A recent obsession with scent

Sometime during the two weeks I took off work to finish my draft of THE SHADOW CLOCK, I found myself using (wasting!) my precious writing time to read wildly on the Internet about perfume.

A short explanation of how this happened. I ran out of some completely serviceable, everyday perfume my mother-in-law had brought back for me from a trip to France. I was fine with it, I wore it unthinkingly. A uniform.

But, trying to buy a replacement online, I encountered an entire subculture and community of perfume obsessives who wrote endlessly about perfumes and what they meant (viz. Basenotes).

I was floored. Discovering these sites brought up memories of a time when I took perfume seriously. In high school, a friend who we looked up to as a tastemaker wore her mother’s perfume. I remember her sniffing a handful of her shirt and announcing “I reek of Chanel No. 5.” It was hard to follow that, but I tried. I remember dutifully applying myself to the sampler bottles at the perfume counter in the local department store, trying to convince myself that Chanel No. 5 was great, although it remains one scent I can never bring myself to like: cold and ill-suited to me.

When I lived in Paris during college, perfume became something without which you felt under-dressed. I was not (still am not) a very polished person. But perfume offered welcome help in presenting oneself as an adult. And it was impossible to walk through Paris without encountering parfumeries—stores dark and steeped in feminine glamor, that sold only perfume.

I was surprised to discover that perfume threaded together so many different memories and times. I did not think perfume had importance in my life, but I was wrong. The bottle of Opium, for instance, always on my mother’s dresser, became shorthand for years of my childhood. Then there was the pretty bottle of some Annick Goutal scent that I bought on a trip to New York after reading about her in a fashion magazine (a memory that forced me to realize, yes, I used to read those!). Too goopy and flowery in the end.

I had also forgotten perfume’s power to unsettle and suggest. In high school French, reading Baudelaire’s “Correspondances,” I felt somehow scandalized by his list of scents, which start with those that that smell like babies’ skin, and ends with those that are “corrupt, rich and triumphant.”

All these moments, recollected through a memory of scent, of course made me recall the famous madeleine scene in In Search of Lost Time. There, it is the taste of the cookie crumbled into the lime blossom tea that opens a magical pathway to the past:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And there it is, the paradox. The ability of scent—which is insubstantial—to carry surprising weight is what makes it worthy of obsession. I found this lovely meditation on the power of perfume on Barbara Herman’s blog in an entry about the strange suggestiveness of Chanel No. 19:

“[P]erfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence.” — Luca Turin, Perfumes: The Guide.

I feel this is the place to address this arresting quote from Luca Turin (written in a review of Issey Miyake’s Le Feu D’Issey). Chanel No. 19 was a similar fragrance for me, astounding me with its suggestiveness, its intelligence, its moods, its significations. I pondered this perfume as deeply as a film, book or song that moved me. It’s been one of the many revelations for me in discovering perfume in this sensual/cerebral manner that there is, in fact, a limbic intelligence that we don’t cultivate enough. Perfume is the perfect vehicle for exercising this intelligence and articulating what it has to tell us.

The market in rare and vintage perfumes—how they’re sold on eBay or other sites in the original packaging or with notes about the condition of the box—did end up giving me an idea for some of the magic trading that happens in THE SHADOW CLOCK. (It may not stay in, we will see.) So it wasn’t wasted time. But I only realized that later—after I was frustrated and angry with myself for following this thread, for avoiding work and word count. Which brings me to another realization, perfume has meaning because it exists outside of practicalities.

I was glad to rediscover it.

On keeping a writing diary

I recently came across this interview with Sarah Waters in The Guardian, about her experience writing The Paying Guests.

One of the best decisions I ever made as an author was to keep a writing diary, a record of each day’s advances, along with plans, thoughts and queries about my current novel-in-progress. Surveying this at the end of a project provides a fascinating vision of the evolution of a book – though I invariably find that it’s a catalogue of complaints (“horrible day”, “appalling day”, “realised that most of what I wrote last week was rubbish”), relieved only rarely by moments of insight and sweaty euphoria: “Think I’m getting there at last, thank Christ!”

These journals are always substantial, but at more than 170,000 words my Paying Guests diary is only slightly shorter than the book itself

Although I can hardly put myself in the same company as Sarah Waters (whose amazing Fingersmith blew me away), I found a lot to relate to here. For everything I work on I start a “Notes” file, and this doc becomes my confidant during the course of the project.

It’s usually a lot of griping or the place where I unload my emotions. I don’t keep a journal, so the book diary becomes a record of all my thoughts along with what’s going on in the day-to-day.

For my Shadow Clock draft, I kept track of word count each day (because I wrote the book in one big Word file), how I was feeling (usually awful—reading back on Notes, I come off as a raging depressive). The Notes file is also my “what if” place—if I can’t bear to work in the official file, I sketch scenes in Notes.

And then like a movie cast and crew who disband at the final wrap, once the book is done, the diary is done. It’s interesting to me, the Notes file is often about the same length as the manuscript, as if they’re twins, somehow growing in parallel.

I’ve sometimes thought maybe I should just keep one big Notes file about the whole of writing life. But I like looking in on each idea to see where it’s stopped in time. So now while I’m waiting to see what my editor thinks of what I’ve turned in, I check in on another Notes file—it’s like visiting another person in another world: full of excitement about an idea that’s just been waiting in suspended animation.

Random quote: Jeff VanderMeer on Narnia

I found this on Julianna Baggott’s blog during a moment when I was trying to inspire myself to write.

She interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, the author of The Southern Reach trilogy–all three books published within one year, an amazing story in and of itself. I have the first book, Annihilation, in my TBR pile.

I thought it was brilliant she asked him not about the books he loved and wanted to emulate, but about the books he hated. Here’s his answer.

I really hated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I hated that the intelligent woodland animals were so happy about replacing a dictatorship with a monarchy instead of just telling everybody else to shove the hell off.

There are books I hate–really hate–although I’m not always comfortable revealing them. And I have complicated feelings about Narnia. For both reasons, I love this quote.

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!

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.

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.

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!!

The Shadow Clock!

Early notes for THE SHADOW CLOCK

Early notes for THE SHADOW CLOCK

So there is big, exciting news in my world, which is that I have a new book! I get to work with my fabulous editor Ari Lewin and the amazing folks at Putnam again, which makes me so very happy. Here is the deal description:

In THE SHADOW CLOCK, 13-year-old orphan Thorn is a renowned criminal in the dark market of buying and selling magic. All his skills are put to the test when a rival thief offers information about his family in exchange for a dangerous job.

I first made notes for this book in January of 2014. As it happens I was sitting in a cafe in downtown Oakland next to an ice skating rink where my daughter was at a birthday party. Just sitting there, eating a salad when inspiration struck! Part of the idea involved a thought-eating squid — which I’m pretty sure will not make it into the final manuscript (haha) — but I got the orphans, magic thievery, and Thorn. I am working on putting it all together while keeping pesky squids out of the story. In the meantime, it is fun to look back on early notes to myself that go like this:

But to what end …?
And how does it intersect with a rag-tag band of street urchins?

So, yes, to what end, indeed? (Can you picture me rubbing my chin and looking devilishly authorial at this question?) With a little elbow grease, luck, and the perfect writing playlist all should be revealed sometime in 2016. Huzzah!