Monday, May 25, 2015

When a Writer's Not Writing

When writers talk about the act of writing, they tend to speak metaphorically.

Writing a book is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.-- E.L. Doctorow

To write, you sit down at a typewriter and bleed. --Ernest Hemingway

Stephen King talks about diving into a dark pool or digging up fossils.

Maybe we speak metaphorically about writing because the literal description is so boring. Basically, writing a book involves parking your ass down and picking up a pen or typing on a keyboard until you finish writing it. Sometimes this take months.

Sometimes it takes years.

You are alone. Or you are surrounded by people in a coffee shop, but after awhile you forget those people. You type the letters right the hell off your keyboard.

(Goodbye A, S, and E) (the N and L are gone too)
Some days you forget to wash your hair or change your clothes. Your fingers get cramped. Your back aches. Your eyes burn. You drink a lot of cold coffee. You babble like an idiot to your family about plot holes and snippets of dialogue. 

Or you grunt at them. 

I'm kinda manic when I shut down for the day. I walk out of my office in a daze as if I have been holed up in a cave. There I go speaking metaphorically. 

It does feel like emerging from a cave when you finish writing a book. 

I stumble out into the sunlight, blinking my eyes. Huh. It's spring. Who knew? 

I don't know what to do with myself. 

Cleaning is usually number one on the agenda. When you spend nine or ten months writing a book, you tend to let household chores go. Now it's time to sweep up the dust tumbleweeds in the living room and tackle the science experiments brewing in the bathrooms. 

Do the laundry 

Plant seeds

I always think I should celebrate. Throw a party. Or at the very least, flop out in the hammock and read a book. Instead, I assign myself projects like Paint the Office or Create a Rock Garden. 

I'm not sure exactly why I do this. 

Yesterday I sat in my garden all day pulling up weeds and scattering mulch. There was something very zen-like about it. 

I was not thinking about the book I had just finished, the book that had pretty much consumed me for months. I wasn't thinking about how this possible mess of a Thing is now in the hands of my trusted first readers, how what they say about this Thing will determine how I spend the next few months. I wasn't thinking about publication or the fact that the last book I finished is still bouncing around with editors or more likely, sitting in editorial inboxes, untouched and unread. I wasn't thinking about why I Do This when there is no guarantee that anything I write will show up on a library or bookstore shelf ever again. I wasn't think about next books or speaking engagements or book signings or book festivals or teaching writing workshops. 

Instead I was squatting in dirt chasing the shade around my garden. I had mud under my fingernails and bugs crawling in my hair. 

My mind was blissfully empty and I didn't even realize what I'd accomplished until I stood up and stumbled out of the garden and looked. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The End (ish)

I wrote a ton of stories when I was growing up.

Age 8, 9, 10-- nearly all of my stories were about broken people. Literally broken. With broken limbs or incurable diseases. The typical story-line: a crippled child saves a friend by miraculously recovering the ability to walk. Those were the happy ending stories.

In the ones with the sad endings, the kid dies while saving the friend.

I guess it goes without saying that I was a weird kid.

The book I have been writing and rewriting over and over again for the past thirteen years was "finished" multiple times. There are various permutations of the end but none of them ever felt quite right. It bugged the hell out of me and I couldn't figure out what to do.

When I go on school visits or talk on author panels, the question inevitably comes up: Where do you get your ideas?

I usually answer by talking about the Two Sticks Theory. I think Sid Fleischman said this: It takes two sticks to build a fire and two ideas to make a story--two seemingly unrelated ideas come together and spark the book.

My multiply-written book, regardless of all of the variations and permutations it's had, has always begun with the same two sticks.

Stick one:

A Greek myth about a man who decides to chop down a massive beautiful oak tree even though a dryad resides in it. [Side note: Dryads are nature spirits connected to trees. The belief is that if you destroy a tree that has a dryad attached to it, you kill the dryad too.] The man ignores the screams and the pleas of the dryad and chops down the tree.

Stick number two:

When I was eleven years old I went to camp for a week and when I got home I found that the tree in my backyard, the one I loved to climb, had been cut down. My mother didn't like the tree because the roots were messing up the yard so she had my stepfather take care of it.

When you write a book, you don't always know what you are writing. Sure, you might have your two sticks, your outline. A plan. But stories have a funny way of morphing into something else as you write them. They veer into places you didn't intend to go, places you may not want to go. Ever.

People talk about the difficulty of writing, and what they usually mean is the time spent. Hours of working on your computer, banging out draft after draft. Self-discipline. That part is all true.  But that is not what makes writing difficult. At least for me.

Last January I went to visit my critique partner at Hamline University. Hamline offers an MFA in Children's Literature and my friend is finishing up her coursework there. I went to hear her present her critical thesis, but I also sat in on a few lectures.

The one that pretty much slayed me was given by Jane Resh Thomas. Jane is a writer and teacher. She's the mentor of people like Kate DiCamillo and Gary Schmidt and she is one of the most amazing speakers I have ever had the privilege to hear.

When I sat in on Jane's lecture, I was in the midst of struggling with my revision. There I was AGAIN reworking this story, which for whatever reason I could not let go of and could not get right. And there was Jane, speaking in this booming voice:




When you write a story, Jane said, you are not the same person you were when you come to the end of it.

All of us who write for children have a locked trunk in our attics, a box where we hide all of the secrets from our childhood, the things that hurt us, the things that were too difficult to handle when we were children... BUT WE ARE NO LONGER CHILDREN. 

It's time to go up into your attic and unlock the trunk. 

The heart of your story is like a hot stove. We don't want to touch it, but to do the story justice, we must. 

We have to sit on the hot stove and cook. 

I came home from Minnesota and started the book again. I wrote every day for seven days a week. Every day I climbed up into the attic. Every day I parked myself on the hot stove.

In the midst of all of that, I purged my house. I literally cleaned out every closet and drawer. The Goodwill guy threatened not to take another carload of my stuff.

There was a certain point--maybe back in March?-- when I realized that I didn't care about publication anymore or even if another person ever read this damn book. The only goal was to come out on the other side of it without suffering from third degree burns.

I finished a couple of days ago.

I am happy to report that I don't have permanent skin damage. But I am sorta wandering around my purged house like a stranger. Apparently, I have different furniture. New pictures on the walls. New drapery.

Jane Resh Thomas was right.

I am not the same person I was when I started this book. I'm not exactly sure who I am. The story, it turns out, is about broken people who have to figure out how to save themselves-- or die trying.

Who knew?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Never Begin a Novel with Weather -- Guest Post by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski (THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME Blog Tour and Giveaway)

I am so excited to be a stop on Jennifer Salvato Doktorski's Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. This is a great read. Beachy romance--with a twist: the action take place at the Jersey shore the summer after Hurricane Sandy upended the lives of the main characters, a girl who is a permanent resident of the area and a boy who visits only during the summer.

I loved the romance, of course, but was curious about the hurricane aspect. The storm and the devastation almost feel like a third character in the book, so when Jen asked me what I'd like her to blog about, I said, how about the weather?

Here's Jen:

Never begin a novel with weather. It’s one of those generally accepted taboos that most writers come across at some point or another. I’m not sure if Elmore Leonard was the first to say it, but it is number one on his ten rules for writing fiction. Irrespective of its origins, the point is “It was a dark and stormy night” = bad story opener.

But that doesn’t mean weather can’t provide you with the spark or impetus to write a story or novel, or serve as the perfect backdrop. That was the case with my latest YA novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME, which debuts today. The story take place the summer after Superstorm Sandy unleashed her wrath on the Jersey shore. It was the largest and most destructive Atlantic hurricane in history, affecting several countries and 24 states with New Jersey and New York being among the hardest hit.

When the mega-sized storm made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, it was the second time in two years that we here in the Garden State had been done wrong by a freak storm on that exact date. The year before, on Oct. 29, 2011, a nor’easter hit the East Coast covering everything, including the trees still heavy with fall foliage, with a thick snow and icy mix. The result was downed power lines and trees everywhere. Schools, businesses, and roads were closed. Nearly 1 million people were without power in New Jersey, and Halloween got cancelled—boo—and the nickname Snowtober was born.

Our property dodged any major damage, but a large branch from one of our giant oak trees fell onto our neighbors’ property, nicking their gutter and pulling down some cables. I took it as a warning sign and had the tree taken down. And a good thing too, because it wouldn’t have survived the 65 mph sustained winds that barreled through here the following year on that same date when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012. Halloween was cancelled, again, but that was the least of anyone’s worries. The New York Stock Exchange also closed for a record two days, but again, small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

One of the scariest parts about Superstorm Sandy, was that it lived up to the hype. That hype began on October 22 as meteorologists watched as it developed in the Caribbean and crept along the Eastern
seaboard like a slow-moving monster. By Saturday, Oct. 27th, our governor had already ordered a mandatory evacuation of all coastal regions.

We have a place at the shore and were there that day to participate in the annual scarecrow building contest (it seems silly now that I think about it) and to batten down whatever hatches needed battening. It was eerily quiet. We saw some people filling sandbags and some fisherman on the beach, but it seemed like everyone should have been doing more.

The next day, back at our full-time home, which is further north and inland, people were running from store to store, picking the shelves clean of camping lanterns, flashlights, D batteries, phone charges, candles, water, bread and milk. I bought lots of lunchmeat and packed our coolers with ice because our stove is electric and Snowtober made me realize we are fully dependent on electricity to cook. This was Sunday, Oct. 28th, and already schools had been closed for the next day.

And so we awoke on the morning of Oct. 29th, turned on the TV and began flipping channels, from CNN to The Weather Channel to our local news networks. All of them were showing the same Doppler image of a behemoth storm with its red, angry eye and a massive green swirl that looked like a dragon wings and a tail. Outside the wind was picking up; becoming stronger by the hour.

I can’t remember when it started raining but the rain seemed secondary to the wind. I brought our garbage cans into the garage and watched our remaining oak trees swaying back and forth. We used our landline to make calls and kept our cell phones charged. Shortly after 5 p.m., the lights flickered once, the TV made a zapping sound, and then the electricity went out.

“This is it,” someone said. It was either me or my husband, I can’t remember which. What I do remember is the wind. Wind that sounded like a low flying jet or a high-speed freight train. It rattled the windows and bellowed all night long. When it got dark, we turned on the Coleman lantern, ate sandwiches, played board games, read books, and listened to AM radio on the only device in our entire house that go reception—and old, battery-powered walkie talkie with an AM signal that my husband has had since he was five.

We were up most of the night, listening to the soothing voices of the deejays, watching the sky light up a purplish color each time a transformer blew, and waiting for the deafening wind to abate. We grabbed pillows and blankets and stayed together in the living room. In retrospect, we should have holed up in the basement, but somehow I think my husband and I felt better watching those giant oaks sway all night long; willing them to stay up with our eyes. Somehow they did. But all around us, others weren’t so lucky.

The next morning, we stepped outside to find trees and branches down everywhere. A giant oak blocked our road, another lay on top of the neighbors’ minivan. We used our cell phones to call friends and loved ones to make sure everyone was okay. But the power was still out, and would remain out for days, so we had no idea what the rest of the state and New York looked like, or whether our condo at the beach had survived the storm.

The days that followed were surreal. Driving conditions were horrendous without traffic lights, schools in our town remained closed for nearly two weeks, we ran out of hot water, and sleeping without heat in the unseasonably cold weather was tough. I couldn’t make coffee, or any hot food or beverages for days, and we all grew tired of sandwiches (I haven’t eaten bologna since). But these were all minor inconveniences after this major storm.

People had died, property had been damaged, and homes had been destroyed; swept away by ocean and bay waters along with cars, boats, swing sets and whatever else was in Sandy’s path. The hardest hit areas looked like they’d been ravaged by war not a storm.

Suffice it to say, experiencing Superstorm Sandy changed me. It reinforced what I already knew—life is delicate and precious and nothing should ever be taken for granted—and made me appreciate just how good people could be to one another when faced with the aftermath of a tragedy.

Somewhere around our third night with no electricity, I even began to understand why people in the old days went to bed so early and woke up with the sun. There’s only so much you can do in the cold and dark! I also realized how ill-prepared I was for a hurricane of that magnitude or any other natural disaster. That Christmas, I gave everyone in my family emergency kits complete with crank radios and flashlights (I’m too much fun, I know!)

The following summer, I began writing THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. I didn’t open with the weather, but I wrote this book because of it.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Summer After You and Me
Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
Sourcebooks Fire
May 2015 ● ISBN: 9781492619031
Trade paper/$9.99 ● Ages 14+

Will it be a summer of fresh starts or second chances?

For Lucy, the Jersey Shore isn’t just the perfect summer escape, it’s home. As a local girl, she knows not to get attached to the tourists. They breeze in during Memorial Day weekend, crowding her costal town and stealing moonlit kisses, only to pack up their beach umbrellas and empty promises on Labor Day. Still, she can’t help but crush on charming Connor Malloy. His family spends every summer next door, and she longs for their friendship to turn into something deeper.

Then Superstorm Sandy sweeps up the coast, bringing Lucy and Connor together for a few intense hours. Except nothing is the same in the wake of the storm, and Lucy is left to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and her broken home. Time may heal all wounds, but with Memorial Day approaching and Connor returning, Lucy’s summer is sure to be filled with fireworks.

Jennifer Salvato Doktorski is the author of two YA  novels and is a freelance nonfiction writer. Her first paid writing gig was at The North Jersey Herald & News, where she wrote obituaries and began her lifelong love of news and coffee. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

An Excerpt

Connor opened the gorgeous double doors, each with half-moon stained-glass windows on the top, and motioned me inside. “After you.”
The house had that distinct yet hard-to-describe smell of a beach home that had been closed up for a while. I walked to the center of the high-ceilinged foyer and immediately pic­tured pine garland and twinkling white lights wrapped around the sweeping banister.
“Wow. I’d love to spend Christmas here,” I said and immedi­ately regretted being so sappy.
Connor smiled. “You could fit a twelve-foot tree in this hallway.”
I admit, over the years I’ve had my share of Connor-centric fantasies. However the image of him watching his children pad down the stairs on Christmas morning had never been one of them…until that very second. I liked thinking about Connor that way.
“Come on. You’ve got to see the master bedroom.”
The wholesome image of a Malloy family Christmas van­ished. Aha, I thought. That was the Connor I knew.
“Uh-uh,” I said. “The widow’s walk. I want to go there first.”
“Race you,” he said and took off running.
He beat me up the two flights and was waiting for me in the third-floor hallway toward the back of the house. Off the hallway was an art studio, with a drafting table and a bookcase. There was also a telescope standing near the window.
“Follow me.” He crossed the studio and unlocked the dead­bolt to the narrow door leading outside.
“You’ve already been up there?”
“First thing I did when I got here,” Connor said.
“Not the master bedroom?”
“Nah, that’s the first thing I wanted to do when you got here.”
I thought it was just more flirty banter, but Connor’s flushed cheeks looked as warm as my body felt. He stared at me for a beat too long and my throat constricted. I was suddenly aware that I’d left the house with slept-on hair and no mascara. The look on Connor’s face told me he hadn’t noticed. His eyes never left mine.
Finally he said, “Come on, Luce. I’ll follow you.” The space was tight when I passed in front of him, and the closeness of his body gave me the shivers. I opened the door and stepped outside onto a small patio. I walked toward the wrought-iron spiral staircase that lead to the widow’s walk on the roof and placed my hand on the railing. My knees felt shaky as I began the climb, but I never looked back.

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