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.

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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.