Writing Process Blog Tour (#MyWritingProcess)

Well, it’s finally happened: my blog has been memed. (Can meme be a verb? And if so, is it transitive or intransitive? And is it irregular?)

Anyway. I have been tagged by the prodigiously esteemable Mr. William Alexander, author of Fine Fictions and Sundry Stories, and an all-around Fine Fellow. You can read about his process here. You can also browse his books – the National Book Award winning GOBLIN SECRETS , for example.

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If you haven’t read it, I insist you do so instantly. It is a wondrous strange little beauty, filled with intricate machines, beautiful baubles bent on your destruction, bravery, loyalty and dread. I just loved it. He writes short stories as well, and I’m always happy to encounter a new one. His new book is this:

 

17571252Middle grade science fiction in the vein of A Wrinkle in Time? Great Scott. Sign me up.

And since this is a meme, which means that I must pass it on like a game of Hot Potato, I do hereby name Mr. Steve Brezenoff, a writer whose books are both incisive and compassionate, who balances the highbrow and the lowbrow with deft skill and ease, and who manages to force us to remember the ache and confusion and agony of the teen experience while reminding us of the joy as well. His newest book is Guy in Real Life, and I insist that you read it at once.

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Anyway. The meme. I hope it makes sense. If not, don’t worry about it. I rarely make much sense.

Question the First:

What Are You Working on Right Now?

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Several things. My editor has a copy of my new book, The Boy Who Loved Birds, on her desk right now, and I am in a place of restless waiting for notes. This is a common phenomenon for writers: restless waiting. It is, I’ve been told, particularly unattractive. Oh well. I’m also finishing up a new book called The Sugar House – a Hansel and Gretel retelling set in Minneapolis. I very much enjoyed writing it. And then I’ll write the next book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon – which has a foundling child, a mad woman in a tower, a five-hundred-year-old witch named Xan, a poetry-quoting swamp monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon with delusions of grandeur (his mother, hoping to boost his self-esteem, convinced him that he was actually a Simply Enormous Dragon trapped in a land of giants). I am rather excited about it.

Question The Second:

Why Do You Write What You Write?

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You know, my husband asks me this all the time. Or more specifically: why don’t you write best selling series fiction that makes millions so we can retire and then you can hire recent graduates to crank out your novels on your behalf like James Patterson? And, to be fair, that is an excellent question. Alas, I can only write what interests me. I write strange fictions because I am interested in strange things. I endeavor to write beautifully because I delight in beautiful things. I write creepy stories because I enjoy the inward shiver of the macabre and the unsettling tale. I write stories about childhood because childhood interests me – how we become, how we find our feet, how we build ourselves into the people we will be, how we shape the world around us. I write what I write to amuse myself. I write what I write to heal myself. I write what I write as messages in a bottle to the lonely, hurting child that I used to be. I write for my kids. And my future grandkids. And the kids in the neighborhood. I write to share the oddness inside me with other people.

Sometimes I do all of these things at once.

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Question The Third:

How Does Your Work Differ From Others in its Genre?

Oh good lord. I have no idea. Honestly, the notion of genre in general makes me itchy. I don’t like putting firm categories on art, and feel frustrated with the increasing balkanization of literature. Since stories, once absorbed into the Self become part of our internal landscape and our external mapping – since they, once read, become seamlessly integrated in the mind of the reader (and I mean capital-M Mind) they are forever interacting and communicating with every other story that the reader has read. Which means that A Wrinkle in Time is in a lifelong conversation in my brain with Little Dorrit. And The Odyssey. And Anne of Green Gables. And The Sandman. If it were up to me, all fiction would simply be fiction, and that would be that.

I think I’ve digressed.

Anyway, how does my book differ from – not other books of its supposed genre but any book at all? Simple. I wrote mine. Someone else wrote theirs. When we sit down to work, we bring the particularities and peculiarities of our specific life experience. My family. My fears. My hopes. My nightmares. My faith. My loss of faith. My travels. My mental health. My obstacles. My reading life. My bare feet on the green grass and my fingertips in the warm mud and my lungs taking in the air around me and my eyes widening at each new blessed wonder. My books are different because I am different. You see?

 

Question the Fourth:

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

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Not very well, I’m afraid. I am a chronic destroyer of my own work. My newest book, The Witch’s Boy, was fully erased and given up on, I’d say eight times. I slash and I burn, and my soul burns with it. So this is how it works:

1. I get a notion of a story – sometimes it is a little knot of text that occurs to me while I’m running. Sometimes it is a very clear idea for a character. Sometimes it is a very particular moment. In any case I will will not start the story. I will just start thinking about the story. For a long time. (To put this in perspective, The Girl Who Drank The Moon – the story I’ll be starting this summer – I have been thinking about for about two years. The book I write after that – Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Doctor Otto van Drecht – I’ve been thinking about for three years.)

2. I get a box. I’ll put scraps into the box from time to time – little note cards, ripped out pieces of paper, articles, pictures, bits of string that I can’t remember what I was thinking of putting it in there, but there it stays. Baubles. Notions. Knick-knacks. Whatever. Things accumulate in the box.

3. I start to write. Longhand. I am a big believer in writing longhand. The problem with this is that I am not very organized and am prone to losing said notebooks. For The Sugar House, I have lost my notebook at the playground, at my kid’s school, at a coffee shop, at the gas station and in a public restroom. Fortunately, each time I’ve lost it, I’ve found it again. So far. But the future is wide and wild and scary and anything can happen.

4. I give up on the longhand. Eventually, the story starts moving in two directions at once, and I need to fix the beginning in order to re-do the end. Or I am just moving too quickly to be able to keep up. So far, I’ve only been able to maintain my longhand-only insistence for about 3/4 of a draft. When I start to move to the computer, each section goes into depth and breadth. So fifty pages in the notebook often translates to ninety pages on the computer. Each sentence is a jumping-off point.

5. I erase everything. I give up. I wonder why I ever started writing in the first place. I say mean things to myself.

6. I confess my erasing to my writing group who tell me to knock it off already. I get back to work.

7. Steps five and six repeat a bunch of times.

8. I read the book out loud. I realize it’s not as bad as I thought. I read loudly, dramatically, and with gusto. My neighbors think I’m nuts. They are not wrong. I edit as I read. I repeat this process about ten times.

9. I send it out. And I collapse:

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10. And the process starts over.

 

 

 

The Art of the Talisman

rocksIt happens sometimes, that a book grinds to a halt. In my experience, this is the rule and not the exception. I will be, for months and months, on firm ground and with a clear path. I will be surefooted, bright-eyed, brave. The story stands around me like an unshakable fortress, a cunning edifice, a cozy den.

And then it collapses. And I am struggling with falling beams and crumbling plaster and illogical plans. Without tools. Without power. In the absolute dark.

This is where I am currently. I have been here before. I have erased and recomposed and erased this book more times than I can count (it is a method of writing that I do not recommend). I have promised the manuscript to my agent, to my writer’s group, to everyone. But it is in pieces, and I am heartsick.

(As I said, I’ve been in this place before. I reach in the darkness and brace a joist to a stud. It holds. I check the footings. They are sound. I move forward. Slowly, slowly.)

It helps me to have something physical that I can hold on to. Something that I can touch, hold in one hand, and then the other. When I was writing The Mostly True Story of Jack, I had a map of the town of Hazlewood that I kept in my back pocket. It was a rough thing (I suck at drawing, after all), scribbled on lined paper. I drew stick figures and inane symbols. A church here. A college there. And look! A park. And look! Clive and Mable’s house. And Frankie’s house. And the place where Wendy beat up Clayton. And the Grain Exchange. And Mr. Avery’s house. And the place where the sinister members of the Knitting League knotted their wicked plans. (Those ladies did not make it into the book, alas. They will show up eventually.) Every day, I would take my map out of my pocket and flatten it out on my desk. I would scribble and erase, scribble and erase. Then fold, and slide the thing back into my pocket.

And it helped. Through all the erasing and fretting and re-doing and undoing. It helped to have something to hold onto.

In Iron Hearted VioletI had a leather bound book. To start out with, it had the first draft of the book in there. I would carry it from the park to the doctor’s office to the creek behind my house. I wrote the entire first draft longhand (it was considerably shorter than the final version), and, since I wrote much of it during the summertime, and my kids were home, it meant that it had to come with me as I hauled them from program to program, and it had to come with me as we were camping for six nights deep in the belly of the Boundary Waters, and it had to come with me when we went to movies, or when I was getting my oil changed or sitting at the DMV or whatever. I scribbled on that thing constantly.

When I got to the end, and began piecing the story back together on the computer, I used the remaining pages to write notes and to draw sketches about the history, physiology and psychology of dragons. I drew organs and bones. I drew timelines and diagrams. I wrote speculations and lectures and bits of history. When I ran out of pages, I used notecards.

And again, it was something to hold. Something to ground me.

The book I’m writing now is called The Boy Who Loved Birds, and I like it very much. This is how it begins:

When she arrived at the Dough Lady’s house, Mara carried three heavy stones in her left hand pocket. She’d throw them if she had to.

The stones – all from Lake Superior, near Mara’s home – were smooth and oval and cold. They curved into the heat of her hand, cooling her down. If she brought them to her nose, they would smell of iron and storm and smoke.  If she brought them to her lips, they would taste like the sky. The weight of each stone felt as precious as breathing.

And so I have stones.

Photo on 2013-01-24 at 11.29I keep them in my pocket almost all the time now. Because even when the story is stuck, and even when I go in like a vengeful angel and smite text with sword and fire, even when I erase everything, the person of Mara remains. Her indomitable self. Her sadness. Her rage. Her mistakes. Her slow path to forgiveness.

I love her. She infuriates me, but I love her anyway. And I keep her stones in my pocket as a talisman, as a physical thing that connects me to her, her story to the world. And they keep me sane.

For those of you in creative work, what are the things of the world that you bring with you as you sally forth into the uncharted waters of the the imagination – the dark heart of the Unknown? And for those of you in any kind of work, what are the things that allow you to keep doing what you’re doing? What are your talismans?

Right Writer, Wrong Book

Once, a long time ago, I wrote a book. A mystery novel called Little Girl Blue. I wrote that thing, and re-wrote it, and sliced it and diced it and took it apart and put it back together again. After much labor and effort and care, I wrote up a query letter and sent that baby into the world.

You will never read this book. Not ever. It’s not a bad book, not at all. I just read through it, and I’m still pretty proud of it. But it’s the wrong book. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Now, Little Girl Blue was not the first book that I started. There were other, sophomoric efforts that collapsed under their own weight, or shifted focus so wildly that they had the frenetic feel of seventeen novels crashing into one. These you will similarly never see. These I am not proud of. 

But LGB was different. It was the first book that I had written that was utterly and completely separate from me. It had legs and eyes and skin and hair. It had breath and hunger and thirst. It moved. And of course that’s interesting because it was the first time that I had drawn deeply from my own experience to create a fictional world. Prior to that, my main characters had been fifty year old women or aged ex-priests or drug dealers or Harley riders. My main characters were entirely not me. Indeed, fiction was my way of being not-me, of taking a break from my neurotic, complicated self. 

And, of course, I wrote a lot of crappy fiction. More stuff that you will not see.

In LGB, I wrote about a woman around my age, an ambivalent mother, wife, and teacher. And that ambivalence was crushing her. In writing this book I was trying to unpack an experience I had working at a school in Oregon that had, two years before I arrived, had Aryan Youth protests that got ugly. At this school, there were kids who were on lists, and I was told to memorize them. Kids who were known AY. Kids who were white supremicist sympathizers. Kids who were there when they should not have been. There were key words that I was to listen for and phrases that I was to report and behaviors that should be written up instantly.

At the time, I was twenty five, pregnant for the first time, married mid-way, and just barely getting by. I was in a time of transition, of saying goodbye to the life I thought I was living, and trying to embrace the life that I now had.  It took many years to be able to make sense of what happened that year – of what happened to me.

changed. And it wasn’t comfortable. The transition from single person to married person. Wonderful, sure, but uncomfortable. The transition from non-mother to mother. Uncomfortable. The realization that people can think and do terrible things – and that you’ll love them anyway. Uncomfortable. And the careful maneuvers in a closed society made crazy in its response to crazy things. Very, very, very uncomfortable.

So I explored this discomfort in the context and form of a mystery novel. I poured who I was then into the character of Abby Blue, and she, in turn, became entirely separate from me. And her story became her own story. And her book became real, true and alive.

I still really like it.

So I sent it out.

I wrote query letters and scattered them across the four winds.

I queried wildly, inappropriately, and with gusto, abandon and verve.

And I got a lot of rejections. And then I got a lot of requests to read the book. These were universally followed by another rejection. I got kind rejections and brusque rejections and impersonal rejections and form rejections that mask themselves as personalized but secretly are not. I read through my rejection notes like a medium reads tea leaves. 

I was addicted to my email. Obsessed. I would wake up three or four times a night to check if anything came. I was impossible to live with. 

Finally, an agent (I won’t give out her name, and honestly she likely doesn’t even remember her kindness to me. The best kind of kindness is that which is unaware of itself. The best kind of kindness spontaneously generates. This was the best kind of kindness) wrote me back. She was a known entity, both a mover and a shaker, and well regarded to be very good at what she does. She represented something called “up-market women’s fiction” which I still can’t entirely define (or even slightly define) but it seemed to me that Little Girl Blue qualified. I queried her. She wrote back and asked for the full manuscript. Two weeks later she wrote me back.

“I’ve read your manuscript three times,” she wrote, “and I really like it. But….”

(There’s always a “but”, I thought.)

“There’s a thought that keeps creeping in, and I can’t shake it. The more I read this book – and you really did a good job. The prose is tough and resilient, the characters intricately drawn, the pacing is heart-pounding. But with each page I find myself thinking, “Right writer; wrong book.” If this was your third or fourth book, I’d likely be able to find a home for it. But it’s not the book for you to come out of the gate with. Also, I feel that this isn’t the book you were meant  to write. Write me the right book. Then send it to me.”

I was telling somebody this story recently, and she said, “Oh, that must have been so hard to hear!” But the thing is, it wasn’t. I had been querying and requerying LGB  for months.  I had stopped writing. I had stopped reading. I stared at my computer, all dead-eyes and zombie skin. It was draining my soul away. The moment I read that, I felt a terrible weight lift from my body.

That letter set me free.

The next day I started The Mostly True Story of Jack. And that was the right book. 

My mother asks me from time to time if I’ll ever try again to get LGB published. Probably not, I tell her every time she asks. Because why waste time on the wrong book when the right one is spinning itself, even now on the scribbled notes on my desk, in the stories I tell my kids in the dark, in the quiet glow of my computer, in my wide, wild mind. I’ve learned how to find the right  book – for this writer at this moment.

And for you, dear readers, I hope for the same. I hope that you also encounter a kind person who will tell you if you’ve deviated from the path that you need to be on. The path that you are.  I hope that all of you, perhaps today, will be writing the right book. 

And I hope that I will get to read it.