Once I know the next project I’m going to work on it never really leaves me, even when I’m busy doing other stuff (like looking for a car). So it’s no surprise that yesterday as we zipped along the backroads through the redwoods on our way to Santa Cruz, that Frankie and Max popped back in my head. I’ve got about 45 minutes of good thinking time there and I put it to use trying to decide where to start the book. A couple of months ago I thought I knew. I had the opening line even. But yesterday I realized if I started there I would have skipped the day that was different. That day that sets everything else in motion for the story.
“Make it a flashback,” said my husband.
I made a face. ”Or not,” he said, quickly changing his mind. The trouble with a flashback when you’re not that far into the story it’s hard to care about what’s happening to the characters. But if I start with the day that is different, the day that changes Frankie’s life, I worry that the focus will be on what is no longer there than on Frankie and Max. I mean, the day that is different changes things for Frankie but it’s not the big black moment that comes later in the book. I started trying to figure out if the day that the really REALLY bad thing happens is the place to start or not. Would it have more impact if we see the characters in a happy normal life BEFORE the really REALLY bad thing happens? I mean don’t you have to care about the characters for there to be a strong impact on you when things happen to them? Then I thought maybe I’d write the big chapter and then after that would be a page that said six months later or one year later but then I wondered if that was cheating the reader somehow.
In my head I backed up the story a bit more, just one chapter I’m thinking to show the relationship with everyone, lull the reader into a gentle read, (which means the voice would have to be 100% compelling, I’m just not sure. Or I could just write a short scene of the
My husband let me ramble for most of the ride and then ventured another suggestion. “I think you should just right about IT and then you can add a new beginning later, if you want to.” And I know he’s right because it will plunge me right into the story but boy, it’s going to be really tough writing. Another thing to do would be to show the black moment right at the beginning and then go back to the beginning of what led up to it all. I don’t know if that would work or what readers thinking about that type of story. I’m going to have to go to my bookshelves and try to find books were written that way. Right now the only one I can think of is When Dad Killed Mom by Julius Lester
This is just me, thinking out loud, and trying to get brave enough to write about the really REALLY bad thing.
Really, I am trying to get back into the blogging habit and I am trying to not feel guilty when I don’t blog but so far it’s one of those things that’s great in theory but the execution is a bit tough. Sigh. First off, some thank yous. Big thanks to the talented children’s artist Don Tate for all the wonderful words he wrote about Oliver in at his blog. Also a big thanks to for the interview she posted of me over at YA Books Central. Kim writes, does book reviews and interviews, is a mommy of 3 and STILL has energy left to brainstorm great publicity ideas. Don and Kim were two of the very first blog friends I ever made. Let’s see, other updates, is still in New York with getting to know the kids at Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy. Tonight’s the night I will reread Hugging the Rock one more time and then send it off to my editor. Then begins the painful waiting and chewing of fingernails while I await her response.
In non-writing news my car is sick, again (it’s been happening a lot lately) and my husband shocked me last night with the idea that we should buy me a new car. Gulp. And what did I do when he made the suggestion? Did I throw my arms around him, smother him with kisses? No. Goofball that I am, I burst into tears. I know, I know, I’m dingy. After that I DID commence with the hugging and kissing but it’s a bit scary to think about. We haven’t had a car payment in years so that part makes me nervous. I will confess that I won’t be sorry to say goodbye to my Kia. I bought it New Orleans and it is the last negative connection to my not-so-great time of living there, so saying goodbye will be easy. The darn thing is a ’96 with only 76,000 miles on it and the Blue Book, if they actually gave me that for trade in (hahahaha) is only $865. Oh well. Better to be done with the thing. My husband wants me to stick with either Honda or Toyota so we’ve pretty much decided on the Honda Civic Coupe. Since we already have a SUV there’s no need for another sedan. I never have anyone else in my car except for my dog. The big thing to check is to make sure that I can see out of the car okay because I am, well, a wee bit undertall. I’m going to stop by the dealership on my way home and check that out. Whew! Wish me luck. Then there’s that HUGE decision of what color do I want? The choices are: Atomic Blue Metallic, Alabaster Silver Metallic, Galaxy Gray Metallic, Nighthawk Black Pearl, Rallye Red, Royal Blue Pearl, Taffeta White. Hard to know until I see them in person but I am leaning toward white or gray. Maybe I should do a poll?
Oh and that mirage I mentioned in the title? It appears to be Frankie. He and Max are a bit out of focus right now and I am trying not to worry about it.
Boy, I knew I needed my vacation but didn’t realize how much. For the last two nights I’ve slept 12 hours each night. During the week I usually get about 5-6 per night so this has been heaven. Saturday I allowed myself to be a total slug and did nothing the entire day but read and catch up with TiVo. Yes there are revisions to be done but I think I need rest first and then I can bury myself in them this week.
Oliver is in NY waiting to be found. FedEx didn’t deliver him to the right floor so now I will be in a bit of a panic until I hear that the teacher actually has him on Monday. It’s funny, waiting to see how the kids react to him and the classroom activities is almost as bad as waiting for reviews of the actual book. Oliver has also gone off to visit the kindergarten classes at Eisenhower school in Santa Clara, Ca. (Shush, don’t tell the kids that he’s been cloned.)
Frankie is getting impatient for me to finish up with Rachel and Hugging the Rock and get back to telling his story. The title is still in question and the subplot is still MIA but Frankie’s voice is getting stronger. I just hope he doesn’t decide to shut up as soon as I have time to write down his words. I mentioned hearing Frankie’s voice to a co-worker last week and he asked a bunch of questions about me “hearing voices” and came away with the conclusion that I was more than just a little crazy. It’s impossible, I’ve discovered, to explain the creative process to non-creatives. Heck, sometimes I can’t explain it to myself.
Oh dear. I have had the title for Frankie’s book for some time. Almost longer than I have known Frankie but now, now I think, no, I know, I need a new working title because the current one no longer fits. Not even close.
Why? Well I’m not writing about Frankie at the moment (still doing those revisions) but I can’t help thinking about him. A couple of weeks ago I sent a request to an organization about the legalities of how a particular scenario would be handled. I got a response today and it led me down a complete different road with the plot, in a very good way. I have been wondering for some time what it is that Frankie wants, what he wants so bad that he is willing to do anything in order to get it. And now I know. It was right there in front me all along but I didn’t see it until now. It only goes to prove how important research is to your story. And when you don’t know what’s supposed to happen, do more research. The answer could be right there waiting for you.
There are still a lot of plot holes of course that won’t be filled in until I write and rewrite the story but now I have at least the basic story problem. What I don’t have is a title. And that bugs the heck out of me. It doesn’t do any good to tell me that the right title will come to me as I write because I can’t start to write until I have the title. Sigh.
Let the great title quest begin.
Today was off to Santa Cruz day for errands and research. We got a late start so we only had about an hour and a half to wander around and scout out places for me. I knew a few landmarks I would have in the book and I wanted some pictures of them but I can get them any time. I was really looking for where Frankie’s mom might work and most importantly, where he lived. I took some pictures but nothing felt just “right” so I was fairly resigned to another trip and more thinking to figure it out. We took care of our errands and had dinner. After dinner there was still a little bit of light left, the sun was setting but it wasn’t down yet. I asked my husband to drive down to the boardwalk though I knew that was more of a background than an actual setting for me. We dodged the few remaining tourists and suicidal bicyclists, but still, nothing felt right.
“There’s always Beach Flats,” said my husband.
I uttered a very firm “No.” There was no way I wanted to set my story in that run-down scary part of town that was forever being fought over and/or trashed in the local newspaper. No. I knew Frankie had troubles but there was no way he lived in Beach Flats. Nope. Not on my watch.
We headed down Riverside and I’m basically looking straight ahead, not really absorbing anything except the fact that the sun was going down and it really wasn’t an area we wanted to be in after dark. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the sign for The Peter Pan Motel and I got one of those wonderful little shivers. That’s it! That’s where Frankie’s mom works. I did a 180 in my seat to snap a quick picture and didn’t pay attention to the fact that we were driving deeper into Beach Flats.
We turned the corner at the little psychic shop (picture taken, of course) and my idea machine shifted into overdrive wondering if there was a psychic in the book and what that might mean to the plot (that plot that still eludes me)
And then I saw it. Frankie’s house. I KNEW it was his house. It was perfect. Not what I expected but I knew it was the right one. I could see one of Frankie’s hiding places and the porch where Max liked to sleep. I snapped a few pictures but the one-way street was so narrow that I couldn’t get the roof, or a nice full picture. My husband wouldn’t let me get out of the car and said we’d have to go back in the middle of the day when it was 100% daylight. I knew he was right (he’s got all the common-sense in the house) but boy it was hard not to jump out of the car and pace up and down the street. I doubt he’ll ever let me do that.
We zig zagged up and down a few more streets and actually found a tiny park called, appropriately, Beach Flats Park, and some other interesting areas. All in all I shot 63 pictures which wasn’t bad.
My husband indulged me on the ride home with my ramblings and brainstorming about the elusive plot. I do wonder about the phsyic. She? He? could be very interesting, especially if I add in the Tarot card idea. But that set off another whole discussion – if I use Tarot cards in the book some people will be against the book (not that that is a bad thing) and of course, those same people will be against the psychic idea too. Ditto the crystals. Yet all of that is very much a part of the Santa Cruz scene. I know we shouldn’t let society dictate what does and doesn’t belong in our stories, that power belongs to the story and what is the right way to tell that story. But I’ll admit to thinking once or twice that maybe I should just play it safe.
Sigh. I don’t know yet. I have this problem with playing it safe. I’ll end on a high – I finally figured out what kind of dog Max is (after many hours of searching through Petfinder.com) He’s a Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix and he looks like this:
Bedtime for me. Tomorrow it is ALL about Rachel the revisions for her book. Okay, and mailing out some of the publicity stuff for Oliver.
says this is more important than sleep . . . the first line for Frankie’s book. It came to me when I was tossing and turning and waking up the dog. It’s as important (to me) as the title of the book and the name of the main character when it comes to getting started.
I know….I should be thinking Rachel, verse poems, and finishing revisions. But there he was, hiding, and the line came to me and I knew I was seeing the opening scene to Frankie’s book. One doesn’t turn away gifts such as these.
Of course I wish the ASPCA would answer my request for information about a situation so I would know what to do with another scene. And then, sometime in the way dark middle of the night, I wondered if Frankie really had a sister at all. Whoa – now that shocked me even more awake. Last thing I remember before I grabbed an hour’s nap was wondering why someone who lived in such a fancy house was stealing food.
Frustrating but not devastating sorts of things: Ordered some “props” for Traveling Oliver
The house is completely trashed with my clutter all over the place but there won’t be any cleaning going on around here until I get the revisions done. (Thank you to my indulgent husband for putting up with it and cooking for me and making sure that I get something to eat every night.) All the publicity stuff has come to a halt too. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day when I have to do the day job thing – not whining, just stating facts. I make notes of things to do and leave them at home. Then I make new ones at work with different things on them and forget them at work.
I’m looking forward to going to Santa Cruz on Saturday and even though I can’t work on Frankie’s book I can take some pictures of his neighborhood.
Please let me sleep more than 2 consecutive hours tonight. I need it.
Today is going to be better than yesterday. I so deem it or is that supposed to be I deem it so? Lack of sleep notwithstanding, of course. Yawn.
In non-writing news we went to go visit my brother-in-law’s brand new 6 week old puppy (German Shepherd). Poor guy had ordered one from a breeder back east who, at the last minute, decided to sell the pup to someone else. Luckily he found a more local breeder and picked his new baby (still nameless) up this weekend. She’s adorable but I’m reminded of how much work a new puppy is (kinda like a new baby). Before we went over there I thought I would come home with puppy envy and want to get another pup right away (which is silly because Chelsie, the current dog in residence – would not tolerate another dog in the house at all and she still has many years with us.) Anyway, it was good to know that neither my husband nor I had any desire for a pup. More dogs, yes, but when Chelsie is gone we both prefer the idea of a rescue dog or two.
I can link this to writing, really, because I am trying to figure out what kind of dog Max might be. I thought I knew but now I’m not so sure. I will have to go look at rescue dogs online and try and figure it out. I started mapping out Frankie’s neighborhood yesterday, figuring out what streets would be normal for him to run around on. Since this is based in a real town I went looking for landmarks and got all excited when I found a low-income housing project right in the area. It was perfect. But then the more I read about it the more I learned how much trouble the area was having with gangs and now I don’t know if I want or should use it. This book is writing itself in a completely different way than anything else. I’ve never done so much thinking ahead of time, I’ve usually just plunged in and wrote but I am still in that limbo-land knowing I have to do the Hugging the Rock revisions soon. (The revision letter is due today – we’ll see.) But the thinking is good. I’ve been able to discard a bunch of stuff plot-wise that either doesn’t work or doesn’t interest me and hopefully I have primed the subconscious pump to be working in the background. Time will tell.
Whew. The entire weekend was spent doing almost nothing but publicity stuff. I can’t say that it is all done but at least it is closer to being done. I’m getting ready to do my postcard mailing plus a bunch of review copies of Oliver need to go out. And if I am sending a review copy I need to send a press kit and mine was woefully out of date and missing stuff. At least now all the master copies are done, a bunch printed out, and tomorrow night after work I can stuff and address envelopes. I still need to finish my list of schools to mail to but that will have to wait a little long. I wish I could afford to pay for some help with this kind of thing but it is hard for me to rationalize spending money on things like that. Oliver’s traveling bags are just about ready too. One or two more items to tuck into them and I can cross that off MY to-do list.
The office is approaching being done. The new curtains that had to be hemmed will be ready this week. I went to the Container Store and bought all kinds of neat storage boxes. If I had a couple more days in my weekend I might even get it finished but alas, it’s back to work in the morning.
Writing update: Frankie doesn’t trust people being nice to him. I don’t blame him. Dr. M might be a friend. Also RD. Max is still sick.
Me. I’m off for bed, perchance to dream.
Color me tired. My house is 3 houses from the sound wall for the freeway. The freeway isn’t much traveled at night and, actually, for the last year we’ve been really pleased with how quiet this house is. Until last night. Oh my gosh! CalTrans – the company that does the California state road repairs, must have been working on some stretch of 85 last night because about 10:30 some big machinerary started up REALLY LOUD and kept it up until 4am this morning. Since I get up at 5, well, let’s just say I had a lot of time to think about my WIP. It’s a good thing today is Friday because I know that by noon, I will be barely able to hold myself up at the keyboard. Yawn.
On the publicity side of things,
And I think Oliver “might” have his first visit all on his own real soon. I should know something next week.
Writing progress? Like I said, lots of thinking time last night. I know something happened at the amusement park and I’m not looking forward to that research. And there’s a dentist, who would have thunk it? Frankie said he needs a bike.
Since I’m in the thinking hard about a lot of things part of this new book I knew that the setting was important for me to know before I could really dig in and write very far. I had the title (can’t start to write without one), had the MC name (also can’t start to write without one), and I was thinking about place and the other characters in the book but nothing felt grounded in a location that seemed right for the story. Until yesterday. When Frankie ate a piece of chocolate and I knew where he got it, how it he got, and where his story would take place. I got that wonderful, hard-to-describe but physical feeling when you know something is right. From that piece of chocolate I learned where Frankie lived. I knew one of his hiding places. I knew two people who befriended him. And I learned what really happened to his little sister. There’s a lot still to learn and that will come in the writing of the story, but having this place, this perfect place for the story to take place, puts it all into prespective.
Because the topic of my current WIP is less than pleasant and deals with some not very nice things happening to some pretty nice kids, well, it’s hard to write. I’ve always had a difficult time putting my characters into peril for a scene or two but this story feels like I am on a runaway train. I don’t even know anyone that has had these sorts of things happen to them so I don’t know where Frankie and his story comes from. I worry, as many writers do, that people (non-writers) will think the story is about my life. I worry, as many writers also do, that I won’t do the story justice.
To pump myself up I’ve been rereading some of my past writings about fear and emotional honesty in our writing. For me at least the two seem to go hand in hand. When I do it right – when I dismiss the editor on my shoulder and silence the critical voices in my head, when I shut my eyes, open my heart and let myself feel EVERYTHING, when I peel back the skin of the story and write with emotional honesty -writing scares the hell out of me. Everything I think and feel is right out there in the open for the world to see and that’s a terrifying and often paralyzing thought. But that’s what good writing does, splits you wide open and spills you into the world covered in nothing but guts and raw emotion.
I have to remind myself of this all the time, that my voice comes from honest emotion. But it’s hard. Excruciatingly hard. Because once the words are out there for the world to see people will make judgements about the person behind the words. They can’t help it and that fact intimidates a lot of writers (like me) to the point that much of what they write comes out sounding unbelievable.
So how does a writer do it? How do you move beyond playing it safe with your writing and move to new ground? Is it a matter of guts? Of instinct? Of a writing group with a really good cattle prod? Do you tie yourself in the chair and not let your spouse untie you until you’ve completed a certain number of pages? Lately it seems the more I try NOT to do it the more the fear and emotion come gushing forth. I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, and I realize it is because I saw Frankie and I knew what was going to happen to him, and knew there wasn’t a thing I could do to help him.
When I teach, I encourage my students to tap into their own emotional experiences and then channel that emotion into their stories. I try to do the same with my own work. My middle grade novel, Hugging the Rock, didn’t really come to life until I let myself feel the true depth of negative emotions I still carry about growing up without a father. The novel isn’t about that, it’s about a girl who stays with her father after a divorce and how the two of them build a new relationship together. But I allowed the pain of not having a father during those growing-up years to surface and then poured that emotion into the main character’s feelings about her mother during the divorce. I relived the longing for a father and the uncertainty of what having a father meant and used those emotions to fuel my character as she worked through her own new relationship with her father. The result? A character you can care about. A story that makes people cry because of the honest emotion. A book that people tell me rings true. Was it easy? No way. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
What can I tap into this time? The same pain, yes, but Frankie’s pain is different. His pain comes from a pain of only wanted to be loved and not understanding why the people who were supposed to love him hurt him instead. His pain comes from a feeling of helplessness that he doesn’t have the power to change his life. His pain comes from the belief that somehow he deserves all the bad things that are happening for him. When I see it listed out like that of course I know just what I have to tap into to tell the story but boy, I don’t want to go back to that dark place. It’s like standing outside the door to a cage and you know the monster is in the cage and you know you have to get into the cage and face the monster.
All creating, writing or music or art, all creative work demands courage from the creator. In order to write believable fiction we often have to be willing to bleed on paper. Go ahead and let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel every emotion – the pain, the anger, the longing, the laughter, the love. Let it bubble up until it boils over and then pour it into your writing. Rollo May, in his book Courage to Create, says, “If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution.” Because of who you are and what you have experience, there are stories only you can tell. Feel the fear, dig deep and start writing.
Here I go – into the cage.
Received the first review for Oliver’s Must-Do List yesterday. It was with Kirkus and since they are famous for their zingers I feel I have dodged the bullet. They only had a minor quibble with the illustrations which is fine because I think it is more of a style thing. (Others have said they really like the illustrations.) I can only share about 20 words for fair use which makes it hard to decide what to use for quotes. Right now I am leaning toward:
Adorable…a heart warmer.”–Kirkus Reviews
Color me happy even if Starbucks forgot the whipped cream in my mocha this morning.
Writing progress: Frankie is one smart kid, Max likes pickles, and I know enough about his sister to make my stomach hurt.
Saturday night I went to Books, Inc at the invitation of the wonderfully enthusiastic
Even more interesting was my husband’s reaction. (It was thanks to him driving me into the city that I even got to hear Chris because I don’t drive in San Francisco.) When we got in the car to go home and were discussing some things that had been said, my husband said, “You know that part when . . .” And it was the very part where I had had the intense reaction. He went on to say,”When Chris was talking about that, all I could think of was you and Frankie and how you have to do that for him.” Whoa! My husband isn’t a writer and isn’t one prone to the touchy-feely stuff that drives much of my life. He listens to me talk about my books (and is very proud of me) but he reads fantasy and science fiction and prefers logical you can see to the emotions that you can only feel. So I was really surprised to hear such a thing from him.
The rest of the weekend was spent working on the office (yes, still). The new bookcases are up and all the YA books have been moved there and alphabetized. The remaining 12 shelves of MG books had to be completely reorganized too. The curtains I bought are too long so I need to take them in to be altered. (There was a time, when I was MUCH younger, I would have done it myself but not anymore.) The room is shaping up nicely though.
Writing update: I know how Frankie got his nickname and I’m pretty sure I know what happened to his sister. I don’t know the whys behind many of the things in this story but I am just going forward with the idea that they will, eventually, reveal themselves to me.
Last night I attended a meeting of the Northern California Children’s Bookseller’s Association (a division of NCIBA). There was some frustration expressed, rightly so, from some of the booksellers. Some writers send bookstores info about their books and push the bookseller to promote the books but when the bookseller visits the author website, there is no mention anywhere of independent bookstores. No mention of the wonderful BOOKSENSE program which allows people to shop online, just like Amazon, but with Booksense the sales go through your local bookseller. Instead, said one bookseller, all she found were links to Amazon. She said she didn’t expect authors to only push the independents, but to at least have a link to Booksense right there next to Amazon. (for those who don’t know, Booksense also has an affiliate program.)
I asked some questions about what authors, authors who weren’t big name draws, could do to improve their relationships with the independent booksellers. They stressed the importance of keeping the bookstores informed of where authors are speaking so they will have books on the shelf. You’d think it would be a common thing for authors to do but evidently that’s not the case and booksellers aren’t mind readers. Shelf space is a premium and independent booksellers are working hard, long hours trying to stay afloat. Many booksellers had similar stories to share about being surprised when some popular books not only weren’t on the shelf but hadn’t been ordered for a while. Things fall through the cracks. To make sure it doesn’t happen to you don’t assume that your book will be in stock the week of your big event, keep the bookstore informed. One member suggested authors keep a list of who should be updated and every month send them a copy of their calendar.
One great thing our local NCCBA group has done in the past years is to develop the WIN guide, for the writer and illustrators network. For a small fee writers and illustrators can get one page in the guide that tells about themselves, their books and their availability to speak. The WIN guide is sold at independents throughout the region. The NCCBA also hosts, twice a year, a reception where they invite the media people and librarians from local schools to come mix and mingle with local authors. I’d love to hear about sorts of things other authors are doing to build relationships and gain exposure with, for and through the local interdependent booksellers.
This has been one of those weeks where, if I don’t count the time I spent at the dayjob, I’ve been immersed in all sorts of writing business/publicity stuff. I love it. Sometimes doing all the promotional stuff makes me feel more like a “real writer” than the writing does. I suppose one day I could get organized and not have a bunch of stuff that needs doing all at once but hey, where’s the fun in that? I would love to have some sort of PR brainstorming group that we could all share ideas and help each other when there was something new they were trying to promote. In the absence of that, I’ll ask a few questions.
What’s the best thing you have done to promote your book? What have you done out of the ordinary, other than mailing postcards, creating bookmarks, updating your brochure? What have you done that you won’t do again?
For my last picture book, CAN I PRAY WITH MY EYES OPEN? I wrote an article called 10 Things Your Child Should Know About Prayer. I sent it out to various newspapers as a press release type of article, all ready to drop into place in the newspaper. It worked and the article not only got a lot of coverage but I got some newspaper interviews as a result. Later I posted the article on my website and offered it to be reprinted for free. The book came out in 1999 but I still get letters every few months about some place that is reprinting the article. For OLIVER’S MUST-DO LIST I created Oliver to travel to schools and his blog to report his adventures. Only time will tell if this is a hit or not.
Writing progress: I saw Frankie the other night. I don’t think he meant to let me see him and I’m sure he didn’t mean to let me look right into his eyes, but I did, for a few seconds. What I saw nearly broke my heart. I tried to ask him about his sister but he ran away. Max is still with him, trying to keep Frankie safe and offering love in the way that only a dog can do. This poor kid needs a champion but he still seems to be so alone.
Well this writing of my time in New Orleans is helping me in the thinking department of the new book. Not so much in the actual writing of words on paper but that’s okay. I’m spending a lot of time just sitting in my room, spinning in my chair and thinking about Frankie. I feel like I am unraveling my story and Frankie’s story at the same time. And because I shared some of my story by writing it down, I’m hoping he’ll share some more of his.
I’d like to know his sister’s name and I think I know what happened to Max, the dog, but I’m not sure he’s willing to tell me about that part yet. It’s okay. I know he’s scared. I did dream about him last night in his hiding place. He’s very good at being quiet. Very good at being invisible. Even better at keeping secrets. But that’s okay. I can wait.
Maybe it seems wrong in the face of all that is going on in the wake of Katrina to even think about writing and the writing business but that’s what I am doing, trying to find a path to normalcy because the alternative is nearly too much too bear.
I’ve been silent for a week for a variety of reasons. Busy? Yes. Major overhaul on the office is still going on which in turn puts a major overhaul on the rest of the house. Day-job? Sure. After a 6-day weekend my workload is a tad overwhelming at the moment. I’ve also been working on publicity for my picture book coming out next month (Oliver’s Must-Do List) and will probably spend a lot of time across the long weekend working on that sort of thing.
But mostly it has been a thinking time. I’m thinking a lot about my new book project which has a lot, well, icky stuff going on in it. Bad stuff happening to a good kid. I’m doing some writing but mostly jotting down thoughts and thinking about plot and structure and having to research things a bit. But the icky stuff has to come first. It’s the day that is different. It sets the story in motion. And I don’t want to write it. Instead I clean house and putz and play with the dog.
And, this week, I watch TV for news of Katrina’s devastation, most especially to the city of New Orleans, a place I once lived but never called home.
New Orleans was never a part of my master plan. I landed there due to a series of poor choices on my part. Looking back, remembering, reliving the pain of those three years in New Orleans is not pretty. It’s not something I want to do, especially right now, but every news report triggers a memory. Every photograph I see online is replaced with an image in my mind of my time in the Big Easy (which was anything but.) As a result, many emotions I have been trying not to feel about a time I want to forget from a place that is unforgettable, are pouring out of me. I am writing it all down, letting myself remember everything about New Orleans, the good and the bad, though it is much too long to post here.
I hope there is a catharsis at the end of it all. One never knows when you cut yourself open on purpose, if the bleeding will ever stop or if it will just keep on flowing and become something else you just learn to live with.
One of the things I believe is most important in our writing is to write with emotional honesty. For me that means finding something in my own life that somehow will connect itself with the main character so I can use my emotion to fuel the character emotion. I’m not talking about an exact match in the event that causes the emotion but a matching emotion that can drive more events. So far it’s missing in Frankie’s story which means I think about it a lot. For me the emotional connection between my life and my character’s life makes the difference between a book with voice and just a bunch of words on the page.
I read a recent interview with Deborah Wiles that she did for The Institute of Children’s Literature. In it she said, ”When I say I start with a voice, I think I’m also saying that I start with a feeling. And that’s how it works for me that I get my life into stories. It’s a voice, yes, but it’s really a feeling that I want to make manifest, if that makes any sense. I don’t even understand it myself all that well. I just know that when something is bothering me, or making me particularly joyful, it can find a voice in story.”
That resonates with me, most especially with Frankie. I know he is in pain and I know he hasn’t had an easy life. I don’t know the details but I know that he doesn’t believe his life can be anything different than what it is right now and that somehow it is my job to help him think differently. I try to use my dreams as a way to help me with my writing. I often give myself a sleep suggestion to let my subconscious work while I rest. Of late it has been the same suggestion: “tell me more about Frankie and his story.” Most mornings I wake up and remember very few dreams but sometimes they are vivid like one I had just the other night.
In my dream I went to answer the front door and there was a man there, kind of old, his short beard was gray but he had some black hair on his head. He wore a bit a suit that had seen better days. He handed me a box, a white box, like one you might get clothes in or a little bigger. It was tied with string, not a ribbon. I asked him what was in the box. He shook his head. I asked him again to please tell me what was in the box. Nothing. I don’t know why I didn’t just open it myself but I didn’t. Then he walked away. I asked him to wait. He kept walking. Then I asked him who he was. He turned around and said, “I am your father.” And then I woke up. And I have NO idea what was in the box.
No, this is not a Star Wars connection. I haven’t seen that movie since it came out and am not a big fan. And here’s the thing, I don’t know my own father. I’ve never met my dad or anyone in his family. In my 47 years I’ve only seen the few wedding pictures of him from when he was a gawky 18-year-old in a white suite. He was gone before I was born and I have heard little about him. What little I did hear wasn’t good. In fact, it was so bad that back in elementary school when someone asked me if I was Tommy Webb’s daughter I automatically said no, so conditioned was I to hiding the truth.
So it is odd and maybe a bit scary to think that my father, who never paid a dime of child support, might give me a gift, perhaps even what I need. And it is sad to think I don’t know what is in the box.
Yesterday I wrote about the confusion I was having with my current WIP, wondering if it was even the book I was supposed to be writing. I could hear my MC talking to me but when I tried to put it into the book I THOUGHT it belonged in, nothing fit. I thought I was working on another verse novel, MTLB. I had a few poems, an idea of where it was going but the more I heard the MC talk the less he fit into MTLB. But doggone if I didn’t keep trying to jam him in there.
I sat myself down and had a little talk about form and function and all the various WIP I have. I was so fed up that I thought about working on a picture book even though I promised my agent I’d commit to novels for a while. Funny thing was, as I reread all the bits and pieces of unfinished stories I started to see a bit of a pattern. Many of them had one really great scene, a few pieces of dynamite dialog, or an image in words that showed exactly what I wanted to show. One them had a perfect title. (I love titles and can’t work on a book until I have the title.) They all featured a boy MC who was a big brother. Yet each of these bits and pieces were in different stories. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe the excitement that got me started fizzled without a plot (a common occurrence for me) or perhaps something else grabbed a tighter hold of me and begged to be written. I think a lot of these are stories that just didn’t work, won’t work, but I was afraid to let them go. They had “pretty pieces” in them and I wanted to save all the pretty pieces until I could fix the story to go with them. And I’m sure I was thinking that if I had 5 unfinished picture books with some good parts in them, with revision I could have 5 new picture books. I was thinking quantity, not quality, which is a bad idea with writing. I know better. I know that’s not the way I work. I know I’m an instinctive writer who needs to trust herself to let go and hold on according to some invisible inner guide.
Annie Dillard says, “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”
It may not have been what Dillard meant but I had the feeling a few of those pieces still spoke to me and still belonged somewhere, just not spread out across 5 picture books that had no future. With some cut and pasting, I yanked the pretty pieces from the gaudy frames of poorly written stories. And as I reread them all I got that little electrical charge of adrenalin, you know the one, your personal geiger counter as Stephen King calls it. There was a voice here. Someone worth listening to. Someone who needed me.
For a few minutes, I confess, I contemplated trying to shove the pieces into the verse novel even though I knew they wouldn’t fit. (Yep, sometimes I’m a slow learner.) Then I got to the title I had saved, TMT. I remembered when I first found the title. I remembered knowing that I would use the title. I remember being sure it would be a picture book.
That was about the time that Frankie tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, that’s me! I’m TMT.” And it hit me, yes, it was time to tell Frankie’s story but MTLB wasn’t Frankie’s story, TMT was.
Nancy Werlin says, “When I write a thing, I write it with a ferocious trust in the unknown stuff that lurks somewhere in my mind.“
Keeping that trust in mind I looked at my saved scraps again, only this time through Frankie’s eyes, and the picture became a little clearer and his voice a little louder. (He even told me about the dog and the little girl.) So this is it. I will put aside MTLB and work on TMT and try to help Frankie’s voice be heard. Most of all I will trust that the rest of the story is hiding in my subconscious and will be there when I need it most.
You’d think that by now I would be used to the fact that my writing path is always filled with doubts of one kind or another, but no, each time I hit a hill of doubt I’m caught off-guard. Once I am deep into a project the doubt usually (but not always) fades away. In the early stages of a project the doubts attack me like highwaymen hidden in the dark woods waiting to steal my treasures. I think the hardest part of it all for me is trusting myself enough to know when I am on the right path, the mostly right path, the path likely to lead to the right path or the path headed directly for a dead-end. It should come as no great surprise that I have the same issues in many other areas of my life but it is the writing doubt that bothers me most of all, perhaps because the writing, because BEING a writer, matters so much to me. Whenever I do something that my “inner me” considers wrong or a bad choice, I hear a lengthy diatribe that starts with something like “I told you so” and ends with something along the lines of “why don’t you just give up now.” Sigh. Not that I intend to give up or give in to the “inner me” at all. This whole inner lecture can take place in a minute or two but boy, the impact can last quite a while.
My current doubt centers around my choice of project to work on. I’m still waiting for the revision letter for Hugging the Rock so I have time to get to work on something new. It shouldn’t be a problem as I have many projects in various stages all waiting for my attention. And even if one of those didn’t appeal to me, ideas are not usually an issue for me.
There was an interesting post which was an offshoot of another post from about the concept that every writer starts off being able to do one thing well, one free card you don’t have to work for. I won’t repeat the whole conversation here here since you can go read their posts for all the juicy details but I decided that ideas was my free card. I’m working on characters and voice, plot still eludes me, and theme always has to tap me on the shoulder when I am done to remind me that it needs to be included. But ideas, they are constant for me. So I took at look at 7 of my projects in various stages and picked another verse novel to work on. It was the least together of them all, only a handful of poems, a hurting character, a setting, and not much more. Nothing recognizable as plot. I was drawn to the character, wanting to save him or at least point him in the right direction away from the pain. But now . . .
It’s going nowhere. I mean nowhere. I can deal with a crummy first draft (second and third drafts even) but I don’t think I’m feeling Frankie as strongly as I THINK I should. I don’t know if I have his voice or if what I have IS his voice or if his voice is even one worth listening to. I don’t know what happens next, but that’s okay, to be expected even. Most of all, I don’t know if this is the right time to tell this story or if I should just force myself to keep going even when I feel like I am driving with a flat tire. I could pick up my YA instead. I know the story. It’s all written and ”just” needs to be revised for about the 20th time. I could pick up any one of several MG novels that I have started and then stopped somewhere after chapter 4 or 5. I am not feeling obsessed by any one story more than another at the moment which is what makes it most difficult. The obsession phase is important to my creative process but it is difficult to attain when there are so many other non-writing things that want my time, like the darned day job, cleaning house, and sleep, just to name a few.
I am filled with doubts so I will probably do nothing for a while (which then inspires great guilt) and hope for the best. Sigh.