Reel to Real

This morning I outlined three new scenes, with notes on setting, stage direction, scraps of dialogue that I know I want to incorporate. This is how I get my pages near the end of a project, when I’ve gotten past the what and have moved on to how. I plan the final scenes beforehand and don’t start the real writing until I can see the action in my head, until I can feel the body I’m writing from as if it were my own. This, then this, then this, no this. The reel goes forward and back, changing a little each time, until it plays out smoothly from beginning to end. I ask myself shrinky questions: What does everybody want? Why does it matter? Is this a bullshit scene that I’ve set my heart on because it’s pretty? Can the story do without it?

Tell me one thing? A writerly tip?

Bash

This weekend I’ve been working on Alice interviews, trying to come up with ways of making myself and my writing appear at least marginally interesting. Not as easy as other people make it look. What makes a person read an interview and say, Aha! I must click yonder and get myself a copy of that book. Send the drone, Mr. Bezos, send the ‘chute or the pony! (Or, you know, just send the file.) I sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to my own ear, so I’m throwing around exclamation points and cracking jokes like I’m selling the latest Stephanie Plum. Ha! Haha! I’m a firecracker, oh baby oh boy.

Anyway. Friday I got the news that my book has received a starred review from Library Journal. I know! I can’t decide whether to drink heavily in celebration or slap on the pasties and prance around the block. Maybe I’ll do both. In fact, this book launch would be a fine time for drunk stunts all around, so I’ve decided to host a New Year’s Eve party with a night-long game of Truth or Dare. People can get in the action while they’re on the town cavorting, or from the relative safety of their living room between drunken rounds of Twister with the bespectacled neighbors next door, or while huddled on the couch as I will be, in a fleece robe and slippers. I’ve got some cool prizes lined up and I’m counting on all of you to take a swig of whatever’s on tap and play with me. Some of my publishing peeps will be here (*sultry wink at Emer, crooks a finger at Michelle*) and I plan on embarrassing them, myself, and anyone foolish enough to take a dare after I’ve downed my third margarita.

The party starts here at 7pm EST, 12/31/13. Who’s in?

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Winter Lunch

Between this pot of spiced lentils and the arrival of the Christmas tree, the house smells scrumptious right now.

999466_1397637213815360_1811409360_nLentils in Onion Gravy

* From Vegan Fire & Spice by Robin Robertson

1 T. olive oil

1 large yellow onion, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp. Garam Masala

1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp cayenne

2 1/2 cups water

1 cup red or brown lentils

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup coconut milk or vegan yogurt

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, cover, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the spices and cook another 5 minutes. Stir in the water, lentils and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender and almost all the liquid has evaporated, 35-45 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk or yogurt. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Serve over rice.

*Comments are off, in order to bossily point you stoveward.

Marshmallows

Yesterday I started a fire in my writing room for the first time since we moved here. I’m a desert rat with little experience in firestarting (which in Vegas usually means flipping a switch on the wall), so I forgot to open the flue. Cue the smoke detectors! Cue the howling dog! And the fits of coughing, and the windows open letting all the heat out. Once everything had settled down and the smoke was drifting sweetly up the chimney, I sat at my desk, gathered up my pages and set them in the box of paper and kindling beside the fireplace. My draft for Blackbird is finished and it’s on its way to my agent and editor, and over the coming days I’ll be burning the papery husk of that work and sending it skyward. Happy, happy days.

I’m fully in favor of page-burning, actually, even before the work is really done. If I’ve written some idiotic scene that clearly doesn’t further the story, or have made a jumbled-up mess of an idea that had potential, I’ll burn the fucker down and start from scratch. I suppose it isn’t wise to destroy your writing, in case there might be something in it you’ll need later on. But for me those tangled pages keep the idea from growing properly. If I keep going back to something that doesn’t work, it tends to make the new thing not work either. For me it’s easier to take the seed of that original idea and regrow it than prune something twisty and try to disguise the ugly stems.

At any rate, that’s what I did with Blackbird. I’d intended the book to be something else altogether, and wrote a proposal which was accepted—though not enthusiastically, it has to be said—by my editor at MIRA. But I couldn’t write it. I didn’t care about the story, I wasn’t feeling it at all. So I burned all those months of work and erased the whole thing from my hard drive and started over.

And this book is far better for it. And the draft is sent. Bring on the marshmallows.

What do you do with the stuff that doesn’t work? Three-point shots at the wastepaper basket? Fireproof safe? Spitballs at the children?

george-marks-woman-wearing-stockings-laying-by-fireplace-low-section

Wet Dreams

Saturday I drove down to Portland to spend some time with my friend Suzy. It was a writerly day, which led (cause and effect?) to a drinky dinner and a discussion of literary wet dreams. We’re not talking reasonable goal-setting here, we’re talking public love letters from Kakutani. We’re talking about the big lists, number one with a bullet and the sort of staying power that would make Harper Lee gnash her teeth with envy. Six—seven!—figure advances. Interviews with Charlie Rose, and Terry Gross, and Jon Stewart, and Oprah—if we can fit them in. Deadlines are looming, we have work to do! We’ve got Kirkus stars and movie stars and a kick-ass blurb from Stephen King. We are beloved by the masses, with just enough haters to give our fans some righteous fuel. We take to wearing sunglasses at night, because those fans can also be a little rabid, bless their obsessive hearts. We can afford to eat organically, anywhere, and never have to wait for a table, and everyone wants to buy us a drink and/or sleep with us because our brains are so fuckably superhott. Fucking Franzen follows our tweets. That’s how good we are.

Our real-life dreams are sedate and sweet and modest. But the alcoholic versions are a lot more fun.

What’s your wet dream?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Passion Fruit

After an afternoon at the Hut, a plate of fried tofu and two pots of jasmine tea, I have 2,000 words, a big fresh scene, tea stains and sweet-and-sour splotches all over my pages, and three new pornographic doodlings. Tits and ass in the left margin, flaccid dick in the right. Never the twain shall meet.

The waitress brings another pot of tea. She never asks what I’m up to, never hurries me along, always remembers to ask if I want a cupcake before she brings the check. I wonder what her home looks like. Macrame and spider plants, yellow Formica table with three tulip chairs, sunburst clock (of course it works!), a spoon rest made of abalone shells set in acrylic, two Ikea tables and a bunch of glass grapes in a bowl. She’s a beautiful hipster, with a long black braid and a constellation of freckles across her nose. I’ve made a cliche of her, which is less than she deserves. I’m sure she has a pencil skirt in her closet, even if it’s way at the back.

You won’t believe what I just wrote, I want to tell her. A big big scene, an earthshaker oh baby oh boy, and you wouldn’t believe what Julian just said to Celia. He wants her bad, you see, he’s pushing hard. He can’t stop shaking her tree. But from my booth by the door I am god, and I say he won’t even wet the tip. Isn’t that a thought, freckle-face? While you’ve been filling my teapot and serving drunken love noodles to the nurses at table four, and setting out the chopsticks, and wiping up the spills and offering passion-fruit cupcakes all around—imagine, you walked right by them time and again. You say you didn’t hear a thing? Didn’t catch the vibe? Really, not at all. Yes, I do look calm. I know, an island of calm, yes, I’ve been told. But my pages runneth over.

Do you write in public? Ever feel like you’re putting one over?

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Suck It

Yesterday I finished my second draft of the new book. Moving right along to draft three, and what I hope is my final pass before someone else takes a look under the hood and reminds me of all the shit I left out.

I’ve hit a rhythm, and it goes like this: I started out with a candy dish on my desk, filled with milk chocolate caramels, each candy representing 1,000 words of manuscript I still have yet to write. Every time I pass the thousand word mark, I take a chocolate out of the dish and put it on my desk. (Or eat it immediately, if it’s 4pm and has taken me the whole day move the needle.) The candy does not budge from that dish until the marker passes another thousand, and I don’t stop writing for the day until I have had my chocolate treat. It’s like a vitamin. One a day, every day.

I get that this is hokey. A writer should write, and word counts are a silly sort of thing to reward—as if it’s only the number of words that matters, not the quality of the writing or the coherence of the story. But I also like watching the candy dish empty, and I like that my system allows for some fluctuation: some days I might finish only a few hundred words, but if they take me from 58,883 to 59,265 . . . bingo! I still get my treat. Other days I may pile up two or three chocolates, in which case I save the extras for days when writing even a hundred words is like pounding sand up my ass. Fuck it. I suck on my chocolate and go for a drive and don’t feel remotely guilty about that day’s suckishness.

This morning I counted thirteen chocolate caramels left, not including the one in my mouth. That’s a lot of empty foil wrappers in the garbage.

Any writing gimmicks you’d like to share? Pornographic reward systems, morning threats into the mirror, incense to summon the muse?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Flags

I drove to Grays Harbor again yesterday. On the way, I listened to my CD of writing inspiration for Blackbird and thought about how my book is shaking down. I’ve made a huge leap forward over the past couple of weeks. Something has come unstuck, and the problems that plagued me earlier don’t seem so difficult now. I just have to keep writing.

Sometimes I lose sight of the obvious. I’ve spent so much time worrying over the voice for this book (nothing brings out my insecurities like trying to pin down a voice), and experimenting with tense, point of view and structure, that for a long while I was missing the point. I forgot I was telling a story. Two weeks ago I took an old index card and flipped it over and wrote myself a note which I’ve clipped to my work-lamp: JUST TELL THE STORY. WHAT HAPPENED? If the index card were bigger, it might also say: Averil, stop looking for gimmicks and pretty words because you’re afraid of what you’re writing. Be brave, Chicken Little. Tell the fucking story.*

 What’s taped/clipped/pinned to your workspace?

*Thank you again, CJ, for the mantra.

The Fog

Today I’m wandering. Out to the lake at first, where the fog had settled torn and silent over the water, and the only sounds were my own footsteps and the jingle of my little dog’s tags as she slipped through the forest, her plumy tail up like a flag to lead the way. I was frightened off the path by a stranger with a bigger dog, and ripped my pants on a blackberry bush trying to find my way back. Afterward I sat in my sweaty clothes, sipping hot coffee and scrolling through my pages to no particular end. It depresses me to see how dark my story has become; you are what you write, and there I am. That’s my brain at work, spinning this psychosexual mind fuck with everyone hurting each other and themselves, everyone dead at the end. And the end is the beginning, which means something today that it didn’t yesterday.

I wrote my quota of pages and wandered into the kitchen with Bruce on a loop, where I made a complicated stew that’s simmering now on the stove. I should be lonely here in the empty house. I want to be lonely. But more than that, I want to be alone—with my ugly thoughts and my nasty mind, and this cast of characters who just can’t seem to get off unless they’re fucking each other over in the process.

I lost my protagonist today. She wandered over to the dark side and I can’t even bring myself to mount a rescue.

What do you hate about your writing?

Backdoor

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

I just finished a memoir about an ex-ballerina who finds God through being fucked up the ass.

Yes, you read that right.

It was gorgeous. Mind-blowing. Dare I say lyrical?

You read that right, too. A memoir about the magic of sodomy—and I liked it. I can hardly think what more to add.

What’s the strangest most surprising book you’ve ever enjoyed?

The Cup

larryscott-707838Sometimes I wish to be a man. Not for long, mind you. My nature and predilections are stereotypically female. I like the view from knee-level; I am happy to receive the sacrament. I can do this with one hand tied, as it were. My corset laces up the back.

Still I wonder what would be it like to crave the texture of a lover’s skin under my hands. To feel my palms itch. To seek, to harden, to invade. Not to feel empty but overfull. Not smaller but big, with a thunderous voice and hair on my chin and a frame that evolves with arousal. What would it be like to look across a crowded room and see the tops of people’s heads, as opposed to the underside of their chins? To speak and be heard. To win a fist fight. To open a jar. Modulate, lest I overpower. To put my shoulder to a door and break it down. Put my fist to a wall and punch it through. What would it be like to ache for the inside of another person, to long for the slide instead of the pressure, to live for the sight without the thrill of being seen. I imagine men seething, always on the verge of spontaneous combustion. One shimmy away from overfilling the cup.

What’s it like to be a man?

Gotham

Photo by Hedi Slimane

Photo by Hedi Slimane

Last week I got some help from Mr. Medicine, my heart-throbby anonymous mentor who swoops in occasionally to save me from myself. How he knows when I need him is part of the mystery, but his rescues make me feel like the girl in a superhero movie: Who was that masked man?

What he seems to be teaching me, on these midnight rides through Gotham, is the art of rule-breaking. I tend to approach all kinds of creative work with the mindset of a craftsman rather than that of an artist, by which I mean that I pay a lot of attention to mechanics and I keep a beady eye on the consumer. This is fine, but it does impose a certain rigidity on my work that can be counterproductive.

Not so, this week. I’ve taken Mister’s advice and am rewriting a chapter near the end of my book which I hope will provide a template of sorts, a new way to navigate the story. Already the flow of events is smoother, more intuitive. Loosening up the structure and looking for more effective points of view has had a magical effect on the tension of the scenes. The story seems loaded with fresh possibility.

Writing is always (newsflash!) hard work. But it’s easier when you leave all your options on the table.

What’s your favorite writing rule to break?

The Drain

A friend of mine sent me this article from The Atlantic, about the ethics of extreme porn and the implications of consent. It’s an interesting discussion of an essay by Emily Witt, which describes the filming of a pornographic video in which a woman is bound, stripped, paraded around and publicly humiliated—all at her own request.

You can read the account for yourself. I’d recommend you go in with an empty stomach and an inquiring mind. (The model is brought to the shoot wearing a sign around her neck: I’M A WORTHLESS CUNT. Things go downhill from there.) Now, while I think we can all agree that a consenting adult in this scenario is better than some horrible non-consensual gang bang, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Every expression of consent arises from that individual’s accumulated life experience, from what she understands of her place in the world, from her childhood, upbringing, and relationships, from the media and the internet and the whole stew of societal influences that forms her character. The model in this video may indeed have sprung from the happiest of families and never known a moment of abuse or insecurity—and hell, it’s not outside the bounds of possibility that such a person’s dearest life wish is to be fisted and beaten and spat upon in public. To me it seems unlikely. But who am I to say?

I’m only asking, constantly wondering, how it all comes about. It’s the drain I keep circling, in this book as much as the last. Yet for all the hours I’ve spent exploring the question of sexual perversion on paper and in my own thoughts, I can’t say I’ve ever had a true epiphany on the topic. The human mind is a vast and unfathomable domain.

Do you tend to write about the questions you can’t answer, or the ones on which you’ve formed a definite opinion?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Mouse

Our friend Laura Maylene Walter has posted a video in which actor Blair Leatherwood reads her work for an event called Stories on Stage. He’s a wonderful reader, and his voice opens the story to a rich new dimension. It gives me a vicarious thrill to imagine what it must be like for Laura to hear her work this way. What a beautiful trip.

I’ve never had this experience. No one has read my words to me, and I’ve never read them to anyone else. I’ve noticed that some writers talk about reading their work as though it’s something to look forward to, part of the experience of publishing, or of attending a workshop or retreat. I can’t really get my mind around it. Public speaking terrifies me, and finding an appropriately non-smutty section of my book to read would be a chore in itself. I have long made up my mind that I can’t do it, won’t do it, will never make the attempt. But I hate the idea of caving to stage fright before I’ve begun, or letting my books down by refusing to get out there and talk about them. I keep reminding myself that other writers manage to get over their fear, that readings and publicity in general are not about me, they’re about trying to connect readers with stories they might enjoy. Surely that’s a benign enough intention. And one squeaky, red-faced spokesperson is better than nothing.

How do you feel about reading your work in public? What do you like to hear from other writers at book-related events?

400full

Cocks and the Hen

-Die-Spieler-by-Ellen-von-Unwerth-german-national-soccer-team-14640010-690-464This morning I wrote a scene I’ve been dreading for several weeks. In theory, not a hard scene. It’s mostly dialogue, a handful of guys sitting around an Alaskan ski cabin, shooting the shit. Dialogue wouldn’t seem to be my biggest writerly conundrum; after all those sex scenes, a conversation not spoken through clenched teeth should be like juggling one less ball, ba-dum-dum. But in this case I feel intimidated by the fictional testosterone. I’m on the outside, the only chick in the room, and in spite of the Ron & Fez tutorial, I find myself at a loss.

For a while I wrote around it. I wrote twosomes and threesomes and fight scenes, some murders, a suicide, and an unkeepable amount of female contemplation. All difficult—newsflash: writing is hard—but I could at least get in there and do my job without lingering awkwardly at the door like I’ve been doing with this one.

But last night I ran out of work-arounds, and when I woke up at 3am this morning, I thought, Fuck it. I’m going in before I get enough caffeine in my system to talk myself out of it.

I wish I could end on a happy note and tell you the scene looks great, that I’ve been insightful, clearheaded, 3am brilliant. Actually, none of those things is true. The scene is a hot mess. You should see the paper, it looks like a hen dipped her feet in purple ink and did the merengue all over my pages. The only thing I can say after my morning’s work is that at least those pages aren’t empty.

So. Onward.

How’s your weekend writing going? You have been writing, haven’t you?

Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by the lovely Erika Marks to play the Next Big Thing. Erika has a new novel coming out this June called The Guest House: “The lives and hearts of a wealthy Southern family and a local family of builders become tangled through several generations of summers on Cape Cod.” You should go read about it right now. The cover makes me swoon.

Here’s my Thing. I hope to have a cover of my own soon, maybe even this week (!!!), but for now there’s just the little intruder in her penciled-on mask.

* * *

What is the working title of your book? Alice Close Your Eyes

What genre does your book fall under? Psychological thriller

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Mmm, I don’t know that I do this so much when a book is finished. By then the characters only look like themselves. But I remember thinking of Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara for Jack and Alice when I started writing, so I’ll go with them.

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

I’m cheating here because I want to show you the back cover copy, which my editor sent last week. She is ever so much better at summarizing than I am:

Ten years ago, someone ruined Alice Croft’s life. Now, she has a chance to right that wrong—and she thinks she’s found the perfect man to carry out her plan.

After watching him for weeks, she breaks into Jack Calabrese’s house to collect the evidence that will confirm her hopes. When Jack comes home unexpectedly, Alice hides in the closet, fearing for her life. But upon finding her, Jack is strangely calm, solicitous…and intrigued.

That night is the start of a dark and intense attraction, and soon Alice finds herself drawn into a labyrinth of terrifying surrender to a man who is more dangerous than she could have ever imagined. As their relationship spirals toward a breaking point, Alice begins to see just how deep Jack’s secrets run—and how deadly they could be.

With haunting prose and deft psychological insight, debut author Averil Dean spins a chilling story that explores the dark corners of obsession—love, pain, and revenge.

How long did it take you to write the first draft your manuscript? Ten months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I’d like to call it the creepy lovechild of Sharp Objects and 9 1/2 Weeks, but I adore both of those books so much that it seems cheeky to mention them.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? When I was brainstorming ideas for this book, I happened upon a low-budget neo-noir film called Following. In the movie, two men break into a London flat for no particular reason other than curiosity, a voyeurism of objects. This idea hooked me immediately, and I began to imagine the erotic possibilities and play with some ideas for how to incorporate this strange habit into a psychological thriller.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest? The book is not erotica, exactly, but there are more than a few drawn-out sex scenes which become increasingly fraught as the characters’ relationship starts to unravel.

When and how will it be published? It’s coming out with Harlequin MIRA in January 2014.

* * *

If you would like to play, or if you already have, leave me a link below. Or copy and paste your answers. Or write them here for the first time. Or tell me to take a flying leap off the Bridge of the Gods because you don’t wanna play, no way no how. I will love you anyway.

Open

This week I’m working on my first scene. I’ve got about 20,000 words written in strategic places throughout the book, which is enough of a framework for me to start nailing down an opener. I’m here at sentence one with a list of possible suspects in my notebook and none of them quite right.

In my last book, I had a clear idea that I wanted to open with the protagonist in a stranger’s house—a stranger who would become her lover. It was the right place to start, but in early drafts my opening was long and convoluted and tried to do too much of the wrong thing. I later tightened the writing throughout, starting with a new first sentence: I am inside Jack’s house. Much better. Intimate, a little creepy, just the right tone for the rest of the book. I finally understood what CJ meant when she told me, Don’t be afraid to write the story. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received, and the one I’m trying hardest to follow. c3b116632f3379e9352888eccd497964

Yet I’m failing at the moment. My first chapter is set in the present, after which the story moves back in time as a triple murder unfolds and the motives are gradually revealed. Because of the unusual structure and the sex and mayhem throughout, it’s going to be important to keep the writing unadorned and somewhat restrained; otherwise, the whole thing will tip into melodrama, the worst of my writerly tendencies. (And the chapter begins with a character standing on the edge of a cliff, so I’m already halfway there.) But instead of applying the good advice I’ve received and really taking the book by the balls as I would like to do, I’ve been blathering all over the page, as if I don’t know what the hell I’m trying to say.

A pretty good representation of where my book stands right now.

What makes a good first sentence? Examples gratefully accepted.

Warp

Yesterday Drew and I made the last of our excursions to scope out the area around Portland and find a new place to live. We made a wide circle through Troutdale and Cascade Locks, over the Bridge of the Gods and home again through Camas and Vancouver. We talked the whole time about where we would go and what we’re looking for in this next house. We have always imagined ourselves in the country, but upon further inspection it seems that our imaginings are not entirely practical. For me, a daily walk has become as necessary as coffee. I adore our park across the road with its paved footpaths, children playing on the grass, the familiar faces of my neighbors and the neverending squabbles of the water birds. Walking alone on a country road—I’m not so sure. And with Drew gone most of the time, I wonder if I’d be uneasy living outside scream-distance from the nearest neighbor. (Actually, I don’t wonder; even in suburbia, I check the closets each night.) For Drew, who’d have to commute, and for Ashton who’d no longer be able to see his friends every day, the country house is probably not going to work at all unless we can find one perfectly situated and within our price range.

So we talked about it. Alternatives are plentiful and so are our dreams. We will reimagine this one and find a way to shape our ideas of what life can be around the reality of what life has become. Maybe happiness today is a quirky little Craftsman in downtown Vancouver, or a split-level in deepest suburbia, or some spiffy new townhouse with a pool and a writing room in the clubhouse. Maybe the lives we’ve lived and the habits we’ve formed are not to be discounted so easily. Maybe reality should have been part of the dream all along.

We got home last night and I sat for a while with my pages, wrote a little, made some notes. My story, which I’m writing to an outline for the first time, is behaving oddly. On the surface, the plot is moving along according to plan. But the tone of the writing has gone very dark. Creepy bits of back story have appeared, and the connections between characters are becoming warped by fear and obsession. There’s a weird undercurrent here, the result of my active mind at work on the inert idea of the original story.

This is the writerly version of dreams reimagined. That pure, clear story, like my country house dream, can’t exist; it has to bend to the way my mind actually works in a practical sense, one word at a time. It has to give way.

It has to die a little in order to live.

How have you reimagined a dream?

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Nine

Within an arm’s length of my laptop, there are nine books about the craft of writing, plus the e-reader I set aside to write this post. Four of the books are to my right, on my bedside table, and the others have taken up residence in the hollow where my husband used to sleep.

Nine-plus seems like a lot to need in such proximity, and that’s saying nothing of the twenty or more scattered around the house, so I ask you: how many books does it take? How many classes? How many teachers, mentors, workshops, degrees? How much learning is enough to make the writing feel legitimate? Does there come a point when you can look at your work and say, Now I can write. Or are you doomed to dog-ear the pages. Break out the highlighter. Memorize snippets of advice or write them out on post-it notes, a paper-tiled frame around your pages. Do you get stuck in your writing and remember how someone, in one of these books beside the bed—or possibly downstairs, which really would involve a hunt—someone knew how to bridge this impossible gap in chapter twenty-four. Do the books pile up when you get frightened? Are they your bossy friends, always should-ing you and urging further thought? Or do you disdain these do-gooders altogether in favor of your own fine taste.

What’s in your writing-book library?

How do we get there from here?

How do we get there from here?

Roundhouse

Our friend Tetman posted this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert the other day, and I can’t stop thinking about it:

You have to write the thing you feel is missing from the world, that’s not on the bookshelves, the book that you would want to read if you’d heard about it, the book that you long for. And you have to be really honest about what that is. You can’t necessarily write the book that will earn you the respect of other people who are the guardians of the culture. Because you appointed them to be. That can’t  be the motive. You have to write the book your heart wishes existed.

You have to write the book you long to read.

This simple idea has helped me out of so many writerly dilemmas, and it helped me out again today, when I reached a scene I wasn’t sure of. To write it or not is about more than the story I’m trying to tell; that it matters to the story is only the most basic criteria. There must also be a craving behind it. There has to be something intense driving me to write not just the book but every part of the book, every page and chapter and scene—and I think that driving force is me, the reader, who wants what she wants. My reader-self loves the darkness. She loves fights and passion and the unwinnable war of the sexes, and misplaced moments of tenderness, long shadows, rough sex and hazy motivations and everyone working his agenda. She loves slaps and kisses and roundhouse punches to the jaw—all in one scene if it can possibly be arranged. My reader-self wants the conflict to surge and retreat a little, then come roaring back. She wants a volatile story with solid words for ballast. She wants me, the writer-me, to bring it.

I am trying my best to write the book my reader-self would want to consume. She’s a needy bitch. At the moment I’m feeding her a three-way in the back row of a seedy theater, two guys and a girl whom the bitch insists on saddling with deep-seated guilt and perversion. God forbid anyone should get along.

What does your reader-self want from you?

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Shake

Yesterday I got an email from my editor. The second revision has been accepted and the manuscript is on its way to copyediting (yay!!!), but the book needs a new title. They’ve given me some beautiful comp titles to look at, books I’ve read and loved, to show me how contemporary the cover design will be. TAPESTRY OF SCARS is not quite right in that context, so we’re looking at other options.

At first my reaction to the news was, OH NO! Oh, please don’t take my title, I love it so! But in coming up with my own list of possibilities to add to the mix, I have to admit they are right to change it. I had imagined the title on a different cover altogether, something with a photograph, some rainy scene, a creepy house with a shadow in the window. But what they have in mind is a stark, graphic, modern approach. Infinitely cooler than whatever imagery had lodged itself in my brain.3773_429051580501857_1324405294_n

It’s an interesting phase of the publishing process. The book doesn’t belong to me anymore, it’s gone from mine to ours, and I find that change intensely exciting. For the first time I’m getting a glimpse of the book from a customer’s point of view. I’m getting a sense of where it fits in and how it may be perceived, how it will look on the shelf, how the title and cover will work together to shape the reader’s expectation of the story inside. The book is not what I thought it was, and it took a little shake-up to help me see that.

Soon the book will exist under a new title and cover. I may not like either of them, I may love them both, but what’s become clear is that the story has undergone a transformation in the telling. It’s ours now—mine and the reader’s. Its meaning changed the minute the book left my headspace and became entwined with someone else’s experience. And isn’t that the point?

How comfortable are you with letting it go?

Draft

Status report: Last week I turned in my second revision for book one; this week I’m returning to my first draft of book two. (Got that?) I’m starting to feel the pressure of the book two deadline and holy shit there’s a lot to do. Since I had to scrap my original proposal and start over, I’m down to around 10K and what I have is awful. Everything is a sketch, so thin the story is little more than a set of stage directions and third-rate pornography.

I was getting a little panicky about this, so I sat down and wrote a work schedule to help me map out a path to finishing this fucker. I realized I will need to have a first draft done by September 1 to stay on track. That’s about 500 words a day, with a rough polish as I go. Then I will have about a week per chapter to revise the manuscript for a read next January.

In other words, I can do this but I can’t fuck around.

What do you need to do right now?

Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth

Low Hanging Fruit

Years ago, when I was working in a cubicle surrounded by women, for a company owned by men, I had a secret: The Ron & Fez Show. It was one of those satellite radio talk shows where men hang out and do awful things and are cruel to each other in an easygoing way (bawlbustin, you pussy, fuckin get over it), where they discuss politics and sports and whatever else comes to mind. Whatever else was often, unsurprisingly, women.

I listened to the program through ear buds for three hours a day as if I were learning a new language. This was how men talked to each other about women, this was what they really thought. Much of it was crude, unformed vituperation—and I’ll spare you the language except to express my shock at this new definition for the word ‘hole’—and some of it was lyrical with adoration. But as the months went on I became conscious of an undercurrent running through the narrative, a driving, unrelenting frustration that seemed utterly foreign to the way my friends would talk about men. This was sexuality through the eyes of the pursuer, a fraternity of incomprehension. They were trying to explain us to each other and failing on almost every level, because the question that seemed to run through every man’s mind was some version of why won’t she?

Only co-host Ron Bennington understood the secret to women. You have to like them. Any man, no matter what he looks like or how much money he makes or how low he’s swinging, will be attractive to women if he digs them. If he thinks they’re funny, and interesting, and cool to be around and sexy.

That’s it, boys. All the advice about women you will ever need.

You’re welcome.

Give me one piece of advice.

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Blackbird

Well. I’m jacked up on new music, thanks to you. I’ve discovered the glories of Pandora and several new artists, and I feel groovy.

Yesterday I finished some work on book one and have set the manuscript aside for a few days so I can go over it with fresh eyes before sending it back to my editor. In the meantime, I’m drafting scenes from book two. It’s a novel called Blackbird—a story told in reverse, starting with a mysterious triple murder and working back through the characters’ tangled relationships to figure out where it all went wrong. With sex, drugs and creepers as per usual. The proposal is approved, which means that I’ve written the synopsis, everyone’s on board with the premise, and I’ve been sent off to write it.

A year ago the idea of writing to a strict outline would have frightened me. I didn’t know how to think about work I had not yet written, so I scribbled all over the place and had to rebuild book one on the ashes of a lot of unusable scenes. But in recovering from that mess I’ve learned how to write chunks of work to fulfill a specific narrative purpose. I’ve been laying in words this way for the better part of a year now and I think I finally get it. As long as the characters are solid in my mind, I can make progress. Like a herd of wild turtles as my mother would say.

I’m going away for a week to take advantage of this unusual state of writerly confidence. I’ll be back when the juice runs out.

What have you learned over the past year?

Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth

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