Life’s Choices

Here is a photograph from my high school graduation, the day I realized I could get out of the mountains and go anywhere I wanted. (That’s me in black on the left, clearly I’m ecstatic; my beautiful best friend in high school, Esme, is in the white dress on the right.):

High school graduation

(me and Esme, high school graduation)

I left the Catskill Mountains and I never went back, except to visit. And except in my writing—Dani Noir takes place there; Imaginary Girls takes place there; and the secret novel I’m writing now also takes place there.

I wanted to be a writer then. But I had no idea—absolutely none—how hard it would be to make that come true, how many years it would take—and what it would take out of me to keep trying until I pushed through. No clue. None.

Do you ever look around at the life you chose? (Or maybe you think it chose you?) I chose mine, deliberately yet sloppily, naively yet with stubborn determination. Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to be a published author, and sacrifices to get me there be damned.

Maybe this happens when you get over [age that will not be mentioned]. Maybe then you look around and think, Is THIS where I was trying to get to?

Everything I’m doing is what I wanted it to be, and yet entirely different from how I thought it would turn out. It’s so strange. No babies. No house. No dayjob career. And all of that is okay with me. I have deep love. And these degrees I couldn’t afford. And city living. And getting books published. And making a career of being a writer, or starting to. That was my plan.

I can’t deny that I’m struggling still—and the depths of my insecurities are so low, I shouldn’t put them in words on this blog—but it occurs to me that I am who I set out to be. When Imaginary Girls comes out next year, I think I will be. I think that’s the moment it will feel real to me. Maybe I’ll feel good about all my choices then.

Here I am, age 17 I think, on a school field trip to a museum in New York City, where I vowed to one day move. We snuck out to a playground nearby and tried the slide. I’m on the right, sunglasses and thrift-store man’s vest and jacket on, my whole life ahead of me:

Slide in NYC

(Keri and me, goofing off on a slide somewhere in NYC)

Would I do it again the way I did? Probably not.

I’d do it differently—but I’d still do it.

But I’m here now. With my soulmate, doing what I wanted in the city where I thought I wanted to live since I was five. How odd.

The Novel Got Me

Oh, man.

In just the past week or so I’ve missed so much.

I missed the Teen Author Festival including tons of amazing events and readings! I missed your beautiful blog posts! I missed elephants (well, I will tonight)! I’m sure I missed a lot of other stuff I don’t even know about because I was over here missing it!

But here’s my excuse—and this excuse goes for all the emails I owe (!) and the manuscripts emailed to me that I haven’t commented on, and some other things I meant to do and haven’t been able to do yet and may not get to before I leave

My excuse is this: The novel got me.

It happened last week. Slowly I felt it crawling up my legs, wrapping itself around my waist, clasping me tighter. But there was a day—was it Thursday? it’s all still a blur—where it stuck its fangs in and I went numb to it and let it do with me what it wanted. It’s had me all day today and I’ll let it keep it up tomorrow while I tweak some pages and take a look around, see what I’ve got.

I want to finish a good chunk of this book before I leave April 5.

Back to the novel. It hasn’t let go just yet.

Another Reason Why You Want a (Good) Agent

I know I’m sort of a poster child for getting my first book deal without an agent, and I know I’ve talked before about why I’m so grateful to have an agent now, but I wanted to point out one more reason why getting an agent, a good agent, can help you in more ways than you initially realize: a good agent can save you from yourself.

I know I need a lot of self-saving!

So, just in case you haven’t seen this on Twitter or elsewhere, check out this post, “Think Before You Kvetch,” on the DGLM agency blog.

Full disclosure: Yes, that’s my agent talking. Yes, he’s very smart and I trust his advice here.

Publishing a book is a complicated, emotional, confusing process that is probably never exactly what you expect it to be. I really believe that following the advice in that post can only make it better.

The Writing Part of Being a Writer

Something happens when you publish a book: You need to promote it. I’m not going to go into what your publisher does and doesn’t do for you, what they used to do as opposed to what they do now. Other smart publishing bloggers talk all about that. Let’s just say it’s a given: You write a book and if it gets published, you need to promote it, no matter how shy you are, no matter how uncomfortable you are talking yourself up in front of people. There. Done. Deal with it. (And if you’re shy, check out Shrinking Violet Promotions.)

I’m in a bit of a reprieve until 2011, when this new novel I’m so freaking excited about is due to come out. I feel like I went through some great publicity hazing experiences, so I’ll be even better next time. I had my first group book signing at Books of Wonder. I had my first solo signing. I did my first radio interview. I did my first Barnes & Noble reading. I did blog interviews and answered letters from readers. I got my picture taken. I survived my first Kirkus review. I got my first royalty statement. I saw my Amazon ranking. I saw my book in stores and in my own branch of the public library. I laughed, I cried, and now I feel like I know what to expect next time.

My skin has gotten thicker from all of it, and I’m grateful. I learn by doing, and I grow from every experience I have, as a person, as an author, and most significantly: as a writer.

I’m in a pocket of quiet. And, right now, I need this little pocket. No book festivals. No events. No Google Alerts. No obligations.

I need to do that thing that started all of this, the reason I’m in this in the first place: write.

All so I can be better next time.

But it’s funny how the writing becomes somehow tainted from the experience of having to promote myself in the past. I’ve started a new novel—YAY!—and I am poised to work on a very exciting project while I’m away next month—YOW!—and in the past my way of starting something new was to write silently to myself in my cave for months on end and only poke my head out after I’ve rewritten myself in circles enough to see I’m ready to give it air. Now, staring at my first pages, I’m already thinking: Will he like it? Will she like it? Will they like it enough to want it? Is it good enough / distinct enough / interesting enough? Does it have a big enough hook? Does it fit a trend? If it does, do I want it to? Will it stand on its own? Hello, will it SELL? And if it does, will it keep this name or get named something else? What will the publisher call it? What’s its label? What’s its genre? Where’s its spot on the shelf? What will reviewers say about this? What will readers say about that? Will anyone want to read it at all?

Questions, questions, questions.

In the face of trying to address all those questions, you can find yourself not writing anything.

So I’m wringing out my mind. Letting those concerns wash out of me, swirl down the drain, rinse after rinse after rinse, till I’m clean.

Out go the what-ifs and will-she-likes.

Out go the what-will-he-says.

Out go the panic of future submissions.

Out go the labels.

The names.

The critiques.

The rankings.

The stars and no stars.

The yeses and the nos.

Out they go; I’ll gather them back up later. But for now—for the rest of this month, and for next month—I’m just going to be a writer. The kind who puts words down on the page and doesn’t let them see daylight till later.

I’m trying to, anyway.

It feels like I’m back to that point before I was published.

The beginning.

Where it starts and where it ends: with the writing.

Every single one of us—no matter where we are in our careers or our dark caves—can be found here at one point or another.

Writing page 16 or page 216 or page 1.

So, hey there.

Hi.

I’ll be hanging here for a while.

All About Writers Colonies

Yaddo mansionAs many of you know, I’m weeks away from heading off to be a resident at a writers colony. This isn’t a conference or a workshop. I won’t be taking classes, as many people have asked me. I won’t be turning in a project at the end; no one will be looking over my shoulder to see how much work I’ve gotten done. (Though I’m sure my wonderful and supportive agent will be *extremely* curious to find out, once I get home!) Instead, I’ll be spending time on the grounds of a place called Yaddo—photo on the left. I’ll live on the grounds there, along with other writers and artists, and I’ll write there. And that’s it. It’s a month of great privilege. And I want to make the best use of this distraction-free block of time as I can.

So, to get myself ready for my four-week residency, I’ve asked a few writers I know what their colony experiences were like, and I’ve also asked for advice… How can I take the most advantage of this time? What should I do, and what should I avoid? These writers were kind enough to let me publish their comments here. And if you’ve been to a colony, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Yaddo is a well-known colony, as is the MacDowell Colony, where I was a resident in 2005. But these aren’t the only colonies—there are a great many all over the country (and outside the U.S.). You can stay often anywhere from two weeks to eight weeks. Some colonies don’t cost anything, and feed you once you arrive—all you need is a way to get there, and the time off from your life, which can be extremely difficult to arrange, I know. The comments below are on colonies including MacDowell (I seem to know a lot of people who’ve been there) to Hedgebrook to the Vermont Studio Center to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to the Blue Mountain Center, and more. If you’re headed off to one of these places, or are considering applying, I hope you’ll find this interesting!

As you’ll see, sometimes colonies are magic… and interested agents, editors, and husbands should be assured that I’m getting some good advice on what to do while there:

From Alexander Chee, novelist, on the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire:

“The MacDowell Colony is beloved. I’ve only been twice but it feels like a second home to me in terms of how I feel about it. Both times I had a cabin with a room in the dorms, and I liked the separation of work and sleep spaces, and even lost about 8 lbs. the first time from the daily walks between them, and the regular meals.  I’ve also made enduring friendships.

“For me what summarizes how it is different than, say, staying home and working, is this story: It’s late November of 2005, there’s snow, it’s night, I’m in Colony Hall, the main building, sitting in front of the fire on a leather couch, writing to a friend on my laptop with a little bourbon on the rocks after dinner. In comes a Russian composer who used to be a circus performer, she sits down and she quietly plays Erik Satie’s Gymnopaedie from memory, beautifully, on the piano there. It was unforgettable.

“You’re around artists from different mediums working at the top of their fields. There’s nothing like it in the world. And the inspirations that provides are incredible.

“Advice: You are there to work. Do your work. And watch out for the person who takes it personally that you won’t eat the cookie they offer at dinner or hang out instead of going off to work—the friendships you can make are important, but you went there to work. Not to help whoever that is procrastinate (and there’s always at least one). Don’t be afraid to enforce your professional boundaries.”

—Alexander Chee

From Tayari Jones, novelist, on Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, and other colonies:

“I’ve been to Yaddo, MacDowell, Blue Mountain, VCCA, Ledig House, Chateau de Lavigny and Gibraltar Point.  My advice for all of them is the same—remember that you are there to work.  Go to bed early.  I know that the parties are legendary and that at Yaddo there is a room set aside only for drinking, but really, you can drink at home.  Also, in my experience, if there is going to be drama, it’s going to be after 9:00 at night. If you are in bed, you miss the drama so you will be clearheaded and ready to work the next day.

“One other thing I noticed at colonies is how much time there is to do all the things you need to do.  There is plenty of time to read, nap, exercise and get your work done too.  Going to a colony made me see how much time I squander in my real life taking care of other people.  When I only have to see after myself, there are more than enough daylight hours in the day.”

—Tayari Jones

From Timothy Braun, playwright and nonfiction writer, on the Anderson Center in Minnesota, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and more (he’s been to about ten colonies so far!):

“They were all good, but I want to highlight a few. I loved the Anderson Center (MN). I received just the right amount of attention without the administration getting in the way of my work. I usually get up at 4:30am; have breakfast, then work until noon. I need administrators to understand that I can’t be bugged until lunch and Anderson gave me space until then. In the afternoon, I often did stuff with the administration. I also liked the Santa Fe Art Institute for similar reasons.

“I’m heading to Djerassi this June. Then back to the Santa Fe Art Institute in July and I’ll tell you what I’m bringing. Books by Eduardo Galeando, Halldor Laxness, John Koethe, Chris Bachelder, and Louis Menand. However, the most important things I’m bringing are football magazines. You can not ‘make’ art all day long. Bring something with you for downtime.

“That, and get to know the other artists, there is so much to learn from them. Every time I go to a colony it is like going to graduate school again. Swap reading lists, names of favorite artists, inspiring movies, salad dressing recipes. And get to know the region. I purposely use colonies as a conduit to travel the globe. Djerassi is bringing me to San Francisco for the first time and I plan to eat all the sourdough I can get my paws on.”

—Timothy Braun

More impressions on writers colonies—the good and inspiring, plus the bad and uncomfortable—after the jump.

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When You’re Desperate for Something, Anything to Happen…

…sometimes you turn your entire blog turquoise. Sorry about that! I’m sort of into it right now, so I’ll leave it be. But I lost the gorgeous header E made for me and I’m mourning it.

I’ve had to put aside the blog post all about writers colonies until Monday—I’m just focusing on a freelance project right now and need to complete it!

On my mind, in no particular order:

  • I feel like I’m waiting for some BIG THING, but I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s only the fact that I need to be writing and the big things will follow from that?
  • I am working on two books right now, but I won’t tell you what they are, except to say that neither one is a sequel to DANI NOIR.
  • Happy birthday to Yojo, one of the most talented writers I know.
  • I may have frightened the guy at the coffeeshop today when he told me the machines were down and they couldn’t make espresso drinks this morning. The horror on my face. I would not have wanted to witness it.
  • I met the author Cat Clarke—whose debut YA novel ENTANGLED comes out in the U.K. in January—and I adore her and wish she lived here in New York. Can’t wait to read her book. And see? Sometimes it is perfectly safe, and totally fun, to meet people off the internet! (Disclaimer: Kids, I don’t mean you.)

ETA: Accidental activation of the turquoise theme fixed!

Inspiration

My inspiration for the stories I write comes from many sources. Everything from people I once knew to people I see on the street to places I’ve been and mistakes I’ve made and news stories and television shows and novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen and that confession I overheard you say on the subway. We grab bits and pieces from where we find them, and there’s no explanation sometimes. I have found notes on the street. I have dug things out of trash. I’ve snapped photos of scrawled messages on walls. I’ve held on to memories. And I’ve carried around songs.

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Where I Write

Writing space foyer

The foyer of my writing space, quiet on a weekend morning.

I write in a place I can’t really call mine. I can’t leave my things out all over the desk. I can’t decorate the walls. I have to put my writing slippers and writing sweater away in my locker every single night. There’s a good chance that I’ll arrive in the morning to find someone else in my favorite chair. But I write here all the same—I can’t imagine being a writer in Manhattan without having this place where I can go 24 hours a day, any day, any moment. I carry the key with me everywhere.

The place is called the Writers Room—and it fits its name: It’s a giant loft often filled with writers writing. Sure, we also check our Facebook and nap under our desks (guilty of this just last week), and we can be found chatting in the kitchen, or gathering up a handful of sugary sustenance from the constantly replenished M&M dispenser, or stretching in the typing room, but most often we’re at our desks. On a weekday, the place is packed. You hear pages turning, sometimes sneezing, doors swishing open and closed, chair backs adjusting, coffee slurping, and typing, from all directions and every corner, the sounds of tapping keyboards. The rhythm of other writers typing out their novels and stories and articles and plays and screenplays and poems makes me all the more motivated to type out mine. I love that sound.

Writing space sign in

The sign-in sheet, and just above the little lamp... that's my book cover! I was giddily surprised one morning while signing in to look up and see it there.

I’ve been a member here since I was a graduate student uptown. I had part-time morning and weekend membership then—I spent years on the waiting list to get full-time 24-hour-a-day access, and I’m so grateful to have it now. Back then, in the beginning, the Room was located somewhere else, in another building around the corner from where it is now. I’d get up at five in the morning and take the subway to Times Square, then transfer to another line, and get here, sometimes as the first person of the day. I’d leave in time for class or by eleven thirty; the latest I could stay as a part-time member.

A favorite desk

One of my favorite desks. Look how I made a mess already, and I haven't even started writing yet!

Then the space moved, to a more wide open loft with giant windows overlooking Broadway, and there were a few weeks of adjustment, but I easily found my new favorite desks and settled into my routines. I got full-time membership years ago, but I couldn’t make use of it with my day job. Still, I held on. There were days when I’d come in when it was still dark on a Saturday morning, flattened from a stressful workweek at my job, feeling like a robot, someone barely worthy of calling herself a writer… but then I’d sit at my desk, and I’d switch on my light, and I’d open my word processor, and I’d start tapping away into the silent space like the other writers who came here, and I felt worthy somehow. I felt right.

I still feel that now.

I need this separation from home. I need a creative-only space. This place is not for everyone, and that’s fine by me. We’d be too crowded otherwise.

I’ve written thousands of pages here, in its previous location and now the new one, no exaggeration. Stories and my graduate thesis and work-for-hire manuscripts and novels published and soon-to-be-published and never-to-be-seen. I like the quiet of the Room—no talking at the desks. I like the cell phones banished to the phone room. I really don’t mind that no one can reach me by phone while I’m here (fyi: try e-mail). I like the sounds of all the other writers working around me. I like looking out the windows at the city lights at night.

I can’t bring friends up since it’s members-only, but I show them from down in the street. I’ll point up to the row of top-floor windows—always lit up, whatever the day, late into the night. “That’s where I write,” I say. Looking up at it from the sidewalks down below, there’s a privacy and also a magic. Each desk is a blank slate, a blank page. Anything could happen here. Anything has.

My desk 2

My favorite desk; it was here waiting for me this morning.

I come here in pajamas sometimes. I don’t wear makeup; my hair’s a mess. I’m really not here to network. I write often with a scarf over my head, in semblance of a tent. I walk the halls in a daze, deep into whatever I’m writing, so I’m not so talkative and I hope no one takes it personally. There are times when I walk past a great writer whose books I’ve read and admire to no end and I think, How can we both write at the same desks? How is that POSSIBLE?

But it is, somehow. There are all kinds of writers here. Ones like me, and geniuses like them. This place is open to all of us.

I didn’t photograph the rest of the space—you’ll have to imagine. It’s a private place, and writers are right now writing all around me, and I didn’t want to bother anyone.

My desk

About to sit down and write... if that issue of Tin House magazine doesn't distract me first. E renewed my subscription for my birthday!

I come here almost every day, even if I only really have time to write for a half hour. Maybe one day, when I can afford a bigger place to live, and we leave this city for somewhere else, I’ll have a writing office at home. What a luxury that would be. For now, I have the Writers Room, my most favorite place to write in this entire city.

I was here yesterday. I’ll be here tomorrow. I am here right now.

* * *

This is the main place where I write. The other is a café. Where do you write?

I Survived

Not to worry, though this blog has been a little quiet, I did survive my first radio interview and also my first Barnes & Noble reading and signing—and throw a blizzard in there to keep it real. If you’re curious, here’s an update (with photos!) on how the reading went.

I’m still recovering (at heart I am a very shy person who doesn’t like people to look at her… sort of impossible to avoid when you’re standing before a group of people reading stuff out loud).

But now that it’s over and I don’t have a big event to be anxious about anymore, I’m running a solid distraction with freelance work. Finished one big project today only to dive into another, and another. It’s good for my head—though not so good for my stiff neck.

In the midst of all this, I’ve also been finding the voice of my new novel. I’ll talk more about that shortly, maybe this week or next. The most important thing for me when writing a novel is to find the voice. Without the voice, no novel.

And I’m getting ready for a writers colony… now about a month away. It felt very real when I bought my Amtrak ticket… I’ll soon be making a post about writers colonies, and a few inspiring writers are giving me some thoughts on their own experiences and some great advice for how to best use my time there. (If you’ve been to a colony and would like to be included and offer up some wise advice, email me at nova [at] novaren.com.) One thing I know for certain right now: I must not forget to pack a flashlight.

That goes for writing the new novel, too. Seeing as I’m not so articulate today, here’s a blog post by Susan Adrian that’s really resonating with me, it’s called “Darkness.” Just beautiful.