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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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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Last week, there was a bit of a dust up about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on social media. I did my best to stay out of it, but having stayed out of it, I’d like to address the issue very briefly here and without naming names.

It’s okay to hate my book. Not every book is for everybody.

If you read my book and you hate it, that’s fine. We’re square, you and me. I brought myself to the book. You brought yourself to the book. Perhaps we’re just not compatible. That’s cool.

If you choose not to read my book, because of things you have heard about it, that’s okay, too. I often give books a pass if they sound like something I wouldn’t want to read.

If you choose not to read my book, but then publicly express your hatred for it and for anyone who enjoyed it, understand that your hatred is coming from a place of ignorance. Are you comfortable with being that person? Someone who hates something out of ignorance? Someone who judges people without knowing who they are or what they’ve been through?

On a nearly daily basis, I am called upon by strangers to defend All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. And if they were merely asking me to defend my book, I might not be so troubled, but this morning, I have yet another email that asks, “Why would you write a book like this?”

I suspect that the real question is Why do you exist? Within that question about my existence, there are these questions: Why did you choose to have a drug dealer as your father? Why did you experience things that make me uncomfortable? Why do you think you have a right to tell stories that reflect your life? Why don’t you shut up?

The answer is simple. I won’t shut up, because if people like you have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what you’ve experienced, people like me have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what we’ve experienced. I’m going to keep doing that.

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I’ve seen a lot of writers lately who are bemoaning their failure to write “what publishing wants.” They keep writing books that they can’t sell, and they’re feeling like it’s because what they’re writing doesn’t appeal to agents or editors. I empathize with them, because I am something of an expert on this.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things followed the same path as all my other books. A whole lot of people said, “Hey, that’s something you’ve got there, but I don’t think anyone will buy it.” That continued until two people decided, “Yeah, I think people will buy this.” Completely random. Completely unexpected. A book that was unsaleable for three years became saleable.

I’m not saying what you feel is invalid, when you’re staring at another rejection and shouting, “WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE WANT?” That feeling you have is totally real, and it fucking sucks. What I’m saying is that publishing is a.) random, b.) cyclical, c.) not always great at figuring out what people want to read, either. If they were always right about what books will succeed, you’d never see books flop.

The other thing that I’m saying is you have to love the thing you’re writing and love it in secret. This is particularly true, because maybe nobody else will ever love this book you’re writing. Maybe you’re the only one who will ever be capable of looking at it and feeling joy. You have to love it like a monster baby hidden in the attic. You can’t look around and think, “Oh, look at all these kids on the playground. They’re so much prettier and smarter and less monstrous than my baby.” So what if that’s true? It’s still your baby. Love your monster baby. You gave it life and it needs your love. Maybe it’s never going to see the light of day, or maybe 5 years from now, monsters will be popular, and your hideous baby will be class president.

This is true even when we’re talking about own voices stories from diverse authors. It’s popular lately to complain about how agents and editors are treating diverse books like a trend, but if you already have diverse, own voices novels sitting in your drawer, how is this trend not a bonus for you? Break out those monster babies and send them to all the agents! Don’t dismiss this opportunity as a trend. After all, I used to hear people talk about vampire novels as a trend, but they haven’t gone away, have they? That door is still open. If you don’t have finished books in your trunk, that’s on you as a writer. Don’t wait to write your masterpiece until someone publishes the book that will open the door to your work. Have your work ready when that door opens.

(This post brought to you with love, by analogies gone wrong. And remember, on The Simpsons, they kept the wrong twin in the attic.)

Hugo

Hugo

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One of the cool things about getting book reviews isn’t just having people say nice things about your book. It’s getting a review from a reader who appreciates an element in your book that often gets overlooked.

Recently I got a review from a reader named Gretchen who wrote: “I was wary of yet-another-multiple-POV-story but this is next level sh*t. There are probably over a dozen (or more? I didn’t count) narrators, some first person, some third person, and yet the corners where they meet are perfectly joined. The math of it is impressive. This is hard mechanics but you don’t notice it because it’s done so well. Someone, please analyze this and tell me how she did it.”

There are, in fact, 16 narrators in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

Some of them are integral to the story, at both the emotional center of the book and at the center of the action. Other narrators are observers. People who know Kellen or Wavy in one way or another, or who meet them in passing.

I have always been a multiple narrator writer. The first real novel I ever finished in 2004 had three narrators, and I can remember going to a conference, where three different agents gave me the puzzled dog head tilt during my pitch sessions. Three narrators? Two of them said they couldn’t even think of a successful novel with multiple narrators, and I helpfully reminded them of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I like writing in multiple narrators, but my reason for using so many in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was more than just a matter of personal taste.

I chose to tell the story through sixteen narrators for two reasons. Firstly, I needed a way to manage the impact of Wavy’s narrative on readers. When she speaks, it’s fairly intense and to the point. Putting too much of her voice in the story felt like putting too much salt in a dish.

The second reason for all those narrators was to be sure I was being honest with myself. I’m not ashamed of the controversial nature of the story, but I’m not in denial about it, either. By checking in repeatedly with other characters, looking at Wavy and Kellen from other points of view, I was able to write the story almost like a documentary.

As for how I did it? As with all of my writing projects, I radically over-wrote. The first draft of the book was 200,000 words, and before it was all said and done, I had 280,000 words, which I ultimately cut down to the final published length of 120,000 words. When I’m writing the first draft of a book like this, I’m walking through the story with the main characters, and I’m noting the ways they interact with the rest of the world. I’m identifying people who are “key witnesses,” if you will. Then I investigate them. Not just what they saw and felt about their interactions with the main characters, but what kind of people they are, and how they view the world. For every narrator in the book, I could tell you what they were doing the day before the chapter they narrated and the day after, and possibly the most embarrassing thing that happened to them in sixth grade.

woodworking1Sometimes I think of it like woodworking, but instead of joining one piece of wood to another, I’m building multiple iterations of the same piece of furniture and then cutting out the sections I need from each piece, and joining those together to produce a single piece of furniture made up of those parts. For some narrators, I’m literally writing a novel about them, and then superimposing all of those stories together and choosing where they overlap with the story I want to tell.

For example, I have what is essentially a whole novel about Wavy’s cousin Amy. Not just where her life intersected with Wavy’s, but all the other parts of her life, too. There are other narrators for whom I wrote novellas, so that I could understand how they fit in. Of course, there are also narrators who didn’t make the cut, including a few very important characters, like Wavy’s parents and her aunt. Ultimately, Wavy’s mother and father were too self-absorbed to make the cut–they weren’t focused on Wavy enough to tell part of her story. Wavy’s aunt simply had a habit of derailing the narrative with peripheral concerns, and she did so well at verbalizing her opinion in other character’s scenes.

Ultimately, my goal in the revision process for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was to give every character a narrative arc. Some of them are quite small, and some of them take place off stage, but by the time I’m finished writing a novel, I know all these people intimately and I want to understand how they got here and what happens to them.

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We’re now less than three months away from the official release date of my novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things! August 9th has gone from seeming impossibly far away to terrifyingly soon. Three months away, but twenty years in the making.

True story: When I was about 35, around the time I’d been writing and trying to get published for nearly a decade, I made myself a promise. It was one of those weird, desperate vows that you mostly can’t share with people until either the goal has come to fruition or you’re ready to laugh at past you for making such a crazy oath.

I’d just received yet another rejection on yet another novel, and I thought, “Why am I doing this? Is there any value to me continuing to write? What’s the meaning of life?” If you’ve stared down a form rejection for your third novel while in the middle of writing your fourth novel, you know what kind of existential crisis I’m talking about.

Rather than sink into a depression and quit writing, I said, “If I’m not a published writer by the time I’m 45, I’m going to give it all up and do something meaningful with my life.” Having made such a promise, I felt like I was making a contract with myself, and in true contractual fashion, I had to define what all the terms meant.

I’d already had some short stories published, but I decided that for the purposes of this oath, becoming a “published writer” would require me to have a novel published by one of the big New York publishing houses.

And what would “giving it all up” mean? For the purposes of my promise, I decided that “it” was my comfy, safe life. If I hadn’t published a book by age 45, I would sell my house and quit my day job.

As for “do something meaningful,” that was about as amorphous as “published writer.” After a few days’ consideration, I concluded that something meaningful would require me to commit myself to a greater good, such as joining the Peace Corps or taking a position with a non-profit aid agency that was on the ground, making a difference in people’s lives.

I’ve always said that I work best under deadline, but I’m notorious for cutting it close. This completely ridiculous promise to myself is no different. People, I’m literally coming within three days of having to quit my job, sell my home, and set out upon the road to do good works like some befuddled Midwestern introvert Grasshopper. Close call!

The_wellIt’s not that I’ve given up on doing something meaningful with my life, but I’ll continue to try to do it closer to home, and I’ll keep writing. Now, if I hadn’t made this completely arbitrary deadline, would I have really abandoned life as I know it to travel to a developing nation and dig wells? I don’t know. I’ve done stranger things.

What about you? What is the strangest promise you’ve made yourself? Did you keep it? Best answer wins an advance copy of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

As I continue the countdown to release day, my publisher is also giving away more copies. This is a HUGE giveaway on Goodreads: 50 copies! And it doesn’t require you to give me a little piece of your soul like my giveaway. (But I’m only asking for a tiny piece. Very small. You’ll hardly miss it.)

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The only thing I do with the kind of commitment and zeal I have for writing is home projects. That ranges from repainting all my kitchen cabinets to single-handedly sistering in six sixteen-foot ceiling joists. As with writing, some of my home projects are crazier than others, and some turn out better than others.

Then there are those projects that are borne out of love. Like the ramp I just built for my dog, Josey. About two years ago, Josey had to have surgery to repair a torn ligament in her left knee. I was prepared for the likelihood that she’d need the same surgery on her other knee eventually, and that day has come. The last time she had surgery, which involves four months of restricted activity, including no stairs or jumping, I built a big ramp to surmount my front porch steps. Inside the house, I did something I’d been dreaming of since my divorce: I got rid of the bed that I hated. For the duration of her rehabilitation, we slept on a mattress on the floor, like a pack of dirty hippy dogs.

Now that I have a new bed, though, I knew I’d need a ramp inside the house. Writing is like this. Sometimes you just *have* to write. Sometimes there’s some unseen force compelling you, and sometimes there’s a clearer motivation. Like the desire to sell a book or be published or make a point. Or somebody giving you sad puppy eyes. Not that my agent gave me sad puppy eyes, but she did send an email inquiring about how the next book was coming.

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If, as a writer, you like to make plans, perhaps you start with an outline. Or a fancy spreadsheet. To build a dog ramp, I started with a few sheets of graph paper, and the measurements that delineated the space I had available for a dog ramp at the foot of my bed.

Graph paper! It's practically engineering.

Graph paper! It’s practically engineering.

Now, the truth is: I’m a pantser. In all things. I can draw as many plans as I like on graph paper. I can make as many outlines as I want when I start a writing project. In the end, though, they will all come to naught. I cannot plan a dog ramp any more than I can plan a novel. They just happen.

My first stop for the dog ramp was the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat myself here: if you’re remodeling a house, ReStore will have everything you need. On a long enough timeline. You may have to show up every Saturday morning for a year to get 42 matching sets of antique copper kitchen cabinet hinges, but eventually, you will. Writing is like this, too. On a long enough timeline, you will figure everything out. Eventually, all your research and your work will pay off, but you have to keep showing up and putting in the effort.

When I went to ReStore on Saturday, with my roughly sketched plans, the playing field changed as soon as I saw this:

Game changing chair

Game changing chair

That is one of about ten solid oak, mid-century reception chairs from either a doctor’s office or the local university. This one had some damage to its back, that’s why I chose him to be sacrificed. More importantly, he was basically identical to the original sketch of what I imagined I’d need as a platform for my dog ramp. Sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, this happens with novels. In the midst of struggling with plot or character, you stumble across something that fits perfectly and requires almost no alterations to work. Maybe you’ve got an old short story with the perfect plot twist or a character that ended up being cut from a different project. Note I didn’t say no alteration, but almost.

Chop and chop, and voila! The damaged back is removed and the ramp platform is complete. It shaved about 3 hours of work off my project. After that, I returned to my sketches and ferreted out the basic math needed to cut and attach my ramp struts. And then I had to revise my math. A few times. And I had to change a few other things. And I had to sleep on it–not the ramp, but my understanding of how it was going to go together. My novel drafts work like this. I find myself rearranging parts, rethinking how characters interact, changing dynamics, settings, and doing an awful lot of just wandering around, thinking.

You’ll notice that the two intermediary legs of my ramp don’t look the same. It’s because a.) I tried out two different methods for attaching the supports, and b.) I had two different kinds of hardware available to me. (That’s what happens with home projects made out of scraps–which most of mine are–and novels, which are almost entirely made of brain scraps.)

In true form for me, I also made the ramp (novel) a lot sturdier than it had to be. It has to hold up under a 60-lb. boxer. I made it strong enough to hold me at more than three times that weight. My first drafts are always way too bulky, because I’d rather include redundancies and details that I don’t really need. It’s easier for me to cut stuff later than to try to add things.

Even in a first draft, even knowing that you’ll have to come back a hundred times to reconsider, rewrite, reassess, you want the first draft to look respectable. After all, it has to be functional, and you want it to look as good as you can get it before you send it to your beta/crit partner/agent/editor. For me, that often means making sure my chapter headings are all squared away. (Oh this hot mess here, where it’s not totally clear whose POV it’s in? Don’t worry about that. I’ll fix that. But see how my chapters are neatly labeled and organized?)

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In the case of the dog ramp, well, the parts don’t exactly match. You’ve got the chair base and the raw 2x4s and the random scraps and the mismatched legs, and the ramp itself built out of discarded kitchen cabinet doors with the hinges still attached, but look! It’s covered in fancy (and on clearance) area rugs!

Luckily for me, I don’t think I’ll need to do a second (or third or fourth or …) draft of the dog ramp. The first draft of the novel, though, that’s just the beginning of the work. I’ve been known to churn out a first draft in a very short time, but after that … It took me three weeks to write the first draft of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but nearly two years to finish revisions.

Speaking of, there’s another giveaway going on at Goodreads.

 

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The short answer: nothing.

When I read about writing, I write nothing. It’s not that the reading takes up all my time. After all, when I read about other things, I still find the time to write. I can have a book on 18th Century Chinese commerce on one hand and a novel about an African marine biologist in the other, and at the end of the day, I can still write a thousand words about a bull riding mishap that caused an Oklahoma high school boy to limp for the rest of his life. The more stories and ideas you put in my head, the more stories come out.

The instant I start reading about writing, however, the whole mechanism stutters to a halt. John Gardner, Julia Kristeva, Stephen King, Susan Sontag. It matters not one whit whose wise and erudite commentary on the methods or moral obligations of writers that I read, I flounder.

I don’t even understand why. I only know that it has always been the case. For as long as I am telling the stories of these people who inhabit my mental space, the work is effortless. As soon as I begin to question why I’m telling this story or the implications of how I tell it, the whole thing falls apart and I find myself questioning every word that goes on the page.

What dog hair?

                           What dog hair?

Sometimes I suspect it’s a kind of magic–one of the few superstitions I indulge in. When I focus on the stories as the stories of real people, it’s as though I’m transported on a magic carpet. If I try to look under the hood, so to speak, to investigate thematic issues or narrative constructs, I discover I’m sitting on a rug in my living room. It doesn’t fly. It doesn’t transport me to new places. It just covers the floor and collects dog hair.

When I used to teach freshman composition, my one plea to my students was that after the semester was over they would burn their literature essays and forget everything I taught them. Go back to reading for pleasure, I told them. Go back to the joy of a new story whose ending you don’t know. Go back to the joy of an old story with a familiar and comforting ending. Forget all this dissection and analysis. Forget about what the awkward and grisly innards of stories look like.

Twenty years after I left grad school, I’m still working on that myself. I’m hobbled somewhat by the fact that I now look at so many stories from a writer’s perspective. Like a mechanic investigating an engine, for the familiar, for the innovative. Still, my greatest pleasures are those moments when I read something that makes me forget I’m a writer.

 

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