In the spring of 6th grade, all hell broke loose. My face broke out, my hips expanded, my thighs ballooned, and, naturally, I got my first period. I went from being a kid to a woman literally overnight and it was terrorizing. Boys flashed me predatory looks that, contrary to Me, Margaret, were not at all welcomed. To memorialize the pain, there is a photo of me at 6th-grade graduation innocently displaying my diploma with pride, my boobs busting out of a Garanimals shorts-and-shirt set. My friends, in comparison, are toddlers.
Flooded with hormones and the cruelty of the age, not a night went by when I didn’t cry myself to sleep. I longed to be loved, to be invisible, to be flat-chested, to be simply normal.
That summer was the start of what would be many diets. I don’t know if my mother blamed my early adolescence on fat (I was only 11 when this happened), but she and my doctor decided I needed to be put on a 1,000-1,200 calorie regimen. Unfortunately, this being the 1970s, that meant Sweet ‘n Low, fake butter, Tab (for which I still have a strange fondness), and “diet” bread, a slice of which you could squish into a ball the size of a pencil eraser. God only knows how those chemicals messed up my DNA; I imagine the chickens will come home to roost, soon.
Of course, any weight I lost quickly returned until I went to college and discovered smoking. THEN I got thin. (Lord, how I miss them cigarettes.) Later, I learned that I kept off weight only when I paid attention to what I ate (thank you, Jane Brody) instead of how many calories.
Perhaps my early obsession over calories was partly responsible for my fixation on word counts or, as we referred to copy measurements in journalism, column inches. A good day was when I could turn off the computer at my paper having logged in 30″ or more. My friend, colleague and later internationally acclaimed author, Patty McCormick, laughingly dubbed me the “inch queen.” She didn’t worry about inches; she worried about content, which is probably why she’s been nominated for a National Book Award, twice. (And has a movie coming out – SOLD. Important stuff!)
Having written 17 books while raising two children of my own and, at times, hacking away at another career, word counts were my salvation – or so I (erroneously) believed. But looking back, all those days of “if I can just reach 2,000” actually cost me more time and energy. Like the Tab and fake butter, many – and sometimes all – of those words were empty and I found myself rewriting and rewriting in the most inefficient model possible.
And, yet, like training for a 5k (as I am currently attempting), I still needed a goal. Otherwise, the hours would disappear and I’d be left with nothing to show for my work but, “Chapter Two….” I was a year behind turning in THIS IS MY BRAIN ON BOYS, my editor was beginning to lose hope and I was working as a Town Clerk four days a week. I needed help.
The solution came to me while reviewing an outline. What if, instead of focusing on words, I focused on scenes. And really specific scenes at that. I even jotted down notes on what exactly I’d write that day.
- Addie gets off plane, makes awkward contact with boy,
- meets friend who knows his secret
- Addie goes off and friend reads him the riot act. end chapter
- He meets school headmaster who also knows secret, implies such
It was enough, oddly, to get me to sit down, without distraction, and immerse myself in Addie’s world. I also obeyed the trick of leaving off at a GOOD stopping point, which is a point where you don’t feel like stopping. That way, when I picked up the book again (having noted my scenes for the day), I could jump right into the action. Also, my subconscious would have been hard at work in the interim, flushing out characters, adding more details to the scenes I’d written and honing my voice.
And, voila! – book done. Occasionally, I’d peek at the bottom of the page only to be surprised that instead of 2,000 words, I’d written 3,500. Yeah, that temptation is always there. But isn’t that always true about stuff that’s destructive? (I’m talking to you, cigarettes!)
Okay, off to apply theory to practice.