Today’s guest post is from Yona Zeldis McDonough, whose novel TWO OF A KIND (NAL Trade) will be released September 3, 2013. It’s the story of second chances, blending families, and overcoming obstacles to find that happily ever after.
A touching, airy novel that manages to meld the concerns of family members spanning four generations into a delightfully well-written story… A tender, clever story with emotional heft. –Booklist
She is the award-winning author of five novels and twenty-two books for children, and is also the editor of two essay collections. Her fiction, essays, and articles have been widely published in many national and literary magazines. She has been the fiction editor of Lilith Magazine for many years and lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and their two children.
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Two Pages a Day
Back in the late 1990s, before I had published my first novel, I had pocketful of literary aspirations and a heart full of dreams. I also had two small children and a budget that precluded the hiring of a baby sitter or nanny. Although I had the idea for a novel rumbling around inside me, I despaired of having the time and emotional space in which to write it. The uninterrupted days, those blissful periods, kind of like swoons or trances, when I could sink deep into my work and not emerge for hours, were like a mirage from another time; I could not imagine having them back until the youngest child was eighteen and off to college.
My reaction to these restrictions ranged from brooding resentment to Zen-like acceptance. But neither strategy was particular helpful. And I certainly wasn’t getting any work done. Then I had an epiphany: I would not tell myself I was writing a novel, a concept that made me feel like an ant balancing a grapefruit on its back. No, I broke down the task at hand into much more manageable chunks or bits. I told myself that I was writing a scene. A conversation. A description. And I gave myself a small, manageable goal: two pages a day, five days a week.
There was such a sense of liberation in this: I was no longer plagued by the enormous task I had set before myself and instead had a concrete goal that could be checked off on my “to do” list. I wrote those two pages during endless re-runs of Barney, the oversized (and under-endowed, at least mentally) purple dinosaur, Dora the Explorer and episodes of Arthur. I wrote them during naps, play dates (at someone else’s house) trips with their father to the zoo/park/ playground. I was not overwhelmed, guilty, angst-ridden or despairing. I was just writing, two pages a day, five days a week.
And it worked. By week’s end, I had ten pages, by month’s end, forty. Sometimes I was even able to exceed my limit. The pages piled up and less than a year, I had a draft of a novel. And even though a draft is a far cry from a finished book, it still beats that blank computer screen with the cursor pulsating like a small, frantic heart.
Once the draft was completed, I switched my mantra slightly to editing, and then revising. The magic of my self-deception still worked, and I could polish and refine the draft into one submittable first to an agent and then an editor. My first novel, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, was published by Doubleday in 2002, hard proof that even the smallest increments can one day turn into solid achievements.
Now my children are older and my time is much less constrained. But I still use the two pages a day mantra; it gets me over so many humps, blocks and dead ends. In my newest novel, TWO OF A KIND, one of the protagonists, Christina Connelly, eluded my grasp for the longest time. Even though she was at the center of the story, she was nut I could not crack, the consciousness I could not penetrate. I was first frustrated, then disgusted, then despairing. How would I bring her to life? I wondered. How would I make it all work?
Once again, I was saved by my two pages a day strategy. I did not attempt to tackle Christina overall; I focused on her scene-by-scene, conversation-by-conversation, description-by-description. Who was she, want did she need and want? How did she go about getting it? What happened when she did not? Two pages at a time, I broke her code, unlocked her secrets and brought her forth. By staying small in my immediate goals, I was able achieve the larger one. It was a great lesson, not only for writing, but also for life.
What are your strategies for staying small to achieve your big goals?