Butt Meets Chair: Jody Casella (and a giveaway!)

Can you meet a person “organically online”? I hope so, because that’s how I think of the way I met the smart-n-classy Jody Casella. Right around the time The Beginning of After came out, Jody started commenting on my blog — she’d really enjoyed my book and just sold her own debut novel Thin Space. She said she appreciated my insights on the debut-YA-author experience…and I appreciated her appreciation, because I had no idea whether the things I was saying and sharing made any damn sense.

Later, Jody and I started corresponding by email, and I was truly flattered when she asked me to blurb Thin Space. I said yes, then quietly panicked about what to do if I didn’t like it.

No worries there. Thin Space was a terrific, gripping read. I loved it, and loved being able to provide Jody with a quotable few lines (regardless of whether my opinion means anything to anyone). It’s the story of Marshall, survivor of a car accident that killed his twin brother Austin, and his search for salvation by way of a “thin space” — a place where the barrier between this world and the next is thin enough to step through. Genre-wise, it’s contemporary meets supernatural, in the most believable and heartwrenching of ways.

I think one of the reasons I responded to the book so strongly was that I recognized a kindred sensibility there. Obviously, our debut novels both deal with themes of tragedy, loss, and grief. But there’s something else, too. Maybe the fact that Jody and I both realized our dreams of being published authors a little later in life, and after previous careers (in Jody’s case, as a high school English teacher). Thin Space was published last month by Simon & Schuster/Beyond Words. It’s been wonderful to see this debut get the positive reception it deserves, and how Jody’s years of writing “on the verge” finally brought her to the place she was meant to be.

I’ve taken a too-long break from blogging, and I was going to say something ironic about “getting off my ass for Butt Meets Chair” but honestly, Jen, why try so hard? Jody’s answers to these interview questions (note the excellent visual aids) provide entertainment enough, and I’m just really happy to be resuming this series with her today.

How would you describe your writing “routine”?

I used to be a revise-as-you-go type of writer. A sentence had to be perfect before I would let myself move on to the next one. This method takes time, but I told myself that it was worth it. When I finally finished a manuscript, it couldn’t be called a first draft, right? I mean, look at all those perfectly crafted sentences!

Shockingly, I never had any luck selling those manuscripts. Because I am a slow learner, I wrote four books using this method before admitting that it might be time to try something else. (Let me mention here that I don’t believe there is any one “right” way to write a novel. But something I wish I had known earlier is that it’s good to be open to different strategies.)

My big breakthrough came six years ago when I signed up for NaNoWriMo. Two days into it, I realized that if I wanted to finish my 50,000 word book by the end of the month, I needed to let go of my crippling perfectionism, tell the critical editor voice in my head to shut up, and simply write. Every day. A certain number of words. Get that first draft out and worry about revising later when I have an actual completed thing to revise.

I’ve been a daily word counter ever since. I write 1500 words per day. When I am revising, I choose a certain number of scenes or chapters to work on. I don’t stop until I complete the goal. Some days this means I am finished early and can do what I like for the remainder of the day. Other days, well, I’m tapping away into the night.

Do you write most of the time in one space? What does it look and feel like?

At the moment my “space” is the living room couch in front of a big picture window. My dog perches on the back of the couch and alerts me to all potential breaches in our home security.

When you mix it up with your writing spaces, where do you go?

I have a nice office, but I don’t use it anymore. See above: dog. I’ve also written in coffee shops–Panera, Starbucks, any place with accessible electrical outlets and free coffee refills. I wrote Thin Space at the local public library. I love that place. It’s warm and bright and smells like books.

I also work at the library sometimes. The periodicals section has a particular mojo for me. How do different writing spaces affect your process?

Your question makes me realize that I can write anywhere. Once I fall into that zone, I don’t hear conversations or music or twitchy dogs. I do kinda miss my office, but only because I was more organized when I used it. Now, my stuff is spread out all over the living room.

Do you have any rituals that help you transition from life mode into writing mode?

I plunk out on my couch and flip an hourglass. I have no idea how long it takes for the sand to run out. Maybe fifteen minutes? However long it is, it’s exactly the right amount of time to get me into the day’s project.

So besides the hourglass, what do you need to have with you when you write? What do you need to be removed from?

What I need: coffee.
What I wish I could blow to smithereens: the Internet, Doritos snack packs.

Do you give yourself rewards of some kind for getting your daily writing goals accomplished?

Not usually, because I refuse to stop until I accomplish my goals. It’s my daily work– what I DO–and I don’t think of it as something that needs a reward. That said, after a particularly grueling day, I will not refuse a glass of wine, and I live for the nights when my teen daughter invites me to watch a fun, mindless TV show with her.

How do you get past the times when you can’t focus or feel like it’s just “not happening today”?

If I waited until I felt like “it was happening,” I might never write.

Whatever I feel or don’t feel, I write until I make my words. It doesn’t matter if they are bad or good. I’ve had days when I thought what I was writing was horrible and the next day I look at it and find that it’s okay or there is a glimmer of something useful in it. I’ve written hundreds of pages that I ended up cutting later. I see none of this as a waste of my time.

I just heard the brilliant writer and illustrator David Wiesner say at a conference: “You can’t just think about an idea. You’ve got to do the work.”

I love that.

God, yes. Thank you for that new mantra! What distracts you when you’ve got your butt in the chair? How do you fight those distractions?

The big one is the Internet. I’m on social media a lot, as most writers are these days. It’s supposed to be a form of marketing and promotion, and it is, but I like the connecting-with-other-writers-and-readers aspect. I pop onto Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. I read blogs and book reviews and articles about writing. It’s so easy to get sucked in, and the next thing I know it’s lunch time and I haven’t even started my words.

I am still figuring out how to use but not abuse. If anyone has any tricks, PLEASE let me know.

What’s your totally weird writing “eccentricity”?

Hmm. I just asked my daughter and she blurted out something that is hilarious. And totally not true. So, I refuse to share it with you.

****

Well, pooh! Fine. Visit Jody online (and tell her I said hi) at www.jodycasella.com.

Also, I’m giving away a signed ARC of Thin Space. Enter hereabouts:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Butt Meets Chair: Michael Northrop

Rotten by Michael NorthropThere are some YA authors you can really count on to keep producing original, intelligent, trend-proof work, book after book after book. I would like to be one of those authors; I plan to be. Michael Northrop is one already. His work includes the superb YA novels “Gentlemen” and “Trapped,” as well as the middle-grade “Plunked.” His new book, “Rotten,” due out from Scholastic on April 1, is the story of a troubled teen, a rescued rottweiler, and their unlikely friendship. It sounds old-school terrific.

Before I give you Michael’s responses to my Butt Meets Chair questions, I’m going to jump onto an aside here.

Back when I decided I had a novel in me and needed to write it, or else, you know, feel the crushing shame of not writing it until my dying day, I read Carolyn See’s book “Making A Literary Life.” Up until that point, I was pretty sure I knew how to write, but I didn’t know how to be a writer; I didn’t know how to get my butt in the chair and then, upon the miraculous occasion that it actually stayed in the chair, how to Make All The Words in a way that made sense. That could become part of something bigger and weren’t self-indulgent, wheel-spinning crapola. “Making A Literary Life” gave me my first tools for doing that, and the big one, the one I still keep front and center on my creative workbench, is the practice of writing a thousand words a day (this apparently comes from Carolyn See by way of Virginia Woolf, so it’s got literary street cred).

Read on to see how Michael makes this rule work — really successfully work — for him.

First, the incredibly general, moderately annoying question: How would you describe your writing “routine”?

Michael NorthropMy routine is pretty straightforward: I write a thousand words a day on days when I’m writing. I often write a little more. A really good day is 1,300. If I’m struggling, I’ll fall across the finish line at like 1,001. Some days I finish in a few hours, but even then, I don’t push past my word count. I give myself the rest of the day to think about what I just wrote and where the story would/could/should go next. Long runs are particularly good for that, and as slow as I am, all runs are long for me!

The real catch is the “when I’m writing” part. Most of the time, I am not. Right now, for example, I’m waiting to hear back from my publisher. I have a few different books in the works with them, but I don’t know which one they’re planning to publish next. Rather than starting one and having to shove it aside and immediately start something else, I’m keeping myself busy doing promotion for the paperback release of Trapped. So far that involves a blog tour, school and library visits, a bookstore event, and so on.

Once I get the green light, though, I write every day I can: weekdays, weekends, holidays, the occasional hurricane. It doesn’t matter. The goal is to get in that headspace—the setting of the book, the mind of the narrator—and stay there. So I clear my schedule as much as possible and just start ticking off 1,000 words, 1,300, 1,100, 1,001, whatever. The important thing is to keep going until I’m done. The more immersive the process is, the better. When I’m really going well, I’ll go to sleep thinking about the book and wake up thinking about it.

That requires putting my actual life on the backburner, which is why it’s good to get it done as quickly as possible. While I’m writing, I may as well be an astronaut on a deep space mission. I basically give those months up to the book.

Do you write most of the time in one space? What does it look and feel like?

Yep, I write in a little home office in my apartment in Brooklyn. It has a desk, one of those four-wheeled office chairs, a National Parks wall calendar, a bottle of One-a-Day vitamins, and the MacBook Pro I use for writing. It’s basically a quiet corner of a sunny apartment. I’m a trance-y kind of writer. If you’ve ever read the poem “The Thought Fox” by Ted Hughes, that’s pretty much it. On a good day, I basically take a deep breath, look down, and start typing. A few hours later, I look up and I’ve written 1,100 words. Any distractions put that in jeopardy. On a bad day, for example, I look up 45 minutes later and I’ve written 300 words. I know it’s going to be a long slog to 1,000 when that happens.

Where do you go when you want to mix it up with your writing space?

The only other place I’ve found where I can write as well (or at least as much) as I do at home are the desks at the back of my hometown library: Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury, CT. I practically grew up back there, reading, doing reports, or whatever, so psychologically it’s a very productive space for me. And it’s generally quiet and sunny, and I can usually get a desk to myself.

So break it down for me. You’ve got your butt in the chair and you’re ready to make 1,000 words. What do you do first?

I might spend a few moments mentally reviewing where I left off, but usually I’ve been thinking about that all morning so it’s not necessary. I’ll often have my first sentence or two already loaded up. (As cliché as it sounds, I often come up with them in the shower.) Then I’ll picture the setting of the scene (literally the school, playing field, house, or wherever the action begins), take that deep breath, and start typing.

What are your must-haves for this time?

And the award for least surprising answer ever goes to: Coffee! But the beverage itself is actually less important than the process of getting it. In order to do that, I get up, shower, get dressed, and walk down to the main drag here in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. I usually go to Dunkin’ Donuts, but sometimes I’ll go to Catskill Bagel or my favorite bodega. I think the process of getting dressed (just like a real professional!), going out in public, and interacting with other humans (even if it’s just to say, “Medium French vanilla with milk and sugar, please”) really helps. It sort of flips on the Humanity switches for me. And if I haven’t already come up with my first few sentences of the day in the shower, I generally think of them on the walk back from Dunkin’.

Do you give yourself rewards of some kind for getting stuff accomplished?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s one of the perks of being my own boss. I’m usually done writing by early afternoon. Sometimes I spend the afternoons doing promotion and that sort of thing, but I often give myself the rest of the day off. I’ll go to the coffee shop or to happy hour at the (one) local bar. If it’s nice out, I’ll go to the park or even the beach. The trick is, of course, no matter where I go, I’ll probably just be thinking about the story. I don’t read fiction while I’m writing, for example, because I don’t want any other narratives competing for my attention.

What distracts you when you’ve got your butt in the chair?

This is the best part of being a trance-y writer: Once I actually start writing, I’m usually fine. It’s a little like the gym: Making myself go is the hard part, but once I’m there I always work out.

What’s your totally weird writing “eccentricity”?

I get so hyper-verbal and revved up to write in the mornings that I sometimes make up nonsense lyrics to songs and sing them to myself. Like I’ll be putting in my contacts and go (to the tune of “Sailing” by Christopher Cross), “Saline takes me away/To where I can be seeing!” I basically just have a bunch of extra words spilling out of me. It’s vaguely Tourettic, and it gets worse once I start drinking the coffee.

****

My God, this guy needs to meet my husband. Maybe together they can come up with alternative lyrics to “Blinded by the Light” that actually make sense.

As you can imagine, when Michael sent me back his answers and I read about his thousand-words-a-day regimen, I was all me too me too and frankly, relieved to hear that I’m not the only author who spends more time thinking and brainstorming than actually typing stuff into a draft. Thank you, Michael, for reminding us that living your story and characters, going about your day and feeling them under your skin, in between the rhythms of your breath, is as important as what you do with your butt in the chair.

Visit Michael and his books online at www.michaelnorthrop.net.

How I Write

The lovely Jen of “A Book and a Latte” blog gave me a taste of my own medicine. She asked if I’d participate in her “How I Write” interview series in honor of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I felt it was only fair for me to examine my own work process after forcing other authors to do the same.

I really enjoyed answering her questions; it’s always good to take a moment to think about how you do things, and why, and whether or not they actually work. Check it out:
Jennifer Castle: How I Write

Also, for those who are interested in the “tools’ I mention in this interview:

Scrivener, aka crazy awesome software for writers of all types and media.

Freedom, aka Internet Blocking Productivity Software, aka how to stay the f*ck off Facebook and get the job done.

For stretchy pants, I recommend Target and Kohl’s. (I’m kidding. Sort of.)

For pleasant distraction and stress-relief, I recommend:

I leave you with this, which could be a picture of me working in my office, except I’m taller and MY footie pajamas are blue: