Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Out of the Slough of Despond

I recently fell into the Slough of Despond. Or maybe it was the Pit of Despair. In any case, it was a dark, cold place with no up. I fell in suddenly and unexpectedly. The cause? I found out that when I wrote my novel, I hadn't followed any of the rules. Everyone else seemed to know the rules. I hadn't even realized that there were rules. Therefore, my novel must be crap. (And here I had been so satisfied with my first draft, so certain that the next step was simply to put some time into the manuscript revisions and I would have a substantial work.) There was no light anywhere.

Suspended there, motionless, directionless, and quite grumpy, I had my first insight. Perhaps one reason that I had not been proceeding with revising my novel in a timely way was that I was unsure of how to go about doing so. So, as much as I am always tempted to thumb my nose at "the rules" (I don't like rules), I reasoned (in the murky kind of way that one thinks in dark hopeless places) that I should take a closer look at some of those rules that other people follow to see if I could find some tools or strategies that might help me with my revisions.

Hmm, a faint sickly sort of light above me; I clawed my way upward. I inspected tools and rewriting advice: character grids, plot and subplot structure, archetypes, core stories. I began to analyze my manuscript in a structural way, similar to how I might approach a literary analysis of any other writer's work. Rather than "crap," I discovered interesting complexities of plot, character relationships, symbols, and social commentary there in the manuscript already, along with some flaws that had been invisible to me previously.

And now I'm out of the hole, back in the light, working through additional steps of analysis. I'm almost ready to start a beginning-to-end reread/manuscript markup. I'm not following anyone's exact prescription, but taking bits and pieces that fit my revision needs. And the next step after that, I think, will be to actually start rewriting the thing, with all my new ideas about character arcs and motives, plot points, etc. to guide me and my battered ego.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Sad NaNo Season

This year, at the beginning of October, I was looking forward to National Novel Writing Month with gusto. I have participated in it the past three Novembers. In 2007, I wrote over 50,000 words, developing 4 short stories that I had written years earlier into a novel. It was not nearly finished, so I continued working on it for each of the next two Novembers. By November 2009, it was 114,000 words long and the first draft was very close to being finished. A few months later, with some intermittent work on it, I finally had a completed first draft. I felt happy with it.

And then it sat. I made a few halfhearted attempts at revision. I did some research to fill in details that I had been vague on during the initial writing, but not much because that seemed to lead me off into endless digressions (internet surfing). I made a list of (mostly minor) problems with the manuscript that I needed to consider and rework. But then I didn't do it.

So when November rolled around again this year, I considered and rejected the idea of using NaNoWriMo to work on my revisions. Although NaNo might motivate me to work on those pesky revisions and it might add some necessary discipline and structure, revisions aren't really what NaNoWriMo is all about. Is it?

My next novel was rolling around in my head. I was laying out scenes, thinking about plot, building my novel world in my mind -- I was pumped and ready to go!

And then I went to the Surrey International Writers' Conference (SiWC) in late October. In three intense, useful days, I suddenly discovered why I was making so little progress revising my manuscript. It wasn't just that I was procrastinating (although I was), and it wasn't just that I had way too much stress at work (although I did). My revisions were stymied because I didn't really have a clue how to evaluate my novel's structure, story, and style. I didn't know what wasn't working well in it, or how to go about fixing it.

Although it was disappointing to realize that my manuscript was far less finished than I thought, at least I returned from the conference with some great insights about the revisions that I need to do and why. For the last few weeks, I have been evaluating the manuscript in terms of subplot structure, conflict, tension, character development, action, dialogue, and description. I have been developing a plan for the revisions.

So why is it a sad NaNo season? Well, I've shelved my new novel idea for now. It's time to work on those revisions.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pears and Brie in a Salad

This great salad comes from Rose Reisman's website Art of Living Well. Check it out; she has many great recipes. I found her site because I looked online for "pear + salad." I was asked to bring a salad to dinner, and as I have a surfeit of pears, I was looking for some new ideas for a pear salad. This one caught my eye because of the combination of pears and brie -- two things I love. When put together with spinach and candied pecans, it was definitely yummy. I only used up two pears though. One slight change that I made to the recipe is that I sprinkled lemon juice on the chopped pears so they wouldn't go brown. Next time that I make this salad, I will mix up a little less dressing, and toss it all at the last minute, as tonight I thought it was it was slightly soggy.

My pears are beautifully flavoured, organically grown winter pears. I like pears a lot, but my family members will not eat pears at all unless cooked into something. I have been making pear jam, putting pears into my barbequed back ribs marinade, and hiding them in pancakes. I have given many away, although I have discovered that many people are not all that interested in being given homegrown fruit and veggies. They apparently prefer to eat the perfectly shaped, unblemished, and often tasteless and pesticide laden produce from the grocery store.

I am on always the lookout for new ideas for pears. . . or friends who appreciate a gift of fruit. So, here's Rose's great salad:

Spinach Salad with Candied Pecans, Pears and Brie
This is the number-one salad in my catering company. The sweet and savory combination of cinnamon-sugared pecans, ripe pears and small morsels of brie is sensational. There is very little oil in this, but you won’t miss it. You can easily make this a main meal salad by adding some grilled chicken or shrimp. Photo by Brian MacDonald.
1/3 cup pecan halves 2 Tbsp orange juice concentrate, thawed
3 Tbsp icing sugar 2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp cinnamon 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/8 tsp allspice 1 tsp minced garlic
1/8 tsp nutmeg 1/2 tsp liquid honey
8 cups baby spinach leaves 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 cup diced radicchio
1 large ripe pear, peeled, cored and diced
2 oz brie, diced
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a baking sheet with cooking oil.
  2. Rinse the pecans with cold water. Drain, but do not let them dry. Combine the icing sugar, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg in a small bowl. Dip the pecans in the sugar mixture, coating them well. Spread on the prepared baking sheet.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes in the center of the oven. Remove and cool. When they’re cool enough to handle, chop coarsely.
  4. Combine the spinach, radicchio, pear and brie in a large serving bowl.
  5. Whisk the juice concentrate, oil, vinegar, garlic, honey and mustard together in a small bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat. Garnish with the candied pecans.

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