Retreating to write

I was bogged down. I could force myself to sit in the chair in front of the word processor and get words on the page, but I wasn’t inspired and I certainly wasn’t enjoying it. Not only that: I wasn’t getting enough words on the page, so I was falling behind on the word count necessary to meet my November deadline.

Not good.

That’s when my brilliant husband suggested I go on a one-woman writing retreat: rent a room somewhere for a few days and do nothing but write. (Did I mention I love my husband?) I’ve never tried this before and I was a little dubious but I needed something to kick start my writing again. So I cleared five days on my calendar and went looking for an inspiring place to stay.

I found it at the Inn at Glencairn near Princeton, NJ. I write contemporary novels, but I adore the history of colonial America. The oldest part of the Inn at Glencairn was built in the mid-1700s, while the “newer” part (where my room was) was built later in the 18th century. The British confiscated and occupied the house during the Revolutionary War. I decided my Muse would really like this place.

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And my Muse did.

Innkeepers Patty and Mason Tarr very kindly moved an antique table into the Hunt Room to serve as my desk. I set up my laptop and attached my favorite ergonomic keyboard. And I was off and typing.

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My goal was to write 10,000 words (about 40 manuscript pages) in my five-day stay. I’m not a speedy writer so that’s a lot for me.

So here’s how I set up my days. The Tarrs provided a fabulous gourmet breakfast every morning at 8:30 when I got to chat with fellow guests. I met some delightful folks over scrumptious banana-walnut pancakes.

After eating way too much, I went upstairs to my room, did a minimum amount of social media and answering emails (so my friends and colleagues wouldn’t think I’d fallen off the face of the earth), and then started in on the book. I didn’t stop until I had written at least 1,000 words.

Then I took my “lunch” break. I use the term lunch loosely because it was usually about 3:00 by then. I’d jump in my car and drive to Princeton or Lawrenceville to grab some food, and then I’d find a place to walk around for about an hour. My brain works better when I get kind of exercise every day. I roamed the Princeton University campus, strolled past mansions in the town, and hiked the tow path of the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

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Then it was back to the keyboard until I’d hit 2,000 words for the day. When I got stuck, I’d wander downstairs to have one of Patty’s sinfully delicious homemade cookies with a cup of tea. Or take a complimentary glass of Pinot Grigio out onto the stone patio behind the house and contemplate the beauties of Mother Nature for a half an hour. If I was lucky, I’d run into Patty or Mason and have a nice chat. Writing is very solitary so I enjoyed a little human contact in the evening.

But mostly it was nose to the keyboard.

And I did it: I wrote 10,000 words. I even think they’re pretty good words. In addition, I learned some valuable lessons about my writing process that I hope to incorporate into my daily working routine.

1)      Forcing myself to keep my head in the story for a lot of hours every day got my creative juices flowing in a way they hadn’t been before. I came to know my characters much better which brought forth all kinds of new ideas for scenes and conflicts.

Lesson: Try to work in two writing sessions a day instead of just one, so my mind is on the story more hours a day.

2)      Taking a break between writing sessions freed my brain to play with ways to strengthen the scene I was working on. Then I was excited to get back to the story to incorporate the new material I’d thought up.

Lesson: Take regular breaks but keep thinking about the book while I’m walking…or drinking wine.

3)      Limiting my time on social media and email made me a lot more productive, not just because of gaining use of the time itself, but because I didn’t keep getting pulled out of the story. (Yes, I knew this already, but sometimes I need a strong reminder.)

Lesson: Use that Anti-Social software I downloaded that locks me out of Facebook for X number of minutes.

4)      A change of scene kicked me out of my rut and made the writing seem fresher.

Lesson: Try working in a different room in the house or even outdoors for a little while, just to shake my brain up.

Now I’m back on track to meet my deadline. Phew! I hope to do another one-woman retreat next year because it’s a wonderful way to really immerse myself in my work-in-progress.

I’m thinking maybe in Provence…

 

The Joy of Skype

The Jersey Girls Read and Eat Book Group had a problem: they wanted to talk with me about my Whisper Horse novels which they had read, but they are located three hours away.  I don’t drive over bridges (phobic), and there are several large ones between here and there, so I couldn’t come to them.

Their brilliant technological solution: Skype!

I’d never tried this before so I wasn’t sure how it would work but the Jersey Girls turned out to be tech wizards.  They set up the Skype session so I was on the big screen for everyone to see AND on the small screen they could pass around so I could see the person asking me questions. Cool beans!

Back of group and Nancy

Here’s Michelle asking me a question via the iPad:

Michelle asks about Tim

Here I am on the big screen considering my answer (can you smell wood burning?):

Nancy thinks about her answer

Here’s the group listening to my brilliant response (LOL!):

The group listens to answers

The questions were absolutely fantastic; they made me think about several aspects of my work in new ways (which is why I had to ponder so hard in the second photo).

I had a blast and I understand the Jersey Girls did too, which made me feel great. I’m hoping to do more Skype book group sessions, so if you have a group, let me know! You can email me at nancy@nancyerkness.com.

 

 

Blairsden: Grandeur and melancholy side-by-side

My friend Betsy and I decided it was time for another adventure so we trekked off to Peapack-Gladstone, NJ, to see the Mansion in May, a charity designer show house at a grand old mansion called Blairsden.

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Built at the turn of the century, Blairsden was the magnificent country home (62,000 square feet!) of C. Ledyard Blair, a New York financier (whose grandfather really made all the family money).  It was set on 500 acres of gorgeously landscaped grounds with stables, a riding oval, a lake, a 300-foot-long reflecting pool lined by the busts of the first twelve Caesars and various other mind-boggling perks of immense wealth.  Oh yes, guests came by private railroad.

What’s sad is that no one can afford to keep up this kind of privileged existence anymore (except maybe the Sultan of Brunei), so the house and grounds have fallen into disrepair.

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This is a view of the back of the house with bricked-in windows, plywood patches and sagging gutters.  The gardens are even sadder: none of the fountains work, the cement balustrades and paths are crumbling, and the 500 acres have been eaten away by smaller houses and lots.

However, for the month of May, Blairsden recovers much of its former glory as high-end designers decorate the rooms for the charitable Women’s Association of Morristown Medical Center.

Evidently, this is the first time in decades that the mansion has been open to the public.

Here’s the grand tour, starting with the entrance hall.

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Just one of the many stunning bathrooms;  I love the floor SO much.  (The indoor plumbing does not work, but they had the most elegant port-a-potties I’ve ever seen in a trailer outside.)

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How about this embossed leather wallcovering (actually original to the house) in the billiards room?  Now that’s rich!

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The mantelpiece in this room is also original but all the other flourishes are from the decorator.  I think I could live here.

 

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Loved the whimsical faux painting over the door!

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Of course, I was drawn to the horse!

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And this is where I want to settle down with a good book.  How gorgeous is that coral accent color?!

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Stunning window treatments!

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Oh, do let us have some tea, dahling!

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The window on the grand staircase.

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A nursery fit for a princess! IMG_20140502_122553219

 

Even the dog has a designer bedroom.  Can you see my Rocky sleeping there?

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I want to upholster my couch is the gorgeously textured fabric.

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There was elegance outdoors too.  The loggia.

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A room with a view!

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Betsy, who’s a horticultural expert, says this is called a carpet garden.  I call it “very pretty”.

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The panorama.

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We heard that Blairsden has a new owner who is already beginning restoration work on the mansion.  What wonderful news!  It would be a terrible shame to see this magnificent building languish into ruin.

The Mansion in May is open for the rest of this month.  If you have a chance and are within traveling distance, it’s well worth a visit.

 

 

 

 

My very brief flirtation with being a David Foster Wallace fan

I was originally seduced by the commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005, titled “This is Water”.

Of course, David Foster Wallace is a name you hear all the time, a towering figure in the world of modern literature.  (There’s something about that triple moniker that adds gravitas.)  However, I had never read a single thing DFW wrote until I stumbled upon the speech.  It was so lovely, so compassionate in its view of everyday life, so exactly the philosophy I would want my children to absorb that I was hooked.

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So I bought the massive tome that is Infinite Jest, DFW’s most famous novel.  (Such a great title too!)  It’s a very long book, but I’m not afraid of words so I plunged in…and stopped.  And tried again from the beginning…and stopped.  After a third attempt, I threw in the towel and loaned it to a friend.

However, as serendipity would have it, D.T. Max, who wrote a well-researched biography of David Foster Wallace, came to speak at my local women’s club.  He gave a fascinating presentation, so I bought his book Every Love Story is a Ghost Story and read it with great interest.  After learning of DFW’s struggles with chronic depression and addiction and how heroically he fought his demons, I wanted to give his work another chance.

I suggested that my book group read The Girl With Curious Hair, a collection of David Foster Wallace’s short stories.  Once again I plunged into his writing with high hopes.  Once again, I found I couldn’t finish the book.  Every member of my book group struggled with the stories, but we had a very intense and lively discussion about them.  So they refused to allow me to apologize for subjecting them to such difficult reading.

I confess that I won’t be reading any more David Foster Wallace, but I don’t regret the time I spent with him.  His writing can be absolutely glorious; the kind of sentences I want to re-read a hundred times, knowing I will never, ever be able to write anything even half that amazing. His vocabulary is spectacular and perfectly calibrated.  I revel in the way he undercuts his flights of gorgeousness with a dive into the rhythms of everyday speech.

So why do I struggle to read him?  I suppose his themes and his characters don’t resonate with me.  Perhaps I am just too old for a writer who is all about tearing down false idols and snarkily shredding the culture around him; that’s more appealing to the younger reader, I think.  I like DFW at his simplest, when he is speaking from his heart.

So I choose to remember David Foster Wallace as the man who said, “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you you’re going to try to see it.  You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.  You get to decide what to worship…”

99-cent sale on the Whisper Horse books on #Kindle!

Yeehaw! My publisher has put my two Whisper Horse novels, Take Me Home and Country Roads, on sale on Kindle for 99 cents(!) each until Sunday, March 23rd!  Here’s the link to them on the Kindle Love Stories blog.

To my loyal readers who have already purchased my books, a heartfelt thank you!  You are the best!  I’m hoping this sale will put my books in the hands of new readers, so may I ask you to tell your friends about this great opportunity?  It would be a huge favor to me as an author and a friend!

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Final front cover CR

Can you write 30,000 words in 28 days?

That’s known as a writing challenge, and I took it this February, participating in (and leading, for full disclosure) Jersey Romance Writing Month (JeRoWriMo). 

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I founded the challenge three years ago for the New Jersey Romance Writers because many of us liked the idea of National Novel Writing Month.  However, it takes place in November when we are madly scrambling to prepare for the holidays.  So for our challenge, I chose February, the month of lovers, and also the dead of winter when our members have fewer non-writing obligations.

I’m a slow-and-steady kind of writer generally. I need to think before I sit down at the keyboard.  I don’t pour forth dozens of pages a day as some much-envied writers are capable of doing.  Taking on a writing challenges forces me to push myself beyond my usual comfort level.  And when I do that I learn things about myself as a writer.

This year, I did something I thought I could never, ever do.  I worked on two stories at the same time!

What led to this breakthrough?

I started the challenge expecting to finish the Christmas novella I had already written several chapters of.  It was going slowly, and I thought JeRoWriMo would give me the kick I needed to get it done.  Instead, I found myself struggling, bogged down in key moments that should have been flowing easily.

In desperation, I wrote the first chapter of a new book I had proposed to my publisher.  It was so much fun that I wrote the next scene.  And the next.  My fingers were flying across the keyboard again.  What a feeling!  I hit my 30,000-word goal at a gallop.

And suddenly, I wanted to get back to my novella.  My subconscious had been working silently on the emotional underpinnings of those critical scenes, and now I knew where they should go.

That’s why I recommend taking on a writing challenge: desperation makes you try new things. When you try new things, you discover strengths you didn’t know you had.

(On the purely practical side, I’ve made noticeable progress on two manuscripts.)

 

Apology from a bad blogger

Wow! I need to blog more.  I just noticed that my last entry was from nearly a month ago.  So why DON’T I blog?

Excuse #1: It uses the almost the same writing muscles as fiction does, and I need to conserve energy for writing my books.  Because those are what folks really want to read.  And they pay the bills.

Excuse #2: It takes time, a commodity we all have precious little of.

Excuse #3: There’s nothing I have a burning desire to talk about.  Not every day in my life is noteworthy…or at least not noteworthy enough to write several paragraphs about.  And I don’t want to bore my blog readers with prosaic posts.  Facebook is more suited to my “short thought” days.

Excuse #4: My children were home for the holidays and I wanted to hang out with them.

Excuse #5: My editor and/or agent will notice that I am not doing my copy-edits (which are due in three days) and politely point out that those are more important, if less fun.

Excuse #6: I’m reading my Facebook news feed.

Okay, the excuses are getting pretty weak, so it’s time to stop procrastinating and go back to my copy-editing.

I’ll be back when a) I’ve turned in my copy-edits, and b) I am breathless with the need to share my brilliant thoughts with you.  Bet you can’t wait!

Anyone out there have some better excuses than mine?