Done and Undone

I finished a new chapter today! Wheeeee!

I finished the chapter, yes. I did do that. Technically.*

But in order to spend the time finishing the chapter, I wasn’t able to: talk to anyone but the barista; return the phone call; work more on the promotion stuff; update the websites; upload the postcards** to get them printed; write the email; write the other email; complete the new budget; put away the laundry; do the dishes; finish cleaning the living room; return the library books; send out the thank-you cards; work on the new idea; pick up the prescription… there was a bunch more stuff on the list but I forget what.

I’ve been carrying around a to-do list that I force myself to look at throughout the day, but that doesn’t mean I do much of anything on it. Sometimes my brain’s tired and I just want to watch four back-to-back episodes of True Blood Season 2 (on the free HBO I got for one month just because I called the cable company to see why our cable box was so slow!). Sometimes I just want to sleep in (the travesty of this past Friday). Sometimes I just want to write a blog post ’cause I wanna. And tomorrow’s Monday yet again, which means I won’t have the time and energy to really tackle the things on the list until the next weekend.

All I have room in my head for sometimes is the novel. Sometimes I trip over a shoe I left in the middle of the floor and I think, Where did that shoe come from? I haven’t worn that shoe in years. And I look around and I have no idea where to start getting things together and I think, My life really is unraveling. Shoes I haven’t worn in years are crawling out from under the couch.

My book better thank me for this later!

* My first-draft method is this—and keep in mind I’m a big fat cheater: I write each chapter in scene order, taking as long as it takes because that’s how long it takes and I don’t rush it. I use chapter sketches and my so-called outline to make sure I hit all the beats, but I let myself go off on tangents. Tangents are okay. Skipping around is not.*** Skipping entire scenes will not be forgiven, even if one scene takes one whole week. I write each chapter in a file separate from the rest of the novel and keep it single-spaced and sometimes in a different-sized font so I can’t be exactly sure of the page count. I don’t want to stress over the page count. But once I’ve written to the end of the chapter, I paste it back into the main novel file, double-space it, resize the font, and see how many pages I have. You’d think now I’d move on to the next chapter. Nope. Now I am very, very bad and I line-edit the chapter I just wrote. I do it guiltily, but lovingly, like how you lick a chocolate ice-cream cone in the middle of winter where there’s no excuse for ice cream because it’s freezing out and you really should be eating dinner. I line-edit for as long as it takes. I read back from the start of the chapter every single time, tweaking and rewriting as I go, until I am able to get to the end without stopping at a mismatched word and cringing. Sometimes, in reckless moments, I highlight in yellow a word or phrase I know I will want to change later. Sometimes I make a note in purple about a continuity issue that will have to be fixed in a previous chapter. Once the line-edits are made, I am two-thirds done with what I call my first draft. After all the chapters are written, I will print out the novel and do line edits again. I will cut with abandon. I will spit out new scenes wherever I want them. Then I will go back on screen and edit again. And make cuts again. And maybe I’ll read it once more just because. After that I am fully done, and my first reader is allowed to read it. This, my friends, is how not to write a first draft.****

** I can’t even take credit for making my own postcards! E took over and handled it yesterday while I was busy doing… you guessed it: WRITING THE CHAPTER.

*** Skipping scenes within chapters is not allowed, but skipping whole chapters to write the end of the book is not just allowed but encouraged and, hey, I make up my own rules, don’t look at me like that, I can write the end of the book whenever I feel like it, I just haven’t felt like it yet.

**** My “first” drafts do end up being pretty polished though.

Days After the Day Your Book Comes Out

Wednesday, the day after the day my book came out, I wore gray pants and a gray shirt. One sock had pale stripes and the other sock had dark stripes, but they both had stripes, so I call it a match. At the café, I ordered my usual. Then I dropped change all over the floor and scrambled around picking it up. I sat at the corner table near the outlet, the one everyone wants. I wrote. I left for work. I squeaked through the closing doors of an R train and made it to the office minutes early. I typed emails and checked pages and walked things around. I signed two books for supportive coworkers. I put off packing for the office move next week. It was a day (except for signing books I wrote), like any other.

Thursday, the day after the day after my book came out, I wore all black, my usual. I went to a different writing spot, wrote, or tried to, and then went to work. At work, I continued to avoid packing for the office move, and after work I saw an old friend, my best friend since I was thirteen, and her dog jumped on me in wild abandon, and I gave her a signed copy of my book, and we talked about me visiting her class of high school students (she teaches ninth and tenth grade English), and we had dinner, and then I took a detour home and walked through my former university’s campus, and I thought, All these years later and I finally have a book out. And it was such a long time coming, and such a different book than expected, it felt surprising, and strange—and I like surprising and strange things, so I felt pretty good.

Friday, two days after the day after my book came out, I didn’t write at all. I don’t remember what I wore. I do remember that I succeeded in avoiding packing for the office move AGAIN, and I really must take care of that on Monday.

Today is Saturday, three days after the day after my book came out, and I’m out at the café writing the new novel. I want to finish this chapter by Monday. I want to be a better, more organized, less distracted person. I have to go to the post office today. I really need to put away the laundry when I get home.

And all the while, the book is out there with its pretty purple cover, and I’m in here, angsting, worrying, idly staring, and daydreaming like I tend to.

What does this prove? That once your book comes out, you really are no different, on the outside anyway. It’s like that time I was in high school, after I did that thing I’d regret and I stared at myself in the car’s rearview mirror, trying to see if I looked any different now, if anyone would be able to tell when they saw me, if it was written all over my face. If it was, I couldn’t find it. My hair was an awful mess though.

It’s just like that, except no regrets this time.


So days have passed since the book came out, and I have big plans to focus on in the coming months, and a looming deadline, don’t forget the deadline, and I really have to pack for the office move sometime. Just one week after my book came out, I will be moved to the cubicle. This sort of ups the angst in a very poetic way, if you think about it, and lends me a sense of urgency and desperation. I happen to write best from a place of urgency and desperation.

But what-ever. A book I wrote came out! Quick, someone, tell me… what do I do now?

The Day Your Book Comes Out

I checked the mirror yesterday and I didn’t look any different, as far as I could tell. The skies didn’t part and shine rainbows over me as I walked the sidewalks yesterday. No butterflies danced around my head. Strangers did not stop me on street corners to ask me to autograph their bare stomachs. I was not gifted with a single kitten.

But I did skip into a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan and witness this:

Bookstalking DANI NOIR was a success! (see middle row, far left)
Bookstalking DANI NOIR was a success! (see middle row, far left)

So it happened, the book was published, but I’m the same person I was. Guess what I’m doing right now? Working away on a chapter for this new novel… feeling daunted by all the pages left to write… stressing about time or lack thereof… the usual. It never ends, does it? I mean, seriously, where is my kitten!

Handle This

Big Day coming up, the day I will go bookstalking for the first time. I’ve heard real authors talk about doing it, I’ve seen their pictures, may as well be goofy and have fun with it this time because your first book only comes out once, right?

Technically, though, I did go through this once before… sorta. A few years ago or whenever it was, the first novel I ever ghostwrote was due out, so I got myself all excited and on pubday I went out looking for it in a Barnes & Noble. Not there. So I checked another Barnes & Noble. Not there either. I checked other chains, indie bookstores. Not there. Checked pretty much every bookstore I passed. Not there, not there, not there. I felt a little deflated.

So this time, maybe, hopefully, fingers-crossed, the book will actually be in a store and I will get to see it. I don’t want to get my hopes up, so we’ll see what happens.

Other than that, I’m having a very hard time keeping afloat with all the things I need to do, should be doing, want to do, am expected to do, etc. Can barely handle it all, which means I freeze up and do nothing and that’s really helping things along, let me tell you. Sometimes I like to make myself feel better by berating myself in my head: I can’t handle this, I can’t handle this, SHE can handle this, HE can handle this, everyone else can, why can’t you?

But then I realized yesterday, I always say that. And then I do handle it all—somehow. Obviously not everything I want to do can be done. I have to pick and choose. And some things are slipping, violently, and I’ll have to let go, or they’ll let go of me, and I’ll disappoint some people because I always do.

But I’ll survive it somehow. It’ll all get handled somehow, by someone—maybe even me!

That said, if you’ve emailed me and I haven’t written back yet it’s only because I’m feeling overwhelmed at the moment. Sorry. I’ll email soon.

And if you see my book in a bookstore? Please send me a picture. I don’t know if it feels real yet, so I’m collecting photographic evidence. That way, if I wake up in the middle of the night and question my whole existence, I can look at the pictures and tell myself all these years of hard work turned into something.

And to help you out in your stalking missions, what you’re looking for is small (approx 8.8 x 6 x 1.1 inches). It’s black, white, gray, and purple. It’s relatively thin, just 272 pages. And, if I do say so myself, it looks pretty cute. Hope you like what’s inside.

When I Thought I’d Give Up

Today, you will find me sitting here feeling grateful I stuck it out. Sitting here in that contemplative mood we writers get in when good things happen and/or when bad things happen and you can’t make sense between the two. Because you know it could have gone another way—easily.

In about a week the first book I wrote with my name on it will be in stores. This morning, someone showed me a picture of it on a bookstore shelf already. It’s a tween book. I never expected that would be my “first” book. It’s certainly not the first book I wrote.

I absolutely did not see this coming.

Just two years ago, I was in a different place. I wanted to give up. I kept hinting at it here. Maybe some of you reading this are writers too. Maybe you are right this very moment thinking of giving up, wondering what it might be like to let go. And would you regret it, or would you feel free?

Here’s a post I wrote in April of 2007:

The thought occurred to me yesterday morning, just after I finished reading a magical, thought-provoking story about a gang of young girls (“The Sisterhood of Night” by Steven Millhauser). I haven’t been a young girl in a long time, but I connected to the girls’ desire to disappear in the night. The girls in the story were ages 12, 13, 14, 15—ages I remember better than what I am now. This story settled into me quietly, which if you’ve read the story you’d know was fitting. I had a silent moment—there, at a corner table in the coffee shop, where it felt like no one could see me. My mind paused. Then I asked myself the big question:

What would happen if I gave up?

Just… decided I wasn’t going to try any longer. What would that be like?

On Friday I had been at work, where a pathetic cloud of doom had descended upon me, where I realized how unhappy I was and also that it didn’t matter, I should just do my job and keep doing my job and this is what had become of my existence: the doing of my job until it was time to go home and not do my job for a few hours. I don’t want to be so negative. For days all I’ve wanted to do is nap, which is very unlike me. I haven’t even wanted to read. You know there is a problem when you have no desire to read a book.

Truth is, I haven’t felt this down about myself for a long time, since, well… sometime around age 13 or 15. Still, back then, I had been so sure of where my future would take me. My writing future was my escape route, that’s how I made it through. I don’t begrudge my young self those fantasies—I love the idea of living for a fantasy—but enough time has passed that I can say with certainty that the fantasy did not come true. I mean, I’m not living in a cardboard box addicted to heroin, I’m not in prison, I’m not dead, so it didn’t fall to shreds either. It just… didn’t exactly happen the way I wanted it to.

So, I thought about what it would be like to not have this dream anymore. To not want to be a published author. To do something else—something more satisfying—with my life.

And at that I shrugged. The answer came easy: I’d still write.

I’d write short stories. I wouldn’t have to think about sending them out. I wouldn’t have to think about agents or books deals or writing a more marketable novel or making my characters more accessible or my voice less voicey or trying to write something to sell or selling anything at all or what people thought of me or, really, anything. I’d just write stories for myself because I like to. That’s it.

It sounds nice to think of it that way, giving up. There’s no longer any pressure—just art for art’s sake. In a way, it would be the most beautiful failure I could imagine for myself. And if I think of it that way, it couldn’t be called failure at all.

—April 8, 2007

I remember that day. How I was feeling. Ugh, I remember.

But something changed in me. I decided to adapt instead of giving up. To go at it another way. And that’s how DANI NOIR came to be. And that’s how this new novel came to be, the one that got me an agent almost exactly two years after I wrote that post, in April of 2009, the one that got me two cakes even though I’m not done writing it yet.

Two years later and nothing’s the same.

If someone had come up to me on that day I thought maybe it was time to give up—when I was sitting there in the coffee shop telling myself it would be nice to give up, that it wouldn’t hurt so bad, that I would be A-OK—if someone had said to me, Wait a couple years, you’ll see, I would have laughed. Or cried.

I’m not young. This has taken a lot of years out of me. And the thing is, I do think I would have survived had I listened to myself and stopped trying to publish. If I didn’t ever send anything out, didn’t query agents, wrote only to write because I love writing and showed no one but my friends and my husband. I could have been as happy as I am right now—you know what? I could have been happier.

But that’s the thing: I couldn’t do it. I absolutely could not stop trying. I hope I would still be trying even if Simon & Schuster said no to DANI NOIR and if every agent I queried this spring rejected me and if no one wanted IMAGINARY GIRLS and even if everyone I knew pulled me aside for an intervention and told me, “You suck. Go home. Become a dental technician.”

(Nothing against dental technicians. That’s just something someone in my family told me I should be when I was a teenager when I had dreams of being a writer. Needless to say, I did not listen.)

I hope I would still be trying if all of the above happened, but I can’t know that.

I had a lucky break that led to more lucky breaks. For everyone out there flirting with the idea of giving up, I hope you get a break, and soon. Even if it looks odd to you—if maybe it’s not the exact thing you thought you wanted, like you wanted the color blue and this thing’s pink and you can’t decide if you should wear it anyway. You might want to just put it on. Give it a shot.

Turns out pink was my color all along.

High Contrast

Thinking about black-and-white lately. Thinking in black-and-white. You know, there was a time when I almost didn’t become a writer… I was maybe going to try to be a photographer instead. Back then, I did not do digital photographs. Horrors. I loved it old-school, with the stink on your hands and the possibility at every moment for a terrible mistake or—if your mistake looked good—a miracle. You were never in total control. There were flaws. There were surprises. You were exposed in ways Photoshop makes impossible today. You could not hide. Photographing on film, and developing and printing my own images with my own two hands, felt honest.

"Times Square: The Night Fantastic" by Lillian Bassman, 1997
"Times Square: The Night Fantastic" by Lillian Bassman, 1997

I would have wanted to become a photographer like Lillian Bassman. I first discovered her photograph on the left in a fashion magazine. I tore it out and have since kept it with me, crumpled and crinkled and punched with thumbtack holes. I was looking for it the other night but couldn’t find it, so I’ll put it up here for safekeeping.

In my life right now are contrasts like a high-speed black-and-white photo. The deep, dark, warm comforting things you curl into and are grateful to have, and the hot harsh uncomfortable things you shrink away from. One thing that’s good is the writing. I’m grateful to be in that good place where putting words down on the page means everything.

This year has been a funny one. Has it been funny for you, too? Some of the best things of my life have happened—are happening right now—like they’ve saved up for 2009 to let it all out. What a year!

"Barbara Mullen, New York" by Lillian Bassman, 1950
"Barbara Mullen, New York" by Lillian Bassman, 1950

But bad things have happened too, stressful things, and there was a moment this week when I found myself in such a state of panic I thought I might bust open my heart from how hard it was beating, and another night when I completely shut down and had to sleep because being awake was too much to take. I caught a cold this week, coincidentally.

But, like I said, the writing’s going well.

In work news, however, after being in the publishing industry for about nine years, and working my way up from a cubicle, to a shared office, to an office of my own, to an office of my own with an actual window I can look out of… my company is moving buildings this month and I am about to be demoted back to a cubicle. Many people are losing offices for cubicles, so I shouldn’t take it personally. But I’m upset by it. The office meant something to me. It meant I’d gotten somewhere.

I used to think my job stuff was going pretty well and my writing was hitting rock bottom. But that’s no longer the case. I’m really happy with where my writing is. I’m thrilled to be writing this YA novel about these two sisters and their unbreakable bond. I’m thrilled to have written a book partly inspired by Rita Hayworth and see it hit the shelves in less than two weeks. This other stress I’m having, entirely unrelated to cubicles, does weigh on me, but it can’t take away the good things. I can’t let it.

That’s how life is: you lose some, you win some, yes? That’s the saying? There’s not too much middle ground these days, no grays. And sometimes I forget how much I used to love that.

"Night Bloom" by Lillian Bassman, 1996
"Night Bloom" by Lillian Bassman, 1996