Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing Habits

The first question I'm usually asked during a reading Q & A is "What is your process?".  Funny how we writers love to compare notes on this front. I'm no exception. At the Richard Russo and Andre Dubus III event I attended a few months back, Dubus mentioned the need for absolute silence when he writes. If I'm remembering correctly, he works in a windowless, sound-proofed room in his basement, wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. He reads a bit of poetry before he begins and then writes for four hours with pen (or was it pencil?) and paper. Russo, also writes longhand, I believe, but prefers public spaces like delis and coffee shops. He mentioned writing a lot at Denny's early in his career. An interesting side effect: every time he drove by a Denny's, he would get an idea for a story. 

I'm a fan of quiet, like Dubus, but a little ambient noise doesn't bother me too much. No voices, no music--unless I'm editing, in which case a little Bach turned really low is fine. I need a window. Nearly any view will do; I once wrote a book with a view of nothing but a single tree and a squirrel who stole food out of my neighbor's garbage. Have you ever seen a squirrel eat an entire New York bagel? I have. It's hilarious.

I'm the only writer I know of who works exclusively on a computer. I can't be the only one--all you monogamous computer-writers please leave a comment so I won't feel so alone. Most writers seem to start out by writing longhand and then transfer their work to a computer on the second draft. I find writing by hand too slow for my thoughts. My tool of choice is a MacBook Pro, which I picked solely for the  feel of the keyboard and the spacing of the keys. I have long fingers and most laptop keyboards cram their keys too close together for my fingers to feel comfortable. The computer program I use is Scrivener, which is insanely affordable and has all the functionality a writer could want. I'm not a shill for the company, but would gladly be one if they asked. 

My office is in a converted dining room. I write at the leather-topped cherry desk I bought as a reward for selling my first novel. Before that, I wrote at an IKEA desk and before that I used a collapsing particle board computer stand someone wanted to throw away. Above my desk is a narrow picture shelf with wedding and baby photos, notes from my kids, a few sea shells we collect on our many jaunts to the beach. Above that, there are two shelves filled with the books I refer to the most often--Irving, Updike, Steinbeck. Most of my favorite authors have John as a first name. Strunk & White is also up there, as is How Fiction Works by James Wood. Before I begin a writing session, I pull down one of the books above my desk and read a few pages to grease the wheels.  

I write in the morning, after my kids get on the bus. I've discovered that if I don't get rolling early enough in the day, the writing never gets done. I'll read over a little of my work from the previous day, careful to stop mid-scene so I'll have a jumping off point at the next session. I used to tell myself that I had to write for four hours a day no matter what, but I found that it was hard to keep track of time amid distractions and that it was too easy to get hung up on something small instead of forging ahead. What worked better was to have a daily word count. My goal is 1,000 words per day and most days I meet my quota within 2-3 hours. On the rare day when I'm really cranking, I can do it in an hour or less. Either way, it's a terrific way to stay focused. When I'm done for the day, I'm done. No matter what else I manage to accomplish that day, if I've met my quota I feel like I've been productive. 

When I'm re-writing, I usually take my laptop to the couch or outside to shake things up a bit. The goal is not word count, but trying to get through the manuscript as thoroughly and quickly as possible. From my experience, re-writing in a compressed timeframe helps me to see the flow of the narrative better and identify inconsistencies. I love the process of re-writing and can easily put in 12- hour days to get the job done.

My writing habits, like anyone else's, have developed over the years through trial and error. What works for me won't necessarily work for someone else and vice versa. What makes the sharing of habits so interesting, perhaps, is discovering those things we writers have in common. With such a solitary pursuit, it's nice to feel like we're not alone.

What's your writing process?  

Thursday, July 24, 2014


When we first start out as writers, as adults, we forge ahead with a set of expectations. We know where we want to end up, though we often have no idea how to get there. Marriage, children, a house of our own, a book deal--we know that with work and diligence, maybe a little luck, some of our goals will come to pass. A little traction, we think, is all we need to get things rolling. And it is. We push on, one step after the other. Soon we have a family, a home, or an oeuvre. We have a history. A track record. We have pushed past obstacles. We know the secret to success now and our only way forward is up.

Then the inevitable happens--a setback. Divorce, illness. We publish a book, but it doesn't sell. Or worse--our first book is a huge success, but our agent has misgivings about being able to sell our second book. Or maybe we're so paralyzed by expectations that we can't even get any words down on the page. Sometimes the setback is small enough that doesn't deter us from pressing forward. Other times, it feels like we're rolling all the way back down the hill, right back to the beginning. This was not part of the plan.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I was working as a ghostwriter for a YA series, I decided that the next logical step in my career was to develop a series of my own. I wrote a proposal for a series called ON THE ROAD about an eighteen year-old girl named Miranda who decides to take a year off between high school and college to travel across the country. The timing was great--a publishing company that was looking to invest heavily in their YA division quickly snapped it up and gave me a twelve book deal. This was just the beginning, I told myself. I was going to send Miranda to every state in the union, maybe even overseas. I was on my way up.

Or so I thought.

Around the time I finished my manuscript for book two, some huge changes started happening at my publisher. There was a change of leadership at the imprint. The new leadership decided that they needed to change focus from YA to middle grade books (the Harry Potter effect). My book contract was cut from 12 to four books. I was one of the lucky ones--others had their contracts cancelled outright. My editor left and I was assigned a new one, who was not emotionally invested in the series. Miranda only traveled as far as Florida and was in a bit of a rush getting there. The books were released with zero publicity or fanfare, just the minimum fulfillment of an obligation. I knew it was bad luck, that it was nothing personal. Still, it felt like a punch in the face.

It takes courage to press on after a setback, but press on we must. First, we have to allow ourselves a bit of grieving, a bit of taking stock. We hunker down and lick our wounds. We must be honest with ourselves--Did we play a part in this? Sometimes the answer is no, but often it's yes. Our next steps need to be thoughtful, deliberate, not reactionary. We are more wary as we proceed, but wiser the second time around. Our successes are sweeter because we know they are so hard-won. And when the next setback occurs--as it surely will--the punch will have lost some of its sting. We survived once, we will survive again.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

There's Never a Perfect Time

A friend of mine, who is a school teacher, once mentioned that when life settled down she would love to write a children's book. "Why wait?" I said. "There will never be a perfect time."

My answer was a bit simplistic, I know. My friend is very busy with the demands of work and family.   I understand what it's like trying to find a little time for oneself and how the muse doesn't always cooperate when that sliver of time opens up. Right now, I'm watching my daughters run through the sprinkler on the front lawn and I'm holding my breath, hoping it will occupy them long enough for me to jot down a few thoughts. This is the only quiet time I will have today. If I don't seize this brief opportunity this week's blog post will never happen.

This is life. We have so many responsibilities we forsake the things we really want to do. Yet how many of these responsibilities are truly necessary? Maybe fewer than we think. How much free time do we actually have? Maybe more than we realize. A little web surfing, a little TV. There is breathing room in our days, but we've found ways to fill it. Ways that might feel like we're doing something substantive but leave us feeling drained, dissatisfied. Why do we compulsively check our email all day long when we say we'd like to spend more time reading? Why do we rob ourselves of even things that bring us pleasure?

Time isn't really the the obstacle--it's fear. It's easy to postpone our dreams by blaming our schedules. It takes the pressure off. Deciding to finally take that leap into the unknown is terrifying. We are afraid to fail. Committing to action is to court disaster. So we hide behind our to-do list. It's safer that way. The decision seems to be made for us.

Time is our enemy in that we have only a finite amount of it. How much? No one knows. When we are young, we foolishly believe time is a luxury. This is not to say we should spend every minute being productive. We should spend as much of our time as we can doing what fulfills us--not on empty habits or on pleasing those who do not occupy a place in our immediate circle of family and friends. If we don't act now, then when? There will always be a problem or two plaguing us, an inbox that never empties, another holiday around the corner. There will always be an excuse we can point to  if we allow it. Years can slip away before we notice.

The perfect time is now. But it doesn't have to happen all at once.

I suggested to my friend that she buy a beautiful notebook and a pen just to jot down a some ideas. Spend a few minutes every day or week on it. Let go of outcomes, expectations. Make it fun. Just start.