Processes

Lady Writer

I’m doing this workshop with author Nova Ren Suma. If you don’t know her books yet, or haven’t found her blog, you can follow my links below. She is brilliant, as a writer, and supremely cool as a person.

Nova stuff:

Blog

Goodreads for her books Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone 

Twitter handle @novaren

Someone in the workshop, which is also full of talented budding writers, requested we share our specific writing process. I was formulating my response, and decided it would make a great blog post. Or, a decent one anyway.

The writing process is as subjective as reading can be. There is no ONE RIGHT WAY, just as there is no ONE RIGHT OPINION. By necessity, not desire, I am a very flexible writer. Which is why my process must be discussed in two parts.

New York:

We lived in Brooklyn for close to two years. I began writing my novel sometime in October of 2011. At that point I was writing during my son’s naps. I made my goal 1500 words a day. I usually achieved that, and if I didn’t, I tried to make up for it. (FYI this may have contributed to by first draft’s utter shittiness.) But I completed the first draft at 72,000 words in April of 2012. Then the revisions began, or the rewrites, or the slashings. Over the summer I got a college student friend of a very reliable friend to come keep my son five hours a day, three days a week. Then my son would nap, so I could write more.

That writing took place at a cafe. I wrote, tried to decipher the wonder of Twitter, and blogged, in the bustle. I have learned to tune everything out when writing. (Like, right now, my son is jumping up and down beside me on the couch. I DONT CARE.) Unfortunately, people in my life seem annoyed by my single-mindedness. I have a sibling who now thinks my only response to life-altering news is, “Umm-hmm, that’s interesting.” Followed by the tapping of keys.

We traveled a lot during our time in NYC. I wrote on airplanes, library’s, the obgyn. This meant that I also had to write through my exhaustion, or boredom, or desire to have some fun.

Texas:

(Current writing process, most of the time. Only been this way four weeks.)

Monday, Wednesday, & Friday my son attends Montessori school. I write pretty much the entire time he is there. Sometimes, I make my dear husband go get him from school to eek out a few more minutes. I have a dedicated workspace that may be my favorite place in the world. I have written about it before on my blog here. It’s up a ladder on the thrid floor of our house which overlooks an exspanse of oak trees budding out for spring.

My productivity is shocking in this environment. My husband has recently asked me, (to my standard self-absorbed response) if make-up and showering had gone out the window in the light grand inspiration.

I can honestly say, though, that I consider each incarnation of my writing process to be worthwhile. Being able to write no matter where you are and what is going on is really important. Certain kinds of writing are better in certain places. Certain foods and drink can encourage certain words and emotions, just like music can. I drank moonshine once for character development. (Not reccommended.) But all forms, all processes, are valid.

I don’t plot. I spend a lot of time revising and mulling because of this. At this stage in revision I do plan scenes and subsequent scenes when a rewrite is in order. I do a lot of jotting, and going, “Yeah, that’s better. I don’t want to punch that scene in the groin anymore.”

To each his own.

So, what’s your process? If you care to share.

To Prologue or Not? (And other thoughts.)

Sometimes my brain, my plot, and the route to a decision, look like this.

During this last revision process I began to think a lot more about the techniques of storytelling I was employing in my manuscript. In the first draft — which I completed in May 2012— there was no prologue, however there was a brief and vivid flashback which ran rather long. I had this idea that if I did a prologue I would be taking the easy way out, doing something I was seeing in a lot of YA fiction I was reading. I wanted to find a new way to give this aspect of the story to the reader.

In my second draft — which I completed in late July — I wrote a brief prologue. I was never satisfied with it, but it felt necessary. I felt trapped by this convention, a feeling I really hate. For that draft though, there were other, more pressing issues to address.

Come around to the third revision — which I completed in the first weeks of October — and I found myself at a crossroads. Something about the prologue (I couldn’t tell you, maybe the tone?) felt wrong. I couldn’t help it. It read well, it operated as a prologue should operate, but I found myself dissatisfied.

In the midst of this dilemma, I was also trying to steer the novel away from comparison to a certain massive trilogy many of us love and read. The reason for this was twofold: 1) The comparison was being drawn because of setting, and 2) No one needs to try to live up to that. One of my readers helped me understand, in her very brilliant teenage way, just what was doing this in the early pages of the manuscript. Thankfully, I was happy to listen to her critique. (An aside, finding really awesome readers is maybe the most important thing about revising efficiently.)

Solving my prologue issue as well as the unwanted comparison problem turned out to have one and the same solution. I reworked the lay-out of the book and added a world-building scene to set the tone I was looking to set. Now, will there always be comparison’s we don’t want from readers and critics and people who read what other readers and critics say? Yes. Will I ever be utterly satisfied with every decision I make as a writer? Not likely. Can I accept both of those things? With a healthy dose of petulance, maybe, and a full glass of wine, maybe more.

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

— Stephen King, On Writing

In the end, I hope future readers will manage to see beyond the imperfections that are unavoidable, to the great stuff inside. I believe in my story, my characters, and the world in which they reside. I have done my best to convey that. Now I have to wait to see if I’m right.

Thumper

I realize I’ve been a little quiet the last week, which is unusual for me. I have been in Texas since last Saturday working on revisions and proofreading the revisions I have finished. It’s been exhausting and exhilarating. Why Texas? I am originally from the Lonestar State, and both sets of grandparents live in our former hometown. It’s a great place to occupy my son while I am pushing through to finish my novel. I am pushing through everything right now. Through my tired eyes. Through my aching shoulder. Through the other things I could be doing, and the missing my New York apartment and my sweet son who is happily engaged with his family.

Mostly, I am pushing through self-doubt. I think this is a normal emotion to struggle with in the face of rewrites, and the finish line. I had it nicely boxed up inside the corner of my mind reserved for those sorts of thoughts (my weight insecurities and parenting shortcomings also live there) until yesterday. Yesterday I had an experience I would rather not elaborate, but only say, I began to fear my own talent, the positive feedback I’d received from multiple sources, and the truth that I really, really believe this book is worth publishing.

The reason I will not elaborate is I refuse to be one of those people who wears their heart on their sleeve. I refuse to express my anger and frustration at an individual person in a blog that can be read by anyone. I think someone should put this person in line, but I will not be the girl to do it.

I will, however, be the girl to tell you that you can never allow one asshole’s opinion to affect you for more than a glass of wine and a good cry. I do think you should have that glass of wine and good cry, that is super healthy and smart. But after that, and I mean right after, get your ass up and keep moving. Remember what you know to be true. Remember that you can never please everyone. When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me — with her hands on my shoulders: “If everyone likes what you’re doing then you’re doing something wrong.” She was also the one to encourage me to remember what Thumper’s mother said: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I am still reminding myself of this today.

I am remembering it as I tell you to forget critics and remember only true critique. I am remembering it as I curse those who think they know more than Jesus, and may know a lot, but who can still be blind and foolish enough to make asinine statements in an offhand way. Those people are invited to bite me. I do realize that was not something nice to say and have chosen to say it anyway.

I think you have to find kindreds in your life and remember not everyone will be one. Not everyone is super creative or good at knowing their own mind. Some must be told what they like. Those are the ones who followed the popular girls around school and who now ride the coattails of someone else’s brilliance. There is need for those kind of people in life. I will readily admit that. I will also readily admit that I really, really don’t care to be one of them. But that is sort of off point. I am trying to be edifying.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you too wrestle with self-doubt, remember that self-doubt can cripple you into never putting yourself out there. Don’t let it. Let it wash over you and remind you of your self-confidence, your self-worth, and your uniqueness. (Have a glass of wine and cry, too, if you like that sort of thing.)

The Choices We Make as Writers

from stickynotethinkers.com

I’m grappling right now with choice. I find choices relatively easy in my everyday life. To me, a decision is never the final say on something, so it doesn’t scare me. But when you are writing for a character, making choices can be a little bit more difficult. Most of my major rewrites have involved choices I made that were lazy. I can be a little lazy.

Occasionally. Let’s not get crazy, mostly I’m obsessive and manic. This can be good for a writer. In the first draft of my manuscript I wrote the entire inciting incident without my protagonist seeing it. She was told about it after the fact. I did this for a few reasons.

  1. I was new to writing action and felt a little intimidated by it.
  2. I didn’t really want go there. It was a lot more pleasant to hear someone else’s account rather than put her — or myself — through it.
  3. I didn’t know her that well.
  4. I had fears it would be a jumbled mess.
  5. Lazy ass.

Now, when I had done all that writing (6,000 words give or take, from the inciting incident to what followed) I began to feel uneasy. I knew that this was not good enough. I knew that I was being a coward, but the thought of cutting all of that and doing it over made me ill and need more coffee. Eventually I gave up. I cut, I rewrote, and it is one of my favorite passages in the entire book. It is emotional and nerve-racking and dark. It also prepared me for future massive cuts (the largest being the last 20,000 words almost completely) and taught me how to be a better writer.

That was a choice I made for the audience, and for me as a writer, it wasn’t for my protagonist. There is a choice I’ve made for her, a decision she actually comes to in the end of the book, that I’m not sure I can live with. It’s a bad choice. It’s murderous and selfish and kind of outside her character. It’s also exciting and willful, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. It’s something I’m grappling with right now. What do I do? I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m also feeling rather lazy.

Why lazy? Why do I keep referring to myself as “lazy”? Because I had felt done, at least, done from the perspective of a writer who’s never been published feels done. Then I made the royally stupid to choice to write a synopsis of my novel (something you need for your agent) and it brought to light this potential flaw. Maybe I’m not lazy, I’m just obsessed. Maybe I should take up knitting or start to exercise, maybe that will distract me?

(*I’m just throwing those out as two options. Two, very boring options.)

As a writer we are forced to make choices as our characters. We are forced to get inside their minds and root around for truth. It makes us feel ugly things sometimes. It makes us shock ourselves. We also have to choose when enough is enough, or when there’s more.

Method Writing

There are a lot of different ways to approach writing. I don’t know what they are, but I’ve heard they exist. For me there is only one way: voices. I am prepared to sound totally insane here, but when I sit down to write, there must be a voice in my head. This is my narrator. Whether that voice manifests itself as the protagonist (as with my current work) or an observer (omniscient or otherwise), it tells me where I am going. It tells me who I am writing about. It tells me when I’m wrong. 

Writing first person it has become increasingly important to listen to the voice because she has become alive in me. I liken this process to that of a method actor. There are other ways to approach acting as well, but many of the actors we hold in high esteem are the ones who let the character into every part of their lives. This is a hard place to be — I have no doubt, it’s even harder for an actor, what with the actual being the character and all — because some of the control you have over things, over thoughts, or reactions, slips away.

As I lived the story, dug in deeper to my characters existence and what her journey was about, she became a bigger part of me. Life began to filter through her eyes. The life she was living in my novel, and the life I was living in Brooklyn. I’m not going to lie, this has been a little scary. But it has been the only way. My protagonist is one with a lot of kinetic, anxious energy. She’s one with a lot to lose, and at the same time, nothing she’s attached to. When I had a panic attack in a large department store because I was overly conscious of my surroundings, and the amount people who may touch me, I realized things were changing for me.

For the past couple months it has been this way, and I have had to learn to deal. The question I have is simple: Am I the only one who works this way? My first guess is, nope. Also, I am not looking for feedback on where I can get some good psychotherapy, that will not be well-received. Yes, I know I can shop online to avoid hyperventilating in Manhattan. The upside to this is that I have finished a huge rewrite on my novel and my protagonist is now quiet. She seems to be resting. I am letting her, because this book will have a sequel, at which time I may check into some kind of happy farm. Now, an illustration.

Word — er, Sentence Structure — uh, Choice?

I am profoundly shocked everyday at how one word can change an entire sentence. One word misused, overused, or poorly placed can throw off a piece of prose faster than an entire bad sentence. This is because a sentence poorly written will usually get scrapped, but a bad word can be overlooked draft after draft after draft. Sometimes this occurs not when a word shouldn’t be there, but when it very much should. Like a sentence not quite finished. For instance—

The wind shifted with new breath, but I couldn’t see anyone.

Ok, that is a fine sentence, nothing wrong on the surface, but something about it just doesn’t sit right. So try it this way.

The wind shifted with new breath, but still I saw no one.

Better — maybe still not perfect, but an improvement nonetheless. Now, this attention to word detail isn’t something I come to naturally. Until I began the arduous task of drafting and rewriting my first novel, I was more of a broad strokes type of writer. I believed in the power of inspiration. I was also a screenwriter, which requires less combing. Strokes of genius occur, ( No mater what Stephenie Meyer says, The Twilight Saga could have cut about 250,000 words, or a whole book) but they still need to be fine tuned.

From Small House Pottery.

Writing is a craft, it requires diligence, not luck. It is something you work at, and then you scream about, and then you grab a bottle of dark liquor and lament over, and then you grow a pair and get back to work.Writing is a job, not a vacation. If you are blessed enough to turn your job of writing into an actual job, then I imagine the ball game changes again. But, no matter what, a wrong word can be why someone stops reading. And no one can afford that.

Manuscript One

I will readily admit that I can be a little bit obsessive. Often, this will translate itself into a tenacity and ferocity in the things that I have my mind on. I am a deeply devoted friend, mother, and wife, which can mean anything from worrying about my son’s sleep habits to giving unsolicited advice. This can be nice or enraging.

Last Tuesday evening (as some of you may know from Facebook) I finished my manuscript. I was gleeful. The excitement of having it all out of me and in my computer created wings in my soul. I had a bird inside. I made sure it was backed up and then promptly danced around the apartment with Sam. We looked like this:

Then I realized there was still so much work to be done that my head was maybe going to explode from the pressure. Okay, okay, you can do this. YOU. CAN. DO. THIS. I then looked like this:

My husband’s enthusiasm was not so easily dampened. He began to typeset my manuscript to make it more fun to read. The result was a couple days where I learned the basics of typesetting. (This is fun when there is no pressure, and annoying when InDesign fraks up.) Thursday morning, Sam and I took a leisurely walk through the neighborhood to a copy center on 7th Avenue. This was a fun trip for both of us because the copy center also sold toys. SCORE.

The copy man gave me a discount. He was surprised by the page volume and I guess felt bad for me. Sam wanted dinosaurs. I got a project folder for the manuscript. When the pages were printed and sat in front of me on the counter I felt that rush again. Nerves and excitement, adrenaline and nausea. Now physically in my hands, on paper, looking like a book, I knew a few things even more clearly than before. I knew I would finish the work because the hardest part was already done. The part of pressing through the creating.

I have a full story. No, it’s far from perfect, but it will go through many more stages before it reaches (or doesn’t reach, because there will always be flaws in anything created by human hands) perfection. This too, is OK.

I have been ensconced in editing since Thursday. I’m a little over halfway through the manuscript. I’m cutting words like nobody’s business. There are a few pages — *see below — where I thought, WTF?!? Those pages will become almost unrecognizable. Eventually the words will be right, and then the obsession will turn into something else.

Sample Writing

As I have said, I am working on a Young Adult novel. It’s going so well right now — even though I’m sleep deprived (more on that later)— that I felt compelled to share a little bit with you. It’s not a deeply revelatory passage, but I love it, have edited repeatedly, and love it still.

Lately, my son has not really been sleeping much without my input. This is not something I have ever really responded well too, and I think it’s because I refuse to nap. Even when Samuel was a newborn, napping for me was nearly impossible. I could have been falling asleep at the kitchen counter whipping eggs, but still, no nap. I blame my brain. My brain says, “Night is for sleep, not day.” So, even now, I find myself sitting on my couch in front of the computer writing to you all, and not sleeping an extra wink. That’s OK, that’s what coffee is for.

Now, without any more rambling, here is my little sample. Have fun reading and, as always with a blog, feedback is greatly appreciated:

I look down the long, narrow room and out the window. Earlier this summer,  I helped my cousin cut and haul wood from the surrounding acreage to feed the stove in the basement that heats the entire house. There’s no other heat source since electricity was banned, which makes my room maybe the coldest of all. I hate this job more than milking the goats because it means being alone with him, and being alone with him is generally something I try to avoid.

 My first time into the woods with him was only a few weeks after arriving on the farm. He walked in front of me, taking long strides that I couldn’t keep up with, an axe hung precariously over his shoulder. I kept stumbling over the unfamiliar ground, and I swear I saw him chuckle once or twice. Finally, we stopped and he dropped the axe to the ground. It hit the rocky earth with a thud, sending a tremor of protest through it.

“You ever cut wood before?” he asked, still not meeting my eyes. I shook my head. He lifted the axe, bringing it to the tree with such force I stammered away.

“Eventually you’ll be doing this on your own.” His voice was solemn. I nodded again as a reflex, knowing I would never do it alone. Knowing I would always wish I could.

A few days ago we ventured a little deeper into the woods— as close to the sign post as we could get without touching it. My cousin was lost in thought as we walked, his body not swaying with its normal swagger, his pace easy for me to keep up with. Then he suddenly stopped, slumping his shoulders and turning his eyes to the sky. I watched his face, the scowl he always wore was absent, and I wasn’t sure if I should remind him that we had a job to do. Then he pulled his eyes away from the sky and trained them on my face, searching it slowly.  I saw the hint of a smile light the irises as they met mine. It was so faint that I spent the next days wondering if I had actually seen it at all. 


So, even though I look like this—

Yawn.

I hope you enjoy this post.