Earlier this month, I celebrated the birthday I’ve been dreading for so long. The one with the big “0” at the end. For months, it felt like I was walking the gangplank, getting ever closer to the end as the date approached. Everyone told me that the other side was “incredible” and “better than ever” and I believed them, but still: it isn’t nothing.

It was like having a massive neon sign in my face reminding me of my own mortality. It’s not something I ever consciously forget, and yet: it’s easy to ignore the idea of your own end until a milestone like this appears. It made my breath hitch. I woke in the wee hours of the morning, mulling over my missteps and triumphs, wondering how I could do better.

It’s a good thing. Except for the getting old part.

I must have learned something over the years, because setting a deadline for myself to finish this book by my birthday was the best idea I’ve had in a long time. It gave me something to do with the angst, a place to shovel all my frustration and fear.

I won’t declare that writing is a lark, or a rhapsodic journey, or any of that nonsense, but it’s also not a dreadful chore. This is the only writing I do where I get to choose every word. Not a client, not a colleague. What happens is up to me.

Ok, but what about the deadline?

I didn’t finish the book, whatever that means, but I did finish the first draft. Before my birthday.

116,334 words. A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Cue the party horns!

It’s messy, oh boy. It’s a tangle of words + scenes + dialogue, but the story is there.

My next task is to do a big, massive sweep through the entire thing – re-writing, tightening, trimming – until it’s tidy enough that I can share with a few people without the fear that they’ll throw it back and run away screaming.

I’m giving myself 6-8 weeks for that process. And it continues.

The photo at the top is the Cloud Gate in Chicago, where I spent a fun, chilly birthday weekend wandering around the Art Institute, utterly amazed by all of the beautiful things.

I had every intention of making this blog my writing journal, but that’s not how it worked out.

Here’s what happened instead: In my iCal, I added “appointments” to the 6:00 am hour, where I would (hopefully) never have meetings or phone calls, to keep track of my progress. I made these appointments orange so they’d stand out. Every time I work on my book, I add a new entry, giving me an at-a-glance view of how many days I’ve worked on the book, and how many new words I wrote on each of those days. It’s so easy to include notes about what I am feeling that day, or how the writing is going.

So I’ve got entries like:

July 29: 2000 words. All over the place. Section 4, Section 5. Moving things around. Juggling, tweaking, plotting, planning.

August 23: 1000 words. HOLY SHIT. Brand new perspective. Trying this out, stripped out the entire Britt storyline. HOLY SHIT.

August 26: 800 words. Slow going, lots of scratching out and writing over, trying to think about how this plays out. I think it works. Does it work? Hope so.

September 30: 2200 words. A piece that feels important, but still rough. MOST IMPORTANT today was lots of cleanup work and blending sections, making decisions about moving some pieces around, etc. Goal is to start stitching sections up so that it doesn’t feel like so much is outstanding.

October 14: 1800 words. Zeke, the next bit, plus some of Madeline and Alice. Little pieces everywhere. Pulling together the next chunk. Progress!

You get the picture.

I’ve been very, very busy. This hasn’t felt like a “social” activity, and I haven’t wanted to blog about it much. There’s so much uncertainty and self-doubt along the way. It is far from being ready to show the world.


I’m a numbers girl, so check these digits out.

Back in August, when I decided to rip out a huge portion of the book, I lost about 30,000 words. I shed a few tears, but it was absolutely the right decision.

Today, my word count is at 93,000, and I’m in the home stretch. I’m thinking – 8-ish more weeks until the first draft is finished. I printed out the outline for the last section and taped it to the wall next to my computer. Every time I complete some part of the outline, I cross it off with a blue pen.

There will still be SO MUCH WORK to do when the outline is covered in blue slash marks. But at least I’ll have an entire draft, beginning to end, a lump of a thing I can start hacking away on.

Yes: this counts as joy.

I’m a sucker for lists: Shopping lists. To-do lists. Idea lists.

So you might think I’d be gaga over lists about writing.

Everyone’s got one, it seems. They’re smart and clever, filled with points of view on what writers should do or not do, feel or not feel.

They often contain a nugget, or two, of insight or wit or encouragement, but lately they’ve been leaving me cold.

Like this weekend, when I read the list by Charles Bukowski, which contained this gem, titled so you want to be a writer:

if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.

And a few lines later:

if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.

I sit for hours. Often hunched, though I straighten my spine whenever I catch myself curved, comma-like, in space.

I search for words. Hunt them down. Beat the bushes and hope they’ll run out squawking.

I rewrite – again and again. That’s my process. Wasn’t his, but why should that matter to me?

Whatever we do – whether writing a book or starting a business or parenting a child – we are surrounded by advice. Much of it is generous and wise and amazing, but even the good stuff can distract us from the path that only we can take.

There is no magic list that will turn my drafts into literary genius. I don’t need to discover the most important thing, or the necessary thing, or the true and right way.

I just need to write, and rewrite, hunch and un-hunch.

And so I shall.

The transition between summer and fall makes me wistful.

It’s a feeling without a specific object, a vague longing for something I can’t quite name.

Perhaps it’s a vestigial emotion, linked to another lifetime, when I lived in a place with vivid seasons and fall signaled the arrival of cold and rain.

Perhaps it’s leftover from childhood, when fall meant the return of home school. Of gathering around the kitchen table after breakfast to say the pledge of allegiance, first to the Christian flag and then to the American flag. Of opening up textbooks and trying to concentrate while babies cried in the background. Of squeezing algebra equations in between laundry and applesauce-making. Of imagining real kids in real school, carrying backpacks and book and self-conscious smiles. I wanted so much to be one of them, then. Hearing my friends share even the most banal anecdote – taking a math test, or running sprints in gym class – filled me with sharp, bitter envy.

Now the shifts between seasons are slow and subtle. Nothing starts or ends dramatically in my world. The sun still streams through my windows in the mornings, drenching my office in light. Sunsets inch earlier and earlier into the evenings, but the temperatures remain mild, even warm. I look at the sweaters and coats in my closet and wonder if I’ll need them at all in the coming months. If this year is anything like last year, I’ll pull them on only a handful of times.

The writing continues. I’m still deep in the weeds, sorting out this new architecture, patching and pasting and making sense of it all. It’s good, hard, quiet work.

Happy September.

I’m working away over here. Juggling, shifting, re-calibrating, re-writing. Plotting out the story in a more deliberate way this time.

I woke up at 3:30 am this morning, head whirling with ideas about the ending. These characters have burrowed deep under my skin; I can’t let the story go now, despite the moments of anxiety.

And speaking of anxiety: I’m not thinking about word count, or even about how many more months this will take to finish. Can’t face either of those things just now.

Rather, I’m letting myself enjoy the process. To revel in it, even. It’s astonishing the power writers have to craft an entire world, to play the role of puppet master. I dare say, it’s quite a lot of fun.

I’ve realized too that there is a tremendous sense of freedom on this side of the fence, the space that exists before a book is done and ready to be made public, evaluated, judged. Once that line has been crossed, at some point in the future, everything will change.

This is a good place to be. For now.

Hey there. I’ve been quiet over the last couple weeks, not because I haven’t been writing (I have! I have! My fingers are numb from the typing!), but because everything has been changing.

I’ve always felt that once I got to a certain point in my first draft – somewhere past the halfway mark – I’d get a sense for whether it was working. Whether the story was hanging together, whether it would keep a reader engaged, whether it could stand on its own.

I reached that point over the last month or so, and the gut checks I kept getting were something like this: You’re playing it safe. You’re coloring inside the lines. You could make this bigger, darker, better.

No one wants to hear that, even when it’s your own self talking, so I started asking a few people I’ve shown some of the first bits to. They agreed. Here’s what humble pie tastes like: teeth-scrapingly tart.

It’s clear that the story needs some significant re-working. It doesn’t have enough spark yet. It needs love. Attention. Obsession.

I’m digging it all up, exposing the guts again, doing major surgery. Look at these blood-spattered walls!

I’m frustrated + excited + cranky. I keep thinking about the deadline, and how very much I want to finish this book before I turn 40, and what if I don’t make it, and WAAAAHHH.

But you know: my book doesn’t care. It just shrugs.

So much for my progress reports. My word counts mean absolutely nothing. Aaannddd I’m back to wandering in the wilderness. Or, you know: writing.

It does amuse me to note that my characters are beginning to fulfill the title of the book more and more each day, AND SO AM I.

This book is coming together. Word by word, scene by scene. Some days I’m in love with it. Some days I hate it so much I can’t imagine how I ever thought this was a good idea. A couple of weeks ago, I woke up with the fervent belief that I should break the story lines apart and start over. Talked myself down from that ledge.

Here’s where I am now in terms of word count:

SECTION 1 – 17,500
SECTION 2 – 17,400
SECTION 3 – 17,200
SECTION 4 – 16,900
SECTION 5 – 10,000

TOTAL: 79,000

That seems like a big jump since my last progress report, but I wrote that post as I was getting the blog together, so it was a bit outdated by the time I published it. In the last 10 weeks, I’ve written an average of 4,400 words per week, which is over my 3,000 goal, so: YAY.

I’m overwriting. There’s bloat everywhere.

But I’m feeling more anxious than ever to get this first draft OUT so that I can see whether it hangs together. When the story is finally out my head and onto the page, it will be:

Unfit for consumption

But! I’ll know what I’ve got. And that’s something.

A running buddy said to me once: “Jennifer, you’re just like a horse when they catch sight of the barn. You go faster the closer you get to home.” I suppose she was right.

I’m nowhere near the home stretch yet, but I can see vague shapes in the distance that look promising.

Still on track to have a first draft finished sometime in October. The hustle continues.

Temporary tattoo from the geniuses at Tattly.

Stuckness. It’s a thing. There are days when my dialogue falls flat on the page, and my scenes feel stilted and false. When this happens, I know it’s because I don’t understand my characters well enough.

Who are they? What makes them tick?

I’ve been working on this list of questions to help me get underneath their skin. Even if these questions never get answered in the novel, they help me think about my characters in new ways, to root beneath their surfaces and sniff out the secrets they’re hiding.

– What is she afraid of?

– Who does she admire?

– What haunts him?

– Who does she not like that she “should”?

– Is there something she suspects, but is afraid to find out?

– What does he want more than anything else?

– Who do people think he is versus who is he really?

– Is there something he fears getting caught doing?

– Does she have irrational feelings towards someone or something?

– What does she admire about herself that she wishes others would notice?

– What important thing is he ignoring?

– What question does she dread being asked?

– What is her body saying that her mouth is not?

– Are there any places she avoids going? (where + why?)

– When does he pretend to feel something that he does not?

These questions never fail to unearth good, juicy stuff that gets me closer to what should happen next. Stuckness, begone.

We were almost home when we saw it: an object lying in the middle of an intersection that looked like it could be a purse or a briefcase.

It was the twilight hour, when the light begins to gray, and shapes that once appeared solid begin to blur around the edges. I pulled the car up beside the thing and opened my door. It was a black leather satchel, of middling quality, with a shiny silver zipper at one corner. It hadn’t been run over or tipped out; it must have been dropped only a short time earlier. We conferred for a moment before deciding to pick it up. What if it belonged to a neighbor?

It was heavier than I had anticipated; it weighed as much as a watermelon, or a bag of flour. Imagining all sorts of nefarious things, I peered inside, but the contents appeared to be innocuous.

Once inside the apartment, I sat on the floor and pulled items out of the bag, one by one.

A real-estate listing for a condo. A thank-you note, sans envelope. A school photo, the kind you cut out of a sheet with scissors, of a grinning boy who looked to be about 10. A near-empty tube of hemorrhoid cream. A multi-page statement of work from an auto mechanic, detailing repairs on a vintage car. A reminder for a cardiology appointment. A checkbook, the register filled with a blocky, forward-slanting script: CITIBANK. INSURANCE. A blister pack of antacid tablets, half of them gone. A receipt from a savings account withdrawal.

And finally: a stack of business cards at the bottom, with a name and phone number that matched the name on the checkbook. We called him right away, but he didn’t respond to our calls until much later, when he seemed baffled. He had been on the other side of town, he said, and wasn’t even aware that his satchel was missing.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the spread of items, the way they collectively offered a glimpse into a life. The life of a middle-aged businessman, saddled with the cares and concerns that so many of us share. The meaningful and the banal, all mixed up together.

What stories would someone concoct about my life, I wondered, if they laid out some of the scraps that I carry around?

My yoga teacher has been reading this passage to us before class lately, as we sit cross-legged, heads bowed, on our mats. It thrills me every time I hear it.

You don’t have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Remain still and solitary.

The world will freely offer itself to you unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstacy at your feet.

Franz Kafka

It’s Friday afternoon. Time to wipe down the whiteboards filled with jotted notes + to-dos. Time for quiet, and breathing, and reflection. Time to write.

Happy weekend.