Thursday, February 05, 2009

In Answer to a Question


"Tell me how you work," a rediscovered friend wrote me recently. It's an interesting question that I've been pondering how to respond to ever since.

I've gone back to my novel after months of hiatus so I think I should start with why I don't work.

I was, as I've said too often, depressed. I was also obsessing about Christmas, and getting Christmas as packed up as possible because I thought I would be getting revision instructions from my editors in the first week of December, then in the first week of January. In between scouring the recycling for shipping boxes, I could have been working on my novel but what was the point? I would have to drop it in God knew what state in order to turn my attention to rewriting Angry Fat Girls.

That didn't happen. I'm expecting revisions in the middle of this month.

As I've also said too often of late, I feel I don't deserve to write -- even that I can't write -- can't think straight, don't have the energy -- when I'm into the food.

& I was into the food.

If you've been reading my blog, you may note a trend in my life to get over myself, to put aside the shit that blocks me like ideas about food, weight, worthiness, competition, envy -- even deadlines like Christmas or revising AFG. I'm trying not to exclude myself from the world because of these things. So the energy & desire to write has been mounting with my readiness to take part in life.

But then there was the chapter itself that I had to start, one in which schizophrenia plays a major part. I felt, despite much research, humbled by this incredibly horrible disease. How could I bring it to life? I went back & reread one of the bibles on the disease & yet another memoir. There were hints of it in the first chapter & I may have tinkered with them early after I got back from Arizona, seizing them as opportunities to show the early symptoms. I reread the chapters from the Jane Austen novel I'm stealing from. I divided my chapter notes into two separate documents, one about Jane Austen and one about schizophrenia. I tried to reduce each to one page or to at least reduce the redundancies and unnecessary stuff.

One day last week I was either sitting on my bed or in bed & I heard something. I couldn't place the fleeting sound but it my brain conjured the ends of a paper clip being rubbed together, a teeny metallic voice.

That was the moment I knew I could start working on the chapter that had dangled for so many months.

I haven't used that sound/image. It was just a moment in which my gut told me I "got" the illness enough to write about it.

On Saturday, January 31st, I opened the document, re-read the three paragraphs I'd written, twiddled a bit and dove in.

I usually overwrite & always encouraged my clients not to worry about overwriting. It's easier to cut than it is to add, unless you have a very patient and savvy editor. (A blessing on your head, Becky Cole.) I also always coached the "show, don't tell" adage of writing, one that was driven home in revising Passing for Thin. I'm better at it now & I rely on dialogue to a good extent. This is a first person, present tense novel -- the beginner's cheap way out -- so I don't need to worry a lot about what other characters are thinking or even doing. Cheesy but easy.

So how do I actually work?

First there is the matter of the desk, which I like to have reasonably organized & reasonably dedicated to the task at hand. In the photo above, which I can't drag down today, you'll see a notebook in front of my computer screen. It had schizophrenia notes in it & now has more notes about dates. I don't work from many hand-written notes but taking a notebook to bed while I read a reference book is easier than typing them & there is always a need for reference points.

You'll also see that just behind the monitor is a piece of paper on a magnetic bulletin board. It's a run out of all my characters' names, ages, occupations & is no longer completely accurate. Just above the monitor is a small piece of paper with essential names & relationships from the second chapter. I haven't taken it down because it's a nice piece of torture.

On the left hand side of my desk is a a pen holder and a bunch of papers. This is actually a recent innovation that was also an instigation to write. I cleared the top of my small filing cabinet last week & did some organizing. The Bat Cave abhors a vacuum, so I naturally put two filing thingies that I didn't know what to do with there until I could figure them out. One was empty. Saturday brain wave #1: Clean it & chuck all the junk from the other side of the desk into some sort of order in it. That leaves the other side dedicated to essentials.

So that's my desk & it morphed last Saturday morning before I heard the paper clip.

I used to think I had to start writing upon getting up in the morning, but with a dog to walk & a life to organize in advance of other dogs, I learned in AFG to write when I can. I don't smoke outside of my kitchen, and I don't drink much at my computer because I'm too busy, one way or another, to remember to sip.

This is good not only because the main room of my apartment is relatively clean-aired but because when I write a section that is hard or needs a bridge, I have to get up & go out to the kitchen to take a break. One cigarette or putting a book away or, if I'm really cooking & can trust myself, folding laundry, gives me a bit of time to come down or figure out the next simple problem.

I couldn't write without the Internet. I'm constantly looking things up. Yesterday I took ten minutes to find my character's dining room table. I haven't described it yet & probably won't, but it was something I needed a picture of in my head. I made a new bookmark file called "Cranberry Street house" & stuck it there. That led to a new piece of information just for my head. I chose a Mission dining room set, quite simple & light. Ergo, my main character will have baroque china & silver & ceiling moldings. This is only important to me but I know more about her because of it.

I usually pause, I realize in writing this, after I finish a paragraph. Not a break, a pause.

I keep another document going called "Outtakes". I paste longish cuts in it. Sometimes I use them later.

I've been keeping track of my word counts this week because it's easer than pages. But I hated query letters that described a manuscript as being 200,000 words in length. As I move into a chapter, I begin thinking more about pages because I aim for each chapter to be 21 pages.

Sometimes, especially at the beginning of a chapter, I'll write a precis for myself. It's an internal dialogue: "OK, so this chapter is about how mean Cinderella's stepmother is & how impossible she makes it for her to go to the ball. There will be a fairy godmother in it. A dress the color of winter butter."

That's what's hanging above my monitor, or a parallel thereof.

I try not to leave the computer when I don't know what's coming next. It's only when I'm secure in what is coming that I can quit. It makes opening the document less scary.

On days, such as Monday & Tuesday of this week, when I had extra walks rattling around in my head, it's best if I can make my peace with not writing at all. On weekdays, I need to be mindful about not getting number-obsessed. It's the weekends when I might turn out four or six pages a day. I've written one page today & need to figure out the next third of the chapter. I know what it entails & I know what the Austen parallel is, but I need to strike at the heart of it, not the set-up. I don't think I'll do any more work on it today, but who knows?

I use a thesaurus.

I seem to depend heavily on the following reference books that are above my desk: an old Bantam guide to movies; my German, French & English dictionaries; British English from A to Zed; a dictionary of the saints; Edith Hamilton Greek mythology; an old Blue Guide of New York & an old New York Zagat's.

I work hard to cut, among other words, "always," "when," "just," "even," "so," "however," "only". I KNOW they're evil. I don't have to wait to get rid of them.

I don't begin again by rereading the whole chapter. I tend to start with what I wrote the day before & edit that.

I don't walk around with with a pen & notebook. If something is really worth remembering, I will.

Sometimes I badly need to disconnect from a project for the balance of the day.

Sometimes that's when I write my blog.

Off to walk Boomer.

13 comments:

jen said...

Enjoyed reading this. Could picture you smoking in the kitchen, blowing the smoke to the ceiling and looking up at it for ideas.

David said...

I like the ends of paper clips rubbing together, but what IS the color of winter butter?

I wish I remembered everything worth remembering.

Anonymous said...

Hi:

I lurk all the time, but decided to stop lurking today. This was a wonderful post. I have so related to how you've been sort of "stuck" for lack of a better term. I've been there myself. I can see you starting to "unstick." I'm so happy for you. Wonderful post on your writing process. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope you continue to share more of yourself with us, as you are able.

I wish you every good and perfect gift that comes from above.

Annie

Bea said...

Interesting, very interesting. I have got to get a writing space of my won. I also use "a lot", a lot. Maybe I ought to quit that. Cheers.

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Laura N said...

Love the details on how you are working on your novel. Which, by the way, sounds positively fascinating. Can't wait to read that book, too.

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