Why is it that when you are in the midst of a writing drought you forget how absolutely wonderful it is to write? Sigh.
Not a lot of words, but new words. I opened my first three chapters that I had sent in for the conference critique, reread them with the intent to then move on to chapter 4. As I had hoped, when I got to the end of chapter 3 I knew what was coming next. I wrote it out and realized it was really a new, better and stronger, ending to chapter 3. A nice hook that after reading I dare someone not to turn the page.
A good morning’s work. I am pleased.
I wrote seven pages last night.
Long hand, in a steno notebook, just before turning out the light to go to sleep. Unintentional pages of an intentional book. My gel pen flew across the page in writing that was even more sloppy that usual. Stilted dialog and notes in the margins to fill in details but still, I wrote.
Seven pages, a full scene. A boy with a secret. A man with a past. Power. Fear. A hook, a few questions, hints of what’s to come. A crummy first draft that I look forward to revising.
I wrote seven pages last night.
How do you feel about prologues, really, I want to know. Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Skip ‘em til you finish the book and then go back and read them all over again? I’ve heard that many young readers just skip right over a prologue and dive into the book. So what’s a writer to do when you want to set up a scene that happens 12 years before the book takes place and gives the readers clues to figure things out along the way? Some people say they still do a prologue but they call it something else. (I’m playing with that idea.) Some people use lots of flashbacks. (Not fond of that idea myself.) Some people come up with something new. (That’s what I’m working on now.)
So come on, tell me how you feel about prologues, really. I want to know.
Right on schedule, my revision letter for Hugging the Rock arrived in my in-box yesterday afternoon. I read the subject line, opened it quickly to confirm that it was all about the revision process, and promptly closed it again. This was crazy. I already knew that my editor loved the book. I mean she bought the book so she must love it, right? But this was going to be all about changes, about changes that I might not agree with, about making my book a part of the Tricycle family, about taking it (I hope) to the next level from good to great.
What if I didn’t agree with her? What if I couldn’t do what she asked me to do? And, of course because I am paranoid worry-wart at times, what if they changed their mind and canceled the whole thing? Go ahead, laugh with me. All together now.
All those thoughts went through my head in a matter of seconds, but they were there just the same. More and more as I go through the publication process with this novel I realize the very obvious fact, a picture book is nothing like a novel. I’ve sold books before, to the trade market and to the educational market. I’ve been edited before. I feel like I’ve been in the business long enough to call myself a professional. I’ve sold 23 books between the trade and educational market and hundreds of articles. But this novel, (put your coffee down so you don’t spill it) this makes me feel like a REAL writer.
I’ve tried to pinpoint the various reasons I feel this way. Some of it is the fact that it is a novel and while I have sold novels before, it was nearly 20 years ago and the scenario was nothing like this one. Some of it is that the story is the most emotional that I have ever written. A lot of it is the editing. I have been lucky in that my picture books have been only lightly edited. My educational books less so, except for the last one on Robert Smalls. But there we didn’t really edit for plot because it was a true story based on a true event. We edited for content and to fit the structure of the series. My articles are edited but I have no input in it. I write them, send them in and they are edited and fact checked and I don’t see them again until they appear in print. But this is going to be very different. My editor and I really are a team working to create the best book possible. I understand now why writers extol their editors on the acknowledgments page of their books. I understand now when friends talk about how they had a great editor for such and such a book but a not so great editor for the next one. Because a good editor makes you think and guides your way to a better book.
Once I got past the initial apprehension I opened her email and read her comments. That she started off the mail praising me and the book went a long way toward helping me relax. (Hey, I’m very susceptible to praise, chocolate, a good margarita, and a foot massage.) Then I opened the attachment and scanned the first few pages. Okay. I can do this. I think. I printed out the whole book, curled up in the middle of the bed and read through. There were comments on just about every page but some of them were just kind words on the text. At the end of a 147 page book of poems there were 135 comments. Gulp. I have a little over 5 weeks to get the first revision done if we are going to keep to our somewhat aggressive schedule. On a first pass I have to say that I understood most of her comments. Not necesarily how to fix things, but I think I understand what what wants done. And I agree with her. I had to check in with myself several times to make sure that I wasn’t just agreeing for the sake of agreeing but I think I’m okay with things.
There are some changes that aren’t worth fighting for. Example, in one scene the grandmother comes to visit and when the MC won’t eat her peas, the grandmother won’t pass her any more roast beef and eventually sends the MC to her room. My editor didn’t think that rang true or that anyone would withhold protein from a child. I’m okay with redoing the scene and getting my point across a different way (not sure how yet) even though I spent many a night staring at peas I wouldn’t eat on my plate and wishing for another helping of meat that my own grandmother wouldn’t give me until I ate the damn peas (which I never did). We all know that just because it really happened doesn’t mean it belongs in a book or will work in a book. Many of the changes are subtle, the sorts of things that writers miss because we are so close to the words and the story in the midst of writing it. There are things she asked for that will, I am sure, deepen the relationships in the book and thereby strengthen the story. There are some changes that scare me only because I don’t know how I will do it. Mostly the beginning where I knew there would be changes because it was one of those things that had been on my mind ever since she bought the book. So while I can agree with what she thinks needs to be done, at the moment I can’t see how to do it. That’s okay. There needs to be sufficient moodling around time with the ideas before I sit down to actually write.
There are some things where I slap my head and go, “duh!” but I realize that this is the editor’s gift, the ability to pull out individual story threads and ask me to restitch them between the pages, making a story that is not only stronger, and more authentic, but even more resembles the story I wanted to tell.
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.
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.
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.