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

Maisy Dee’s “The Recipe” and sex in YA lit

In my life as an author, I’ve not yet had to tackle the question of whether or not to include a sex scene in something I’m writing. This wasn’t a conscious choice but rather, a result of sex simply not being necessary or organic to my story, and I was not compelled to go there. I’m definitely not squeamish about it. Au contraire, mes amis. (Right now I’m moving my eyebrows up and down teasingly in an effort to be alluring, but it really just looks dorky. I’ll stop.)

However, I’ve been thinking about this topic lately as I brainstorm my next project, and after reading Kelly Jensen’s excellent post “Sex, YA Books, and Some “E” Words” on the Stacked blog. Then, a friend gave me a copy of a book she just loved and thought was a great example of how sex in YA lit can be authentically portrayed: “The Recipe” by first-time author Maisy Dee (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). In “The Recipe,” longtime friends Craig and Emily fall in love and explore their first sexual relationship, with all the awkwardness, sweetness, anxiety, and pleasure that go along with it. This was a great read for me because it was so refreshingly honest and tender and real. It’s the kind of book that can be the exact right thing someone needs to read at the exact right time in his or her life, and really make a difference. I’m a sucker for those kinds of books.

In pursuit of a larger think on the subject of sex in YA lit, I had some questions for Maisy; fortunately, she had some answers. And also fortunately, the Kindle version of “The Recipe” will be available as a FREE download starting tomorrow, February 1, through Sunday, February 3, so I’m really happy to help this book get some well-deserved exposure. To nab it, visit this page on Amazon.

What was your original inspiration for “The Recipe”?

The Recipe book coverIt’s hard to pinpoint my original inspiration. I was bringing my kids to the children’s library a lot, and started picking up books for myself in the YA section. I found tons of fantasy, of course, and lots of realistic fiction that had kids in tragic or troubling situations. And the romantic and sexual situations in these books sent two distinct and conflicting messages to young readers. You have so-called “paranormal romance” which literally makes sex, well, superhuman. Or you have horrible situations like rape or abuse—or consensual sex that is punished with a bad reputation or regret and self-loathing. I thought, gosh, where are the books like Judy Blume’s, where it’s normal to have urges and it’s okay to act on them in a responsible and very human way?

They’re out there, but can be hard to find. Tell me a bit about your journey with this book, and why you ended up self-publishing it.

Self-publishing allowed me to make all the creative decisions regarding the book and its packaging. Once I decided to go out on my own, I had a lot of fun with it, because I was lucky to know both a fantastic editor, Deborah Bancroft, and a top notch book designer, Jonathan Lippincott, so I had the resources to produce a really professional-quality book. I also had the freedom to choose and hire an illustrator. The creative process of collaborating with the artist, Jared Friedman, was really fun. I took a big risk with illustrations that are not typical of the YA books you normally see, but I think, like the story, they are honest in their quirkiness. So far, I’ve gotten very positive feedback. I really expected more backlash because of the explicit content, and perhaps that will come as the book gets broader readership.

There are definitely more and more examples of sexual intimacy in YA lit than back in the days of Judy Blume’s “Forever.” What have you seen out there that you think is great? What’s not-so-great?

There are a few YA books out there in which the female characters are more sexually liberated. They make decisions to explore their sexuality on their own terms and for their own reasons — sometimes as an expression of love or sometimes just to experiment, or even to relieve stress. I think that’s good because it’s a reality of life. Sexual experiences, good and bad, are just that — experiences. I’m not in any way talking about sexual violence or trauma here. I’m talking about making the decision to do something that might not turn out to be perfect, and that’s okay.

But the sexually liberated female is still too rare in teen books. There is too much emphasis on “losing” (or “saving”) your virginity or equating sex with power. And, to be honest, teen sex — when it’s consensual — is generally represented as being way too good! I’m not saying that it can’t be fun, but it’s much more awkward than that.

Yeah, I agree. Everybody loves some escapism, but when you’re reading about “perfect” sex in an otherwise “realistic” story, it can create an off-note. So if an author wants to write a detailed sex scene, to whom or what should his or her responsibilities be?

I believe that a writer’s greatest responsibility is to the characters and the story. I admit that I had a bit of an agenda in writing this book, because I felt that there are a lack of stories out there that are honest about sex — I knew I wanted to tell a story that represented it in a positive but realistic way. So I did have the reader in mind. But once I got to know the characters, I had to let them take the story where it would go, realistically. I had to let them make mistakes and figure it out. The sex shouldn’t be gratuitous; it should be a place where the characters would go naturally.

In “The Recipe,” I think you do a great job of writing sex so that it’s sensitive and realistic, and doesn’t jolt the reader out of the story. Was that difficult to accomplish?

I just tried to stay true to Emily and Craig. They explore their sexuality both alone and together, and I wanted to be honest about that. So many books go only so far and then slip into vague metaphors. And very few even mention the clitoris — which is a pretty big omission, I think! So, yeah, I went there, but I just tried to reflect what they were thinking and feeling during those moments. As long as the characters are headed in that direction, I think you can follow them. If you’re just trying to spice up your story, then you can get yourself into trouble. There really are only so many ways to describe an orgasm. You can’t go into writing a sex scene with the single goal of making it more amazing or sexier or kinkier than anyone else’s and succeed in telling an honest story.

Maisy Dee, as illustrated by Jared Friedman

“The Recipe” is told from the alternating POV’s of Craig and Emily. Was it challenging to write the development of Craig and Emily’s sexual relationship from a guy’s perspective?

Yes and no. I did talk to some guys (adults) about their teenage sexual experiences to gain some insight into a guy’s perspective.  But while guys and girls have to deal with different societal pressures and expectations, in the end we have very similar feelings and insecurities. I just tried to put myself in Craig’s shoes, as a human being, and ask myself how would I feel in this moment?  What would I do?

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

At one point in the book, Craig confides in his father his anxiety about sleeping with Emily, that he won’t be very skilled because he’s a virgin. His dad responds that “sex isn’t a performance, it’s a conversation.” And like any good conversation, there is give and take, passion, laughter, and respect. Sex in real life isn’t choreographed or perfect, it’s a part of creating an intimate connection with another person.

***

I have to say, I adore the idea of “a conversation” here. It’s so important. I’ll take that with me into my own process when it comes to writing about sex in the future.

You can learn more about Maisy Dee and “The Recipe” at www.maisydee.com or on Facebook.

I’d love to compile more recommendations of YA books that represent the range of ways in which sex is portrayed. Please share by posting a comment here…