Monday, November 18, 2013

How Big Is Your Bird?

by guest author Judy Alter

          In her classic book on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote, “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
            “Bird by bird” pretty well sums up what’s come to be my writing pattern. People always want to know if a writer sets aside a certain time of the day to write. Many do, but I can’t seem to manage it, even though I’m retired and live alone—pretty much. You’d think I could just say I’ll write from eight to noon every day, but it doesn’t work. There are housekeeping chores, yoga, cooking, my grandson’s homework, the grocery store, doctor and dental appointments, haircuts, lunches with friends (I don’t want to be a hermit). And then there are blogs to write—mine and guests posts, marketing avenues to explore, and so on. Sometimes by the time I check email and Facebook and read the paper, the morning is shot. Life and writing both make demands on my time.
            I used to write “when I could” and there were often gaps of days between writing sessions. I know that makes me look less than serious about my work—believe me, that’s not true. Since September 2011 I’ve had five novels published, written one more, and am working on two others, plus I write two blogs and keep up with Facebook. But those gaps between working on the manuscript always sent me back to the first page to “refresh my memory” which meant I ended up rewriting. By the time I got near the end of the book, the first part had been rewritten countless times.
            Faced with writing my fifth mystery, I was overwhelmed by the task, just as Lamott’s brother. It simply seemed to big to dive into. One day I said to myself, “It’s okay if you only write 500 words. Just write something.” That day I wrote a thousand words, and they came so easily I thought I could do that every day. A thousand words a day became my goal, and the novel came easily, without the guilt of those long days without writing.
            These days I often write between 1500 and 2500 words a day but if I only get a thousand, I’m happy. Because I’m doing some editing for others, there are still days when I don’t meet that goal but not many. And as most of us know, writing begets ideas for what should come next. I had a brainstorm this morning about something that had me baffled at three in the morning.
            Everyone has their own writing method or scheme that works. I read this morning about an author who found she’s much more productive if she writes in longhand—that would never work for me. I’d never be able to read my hen scratches. But a thousand words a day? That’s how big my bird is.

An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of four books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, and Danger Comes Home. With Murder at the Blue Plate Café, she moved from inner city Fort Worth to small-town East Texas to create a new set of characters in a setting modeled after a restaurant that was for years one of her family’s favorites. Murder at Tremont House, second in the Blue Plate Mystery Series, will appear in February 2014 and a fifth Kelly O’Connell novel is scheduled for July 2014.

Judy is retired after twenty years as director of a small academic press. The mother of four and grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her Bordoodle, Sophie.


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Judy, this is a really thought provoking piece. The hardest part of writing is--TA DA--writing! Making the time is a major job in and of itself. You have given us all encouragement.

Margaret said...

After months of beating myself up over the drop in my productivity, I've come around to this way of thinking. I'll do what I can each day and chip away at it. Some days will be more productive than others. Some won't be productive at all. It all balances out in the end. But, if you don't mind, I'll leave the bird analogies with you. Birds are scary. Ask Tippi Hedren. :) Great post!

Sandy Cody said...

Judy, I feel like you've just described my life. One of the best things about the internet is pieces like this that let writers know they're not alone. Thanks for the reminder.

Linda Rettstatt said...

Thanks, Judy, for guesting here and for reminding us that productivity in writing isn't always measured in quantity, but in quality.