Momentum

Let’s just say I haven’t gotten a lot of writing done in the past three or four weeks. I’ve had a lot of family in town from out of state and out of country this summer, and for a nice change of pace, I spent some of my writing time these past weeks reading/editing some fiction and academic writing for friends. I also recently finished editing one project and switched gears to coediting a different manuscript. Legendarily, Anthony Trollope would finish one manuscript and then start the next one the very same day to meet his daily word count, but I’m not sure what his secret was. I tend to lose a lot of momentum when I’m moving from working on one story to another.

I’ve been able to keep a bit of momentum in drips and trickles. My sister and I are editing on Google Drive, so on lunch break at work, for instance, I’m able to log in for a few minutes to reread pages, catch up on my sister’s edits, or even break new ground. But on the few open evenings where I’ve tried to meet my usual word count (1,200 edited words, or 600 drafted words, or a mix of both where drafted words count double edited words), it hasn’t gone particularly well. I don’t believe in writer’s block per se, but when I’ve been out of a project for a while, I can spend a long time staring at the computer screen, feeling completely frozen. What if what I add to the manuscript is rubbish? What if I make it worse rather than better? It’s probably never going to get published anyway.

(This is, incidentally, why I use a word count rather than a time allotment. When I’m on a timer, I can flit endlessly from one website to another “researching” for world building instead of keying one word after another into my manuscript.)

Even sitting down to write this blog post yesterday seemed unusually daunting. I try to keep posts to 500 words or less, and it’s intentionally a space where I don’t think too hard about my style or sentence construction, where I can ease up on the perfectionism I usually bring to my prose when I’m working on my fiction. I even keep a list of potential post ideas, and I scrolled through them without interest, looked at some of my previous posts for context, wondered if I should just not write a post this weekend because I’m tired and who’s counting anyway?

My summer is going to get a lot quieter moving forward, and I’m looking forward to getting into a more regular writing rhythm. I’m expecting some evenings where I think my writing is crap, and I’m sending whiny texts to my sister about how hard editing is, and I’m thinking about how much nicer it sounds to sit down with Trapped season 2 and a mug of herbal tea instead of reaching my word count.

But I’ve been around this block many times before. I know the writing will get easier and feel more natural once I’ve stuck with it long enough.

Speeding Dating for Authors and Editors

I was at Carol Kent’s Speak Up conference this weekend, team teaching a session on storytelling in nonfiction with my fellow editor Janyre Tromp and taking one-on-one appointments with writers and speakers.

One-on-ones at writers conferences are a strange beast, and more than one person I met with commented on the format at the end of their appointments. Basically the writer or speaker has fifteen minutes to explain their project, tell me what gap it fills in the market, and describe why they have the expertise and platform to write the manuscript and reach lots of readers. This isn’t the first conference where I’ve felt like I’m getting paid to speed date with authors. In an hour, I’ve talked to four people who have pitched me everything from trauma memoirs to soul-and-body fitness manuals to anxiety and depression workbooks to how-to texts for starting your own Red Tent events.

I’m highly introverted, so I can be ambivalent about meeting new people, and mingling over breaks or meals at conferences isn’t my jam. But there’s something about one-on-ones that works for me, probably because they’re carefully regimented and I know what to expect. Writers are always passionate about their projects, so they bring a lot of energy to the appointment and it’s easy to kickstart the conversation.

I also enjoy the work of diagnosing where they are and helping them figure out next steps. In some cases this is obvious: they have their elevator pitch down, they have an agent representing them, they have the proposal all ready to go. If it fits with my publishing house, I simply have to hand them my card and ask them to ask their agent to send me the proposal. (Incidentally, I talked with several authors whose agent was sitting across the hall from me taking appointments as well, so I could just point and say, “Tell him to send me your proposal.”)

For other authors, next steps might not be so straightforward. Maybe I really like their project, they’ve written a few chapters, and their proposal is almost ready—but it doesn’t fit with the publishing plan of the house I work for. If I really like the project, I may encourage them to tweak the material so it would fit with my house. Or I may direct them toward other publishers that are better equipped for their genre and topic.

Other authors may have an agent and a few books under their belt, but they’re developing a new project and proposal, and they’re trying to get a feel from editors if the topic and hook will resonant in the market. These appointments can turn into brainstorming sessions: How is your book different from Book X that’s already been published? Why are you bringing these different topics/themes together? Have you considered structuring your table of contents this way?

New writers can be especially fun to work with because there are so many possibilities. They’ve begun writing a memoir, but they’ve wondered about turning it into a nonfiction book on Topic Y. They have a passion for Z, and they’re thinking about starting a blog or creating professional social media accounts. They want to write a book, but they’re not sure where to start. These conversations can be a little less concrete as we talk through what they want to accomplish with their writing and who they want to write to.

Whoever I’m meeting for a one-on-one at a writers conference, though, I’m sure to hear an interesting book idea and often the personal story that inspired it.

Editing Your Garden

I’ve fallen down another British reality TV rabbit hole. This time started innocently enough when I got food poisoning, was flat on the couch for a couple of days, and wanted something cozy to watch on Netflix. Monty Don’s Italian Gardens seemed like just the ticket. If you don’t know Monty Don, he is a tweedy British gardener who can always see a positive side and firmly believes that gardening can change the world. After binging on his Italian Gardens, I may have watched his French Gardens series, then Paradise Gardens (Middle East), and then Japanese Gardens.

Now I’m watching Big Dreams, Small Spaces, a fixer-upper show where every episode, two British households with rundown, neglected garden spaces spend nine months transforming their yards into their dream gardens. They always start with grandiose ideas—or drawn plans, if they’re more type A—and throughout the year Monty Don visits them to advise, teach, and get his hands dirty transplanting roses, lining ponds, and cutting back brush. The show is always edited for maximum drama, so you never know if they’re really going to pull off their dream garden until Monty Don’s final, celebratory visit, when friends and neighbors inevitably come over for a cookout or drinks.

A lot of why I watch the show, obviously, is because the planting and gardens are lovely, and I get that proxy rush from watching other people work for their dreams, and I’m a Romantic (capital R) sucker for outdoorsy, earthy things. But I’ve also realized there’s something enjoyable and encouraging about watching another creative process that isn’t writing. Of course perfect correlations between different art forms don’t exist, but for years I’ve learned things about my own writing process from talking with my brother about his hours in practice rooms working on piano repertoire. Watching the planning, landscaping, and planting of a garden feels similarly enlightening.

Monty visits both households three times during each episode. Usually on the first visit, the couple shares their dream for the garden, and Monty gives broad, structural feedback: That’s a lot of different kind of plants, that might look busy. Have you thought about digging out that feature of your garden because it doesn’t fit with your theme? On the second visit, Monty hopes that the hard landscaping is done, and he can help the participants with a specific feature of the garden, say vertical gardening with strawberry plants or how to get moss to grow on new surfaces. He also sends each couple to a garden that specializes in something they want to incorporate in their own garden.

Watching the show as an editor, what I see Monty doing is “editing” their plans and gardens (he even uses the word editing) in two passes—not unlike the two rounds of structural and copy editing we do at my publishing house. Monty also gives technical expertise and encourages lots of research. If the participants don’t know exactly which plants they want and whether they will work with their soil and climate, the hopeful gardens will spend a lot of fruitless time and expense on something that won’t grow or won’t look good. As a planner (rather than a pantser), I of course agree.

But, okay, yes, I also just watch the show because it’s feel-good.

Patience

My birthday was this past week. I had dinner with family, and someone asked me if I’ve been making good progress on my life goals.

I thought about it. “No, not really.”

One of my goals I was thinking about was writing. To be fair to myself, this past year I drafted one novel, edited another, shopped a third to agents, and published a couple of poems.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything’s happening. I sent out another batch of agent queries this weekend, and while updating my spreadsheet, I realized I’ve been sending out this book for a year now. And I started writing this book four years ago. I can’t remember how many times I’ve used the anecdote about Kathryn Stockett and her sixty rejections when friends ask me how my writing is going.

I also recently got beta-reader feedback on the novel I finished editing. And while readers liked the book and there were plenty of lovely comments, there’s also a lot of work to be done when I get around to the third draft. I first had the idea for this book twelve years ago, and I started writing it five years ago. Drafting those first pages feels like a long time ago.

None of this should surprise me. I remember reading somewhere—probably in a book on writing—that no other entertainment industry moves slower than book publishing except for film. And I work at a publishing house, so I see firsthand the many processes and people a book manuscript must go through to reach publication, never mind the many normal, human delays and hiccups. (And, yes, I’ve been that editor who’s left a query from a hopeful author unanswered in my inbox for three months because I’ve been busy with this, that, and the other thing.)

And yet I want things to be unreasonably fast and smooth with my books. I’ve been going through a period of generalized envy in my life, so it’s a mental loop I catch myself playing a lot right now. They’re getting their book published and garnering excellent reviews. Their life looks so much more fun and ’grammable than mine. They have/do/are [whatever it is I think I need to feel satisfied with my life].

When I start feeling this way, what this often means is that I need to start reading Pema Chödrön again. Or at least take a deep breath and remember to have more patience with myself and the world. And remember that it isn’t merely the hoped-for result of writing that’s important but also the story, characters, and craft itself. At any rate, getting too hung up on how people respond to my writing—even agents and editors—and using that as a barometer for whether I can feel “successful” or am “meeting my life goals” is an awful lot of pressure—both for me and for them.

My goal-oriented self wants to put a disclaimer here that, of course, this doesn’t mean that goals aren’t important and that I shouldn’t work hard for them. But I think these statements can coexist peacefully—to have big dreams and pursue them, and to be patient and content with what actually is.

Transitions

I’m reading through the colonial fantasy (read: pirate) novel that my sister and I drafted last year, in preparation for editing the manuscript. I’m having lots of fun revisiting the characters and world, and it’s always interesting to see how different the beginning of a first draft is from the end. At least for me, I’m often just getting to know the characters and not entirely sure about the shape of the plot when I first start drafting, whereas by the end of the draft I feel much more comfortable and confident as the storyteller.

The thing that’s really stood out to me in the first hundred pages of the manuscript are the transitions—or the lack of transitions. With two authors switching back and forth every chapter or so, we didn’t always leave off where the next person picked up. Or we would rehash too much of the same scene or relational content already worked out in a previous chapter, so there’s repetitive material that will need to be trimmed out. There are also a whole host of things—such as character names, city locations, and even personality traits—that changed over the course of the first draft, so some of our chapters reflect those changes while others don’t.

Transitions in fiction can be hard for me to manage even when I’m writing by myself. I’ve gotten better over the years, but especially in my earlier novels I struggled with authorial FOMO, where I’d write out scenes that might have some potential for character growth or plot advancement, but it wasn’t actually essential to the story that I describe them in full detail. One thing I’ve unconsciously done to help is set my recent novels within tight timeframes. My portal fantasy novel, for instance, takes place in less than a month. My alternate history WWII novel is about six weeks long. When I’m dealing with characters over months and years instead of weeks, I have a harder time deciding which scenes will string together to create a coherent plot and show all the significant moments of character change.

For our pirate novel, rearranging the material we’ve already written will also help with the fluency of the storytelling. For instance, my sister wrote the chapter that introduces Marin, who is one of the three main characters, but chronologically his first scene takes place before some of the action I wrote in the previous chapter. With minor tweaks and deletions, that scene could be dragged and dropped into the chapter I wrote, smoothing out the timeline and requiring fewer mental gymnastics from readers.

Reading through a manuscript for editing kind of feels like reading a syllabus on the first day of class. I get a sense for all the projects and work that will need to be done to get the result I want. It can be intimidating, but it’s also an exciting moment to take it all in and imagine what it will read like once it’s all done.

Changing Gears

I finished editing my portal fantasy manuscript Thursday, quickly working through the last few pages in between an outing to the art museum with a friend and packing to visit my sister this weekend. My brother has been reading the manuscript for a week or so at this point, and I’ve been discussing with friends what project I should tackle next. And yet it still hasn’t really sunk that my second draft is done. Even yesterday, I had this nagging feeling: I should probably get home from my sister’s with enough time to edit 1,200 words in the evening.

With the edits done, I’ve been able to carve out some writing time to attend to my alt history novel I’ve been shopping around, which I’ve been sadly neglecting. My spreadsheet where I keep track of who I’ve sent it to when—and when to expect responses—had gotten weedy, and there were some online agent listings I’d been meaning to follow up on.

But shopping manuscripts is a long, slow process, so the bigger question on my mind is what project I should work on next. My brother has been texting me outrageous factoids and historical quotes from his doctoral research on Italian opera and Gothic literature, and I’ve been feeling kind of homesick for the steampunk world my brother and I developed with another friend. There’s a whole novel outline we worked up full of kidnapped debutantes, enchanted opera gowns, and dastardly fashion designers just waiting to be drafted, with characters we’ve written and loved for a dozen years now.

I also have a middle-grade series burning a whole in my pocket since I last visited my Army brother in Europe. They had recently gotten a dog that their children dote on terribly, and somehow we started making up this whole backstory that their dog is really an Italian spy who busts up illegal catnip rings and hunts down international mob bosses. I started writing a first chapter on the plane home from visiting them, and since I sent it to my nieces, they’ve repeatedly asked me to write more.

Like every good aspiring writer, I’ve also been mulling over a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with my sister. With everything from Bridget Jones’s Diary to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to the dragon-riding Heart Stone, the world clearly isn’t suffering from a lack of Austen fan fiction. But, let’s be honest: it would just be so doggone fun.

Realistically, and probably responsibly, however, I think the best plan will be to revise the pirate fantasy novel I drafted last year with my sister. I haven’t touched the manuscript in six months, so the first order of business will be to reread the book from beginning to end. Since I only wrote half of the book, too, it will be helpful to get a feel for the manuscript as a continuous whole. I thoroughly enjoyed drafting the book, so I’m looking forward to diving back in.

I also want to celebrate finishing my edits on my portal fantasy, though, so I’ve got homemade tirmisu on my to-do list, and I’m taking myself to see Verdi’s La Traviata this Friday. Should be a good week.

Night and Day

I read Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day over the past couple of months, finishing it while in Florida a few weeks ago. I’ve been a huge Woolf fan since I read Mrs. Dalloway in college, and I’ve slowly been working my way through her oeuvre. Some of her books are mind-blowing—A Room of One’s Own, for instance, and The Waves—while some of them I read too young—I have no idea what happened in Jacob’s Room or To The Lighthouse—and others are good but not necessarily must-reads—I think of Three Guineas and Orlando.

Night and Day is Woolf’s sophomore book, before Jacob’s Room, her first so-called “experimental” novel. And it’s fair to say that Night and Day is conventional: Its five-hundred-page narrative follows upper-crust Londoner Katharine Hilbery and a number of other young people as they navigate their early careers, love and relationships, class, and the pressing social issues of the day (such as women’s suffrage). There’s no hint of World War I, and with its obvious pushback against the Victorian priorities of the older generation in favor of Romanticism, Night and Day shares more in common with E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View than stereotypical postwar literature like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

If the narrative style and social commentary are unsurprising and even sometimes on the nose—Katharine dislikes societal obligations such as marriage and prefers staying up late at night by herself studying mathematics—it is Woolf’s psychological insight that keeps bringing me back to her work. At the same age as Woolf’s characters, I can’t help but feel that she got the hesitancy, ambivalence, hope, and possibility of young adulthood just right, even though her characters are a hundred years before my time. The characters are young enough to think anything is possible and old enough to know that they can’t choose everything, that making the lives they want will require hard work. They are young enough to find fault with the older generation and old enough to understand why their parents made the choices they have.

As a writer who strives for “consistent” characters, I was also struck by how freely Woolf allows her characters to feel conflicting emotions, within minutes in the same scene or even in the same moment. The complexity of her characters rings true to real life but requires plenty of unpacking—or “telling” as it’s called nowadays. Certainly there are aspects of Woolf’s writing that feel dated, and as an editor of contemporary prose, I wanted to cut down a lot of her sentences. But she is fastidious about understanding her characters in a way that doesn’t feel longwinded but thorough, and at no point was I bored by her explorations of each character’s history and inner world.

The amount of space Woolf gives to the traffic and bustle of London stood out to me as well, partly because the energy of London is a through line with other novels like Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves. A couple of years ago I realized that war (loss, suffering, trauma) is a pervasive theme throughout my novels, and Woolf clearly loved London and was endlessly fascinated by the city. It will be interesting to see, as I continue to write, what other moments, insights, and sensations I will come back to again and again in my writing.

The Color Purple

Maybe eight years ago, I picked up Alice Walker’s The Color Purple from the library. I only got a few pages in, because (spoiler) the fourteen-year-old narrator is repeatedly raped by her father in the first chapter, and at the time I wasn’t ready for it.

Over the years, though, The Color Purple kept popping up on my radar. A book I read for my queer theory class in grad school included an extensive analysis of Walker’s classic. More recently, I’ve been slowly reading through Karen Baker-Fletcher’s Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective, and she also works with some of Walker’s philosophy and novels.

A few things stood out immediately when I started The Color Purple for the second time. Typically I’m not a fan of dialect in novels (it seems distracting at best, and at worst it marks race and class biases), but Walker’s use of dialect is so thorough and so consistent that it’s a natural extension of Celie’s character. More impressively, Celie’s dialect slowly changes over the novel as she grows up and becomes more independent and confident—and it’s markedly different from the dialect of Celie’s better educated sister, Nettie, further affirming Walker’s controlled mastery of character and voice.

The typesetting of the novel (at least of the edition I read) has some conspicuous features as well. There are no chapter numbers or running heads, and without these usual novelistic markers, the reader subconsciously feels less like they’re reading a book by Alice Walker and more like they’re simply reading letters from two sisters. The paragraphs in my edition also weren’t justified, which gives the typesetting a less finished look and better mimics the way people deal with line breaks when writing longhand.

Walker’s story is short, fast-paced, and compulsively readable, and what I enjoyed most about it is how complicated and yet believable the characters are. The book covers about thirty years, and in that time the characters change in many ways and yet are still clearly the same people. The shifting relationships between Celie, Mr. ________ (her husband), and Shug Avery are particularly complex. And yet, even as the narrative showcases all their flaws and mistakes, I found myself empathizing with each of them and wanting them to thrive. Shug may be impulsive, selfish, and overly dramatic, but readers also see her vulnerability and her perceptive insights. Mr. ________ is abusive, lazy, and unfaithful early in the book, but he shows real growth by the end, and I wanted him to continue becoming a more healthy and giving person.

The way Walker handles spirituality also stood out to me. Spirituality comes up often (Celie addresses most of her letters to God, after all), and Walker can even get “preachy,” like when Shug lays out her theological outlook to Celie. But the spiritual content never felt out of place or heavy-handed. Many of my characters are spiritual (the lead in my WWII zombie novel, for instance, is mostly lapsed but was raised in a devout Jewish home), but I feel like I still haven’t figured out how to integrate their spirituality naturally into the narrative. As in many other areas of fiction writing, there’s plenty I can learn here from Walker’s The Color Purple.

Disney Magic

I was in Disney World last week for a family vacation, and I just got back yesterday. I enjoyed plenty of time in the pool and hot tub, basked in the sun, boated around the lakes, and of course visited the theme parks.

A few years back, my brother and I wrote a memoir titled We Grew Up at Disney World, which isn’t actually too much of an exaggeration. Most years during my childhood, my family would go down to Disney World for a week and camp at Fort Wilderness. The memoir is full of inside jokes and family drama, obviously, but more than anything, it’s a memoir about Disney World’s influence on the sorts of storytellers my brother and I have become.

Disney isn’t coy about the fact that they are selling their guests a story. Both the fireworks shows I saw at Magic Kingdom and Epcot—“Happily Ever After” and “IllumiNATIONS” respectively—are introduced by a voice-over that invites guests to become the heroes of their own story or join a global story of belonging and progress.

It’s the little things too. Standing in line for a ride like the Jungle Cruise, I find myself looking at all the old packing crates and bottles and wondering how many of them are genuine antiques and how many of them were made specifically for the ride. One of my brothers is deep into virtual reality technology and “immersive storytelling,” and really that’s what Disney World is. The rocks may be fake and the “artifacts” from various expeditions to Mount Everest fabricated, but they use this accretion of little details to create an environment that feels internally consistent and believable.

Even the resorts are all telling stories to the people staying there. From its live jazz band to its new flapper bar to the retro furniture, the Grand Floridian tells a story about turn-of-the-century opulence. The Polynesian Village Resort tells its story with plumeria shrubs and carved tiki statues and a fake volcano overlooking the swimming pool area.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer that I see things as a writer, but I get the feeling that Disney’s Imagineers also think in terms of plot, setting, character, detail, description, theme, point of view. They work with buildings and rides and resorts and experiences rather than books and writing, but I think over the years I’ve learned a lot about my own craft from them. Even the physical space in my portal fantasy novel—where the protagonist travels to lots of little worlds with their own distinct cultures and languages—is probably subconsciously modeled on Epcot’s World Showcase, where different “pavilions” highlight the architecture and merchandise of different countries like Italy and Morocco.

The Mexico pavilion in Epcot includes an interior space called the Plaza de los Amigos, which is decorated to look like an open-air market at night. There’s a restaurant to one side and a Mesoamerican temple nestled in fake jungle in the distance. I snapped a pic and sent it to my sister with the caption, “Passing through Boca di Dios,” which is a locale from the colonial-era fantasy novel we drafted last year.

Out of Office

I’m on vacation this week, reading books by pools, drinking iced coffees, and generally unplugging. But I’m sure I’ll return next week anxious to get back into my manuscript and full of writerly thoughts from the books I’m taking with me.

–J