Writing at night

I am nearly done with my Shadow Clock draft, but getting to this point has required a tremendous push and a lot of night writing.

It’s often very hard for me to get started when I write at night. I usually spend an hour doing preliminaries – desperately searching for blog posts (only no one blogs anymore). I go to Amazon and “Look Inside” books reading first chapters. I read things in the New York Times. “We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human,” is something I just learned.

I must slowly overcome my hatred of the text.

Opening the file and seeing the words I’ve written, I experience a violent recoil. How can anything be that bad?

So I must approach the manuscript as if it is a wild pony. Sideways but with determination and an overall sense of my goal. Not straight at it, but piece by piece. It’s a war of inches and defeat lurks at every turn, because each inch contains the potential of an hour lost to procrastination. I cycle through these activities, flipping back to my open draft.
Reading various writing-related sites online.
Eating chocolate.
Drinking mineral water
Eating something salty
Eating almonds
Drinking wine (the right amount)
Deciding on the music I will listen to
Applying evocative perfume
Remembering how when I write in the morning before work I am always so annoyed that I can’t continue but must stop. So how can I turn my back on hours at night!
I remind myself that even if it is bad work and bad writing I produce it is still necessary work that must get done and it brings me that much closer to my goal. Tonight, I don’t want to write, but I’m still up. As long as I’m sitting here I might as well write, right?
All I have to do is get in.
Once I am in, I will work
But the text is like bitterly cold water – I turn my head away. I don’t want to.

James Salter on finding the best word possible

James Salter, who died last week at 90, was known for his wonderfully precise prose style.

Here is a memorable quote from a Paris Review interview with him:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

You can read the rest of the interview here at the Paris Review. My only warning is that it is full of elegant, thoughtful expression, and glimpses into an entirely enviable writing life. After encountering it, I took several hours to go back to my work, which I felt was entirely frizzy-haired and unagreeable. Such are the hazards of reading author interviews!

Dreamwood on Bank Street 2015 Best Children’s Books of the Year!

This is a pretty amazing honor for me and my carnivorous tree. The other titles on this list are all huge achievements in the field of children’s literature, so I’m feeling quite verklempt to be included. Check out the Bank Street 2015 Best Children’s Books of the Year for more incredible reads. Some of my favorite authors are here!

When you need to take a writing retreat

About a month ago I did something I’ve fantasized about for years: I went away, by myself, purely so I could write.

I did it because I needed to make progress on The Shadow Clock. But it was also an experiment. Our lives seem to be getting busier. Is there a way to be a working parent and still write? How do you fit creative time in when the day-to-day stuff becomes more and more overwhelming? Maybe a fabulous writing retreat could be the answer …?

For my first retreat I knew I wanted to go somewhere uplifting and beautiful where I could get outside and feel healthy. So I went to a relatively expensive place: a B&B in Inverness, a little town on the Pt. Reyes Peninsula, and basically one of my favorite places in the world. I couldn’t take much time off from work (or really afford a longer stay) so I went from a Thursday evening to a Sunday morning. For a couple days I would get up around 5 am or so, eat breakfast, write write write until I ran out of juice (around 1 or 2 o’clock). Then I’d take an 8 or 9 mile hike to the ocean and soak up some fabulous Pacific views. Come back, eat something yummy, then write again until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Heaven.

How’d I do? Was it worth it?

Absolutely. It helped me move through the vague places in my story. You know, the parts where “some stuff happens.” I solved problems I wouldn’t have been able to without sustained time, focus, and long walks. (Walking is such a huge part of writing for me!)

Did I get the book “written”? Of course not. First, I’m not that kind of 10K-day word machine. Second, I knew going in that it wasn’t that kind of retreat. I didn’t want it to be punishing. I didn’t want to get an RSI and hurt myself (even working at a cafe for a couple hours will give me an arm or wrist twinge if I’m not careful). It had been a busy, ragged fall and winter, so I wasn’t even in shape for all-consuming work. I wanted to hike and look at beautiful nature, and eat delicious things (which I most definitely did. Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk cheese, burger at Marin Sun Farms. And one amazing dinner at Saltwater – oh man! The oyster sampler there was heaven).

The main danger in doing something like this is putting all this pressure on yourself to justify the time and expense. Because, actually, going away to write is hard! If you don’t have your routine and your discipline and your idea already daydreamed I think you could easily go away and not accomplish that much. That might be ok, given your budget and life. But in my case not being productive leads to all kind of gloom, stomping around, and self-recrimination. I will do anything to avoid unproductive-ness (or whatever it is — in bad moments I call it laziness and lack of character).

So I was careful to set my expectations. I knew I wasn’t going to “finish the book” or anything crazy like that. I was in the middle but it was very, very rough. So I was simultaneously cutting chunks out and adding new things in. In terms of overall word count, I produced maybe 2,000 or 3,000 words a day, (which, by the way, is absolutely HUGE for me). But just as important, I trimmed stuff that wasn’t working or was leading me down the wrong path. Just having the mental concentration to shape the story was just as important as adding word count.

So I would absolutely do it again. A place like Inverness is incredibly special, so that is more like the birthday- or Christmas-present writing retreat. Plus, you can’t go there and not hike or be outside. You will feel deprived if you stay indoors. So it’s not a good place for crazy, all-out work.

But I think as I get closer to deadline I might do a more down-and-dirty getaway. Maybe something like the Embassy Suites. (There’s one in Walnut Creek. Right off the highway. Half an hour away. Not too expensive.) This will be for the I’m-ordering-a-pizza-and-never-leaving-my-room phase of writing, when the end is in sight and I’ve got so much adrenaline and I can go at it for hours at a time.

Here are some photos. I hope they make you feel like you’ve gone on retreat!

Abandoned boat on Tomales Bay

Here’s the view from my window at the Dancing Coyote cottages in Inverness. Cool abandoned boat on Tomales Bay.

View of the Pacific from near Arch Rock

Looking out over Arch Rock at the end of the Bear Valley trail.

Hamburger from Marin Sun Farms

Sustainable, organic, awesome Marin Sun Farms hamburger with lard-fried french fries (insane), from their restaurant on Hwy 1.

Heather at Tomales Point

Feeling like a sassy hiker at the Tomales Point overlook. An incredible there-and-back hike to the very tip of Point Reyes.

Tule Elk on Tomales Point

Tomales Point is full of these fellows – Tule elk with huge antlers.

Come see me at Authors on the Move!

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I’m so thrilled to be participating in Authors on the Move, March 14 in Sacramento to benefit the Sacramento Public Library Foundation. There’s going to be an amazing group of authors there, and I’m so looking forward to seeing folks I’ve met at other events, plus meeting new people. I’ve never done AOM before, but it sounds just brilliant–there’s a great, fancy dinner and authors get to circulate and talk to all the people who’ve come to support the library. Please check it out!

Rules to develop mental strength

Photo by Jeremy Cai from Unsplash

Photo by Jeremy Cai from Unsplash

The other day I was looking through my “Notes” file for The Shadow Clock and found this self-help list I had written to myself with the title “rules to develop mental strength”:

  • No comparisons
  • Choose conviction/self-belief rather than self-doubt
  • Make choices for physical health
  • Recognize that I am on a mission to cultivate fortitude and consciously look for ways to do that

(Okay, the fourth point is basically a roll up of the previous three, but I like the idea of being on a mission to cultivate fortitude – I can picture doing it in some ninja/Navy Seal jumpsuit with hidden pockets.) I forget what was going on at the time I wrote this, but mental strength is a quality I desperately need right now. I’m trying to finish a draft of the new book to give to my editor in March, and instead of going full bore on writing, I’m frittering away my concentration on job angst. So unproductive!

This list reminds me of myself as a kid, when I would go to the library and check out books about ESP or meditation. I so wanted to develop super powers. What I didn’t know then is that by the time you’re older with kids and a job and you’re reading the news about climate change, it’s a super power just to protect some imaginative bandwidth in your brain!

Anyway, mental strength is my project now. I’m just hoping I can find the right jumpsuit for this.

Dreamwood a Common Sense Media Best Book of 2014

Common Sense Media has chosen some amazing books for its list of Best Books of 2014, and DREAMWOOD is among them! There are so many great titles, I’m hugely honored!! (P.S., I continue to use Common Sense Media as a guide to watching things with my kids. I ignored the warnings once–once!–and am now going down in family history as the parent who exposed sweet innocent kids to unfettered raunch–on Christmas Eve, no less. For the movie Love Actually, if you must know. So, lesson learned. Follow Common Sense!)

Still looking for that magic story structure

Death to Stock photo of Post-Its I’m plugging away on THE SHADOW CLOCK, so there’s not tons to report, except that every once in a while I panic and write things like this in my “Notes” file:

Anyway, I was thinking today that there is still something confusing and murky about the concept, the premise. I still want that lovely clear hook that immediately makes you want to know what happens.

I spent the next day writing a list of at least 25 sentences stating the premise, trying to get it as clear and exciting as possible. (This I think is the “logline” in Save the Cat. But the thing about Save the Cat—at least for me—is to read it when you are not writing anything. Read it, assimilate it. Then when you are writing, hopefully you just have structure magically pour onto the page.)

Just last weekend I was at the super fun YA Writers “Bootcamp” that my local SCBWI chapter put on in Pleasanton. So I saw great people and felt very writerly. Here’s the thing. Save the Cat is like the Bible. Tamara Ireland Stone and Katy Longshore went into a whole structure deep dive with beat sheets straight from Cat. (If you don’t know what Save the Cat is, it’s a screenwriting book that has very clear, approachable advice on story and plot.) One thing I so appreciate is learning how other writers do this stuff—it was great to see everyone’s cork boards and index cards and their printouts and Scrivener tips.

Of course I’m insecure about plot and structure. That’s the reason I obsess over it. Maybe I’ll get to the point where I know it down in my bones, so I know intuitively what the strongest premise and plot structure is for the story I want to tell. In the meantime, I write things like “This is a pivot point” in my wild, untraversable draft. I haven’t listed out beats, but I’ve figured out the emotional terrain and how that intersects with the action terrain, so the landscape is taking shape. Now just build the road.

P.s. This image is from Death to the Stock Photo, and they have this great writing prompt partnership with Medium. Check it out.

2014 in review

The last day of 2014. It’s cold and crisp in the Bay Area, and very very clear. From our corner we can see a miniature San Francisco gleaming on the horizon and the Golden Gate Bridge, which looks like a paper cut-out against the sea and sky. I think we might go to the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park and see the Houghton Hall exhibit (grand English house stuff). But first, some reflection.

My big achievement this year, of course, was the publication of Dreamwood. And this meant I got to read at various places and write blog posts for other people and talk to kids and librarians and other authors. It was fantastic. Beyond what I ever hoped. Being an author is simply the best, and I’m so so grateful to everyone who helped get me here. Hugs, kisses, and chocolate to you.

But then, second achievement was coming up with something new. A year ago exactly, I was trying to think, “what next?” Even though I feel so impatient with my rate of progress, it’s important to remind myself that a year ago I had no next novel. Just vague electricity at my fingertips.

How vague? I was taking long walks and trying to pry stories out of my brain. This is what I did. I started making lists of resonant images, and in my notebook I wrote this:

Small train yards, wind, a girl working in the diner from the story I wrote long ago, the aunt in curlers, yearning, vineyards at dusk, train crossings, old-fashioned houses – white and alone, shielded by a clump of trees. Russia, monasteries, the abandoned house, peddlers, traveling performers, hippies, deadheads, they live on wind, they’re goblins, the loyal friend, sea otters, Kansas City, in cold blood, timber rattlers, midnight revels, looking through the window, we’re in danger, we’re all in danger. Keys, maps, kids on bicycles, the wind. Birds watching, geomancy. Green, moss-covered standing men. The town square emptying out, gulls, spindly women with the air of priestesses, dead flowers, mysterious illnesses, “a corpse will be transported by express.”

(That last line is from Under the Volcano, one of my all-time favorite books.)

Some of this stuck together and some of it continues to float around, a bit like mental dust bunnies. But making lists was hugely helpful. And now I have THE SHADOW CLOCK under contract, but also significant forays into new stories, some of which dip into the mulchy list I have above. So I have something about those vineyards and all that wind and some terrifying priestesses to go in a novel somewhere, someday. Deliciousness!

Third achievement? Just being here and trying to make writing work with normal life. Continuing on at the day job, with the soccer practices and tournaments and school stuff, walking the dog, appreciating good friends and my amazing family. I am lucky to have you.

Now, my very limited list of cultural highlights of the year.

2014 Music
Here are a few of the 2014 releases I loved:

  • Lydia Ainsworth – Right from Real
  • EMA – The Future’s Void
  • Pharmakon – Bestial Burden
  • Drake – 0 to 100/The Catch Up
  • G-Eazy – These Things Happen
  • D’Angelo – Black Messiah

(This was also the year that I started almost every workday by listening to Tyga’s “Switch Lanes.” Does it look like I have an appointment with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist in my future? Absolutely.)

2014 Books
The three books I absolutely LOVED this year:

  • Euphoria, by Lily King
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith
  • I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

(Not published this year, but read—and hugely enjoyed—this year: Wolf Hall, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Flamethrowers.)

I am consciously looking at the diversity of my reading list. Which, as you can see as represented above, is pretty monochromatic. So, I’ve given financial support to We Need Diverse Books, and bought more “diverse” titles (how I hate this terminology, btw) and am looking forward to seeing how my list changes next year.

2014 Movies

Ugh – I really saw very few movies in 2014. And most of them were not great. Kind of an underwhelming year, no? So there’s really only one on my list. I loved, loved, loved, really loved The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I’ve run out of time. We must go see the Downton Abbey-esque Houghton Hall show. Right this minute!

A happy 2015 to all!!

November author events!

Hey, I’m totally behind on updating things around here (*coughs at all the dust and clutter*). But I have a few incredible events happening in November. If you are around, please come see me and these fabulous authors at fun events guaranteed to share publishing wisdom and good times!

SCWBI Beyond the Bay
SCBWI Walnut Creek!
Saturday Nov. 1, 2-4 pm

So … back when I was an aspiring author of incredible newbie-ness, I would go see authors I admired talk about their publication stories at this very event. Now it is my time to give back! I am honored to be appearing with Arree Chung and Darcey Rosenblatt. In the spirit of All Soul’s Day, I might open a vein about how my publishing journey almost killed me. Or I might just give out a bunch of candy corn. Only if you come will you know for sure if this event ends in blood or sugar. So please come!

Let’s Talk Tween!
Pegasus Books on Solano Ave, Berkeley
Sunday Nov. 2, noon-2 pm

Pegasus is such an amazing indie bookstore in the Bay Area. And Manuela and Emily there are putting on an event with a dream cast of middle grade authors: Mike Jung! Esther Ehrlich! Anne Nesbet! (And, um, yours truly, hoping to hold her own.) We’re going to read, take questions, and I think Mike has floated a whole Chewbacca costume concept. So anything could happen. Including, perhaps, my first appearance as a wookiee.

McKinley Author Day
Friday Nov. 7
San Francisco

Guess what? If you are a young person at McKinley Elementary School in San Francisco, I am coming to see you. This will be our secret, as I don’t think adults or non-students are part of this deal. Let’s keep it between us, but I think this will involve stickers and great fun. See you soon!