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.

Because

I do not know of a cure for writer’s block, nor for bad advice. Both must be worked through. Fortunately for the story that got into Mulberry Fork Review, I wanted so badly to finish the damn thing that I took on both at the same time. Yes, in my mind, I am some kind of X-Man. Like Kurt Wagner.
(I’ve been reading early 90’s Excalibur… it’s great.)

Flitting images of swashbuckling olympics aside, I know that I started the story Lawrence and the Last Days of Knowing at least five times. I don’t even want to think of how many titles I ran through, but I can say that the very first draft was labeled “Story to refute that magazine writer that pissed you off.” First drafts have the least helpful titles. A few of the false starts were to correct the point of view, then to correct it again, and then “was I sure, I think maybe third person really was the best…” but the real problem was not in POV, but in myself. I wasn’t up to the task that I built in my head. I was attempting to convince myself that one writer could have Metalocalypse volumes of fame while still keeping the story’s feet in reality, and I made the idiotic move of having a main character who didn’t buy it.

I realized after growling at Gatsby(long, unrelated story) that I’d written a Nick Carraway. I really dislike Nicks. Nicks are author filters, used to step back and pretend that you aren’t a part of all the things you wrote. And I understand why Nicks exist. It is flipping horrifying to own all the things that spin out of your head, but the story couldn’t work with a filter. I wrote my main character as the most fervent fan of the absurd idea that the premise hanged upon, and drew the strength of the story through his mad love.

And I still couldn’t finish. Writing’s a bitch, yeah? I got over the block, but I had no roads to the end. Because I was scared. I had this fairy tale about writing and I wanted it to be perfect (oops) because it started to become this manifesto… and all the little sound-bites of writing advice that I’ve gained over the years started to come loose and show themselves like beans when you stir the chili after it’s been simmering a few hours. Hah, my head’s full of chili. Anyway, one of those oldest bits of advice, everyone’s heard it, “show don’t tell” would yell at me when I was in my groove, and my groove would stutter and stop.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never really understood the difference between showing and telling, maybe it’s because words are have always been a telling device in my head, maybe it’s because I’m still unsure which is right and which is left and they both look like “L’s” dammit, I know that trick already, but somehow along the years the word “because” became intrinsically linked with the idea of “telling.”

And then I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And Milan Kundera (bless him) told me what his characters did, and then, right after that, I got a “because.” This caused this thought, or this action, or this feeling, and I was suddenly past the interface, no longer reading the words on the page, but understanding where and why these people were.

So I went back to the manuscript, I opened that one hundredth draft, and I attacked everyone in that story (all 3 characters!) with “Because.” I found a groove. My 100th first draft was full of cause, it had an end, and then, Then! I could finally begin to edit.

Never trust sound-bite advice. There’s too much space outside a simple phrase for all sorts of fears to nest and grow until you’re suddenly afraid of the only thing you really need. Be fearless, and read Kundera!

Lawrence in the Last Days of Knowing is over at Mulberry Fork Review right now, along with many beautiful stories (I especially loved Revlon Red by Patti White, which is one of the prettiest stories about a family I’ve ever read.)

Editing through rookie city…

I write little notes to myself in red text on the computer screen when I edit.  Not only are the notes quite helpful, but they illuminate the roads I’ve gone down in my writing.  I was working on this particular story right as I started reading Milan Kundera, and it was giving me a hell of a time until I read a passage in his book that began with the word “because.”  For some reason, I had abandoned the word “because” out of a fear that with it I would commit the fateful error of telling over showing.  Through that fear, I’d stuck myself in a mire of character actions without any way for the narrator to weigh in.  And in this story, I as author needed to speak up for common sense while all the characters were lost in disconnect.  Just before the point where I began to read Kundera’s Art of the Novel, I had no flipping clue how to finish the story I’d started, and because I enjoyed the process of digging myself out, I’m going to quote here some of the notes I wrote from that period.

 Starting with my favorite:

“What if the studio was a tiny house on a quiet street… I could burn it down… but that is an author action, not a character action.  Who is the real person in this story?  Diane is the only one who acts…”

I use a lot of elipses to speak to myself.  Also, I’ve had to keep myself from burning down so many short stories.  I get to a certain point and think “wouldn’t it be nice if I just light it on fire so I don’t have to find an end?”  What’s funny is, the story I’ve got coming up in Evil Girlfriend Media has a fire, but I set that up right from the beginning.  It was a good one, too, so it will last me through quite a few more stories before I get the urge to light it all ablaze.  Anyway, at this point I had two main characters who really did not make any choices of their own, and my comment on this third character, Diane, who was only in it for a small bit yet acted as the turning point, I realized I’d have to punch up the main folk’s involvement.  They needed to make choices, and I started to write in the word “because” around their actions to figure out just what those choices might be.

“If you were tremendously famous for the mask you wore, and the mask became too heavy, why would you not just take it off?  …because there’s no one behind the mask.”

By answering questions about the character’s actions, I realized that the plot dropped off where I strayed from their “because.”  The masked woman was difficult to write for me.  Her actions were illogical, and I’m kind of a Spock.  When I answered her question, her actions moving toward catharsis at the end of the story all fell into place. 

“If the audience knows what Larry is walking into, the story will be stronger.  Don’t be so damn coy.”

I cuss at myself, too.  But I’m glad this little bit was in there.  This note sprang from a moment in which all the characters knew something that I as author was keeping from the reader in a misguided attempt to be clever.  There’s nothing really clever about hiding ones hand behind ones back, but in type it’s sometimes hard to remember that.  What’s really clever is to show all your cards, and still surprise the reader in how they fall into place.  Anyone can flip a switch in a story and say that everything you read was a lie.  (of course it was, fiction is all lies, that’s why they’re best at truths)  But it takes brains to toss a pack of cards in the air and have them land as a model of the White House.

I’ve seen it happen, so long as you’re willing to accept that metaphor.  It’s the most amazing sort of magic that fiction can pull off, and it makes Gandalf green with envy.

I do my best to avoid “I’m so clever” moments in fiction, but I do commit them from time to time.  God forgive me.  Nothing worse than an author getting in the way of a damn good story.

“Make the obsession palpable.  Third party is keeping you from making this palpable.”

I started this story with a main character who was secondary to the action.  He was witness to another’s obsession, and it insulated myself and the reader from the story.  I got rid of this, made him the one with the obsession, and in doing so I was able to ditch the “I Don’t Care” mask.  “I Don’t Care” is such an easy mask to wear, it’s comforting, and it keeps you from getting hurt, but in fiction it is a flipping killer.  One of my favorite bits from Roald Dahl’s Matilda is when The Trunchbull is explaining how to get away with anything.  You never go by halves.  She was using this philosophy as a way of keeping parents from believing how terribly their children were being tortured, but it really has other applications.  Going by halves leaves room for doubt, and when you are telling a story, the reader cannot doubt what you are saying.  While they read, they must believe you, and if you are not passionate, and if you hide behind the words “I don’t care,” how can anyone trust you to tell a whopping good lie?

It is scary to care so much.  You can get hurt that way.  But sitting on the bench, too scared to ever take a chance because you might not look cool?  That’s so much worse.  I propose we all look foolish.  It will do the world some good.