The Discovery Phase, and Writing About Writing

The Discovery Phase

I’m working on something new. I wish it could come out of me lightning-fast. I want to show my agent a nice little tease of a beginning—just a few pages—and a synopsis and then see what he thinks, if this could be my next book, but I’m finding that with each new day I work on it, the story veers this way and that. The characters reveal new secrets. The world turns a corner I didn’t expect. New layers reveal themselves. New meanings emerge.

And so I’m not yet ready to communicate what this book could be because I don’t yet know myself. I’ve decided to give myself the time needed for discovery—to wade through this “discovery phase” of novel-writing and splash around for as long as I need to. Then, once the idea is more sharply pointed and defined, I can show my agent.

Until then, it’s kind of just a pile of deformed clay that I’m saying will one day turn into an elephant. For now, I am the only one who can see the elephant.

This is all well and good—because, oh, the discovery phase of trying on a new novel is fun and exciting and full of promise and possible lifelong love—but at the same time I do wish it could just be done already. I may or may not have been complaining about this the other night when E reminded me that I’d just finished a novel. The final draft of 17 & Gone was finished on July 16, and there were copyedits and edits on galleys through August, so really, in the scheme of things, I did just finish a whole book. Can’t it be okay that it takes a while to find my way into a new one? Can’t it be okay that I don’t know yet what my next book should be? That I’m questioning? That I’m working it through?

It has to be.

Writing About Writing

On another note, I saw at some point this week—it’s a blur—Michelle Witte, a wise publishing person who knows what she’s talking about, say on Twitter that she wished authors wouldn’t talk so much about writing on blogs and Twitter. Surely because it gets boring for the non-writers and doesn’t draw in our audience: the readers who just liked our books. I am paraphrasing from hazy memory, so apologies if I explain it wrong, Michelle. It’s just something I happened to notice and then I was admonishing myself for.

Michelle has some great points. But as soon as I read what she was saying, I got concerned.

Because, as readers of this blog know, I talk about writing a lot here. I talk about my own writing, I have other writers come on and talk about their writing, and in fact, in the paragraphs above, I just told you how the writing of my new project is going, didn’t I?

The thing for me is this: This is what I am—a writer. I don’t have much to talk about otherwise. My personal life is personal and kept that way for a reason. E prefers I don’t talk about him on this blog, and I absolutely respect that, even though sometimes I slip in a reference to how wonderful and helpful he is with my writing. And, often, I like to keep the subject matter of my books-in-progress close, so I won’t be blogging about any specifics about this new novel I’m exploring if and until it gets bought by my editor and becomes “real.” And outside of all that, my avid interest in television-viewing would make this blog more boring than anyone could ever dream.

I also enjoy blogging about my writing process—it gives me pleasure. That’s the beauty of it: There are times when writing about writing helps me find my way into the heart of what I mean to say. Sometimes writing about writing inspires me to write some more. I started this blog about six seven (wow) years ago to do just that. I wasn’t published then, so this blog wasn’t a sales tool. It was a personal journal about my writing. And I guess it still is.

I guess I could blog more about events I do and other things like that? But I think it’s disingenuous to read an author’s blog about only the good things. I mean, sure, there are probably some authors with awesome, sparkly book lives—I see them tweeting incessantly about it—so much excitement about new book deals and sales, and events where fans asked for autographs on their bare stomachs, and sandwiches being named after them at the corner deli… (If you are an author who has had a sandwich named after you, do tell me!) But those are faraway and fluffy realities for me. I guess I just like to know the behind-the-scenes writing part of all that. The struggles that went into the book that inspired the sandwich named after you, you know?

Then again, I’m a writer. That’s what I’m interested in. It’s not what most of the world is interested in.

Do you really want to know what I think of the new season of America’s Next Top Model or how many prison and drug documentaries I have watched in the last month? Do you want to know what I yelled out in the dark of my apartment while Netflixing last season’s True Blood (it was not kind)?

Or… would you like to know what I’ve been reading? I’m working on a new YA proposal, so I am having trouble reading YA right now. Instead I’ve been reading adult novels. Read recently and still thinking about these books: The Secret History by Donna Tartt; Savages by Don Winslow; Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn; The Last Life by Claire Messud (for the fifth time at least); Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. In midst of: Dora: A Head Case by Lidia Yuknavitch. May read next, though I admit I have an aversion to cheerleaders: Dare Me by Megan Abbott. And looking forward to: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub.

Yes, I may write YA right now, but I read other things, too. I don’t believe in reviewing books as an author, so that’s why you don’t see me talking about my reading choices here.

What else should I blog about if not writing? I truly don’t know.

So I wonder of you: Does it bother you when authors blog only about writing? Do you want more from me? 

KidLitCon and Periwinkle Blue

What’s Periwinkle Blue

Here we are in the last days of August. The sky above my rickety fire escape is periwinkle blue and completely cloudless, and the wail of sirens is fading away down in the street until there’s that strange kind of silence you find sometimes in Manhattan, punctuated by the buzz of air-conditioners as if we’re all holding a collective breath, waiting for something. Then someone outside starts pounding a hard object against another hard object and we’re back again to the noise. I have a new piece of machinery—a new laptop—and it’s lightning-fast and silver-colored and I named it for a moon of Jupiter, for my fascination with space and my love for Alice Munro. People who haven’t seen me for a while have asked what’s new with me, and though weeks have passed, I’ve got nothing. Nothing new. I stopped writing—I know I should have used a notebook while the laptop was on the fritz, but I didn’t—and now I’m finding my way back in. I have a whole bag of emotions about this and what’s next for me as an author, but I won’t dump out the bag here and now to show you, because I’m still shoving my head in every once in a while to figure it out.

Now About KidLitCon

I do have an exciting thing to tell you. If you’re a book blogger and are headed to KidLitCon in New York City this year—September 28 and 29! (and the Saturday conference is entirely FREE)—you’ll see me there. I’m thrilled to say that in my blogger capacity I’ll be doing a presentation with Kelly Jensen of STACKED Books on “Getting Series-ous: How Blog Series Can Engage, Inspire, and Grow Your Audience,” and wow, what a presentation partner I have! I was honored when Kelly asked if I wanted to propose a presentation on blog series with her, because I admire her so much and I’m such an avid reader of STACKED. Here, go see what Kelly says about our upcoming presentation!

Will you be at KidLitCon this year? You can still register… and did you hear me say it’s FREE?

In the Life of One Laptop

The bad crash that befell my Macbook while I was away in Wyoming was a cruel little monster. Or else it is just my Macbook’s time: It’s more than five years old, has had many of its inside bits replaced multiple times, and is obsolete enough that the Genius Bar refuses to look at it anymore. The slow lag issue comes back every hour or two, so I need to restart multiple times a day. I can’t listen to iTunes on it. And I can’t do freelance work because if I run Microsoft Word, it flips out. I checked online for my Macbook’s market value, and being honest about its condition inside and out, I discovered it is worth $88.

So I’m moving on. I will have to get a new laptop.

But when I looked at the purchase date and realized I’ve had this laptop since February of 2007, I realized how much this MacBook has seen me do.

I wrote 10 books on this laptop. Ten!

Sure, seven of those were work-for-hire books under names that were not my own, and some of those books were really quite short, but still. Ten books is a lot of books.

Most significantly, I wrote my first three published novels—by that I mean my real books; my books that were my own ideas and were published under my own name—on this laptop: Dani Noir (aka Fade Out), Imaginary Girls, and 17 & Gone, which is coming in March. All written and revised on this laptop.

I also wrote many more things you don’t know about, because they weren’t published.

Before I bought this laptop, I was still writing literary fiction for adults, or thinking I was. I was querying agents with a novel called An Irresistible Pull of Gravity and writing short stories and trying to make it in a field that wasn’t having me. It hadn’t even occurred to me to write a YA novel yet.

Want the truth of how I was feeling back then—my state of mind?—this post lets you in. I also discovered this old post that I’d had hidden as “private,” probably because I was embarrassed, but it’s just how things were back then, so why hide it?

Because I’m amazed at how much I’ve grown, and how much has changed.

It was soon after buying this new laptop and writing that whiny whimper of a post that my entire writing life changed. I was just starting a new job, and there I discovered Laura Kasischke, and I went to the Tin House Workshop, where my adult short story “Mythical Creatures” would eventually transform itself into the YA novel Imaginary Girls.

My first real book deal would come to me while I had this laptop.

I signed with my first agent when I had this laptop.

I stopped working full-time as a senior production editor while I had this laptop.

I applied and got into colonies with this laptop, and took it with me to Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, MacDowell in New Hampshire, and Djerassi in the California mountains.

I am a published author now, thanks to work I did on this laptop.

About five and a half years or so, and look how much my life has changed.

It will be very hard to retire this laptop. It’s been so wildly good to me. Can you be grateful to a piece of inanimate machinery? Well, I am. I’ll miss it when it’s time to let go.

Teaching Another Online YA Novel Writing Class

I taught my first online class with Mediabistro.com this spring/summer—a twelve-week YA novel writing class with some truly amazing students. I loved working with them—and I can’t wait until their novels are finished and polished and their future book deals come to be so I can cheer and tell everyone to read their books. Just wait.

I wasn’t sure if I’d teach the class again, because it surely is a big time/heart commitment, but guess what? I am teaching online again this fall… This time, the Young Adult Novel Writing Master Class. This class is different from the first one: It’s eight weeks long, and it will be all workshop-based—yes, it is my plan to workshop students’ chapters in the weekly chats.

If you’re in the midst of a YA novel and want to sign up to work with me, I would love to have you. The online classroom opens November 20, but due to the Thanksgiving holiday—and my residency at the Millay Colony in November—the first chat will be on Thursday, November 29.

If you have any questions about the holiday schedule or the class itself, please feel free to email me or leave a comment on this post and I will answer!

Just to answer some of the questions I’ve gotten so far: 

  • Yes, you can sign up even if you have a draft of your novel already written. You will be turning in 10 pages a week—new or revised, up to you.
  • Yes, I will be giving you detailed feedback on your pages every week.
  • Yes, you can take this class from anywhere, so long as you can access the chats online every week.
  • No, I can’t read your whole novel in this class. We’ll just have eight weeks, so I’ll be reading 80 pages.
  • Yes, you can sign up if you’re writing a middle-grade novel.
  • If you’ve never written fiction before, this may not be the best class for you, but if you don’t think you’re ready for the master class, there are many options for you! Why not check out my talented friend Micol Ostow’s YA Novel Writing class, which starts September 24?
  • Yes, I am pretty sure you need to pay in full for the class when you register. You can apply here through Mediabistro, and you can ask them registration/payment questions directly.

If there are any questions I haven’t answered, please feel free to ask. Or here is Mediabistro’s FAQ.

I’m excited to lead the class and read everyone’s novels… Can’t wait to see who signs up this November!

Your Particular Dream

A couple weeks ago, I was in Laramie, Wyoming, at the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers, learning about planets (!) and stars (!) and black holes (!) and the math (?##@???) astronomers use to measure how far away galaxies are from ours and being astounded by the infinite expanse of the universe (!!!)—and this knowledge will be used for a novel, so stay tuned for that. And I was on my way home. And I was in the Denver airport, rushing to buy something edible to eat on the plane ride because I hadn’t eaten breakfast and my flight had already started boarding, when I happened to see a bookstore near the gate. And inside that little airport bookstore I happened to see something that stopped me in my tracks.

My book. The paperback edition of Imaginary Girls. On display. IN A FREAKING AIRPORT.

Had to snap this photo, even though boarding for my flight had already started!

That was a first.

Loudly I said, “Oh. My. God.” And startled a man in the aisle with me. And snapped a photo. And then bought some honey cashews and crackers and dashed off to catch my flight.

I never thought I’d see a book I wrote in an airport. And I don’t mean that’s the pinnacle of success to me, or some piece of the dream I never thought would come true. That wasn’t ever a part of my particular dream when I knew I wanted to grow up to be a writer.

I had a simple dream—and it comes direct from when I was a kid. All I wanted was to see my book in a library.

I lived for libraries when I was a kid. They’re a big reason I’m a writer today.

I know, somewhere on this blog where I can’t seem to find now, I revealed my shameful former habit whenever I’d go into a library, all through the years as I started writing my own fiction. I’d lurk by the Fiction shelves, starting mid-alphabet and sort of idly wandering down and down, the letters on the book spines lowering as I went. Sure, I’d be looking for books to check out and feed my reading habit, but I had an ulterior motive, too. One I had to do in secret, with no one looking. I’d reach the S shelves. I’d scan the books carefully until I came to it. My spot.

SU.

I so longed to be shelved somewhere in there one day.

I’d stand at my spot—and this shelf, in various libraries, could be on the very bottom of the stack, or in the indiscriminate middle, even at the end of a wall, near the fire exit. It varied. I’d stand wherever it was and I’d imagine it.

My spine, like a part of my body, wedged in there where I belonged.

(See how shameful this is! See? But I’m not done yet.)

Then I’d do it. I had to do it. I always did it.

I’d slip my finger in… and I’d make room for my future book. I’d leave the SU shelf with it waiting for me: a gap just wide enough for the novel I’d one day publish to fit inside.

(I’m blushing as I type this.)

I did this in every library I went to—in Woodstock, in Yellow Springs, in Boston, in Manhattan, various branches all across the city—for YEARS.

And yes, I did this in the adult Fiction section, never realizing my future gap would actually be on the YA shelves, but it doesn’t matter. It was just the idea of being in a library, the place where I fell in love with reading. That was my dream.

And can you believe it? I see my book in libraries all the time now. I don’t have to leave a gap to fill one unknown day in the future. I’ve filled it:

Can you find my spine at the Hudson Park Branch of the NYPL? Hint: Look for the turquoise.
And here is IMAGINARY GIRLS shelved at the Jefferson Market Branch of the NYPL! (My home branch.)

Seeing my book in a libary was my particular dream when I imagined one day becoming a published author. What’s yours?

When the Book Stops Being Mine and Becomes Yours

I’m spending the month of August in limbo. Part of this is due to my Macbook breaking, which kind of derailed my plan to spend all of August offline at a café writing retreat of my own making, but I will restrain myself from complaining about that here. (And also, as of yesterday, E fixed it enough for me to be able to use Scrivener to write!! MS Word I can’t use, so I can’t freelance right now.)

Besides, my feeling of being in limbo is so much more than my computer blahs.

My newest book—17 & Gone—is about to slip out of my fingers. This very weekend is my last chance to look at the pages and make changes before it releases for ARCs. This is that frightening moment when the book is still mine and part of me doesn’t want to let it go just yet, and the other part of me wants to set it flying and share it and see what happens, and these two parts jumble up together to make me so conflicted and confused, I really don’t know what I want anymore except to carry the pages around with me all weekend.

I will have to let go, obviously. I have to give any final comments to my publisher on Monday. Then the interior will be released to make ARCs. And then I guess the terror, um I mean the excitement, yay!, sets in.

It’s different this time, for me. The first time, with Dani Noir, I wasn’t a part of any author community or connected to bloggers or reviewers or anything. (This was before Twitter was a big thing!) So when there were ARCs, I gave one to my mom and kept one for myself and just waited for reviews to come in from places like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and that was pretty much the extent of my nerves. Not much was made of the book, and barely anyone knew of it, so there wasn’t anything to expect or wish for. The first time I knew someone was reading was when a coworker came downstairs to tell me she’d reviewed it on Goodreads (and she liked it!), and that was handled all to my face and seemed small and contained, and easier to deal with.

There was the book. And there was me. And I was able to separate the two without much issue.

My second experience with ARCs was with Imaginary Girls, and this was far more intense. There were more expectations—on my part, because this was the book of my heart, and on the part of others involved because I had an agent this time and this time I had a publisher who was more invested in the book. More ARCs were printed, more people were paying attention. Then the reactions started coming, some awesome and blush-inducing, but also I guess maybe some people thought the book was one thing (more straightforward? Not paranormal… or more obviously paranormal? Easily able to fit into a certain kind of box? I am not sure) and their reactions were sometimes more about that than what the book actually was. Also, at this point, Twitter was in full-force, and I was a Goodreads Author, so the reviews were more in my face—like right there in my face, being rated and tweeted with me tagged so I couldn’t help but see—and this affected my experience and excitement. I felt steeped in it and unable to escape. Even the little things, like if I knew someone—an author I admired, for instance—had read the book and never said a word about it, I felt sure I knew what that meant and knew what s/he truly thought and I buried this and felt worse about myself. This changed my feelings of achievement of having a book published to something more conflicted and mealy and spotted and, yes, truly fantastic at times and other times kind of ugly because it exposed all my worst insecurities and silly ability to hear only the bad things, like that scene from Pretty Woman. It was an experience in extremes.

You see, this time there was the book. And there was me. And they were—to my detriment—one and the same.

And I guess I never got over it. Ever since those moments when Imaginary Girls entered the world and people started reading it—starting with the day ARCs were released and then through all the months that followed, with trade reviews and reader reviews and the months after the book came out—my writing was filtered through that noise. I questioned everything. About my writing. About my personal taste. About my style. About who I was. I lost my confidence and sense of self-assurance. I had an exceptionally difficult time writing, and I still am having a hard time. I lost the ease.

My writing suffered immensely from this, which is absolutely and entirely my fault.

So you can see why having 17 & Gone become an ARC has me full of nerves right now.

On a smaller scale, all this reminds me of workshops in my MFA program. I got off easily at Columbia University; some workshops were cruel, and more than once I discovered the writers crying in bathroom stalls after class. But for the most part during my time in grad school, people were constructive but kind to me—never cruel, never making me question my entire being and think of giving up writing, which happened to some students I know. (Aside from my experience with my thesis, which I’ll leave aside for now.) I was one of the youngest students in the program, fresh from my tiny college in the Midwest, and such a newbie and used to praise, so it’s surprising that I wasn’t crushed my first month there. But I remember one workshop where my piece was getting praised and good suggestions were being made around the giant rectangle table in Dodge Hall overlooking the beautiful university campus… until we came to the guy sitting beside me to my right.

He was usually a soft-spoken guy. But that day, he spat out his reactions with brutal honesty. He hated my piece. Hated it. Hated my voice. Hated the subject matter. Hated the title. Hated the character. Hated the setting. Probably hated the font, too, who knows. Really he hated it all, and he had quite detailed reasons as to why. I don’t remember the reasons. I don’t even remember the piece itself for sure. What I remember is his impassioned hatred for my writing, and how close he was sitting to me in the room, so I could feel this hatred radiating off of him in waves.

But then some other students in class passionately defended me, and stood up for my work, arguing with him on my behalf, for my piece and for me as a writer—my style, my voice. I remember one guy in particular, across the table from me, who loved the piece so much and thought it was the best thing I’d written all year. (I couldn’t stand up for myself at that point; we were not allowed to talk while being workshopped; only to take in and listen.) But afterward, I remember being just as stunned by the students who loved my work enough to defend me as by the person who hated it so much. It was the same piece. We were all in the same room. It was a lesson in extremes, one I know we authors face all the time when it comes to reviews.

Even so, after that jarring workshop, I kept on the way I was. I still wrote the way I wrote, about the characters and places I liked to write about. The voice I had when I was 22 and just starting out at Columbia has been honed and polished and grown as I’ve grown, I hope, but it’s the same root voice I had in the beginning. I didn’t let that guy’s hate affect my writing. I simply knew it wasn’t his thing, and that was fine. So what’s different now?

A year or so after that memorable workshop, I remember being at a party with the guy who despised my writing, and then taking a cab home. The cab was packed, and he was in the front seat. He was turning around in his seat, being nice to me and joking and kind of normal, like we were friends or something—because, maybe, to him, that first-year workshop was gone and forgotten, or at least not something he thought about every time he looked at me. Maybe because he was mature and could separate the writing from the person who wrote it. But the thing is, I hadn’t forgotten, so I was reserved with him and didn’t want to be friendly that night. I guess I’d taken it personally. Even now, when I hear about his published books, I don’t wish him ill or anything, but I’m not a supporter of his. I’ve bought many books written by my MFA classmates, pretty much every one I’ve seen in a store. But not his. I’ll always remember him for being my most impassioned hater, so I have no interest in reading what he’s writing now.

I think of this a lot when it comes time for my books to be read and reviewed. How there will be extreme reactions. How some people will hate what I’ve done just as much as some people might just love it. How I have no control either way. And how all I can control is my reaction and behavior—and my knowledge of reviews, by staying away from Goodreads, which I do, and Amazon, which I do, and not clicking blog reviews, which I do not click unless told by someone I trust to read it. But more, I should be like 22-year-old me. I can remember the bad reactions all I want.

But I should not let it affect my writing, or my confidence.

So this is where my nerves about 17 & Gone come in. Soon the book will be yours—no longer mine. Soon you can read it and see what you think, and I do hope you read it and are honest about what you think. And speaking of, if you want to request an ARC, here’s a place where you can.

Look… we are so close! The book is almost yours:

And while all that is going on, I just want to keep my eyes on my own paper and keep writing.

After writing this post and getting this all out, I’m weirdly excited to reach this next step. Which I’ll take as a good sign that I’ve grown as a writer and as a person.

In Which I Read IMAGINARY GIRLS for the Last (?) Time, Finish My Book, and Recover from Writer Space Camp

I got back from the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie, Wyoming, on Sunday night, where I learned so many things, met some great people, and where my laptop broke (sob! more on that in a moment). The first day I was home, on Monday, I was rewarded with my copyedits for 17 & Gone! As many of you know, copyedits are the last stage before a book becomes an ARC (advance reading copy)… which means this was my final chance to fix anything before people could read and start reviewing. My laptop had a terrible crash while I was in Wyoming, and it took days (and nights) off E’s life trying to get it into a workable condition, but even with this slowing me down I had to finish reviewing those copyedits ASAP. I also—because I am obsessive—took it upon myself to read the whole manuscript through carefully, from page 1. I just finished on Thursday, and turned in my acknowledgments and author’s note on Friday, and then I, like my MacBook, crashed.

I think it’s just the idea of being done—of having this book absolutely and completely out of my hands very soon, when it’s shipped off to be made into ARCs next—that made my mind and body overload and had me curling up under the covers unable to face the world. It’s normal to have a down moment after finishing something so enormous. Absolutely normal. I’m really thrilled about what the book has become, but it’s just hard to let go.

All this—computer troubles, copyedits to review—has kept me from blogging about the stars and Launch Pad, and I’m so sorry! In the meantime, if you’re curious how the week went, Matthew Kressel and Tiffany Trent both have great posts about the week. I learned so much… about the universe, and about people, too. It was a fascinating week. And the idea I was hoping for did come, and that’s all I could ask for.

One last thing before I let you go. Are you in New York City? If you are, I hope you’ll consider coming tomorrow—Sunday, August 5, at 3pm—to the Tandem Reading Series for the “Troubled Youth” Reading and Panel. I’ll be reading from Imaginary Girls (most likely for the last time in public… the next reading I have set up is in February, and I’ll be reading from 17 & Gone then!), and I’ll be with YA authors Dan Krokos and Patty Blount, with the panel moderated by Brooks Sherman. I’ll try to bring a few copies of the Imaginary Girls paperback, if you want to buy a signed one.

Here’s more info on tomorrow’s “Troubled Youth” reading and panel! Admission is $5, but if you bring a story of your own to be considered for the series, you get in for FREE.

Thanks for listening. Now, to get myself back together, which means: answer emails, contact authors for interview series, finish new book proposal, do freelance project, and maybe… nap some more, for a little while.