One thing you learn about life after a while is that there is never a perfect time for anything.
A few weeks ago, my former doula client, Fault Zone assistant editor, fellow writer, and friend Dorcas Cheng-Tozun e-mailed me to ask if I’d be interested in participating in a “blog hop.”
Flexing my haunches and wiggling my ears, I read on to see what was involved. (Forgive the tired metaphor; I cannot help but picture those small mammals of the family Leporidae whenever I hear the term “blog hop.”) Despite falling in the chain-letter category of online publicity, it seemed a worthy undertaking: women writers highlighting one another’s work by answering a few questions about their own work and then providing links to several other blogs. (Here’s how Dorcas answered the questions.)
The one problem was the terrible timing. I would need to get my post ready for the week of June 23, and line up the other writers for the following week. Meantime, I was in the middle of organizing Fault Zone readings for the San Mateo County Fair, editing submissions for Fault Zone: Diverge (non-member entries open till August 1), and preparing for a week on the east coast.
But I said yes, and I’m glad I did.
Hopping in the real world
My east coast trip felt like a real-world manifestation of a blog hop. I spent time with two dear long-time friends: Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, professor of gender studies and literature at Simon’s Rock College and founder of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and Rochelle Nemrow, founder and CEO of FamilyID.
These are not the women to whom I passed the blog hop baton, but I wanted to recognize the extraordinary work both are doing. Jenny has created a community of women writers in the Berkshires that has spawned an annual month-long celebration of writing with readings, workshops, theater, and storytelling for women of all ages—and now an anthology. Rochelle has created a company that not only provides a valuable service to families but supports families in its business and hiring practices. I’m really proud to call them my friends—and to brag that I knew them when. (Jenny’s faculty bio mentions that our childhood friendship is partly responsible for her attending the college.)
Now on to the blog hop questions and answers. Get ready for a tiny bit of a “reveal” here as I discuss my current writing project—but very tiny, as I am one of those writers who doesn’t like discussing my work too early in the creative process.
What am I working on/writing?
The phrasing of this question allows me to brag about all the writing other people are doing since I’m in the middle of editing submissions for the next Fault Zone anthology, Fault Zone: Diverge (contributors, please be patient!)
I really love editing. I know some writers don’t—and I know it is easier to edit the work of others than to edit one’s own. But I gain enormous satisfaction from helping writers bring out the best in their words. (I wrote about this in a post in which I compared the joy I derive from editing to the joy I derive from supporting families during childbirth as a doula.)
I’m also trying to find the time to work on a new novel that popped up unannounced one day a few months ago. Here are a few things about it:
- It’s a departure from my usual genre of literary fiction into speculative fiction, set in the near future.
- Though the world of the book contains technology of the future, the focus is not on the gadgetry but on the human beings who are immersed in it.
- The central idea of the book is that storytelling can save the world.
How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?
After receiving degrees in creative writing and in journalism, I struggled for years with the question of popular vs. academic (or commercial vs. literary) fiction. Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to combine the best of both.
In the literary tradition, I aim for language that is rich and appealing in its own right. But that appeal must never be for its own sake. The words must always reveal character or advance plot, even as they please the ear. I want to walk the tightrope between commercial and literary, offering books that people label pleasures rather than guilty pleasures. Kind of like dark chocolate sea-salt caramels rather than M&Ms.
Writing in a new genre—speculative fiction—is humbling. I have enjoyed stories set in the future since I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But realizing what a rich body of work exists in this area—and wondering how I will contribute anything original to this sea of stories—keeps me up at night. I’ve had to make a conscious decision not to think too much about existing books and established authors, but instead dig deeply into the world I’m imagining. I have to believe that my take on the world of the future won’t be exactly the same as someone else’s. In literature, after all, there are no original themes.
Why do I write what I do?
I still write fiction for the same reason I did when I was ten: “to find the answers to life’s persistent questions” (the raison d’être of the fictional detective Guy Noir in A Prairie Home Companion). Of course, the questions I worked out through writing in elementary school are vastly different from the ones I’m tackling in my current novel.
These days my questions are about culture, society, and technology. What are the unintended consequences of smart phones, driverless cars, wearable computers, computers you swallow—especially on creativity? Should I worry that my kids spend as many hours in interactive gaming as I used to spend with my nose buried in the pages of a book? What’s an older generation to do when it feels its core values are threatened by the evolution of technology and culture? Are there such things as universal cultural values? Is our society really going to hell in a handbasket?
How does my writing process work?
I write every day. I floss regularly, exercise 40 minutes 4 times a week, and get at least 8 hours of sleep.
One of those statements is true. Ask my dentist.
I do understand the value of maintaining a regular writing schedule. When I’m not on deadline for another project, I try to write in the morning, for at least a half hour. When I’m on deadline, I fall back on weekly dates with my writing partner, which guarantee at least two hours of writing. Since two hours a week is not sufficient to maintain momentum on a novel, I’ll be back to daily writing when my editing deadlines ease.
But my characters are with me throughout the day even if I’m not sitting down and typing. I collect scraps of ideas, images, and scenes. I often work out plot or motivation problems when walking, cooking, or practicing yoga.
I’m a firm believer in the power of the seeded unconscious to fuel creativity. That is, first tackling a problem head on, then letting it go and letting the mind to turn to other things, or to nothing, allowing solutions and ideas to arise from a place that is often inaccessible when you try to reach it directly.
And I edit as I go. I usually begin each writing session by reading over and lightly editing the previous session’s work to get me in the frame of mind to move ahead. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, few things are more painful than putting down fresh words in a story.
Who’s next on this exciting blog hop?
Next up are two writers I know in different ways. I met Darlene Frank in person through the California Writers Club. I then had the pleasure of editing her work for the Fault Zone anthologies. I “met” Julia Whitmore by chance, stumbling on her blog in my many serendipitous journeys around cyberspace, and I’m glad I did. I can’t wait to hear what they both have to say in answer to these questions, and I hope you’ll check them out too.
Darlene Frank is a writer, editor, and creativity coach who helps writers gain creative confidence and fulfill their artistic vision and dreams. She works with nonfiction authors especially in the self-help and memoir genres and with writers who have undergone a radical life transformation and want to create art from that experience. Several of her memoir stories about being raised as a Mennonite in Pennsylvania are published in literary anthologies, including Fault Zone and Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ’60s and ’70s. As an editor and book consultant, Darlene guides first-time authors through the “indie” publishing route to create a book that shines. She is author of two business books, has written and edited thousands of pages of corporate training materials, and teaches workshops on how to navigate the writer’s journey. She lives by the ocean in the San Francisco Bay Area, her creative home for over 30 years. Visit her at www.DarleneFrankWriting.com.
Julia Whitmore lives in the Pacific Northwest, and is a lifelong closet diarist. She came out (as a writer) three years ago, and now juggles the rocky business of learning to write fiction, with a host of interests and activities. She teaches yoga, plays in a band and enjoys travel, hiking, skiing, gardening and cycling. Over the years, her passion for politics has led her to school funding, environmental projects, helping out at the local library and youth symphony. Her first try at novel writing, which she describes as a classic beginner seat-of-the-pants effort, is tucked high in a dark closet. She hopes to finish draft one of novel two this summer. This second story might, she says, be read by more than her critique group, perhaps by her sweetie and an editor, before undergoing
major surgery revisions. She and her husband are celebrating thirty years together this year, and have two children. Visit her at http://holdouts.wordpress.com.
Please stop by and visit them.
Audrey, I enjoyed reading about your writing process and what you’re working on.
The central idea of your book intrigues me–that storytelling can save the world. I read something recently on this topic and wish I could remember where it was….It also reminds me of a book about the oldest stories in the world. I may have this book and will check; you might be interested.
I look forward to hearing more about your novel as it unfolds!
Thanks, Darlene! I’m in the intensive “research” phase right now (meaning: reading, reading, reading) so if you come across anything relevant, let me know.
Audrey, I just found my copy of “The Oldest Stories in the World” by Theodor H. Gaster (1952). You’re welcome to borrow my copy if you’re interested. I’ll bring it to the CWC picnic.
I’d love to borrow it. Unfortunately can’t make it to the picnic 😦
Interesting. I really want to see that speculative fiction novel, since that’s my preferred realm. The editing-as-you-go that you describe is also the way I work. I just can’t do the “spew it all out and then whip it into shape” approach. When I put a thing down, even for a moment, I want to feel that it’s the best I can do up to that point. Of course I know I will improve it further, but I don’t like knowing something is half-baked.
It’s nice to know I have at least one person awaiting my next work… though you may have to wait a while for it, as it is in the very earliest of stages.
And nice to know I’m not alone in my desire to polish as I go. Although it does sometimes get in the way of throwing out scenes that need to be jettisoned.
Good point. I find that major surgery like that usually requires putting the work aside for a while. The old “seeing it with fresh eyes” thing.
There’s something new here, a lightness that you don’t always show. Perhaps because of your foray into speculative fiction? I know there are tons of futuristic and post-apocalyptic books out now, but I keep reading them, and loving them — in other words, plenty of room for more. I agree about The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood hit more home runs (for me anyway) with Oryx and Crake, and the sequel The Year of the Flood (I think that’s what it was called). I’m with you on editing, both my own and others’ stuff. Getting out the first draft is painful. The possibilities spill out in too many directions. Once I have the groundwork laid out, I can happily spend a lot of time cleaning it up. Next book though, I’m outlining with a vengeance. Thanks for the plug and the invitation. It’s fun reading about your work behind the scenes.
I do tend often to dwell on the dark. Visiting my friends definitely lightened my mood! I also loved Atwood’s later books.
This time around, I’m writing in Scrivener, which for me seems to offer the best of spill-the-guts first drafting and reign-it-in organizing. I guess I’ll he due for a blog post singing its praises…
Looking forward to hearing more about what you have going on. Thanks for being part of this.
I enjoyed reading what you’re up to in terms of your writing. I loved what you said here: “I want to walk the tightrope between commercial and literary, offering books that people label pleasures rather than guilty pleasures. Kind of like dark chocolate sea-salt caramels rather than M&Ms.”—That is a tough tightrope to walk as a writer, but as a reader, it’s one of the most fulfilling. I love finding an author who can do both. Based on what I’ve read of your work, I have no doubt you can achieve it,
You already know that like you, I prefer the editing phase to the initial creative phase (which I’m in right now). I want to get the words and story out, but it’s a frenzied process. I burn out after one to two hours. When I’m in the editing phase, I can work longer. Everything’s out; now I just have to tidy it up.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Carrie! That initial writing process is often so painful–almost like giving birth. Luckily we forget about the pain by the time our next idea seizes us and we’re ready to do it again…
Good luck with your initial phase this time around.