In Which My New Novel Gets Some Help from Scrivener

I’ve admitted before that I don’t like to ask for help. Call it stubborn. Call it delusional. Call it visionary—because, sometimes, if you don’t ask others for help, you come to a solution on your own… since, uh, you sorta have to. But, lately, I’ve been realizing that I need a little help organizing my head.

It’s this new novel. It’s told in a way I’ve never tried writing a novel before. It has different threads and through lines and needs to build and build until it becomes ONE by the end. I’m well aware of that, but while I’m working on the threads and doing the building I want to have a sense of what else is there too. I needed something to help me keep track.

This new novel is the one I started in the spring, when I was away at a writers colony in upstate New York, and I got so possessed with this story that I could be found typing away in the dark basement laundry room, of all places. Then, when I got home, I put the novel away so I could do Imaginary Girls revisions. I didn’t return to it until I went away to another writers colony this winter—this time in New Hampshire—and by then it was official: My editor approved it as the second book on my contract. Now it was real. And had a deadline. And needed to come together.

When I was away at the writers colony this winter, I made use of the giant wheelie bulletin board in my writing studio. I pinned up character names and plots. Pieces and ideas. Places and inspirations. Seeing everything up on this board really helped me. But now that I’m home, since I write in public spaces and at a writing space where I’d have to set up the board of ideas every morning and take it down every night (I don’t have a dedicated desk), I realized it wasn’t possible to keep my head organized that way anymore. I needed something that traveled… On my laptop…

Then it occurred to me: It was time to try Scrivener. I’ve been hearing of the wonders of Scrivener for years—my friend Yojo has been telling me to try it since… forever. She may well be one of the original users. I know there are quite a few novelists who use it to write their first drafts. I don’t think it’s just a distraction or a gimmick. I think it actually WORKS. Or so I’ve heard.

So I’ve left the woods of Microsoft Word to try it out. Yesterday, I went through the tutorial and imported all the pieces of the novel written in Saratoga Springs, NY, and Peterborough, NH, all the notes and character bits and sections and places and this thread and that thread, and… well… here I am. Just the simple act of organizing all the pieces lessened some of the panic. And using the “full screen” mode to write is so obvious, but it’s really helping me focus.

I’ve never used special software to write the first draft of a novel before. But this could work. Ideally I’d have a full first draft finished in two months… that’s eight weeks… yikes. I think this deadline may involve some strategic internet blackouts, but that’s for another blog post.

So… do you use Scrivener or some other special software to write your novel? I met a writer recently who’s writing her book on paper in blue ballpoint pen, so really, anything can work if you’re inspired and well into it.

Just Another Blissfully Unaware Blog Post

Oh, internet. I love you, I do. But you’re making it very difficult to stay a blissfully unaware, outwardly confident person.* It’s been like walking into a crowded cocktail party and discovering everyone is talking about you and then later you realize you’ve got your pantyhose bunched up in your skirt. Assuming you wear pantyhose. Or, it’s like you only think people are talking about you, you swear you’ve overheard someone saying your name… but no. That’s all in your head. What happens is you walk into that cocktail party, and you smooth your skirt, and you smile and… no one looks up. Not ten minutes later you’re sneaking out the back door with an empty glass in hand and running across the damp lawn before anyone sees your escape and when people ask if you were there tomorrow you’ll say, “What party?”

Oops. Can you tell I get a tad nervous at cocktail parties?

Let me tell you some things *not* having to do with catastrophic cocktail parties.

  • I should be able to give away a signed ARC (advance reading copy) or two of Imaginary Girls soon. Hopefully people will enter the giveaway! I’m also getting some Imaginary Girls bookmarks made, and I’ll give away a bunch of those too, assuming they turn out all right. I’ll announce the giveaway on my Facebook page and Twitter, so keep an eye out if you want to win an ARC. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for June to read the book… which isn’t that far away!
  • My birthday is tomorrow. (Yesterday was E’s birthday, and today is the anniversary of the day we got married!) Usually I hate my birthday—for years I despised the day and didn’t want to celebrate because I felt like it was a marker of all the things I didn’t accomplish that past year. But I realized, this year, that I can’t say that anymore. There’s no reason to hate my birthday. I don’t have those same regrets. It’s… a nice feeling yet also perplexing because I don’t know what to complain about now.
  • Sometimes you run into people just once in your life and your thoughts keep drifting back to them. On my last day at the MacDowell Colony, I’d switched from the bus home to the train (because I got so motion-sick on the way up) and in order to get to the train station in Vermont, I had to order a taxi. The woman who picked me up, S., owned the taxi service but came to get me herself because she was intrigued by my pickup address at the colony. We talked the whole way to Vermont. I told her about MacDowell and how, yes, it really is entirely free and every artist should try to apply because you never know and all you need is a spare two weeks. I learned that she’s a photographer. I learned that she reads tarot cards and that she’s designing her own deck. I learned how she’d just lost her sister, weeks before. I learned that she’s written two children’s books but stopped sending them out after one rejection (and I told her I’ve been there and to keep trying and to try joining SCBWI and look into a local chapter). I learned that she grew up in her small Vermont town, married and had kids and got divorced, and came out and was embraced and supported by everyone who knew her. I learned how close she is with her kids, grown now and living their own lives. I learned that she has no time to do her art with all the hours she works, and we talked about how frustrating that is and how that had been my life up until recently. I keep thinking about S., and I hope things turn out well for her. She left me at the train station, lifted my enormous suitcase (held together with gaffer’s tape because I couldn’t zip it closed) from the trunk, said, “Blessed be,” and stayed to make sure I found my way in all right. I hope she finds her happiness.

* In other words, I am not reading reviews. Anywhere. I may never log in to Goodreads again in this lifetime. So if you’re a blogger and wrote a kind review you wanted me to see, I’m sorry, but I haven’t and probably won’t because I’m not going looking. Also, sometimes I forget to check the light before I cross the street.

Imaginary Girls… Book Blurbs!

There’s this exciting little piece of publishing a book… Sometimes authors you love and admire read your book in advance and say nice things about it. And sometimes they believe in you enough to put those nice words on your book jacket so readers can see, too. As in, blurbs. Yes! I am so amazed to say that Imaginary Girls was lucky enough to get two author blurbs. Can you believe it? I wanted to share them with you.

If you’ve seen the ARC, you will have seen this wonderful blurb from YA author Nancy Werlin… such an honor, coming from her! This was my very first blurb in the universe and if I ever meet Nancy Werlin, I may not be able to stop myself from giving her a hug.

“A surreal little nightmare in book form. I just loved it. Nova Ren Suma’s voice is unique and riveting, and so is the indelible Ruby, who dominates the reader from the very first page. It’s the book everyone will be dying to talk about.”

—Nancy Werlin, author of Impossible and Extraordinary

And while I was away I was thrilled when my editor emailed me with the following blurb from an author I have long admired, the supremely talented and extremely surreal Aimee Bender:

“Eerie and gripping and told with lush and inviting scenes, Imaginary Girls will haunt its readers. An intensely vivid portrayal of love and no-choice loyalty and power that has no easy answers.”

—Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

If you know me at all, you know that Aimee Bender has long been one of my favorite writers, since I first read her story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt as a young writer in graduate school years ago. When I was in my early twenties and I read that book it opened up a whole world for me… the idea of writing surreal stories, where the everyday is skewed and fantastical things begin to happen. Imaginary Girls surely would not exist without me being influenced by Aimee Bender’s stories and novels over the years. To have her blurb my book… it’s incredible. And very surreal!

I’m so grateful for the support from Nancy and Aimee and, if possible, all the more excited for the summer, when Imaginary Girls comes out. Less than four months away!

Writing Here, Writing There, Writing Everywhere

When I was away at the MacDowell Colony—a perfect place to write if there ever was one—I found myself asking where everyone else wrote. In real life.

I was so curious about other people’s usual writing spaces because writing in this…

…sure isn’t my usual reality.

(That little cottage was my studio! All my own!)

It turned out that quite a few of the writers in residence while I was there were from New York City, which meant they were struggling with the constraints I do: itty-bitty apartments; endless noise; access to everything in the world at any hour of the day, which sure helps keep you focused and motivated to stay put at your desk, let me tell you. Sigh.

None of the writers I met were members of my writing space, but I did meet one who’s a member at another space in the city, where he’s asked them to block the IP address on his laptop from being able to access the wifi! Only after that did he get a lot of work done. This both inspired me… and scared me. I may not be so strong.

One novelist writes at a couple cafés near his apartment. (I made careful note of their names in the back of my mind. Not to stalk him, but in case I’m ever in the area and need a good writing spot.)

One writer works at different branches of the New York Public Library—she has her favorites.

One playwright writes in a certain Brooklyn café that I am welcome to try so long as I don’t take her favorite table. It would be a smackdown!

Another playwright told me she takes subway and ferry trips all over the city—to far-flung, beautiful spaces—and then she writes there.

Some writers actually write at home, in their apartments, which I was able to do successfully when I was facing revision deadlines of Imaginary Girls. The panic helped keep me focused. Maybe that’s the secret: deadline-induced panic.

As you can tell by this post, I’m back home. It’s been a couple of days and I haven’t found my citylegs yet. I am mourning the loss of my tent—and I miss so much about the colony, including their blueberry pancakes. But it was a wonderful thing to look into the dark brown eyes of the one I love, so I’m so happy to be here with him again. Besides, I suppose I could attempt some interior design of the bedroom to build a tent… and whip up a batch of my own blueberry pancakes…

Today, though, was my first trip to my usual writing space, and I’m a little out of sorts because the furniture has been rearranged. My favorite desk no longer exists. Not to worry, I’ll surely have a new favorite in no time.

The funny thing is I went far away to New Hampshire to have the space to write—and loved it—and then, during the long return trip, in the train car with a whole bunch of strangers, I found myself writing. I’d switched from the bus to the train… but then the train was long-delayed due to a frozen engine and finally arrived to pick us up and then got stuck behind a stalled freight train. But no matter. It was on the Amtrak that I felt that burst I couldn’t contain. I had to write then and there. So while we were waiting for the train to be turned around, switching tracks (which wasn’t even part of the delay!), I typed up a storm on my tray table, even when the electricity cut out. I couldn’t keep myself from writing.

Maybe it’s not the space at all. Maybe it’s the space in your mind.

No wonder I was in the mood to write… In my mind was my time spent at MacDowell—an amazing series of weeks I don’t even know how to describe here. I came out of my shell a little bit and maybe because of that it was my best residency experience to date.

But I’m home now. And what do I do, now that I am home?

Answer: Shut up and write my novel. My deadline is fast approaching!

Celebrating “A Tiger in the Kitchen” with a Family Recipe

Today is the day A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan comes out, and to celebrate the big day with Cheryl I, along with other bloggers, will be sharing a recipe that is very special to my family. So special, in fact, my grown siblings and I have about been reduced to tears if it was not served at a holiday gathering. So special that my mouth waters at the mere thought of it… But first, let me tell you about Cheryl.

I first met Cheryl at Yaddo, when we were both in residence this past spring, and I remember her working with great passion and dedication on this book, rivaled only by her passion and dedication to the bacon served at weekend breakfast. So, Cheryl, this recipe is for you, although, alas, I’m afraid it does not include bacon.

Oh but first let me tell you one thing. When Cheryl asked if I had a family recipe to share, I immediately thought of this dessert my mom makes, one that has become a tradition in my family due to its delectable yumminess, and really because anything my mom makes is delectable and yummy, and this, being dessert, is the cap to an evening full of delectable yumminess. She is my favorite chef in the universe.

You may have guessed this from my name, but my mom was a hippie—still is, really—and I was raised as a vegetarian (with a few dark years where we ate chicken, and in which I did try bacon and I remember it being good, Cheryl!, and then I chose to be a vegetarian again around age 13 or so and I haven’t gone back). When I was very young, my mom had a giant garden and grew most of our food. I could have shared the recipe for her zucchini muffins, first made I think because the garden was overflowing with zucchini and she had to do something with all of it, but that is a Great Family Secret, as is our method of cooking them, which can be, um, a little embarrassing. (Sorry, family joke.)

But there is nothing funny about this dessert I’m sharing today. It is too good.

So I emailed my mom and asked her for the recipe. She wrote back something a little hilarious:

“Actually, the recipe is from Tassajara Bread Book. I will send it if you want, but it is not my original. Did you think I made it up and are now disappointed?”

I must have known it was from a cookbook, I mean didn’t we have the page open on the counter while we were cooking?, but I clearly blocked that out! I mean, it’s my MOM’S recipe. In my mind, at least. Where it counts. 🙂

Without further ado, here is the famed dessert that we call Cream Cheese Squares…

(aka “Cheesecake Cookies” with grateful thanks to the Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown, copyright 1970)

Cheesecake Cookies: 16 cookies 2″square
1/3 C butter
1/3 C brown sugar
1 C Whole wheat flour
1/2 Chopped walnuts (or toasted sesame seeds, or roasted sunflower seeds)
1/4 C honey
8 oz cream cheese
1 egg
2 T Milk
1 T lemon juice
Grated peel of 1 lemon
1/2 t vanilla extract
1/2 t nutmeg (optional)
Garnish (optional):
fruit slices: orange, apple, banana, strawberry
chopped nut meats: almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts
• Pre-heat oven to 350
• Blend together first 3 ingredients with pastry cutter to make a crumble texture. Mix in chopped nuts or seeds. Reserve 1/2 C for topping.
• Press remainder into oiled 8″ square pan, bake for 12-15 minutes.
• Soften cream cheese with mixing spoon. Using an electric mixer, blend in honey, blend in remaining ingredients and beat well. Spread over baked crust. Sprinkle reserve crust. Garnish with fruit or nut meats. Bake for 25 minutes. Cool and cut into 2″ squares.

(This recipe is from the 1970 edition of the book, but I see now that a new edition is available this very month.)

Note from my mom: I use chocolate chips for the garnish and walnuts for the crust. I double the recipe too!

Note from me: She doubles the recipe because we devour them and beg to take batches home, so one pan for three grown children (+ one E) would never be enough. In our family, it is necessary to always make two pans.

Check out Cheryl’s blog to see which other bloggers are celebrating her book launch today by sharing family recipes. And to order A Tiger in the Kitchen, visit Indiebound to find an independent bookstore near you. Congratulations, Cheryl!

Do you have a family recipe to share to celebrate Cheryl’s book launch?

Ice-skating through the Woods at Midnight

I’m melancholy. My time here is coming to its inevitable end, as you can’t stay at an artists colony forever, though there’s always that urban legend of the artist who chained himself to his studio so they wouldn’t make him leave, which I think many of us can relate to. I should say, in my weeks here, I haven’t witnessed anyone being dragged off colony property in chains. Yet.

It’s not that I don’t want to go home—I miss E, just SO MUCH—for me, it’s an awareness of what will be there when I get home. Stress, yes. Responsibility, yes. The fact that there’s no chef making me scrambled eggs every morning and delivering my lunch in a basket to my front door. But also, on a more serious note, I keep thinking of what’s lacking in the solitary life I’ve been leading this past year. You can live in a giant city like New York and barely talk out loud to anybody. I do it every day.

It’s funny to admit this on a blog, but I don’t think making connections in the online world is enough anymore.  I’m beginning to think that though I’m a solitary person and there’s nothing wrong with that, connecting with other artists face to face is, you know, pretty great sometimes. I’m not just talking about other novelists. I don’t want to compare agents and book publicity plans and lament our deadlines—well, I do, but do I need to do that all the time? It’s exhilarating to talk to people with different creative outlets, too, to see how they approach the world and express their ideas and their stories. The painters and sculptors. The composers and filmmakers. The playwrights. The poets. The Scrabble champions… two who happen to be poets. You know… creative people. There are quite a few of those in New York.

This is what MacDowell has given me on this visit, a new craving for human connection with other artists. Not to mention some exciting pages!

So maybe I’ll go out and do things once in a while… we’ll see.

The other night (can’t remember which one, time moves differently here) the sky was gray and filled with what the weather report called a “wintry mix.” I went out to dinner with two artists I hope to keep in contact with after I leave here and then came back to my dark studio, a little cottage in the woods. I tried to write more, but I felt it, that weight of reality hunching down: Is my new book too ambitious? Will I be able to do this? Should I write this? Can I? Am I allowed to?

Then the freezing rain got heavier and I heard the ice ping against the window glass. And from the back of the cottage a great roar of noise sounded, like the roof was caving in—an avalanche of snow and melting ice skidding off the slanted roof to the ground below.

It felt like the sky was coming down and taking my little cottage with it. I decided to go back to the house where I have a bedroom. I stepped out onto my dark road, where on another night I saw animal tracks trailing my own footprints, some kind of cat-like paw prints and those of a giant bird, an owl maybe. I walked into the icy night, careful where I put my feet, my flashlight beam showing only a few steps in front of me at a time.

When I reached a slippery patch I went skating, and then I stopped myself and felt around, walked forward and skating some more. This walk just reflected everything I was feeling inside. Though it might seem like I know what I’m doing, I don’t, I absolutely don’t, and, you know what?, with art that’s how it should be:

You move ahead and sometimes you’re too safe and you make it to your destination without incident. That’s forgettable. But sometimes you catch a patch of slippery ice and skate off into the night. You could fall, or you could go sailing. On this night, I went sailing.

Dispatch from the Writing Tent

I’m going to have to take down my writing tent in six days and I’m already well aware of time leaking away from me. Today I’ve had trouble focusing, though a lot can be accomplished in six days, because I’m thinking of all I want and need to do once I get home.

I need to make changes in my life. Big changes. To fix some things that are broken.

I shouldn’t be thinking about this stuff now, but I can’t help it. Life doesn’t come to a halt when you’re away… it’s running on ahead and in six days I’ll have to find a way to catch up.

In the meantime, I’m working on a new chapter inspired by being up here, I may have been stalked by a giant owl and/or a bear or possibly a cougar last night, and a delicious cupcake arrived on my doorstep around noon and was devoured without restraint by one o’clock. Real life feels far, far away.