Arc

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?

via Meghan Davidson on Flickr

via Meghan Davidson on Flickr

Clean-Up Crew

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? 

Talisman

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

~Toni Morrison

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?

Virtuoso

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?

Dog and Pup

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?

Sputter

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?

via Genevieve DeBoer

via Genevieve DeBoer

Ones and Threes

I’m stirring a melting pot of ideas at the moment. The essential story, insistent enough now that I’m pretty sure I’m going to write it, can go any number of ways. Could be gritty or romantic, modern or post-apocalyptic, and it probably could slide into one of a handful of different genres depending on the age of the characters and how I choose to write them. But it will never be a thriller. That’s a problem, since the first two books I’ve put out there are psychological and literary suspense novels, dirty little neo-noirs that play to my strengths and disguise, I hope, a few of my weaknesses. This book is not that. It’s tragic and sexy and full of juicy conflict, but no crime is committed and the story itself is quite simple.

Luckily, I am not well-established enough to be locked into a genre the way the big-name writers are. I can follow the roughly consistent thread that’s been tugging me along since the beginning—dark, troubled relationships—and see where it goes. I’m grateful for that freedom, though at times like these I sort of wish I were writing a series and could just carry on where I left off. At least you’d have the basic groundwork covered: character names, voice, back story, rules of engagement, etc. Of course, you’d also be stuck with those choices, and for someone as impatient and easily bored as I am, that might be a deal-breaker. I’d probably end up staging an epic battle and murdering every last character by the midpoint of book two.

What about you? Any interest in writing a series? Do you like to read them?

Anti-Rebels

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

David Foster Wallace

I’m no student of literary philosophy and I’ve never taken a writing class where such things might be discussed, but this idea interests me. What do you think? Is banality a form of rebellion?

Mascots

I’m late writing today because my son has brought home his art projects and I’ve been busy admiring them. I have a small collection of these objects scattered around my writing space: a clay hippo, missing one ear but redeemed by the most adorable toe point of its left hind foot; a corn-husk doll with twine belt and tie; a 3D extravaganza titled The Dancing Mushroom, made with oil pastels and paint; a sock puppet sporting googly eyes and a felt uni-brow, its sticks held upright between the spines of my photography books; a god’s eye of red, black and green yarn, formed around the architecture of an old CD, with a green mancala bead at the center; a watercolor tree on a washed blue background, thick clumps of grass around the trunk; and the new addition, a piece of soft plaster with my son’s name carved in the top, colored all over with pencil to make it look like a stone.

I’m convinced that all this creativity is good for my mojo. Also, I fucking love the artist.

What artwork do you keep nearby?

Pollution

Over the weekend I tried to start writing the new book, but realized almost immediately that something was off. In planning this story, I had reached to include an element that fascinates me but doesn’t belong, is not essential, and will expose one of my biggest flaws as a writer: a lack of imagination. I can’t do world-building. My strengths lie in the dark realms of character: schemes and obsession and polluted headspace, all manner of malicious deceit. There’s no imagination in that for me, only recognition. World-building is something different and requires a level of vision and planning far outside the scope of my potential. I need to dial it back.

It’s a bummer, because I love the way the story looks in my head. But so much of writing is recognizing the crappy parts of the plan you made and letting them go. Or the crappy parts of yourself and working around them.

What are your strengths as a writer? What are your weaknesses?

Chana Masala

One trip to the farmers market + one trip to the food co-op = one of our favorite dinners, courtesy of Isa Chandra Moskowitz:

Chana Masala

For the masala spice blend:

1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed or chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne

For everything else:

3 tablespoons refined coconut oil

1 large yellow onion, sliced into medium pieces

2 jalapenos, seeded and thinly sliced

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaping tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

3 pounds tomatoes, diced (I mixed canned and fresh)

1 teaspoon salt

2 (15-oz) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 teaspoon agave nectar

Juice of one lime

Cooked basmati rice, for serving

* * *

Preheat a large pan or pot (you’ll need a lid) over medium heat.

Mix up the spice blend in a small bowl.

When the pan is hot add the coconut oil and sauté the onion in the oil for about 10 minutes, until nicely browned.

Add the jalapenos, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the cilantro. Add the spice blend and toss to coat the onions, letting the spices toast for a minute or so.

Add the tomatoes and mix well, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Add the salt, pepper, chickpeas, and agave. Cover the pan and bring the heat up a bit. The tomatoes should take about 10 minutes to break down and get saucy. Remove the lid and cook for about 20 minutes more on low heat. It shouldn’t be too thick, but it shouldn’t be watery, either.

Add the lime juice. Taste for seasoning. Let sit for 10 minutes off the heat and serve with basmati rice.

Anything cooking at your place this weekend?

Rigor

From The Secret Miracle, Edited by Daniel Alarcon:

How rigorous are you about maintaining a schedule?

Anne Enright: My children dictate my schedule—I have done vast amounts since they were born because they keep me from my desk and make me impatient to get back to it. I don’t count words so much anymore, or note beginnings and endings. I work on several things at once, so there is always a file to open and no such thing as a blank page. I like working. What discipline I have comes from the fact that I don’t do any of the other things I am supposed to do. Housework, personal administration—everything else goes to hell. My husband cooks. We don’t starve.

Andrew Sean Greer: Extremely so. It turns out that talent is not as important as willpower for a novelist. It is like training for the Olympics—you really have to do it every every every every day. Not in one ten-hour caffeine-inspired stint every Friday night. Every day.

Colm Tóibín: I finish everything I start and I always feel guilty about not working hard enough but I am not rigorous.

Daniel Handler: I don’t know what else to do with my day.

Rabih Alameddine: I am not rigorous at all. I am one of the laziest, most undisciplined writers you’ll ever come across.

Mehmet Murat Somer: Not much, recently. Previously I was working in a more disciplined way. Now there are many more things attracting my attention, especially on the Internet. I really should disconnect, even cut off my high-speed connection altogether. With any kind of Internet surfing, I end up either on deep, very specific intellectual details or porn. And believe me, sometimes it’s far more satisfying than the planned five pages.

Nell Freudenberger: I’m pretty rigorous now, but I was much less so when I had a full-time job.

Josh Emmons: I’m very rigorous except when I’m not. Writing every day is a good idea and the goal of hundreds and perhaps thousands of writers, and I subscribe to it in theory, but when it’s impossible—when family or work or traveling or depression or illness get in the way—I forego it and try to forgive myself (as with everything, sadly, dangerously, this gets easier over time and should be kept to a minimum).

Stephen King: Plenty. I’m a fucking drudge.

Patience

At work yesterday, I helped two patients fill out their intake forms. The first was an elderly man who had walked to our office from the group home down the street. He was beautifully dressed in button-down and fedora, and when we got to the part of the questionnaire that asks about his grip, he took my hand and squeezed it hard and asked whether he still seemed strong to me. His skin had a satiny thinness, slipping over the bones, the fingernails pale and delicate as capiz shells. He told me about his father, who lived to a great old age, and about his surgeon who said “don’t call me,” and he told me, with exquisite deliberation, how he’d slipped on the ice outside his door and fractured L2. When we got to the end of the form, he asked me to put my finger on the paper where he should sign. His signature crept up the page and became lost, the letters crowding into one another as if to avoid the stiff little soldiers of the text. We worried that he would be lost, too, on his way home, so my coworker walked him to the corner and pointed in the right direction.

The second patient was a pain in the ass. Petulant, gummy, distressingly braless, her face set in lines of anger and chronic pain. I tried to be kind; I know I was polite. She actually deserved my sympathy more than the darling old man in the fedora, who has clearly had years of dashing good looks and is still inspiring female admiration and nurturing. Strange that I couldn’t work up the same levels of compassion for the woman who came in later. Her pain was too close to the surface, maybe, too aggressive, apt to overflow at any moment. I just wanted to get away.

Who have you met this week?

Copy

Yesterday, my editor approved the last of the substantive changes to Blackbird. To which I say, Hell YES! This book is done, baby, done for reals! It’s even got a description for the back cover:

On a bitter January evening, three people are found murdered in the isolated Blackbird hotel.

Best friends since childhood, Eric, Rory and Celia have always been inseparable. Together they’ve coped with broken homes and damaged families, clinging to each other as they’ve navigated their tenuous lives. Their bond is potent and passionate—and its intensity can be volatile.

When the trio decides to follow Celia’s dream of buying and renovating the Blackbird, a dilapidated hotel that sits on the perilous cliffs of Jawbone Ridge, new jealousies arise and long-held suspicions start to unravel their relationship. Soon they find themselves pushed to the breaking point, where trust becomes doubt, longing becomes obsession, and someone will commit the ultimate betrayal.

An unflinching story of ambition, desire and envy, Blackbird traces the events leading to that fateful night, revealing the intimate connections, dark secrets and terrible lies that wove them together—and tore them apart.

To celebrate, Michelle sent some questions for a discussion section at the back of the book. The first of them stuck me as one that I’d love to hear you answer:

What was the inspiration for your story?*

*Thanks, T.

Doodles

I am staring into the abyss: the blank page. I can’t bear the look of it so I draw a line of stitches around the border, a tulip at the bottom, the characters’ names and the name of the town, upside-down and sideways, concentric squares of words with a window at the center and a tiny hand pressed to the imaginary glass. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. Sparrow’s head, arrowhead. Row of spices down the margin: clove, anise, coriander, annatto, sorrel, chicory, cardamom, turmeric, saffron, wattleseed… Doodle of star anise in the upper corner, like a spirograph drawing from when I was six. Wagon wheels in profile. Cobblestones in pen. A sun or a daisy or a mirror or a moon. Is that a metaphor in your pants or are you happy to see me?

Thought debris. What are the first five things that come to mind?

Breakdown

Last night I watched a Dutch movie called The Broken Circle Breakdown. It’s hard to describe the impact it had on me without becoming hyperbolic and using the word ‘best’ one hundred forty-seven times, so I will simply tell you that I cried buckets, thought about it all night, still am thinking about it this morning and probably will watch it twice or more again today. I don’t always enjoy stories told out of sequence, but this one was knit together so beautifully and the performances were so powerful that I found myself utterly captivated and the very opposite of lost. Plus, the music…

large_BROKENCIRCLEBREAKDOWN_FINISH

Dissection

From The Secret Miracle, edited by Daniel Alarcon:

Is there a novel you go back to again and again? If so, why? What does it teach you?

Susan Choi: There are certain novels that, for whatever reason, become inextricably bound up with certain projects of mine, and I read them so intensely for that period that I sort of demolish them. This happened to me with The Great Gatsby while I was writing American Woman. The uncoiling spring of that book’s plot, the awful momentum that takes hold of the characters (and during the torpor of a heat wave!)—these seemed to me like the engines of those fateful cars the characters drive: intricate and powerful but ultimately dissectable, and so I took that book apart trying to figure out how he’d done it. Literally. At one point I had the book in pieces and the pages spread all over the floor. I went crazy. And what did I discover? That Fitzgerald’s seemingly inevitable, flawless plot is in fact deeply flawed. The characters are obliged to do something utterly unbelievable, for the sake of the action, and yet it’s almost impossible to notice this because the writing is wonderful. Moral: great writing is more important than flawless plot. Write well and you can get away with anything.

work |wərk|

work |wərk|
noun
1 activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result : he was tired after a day’s work in the fields. See note at labor .
• ( works) [in combination ] a place or premises for industrial activity, typically manufacturing : he found a job in the ironworks.
2 such activity as a means of earning income; employment : I’m still looking for work.
• the place where one engages in such activity : I was returning home from work on a packed subway.
• the period of time spent during the day engaged in such activity : he was going to the theater after work.
3 a task or tasks to be undertaken; something a person or thing has to do : they made sure the work was progressing smoothly.
• the materials for this : she frequently took work home with her.
• ( works) Theology good or moral deeds : the Clapham sect was concerned with works rather than with faith.
4 something done or made : her work hangs in all the main American collections.
• the result of the action of a specified person or thing : the bombing had been the work of a German-based cell.
• a literary or musical composition or other piece of fine art : a work of fiction.
• ( works) all such pieces by a particular author, composer, or artist, regarded collectively : the works of Schubert fill several feet of shelf space.
• a piece of embroidery, sewing, or knitting, typically made using a specified stitch or method.
• (usu. works) Military a defensive structure.
• ( works) an architectural or engineering structure such as a bridge or dam.
• the record of the successive calculations made in solving a mathematical problem : show your work on a separate sheet of paper.
5 ( works) the operative part of a clock or other machine : she could almost hear the tick of its works.
6 Physics the exertion of force overcoming resistance or producing molecular change.
7 ( the works) informal everything needed, desired, or expected : the heavens put on a show: sheet lightning, hailstones—the works.

* * *

Yesterday at work we were tired. The clinic is busy and we’re all stretched a little thin, and of course when that happens, people get tetchy. I felt myself that way yesterday, especially after a conversation in which I mentioned my second (first?) job—writing—during which someone said that “writing doesn’t count” as work.

Yet here I am at 5am as I have been every day for years. I could be sleeping right now, I could be reading a book or fucking my husband or taking a walk or clipping the daisies, but what I’m actually doing is sitting here at a desk with a marked-up manuscript on my screen and a cup of ineffectual coffee at my elbow—a perfectly workmanlike tableau, surely—and I am preparing to send in this draft according to a deadline, to an editor who works at her own desk with perhaps her own cuppa joe and her own sheaves of marked-up pages, who will then put my project into the pipeline and get a bunch of other people to help us turn it into a book. Really, I’m producing a product of sorts, right? An object? I’m making something and selling it. Isn’t that considered work?

And what about all the days that came before it, when no one was paying me? An apprenticeship, if you want to see it that way, or self-education. But what if no one paid me for my writing, ever? What if it remained a purely a calling, a means of self-expression, an artistic endeavor. I was putting in the hours, god knows, before I ever sold a book, and those hours always felt like work. Enjoyable work, of course, but does the enjoyment nullify the labor? Is it only work if we hate it? Is it only work if we’re paid?

The conversation made me wonder about the meaning of the word: activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result. Isn’t that what I’ve been doing? Isn’t it what you do when you write?

This topic has been raised more eloquently than I am raising it here, but I really want to hash it out again:

How do people take it when you refer to your writing as work?

Via greyandblak.tumblr.com

Via greyandblak.tumblr.com

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