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.

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.

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!