Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Sweet Spot

There is a moment when I am writing that the world falls away and the place in my head becomes more real than the one in which I am sitting. It is a magic moment. The sweet spot. The holy grail. The moment you have left earth's orbit and are soaring through space. And I found it again today. 

Neil Gaiman has the best quote for this: The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what it's about and why you're doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience. Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising ("but of course that's why he was doing that, and that means that...") and it's magic and wonderful and strange.You don't live there always when you write. Mostly it's a long hard walk. Sometimes it's a trudge through fog and you're scared you've lost your way and can't remember why you set out in the first place. But sometimes you fly, and that pays for everything.

I haven't lived there for more than a year now, but I found my wings again and I don't care how much of a slog it was to get me here, I am here now, and it feels amazing. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Writing by Firelight (or trying to at least)

Quick synopsis: there's a writing metaphor and some agent advice in this post.

Yesterday was the first full day of Operation: Get the Novel Finished. I am staying in a lovely cottage on the Scottish coast near Banff until the end of October. It is beautiful and, above all, quiet. As many of you know, the past year has been a challenging and frustrating one for my writing. Getting my older son through his senior year of high school and all the attendant anxiety about college admissions as well as the first year of homeschooling my younger son, created a huge challenge to finding time to write.

Added to that was a change in the flight path of the airplanes that land at SFO. After more than a decade of living near the airport without problems, the FAA changed the buffer zone for departing flights and suddenly we went from one or two airplanes flying over our town each week to more than a hundred A DAY flying almost directly over our house. When we bought our house over a decade ago, one of my concerns was the proximity to the airport, but we were assured that the planes rarely come over the town, and that held true until the FAA changed the rules two years ago. And the planes are LOUD - our town is built against a granite mountain and is a perfect bowl shape, so the sound ECHOES and the house vibrates. And when SFO gets backed up or there are flight delays in other parts of the country, the planes go overhead as often as every three minutes for more than an hour. They start at 6 in the morning and continue until after midnight. They interrupt the flow of my thoughts so completely, it is like getting a phone call every three minutes while trying to write. Plus the anxiety of never knowing if each day is going to be mildly distracting or, when I sit down to write, it's going to be an every-three-minutes kind of day. Forget about being able to write in my preferred environment - total silence - at a minimum, I have had to wear noise cancelling headphones while I write. And forget about listening to my preferred choice in writing music (Yo-Yo Ma's cello concertos), the only thing that keeps me from hearing the planes is the constant drone of white or pink noise. Sometimes it's bad enough that I have to use ear plugs with the headphones.

And added to ALL that, was the pressure of having an agent who wants to see the novel when it is done. You may remember that I met Jeff Kleinman, head of Folio Literary Management, at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop last summer. What I didn't write about was that we hit it off really well. Folio has been at the top of my list since I started looking for an agent, so I was thrilled to send him the novel after the workshop. Though he liked it and me and had some lovely things to say about my abilities as a writer, he also had some problems with the novel and decided to pass. However, he told me that if I wanted to revise it, he would love to take a look at it again. Because he'd put his finger on some things that had started to bother me about the novel's structure, I told him that I was going to stop querying and take some time to rework the book, and that I would, when it was finished, take him up on the offer to look at it again. He wrote back almost immediately and said, "Great. Here's where we start: define your premise." Thus began a back and forth between us that lasted for a few months while I struggled to define what my book was about, finally realizing that, since I couldn't articulate it clearly, succinctly and in a few sentences, that the premise wasn't as well-defined as I'd hoped. I finally realized that I was going to have to take some time to rethink the novel. All while one of my dream agents was waiting to read it and the airplanes were flying overhead and kid #1 was facing burnout from 12 years of constant education and taking 4 AP classes and having to get applications in on time, and kid #2 was needing me to create a curriculum and oversee his education and stressing about whether we had done the right thing (we have, he's much happier AND getting a better education), and I was frantically trying to give the novel the space it needed while constantly looking at the calendar and thinking, COME ON ALREADY!

Anyway, long story short (I am a novelist, this is how I roll): back in January, I finally figured out what I needed to do with the novel (I'd been concentrating on the wrong character's story which resulted in almost zero tension or risk to the narrator who is the main character - not good) and was able to get back to work. I spent four months reworking the first chapter until I felt it was solid. Then I went to Lit Camp, where Janis Cooke-Newman declared that it was a near-perfect first chapter. That was when I knew I was ready to contact Jeff, tell him what I was doing, and send him the pages. I'd gotten the book to a place where I was happy with it. No matter what he said, this was the direction I was going to be pursuing. Fortunately, Jeff LOVED the new direction. "Are you done?" he asked. No, I said, but I knew where I was going, had it pretty much mapped out, and expected to be finished by the end of October. "Great!" he replied. "Send it to me when it's finished! Can't wait to read it!" (he really does use all those exclamation points).

(Incidentally, if you got to my blog by searching for Folio or Jeff, and are thinking about querying him, you should know 1) he responds VERY QUICKLY (sometimes in a matter of hours, and at all times of the day (I know someone who got a rejection from him within 2 hours on a Sunday evening after 11 pm East Coast time) - the way I knew I'd hooked him with the new first chapter was that it took him a couple of days to get back to me - if you're going to query him, make sure your premise is ROCK SOLID before you send it, and 2) he can be brutally blunt - when we were going back and forth over my attempts to write a premise statement, he pretty much told me that one of them completely sucked. If you can't take that kind of bald-faced, not sugar-coated-in-any-way feedback (and several people at Squaw couldn't), he is not the agent for you.)

A few days after Lit Camp kid #1 and I got on an airplane and flew to Aberdeen, Scotland, so he could check out the university because he'd applied and gotten accepted and wanted to know if he could actually be okay going to school so far from home. Both of us fell in love. Him with the school (it was founded in 1495, if that doesn't get you excited as a history major, nothing will) and me with Scotland (again). I'd spent a week here when I was in college - Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow - and loved the country and (now) how quiet it was. So when kid #1 decided he was going to choose the University of Aberdeen and our family decided to take a couple of weeks before term started in September to do a family vacation in the UK, I also decided to find myself a quiet little cottage and spend the month of October finishing up the novel without any distractions (and also to be available in case kid #1 ran into any emergencies in his first month of school (he has Type-1 diabetes and felt more comfortable about his choice of schools if I stayed longer) - it's much less expensive than having to purchase a last-minute airplane ticket and fly 18 hours to get to him).

So here I am. Living in a cottage for the next month in the midst of 500 acres of Scottish farm country with nothing to do except finish the novel. It is quiet and peaceful and the Scottish countryside is one of those places my soul calls home.

Yesterday was my first day even looking at the novel in over a month. Planning our trip and kid #1's departure for college, coordinating all the details of flat rentals and car rentals and who wanted to see what and making sure the mail got held while we were gone, etc etc etc felt like I was planning troop movements rather than a vacation and took up all the available creative space in my brain.

It turned out, the break was a good one. It gave me some perspective, so that when I read through what I've written so far, I could see it with fresh eyes, see what was actually on the page rather than what I'd wanted to do or thought I was doing. And, most importantly, see that it was working.

But then it was time to start writing again. That was a bit of rough going and it took some time yesterday for the words to start coming back. However, I found a metaphor to help explain the process!

The cottage has a coal-burning multi-fuel stove for heat, and I've been trying to figure out how to use it. I can build wood-burning fires without a problem. Fireplace or stove, doesn't matter. I know how to burn wood. Coal is a different matter, I found, and requires a different set of tools - I haven't figured it out yet, but I'll get there. The metaphor, though, is about what it takes to build a fire, and is very much what this writing retreat feels like.

To build a good fire, you start out with a super-quick burning material, like newspaper, and a quick-burning material, like small twigs or a firelighter stick. But you can't build a fire with just those materials because they burn too quickly and will smother if you try to put something larger on top of them. So you need a medium-burning material, like branches that are about an inch or so thick. You need these because they will catch fire from the burning of the kindling and paper, but aren't heavy enough to smother the flame or cut off the flow of oxygen. Because fire is also all about how much oxygen is getting into the mix. Too much and the flame will go out or burn too fast too early and consume all your quick-burning materials before anything else catches. Not enough, and the fire will smother and go out. Once you've got the fire going, you can start adding the heavier, slower-burning materials - like logs or coal. These are the pieces that are going to make the fire burn hotter and longer, the ones that will really keep the fire going, but you can't start out with them. They are too big to catch fire just by holding a match against them. Go ahead and try it. Even if a log is completely dry, the most you'll do is singe it.

As I struggled yesterday, I realized that trying to get that fire started was exactly what I was doing with the writing after being away from it for so long. I couldn't just jump right in and expect to blaze away for several hours (that's not the phase of writing the novel is in anyway), I needed the quick-burning materials (like this blog or my journal) to get the words flowing, and I needed the medium-burning fuel to build a base so that I could get to the days I know are coming, the days when I will spend eight hours straight in front of the computer and still come back for more.

Building the writing was exactly like building a fire. I wrote the invocation to the muse that had come to me in the middle of the night, then I opened the novel document and wrote a sentence. Then there was nothing. Then a few words. An hour later I had a paragraph. By the end of the day I had nearly two pages.

Not bad for a first day. And now...onward.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Invocation to the Muse

Come, Muse, let us dance.
Let us clasp hands and join ourselves
          body and soul.
Let us set the world weeping with our waltz
     let the intricacy of our movements
     birth universes in our wake.
Let us raise the dead
Let us give voice to the animals
Let us make known what is hidden
     and real what has never been imagined.

Come, Muse, let us embrace.
Let our passion set fire to the air
     and cast pornographic shadow puppets
     on the cave wall.
Let us split the world open in our ecstasy
     and bathe within its core
Let us fall back, exhausted,
     and rise
     to do it again.

Come, Muse, let us join.
Let us pray, heads bowed, crown to crown,
     me here, you there
     the point of connection between our worlds.
Let me give body to your dreams
Let you dream what is my reality.

Come, Muse,
Lend me your wings
     so that I might fly.
Come, Muse,
Let us dance,
          you and I.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Greetings from Scotland

The family and I have been traveling in the UK this past month as we take our older son to university in Aberdeen, Scotland. It's been a whirlwind of fascinating history, visiting incredible places, and learning lots of new things. For me, it was also being able to return to a city I love for the first time since I was a college student: London, as well as an entire country that feels like home: Scotland. Now that kid #1 has moved into his dorm and his classes are about to start, and kid #2 and spouse have returned to the States, I am off on my own adventure: a month-long writing retreat in the Scottish countryside so I can finish up the novel. I'm going to be posting a lot more frequently over the next few weeks, but I wanted to start off with some of the things we learned about familiar sayings and where they originated, something I find fascinating. 

Lancaster Castle
Our tour guide at Lancaster Castle in Lancaster revealed where several common sayings come from as well as one very surprising fact that I reveal at the end of this post. While the castle was once part of the holdings of the Lancaster family (of the War of the Roses fame), it has served as a prison for much of its life. Though the prison was closed a couple of years ago, it still serves as a civil court. It has a rich history as a debtors' prison and was the site of the second largest witchcraft trial in British history (anyone want to guess what the largest witchcraft trial was? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? - if you said Salem, MA, you are correct. At the time of the Salem witch trials, Massachusetts was still part of Britain).

Anyway, our tour guide revealed that several common sayings come from the way in which executions were handled in the past. Most people were hanged. At Lancaster, most of them were hanged by what's known as the "short drop" method, which involves the condemned standing on an object with the noose around their neck. The object was then kicked out from under them and, if they were lucky, the drop snapped their neck (in the "long drop" method of hanging, a trap door opens underneath them. It's much more likely to snap a person's neck than the short drop), but sometimes, that didn't happen and the person was left to alive and slowly strangled to death. In this case, the condemned's family would come up on the scaffolding and pull on his legs to hasten death.
So our first common saying was "pull the other one" (which is a British saying) or "pulling someone's leg" (which is American). Pulling someone's leg was actually a merciful way to make sure they died quickly rather than slowly and painfully. In addition, 'kicking the bucket' comes from the bucket or chair on which the condemned stood that was then kicked out from under them. 

Sometimes, the hangman's rope broke during a hanging. They reused ropes and sometimes they just wore out. If that happened, they tried again to hang the person with a new rope. You might think that if the rope broke a second time, they would give up, but no, the rope had to break a third time (because of the Trinity) before it was seen as an act of God and the condemned was let go. Hence the saying, 'third time's the charm.'

The third saying comes from a much happier place: Glamis Castle in Scotland. Despite the name, Glamis (pronounced 'Glams') has nothing to do with Macbeth except that maybe Shakespeare took the name because the Earl of Strathmore was one of his financial backers. Glamis was the childhood home of the Queen Mum, however, and the estate has been in her family for the past 600 years. 

The tour led us through some of the oldest parts of the castle as well as the formal dining room (still in regular use by the family to entertain Prime Ministers and other dignitaries), private apartments that were used by King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. when they visited with their daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. 

In the bedroom where the King stayed, we were shown a tall standing chest of drawers (and, forgive me, the name of it escapes me). There were seven drawers, one for each day of the week. The chest was used by servants to lay out their lord's clothing for the week. The top drawer was for Sunday, which was always a person's best clothing, hence the reason we call something that is really, really good "top drawer" or, more usually these days, "top shelf."

That's about it for the derivation of common sayings, but I'm going to nip back to our tour of Lancaster Castle to tell you about something that surprised the heck out of my entire family: why, when a person is sworn in as a witness in a trial, they are asked to raise their right hand and swear to tell the truth. It used to be that criminals were branded on the meaty part of their right hand just below the thumb. Raising your right hand is a measure of whether you can be trusted or not. It has nothing to do with swearing on the Bible and everything to do with this ancient practice of branding criminals so everyone could judge for themselves the reliability of what they were about to say.

So that ends my history lesson for today. Tomorrow, it's back to work on the novel 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Importance of Play

I haven't been posting much lately because I have been seriously head down/nose to the grindstone on my novel. It's going well, though slow. Lately I've been asking myself why I'm still working on it even though I know the reasons: I'm a writer, I love my characters, I love how this story has changed and deepened, I have an agent who wants to see it when it's done and this offers the very real prospect of reaching the next stage in my goal of becoming a published author. All good reasons.

I've been thrilled, as I work on this latest round of revisions, how the novel has become better. There's more balance to the characters, the plot holds together in a much more cohesive way, ideas I had at the very beginning of the writing have blossomed in ways I could not have foreseen three years ago.

But still...the day-to-dayness of it was starting to get to me. And there are several deadlines looming over my head that were making the writing drag, and I was starting to feel a distinct lack of joy for the work.

Then I got involved in this massive Internet scavenger hunt: GISHWHES.

It's one week long, and you work with a team of friends to complete as many of the 155 items listed as you can before the end of the contest. Documentation of the completed task is either a photo or a video, and it's fun stuff like dressing up as a distressed princess with a sign that reads "A dragon destroyed my castle" and collecting money that gets donated to a local food bank or dressing your car up as your prom date.

I'm working on a lot of the written task, like creating the team manifesto, but there's a lot of work that goes into brainstorming how to do each task as creatively as possible (make an article of clothing from tea bags, got it; create an image of Viking rats, all over it).

Above all, it's fun and it's creative.

And, above all, it's reminded me how important it is to PLAY.

One of the first tasks our team completed was dressing a rooster in a t-shirt with the GISHWHES logo on it. It probably tells you something about my team that this was one of the first tasks we did. But it was awesome (though the rooster did not really enjoy it and one of the cats kept staring at him with a look of horror on his face).

That night, I went home and worked on the novel. By chance, I was at a point where my main character lies down on a bed and goes to sleep. At first I wrote that he doesn't dream, then I thought, wait, how about if he dreams about a rooster in a t-shirt? So I wrote that instead. And then the rooster started walking away from him. And then it was in his school. And then there was writing on the shirt that he couldn't read and he didn't know why he was trying to catch the rooster. And then, suddenly, there was this amazing dream in the novel that works so well symbolically and, above all, it was FUN to write. And, even better, the creative energy started flowing, and I got through a scene that I've been dreading (not so much because it was a difficult scene to write, but one of those moments when you realize that other people are going to be reading what you write and start worrying about what they're going to think of you when they do) and got to the end of the chapter I'm working on and it all feels GREAT.

Why is play so important to creativity? Because playing lets you try things you wouldn't normally do. It lets your brain take it all less seriously. And that, of course, is the secret to doing things that are surprising and unexpected when you write.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lit Camping

Earlier this month, I had the honor of participating in the first ever Lit Camp workshop. A joint venture between Litquake (that amazing festival of words and writing and writers that takes place every October in San Francisco) and the SF Writers' Grotto, Lit Camp brought together 40 writers and several excellent editors and published writers and one very patient and generous agent, for four days of workshops, panel discussions, and general mayhem at the incredibly beautiful Mayacamas Ranch in Calistoga, CA.

Writer and Grotto co-founder Ethan Watters
in a pensive moment during a panel discussion. 
Like the Squaw Valley workshop I attended last summer, I went into Lit Camp with a lot of trepidation, mostly because I'm such an extreme introvert and being with a lot of new people is stressful. I needn't have worried. The weekend was wonderful, invigorating, and just the boost I needed to get back to work on the novel. I also got to play impromptu official photographer for the first two days when Lit Camp's official photographer came down with pneumonia. I had an absolute blast with it and discovered that being able to observe people through my camera lens made it easier to talk to them later. So not only did I get some great shots that will be used by Lit Camp on their website, I found a way to counter my introversion as well. Wins all the way around, I think. I was actually comfortable enough at the end of Lit Camp that I sang this song at the end-of-workshop talent show: Born to Be Blue and dedicated it to all the writers out there looking for an agent.

Newly-anointed Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson
leading a workshop at Lit Camp.
One of the best things about Lit Camp was the chance to try out the new first chapter of my novel. Having completely revamped the premise and redefined the novel's focus since Squaw, I was interested in knowing how the new first chapter worked. The chance to put it in front of a bunch of readers who knew nothing about me, the novel or what it had been up to this point, was one of my primary reasons for applying to Lit Camp.

The chapter has undergone some serious revision including eliminating what has been the opening sequence since the novel was a short story. Gone was the dramatic moment of the older brother's death. Now the chapter turns on the narrator's discovery that his perfect, eidetic memory has failed him for the first time, that it has something to do with his older brother's death (although he doesn't know what), and his realization that, for the first time in his seventeen-year old life, he has a choice about remembering or not remembering. I had questions about whether I was telling too much or not enough, if the clues were annoying or intriguing, and if the forward momentum of the chapter was compelling. My workshop-mates completely dispelled my fears and my workshop leader, the amazing Janis Cooke Newman who founded Lit Camp, pronounced it a "near-perfect first chapter," something that very nearly reduced me to tears. I am not kidding. I don't think I realized until that moment how much I have been writing with my heart in my mouth.

Happy Lit Campers Holly Payne (faculty), Matthew DeCoster (Lit
Camp Staff), Thea Sullivan and the incomparable Pat Montandon
celebrate the creation of the Montandon-Castro cocktail. The auction
for naming-rights raised $900 for 826 Valencia.

All in all, it was a good weekend. I wish I could say I was able to get back to work with a renewed vigor the following Monday, but I had to get ready to take my 17 year-old to Scotland so he could check out the University of Aberdeen and decide if he wants to go there in the fall. I know, tough life. But now I'm back home and ready to get back to work because I have given myself a September deadline for having this draft of the novel completed. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Now it's my turn to take on The Next Big Thing.

My friend Traci  tagged me to participate in this ongoing chain of writers answering ten questions about their latest work or work-in-progress. So here it goes...

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
The Altar of Dead Pets

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’s got kind of a convoluted evolution, but basically, the novel grew out of a short story that I wrote about fourteen years ago. The short story grew out of a free writing session two friends and I did on the word ‘choice.’ The first lines that came to me were, “School shrink says everything’s a choice and I think he’s full of it, because what about some fool-ass kid who sticks his head out of a car doing eighty…” and it was basically this teenage boy talking about how his brother had stuck his head out of a car while joy riding and ended up dead when he collided with a bunch of wood in a dumpster. That idea combined with the wild horses I’d seen during an off-roading trip with my husband and our then two-year old son (he’s now 17) in the back country around Reno (where we were then living), as well as the way my high school boyfriend had worshipped his older brother who had actually been a drug dealer, and became the story of Matt who discovers that his idolized older brother isn't the person Matt's always thought he was. 

I wrote the story in about a week. It went on to win some awards and get me a couple of grants, and got some good rejections from places like the New Yorker, but didn’t sell, so I started revising it. It was one of those projects that I would put down for a while and then come back to, and it gradually morphed from a short story to a novella. Then I started working on a (different) novel and decided to get my MFA at SF State. I used the original short story in my application for grad school.

In my second semester I was taking a short story workshop and was totally stuck for a second piece to bring in, so I told my professor (the wonderful and incredible Alice LaPlante) about this story and how it was now a novella and asked if I could bring in the original story to see if my revisions were on track. She said yes, and I did, and the comments were great. A couple of months later, I was doing a half-day workshop (with the also wonderful and incredible Matthew Davidson) and was working on a different project. Matthew gave us a prompt and I literally walked across the room to the desk where I would write thinking about this other project, sat down at the desk, and this scene from “Choice” just flowed from my pen, and that was it. The story told me it was a novel and that it was the only thing I was going to be working on until it was done. So far, it’s been true to its word.

What genre does your book fall under?
I got told by an agent that it is “upmarket fiction” which is the new term for what used to be called literary/commercial.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Wow. The only character I’ve ever had an idea for is the stepdad, Alan, and Denzel Washington would be an exceptional choice. When he was younger (like from his Gilbert Grape or Benny and Joon days), Johnny Depp would have been perfect for the older brother because Denny needs the charismatic, dramatically good-looking, wounded-boy image that Depp was really great at projecting. Matt, the younger brother, would have to be played by a really talented newcomer. And for the mom, Rachelle, I could see her played by Sandra Bullock. She’s outwardly fragile, but has got a core of strength that she doesn’t know she has.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Perfect recall is not perfect knowledge.

(Incidentally, this question has been the bane of my existence since the summer. Just so you know…)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Agent and traditional publishing.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The first draft of the story as a novel took about two years, but I was also in grad school at the time. I finished the second draft as my Master’s thesis, and the third draft took about a year. I’m doing revisions and hope to have those finished by March.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Catcher in the Rye was a huge influence on this book – especially the grief and longing that drives Holden over the edge. I’ve also compared this book to The Virgin Suicides, The Lovely Bones, and  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In addition to Matt, who kept revealing himself and making my heart ache, I started exploring the intersections of memory, identity, history, and the creation of the narrative we call History. My narrator, Matt, has an extraordinary memory – he remembers everything that ever happened to him, which is both good and bad. Two things happen to him in the course of the novel. The first is that he can’t remember the night his brother died. He was there, but the trauma caused the memory of it to be erased. The second is that, even though he remembers everything about his brother, he didn’t know who his brother really was. Perfect recall isn’t the same as perfect knowledge.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
There are wild horses, the Nevada desert, and a crazy campfire ritual at the end of book that doesn’t quite go the way anyone expects. 

So, I'm tossing The Next Big Thing to Nina Schuyler next. Nina was one of my first professors at San Francisco State. Her next novel, The Translator, will be published July 1st of this year. Her first novel, The Painting, was nominated for a Northern California Book Award wand named a Best Book by the San Francisco Chronicle. She'll be posting on her blog at

I'm also giving a shout out to my friend, Kelly Gilbert, who's first novel is going to be released later this year by Disney Hyperion. Traci tagged her first, but head to her blog to check out what she has to say about her wonderful novel.