February 23, 2015

Thoughts on finishing my seventh book, and the processes that helped me get there

I finished a book today.

It's still a little thrilling to say those words, be them out loud or typed (and sometimes I swear my voice is louder when it's typed anyway). 

So I'll say them again.


I finished a book today.


I found the end of my story, the end that's been hanging, tantalizingly out of reach, for the past week or so. I found it and I wrote it and at the end of something close to 6,000 words written today alone, I typed those beautiful, magical words: THE END.

(I typed them all in caps for emphasis. It gives them more weight, don't you think?)

This was the seventh book I've written. The seventh. Is it lucky number seven? I don't know yet. I do know it's so far from perfect that I'm dreading editing it, but that'll be a story for another day, far down the road from here. 

That it's the seventh feels significant, though, at least to me. I mean, seven books. Seven. That feels like a lot. I mean, lots of people write one book, and lots write two. 

But seven

I have to admit: when my friend Jen challenged me back in 2010 to write "a book," I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I'd wake up having written seven.

So that's kind of cool, at least to me.

This book was a significant departure from my past writing process, though, and it had some weird results. I promised another friend I'd tell you about them. He's curious about process, and actually, so am I. So here are some things I did differently for this book, and how I think they helped. I think they helped. I think they helped a lot, in fact. 

Read on if you're interested in process...if not, no worries, and I'm just glad you stopped by!

****

This time, I outlined. Or at least I tried to.

This book was weird. It came about one day when I was listening to someone giving a speech on television, and they mentioned "we all have a set number of days in our lives," and I thought, "Well, what if you know exactly how many you have, from the day you're born?"

Thus, a book was born.

Much of it appeared, fully formed in my mind, on that very first day. I didn't want to lose facts and plot points and characters, so at my first opportunity, I outlined.

I know, I know. I'm a pantser when I write...I usually have no idea what's going to happen, or to whom, or anything like that when I set out. So this was...weird.

I wrote my outline on a whole bunch of index cards, figuring that would make it easier to move things around or re-outline as needed. I had dozens of cards laid out on my floor one afternoon, arranging and rearranging, and then I picked them up in the order in which I'd write.

At first, it helped SO MUCH. Each card was a chapter. When I finished a chapter, I'd cross out the card, but keep it in the stack so I'd know what I'd done. It kept me on task and motivated (a list-maker in real life, I LOVE crossing things out!!), and for the first couple weeks, I kept to it.

And then one day I changed a plot point in my head, and I lost my cards, and I never again looked back from there.

So yeah. I suck at outlining, but I really think that my attempt at it made a huge difference in speed and quality of writing in those early chapters. Usually the beginning of a book plods along for me as I find my way, but this time? I reached 10,000 words in the first week, which was absolutely, 100% a new record for me.

Will I outline again? 

I don't know....maybe if another idea comes to me as fully formed. If not, though, I'll manage. I did enjoy the process, but I also enjoyed leaving those cards behind.

This time, I stopped freelancing.

A couple years ago, when I quit my full-time job to be a full-time writer, I...kind of freaked the hell out. Because the money! I had none! I was living fully on the basis of my husband's paycheck, and it was the first time since I was about twelve years old that I wasn't making my own income.

So I started picking up freelancing gigs. The City Paper. LitReactor. Other random magazines and publications.

And it was fun and I loved parts of it, but one day last year I realized: ALL I was doing was freelancing. I wasn't making progress on my books, and instead was meeting all these other deadlines.

This year I had a chat with my husband, and he gave me the greenlight to not worry about money, at least for a little while, and focus full-time on my books. So I took some time off from most of my freelancing gigs and...

Holy shit, I wrote a book in just under two months.

It's amazing what you can do when you're really focused. 

This time, I found a schedule that really worked for me.

Here's my schedule as it stands right now:

Monday - Friday, I take Zoe to school and am home by 8 a.m. I write from 8 until 10 or 10:30. That's a hard cutoff. I will not let my writing bleed into the rest of my day. That's my own rule and I try not to break it. That way, when I'm writing, I'm writing. I'm not getting up to start laundry or pick up stuff in the kitchen. I'm just writing.

After 10:30 I exercise (run or yoga or whatever random thing I do), and then I turn into a stay-at-home-mom. From around 11:30 till I go get Zoe at 2:45, I'm cleaning up or working on projects or running errands.

My days feel VERY full, every day, and I do take breaks and goof off and visit with my "office friends" on Twitter, but that is my schedule, and this time I made my writing time sacred, and it was amazing to see the pages pile up faster than they've ever piled up before.

This time, I used a particular playlist and borrowed Charles's headphones.


Dude. This one surprised me. 


I've heard other writers often talk about playlists and using music as a writing cue. I just never knew how effective it would be for me.

On a whim, I created a playlist the day I started writing this particular book. I chose songs I loved, songs that had good memories associated with them, and songs that I knew well enough that they could fade into the background while I listened. Van Morrison. Dire Straits. Simon and Garfunkel. These were the voices in my ears.

And it helped, a little. At least I was enjoying my soundtrack.

But then, a few days later, I borrowed Charles's headphones to tune out some background noise, everything...clicked.

From then on, when I sat down to write, I put on the headphones and turned on the playlist, and suddenly that was it. It was time to write. The very act of doing those things told me: get to work, you goofball, and quit pretending your email is so very important that you need to keep checking it.

I can't believe how much of a difference that little psychological game made. I watched my word count almost double, every day, once I started doing it.

So that was pretty cool.

****

In all, this book moved along quickly. Normally I struggle to reach 2,000 words each day. This time? Most days I wrote around 3,000 words, easily. It made those afternoon chores easier to bear. It made my chaotic weekends more fun. I didn't worry as much that I wasn't getting anything done, book-wise, on Saturdays and Sundays, because suddenly I knew I could get it all done during the week. I made my writing time sacred, and routine, and ohmigosh, it was tremendous.

Man. I should have written this post for LitReactor, shouldn't I? Maybe one day I'll try to cross-post it somewhere else. Because as a writer, I LOVE reading about what works for other writers. Your process may be quirky, but maybe I can steal something from it that makes my days that much better. 

I hope you can steal something from mine.

And no matter what...man. Seven books. I'm feeling pretty damn good tonight.

I hope you are, too!

February 19, 2015

That time when we saw Harry Connick, Jr., and it was AMAZING

Y'all.

You know me well enough by now (even when I don't blog for months at a time!) to know that my house is a musical one. And by that I mean: we LOVE music. Love it. We listen to it all the time. We've raised Zoe on the greats: there's Louis and Ella and Billie and Duke, but also the Beatles and Nirvana and Pearl Jam. There's almost always music playing in the background. When Charles is home, it leans more jazz or rock. When it's just Zoe and me, there's likely Mumford & Sons or Fun or 80s pop or even sometimes Taylor Swift (c'mon - you know you love "Shake it Off" just as much as Zoe and I do).

Though she's only six-and-a-half (that half being VERY important to her), she's already been to a handful of shows and concerts, and had some incredible experiences. Once Will Hogge sang her the ABCs when she was not-quite-two. She had to be carried out of an American Idol concert a couple years later because the lights and sounds were just too much. Later that year, she made it through most of a Lumineers show (she LOVES them still), until she fell asleep on the bleacher and I made us take her home, and then there was the time she and I got to meet Phil Phillips when he did a private acoustic show here in Charleston. Earlier this year it was James Taylor, the first time she ever lasted through to the end of a single concert.

So yeah. Music's been a big part of Zoe's life, and though none of the three of us have ANY obvious talent for actually PERFORMING any sort of music, we've shared a lot of memories already, and it's important to us to keep making more.

Which is why last night happens to be the most AMAZING NIGHT OF MUSIC EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

Or at least in the history of the Rhynes.

So what happened, you might ask?

Well, it all started a few months ago when we found out Harry Connick, Jr., was coming to town. I've been a Harry fan ever since the first time I saw him croon "Danny Boy" in Memphis Belle, so I was dying to go. When I mentioned it to Zoe, she begged, "Me too? Please please please?"

(She's an American Idol fan. So'm I. We sometimes giggle and bicker over which judge is our favorite: Harry or Keith. I mean, Jen's fab and all, but man, those boys are cute!)

(Yes. I'm a terrible influence on my daughter. I like to giggle over cute boys with her. Get over it.)

When I asked Charles if we could go, he promised to get tickets. When the next day he told me he somehow managed to get FRONT-front row seats, I squealed like a little girl who's just been handed a puppy.

(When he told me the price a few days later, I almost passed out...but that's okay...as you'll see in the end...WORTH IT!)

We've been waiting for last night, Zoe and I, since that day. And the day came...and it delivered. Because, as it turns out, not only is Harry Connick, Jr., an awesome performer, backed by an incredibly talented jazz band...but he's also a sweetheart, with a soft spot for a pretty little girl in the front row.

So. Man. There we sat, in the FRONT-front row (you know, not the actual auditorium seats, but the front row of the chairs they put on the floor, right in front of the stage). The curtain came up, and Harry was there.

I squealed. Again. I'm SUCH a dork.

And within about a minute, before the first song was even complete, he'd eyed two kids in the very front row. There was a twelve-year-old boy a couple seats down from us, plus Zoe, and Harry grinned and waved at them both.

That...would have been enough. It made my day, and it made Zoe's as well.

But things continued to happen!

Like...Harry chats during his concerts, telling stories, making his audience laugh (because really, we were already eating out of the palm of his hand anyway...). He mentioned that there were two "youngsters" in the front row, saying it was unusual to see two little ones up so close. Then he turned to the boy. "How old are you?"

"Twelve," said the boy.

Harry turned to Zoe. "How about you? You're younger than that."

"I'm six-and-a-half," she said, and for the rest of the night, he referred multiple times to the "six-and-a-half year old" in the front row. He never called her six. He got how important the half was.

And...when his soooooooo-incredible-it-hurts trombonist, Lucien Barbarin, came out for an improvised solo, and he played an amazing little muted version of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" while smiling straight at Zoe.

Or...when Harry had a conversation with both kids about Minecraft and how watching his daughter take him on a tour through her world makes him sick. Both kids nodded, and Zoe looked over at me. I happen to do the same thing. "Eh, stop spinning, you're gonna make me hurl!"

And...when he later asked them both what kind of music they listened to. Zoe froze, and all I could come up with as a suggestion for her was Phil Philips, but man, his eyes lit up when he heard her say that name. "Phil Phillips? Really? You know, he's just the sweetest guy!" Trust us: we know!

And....when during his encore, Harry shot Zoe a look and said, "Man, I thought you'd be asleep by now," and then shook the hands of both the kids while he sang.

And....when, during the same encore, he threw out into the crowd two strings of Mardi Gras beads that had been given to him by an audience member....and tossed the third string - the golden string - very gently into Zoe's lap.

Listen. We were Harry Connick, Jr., fans already, long before last night ever happened. But believe me when I tell you that he made, in Zoe last night, a lifelong super-fan. She left the concert hall vibrating with excitement (and exhaustion). Her favorite moments were shaking Harry's hand, and when he threw her the beads.

I always hope performers know how much those little things they do can make a difference in a kid's life. Zoe's life has been musical so far, and we're working to make sure it stays that way. But with those few small actions on a very special night, Harry Connick, Jr., made more of an impact in two hours than any of us can possibly imagine. I love that he did all that. I love that Zoe got to have such a special night.

****

Look. Here's the thing. Pics or it didn't happen, right?

I'd love to fill this page with pics of Zoe and Harry, but the fact is the announcer asked, prior to the show, that the audience please refrain from taking any pictures or videos of any kind. Since I got super-pissy when the guy beside Charles was taking illicit videos during the performance, I figured I couldn't do anything but leave my phone in my pocket, where it belonged, no matter what happened.

But I promise you. This all happened.

And it was all kinds of amazing.

And the beads? Those golden Mardi Gras beads? I found them this morning, stuffed into Zoe's most treasured treasure box. They don't fit. I think I need to get her a bigger treasure box. Because really, there's so much to treasure in life. I want her to be able to fit it all in!