The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel


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Not so secretly, I admire you (repost from NaNoWriMo Blog)

A  few weeks ago, NaNoWriMo solicited folks to write “not-so-secret admirer” notes to people who have inspired them as writers. For my money, writing as part of a community is different, and better, than writing in total isolation. A lot of people and organizations have inspired me from afar and supported me up close, including Kamy Wicoff and Shewrites.com, Russ Cahill, Deborah Harkness, Meagan Macvie and Off Point Writers, Hedgebrook, NaNoWriMo, personal friends who keep low profiles, and at least half of those I follow in my Twitter feed.

First and foremost are the five remarkable women who make up WISH, the Wild and Inspired Sisters of Hedgebrook. Here’s the note I wrote to them, which was published on the NaNoWriMo Blog today:

Dear Colleen, Kay, Niki, Teresa, and Traci,

Yes, my wild, inspired sisters—you are the reason I am able to write, not just reclusively as writers must, but also as part of a small but vibrant writing community. Aren’t I lucky to have this opportunity to write out loud about what a difference you have made in my life! 

How could we have imagined when we first met at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers in Washington state, that we would still be in almost daily contact over a year later? We were together in a historical fiction master class for only a week, learning from the phenomenal Deborah Harkness and reveling in Whidbey Island’s magic. Although Hedgebrook and its dedicated staff remain close to my heart, you are the gift that keeps on giving. Even now that we are scattered from the West Coast of the US to Germany, thanks to technology we are there for each other almost every day, and sometimes even in the middle of the night.

What we have in common connects us — our obsession with historical fiction, alternating fascination and frustration with the writing process, and a passion for red wine with salt and pepper potato chips. I have seen most of you at least once in the intervening year and I cherish those times, too. Only with true friends can you meet and take up the conversation again without missing a beat. And what conversations! Encouragement, sympathy, understanding, humor — each of you has these things in abundance and shares them unquestioningly.

Thanks for always being there, convincing me I can succeed, and cheering me over all the hurdles. Maybe I could do it alone, but I’m glad I don’t have to try.

Love,

Suzanne

After telling the NaNoWriMo folks about WISH, I was excited to receive an invitation to write the note for publication and absolutely thrilled to wake up this morning and learn that it had been published. The blog’s headline writer got it exactly right. Here’s to writing groups who become true friends!

The original text of my note is here.

Hellebore on the farmhouse table


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I went camping for a whole month

Do you all know about NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month? The idea is to write a new novel of at least 50,000 words in the days from November 1 through November 30. That’s an average of about 1667 words per day. If you get ahead of schedule through diligence, inspiration, or staying up all night, you can even take Thanksgiving off. What you get out of NaNoWriMo, if you finish, is a first draft and a feeling of accomplishment — you started and you finished. Nano calls you a winner and gives you badges and certificates, which is quite nice. I’ve done that once, back in 2011, and produced the first draft of a mystery (working title: Hazard Bay), which I haven’t done much with. That’s because I’m perversely obsessed with the historical novel that’s been in my head, on scraps of paper, and committed to various electronic files over a number of years. One of these days I’ll get back to that mystery.Camp-Winner-2015-Square-Button

This year, I took my work in progress to camp — Camp NaNoWriMo, naturally. Now, Camp Nano is a little different than the big push to draft a new novel during November. You can work on whatever you like — revisions, short stories, another novel — with a word count anywhere between 10,000 and 1 million words. Camp NaNoWriMo meets in April (another 30-day month) and July.  I’ve got to hand it to these folks, the whole scheme is very well thought out. For Camp, you can join a virtual cabin to interact with fellow writers, either with people you know or by asking to be assigned. And a count of at least 10K means you are serious, right? My cabin had a couple of others in it, but because life tends to get in the way, I ended up pretty much on my own. I understood, and I felt their presence anyway. I also met some swell people on Twitter.

Going to camp worked well for me because I love external encouragement and accountability. I signed up for the modest 10,000 word minimum goal so I could build on a renewed commitment to writing every weekday. And I wanted to give myself every chance of success. Just about the first thing every morning on weekdays, I wrote 500 words or so and updated my word count. I only missed three of those days and one of them was because I was sick (turned out to be nothing). I hit 10K on April 29.

While at Camp, I was working on what I have come to call the “dreaded middle section” (once upon a time the “dreaded final section”) of my novel in progress. I had already written a detailed outline for that part of the MS, but needed to get it fleshed out so that I could stitch the entire thing together and start polishing. And guess what? I am about one day’s work away from finishing up that section. Very soon, I’ll be able to see the shape of the whole, which is such an exciting prospect. In addition, I have learned that writing 500 words first thing in the morning is very doable and has a big pay off. I intend to stick to that practice.

Thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo, its comfy cabins and all of the encouragement, I had a great time at camp. I can’t make it in July this year, but maybe you can. Highly recommended.


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Signs and whispers

I will tell you, dear reader, a little about my journey to aspiring historical novelist. I dabbled for years with stories in my head, fan fiction, NaNoWriMo, and eventually trying half heartedly to pull some of this work into a coherent novel. Like many another writer, I worked full time, had a life, and there was only so much energy left over for writing. At times, those efforts were a high priority for me. I was in some kind of flow and did little but work, eat, sleep, and write. At other times, I seemed to be at the mercy of events beyond my control. The main characters in my Work in Progress would retreat into the shadows then, but they were always with me, always whispering. They did not take kindly to being ignored.

Then a couple of things happened. I retired from my public law practice and began working with a terrific law firm. I thought I might write in my spare time. Wait, what spare time? I faced a learning curve I hadn’t quite anticipated and a significant amount of travel. A couple of months later, I came across an opportunity to apply for a Master Class at Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island. The class was to be led by best-selling author Deborah Harkness, which really got my attention.

I had enjoyed and admired Deb’s imaginative historical novels, A Discovery of Witches and The Shadow of Night, and in fact was in the middle of re-reading them. (The Book of Life, which completed the All Souls Trilogy, was published a few months later.) As a reader, I knew Deb as a compelling storyteller, whose novels were rich with the immediacy of historical detail and context. I was also attracted because as a historian and a professor, she certainly knew history and historical research and she would know how to teach. Moreover, I had been to a Hedgebrook Salon a couple of years previously, so I had some idea of what a stay there would be like — a respite, a gift, even potentially life-changing.

In spite of my nervousness about sharing my work with others, I decided to apply — one of those things you do with modest expectations while saying something to yourself like, “Might as well.” To my joy and surprise, I was accepted. I was generously given time off, and in March 2014 was part of Deb’s first Hedgebrook Master Class, “Past Tense: History as resource and inspiration.”

Owl Cottage Mist

Everyone says Hedgebrook is magical and it is. You are in the care of an amazing and dedicated staff. I felt respected and embraced not only by Deb — who is one of the smartest and and kindest people I have ever met in my life — but my fellow writers, five women I now think of as sisters. I lived in a cottage in the woods. Writing this now, those few words — I lived in a cottage in the woods — transport me back to that time and place, what it felt like to write and read and dream in the window seat of Owl Cottage. In that short, long week I worked on my manuscript and characters, yes. But more importantly, I was given the time, space and energy to think through a pretty profound question: What do I want to do with the rest of my life?

I got past some of my shyness about sharing my work. I began to see how meaningful it would be to be part of a writing community. I admitted I did not want to practice law as much as I wanted to tell stories. I realized that, finally, at retirement age, I could give myself permission to do exactly what I wanted. When an owl flew silently across the road one night as I walked home (home!) with one of my new sisters, it seemed like a sign.