Recently I read the following Q & A on Sarah Brentyn’s blog Lemon Shark. She, in turn, had found it on Little Lodestar, where writer Kristen had posted a series of questions entitled Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. Well, Sarah asked her readers to post their answers, and as mine, I thought, were too long to leave in the comments, here are my responses:
Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet?
Very, very rarely. Every once in a while, I feel as though I need an opinion from a non-writer, usually pre-publication. My boyfriend will read my work if I specially ask him to, and he generally offers some pretty solid opinions. But he isn’t really a reader – his idea of compelling literature is homebrew magazines – so it’s unlikely that he’ll ever read any of my novels. To me, this is probably just as well. Some of my work might raise questions that I’m not sure I want to answer!
How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it?
I somehow manage never to tell anyone when I’ve had something published, so it’s rare that this happens. In fact, up until a few months ago, when I formally announced that I was releasing a memoir, most of my friends didn’t even know I was writing. Somehow it just never came up. Again, to me, this is just as well, because some of my work might raise questions that I’m not sure I want to answer!
What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go?
So far, I only have a few pieces that I’ve given up on all together. For the most part, I believe that getting work published is mostly a matter of finding the right market. However, for those that repeatedly get rejected, I do reconsider whether they’re just difficult to place because of their subject matter or nature, or whether they actually stink. Stories that I still think are good I might post on my blog or story-sharing sites. Those that I suspect are completely unusable I would like to one day post on my blog, and solicit opinions as to why they stink.
Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?
This has only happened to me once so far. Very early in my writing career, before I even had any publishing credits, I wrote a very long article – nearly a paper, if you will – analyzing the marriage penalty as it applies to taxation in the United States. It was a subject in which I was interested, anyway, and I had hoped to be able to get it published in one of a handful of financial magazines. However, I never received a response to my first query, and in the meantime, I had moved on to other things. Well, in the interim, a new year rolled around and there were tax law changes that affected some of my numbers. I would have had to rerun numerous scenarios in order to update the article – which was heavy on figures – and by then, I was having work published regularly and was no longer so desperate to garner credits. However, I still wouldn’t say I’ve given up on the idea. I may still revisit it two or three or five years from now, when I feel like sinking my teeth into something more academic again.
What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?
That’s an interesting question. Reading it, I realize that I very rarely – if ever – read magazines or journals or anthologies or books of essays by one writer. Nowadays, I do read blogs with a fair amount of regularity, but I still wouldn’t say that those are my main source of reading-based inspiration. In fact, if I had to identify one, I would probably say that more of my ideas come from nonfiction. I very much enjoy reading history, and it’s actually quite rare for me to read a whole book of it without getting at least one new idea.
What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?
It depends on the type of work. Most of my novels contain characters inspired by people I know in real life, and the settings in which I place them often mirror my own life scenarios. This is why my books’ pivotal events tend to transpire at beer festivals or while camping, because, evidently, I write what I know. However, for the other half of my writing life, in which I blog, write flash fiction and short stories, even essays, I tend to find more inspiration from what I read.
Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?
Winston Churchill. Seriously, that guy was brilliant, and his writing is amazing. I’m very grateful that he played such an important role in history, and at a time in which voice recording existed. YouTube will keep Churchill’s words alive long after his written work has fallen deep into oblivion.
Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?
Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I also find the American Heritage Guide to English Usage to be extremely useful.
Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax?
Not yet. I did, however, have a rather unpleasant moment a while back, when I first began having erotic work published. Most of my erotica is more humorous than dirty – or at least half-and-half. However, there was one piece in particular that surpassed the bounds of my usual work – the kind of story you would never admit to your mother or even your third cousin twice removed that you’d written it. Well, as it happened, I discovered around that time that my boss was reading my blog! Suddenly I felt very awkward about publicizing this particular publication. It wasn’t that I was ashamed or embarrassed about it, exactly – I was simply afraid of being subjected to questions. Somehow I just did not want to have that conversation with my employer – not to mention the fact that it probably would have changed how he looked at me from then on. Kind of a weird feeling. I still took ownership of the piece – in fact, it’s in my collection To All the Penises I’ve Ever Known – but even there, I didn’t want to comment on it extensively. That was when I first realized that I’m perfectly comfortable writing about things that I would never, ever say. So please, no follow-up questions – at least not if you meet me!
How about you? What kinds of things do you wonder about other writers? I know of one question that I’d add to the list.
What is your lifetime goal for your writing? You know, not the hard-headed, realistic version that you tell other people, but the starry-eyed, big dream scenario that you’re too scared to share?
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
December 6, 2014
I had promised myself that I would do no writing. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Coming from a writer. Some writers have to force themselves to sit down and write. Others have to force themselves not to.
For thirty days following my book’s release, I had intended to do no writing. For months now I have done nearly no writing. Only blog posts and interviews; tweets and requests for reviews. I wanted to complete my media kit and compose press releases; I wanted to post my already-written stories on a multitude of sharing sites, and register my book with the hundreds that offer free promos to authors. I wanted to be able to look back on my launch and know that whatever came of it, I had done what I could to ensure its success.
I didn’t quite make it. I broke down last Saturday – in a very big way. I didn’t even edit, or return to completing one of my several works in progress; I began a new novel. The first day I wrote three thousand words, the day after that, four thousand more. Yesterday I did nothing else and added seven thousand words to the project; in seven days I’ve written twenty-seven thousand words in a book that a week ago I hadn’t even conceived. Today I wrote most of a four-thousand word short story, plus a thousand-word blog post, plus this little one here – I simply don’t want to stop. I don’t want to stop.
I had forgotten how easy it was, how smoothly the words could flow and fly off my fingers, how frustrating it could be to be hampered not by my mind but by the slow speed of my typing and the ability of my back to tolerate being hunched for long hours over a computer. I had forgotten how good it feels to do it, to relax and fall into it, what it means to be working at writing instead of working at promoting my writing.
I forced myself to forget. I didn’t want to remember. I needed to be promoting; I didn’t need to be writing. But now I wonder if maybe I did.
When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher assigned us a creative writing project for Halloween. We were to compose short stories, which we would then read aloud before the class, coupled with a competition of sorts in which the students would vote on who had written the best one.
Now in my pre-teen years, I was not what you would term the most popular kid in school. Perhaps it was those horrible “Student-of-the-Month” photos of me hanging in the main hallway, which they somehow always managed to take right after gym when my hair was flying every which way, or perhaps it was the oxford shirts and corduroy trousers in which my mother dressed me because I refused to participate in ridiculous wastes of time like school-clothes shopping. It certainly didn’t help that in addition to being smart and studious, I was also very, very shy, which led many to believe that I was stuck-up. I suppose if you’re naturally adept at making conversation, it’s difficult to understand that other kids might not be.
You can therefore easily picture the scene in the classroom that day: the anxious adolescent girl slouched in her seat, sweat drenching the armpits of her button-up shirt as she watched the clock, fervently hoping that time would run out before her turn came. You can imagine my nervousness when, five minutes before the bell, my teacher called me to the front of the class, the last reader to go; my terror as I stumbled up to her desk clutching the half-sheets of paper on which I’d scrawled my assignment. As usual, I had pushed the limits on the suggested length – my story was at least twice as long as anyone else’s – and the only saving grace of this enforced public humiliation, I thought, was that I would undoubtedly run out of time to finish it before the lunch bell rang.
Tucking my loose hair back behind my ears and focusing my eyes firmly on my papers, I began to read. It turned out that reading wasn’t so bad; unlike giving an oral report, you didn’t actually have to look at any of the other students. And it was a decent story, I reflected as I flipped through the pages, concentrating hard on not losing my place. At least my classmates were sitting silently, which made them easier to ignore.
At last I reached the climax of my tale, which was where it turned gruesome. The main character had gotten trapped in a fire, and I remember describing, in disgusting detail, the sizzle of the hairs frying on his arms as the hot flames neared. I remember describing the flames devouring his flesh, great flaps of it falling from his skeleton as his skin seared away. And I remember the silence of the classroom; I remember it breaking, the moans and groans that swelled all around me as I depicted my main character’s excruciating demise, only to be interrupted by the harsh clanging of the bell.
No one stirred; no one rose; no one left. I glanced at my teacher, who nodded. The other students sat rapt while I finished my story, and they applauded when I was done. There was no question that I had won the contest.
I was pleased that my story had gone over well, of course, but it wasn’t until the following week, when other kids were still coming up to talk to me about it, that I understood that I had somehow made an impression that went beyond my gruesome, graphic horror story. It was as if I had revealed that somewhere beneath that classic nerdy exterior was a real honest-to-goodness person, a kid who thought about things like destruction and death, and flames eating flesh, and how best to describe such horrific events.
I’ve never been big on Halloween, myself. I’ve never liked the pressure of having to pick out a costume and then explain why I chose it; I’ve never even understood the appeal of dressing up and playing pretend. I have other ways of exploring my dark side. Nowadays you won’t find me in a starched, striped shirt, or in old-fashioned slacks, but don’t be fooled by the sweats and sports bra in which you’ll typically see me lounging about the house, because that’s not who I am, either. It’s just a costume; an innocuous mask meant to show nothing, to reveal nothing, to suggest nothing. My thoughts are inside me. They can never be exposed by a mere choice of outfit.
First, let me thank writer and born buckaroo Charli Mills for introducing me to this blog hop. You can read her “Why I Write” post here:
Like Charli, I have no single explanation for why I write. I am not one of those writers who feels internally compelled to write, as if it’s as necessary to me as eating or breathing. For a long time – fifteen years, in fact – I didn’t write at all, unless it was for school or work. I’ll never know the reason why I stopped – I simply lost the creative impulse, I suppose – but I do know why, two and a half years ago now, I started again.
A few years back, I found myself with an inexplicable yet incredibly powerful attraction to a married man. I suppose it’s quite common at my age, because by the time you get to be my age, most men and women of your acquaintance are married. I was, of course, painfully aware that nothing could ever come of it, and naturally I never had any intention of trying to make anything come of it, either. Except in my mind.
Yet the attraction persisted. And what was more, in spite of the impossibility of the situation, I found, to my surprise, that I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed thinking about it, I enjoyed considering the possible scenarios, I enjoyed the idea of it probably as much or more than I would have enjoyed actually doing it. And one day it occurred to me that instead of wasting my time with idle fantasies – because I am at heart a New Englander, and it goes against my nature to engage in activities that are unproductive – that perhaps I should try to write them down. Perhaps, I thought, it might be entertaining to tell our story, the way it would happen, if it ever could happen.
What would happen? I wondered. How would that actually pan out, if he and I got together? What would it be like if we had an affair? Not just the sexy parts, although those were important, too, but the nitty-gritty everyday details of it. How would it begin? Where would we meet? How would we cover it up? Would our relationship be about sex or love or something in between? What would happen when the passion fizzled, as it inevitably must? What if there were an emergency when we were together? How would it finally end?
These were all interesting questions that were well worth exploring. Nonetheless, I didn’t intend for the idea to grow and emerge the way it did. I saw it is merely an exercise, not as My Life with Michael, the 110,000-word novel that it eventually became. But somehow in the course of writing that novel, I felt as if I’d had that affair. I had been with this man, from the crude beginnings of our forbidden courtship through our bittersweet parting some four years later. I no longer wondered what it would be like to be with him. In my imagination, I already had been.
Possibilities began to open in my mind. I didn’t only have to write about my own personal secret wishes and fantasies. There were many fascinating scenarios to explore; many non-traditional relationships rife with their own potential for comedy and drama. I began another book, Just the Three of Us, a very funny and surprisingly sentimental romance involving three friends who somehow find themselves in a three-way love relationship.
How I loved writing that book! How deeply I submerged myself in that story, in the humor and unlikelihood of it; how well I got to know those imaginary characters, even the main one, who is startlingly similar to me. How protective I became of my time on the roof in the sunshine with my laptop; how cranky I’d become when stupid, meaningless irritations like work took time away from my sun and my writing. How much my life revolved around that book while I was writing it; how easy it was to center my world around those three people and their problems, which were amusing, instead of around me and mine, which were not.
Yet I didn’t know then what was happening to me. I couldn’t have guessed that my need to sit quietly for long hours in the sun was about more than a desire to write, about putting my feelings and fears and fantasies down where I could read them. I couldn’t have known then that within two years, there wouldn’t be much else that I could do without pain. I couldn’t have suspected that whatever undiagnosed form of arthritis – most likely rheumatoid – that I’ve got would have debilitated me to the extent that it has; that it would have reduced me to trying to squeeze in just a few more months of travel before I’m unable to do things like hike or drive. As often as I had daydreamed about leaving my jobs, I never could have dreamed that I would be forced to leave them, that I would be unable to perform simple tasks like shuffling papers around on my desk without pain. I couldn’t have imagined that writing would become not merely a source of comfort and solace, but my only source of comfort and solace. I couldn’t have anticipated that the fantasy life I was living in my books would become more precious to me than my real life, that it would become virtually the only means I had of truly living.
It was fortunate that we found each other again when we did, writing and I. Because before I got sick, I could have imagined a life without it. I had a life without it. Perhaps some part of me knew that that was about to change. Perhaps subconsciously I guessed that something was wrong, that soon I would need something to occupy the new wide-open spaces in my once-active life, that soon I would have a compelling reason to write. It is rather a funny coincidence, at that. Every once in a while I suppose we do get what we need, when we need it.
At times the course of my life has felt like traversing the Badlands of South Dakota. Every time I manage to fight my way over one rough, craggy peak, another looms larger before me, more ominous and treacherous than the last. They aren’t obstacles in my path. They are my path.
Writing cannot smooth the way for me. It can’t solve my problems, or reverse the progress of my illness, or alleviate the physical pain that is, at times, nearly all-consuming. But it does make it easier to bear. It does make it possible for me to forget it for a while. It does let me pretend that little has changed for me, apart from the normal changes that come with aging. It lets me dream of a world in which my problems are larger than my hip waking me in the middle of the night or not being able to hold a pint glass that’s full of beer. My characters have fun, happy problems – about sexual desire, about getting older, about finding love and keeping it alive. My novels give me dilemmas I can manage and resolve, not the absurd yet constant difficulties that pervade my life now, like how many days it’s going to take my joints to recover from a hour’s walk, or how many trips I must make up to the roof to get all of my stuff up there so that I can write.
Writing is like a gift to me now. It gives me another life, an alternate reality, a world in which I can do and be anything I want to do and be, a world in which I have no limitations except those of my own imagination. In a time in which I’m struggling to accept the me that I now am and one day will be, it is the last remnant of the me I used to be, of the me I always thought I could and would be.
Why do I write? Because writing is all I have left.
No, I take that back.
It’s what I have left.
* * *
Please be sure to visit the following three lovely authors, each of whom will be posting their own “Why I Write” essays within the next few weeks:
Hi! I’m Brianna Soloski and I’m an English writing graduate student, focusing on editing and publishing. I’m an avid reader and writer and have self-published a few things on Amazon. I have a BA in Humanities and an MA in Teaching from Sierra Nevada College. When I’m not writing or working or going to class, I can be found with my Kindle in hand. I also love spending time with friend and traveling. I run a freelance business and am the editorial assistant of DAVID Magazine, a Las Vegas city lifestyle magazine.
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Penny Wilson is a writer whose skills span fiction, mysteries and poetry. While juggling her career in Fort Worth, Texas with family and friends, she tirelessly devotes time each day to her true passion…writing. Having spent her youth in a transient family, Penny believes that her many unusual experiences, including meeting people from a variety of backgrounds and environments, have helped to shape her outlook on life. These experiences continue to enhance her writing, creating characters that readers can connect with in her stories and poetry. Penny is currently working on three books: a fictional story based on fact about American migrant workers in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a fairy tale that will appeal to the tween set, and a fictional adventure/mystery that will soon be completed. Penny’s blog, http://pennylanethoughts.wordpress.com/, has a number of loyal followers and explores her childhood memories, poetry, and other topics.
Paige Adams Strickland, a teacher and writer from Cincinnati, Ohio, is married with two daughters. Her first book, Akin to the Truth: A Memoir of Adoption and Identity, is about growing up in the 1960s-80s (Baby-Scoop Era) and searching for her first identity. It is also the story of her adoptive family and in particular her father’s struggles to figure out his place in the world while Paige strives to find hers. After hours she enjoys family and friends, pets, reading, Zumba ™ Fitness, gardening and baseball.
Greetings, and welcome to the writing process blog hop! I was introduced to this blog hop by Author S. Evan Townsend:
S. Evan Townsend has been called “America’s Unique Speculative Fiction Voice.” After spending four years in the U.S. Army in the Military Intelligence branch, he returned to civilian life and college to earn a B.S. in Forest Resources from the University of Washington. In his spare time he enjoys reading, driving (sometimes on a racetrack), meeting people, and talking with friends. He is in a 12-step program for Starbucks addiction. Evan lives in central Washington State with his wife and has three grown sons. He enjoys science fiction, fantasy, history, politics, cars, and travel. He currently has five published fantasy and science fiction novels.
Like the other participants in this blog hop, I’ve answered four assigned questions about my writing and how my writing process works. Please also take a moment to visit authors Jayne Denker, Briane Pagel, and Elise Abram, whose bios and links are at the end of this post. They will be answering the same questions next week.
1. What am I working on?
What am I not working on? ;)
But seriously, I have a variety of projects in the hopper. I’m putting the finishing touches on my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, which is being published in October. I’m 40,000 words into a new romance, a sequel to Just the Three of Us, which I’m hopeful will be just as sweet and funny as the original, and 120,000 words into my mega-monster of a novel Shipwreck Island: How One Woman Spent Twenty Years on an Island with Sixteen Sailors and Lived to Tell the Tale, which, frankly, is probably only about half done.
Although I’m not able to spend as much time on short work as I would like, I’ve also got twenty or so shorter pieces out on submission, and I’m preparing several e-book compilations of short stories and essays in a variety of genres, which I hope to release independently before I go out of town later this summer. In August and September, I’m planning a lengthy road trip across the United States and Canada, during which time I will be beginning my second memoir, The Long Road Home, the idea for which was inspired by this trip.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Easy – it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. My novels have too much sex to be women’s fiction, too much humor to be erotica, and too few alpha males to be romances. But they’re entertaining nonetheless, and I like to think that rather than forcing my work to conform to a specific genre, maybe I can instead gently nudge the accepted conventions in new directions.
Now that I think of it, though, my memoir also suffers from some genre confusion, as segments of it are written as if they’re fiction. There are good reasons why I wrote it that way, as I explain in my book, but I suppose it also doesn’t read like typical nonfiction.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I don’t think about that very much – I just write what comes to me. My novels became novels because they were such big, long ideas, involving in-depth characterization and fairly complex plots. When I have shorter ideas, they become flash fiction or short stories. Of course, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my longest works revolve around relationships and sex – which seems to be mostly what I’m into right now – but I can easily see that changing as time passes and I become interested in other things.
My memoir actually began quite unintentionally. I had composed a number of short pieces – fiction and essays – depicting certain events in life with my mother, who became violently mentally ill when I was sixteen. At some point it occurred to me that it might be interesting to tie them together somehow – with a frame story, if you will. I’ll admit I was fairly stunned when it came together the way it did – it wasn’t something I had expected to write.
4. How does your writing process work?
It’s constantly in flux. I believe quite firmly that forcing myself to work on something when I’m not in the mood for it is not the pathway to greater productivity. You will never catch me committing to a certain number of words or hours per day, and I will likely never participate in NaNoWriMo or similar events. If I feel like writing, I write; if I feel like editing, I edit; if I feel like working on my latest novel, I do; if I feel like writing a blog post, I do that instead. There are always so many things I’m working on – and so few strict deadlines – that I rarely feel obligated to go against my mood, which I believe is one of the reasons I’ve been able to generate so much work in the past two years. Every so often I have to force myself to forego writing in order to complete “administrative” tasks, and that’s the one time my natural sense of discipline and New England work ethic have to kick in and make me do things even when I don’t want to. But I do enjoy the satisfaction of metaphorically crossing those types of tasks off my list, and I’m always happier afterwards to go back to writing.
In terms of how I write, I’m all over the place. A short piece I will generally compose from beginning to end, with at least half a dozen revisions before I’m happy with it. My books I’ve mostly started in the middle, writing individual scenes when I feel inspired to do them, and simply positioning them in the text in the order I plan for them to appear, so that I can tie them together later. When I get to about a hundred pages, I go back to the beginning and start revising, editing and adding new material as I go along, the end result being that I never really complete a “rough draft.” After I finish another hundred pages or so, I’ll go back and do the same thing, from start to finish, which means that different sections of my manuscript will often be at different stages of polish. Some chapters I will intentionally not complete because I haven’t yet decided exactly how they’re going to go, while others might be virtually in their final form very early on in the process. And then of course when the whole thing has been written from start to finish, I go through it several more times, picking out awkward sentences and those that could be funnier, more clever, or more meaningful or poignant, and re-working them accordingly.
This is where I usually work:
Last year I bought this stand-alone greenhouse that’s bolted down to a small deck on the one flat part of the roof. As long as the sun’s out, it stays comfortably warm in there, even in winter. This is wonderful for me because I do prefer to work outdoors, and besides that, it gives me a natural schedule – mornings and evenings are for desk work, afternoons are for writing. There’s a power outlet right by the window where I can plug in my laptop, and that chair is pretty comfortable – although I do end up spending quite a sum on sunscreen! So, if you’re ever flying over the Bay Area and you spot a strange green contraption perched on a rooftop for no apparent reason, give me a wave! You’ll know that I’m hunkered down inside, generating my next – well, whatever it’s going to be! :)
Please take this opportunity to check out these three authors, who will be blogging about their writing processes next week!
Jayne Denker divides her time between working hard to bring the funny in her romantic comedies (By Design; Unscripted; Down on Love, A Marsden Novel #1; and the upcoming Picture This, A Marsden Novel #2, publishing July 17) and raising a young son who’s way too clever for his own good. She lives in a small village in western New York that is in no way, shape, or form related to the small village in her Marsden novels. When she’s not hard at work writing another book, the social media addict can usually be found frittering away startling amounts of time on Facebook (Jayne Denker Author), Twitter (@JDenkerAuthor), and her blog, JayneDenker.com.
Briane Pagel is currently writing this biography for this blog. In fact, he’s typing this sentence right now. Now this one. Now he’s thinking this biography isn’t the most compelling one, and that perhaps he should make some stuff up to jazz it up a bit like say he went skydiving one time, only that’s actually true. He did go skydiving this one time, back in 1994, when he made a list of 25 things to do before he turned 26. He completed the list, too. It included skydiving, and the Polar Bear Jump where he had to go into Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day… great, now he’s starting to ramble. You can read more about him on “Thinking The Lions,” http://www.thinkingthelions.com“, and he publishes “lit, a place for stories,” which is an online literary magazine at http://www.nonsportsman.com.
Elise Abram, B.A. B.Ed., M.Ed:
Teacher of English and Computer Studies by day, wife and mother by night and author whenever she can steal some time, Elise is the proud author of Phase Shift, The Mummy Wore Combat Boots, and Throwaway Child, available on Amazon and KoboBooks. She pens a blog about literature, popular culture and the human condition whenever the muse moves her.
Elise’s fourth book, a young adult paranormal thriller entitled The Revenant will be released in eBook and in print on July 10, 2014 by Black Rose Writing.
Connect with Elise at http://www.eliseabram.com