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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I have been rather scarce these days, because I’ve been completing a serious revision on my next book. So often, people talk about writing as a mental task only. Soft work for soft people. The people who talk like this have never wrestled 300,000 words of chaos into a coherent story that will fit inside the covers of a book, and make people who read it laugh and cry. Writing is emotional labor, and intellectual labor, and physical labor. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
 
The printed manuscript weighs only eight pounds, and in its electronic form, it weighs nothing. The first few times I lift it, only testing its heft, but before it’s done, I will press, curl, and squat it millions of times. I will lift it until every muscle in my body sings an aria of pain. My shoulders have locked up, and my arms are burning with twenty years of nerve damage caused by this work.
 
Lift with your legs, that’s the advice about furniture, but when it comes to stories, you must lift with your whole body, including your heart, your viscera, the slippery goo of your brain.
 
At the end of this telling, my fingers are raw, my eyes are red, and veins in my legs have burst in protest of the punishment. There is no longer any writing position–sitting, standing, lying down–that doesn’t hurt.
 
So when they tell you that writing isn’t hard work, nothing like ditch digging or fire fighting, show them your wrecked back, your ruined hands, your rheumy eyes, the raw spaces between your flesh and your soul.
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As I’ve confessed before, I’m a very chaotic writer. I start in the middle and write my way out in the most spectacularly messy and unorganized way. The thing that guides me–since I never know what the plot will be–is character development and motivations. As I write scenes, I’m always asking, “What decision will this character make and why?” Sometimes I come up with different answers for the same character and the same scene. As a writer, I have the power to let a character investigate different choices, even if it splits the story in two.

While writing All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, the world split in two fairly early on. In Part 2, Chapter 5, Kellen is presented with a decision that strikes at the heart of his uncertainty about his place in the world. A one night stand with a woman he barely knows, or an evening spent with someone he truly cares about.

On its surface, it looks like such a minor choice. One night out of so many. An act of self-indulgence that nobody could blame him for. Well, almost nobody. But when I wrote that other choice, it changed the angle of so many things in Kellen’s life. It changed so many things in Wavy’s life. It changed the whole book.

 

That’s what’s going out in my newsletter this week: the first part of that alternate version. The one in which Kellen makes a different decision and the planets change their alignment. If you’re curious about how such a minor choice can change Wavy and Kellen, or if you’re curious about how I investigate my characters during the writing process, you can read this months newsletter here, or you can sign up for the newsletter here.

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This weekend while thrifting, I found this little piece of American history: the moon landing. It made me think, as it always does, about the incredible bravery required to undertake a thing like that. I also laughed a little, remembering how I used to get rid of overly pushy guys at college parties by telling them I thought the moon landing was a hoax. This worked in the 80s. I think now you’d either find yourself in a debate or worse, talking to a true believer. (When the flat earth society is a real thing again, there seem to be more and more folks who truly believe in a lot of oddball conspiracy theories.)

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The Apollo 11 plate also made me think about a question I frequently get from readers of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: how did I create Wavy? I always wish that I had a simple answer, or even a complex but straightforward answer. The truth is that my characters mainly create themselves out of the random detritus that fills my brain. For example, Wavy’s name is an amalgam of two real people. I had a great-great-aunt whose nickname was Wavy and a babysitter whose name was Wyvonna. Put those two things together in my head for 40 years, and when a strange little girl stepped out of hayfield to watch a man on a motorcycle ride past, her name was Wavy. I didn’t consciously give her the name. That was just her name, from the very first draft of the first scene I wrote. When Kellen wrecked his bike and sent this little girl to call for help, he asked for her name. Before I knew anything about her, her answer was Wavonna. I also knew that Kellen, concussed and bleeding, heard only the first syllable, and so misunderstood her name and subsequently gave her a nickname that stuck. I didn’t plan any of that or make any conscious decisions about it. It just was.

I know absolutely that Wavy’s grandmother had this plate in her house. Lots of people had this plate, but not many of them would have viewed it as magical. For Wavy, six years old, thrust into a new house again, living with another stranger, the discovery of this plate connected her to her old life.

She was born on July 19, 1969, so to find a plate that marked the day after and marked such an important milestone in space exploration, it seemed like a sign to her. Proof that this was going to be her home, that her grandmother was someone she could trust.

What of that old life? Where did Wavy’s original connection to the stars come from? Her neighbor Mr. Arsenikos, who first taught her the constellations. That connection is very much about the seemingly minor detail of Wavy’s birthday as well. That first day she met Mr. Arsenikos, she was a small girl, just four, and afraid to be at home while her parents fought. Imagine knowing it’s your birthday, but having no one in your life act like it’s important, until you stumble across the old man living next door, for whom that day is also special. As Wavy notes, Mr. Arsenikos was a sailor aboard the WWI-era USS San Diego which struck a German mine and sank on July 19, 1918. The day is important to them for different reasons, but all the same, it creates a bond that is the start of Wavy’s love of astronomy.

That connection is at the heart of why she forges a bond with Kellen, a stranger who wrecks his bike right in front of her. It’s another birthday, forgotten by all by Wavy, this time made special by the universe delivering an injured giant in conjunction with the rare planetary alignment that assisted the Voyager 1 and 2 launches that same summer. For someone like Wavy, it’s another sign that she’s supposed to make that great leap of trusting someone new. She doesn’t necessarily know why it’s important, but she feels it.

This is how characters come to life for me, out of bits and pieces that ultimately fit together and mean something to the character. Rarely do I know anything about a character until they’ve walked into a scene and spoken. (Or not spoken, as the case may be.) It’s part of the magic of writing for me.

(July 19th is also Lizzie Borden’s birthday and the day in 1595 when astronomer Johannes Kepler developed a geometrical theory to explain the movement of the planets.)

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I’ve talked publicly about my hate mail, but today I want to talk about something that continues to give me joy, and renders hate mail irrelevant. Fan mail is great. It’s lovely to get letters from folks who connected with the book and wrestled with the issues it tackles.

The letters that get to me, though, aren’t necessarily fan mail. They’re usually longer than my other letters and emails, because these stories require more words. These are from people who didn’t just sympathize with Wavy and Kellen. These are from people who say, “This was me.”

People who know what it’s like to be in a relationship that everybody else looks down on. What it’s like to be in love with someone who is way too young or way too old for you, according to our society’s standards. What it’s like to lie about that relationship for years or sometimes your whole life. What it’s like to lose that relationship. What it’s like to finally make it legitimate.

People who’ve had to listen while others lectured them. Who’ve been told they must be confused, because they were too young to consent or even understand their feelings. Who’ve been told they need counseling. People who’ve been forcibly labeled a victim, and even as adults been refused even the most basic dignity of being believed.

If you’re out there, feeling those things, you’re not the only one.

When I met him, I was ten and he was nineteen, starts one of the letters I’ve received. I knew immediately that he was The One, even though it took us more than fifteen years to be together.

From another letter: We were twelve years apart and we never got to be together, because everyone said I was too young.

And another: On my eighteenth birthday, I went to his house and said, “I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen years old.” He said, “I know. I’ve been waiting for you.” We got married three years later–it took us that long to bring my parents around. In February, we celebrated his fortieth birthday and our fifth anniversary.

Not all of them go the way you think they will: She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She moved away because she was ashamed. She thought it was wrong to feel that way about me. Two years ago, I found her and wrote a letter. She had been married and divorced twice. She said she never got over me. If I wasn’t in prison, we would be together now.

Some of them just about break my heart. I felt like a horrible old pervert when I fell in love with her. Like in Lolita. She was only thirteen and I was over thirty. We were fast friends all through her high school years, and I always played the avuncular neighbor. She got married in my backyard. I’m her son’s godfather. When she was thirty-two she was diagnosed with cancer. After her health declined, she moved back home, next door to me. One day I brought by food and flowers from my backyard. Her parents went to the store and left us alone together. She confessed that she had always been in love with me, but her mother had shamed her out of saying so on the eve of her wedding a decade before. You can probably imagine what my answer was. Two weeks later, I lost the only woman I’ve ever loved to cancer. There is still a hole in my heart from everything that was destroyed by doubt and fear. I’m seventy-three now, still a bachelor. She would be fifty-five, and no one would give us so much as a sideways glance if we were married.

These are just a few of the stories people have shared with me (and agreed to have shared), and the reason they shared them with me is simple. My book has let them know that they’re not alone. They’re not the only one who has experienced this kind of relationship. Some of my readers have carried that shame or heartbreak or even joy in secret for years.

This is one more reminder that stories matter, especially stories that we see ourselves in. It’s a reminder, too, that writing is risk. When I wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I didn’t know what people would think. I knew that some people would hate the book and me by extension, but I also know the story was true for me. I told it as honestly as I could, and I knew that alongside the haters, there would also be readers for whom the story was true. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

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One of the questions I get asked a lot is How do you choose which point of view to write a scene from? The answer is complicated, because I almost never write a scene from just one character’s POV. If there are three characters in a scene, odds are good that I’ve written a version of that scene from each of their POVs. This is very true of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. I wrote multiple versions of nearly every scene in the book.

As for how I chose which version ended up in the book, that was influenced by several factors: the way characters’ perspectives affected the plot, the way revelations affect character development, and above all, the reaction I wanted readers to have to a scene. With some scenes, it was easy to decide. For others, I spent weeks wrestling with the decision. Perhaps the hardest choice I made was who was going to narrate the events of Kellen’s 26th birthday, or as it’s sometimes referred to: the infamous handjob scene. For this month’s newsletter, the bonus scene from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is the flip side to that birthday, that night from Wavy’s POV.

That scene is split into two sections–Kellen’s birthday dinner and the aftermath. In the published version, both segments are narrated by him, and I made that decision in order to balance readers on the edge of a knife. I wanted them to see Kellen in a new light. I wanted to reveal certain elements of Wavy’s personality that would echo back to other parts of the book. Most importantly, I wanted readers to feel the emotional impact of that night deeply, but I didn’t want to destroy them. Not yet anyway.

Kellen’s telling of his birthday is extraordinarily painful in a way that Wavy’s version isn’t. On that night, he comes face to face with the nature of his feelings for Wavy and with his own failure to protect her. As he hasn’t until that moment, he understands that this relationship that has expanded to fill so much of his life is not as simple as it should be. I wanted readers to come away from that scene feeling winded and a little scorched, and even doubting Kellen. After all, that’s how he’s feeling when it’s over.

I feared that telling the scene from Wavy’s POV would have too little impact. On that night, she is testing out what it will mean for her to become a woman. She is investigating her own powers of attraction and attempting to change the dynamics of her relationship with Kellen. Honestly, in rereading this scene from her POV, she comes off as pretty flippant about it all. She is unprepared for the damage it’s going to do to Kellen. Told from her POV, the scene is not devastating enough.

Conversely, the aftermath of that ill-fated handjob, told from her perspective, is too devastating. Kellen is already trying to calculate the trajectory of this moment, and looking ahead to the future. He is negotiating with himself how he will mitigate the harm he’s done. There is an element of calm, or at least a veneer of calm over his shame and his rage.

Wavy’s horror-stricken narration, however, reveals the effects of childhood full of shame and self-loathing. Naked and shivering in that bathtub, she is stripped bare emotionally to a little girl whose worst fears have been realized: she’s dirty and unlovable. Every bit of confidence she gained from Kellen’s kindness is gone. It left me as the writer feeling ravaged and hopeless. I feared it would do the same to readers, when I most needed them to have the strength to go on.

Having had a little glimpse behind the scenes of my writing process, I’m curious what readers will make of the choice I made.

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Tonight, over on Facebook, I’ll be hosting a live Q & A. If you have any burning questions about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (or any other book-related things), I’ll be answering them from 7:30 to 9:30 CST.

If you’ve been wondering where January’s lost scene is, it’s available exclusively this week on the Book of the Month Club’s blog.

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As we do, I went into 2017 with plans for all kinds of improvements to my life. At work, I cleaned my desk off, and so far it’s produced mixed results. I’m less depressed to come to work, because my space is more orderly, but the cleanliness of my desk seems to invite people to make more requests of me. Perhaps because my work is not so clearly displayed, they think I don’t have enough of it?

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I re-started my home yoga practice, which is almost completely to the good. Of course there’s time for it. There was always time for it.

nyt_bestseller_010416Oh, I made the NYT Bestseller list. Which is not quite the result of any change on my part, but an outcropping of a lot of years of work and several lucky breaks. Or maybe it was all my positive thinking. (Probably not, I don’t really do much of that.)

This week, however, I found a thing that I used to think I wanted to change about myself, but now realize I don’t. When my editor and agent delivered the good news that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was officially a bestseller, they also asked about my next project. Did I have a synopsis I could share with them?

Welllllll … I don’t really do synopses or outlines or any sort of planning when it comes to writing. I’m a complete pantser (which Autocorrect thinks should be panther.) I write lots and lots of words and after I’ve put several thousand of them together, I start to see the shape of a story. Then I write more words. Usually a lot more words. Then out of this mountain of words, I carve the story I want to tell. It’s not pretty. It’s not simple. But I realized this week that it totally works for me, and I need to stop feeling awkward or ashamed about my messy, chaotic process to creation.

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Now, I did produce a synopsis for my agent and editor to look at, but it’s just a big pile of guesses. (Shh, don’t tell.) I don’t know if that’s what will happen in the story I’m working on. I’m okay with that. I used that crazy method to produce All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, and that seems to have worked out for me.

So whatever things you may have resolved to change in 2017, remember there are plenty of things about the same old you that are worth keeping.

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