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!

Advertisements

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.

The Book of Your Heart Series: Ryan Graudin

thebookofyourheart-FEATUREDWhen an author says a book she’s written is the Book of Her Heart, what does that mean? In this completely irregular ongoing blog series, I’ve invited guest authors to reveal what they consider the Book of Their Heart—and share why this book holds a distinct and special place apart from all others they’ve written.

Here, to celebrate her book birthday tomorrow, I have Ryan Graudin sharing why The Walled City is the Book of Her Heart…


Guest post by Ryan Graudin

Headshot-1Whenever I try to describe what writing is like to my non-writer friends, I usually resort to Harry Potter references. “My books,” I tell them, “are like Horcruxes. All of them have little pieces of me inside.”

But some books/Horcruxes have a little more of me inside than other books/Horcruxes. Something about The Walled City was different from every other project I’d ever written. It felt… truer, deeper, rawer than anything I’d ever put to paper before. It was a book I wrote solely for me. I honestly thought, during those early months, that no one would want to read, much less buy a YA novel where the plot revolved largely around Asian street children and human trafficking. I’d never read anything quite like what I was creating, and the usual fears of No one will buy this. This is all for nothing. set in.

I wrote anyway. Because I had to.

People always ask me where my inspiration comes from. I tell them travel, which is almost always true. The heart of The Walled City was inspired by two very distinct trips I took in my college years.

walledcity_final coverWhen I was twenty-years old I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for a summer. The purpose of the trip was to experience (and therefore understand) third-world poverty. I lived with a family in the slums, eating only what they ate, sleeping on the floor. I met children who lived in tarps. Children who had nothing to eat but what they could scrounge from trash heaps. Children who seemed to have no guardians to speak of. Children who deserved so much more.

When I was twenty-one years old I traveled to Bolivia, where my future sister-in-law worked (and still does) educating sex workers, providing them with health awareness, child care and (if they desire it) the means to learn the life-skills needed to support themselves if they wanted to leave the industry. Meeting these women, listening to their stories, eating a meal with them, was such a humbling experience. One that forced me to strip away all of my judgments and look at them in a new light.

Through both of these trips I came to realize that people are so much more than their circumstances. So much more than the passing labels or judgments I was so quick to give them. I wanted to help, and not just to help, but to understand. I wrestled and mulled and held these experiences inside. I tried to answer so many questions that seemed unanswerable.

People have many, many different ways of processing. The largest and most obvious of mine is writing.

So I wrote.

I wrote about street kids and trafficked girls. I wrote to try and understand their view, their world. I wrote to try—in some small way—to make sense of the pain and poverty I’d seen. I wrote to try and make sense of my own personal demons. I took all of the questions of my heart and crammed them into the form of a story.

Perhaps one of the reasons this novel has earned its place as my “heart book” is because it’s the most honest I’ve been with myself on the page. The Walled City is a book about trust, and how difficult it is to open yourself up to people after you’ve been hurt. It is a book about pain and isolation. But more than anything I think, it is a book about hope.

There are no simple answers when it comes to issues like poverty and trafficking. But it is my hope that by writing this book and inviting readers into my own search for answers, that I can help others see a world that is usually far in the shadows. A world my twenty-one-ish self only just brushed upon. A world that wrenches your heart, but deserves to be known about.


Ryan Graudin was born in Charleston, SC, with a severe case of wanderlust. When she’s not traveling, she’s busy photographing weddings, writing, and spending time with her husband and wolf-dog. She is also the author of All That GlowsThe Walled City is her second novel. You can visit her online at ryangraudin.com.

Order a copy of The Walled City!


Thank you, Ryan, for sharing your Heart Book with my readers. Happy Book Birthday!

The posts in the Book of Your Heart series: