Oh, F*ck! It’s a Period Piece…

You might remember from an earlier post, that I’m using a couple of guidebooks to aid in the process of writing my first novel. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel and breezing through the novel elements checklist on Chapter 3. That is, until I reached the Setting subsection. I had (and still have) a pretty good idea of where my story is set, but the problem wasn’t the where; it was the when. The more I thought about the story that I’m trying to tell and all the elements at play in the world I’ve created, the more obvious it became. There’s no way around it: Carrot Cake is a period piece. 

I use the term “period piece” somewhat fearfully, since it likely conjures images of medieval dungeons and petticoats and chainmail, and my story has none of these things. And yet it is a period piece because it takes place in the past, in a time before smartphones and WiFi. My story takes place, I now realize, at some point between the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

You’re probably wondering if such a “small” change is even worth it. Dear Reader, I promise you I tried to avoid it. For a while, I tried to convince myself that the changes would be minuscule, and that twenty-some years would scarcely make a difference. But none of that is true. Our world has changed considerably over the last two decades, and Anne Marie’s story simply doesn’t fit in this modern world.

I toyed around briefly with the idea of adopting a timeless setting and never actually specifying the time period—something I have done in the past with some success (by “success” I mean that it went over well with the other students in my writing workshop). But I believe the reason it worked in the past is because the piece in question was a screenplay.

It’s easier to get away with an ambiguous time setting in film because film is a medium of omission. As we start to learn the rules of the world on-screen, we rather readily accept that what we don’t see on-screen does not exist in this world. For example, I was happy to hear among the workshop responses for the screenplay I mentioned above, that it “reads like a timeless story-of-our-childhood movie.” Besides being an awesome thing to hear about your writing, this validated my choice not to include any modern technology. I never specified a time, and I was careful about what to include, and, perhaps more importantly, about what to exclude.

Onscreen, it’s relatively easy to get away with ambiguity in the setting. Who knows when “Moonrise Kingdom” takes place? Or the popular show “Twin Peaks?” The idea is that they could be set at any time in recent history. This technique, however, doesn’t translate as well into prose. I know because I’ve tried to use it. Every time I take a story to workshop, at least a handful of the readers want to know how the story fits into current events. Last year, I wrote a story set in Puerto Rico, and my professor said I needed to reference Hurricane Maria, even though I hadn’t specified the time when the story took place.

In literature, if we are not explicitly told otherwise, we assume the story is set in the present. Therefore, if I were to write Carrot Cake in a way that is true to my vision, I expect it would prompt a lot of questions about the time. So, in summary, I’m screwed.

Because writing a period piece means doing a boatload of research.

Back in college, I read Syd Field’s book “Screenplay” for a screenwriting class. (I majored in Media Studies, in case you hadn’t yet caught the obnoxious film student vibe). Field says that “every creative decision must be made by choice, not necessity,” and that “the more you know, the more you can communicate.” Both quotes are meant to illustrate the importance of research, and both have stuck with me through the years.

In the past, I’ve always tried to steer clear of stories that might require a lot of research. It’s not that I’m bad at it; in fact, my attention to detail and my perfectionist spirit mean that I’m actually quite good at research. And, unlike those writers who would much rather zoom through the researching stage and get to the “real” writing, I do not dread research. I love it. That, I think, is the problem. 

I’m such a fan of rules and of doing things “right,” that I’m easily sucked down the research rabbit hole. I can already see myself determined to read every article and every book about the time period. In fact, I’m even wondering if I should start by researching how to research for a novel. Not that I don’t have research experience—let’s face it 70% of college is research—but, in the past, it’s been relatively easy to know when to stop researching and start writing. In college, I’d stop researching when I was nearing a deadline. At work, I’d stop when I got a new assignment. Yet I was always left with the feeling that there was more to uncover.

And that is where I’m at right now: not quite sure where to start researching and scared that, once I start, I won’t know when to stop. Which brings me back to my original sentiment—fuck, it’s a period piece!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Note: Carrot Cake is the name of my current WIP, and Anne Marie is my protagonist’s name. If you want to know more about my novel progress, you can start with my previous post What If It’s A Novel?

A Writer’s Journals

I got my favorite journal in Venice when I was seventeen. Had we known that the pretty, Italian leather journals and customizable wax stamps were a staple in all the large Italian cities (an obvious tourist trap), maybe we wouldn’t have stopped in that Venetian shop. But it was our family’s first time abroad, and Venice was the first city we visited.  After a full day of seeing me stare longingly at displays on store windows, my uncle caved in and offered to buy me a journal. 

Inside, the store was heaven. It was dimly-lit, as if by candlelight, and wooden shelves covered the walls from floor to high ceiling. The scent of leather-bound books was intoxicating. I deliberated for at least a half an hour, trying to choose the prettiest journal to take home. Eventually, I picked a blue-green hardcover with a leather spine and a set of thick strings holding it shut. 

Some of my favorite journals. Featuring the Venice one (the second from the top).

At first, I was scared to use it. I’ve always been a little superstitious, and I kept holding off on writing on the new journal until I could find something important enough to write about. I brought the journal with me to Boston when I started college that fall, and I christened it by writing a crappy little poem about some boy I never saw again after the first month of classes. I’m no poet, but the moment felt just right regardless. I was sitting under a tree in the Boston Commons, the leaves had begun to turn, and there was the slightest nip in the air. It was my first autumn, and arriving in Boston for the first time had felt like coming home. It’s hard to explain, but that moment sitting in the Commons felt like a (happy) conclusion, like everything in my life had led to that small moment. 

A small sampling of my journals.

It gradually became easier to write in the journal. This was notable in that I had never before been able to keep a journal; I had tried countless times, and I have shelves of evidence at home. But, little by little, I began to fill the pages of that journal with everything from haikus (all of which suck) to opening lines to character descriptions.

Years later, as a junior in college, I had a scriptwriting professor who gave us a grade for keeping what he called a writer’s journal. According to him, a writer’s journal is different from a regular journal because it’s not about reflecting or documenting; writer’s journals are meant to be a place in which to document anything that might lead to stories. At that point, I had already learned to carry my Venice journal around with me everywhere I went, and I found it extremely validating that someone had thought of a name for this. My favorite journal was a writer’s journal. 

On the last day of my junior year, we were having class in the Boston Commons when I felt the sudden urge to write a poem. I have to reiterate, I am no poet; however, the need to write these words down was strong. I stuck around after class, and I sat on a solitary stretch of hill to write. The words flowed out of me until they filled every corner of the very last page. I thought it absurdly fitting that both the first and the last thing I wrote in the first journal I ever filled was a poem inspired by the Boston Commons. 

When I started writing this, Dear Reader, I intended for it to be a brief and practical post about the usefulness of keeping what my old professor dubbed a writer’s journal. I didn’t mean to get into overly-sentimental detail about my one journal, but I suppose this kind of discovery is what the blog is meant to be for.

My current writer’s journal has a full family tree for the character

I won’t try to preach to you about the importance of keeping a writer’s journal since I’m well aware that the process is different for everyone. But I will say that writer’s journals take many forms–I’ve seen everything from an iPhone Notes document to an actual piece of crumpled notebook paper kept in jeans pockets. And I can personally attest to the usefulness of journals kept specifically to jot down and expand upon creative ideas. Everything I know about Anne Marie and her family started out as a few lines in my current writer’s journal. At first, it was a handful of descriptions of things I found inexplicably alluring: a Cuban restaurant, a homemade carrot cake. It wasn’t until I began asking myself, “what’s the story here?” that I could flip back through the pages of my own writing and begin to connect the pieces. Writer’s journals, I’ve found, really work for me. I urge you, Dear Reader, to give it a try too. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing 

What If It’s A Novel?

“What if it’s a novel?” someone–I can’t remember who–said. There it was: the dreaded comment I had been anticipating from the moment I handed my story in for workshop. In the four years I had been in college, I’d taken countless writing workshops, some for prose, some for scripts, and always with predictable results. By the end of my Advanced Fiction Workshop, I had come to understand that the go-to critique–that thing you say to take charge of the conversation, seem smart, and poise yourself on a pedestal all at once–was, “maybe it’s a novel.”

I had gotten this critique countless times, and admittedly had given it out once or twice myself, yet I couldn’t ignore the sting I felt at hearing them about this particular story. I sat there at the corner of the long table and bit my tongue to keep from audibly scoffing as the conversation focused on all the things about my piece that “would work better if it wasn’t a short story.” I was irked because, once the word ‘novel’ was uttered, the workshop had devolved into a free-for-all where people threw around ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the draft at hand: “what if your main character wasn’t the focus of the story?” “what if, instead of present-day Boston, it’s set in 1950s Venezuela?” I was angry that they were stripping my story down to nothing. I was angry that they couldn’t stick to critiquing the work in front of them and had instead resorted to hypotheticals. And, most of all, I was angry because they were right. It would be better as a novel. 

This story came to me with a title already attached: “Carrot Cake.” The first stroke of inspiration came in the shape of (you guessed it!) a carrot cake. I was internally creating a world and characters and conflicts from the first time I saw the cake and thought to myself maybe there’s a story there. By the time I had a seventeen-page draft ready for workshop, I had been thinking about or working on “Carrot Cake” for well over a year. So, yeah, it sucked to hear people fixating on what it could be instead of what it was. This annoyance was heightened by the fact that I was graduating in a few weeks and I had spent more time studying media theory and scriptwriting than studying creative writing. In other words, I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel.

I love rules. I absolutely adore them. It’s why I kick ass at Uno. It’s why my idea of a perfect night involves Settlers of Catan. It’s also why I am so terrified of tackling a novel project. WHAT ARE THE RULES???? Ask some “experts,” and they’ll tell you there are too many rules to count. Others will say there are none. Most will hit you something along the lines of “I don’t know the recipe for good writing; I just know it when I see it.” As a self-proclaimed lover of rules, that vague shit just wasn’t going to cut it for me.

I stayed back after class on the day of my workshop and confided in my professor that I had considered turning “Carrot Cake” into a novel but was unsure how to go about it. I told her the prospect of writing a novel scared me. “You’re right,” she said. “ I don’t think you’re ready to write a novel.” I nodded, thanked her, then made some polite conversation before skulking off to the bathroom to talk shit about her to my mom. I took it like a champ. But, the minute I left that classroom, I was determined to write the novel.

Notwithstanding, I still had no fucking clue how to do it.

A few months later, I stood in the teeny Writing section of my local Barnes and Noble. I grabbed a copy of everything that claimed to help write a novel and carried my pile to a worn armchair by the second-floor windows. I spent all afternoon skimming everything from Stephen King’s “On Writing” to “Writing a Novel And Getting Published For Dummies.” I wrote extensive notes on the perceived pros and cons of more than a dozen guidebooks (I. Love. Rules.). By the time I was finished, I had a tension headache and numb buttcheeks, but I had narrowed it down to two books: “The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel” by Hallie Ephron (follow her on Twitter!) and “Writing Your Novel From Start To Finish” by Joseph Bates (follow him on Twitter!).

After bringing both books home, I realized that “The Everything Guide” is much more technical, and it focuses on the logistics of how to break down your idea into a novel (which is great because, as I have said probably too many times by now, I have no clue how to go about doing that). Joseph Bates’s book is more about the intellectual process of novel writing, though it does include technical step-by-steps. Reading it emulates the feeling of being in the middle of a really great lecture. In the absence of hard and fast rules, I decided to let Ephron and Bates guide me through this journey of writing my first novel.

As I delve into the first few chapters of both guides, I am driven to think about beginnings. When I say beginnings I don’t mean the opening scene of my novel; I mean the start of this journey. In “The Everything Guide,” Ephron talks about the tools one needs to write a novel. She says the best first step you can take is to gift yourself time and space. I’ve set up my desk in a corner of my room, and I’ve filled the drawers with chocolate (and Lactaids) to reward myself after a couple of productive hours. I light a candle, put on a record, and hang a makeshift DO NOT DISTURB sign on my bedroom door, and boom–I’m ready to start writing.

The next step of this journey–Ephron and Bates seem to concur–is turning an idea into a premise. I won’t say much about this because I’m superstitious and don’t like giving details about a work-in-progress, but this was a fairly easy step for me to take because “Carrot Cake” already exists as a story. But, as I began to distill Ephron and Bates’s advice on beginnings, I started to notice similarities between what they were writing and what I had been taught in my screenwriting classes. I ran to my shelf and pulled out my favorite scriptwriting guide, Syd Field’sScreenplay.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that starting a screenplay is not at all different from starting a novel; it all starts with turning an idea into a premise. This realization came as a relief, because I may not know how to write a novel yet, but I sure as hell know how to write a script. 

As I get ready to take the first steps of this journey, I feel a little more confident than I did following that less-than-awesome workshop experience (I’d loathe to call it a ‘bad’ experience, because there were some nice takeaways and the professor was mostly kind and always supportive). I feel like I have Ephron, Bates, and Field in my corner, and now it’s time to let them take the wheel.

I can’t wait to see where they lead me!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Copyright Note: I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I always do my best to properly cite my sources. However, if you feel I have improperly credited someone’s work, please message me privately and I will make the necessary changes. If the work cited in this post is yours, please know that my intention is never to regurgitate your ideas but to discuss how they have impacted me. If you feel I have misused your work, please message me privately and I will edit the post or take it down altogether.

I Miss Breathing

Dear Reader,

I am writing this from rock bottom. Well. Technically, I’m writing this on my MacBook Pro, from the comfort of an IKEA desk. So, safe to say my idea of rock bottom is fairly cushy.

The thing is, I’m unhappy. Plain and simple. I don’t have my shit together, and I never have. I just graduated from college with a degree in something I’m not even sure how to love anymore. I have no job and no real prospects. I just had to defer acceptance to my dream master’s program because I’m too sick to move to New York. I moved back into my old room in my mom’s house in a Florida town no one’s ever heard of, and I can’t stop reading my tarot cards about a guy I’m not likely to ever see again. I know things could be much, much worse, but damn if it doesn’t suck to be where I am right now. It’s a little hard to sound optimistic when everything is a muted shade of grey.

Earlier in the year, at that point in the semester where you still make an effort to keep up with assigned readings, I started reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” for a class. I’d been meaning to read it since the ninth grade (as if somehow my old English Honors teacher could telepathically sense I was reading classics and write me an encouraging note on Facebook Messenger about enriching my education), so I actually made an effort to read it. I’m big enough to admit I didn’t finish the novel. But I loved the 250ish pages that I did read. (I promise I’m not just saying that). I knew I really loved the book about two chapters in when Scout says,

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that reading that made me cry (blame my period or my antidepressants if you like—I do!). I imagine part of this is because I share Scout’s feelings for the written word. The way I love bound books and loose pages and typed words and ink stains is, for me, as natural and primal as breathing. But that’s not all it was; when I first read this line, I was struck with a strong sense of loss. For the first time in a long time, I could not remember what it felt like to love things so deeply. To put it plainly, I missed breathing.

Several emotional breakdowns later, here I am. Determined now to recover my love for living. On a mission to find my lost love of breathing. Hence the name Miss Breathing. It’s kind of catchy, no?

But what exactly is this blog about? Like all great stories, mine starts with a quest: I’m going to write a novel. It won’t be perfect, but that’s a feeling I’ll need to learn to sit with. The process will be messy and the road bumpy. I’m riddled with insecurities about this project, and, more than anything else, I am absolutely terrified.

As I find myself standing still at the starting line, I keep thinking about one of my favorite tarot cards. It’s card number seventeen of the Major Arcana: The Star. It’s a card of good fortune, signifying universal powers at work in your favor. The Star says you can do anything, be anything, if only you put in the work and believe in yourself. The drawback? Nothing you do seems good enough to put out into the world. So now you’re standing there, all this creative energy alive inside of you, and absolutely nothing to show for it.

I’ve lost count of how many unfinished stories, scripts, poems, and novels I have. I used to think that if they weren’t perfect, they weren’t worth it. But the truth is I’m not writing the next American classic at twenty-one. It’s just not happening. That doesn’t mean I don’t have stories to tell. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

This blog signifies a lot for me. It’s going to serve as a documentation of how I get my shit together. It’s the place where I’m going to vent, share, rejoice, and moan about the process of writing my first novel. It’s going to be a writing blog. It’s going to be a self-care blog. It’s going to be a mind-dump. It’s going to be completely imperfect, and I am learning how to be okay with that. I’m going to share this crazy, messy, ugly journey out of rock bottom with whoever wants to read along. I can’t promise much, but I can promise it will be interesting!

I hope you’ll tag along!

Yours,

Miss Breathing