How to Know When Your Book is Done

Pen Writing for Marcia's blog.jpg

One of the issues that comes up frequently with my clients and students, especially those who have been working on a particular project for a long time, is “How do I know when it’s done?”

1)    The most telling indication, I believe, is when you realize you are simply moving furniture around and not revising. You are no longer improving your work, but simply changing it. It’s not better, it’s just a different way of expressing what you want to express. When that happens, it’s time to put down the pencil (pen, cursor, etc.) and let it be.

2)    When you find yourself having trouble choosing between one word, one phrase, one sentence, one paragraph or another, it’s time to stop. You’re not improving, just changing things. (See above.)

3)    You spend inordinate amounts of time in indecisive revision. Despite the stories of famous authors spending days on one word, you’re not them. Hemingway is said to have rewritten the ending to A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times. Fine, he’s Hemingway, and he probably drove his editor to near suicide. Don’t be that crazy.

4)    Read your work out loud. How does it sound? If it flows, let it go. If not, fix those spots, but don’t agonize over the whole manuscript.

5)    Let it marinate for a while. Put the book (story, poem) in a drawer for a period of time. Advice varies on this—I would say at least a month, some say a year. Whatever it turns out to be, you will come back to your work with fresh eyes (and a fresh sensibility). Things will jump out needing work, or the whole manuscript will wow you. Either way you will know what to do.

6)    Go for a walk! Get away from the work. Put some space between you and the writing. This is similar to No. 5, but it’s more appropriate while you’re in active revision. I have always found a sojourn into the woods or to the beach opens up new approaches to the writing. Get away.

7)    Recognize when things aren’t working and likely never will. Sometimes the story just isn’t working. LET IT GO! At some point it may morph into something else. But sometimes you have to be brutally honest with yourself and realize some projects just aren’t ever going to work.

8)    There are writers who outline and writers who don’t. If you’re one who doesn’t, and find yourself stuck in a cul de sac, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Consider an outline.

9)    Do you still care? If you have come to the place in your heart where you HATE this project, it’s time to step away. Perhaps not forever, but for now.

If any of these things are true for you, take stock. You may be ready to submit. Or perhaps not.

One final thought: I am assuming you are in a writing group or have been able to take advantage of writing workshops or the expertise of a good editor to get feedback along the way. If not, get yourself into a competent group or hire a good writing coach. You can’t learn how to write in a vacuum; it takes years of practice and mentoring. Take advantage of every opportunity to master writing. Then trust your gut and heart when deciding if your book is done. 

Unmasked Launched; Rabbi Mysteries Unveiled; Yuko Ready to Fly

  Unmasked  contributors, from left, Renata Golden, editor Marcia Meier, Tania Pryputniewicz, Lisa Rizzo, and Barbara Rockman.

Unmasked contributors, from left, Renata Golden, editor Marcia Meier, Tania Pryputniewicz, Lisa Rizzo, and Barbara Rockman.

 Marcia and Kathleen at Carr Winery.

Marcia and Kathleen at Carr Winery.

So much has happened in the month or so since I returned from Greece, both personally and professionally. Kathleen Barry and I launched our new anthology, Unmasked, Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, at two events in October: A reading and signing at San Diego Writers, Ink, with four of the contributors to the book, and a reading and signing at Carr Winery in Santa Barbara. We had a wonderful turnout at both, and look forward to another reading at Tecolote Books in Montecito on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at 5 p.m. Also in the works are readings in Venice at Beyond Baroque (8 p.m. January 28), and an early February performance at Center Stage Theater of "Unmasked LIVE, Women Read About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty." Stay tuned for more details. 

 Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer signs a book for a fan.

Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer signs a book for a fan.

A week ago, more than 60 people came out to Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara to celebrate the publication of Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer's second mystery novel, The Rabbi Wore a Fedora, and the reprinting of his first, The Rabbi Wore Moccasins

Next Saturday, Nov. 11, at 3 p.m., Tecolote Books will help us bring out Dick Jorgensen's second memoir, Yuko, Friendship Between Nations, about his world tour as he traveled back to the States from Japan in 1957, and his subsequent work with The Asia Foundation in San Francisco, promoting improved ties between the two former World War II enemies. Come join us!

Keep all these Weeping Willow Books in mind as you make your holiday lists for the bookworms in your life!

On the Road to Kinsale

 Charming Kinsale, on the southern coast of Ireland.

Charming Kinsale, on the southern coast of Ireland.

One tiny worry I had about going to Ireland was driving on the left (wrong) side of the road. Before we left, Rob and I watched videos of people driving around the Irish countryside and barreling through the roundabouts: They were absolutely hair-raising.

We spent three nights in London before flying to Dublin in late September. From there, we rented a car and drove south to Waterford and Kinsale and then west along the coast and up toward Connemara. Rob had driven in London before, so he was the first to take the wheel.

Merely getting out of Dublin was painful. We engaged the GPS unit, and soon the operative phrase was “recalculating!” We turned right when we should have turned left. We missed turns. We drove up and down streets looking for Starbucks, and Rob’s great-grandfather’s house, and, finally, the freeway so we could at last get out of Dublin. (We did find Rob’s great-grandfather’s house, which today is a preschool and the offices of a company called Torc Grain and Feed Ltd. I have video of Rob sprinkling some of his younger sister, Heather’s, ashes on the threshold.)

I learned a long time ago not to get freaked out about someone else’s driving. Honestly, Rob did a pretty good job of it, and once we got out of the city it was much smoother sailing. We drove south to Waterford that day, and stayed in a grand old hotel called The Granville Hotel on the waterfront. But it was dark when we arrived, and Rob, thinking he had plenty of time, turned in front of a poor motorcyclist and cut him off. I can’t print what the guy screamed at us as we mouthed, “I’m sorry,” through the car window. The next morning, Rob took out a couple of cones in front of the hotel as he drove up to get me and our luggage. The doorman just shook his head.

“Are you ready to try driving?” Rob asked me several times that day.

No way.

As we drove farther west and south to Kinsale, the roads got narrower and—it seemed to me—the drivers got crazier and the pace of traffic increased. We started to make fun of our female GPS, who certainly must have tired of saying, “Entering roundabout!”

Going into a roundabout while driving on the left side of the road is a special experience. Your natural tendency is to go right, but of course you have to turn left into the circle, and everyone just drives all over place. Here at home, our roundabouts mostly have implied lanes; not so in Ireland.

By the time we drove into Kinsale that afternoon, I realized I’d been holding my breath most of the day. The roads in Kinsale are all one-lane. So if you start down one street and a car comes from the other direction, one of you has to back down (or up) the street to let the other go by.

Kinsale is a beautiful harbor town on the southern tip of Ireland. When the RMS Lusitania was sunk by the Germans during World War I, many of the survivors were brought to Kinsale; a statue in the harbor commemorates the event.  

 Our walking tour guide gave us a brief rundown on the rich history of this seaside town.

Our walking tour guide gave us a brief rundown on the rich history of this seaside town.

The Charles Fort, which guards Kinsale harbor, dates from the 1600s during the reign of King Charles I. James’s Fort, across the channel at the river’s mouth, also dates to the 1600s, and both were built to protect Kinsale from marauding Spanish and French forces. They strung a huge chain across the channel between the forts, which effectively tore the hulls off of invading ships.

Today, Kinsale is known more for its restaurants—and especially its delicious seafood. We stayed in a 300-year-old bed and breakfast inn called Desmond House, and fell in love with Michael, the proprietor. Sadly, Michael had just sold the inn to a couple from Dublin. We got to meet Paddy and Gordia one morning at breakfast, and came away feeling we had made some wonderful new friends. We know we’ll stay at Desmond House again should we return.

“Do you want to drive?” Rob asked the next morning.

We planned to drive the Ring of Kerry that day. I figured, what the heck.

“Sure.”

It was easier than I expected. Most of the rental cars in Ireland are manual shift, and I’ve owned two stick shift cars in the past. While sitting on the right side of the car was disconcerting, at least the pedals are the same: accelerator on the right, clutch on the left, brake in the middle. The stick shift was on the left, but it didn’t take long to get used to it. Now, Rob drove a little closer to the left side of the road, and that seemed a natural consequence of the change. I found myself gently reminding him he was a little too close to the hedges on the left. But I did not freak out.

Rob, on the other hand, could not stop reminding me that I was way too close to the left side of the road. “Look out!” he kept yelling. I may have gently grazed some bushes on the side of the road once or twice, but did that require wild gesturing and screaming?

Really?

He drove the rest of the trip.

Next: The Dingle Peninsula and the West Coast of Ireland

On the Move Again

 I'll miss this view from our deck in Summerland, which we've called home for a little over a year.

I'll miss this view from our deck in Summerland, which we've called home for a little over a year.

Re-entry after coming home from Hedgebrook has been hectic and all-consuming. My week on Whidbey Island allowed for writing and reflection, thank goodness, especially after a two-week trip to France, during which I got news that my younger sister had died. It’s been an emotional time. Now I am in the middle of moving again, to a new home across town.

We have only about four more days to pack before the move. And it won’t be long after I'm settled in that Rob wants to begin renovation. I imagine I will be spending a lot of time in the relative peace and quiet of a coffee shop once that starts. It’s never a dull moment with Rob, for whom life is all about the journey.

As I wrote from Hedgebrook, I’m going to stop posting excerpts of my memoir while I revise it. Meanwhile, I’ll write more blog posts about our trips to Ireland last fall and France last month. Travel is a marvelous way to get to know oneself better—and of course your significant other. Both trips have been incredible learning experiences—for both of us. Our next “trip” will be a home renovation…stay tuned!

In the Willow Cabin at Hedgebrook

The past few weeks have been by turns exciting, sorrowful, grief-filled, stressful and exhilarating. From flying to Paris for a two-week holiday, only to find out my younger sister had died suddenly during our overnight flight, to coming home to a house still filled with unpacked boxes from Rob’s move to Santa Barbara over Christmas, to preparing for a week at Hedgebrook, it has been a tumultuous time.

Today is my fourth day among the quiet cedars and oaks of Hedgebrook, a retreat center for women writers on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest. In January, I was accepted into a Master Class with poet Carolyn Forché, and so far it has gone beyond my every expectation. There are six women here, from all over the country: Chicago, California, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Washington, D.C. We each have our own cabin, with practically every convenience. There is a tiny half-bath, which means one has to go to the shared bathhouse for showers, which was my only small concern. But the bathhouse turns out to be a warm and inviting spa, with heated floors and lovely showers and a claw-footed tub for long, luxurious soaks, lit by candles, if one so desires.

We meet in the afternoons for lectures and to share work, and Carolyn has insisted that each of us write for three hours every morning—uninterrupted. This has been my greatest challenge, of course. It helps that there is no Internet in the cabins (unfortunately, my cell phone and iPad work great, which makes it very easy to cheat, and I have—just a tiny bit). I have tried to follow the directive, though, and after three days I’m pleased with the work that has resulted. Raw, unedited, emotion-laced, my writing these past days is nevertheless exciting if only for the fact that I have long stretches of time to decompress and go deeply into it. I’ve written about my sister, and added pieces to a novel I started years ago, and I’ve written new scenes for my memoir.

I have also managed to post something on my blog each day, and hope to continue. We’ll see what happens when I go back to real life next week.

I am in the cabin called Willow. It was randomly assigned to me, but the willow has special significance to me, and so the selection seems to have been divinely wrought. I grew up in Michigan, where weeping willows are both abundant and inspiring. I have always loved them, and over the years the willow has appeared in nearly all of my stories in some fashion or another. When one of my clients independently published his memoir last year (Dick Jorgensen’s lovely O Tomodachi), I created an imprint under which to publish it: Weeping Willow Books.

Carolyn has given me some very helpful suggestions on my memoir, Face, and so I have decided to stop excerpting pieces of it on the blog—for now anyway. I want to revisit it with her advice in mind, and then will decide what to do from there.

I also have two other book projects on the front burners, including an anthology for women writers. More about those in coming weeks and months.

Meanwhile, I will keep writing about our travels, and my life, and books. I hope you’ll continue to join me here. If you’d like to receive my posts in your email inbox, you can sign up at this link. I’ll also see you on Facebook and Twitter. As always, keep writing!

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Ten

This is Part Ten of my book, Face, A Memoir. In this excerpt, I remember my grandmother's cottage, and go off to kindergarten just a few months after the accident. (Continued from Part Nine.)

 

July 21, 1961 - Surgeon’s notes:  Surgery to assess extent of injury and healing to date. Patient’s cheek and eye are stabilized enough to send her home. Additional surgery to be scheduled for the fall.

 

My grandmother’s cottage on Lake Michigan was a cozy place, with a screened-in porch that connected to the living room. Once, a bat flew down the chimney and into the porch, and lighted upon the back of a wicker chair. What an inexplicable thing, for a bat to wing its way down a brick chimney and fly through the cottage. Amid our excited squeals, my grandmother ushered all of us into the main room in the cottage and shut the glass doors as my grandpa put on leather gloves and went out to the porch. We pressed our faces against the glass and watched. I held my breath as he gently pried the tiny creature from the back of the chair. It resisted, opening and flapping its wings even as Grandpa closed his leathered hands around it. I could feel my heart beating hard as I watched him walk to the side door and release the bat to the darkened sky. I was awestruck. It was the most tender thing I ever witnessed.

 

The summer after the accident we spent a lot of time at the cottage, playing with my cousins. It was out past my grandparents’ small house in Glenside, on the west side of Muskegon. Before the lake began to rise in the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was a small boathouse and sailboat tethered at the bottom of the stairs to the beach.

A large plate-glass window stretched across the front of the cottage. The expansive view took in all the majesty of Lake Michigan, from its glittery thundering waves in springtime to the cloud-covered buildup of icebergs along the shore in winter. The main room was furnished in wicker and bamboo furniture with brightly colored cushions. The whole interior was paneled in pine. On one side of the room a large wooden cupboard held dozens of multi-colored Fiestaware: plates, bowls and cups, salt and pepper shakers, pitchers. The various colors made meals at the cottage seem like a perpetual celebration. There was a dining room table near the kitchen, a tiny space that looked onto a sun porch where we often had breakfast. There were big shutters over the sun porch’s screens, and it took the strength of an adult to pull the chains to open them. The chill morning breezes would flood the porch, along with the sun. Oatmeal never tasted so good.

There were three bedrooms, two off the main room and one off the kitchen. My grandma and grandpa always slept in the front bedroom, which was connected to the other by a tiny bath, also paneled in pine. My grandfather died at the cottage when I was eight. Fell asleep next to my grandmother and never woke up. 

Every year in the early spring, probably April or May, my grandparents, parents and uncles “opened” the cottage for the summer. They took down the heavy wooden storm shutters that covered all the windows and aired everything out. It would have been imprudent to try to spend a winter there. Snowstorms were too severe, especially at the lake, where cold blasts froze the shoreline into icebergs that often stretched half a mile out.

In the fall, just before the first snows, the family would spend a day or two shuttering it up once again. There was a huge piece of plywood that was nailed over the front entry, and on it was painted, “Stay Out. Poison Gas.”

 

“This is Marcia,” Miss Black says.

I am standing next to her chair and all the children are sitting on the floor in front of us. She has her arm around me, and I feel safe.

“Her face looks like this because she was in a bad car accident.”

I look out at their faces. It is my first day of kindergarten, not quite three months after the accident. I don’t understand why this is necessary, but I will come to love Miss Black for thinking to do this.

I am vaguely aware of my mom standing off to the side.

Earlier that morning we had walked the several blocks from my house to Nelson Elementary School. I remember feeling anxious, but also excited. There were a lot of kids on the playground when we arrived, and I wanted to play, but I stood close to Mom, watching. Miss Black and the other kindergarten teacher came out and lined us up at the classroom door before we were allowed to enter.

The classroom seemed huge. There were tables with paints and clay, and a playhouse area with pint-sized kitchen appliances, including a stove and sink and cupboards. I played in the playhouse, pretending to make dinner like my mom. One of my favorite activities was “reading circle,” when we would sit on the big rug and Miss Black would read storybooks.

For snacks we had graham crackers with chocolate frosting, and at naptime we each had our own colorful mat to lie on until it was time to go home at noon. No one ever asked about my face or teased me that school year. I felt like a normal kid.

 

Automobile factories and wood pulping mills fueled the economy of my hometown – and all of Western Michigan – in the mid-twentieth century. When the wind blew from the north, the stench from the paper mill on the southern edge of Muskegon Lake wafted over all of downtown. My mom’s best friend, Norma, lived with her family in the suburb of North Muskegon on the north side of the lake. Muskegon Heights, which was primarily African-American, was just east and south of downtown. Two of the three Meier Cleaners plants my dad operated were in Muskegon Heights, and when I was old enough to work for him, it was there I learned about prejudice and – from my dad – tolerance. On the southwest, as the city population expanded, the suburb of Norton Shores grew. My parents would build a house there when I was in junior high.

Routine, it’s said, breeds boredom, but it also establishes place and time and provides a stability that can be comforting when all else around you is in turmoil. We walked to St. Joe’s for Mass every Sunday and saw all the Meier clan. My dad continued to go to work early every morning. Supper was always on the table at six, just after Dad walked through the door. We sat down together, and Dad said the blessing: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost… Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive …

We ate the same meal every night: meat, potatoes and canned vegetables. Sometimes we would have a Jell-O salad with celery or mandarin oranges. I hated that Jell-O salad. Something about the combination of a soft, wiggly substance with the crunchy celery repulsed me. After dinner, we always had dessert, usually homemade pie or cake with ice cream. If there was no pie or cake, we made do with cookies. My father loved dessert. Even years later, when it was only my mom and dad at home, they still shared dessert every night – a comforting routine, one of the many daily constructs we create to ignore the passage of time.

In Michigan, the seasons are distinct, glaringly so. Winter punishes with its icy blasts of wind and snow. Drifts grow and wither with each passing storm, moving from one side of the road to the other, or building to piles on the beaches and parks. Spring was walking to church on Easter morning wearing a pale yellow or pink Easter dress and matching straw hat, my gloved hand thrust between my dad’s strong, boxy fingers. Tulips and daffodils greeted us from the neighbors’ gardens as we walked to church. Summer was swimming in Lake Michigan with my dad and siblings at dusk, the lake water still warm from the day, then running up the stairs to have s’mores by the fireside as mosquitoes buzzed our ears. Fall, well, fall is my favorite time of year. The leaves changing color on the maples, oaks and elms; the acrid smell of leaf piles smoldering in the street after a day of raking. The sweet bite of the apples we bought from the vendor who drove the streets hawking fruit from the back of his truck.

We had a milkman who placed fresh bottles of milk at the front door every two or three days. And the “egg man” – a local farmer – brought fresh eggs to the house every week. There was a farmer’s market on the outskirts of town every Saturday where in summer we bought cherries, blueberries and raspberries, tomatoes, peaches and plums. In fall, we bought apples and pears, and in winter, butternut and acorn squashes filled the stalls. In the summer months, my mother would often buy a bushel of one fruit or another and then spend the next several days canning.

All of these things happened predictably – year after year – creating a sense of serenity and comfort in the certainty of sameness. And every few months I went into the hospital for more surgery. 

(To be continued...)