Writing is about risk. Whether the shape of that writing is a blog or a book, or a speech or an ad, it requires taking a deep breath and making a commitment. Risk, of course, can be exhilarating. But it can also trigger the kind of self-protective panic that fuels writer’s block. So when my friend Carol Houlihan Flynn asked me to participate in something called the Writing Process Blog Tour (which, in a fit of marketing genius, she renamed The Amazing Blog Tour), my first reaction was resistance. But I know that dancing on that edge between exhilaration and terror is really the only place where good work gets done, so… here I am.
The Amazing Blog Tour targets creative writers—poets, novelists, memoirists, essayists, and the like. Each week, a writer posts a blog answering four simple questions about writing and then introduces her readers to some new authors that she admires. They, in turn, answer the same questions, and introduce yet more writers—a kind of Cambrian explosion of creative energy.
Carol is the author of the amazing memoir The Animals. It’s about the animals—dogs, cats, pigs, goats, chickens—that have touched her life, and how those relationships expose and transform the ties that bind her to family, to lovers, and to the world. It’s a wonderfully risky book and I hope you will visit her blog to learn more about it and about Carol’s new projects. Carol is that rare writer who can animate big ideas with concrete, embraceable characters and plots that take your breath away. She is not to be missed.
What am I working on?
1) Changeling. A Paranormal/Adventure Novel. Here’s the back-cover blurb:
Sidney is a fledgling artist living with her four-year-old daughter Gabby in a triple-decker she inherited from her grandmother. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, and Sidney is newly sober, but with the money she earns from her two tenants and a job at a trendy restaurant in Davis Square, she’s managing to keep it together. Until one evening when she and Gabby meet Fae, a woman with no past, no friends, and no home, but with a preternatural ability to find lost little girls and open locked doors with a touch. When Gabby is threatened by forces Sidney does not understand, she turns to Fae for help and is drawn into a world where friendships turn deadly and motherhood means something she could never have guessed.
I’m interested in how a character like Sidney grows from a state of fragility to one of strength. Her journey will involve learning how to trust herself and her capacity for love. In Changeling, I want to look at the otherness at the heart of families, their possibilities, and their perils.
2) Twilight in the Glen. Historical Mystery. Here’s the back-cover blurb:
It’s the early twenties and the girls at National Park Seminary are busy with lessons, mounting theatricals, and vying for admittance to the best sororities on campus. Fanny Archer is 16, the daughter of a man with a great talent for making money. Her intelligence tells her that this world of politics and wealth is a small and inconsequential one, but she is being groomed to take her place in it and there is little she can do to change her circumstances. But when she and her friend Grace stumble on the brutalized body of a girl from the District, they are plunged into a mystery that takes them on a journey through Washington’s speak-easies and nightclubs, to its glittering embassy parties and shadowy gay demimonde, and, finally, into the clandestine life of a special operative in the White House’s early Secret Service.
In Twilight in the Glen, I wanted to capture a time and place through the eyes of someone who feels absolutely not at home there. That’s what historical fiction is really all about–the attempt to understand a place that you are forever divided from. And I’m interested in secrets—personal secrets, political secrets, and sexual secrets. Washington between the wars seemed like the perfect setting to think about what we, as a country, have inherited and what we have lost.
3) This blog. It began as a tool to market my freelance business, but I quickly learned that if you want to write something that matters, the barriers between the professional and the personal can’t be sustained. My blog posts reflect what I think about as I conduct my professional life. I’m interested in how to work with integrity in a field like marketing. I’m interested in how higher education is succeeding and failing. I’m interested in technologies, what they can do for us, and what they are doing to us. And I am interested in the transformative power of creative passion, whether that expresses itself in the arts, sciences, or other domains. Will that build my business? As irrational as it might sound, I think honesty and courage attract good things and I do try, at least, to be honest and courageous in this blog.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?
The will to be different, which is really code for the will to be better, strikes me as a bit of an oedipal fantasy—and is likely just as doomed. Insofar as my own fantasies and fears occupy my imagination, I suppose my work differs from others in the genres I’m writing in. But part of the thrill of a genre is its familiarity. In a gothic, you can expect the haunted house (or crumbling manor or derelict abbey) to hold horrors that our heroine must overcome. How will she respond? In a mystery, the villain lurks close by, usually right under the heroine’s nose. How will she discover him? In a paranormal, you can bet someone will have a special ability. What will the consequences be? I always come back to “genre” fiction because I like to see how a clever author is going to mix it up and surprise me. In my fiction, I follow these conventions, but I’m usually writing about female characters in an emotionally complex and sexually tense relationship to each other. If we put two women at the center of a story, how does it change love, longing, rage, and sorrow? I’m not sure that the answer to those questions creates a “different” novel, but it’s what I do.
Why do I write what I write?
One of my favorite writers is Stephen King. (This obsession dates back to the 70s, well before King was embraced by critics at The New Yorker and The New York Times. I like to think I was prescient.) Apparently he is often asked a similar question, but always with a bit of a sneer: Why do you write those sorts of stories? His answer: What makes you think I could write anything else? I love that answer because it so fundamentally illustrates the simple fact that we aren’t always, if ever, masters of our own words. (More on that under How does my writing process work?)
I write what I write because my mother used to sit on my bed and read me Olive Beaupré Miller’s My Book House fables and I can still feel the terror and delight of those first—and best—stories. I write what I write because I wanted to follow Alice through her looking glass and I’m still half searching for the key. I write what I write because people do unspeakable things and the weight of pain in the world has to be witnessed and shared. I write what I write because words, ephemeral as they are, anchor me, animate me, and alter me. I write what I write because I want to be Stephen King when I grow up.
How does my writing process work?
Sadly I am one those people for whom there is nothing so soul-destroying as an outline. Even in my professional writing life, where goals are much more clearly defined and creative briefs are written and adhered to, I don’t really control much of what I do. I hold on tight and assume there’s something in the way my brain works that will get a result my client will like. In the world of fiction, I don’t have much of an agenda for my writing at the outset. I usually have an opening action in mind—in Twilight in the Glen it’s the murder of a young girl, in Changeling it’s the terror of losing a child in a crowded public place. Those opening actions prompt responses from characters and those characters begin to interact in ways I would never have guessed. And of course, each of those novels is participating in the conventions of its genre. So there are cops and suspects and red herrings and confrontations in the mystery. And there are supernatural encounters, journeys fraught with peril, and personal sacrifice in the paranormal adventure story. My approach, though, is to follow the characters closely and let them act. Sometimes they take me to really great places. But sometimes my characters don’t want to take a risk—or even get up from the kitchen table. That’s when I have to find out what will excite them or terrify them or anger them into action. I don’t mean to suggest that this process is ideal. I’m not even sure it necessarily works. But, for now, it’s my process.
Onward Amazing Blog Tour!
I’m pleased to be able to introduce you to two friends of mine who, like me, juggle their creative lives with their professional ones. They are both tremendous writing talents.
I met Natalie when I was interviewing candidates for a writing position at my former company. She nailed that interview, largely because her poet’s ear makes her a great copywriter. Natalie is the author of a poetry chapbook, Eden’s Edge, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in July 2014. She has a poem appearing in Brain, Child next month. Natalie earned her BFA in English with a creative writing emphasis from the University of Utah. Her poem, “Last Day of July,” published in Ellipsis, Literature and Art, was a co-winner of the 2000 Academy of American Poets Contest. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her family. You can find Natalie’s thoughts on writing at her blog, Eden on the Edge.
Elena is the author of the blog, The Pragmatic Agilist. Yeah, it’s an IT thing, but what a perfect approach to novel writing! Elena is a wildly successful IT leader; her most recent gig is VP of Corporate Compliance Tech at JP Morgan. She looks at big picture IT delivery systems and figures out ways to make them work better. She also writes novels. Which are big picture systems. That we are all trying to figure out how to make work better. So listen up. I bet she will have some interesting things to teach us!
Natalie and Elena will be posting about their writing process next week (5/24 or so), so please go check them out. They will delight you.