Repost: Just Before the Muddy Middle

The path to completion is never easy…

Approaching the muddy middle… never a fun place to be. Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash
There’s a stage in every writing project where the first draft seems unfinishable. For me, that point is usually somewhere between the 50–75% mark. By then, I’m usually frustrated by how slowly things are going, feel like I’m never going to finish the first draft, hate most of what I’ve written, feel that either I’ll never have enough to say to finish a whole book or that there will be no possible way to wade through all the resources and rough notes to and whittle them down to a reasonable number of words that will fit within the target word count. By that point, I’m usually feeling bogged down by all the reading I’ve done and physically am buried under stacks of printed out articles and teetering piles of library books. The number of tabs open in several different browsers are slowing my poor laptop down to prehistoric speeds.
It’s all rainbows and unicorns around here at the moment. I wish I could hang onto this feeling of lightness and optimism as I approach the book-writing equivalent of the doldrums. Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

But just before I get to that dreadful muddly middle where it seems there is no realistic chance I will ever finish writing the first draft, there’s a lovely stage of enthusiasm and ease that lasts up until about the first third is done. I’m nearing the end of that blissful stage in That Deforestation Book and I thought I’d take a moment to pause, reflect, and enjoy the fact that things are going well.

There are loads of resources out there and I’ve sunk my teeth into several (though finished reading none). I’m finding my research is actually fitting quite nicely into the fairly detailed outline I set up in Scrivener. I’ve been told by my editor to be careful because Scrivener and Word (which is how I’ll eventually need to export the draft before it goes off to the editor) don’t always play nicely together. For the moment, I’ve decided not to worry about that too much because I’m finding Scrivener to be quite helpful and a good fit for the chaotic way in which I write. I jump all over the place in a manuscript when I’m starting out and only later go back and get all methodical and chronological about the material. That’s when I realize just how big the gaps are that I’ve left to deal with later…

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For now, though, I am merrily inserting ‘look at this later’ comments to myself when I discover I don’t know as much as I thought I did about specific details (like the percentage of forests in BC that are clearcut each year and how that number has changed over the past 50 years). On the other side, I’m finding resources like the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) document, Global Forests Resource Assessment 2015 which is available as a free Kindle download and which provides an interesting overview of global deforestation (and replanting) numbers over the past 25 years.

Basically, I’m still feeling optimistic and happy about how things are going. I’m approaching the 30% mark in terms of word count and am easily finding material to slot into the various sections. What I also know is that this feeling of ‘I’ve got this’ is about to turn into ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ as I approach the halfway mark and the beginning of the muddy middle.

Wish me luck!

Also reading: Breakfast of Biodiversity: the Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction by John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto [and various other titles procured from the library — love my library!]

Word Count (cumulative): Just shy of 3000 words

Suggestions? How do you deal with that terrible place in the middle of a first draft where things slooooooow right down and it seems like you’ll never reach the end?

Haven’t bought the last book yet? Here’s the link to Christmas: From Solstice to Santa

Pollard vs Coppice – The Pleasures of Research

Wherein a book is nurtured… and willow twigs are bent into all manner of odd shapes… Photo by Nynne Schrøderon Unsplash
If you are following along over on Medium (yes, I know, too many blogs…) you’ll likely recognize this as another in the accountability blog post series. That Deforestation Book, as I’ve been calling it, is coming along slowly but surely. Today’s research dug into the differences between coppicing and pollarding. Both involve lopping a tree off at its knees (or ankles) and then waiting to see what happens. In the case of most evergreen species, not much, but if you try this trick with something like a willow or a maple tree it’s more like, ‘holy crap! shouldn’t that thing be dead?’ because after a relatively short time the tree stump sprouts a bunch of fresh sprouts that rapidly grow into usable sticks, poles, and, left for a few years, fence posts. 

So, What’s the Difference between Pollarding and Coppicing?

The difference between the two ancient practices (according to this BBC article, there are coppiced trees in France that have been coming and going, so to speak, for six centuries!) is that one cuts a coppiced tree right to the ground, whereas a pollarded specimen has been cut a bit higher up. In both cases, the new growth is quick, vigorous, and eminently useful.

Furniture of various kinds made from young, flexible twigs… Photo by Isaac Benhesedon Unsplash

Thin, pliable, young shoots may be used for basket or furniture-making, but if you leave your fresh growth to mature for a bit, it’s possible to produce quite a large amount of usable wood in a relatively short amount of time. In addition to the basic concept, I’ve added some new vocabulary (stool, copse, lop, poll) and found a few decent photos, so that whole section is looking reasonable.

Back in my farm and gardening days, I made good use of my coppiced/pollarded bounty to build gates, trellises, structures for supporting beans, peas, cucumbers… Here, my niece is on an Easter egg hunt, oblivious to the magic of coppiced sticks to her left…
One of the interesting challenges of writing a book in the Orca Footprints series is that the authors must all have some sort of personal connection to the subject at hand. At first glance little old me, a tree lover, might not have an obvious hand in global deforestation (other than the vast number of sheets of paper I print out in the course of writing a book… ), but I’m finding that the connections, in this case, are plentiful. Take coppicing. 

Have I Ever Coppiced a Tree? Why, Yes I Have!

The first time I coppiced a tree was after a wild blizzard on Vancouver Island. A lovely old, but fragile, plum tree split in half and basically disintegrated under the weight of a huge amount of wet, west coast snow. The sprawling wreckage that emerged when the snow melted was heartbreaking, but the debris was also affecting other trees in our orchard as one half of the plum had fallen across a young cherry tree we had planted and the other half had crashed into one of our favourite apple trees. So, we cut the plum tree down thinking that was that. Lo and behold, when spring came a virtual forest of plum tree stalks shot up from the stump. We left the spindly young ones alone for a few years and they put on quite the show of blossoms each spring. Because the original fruiting part of the tree would have been grafted onto rootstock, we never did get any more edible fruit, but the amount of regrowth was truly inspiring and I used quite a few of the new sticks to build some rustic gates and other farm and garden structures.

That was my introduction to the concept of coppicing which, as my father enlightened me at the time, was a common practice back in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. In terms of That Deforestation Book, my fond memories of lopping and chopping have been recycled quite nicely into a sidebar in the pollarding section…

Word count: Running total 2663 (though, that’s a bit inflated because it includes my growing list of references which won’t be included in the final total…Using Scrivener, I’m not quite sure how to exclude a section when doing my word count. If you are a Scrivener expert, do tell…)

Meanwhile, over on the other blog…

I confess I’ve been terrible about making sure to cross-post my blog entries from over on my other website.

Instead of reposting all the original posts here, I’ll give you a quick summary and some links to get you started, should you wish to head over there and catch up (see the list of links at the end of this post).

 

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Arriving on the coast… sunshine, ocean – happy to be back!

 

I arrived a couple of days ago to spend some time with family, visit with students at a couple of schools, and meet with my editor, Sarah, about my new WiP, When the Time is Right (about medically-assisted dying).

 

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I’m not sure I can say it has been a lot of fun to work on this book about dying, but it sure has been fascinating! I’ve learned a lot and feel quite differently now about the subject than I did when I started working on this book a year-and-a-half ago. 

 

 

It’s been a busy few days since I got to Vancouver Island and several things come to mind. First, I really enjoy doing school visits and that’s still true even though I’ve done a gazillion over the years. Why? No matter how often I share my stories, the students never fail to inspire me. Their enthusiasm for reading and writing, their questions and curiosity always leave me reinvigorated and eager to get back to work on the next book(s).

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So where am I with all my projects? Recent releases include Cliffhanger and Deadpoint, both about mountain climbing and Better Together: Creating Community in an Uncertain World (part of the Orca Footprints series). The next book to come out will be Christmas: From Solstice to Santa which was co-authored with my talented daughter, Dani Tate-Stratton.

 

Christmas Cover
This book about Christmas, its history, and how its celebrated around the world will be out later this year… 

 

Now that I’ve met with Sarah, I’ll get to work on edits to When the Time is Right: Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die for a new Orca series about series, complex subjects for teen readers. Once that’s off my plate I’ll refocus on The Last Leg: Three Generations on the Camino, the memoir I’m working on with Dani and my dad (E. Colin Williams). If you are interested in seeing a few photos from the trip we made in the fall to northern Spain, visit our Instagram feed @thelastlegbook. In 2020, my picture book with Holiday House is scheduled for publication. It’s going to be illustrated by Katie Kath (you can see more of her work on Instagram).  That book (which combines baseball and bricklaying) will officially have the longest lead time of all my books with more than 6 years elapsing between the time I first discussed the concept with my agent to final publication. Patience, as they say, is a virtue!

ARC Cover Better Together

I’m also getting ready to start work on a non-fiction book for teens about civil disobedience and, after that, will return to work on the adult memoir I’ve been plugging away at for years about my mom, the nature of personality, and dementia.

BUSY!

As promised, here’s a list of a few links to posts over on the other blog…

During the month of April I took part in the AtoZ Blogging challenge and actually managed to post every day…

A is for Abessess (I was in Paris when I wrote a few of these, so that was pretty cool… what’s not to love about Paris?)

F is for Feet

Y is for a Year or So of Travels (It has been a great year and a bit of roaming the globe… this post touches on a few highlights)

 

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My journals and daytimer now include little sketches – that’s a first. Even when the drawings aren’t great, the pages just look more interesting. (This little sketch is from my recent trip to the British Virgin Islands where I was able to combine sailing and climbing. Heaven!)

 

The blogging challenge was lots of fun, so I decided to keep going at the same time as I also challenge myself to learn how to draw. Despite the fact I grew up with an artist (my dad is the painter, E. Colin Williams), I never really explored visual art, preferring to stick with writing.

I am really hoping that if I manage to keep going with this project for the planned 365 days of the coming year that by the end of it I will draw better than I do now… Things couldn’t really get much worse, I don’t think…

Lines (12/365)

Dots, Lines and 3D

Wow. That’s a lot of catching up! I’ll try to be better about posting regularly here, too!

Let me know what you are working on by leaving me a quick note in the comments below. Include a link to your website (or Instagram or Facebook account) so we can come over and visit you, too.

Camino tickets BOOKED!!!!!!

There is nothing quite like receiving that email confirming your flight is booked. In this case, the series of emails (Calgary to Paris via Montreal, Paris to Madrid and then various bits and pieces of the return trip plus information about trains within Spain) have triggered a crazy mix of wild excitement and sheer terror.

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Yep – making the final commitment to a big trip is both exhilarating and somewhat unnerving.  Photo by Ian Simmonds on Unsplash

Of course, I’m thrilled that this trip is coming together. Dani (30), Dad (beyond 80) and I (mid-50s) are collaborating on a pretty cool, intergenerational, multidisciplinary project. Spending time on the Camino de Santiago is amazing enough, but along the way, we will also be creating art – visual art (Dad) and writing (Dani, me), and photography (all of us). I’ll also be documenting our journey with video.

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Here’s an oil painting Dad did after his trip to Venice in 2015. I’m so excited to see what will come of our journey to Spain…

Where’s the sheer terror part of all this? Well, we are collaborating on two major projects. The first (not such a big surprise) is a book that will include artwork, photos, and writing (obviously). Then, there’s an exhibition featuring the artwork which will be mounted in conjunction with a series of talks by some combination of the three of us (depending on location and availability). No longer is this simply a stroll in Spain – now we are facing the pressure of making sure we create work that reflects what is turning out to be a rather more nuanced journey than any of us had first imagined. We’ve had conversations about the nature of art and living the creative life, spirituality for skeptics, mortality, and the relationship of people to the environment as discovered through the simple (ancient) act of walking. We’ve also swapped notes on sleeping bag liners, footwear, phone chargers, and wi-fi access. We all love Europe and history and art, so we are also just plain excited about being in a super cool place with other people who are also stoked about being part of a pilgrimage that’s been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.

 

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What is it about old stuff in Europe that makes it so compelling? I snapped this photo on a tiny group tour of the Tour Saint Jacques in Paris earlier this year. Standing up there in the ancient bell tower desperately trying to follow the guide’s all-in-French commentary, I realized just how little I knew about the Camino, this history of the church, and the nature of pilgrimage. Confession time: before we began to think about going, I hadn’t realized that Saint Jacques in France is the same guy as Saint James in English and Saint Iago in Spanish. For pilgrims starting out in Paris, the Tour St. Jacques was likely a stop on the road to Spain.

 

For me, this is also a return to my writing roots – I started out writing newspaper and magazine articles, my favourites of which were inspired by personal experience. That said, for the last couple of decades most of my work has been for children and teenagers so, in some ways, this is my first book (a very, very strange position to be in). Anyone who has set out to write a first book knows just how stressful that can be… Ok, to be honest, every time I set out to write any book it’s stressful. But that’s the subject of another post so I won’t go there again.

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Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

When do we leave? At the end of September (that’s next month!!!! Eeeeek!). The three of us are meeting up in Madrid, which is really where the journey will begin. We’ll be documenting the journey in various places – we all have Instagram accounts (@writergrrrl @from yyj_travel @colinwilliams5615) and blogs (this one plus darkcreekfarm.com/blog for me) as well as my Patreon account (if you become a supporter over there you’ll get access to some bonus material not published anywhere else). I’m also planning to do more over on medium.com – I like their Stories platform as a way to tell a long, linear tale using lots of images. So, sign-up, follow along and stay tuned – this is going to be a fun ride!

Signed copy of Deadpoint (Orca Sports)

I have a limited number of copies of my novel for teens about climbing on hand. Part of the Orca Sports series, the novel sets three kids against a mountain. Price includes shipping within North America and will be signed. Shoot me an email (or leave a comment) and I can personalize a copy for you. Perfect for the adventure-loving teen in your life! ** Please note that once we are on the trail, this offer will disappear because I will be in Spain!!! Yippee!! (for me, that is... not for you if you are hoping to snag a copy before I go).

$13.00

T is for Taking Time (To write, in Paris) AtoZ Blogging Challenge

I should know better. You can’t live a whole week and not make an effort to write some stuff down. Like, details. In the moment when life is actually happening. The problem is, the mind is designed to forget. And, rightly so. I mean, there’s just way too much information coming in to possibly absorb and remember it all. If you don’t write it down while it’s going on, poof. All but the vaguest of impressions disappear.

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Step 1. Take the time to watch. Stare out the window. Pay attention. Spy relentlessly.

Being out of my element makes it even worse. I’m making a real effort to see at least one new thing each day I am in Paris. Most days, I wind up discovering a gazillion things.  A whole week without writing stuff down means the end of week summary sounds like a long shopping list. And we all know how interesting (not) shopping lists are to read.

 

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Parc André Citröen

 

Case in point, I had a really busy week last week and didn’t do much journalling. By the time I found a few minutes to write down what I’d been up to it was late one evening and I was too tired to write much so I did this:

  • rode carousel
  • bought fancy cake
  • photos of graffiti
  • Montmartre
  • drug dealer phone
  • remote presentation
  • edits on Love and Belonging
  • photos of Joan d’Arc statue (dancing umbrellas)
  • French lessons (the Camino mag)
  • in search of the best baguette
  • Michael Rosen at Shakespeare and Co.
  • cool paperies – in search of notebooks
  • meet-up Shut up and Write
  • Metro stop a day project
  • outside my bedroom window – life in the plaza
  • working out under the bridge (oh my aching abs)

 

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Detail from the Palais Royal Metro station exit… Taking this photo was part of my plan to pop out at one new metro station each day that I’m here in Paris and then record my findings. 

 

Any one of these bullet points could have been expanded into some sort of blog entry or article or at least a decent journal entry but no, instead I fell asleep. And then, the next day arrived and I was up and at ’em and busy living again and adding more stuff to the list.

 

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Had a great time doing research for a possible article, “Best Playgrounds in Paris” but haven’t actually done any writing on the subject… yet. 

 

 

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Step Two: Take the time to write. I’m the one hugging the bagel during a writing session at the local shopping mall. While our apartment was being fitted out with wi-fi, I wound up heading over there to work as they have plugs, free wi-fi and don’t mind if you bring your own baguette. In case you are curious, the mall is called Beaugrenelle and it’s about two blocks from our apartment.

My goal for the days ahead is to slow down and do what I know I should be doing: building time to write about what I’m doing into the schedule every day. Today’s objective is to visit the Museum of the Cinémathèque and then, afterward, to find a café where I can sit down and write a bit about that experience. There. I’ve said it publicly. Now I HAVE to do it.

 

D is for Deadlines (AtoZChallenge)

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“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Ah, deadlines. Love ’em. Hate ’em. I’m great at tackling projects I know I can deal with fast. I get them over and done with waaaaaay ahead of time. Why wait?

It’s those ugly, complicated, bit-off-more-than-I-can-chew projects that bring out my inner procrastinator. And, yes, I do all those classic procrastinator things: brush the cat (I’m not joking, the cat never looked glossier than when I was struggling through draft 12 of Battle for Carnillo), clean the sink, go for a walk, check Facebook, lift some weights (I don’t like lifting weights), plan some cool vacation that there’s no way I could afford but is oh-so-much-fun to think about, and then maybe take apart and clean the lint trap in the dryer. You know, things that just can’t wait, unlike the BIG IMPORTANT project with that looming DEADLINE.

The problem is, those big, fat, messy projects tend to have decently long timelines. So, what harm could another lap around the dog park possibly do when I have practically forever to get this draft/rewrite/sequel done? Yes, sure, I pick at projects like this – open a web page or sixty, do some preliminary research. I jot a few notes, sort out the single sock drawer, and then go to bed early because it’s exhausting not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. A nap should perk me right up, right? Except, a long nap in the middle of the afternoon never works too well. By the time I wake up I feel like I’ve been rolled over by a drunk elephant and the day is almost gone and dinner needs to be made and after all that, the dishes and some emails, and Facebook – what has been going on in my virtual world all day?

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You get the picture. Of course, that deadline doesn’t just go away. It gets bigger. And uglier. And more intimidating. It starts waking me up at night. Nightmares revolve around missing trains. I wake up in a cold sweat after receiving an email saying Karen Rivers was awarded my contract because I could no longer speak English. Not that Karen Rivers would not be an eminently worthy inheritor of a contract, but man… the obsessions start to take over everything. I brush my teeth and think, I should be working. I gulp down a cup of tea. Should be working. I have a doctor’s appointment. No time. Must work.

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And as that deadline nears, some panic-induced blast of whatever brain chemical goes into overtime when it’s about to be slammed into a wall kicks in and I start writing. And nothing will stop me. My child falls over and cries. Too bad. Go see the neighbour.  Hungry? There’s a stale cracker stashed in the filing drawer somewhere. Add a bit of mustard and, voila – a meal. Not that I would get up and eat a meal anywhere other than at my desk. Such is my state of wild work ethic at this point I would be more likely to make the sick kid find something easy on AllRecipes.com and have her cook us both something vaguely nutritious.

The nightmares stop because at this point, of course, I am not sleeping. My family hates me. The cat looks like it has spent the past year living in a mud hole. The dog looks at me balefully, perhaps imagining those good old early days when we wandered aimlessly around the dog park.

That deadline, in the end, becomes the most amazing source of inspiration ever. Deadline not met? No incoming money. Ergo, no food. Simple equation. And that spurt of creative energy driven by sheer terror generally results in, yes, a Barfy First Draft. Or, a rewrite. Or, a new presentation. Or whatever.

I like to eat, which is why I rarely miss deadlines. How about you? Are you one of those super well-organized writers who is able to work steadily and calmly from start to finish on a project? Do writers like that actually exist? Do you zoom through and get done as fast as possible? Or, do you tend to put things off until you just can’t put them off any longer? Leave a comment and let us know how you REALLY feel about deadlines.

D atoz challenge

This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

patreon-logo

Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

A is for Authorly Angst (#AtoZChallenge)

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

As writers, we choose our subjects in many ways. As a working author (I don’t have another job other than putting words to paper) sometimes my topic selections are very practical. I’ve written several books in the Orca Footprints series, for example (Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, Down to Earth: How Kids Help Feed the World and Take Shelter: At Home Around the World). I love the concept of the series (non-fiction titles looking at complex environmental issues and asking the question, what are the things we need to live and thrive on our planet?) so it isn’t a stretch to want to dive into the research and then write books that are meaningful but also attractive and engaging. But truth be told, choosing to write another Footprints title is also very practical. The books have an audience and that means I will receive a royalty cheque and that means I will live to eat another day. Ok, I don’t eat days, but you get my meaning.

Though the process of writing any book is challenging for many reasons (this series of blog posts over the next month will touch on some of them), books like the Footprints titles, or novels for which I have a reasonable idea and a solid plot or a character I like, don’t keep me up at night agonizing over whether I should proceed with the project.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out. Those are the stories that reveal things about you and your life, your beliefs, your fears. They are the stories that weigh heavy, that you agonize over how best to share or whether sharing is even appropriate.

Many years ago I heard an author speaking about stories like that (I sure wish I could remember who it was!) who said that keeping those most powerful of stories inside because we are afraid of revealing too much or because we are afraid that readers ‘won’t get it’ is a kind of narcissism. We imagine that our stories are so out there, so unique that nobody else will be able to relate. The opposite is true. We don’t need to have shared an exact experience with someone else to be moved, to learn, to understand, to appreciate the emotional truth that lies at the heart of the story.

Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

If the story is written with integrity, with emotional honesty, we tap into the deeper emotional truths that make us human. And if we are brave enough to go there, those deeper emotional truths are what make the most profound impression on our readers. It doesn’t matter if one person has survived a bombing and another an attack by a dog and someone else a car accident – the raw underpinnings are the same – fear, coming face to face with our mortality, loss of control, and the randomness of unexpected events are experiences we all share at some point. We connect to these stories at that very basic level. We ask ourselves, what would I have done? We empathize. We imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. We weep. We laugh. We are inspired. Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

For many years I have been careful about revealing too much of my own story or the stories of those closest to me. When I have tackled difficult subjects (suicide, poverty, racism) it has been done in the context of fiction. Now, though, things are changing. I’m getting older (nothing like being on the far side of fifty to make you realize there are a finite number of books left to be written) and I have stories untold inside me. As Maya Angelou says, it’s an agony not to let them out.

The big writing projects on my desk are all non-fiction and they are all causing me a whole new level of grief. I’m working hard in ways I’ve never worked hard before. I’m struggling to find the balance between digging deep and spinning a readable yarn. I’m writing about loss and failure, challenge and adversity, hope and bearing down. These are my family stories, my own struggles, and subjects that have remained tucked away and waiting for later for too long.

These manuscripts wake me up in the middle of the night. But they are also manuscripts that feel really good to finally, finally be getting my full attention.

Do you have a story inside you need to tell? What’s stopping you? Be brave. Let it out. Start today.

A atozchallenge

This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

 

patreon-logo

Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.