Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Biding time; writing time

*whistles, twiddles thumbs*

What to do while waiting for labor to begin? How about writing? Yep, I'm back to work on the new novel. Yay! I love coming back to a project after an absence, reading it from scratch and [hopefully] loving it. This goes counter to the usual advice, but I've found that, for me, setting a novel aside for a space of time can be just what I need to surge forward and get a new chunk of story out. I'm not saying it's what you should do, I'm just saying, sometimes . . . well, sometimes a little distance and clarity can help you find the next puzzle piece that will take the story in the right direction.

I wrote Blackbringer over the course of 2-1/2 years, with many "breaks" from it of a month or several. Again, I'm not saying this is the best way to write a book, but it did get written ultimately, and I remember with fondness the times I'd sit down with the manuscript I had left gathering dust a month earlier, and get reacquainted with it. Inevitably, I'd revise as I reread, make notes, see things I hadn't been able to see before, make small (and large) changes. Then I'd figure out the next steps.

I didn't take as many long breaks from Silksinger on account of it being awaited by my editor. Once I got started on it, I sat down with it most days and banged my head against it. I had a really hard time finding my way into that book. The problem was: I had too many ideas. I couldn't settle on which ones worked best. I wrote the first 50-60 pages of that book many many times, each time changing my mind about some crucial plot or character element and having to start from scratch. For a long time, Whisper began the story as a drudge-worker in a weaving house in Nazneen, living in a dormitory with other girls. Hirik was the weaving house owner's son. Hirik was not nice. Gasp! I'll say no more, since the book isn't OUT yet, and only a few readers will know what I'm talking about. In any case, the characters are very different in the final version. It took me quite a few false starts to find them.

The point is: when I start a book or story, I always think I know a lot about it, but I'm always wrong. It's only as I go that I discover how much I don't know. A book grows up around you as you write, and it shifts and bucks and disagrees with you. It's like an unruly horse that sees shoots of delectable grass off the path you've chosen for it, and it strays. Ah yes, if you are an excellent rider you might succeed in keeping it always on the path, but should you? What if the horse's instincts are right, its sense of smell keener than yours? By ignoring it, what might you be missing?

How do you know who's right, when the story disagrees with you?

A good friend of mine is currently writing a story that has a will of its own, and she asked me: how do you know when to let the story goes its own way, and when to stick to your plan? There's no simple answer to that question, because the truth is: sometimes the original plan will be for the best, and sometimes the serendipitous new direction will make the story blossom for the better. And sometimes, sorry to say, the answer is: none of the above; keep trying! I think my process is to give the horse some freedom and see what happens, and be willing to backtrack if it leads me astray.

You just don't know, at any given moment, what's ultimately going to be best for the story.

Jim and I had this painting instructor in art school who gave us the most ludicrous piece of bad advice ever. For some background, Jim and I were both Illustration majors, and this painting class was a Fine Art class. There's a huge distinction and divide between Illustration and Fine Art. Fine Art is what you see in galleries (you know, when you laugh at the price of a solid red canvas?), Illustration is what you have in magazines and books. Well, that simplistic, but do you know what I mean? Fine artists thinks illustrators are sell-outs, and illustrators think . . . well, I can't speak for all illustrators, but I think a lot of things about fine art. Where we went to art school, the illustrators were learning technical skills, like how to draw and paint, whereas the fine artists were "expressing themselves". This painting class was all about "expressing yourself" and was NOT teaching us the technical skills we wanted to learn. The teacher at one point told us -- this is the terrible advice -- that we should be able to stop painting at any moment in the process and have the painting be considered "finished."


That's like saying that any time your fingers stop typing, your novel could be considered "finished." With illustration, as with writing, it doesn't work like that. It's about craft. In fine art, I suppose, it's more about feeling and mood, whatever, but in illustration, as in writing, the process is not the thing. The finished product is the thing. However you arrive at it, that will be invisible to the reader/viewer. However many scenes you wrote and deleted, however many wrong turns you took before you figured it out, no one will ever know. So just keep trying and trying. Any *mistakes* will be rendered invisible by the end, any wrong turns will vanish as if they never happened, so long as you keep trying, and eventually discover the *right way*.

Of course, there isn't a *right way,* is there? Do you ever stop to think how a story could at any moment go in one of a hundred directions? A thousand? Any finished manuscript is one of a thousand *right ways,* and the best we can hope for is that it is a good way. I often catch myself thinking that if I were to write a particular scene on a different day, the novel might turn out completely different. If I'd been writing my current novel two weeks ago instead of painting the bedroom, what might I have thought up that would be different with what I'll come up with today? No way to know. It strums at the imagination.

There is no single perfect manifestation for a novel. There are decisions that feel right at a given moment, and there are dozens of chances to change your mind. So, coming back to a manuscript with fresh eyes, it's a second chance to see things I didn't see before. Sometimes that's what I need. Also, the hope is that I love what I wrote before and can revel in self-satisfaction for a short time before getting back to the business of putting new words on the page. Sigh. The hard part. You know the old quote, "I don't love writing, I love having written." Totally.

So, yeah. No baby yet. A long time ago I guessed that Professor's birthday would be August 4th, and here we are, still no signs of imminent baby arrival. The big SCBWI national conference is this weekend, and I hope the baby is born before or during, or else we'll be sitting home waiting for her and wishing we were in Los Angeles with all our awesome children's book friends. Heck, I could have my feet in the pool while eating cake with writers! Wah. Oh well. Next year :-)



storyqueen said...

Oh, Laini! Love your post. I almost always follow the story where it wants to go....because, really, why not? You are sooooo right....I can always change it later, rewrite it, make a totally different decision. That is one of the coolest things about writing.

I'm having a pity party for myself about not going to SCBWI on my blog, serving snacks and such. Maybe you can bring that lemon/blueberry icecream cake!

Note to Professor:

August 8 would be a cool day to be born....8-8-09. Easy to remember.


lizardek said...

I vote for Aug 10...for very selfish reasons :)

Kiersten White said...

I love the idea of every previous element of your book being invisible : ) I cringe at some earlier drafts of my work. But you're exactly right--it's finished product that counts here.

Also, fingers crossed for an easy delivery that happens soon soon soon!

Molly Hall said...

Thank you so much for this post! This was exactly what I needed to hear today! (So, I'm glad your baby waited a bit - so you could post this : ))

I am in that agonizing phase of revision, where I see so many ways I could go with it, and therefore I am paralyzed. I have so many ideas for making it better, and I also want to stick close to the story I dreamed up and loved in the first place. But in order to take it to the next level I have to dismantle it and put it back together again with new shiny parts.
Ugh. Painful.
I have written the first chapter at least 22 times. And I need to press on. But it is s...l...o....w going.

Thank you for the insight into your own process! It helps!

Christine Fletcher said...

Laini, sounds like my current first draft is going a lot like Silksinger...restarting over and over, trying to find my way in. It's been a chore--but I love finding out the story as I go along!

I second the vote for 8-8-09. Although I'm sure you're ready right now!

Anonymous said...

This is about the cookies in the last post and your response to me, Anonymous. I would like to say thank you for your offer to fill my tiny (and incredibly toned) belly with chocolate chip, oatmeal cookies. However, as I am not in a socialize-y mood this evening, I plan to leave a gigantic storage bin outside your front door. There will be a small opening on one side, like a mail slot, and please pour all the cookies in through there until it is filled to the top. I will send for someone to tow the stuffed cookie bin to me early in the a.m. Should you have any questions, please try and answer them yourself. According to a warning on the underside of the bin, it can't hold more than seven thousand cookies so keep that in mind. Thank yoU!!!!

Unknown said...

Ugh. I *despise* people who are like your art teacher. I teach creative writing and English at high school. Too often the kids tell me they deserve an A because they finished. That's not the way the world works! You have to put effort, skill, practice, and talent to work!

(PS: I am loving your baby updates. I'm planning on kids next year or the year after and your updates have made me much less scared about the whole process.)

Elana Johnson said...

August 4 would've been a great birthday. It's my son's birthday. I'm new here, but I love this post about letting things go for a while and then coming back to them. It's true that your eyes are fresher and you can see small and big things. :)

myrna said...

I vote for tonight! But if Professor is going to take a while, 8/8 was my mom's birthday. Well-baked babies are usually very healthy though.

And I love LOVE it when you write about writing! I am still re-writing (I tend to take breaks too), and it has been more fun/less painful this week. While I was caught up in the story today, Gwenyth redecorated our chairs with bright pink, blue and green markers. I hope it comes out!

tone almhjell said...

Yes, yes, but total rewriting is so scary! Scary, I tell you! Writing a scene anew seems easy, but what about the ramifications? The meticulous changing of all references to and consequences of that scene? I'm conseidering eliminating a character, and I'm terrified.

Go for the 8th. I think we are.

BJW said...

I love it when you write about writing. It's like you're sharing about something you've spent so much time with, that you love deeply and have struggled with. Duh, I know, but not just love, are deeply committed to.

What I'm getting at is, you share practical input that you'll know we need. Good, honest advice. Not too esoteric but what we need to stay alive in battle. "Keep your head down. Change your socks." How to see our struggle through to the end. But underneath your solid advice is a deep appreciation and respect for the whole process. You don't just know how to do this, it's part of you.

It really seems to me that you honor it. And I appreciate you sharing something so important to you with us, because many of us also truly care. That's how it felt reading your Not For Robots and that's how it feels now. Not in the fine art, namby-pamby way, but in the Green and Green craftsman way. Quite functional. With sturdy hinges.

Thank you. Good luck whenever the Professor shows up.

Heather said...

As always you are an inspiration! I'd love to hear your thoughts on fine art. I have plenty of my own!

jone said...

Your posts on writing are always an inspiration! I think if you were to look back through them you would see the makings for a book about the writing process.
I keep hoping to hear news that Professor is on her way...ah, she's a Leo and will make a grand entrance on her terms.

johanna said...

Had a dream last night Laini, that you had the baby on the 8th! Fingers crossed for this weekend...xo

BJW said...

I wholeheartedly concur about the writing book.

I'll buy it right this second.