Filling the Well

the well

I hear this advice often—I think I read it first from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, one of the books I borrowed from my mother’s bookshelf way back when. Artists need time to “fill the well,” or replenish our creative resources, especially after we’ve completed large, all-encompassing, energy-draining projects such as novels that have taken huge chunks of our hearts, heads, and souls to get on the page.

How do you fill the well? You take in inspirations. You let yourself ponder and wonder and think. You take a look at the world and collect (people, ideas, fragments, overheard conversations, images, notes, pieces, pebbles, seeds).

So maybe this post is about this need and this process.

Or maybe this post is about that moment after you’ve published a book and the pressure that comes to write the next book.

And how this moment can expand into days. Weeks. Months. Years? (Help me, I’m quoting The Walls Around Us—that’s how connected I am to that book still and proves it’s been hard to move on and let go.)

This is me: I just published a new book. My fourth. I’m proud of it. It feels complete. There was the fear of what would happen when people started reading it, and I survived that, and the nerves of what would happen when it got published, and if it would change my life (we writers, no matter how realistic and jaded we get, still hold the secret hope that the next book will be the one to change our lives), and I think it did, in an internal way that feels very personal and wonderful, but I don’t necessarily think it did in the splashy ways most people ask about or expect.

This is a two-book contract, I should add. And the second book on the contract is a whole new novel, completely unrelated to Walls. It’s a creation from scratch. And it’s due.

This winter, after a short stint at an artists colony, I turned in a very wobbly and paper-thin first draft of my next book, and then got feedback, and was set off on a course to rewrite and reimagine it. I agree with the feedback. I know there is a lot of work to do—I love hard work. But even as I knew all that, The Walls Around Us was coming out, and there were promotional things to do, online and in-person, and I kept going away to conferences, and I kept telling myself I would really dig in deep when I got home, and I slipped in work in between things and time kept passing without much progress made.

What I needed was for time to stop. I needed permission to take a little break from trying to get the novel into shape and just close my eyes and let the shape nudge itself together in the darkness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about all of this. And I discovered something:

When forcing yourself to hit an arbitrary word count every day doesn’t help… And when guilt-tripping yourself into a stupor doesn’t help… And when comparing yourself to the productivity and publishing schedules of other authors doesn’t help… And when effectively tying yourself to your desk chair doesn’t help…

Know what helps me? Doing something tentatively connected to writing that has nothing whatsoever to do with this novel.

The first thing has been my teaching and the private manuscript critiques and mentoring I’ve started doing. I love working closely with other writers, and digging in deep to their novels even when I’m feeling faraway from mine. Somehow that’s helped.

The second thing has been a project I’ve been doing for the month of May, or Short Story Month. I’ve been reading a short story every day—if you want to see which stories, here is the list I’m keeping updated. Pressure-free reading. It’s working wonders on my head.

The stories don’t take long to read. And most of the stories I’m choosing to read are not YA, so I don’t have to think about the industry. I just have to absorb. Admire. Experience. Fill the well, I guess.

It’s been a wonderful experience so far. Inspiring. I feel lighter. I feel happier. I feel less tied to my author-self and more connected to my writer-self, the one who just loves words.

I’ve learned this about myself: I need time in between books to not be writing the next book. I always need this time, and I always fight against needing this time. I always feel bad about myself. I always force the work, and this takes me on detours, and ends with me having to undo what I forced.

If this always happens, you’d think I’d have this figured out by now, but I’ve also learned that I’m a work-in-progress and still learning.

Next time, I would like to remember this and give myself the well-filling recovery time I know I’ll need. Now I’ve had it, these new ideas are percolating and my heart is beating fast again and I can see the end of this novel glimmering in the distance and I want to run to it. I have the energy, once again, to run.

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A Story a Day for Short Story Month

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I’m in need of some untainted* inspiration… maybe you are, too?

(*Untainted by industry noise and book worries and life stresses. Just something simple, and sweet, and able to get the blood pumping and the fingers moving on the keys.)

One thing that does this for me is reading a good short story. I love short stories, as I’ve confessed before here.

So I was delighted to discover that apparently May is National Short Story Month, and one of my favorite authors, Sara Zarr, is taking on a beautiful project: reading a short story a day for a month, and tweeting about it. If I can get it together, I am going to join her, starting tomorrow. You can, too—just comment on her post, or let her know on Twitter at @sarazarr. There’s also a project in which you can write a short story every day, but that, my friends, is way too ambitious for me, when I’m working on a reinvention of a novel.

My intention is this: To read a short story every day* for the month of May (*Um, every day I am able to. I’m bad at every-day promises, so I can promise there will be at least a few days when I break it.) And I’ll talk about the stories on Twitter, to share what I’ve read.

I’ve decided to use the month to reread some of my most favorite short stories—many of which I have collected in a series of binders I call my “anthologies.” I used to photocopy stories I loved and admired from collections, magazines, literary journals, and anywhere I could find them and collect them in these personal anthologies. I stopped doing this years ago, but I still have about eight or nine volumes of my anthologies that I can dip into this month, not to mention some new books I have on my shelves and links I’ve collected online and a Best American or two I haven’t finished reading yet. So there will be some brand-new-to-me short stories to read, too.

If you have a favorite short story you’d like to suggest, please leave it in the comments below or tell me on Twitter at @novaren.

Tomorrow is May 1, the start of this fun project. I already know what tomorrow’s story will be… but I’ll wait to tell you until the morning. It’s a long-time favorite, and one I haven’t read in more than ten years. I can’t wait to rediscover it.


Keeping track of the stories I read here:

May 1, Story 1: “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter. Favorite moment: a mother’s intuition. Also this moment: “I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.”

May 2, Story 2: “Lucho” by Patricia Engel. Favorite moment: the idea of love. “…I didn’t even know I loved Lucho till that second. But I did. Because so what if he was a little smelly and weird. He came looking for me back when I was invisible. And when he was with me, he acted like I was the only thing he could see.”

May 3, Story 3: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler. Favorite moment: the idea of humanity, and, well, basically everything. This story is new to me, and I loved it. “There were tourists everywhere on the beach, swimming, lying in the sun with daiquiris and ice-cream sandwiches and salted oranges. She wanted to tell them that, not four miles away, children were being starved and terrified. She couldn’t remember enough about people to know if they’d care.”

May 4, Story 4: “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle. Favorite moment: all the waxy weirdness. And the truth in this statement: “‘…He needs to know what he’s dealing with—otherwise he’ll do whatever he wants to her. That’s how older guys are,’ Ruthie explains with a sigh. ‘They underestimate you. They assume you’ve got no one looking out for you. They assume you’re nothing.'”

May 5, Story 5: “Miss Lora” by Junot Díaz. Favorite moment: voice and all voice. “Sometimes after you leave her apartment you walk out to the landfill where you and your brother played as children and sit on the swings. This is also the spot where Mr. del Orbe threatened to shoot your brother in the nuts. Go ahead, Rafa said, and then my brother here will shoot you in the pussy. Behind you in the distance hums New York City. The world, you tell yourself, will never end.”

May 6—I messed up and didn’t read a story today. Does it help to tell you I had a book event that day and was distracted? 

May 7, Story 7: “The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong. Favorite moment: a whole new view of mermaids. “Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people. They are stupid like fish, they eat your garbage like fish, they sell on the open market like fish. Keep your kids out of the water, keep your trash locked up, and if they come close to land, scream a lot and bang pots together until they startle away. They’re pretty basic.”

May 8, Story 8: “The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard. Favorite moment: the concept and every word. “That was how saints were made. Some piece of strangeness happened, and it hooked itself in the heart of someone who saw it, and called it a miracle. Once they decided that’s what it was, people tried to reenact the miracle’s circumstances. They ritualized its pieces. They named the person at the center of it, gave them an epithet, something memorable.”

May 9, Story 9: “Kindness” by Yiyun Li. Favorite moment: The loneliness and isolation of this narrator. The strength of memory… This story is just extraordinary. You can find it in the O.Henry anthology from 2012. “I never showed up in her dreams, I am certain, as people we keep in our memories rarely have a place for us in theirs. You may say that we too evict people from our hearts while we continue living in theirs, and that may very well be true for some people, but I wonder if I am an anomaly in that respect. I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself.”

May 10, Story 10: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell. Favorite moment: the mood, so melancholy and peculiar in all the best ways. “Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno‘s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper that I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I am a vampire.”

Bonus weekend story, which catches me up to Day 6: “The Map” by William Ritter, a Jackaby (Doctor Who meets Sherlock in YA form) short story that is coming out online this summer, before book #2. I don’t think I should quote from it since it’s not available yet, but expect all the sense of classic mystery and excitement you’ll remember from the first book in this little teasing taste… (Full disclosure: We share a publisher, Algonquin Young Readers!)

May 11, Story 11: “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham. Favorite moment: This story was a time machine—I remember reading it many years ago, and a distinct and emotional memory of reading it followed me over the years. Returning to it made me cry, at its end, again. Helps that I actually did live during my formative years in Woodstock, New York—it’s not what they hoped it was. “‘You and I are going to fly, man,’ Carlton whispers, close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. ‘Fly,’ he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces—we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch. Sweet glory. The secret of flight is this—you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. I swear it to this day.”

May 12, Story 12: “The Girl on the Plane” by Mary Gaitskill. Favorite moment: This story is profoundly disturbing. Upsetting. Gutting. Complicated. It was very difficult to read the first time, years ago. I think I  had to close the book before finishing and come back to it later. This time, I knew what was coming. It hurt to read. I needed to read it. I think everyone should read this story. “A stewardess with a small pink face asked if they’d like anything to drink, and he ordered two little bottles of Jack Daniel’s. Patty’s shadow had a compressed can of orange juice and an unsavory packet of nuts; their silent companion by the window had vodka straight. He thought of asking her if she was married, but he bet the answer was no, and he didn’t want to make her admit her loneliness. Of course, not every single person was lonely, but he guessed that she was. She seemed in need of comfort and care, like a stray animal that gets fed by various kindly people but never held.”

May 13, Story 13: “It’s Just a Jump to the Left” by Libba Bray. Favorite moment: Memories of Rocky Horror, but beyond that the sex and longing and rebellion and confusion, the heart. “She couldn’t say why it felt so very necessary to be angry with her mother all the time, but it did. She would walk into a room where her mother sat reading or grading papers and be consumed with a sudden need to wound that would be followed moments later by a terrible guilt and an equally ferocious longing to be forgiven and comforted.”

May 14, Story 14: “Ramadan” by Mona Simpson. I am not actually sure if this is a short story (it later became a part of a novel?) or an essay (it seemed at first to be published in Granta and then Salon.com as an essay?) or that amalgam of both that turns into semi-autobiographical fiction (?), which I find so fascinating, the way fact and imagination combine to form a whole new truth that distorts the memory forever after. Favorite moments: Truth is, this story upset me far more on second read than it did years ago. I am thinking about why that could be. “His skin stretched and spread taut wings from his neck to his top chest bones. I remembered that he was young, probably younger than twenty. I wanted to hear his name. I didn’t want it to be Atassi. He could have been. My father might have come back. Then I remembered my father telling me around the old kitchen table, ‘If I went back, I’d be running the country. I was the John F. Kennedy of Egypt.’ Well, he wasn’t running the country. I read the newspapers. I knew those people’s names. He said so little to us that I saved every sentence. I could lift one up like a bracelet or strand of pearls from a box.”

May 15, Story 15: “Call My Name” by Aimee Bender. Favorite moment: the sadness and entitlement to happiness that never comes. I don’t have to “like” this character to feel and appreciate her sadness. “The men are pleased when I come on the subway because I am the type who usually drives her own car. I am not your average subway girl, wearing black pants and reading a novel the whole time so you can’t even get eye contact. Me, I look at them and smile at them and they love it. I bet they talk about me at the dinner table—I give boring people something to discuss over corn.”

May 16, Story 16: “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor. Favorite moment: when I realized this was going where I thought it was… the perv was a perv. “The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of ‘What were you thinking?’ and ‘Why did you do that?’ Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge—someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.”

…a gap of space and lost days in which I get very busy, do a little traveling, have a book event and a school visit, get home, meet two deadlines, and feel guilty about all the stories I missed, so I start again…

May 22, Story 17: “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Favorite moment: a memory that transports us back in time. This story was filled with regret. Moving, perfect. This connection over Bruce Lee movies: “I stared at Raphael with the pure thrill of unexpected pleasure. ‘I watched the film in the other house where I worked,’ he said. ‘Look at this.’ He pivoted slightly, leaped up, and kicked, his leg straight and high, his body all taut grace. I was twelve years old and had, until then, never felt that I recognized myself in another person.”

May 22, Story 18: “The Snow Queen” by Karen Brennan. Favorite moment: the sadness and the disconnect. “In those days I would have done anything to protect my son. If I were to encounter him now—in an alley, say, covered with snow—I would not be able to melt his heart.”

May 23, Story 19: “Distant View of a Minaret” by Alifa Rifaat. Favorite moment: The calm at the end and everything that says and contains. (Reading the Wikipedia page about how this author’s husband would “allow” her to write and publish, and then take that away, gives me a complicated feelings; I need to read more from this Egyptian writer.) “As often happened at this moment she heard the call to afternoon prayers filtering through the shutters of the closed window and bringing her back to reality. With a groan he let go of her thigh and immediately withdrew. He took a small towel from under the pillow, wrapped it round himself, turned his back to her and went to sleep.”

May 24, Story 20: “Use Me” by Elissa Schappell. Favorite moment: going back in time—this was a story from a book I loved as a young writer in grad school, and I haven’t read it since. I’m such a fan of this writer, even still, years and years after. This paragraph shows some of her power… “I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t fantasized about appearing in one of his books. I imagined how he would see me. I would be young, my blonde bob would be long and red with a shine like patent leather. He’d mention my breasts, which were really nothing special, comparing them to dollops of fresh white cream. My legs, elongated, would cut through space like scissors. I would be smart, but not too smart. I would be naive. Maybe he’d widen the gap in my front teeth. He would rewrite all his parts so he was obviously the one with the upper hand, and invent poetic dialogue fraught with tense and subtle metaphor. In that way I was sure he wasn’t honest. But I would be different. Like a man. I’d have him, and I would leave him. He would put me on the page, but I’d live outside it. I’d live longer than he.”

May 25, Story 21: “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. Favorite moment: This story was incredible. Just incredible. Read it right now and you’ll see what I mean. “I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled her off to a sanitarium. I don’t know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly that they take you away from the known world for wanting it?”

May 26, Story 22: “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” by Alice Sola Kim. Hot damn! THIS STORY. The past two days of stories rocked my world. Favorite moment: Just look at how this story begins with this gem of a first sentence… “At midnight we parked by a Staples and tried some seriously dark fucking magic.” p.s. You can find this story in the anthology Monstrous Affections.

May 27, Story 23: “What the Dead Know” by Manuel Martinez. Favorite moment: Whenever the dead come back to life, you know I am there. “But they didn’t die. They walked out of the hospitals with their families and went to dinner. They went home and coaxed their spouses and lovers to bed. They told everyone that they had died and come back, that they had been given a second chance. They tried to explain that this was different from the type of near-death experience we hear so much about, when the heart stops beating and valiant surgeons are able to start it up again. They told us that this was true resurrection, but we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand.”

May 28, Story 24: “Nobody’s Business” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Favorite moment: Returning to this story after many years (this is another one from my anthology). “Sang had been laughing at him, but now she stopped, her expression pensive. She looked up at the house, a balled-up comforter in her arms. ‘I don’t know, Charles. I don’t know how long I’ll be here.'”

…a lost weekend…

May 31, Story 25: “Light” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. Favorite moment: I was taken in by the first lines, straight off… “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.”


There. I write this on June 1. The month has reached its end, and I somehow forgot to read some Alice Munro, which I shall rectify very soon. There were 31 days in May, and I only reached 25 stories, but just imagine a month full of 25 stories… it was 25 times richer than it would have been without.

The Calm Before the Who-Knows-What: 110 Days to Publication

walls arcs 400I write this to you from a quiet moment in my publishing life. It is December 5, the year 2014, and I am in the room at the rear of the café at a table beside the outlet where I can safely sit with my back against a wall. I am all alone in a room full of noisy people, which is both literal and symbolic at the same time. I write this nervously, of course, and with hope, always, about what the future might bring. My new book comes out next year, and next year is close. The pub date is March 24, to be exact, which I can see ahead on the calendar and which feels breathlessly about to happen and also at the same time safely still far away.

The moment is quiet still, because nothing has happened yet. There have been no trade reviews yet. It is too soon to do much promoting, or to weigh any reactions. I haven’t had to dress up at an event for this book yet and talk about it in front of people. Anything is possible at this point. The book comes out in 110 days.

There are 110 days to go, and the book is mine still, even though some people have been reading it and kindly telling me so on Twitter.

Today, someone tweeted me something I said a while back. I guess I said, “When I was writing The Walls Around Us, I decided to be simply and only myself.” And that’s true. I want to remember that, no matter what happens.

Everything is about to be up in the air next year. Where I’ll live. What work I’ll be doing. What will happen with my writing career. How this book will do out in the world. How that will determine everything else, including, though I’d hate to let that happen, my self worth.

I don’t know yet. I can’t know yet. We’re waiting on news about our apartment. I can’t do much to figure things out for next year because I’m about to go away and be offline for three weeks. The book I’m writing now is due next month, and it’s the last book on my contract. I don’t know what I’ll write next.

The best thing I can do for myself is have no expectations. To look ahead into the future and see a complete and total blank. When I get my hopes up, it’s dangerous. When I skew too negative, it’s far worse. When I keep myself busy, and try not to think about anything beyond next week when I’ll take the train upstate to finish my novel, it’s okay.

So let’s just be okay today.

I wanted to write to you from this moment in my life. From before.

If you, too, are on the edge of something and want to imagine someone sitting next to you in the noisy waiting room crowded with other people all going about their lives, I’m here. I’m feeling quiet. But I’m here.

p.s. I’m too tired to check my math. If it’s actually less than 110 days, don’t tell me.

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.

5 Things I Learned from Losing Another Hard-Drive

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.

I mourned.

I raged.

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?”

And oh.

And ugh.

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.

(My laptop returned to me, repaired and with a factory-fresh, blank hard-drive.)
(My laptop returned to me, repaired and with a factory-fresh, blank hard-drive.)

Here is what I learned from losing yet another hard-drive:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. Oh, and buy a Time Capsule or sign up for some kind of automatic backup 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.

PSA: Have you backed up your writing today?

About the Quiet

beautifulthingsYou 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.

See you there, maybe?

Beyond the Buzz: Guest Post by Kimberly Francisco

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This week I have the last posts in the Beyond the (Latest) Buzz series, where I’ve asked YA & kidlit librarians as well as book bloggers to share books they think deserve more attention. Read on to see which book librarian Kimberly Francisco from STACKED wants to share… 


Guest post by Kimberly Francisco

biting the sun tanith leeWhen I was a teen, I became enchanted with dystopias, likely prompted by my early love for The Giver. I sought out books in the same vein, which led me to the classics (1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Handmaid’s Tale), but there seemed to be a dearth of newer novels written for teens that featured teens.

In 2012, this complaint would be laughed at, but in 2002, I didn’t find much that adequately satisfied my hunger—until I stumbled upon Biting the Sun, a little duology by Tanith Lee.

Biting the Sun is two books in one: Don’t Bite the Sun and its sequel, Drinking Sapphire Wine. It’s set in a future world where consequences no longer really exist. In this world, if you were to die, your consciousness (or soul or life force) would be salvaged from your body and placed in a new body of your own design. For all practical purposes, death no longer exists.

I loved this concept, which seemed so new and fresh to me at the time. I loved how Lee worked with the idea of a consequence-free society, where people could change gender at will, jump from the top of the tallest building just to see what it felt like, walk around with real antennae for a few weeks, hook up with whomever they choose. The society is so technologically advanced that robots do everything for the people, so the people spend their days at leisure, dreaming up new and creative ways to kill themselves and come back in ever more ridiculous-looking bodies.

I figure at the mention of “robots” some of you made the leap to “sentient robots” and figure therein lies the conflict. Happily, that’s not the case. The conflict of the novel has much more to do with how humans—and one human in particular—find meaning in a world without consequences.

The book’s protagonist is a member of the Jang, a group of people similar to what we call teenagers, except the Jang are Jang for several decades instead of just a few years. The Jang are encouraged to act out, to be as wild and crazy as possible—sort of like how teenagers now are expected to act, but the behavior is sanctioned rather than oppressed. The protagonist—whose gender is fluid and is never named, a conceit made easier by the first-person narration—eventually grows weary of the lifestyle and decides to try and work, to find something meaningful to do that will improve the lives of others. When she (at the time) realizes that meaningful work is impossible, she decides to leave the environmentally-sealed world of Four BEE and see what it’s like to live outside.

Aside from not really knowing how to live in the “outside” world, her situation is complicated by the fact that there are those inside Four BEE who plan to do their best to stop her from leaving.

The books were actually published in the 1970s, so they aren’t as new as I thought they were when I first read them. But Lee’s writing and the concept hold up, and the world she’s created still seems fresh and new. She’s created a Jang culture that is believable, sometimes annoying, and weirdly fascinating (much like teen culture today), including a whole new set of slang. I re-read this book every couple of years and find that I continue to love it each time. Moreover, I loved that the ending was so different from the classic dystopias I had read before, all of which almost uniformly ended in despair.

Judging from the age of the reviews on Goodreads, I think Biting the Sun has seen a bit of resurgence lately, thanks to the recent dystopia craze, but I haven’t heard mention of it from anyone that I know or from people whose blogs or reviews I follow. It’s still in print as a mass market omnibus, and I think it fits in well with what’s being published today in this sub-genre (and is more unique and better-written than most of it to boot).

Technically, I believe the book was published for the adult market initially, but it’s a natural fit for teens. It features a teen protagonist, but more than that, it’s about growing up, about deciding who you want to be and in what kind of world you want to live—and then making it happen.

(I also gushed about Biting the Sun in my inaugural post at STACKED, which you can read here.)

Have you read and loved this book? Chime in and tell us what you think in the comments! 


stacked logoKimberly Francisco is a public librarian in Texas. While she has many duties, her favorite by far is managing the library’s collection of books and media for children and teens. At STACKED, she blogs about books and other related topics from a librarian’s perspective. You can find her on Goodreads or follow her on Twitter @KimberlyMarieF.

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Want more in the Beyond the (Latest) Buzz series?

Here are the posts in the series:

  • YA/middle-school librarian Jennifer Hubert Swan recommends Better Than Running at Night and Every Time a Rainbow Dies
  • YA librarian Kelly Jensen recommends a whole host of books including Sorta Like a Rock StarFirst Day on EarthFrost, and more
  • Youth services librarian Liz Burns recommends The President’s Daughter, Flora Segunda, and All Unquiet Things
  • YA librarian Angie Manfredi recommends Rats Saw God
  • YA librarian Abby Johnson recommends the top five books she read this year: The Berlin Boxing Club; Blizzard of Glass; Dogtag Summer; Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have; and A Girl Named Faithful Plum 
  • Book blogger Kari Olson from A Good Addiction recommends books including Freefall, I Swear, Like Mandarin, and more
  • Book blogger Wendy Darling from The Midnight Garden recommends UltravioletA Certain Slant of Light, and The Reapers Are the Angels
  • Book blogger Nicole from WORD for Teens recommends The Lost Years of Merlin
  • Librarian and children’s literature professor Laura Lutz from Pinot and Prose recommends New York City novels Kiki Strike, Better Nate Than Ever, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, The Night Tourist, Suite Scarlett, and Undertown
  • Book blogger and children’s literature MFA student Mackenzi Lee recommends Millions
  • Book columnist and reviewer Colleen Mondor recommends For Liberty
  • Book blogger Kellie at the Re-Shelf recommends Andromeda Klein, The Door in the Hedge, Dramarama, Leverage, I Do, Kill Me Softly, Secret Society Girl, and The Wicked and the Just 
  • Librarian Amber Couch recommends books that get overlooked in her library