I'm about to turn in first pass pages. Ironically, first past pages are typically the last time an author gets a chance to make any changes to a novel. Do you know what that makes first pass pages?
This is it, my last chance to make sure this book doesn't suck before it really and truly enters the world. But as I've read through it from beginning to end this time around, all I can see are the many, many things that are wrong with it. Normally, this would be a recipe for disaster for a lifelong perfectionist like myself, but a happy circumstance has intervened: a cold.
That's right. I have a cold, the bone-weary sinus-achy type. And because I have felt like dog poo for the past four days, I just haven't had the energy to change a whole hell of a lot in THE BIRD AND THE BLADE. The common cold has forced me to let it go. *Cue the music*
I slept in this morning, and by sleeping in, I mean 7:00. My kids actually beat me out of bed, which almost never happens. The dog had already peed in the family room since no one let her out. So, even though I was losing valuable writing time, I took her for a walk, and then I came home and threw in a load of laundry before finally heading out the door for my usual Sunday “office hours” at Panera.
It occurred to that I should put on make-up, make some effort to look presentable. But did I really want to give up any more of my precious, scant writing time for that? That answer was no.
This is something I’ve been struggling with lately.
About three years ago, I stopped dying my hair. I decided that a woman in her 40s is allowed to have gray hair. That’s normal. When you are a giant Irish/Scandinavian person, your hair tends to go gray early. My husband’s magnificent, legendary hair (aka “The Power”) has yet to sprout even one silver thread, but his beard is going gray. Does he feel a need to hide that? No. No, he does not. He also doesn’t wear make-up. He also doesn’t fret about skin care, or worry about wrinkles much. This is because a middle-aged man is handsome.
A middle-aged woman?
On my way to work yesterday, I caught part of Scott Simon's interview with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills on NPR talking about the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.'s album Automatic for the People. By the time I was scanning my badge at the staff entrance to the library where I work, I knew I'd be writing a blog post about it. Well, here I am on a Sunday morning at the 117K mark of the Novel that Will Not End, and this seems like a great way to procrastinate.
I have worked with teens for nearly my entire professional career, and now I write books for teens, too. And yet, it's incredible how easy it is to forget what being a teen was really like. But every time I hear an R.E.M. song? Ever single time? The raw emotional experience of my teenage years wallops me.
Like any self-respecting teenager of the late 1980s and early 1990s, I spent hours making mixed tapes for myself and my friends, and I listened to a wide variety of music. But R.E.M. was my favorite. Hands down. I had a huge R.E.M. poster on my bedroom wall. My first concert was R.E.M. at Kemper Arena in Kansas City when I was 14, their Green tour, and it bordered on a religious experience for me. I wanted tiny, John Lennon-esque circular glasses just like Michael Stipe wore on the front cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. (I ended up with giant Harry Potter glasses waaaaay before Harry Potter existed. Have I mentioned how awkward I was in high school?) I was sad and (badly) poetic and full of longing. I was worried about the environment (still am) and the meaning of life and my place in the world (yeah, that all still applies actually). And R.E.M.'s music sounded the way I felt (still does).
My favorite album was Life's Rich Pageant which I listened to ad infinitum via the power and the glory of a Sony Walkman. To this day, I love every song on that CD. I suspect most teens have that one band--and that one album by that one band--that is the soundtrack of their lives, the music that makes them feel understood when the world around them seems to suggest that they're not enough: not pretty enough, not smart enough, not cool enough, not normal enough. R.E.M. was that band for me.
And you know what? Knee-deep in the YA fantasy that is the hardest book I have written to date, I'm going to pop in my ear buds and listen to "Begin the Begin" and "Cuyahoga" and "Swan Swan H" and "Superman" and, my ultimate high school song, "Fall on Me." And I'm going to remember who I was in high school and be grateful for the painfully shy and socially awkward person I was (still am!). And I'm going to remember that kid as I plug away at this book. Because that kid is, in many ways, the reason I write.
Many thanks to you, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry.
You guys. You guys!! The cover for THE BIRD AND BLADE is live on YA Books Central, and it just might be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Click here to see it in all its glory and to enter the giveaway for a signed ARC! I'll give you a little peek though ...
This is Brontë.
We adopted Brontë about four months ago.
She's a beagle ... ish thing, mixed with ... other stuff.
You might be wondering what my dog has to do with writing. I've been wondering that myself, because it seems to me she has everything to do with writing. But I have a hard time explaining why, even to myself.
There's saying about how a house without books is like a body without a soul. This is, of course, 100% true. It seems to me the same could be said of dogs. A house without a dog is like a body without a soul. And a house without a dog is also like a house without a vacuum cleaner. That's just about as bad.
Both of those things (the bits about the soul and the vacuum cleaner) became clear to me when we lost Zora last March. This is Zora.
I went on a wee Twitter rant on this subject recently and have decided to expand on this topic more thoroughly here. I hereby declare that Draft 2 is the worst of all drafts. I have found this to be the case several times over now, and it seems to me that this revelation is worth exploring: Why does Draft 2 have to suck so much?
When you work on that first draft, you tend to give yourself full permission to write complete drivel. Maybe, like me, you hit caps lock when you get stuck and write yourself helpful notes like:
LET'S JUST CUT TO THE CHASE. THEY RUN AWAY, MAYBE STEAL A HORSE.
THIS MAKES ZERO SENSE! MOVE THE BRIDGE SHIT TO EARLIER. THEY NEED TO CROSS SOME OTHER BARRIER HERE. A RANGE OF MOUNTAINS? MAYBE THEY FIND IT BY ACCIDENT, A WAY TO CROSS OVER. UGH, THIS SUCKS!!
(Whew. Can you get over that level of eloquence? I can almost feel the National Book Award committee salivating over it.)
As you write the rough draft, characters frequently disappear or entire plot points take a different route than you intended, and you blithely type on, telling yourself, "It's okay, [insert your name here]. You can fix it later."
The problem with Draft 2 is that Draft 2 is that "later" you were referencing when you were pounding out crap in Draft 1. Draft 2 is when you have to begin unsnarling all the terrible weirdness that is a first draft.
I have never in my life been a professional actress. I'm just a run-of-the-mill theater nerd in the grand tradition of Waiting for Guffman. I did high school theater and attended college on a theater scholarship. I've done a bit of community theater, including singing and dancing with a bunch of mildly intoxicated people in a church basement. While I did win an acting scholarship endowed by the actress who played Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies (that's another story), my theater experience is nothing to write home about.
But I've noticed recently that a lot of my fellow authors are also theater nerds, and it occurred to me that, despite the fact that I have a Master of Arts in English, and despite the fact that I have been a children's librarian or secondary English teacher for the past sixteen years, the one thing that truly taught me how to write a novel was theater.
My mom loves peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. This sounds like the most disgusting combination in the world to me. Because, dear heavens, peanut butter and pickles don't go together. At all. I can't imagine why she thought putting those two things together between slices of bread was a good idea.
Being a mom and being a writer can seem equally incongruous at times. Both require an all-encompassing investment of self. Here's the thing, though: Momming trumps everything. Everything. All the things. That means that moms who write have to find a way to cram the creative process into any nook and cranny they manage to carve out for themselves.
I started writing when my kids were two and four, respectively. Have you ever seen comedian Michael McIntyre's bit about just trying to leave the house with small children? All I can say is YES. THIS.
Those of you who follow me on social media (all two of you) know that I'm rather expressive about my drafting woes. I refer to this as "flailing" (see previous post), and it's an important part of my process. The truth is this: Writing is really, really hard, and flailing is a coping mechanism, for me at least. Then, too, is the pressure of writing a new book as a soon-be-published author. (I'm not complaining, mind you, because LIFE GOALS.) The book that sold? I had five years to write that book. This new book? Yeah, I need to get it finished a lot faster than that if I ever want to put it out into the real world.
Writing is a slog, and trying to keep a 300+ page document fresh and interesting and also organized and logical can be a tad overwhelming at times. When I find myself flailing to the point where I can barely set pen to paper, it helps to remind myself why wanted to write this book in the first place.
The book currently known to no one but myself as THE SOULSWIFT began with a piece of music, specifically "The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Inspired by one of George Meredith's poems, Vaughn Williams composed "The Lark Ascending" in the midst of World War I. It's an excruciatingly beautiful piece of music that attempts to transcend the horrors of war by capturing the simplicity of a bird singing in flight. I set out to write a book that feels like this composition, full of longing and beauty that is so visceral as to be almost unbearable. I listened to it over and over and over, mostly in the car to and from work. (My recording is performed by The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, in case you were curious.) After about a week of this, as I was pulling into the parking lot at my job, I imagined a moment--not even a scene, just one action--that felt exactly like "The Lark Ascending" to me.
I just turned in my second round of revisions for THE NAMELESS PRINCE to the ever-delightful Kristin Daly Rens at Balzer+Bray (for reals, I'm using the word delightful here) and that means I'm diving back into the second draft of a YA fantasy that I'm going to call THE SOULSWIFT until someone tells me not to.
And this has got me thinking about process, or more accurately, the fact that I don't have one. I've got five completed rough drafts under my belt, three of which are in various states of revision, and no two novel writing experiences have been the same for me. If I had to sum up my "process" in one word, it would be this: flailing.
(Someday, I'm going to write a novel comprised entirely of gifs.)
(Also, yay Downton Abbey!)
I can plot a novel. I can pants it. I can nine-box it. I can write it and try to slap the Aristotelian plot structure on top of it later, but it all comes down to the same thing. I flail my way through writing books. If books were dog training, I would not be the dog whisperer. I would be the jerk with a rolled up newspaper beating the words into submission.
dSo, in the case of THE SOULSWIFT I knew the spine of the plot with perfect clarity before I ever set pen to paper. Did that make the first draft any easier? Or even remotely fun? No. No, it did not. In fact, I dare say that was the most painful and craptastic rough draft I've ever written.
Why is that? Honestly, I think it's because I love the hell out of this book, or, at least, the idea of it. I'm more excited about THE SOULSWIFT than I've been about any project since I first started writing THE NAMELESS PRINCE a bajillion years ago. And I want it to be amazeballs, dammit.
So, as I attempt to figure out and articulate what it is that Megan does to make a book happen, I'm now doing something deliberately that I tend to do instinctively when I get stuck: I'm telling myself the story. I'm writing it over and over again in my notebook with my awesome new Pentel EnerGel pens that do not smear (#lefties). I'm having entire, handwritten conversations with myself on the page, asking why things happen and when and how and why again. I'm breaking the story down scene by scene in Scrivener. I'm outlining the story on index cards and taping them to the wall in the my office. (Okay, it's really the laundry room, but I can stare at that story while I'm folding underwear, so #winning.) And I will not attempt to tell you this story until I've told it to myself so many times and so clearly that I know exactly what I'm going to say when the time comes to put it on the page for you.
I'll let you know how that pans out.