Tag Archives: writing process

Shiver Me Timbers!

So this is what writing looks like. It looks like me, sitting at my desk, not working on this blog. Listening to the same songs over and over again, watching music videos on youtube (over and over again), racking up my wordcount and drinking massive amounts of good black tea. By the time I’m done with this novel (10k more? 15k?) I will have no more followers and pirate teeth.

This post has no picture because who wants to look at an unwashed, glassy-eyed, pirate-mouthed muppet?

Old Joe

(Okay I lied. Everyone wants to look at that.)

So sorry it appeared as if I had died. I assure you, I’m merely afflicted with the midnight disease and will soon return to the land of the free and the home of the sane. Hopefully with a finished novel.

Oh happy day.

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That Part of the Book

I reached an important and stomach-churning milestone over the weekend, what Neil Gaiman’s agent affectionately refers to as “that part of the book.” Since August 4th I have written 50k words–a little over halfway by my estimates, although, if you take the word of the lovely folks at NaNoWriMo, enough to qualify as an entire book!

Even if all you NaNoWriMo participants haven’t reached this milestone yet, you probably know what I mean about stomach-churning. Every couple thousand words feels like I’m hitting “that part of the book.” Usually it’s after a big event, a major revelation, or anything else I’ve been building up to for a long time. I put a lot of effort into making these tentpoles just right, hit all the major points, end the chapter with a killer line, and. . . .

Fall flat on my face.

Truth is, after all the energy I put into these exciting parts, parts that come after, where characters react, can feel sort of anticlimactic. They tend to sit around thinking, feeling, and well. . . reacting. Pretty boring. If I don’t handle it right, it will be boring, and that means bye-bye readers.

Even more frightening, it’s these passages of reaction that put your skills as a writer and your understanding of the interior world of your character to the test. How characters react to big, life-changing events reveals them at their most vulnerable, before they’ve focused themselves and moved on to the next round of action. What they think and feel now supports what they do later. And if you, the writer, get this wrong, events further on down the line are going to feel flat.

I think that’s why a little over halfway through the book can be so crippling. Everything’s been set up. By now, we’re very aware of what the story problem is, and we should be actively involved in trying to fix it. Not all the pieces may be in place yet, but characters should be gathering strength, preparing themselves for the final push, the final crises, the final desperate acts. Things said and done now justify all those coming things, and messing up now puts them in jeopardy. Those moments are why you’re writing the book, after all. They are the great character-defining events that demonstrate change, the soul of any story. Storytelling is just a form of artistic chemistry, after all, and any deficiency on either side of the equation can result in disaster.

That’s a lot of pressure. And for me, that results in a lot of blockages.

Thankfully, we get do-overs. An infinite amount, or however many we need to get it right.

Go back and click on the link at the beginning of this post to read Neil Gaiman’s wonderful pep talk from a previous year of NaNo. I read it whenever I feel like giving up. Every writer feels like giving up, at one point or another. It happens to me every other chapter. The only solution is, as Neil says, to keep on keeping on. Put one word in front of another. It’s the only way to get it done.

Good luck all you NaNoWriMo participants and writers everywhere! Get something done.

(This song is good for whatever your challenge is, be it finishing a novel or finding your place in the universe.)

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“The Reservation of My Mind”

One of my favorite series on writing is The Atlantic’s By Heart series, where writers talk about passages that have influenced them in some way, usually related to writing. It’s comforting to see people who have found some measure of success doing what I’m doing talk about their journey and process in terms I can understand. It makes me feel not so alone, which is good. Writing, a very solitary activity, can sometimes make me feel like the sole survivor of the apocalypse.

(Already I’ve mentioned this series and had the pleasant and shocking privilege to thank the author myself, Craig Nova, who somehow found my little scribble and commented on it. Sometimes I love this Internet thing.)

Today I read about Sherman Alexie, whose selected quote single-handedly changed the course of his life. (Talk about power.) When Alexie was growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Indians weren’t writers, so he didn’t even consider the possibility of becoming one. He was going to be a high school English teacher who coached basketball, end of story. However, one brush with an anthology of Native poetry, specifically a line by Adrian C. Louis, opened his eyes to the potential he could have if only he let himself realize it: “Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.”

A major theme of this blog has been overcoming a great deal of fear that’s been standing in the way of achieving my dream of publishing a novel. As I chip away at this block, pouring words on it every day for the past year, I’ve started to understand what’s driving me. Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked to realize that it’s the same thing that’s been standing in my way.

Alexie understands this better than I do, so I’ll let him explain:

The line also it calls to mind the way we tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. Half in, half out. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive, and writers are repeat offenders. You go through this whole journey with your prison, revisiting it in your mind. Hopefully, you get to a point when you realize there was beauty in your prison, too. Maybe, when you get to that point, “I’m on the reservation of my mind” can also be a beautiful thing. It’s on the res, after all, where I learned to tell stories.

You know, for many years, I felt very insecure about being a writer—it wasn’t Indian enough. And then, one day, I was on stage and it occurred to me: Wait. I travel the world telling stories. How Indian is that? I’m doing the traditional thing—I’m doing the oldest thing known to humans! Before fire and the wheel, we had stories. Why did I ever let Indians who managed casinos make me feel bad about storytelling?

So there is power in this. I get to pick and choose what the prison means to me, float in between the prison bars, return in my mind when and how I want to. We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

What is my prison? The fear that I’m not good enough. Not smart enough, not funny enough, not pretty enough, not nice enough and not happy enough. Nothing I ever do is enough. And through spilling my guts on paper, I start to see shadows of why. Maybe I’ll never figure it out completely (or maybe I will and that will be the signal that my time here is up), but it’s satisfying to get hints of it, in what I read and what I write. It’s satisfying to realize I’m not all that unusual, that my dreams and hopes and fears are shared by millions of others who aren’t as different from me as I thought.

Because that’s the thing about prisons. They make you feel alone. Kind of like writing. . . . (How Sisyphean is that?)

As a final note, if you want a more elegant description of the craziness that is the inside-out writing process (that I tried to describe here and at least some of you liked), then read author Andre Dubus III’s lovely explanation of what it means to dream a novel, also from the By Heart series.

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Writing Without a Map: In Which I End Up Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be

Downtown Griffin, GA by Amber Rhea

Setting out to write a novel is a lot like setting out on a roadtrip. Everyone does it differently. Some people collect maps and make plans, some have only a destination in mind, others don’t even know that much. For them, it’s the journey that matters, destination left up to the whim of chance.

My husband is a planner. Yesterday morning, when we decided we were going to drive an hour and a half south of Atlanta to one of those wild animal safari parks (where zebras and bison slobber on your windshield), he printed off pages of directions, complete with three different maps in varying levels of detail. Having navigated four weeks of Europe with nothing but Rick Steve’s guidebook and a keen sense of direction, I laughed at his lack of faith and tossed the maps on the floor with the Egg McMuffin wrappers.

“It’s just one road the entire way,” I told him. “Stay on I-85 until you hit LaGrange.”

Forty minutes later, after dissecting the themes of both Breaking Bad and There Will Be Blood, my husband asked what exit we were looking for. And, because my sense of direction is good but apparently not good enough, I immediately started getting a Really Bad Feeling About This.

Two minutes later, we’re pulling off the highway.

“You were supposed to navigate!” he said, frantically pulling up Google Maps on his phone.

“You were supposed to stay on I-85!”

We weren’t on I-85. Not even close. According to Google, it was going to take us another hour and a half to get to the animal park, cutting through what appeared to be a glitch: no roads, no towns, just a massive wedge of nothing between where we were and where we were supposed to be.

(To be fair, staying on I-85 involved taking an exit somewhere near the airport. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to tell him that.)

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This sort of thing happens to me a lot–and not just whenever my husband and I decide to get into a car together. As of late, my subconscious has been leading me down some pretty strange streets.

Writers may know what I’m talking about: make a plan, and prepare yourself to go waaaaay off-course. It’s almost like daring your writer-subconscious. “I’ll show you,” you think in your more lucid moments, while your subconscious is muttering, “We’ll see about that.”

I learned to trust my writer-subconscious a long time ago. It knows what’s up.

Most of the time, when I stare at the screen and nothing comes out, it’s because I have nowhere to go, and sure enough, the more I force it, the more we go wandering around in confused little plot circles. And when words pour like crazy, leading me further and further from my nice neat list of bulleted points, I know better than to try and yank it back on track. I’ve been sucking up stories for almost twenty-seven years now, so I’d like to think there’s a part of my brain that knows what it’s doing.

(Hopefully not connected to the part of my brain that knows where it’s going–because if our little roadtrip is any indication, that part needs some work.)

For some time now I’ve been trying to understand what’s been going on with WIP as of late, and a roadtrip is an excellent metaphor. Since 2007 this thing has squirted out of me in various forms and genres, all centered on one guy who lands himself in prison for a terrible, terrible crime. I don’t know why this guy fascinates me but I keep coming back to him, even when it doesn’t seem healthy or make a lick of sense.

Together, we’ve walked some strange roads, but none so strange as the ones we’ve walked this past year. For all of my plans, my notebooks full of dialogue, plot points, and description, I would never have planned on coming here, never in my wildest dreams thought my subconscious would bring me right back where I started: a fictional version of my hometown in all its illogical, country-fried glory.

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Five minutes after my husband and I found ourselves tragically, hopelessly, and unapologetically lost, we ended up in Griffin, Georgia–a town I am sure you will recognize as the filming location of Sundance Channel’s Rectifymy favorite and arguably the best show of 2013 (which is saying a lot cos this year’s been great for television).

And I never would have gone there of my own volition because it’s way out in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Rectify is about Daniel Holden, a man released from Death Row after 20 years due to some murky DNA evidence, and his return to the southern town of his childhood raises questions about guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness that I recognized the moment it started–same as I recognized the town where it was filmed.

“Oh my god, that’s the graveyard where they beat the crap out of him,” I said, in much the same tone I used in the presence of Shakespeare’s birthplace and Hadrian’s Wall. “I can’t believe it’s right there beside the road.”

And, about two minutes later: “Look at that! That’s the cute little street, with the bookstore and Susan’s beauty parlor. Did they even do any set dressing? It looks exactly like the show.”

And so on, with the gas station where Daniel buys Smart Water and wonders if it actually makes people smart, and the creek, ten minutes outside of town, where Hannah was murdered. “Creeks kinda all look the same, you know,” my husband tried to reason, but I knew better. This was definitely the creek.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, in a town even more rural than mine, what it’d be like to come back after twenty years and try to find your bearings. We moved to North Georgia when I was eight. I’ve never felt like I really belonged. Maybe bringing my characters home helps me define not only who they are, but who I’ve become, as well.

Ray McKinnon, creator of Rectify, might understand. He grew up in Adel, South Georgia, a place probably not so different from the fictional Paulie he created for the show. And like all good Southern Gothic towns, the Paulie of Rectify is a character that exerts a will all its own.

For years I’d tried to set my story of guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness in a town that looked like everywhere but could only come up with a hazy shade of nowhere. It wasn’t until I committed to a real place–a place real enough to me, at least–that my story finally started to come around.

How important is setting to your stories? According to agent and author Donald Maass, a setting with character is an essential quality of breakout fiction. How much of your settings comes from personal experience, and how important is personal experience to your writing in general?

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What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

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“All Happy Writers Are the Same. . . .”

photo from article

Novelist Craig Nova, himself quoting Robert Graves, is the first person I’ve discovered to so accurately describe what happens when I write. The idea is in there, but to even understand it myself, I end up exploring it from every angle. He writes and rewrites until it feels right (or as right as possible), exploring multiple POVs and producing a stack of manuscript pages in the process. I’m glad I do most of my drafting on the computer, because facing a stack like that would surely leave me depressed.

Today I’ve been trying the opening scene from Cindy’s POV–the only POV I’ve never really thought about. Over the past six years, she’s gone from plot device to mother to stupid mother back to being a plot device before morphing into something resembling Gertrude in Hamlet.

Interestingly, T.S. Eliot said that “Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son.” Never once have I thought what that guilt could do for me, even though I’ve recognized Hamlet as a major influence for a couple months now.

So far it’s been working wonders. I got a thousand words out yesterday and another thousand today, with more to come before the scene’s climax. Maybe part of it has to do with the fact that the climax was never intended to go into the book, even though I’ve dreamed it countless times–from a different POV, of course. So much different now that it’s coming from her.

Nova points out, however, that at some point, you have to stop. Endless permutations will no longer improve your work but will most likely make it worse.

Hard to know when you reach that point, though.

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August 29, 2013 · 1:01 pm