Writing Process Blog Tour for 8/20/14!

I was tagged by Tamara Kaye Sellman to participate in a blog tour that asks four questions about the writing process Tamara had some great answers last week involving magical realism and the necessity for today’s writers to go against conventional advice for the writers of yesterday, and next week I’ve tagged Michelle Kilmer, author of When the Dead and the upcoming Last Night While You Were Sleeping, and Ripley Patton, author of the PSS chronicles to give their answers. I’m looking forward to reading them both! Today it is my turn. Let’s go!

1) What are you working on?

I just finished the second draft of a novel and I am working really hard on not flipping out and hiding under a table where I’ll likely scratch into the walls all of the worst possible things I imagine my beta readers could say about it with a pen knife and ultimately throw the manuscript into a volcano. I’m one of those writers, the “nothing will ever be good enough” sort of writers, but I’ve come to a place where I know if I can just sit tight in this storm of bad-feelings a week will pass, I’ll read through the book, and decide “this aint all bad, I can probably work with this.”

This is the second novel I’ve written, but it’s the first I want read, so the standards are pretty dang high. It’s way different from the short stories I’ve done, which I still revise until the moment revision becomes “put the comma in, take that same comma out… maybe put the comma in again?” and that’s when I know I finished the story three months ago. I’m slowly learning I can’t revise the novel that way, I just don’t have the stomach for it. I suppose what I’m really working on is distraction. I’m finding small stories to fiddle with in the interim, and I’m making things with my hands. Hands are good distractions. I wrote six word biographies for the main characters in the novel to help siphon off some of these nerves, and I just did a self portrait in sharpie and cut paper because sometimes writers need to get out of the words for a bit, and sit, and find some calm before we ruin a project with too much fussing.

There’s an episode of Metalocalypse in which the lead singer of Dethclock is staring at the final cut of their latest album, and everyone behind him is saying “Nathan… don’t do it…” and then he just pushes a button and erases everything. I know exactly what that’s like. Nathan just needed to give it a week. I vow not to touch my manuscript for a week (okay I’ll read it but not edit… I’m putting it down, I swear.)

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I think I write horror. The novel is about monsters and urban legends, and I’ve found common themes of insects, three eyed people, and madness in my short stories, so what I write tends to fit within some vein of horror. That being said, I am a genuinely cheery person, and so much of what I write comes from a place of love, which I think is reflected in the stories I tell. It’s a very cheerful horror. Sometimes it feels like I come from a place of naiveté. I am young, yet, for a writer. Right now I am struggling with the disparity between the world I live in and the world reflected in what I write. There is so much evil out there that it feels comical for a fairy tale witch to be the greatest antagonist in the world of my novel, but I have to remember that a story is not the world. It never can be. Jose Saramago got around this by cutting off the outside world at the borders of his unnamed country, Milan Kundera acknowledged fiction’s shortcomings within his novels by writing openly of their fictitious nature, and Mike Carey in the Unwritten comics named this the negative space in the story; that space where the story stops short and in order to work cohesively cannot acknowledge the vastness of the world, but must remain focused on the small world it has built for itself. The Unwritten is chock full of brilliant breakdowns of the way we read and write, all in a fantastic story to boot. It’s on the “writer’s reference” shelf in my personal library. I organize my books like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

I carried myself off there for a wee bit. But that minor turn toward structure and influence is not altogether off topic, they are what make me different. I would not call what I do “meta fiction,” but while I write stories that often turn horrific, I focus less on being scary and more on the structure of a piece, what is left in and out, and that structure is genre-less. I also read a lot of comic books. And children’s books, and magical realism, and yes, horror. All of which inform the way I write.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Wow that’s tough. I have a hard time writing about myself (don’t let the blog fool you). And talking to people. I think a lot of writers (especially fiction writers) have this problem. I’m not saying that I write because the only conversation I want to strike up is a monologue about spiders, but I think all artists are looking to communicate something that cannot be simply said in conversation. Writing is the medium I’ve chosen to communicate those things I can’t say about love and madness and fear. Fear particularly (I’ve been working with that a lot in the novel) is such an insidious concept that to speak openly about it degrades any arguments that touch it. Better to construct a life that is so entrenched in fear, and watch how he lives when everything around him runs with its sap, and let that act as a method for understanding what fear does to a person who cannot control it.

Stories are things I can make that are immersive, they demand full attention, and unlike movies which provide everything from story to visuals to music, they involve the participation of the reader. Language is a give and take thing, I can say “Isabel let herself fall back into the Leviathan, and drew her strength from its ancient wisdom” and how you see that happening is what you, reader, bring to the story. It is dependent upon how you see Leviathan as an abstract concept, what sort of person you envision an Isabel… you get the idea. It would have more meaning if more words were built around it, a narrower focus, that is what writing does, but I don’t have space here. It’s why when we speak of fiction we often speak in metaphors. Naming unnameable concepts.

I think video games are the one other artistic medium that demands nearly the same type of involvement from its participants, but video games are held hostage by technology, and their stories are often diffused through a production team. I collaborate like Edward Gorey; open to collaboration, but you might not see me for weeks while I “collaborate.” I prefer language as a technology for story telling, anyway. It’s incredibly advanced, and it only gets better as we discover new concepts and ways to speak of them. I, for one, welcome “hot mess” as an addition to the dictionary. It probably won’t make it into any of my short stories anytime soon, but it does detail a specific idea, and I like knowing “hot mess” is there if I need it.

4) How does your writing process work?

I usually begin with a character, and some idea of a problem she’s having. I like to write off of prompts for anthologies, because blank pages are terrible, so those prompts are thrown into the stew. I’ll jot down a couple of random sentences on a blank document, perhaps a line or two of dialogue, and sometimes if I’m having a really hard time beginning the story, I will play around with rhyming couplets because they make me smile. Rhymes loosen the brain, they keep me from worrying about perfection in a first draft.

Then I do the dishes. (Or something to distract my hands.) While my hands are someplace inconvenient, the right first sentence comes into my head, and I go back to the computer and write it down, then write furiously, attempting to throw everything on the page, spitting words against the wall until I’ve discovered the silhouette of what I really mean to say and I do not edit while I write because that kills it. That’s a lie, I do edit, sometimes, but I try really hard not to. At the end of the first draft which always takes more time than I have, (it’s broken by work, and sleep, and making dinner and spending time with my patient husband,) I try to give it a couple days before I edit for real, and in this time I doodle characters, or knit. Sometimes if I’ve really enjoyed an object in the story I will try to make it. I love making things with my hands, and it gives some sense of accomplishment so I don’t go back to the computer stuck in the mire of bad-feelings, having convinced myself that the story is pointless. And once enough time has passed, I go back to the first draft and make sure that the fury I conjured out of couplets and dishwater is cohesive, and that the words sound right together. Sometimes writing this way gives the correct feeling to the story right away, but I more often need to wrangle it back from the brink and turn the phrases straight so they better reflect the story they are telling.

This fugue state writing is the only way I can get my editing brain to shut up long enough to finish a first draft. I think I might be in the minority for writers, but I love to edit fiction. I think that’s where the magic actually takes place. First drafts are gathering ether, raw power for a spell, and editing is putting that into place, directing it so that it can affect another person the same way the ether has affected you. Writing is magic. Oh! Oh, that’s my answer to number three! The process ends in a spell, and then someone else reads it, and then we share that tiny world, but privately, in our own time. Magic!

Be sure to tune in to and next week for their answers to these same questions!

Michelle Kilmer is a lover of the macabre, especially zombies. She is a frequent zombie walker and can be found, with her twin sister, in “full gore” at many horror-related events. Having grown impatient for the zombie apocalypse she decided to bring one to her doorstep in When the Dead… her first novel. With the positive feedback on When the Dead, she has continued to write. In 2013 she co-wrote a short story collection with her twin sister. Her third book, a zombie YA novel is due out in May 2014.

Ripley Patton lives in Portland, Oregon with one cat, two teenagers, and a man who wants to live on a boat. She is an award-winning short story writer and author of The PSS Chronicles, a young adult paranormal thriller series. Ripley doesn’t smoke, or drink, or cuss as much as her characters. Her only real vices are writing, eating M&Ms, and watching reality television.

All that is, but isn’t there.

There is a great amount of your writing that you will never put into words, and leave for the reader to fill in on his or her own.  I like to draw.  But, the problem I come across when drawing perspective is that I am not allowed to draw in every piece I can see in my mind.  The brain sees in three dimensions, the paper has only room for two.  The cubists ignored this and wrote it out anyway, giving all sides, but the brain cannot properly process three dimensions in two dimensional form, and it looks abstract.

When looking at a skyline, while traveling, you can see… everything!  But really, to be truthful, it’s your brain that is filling in a lot of what is there.  Your eyes aren’t actually seeing individual branches way up on the mountain, and it’s your previous experience of branches in close proximity that fills in the blanks.  The same thing happens in writing.  There’s great amounts of scenery in a book that your previous experiences fills in to allow the writer to ignore those boring bits.  That Saramago quote from Seeing was a moment of allowing the reader to understand that absolutely none of the anonymous buildings have been provided, and all these people have been speaking in some city hall you’ve provided for them.  Powerful stuff for Saramago, who leaves his narrative’s location purposefully open to interpretation, and you automatically fill in your own state buildings.

But it is possible to leave something too open.  In a story I sold recently I left a relationship unwritten between a father and daughter, because my own mind filled in the relationship I have with my dad.

My dad is awesome, by the way.

But not everyone has that kind of touchstone for “father/daughter” and their landscape filling brain would change the story I wrote.  My awesome editor, caught on to that and asked for a bit more background, and I got out the canvas to add a few more trees.

Getting a little metaphor loopy.  Sorry.

In the other direction, I have read stories in which every single piece of the scenery is oppressively overt, and a paragraph (long one) is devoted to the way garbage flutters in the street.  Sometimes this can be used to shove the reader out of the protagonists head; illustrating a main character a little too big for his britches, but golly it can be an exhausting read.  When the reader starts to skim to get to the meat of the story… that’s really not a good sign.  Elmore Leonard, God rest his soul, advised one leave out the parts of the story that the readers like to skip.  Very sound advice.

Writing is a struggle to put in and leave out just the right combination of words to allow the story to come naturally to the reader’s mind.  And because all readers are different, you’re never going to write something that will resonate with everyone’s brain.  But you can come close.

A really good story that alights another person’s brain, and gets them thinking your thoughts, is about as close to telepathy as I’m going to get.  One day it will develop into Magical Powers.  I write because it allows me to go on thinking I might be a secret wizard.

Or an alchemist.

seeing

“It will not have gone unnoticed, by particularly exacting readers and listeners, that the narrator of this fable has paid scant, not to say non-existent, attention to the place in which the action described, albeit in rather leisurely fashion, is taking place. Apart from the first chapter, in which there were a few careful brush-strokes applied to the area of the polling station, although, even then, these were applied only to doors, windows, and tables, and with the exception of the polygraph, that machine for catching liars, everything else, which is quite a lot, has passed as if the characters in the story inhabited an entirely insubstantial world, were indifferent to the comfort or discomfort of the places in which they found themselves, and did nothing but talk.”
-Jose Saramago, Seeing

Saramago sometimes offers his readers glaring insight into the ways in which he manipulates the reading mind. Strangely, it is not uncomfortable.

I will write at length on the lessons I’ve been learning about painting backdrops, but I wanted this quote in place before I dig into it.

Blindness

It was a short jaunt to Nebraska to visit family this year, and with all the hiking and driving and bat-watching, I got very little reading done.  Usually I manage at least four books while in Glen, but this year I only read one.  It was Blindness, by Jose Saramago, and I’m quite glad that it pulled the weight of all those others I didn’t get to read.

I liked it.  I mean, I ought to, right?  It won the Nobel for literature.  And I can see why.  It’s mechanics were experimental, but that never once detracted from the story.  A hard task for experimental literature, and usually the quickest reason I have for dropping any prize-winning books.  He forsworn dialogue tags of any kind in Blindness, and descriptions and dialogue all ran together in super long sentences broken only by commas.  Normally I hate that sort of thing.  Because I’m kind of a stick in the mud.  But Saramago’s subject of the book; a world that has completely lost its vision save for a single woman, creates a need for this kind of literary tactic.  None of the characters have faces, they don’t even have names, but they have little cues based on who they are.  And the voices of the characters all run together in a white-out mess that is difficult to pull apart and assign to their proper owners, forcing the reader into the same position as the nameless characters who have gone blind.  At one point, early in the book while the blind are still being forced into a horrific quarantine under the idea that we can sacrifice a few to save the rest of the world, Saramago even says to the reader  “that is the world outside, and we are in this asylum, we only know what happens here.”  I’m paraphrasing because I’ve misplaced the book in the commotion of unpacking.  Anyway, I love this sort of firm but kind meta-narration, and it worked so well in the book.  Especially because I am an impatient reader and I always want to know everything, at once, immediately, so it’s nice to have that hand come down and say “relax, I know you’re interested, but lets live in this moment.”

I just realized that I might actually have use for that canned book idea in Upright Citizens Brigade.  Can you imagine just pounding back a pint of Dracula?  God it’d be like a face-full of crack.  But maybe I’m the only one who got that giddy reading Dracula.

Blindness, though.  I’m talking about Blindness.  The structure of it was brillo.  Revolutionary, but without the usual hiccups in the mind that come with differently structured books.  Nowhere did it seem over the top, or unnecessary.  That’s it!  It was experimental literature only because there was really no other, better way to tell the story.  And that is why I liked it.  It was a novel that naturally developed its own style because the story demanded it.

I do not mean to knock Saramago by leaving him out of that last sentence.  It’s the author who has to be clever enough to get out of the way of his writing, and clever enough to guide it.  This might sound odd, as I’ve just mentioned how much I enjoyed his brief meta-moments, but an invisible author is a tremendously powerful thing.  I felt like Saramago, whenever he dropped in, was reading the book with me, rather than the writers who feel the need to play needlessly with language only for the girl-scout badges it grants them.  If it aint broke, don’t fix it.  But necessity is the mother of invention. 

Hah!  I’ll just turn this blog into proverb central, rather than my ideas on writing. 

Seriously, though, those colloquialisms really define just when and where it’s okay to give up on quotations, lose the punctuation, and attempt to verb all of those nouns.  If the story needs those things to function at its best, give it a shot.  But be wary… not everyone can be Jose Saramago.

 

 

If your wondering; one.  Only one person can be Jose Saramago.  And he wrote Blindness.