A Dream

theaterempty

I had a dream that I had a magic wand. It was pink, with glitter. (I do not like the color pink, but go with me on this.) I could wave the wand and it would give me completed manuscripts. A wave, and The Walls Around Us was finished and ready for my editor. Another wave, and a short story appeared. Another wave, and the adult novel I want to write turned into a massive stack of pages on my desk. One last wave, and the secret project I’m working on was done and no longer such a secret. Waving my magic manuscript wand was SO easy. It was the best kind of magic I could hope for. I can’t tell you how terribly sad I was when I woke up and realized I didn’t have the wand and none of those manuscripts were actually written…

Until I remembered something.

I remembered that the reason I write isn’t for that final stack of pages all neat and collated on my desk. It’s for the *writing* part of writing. The feeling I get when I invent those pages, when I carve a good paragraph, when I create a character who surprises me. The process of writing, on good days, can be such a terrific high. A thrill and a deep sense of satisfaction that I’ve never felt for anything else in this life, ever. If I did have that pink, glittery magic wand from my dream, I’d never have a chance to experience this feeling again. And wouldn’t that be sadder?

Writers Colony Diary: The Hambidge Center June 2013

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…

(This is my studio! It's called Foxfire, and is up a little hill. It's bigger than my apartment at home.)
(This was my studio! It’s called Foxfire, and is up a little hill. It’s bigger than my apartment at home.)

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.

Wow.

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.

Fuck.

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.”

(I wanted to see what people could see of me from the road. That's the view of my studio through all those trees. I was surrounded by green.)
(I wanted to see what people could see of me from the road. That’s the view of my studio through all those trees. I was surrounded by green.)

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.

(Only residents allowed past here. My studio was a little ways away.)
(Only residents allowed past here. My studio was a little ways away.)

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?

(This is Rock House, where the artists in residence could go to check email, do laundry, make phone calls, and where we gathered for dinner 4 nights a week.)
(This is Rock House, where the artists in residence could go to check email, do laundry, make phone calls, and where we gathered for dinner 4 nights a week.)

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.

(This was my favorite part of Rock House: the porch, and the rocking chairs! We'd gather here before dinner to talk.)
(This was my favorite part of Rock House: the porch, and the rocking chairs! We’d gather here before dinner to talk.)

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.

(My back porch. Where I liked to go to "think.")
(My back porch. Where I liked to go to “think.”)

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.

(Here is where the artists gathered for dinner on the nights the chef cooked for us.)
(Here is where the artists gathered for dinner on the nights the chef cooked for us.)

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.

(But you want to see the food! The chef, Rae, made utterly delicious and amazing vegetarian food for us 4 nights a week. I devoured the divine mac and cheese she made before photographing it. But here is another favorite dinner: Clockwise from top left: biscuit; roasted new potatoes; fried okra; black-eyed peas; corn; dandelion greens and tomatoes. YUM.)
(But you want to see the food! The chef, Rae, made utterly delicious and amazing vegetarian food for us 4 nights a week. I devoured the divine mac and cheese she made before photographing it. But here is another favorite dinner: Clockwise from top left: biscuit; roasted new potatoes; fried okra; black-eyed peas; corn; dandelion greens and tomatoes. YUM.)

[No entry Day 8—must have written up a storm!]

(Did we get dessert? Oh hell yeah did we get dessert. Here's a photo of Rae's banana pudding.)
(Did we get dessert? Oh hell yeah did we get dessert. Here’s a photo of Rae’s banana pudding.)

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.

COFFEE.

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.

And voila.

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.

Hello, coffee.

(I saw a lizard! On the porch! I freaked out but somehow was able to take this photo! At least I think it was a lizard! Maybe it was a salamander! I have no idea!)
(I saw a lizard! On the porch! I freaked out but somehow was able to take this photo! At least I think it was a lizard! Maybe it was a salamander! I have no idea!)

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.

(This was the view from my writing desk. No wonder I wrote a forest into my novel.)
(This was the view from my writing desk. No wonder I wrote a forest into my novel.)

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?

(Here's the desk I liked to write on—there were actually two desks in the studio, but this was the one I liked best. I should mention that I don't usually write with my last novel nearby—that's weird. It's only there because I was preparing for a reading at Malaprop's... and I didn't even end of reading at the event anyway!)
(Here’s the desk I liked to write on—there were actually two desks in the studio, but this was the one I liked best. I should mention that I don’t usually write with my last novel nearby—that’s weird. 17 & GONE is only there because I was preparing for a reading at Malaprop’s… and I didn’t even end up reading at the event anyway! Note also: my writing sweater. That’s a colony essential.)

___

The next deadline to apply for a residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia is September 15. APPLY! 

The Writing That Comes Before All the Writing: On Outlining

chair in snow

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:

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 11.09.11 AM

…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?

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?

A Tour through My Inspirations

17&Gone boardLast year, when I was deep into writing 17 & Gone, I discovered an exciting new distraction and way to collect images that fascinated me: Pinterest. What started off as maybe one more thing to keep me from writing turned into a great source of inspiration, and my 17 & Gone inspiration board was born. I’d often write with the images up on my screen, staring at them in pauses between paragraphs.

So I was delighted when Penguin suggested I highlight ten images from my inspiration board and share them on a blog tour. On each stop on the blog tour I highlighted one of the photos that spoke to me and helped me find my way through the darkness of writing this book. Now, I wanted to collect all the inspirations in one place.

Below are details from the ten images—and below that are some lines I wrote inspired by looking at the images.

Images:

(Click the thumbnail to see the story behind each image.)

inspiration2inspiration3inspiration4

inspiration5inspiration6inspiration7

inspiration8inspiration9inspiration10

Lines:

(Click the line to see the image that inspired it.)

Another girl could go today.

Abby Sinclair. There at the intersection.

Soon I’d know this dream wasn’t about anyone dying—it was about living on, forever.

She’d lost herself to that place where the missing kids go, the kids no one finds, even when lakes are dredged and woods combed.

The color was indistinguishable up close, so for a moment it seemed her whole head had caught fire.

My arm, threatening to give me up, was already pointing at the mirror.

Once they touch your skin, you’re theirs.

I could see a girl. Then two more girls. Then another. Another.

The ghosts tonight have already told their stories.

Which is what I keep going back to: the fires.

Thanks for entering my head and taking a peek at my inspirations. Don’t you love when other art forms—and other artists—inspire you? Next, I may share some songs.

The Creative Mindf*ck

creativemind

So I’ll say it. I’m ready for the year to end. I am looking forward to 2013, creatively. I’ve gotten myself into a jam this year with my writing—and I know I’ve talked a tiny bit about the tough spots I’ve found myself in during this year, but mostly I haven’t spoken about it. I haven’t told you. It was something best kept close, as often these things are.

Talking about the realities of being a published author can come across as crass, heartless to those still struggling to find agents or sign book contracts—I was there, for years, and I remember. It can also sound like I don’t appreciate what I have—and of course I do; it’s all I’ve ever wanted. And also, talking too much about this puts too much negativity out there, and why would any current or possible reader want to revel in that?

But in truth, even published authors go through rough patches when we sit down to write a new book. Not every word or idea that comes out of me now is good or worthy of keeping. Not even close. Since getting the book contract for Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone, I’ve trashed two entire book proposals (one middle-grade, and one YA) and I’ve cycled through so many possible ideas for what could be my next book that I realized I could have had a whole draft if I’d just stuck with one. The problem for me is reconciling the fact that, for me, my writing is the way I express myself, it’s my art. And the other fact that, since I left my day job, it’s also supposed to make me money now or whatever. These are two dueling realities that should not have to share a bed. It’s a creative mindf*ck for me, one I haven’t been able to iron out.

I’m not sure what I’ll decide to do in 2013, but I can tell you this: I am finishing out the year finally having found something that feels right, on the page. This next book—still in its very young stages, and not yet approved by my agent and not yet bought by a publisher, not even read by anyone apart from E—is what I want to write right now. When I work on it, I feel that fluttery feeling again, the one I get when there’s a book I want to spend years with and write the hell out of and dream about and see come alive on the shelf of a library one day.

If you were wondering what was going on behind the scenes with me and my writing, there it is. Now back to some more guest posts about other people’s books!

The Inadvertent Creative Break

(The view from my new writing desk.)

I haven’t announced this or made a big deal of this, but it appears that I’ve been on some kind of quiet walk through the woods of my brain lately. It’s dark in here and there’s lots going on and I kind of don’t want to come out just yet.

This isn’t a formal break or a true sabbatical like one of my favorite authors, Sara Zarr, is taking (for inspiration, I highly recommend you read her blogs about her sabbatical if you aren’t reading already). No, this is nothing so well-thought-out and maturely faced.

It’s just that after finishing the last round of revisions for 17 & Gone in July, and my computer breaking and not getting replaced until late August, I discovered that I am not sure what book I want to write next. I have so many ideas for YA novels—and other kinds of novels, too—so it’s not for lack of ideas. It’s more: What should be next? Where does my heart want to live for the next year, two years? What would my editor and agent want of me? What would my readers want of me? But most of all—more than anything, I admit: What do I want of me?

I thought I knew, and I did have something almost ready, but my heart doesn’t want that to be the book anymore, so a proposal that was almost ready to get submitted has been set aside for the time being while I try my hand at something else to show my agent. I’d expected this would take me a week, maybe two, and look where we are now: the end of September.

Every time I think about this I go through a bout of panic, beating myself up for what I’ve done, and yet I can’t seem to speed it up, either. The new idea I’m working through needs time. It changes and shifts and emerges with new heads each day I work on it.

So I guess I’ve slowed to a crawl.

I think part of this is fear, of course. Fear of not having a new book under contract and worrying what will happen when I try. Fear of 17 & Gone coming out this spring. Fear.

But at the same time, it’s wanting to have my third YA novel be the right one. And—no matter how scared I am, no matter how nervous and knotted up and annoyed at my snail-like pace I become—the truth is, I’m not writing on command here. I want to write something I truly love and that’s important to me and speaks to me and speaks through me. And sometimes this just takes time.

So, privately, that’s what I’m dealing with. Publicly, you can find me in two places, if you’re so inclined.

This weekend I’ll be at KidLitCon in New York City. Maybe I’ll see some of you there.

And online, I wrote a guest blog in WORD for Teen’s “Characterize” series. Who did I write about? Ruby from Imaginary Girls. Hope you’ll go read my contribution.

One last thing to tell you: While I was writing this blog—admitting to my fear, and thinking of my brand-new idea in progress and wondering when I’ll be able to let it go—something pretty awesome happened.

Penguin Teen released its Spring 2013 sampler, and 17 & Gone is in it! Maybe this is telling me something… To not be afraid. To not make excuses. To not worry about spending the time finding the right idea and the right way to approach that idea.

To be brave.

So, bravely, I will share the link with you…

Do you want a free peek at 17 & Gone—among such amazing company with other Penguin Teen authors like Lindsay Ribar, Gayle Forman, Maureen Johnson, and Ruta Sepetys? Go read the opening chapters of my new novel, and I hope you like them!