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As part of my new year’s resolution, I have a new schedule (as anyone who knows me at all would have already guessed).  I get up at 5:00 AM, do a quick 10-minute workout (sometimes Calisthenics and sometimes stretches as instructed by the chiropractor), get dressed, do hair and makeup, grab the lunch my husband has packed up for me and am out the door by 5:45. I am in DC by 6:00 and at a Starbucks down the street from my building by 6:10, where I get a small coffee and do devotions for half and hour. Then I pack up and am at work by 6:45 AM. This allows me to take a 45 minute lunch break, which I have been using to write. I am trying to do some sort of writing exercise and then work on editing my God’s Masterpiece book.

Today’s writing exercise/sort of lesson was a common theme – making your character suffer. Apparently a lot of authors don’t want bad things to happen to their character. I have never had that issue. I have stopped killing off every one in my books, relegating it to only a few, but those few must go, no matter how much I cry while I write it.

Today I discovered, however, that when it comes to making my characters’ suffer, I am fine with emotional suffering, but I have a hard time with physical suffering. Oh, they can starve to death or be exhausted or things like that but – the book I am going through (Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine) made me write out the scene in which Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf, with instructions to describe exactly how she felt, what she saw, etc. etc., and fairly strict instructions that she was to actually be eaten. I did so, reluctantly – because how horrifying is it to write out a scene in which someone is eaten? Especially since you know that, in non-fairytales – they aren’t actually swallowed in one bite. I wrote it out as much as I could, shuddering inside the whole time, and probably ended it faster than the exercise wanted me to.

But that experiment taught me two things. One, which is what I already mentioned – there is a difference in physical and emotional suffering – and I may have one down, but am terrified of the other. And two, that as terrible as suffering such as that is, it is prime for description and feeling. So, while I doubt I will ever write a book in which someone is eaten, or even physically assaulted outside of perhaps being hit, I am going to work on the physical suffering side, particularly when it comes to descriptions.

And now my 45 minutes are up, so it’s back to work with that awful scene still in my mind. Thanks, Gail. Thanks.

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Today – or rather, this afternoon – was spent at a coffee shop writing. A perfect thing to do on a holiday. Well, more research than writing. I finally reached that point in my book where it was hard to proceed without an actual timeline for the California/Oregon trail. So I spent hours trying to use my accumulated research to assemble at least a vague timeline for a normal wagon train that I could use – results are posted on Once Upon A Story, if you are interested.

The coffee shop is extremely full today, but one conversation caught my attention a little ways from me. A woman probably in her early forties, slim build, beautiful medium length brown hair, almond shaped eyes, working on a computer.  A man, likely early fifties (maybe – I’m terrible at telling age) came in and sat down. They struck up a brief conversation based on – something – I forget what. Then, obviously interested in talking with her more, he asked if she was working on a paper. “No, a book, actually.” I was instantly annoyed, because I apparently don’t think anyone deserves to work on a book but me (Maybe I’ve been working too long today).

The man, not unattractive but rather unremarkable, furthers my irritation by asking the obvious question – the question that prevents me from telling people that I am a writer – “Oh, really? What are you working on?”

She proceeds to tell him what it is about, and he then responds with the comment that I find even more exasperating than asking what a writer is working on. “I’m working on a book too!”

The end result of their conversation was a mutual agreement to read each other’s books, and a closing comment from her about how she hopes hers will be published someday and it is the first time she’s ever tried this.

Glowering, I returned to the book I’ve been working on and researching for three years, after brooding over the idea for the book for ten. What right has she, someone who has never tried this before, to not only be on her third round of editing her book, in hopes of publishing it, and talking to a complete stranger about it? Clearly it does not mean as much to her as it does to me. What right has she to call herself a writer? What right has she to even be in this coffee shop with me? But, as my random envious bouts always do, it ended in self-reflection. I know quite well I am only jealous because she not only has the self-confidence to speak about her book, but because she is working hard to completion, with no apparent (key word: apparent) doubts as to the end result. I am jealous because I, who claim to have been writing since 8 years old, have yet to be published, due to my own neglect. I should look at her as an inspiration, not an intruder.

Three hours later, my judgement upon her returns with a vengeance as I hear her, while I struggle over converting a passage with a lot of “telling” into a conversation, turn to the man with the smirkish smile and broad forehead and say, “I’m done!”

Done?? DONE??!! HOW CAN YOU BE DONE? 

And she, with her perfect skinny figure and shyly innocent face, embarks on a long conversation about it with him and his energetic, encouraging tones while I sit here and write about them to make myself feel better.

But seriously. I am almost there, I keep telling myself. Oh, I am only halfway through editing the book, but there are serious edits taking place. Whole chapters being overhauled. And that quote comes to mind.

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Yes, I did my 15 minutes. I used it (well, really, half an hour) to finish up a couple scenes I stopped in the middle of last week.

I have no profound things to say about my self-imposed 7 day challenge. Certainly nothing that hasn’t been said before by “real” writers and multiples of them. But I have to say, forcing myself to write for 15 minutes a day every day for 7 days has made a difference for me. In two specific ways:

1. I have rediscovered my story. Not only do I, for the first time in months, remember what I was trying to do with my book, but I feel like I am beginning to understand my characters more as well. And, for the first time since I wrote the first draft, I am thinking about my characters throughout the day and what they should be doing in their story. I am actually excited about getting back to editing it and – hopefully – finish soon!

2. This may be simple for you, but it is actually profound for me. It IS possible to write for 15 minutes a day. Because it was a challenge and because I committed to writing about it every day on the blog, I did not allow myself excuses. Even the one evening we didn’t go to bed until past midnight and writing my 15 minutes meant staying up until 1:00 on a weeknight, I still did it and, more importantly, I did not regret doing it. The only thing I regretted most evenings was not having more time to spend on it (and, indeed, there were nights I spent far more than 15 minutes).

This has been a great experience for me and I really hope I don’t let it fall by the wayside now that I no longer have an obligation (self-imposed, granted) to write about what I did every day.

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One significant flaw I think I have mentioned before is how quickly Elizabeth’s mother went from being weak, conciliatory, and non-confrontational to speaking her mind and ordering people around. Granted, I know from experience that it can happen to even meek people when the occasion is right, but to turn around so completely seemed inconsistent with her character.

So the question becomes, what changed outside of their circumstances and her anger? Something had to push her – to convince her it was all right to speak up for herself, to tell her children what to do, and to lead her family. And that something,, it seemed most likely, would have probably been her new, very strong friend who knew how to teach children discipline and respect and had no probably telling other people’s children either. Since I have no more than that to say about the scene I finished writing, I’ll get out of my comfort zone and let you read part of the very rough scene I jotted out in my 15 minutes.

“You had a daughter named Anne?” asked Breanna in a softer tone.

“That we did.” Joan looked with some affection toward Breanna’s Anne, who was seated some distance away, playing quietly with her doll, a thin wisp of black hair falling out of her carefully braided hair. “She was a pretty little thing. Blonde as the wheat in a field, unlike your little Anne. She would have been 5 years old this year. But that is neither here nor there.” She hurried on briskly, pulling herself from an almost-reverie. “Fact is, it is a hard life. There are no guarantees outside of God bein’ there for you through thick and thin. We lost two children on a perfectly safe farm in Illinois, a farm that was beginning to fail. We might as well take out chances out here to try and get a better life for our family. That’s what yer husband wants fer you all, ain’t it? A better life?”

Breanna couldn’t quite bring herself to respond. To say yes would be to almost say it was all right for Mark to have dragged them away from their home. To say no would be a lie. Whether it was his fault in the first place or not, it was indeed what he wanted for them out here. So she said nothing, but leaned over the venison stew. 

Joan’s shrewd glance at her spoke volumes. There was an awkward silence before Joan spoke quietly. “Admitting he’s doin’ his best for you now doesn’t mean what he did in the past was all right. But you can’t change it by bein’ bitter and dismissive.”

Breanna bit back a sudden sharp remark that it was none of her business. She was the one who had brought up reasons for being on the trail, and she had no call to be rude to her only friend.

“Thank you.” She said instead, rather stiffly. “Now, then. Let’s see if we can’t get your oldest girl to actually help some.” Joan moved on cheerfully and quickly. “Elizabeth! Come tend the cornbread!”

It took some minutes for Elizabeth to actually appear from the back of the wagon, an irritable look on her face.

“You ready for this?” Joan looked at Breanna.

“Ready for what?

“For instructing your daughter on helpin’ out.”
“Oh – I  – I don’t know. She looks rather – tired.”

“She doesn’t look tired, she looks angry. She is as angry as you are at being out here, the difference bein’ you are taking responsibility and doin’ what has to be done and she is letting everyone else do the work – which I suspect she is used to from back home.”

Breanna didn’t have to answer the assumption for Joan to know it was true.

“Anyway – I have my own family to tend to, Breanna, and you have yours. I will not be here all the time and you need to get a little backbone and learn to teach your daughters what respect is. They have just as much duty to be out here working as you have.”

“But – I don’t – I don’t know –“

“How? You stand up straight, you remember you are her mother, you are responsible for her upbringing, and you do not want her acting the way she does now when she has her own family to tend to. You and and yer mister are responsible for how Elizabeth behaves and kowtowing to her every time she throws her little temper tantrums ain’t doing no one any good, least of all her.”

By this time Elizabeth’s slow saunter had brought her near enough the fire that Breanna did not feel comfortable arguing any longer. Her daughter stopped and looked at her silently, her lifted chin defying her to actually give any orders. Breanna glanced towards Joan, who answered with an encouraging nod.

“Ahem. Elizabeth – Mrs. Winters must get back to her own dinner now. Please see to the cornbread.”

“I think not.” Disdain dripped from her daughter’s voice. “It is hardly my place, nor do I have any knowledge of the method of cornbread cooking.” Elizabeth half glanced towards Joan, almost simultaneously with her mother, both expecting the woman to speak up about respect and doing her job the way she had every time previously. But Joan remained silent, leaning studiously over the fire to add more wood. After an embarrassed silence, Breanna cleared her throat again and continued in a strained tone.

“Then. You will need to learn, Elizabeth. It is high time for you to start pulling your weight around here. I cannot be expected to do all the work, and nor can Mrs. Winters.”
“I cannot be expected to do the work either, Mother. If Father wanted dinner, perhaps he should have brought servants with us, or, perhaps even allowed us to remain in our home.” Elizabeth icily turned to go, sure she had, as usual, silenced her mother with her concise insults.

Breanna shot a desperate glance towards Joan, who returned her look with meaningful eyes and pursed lips.

Elizabeth!” In her desperation to get the word out, it came much more sharply than intended. But it did the trick. Elizabeth stopped and half turned in surprise.

“Elizabeth.” Breanna continued in a slightly softer, but just as determined voice. “You will return here immediately and ask Mrs. Winters politely to show you how to cook cornbread, or you will . . .will . . . assist her father and brother in caring for the oxen.” It was the only thing that came to mind as an alternative. 

Elizabeth’s lip curled and her brow furled as she looked at her mother in disbelief. Breanna swallowed and set a stern expression on her face, trying to look as if she meant every word she said. Elizabeth slowly turned back around and stepped to Mrs. Winters, casting Breanna one more half derisive, half uncertain glance before she said rigidly, “Mrs. Winters, would you be so kind as to  . . . show me how to . . . do that.”

Joan allowed a small smirk to play about her lips. “I would be delighted, Miss Johnson.” She cast Breanna an approving look above Elizabeth’s dark head.

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I’ve been having an issue with my main character in Picture of the Past almost since the beginning. I didn’t like her. I didn’t intend for anyone to like her at first, but to gradually sympathize with her as she changed – but I didn’t like her even when she changed. She seemed so – flat. So single-minded. So one-dimensional. In short, she seemed like a character, not a person. I’ve been reading lots of books and articles about how to improve this because, in my mind, she is multi-dimensional. She has struggles, internal and external, and she is someone who can grow into such an incredible daughter and sister – but I just can’t seem to translate that to the page.

One good thing about implementing these additional scenes, is that they are forcing me to write more about her. More scenes about her, more viewpoints about her – and I think I am slowly beginning to figure her out more. I am still not pleased – but I think I’ll get there. One thing I need to remember is that this is my character – not the character that all the articles tell me I have to write. All the books and articles say your heroine must be sympathetic. But that isn’t true. There are plenty of heroines that are not sympathetic until the last. So if she is selfish and unlikable in the beginning part of the story, that is who she is – trying to add sympathetic elements only makes her seem more fake until she actually begins to change. Besides, she really doesn’t seem to like it when I add in things about her that aren’t true. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Day 5 of the 15 minute challenge involved writing a scene wherein she is angry about doing servants work, the boys don’t pay as much attention to her as she thinks they should, and her mother was just about to give her a lecture on what it actually means to be a lady when the timer went off. I don’t know if it will actually go into the story, but she is doing a good job of reminding me that she is just a spoiled little rich girl at first and I shouldn’t be trying to make her into something else.

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Actually written yesterday, August 30:

I have a lot more free time than usual tonight due to my husband being gone for a guy’s night and having nothing in particular scheduled. I was going to go to the Library of Congress to do some research and writing, but it is a dreary, rainy night, and I decided I really did not want to leave the house. So, instead I made myself a pot of tea, turned on some Jim Brickman and am doing my writing here, with no people around.

I am taking advantage of my extended period of time do go through the book and note everyplace I think needs more scenes or which parts need to be “shown” instead of told. There are a lot! This is really helping remind me of where I left off a few months ago, when I started doing piecemeal research that I just never had enough time to concentrate fully on. I feel like I am beginning to remember what I wanted out of the story. Once I finish marking potential scenes or areas that “tell” too much, my goal is to write at least one of those scenes. But even if I don’t get the scene written, going through the book itself counts as the “15 minutes”, right? I hope so, since I’ve already been at this for half an hour!

I feel like I might get more use out of this editing style than going through the book and changing page by page and feeling like I never make progress. Everyone has different book editing styles, or so I have read, and I suppose you simply don’t know which yours is until you try!

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