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I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.
I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.
Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.
For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.
And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.
The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.
The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.
By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.
It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.
I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.
Procrastination is good
The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.
Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.
Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.
Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.
Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.
Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1
Many books at once
I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.
The first words I wrote of Liar are:
I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.
That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar two years later.
At the time I had already started, but not finished, the book that was to become How To Ditch Your Fairy and was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.
Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2
Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.
If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.
If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3
In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.
It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun!
That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny.
Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing.
I am hard at work in the writing-sequel-to-Team-Human, researching-the-1930s word & image mines, which led to watching “The Truth About Youth” (1930). Man raises best friend’s son (known as the Imp) after best friend dies and encourages a match between the Imp and his housekeeper’s daughter (Loretta Young). But the Imp is in love with wicked exotic dancer, Myrna Loy, and Loretta Young is in love with the guardian. (Oh no! How can they resolve such a mess?) It’s not bad by early talkie standards. (I.e. it’s bad by any other standards.)
The problem with casting Myrna Loy as a dancer, is, um, well, you’ll see.
Just so you know I do love Myrna Loy. The Thin Man movies fill my heart with joy. But the following? To say that she can’t sing or dance is to be kind. I suffered through it now you should too.
Searching for something else entirely, I stumbled across this old post from March 2007 where I asked my faithful readers to help me choose what to write next. I decided it would be fun to do an update. Fun for me, anyways.1
First on the list of possibilities is this one:
The compulsive liar book narrated by a—you guessed it—compulsive liar. Downside: will involve lots of outlining. I hates outlining. Plus it’s going to be so hard! Upside: whenever I mention this one folks get very excited.
Sound familiar? Why, yes, it’s the book I wrote next: Liar which published in September this year. As it happens it involved no outlining at all. But I was right it was hard. Much harder than I knew at the time. It also generated more excitement than I anticipated.
The other now completed item on the list was this one:
Try to write a short story. I’ve had a brain wave for completely transforming a story of mine that’s never worked into one that will. It involves making the ending not suck (why did I not think of that before?!) and setting it a couple hundred years ahead of where it’s set now. It involves no research. Downside: I suck at short stories. Upside: Not starting from scratch and may lead to an actual good story. That would be cool!
The story was “Thinner than Water”, which was published in 2008 in Love is Hell. You can find a bit more about the story here. Even if I do say so myself it is an actual good story. I’m proud of it. But it was many years work and I think I’ll be sticking to novels from here on out.
I don’t know why the 1930s book isn’t on that list. I was already thinking about writing it in October 2006. Though the specifics didn’t come together until a fortuitous conversation with Cassie Clare in 2007. (Thank you, Cassie!)
The other idea on that list I’ve made a substantial start on is this one:
Protag’s father goes missing presumed dead on account of he and protag’s mum very into each other. Mum is forced to take in a lodger to help pay the mortgage. She advertises for a female uni student but takes in a strange youngish man who has no visible means of support and yet pays the rent on time. He’s gorge and speaks a zillion languages but the seventeen-year old girl protag doesn’t trust him. Her twin brothers (eight years old) almost immediately fall under his sway. I could go on, but it’s just not very pitchable. Alas. Downside: Not very ptichable. Tis one of those books that’s clear in my head but takes months to explain. Sigh. Upside: tis very clear in my head.
I have, in fact, recently resumed work on it. Though as I am at work on many other things that does not mean the lodger novel will be finished any time soon.
Actually none of the other things I’m working on is included on that list. Mostly because I hadn’t thought of them way back then. Which just goes to show you that ideas really are a dime a dozen. Why, I just got a new one yesterday that I’m valiantly struggling against given that I already have four novels on the go. Five would be too many.
It was lovely looking at that list from almost two years ago and realising that in the intervening time I’d written two of them. Novels take ages and for me short stories take even longer. It will be many years before I write all those books. If, indeed, I write them at all. Most likely I’ll forgot about them and move on to other shinier ideas.
Because it’s not about the ideas, it’s about what you do with them. My barely sketched out idea of Liar from early 2007 doe
Tuesday, 6 April, Doors open 6:30 PM, event begins at 7:00 PM
SoHo Gallery for Digital Art 138 Sullivan Street (between Houston & Prince St.)
Admission is by a $5 donation. (If circumstances make this a hardship, let them know and they will accommodate you.)
Me and Scott will be taking part in the Read This Books for NYC Schools Day on the 10th of April. Read This collects books for people who need them, especially schools without libraries, hospitals, homeless shelters, troops overseas, etc.
The price of admission? Your donation of two or more new or gently used board books through grade 12.
The readings will be short. Just five minutes each.1 I’ll be reading a letter from the 1930s novel (the novel I’m mostly working on right now) by my favourite character, Lizzy.2 Scott may or may not be reading a sneak preview from Goliath. He says it will depend on the crowd and his jetlag.
Hope to see some of you there.
My favourite kind of reading.
Well, she’s one of my favourite characters. I kind of love them all.
One of the results of my recent injury, which has meant that I spend no more than four hours at my computer each day, is that I’ve been reading a tonne more. Here are some jetlagged thoughts, without any spoilers, on stuff (of all genres, not just YA) what I have read and loved recently:1
Battle Royale Koushun Takami: Do not read this book if high school students murdering each other in graphic detail appalls you. And let’s be frank, it should appall you. I’m appalled that I was not appalled. But then I kind of like boxing too so clearly I have no moral compass at all. Um, yes, I loved this book. I could not put it down and kind of loved all the characters. It’s the kind of wonderfully well done crackalong pulptastic experience that I think Taratino frequently goes for (but in my opinion largely fails at). Actually, I thought I’d already read this book but it turned out I’d just seen the movie, which is not anywhere near as good. A few people are accusing Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series of being a rip off Battle Royale, which is silly. It’s an old, old plot and her version is very different. I hope that clears things up and people will stop with the dumbarse plagiarism charges. Aside from anything else even if she had deliberately set out to do a YA version of Battle Royale it would still not be plagiarism. Borrowing a plot is not plagiarism. I’m not just saying that cause I had planned to write a YA Battle Royale.2
Bride of the Water God Yun Mi-kyung: I wrote about this manhwa series after I’d finished vol. 2. I said at the time that it has some of the most gorgeous art I’ve ever seen. After five volumes I stand by that. If anything it’s been getting even more beautiful. I also said I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on. I stand by that too. I love this series. I enjoy it in a clueless haze.
Bury Me Deep Megan Abbott: This crime novel is set in the 1930s thus it was research. W00t! Awesome novel by a writer who’s new to me. I’ll be reading more of her stuff. Lyrical, intense, with gripping plot. Just my cup of tea. If only it had been set in NYC and not LA, it would have been perfect. (For research purposes, I mean.)
Dreaming of Amelia Jaclyn Moriarty: I’m a huge Moriarty fan and this latest addition to her series which began with Feeling Sorry for Celia about a bunch of high school students at two high schools in Sydney, one posh, one not. The beauty of this series is that you can read them out of order without any ill effect but if you read them in order there even better. My faves are this one and Bindy McKenzie. All the books in the series are told from multiple points of view via letters, notes on the fridge, legal depositions, etc etc. They’re technically stunning. It is very hard to tell a gripping, moving story that way. Yet Moriarty not only does it but does it so seamlessly you stop noticing that these are not conventional novels. I love these books.
Enchanted Glass Diana Wynne Jones: I love pretty much everything Wynne Jones has ever written. She is a genius and this is one of my fave books of hers in ages. She’s funny and moving and, well, I just worship her. My only quibble was that the ending was a tad abrupt. But who cares. It was Diana Wynne Jones. More, please!
Pluto Naoki Urasawa: I cannot decide which of the three Urasawa manga series that I’ve read I like best. I love Monster. It’s a bad seed story, what’s not to love? But on the other hand 20th Century
You are not reading too much into my question. It is indeed related to my reading of Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name or, rather it’s related to the research I’ve been doing for my book set in the early years of the 1930s in New York City. I asked about Harris because I’d never heard of him and only vaguely knew what the Uncle Remus stories were. Yet his name kept coming up in a lot of reading I’ve been dong. I was curious to know whether he was still being read and how he fits into modern USians reading histories.1
How did I get there?
I began my research reading everything I could set in, or about, the early 1930s in NYC. I expanded backwards to read about the Crash, the beginning of Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance.
But it soon became apparent that there was loads I wasn’t understanding because I didn’t know enough even earlier US history. For example, while reading Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South edited by William Henry Chafe, Raymond Gavins & Robert Korstad (which I highly recommend) I realised that I didn’t know when or how the Jim Crow laws originated. I didn’t know if they were federal, or state, or local, or all three. I didn’t know if they were restricted to the South. They weren’t and New York was, in fact, the worst of the Northern states. Though there were restrictions on where African-Americans live throughout the entire country. The color line was more of a wall. (Don’t believe me? Read this excellent account, Jim Crow in New York by Erika Wood and Liz Budnitz with Garima Malhotra from the Brennan Centre for Justice. You can download it for free.)
Before I started my research for this book I didn’t know very much about the Civil Rights struggle in the North. For those of you who are interested I highly recommend Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue. Reading that book side by side with Or Does it Explode: Black Harlem in the Great Depression by Cheryl Lynn Greenburg (yet another wonderful book) has done an enormous amount to widen my understanding and (I hope) improve the book I’m writing.
Finding out the answers to my many questions meant reading further back in time and realising that I didn’t really know a lot about Reconstruction or how Reconstruction ended and the North ceded control of the South. It also meant learning about how the myth of the Antebellum South emerged—you know that magical place of happy black slaves and beautiful white women worshipped by gallant white men, where the only poor whites were mean and trashy and deserved to be poor?—which was so pivotal to cultural understandings of race in the USA after the Civil War and Reconstruction. A myth that was as much constructed in the North as the South. A myth that overrode facts, such as that the crime wave in the wake of the Civil War was almost entirely the doing of renegade whites, not of black slaves gone mad with freedom. A myth that will not go away.
I realised pretty quickly that I needed to know a lot more about how 19th (and then early 20th century) USians thought about race, which led to learning about “scientific” explanations of race and the so-called science of raciol
This is absolutely true. I have physical dyslexia. I cannot folllow instructions. The instructor’s arm goes one way mine goes the other. It is not pretty. Or fun.
Objection no. 3: It looks dangerous.
I’m not sure if I have ever told you, my dear readers, about my sports curse. It has been the bane of my life. Every time I take up a new sport I damage something. I’ve broken a toe, many bones in my right wrist, the transverse process of vertebraes L1, L2 & L3 (bones in my back), torn cartilage, as well as mutiple sprained ankles. All of which has resulted in my having to have surgery three times.
And I haven’t even played that much sport!
I’ve not broken a bone since 1994. Or sprained an ankle since 2004. I fear that the lindy hop would take me back to the bad old days.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about. Here is the lindy hop. (The dangerous stuff is around the midway point.):
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performing the Big Apple (1939)
So do you still want me to learn the lindy hop? Even in the face of my extremely sensible objections? If so why? Is it because you hate me?
Did you know Buddy Ebsen of the Beverly Hillbillies could dance? Well, he could. He and his sister Vera had a most excellent vaudeville act together. He’d be the clumsy kid and she’d be the dance teacher. They appear together in Broadway Melody of 1936. He’s the one wearing a Mickey Mouse jumper (sweater)
I really love his goofy dance stylings. Halfway between dancing and falling over. Fills my heart with joy. Here’s the only good example I could find online. It’s from A Banjo on My Knee (1936). Buddy doesn’t start dancing until about 1:40. Enjoy. And keep your eyes peeled for his surprise dance partner who I have never ever seen dance before:
Okay, who of my readers is a fan of the romance genre?
As many of you already know I am a huge fan of Georgette Heyer.1 More recently I discovered a love of Sherry Thomas. Her first novel Private Arrangements is a total ripper. Funny too. Thanks so much for the rec, Diana!
I discovered there were well-written amazing romances courtesy of Kelly Link. She’s one of those omnivorous readers who doesn’t let genre classifications get between her and a good read. She’ll literally read anything and it shows in her writing in truly excellent ways.
When I met her back in 1999 I was not so open minded. I was disdainful of romance. On the back of having read one very bad Mills & Boon. It was Kelly who pointed out to me that Heyer is a romance writer. She loaned me a bunch of her favourite romances and I discovered writers like Penelope Williamson, Carla Kelly and my absolute favourite, Laura Kinsale. My favourite of her books is Flowers From the Storm which is so amazing I do not have the words to describe it. It’s INSANE.
I don’t read much romance. Largely because since 2003 I’ve been reading mostly YA and since last year only books set in the 1930s2. For some strange reason, I have not been able to find romances set in the 1930s. Why is that? I think someone should fix that immediately.
So which of you are romance fans and what are your fave books and why?
Are there any genres you were snobby about only to discover that you were wrong that there are indeed most excellent books coming out of that genre?
When she’s not being racist.
The exceptions are books I agreed to look at for a blurb and books I agreed to critique for friends.
I have looked deep in my heart and not found a desire to learn the lindy hop. I have flashed back to hated dance lessons as a kid. To the mean yell-y or eye-roll-y dance teachers. The injury in my left foot has flared up again.1 Also I am unconvinced by all the people who swear I’ll love it. Many people swore I would love martinis and gin & tonics! I hate them! They taste like paint thinner.
I’ve been charmed and sometimes bemused by all the comments from followers of Maureen Johnson & John Green urging me to put my life and limbs at risk. But not enough to actually do it. However, since John Green made this about charity and I chose helping out the New York Public Library system more donations would definitely persuade me to learn the dance.
Right now one thousand, four hundred and twenty-five dollars has been pledged. Bless all you extremely generous pledgers! But it’s not yet enough to push me into a dance studio. I can give that amount out of my own pocket. That way I don’t suffer and the NYPL system doesn’t lose out.
So I’ve decided that unless people pledge more than I can afford to part with myself $5,000 I’ll donate the money myself and continue to study the lindy hop via youtube. I know most people don’t have much spare cash at the moment. But even small amounts will help. Helping libraries is more important than ever now that they are the only resource for so many people who have no where else to go for entertainment, for assistance putting resumes and job applications together, for somewhere they can just sit and think for a bit. I’ve met many teenagers in this city for whom the NYPL has been a refuge, a source of friendship, hope, and learning.
Monday’s the deadline.
If enough money is raised by then I will take lessons with my lovely husband, Scott. Lauren and Margaret, who are already dancing fools, have also agreed to be part of proceedings at various stages.
I will be learning this dance properly. Unlike John Green who only stood on that table for less than a second I plan to learn it so well that I can start lindy hopping whenever the music is right. I hate learning to dance, but I do enjoy dancing. So the lesson learning will take awhile. But I’ll keep you all up to date on my progress.
Proof that I have learnt the lindy hop will be provided by three reliable YA author witnesses approved by John Green, who will write their observations of my lindy hopping on their blogs.
I’m really hoping some of you will make donations. No matter how small! It would be great to give a big wack of cash to the NYPL system. It would help so many people.
I’m also really hoping that you won’t. It would be awesome not to have damage myself further.
Yes, I am torn on how this goes. And afraid.
Update: Because of Eric Luper’s vociferous complaints I have named an amount that has to be exceeded in order for this to happen: $5,000. And I’ve made the deadline Monday.
Plantar fasciitis from my foolish attempt to learn how to run properly
So, you lot won, I’ll be learning to lindy hop. Margaret Miller and Lauren McLaughlin have volunteered to go with me for at least part of the process. As has my husband. I’m sure it won’t be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.
Thanks a bunch, evil minions of John Scalzi, Maureen Johnson and John Green—John Green, being the evil-John-Green-minion-in-chief. But most of all thanks to my husband who stepped in at the last minute to make sure the $5,000 total was met. (All thanks sarcastic in case you were wondering.)
I will blog the whole process from my first lesson on. I’ll be doing this properly. There will be more than one lesson. Final proof will take the form of three YA author witnesses approved by John Green. They will watch me dancing the Lindy Hop and testify to their witness on their blogs. There will be no video.
All this talk of the lindy hop is especially fitting as one of the originators of the dance, Frankie Manning, died on the 27th of April. He was not only a pioneer and tireless evangelical for the dance but a true New York City boy through and through. He’s a huge loss, not just to the world of dancing, but to the city. Footage of him dancing was a big influence on my deciding to include lindy hopping in my 1930s NYC novel. It’s very fitting that I’ll be learning this dance in the city where it originated for a book set during the early days of the dance.
Here’s hoping lindy hopping doesn’t render my plantar fasciitis permanent! Or give me any additional injuries. But if it does I’ll know who to blame: MY OWN HUSBAND!
Remember way back when people said they’d donate money to New York Public Library if I learned to lindy hop? I said that I would have my dancing verified by three YA authors approved by John Green who was the first person to offer money to charity if I learned to dance. Well, that’s not necessary any more.
Because Scott secretly shot video of some of our lessons. Utter, utter, utter bastard! He was going to make a video and put it up on youtube! Behind my back!
Fortunately, I caught him looking at some of the footage. But since he was nice enough to not shoot our faces, and we’re running out of time to gather up YA witnesses, I decided that we would make the vid together.
But just so you know, Scott, YOU ARE EVIL. ALL TRUST IS GONE.
Some disclaimers for people who know from lindy hop. We knows we has a long way to go. We’re working on bending knees, sticking out arses, holding frame, chasseing, pulsing and etc. The most recent footage included is from three weeks ago. We’re already way better than the vid demonstrates. Honest.
Many many people have been asking how I like learning lindy hop given how much I really really really really didn’t want to do it.
I love lindy hop.
[A minutes pause while you all tell me you told me so.]
It’s the most fun I’ve had in ages. I’m loving learning something that requires my full attention. When I’m dancing I’m not thinking about my novel or bills that have to be paid or anything except where my feet and bum and arms should be. While I’m learning to dance I’m not even slightly stressed. Scott feels the same way. We will be continuing our lessons. We both want to get good at it.
One of my objections did turn out to be true: I have to ice my left foot after every lesson. Lindy hopping is not kind to plantar fasciitis.
We got around my other fear—of making a fool of myself in front of total strangers—by taking private lessons. I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Also private lessons means learning faster and having all your mistakes picked up and corrected quicker. We have had two awesome teachers: Jessi and Stephanie. Thank you!
We have even gone out and danced in public. (Once.) Last Sunday under the stars on Pier 54. It was magical. Yes, we are addicted.
Here’s proof that I’ve been learning to lindy hop:
If you pledged money now’s the time to pay. You can donate to the NYPL here. Even if you didn’t make a pledge you can still donate to the NYPL or your local library wherever you may be. Libraries all over the world need our help.
A while ago I posted about my writing goals. I updated it a year ago with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy. But now I have published Liar which is in a whole new genre and allows me to cross even more off my lists.
My goals are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize. Winning prizes and making bestseller lists is not something I can control, but I can control what I write. So that’s what my goals are about. Simple, really.
First the genres:
Crime (what some call mysteries)
Mainstream or litfic (you know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis)
The publication of Liar allows me to knock three genres off that list. Though cheatingly I only just added one of them—problem novel. What? It’s my list! I can add to it if I want whenever I want. I could have added unreliable narrator and pretended it was a genre, too, you know. But I didn’t.
All I have left is western, historical and litfic. I’m writing an historical right now. The western is still aways off but will definitely happen. I also have a couple of ghost stories in mind so horror will also get knocked off. I don’t think I’ll ever manage litfic. Unless you think I can claim Liar as litfic? If more than one of you says I can then I’m crossing it off.
I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:
Third person limited
Why, yes, Liar does allow me to cross off another one: second person. Go, me! And the 1930s novel makes much use of omniscient. I will conquer the entire list! W00t!
And the last list:
Which sadly remains unaltered because Liar is a standalone. But I suspect the 1930s novel is a series. Though it might just be another trilogy, which would be really annoying.
My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. What have youse lot been crossing off your writing goal lists?
So, I just read the storyless character post, and I have a similar problem: the storyless scene. I tend to come up with a scene, kind of like your Charlie scene but generally the idea, not the character, is dominant. How do I give that basic idea and scene a plot, characters, and events?
I’ve been thinking about this one a lot and I’m failing to come up with any new suggestions. There’s stuff on finding a plot here and I think the one on characters applies as well, and you’ve already read the storyless character post.
I suspect that your problem is that you’re still in the mulling stage and not yet in the writing stage. I’m more and more convinced that many of the people who can’t get started because they only have an idea but no plot or characters, or a plot but no setting or characters etc, are simply not ready to write that particular story yet.
A big part of the writing process for many writers is the thinking part. It may look like I’m sitting on the deck staring at the flying foxes making their slightly cumbersome, leather-winged way past me, but in fact I’m working very hard mulling and thinking and cogitating. Ideas and images are percolating and I’m letting them take me where they will.
Which sometimes is nowhere. Sad but true: not all ideas or images or characters lead anywhere. Sometimes they’re dead end; sometimes they’ll come in handy later.
I’d wanted to write a book set in NYC in the thirties for ages, but it wasn’t until I came up with another idea—in a conversation and email exchange with Cassandra Clare—that the characters and story started to grow enough for me to start writing them.
Sometimes I start writing as soon as a voice pops into my head1 or the setting or scene or whatever and it will grow as I write and I’ll figure it all out in the writing. Sometimes I need more than that to get going. I know many writers who need to have the entire novel nutted out before they can put fingers to keyboard.
When you’re a beginning writer part of what you’re learning is what kind of writer you are.2 I do know that whatever kind you are, you’ll find that a huge chunk of writing is thinking. Even if I start instantly from the moment the idea first hits me, sooner or later I’ll stop to have a think before continuing to write more.
NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.
Not in a crazy way, okay?
The bad news is that what kind of writer you are is probably going to change from book to book.
You’ve mentioned that Ms. Austen ended Pride and Prejudice too abruptly. I have this problem in my writing, too. When the protag’s problem is solved, I end it. Let it go. I would love to know your suggestions about rounding out a story/book instead of letting it drop off (I may leave readers wondering if there were supposed to be more pages that somehow didn’t get printed). Any great ideas?
I’m not sure I have any suggestions though I’d love to hear those of other writers. Anyone out there know how to write perfect endings?
You guessed it—the most frequent complaint about all four of my published novels is that I’m no good at endings. Ironically, the thing that annoys me most about many of my favourite novels is their endings.
Endings are the hardest thing in the world.
No matter how much I think I’ve nailed it, tied up all the loose endings, delivered the coup de grace, someone always disagrees.
Now it could be that I suck at endings. I suspect that I do. It could also be that we all have different expectations about endings.
The reason I think Austen rushed the finish of Pride and Prejudice is because she shifts from showing to telling. There are no details about the weddings or about the first few days or weeks of their married life as they learn to live with each other. Me the reader wants Austen to continue showing for at least ten or twenty or thirty years of Elizabeth’s & Darcy’s & everyone else in that book’s lives.
I’m mad at the ending because I don’t want there to be an ending.
What the reader wants and what the writer wants are sometimes—perhaps even often—not the same. As a reader I want to know EVERYTHING ever that happens to every single character in books I love. As a writer the idea of doing that appalls me. You can’t tie off every single thing. If you did you’d wind up writing the one book for forty years. And it would be UNREADABLY huge. Also you’d leave no room for your readers to ponder and imagine and make the book their own.
Then there’s the fact that conventions change over time. I’ve been watching a vast number of movies from the 1930s lately and I’m always struck by how abruptly they end. Girl and boy figure out they do like each other and bingo THE END appears on screen and the movie’s over. No hint of what anyone else thinks of this, sometimes no kiss, and mostly no credits.1
It’s very disorienting to be thrown out of the story so abruptly because we’re used to more drawn out endings, not to mention long credits that give you time to mull over what you’ve just seen. That’s one of the reasons I always put my acknowledgments at the back of the book. Gives you a little bit more to read something that’s kind of sort of related to what you’ve just read. You can pretend the book’s not finished yet.
Though it could be that they had it right back in the thirties and we’re now faffing about.
Hmmm, I’m not sure how helpful that was, Becca. You have my best wishes and condolences. Just remember that no book ever—no matter how popular or acclaimed—has an ending that satisfies everyone.
NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.
The Printz awards have been announced. They are the most prestigious awards in the US of A for young adult literature. And the winner is an Australian: Melina Marchetta for Jellicoe Road. One of the honour books is Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.
CONGRATULATIONS, Melina and Margo!!!! Genius recognised!!!
I’m also thrilled that non-Australian E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks was also an honour book. How fabulous is that?
Tender Morsels and Frankie Landau are two of my fave books ever. I LOVE them!1
I also note that at least three of the books are fantasy! How bout that?
I haven’t read any of the other books on the list but I’m sure they’re just as fabulous. Unfortunately for me, none of them are set in the 1930s. So I won’t get to read them for awhile. Woe.
Though I’m still not convinced Tender Morsels is YA.
One of the hardest things I have to do is say no to the folks who write and ask me to read and comment on their work. In the last two weeks I’ve had five such requests. All for novels.
In the last week I finished reading exactly 0 novels. Let me repeat that: in the last week I finished reading no novels. Not a single one. Actually, it’s worse than that I haven’t finished a novel since January and it was a book I was asked to blurb.1
I get asked to read quite a few books every year. There’s the blurb books. Given that my career has been helped by other writers blurbing me, I always say yes to these requests. Yes, that is to reading the book. I won’t blurb a book unless I love it.
Then there’s all the novels I critique for friends. Right now I have six early draft novels on my hard drive. One of which I’ve had for seven months now. They are all wonderful writers whose work I adore reading. Not to mention that I owe them as they’ve all critiqued my own work. Yet here I sit with six unread mss, one unread blurb book, and dozens of unread 1930s novels.
Critiquing a novel requires a brain firing on all cylinders and lots of time.2 In its own way I find it every bit as challenging as writing. Given that I earn my living from writing, my own stuff gets top priority. At the end of the day if I have anything left over I start critiquing one of the backlog of novels. Though when a friend’s having a real emergency I’ll drop everything to critique for them. They’ve done the same for me often enough.
But lately I haven’t had anything left over. Rewriting the Liar novel has been the most challenging writing of my career.3 The research and writing of the 1930s novel takes up the rest of my time. Who knew trying to understand the Great Depression would be so hard? I guess my extremely sketchy knowledge of Economics has been a wee bit of a handicap.
And I have a life outside writing and reading. I know it sounds strange but sometime I go outside and, you know, do things. Often I do them with my friends and family. Also I cook, I clean, I buy groceries and pay bills. Life stuff.
That is why I say no to all outside critique requests. I simply don’t have the time or the energy. It’s also why there are so many posts about the writing process on this blog. I may not be able to help you directly, but maybe I can help indirectly.
Good luck with your writing!
That is not usual. I’m a three-novels a week kind of a girl. But lately the majority of my reading has been non-fiction. This is what happens when you take on an historical project.
Depending on the length, it takes me a solid ten or more hours to read and critique a novel.
I took on an unreliable narrator and the unreliable narrator is kicking my arse. Mental note: never write an unreliable narrator EVER AGAIN.
Lately I’ve been talking with many of my film-obsessed friends about romantic comedies. Specifically we’ve been trying to come up with one made by Hollywood in the last five years which wasn’t misogynist rubbish. We’ve been failing.
Sarah Dollard, a dear friend, wonderful writer, and fellow romcom addict, pointed me to this excellent Guardian article on the problem. Kira Cochrane agrees with us completely:
It’s not only women who have noticed the shift in the romantic comedy genre. Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone magazine described He’s Just Not That Into You as “a women-bashing tract disguised as a chick flick” and Kevin Maher has written in the Times that the “so-called chick flick has become home to the worst kind of regressive pre-feminist stereotype”. Dr Diane Purkiss, an Oxford fellow and feminist historian, feels that we have reached a nadir in the way that women are portrayed on screen, and says that there’s been “a depressing dumbing down of the whole genre. That’s not to say that I want all movies to be earnest and morally improving. But I think that you can actually have entertainment with sassy, smart heroines, rather than dimwitted ones.”
As many of my readers know I’ve spent the last year watching heaps of movies from the 1930s. I find it shocking that so many of these movies are less sexist and appalling than the ones being made now. The female leads in so many of the 1930s movies are smarter and more interesting than any of the mostly deeply stupid women in the likes of Made of Honour, Confessions of a Shopaholic, License to Wed, He’s Not That Into You, Bride Wars and 27 Dresses.
These movies fill me with rage. There is no equality between the romantic leads which has been the heart of a good romance ever since Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy first met. In recent Hollywood romcoms the women are insecure, neurotic, needy, obsessed with marriage, and neither witty nor fun. The men are bemused by the women as one would be by a naughty puppy dog. That is not my idea of equality nor is it my idea of romance.
As Cochrane points out “the people making these films” seem to “genuinely dislike” their audience. Which I think is a good explanation for how stupid, insulting, and dumb so many recent romcoms have been. They’re made by men who hate women. Wow, does it show. It’s why I’ve stopped seeing them. It’s too painful.
Sometimes all the research I’ve been doing on the 1930s gets me down, because it forces me to realise that there are so many ways in which our current world is every bit as sexist as it was seventy years ago. And in some ways it’s worse: Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn never ever played stupid women. In their movies the audience was invited to side with them just as often as we were supposed to side with their male sparring partners.
Several people have asked me about my research for the 1930s novel. Specifically, they’re interested in writing a novel set in ye olden days and they want to know if there are any particularly useful tools/techniques I’d recommend. Something that applies to more than just the 1930s.
Why, yes, there is one single research tool I would recommend: the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the best value for money of all my online subscriptions. I could not write without the OED. I’m not even sure I could live without it. I hug its bits and bytes to my chest.
I probably spend just a tad too much time looking up words to see if they were in use in the 1930s and if they meant what I want them to mean. For example, so far today I have looked up “modernity”, “modern”, “enlightened”, and “progressive”. All of which were good to go. I was suprised (but shouldn’t have been) to learn that “hot” as in “sexually attractive; sexy” goes back to the 1920s, including the usage “hot momma”. Though “psycho” wasn’t used to mean “violently deranged” until 1945. Also a big no on “lame” to mean “inept, naive, easily fooled” or “uncool”. That usage didn’t start until 1942.
“Cool” meaning “doos” goes back to the early 1930s, when it was in use in some African-American communities. The OED’s first citation comes from the genius Zora Neal Hurston: “And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.” As I am currently re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God—oh, how I love that book!—this discovery made me vastly happy. Though it does mean only a few of my characters will be able to use “cool” that way.
Win some; lose some.
The OED on its own is not always sufficient, which is why I spend a lot of time reading books, magazines, newspapers, letters and diaries of (and about) the period. To see the words in context. It’s also important to remember that the OED merely lists the first in print use of the word, which means that the first time the word was spoken would usually have been years earlier. Especially pre-internet.
Although the OED may note that a word is primarily USian, it does not always say which geographical bit of the USA was mostly using it, or what communities. This is particularly true of a word like “gay,” which while it seems to have been in use in the 1920s and 1930s amongst some homosexuals, was definitely not used by others. In his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, George Chauncey discusses the various nomenclature used by different gay communities to describe themselves. He points out that “gay” wasn’t as widely used as several other terms, and was pretty much unknown in straight1 communities, except to mean “happy.” Nor did it initially simply mean “homosexual”. Chauncey says that the “‘gay life’ referred as well to flamboyance in dress and speech.” The OED does not give as nuanced an account.
But the OED is an awesome starting point.
So, yes, sometimes I get lost in the OED for hours and hours. Way more than I ever did when I had a physical copy. It was too heavy and the print too small. The thought of looking stuff up made me tired. Dictionaries and encyclopedias and all other references books—they are what the internet was invented for. The news that at least one scholarly press is going all digital makes me very happy. So much easier to cart my research books around and so much easier to search!2
Now I just needs to find myself a good online dictionary of USian slang. Put together on historical principles naturally . . .
According to the OED “straight” meaning “heterosexual” wasn’t in use until the 1940s.
Physical indexes are not always as useful as they could be.
A while back one of you wonderful commenters recommended the books of Thorne Smith as fun examples of 1930s NYC fiction. I have been reading much Thorne Smith of late and his books are strange and wonderful and full of much usefulness for my research. He wrote Topper which was turned into a marvellous movie of the same name with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.
Another reader recommended Been Rich All My Life a documentary about the Apollo Theater dancers of the 1930s, which was truly wonderful and made me cry, and also gave me many leads. Because I am at the very beginning of my Harlem research I am embarrassed to confess that I had not heard of Small’s Paradise, a black-owned big nightclub in Harlem, which was also the only integrated nightclub and is now a school. I think Smalls will be making an appearance in the 1930s novel.
Now of course I can’t find either of the comments where those recommendations were made so I can’t find who to thank. All I can hope is that the two of you read this post and put up your hand. In the meantime: THANK YOU!
While I’m at it thanks to all the lovely folks who’ve been sending me links to 1930s sites and other tips and suggestions for the research for what is fast becoming the biggest book I have ever written. So much cool stuff to include! You’re all wonderful!
Please keep the suggestions coming. I’m especially interested in documentaries about the period. Liz Bray, one of the fabulous Alien Onions, told me about the 1930s in colour series that I managed to just miss in Australia and is no longer available on BBC’s iPlayer. But I will get my hands on it. I will!
Sometimes I have to pinch myself on account of the insane amount of fun I’m having with the research and writing this book. Tis almost too fabulous.
The book I’m working on is set in New York City in the 1930s. It’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever undertaken because I’m trying to write a snapshot of the city in the early thirties. Not just rich white people but everyone: American-born, immigrant, black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, servants, bosses, employed, unemployed.
It’s an impossible goal. No one book can capture everything. Or even come close but I like having crazy, unattainable writing goals.
And as you can imagine the research is immense.
So far one of the hardest parts has been finding letters and diaries by people, black or white, who weren’t reasonably well-off. There are letters for earlier periods but by the 1930s people weren’t writing as much.
The reasons are varied. Those who had jobs worked such insane hours for such low pay that there was little time. Those who had access to a phone—and there’d usually be one per boarding house, for example—would call home once a month or so instead of writing because that would work out cheaper than using paper and pen and buying a stamp. But many didn’t have jobs. They could hardly afford food, let alone paper.
Though there is collection of letters that were written to Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
Dear Mr. President,
Please, please, dont let our checks be stop they say that they have close up. We can’t even get by now, what shall we do.
Please when they open Work for the Women let us have a fire. our legs are acking now where they work us all the cold Winter And we did not have a fire. Please send us some more good meat. for we Cant get any it is so high. School is open We haven’t got any clotheing for our children and our self. Some got dresses and some did not. What shall we do. it is getting cold And we havent got no Coal + no wood we just can get a little food. Please see about us and when you send Any cover to Any thing We hope all Will get Some, Some get and the other dont, some get a raise And some get a cut. We thank you for All your are doing. Thank you.
President + Mrs. Roosevelt
Congratulating you first on your success in staying in the “White House” for which I am well pleased.
I want to write just briefly about my work in the campaign.
First let me say most everyone takes for granted “Coloured”1 voters are Republican. We owe that party a debt.
I worked day and night proving to the U.S.A. voters that phrase is not true. I think this election will convince all, because the Negro of today are more educated. Of course when there are more in one locality it is easier for them to prove their ability to fill worth while positions.
I wasn’t working in this campaign to fill an office. I was working for the betterment of this community in which I live, and the men I worked so hard for I feel are real men that will back me up and show a few of my race folks here a little consideration.
I struggle here trying to educate my boy (19 yrs.) and girl (17yrs.) and trying to keep this locailty a haven for them so to speak.
I worked without pay so as to prove to the people here I wasn’t working for a personal cause.
I’m not on relief. My husband is a Railroad chef, I worked at odd jobs since where I live my vocation isn’t patronized very much. Would like to obtain Ia. licinse but do not feel I can afford spending that much right now right on the verge of winter.
Hope that sometime during your future talks over the radio you will mention what the value of the coloured votes has been to you if you think they are worth it.
Trust that this letter will reach your hands.
Happiness and Success to Both of You.
Mrs. I. H.
Both letters are from Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man edited by Robert S. McElvaine. It’s a treasure trove. As you no doubt noticed, neither letter is from New York City. So far, I’ve not found equivalent letters from black New Yorkers. But I’m still looking. Any tips from you, my faithful readers, would be most welcome.
I have however found a wonderful book by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression which very succinctly spells out just how disproportionately black Americans were affected by the Great Depression. They were already being paid less than white workers, but pretty soon they were lucky to be paid at all, as they were usually the first to be laid off or as the saying went “first fired, last hired.” In 1931 the black male unemployment rate in Manhattan was 25.4%. For white men it was 19.4. Black women had an unemployment rate of 28.5%; white women 11.2%. (And Manhattan had one of the lower unemployment rates—in Chicago in the same year: black men 60.2%, white men 32.4%, black women 75.0%, white women 17.4%.) A large part of the reason there were so many unemployed black women was that white women could no longer afford help at home. Also there were far more white women who stayed at home and did not seek work at all.