Eleven peevish peeves:
- People who ask a question so they can answer it themselves.
- And interrupt you to do so.
- And, hearing that they’ve interrupted, carry on talking louder and louder so that your (admittedly cartoonish) voice gets trampled underfoot.
- And don’t provide a lull.
- Or apologize.
- But instead expect you to follow the conversation in this new direction, even though you had something (which suddenly seems crucially important) to say back at number one.
- And this goes on for a while, and your jaw begins to ache, and the thing you wanted to say is tickling at your solar plexus…
- Until you actually do have a chance to respond, only to find that a) you can’t remember the crucially important original comment, b) the conversation has drifted so far from it that your crucially important original comment is now contextually pointless, or c) the fake question pissed you off and you’ve taken your jacks to the corner to play by yourself.
- And the other person, sensing conversational distress, tries to encourage you by asking another question later, on another topic.
- And waits until you draw a breath to speak, at which time that person’s voice seems to issue forth from your mouth.
- Like magic.
Do you ever wake up in the morning thinking, I wish? And the wish is an unformed thing: a screw in the throat, a wash of static in the head, straightjacketed inertia as though the stillness itself is what’s keeping you still. You badly want to complete the sentence: I wish, I wish… What? What precise little check mark can you add to the list of things that are you? And why would it matter? If time is a flat circle, spherical only when we’re living inside it, then so is the self. That rounded empty-fullness in your head only looks like one of a billion polka dots to everybody else; you’re a blue one, I am pink, but we’re all just decorations on the floor of somebody else’s room. What does my unnamed wish mean, anyway, to an Iraqi whore? a lovesick teen? the poor child who nicked her finger sewing buttons on my shirt? In writing we try to dimensionalize the dots. We try to understand. But how far can we ever really go into someone else’s world when the corporeal substance of it is so far beyond the scope of our imaginations?
This is not a question. I don’t have a question today, because I’m tired and my head hurts and I feel like a dot. But you can bounce around if you want to.
So it begins. The book idea’s got a green light and I’m ready to start writing. Over the weekend I put together an outline and began assembling the all-important playlist, and I came up with a beautiful twist for the end of the book that surprised and delighted me so much I almost don’t want to think about it anymore, in order to preserve the fun times I anticipate having when I get there.
I’m a little suspicious at the ease with which this story is coming together. If the others seemed like excavation projects with the plotlines buried deep within a layer of calcified silt, this one is more like an abandoned house in a very desirable neighborhood. The structure exists already, with a built-in mechanism for raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension. It’s got a cool setting. Strange and varied characters. Sex, violence, obsessive love. All my favorite stuff. In fact, the story is so easy and perfect that the only thing I can do at this point is fuck it up.
Maybe I shouldn’t write it at all; maybe I should sit at my desk for three months and just think about it.
What’s the easiest piece you’ve written? Were you suspicious of it? Was the writing a delight all the way through, or only during the honeymoon phase?
This is my week for pissing people off. I had a patient call me saying he’d gone to his appointment at our office and was told he didn’t have an appointment there at all. The girl who sits at the middle desk, he said, was unbelievably rude to him. But there is no middle desk at our office, so I suggested he might have gone to the wrong place and asked if I could confirm the address with him. At which time the dude lost his mind and started screaming, Why would you even say that to me? Do you think I’m stupid? Do you?
Not until this moment, sir.
There’s been a lot of that lately. I’d tell you more but it’s already starting to bum me out.
How do you handle angry people?
“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” – André Gide
I’m not sure whether I should tell you that I have a new story idea. This is number…what? Four? Five, since I finished Blackbird? I do hate the false starts, not only because of the anxiety they create but also because I feel foolish for getting fired up about something that won’t work. Sometimes for comfort I revisit old blog posts in which I have taken hold of and later discarded an idea that seemed really great at the time. It helps, a little. Blogging has made me familiar with my own writing process. It’s a shuffle of ideas at first, then an outline, then a crumpled-up outline, then some random pages and more random pages and more crumpled paper, a veritable forest in my wastepaper basket.
That’s how it has to be, I suppose. You have to be willing to fail again and again. You have to throw all your mad ideas at the wall then search for the Rorschach splat that looks like something writable. I’m tired of it, though, and nervous and tetchy, and I want to be through with all this so I can settle down and write.
How are you feeling today?
You just inherited a dilapidated, crumbling-down grand mansion in the countryside. Assuming money is no issue, what do you do with it?
Aside from living in it? I’d make it a writers’ retreat house. I’d keep one little corner for my family, and the rest I would furnish with desks and cozy nooks, a big round table for meals and a garden out back where we could grow our own produce. I’d keep it a little shabby so that everyone could feel welcome to put up her feet and stroll around in jammies, but I’d be strict about writing hours and would insist you take that ganja outside before you light it. We’d write all day and talk all night, and everyone would have a room of his own where he could shut the door and lock it, and if that writer was on such a roll that he worked through lunch and dinner, too, I’d leave some soup and sandwich on a tray outside his door, with a thermos of coffee and a bowl of cracked pistachios. On more social days, I’d organize field trips and have bikes lined up for the riding, with baskets on the front in case we pass a used book store or a field of wildflowers or someone selling berries for $1 a pint. We’ll make jam! Everybody grab some.
In wintertime, I’d close up shop and ramble around my mansion playing hide and seek with the neighbors. I’d gather my family, fill the rooms with pine boughs and holly, and live off the pickled remains of spring until spring comes again.
I’ve been quiet this weekend, burying myself in Lana Del Rey playlists and reading how-to guides that advise me to outline, or not outline, or begin with a situation or a setting or a vivid character before anything else. I’ve been scouring the neo-noir and the B-list thrillers, trying to find a new jumping-off point. I’ve taken a bike ride and a long walk, smacking at the grass with a stick in case my story might be down among the prickers.
The problem is I’ve got it in my head that this book will deal in some way with the occult. But not the lyrical, charming, Alice Hoffman variety. I’m imagining something heady and portentous, some homegrown voodoo shit involving hallucinogens and ancient cults and effigies burning in the fields. There’s something darkly sexy about witchcraft. The literal bottling-up of passions, the rhythmic intensity of an incantation. You don’t believe in any of it, yet there is something terrifying about its potential; you get the feeling that any woman angry enough to stick pins in a voodoo doll—and mean it—would be just as likely to drive a shiv between your ribs if the magic lets her down. It’s the psychology, in other words, that fascinates me. I’m always interested in the lengths an ineffectual person will go to in order to get what she wants.
What ideas are being stubborn with you?
There are a lot of things I don’t talk about on this blog. My children, for one. My sex life, my job. Diet, health, exercise. I don’t talk about how I went vegan or when or why, because a) this is a writing blog and b) vegetarians tend to sound like uptight lunatics when the topic arises. My kids showed me this video the other day of some vegan on a rant, accusing everyone else of murder and claiming the moral high ground for himself as a non-murdering environmentalist. He looked ridiculous, all spittle and vituperation. I don’t wanna be that guy.
Especially when the whole thing is driven for me by a passion for food. I fucking love to eat. And right now, in this part of the world? Heaven. After work last night I stopped to pick up some peaches, nectarines, apricots and greens, and I made this mad genius salad. People. Words cannot describe the joy of a drippy peach with mustard dressing and pickled onion. My mouth hardly knew what hit it. Even the prep was a sensory joy, which I find is true of vegetarian cooking in a way that I never experienced when we were eating meat. I like the raw ingredients—the plausibility of a sliced zucchini, the innocent outline of a pear. It’s simple stuff and it all makes sense. This grew out of the ground, you put it in your mouth and are nourished. But the alchemy of a perfect bite is still elusive and elevating and life-affirming as it ever was, and I hope I’ll never stop chasing it.
What do you love to eat? (I promise not to pepper you with spittle if there’s beast in it and will probably giggle if you get jiggy with the drippy peach.)
Well, the book concept is a non-starter. Too many strikes against it, too much that doesn’t work and can’t be fixed. But I had a great conversation with my agent, who gave me some new ideas about what might work and how I can better incorporate the things I love about the setting and characters into a novel that stands a fighting chance in pub-land.
Them’s the breaks. I’m not willing—at the moment, anyway—to sink a year or more into something that I know from the outset is going to be a tough sell. Probably that makes me a hack. But my feeling is that story ideas come easy and quick, and I’m okay with including a certain amount of calculation in the process of choosing what to write. I’m okay, in fact, with hacking.
That’s not to say it isn’t more noble to simply write whatever the hell you want to write, New York be damned. There’s a place for that in any writer’s career. Maybe I’ll peck away at this story while I’m writing others, like Agatha Christie did when she turned out Giant’s Bread and Absent in the Spring. I don’t know. I suppose it depends on how important this story is to me, how much it nags, how much time I can cobble together and how much creative mojo. For now I’m headed back to the mill to grind out a better idea.
Do you try to accommodate the market, or do you prefer to write and let the market come to you?
“Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to starting (an activity, a hobby, or anything else, really)? Tell us about it — and tell us about what’s keeping you from doing it.”
I always thought that when I was an adult I’d have a horse. I imagined myself on shaded trails, wading through streams, loping across summer meadows with the wind in my hair and a fist full of mane. There are opportunities to do that now, but somehow I haven’t. I don’t know why.
It’s been twenty-five years.
The dishes are done. I know as much about this book as it’s possible to know without getting in there and starting to write. I’ve planned it, mapped out the arc, amassed a series of (to me) interesting complications, and done some rudimentary research. This book is going to take a good bit more of that than anything I’ve written before, but it can wait. The story comes first, verisimilitude later.
I’m stalling about sending it to my agent. It always feels like offering the breathless exposition of a four-year-old after the latest Pixar, complete with hand gestures and stick figure drawings to illustrate the climax. I try to remember that all stories start somewhere. Other writers use critique groups or have partners or mentors to help them. Everybody needs a sounding board, there’s no shame in it. But for me it’s hard to put the suggestion out there, like, Hey, how about I write this, wouldn’t it be cool? Because it might not be cool. I have a tendency toward wild, potentially embarrassing ideas, and it usually falls to the publishing peeps to break it to me when I’ve come up with something batshit. Then I get all apologetic and awkward, and retreat with my stupid idea trying to work up the nerve to try again with something new.
How willing are you to show your unfinished work? Is it something that comes easily or do you keep your projects close to the vest?
If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.
I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.
- Ray Bradbury
I am here. The new story is crazy—crazy!—and I must be crazy to want to write it. But how can I not try for something that makes me feel the way I do now, that makes my throat tense and my pulse gallop, a story that paces at the back of my mind like a lover, springing forward at unexpected moments to claim my whole mind when my mind should be elsewhere. It’s a madness. It’s not sensible. But this is the sort of infatuation in which you sense something deeper underneath the flirty surface, hinting at some part of you that needs to be expressed though for the moment is inexpressible. All you know really is the agony of not having written it yet.
What makes you crazy?
- What’s the first article of clothing you remember owning?
- What time do you naturally wake in the morning?
- Last sandwich you ate.
- Do you sing in the car?
- Tattoo inventory.
- Broken bone inventory.
- On a scale of 1-10, the heat number on your Thai noodle order?
- Have you ever held a snake? (That’s only a euphemism if you want it to be.)
- Weird lessons your parents made you take.
- What’s your sign?
- Where are your glasses?
- What would you name a little boy?
- What would you rename your home town?
- Can you tie a cherry stem with your tongue?
- Ever been in a food fight?
- Can you swim?
- Have you ever been knocked unconscious?
- What do you like on your toast?
- Is it hard to apologize?
- Look up. What’s the first thing you see?
Today I’m getting started on the new proposal. I’m not entirely clear on how this works once you’ve got a couple of books under your belt and are angling for a new contract, but I’m pretty sure there’s a proposal involved. It’s just a detailed synopsis, really, a new book’s play-by-play, and maybe a couple of sample chapters if someone asks for them. This is one of the perks of having written a couple of books; people know you’re good for the work and will do what you say you’ll do, and they’ll take a look at what you’re working on next. I don’t need to tell you, in this business that’s a really big deal.
So it’s time to start putting the story together. I’m a bit worried because this book is not a suspense novel like the other two, so the structure is not as obvious to me as it has been in the past. With suspense, the story arc forms naturally. Lots and lots of windup, then release. That happens over and over in a thriller—in miniature, scene by scene, then again on a broader scale over the course of the book. I want this literary novel to have that kind of pull, so I’m looking for ways to keep it really tense throughout and escalate the trouble to the end. Not so easy to do without a crime to work around.
What’s the biggest challenge in your WIP?
This is one of those Mondays where I have so much to say that I can’t settle down and put the words together. My life is so quiet generally speaking that when anything at all happens I get an experiential rush and have to start writing in bullet points because it’s all been too much for me. Or, failing that, I just strip it down to the bare facts: we took two day trips this weekend. One to Ballard (shopping), the other to Mount Rainier (nature ogling). More about those later.
The other thing I did this weekend is work through my edits for Blackbird. I have a wonderful copyeditor at MIRA, who did a thorough and sure-handed job with my manuscript, who saved me from myself on several occasions and managed to eliminate the worst of my tics without stripping out what passes for personality in my writing. She simply removed the debris I’d left behind, so that the reader’s path through the story is smooth. And as I worked, a funny thing happened: I kind of fell in love with my own book. I got interested again, found myself reading with my chin cupped in my palm, totally ignoring all the mark-ups because the story itself had captured my attention. I kept having to retrace my steps and pull myself back to edit mode, each time with a deepening sense of appreciation for the work my editors have done on this novel. The structure, the characters, the language, the rhythm—all are vastly improved for their contributions. They’ve taken a disjointed scrapalanche of writing and helped me turn it into something I am glad to call my own.
Thank you, Michelle and Robin. You’d probably call me out on the cliché, but I couldn’t have done it without you.
What are your experiences with editors?
If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
Ain’t that the truth. I spent hours at Barnes & Noble last weekend and came away with nothing. Nothing! And not because there weren’t dozens of books calling my name, but because I had a particular craving and could not find a way to slake it. For every book I write there is a single book already written that evokes the mood I’m hoping to capture, something to return to when I need a dose of inspiration. For this new book I’m looking for something dark and lyrical, third person, romantic and tragic and rustic and slim, something with the quality of a myth but using a modern lexicon, featuring a couple of sexy young things who see it all go desperately wrong. I want to be heartbroken, spellbound. I want to be magicked, beguiled, enchanted, seduced. I’ve got no use for a gentle book at this point; the fucker’s got to drive my whole writing process for months and months, it’s got to have mojo. It’s got to have legs.
It’s got to exist! I’m going back to the bookstore today for a second expedition.
Are you writing to fill a void? If so, what does that unwritten story look like?
Hot damn, people. I had no idea you were so tech savvy. What else are you holding back? Do you play the oud, sew your own clothes, have a minor in dolphin psychology? Can you climb a tree, do a back flip off a swing at its apex? Somersault across the living room without ending up in traction? Do you make chocolate-chip constellations in your five-year-old’s pancakes? Can you operate a lathe? A dowsing rod? A pasta machine? Can you locate true north by laying your palm on the ground, or sniffing the air, or noting the direction of the tree branches on a hillside? Are you the world’s greatest lover, god’s gift to woman or man? Can you fly a plane? Read a blueprint? Recite forty digits of pi? You’re a hottie, smarty-pants, but I’ll tell you what: I can drive a stick shift, read a light meter, and make a chocolate roulade—and my hair, properly treated, dries by itself into perfect spiral curls.
What are your mad skills?
A week ago Saturday my laptop gave up the ghost. That little Mac has been chugging along for so long I thought it would never die. It was the one I bought when I started my photography business, four houses and eight years and another lifetime ago, and in all that time it’s given me nothing but faithful service. Slow, but faithful. It was the ol’ Shep of laptops.
But the time has come to bury the poor old thing, plant a lilac over its grave and bring another puppy home from the store. I’ve been researching and price-shopping, trying to get the hang of all these new devices and see which one might work for me. I need something portable that I can type on, obviously, and watch movies and read blogs and whatnot, so I was planning to get another laptop. But apparently the clamshell design is so 2009. Now we have the iPad Air where you can type on the screen or use an optional keyboard dock. We have PCs where the keyboard swivels around and disappears so you can hold the device like a pad while you’re bumming around in avoidance mode. Some reviewers swear by the touch pad alone and say you can get used to typing without an actual keyboard. Which, I don’t know…
So the question du jour, as I continue my hunt for the new old faithful:
What sort of computer do you work on? Pros and cons?
And, Monday. Two good things happened over the weekend:
1. I wrote an outline for the new book.
2. I found a vegan coffee creamer that I really like.
Of the two, I’m more excited about the creamer. That morning cup of coffee is pretty damn important, and it never did taste quite right without something rich and velvety to stir in. I tried almond milk, coconut, soy—all of which either vanillaed the flavor or thinned down my brew or both. But yesterday I discovered a soy coffee creamer with tapioca in it or some damn thing, and it’s gooood. Caffeine crisis, resolved.
The outline is not so impressive. The story sounds okay—actually it sounds pretty exciting—but outlining it accomplished nothing. This is not a complicated story, I have it all in my head. What just happened is that I wasted a perfectly good weekend not writing. I’m in that stalled-out, chickenshit moment in which you want to write, think you probably are ready to start, and cannot pull the fucking trigger. I’ve been telling myself it’s because I haven’t pinned down a voice or a mood for the story. I don’t know how to tell it. Which is the no-shit, Sherlock moment I come to every time I begin with something new. As if you can come to a project with all the answers, as if you won’t change your mind halfway through anyway, no matter how elaborate the planning. Some decisions you can only make after you have something on the page and that is where I am. This weekend was about stalling via busyness.
What are your stall tactics? Are you in gear or idling?