All of us at Dead Darlings are thrilled to meet the new crop of Novel Incubator students at this year’s Muse and the Marketplace, GrubStreet’s annual writing conference. We asked incoming student, Bonnie Waltch, to give us some insight into her path to the program.
Writing vs. “Real Career”
I always saw myself as a writer. Making the time to write was another story. In college I learned the basics of fiction writing through short stories, but I wasn’t sure how I’d support myself doing that. I needed a real career, where I actually earned money. So, after college I began working my way up in television documentaries. I continued to take classes on the side, enlarging my repertoire to include screenplays, novels, comedy, structure, narrative, and plot. I always dreamed of writing something with heft – a full, rounded novel, a meaty screenplay. As a freelance producer/director/writer (and associate producer, production assistant, and assistant editor before that), I’d have gaps of weeks, sometimes, between jobs. During those times I’d get several chapters into a novel, halfway through a screenplay. But then the phone would ring and I’d be called to work again, never getting around to finishing what I’d started.
For my work in non-fiction film I wrote plenty — proposals, treatments, scripts. I produced some pieces I’m very proud of, that have good structure and narrative flow, and some good scripts, but they’re not fiction. When I left behind producing for a management job as the executive director of a nonprofit support organization for independent filmmakers, I continued to write. Now it was grant proposals, marketing materials, website content. Some of the writing was fun. But the countless memos and emails, policy manuals, and accounting instructions were mind-numbing, squelching my creativity. I was able to keep my toe in the creative flow by reviewing documentary treatments and proposals, but still, fiction tugged at me.
Toward the end of my 10-year stint in that job I found myself constantly writing in my head. While driving to and from work I’d pull over and frantically scribble novel ideas in my DayTimer. I’d find opening sentences jotted down on crumpled napkins in my purse. I’d scratch bits of dialogue on the back inside covers of novels. Finally, I decided it was time to do something about it. I was about to turn fifty and I couldn’t suppress the voices any longer. Writers write. Right? I had to get moving. It was now or never.
I left my job in June 2010. It took me a year to get through a house renovation, my daughter’s bat mitzvah planning, and my son’s applications to schools before settling down at my computer. I’d read a lot of YA books with my son and daughter and felt like I could handle that genre. After all, I was the mother of a teenage daughter; I had tons of material. That next summer, I got an inkling of a story I felt I could live with for, potentially, many years: Three generations of women, fraught relationships, and family secrets. After tinkering with some plot ideas, I realized I needed some structure and in fall 2011 began Becky Tuch’s 10-week “Jumpstart Your Novel” class at GrubStreet. I followed it with her “Novel in Progress” class that winter. Both these classes were instrumental in helping me find my character’s voice and coming up with important plot points. I took other evening and one-day classes: plot mechanics, subtext, flash fiction. I went to the Muse & the Marketplace conference every May beginning in 2011.
First Draft: Complete!
By late spring 2012 I had a 300-page first draft. I’d finally finished something, sort of, almost (it still needed a real ending). But by then I couldn’t ignore the feedback from instructors and classmates alike. Instead of thrusting my protagonist, soon-to-be seventeen-year-old Chloe, into the belly of the beast, I had taken the coward’s way out. Though Chloe threatened to defy her mother and run away to Honduras to be with her beloved grandmother Helen, who’d moved there five years earlier to fulfill her dream of working in an orphanage, instead I had Helen show up at Chloe’s house in her familiar Boston suburb. “No!” Becky and others objected. “If she’s threatening to run away to Honduras she has to do it!”
I finally listened to those voices. I scrapped three-quarters of the book and started over. Now Chloe had to follow through on her threat. And even though I’d spent a total of three months in Honduras while working on a PBS archeology series, it was way back in 1989-1990. I knew this leap would require a lot more research than I’d had to do so far. Research that intimidated me. Was I prepared to do that kind of work? I decided I had no choice.
Taking my cue from Anne Lamott, I began “bird by bird.” I tried not to get distracted by the wonders of the Internet. Look! I could view a street in the village of Copan and see the spindly cacti that grow along the sides of the road and the lush green mountains in the distance! I soon realized I could spend just a few minutes grabbing a description of downtown Tegucigalpa online, bookmark the page, and get back to writing. It wasn’t so scary – or distracting — after all. The Honduras location opened up new dramatic possibilities I hadn’t envisioned before, with plenty of obstacles for Chloe to overcome. I plugged away, laying down each scene like tar on a road before moving on to the next, gradually paving my way toward the end.
With both kids away at camp for three weeks last summer (the third summer since I began, in case you’ve lost count) the days felt long and languorous, with hours available for me to write entire scenes, make false starts, hone sentences. I got through the tough middle of the story. Then fall rolled around. Fall is always a difficult time for me to work, with kids going back to school, endless errands to run, appointments to make, field hockey games and plays to attend. Before I knew it, the holidays were upon me. Thanksgiving weekend at a field hockey showcase in Florida. Winter vacation in Chicago for my husband’s birthday. So many distractions. I was writing sporadically, but still hadn’t worked out my ending. I resolved to start my routine anew in January. And that’s when I saw the posting about Novel Incubator.
The February 28th deadline was ideal timing to spur me on to the finish line. I had a whole two months to figure out my ending! I even had time to review notes about my first five chapters from the writing group I’d formed with fellow GrubStreet classmates that fall and incorporate their suggestions. I made the deadline with minutes to spare!
Next Chapter: Novel Incubator
Now, with our first class coming up, I’m excited to begin this next chapter. Aside from my sporadic classes and monthly online writing group (we have members in Portland, OR and Taos, NM, and three in Boston, so we “meet” via WebEx), I’ve been working in isolation these past few years. I’ve always dreamed of being part of a solid writing community, had even applied to MFA writing programs back in the late 80s, but hadn’t gotten in anywhere (maybe because I never followed through on creating a substantive body of work). When I first heard about Novel Incubator it sounded perfect for someone like me. I don’t need an MFA at this point in my life. I don’t want to write short stories right now. What I want most is to polish the next draft of my novel and try to get it published.
When I learned I’d been accepted into the program, after jumping for joy, I did my due diligence and spoke with some people who’d gone through it. “Life changing,” one of them called it. “I would spend the money and do it all again if I could,” another reported. I was sold. And I feel ready for this next step.
With my classes and writing group I’ve had a lot of practice giving feedback on novels. With my novel I’ve had to do numerous revisions. Now I’ll have the chance to throw myself fully into the experience of both over the course of a year while learning more about the craft of writing among fellow novelists. What could be better? Hopefully, at the end of it all, I’ll have a solid book to pitch. And, most importantly, I’ll have a finished book.