In the Spotlight: Rachel Ball
This month, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Rachel Ball, a writer I know because of her online work. Like many readers, I fell in love with Rachel’s “Fiction Friday” blog posts. These pieces were writing experiments that she shared with her followers while she worked on her novel. Sometimes she read the pieces aloud and provided audio to go along with the stories. Often she would post photos of her novel draft, handwritten on yellow legal pads. I loved reading her thoughts about writing. I was inspired and heartened by those beautiful yellow legal pads, and the way they accumulated as she worked.
After reading and following her quietly for months, eventually I introduced myself. I asked Rachel if she would be willing to talk about her writing process in a Spotlight, and if she’d share some of her Mysterious Middle Draft with my readers. She said yes.
Rachel Ball lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her short stories have been published in The Battered Suitcase, Apt, and The View From Here. She shares very short stories on her blog, Elephantine, and has been working on a novel for the last year.
Handwriting or computer?
Both. Writing by hand feels better, but writing on the computer is more practical.
Page count or time count?
I used to make goals based on word count, but now I'm making goals based on scenes. Right now I consider it a good day if I can successfully revise one scene.
First drafts or revision?
Revision. Blank pages are intimidating, but a page full of words, no matter how flawed, at least gives you something to work with.
Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?
Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?
Music when I need to get into the right mood. Otherwise, it's too distracting.
How do you make time for your writing practice? How do you handle resistance?
I think the key is to make writing a priority — if it's truly a priority, you will find time for it, no matter how busy you think your day already is. Write instead of watching TV, write during your lunch break, write instead of going to sleep at your usual time. I'm always asking myself, "Is this really more important than writing?" If you have a newborn or taxes to do or overdue thank you notes to write, then yeah, you probably need to do that first. But there are plenty of things that can be traded in for writing time. And even if you're a slow writer (like me) just a little bit every day eventually adds up to a lot.
I feel some form of resistance every time I sit down to write. It's easy to get paralyzed by an empty page or a bad scene that needs lots of rewriting, especially if I've just read something magical written by someone else. I try to get past that resistance by thinking of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird credo, or reminding myself that it's okay if I write something terrible that day, because it can always be changed, and nobody will ever read the bad stuff.
What's the best advice you would give a new writer?
Read a lot. Read old favorites, read poetry, read books by authors you've never heard of. And spend a good chunk of that time reading like a writer: pay close attention to the arc of the story, to the way narrative is unfolded, to the voice, to the language. Try listening to audiobooks, too. Good narrators bring out the rhythms in the writing that you may not otherwise pick up on. Same goes for your own writing: read it out loud. Listen to it. Listen for those uneven spots that don't show themselves when you're just reading it in your head.
For the longest time, I thought that people just somehow were good writers. It's probably true for a rare handful, but for most of us, it takes a multitude of hard work. It takes time and effort and love of the craft. There are no shortcuts.
Tell us about your experience with Story Is a State of Mind. How it has changed your relationship to writing?
I can't remember how I stumbled across Story Is a State of Mind but I'm grateful I did, because it played a big part in getting me out of a writing slump. The course got me refocused and taught me techniques for approaching writing in new ways. I think sometimes all you need is a push, a little encouragement, and that gets you back on track.
Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today
This excerpt is from the novel I've been toiling away at, about the beginning of a relationship between two of characters, Raymond and Tia. There are a lot of relationships and friendships in the book, but theirs is the first one that I wrote about and the one that spans almost the entire length of the book.
Excerpt from a novel-in-progress, by Rachel Ball
And there is her familiar face, browsing the nonfiction stacks. "Constantia, right?" he asks, embarrassed to have thought of her so many times as the receptionist, as Dr. Gallo's daughter. It feels strange seeing her out of context, standing without a desk obscuring most of her small frame. "Oh, you can call me Tia," she says. "Nobody ever calls me Constantia except my father." She is prettier removed from the sickly light of the office. She’s a little luminous, even. Squares of sunlight fall across the carpet and print white light onto the tips of their shoes. Two women are trying to pass behind them with long dark bags swinging from their wrists, and Tia moves out of their way, coming half a step closer toward him.
"This place is amazing, isn't it?" Tia asks, and taps the book she's just pulled from the shelf. The knot of bells tied above the front door jingles lightly. "I've been looking all over town for this book. I should have come here first."
Her hands turn open the cover to point out photographs inset between text, images of plants, trees, specimens of the natural world, below which are Latin words in italics. How has he not noticed her before? She closes the book, holding it to her chest.
"What are you looking for?" she asks.
"Nothing. I'm just out to walk around."
"You live nearby?"
"Kind of. I’m up the hill a little ways."
"I wish I lived over here. I'm in this tiny, old apartment over on Bethel. It's so close I could walk to work. But my father insists on picking me up every morning on his way in. It's sort of embarrassing, but it's nice in the winter."
He expects her to politely excuse herself then, to turn back to the books, but she keeps talking to him. Has he ever been to that little Italian place on the corner? Does he have family around here? When she speaks, her eyes dart away from his face and back again. She does not regard his pinned sleeve, until the moment she laughs at something he’s said and she reaches out to touch his arm lightly. “Do you–would you like to– ” he starts to ask, fumbling over the simple question. No one else is within earshot, but it feels as if the entire bookstore is listening in, waiting on him. “How about dinner sometime? Or a movie. We could just see a movie.” She says yes, looking neither surprised nor expectant. Sure, that would be nice. Her mouth bends up into a smile. Here, let me — and she writes her phone number down for him, adding Tia below the numbers, the dot of the i unaligned with the rest of the letter.
Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.
What remains with you after reading Rachel's work?
Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?
How is your own writing practice like Rachel's? How is it different?
Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Rachel!
Photo credit (top): Ryan Searle on Unsplash.