and science.  In fact, when given the opportunity in my junior year to complete what was then referred to as a “distinction” project” I didn’t choose to do it in science, rather I chose English.  To be more specific I chose the short story.  This morning I took three magazine boxes off the highest shelf in my office to begin the laborious process of digitalizing all of my publications to rid myself of the glut of paper that threatens to overtake most writers from time to time.  What do you suppose was the first document that I pulled out?  Much to my surprise, it was my Grade 11 “distinction project.”

The framework for the project was aspects of the short story (very apropos since lately I’ve been thinking that I really ought to read some Alice Munro given that she won the Nobel prize for literature recently based on a career writing short stories – and I’ve never read a single sentence she’s written).  The project, painstakingly typed on an old typewriter (with only one or two whited-out typos) was an analysis of the components of the short story.  For each of the traditional components – character, setting, plot etc. – I had written a short story that supposedly showcasing each.  One story’s character took center stage; in the next one setting was the most important part etc.   But it was the themes of each of the stories that told the story of that 15-year-old writer.

The theme that came through again and again, regardless of the actual characters or plot of the story was this: Know who you are, and be true to yourself.

First-edition cover of Rebecca (Source: Wikipedia)
First-edition cover of Rebecca
(Source: Wikipedia)

When I think back through my day-job career, and my writing by moonlight, I think that I have truly tried to do this – but I didn’t realize that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche.  This was kind of a light bulb moment, because I just finished re-reading what I have long considered to be my very favorite novel: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.

I first read the book when I was in high school, right around the time that I wrote those short stories.  I had seen the various iterations of the movies based on it in the interim, but it was eye-opening for me to read this book so many decades later to try to see what it was that captivated me and to figure out if the book had, in fact, had any influence on my writing.

This time around, I found myself impatient with the narrator.  A twenty-something woman of the 1930’s, the unnamed protagonist met and married a much older, and much more worldly man who took her back to England to his estate, Manderley.  Haunted by the ghost of his first wife, the young woman concocts in her mind all manner of scenarios, most of which have absolutely no basis in reality – indeed, the reality is much more sinister.  I kept wanting her to get over it, to move on, to ask the question to clear up the uncertainties.  I don’t remember being so impatient with her at the time.  So, I do think I’ve evolved as a woman.  But what about as a writer?

Grace Note Cover PaperbackWritten in 1938, Rebecca was not an historical novel, the genre I found myself drawn to both as a reader and as a writer in the last few decades.  However, I read it near the beginning of the 1970’s, so for me, as a young woman, it was historical indeed, and I remember always thinking about it that way.  Daphne DuMaurier did not need to create the world of the 1930’s: she lived in it.  But for me, the detail was now of historical significance, and I do believe that this influenced my choice of genres.

I enjoyed the book the second time around and hope that some of my own work will stand the test of time as did this ne.  Perhaps in the future some young woman will pick up Grace Note and think about the strength of the Lysanor, the heroine, and recognize that she, too, spent her life trying to be true to herself.

The beauty of a deadline… (OK, don’t shoot me!)

A few weeks ago I picked up a book that I didn’t realize was about deadlines.  Okay, I now recognize that Chris Baty’s entertaining little book No Plot? No Problem isn’t supposed to be about deadlines, but it is.  Baty, the creator of the National Novel Writing Month says this in the first chapter:

Deadlines are the dynamos of the modern age.  They’ve built every city, won every contest, and helped all of us to pay our taxes reasonably close to on time…a deadline is…optimism in its most ass-kicking form…a potent force… (p. 26)

…and it occurs to me that I’ve been sympathetic to this point of view for many years.  Just ask my students!

A deadline changes everything about any project that you plan to implement.  It moves you past the planning stage and drops you head first into the implementation phase, forcing you to consider milestones along the way.  And when the deadline is imposed by an external force (like your boss or your professor or your editor) those deadlines take on even greater importance.  Or do they?

I have about a dozen writing projects on the go right now.  Some of them are actually academic (low on the priority list at this point in my career), some of them are creative, and some of them are strictly personal.  The one project that gets done every week is my contribution to the travel blog I write with my husband.  Why?  Because I have a self-imposed deadline.  I made a personal commitment to a certain number of posts at certain intervals when we started on this project (which will become a book in due course) last fall, and I have neither looked back nor shirked my deadlines since.  The truth is that I have never missed an externally-imposed writing deadline, and now it occurs to me that when I have actually taken the time to create personal deadlines, my work has progressed faster and more efficiently than the more organic, artistic approach to work schedules that seem to be common among the ‘creatives’ of the world.

Case in point: I had almost forgotten, but a number of years ago I decided that I’d take a foray into screen-writing.  I think it’s because I see plot and dialogue as a kind of film running through my head when I write narrative, so I thought I might capitalize on that tendency.  I registered for a script-writing course, and set about learning the nuts and bolts of the process (not to mention learning about the paranoia that seems to run rampant through the film industry: no one wanted to share their ideas for fear of them being stolen – this never seems to happen in the world of books!).  After the course was finished, I had a notion of script framework, ideas and scraps of dialogue, but not much else.  So, I did what I always do, I bought a book on script-writing.

In fact, I bought several, but the one that really got me to a different level is not Robert McKee’s classic (and wonderful)  book titled Story; rather it is a small book called How to Write  Movie in 21 Days by Viki King.  I followed her framework for getting to a finished 90-minute script in 21 days and it worked.  I have the proof of it sitting in a drawer just waiting for a producer/director to snatch up Something I’m Supposed to Do.  But I had not noticed that her admonitions about deadlines really got inside my head.  In fact she says, “…your deadline…is your friend.  Focus to reach your deadline.  Make it your priority.  Sleep, food and phone are secondary to the deadline…” Okay, this was published in 1988.  These days she would have had to add a list of social networking sites to avoid – but I digress.

The bottom line is that if I impose a deadline on myself, I get it done.  It’s time I stopped flailing about trying to get the parts of my new novel (actually novels, and articles, and blog posts) perfect, and just get them finished.  There will always be time for editing later – with an editing deadline, of course!

Novelist Rita Mae Brown said: “A deadline is negative inspiration.  Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.”

Writing Christmas

Someday I’m going to write a Christmas book.  But since I also plan to try my hand at a travel book, perhaps I’ll write a Christmas travel book.

I’ve been thinking about this over the past week as I get ready to head out on the annual Christmas pilgrimage to visit our peripatetic son who now dances with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in Monaco.  Spending Christmas in a hotel might not be something that many of you would like to do, but I hardly know how to spend Christmas any other way at this point in my life!  So, I think I’ll write about Christmas in a hotel.  I’m going to think about that over the next couple of weeks, but before I leave, I thought I’d give my writing blog readers a bit of a Christmas gift — a book recommendation and a Christmas travel story.

Have you read Skipping Christmas?  At fewer than 200 pages in a small format, it’s one of John Grisham’s lesser known books.  However, if you’re a Christmas movie junkie, you sort of know the story.  Hollywood turned his gem of a book into Christmas with the Cranks.  I wish they had kept the title and a bit more of the soul of the book.  Grisham’s story-telling has a lot more depth than the scriptwriter’s has; you should order the book, pour yourself a drink of your choice, and curl up with it before the onslaught of the season begins in earnest.

We tried to skip Christmas one year… I now invite you to our travel blog to read about it.  Merry Christmas – or whatever other kind of holiday you might be celebrating.   Just click on the Christmas tree…