To Slay a Dragon, or Write Every Day for a Month

My writing routine is delicate. Temperamental. You could even say, pansy-assed.

Ideally, when crawling my way through a first draft like I am now, I write for about two hours every weekday. Ideally, I work in the morning, between getting my daughters out the door to school and lunchtime, because that’s when I feel most creative. Ideally, I’m in my home office on my couch looking out at the woods. Ideally, I have tea and a cat nearby. Ideally, I’ve had eight hours of sleep.

Are you sensing a theme here? Ideally, life would always present me with ideal conditions to write. Stupid, silly life. It doesn’t.

If something comes up in the morning that I can’t avoid, such as a doctor’s appointment or urgent errand, I give up on the day’s work. Because what can I do? I lost my window! If I’ve had insomnia (as I often do) or am dealing with, say, a sinus headache…I skip writing, telling myself that the work would come out crappy anyway. If one of the kids are home sick from school, I blow off the words, because, well you know, my child needs me to be Mom today. Weekends? Pshaw. I don’t even bother with weekends. Too many plans and commitments, too much housework, too much too much too much.

The beginning of this month found me in a professional crisis. I had a draft of my new book due in January, and I was less than halfway done. To make things worse, I wasn’t 100% sure how the second part of the story was going to arc. I needed to just write my way through it, but it was hard for me to find momentum to do that with all my fits and starts. So in honor of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I decided to try something I’ve never done before: write every single day. No matter what. I would shoot for 1,200 words a day, but mostly I would shoot for words, period.

Apparently, the universe decided to see how serious I was about this, because in the past eleven days, I have forced myself to do my daily writing…

…while yawning because the Daylight Savings time change inspires my 5-year-old to be awake at Ridiculous O’Clock.

…in bed after being up half the night with a stomach bug, typing in between sips of Gatorade and bites of saltines.

…at the town library while my 8-year-old was home sick from school with aforementioned stomach bug, cared for by my husband.

…in the afternoon because the morning involved a lot of puking (see above about kid home sick from school).

…completely stressed out after getting some bad news about my husband’s big work project.

…at a cafe in Brooklyn with my friend the author Kim Purcell, on a laptop I borrowed from her husband, because we came to visit them for the weekend and I forgot my computer, and I was going to give up on trying to write until she said, “No. I feel shitty when I don’t write. Let’s go now for an hour before dinner while the husbands watch the kids.”

So obviously, most of the last eleven days were less than ideal. They were damn hard. Life got in the way, but I pushed it aside. I fought for my writing. And even on the days that I could only squeeze out an hour of work, maybe 700 words, those were 700 words more than I had the day before. Even if I end up cutting 90% of what I wrote on a single day, it’s that 10% — that 10% that is still more than 0%, and could contain important notions or great lines or perfect moments that would not have come to me on a different day.

We were gone all yesterday doing Active Superfun Family Things. I planned to write for a little while after we got home. But it was later than expected, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. It wasn’t until I whimpered into bed that I realized I hadn’t done my daily writing. I would have been upset about it, if I hadn’t passed out three seconds later.

But something has already happened here. The October me would have woken up today and said, “I really do suck. Look: I tried to write every day for a month and I only made it a week and a half.”

However, the November me is acknowledging the missed day…and moving on. The November me has learned a few things about the importance of intention in writing, and how a heightened commitment can really make a difference not just on the page but in my enthusiasm about my work. I’ve also figured out that I have, like, actual power over most anti-writing circumstances. I just need to choose to wield it.

I’ve got 20 days left in the month and I will still aim to write on every single one of them. Unless, of course, I finish the draft a few days before November 30th…in which case, instead of writing there will be sangria, and you’re all invited.

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

The Great Big “My Book Is Out Today” Post

“You Look Different in Real Life” is out. In the world. That’s cool. (I’m masking how utterly verklempt and grateful I am.)

People I made, with the book I made.

On Release Day you’re supposed to, you know, talk up your book in a whole lot of different places in a professionally sanctioned me-a-thon. I’ve done some of that. It feels unterrible. I’ll do just a bit more with this list of “story behind the story” notions I would like to share with you.

1) There’s much of me in Justine, and vice versa. While I gave Laurel from “The Beginning of After” my good-girl-itis and the instinct to keep emotions pressure-cooking inside, Justine got my snark, my body image struggles, and my love of sneakers. I adore her. I adore that she’s not perfect, and that readers may not fall for her right away. Because I believe a character has got to earn that, dammit.

2) I watched a lot of documentaries for research, especially ones about teens. Here are five which had particular impact and still stay with me:

“7 Up,” “14 Up,” and “21 Up.” Michael Apted’s brilliant series, now clocking in at “56 Up,” obviously inspired this book’s premise. These first three movies are plain stinkin’ fascinating, and they include the cutest accents and haircuts.

“The Education of Shelby Knox.” Shot over the span of several years, Texas teenager Shelby Knox evolves from a conservative Southern Baptist to discovering her voice and calling as a liberal women’s activist. I was riveted.

“Billy the Kid.” Filmed “character” portraits don’t get much better than this. I watched this long after Rory was alive and breathing on the page, but you might notice a resemblance of quirk.

3) The character of filmmaker Lance is named for Lance Loud, from the 1971 PBS documentary series “An American Family.” You can’t see this series anywhere but in a few bootleg YouTube videos (although you can enjoy “Cinema Verite,” the HBO dramatic film version), but I did a lot of research on it as I was developing the story. If you’re unfamiliar, “An American Family” is widely considered a precursor to reality TV in America, documenting several months in the lives of an upperclass Santa Barbara family called the Louds. It was pretty epic. Bill and Pat Loud broke up on camera. Their oldest son Lance was one of the first openly gay people to appear on U.S. national television (and went on to be a magazine columnist and musician). Thinking about the Loud kids, who were mostly teens when the series was shot, and how this experience might have shaped their lives, drove a great deal of my early brainstorming. I also learned some intriguing stuff about the filmmaker-subject relationship and you see some of that with Lance, Leslie, and the gang in the book.

4) I love that because of the book’s premise — that these teens were chosen by documentary filmmakers when they were six years old — I could hand-pick certain character “stereotypes,” because that’s what the filmmakers would have done in order to maximize their range of subjects. The fun part was shaking those stereotypes up, then breaking them open to see what was really inside.

5) When I was writing this, I didn’t expect to later be writing a companion short story from Keira’s point-of-view. But Holy Character Development, am I glad to have been given this opportunity. Read “Playing Keira” before you read YLDIRL and you’ll have inside information that Justine does not; read it after, and I think it’ll close a nice circle. Either way, it’s only 99 cents and you’ll never look at a pineapple the same way again.

6) And finally. Documentary film premise or not, for me this book is about two things: self-identity and friendship. Probably because they’re two things I thought I’d have all figured out by now, but…well, sh*t. So what can I take, for myself, from the experience of writing this book? I’ve learned that the insecurities and drama of friendship don’t go away when you “grow up.” They get even more complex, actually, and that sucks. But I think, with experience, you just get better at recognizing which relationships are worth fighting for. And also, every person you get close to, no matter how long she or he stays in your life, has something to give. Sometimes we have to dig a little for that, but it’s always worth the dirty fingernails.

When it comes to identity, I look at this book and my journey with it, and am reminded that (fortunately) the way we see ourselves is not the whole picture of who we are. We’re slightly different to each person we share the world with, whether it’s intimately or casually or randomly online. Put all those versions together, and it’s still not anything absolute. It’s just information. I guess the trick is to stay curious about who we are, to never stop trying to figure it all out. In the end, that’s what keeps us spiritually alive.

Justine, Felix, Rory, Nate, and Keira belong to you now. Go forth and read! But first, enjoy the brand new “You Look Different in Real Life” trailer. It makes me smile and tap my toes, and I hope it does the same for you.