The Two-Month Countdown and the One-Track Mind

legs in san franToday is November 15. That means I have two months to finish* this Thing* and turn it in.

*Just finish the first draft—there will be revisions!

*See my previous post for why I feel safer calling it a Thing. For the TLDR lazypants who don’t feel like clicking: By Thing I mean my novel.

So I have two months to go. Two months. Much to do. Only two months. I’m keeping up the momentum as best I can, with other deadlines and work-ish commitments getting in the way, but I keep telling myself: This is only the exploratory draft. Doesn’t need to be right yet. Doesn’t need to make full sense yet. Doesn’t need to have everything you want in it yet, because you can’t know everything yet!

I am making choices and decisions in this draft simply to try them out—they don’t have to stick next draft. I’m not drawing my novel in a patch of wet concrete, so when it dries it will be stuck that way forever.

I am discovering my characters as I go. I am not sure what they’ll do next, or how they’ll react to certain things. But after this draft is done, I will know them far better than I did before.

And while, yes, I do revise as I go—chapter by chapter, going back to the beginning when I’ve come upon a significant change that then needs to be seeded in—because this is how my brain works and how my hands like to work, I am making progress. Every day I sit down at my desk, I’ve moved forward in some way even if the word count doesn’t show it.

Maybe I should be panicked at this point, but I’m not. I’m deep in it, enjoying the process. Because why write otherwise?

The only problem right now is the rest of life. When I have a good writing day (yay!), everything else is unequivocally a mess. And when I get on top of everything else (sort of), then my writing suffers. For someone as easily distractible as I am (hence the name of this blog and my way of using parentheses in the middle of sentences because I keep having more than one thought I want to get down) I have such a one-track mind.

I’ve been like this for a long time. I wanted to be a writer, and once I gave up photography to start my MFA in fiction I didn’t want to be anything else. No other creative pursuits or hobbies or real passion in my day jobs or really any side avenue to run along on when the writing’s not going well. And there are many days in life when the writing is just not going well. In my personal life, I don’t want a family, don’t want to be a mother, barely contribute to society, despise going to the gym though I’m trying to anyway, am a horrible burn-the-good-pan can’t-get-the-black-spots-out-with-scrubbing cook.

Being a writer is my one thing, and everything else suffers.

I can see the red warnings flashing.

I don’t want a hobby, though. I really do like being consumed like this. I like thinking about writing and talking to other writers and teaching writing classes and reading books written by other writers and yes, also sitting against the wall at this café knowing today’s Saturday and I have hours ahead to do my own writing.

I like it like this, but it’s also a very small world. I’m inside a tiny bubble. Very few people on the outside understand the panicked excited doomsday delirium that comes by saying a book deadline is fast approaching and I have to be creative-on-command, and why would they? I feel alone in this very often. I feel frustrated with myself on a regular basis. If this is all I’m doing, shouldn’t I be doing way better at it? That kind of thing.

Sometimes I think about taking a break for a short while. I went to a small, interesting college—Antioch College, very different from the entity that exists under its name now—where we had what was called the co-op program. Basically, three- or six-month periods spent working off-campus for course credit, and then you’d write a co-op paper at the end about what you learned. I co-oped for a symphony, an early attempt at an online newspaper, a literary journal, an activist organization in the basement of a church, a public-relations office, and as editor of the campus newspaper. Sometimes I think I need a co-op from my real life. I’d write a really great paper about it after.

But if I look back, I know I tried out a bunch of things to discover, deep into my thirties, that this is really all I wanted. I am content with doing only this. Being a writer.

So in the difficult moments, in the tear-out-your-hair and scratch-out-your-eyes moments, in the pits of despair and in the frenzied clouds of delirium, I guess I just want to remember that.

You like this. You chose this. You’re the one who feeds off deadlines, REMEMBER?

Some days I want a little cardboard sign around my neck, colorful and tied with yarn, the way my mother made me when I was in Kindergarten in Saugerties, New York, taking the school bus for the first time, so I wouldn’t get lost. Maybe all children in my Kindergarten class had these signs for them made by their parents. I think the signs had our names and our classrooms on them. I remember wearing my sign strung around my neck with yarn and knowing I was meant to be somewhere. I had a destination. The sign wouldn’t let me forget it.

Trying not to forget where I’m headed today. In two months, to the day, I have a new novel due. I’m on the bus now, but I’ll get there eventually.


Do you want to join me at my YA novel workshop-retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Northern California this coming June? The first two workshops were a glorious success, so I’m thrilled to do it again in 2015. Now accepting applications!

And oh hey… Do you want a signed and personalized copy of The Walls Around Us? Well, unless you go to one of my book events this spring, there is only one way to get one: By pre-ordering through my favorite local bookstore, McNally Jackson. Preorder with a note for how you’d like me to personalize the book here!

Writing a Novel and Seeking the Magic Fix

My state of mind while writing lately.

My state of mind while writing lately.

I am writing what will be my fifth published novel. Five is a number I like, so you’d think this would be a glorious experience, but nothing is ever as easy as I’d hope it to be, most of all writing.

This novel I’m writing was originally slated to come out Spring 2016, a year after The Walls Around Us, but I’m still writing it, so maybe it will come out Fall 2016. I don’t know yet. It all depends on how this draft goes, and if I make this deadline in January, and what my editor thinks once she reads this Thing.

By the way, I feel calmer when I call it a Thing, rather than a BOOK.

A Thing is a hairy little monster. Ugly. Misshapen. It yowls. It drools. No one expects a Thing to be polished and proper and un-embarrassing.

A BOOK is expected to not spit up on the floor. A BOOK is contained. It makes sense.

Right now, I’ll keep working on my Thing, thank you.

So I’m thinking, what are the optimal conditions in which to write a draft of a Thing/BOOK quickly?

(Also note: I said draft. There will be many drafts. This is just the first one. I don’t have any illusions that the Thing will be perfect when I turn it in.)

Well, in an ideal world I’d be in a quiet place with my own writing room and we’d have no bills or student loans to worry about so I wouldn’t have to work on the side and stress over finding more work and there’d be pancakes made-to-order from phantoms in the kitchen every morning and I would be totally healthy and not so tired all the time and I’d have a kitten to play with, because hey why not, in an ideal world I wouldn’t be allergic, and I’d have an intern to deal with all my emails and other randoms on my to-do list like remembering to pick up the almond milk, and, best of all, the internet would be down for months. Seriously, months.

But I live in this world. I live in a shoebox in a very loud city. (And I kind of need the internet! I might be addicted, plus I have a book coming out in March and I don’t want you to forget me!)

So I need to create optimal conditions here at home, in my loud shoebox surrounded by the internet. We all have to find ways to write in the cracks and corners of real life, which is something I said once when I was trying to write during one of my demanding day jobs (the old post is set to “private,” and I’ll keep it that way). But if I did it then, how can I not do it now?

In order to finish this novel, I need:

  • To stay off the internet for large swathes of times like a mature adult with some semblance of self-control.
  • To organize my time so I reach all my work and other writing deadlines and don’t get overwhelmed.
  • To find quiet and isolate when needed. (I’ve talked about this need before.)
  • To have momentum.

That last one is key. Momentum. Really, it’s everything. Because once I have momentum, I don’t care so much about the internet, and I make way better use of my writing time because I am so very FOCUSED.

The way I get momentum is to force myself to write every day. Every. Single. Day. Even when I have work deadlines. Even when I have somewhere to be. Even when I’m sick. Even when I’m sad. Every day.

Some days I might get 500 words. (That’s my optimal—and realistic, if I’m even bothering to count words.) Some days, like yesterday, more than 1,200! And some days, quite a few days, I get 8 words. Some days—many days, since I edit as I go—I am in the negative.

But the point is that I’m keeping up momentum. I’m working on my Thing every day, even for twenty minutes. I’m keeping my Thing (it’s a BOOK, or it will be) always in my mind.

This is why watching NaNoWriMo from the sidelines always cheers me up. I tried to do it once and failed to reach 50K (and ended up not using any words from that draft… they were crap… not worth salvaging). Writing that fast is not for me, and not my process. BUT what works really well for me is the rhythm of writing every day, even a little. And that’s what’s at the heart of NaNoWriMo.

So this November, and December, and into January, I, too, will be writing every day.

I may be getting -8 words or 500 words at best, but I’ll be doing it. Because when I keep up the momentum, I feel inspired. I feel close to my characters and my story. I feel connected. I feel overtaken. I feel on fire.

That’s what I need to write this Thing in my loud, busy shoebox. That’s all.

The kind of quiet I'm craving. (Taken at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, when I was teaching a workshop earlier this year.)

The kind of quiet I’m craving. (Taken at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, when I was teaching a workshop earlier this year.)

Next month, though, I do have a bonus.

One lucky break that fell from the sky into my lap is that I got a residency from Yaddo in December, and I’ll be there for a little less than three weeks, which is pretty much the longest I can be off the grid at this point. There’s no internet in the bedrooms or writing studios at Yaddo, which is a true blessing, so I hope to stay away from the noise as much as I can. I want to try to stay off Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and all else, if I can. (Unless there’s some news about my book I have the compulsive need to share.) I want to take a break from emails, unless they’re from my publisher or my agent. E will visit for the holiday, and I’ll attack him with pages and talk about the progress of my Thing—which always helps, he’s the only one I can talk to when I’m in this delicate first-drafting place—and then I’ll dive back in. I hope to come home for the New Year with many, many, many words. I hope. Because, once I get home, that deadline is days away.

But even so, I know that Yaddo, or any colony or retreat or residency or stay in a glorious hotel, isn’t the magic fix. All your problems and flaws follow you to a colony, you know. You still have to do the hard work once you get there.

The magic fix for me, no matter where I am, really is momentum. The fix—what will get me to deadline, and what will get me a worthy manuscript to show my editor—is putting in the time and effort and gaining forward movement every single day.

Even if it’s twenty minutes in a notebook, twenty minutes stolen in the cracks and corners of real life, like so many of us have to do.

What do you need in order to finish your novel? Bonus points for saying a kitten.

Facing Down the Doubt Monster

handwriting

Oh, fellow writers. So, while I work on the revision of what will be my fourth published novel (my sixth written novel, and none of this is counting any of the work-for-hire novels I’ve ghostwritten), I look up and keep seeing this ugly face in the mirror.

Doubt.

I thought, by now, now I’m writing book #4, surely, surely I’d have vanquished it by now. But no.

The funny, though not really ha-ha, thing I’ve learned as my career as an author moves on is that the doubts don’t go away. In fact, I could swear that they are all the more heavy on my shoulders and heavy-breathing in my ear than they ever were when I was first starting out, and surely before I published.

Before I published, I had no idea what would happen in the “real world” once my books hit the shelves. (If they even did.) If I got so lucky, would my books be despised, lauded, ignored, used as a stepstool to climb up and get a better book? All of the above, it turns out, but when you are in that place in your career when you don’t yet know, when the road before you is hazy and fogged up and could lead anywhere at all… Well, anything could happen.

I felt oddly positive back then. I had doubts, sure, but I also had so much blind hope. So many dreams. So much possibility.

Now here I stand with the third book—17 & Gone—out last spring and due to come out in paperback this March, and my fourth book—The Walls Around Us—getting closer and closer to what I want it to be as I work through this revision. And while I do look at my pages and realize I’ve learned so much and have gotten better as a writer, I find myself doubting so much more often than I did before my first book—Dani Noir—and then my first true book of my heart—Imaginary Girls—came out. The doubts are now something I war with every single morning as I sit down to write.

I look ahead now and I see the road. I see all the turns in the road. All the potholes. All the steep hills and the far drops. I don’t want to drive that road.

In truth, as we all know, I can’t really see ahead to the road (none of us can see the future to what will happen when our books come out, it’s always a mystery), but because I’ve been on the road a few times by now, I think I know what to expect and it’s coloring everything I’ve yet to experience.

It’s damning. I wish I could pluck some of my old innocence back and just write away, lalala. And yet, I’ve also learned so much from my previous experience and I want to build on that and grow.

Conflicting.

The truth is, you only get one (possibly two, as I did in a way, because not too many people knew about Dani Noir, and it was middle-grade) chances at a debut.

I tell myself that, in a way, each new book is a new shot and a new chance at being the best you can be… But I also know that, in a way, each new book after the first one is jumbled up with what happened before. You can’t truly separate yourself, even if you change your name. (Sometimes I wonder about that.) Readers remember. Publishers remember. Bookstores remember. And you remember.

I think all of that has only made me doubt MORE. How is it possible to have learned so much, to have gained confidence as a writer and at the same time lost it and question everything?

I’m beginning to see that this is just a natural part of the publishing process for some of us. It’s a piece of this job. So now the job grows to include ways of getting past this.

So each morning when I sit down at the café table to write, I have to make the daily effort to sweep the doubts away. I don’t look in the mirror at the monster. I avoid picturing the road ahead. I try very, very hard to think nothing about the after.

I have to think only of the here-and-now, which is all any of us can control anyway. The here-and-now of writing this draft at this café table this morning.

My ways to cure creeping doubt include:

  • Rereading one of the books that inspired me to become a writer, or even a page from it, a little dip into that memorable magic and then slipping the book back in place on the shelf…
  • Reading an inspiring book on the process of writing (I’ve been carrying Still Writing by Dani Shapiro for weeks now, reading it in pieces in the mornings before I write)…
  • Listening to a happy-making song on repeat with headphones in and bopping around on the chair to myself…
  • Talking with a fellow writer and discovering, oh wow, she has the same worries I do and this is perfectly normal and I am not alone…
  • Talking with your best reader, the person who loves everything you write and believes in you (I hope you have this person—it could be your partner, your best friend, your agent, your mom) and let yourself hear the good, let the good outweigh any worries you have over any bad…
  • Find an old letter or email where someone said something amazing about something you wrote and read it once more, like it’s the first time. It helps to keep a little folder of these for future moments…
  • Close your eyes, picture the finished book in your hands, the one you will write, the one you absolutely will finish one day, and let yourself appreciate that feat that you know you will achieve…
  • Picture yourself as you were before, when all of this writing stuff was only a far-flung figment of your imagination. I like to picture myself at age 14–15, out in the woods behind my house with a notebook, this small-town girl who’d never even seen a real-live author in person, who loved to read and would never have really expected she would end up here, where I am right now, a WRITER. I think, to see me now, she would have cried in delight…

Fellow writers, those of you who share my affliction, help me out here: What cures your writing doubts and how do you face down your doubt monster?

On Deadlines (Oh, How I Love a Solid Deadline)

fixthislater_wide

(Just a little reminder to myself, written in my first-draft notebook.)

First off, in case I haven’t been talking about it enough and boring you with it, I have a deadline. You haven’t heard? So it’s November 1, and it’s the deadline to turn in the first official draft of my new novel to my new publisher. The book was sold on proposal, which means I had a lot of pages to write, and quickly, and I’m still not done yet, I feel very far from done, and it’s already October 4, and cue urgency, and cue one-track-deadline-mind, cue a healthy motivational level of panic.

I kind of love deadlines, actually. I love all of the above. This gets me writing.

(And, little psychological interlude I guess: Having a deadline makes me feel wanted. Someone wants to read my book enough that they gave me a deadline! That makes me feel really, really good.)

I’ve run into an interesting phenomenon lately when I mention my deadline. It’s one where I am all gung-ho crazy-serious about this deadline—like, I can go around blaming it for everything (I don’t have time to (a) go to the gym (b) clean (c) eat healthy (d) see friends (e) take that freelance project (f) the list goes on, I’m on deadline blah!). I know I take it too far. I exaggerate. I am very dramatic (was accused of this just last night!).

So, yeah, it’s not the end of the world or anything.

But at the same time, I kept sensing that not all writers take these book deadlines as seriously. Or understood why I was being so serious about mine. And it made me wonder about myself? Why do I?

Here’s why.

Talking to some authors while I was away at my last colony, I explained I was there for an emergency residency and I had this deadline and I didn’t know if I could make it but I was putting my all into trying, and the most common response was…

But why do you have to make the deadline?

Deadlines don’t mean that much.

Publishers move deadlines all the time.

And sure, that happens. I remember. I worked in publishing, and manuscript deadlines rarely held. But here’s the other thing about working in publishing—as the production editor for these books, when those deadlines didn’t hold because the author and the editor needed more time? Not always did the publishing season shift. What shifted was the time the other people in the office had to work on the book—the designer, the typesetter, and last and yes actually least, the production editor, the in-house copyediting person who is supposed to catch every last typo before your book goes to press. I’d be the one losing time. And for someone whose job it was to make sure the books were PERFECT, you can imagine how exasperating and stressful this was. I once spent Thanksgiving weekend working on an enormous book, unpaid because salaried employees don’t get overtime and no freelancer could do the work as quickly as I could, at home, because the production deadline couldn’t move and I was the last round in the shrinking schedule. I’ve made mistakes during rush schedules that have haunted me, because not having enough time is never an excuse. The job could be so overwhelming, often due to the way work piled up and everything was due at the same time, and deadlines weren’t always met… that I stopped in 2009.

Yes I know publishers often have a cushion with their deadlines, to avoid just this problem. I am sure I have a cushion. If I need it.

But why be all blasé at the start? I’d rather take advantage of that cushion later, if I need it, during revisions.

When I don’t make my deadlines as a writer, I can’t help but think of that person at the end of the assembly line at my publisher—that person who was me, a short number of years ago—and I want her to have her Thanksgiving weekend, you know?

I really want to make my writing deadlines.

I take them very seriously.

I don’t always make them—and I hate that—but it is not for lack of trying.

At the same time, if I need more time I want to be as honest about it as possible, and say that as early as possible, so the schedule can be adjusted.

For authors, meeting—truly trying your best to meet—your deadlines is a way of respecting everyone in this process. There are a lot of people whose hands will be on this book, in one way or another, and I am honored and humbled by that. I want them to have the time they need to do their best work, too.

Right now, I am very early in the publishing process of this book, and the schedule can be adjusted—there is still time.

…So why am I working so hard, then, and pushing myself to write a crazy amount of words in such a short amount of time? Why not take as much time as I want to write this book?

Art can’t be rushed, right?

Because time is relative. I find that my time expands to fill the time I have. If I’d been given a year to finish this draft, I would have taken every last day of that year. If I had two years, I’d take the two. I don’t know why, but I always seem to feel like I never have enough time. I want to challenge myself with this draft and finish it by November 1, or as close to that date as I can.

Then I’ll revise. My favorite part of writing is the revising anyway.

There’s also the issue of money, which I know not all writers like to talk about because it’s crass, but, that’s part of it, too: I can’t stretch this out and take my sweet time on this—which would be, oh, from experience I’d guess three-and-a-half years of luxurious discovery and writing only when I am fired up and inspired—because I no longer have a day job to keep me afloat. I signed this contract with full intention to deliver. I want to keep this book on time, because I want the next book on the contract to be on time. It affects advance payouts and later book deals and my career for the foreseeable future.

That’s also the reason I wanted to sell on proposal, which is another question I get. I have thought of taking my ideal block of time—three-and-a-half years—and stepping back from all this and going back to a nine-to-five full-time office job so I didn’t have to rush myself and so I could still pay my bills, and selling a book only after I’ve written the whole thing and revised it a few times, too, the idea of which fills me with envy, but I didn’t choose that.

I chose this deadline.

So I’m trying to make it.

I am trying.

I don’t know if I can do it. I may need more time.

If I do, if I can’t complete a good first draft in the time I have allotted, I will be honest. Until then, I guess the production-editor part of me is still alive and kicking. And she really wants me to make November 1.

The Two Weeks and the 43,258 Words

I am home now, from a stroke of good luck: a two-week “emergency residency” at the MacDowell Colony, a perfect artists’ colony in New Hampshire. I decided to do something different while there. Instead of my usual slow, plodding pace for writing a first draft of a novel, where I circle in on myself and revise as I go, thus stalling me for weeks on end, I told myself I’d write forward. Only forward. And I’d also try to give myself a daily word count. The word count started off as 2,000 words a day… but things were going so well that I upped it to 3,000.

Every morning in my live-in studio in the woods, I would get up at 6:50 a.m. and walk to Colony Hall for delicious breakfast—I was obsessed with breakfast—then back up my writing from the day before in the library and go back to work through the whole day until dinnertime, at 6:30. After dinner, I’d work, too, which meant I sacrificed so much of what being at a colony is all about (hanging out with other artists, seeing every single presentation, sharing my own work with everyone, which I didn’t do this time, and playing games like Ping-Pong and Scrabble and “PIG” on the pool table, which should be said I am terrible at, but I try very enthusiastically, hey, I try), but I was desperate for words, words, words. That’s why my emergency residency had been approved, after all: My deadline was November 1. And I was determined to write as much as I could.

Oh, wow did I.

Here is a peek at some of the scribbles in my notebook while I was away:

macd13_scribble1

macd13_scribble2

macd13_scribble3

macd13_scribble4

macd13_scribble5

macd13_scribble6

macd13_scribble7

macd13_scribble8

Final count of new words written, in just two weeks?

43,238

!!!!

I kept track every day, so here’s a breakdown:

all the words biggest

I’m not bragging. I’m just kind of stunned and want to document this. I’ve never written that fast before—and keep in mind, these are first draft words… there will be changes, there will be cuts, many cuts, there will be deep crimson flushes of embarrassment when I read over some of these words later. Even so. Even so! I’ve never written so much in so short a time. I probably never will again. I just want to remember these two short, productive weeks for always.

Another thing I did that I don’t usually do in my writing life at home is map out my book’s plot on the walls. It was only because I walked into my studio (usually a studio used for dancers and photographers) and discovered a GIANT space and white walls with push pins, empty and waiting to be made use of.

(Nef studio, usually used for photographers, artists, and dancers/choreographers.)

(Nef studio, usually used for photographers, artists, and dancers/choreographers.)

So I rearranged the furniture a few times, finally settling on having the desk toward the center of the big space, and did this…

That is a working map of my book’s plot on the wall.

macd13_desksetup

(Photo taken from the sleeping loft. Not pictured: LOTS of space, including a fireplace and room for dancing and darkroom and cathedral ceiling with exposed wooden beams… It was surreal.)

I posted my word count on Instagram while I was away, and author Beth Revis asked about my process, if I’d done anything different to get all these words. It got me thinking.

Beth said, “I’d love to know more about your process here. What caused such a huge word count? Being in a new place? The ability to focus? A new method?”

And here’s what I answered her:

I think part of it is this place itself… I knew I’d be productive here, which is why I wrote them and requested the emergency time before my Nov. 1 deadline. But I never never expected to be THIS productive. I think it helped that I pushed myself to write forward and not tinker and revise as much as I usually do. I only let myself work on a few pages from the day before to get momentum, then pushed forward. I also gave myself a daily word count. And I also mapped out the book visually on the wall and spent a lot of time looking at it. But the biggest thing was probably this: there is no internet in the studios at the colony (one of the big reasons I wanted to come). No TV either. Just me and my book.

Also! I did a lot of reading (instead of TV watching). During this time of writing all these words, I was hungrily borrowing books from the fellows library, and I read 9 books! On #10 now!

But so much of it was the place. The colony whose motto is “freedom to create.”

(The road to my studio. A beautiful walk during the day. A scary walk in the nighttime because I am afraid of the dark.)

(The road to my studio. A beautiful walk during the day. A scary walk in the nighttime because I am afraid of the dark.)

(The newly renovated fellows library, where I took out all those books and went to check email, as this is the only place at the colony with internet access.)

(The newly renovated and expanded fellows library, where I took out all those books and went to check email, as this is the only place at the colony with wifi access.)

(What windows.)

(What windows.)

(No MacDowell Colony blog post is complete without mention of the lunches... delicious lunches... that they deliver to your door each day in a picnic basket.)

(No MacDowell Colony blog post is complete without mention of the lunches… delicious lunches… that they deliver to your door each day in a picnic basket.)

(Every night the artists gather for dinner in Colony Hall. The dinner bell rings at 6:30.)

(Every night the artists gather for dinner in Colony Hall. The dinner bell rings at 6:30.)

(The nights were dark. If a building wasn't nearby, it was absolute darkness.)

(The nights were dark. If a building wasn’t nearby, it was absolute darkness.)

(Every studio has its own set of tombstones, signed by the artists who've stayed there.)

(Every studio has its own set of tombstones, signed by the artists who’ve stayed there. I was excited to discover Lucy Puls’s name… she’s an incredible artist who I met at Yaddo in 2010!)

(I enjoyed visiting the chickens—i.e., "the ladies"—each morning.)

(I enjoyed visiting the chickens—i.e., “the ladies”—each morning.)

(This gang of wild turkeys would wander the colony. Years ago, on my first visit to the MacDowell Colony in 2005, I was surrounded by a flock of wild turkeys that followed me up to the door of my studio in a tight bunch and I called E in a panic. I stayed away from them this time... wary.)

(This gang of wild turkeys would wander the colony. Years ago, on my first visit to the MacDowell Colony in 2005, I was surrounded by a flock of wild turkeys that followed me up to the door of my studio in a tight bunch and I called E in a panic. He cracked up. I stayed away from them this time… wary.)

(I was so busy writing, I didn't get to see even one moose or bear! A group of artists saw a bobcat outside the library before dinner one night and I was terribly envious.)

(I was so busy writing, I didn’t get to see even one moose or bear! A group of artists saw a bobcat outside the library before dinner one night and I was terribly envious.)

(My favorite photographer. She did a residency at the MacDowell Colony in July 1980.)

(My favorite photographer. She did a residency at the MacDowell Colony in July 1980.)

(Here's a photo of me from my last breakfast—strawberry-banana pancakes! Photo taken by my composer friend Alvin. Look how dazed and happy I am about all the words I wrote!)

(Here’s a photo of me from my last breakfast—strawberry-banana pancakes! Photo taken by my composer friend Alvin. Look how dazed and happy I am about all the words I wrote!)

I am forever grateful to the kind and generous people in admissions who approved my emergency residency and made room for me for two weeks in this heavenly place. I feel like I was hit by a miracle, and still can’t believe all the words I wrote.

Most. Productive. Residency. EVER. When I die, I’m giving my fortunes (ha) to the MacDowell Colony so I can help gift weeks like this to future writers.

Now here is the moment you decide to apply:

APPLY TO THE MAGICAL MACDOWELL COLONY

MacDowellWordMark

A Gift from the Writing Gods: The Emergency Writing Cave

tombstone 1

I am writing my book.

I have been writing my book for months and months.

My book—the first draft—is due November 1.

I’ve tried to make it easier on myself this time around… I can’t tell you that’s working. Why? BECAUSE NO BOOK IS EASY TO WRITE WHAT WAS I THINKING.

I went away and hid in the woods.

I came back home and had setbacks.

I kept a lot of things offline because I don’t think you need to know any of it.

I had good moments with the book, too. And I believe in it.

But my deadline is fast approaching and I desperately needed a cave to escape to.

Then E—who was witnessing all of this—made a suggestion. I took a chance and asked for something.

And the answer came back a YES.

more tombstones

I’m about to leave on a last-minute two-week what they call “emergency” residency at the MacDowell Colony. I can’t even tell you how grateful I am for the time.

The first time I visited the MacDowell Colony, I had not yet published any books. I was so horrifically shy, I couldn’t even look Michael Chabon in the eyes because I admired his writing too much. (He was then a writer in residence; now he’s chairman of the board of directors.) I stayed in a composer’s studio with a chandelier. I wrote pages of a book that never ended up being published and my heart was about to be broken over it, but I didn’t know that yet.

Fast forward years.

The second time I visited the MacDowell Colony, it was winter, months before Imaginary Girls came out. I was about to publish the book of my heart, and I was terrified, and I had every right to be. I stayed in a little fairy-tale cabin with a green door. I came out of my shell a little, made a fool of myself attempting to play pool, and made some wonderful friends. I wrote pages of a book that was published earlier this year.

Now I’ll have the opportunity to be at MacDowell for a third time, at the exact perfect moment, and I can’t even believe it.

I love the place so much, and I am so amazed and touched that they came through for me and gave me this emergency residency, that I am fully expecting to be writing the MacDowell Colony into my will. Let’s hope I become more successful so I can afford to leave them more than a piece of IKEA furniture.

I leave at 4:45 in the morning on Monday for the bus. There is no internet in the studios, so I will be mostly offline while I’m away. I will go to the library to check email once a day most likely, but I may not be replying to emails unless they are urgent.

I am going to immerse myself in this book like you’ve never seen. Oh, many of you are writers. I am sure you have seen. So you know what’s awaiting me.

I may just build a writing tent.

If you want to snail-mail me a good-luck, happy-writing letter or postcard while I am away, email me this weekend for the mailing address. I might send you a MacDowell Colony happy-writing-right-back-at-you postcard in thanks.

I will be back home in action in the corner of the local café on September 25. Until then.

A Dream

theaterempty

I had a dream that I had a magic wand. It was pink, with glitter. (I do not like the color pink, but go with me on this.) I could wave the wand and it would give me completed manuscripts. A wave, and The Walls Around Us was finished and ready for my editor. Another wave, and a short story appeared. Another wave, and the adult novel I want to write turned into a massive stack of pages on my desk. One last wave, and the secret project I’m working on was done and no longer such a secret. Waving my magic manuscript wand was SO easy. It was the best kind of magic I could hope for. I can’t tell you how terribly sad I was when I woke up and realized I didn’t have the wand and none of those manuscripts were actually written…

Until I remembered something.

I remembered that the reason I write isn’t for that final stack of pages all neat and collated on my desk. It’s for the *writing* part of writing. The feeling I get when I invent those pages, when I carve a good paragraph, when I create a character who surprises me. The process of writing, on good days, can be such a terrific high. A thrill and a deep sense of satisfaction that I’ve never felt for anything else in this life, ever. If I did have that pink, glittery magic wand from my dream, I’d never have a chance to experience this feeling again. And wouldn’t that be sadder?

Writers Colony Diary: The Hambidge Center June 2013

Sometimes, when I’m writing and barred from Twitter and blogging and all manner of distracting things, I keep a journal in which I talk to myself. I did this while I was away for a short residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia, and I wanted to share selected bits with you. Some of the more personal things—and all the specific thoughts about my novel-in-progress—have been removed. But there’s a lot about process and being at a colony.

Here are some selected bits from my journal…

(This is my studio! It's called Foxfire, and is up a little hill. It's bigger than my apartment at home.)

(This was my studio! It’s called Foxfire, and is up a little hill. It’s bigger than my apartment at home.)

Day 1: June 12, 2013

I am happy to say I was able to sleep last night without any tricks beyond keeping the bathroom light on and closing all the blinds so no night creatures (more about creatures later) could look in and watch me sleeping. Usually at colonies I have the most terrible time sleeping. But for some reason here in this place I could sleep. I also made sure to lock all the doors and lock the screen doors. I slept. I woke up to a headache, but I slept.

Headache from all the travel yesterday. And lots of talking to the other artists once I got here, and I’d taken a Dramamine and I just don’t think I’d recovered. After dinner I went back to my studio in the trees (Foxfire), and my ears were buzzing and I started reading a book: Tell the Wolves I’m Home.

Wow.

There are six other artists here, but I can tell already that they are far more social than I want or can be while I’m here. This is a work retreat for me, really, and I have to focus. I can’t fuck this up. But it’s a short time and I’m sure people will understand.

The thing about being at a place like this is you can be as social as you want to be—or not be. You can spend all day sleeping. Really, the time is yours.

The time is mine. Mine!

This weekend I want to hide away and focus and get so much done that I’ll look back on this and know it saved me.

This is a boring update. I should tell you what the place is like. Foxfire is a little studio house hidden in the trees, but very close to the main house and the main office. The walk to dinner is maybe five minutes, seven tops down a dirt driveway and then a dirt road. The studios seem really close together, but I don’t see anyone from my windows. It feels private enough (though I can’t let myself think I’m alone; I still remember when I was at MacDowell the last time and two people, an artist and her guest, wandered in front of my window while I was writing, and it was a good thing I had clothes on). It’s nice to have a kitchen and food here, it’s nice to have a shower here, it’s nice to not have to go anywhere until dinner. That makes me feel like I will get some work done here. I mean how can I not? If I can’t here, then I don’t deserve to be anywhere.

Fuck.

I fell asleep.

And I had a weird dream that ended up with two girls outside my door trying to get in and then rescuing food and messages left for me from a tall pole, and a dying cat thrown into the road for mercy.

Hambidge has this in the welcome booklet:

“Know that the time is yours to use in any way that supports your creative journey. After all, creative ‘work,’ as we all know, is not always recognized in terms of Mr. Webster’s definition. Above all, be kind to yourself, honor the muse that guides you and believe in your talent.”

(I wanted to see what people could see of me from the road. That's the view of my studio through all those trees. I was surrounded by green.)

(I wanted to see what people could see of me from the road. That’s the view of my studio through all those trees. I was surrounded by green.)

Day 2: June 13

I shouldn’t have taken that Benadryl so late last night. (I started having some weird panicked, nervous reaction before I left, and I think the heat here is making it worse, so I took a Benadryl, hoping the antihistamine would help… only I took it past midnight.) I kept waking up every two hours, sounds jolting me awake, like reflexes, like someone was in here or right outside and I had to defend myself. It was nobody and nothing. (Though I killed a great big enormous bug in the bathroom around 4am. I’ve noticed that the bugs here seem to be generally even larger than the ones I’m used to in the city… there was a moth that first morning that clung to the kitchen window and I swear was as big as a bird.)

Georgia blueberries aren’t as good as New Jersey blueberries, just so you know.

Goal today is massive work on the outline. I’d like to email a chunk to E.

I should shower soon.

It’s good to be here with a deadline. It really pushes you along. Otherwise, I can’t be trusted not to sleep in even later and spend my whole time just reading every book I brought on my e-reader.

I don’t know. I have to say this. I’m sitting here working on my novel’s outline, adding in a new character, thinking hard on the arc and playing with the reveals, and the fan is going and there is a nice breeze and I’m wearing these new red soft shoes and a striped tank top, and there’s a fresh crunchy green apple beside me, and speaking of green, I look out this wall of windows outside my studio and it’s all green: the trees are filled with color, and the wind makes the leaves move, and I can’t be dallying about on the internet, and I don’t have to get dressed for dinner for two hours, and I can hear the rush of the wind and it’s so nice I don’t even have music on, and this novel is coming alive under my fingers, each new hour put in helping me see more and more into it, all these scenes begging to be written in this sweet exciting little thrill of a way… and hey, this is nice, being  here. This is great.

There are the weeks of stress that always happen before I head away to a colony—mostly traveling, which I am just not good at, especially when it involves a plane or a car, and this involved both. And the being away from E … But even so, even with the stresses of being apart and the anxiety that I had in getting here (which I still have a rash from, I think), even from that, I’m glad I’m here.

I know I will have to be antisocial with everyone over the next week, and I am sorry for that because it does take away some of the creative inspiring aspects of being at a colony with other artists. But this deadline awaits, and I kind of love that it awaits. It pumps through my blood. It makes me sit up straight and drink another cup of jasmine tea. It makes me love this novel even more than I did just yesterday.

I really don’t mind all this time to myself. I actually thrive on it. This just cements that the colonies where you live in a house with all the other artists and cook and clean together like on some warped socially awkward reality show are not the best ones for me. I like the solitude of this live-in studio. I know I am here for free thanks to the NEA grant, but I even think this is worth paying for: the $200 a week. I wonder if, in the future, I might come again and just go ahead and pay for it. This studio is kind of perfect for me, and the quiet is even more perfect for me… and I love being alone with myself. I am, more and more, loving alone time, especially alone time that keeps me disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s the internet, on the outside, that really murders me and makes me less of a person and a terrible writer. I wish I could find a way to have this more, in shorter bursts and with E a part of it—but I wish this could be a part of my real life, instead of a special present I can get once a year if I’m lucky.

It rains. Faint rolls of thunder in the distance. Birds calling. Rain pattering the leaves of the trees, so not all of it hits the back deck of my studio. That sound. The warm drops on my bare shoulders. I stepped outside for a bit.

(Only residents allowed past here. My studio was a little ways away.)

(Only residents allowed past here. My studio was a little ways away.)

Day 3: Friday, June 14, 2013

I didn’t reach my first goal. Which was to write to a certain point by last night and send it off to E. And I know it was because I wasn’t sure of my character O., like how I can’t get my finger on her somehow. Then, sometime in the night or in the haze of the morning, when I wasn’t sure where I was and had ignored my alarm and wasn’t out of bed yet, so kept drifting off with confused dreams putting me here and also there, in the city, until I remembered where I was again, which was here, I thought of her. O. And a click.

Something wonderful: There is a composer right now in the studio down the hill, the one I think I can see the door of through the trees, and I can hear the piano rising through the air to reach me through my windows. It’s a wonderful sound, distant but touching me all the way up here. (That was not meant to sound gross.)

Voices carry here. I can hear—though I can’t make out their words really—two artists talking in the road.

Today is June 14. When I saw the date this morning, I immediately knew what it signified. It’s my IMAGINARY GIRLS pub date. This was the day, in 2011, that the hardcover came out, and this was also the day, in 2012, when the paperback came out. Now, it’s no day and nothing comes out for 2013, but it will still be a special day for me. That book meant everything to me, still does. I wish more people had read it… but hey, I wrote it, and isn’t that all that matters?

(This is Rock House, where the artists in residence could go to check email, do laundry, make phone calls, and where we gathered for dinner 4 nights a week.)

(This is Rock House, where the artists in residence could go to check email, do laundry, make phone calls, and where we gathered for dinner 4 nights a week.)

Day 4, Saturday, June 15

Last night I couldn’t sleep. Or I couldn’t STAY asleep. I did send stuff off to E, but it wasn’t nerves. It was that annoying fear of sleeping in a strange place all alone.

E and I talked on the phone. Mostly we talked about how what I have so far is jam-packed full of stuff. Too much, maybe, and maybe too many stories I want to hit. Sometimes it feels like this is the last novel I’ll ever get to write and I want to shove every single last idea I ever had into it… like the world is about to end or something.

I need to focus, and make choices.

And I need to remember: This won’t be the last novel I get to write. I have a two-book contract! There’s a whole other novel after this and we haven’t even talked about what it might be! I don’t have to cram everything and the kitchen sink into this. I can save some things…

How to wake from an illicit nap:

Roll over and happen to look, woozily, out the window at the head of the bed. Find a strange brown Georgia beetleish-roachlike insect staring at you, its antennae pointed skyward, its bug eyes settled on you. Leap out of bed with the reflexes of a much younger you. Smash bug with nearest, hardest shoe.

I always go through these humps after I get feedback on something. I’m going to start calling it a hump. Because it slows you down, because sometimes you have to stop altogether and find a way to climb up and over in order to keep going. And also because sometimes you want to stand up there at the top and you’re afraid to leap back down and keep going, because fear is always there.

I guess I just need to think for a while. So much thinking goes into the writing of a novel, gah!

But, hey, listen: It’s Saturday night—and you don’t need to go anywhere. You even napped (woke up by beetle/roach) and so that means you might just be alert enough to work through the night until bedtime. And also: You finished your book, and maybe you shouldn’t start a new one just yet… Short stories only maybe. That way, reading can’t be such a distraction, because the last book (Where You Can Find Me by Sheri Joseph) was so phenomenally good.

Listen: You have tonight. And listen: You have all of tomorrow and Monday. You don’t have to call the office about the photograph on Monday… you can wait till Tuesday. And I think you can wait to do laundry on Wednesday, though it will be dire on Wednesday and you’ll really have to be sure to make it happen. But you can maybe not wear socks Sunday and Monday, if you’re staying home anyway, right? I think we have enough underwear; it’s more the socks. (Can’t use laundry machines on Mondays or Tuesdays.) If you start getting stressed out about this tomorrow night, you can do laundry, but only if the writing is going really well.

So listen. Stop writing ABOUT being here and write WHILE you are here.

(This was my favorite part of Rock House: the porch, and the rocking chairs! We'd gather here before dinner to talk.)

(This was my favorite part of Rock House: the porch, and the rocking chairs! We’d gather here before dinner to talk.)

Day 5, Sunday, June 16

Today is a day I get to spend all by myself. I don’t even know the last time I did this. I don’t have to dump out the garbage today if I don’t want to. I don’t have to do the laundry today. I don’t have to go anywhere at all. It’s funny how my natural instincts come out when I’m left alone in a place: I eat. I read. I isolate. I write some. I talk to myself in these journal entries. I don’t even want to sleep all day. I want to wake up and be alone with myself. And I love the idea that I don’t have to go to dinner at 5:55, or whenever to be there at 6, for two whole days. I don’t have to do anything at all except be here and be alone with myself, if that’s what I want.

I started reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon last night. I know I should be sticking to the short story collections because they are easier to pick up and put down, and so I won’t get distracted wanting to swallow a whole novel instead of working on my own today, but I kind of remember what happens because I saw the movie, so maybe the urgency of needing to finish to find out won’t overtake me this time. and also it’s all about writing, the protagonist and narrator is a writer… and the particular miseries and circular thoughts of being a writer working on a novel and feeling like the novel has gotten way ahead of you and beyond your capacities as a human and certainly your small talents as a writer. There’s a lot to recognize here. And some of it amuses me, makes me laugh.

I should shower. There were so many bugs—beetles, spiders, and daddy long legs—in the bathroom today. I squashed some, ran some down the drain, and saved some with a glass and a magazine to let loose on the back deck. But so many. I’m kind of on edge still, thinking of them all.

Is this what it’s like to live in the country? Bugs galore first thing you wake up in the morning? Do they gather around and fester in every night?

Bugs… I should add that to my novel. Write that down somewhere you’ll find it later.

Today is Father’s Day. I have no comment on that.

I am here. I have all night. I have at least four good hours, possibly five. I can do sprints of bits. I can write forward. I can plan. Then I can take chapter-reading and snack-eating breaks as motivation.

But it really is true that I am coming into my true self here. I don’t want to go outside. I don’t want to get bugs on me or have to get dressed or put on actual shoes. I want to eat whenever I’m hungry and whatever I want when I’m hungry and I don’t want to have to follow mandated mealtimes. I want to take breaks to read—and, boy, as if my true childhood self is rising through the mush and haze of adulthood, I sure do want to read A LOT. This is how I used to be as a kid, as a teenager, as a college student, and then… I guess I grew up and my true self got crushed. I have to go out all the time at home because we have nothing there: my morning stuff is out. The mocha (which I’ve just been enjoying green tea, and have to say, I’ve been fine) and the bagel (and we don’t have a toaster at home), but as I was telling E, I think my true natural state would be to stay in if I could. If I had a writing room at home, if we had a house and food enough to last a week, would I ever leave? He said he’d be afraid I’d become a recluse. I am thinking my actual natural state is that of the Writer Recluse. I wonder if I’ll become more myself as I age into my forties and turn into that.

Staying silent online has been pretty nice, too. It feels good to not insert myself into insignificant conversation. To not pay attention, and also to not be paid attention to. Probably no one is thinking of me. Probably no one notices I’m gone. In a way, that’s nice. In a way, really, I like disappearing. I’ve always loved the idea of disappearing, haven’t I? I always like to slip out of places unnoticed if I can—how many times in life have I done just that at crowded parties? And Twitter is like a crowded party in which most of the time no one wants to really talk to me anyway.

Oh blech, I sound like I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling happy. I’m feeling like I’m having a good weekend here—except for having trouble sleeping and missing E, especially at night, and hoping he is okay up in New York right now.

SIX DAYS LEFT!

You have to be better at working. You have to be better at forcing yourself to work. You need to try tomorrow—and you need to carry that discipline home with you to New York, where the internet and the distractions and the home and the people and the copyediting projects await you. serious.

And you have to be a better writer. You have to be better. You are not good enough yet. You are not good enough yet. You need to be better.

You have to change who you are and how you act. There’s no time for all the self-doubt and small-making. I mean: fuck you. are you trying to sabotage me? I think you are sometimes.

(My back porch. Where I liked to go to "think.")

(My back porch. Where I liked to go to “think.”)

Day 6, Monday, June 17

I am very, very aware of what little time I have left here.

Today, I woke up and it must have rained last night. I tried to get a big moth out of the studio, but it just wouldn’t go out the door I kept opening and pointing the broom to, I lost another moth, I relocated a spider out to the back porch, and I had to kill a little crippled moth that was living in the bathtub and wouldn’t leave.

I don’t have a book to read today. I keep looking longingly at the reading chair… but that’s not what I’m here for. I read a bunch of books. I have them in my mind now. But now, today, I need to finish what was I was supposed to finish, according to my schedule, I think on Friday! I’m really behind. I had a whole plan for what I’d accomplish here and I’m not following it.

But I have today. And I think maybe it helps with the panic if you think of one day at a time—one task for the day that you want to accomplish. One goal in mind—and have your eyes set on it all day. I know what my goal is for today. It’s doable.

(Here is where the artists gathered for dinner on the nights the chef cooked for us.)

(Here is where the artists gathered for dinner on the nights the chef cooked for us.)

Day …. 7! Already Day 7! Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Should I be surprised at how slow I am? I am always so surprised—and yet I am always so slow… and the funniest thing is how much I believe in myself in those initial moments of giving myself a crazy deadline.

I’d wanted to finish the whole thing this weekend—by Sunday night. (Even though I kept pushing it out.) But I gave myself till Sunday night when I was trying to be realistic.

Ha ha ha ha ha. And ha.

I panicked while falling asleep. I woke up, occasionally, in the night, to panic. And I got out of bed instead of letting myself drift with sleep because 1) had to pee and 2) couldn’t help but panic.

(But you want to see the food! The chef, Rae, made utterly delicious and amazing vegetarian food for us 4 nights a week. I devoured the divine mac and cheese she made before photographing it. But here is another favorite dinner: Clockwise from top left: biscuit; roasted new potatoes; fried okra; black-eyed peas; corn; dandelion greens and tomatoes. YUM.)

(But you want to see the food! The chef, Rae, made utterly delicious and amazing vegetarian food for us 4 nights a week. I devoured the divine mac and cheese she made before photographing it. But here is another favorite dinner: Clockwise from top left: biscuit; roasted new potatoes; fried okra; black-eyed peas; corn; dandelion greens and tomatoes. YUM.)

[No entry Day 8—must have written up a storm!]

(Did we get dessert? Oh hell yeah did we get dessert. Here's a photo of Rae's banana pudding.)

(Did we get dessert? Oh hell yeah did we get dessert. Here’s a photo of Rae’s banana pudding.)

DAY, WHAT IS IT DAY 9? 10? THURSDAY JUNE 20

Something clicked in my mind, suddenly, or I should say finally. Last night it was eating at me, last night I needed it to come and I felt like I was forcing it, like the army of moths that slam at bat at the window screens at night, trying to get in to where the light is, and they were going insane last night, as was my imagination, trying to form into an orderly line and get these ideas articulated onto a page in words in English. I mean, what the fuck, why is creating a novel so hard? Why is every stage so hard? Why do I try, each new time, with each new novel, to make this easier on myself and each time I seem to fail?

There is no way to make this easier. It is always going to be hard. Why can’t I learn this.

Anyway, here I am today, and the ideas are flowing and the words are moving and I will tell you the secret because hey, it’s an obvious one and I think it will be recognized by writers (and artists) the world over.

COFFEE.

I MADE A POT OF COFFEE.

I mean, damn, I’ve been doing 2, 3 cups of green tea a day, but I ran out of my favorite jasmine tea and the green tea substitute I have tastes kind of muddy and I was beginning to suspect there was no caffeine in it at all because I felt so woozy this morning and then it hit me: I had an emergency bag of Starbucks coffee I could brew in that little coffeepot. And I also had hot chocolate packets I could sprinkle in.

And voila.

FUCKING COFFEE WHY DIDN’T I MADE COFFEE BEFORE THIS?

Including today, I have just three days left before I leave here for Asheville.

Not to panic.

Back to it.

Hello, coffee.

(I saw a lizard! On the porch! I freaked out but somehow was able to take this photo! At least I think it was a lizard! Maybe it was a salamander! I have no idea!)

(I saw a lizard! On the porch! I freaked out but somehow was able to take this photo! At least I think it was a lizard! Maybe it was a salamander! I have no idea!)

DAY 10 I think, FRIDAY JUNE 21

There is a married couple here now—they met at another artists’ colony, but have separate studios in which to do their own work. I am hyper-jealous because I wish E were here with me. This is what happens when you’ve been with someone and grown up with someone and changed and grew and came into yourself with someone over a span of almost twenty years. Also he reads every word I write and is very helpful, actually essential, no one even realizes how essential, and I guess not all writers can live in an isolation tank away from close feedback from people who know your work best and he’s my Someone and I’d like him to be in the tank with me. (Also, he’s home and not feeling well and I am worried about him.)

I took a slice of cake home from dinner last night and I’m so going to eat it today. It’s coconut. E hates coconut. I feel like I’m doing something illicit.

I have not allowed myself to read a book in days. Punishment.

E told me to go out and get some sun. I don’t want sun. I want words!

I am running out of food—well, food I want to eat—and I have no way of getting to the grocery store on my own.

But I leave Sunday at noon, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Basically, I have: some Rice Krispies. Some black beans. Some frozen corn. And peanut butter and bread I froze in the freezer. An old mushy apple. And a bunch of chocolate I hid from myself.

(This was the view from my writing desk. No wonder I wrote a forest into my novel.)

(This was the view from my writing desk. No wonder I wrote a forest into my novel.)

DAY 11, SATURDAY JUNE 22

TODAY IS MY LAST DAY.

I realized last night that sometimes, when I am falling asleep, I imagine the sound of sirens and it calms and soothes me and lets me drift off. The fan, when heard with my ears at a certain angle, can sound like faraway city sirens in the strangest way.

If this was meant to be a diary about being away at an artists colony, I’m afraid it’s turned into a diary of deadlines and panic and being a working writer trying desperately not to disappoint your new editor. A diary of a recluse. A diary of how utterly boring and painful it can be at times to write a novel.

I mean, it’s supposed to be romantic, yeah? Magic?

The lesson here could be that you don’t want to go to a colony stay when you have a deadline because you don’t want to spend your time panicking. Then again, the best way to make a deadline is to have all this time ahead of you and no distractions, and the colony stay, for me, came at the perfect time. Except it was too short. I could have used another week, I think—only, I’m  missing E too much for a whole other week.

I don’t have any colony stays planned after this. This is it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get invited to one of these again. And I didn’t get to see a bear. I had a bell to ring on my keychain if I saw one on the path, too—apparently the noise will alert them that you are there? And then they’ll leave you alone? I don’t know, the little tinkly bell sounds very enticing…

Either way, no bears.

I’m feeling reluctant to go back into the real world where the internet lives. So I need to find a way to carry this experience with me. Well, everything except the bugs. If I carry a big spider back in my suitcase I will freak the fuck out, let me tell you. I am going to shake that thing out before I start packing. Wish me luck.

This colony stay was different than others I’ve had: More time with myself, which I loved more than I expected. No game-playing (I miss pool-table PIG, though I lost every game). And a constant sense of the ticking clock, which I think is mainly because I was only able to come for two weeks. But that’s the beauty of colonies: You make the experience into what you want. I did that. My only reget is not taking leftovers back to my studio of Rae’s mac and cheese.

Yeah, I’d come here again. Hey. How soon can I come here again?

(Here's the desk I liked to write on—there were actually two desks in the studio, but this was the one I liked best. I should mention that I don't usually write with my last novel nearby—that's weird. It's only there because I was preparing for a reading at Malaprop's... and I didn't even end of reading at the event anyway!)

(Here’s the desk I liked to write on—there were actually two desks in the studio, but this was the one I liked best. I should mention that I don’t usually write with my last novel nearby—that’s weird. 17 & GONE is only there because I was preparing for a reading at Malaprop’s… and I didn’t even end up reading at the event anyway! Note also: my writing sweater. That’s a colony essential.)

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The next deadline to apply for a residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia is September 15. APPLY! 

The Writing That Comes Before All the Writing: On Outlining

chair in snow

I used to be a dedicated outliner. My outlines for novels would take up dozens and dozens of pages, come with color-coded notes to myself (this has been written and you don’t need to worry about it anymore = blue ; not sure of this, but you’ll come up with something better when you write it = purple ; what the hell do I do here HELP! = red). I’d basically write a paragraph describing every single scene in the book, chapter by chapter, in order, scene by scene by scene, and sometimes getting so inspired that occasionally actual writing would slip in between the bullet points, stray bits of dialogue, lines I wanted to be sure to use. Writing between the lines; writing that felt freed up and loose and full of possibility because it wasn’t “real” writing and I didn’t have to make the sentences sound good. (And, times like that, the sentences often come out sounding good.)

Outlining felt essential to writing a novel because I used to do work-for-hire projects, and in order to get paid I’ve have to turn in an outline before the draft and get it approved so I could start writing. Though I seem to remember outlining my first-ever written novel, Bardo. The 500-page behemoth of a novel didn’t get any plot help from my doing so. But outlining was a method, even then, before I knew how to write a novel: putting down my thoughts in a place where they weren’t threatened and squandered by having to be “real.”

Then I met a moment of what I guess I’d call false confidence. I thought I was at a place with a novel where I didn’t need to outline. Usually I write opening chapters to find the voice, and then stop myself and do a plot outline.

This time I didn’t.

I wrote 17 & Gone without an outline. I kept telling myself the following: You know what will happen. Most of the book will be THIS (it actually wouldn’t be, surprise), so you won’t have to spend time doing THAT (surprise, was I wrong).

At some point, I was so deep into the first draft—the deadline looming menacingly, my future paycheck in hand—that even when I realized I did in fact need to outline because my brain was a chasm of static, lost girls, ominous black vans, bicycle tires, and voices, I’d peek at the calendar and tell myself I just didn’t have time to stop. I had to keep writing, or I’d never reach the deadline. There was NO TIME to outline!

But this is the thing, and I learned this lesson the hard way: Outlining, while taking time away from the official writing that can be put down toward your word count or page count, is not a waste of time at all… It will save time on the “real” writing. It will catch you before you fall into a deep plot hole and can’t claw your way out. It will lead you by the hand through your story. It will save you, in those blank moments of panic, when you doubt everything about yourself as a writer, it will save your life.

Also: Outlining actually is writing, in a way. It’s storytelling. It’s creating. It’s not at all a waste of time—it’s illumination.

And: Outlining is like sketching. It’s not permanent. It can change. It welcomes change. It’s there to give direction, but it never minds being led another way.

Just because you outline doesn’t mean you have to stick to it. I don’t, always. All I know is it helps me get where I’m going because it helps me know where I’m going. And I’m the kind of writer who needs to know there’s an end to that tunnel, or I’ll spend 100 pages inside the tunnel, describing the feel of the rocks in the darkness and you’ll have to shake me awake because I’ve fallen asleep with a pillow made of my shoes.

If I’d outlined 17 & Gone, I am sure it would have taken less time for me to write the first draft. And I have a sneaky suspicion that I wouldn’t have had to do such enormous revisions on the manuscript up until the very last minute… in which I pulled all-nighters to rearrange and rewrite huge chunks of pages the day of deadline and then watched something I hadn’t had a chance to even reread sail off because I’d put myself up against a wall and had no time left.

Outlining would have made that whole process much easier. That’s an understatement, because I don’t want to play the what-if game. I just want to do things differently this time.

I’m not coming on to shout about how everyone must outline their novels before writing. This writing process is so personal, and we all have our own ways of doing it. I think the lesson in this is simply: When you find something that works for you (be it outlining, be it flinging yourself into the dark tunnel and writing ahead without knowing what will come next, i.e., what writers call “pantsing,” which doesn’t make it sound very romantic, but whatever), maybe you should embrace it and keep at it instead of throwing it out the window and thinking you’ve grown beyond it.

I’m writing a new novel now, and I’m spending time outlining. I was talking to a writer friend the other week about outlining, and since he has a background as a screenwriter, he does very involved, very detailed stepped-out outlines, and expects the outline for the novel he’s writing to be about 100 pages.

He said something that inspired me, and I tweeted a paraphrase of it:

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 11.09.11 AM

…But I keep thinking about that, and I think that’s why outlining works so well for me. I get attached. I get very attached. When I’m writing the actual draft, I care so much about shaping the words and paragraphs—every line is significant, every word chosen for a reason. I don’t want boring or just functional writing—I write with intention. Even my first drafts. And then it’s very hard to let go of that way of phrasing, that word, that paragraph I spent so much time on, you know?

My drafting method is kind of maddening to me. But when I outline! When I outline, I have free permission to write just plain sentences. The words don’t matter so much as the action, the events, the plot. I’m seeing the bones behind it all. I’m making sure they fit together before I slather them with distracting words.

I guess what I’m doing is writing a rough draft, in a way, describing my novel from a distance as if I were watching it on a film screen. Or… describing what my novel could be… because at this point it can change. It will change. It often does change. I like to revise my outlines throughout the drafting process, making color-coded alterations as I go.

Just like my friend said, I’m allowing myself a place to make mistakes before I get too attached to my words. 

This all makes me think of one of the AWP panels I attended at the conference in Boston this past winter—I’d meant to blog about all the inspiring stuff I came away with, but I ended up just filing it away for myself… sorry for being so selfish and/or lazy. But one of the panels I went to was called “Keeping Track of Your Book,” and was about all the ways that fiction writers chart and keep a hold of their novels while writing them. I was really inspired by what Lan Samantha Chang told us: how she kept a diary for herself during the writing of her novel, a diary that was just as much about the process—if not more—of writing the novel as about the novel itself. She read choice excerpts from her journal, and I saw, too, that this is something I’ve been missing: a connection with myself and only myself as my brain works through the creation of this story. Outlining speaks to that, and blogging used to, but maybe I should go even deeper.

Now me, back to my outline, and maybe a new novel-focused diary… And you, fellow writers, what works for you?

About the Quiet

beautifulthingsYou may or may not have noticed that things have gone a little quiet in the past few weeks on this blog. I intended to make a post far sooner than this to explain. I’ve stopped the features and the guest posts and the interviews, and initially I wasn’t sure if I’d return with content like that again. But for now, I think I’m just taking a little break while I work hard in real life (writing stuff, freelance stuff, teaching stuff), and I expect I’ll be back with a renewed interest and energy by the fall. I hope so.

But there’s more.

Some things have been going on with me, and with my writing career, and while this news (it’s good! I promise!) came at me I was also working so hard and juggling so many things that I went and got sick at the worst possible moment, and am still trying to recover from an ear infection. (I feel basically fine now, but my hearing is still muffled, which is problematic when I want to, uh, actually talk and listen to other humans, or cross a street and hope to hear an oncoming cab’s horn honking. But so it goes.)

So in a way this quiet is a cleansing for me, while I recover from being sick and also get through all the busy-making things for the remainder of the spring. I’ve been stepping back from social things and turned quiet in real life, too. But the good news is that I am now hard at work on a new novel, a novel that I can’t wait to tell you about as soon as I can, a novel I love having as a secret for now, a novel that inspires, excites, and surely will challenge me as a writer. If this blog seems too quiet in the coming months, please forgive me, but think of me, maybe, off on writing retreat in a cabin in the woods (as I will be in June) or tucked away in a back corner table at the café (as I will be for the rest of this month, and after June), and send good drafting thoughts my way. I have a deadline for my first draft, and it’s in the fall.

In the meantime, I don’t know what’s next for this little space of mine on the web. Maybe I’ll go back to blogging about my own writing process again while I’m writing this new novel… or maybe I’ll be quiet for a bit while I save all my words for the draft. I can’t know what I’ll do yet. You might see a lot of me on Twitter and have no clue that anything is different. You might not see so much of me as you did before. I may keep more things to myself.

I’m not yet sure how things will change, only that I know they need to change for a short while because I feel like being in a quiet little cocoon.

I do want to say I’m sorry to the authors—especially the debut authors—who I would have loved to help promote this summer. There are so many 2013 debuts coming out that I’m excited to read, and I’m sorry I won’t be continuing the debut series. I may post a couple guest posts from author friends who have books coming out this summer, but beyond that I don’t think I have the time or energy for much else.

I’ll tell you, though: I’ll miss the feeling of connection—and the writer friends I’ve made, thanks to this blog.

But this seems to be a good opportunity for me to reassess and take some time for quiet.

In the meantime, thank you for reading.

Thank you for writing guest posts for me.

Thank you for welcoming me as a part of this great book community.

I’ll be back—and as soon as I have news to announce, I’ll share it here.

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This summer I may be quiet …. But you’ll be able to find me in person in three places, if you’re so inclined.

June 24… Asheville, North Carolina. I’ll be at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Monday, June 24 at 7pm with two other YA authors, Stephanie Perkins and Beth Revis. Who knows when I’ll ever be in the area again, so I hope you’ll come by if that’s close to you!

July 11… Dallas area, Texas. I’ll be taking part in a teen author event at the Irving Public Library in the Dallas area on Thursday, July 11… details and other featured authors to come. This is my first-ever visit to Texas!

August 21… New York City. I’ll be reading in my home city with Libba Bray, one of my most favorite authors, in the KGB Fantastic Fiction series on Wednesday, August 21.

See you there, maybe?