Making Progress

The Green MillChicago’s Green Mill Jazz Club

I have some exciting news to share: as of Monday, June 16th, I have officially completed the first draft of my second novel! That means I’m a whopping 2 weeks ahead of schedule! (Which also means I’m in the middle of taking a much-needed 2-week break from novel #2.)

It took a total of 136 days and 65,000 words. I woke up at 5:30 – 6:00 a.m. at least 3 times each week from January through June to steal an hour of writing in before work, wrote during countless work lunch breaks, and on the evenings and weekends. I carted my husband all over the Chicago area for research purposes (see photo above and/or my Instagram account) and stole away to coffee shops while visiting family out of town to keep the momentum moving.

And I might be crazy, but I’m already missing my characters and their quirks and issues. Each morning, I’ve woken up wondering is it July yet? because I want to dive right in to draft two. I suppose it’s a good problem to have!

Until then, I’m counting down the days until July (–seven!).

Happy writing,

L. Stacks

P.S. Learn more about my work-in-progress (novel #2) here.

Book Reviews: The Chaperone, Letters from Skye, and The Paris Wife

photo(2)The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

This was one of those my-husband-is-purusing-Costco’s-wine-selection-so-I’ll-look-at-the-books purchases. You know the kind, right? I was intrigued by the book as it is historical fiction, and because the secondary character in the story is based on a real-life actress, Louise Brooks.

In The Chaperone, conservative, mid-30s Cora agrees to accompany 15-year-old, budding actress Louise to New York City during the mid-1920s. It is an unusual pairing from the start, and the animosity between the two border on humorous–especially when Louise goes out of her way to make Cora feel uncomfortable. However, as the story progresses the reader learns about some not-so-conservative parts of Cora’s past, and this really drives the story as she comes to terms with her relationship with Louise–in addition to others in her life.

The character development of Cora in this book is well-done and, in my opinion, is what keeps the storyline moving forward. In addition, Moriarty does a nice job balancing plot and historical details so that neither seem to be the main emphasis of the book, but rather a nice mixture of the two. I would definitely recommend this to anyone else who like historical fiction–and even those who don’t.

 Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockamole

Back in 2010, I shared that I don’t prefer books written in the form of letters, and while I haven’t changed my mind about that entirely, I did find myself reading another letters-as-book story about a year ago. I was intrigued by the premise–the story is centered around the letters of a daughter to her enlisted beau in the 1940s, and the when the daughter discovers her mother’s own love letters from 30 years earlier, she learns more about her past–and her mother, herself–than she ever expected.

Because of the format of this book, it was a relatively quick and easy read. I do feel as if something from the experience goes missing when the reader is only able to envision characters based on words that the characters themselves write. How can the reader know, then, if the character is reliable? How perceptive the character is of his or her own actions? But, the one thing that this format does seem to lend to the story is a sense of mystery in an otherwise not mysterious book. The thing about reading a book of collected letters is that there is always something left unsaid–something that the reader does not, and cannot know. At least until the character knows it and writes about it, that is. The mystery comes from the characters unfolding slower than they might in a traditional novel, and I think this is what keeps a reader engaged in the story when it is in this format.

All in all, this was an interesting read, and I enjoyed the mother-daughter relationship that unfolded throughout the book. Not to mention, now I want to visit Scotland after reading this.

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

This is my favorite book that I’ve read in the past few years. A hefty claim, I know! In The Paris Wife, McClain (who holds a MFA from the University of Michigan!) balances perfectly her beautiful prose with a rich, historical setting and a plot that is fully-formed and character-driven. When I finished reading this book, I found myself wishing that I had written it. Not in a jealous way, but rather in an inspired and awed way.

The story is loosely based on Ernest Hemingway‘s first wife, Hadley, and their relationships ups and downs while the great writer makes a name for himself. The book takes place in Chicago and Paris and Spain in the 1920s, and the picture McClain paints of the great writers of the gilded age (Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald) made me wish I was writing in that place and time rather than today. As Hemingway rises to literary fame and success, Hadley–and the reader–must question the pair’s coupling, and whether they can ultimately make it together.

This is one of those books that I recommend generously and at length to anyone looking for a great read. And for any writers out there struggling to “choose” between a more literary writing style and a mainstream, plot-centered one, The Paris Wife can convince you that you don’t need to choose–it is possible to have both.

Happy reading (and writing!),

Lauren Stacks

“Novel in a Year” Project – The Second Draft

Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part blog post outlining my “Novel in a Year” project. You can find part 1 here.

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The Second Draft: July through December

If everything goes well, by the time Independence Day rolls around this year, I’ll be completed with the first draft of novel #2, and will be ready to move into the revision process. I anticipate the book will finish up with a total of 16 or 17 chapters, which makes the July through December goals a little easy to describe than my first-draft goals.

My goal for July through December will be to completely edit (this could be adding historical information, removing extraneous content, adding character development or plot points, and tightening up prose) one chapter every ten days. Sure, some chapters might need a little extra help than others (obviously the first 1-2 chapters and the last chapter are extra important) but I anticipate that it should be pretty even, otherwise. Much of the time spent in the latter half of 2014 will likely be researching the time period and making sure my characters are fully-formed. I’m sure there will be plenty of posts in the future about revision and the like!

And that, my friends, is my goal for the second draft. If all goes according to plan, I should be checking back in eight months’ time (don’t worry–you’ll hear from me before then, of course) with a mostly-completed novel (I’ll still need feedback from my critique partners, etc.).

What do you think? Am I crazy? Can I do it?

Happy writing (and goal-meeting!),

Lauren Stacks

Book Reviews: The Book Thief + The Fault in Our Stars

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You probably noticed that, until a few weeks ago, things have been pretty quiet around these parts. I think that this and this post help explain my absence. But just so you know–just because I haven’t posted on book reviews for over a year doesn’t mean that I haven’t read a book since then. Quite the contrary, actually. That said, I’m going to be posting handfuls of book reviews here over the next few months to try to get up-to-date. Some of these I read more than a year ago; others, just a month or two ago. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these yourself!

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I had heard a bit of buzz about this book, and once I heard it was being made into a movie, I knew that I had to read it first. It is my opinion that seeing a visual representation of a character before reading about the character ruins the entire experience. One of the best parts about reading a book is realizing the characters in your own head—their features, their expressions, even their height and build. If I were to reread the Harry Potter series now, after seeing all of the movies numerous times, there’s no way that I could envision Harry as anyone other than Daniel Radcliffe… you get the point.

From the very beginning, I was intrigued by this story. The tale of a young orphan girl who likes to steal books, it’s set in WWII Germany, and narrated by a unique character—a personified version of Death. The story itself was lovely; the characters were rich and fully-formed. The plot was intriguing, though I will admit that I found myself thinking on more than one occasion that the book did not need to be as long as it was. There were certainly parts that could have been cut to keep the plot moving along at a slightly faster clip.

Growing up, I read dozens of stories about the Holocaust (Number the Stars, The Upstairs Room, I Have Lived a Thousand Years, just to name a few) and, in my opinion, The Book Thief was a more uniquely-written version of those.

Have you read The Book Thief? if so, what did you think? Or perhaps you’ve seen the movie?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene

This book was a quick read from the fall of 2013 (I think I started and finished it in two days’ time, which is always a welcomed turnaround for this busy gal). I can’t quite remember why I picked up this book, but possibly because I’m connected with a large number of YA writers on Twitter, and so I often hear about fabulous YA books. As of late, I’ve been hearing about Eleanor & Park, which has been officially added to my Amazon “Wish List.”

This story is about a quirky and smart teenage girl, Hazel, who is dying of cancer. She meets an equally quirky/smart AND good-looking teenager at a cancer support group meeting, and the book follows their romance. They also embark on a journey to meet the author of Hazel’s favorite novel, which is a realistic yet well-imagined story.

One of my favorite things about this story was that Greene doesn’t shy away from tough themes—fears about dying, contemplations about afterlife, real love, and hard losses. The Fault in Our Stars faces the tough issues that many YA novels shy away from—and many adult novels as well.

Also—like The Book Thief, this story will be coming out on the big screen soon. Have you caught the trailer yet?

Happy reading (and writing, of course),

Lauren Stacks

“Novel in a Year” Project – The First Draft

Note: This is part 1 of a 2-part blog post outlining my “Novel in a Year” project

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[My first filled notebook for novel # 2]

The First Draft: January through June

As I mentioned previously, I’m working on an exciting new project—and I have lofty goals for completing it. Below, I’ve outlined my goals for what I’ve dubbed my “Novel in a Year” project. (Keep in mind that these are just projections and planning, but thus far (4 full months in!) I’ve been successful!

Overall, my goal is to write 10k words each month from January – June, which will give me the first draft of the book by July 1 (60k words total). Now, I anticipate the book will finish up at closer to 80-90k words (THICKER THAN WATER came in at a whopping 95k), but I want to leave room for growth in my second draft pass.

My 10k words/month goal breaks down like this:

  • Week 1: 3k words (roughly 1 chapter). Generally I can complete this with 6 writing sessions (I often try to squeeze two session into one day (before work and at lunch) early in the week
  • Week 2: 3k words (roughly 1 chapter)
  • Week 3: 3k words (roughly 1 chapter)
  • Week 4: Loosely edit previously 9k words/3 chapters. This isn’t a comprehensive pass, but mostly connecting scenes, adding details, and implementing chapter arch. Generally, this adds 1-3k to my word count, leaving me with 10-12k for the month

So far, I’ve successfully hit my 10k words/month goal for the past 4 months, totaling 43k words to date. With two more month of this, I *should* be finished with draft one by July 1!

Stay tuned for my next post—I’ll be sharing my vision for the July – December portion of my “Novel in a Year” project with you.

Cheers (and happy writing),

Lauren Stacks

P.S. Like the picture above? Follow my Instagram feed for more images from my writing adventures! (And other adventures, too.)

An Update!

I began writing my first* novel (THICKER THAN WATER) in the fall of 2008, during a period of much change and growth. I had just graduated college, moved from Michigan to the big city of Chicago, and began graduate school for creative writing. Previously, I had written mostly mid-length work (50 – 70 page novella-like projects) and poetry. I’ll be honest: I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, nor did I have any idea what I was doing. I began by writing a prologue that doesn’t exist any longer, and then wrote chapter one. If I remember correctly, I think the next scene I wrote is now embedded in chapter three or four. I was writing the “bright spots” as I’ve heard it said, and I figured that I’d fill in the gaps later.

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Showing off novel #1 in thesis form in spring 2010

Filling in the gaps (among other things) proved to be a bit more difficult than I anticipated. All in all, I did not stamp my first novel as “done” (of course, can I ever really call it “done?”) until mid-January 2014… more than 5 years after I started.

That said, now that I’m anticipating sending my book out into the world soon, I’ve embarked on writing my second novel (details to be shared soon) and have set a big goal for myself: finish book number two in ONE YEAR.

One year? you’re probably thinking. Didn’t you just say that novel number one took FIVE? But my lofty goal is still a long shot away from Stephen King, who said, “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” So I might be crazy, or it might just be the most brilliant goal-setting I’ve ever done, but I’ll be sharing the details of my “Novel in a Year” project on the blog soon.

Until then, I have some (large) word count goals to meet.

Cheers (and happy writing),

Lauren Stacks

*Of course, there’s always that terrible NANOWRIMO YA novel from November 2007, but I do not typically include that book in the count…

Writing Wednesday: 2012 Book Reviews #8, 9, and 10

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A quick note: While all of these books were read in 2012, I still wanted to be able to do them just by including them in my book list, even if after the fact. My total book read for the year for 2012 was 10 books, which is not particularly hefty, but at the same time I am not ashamed. In 2012, I started working full time, and continued to make progress on my novel, so things even out in the end. 

8. A Simple Act of Gratitude by John Kralik

This book was given to my husband and I by his mother, and while I generally read mostly fiction books by choice, I wanted to check out what my mother-in-law had wanted us to read. A Simple Act of Gratitude was a quick read, and has a very simple basis: the author decided to write a thank you note a day for a year of his life. He made this decision at a time when seemingly everything was going wrong–his career, his marriage, his finances, etc. He had no idea what was left for him to be thankful for, but one note at a time, he figured it out. Sure, this book has a bit of a corny premise, but I actually found myself drawn to John’s story, and the unflinching look he gave into his own life. While I haven’t written a thank you note a day after reading this, I certainly sit down with a blank notecard and a stamp much more often than I used to, and I can very much see the importance of even a quick, three-sentence card, not only for the person on the receiving end, but for the one penning the note.

9. Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

After reading Away, a novel by Amy Bloom that I adored, I picked up this short story collection that T’s cousin had sent me a few years ago. It’s really too bad that this was my first time reading this collection—it sat on my shelf for a few years, and it could have been influencing my writing for all that time.

The thing I loved the most about these stories were how beautifully weird they were. They were love stories between people who shouldn’t be in love, and they were detailed, and gritty, and lovely all at the same time. I found myself oddly rooting for the woman in love with her stepson (weird, I know, but the characters were so sympathetic) and the elderly couple finally finding love in the wrong places. I know that I’ll pick this book up again for a reread in the future.

10. The Passage by Justin Cronin

This book, too, was sent to us by said cousin above (I know, she rocks) and while I think she may have intended it for T to read (like that would ever happen), I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. As some of you may know, I’m a closet science fiction/fantasy nerd, and this book fulfilled my lack of a good genre read for the year. The Passage is like Lord of the Rings meets Walking Dead—it’s the story of an epic journey, told from various perspectives and over hundreds of years, and takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States that has been overrun by a mutant virus that turns people into zombie-ish vampires (I mentioned I’m a nerd, right?). Each time I started a new chapter in the perspective of another character I felt disappointed to be leaving the previous character behind, but soon realized that I really cared about each and every character equally. I really enjoyed every aspect of this book, and after I finished (I read the final 500 pages in about a day and a half) I ran right out to Barnes and Noble to buy the second installation of the trilogy that had just been released.

On to a new year and many more books to conquer (I hope!).

Happy reading,

L. Stacks