Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Tale of Two Novelists

The comments trail for my previous posts about revisions led to today's "joint" post with Therese Fowler. So, join us as we each talk about what it's like to write what sometimes feels like that elusive second novel. Therese has her own compelling story to share, but here's mine . . .

When I sat on my front porch 8 years ago to write All the Numbers, I had absolutely no idea what direction my journey to publication would take. I suppose I had starry-eyed notions of a big advance, fancy book tour, and best-sellerdom (following, of course, that phone call from Oprah!), but I also had the freedom to take my time and craft the story only I could tell. The only deadline I had looming was the first day of school in late August when I'd have to pack away my ink pens and legal pads and turn back into "Mrs. Larsen, English Teacher." Those summer mornings of writing were a gift I gave myself. It didn't matter, at the heart of it all, if anyone else ever read my book. I was chasing a dream that had first sprouted when I was a skinny eight year-old devouring every book I could get my hands on. I received varied reactions from family and friends when I told them I was writing a novel (ranging from stunned to excited), but again, I was writing for myself. I'd promised myself I'd write a book before I was 40 and that's what I did.

I'm now 47, a published author (and yes, I still get a thrill out of saying that) and working on my next book. Almost before the ink was even dry on All the Numbers, people asked when the next one's coming out. My stock answer is, "Well, I need to write it first." In some ways, that's been easier said than done.

When I initially sat down to work on my second book, I worried that the "love" had gone out of it. I'd left my regular paycheck behind when I'd resigned from teaching. But, I didn't want to ever view being a novelist as just a job. Yes, it's what I put down in the blank for "occupation" on tax forms. But I was actually worried that I'd lose the joy of it, the creativity of it. If I didn't get my 1500 words in every day I felt like I was failing my family, my husband, myself. I didn't have a contract. I put pressure on myself, and at times began to think that maybe I'd had only the one story to tell and I was done. I would be a "one-hit wonder" with perhaps only a B-side single to show for it. I'd talk to other writers who were busy finishing manuscripts for their two-book deals and I'd think, "Oops. I'm screwed." I kept writing though, because by now, well, it was the only thing I knew how to do. (I mean even with a big family there's only so many loads of laundry I can do in a day.)

But then, the characters I was wrestling with started to take shape. I'd find myself with a good plot point and a snappy line of dialogue. I'd catch myself worrying about what I knew was looming ahead for one of my characters and my husband would see that distant look in my eyes and he'd know I was in the world of Unexpected Grace rather than in our kitchen. And I found that NOT having a contract with a firm deadline was incredibly freeing. I was back in the mindset of the summer of 1999 sitting on my front porch writing for the pure love of it, writing a story only I could tell.

I'm now well into the manuscript. I've given myself a deadline of July 31. This means I will probably go two years between books (but, please, please, please not more, I hope). And that's okay. I know now that being a novelist is both about the craft and the business--but right now, I get to be the artist. I have more confidence in my ability (except when I don't). I've been blessed with contacts and resources and some savvy to help me when I get stuck (and when it's time to become the businesswoman behind my book). No, my publisher is not obligated to make me an offer; they have right of first refusal, which means they get to see it first. And while it might be nice to have something on paper, something that binds us both, I like knowing that unless they love it, they won't take it. I don't want a lukewarm home for these characters I've come to care so much about. And if my publisher doesn't love it, I am confident that my agent and I will find someone who will (unless we don't).

My dear friend and fellow author, Bev Marshall, who's been a mentor extraordinaire, left this comment to my last post: " I felt enormous pressure on that third book because I had a delivery date and I didn't want to have to ask for more time. Book four is under consideration, but the one I'm enjoying writing the most is the one I'm writing now. The pressure is off no matter what happens with book four. I took a very long break before beginning this book, and I think that helped immensely. Most writers I know are far too hard on themselves, pushing beyond their limits, striving to produce and please others when sometimes we should just be kind to ourselves. I remember Dorothy Allison saying once how she hated to hear a reader ask, 'So when's your next book coming out?' I get that a lot, too, and now I just say 'Whenever someone publishes it.'" As always, Bev's wisdom shines through.

So for me, I'm writing for myself and for those readers who loved Ellen and her story and who I have a hunch will love Kate and Virginia too "whenever someone publishes it." I'm not writing to the terms of a contract or a due date. I now know more what to expect from myself as an author; I've learned how to be disciplined. (And yes, I think, should a multi-book contract ever make it's way to me, I'll learn how to write that way too.) And I've also learned that NOVELIST is the best job in the world. And it's my job for as long as I want it, no matter when the next book comes out.

p.s. Brief comment disclaimer--I promise to read and respond to all the comments you leave here--but not until Tuesday. Because for the next 36 hours, my husband and I are running away for an anniversary celebration. No kids, no computers. We can't wait.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Revising, Part Two

Last week I referred to the continuum of emotions about revising and said I was closer to the "root canal" end than I'd like to be--I'm happy to report that I persevered anyway and made good progress (2500+ words). I took the whole RE-VISION mantra to heart and allowed myself to drift in the mind of my main character (and no, while it might have looked like all I was accomplishing was upping my winning percentage on Spider 2 solitaire, be assured, I was working. Slaving away.)

So much of writing is about control--I get to orchestrate the lives of the characters, I pick the setting, I determine the conflicts, I get to resolve the issues. I even pick names. I set writing schedules for myself, I tally word count, I run spell-check, I choose who I ask to read drafts. And I like being in charge. I mean, so much of our lives we aren't bosses of--even when we think we are (if you don't believe me, have a teenager. Or five. Toss in a golden retriever). However, when it come to revision, I find I have to cede that control a bit. I have to slow down, let my mind wander (maybe play some solitaire--thanks Kristy!--), and let the story take over. In doing so, I discover what the characters want me to know and where the story needs to go without my pulling all the strings.

So, this week I'm following Kate and Virginia where they want to go. I'll let them tug at my sleeve and whisper their truths to me in the early light of morning and softening darkness of twilight. And I'll make sure their truth flows through my pen.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Sometimes I love revising a manuscript--other times I'd rather have a root canal. On that revision continuum, right now I'm closer to the dentist's chair than I'd like to be. It's at times like this that I'm reminded that as much as I love writing, it's hard work. (But, if it weren't then everybody'd be doing it and where would I be then, right?)

I'm a little over halfway into my MS. And I'm loving it. I'm trying things I haven't attempted before, and by all accounts, it's working. Yes, I need to flesh out some things, but I've figured out how that's going to happen. The characters are becoming richer every time I sit down with them.

So where's the problem? I've gotten perhaps too attached to some of my prose. As my first creative writing teacher (27 years ago!) pointed out to all of us when she handed back our first stories to revise--we should examine the word "revision" and truly see it as a RE-VISION. Taking a new look. Seeing it with fresh eyes. A new perspective. She didn't want us to just polish things but to perhaps explore a new approach. And it might require us to discard (horrors!) some of the words we'd carefully crafted. We might have to toss out (eek!) whole paragraphs.

That's where I am this week. I realized that one of my narrators, Kate, wasn't dumped six years ago by her fiance, but he died in a plane crash. Now, that's not going to be a big portion of the actual MS, but it explains so much of why she's the way she is now. I need to work in enough of that backstory so it works for the reader. And for Kate. And that requires lots of re-vision. Some of her flippancy needs to be toned down, other conversations need to be completely revamped. It's work. Satisfying work, yes, but also hard. Frustrating at times. And when I highlight whole sections and go to EDIT and then click on CUT, a little part of me gasps to consider what has just disappeared. But I know, that later this week, or next, or maybe even next month, I'll look at it and the changes will be seamless and I'll wonder how I ever could have seen it any other way . . . unless of course my vision shifts again.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Eye of the Beholder

Moments ago I was sitting in my family room, editing my current work-in-progress, loving the quiet hour or so I'd lucked into. None of the 5 children who eat here/sleep here/ask for money were currently home. The dog was sleeping at my feet, ice melting in my iced tea. A large thump from the front of my house startled me and I hurried to the door. Needless to say I was surprised to see my son (pictured in the previous post) and one of his friends, brushing off their hands after having dumped a large sofa on my beloved porch. They'd noticed the "FREE" sign on it and knew it would be perfect in their room at college next year. I really shouldn't have been that surprised. In the 16 years we've lived here this is at least the third sofa one or both of my sons has deposited on my porch. They've never paid a dime for any of them. I see flotsam, they see an unfurnished apartment filling up. I also see their grins.

My son and his buddy headed to the pizza parlor where they work and I went back to my editing. And had one of those AHA! moments that led me to this post--I had seen garbage where they'd seen a comfy couch. When I'm editing/revising/drafting, I see stories and life and promise where others might only see words or missed connections or, even worse, garbage. It's my task, as the writer, to hone the words into prose, into its own world. I start with an idea, a phrase, a nuance. If I look at it right, I can see a furnished story where before had only been bare walls.

The goal I'd set for myself last week was to have this WIP fully developed and polished by the end of July. I'm holding to that and adding this: to have the sofa off my front porch by then as well.