Week Two: Winter 2017 Online Writing Group

This is week two of the Winter 2017 edition of the Lake Projects Online Writing Group, and I begin this week’s goals post with a call to action: this week, be the hammer. You all had a good start on your projects last week, so this week, don’t lose your momentum. Keep whacking away at those nails until your foundation is able to stand on its own. Be the hammer.

Hopefully you all saw last week’s addendum about our three new group members, and this week we’ve got everyone together in a single, beautiful group. So let’s go!

Week Two Goals:

Alena: I’ve been writing essays for scholarships this week instead of working on my two short stories. I’ll return to them for Week Two. My other goal is to start reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. I know this isn’t technically a writing goal but reading helps develop writing skills so I’ll include it.

Anne D.: My Week Two goal is to polish up a few pieces and see where that takes me.

Anne H.: This week I’m going to continue making notes on “Save the Cat,” and I’m also going to continue reading the Elmore Leonard novel Get Shorty; and after I finish reading the novel (almost done!), I’m going to watch the movie. I think the novel and movie are similar to a project I’m working on, so I’m using them as a study. [You all know how I feel about Elmore Leonard.]

Cynthia: My Week Two goal is to write at least a paragraph a day. Baby steps. [Those are the cutest kind of steps!]

Kate: Coming soon…

Laura: I worked a bit on my short story last week, but I have another once-over to do before submitting it. That’s my goal for this week: to submit to two magazines (one I just found out about last week; another I’d intended to submit to is closed for the winter, so I’ll keep it in my pocket until they’re open) and to a contest. This week I’m also going to start to begin the outline for my new course.

Lisa: So…I did absolutely nothing during week one. My goal for Week Two is to write the three pages I wanted to write in Week One. Wish me luck! [Good luck!]

Matt: The first week has been productive; I’ve completed the basic process of reorganizing my framing device and feel that I am well on my way to where I need to be. Sadly this has only reduced the overall size by about two thousand words, or about point-zero-zero-two percent of the total mass of the book, but it’s a start.

Now that I have a new shape, for this week I go back and start again, revisiting where I began, armed with the knowledge of where it ends up. The framing device has a narrator and I am still finding her voice.

The frustrating thing is that I also keep finding more stories, hidden inside the little cracks, and it’s hard not to want to tell them. How do you deal with knowing so much about these characters, knowing stories that want to be told but also knowing that they probably don’t need to be told?

Noëmi: My goal for next week is to write at least about 500 words. I don’t know whether I want it to be a short story or a blog-post or something else.

Rachel: I met last week’s goal to compile all my essay ideas in one concrete place: I bought a little notebook at Muji, gathered all my idea scraps, and wrote them in there. For next week, I will plan to write a first draft of an essay about an old Dutch lady I met at the post office last week who tried to cut in front of me in line (don’t worry, we became friends by the end). I’ll shoot for 1,000 words for the final draft.

Robert: Week Two goal: continue working on my novel. Week One progress: wrote 1500 words.

Sarah: Week Two goals: my thesis course is back in session. To stay on task in the course I need to write everyday. I need seven pages this week and I have ten to edit. I did well with my Week One goals so I’m energized to wrap up this paper. Oh and I need to finish my blog post.

Yahoo!

This week, in addition to telling you all to be the hammer, I wanted to talk a bit about how writers break up their writing. The long and winding road that got me to this idea started last week as I determined how many books I would set as my goal for this year’s Goodreads reading challenge.

See, last year I set my goal as fifty books, but by the end of 2016 I’d only read thirty-two, and I’m always a little disappointed when I don’t meet my goal. I know that I spent a lot more time last year reading academic publications for my two graduate classes, which don’t count toward my Goodreads goal, but I think that I also missed my goal because I read a number of big, fat books that took me a long time to read.

Sad. It's so sad.

Sad. It’s so sad.

As I thought about the number of big, fat books that I read in 2016 — A Brief History of Seven Killings (688 pages), Villette (657 pages), It (1,116 pages), City on Fire (911 pages [though, full disclosure: I started this in 2016 but I haven’t quite finished it yet]) — I thought about Infinite Jest, because thinking about long books invariably brings me to thinking about Infinite Jest (1,079 pages [a couple hundred of which are footnotes (yes, you do need to read the footnotes)]).

And then (bear with me; I’m almost to my point), as I thought about how reading It is such a wholly different experience than reading Infinite Jest is (in every aspect, including the simple act of turning pages), I started thinking about how both writers had broken up their books into small sections, sections so small, sometimes, that they were only a page or two.

And this kind of a break up of a long piece into small sections — maybe authors call them chapters, but frequently they don’t — is useful in a piece of any length, but especially when you have something that’s upward of six or seven hundred pages. Stephen King knows this; he is a prolific writer in terms of books and in terms of pages (It is not King’s only book over 1,000 pages, and he frequently publishes novels that are 800 pages or more [for better or for worse…]), and he usually breaks up his books into small, non-chaptered but numbered sections that are sometimes only a few paragraphs.

it-and-infinite-jest

And Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, knows this, too. James broke up his Man Booker Award-winning brick-of-a-book into smaller first-person sections, each told by one member of his cast of about a dozen or so characters. And relative newcomer Garth Risk Hallberg, author of the 911-page impromptu-weapon-against-home-invasion City on Fire, breaks his long book up by short chapters, too (also by character p.o.v., though third person, not first like James’s). I don’t have a picture of Hallberg’s book because it’s downstairs and I forgot to do it and I’m too lazy to leave my chair. So you get Tolstoy instead.

Anna Karenina was so big and fat that sometimes it's broken up into two books!

Anna Karenina is so big and fat that sometimes it’s broken up into two books!

And all of this segmentation can help you organize your story, too. It can help you organize the writing of the story (it’s easier to tell yourself that you’re going to tackle just one character’s account from that one afternoon when she was running errands and ended up getting car-jacked rather than the entire swirling narrative of all of your characters and what in their lives led up to that one car-jacking and their lives in the days that followed it); and it can help you organize the overall narrative arc as well. If your big work is broken up into smaller segments, you may decide that your story is best told out of chronological order and instead told according to character, or according to location. Once you’ve decided what’s best, just move all of the bits from each character together and you’ve got your story. So easy, right? (hahahahahahaaaa! writing is so easy!!!!)

Breaking your work up into small sections will also help your reader; because books that are broken up into smaller sections are much, much easier to read. As I started reading City on Fire in bed at night, it was easy for me to tell myself, “Oh, just one more chapter, it’s such a short one.” And then, the first night I’d started it, it was 1 a.m. and I was two hundred pages in. Boom.

For those of you who are working on short pieces, think of the breaking-up of your story in more traditional narrative terms: onset (leading up to the [usually unpleasant] main conflict); conflict, resolution. This three-act organization is typical in films and easy to understand, so use it as your guide. You likely won’t organize these three sections numerically once your short piece is finished; in fact, your story might take place all in the same place in a very short amount of time and you’ll have written a single scene. But thinking about this segmentation might help you to get through the drafting process.

And for those of you who are working on very short pieces (this is me), I have only this advice: just sit down and f*cking write it.

Okay, that’s my long-winded advice for this week! In case anyone is curious, I’ve set my 2017 reading challenge for only forty books; let’s see how I do.

Write, on, everyone!

Just one more for good measure (YES I JUST DID THAT!)

Just one more for good measure (YES I JUST DID THAT!)

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