I Am Not A Fly Fisher

This past weekend I did two things I’ve never done before: 1) took a writing retreat; and 2) fly fished. Let’s just say neither turned out quite like I’d hoped, but the weekend wasn’t a total wash.

In my previous post, I talked about my current WIP and how difficult it is to write. I’ve been stuck in a particular spot for the last couple weeks. I know where the story goes, what happens, how everything goes down, but the words wouldn’t work. They kept coming out all wrong and nothing I did made them any better.

I planned writing nights to focus solely on working through the problems, but life kept intervening. A conference call at work that ran hours over. A meeting at church. A run away dog. Hang out time with friends. Every time I wanted to write, something came up that took me away from it. Every time I finally got to sit down with my manuscript, the coffee shop would be loud and packed, or the words wouldn’t budge from my stubborn brain.

So I figured a writing retreat was just what I needed. I found a cabin a few hours away on one of the best trout fishing rivers in the country (or so the internet proclaimed). One that was nice and secluded, with a good kitchen so I could cook and not have to leave all weekend. Hubs loves fishing, so he loaded up on fly-fishing gear and came along. Just us, the river, and words.

Or so I thought.

A couple things I hadn’t planned on happened. Upon arriving at our adorable cabin–which was as promised, nice kitchen, hot tub, riverfront, and so secluded I thought the car was going to slide off the sketchy one-lane dirt road and down the extremely steep hill to the side–we learned our section of the river was below a dam. Meaning the water was prone to random rapid rises. Random, because even though the folks at the dam posted a schedule of when they would be releasing the water, they never stuck to it. And rapid as in within ten minutes the water rose several feet and the current sped up enough to sweep everything–people included–down river. Suffice it to say, this made for a bit of a nerve-wracking fishing trip for Hubs, and for distracted writing time for myself. Every time he’d don his waders and pick his way to the center of the river, we had to choose a reference point to keep an eye on in case the dam released. Of course he was distracted by trying to fly-fish (did I mention he’d never done it before? We stayed up the night before watching instructional videos online. Yep, we’re professionals, ha!), and I was nervous he wouldn’t notice the water rising until it was too late, so I ended up down at the dock writing long-hand and watching a seam on a rock.

Further complications were my fear of getting hooked by an overeager cast (which almost happened once and made me understandably fearful), the enthusiastic four-wheeler riders at the cabin down the way, and the fact that all the trout the river was supposed to be teaming with were nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, Hubs found a public park/hatchery a little ways down and talked me into going with him the next day.

Despite all this, I managed to get words down. Four-wheeler-ers aside, the woods were pretty quiet. Not to mention a large part of my WIP occurs in the woods, so being right in the thick of it inspired a couple new scenes. By the end of the day I’d typed up what I’d written and was feeling so good I decided to treat myself by hopping into Hubby’s waders and getting in the water. The dam had released by this point, so I didn’t wade out into it or anything. I stayed on/by the ladder on our dock, but it was a neat experience.

So neat that the next day I decided to give it another shot. We went down the park Hubs had found, only about a five minute drive once we got off the steep, sketchy dirt road. Hubs fished for a couple hours while I sat at a picnic table continuing the scene I’d been working on the previous day, still writing long-hand. The words came a little, but it was still a lot of [insert action here] and [write something along these lines], and I was grateful when Hubs said he’d had enough. Nothing was biting and our stomachs were grumbling. Before we left though, I wriggled back into the waders and slipped into the water, fishing pole in hand, ready to try this fly fishing thing for real.

Like I said at the beginning, I’d never fly fished before. I had, however, watched all the instructional videos. I knew what to do. I confidently strode through the water and tugged the line out to the right length. I locked my wrist, whipped the line back and forth, and released, expecting the line to float out over the water.

Nope.

It wrapped around my wrist and went absolutely nowhere. I tried again. Nothing. Over and over. Finally it went a little ways, but nothing like the smooth cast in the videos. Hubs had struggled the first day, but he picked it up pretty quick. We’d watched the same videos, I had my hand in the right place, moved the rod like I was supposed to, surely I’d get the hang of it too, right? Wrong. I fought that line the entire time, and the more I fought, the more frustrated I got, and the worse things went. When I finally gave up and waded back to shore, Hubs showed me a video he’d recorded.

Holy crap, I looked goofy! Arm raised like the Statue of Liberty. Rod extended way behind my head. It was terrible. You can actually see the moment I realize it won’t work and give up. My shoulders slump. I turn to the shore and shrug. Then hang my head and wade back–not even gracefully gliding through the water like I thought. I clomp over the rocks like a little kid dressing up in their parent’s shoes (the wading boots were a men’s 11 and I’m a women’s 9, so not sure why I thought I’d do anything but clomp).

So fly fishing is not my thing. I tried and failed. Gloriously, I might add. That’s one video no one other than me and Hubby will ever watch. But I did realize something: I’d been fighting my story the same way I fought the fly rod. I was struggling against the story, so the story wasn’t flowing.

Sometimes your story gets away from you and you have to wrangle it back in. The line gets twisted around the pole and doesn’t flow out when you cast. You wrestle with it and fight it and sometimes it’s like it takes on a mind of it’s own, determined to make your life miserable.

That’s when you stop.

I bet if I watched a video of me trying to write over the past few weeks, I ‘d see the same thing I saw when fishing. I’d literally watch myself get dejected and give up. I’ve been struggling, trying to make the story do what I wanted it to do instead of letting it work the way it’s meant to work.

There’s a key difference between fly fishing and spinner fishing. I’ve always spinner fished, where you let the reel do all the work. It controls the line, you just flick your wrist. Fly fishing is a completely different world. A fly reel is basically a line holder. It’s up to the fisher to make the line work.

I am not a fly fisher. I’m a spinner fisher through and through.

When we returned to the cabin that afternoon, I stopped trying to fly fish my story. I stopped struggling against the words. I paused and let the story turn in the direction it needed. And for the first time all weekend, I felt like I had the perfect cast.

Sometimes you just need to stop trying. Take a breath. Listen to your story. Like a spinner reel, let the story do all the work and just go along for the ride.

Hubs finally caught a fish on our last night, and I finally caught my story again. So overall, I think my little retreat was a success.

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My Writing Process Blog Hop

The awesome Jamie Dodson has chosen me to participate in a blog hop on my writing process. Jamie writes these excellent books on a teenage pilot set a few years before World War II. His post on his process, and his Nick Grant books, can be found here, so check it out!

As for the hop, I have a few questions to answer, so here it goes:

1. What are you working on at the moment?

I don’t like talking about WIPs much. I guess I think I’ll jinx it or something, but I will say this much. Right now I’m writing a dark YA contemporary. And when I say dark, I mean dark. When my MC, Nate, was fourteen, he shot and killed his neo-nazi father in self-defense. Now he has to live with the repercussions of his decision and figure out how to move on. This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. Both because of the research, which makes me feel so skeezy (of all the topics I’ve researched for stories, bruising patterns, torture devices, etc., this has been the only one coffee shop internet has banned the sites) and because the things I have to actually write. As difficult as it is to write, though, I feel like it hits on some important topics.

2. How do you think your work differs from other writers in your genre?

Oh man, this is a tough one because I don’t stay squarely in one genre. I’ve flitted from MG adventure, to urban fantasy, to sci-fi, to contemporary thriller, to dark contemporary. The only really consistent theme is that my writing gets pretty dark and is very fast-paced but descriptive. (In fact, I’m having to really focus on slowing the pace in the WIP). I also like to throw in weird twists. I came up with a more typical contemporary plot several months ago. When I told Hubby the story idea he made a face and said “that doesn’t quite sound like a Sarah book.” I tried writing it and he was right. It was too straight for me. I need little unexpected curves and turns at the end, or it just doesn’t work.

3. Why do you write what you write?

I write the stories that pop into my head, which is apparently a kind of twisted place. My favorite books growing up were mysteries, ghost stories, scary things. Agatha Christie and Carolyn Keene and Stephen King and R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. These are my influences, the twisty, less-than-normal, mysterious stories. These are the types of stories that stuck in my head and affect the way my own words come out. I tend to write the things you don’t see, the world’s underbelly, the things that happen in the dark. Hidden worlds and thieves and secret government torture chambers and hackers and hate. I’ve mentioned that I’m afraid of the dark, so I like to draw the dark things out of their corners and bring them into the light. Shapes have a way of shifting in the light. I like exposing the monster that’s really just a coat hanging from the door.

4. What is your writing process, and how does it work?

My process breaks down into eight steps that I like to refer to as the Rinse and Repeat cycle.

1. I get an idea. A vague premise. My WIP idea came from an actual news story headline. I tuck these ideas in a folder in Evernote and come back to them when I finish whatever manuscript I’m working on when the idea hits. I take each vague idea and think about how the character got to that place and where they’re going and why. If an idea grips me and won’t let go, I write a query. I like to write the query first, when the plot is simple, before it gets muddied with side plots and secondary characters. Now that I have an agent, this has become a critical step. If I feel strongly about something, I’ll just send that one with a “hey, this is where I think I’m going next.” Otherwise, I write queries for a few ideas and send them to her for her thoughts. Last time, she really liked two different ideas. I couldn’t choose, so I decided to give them both a shot and see what stuck. The first is the story I mentioned in question 2. It didn’t work, so I moved on to the next one.

2. When I settle on an idea, I start with a synopsis to figure out what actually happens. I know “synopsis” is a frightening word. Trust me, I know. But mine isn’t meant for other eyes. Half the time I don’t even have a character name, it’s just “girl” or “dude.” I’m not a plotter, but I need something to provide structure to work from. The times I’ve taken off without any sort of guide ended disastrously. And that’s all this is, a loose structure that I typically end up deviating from when I start writing.

3. Then I write the first chapter. If the story and the character’s voice grab me, I keep going. If I hit 5,000 to 10,000 words and still love the character, I keep going. If it’s not working–the voice is inconsistent, or the story doesn’t flow–I stop and move on to the next idea. Seriously, I have too many ideas to waste time on the ones that aren’t working.

4. I have an amazingly awesome CP who I’ve been working with since my second manuscript. We swap a few chapters at a time as we write. So I’ll write a chapter or two, send it to her, she’ll critique and I’ll edit, then move on to the next chapter, rinse and repeat. I’m in a couple other critique groups that work this way too. I’ve learned I don’t do well with waiting for feedback until I finish the whole manuscript. I tend to get overwhelmed at the amount of work I have to do, and I get locked in on certain things I’ve already written, so it works better for me to edit as I go.

5. When I hit about 15,000 words, I’ll send it to my agent. She’s very editorial, which I love and is one of the main reasons I wanted to work with her. Her ideas are brilliant. I like to get her input before I get too deep in the manuscript because, like I said, revisions are hard. When she read the beginning of my previous WIP she thought it started in the wrong place and wouldn’t get seen in the current market, so I revised and ended up with a much stronger book. If I’d waited, I would’ve had a lot of extra work ahead of me. As it was, I just had to re-do the beginning and the rest flowed from there.

6. When I finish the whole thing, I get it printed at a local shop (300 some odd pages is a lot to print at home! It’s $15 and the print shop lady is super sweet). I read things differently on paper than I do on a computer. The tangibleness of paper makes the story more real. I edit on paper, type up the changes, and send to a couple beta readers. At least two. If they’re opinions are consistent, I revise, if they’re different, I get a third reader, then go with my gut. This is done as many times as necessary to get the best book I can write. Rinse and repeat. I print again, make any final minor tweaks and send to my agent.

7. My agent reads and lets me know if she thinks anything else should be added/removed/changed, we talk through the changes, I edit, and resubmit.

8. Final step, take a day or two to breathe and recharge, then start all over. Rinse and repeat.

If you want to read more about my process, how I find beta readers, how I tweak, etc. I wrote a couple other posts on these specific topics: Is Your Manuscript Ready? 10 Tips to Help Figure it Out; Beta Relationships; and Who’s Your Critic?

So, that’s it. That’s my process! I’m supposed to pass this along to two other writers, but I only have one because I’m a rebel.

Jill Van Den Eng is an author and journalist with a keen interest in the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. She earned a BA in journalism and returned to her hometown of Kaukauna, WI as a city news reporter. The city with a river dividing it left an impact, inspiring the setting in Van Den Eng’s debut YA novel, DIVIDED MOON.

In addition to writing, Van Den Eng enjoys reading YA and popular fiction, running, solving puzzles and getting outside. She is a master gardener who keeps an herb and vegetable garden outside her home office and a novice astronomer with a really big telescope.

Van Den Eng lives in Wisconsin with her husband, three sons, two lazy cats and one evil hamster. Check out her blog and read about her process at Jilly’s Book Blog.