In the Spotlight: Rachel Ball

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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

Meet Rachel

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?

Solo.


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."

“I bet.”

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.  

Discussion:

  • 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.


MFA vs. NYC
The 2014 Little Bird Winner!

8 comments

Elle Flythe

Rachel, thanks for sharing! Sarah, thanks for getting Rachel to share! I first felt present in this scene when I read "squares of sunlight... "; that imagery was so specific I felt I was in the room. The "long dark bags" worked for me, too. The description of the bags made them seem important so I followed them with my eyes, looking around and seeing more of the shop. Then Tia tapping the book, I could hear that and it somehow made me listen more closely to dialogue. I was drawn sense by sense into the scene. So cool. The other thing that remains with me is how I learned a lot about Raymond by reading what he noticed about Tia, and what he expected Tia to notice about him. There are also lots of bits in the last paragraph that seem so clear - the eavesdropping but empty aisles, the unaligned dot...Also the mix of straight dialogue and dialogue/exposition kept me on my toes. I'm excited for the novel. Best of luck, Rachel! Sarah, I hope you can give us heads up when some of these lovely MMDs are published.
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Thank you so much for your comment, Elle! It's interesting to see what parts jump out to you as a reader. It's also a little surreal for me to read someone's observations about the characters I've been working on—for so long, they've only existed in my own private writing universe. I appreciate your feedback!
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Thank you for sharing! I've been following Rachel's blog for about a year now and I just discovered this website thanks to her last post. I really enjoyed the excerpt! I think you have a real clear voice for Raymond and, like the previous commenter said, the details he notices says a lot about him. Your writing style is poetic without being overly embellished (or at least not in a way that is obvious to the readers) and really puts me in the right place and time. Again, thank you!
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Rebekah W.

Thank you so much for sharing, Rachel! I love your writing prodigiously. It's so smooth and soft, unassuming in the way it comes to you. It's lovely. It's funny that the comment above mentions the "long dark bags", because that stood out to me, too. It makes the whole scene very particular, and I just like that sentence a lot. It sticks with me. Also, your dialogue is lovely. I definitely struggle with dialogue, and love how their dialogue is so easy to hear. I don't have to strain at all to hear them conversing with each other. Thank you again for sharing. It was a pleasure reading your writing.
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Oh, I feel so flattered to have my writing called poetic. Some of my own favorite books have a poetic quality to them, and I've always striven to write that way as well. Thank you, Patricia! x
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Thank you, Rebekah, that's so kind of you. And about the 'long dark bags,' if I remember correctly, I don't think I had that in my first draft – it was a detail I added later on, because I felt the scene to be slightly lacking. So I'm pleased that such a little thing has such weight!
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Stephen D. Forman

Well done! This scene flows so naturally that it's easy to overlook the hard work that went in, like a 98mph fastball that leaves the batter "looking" at the plate. I agree with the commenter who appreciated the dialogue-- yours sounds like real people. (It's remarkable the contortions and grimaces we foist on our characters just to sound "genuine". They suffer for our art.) In particular, you observed precisely when Raymond should've expected the conversation to falter, had the flirtation fizzled. The Little Bird is no coincidence: good writers are foremost patient, thorough observers, like birdwatchers. I also replayed "long dark bags", but what it did for me was call attention to your use of color in that paragraph. Where Tia (in her office) was bathed in "sickly light", in the bookstore she became "luminous", and shortly appeared in printed "white light". Great contrast! That primed me: it said, "Rachel writes for the senses," which made me look for sounds and touches (eg bells jingling). Thanks to Sarah for spotlighting Rachel-- a fellow Seattleite (go Seahawks!)-- whose writing habits above sound eerily similar to my own. I'm intrigued to check out your "Fiction Friday" blog, sounds cool! Best, Stephen
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Stephen – thank you for such a thoughtful comment! It really is helpful to get this kind of feedback and encouragement. And about sensory writing: it's actually a goal of mine to give more attention to scent in particular... which, I'm just realizing, is completely neglected in this excerpt. I'll have to see if it can be integrated in some way. Thanks again for your response!
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