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.
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.
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?
I’ve been quiet. Since I last spilled my thoughts here, I worked hard to get my first draft of The Walls Around Us done by deadline.
I will tell you the truth, want it, want the truth? After everything I said in that post—shouting my love and appreciation for deadlines from the rooftops—I didn’t make the deadline.
I needed a week’s extension.
Sometimes things are impossible, and sometimes you need to trust your gut and face the fact that you need more time. Writing creatively on deadline is one of the most frustrating things I’ve done. (Oh and sometimes you get a case of the giant hives while you are writing on deadline, so you look like a bright-red, itchy pufferfish, which is all well and good until your fingers swell up and can’t bend and your hands burn so you have to hold an ice pack, thus making typing on a laptop physically impossible. Yeah, that happened.) Moving on.
I worked hard, and that’s what matters.
It’s now the end of December and I’m revising—and revising is my most favorite part of the book-publishing process, even though I will fully admit it’s not easy. Next deadline is in January. I meant to blog about writing and revising and all that, but I’ve found myself in a silent state. Not just here, but in real life, too.
So a step back. A healthy dose of alone time. Building a little writing tent in the bedroom. Gathering hopes and goals for 2014. Revising this book with everything I’ve got. Trying to keep the doubt spiral at bay.
As I was typing up this blog post, I got my last rejection (well, I hope it’s the last one!) of 2013. And I feel fine. It looks like 2014 is going to be the first year since 2009 that I won’t have a writing residency… Which seems right. I’ve had a lot of luck these past few years, and I’m traveling enough as it is next year and want to stay home with E, so New York City: You will have to be my writers colony. See you in the café.
If this blog stays quiet and I don’t post in the next couple weeks, I am wishing you a happy New Year!
p.s. I just realized I haven’t shared this here yet… Good news:
Part of my story as a novelist goes like this: It was the winter of 2008. At least I think it was 2008—my memory and sense of time passing has been going lately, so let’s just assume I know what year it was. It was the winter of 2008 (probably). I’d written a quick-and-dirty draft of a novel during November, my first-ever attempt at NaNoWriMo, and I didn’t “win,” and I didn’t like the experience because I’m a revise-as-I-go kind of writer, but it wasn’t a complete waste because I had about 200, 220 pages. Sure, I found those rough pages shameful. Still I had a draft. A physical something. A start.
Then my laptop died. The hard-drive turned on itself and ate its own head. All data was lost and not even the angels of Tekserve (an Apple specialist computer shop in New York City, known for data recovery) could recover it.
I lost the draft.
But the good news is I would then go on to completely rewrite the book from scratch and that book turned into Imaginary Girls, and while I’m sure losing the first ugly draft was all for the best, creatively, it was still a painful way to get some good words down, you know?
I lost other pieces of writing in that hard-drive crash, too.
Not to mention photos, songs, diary entries, notes to myself, stuff. Lots of stuff. I lost A LOT.
Because I hadn’t been backing up very often.
You’d think a writer such as myself would learn a lesson from the Terrible Winter of 2008: The lesson that computers are flimsy things that cannot be relied on. The lesson that you can count only on yourself, if your self is smart enough to back your shit up.
Well, since the big crash in the winter of 2008, I went through a whole other laptop. (Which died and is a whole other story.) Now I’m on another new one, a shiny new Macbook Air that is less than a year old.
This shiny, new, practically perfect Macbook Air that is less than a year old died on me a week ago today.
It froze while I was reading an article on the New York Times website, and with that, in a blink, it was dead.
That morning—after a visit to the Apple Store, then to Tekserve (because the Apple Store won’t even attempt to try to recover your data), I learned that the hard drive and had turned on itself and melted to oblivion and was gone to the world. Gone.
The replacement would be covered by warranty, as the laptop is so new. And the tech at the Apple Store, and the tech at Tekserve, they both said to me, “But you’ve been backing up, right?”
Because I remembered that I hadn’t been backing up as regularly as I’d meant to.
Because I’d gotten comfortable.
I’d gotten too trusting.
I thought for sure a bad hard-drive crash like the one in the winter of 2008 would not happen to me a second time… surely.
I thought Apple wouldn’t make a laptop so defective that it would die so horribly less than a year after I bought it.
I was dead wrong. And the writing I lost will be gone to me forever.
And the people who said, “Don’t you have Dropbox?” made me want to hurt them. (Because, yes, I do have Dropbox, but, no, it wasn’t set up to automatically back up for me.)
And the people who said, “Blah blah I back up every day” made me want to scream. (Because I used to do that and lately I’d been forgetting.)
And the person who did not back up every single day (me) is the person I am most angry at.
Here is what I learned from losing yet another hard-drive:
Never get comfortable. Assume your laptop could break tomorrow. Could break in the next five minutes. Back up every chance you get, like a paranoid backup fiend. Do not trust anyone—least of all a soulless machine.
Do not expect sympathy if you lose your writing because you were not backing up every day. No one cares as much as you do. No one but you even knows what you lost.
Tell yourself the writing you lost was needing to be lost in order to become what it was truly meant to be. And prove it, by writing up a storm. Prove it by being better than you ever thought you could be.
Sometimes there is joy in writing from memory. It’s even better than it was before, I know it. (And don’t let your doubts tell you different.)
Oh, and buy a Time Capsule or sign up for some kind of automaticbackup service if you’re okay with your files being out in a cloud somewhere. Now I am backed up every hour on the hour, when I’m connected to home wifi, so I can do an easy Time Machine restore if (face it: when) this ever happens again. Plus yes, yes, I know: Dropbox Dropbox Dropbox.
None of this is news. It was only a hiccup. A setback. And now I’m off and running and I’ll get everything back that I lost, everything and more.
I know I’ve spoken about this before—maybe here on the blog, maybe at events—but I used to be a really, really shy person. Horribly shy. Talking in front of groups of people, being made to speak, to answer questions, to say what I was thinking, being looked at by people who knew me and by strangers, being judged, was terrifying. So painful, I strove to never have to do it. I was the quiet one in class and in groups, and I still am for the most part. But as we all know, doing events is part of being an author… and recently, I discovered to my shock that I somehow have been able to move past my true shy nature.
My nerves are—mostly—gone before events now.
I find myself able to talk in front of large groups of people now.
I don’t get a splitting headache after events anymore and have to hide myself in a dark room, alone, until it goes away.
The last couple events I had were actually kind of… fun.
HOW did this happen?
It’s a mystery I’m trying to figure out. All I know is I noticed this change in me this spring and summer, after 17 & Gone had come out. I’d hit a bottom with my confidence after Imaginary Girls was published, and during the writing of 17 & Gone in the months after that, but maybe part of hitting bottom is coming to see yourself as you really are. Down there, I found some scraps of confidence that had been there all along. Or… to be blunt… I stopped caring so much about what everyone else thought, or didn’t bother thinking, about me. By the time 17 & Gone had come out, I’d reemerged inside myself with a little bit of defiance, and with far more tempered expectations this time around, and I just thought: This is who I am. This is the book I wrote. And I have things to say about it.
I guess what I’m saying is I discovered my own worthiness. And in doing so, I stopped being so terrified of being in front of people and taking up space in the world. I guess I wrote through my shyness and emerged here, on the other side.
I also started realizing what I could and couldn’t handle from book events.
So here are some things I learned from doing events… a few little tips for shy writers like me:
Not being alone up there makes all the difference. I prefer doing events with other authors. At least three authors on the bill is ideal for me. It helps to not have to be the one person standing up there at the head of the room—it makes for a more dynamic event, and conversation between authors often brings up something interesting that you couldn’t have brought by yourself (especially if you are shy and easily embarrassed like me). But preferring group events is not because I wouldn’t know what to say by myself, it’s mainly because the stress of drawing in enough of an audience just on my lonesome is too much for me. If there are other authors with me, the pressure of filling enough seats to avoid embarrassment is not all on me. That’s because…
The worst part is worrying no one will show up. This, I’ve learned, has become my main source of stress in the days leading up to an event. And connected to this—stressing over not selling a single book in the signing after. I’ve never done an event where I haven’t sold books, or where no one showed up to see me, but I did get close, at an event at a small bookstore near where I’m from. And I learned that if the bookstore is depending on me and only me to spread the word about an event, and it’s somewhere I don’t live now, I can be assured the event won’t be worthwhile. It’s important to only visit stores and libraries that have a circle of readers who regularly attend their events—and stores and libraries that have a proven network to publicize the events as best they can beforehand. My little tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates about an event aren’t enough.
Don’t assume your friends know you wish they would go. The last New York City (my hometown, now, since 1997!) bookstore event I did I was hoping I’d look out into the audience and see the supportive faces of friends and former coworkers and just people I know here from various ways. But when I looked out into the—not very big at all—audience, I saw one such face: E’s. And no others. Not one person in my life besides my husband had shown up. I didn’t realize how badly I’d wanted people I knew there for support until I saw that no one had come. I never really expressed how much I wished people I knew would come, either. I guess I’d hoped they’d psychically, subconsciously know…. and how is anyone going to do that? I should have asked. But the point is, I learned I can’t depend on other people to make the event okay for myself. I have to make the event okay. Maybe there is someone in that audience who hasn’t heard of me before who will be intrigued enough to pick up my book. Maybe I will say something that will resonate with a stranger. All it takes is one person. That’s why I’m there doing a public appearance, not to fill seats with people who already know me. Besides, I usually do have one supportive face in the audience, and that’s E, my dedicated other half who goes to every event he possibly can. If you have that one person, it can make all the difference.
A new outfit can be a nice distraction. This is very superficial, but it makes the preparation for an event feel a tad better if I get to wear something special to it, something I haven’t worn anywhere else before. I can be uncomfortable in my own skin and don’t like people looking at me, so the outfit choices always have to be comfortable ones. It’s most important that I feel at ease, and this usually involves my wearing my comforting colors of black and dark blue and not wearing jewelry apart from a simple necklace. I have to be myself up there if I want to be able to act like myself. And I’ve learned that the best events are the ones when I do act like myself—I seem to connect with more readers that way.
Try to know what to expect of the event. But always prepare for multiple scenarios. I always ask what I’ll be doing at the event: Reading a section of my book, and for how long? Talking about my book and not reading? Sitting on a panel and answering moderated questions? I really like to know before I get there. But here is something I’ve learned: It doesn’t always go the way the bookstore manager or whoever it may be says it will. For example, I’d prepared a reading for a recent event only to arrive and discover we weren’t reading at all and were only taking questions. The event turned out to be a blast, and I think it helped that, as soon as I discovered we weren’t reading the day before, I thought of all possible questions that could be thrown at me and how I’d answer. I even practiced my answers in my hotel room, yes, embarrassing though that may be. And it turned out that none of the questions I’d anticipated were asked, but by practicing, I had some go-to topics I could speak on if my mind went blank. And that’s the thing…
There is always one panicked, icky moment. I say I don’t get nervous before events anymore—and I don’t, really—but I’ve noticed there is always one nervous, heart-pounding moment during an event and that’s okay… I can live through it. I’ve survived before. I’ll fumble over something I’m saying. I’ll look out at a series of blank faces and feel a rise of panic. I’ll be asked something I absolutely don’t know how to answer… There’s always something. And it’s okay. Oftentimes, the audience doesn’t know how badly you panicked—they see a pause, and then they see you pick up again. The worst freeze I ever had was during a conference workshop, when I started talking and realized I had nothing to say, and kind of circled in on myself like a vulture until I stumbled and stared out at the audience utterly dumbfounded. I will always remember that terrible moment because, for one, it felt like it lasted an hour, and for two, because I know why it happened: Because I hadn’t prepared to talk on that topic. I know myself now, and I know I need to prepare as much as I possibly can.
So back to the multiple scenarios. Because it just helps to be prepared. If I have to do a talk on my book or a reading, I’ve started preparing two ways I’ll approach each event, and it all depends on how the authors before me go. I’ll change, depending. I prepare two readings: one longer; one shorter. Or one serious, one more lighthearted. I’ll think of two ways to approach a talk and I’ll prepare both options. I started doing this after a group event where I went last on the panel, after an author who was VERY funny and who had a great many fans in the audience there to see her. She was hilarious. She talked, casually, and the whole room was laughing and with her and loving her, and then it was my turn. I’d prepared a talk about writing, for writers, that was dry and serious and not funny in the least. I also hadn’t eaten a thing out of nerves and was feeling light-headed and my stomach was growling. This audience was in a cheerful, happy mood, and they were also tired of listening to the five or six authors who had come before me, and they probably wanted me to be light and entertaining and… fast. But I had nothing else prepared. So I went into my spiel, and it took a while and it fell so flat I could have heard the smack. What I should have done is adjusted my presentation on the spot, after knowing I’d come after the funny, delightful author. But now I know: I get too nervous to adjust on the spot—so I should prepare two versions, and then decide on the spot which one to do.
Try to eat, even if you can’t stomach it. I mentioned that I did that event without eating. I have often been too nervous to eat before events, but this did not help me be coherent. I’ve now learned to eat something small, just a little something, beforehand. But to not drink any liquids too much before, so I’m not stressing about having to pee during the signing. (Hey, I’m just being bluntly honest here!) Then, after, I can eat a big dinner and treat myself to Thai food, my comfort food.
Allow yourself a dark, quiet room after it’s all over. When I was doing events for Imaginary Girls, I would always have to excuse myself after, and go lie down, even if it meant missing a group dinner with all the authors who were a part of the event. I’d get splitting, horrible headaches from having been “on” and needed time, after, to recover. Now I know that I might need this recovery time. I haven’t, for the last series of events I’ve done. After, I’ve been able to talk and hang out with authors and be personable. But I know it could happen, and I have to be okay with being antisocial and taking the time I need to regenerate.
Don’t dwell on the one stupid thing you said. Listen, if you’re not a natural public speaker, odds are, you will say something that makes absolutely no sense at some point during your event. Words you wished you didn’t say. Or maybe, after, you will run over and over all the smarter things you could have said. It’s not helpful… It doesn’t make the event feel good to dwell only on the negative moments. It happened. It’s over. Think of the good things: You stood up in front of a room full of people and you didn’t run away or collapse! You spoke intelligible words! You signed books! You made it through, and you smiled, and you appreciated the fact that you were allowed to be there.
Know what you like doing at events, and what you don’t. I like doing readings—that’s my favorite thing. I think because the words are down there on paper already and I don’t have to think on my feet. Also because I like the sound of my words out loud, the feeling of them on my tongue. I like reading my own words, and I like reading other authors’ words aloud, and I like listening to a good reader… it will often make me want to buy a book. So I’m usually more inclined to say yes to an event if it involves a reading. If it’s a “talk,” I am more inclined to say no. I just know what will make me the least nervous, and what I think I’m better at doing in front of people.
Don’t be afraid to say no. Doing an event can take a lot out of you, if you’re shy. When I first started doing book events, I realized that the two or three days leading up to the event were an absolute wash, due to nerves. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t do much of anything. I was that nervous. Now, I am somehow okay, and am grateful for it, but having had that experience and knowing how much events can cost me, I want to be very picky about what I say yes to. This will mean having to politely and kindly decline sometimes—and that may mean you won’t be asked by that organizer, or venue, again. That has to be okay. Your sense of self-preservation—and your time to write—just has to come first.
Appreciate every single person who comes to see you. I remember all the people who said kind things to me at my book events. All of you who have come up to me, all of you who have been there to support me (for example: Logan, who came to see me in Asheville! And the girl who sidled up to me at my Irving Public Library appearance and told me I was her favorite author!), I will never ever forget. You are the people who make these events worthwhile. So to the shy authors: remember these faces. If you’re feeling stressed about an event, remember there actually are people who have come to see you in the past and will come to see you in the future. And how wonderful and miraculous that feels. I remember one event I did where I felt I just wasn’t connecting with the audience—that my non-funny, too-voicey book just wasn’t up their alley, and they wished I could have been someone else. But after, at the very end of the event, a teenage boy who’d been hiding in the very back of the room slowly came up to the table of authors and went straight to me. He was holding one of my bookmarks from the free table and shyly asked for my signature. He said he liked what I read and he couldn’t wait to read more and that he’d get it from the library. He could barely meet my eyes. But I smiled and told him how much it meant to me that he came up to tell me—and it did, it still does. I never got his name, but I won’t forget him. He made the entire event worthwhile to me.
If you are a shy author who has learned coping mechanisms for doing public appearances, please share in the comments!
And, I have one more upcoming event on my calendar… I’ll be reading with Libba Bray in the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series on August 21, in New York City at the KGB Bar! Come be a supportive face in the audience for us both!
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…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
[No entry Day 8—must have written up a storm!]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
The next deadline to apply for a residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia is September 15. APPLY!
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:
…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?
You 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.
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.