The story reveals itself

I’m taking a break from furious keyboard wrangling to update with progress about LAIR OF DREAMS.

My first thought is, can I still call it progress? Doesn’t feel like progress. Feels like I am eating an enormous word salad. And sometimes I say, “Yep, that avocado is good in here,” and “In retrospect, baked salmon and Reese’s peanut-butter cups have no place together in this salad. Also, I might need to vomit now.”  

As you may know from previous blogs, this book has been a bitch-and-a-half to write. I have never struggled so much or despaired so greatly. This is how it is sometimes. Typical conversations with writer friends tend to go like this:

Friend: So that tunnel thing sounds really scary.

Me: Yeah? Thanks!

Friend: So, I have to know: What’s in the tunnel?

Me: No idea.

Friend: …er, but it’s a central part of your plot.

Me: *smiling unsteadily * Uh-huh. I know.

Friend: But you don’t know what it is?

Me: Nope. Not yet. *guzzles Maalox straight from the bottle *

And so on. 

A friend of mine, a singer, always says that the voice “reveals itself.” And that is how I feel about writing novels: The story reveals itself over time. Now, it doesn’t do this magically. It does so in fits and starts, in frustratingly small increments and, occasionally, in “A-ha!” thunderclap moments. And it only does this after you’ve put in the exhausting labor, after days upon days spent sitting at your laptop or notebook, moving one sentence from page 12 to page 14 and back again, deleting whole scenes and writing new segments that finally seem to bridge the disparate ideas zipping around in your head like futuristic cars. (BTW, where are those cars we were promised? Could somebody get on that? Thanks.)

And as you write, these are always the questions: How can I make this better? How can I sew that seam tighter? How can I connect this part to that part more cohesively? How can I take this seemingly small scene between two characters and sink it more deeply into the larger thematic fabric of the novel? Am I really getting down to the grit and humanity of these characters?  Am I questioning enough, or am I still skating across the surface? How do I deal with this novel’s particular “Big Bad” storyline while also building in the architecture for various character threads and the overall story arc?

And: Am I having fun? (Honestly, that’s super important.)  

So, as I struggle to answer all of those questions, to build the architecture for books #3 and #4 while trying to maintain the integrity of book #2, I’m trying to find the patience to let the story reveal itself. And to hope that I am paying attention when it does.  

 

Haunted at 17

Yours Truly at 17 in the library

Yours Truly at 17 in the library

 

As I try to wrestle my revision of LAIR OF DREAMS to the dirt (where, inevitably, it will throw me onto my back, twist my arm and elicit a desperate “Uncle!” from my constricted lungs), I’ve been unable to do much blogging. That’s too bad as often, when I’m stuck, blogging helps me come “unstuck.” I’m going to try to do a bit more of that in the coming months to see if it’s like kicking the Coke machine to make it work–the “Coke machine” being my misfiring brain in that scenario.

You know who has a kick-ass blog? Nova Ren Suma. Her Distraction 99 is filled with wisdom, support, and some nifty guest posts. She gets you thinking.

This was a post I wrote for her back in March when her new book, the amazing 17 & GONE, had just come out. The suggestion was that we write about what haunted us at the age of 17. As it’s the month for all things haunt-y, I asked Nova if I could reprint the post here and she, being nice, said sure.

http://distraction99.com/2013/03/18/libba-bray-haunted-at-17/

There are some really terrific posts in that series from everyone from Adele Griffin and Gayle Forman to Bennet Madison, Nina LaCour and more. Why not procrastinate and read them all?

Today’s writing prompt: What haunts you?

On Writing Despair (Juicebox Mix)

Hi, kids. Y’all gather ‘round. Mama wants to talk to you about writing despair today.

Everybody got a juice box, a snack, and a lovey to hold on to? Everybody found a comfy chair? Got your laminated list of “Inspirational quotes from writers!” which you culled from the Internet?

Well, Look. At. You.

Okay, let’s get started.

First topic: NONE OF THAT IS GOING TO HELP YOU, SUCKERS! YOU ARE LIVING IN A FOOL’S PARADISE! WE ARE DOOMED! DOOOOMED!!!!

Sorry. Mama’s a little hair-trigger today, kids. Sip your juice box. Doom goes better with juice.

Oh, lambs. I try to laugh at life. I do. When the cat pooped all over the white bedspread, did I fall apart or make a cat-fur purse as a warning to the other one? No. I did not. I said, “Hahaha! How very Geoffrey Rush in ‘Quills’ of you, Little Squeak. Your protest is noted.” And then I burned the bedding. When the basement flooded and the ShopVac became my best friend, did I curse the rainy skies and crumbling New York City infrastructure? Well, yes. Yes, I did. But I did it with a laugh and a twinkle and online shopping. Because I’m a survivor.

But sometimes, kids? (Sigh.) Sometimes, a girl just needs to eat buttercream frosting right out the can on her front stoop wearing the same pajamas she’s had on for three days straight while shouting, “Whaddayoo looking at? You never seen a serious writer at work before? I’M ON A DEADLINE HERE! MOVE IT ALONG, SPARKY! And your little dog, too.”

The writer’s life is so misunderstood.

But let’s talk for a moment about despair. That’s what you came for, right? (Unless it’s the cursing, in which case, stick around.)

For the past several months, I’ve been hard at work on DIVINERS #2. Every morning, I wake up and say, “Today, it will start to make sense. Today, I will make the story bend to my will.” And then I dance to “Cool” from West Side Story. As one does.

But you know what, my little doves? Sometimes the writing does not want to play your little reindeer games. Sometimes, the writing is for shit. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you go at it, no matter how many different times you rewrite or wholesale reimagine scenes, you just can’t crack the code of your book. It’s like trying to predict what toddlers will do. Still, you keep trying, because this is the gig. As I always say, if you’re swimming and you get tired, nobody says, “Well, just stop swimming then.” That would be bad advice.

When Them Old, I-Can’t-Write-This-Novel Blues have their claws in me, I tend to think it’s because I haven’t learned the magic writing solution yet. If only I could change my process, I think, this madness would all go away and I could watch something cheesy on Netflix, like “Satan’s Reform Driving School” or the Paducah Dinner Theatre’s musical production of Beckett’s “Happy Days” using finger puppets.

I can sense some of you out there nodding along, giving up the chuckles: “Riiiight. The ‘Just Change Your Process, Luke’ Solution. We’ve all been there. I give you five minutes before you cry and try to alphabetize your spice cabinet.” *

Talk to five different writers and you’ll probably get five different answers about how the writing process goes down for them. There are “pantsers” and “plotters” and everything in between.

Me? My brain seems to work in a chaotic, symphonic fashion. I swear to you that I am incapable of linear thought. This is the bane of my existence, y’all—like I’m an IKEA chair missing the little L wrench that puts it all together. I just know that I don’t instinctively say, “Hat goes on last.” No. Left to my own devices I say, “I’m supposed to remember something about hats here. Hats remind me of Victorian gentlemen, which makes me think about the struggles between the English and the Welsh, which makes me think about that amazing John Cale song, Buffalo Ballet, which makes me think about the American West and America as a concept and also trains and smoke and the insubstantiality of both smoke and the American Dream and dammit, I’m not wearing any pants, am I?”

While it may be interesting to think about all of those things, it’s not particularly helpful if what you want to do is write a fairly coherent book and deliver it on time. Or leave the house wearing pants.

{Pour Mama some of that apple juice, will ya? And hand over that Hostess Sno*Ball so nobody gets hurt.}

For me, writing a book is ugly-messy, with lots of off-road driving, dead ends, false plot lines, crazy ideas that go nowhere, and many scenes that just have to be thrown away as I revise. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a generous amount of self-loathing attached to my method that no self-help book seems to address. Like my process is the filthy, shit-covered kid holding road kill by the tail while everyone else is clean and pressed and lined up neatly for the class photo. My method is an ass, frankly, and I’m thinking of not inviting it to Thanksgiving dinner this year.

I know what you’re thinking: Why don’t you just outline?

Oh, you. You are a clever one. Come on over here and let me SLAP THAT CLEVER RIGHT OUT OF YOU!

Why don’t I “just” outline? Because I can’t.

Oh, believe me, I’ve tried.

Many, many, many times.

No. Zip it. Put your hand down. Put. Your. Hand. Down.

Don’t make me turn this blog around because I will.

You want to hear about outlining? People, let me tell you a never-give-up story as meaningful as Jesus turning water into wine even though not one of those sorry-assed Cana wedding feasters put a little something-something in the Lord’s tip jar…

Despite knowing that I DO NOT HAVE the outlining gene, that I am a hands-on, dive-deep, I-will-find-the-story-as-I-go writer, I still foolishly think an outline will solve all of my problems just the way I thought if my mom let me buy Love’s Baby Soft cologne from the drugstore back in eighth grade, it would take care of my dateless problem.** When I hear other writers I admire talk about their outlining, I sit slack-jawed as if they are demi-gods bringing fire back from the mountain. I want to be them. Desperately. I want to sit at that hip table in the cafeteria and soak up their organizational, linear cool. I want to believe that I am a writer different from the writer I actually am. Like I want to believe that I can wear skinny jeans. And so I make the attempt with every single book I write.

{Who’s got a hanky? Mama needs a hanky. This part’s sad, kids. For Chrissakes, look away. Give a woman her dignity.}

Here’s the ugly truth, y’all: For DIVINERS #2, I have ten different outlines dated at points throughout the last year. There is one called “Microplot” done at Holly Black’s house in July 2012. There’s one called “Big Bad” which is, predictably, the scary supernatural storyline. It’s mostly a series of questions like an elaborate game of Who Knew?: “Can the ghost cross water?” “Is there more than one spirit?” “What happens if X meets Y?” “What are the rules of this supernatural world?” “What’s something that’s as creepy as dolls? Answer: Nothing. Well, maybe Ted Cruz.” There’s an outline called “Character Threads” and one called “Alternate Threads” and one called “Backstories” and one called “Series overview.” There’s an outline called “New Outline” and one called “Yet Another Outline” and one called “Help Me, Baby Jesus” that makes it all the way to Chapter 29 before it devolves into scribbles down the page—thoughts and snatches of random dialogue and notes like, “Need to make up some cool ghost hunting equipment here.”

All of the outlines end this way, abandoned in some terrifying, Guillermo Del Toro-style orphanage of incomplete organizational tools where bad things will come out of the closet to gobble them up. War is hell; so is outlining.

I cannot outline because at some point, my mind rebels. It smokes a cigarette and looks all Bruce Willis and says, “You know what, Sport-o? This whole thing will work better if you just let me play it my way. Don’t make me paint the lines on the road. Let me find the road, ya dig? Let me decide if this is really the road I’m driving or not. Yippee-Ki-Yi-Yay, Mofos.” And then my mind puts on a leather jacket and fist pumps the sky in a vaguely 80’s-era Judd Nelson gesture. My mind’s got some issues.

{More juice! Gimme the whole box, kid, and stop your sniveling. There’s no sniveling in writing. We go straight to existential dread and body-wracking sobs. Go big or go home.}

So, after six novels, five plays, and many short stories, I know this about myself. And yet, I can’t accept it.

Inherently, I feel that I must be dumb and wrong. That if I were just better at this writing thing, it would be easier. It is my fault. I am a fraud. Real writers don’t struggle this much and they don’t blow through deadlines. This is the bad song playing in my head. Thom Yorke sings it with XL falsetto pain.

So I try again. Because I’m a goddamned optimist, kids. And don’t you forget it.

I write the same scene ten different ways, trying to find the way that works best. Often, I go back and rewrite an existing scene because I’ve come at it from the wrong emotional angle or because I’ve come to know more about the characters and the choices they would make or the words they would speak or the feelings they would have. Sometimes I find what I’m after. Sometimes I don’t and that scene is thrown out like acid-washed jeans after a ‘90s theme party.

To date, I’ve thrown out thirty-nine scenes in DIVINERS #2. THIRTY-NINE SCENES! People, I can’t even count that high! Somebody had to count it for me!

Some of those scenes are only a few paragraphs long, sketches begun that I realized weren’t quite right: “Huh. Now that I’ve got the supernatural llamas on the ship, I’m not quite sure what to do with them after the demonic limbo contest.” But quite a few are many, many pages long. They’re complete scenes crafted with blood, sweat, and tears over time. Precious, precious time. But still, they are wrong, and they must die. Like my dreams.

{Here, squirt the cheese right into my mouth, like this. Listen, kid, you just worry about the cheese. I’ll worry about my cholesterol. Yeah, I know I smell like your grandpa smelled when the catheter broke. Can we not mention that?}

Can I tell you a story? A sad one? Okay. Snuggle up. About two months ago, I realized that maybe I was maybe a little too close to the novel to see it clearly. Sometimes I tell myself little fibs to get by: “You deserve a Frappuccino.” “Fox is bringing back ‘Firefly.’” “They never made ‘Jaws 3.’” “Maybe the novel doesn’t suck; maybe you’re just too close to it.”

It passes the time between leg waxes.

So I asked two of my good writer buddies, writers I trust implicitly, to read the first three hundred pages. As delicately, but honestly, as possible, they confirmed what I felt in my gut: The novel was a stone-cold mess. Kids, I don’t think there’s anything more disheartening than working your everloving ass off on a book that you just know in your gut isn’t working. It’s like trying to find a taffeta bridesmaid’s dress you can wear again.

I thanked them, then I went for a walk, blasting Green Day on my iPod. I hit the drums very, very hard. It’s possible I might have drawn a mustache on a few of my author photos. But then—then I sat down and started in again. Because you can’t stop swimming, right? Right.

{I love it when you agree with me. You know, you really are very nice people. I feel like I could talk to you about anything. Here, have some squeezy cheese. Open wide—Mama’s sharing mood may not last.}

My Spidey senses began a-tinglin’ like that time I accidentally sat on the electric blanket with the short in it at my Aunt Esther’s house. Maybe I’d finally found my answer! I pursued this new idea, crafting a brand-new opening, threading it through additional scenes. Then I watched in soul-sucking horror as that fell apart, too.

This happened six more times.

I don’t like to tell you bad stories like this. But pain is how we learn.

In the solitude of my writer’s cave, which has all the charm of an Eastern Bloc apartment building circa 1971, I sat with my laptop, some index cards, two blank sheets of paper, and a water bottle. {Hydration: It’s important.}

I tried organizing scenes on notecards.

I wrote out emotional arcs on paper.

I tried writing scenes that come later in the book, hoping that the deeper emotional wounds of those scenes would lead me in a circuitous route back to what was wrong with the first three hundred pages.

When that didn’t work, I went back to the beginning and wrote my sixth new opening chapter, carefully crafting it to set up the reworked plot so that it could segue seamlessly into the new, restructured second chapter, which had previously been the tenth chapter. (I have shuffled chapters like someone running a shell game on 42nd Street.) I snapped the new chapter in place, read it over and felt my stomach knot up as I realized it simply wasn’t going to work. I tried shifting Chapter Two into Chapter One’s position. I tried rethinking the rules of my world in such a way that it would allow me to try yet a third way to open the book. I rewrote the old Chapter Two (now Chapter One) without its related follow-up scene to see if splitting the action made more sense. It didn’t. In fact, I’m not even sure this paragraph makes sense. It makes my head ache, that’s for sure. You know what? I’m going to look at videos of Stevie Nicks to make myself feel better.

{Stevie doesn’t care if I finish this book or how hard it is. She wrote “Landslide” which is awesome. She can coast and do the witch dance forever. I wish I were Stevie. “Oh mirror in the sky…what is love…can the child within my heart be sacrificed to the goat gods in exchange for a working plot…”}

Despite all that effort, my book was still nowhere. I was stuck. Hopelessly stuck. Forlornly, impossibly, despairingly stuck. Trying-to-explain-evolution-at-the-Creationist Museum stuck. I could feel that awful ballooning in my throat that signals the onset of an ugly cry, and as I have some modicum of public restraint (shocking though that may be to some of you…), I decided to bid goodbye to the writing cave and head home.

So that’s where I am—lost, frustrated, terrified, and still facing a countdown clock whose every tick-tock reverberates inside my head like the drums coming for The Master.

One of the wonderful parts of writing a series is that you really get to immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. You get to spend a great deal of time digging into your characters, getting to know their wounds and strengths, reaching greater understanding over time. As someone who really enjoys the serial as a form, this is terribly exciting and addictive.

The negative aspect is that series, by their very nature, require stringent scheduling. Anyone who has ever waited five years for the next installment of a beloved series can understand how that feels. We want it NOW.  (I know I do.) But sometimes, the novel isn’t cooperative with your time frame. And then the panic starts.

To date, I have blown through two deadlines. This does not make me feel good. I am a punctual person, and the thought that I am holding up other people makes me feel really awful. And when your reason is that you simply can’t seem to “fix” your story, somehow, that feels doubly awful. Because then the bad thoughts creep in: What if I can’t write it? What if I’m just not good enough/smart enough/fast enough/clever enough? Dumb. Messy. Wrong. Slow. Fraud. Hack.  

The bad thoughts are paralyzing. They lock up your thinking. And so much of writing is thinking. Thinking takes TIME. Thinking forces you to question everything you take for granted, to get past what feels too easy, too pat in order to get down to what feels real and right and true for your story. They don’t tell you this on the Internet, and I think that is just mean. {You’re mean, Internet! Go away until I need to Google weird shit again.}

They don’t tell you just how much time you’ll spend with your palms pressed against your head screwing up a perfectly good hair day as you mentally spin out a series of chess moves. They don’t tell you that you’ll be sitting in a restaurant smiling politely at your dinner companions nodding along as you pretend to listen while secretly asking yourself, “Does that thing I’m doing with the dog in Chapter Three really work?”

I don’t know, kids. I don’t know.

Well, peeps. Sun’s getting low in the sky. Or else that glaucoma’s come for me at last. This has been real. I’m so glad we had this time together to talk despair. Thanks for the juice and the cheese. And, uh, yeah. Novel writing is hard. Deadlines suck but are necessary. Tip your waitress. Stay in school….stop looking at me with those big, baby animal eyes. What else ya want from me?

Oh. Right.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to buck up and tell you something inspiring, like, “Hey, at least I’m not digging ditches,” or, “Somehow it’ll work out. It always does.” And it’s true: I’m not digging ditches. And it probably will work out. Or I’ll ask Barry Lyga to bring me the cyanide caplet as part of that blood pact we swore to each other during the dark days writing our last books.

But I can’t tell you how or when this will happen. I can’t tell you why I can’t seem to break through to the other side of this story, why it’s so elusive right now. I can only try to be patient with myself, to remember how much I love writing and all the reasons why this particular series is so meaningful to me and to remind myself that I am working on something that’s really challenging me and forcing me to push into unfamiliar territory as a writer, to adapt and grow and learn new skills. And that it feels really scary because it IS scary.

I only know not to stop swimming.

Now, pick up your damn juice boxes and get back to work. Mama’s got an idea for that demonic llama cruise ship…

* This actually happened during a bad writing spell. But at least afterwards, I knew where to find the cinnamon. Next to the cardamom but before the cumin.

** It didn’t. Not even a little bit.

The No Good Horrible Very Bad Writing Day

Image

“*cough, cough* Spock! Must…make…word count! Save! Your! Self! *groan*”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about process lately.

On THE DIVINERS tour (the subject of a future blog), I was asked often about how to write—what my process was like, if there were any rituals or shortcuts to know, whether I outlined or plunged ahead, and how you know if you’re doing it right. And time and again, I’d stand there, blowing out a gust of breath that ruffled my bangs and then I’d squint as if this might connote “serious thinking” of the sort that presages a very wise, succinct answer instead of the rambling meditation on “Oh, beats the hell out of me; I usually have a snack” that would follow.

This morning, I turned off the Internet and tried to dive back into DIVINERS #2. It’s been two months since I’ve had concentrated writing time and so this felt very much like an awkward first date between two estranged but hopeful lovers:

Person #1: “Ah. Yes. I remember that little opening scene in Chinatown. That was…fun.”

(awkward pause)

Person #2: “There’s a lot of blank space. And I don’t know what the dog means.”

Person #1: “True, true. (beat) But the description of the sky is sort of nice.”

(awkward pause #2)

Person #2: “Mostly. I guess. If you like that sort of thing.” (beat) “They’ve put the cookies out now.”

 

You get the idea.

I vowed that I wouldn’t stop myself. I’d write unfettered and worry about fixing it later as countless writing advice columns advise. Or I’d write the story arc of one character only, following his or her story through to the end, then I’d do the same for the others. I’d write a big, thrilling scene filled with scary scares. Or no, a heartfelt romantic moment which would thaw me out and get the writerly blood moving through my veins. I’d write a kiss. One kiss scene. How hard could that be? It involves lips. I have lips. I know how they work. It doesn’t even involve research.

As I watched the minutes ticking off into bigger chunks of time with nothing but the removal of two lines (one of which I put back in, then took out again), I began to dissolve into a puddle of panicky doubt and self-flagellation. (Self-flagellation: Now puddle-shaped!) That’s when the awful questions started: “What if I can’t do this? What if this time, I’ve truly bitten off more than I can chew?” “What if I’ve used up my supply of useful words over the last six books and now I’m only left with the word equivalent of stale Ramen noodles and wilted lettuce with which to craft my story?” “Perhaps I should outline? I should outline. Smart writers outline.”

I’d start to outline, then feel stymied because—and here’s the important thing—I don’t write this way.  It is as unnatural to me as a salmon-and-peanut butter sandwich. I am not built this way. I, who am too chicken to ride a roller coaster or leave my house without food in my bag (Hello, Donner Party!), have only one extreme sport in me and it’s writing. I plunge into the unknown morass of my novels armed with some weird ideas, a handful of nascent characters, vague connections, a tingling in my Spidey senses, and the hope that it all comes to something. I trust. I have faith in the story.  

Reminded of this, I’d tell my binders-and-color-coded-index-cards-and-post-it-notes self, “Yeah! I’m a free spirit, maaaan!” Whereupon I would rip off my hairnet, let my pixie tresses go free and sing a French chanson about liberation and the inevitability of death. (This all happens inside my head. Just in case you’re playing the home game. For the record, I am in a café surrounded by other writers on deadlines who don’t give a fig about my inner turmoil or the French as far as I know.)

And so I was forced to sit with my shitty, uncooperative novel just…thinking. Wondering. Connecting. A host of “What if…?” scenarios played around with like Scrabble tiles, trying to build a word pyramid with what I got. “What does this all mean?” I ask myself. “How do these seemingly disparate ideas and events come together in a meaningful, satisfying way?” “Who are these people? What matters to them? And why does this story mean so much to me?” What’s it all about, Alfie?

These are, of course, essential questions and a necessary part of the writing process. But in the midst of it? It doesn’t feel so great. Those “lack of an appreciable word count” writing sessions feel like failure days. It’s interesting that I associate “quantity” with success. I get grumpy about the frustrations of the writing process and impatient with myself and the story. “Why don’t I just KNOW these things already???”

Because I don’t. Because the act of writing is the act of discovery. Because shedding our armor in order to become vulnerable enough to wade around in the uncomfortable, the unsettling, the painful or the revelatory is done bit by slow bit. Because some things really are a little beyond our reach and the eventual grasp of those things is what makes the writing so satisfying on some other future day.For now, I’m going to write on something a little less frustrating just to remind myself that, hey, it’s also fun.

And since they’ve put the cookies out, I’m going to have one. It seems rude not to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Make Kindness Your Superpower”: An Interview with Jo Knowles

If life were a teen movie, Jo Knowles would be the kind, smart, somewhat shy girl in the back row who offers the new kid half of her sandwich at lunch, then stands up to the bullies who try to take his hat. (She’d get that hat back without ever throwing a punch.) Then later, she’d bust out a poem in English class that had everybody going, “Whoa.”

In her career, Jo has faced down book banners and fought for intellectual freedom. She’s also been writing beautiful, quietly powerful books, which are testaments to humanity in all its flawed, impossible, hopeful glory. In case you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of hers, and not just because she makes a mean chocolate chip scone. 

Jo’s new book, SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, comes out today.

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it, “pitch-perfect…Prescient writing, fully developed characters and completely, tragically believable situations elevate this sad, gripping tale to a must-read level.” Word, Kirkus Reviews, word. You can also enter to win a free copy of SEE YOU AT HARRY’S simply by leaving a comment in the comments section. Winners will be selected by random number generator. Think of it like the claw game in Toy Story.

I sat down with Jo to talk about her new novel, her writing process, censorship, and compulsive hair touching. These were her answers.

(*Note: Sorry for the formatting issues. It has taken me 1 1/2 hours to try to format this %*&* thing. LiveJournal sucks. Also, I am the least tech savvy person on the planet. Please do not leave me irritated comments about the crappy formatting. Those comments will NOT be chosen by the Loving Claw of Possible Book Winning. You have been warned.*)  

LB: This book should come with a warning about the tear-shedding quotient. I mean, seriously—I went through a lot of tissues, Jo. There was a small snot-rag mountain by my bed. Why do you like to make us sad? Why? And what do you think your punishment should be for this?

JK: I do not like to make you sad! I promise!!!

Read more Jo Knowles…

God Is in the Details

Writing stories set in the past can be exciting and educational for a writer. (So many facts to spout at parties! Bore your friends and complete strangers! Have the fondue station to yourself!)

"Hey, did I tell you about that story about the effects of the Immigration Act of 1924 on…wait, where are you going?
There's melted cheese here!" 

Sometimes, though, it can be frustrating and slow-going.

For instance, on Monday, I was working on a scene in DIVINERS TWO, ELECTRIC BUGALOO*, in which someone drives a car down the street. Seems simple enough, right? That’s what I thought, too. I opened my paragraph with a mention of the sound of the wheels on the rain-slicked streets. Hmm, I thought. So it’s raining in this scene. Are they listening to the rain or to the radio—oh wait. There was no car radio in 1926, was there?** And if it’s raining, they’ll need to clear the rain away from the glass…did 1920’s cars have windshield wipers?

My fingers twitched over the keys. Just go on with the story and fix that point later, I scolded myself. (I scold myself often. I am a Scoldilocks.) But I found that I couldn’t go on. I really needed to sink in and feel, see, hear, and smell that scene. And to do that, I needed to know everything about this car from the 1920s on this rainy night in New York City.

Off to Google I went. Here’s what I found: Cars did have windshield wipers. In the early 1920s, they were manual. Yes, you’d have to flick the little switch back and forth to clear away the wet. (This does not seem like much fun to me, and I am already thinking about hair and humidity issues.) By the latter 1920s, windshield wipers were largely vacuum operated: http://www.secondchancegarage.com/public/history-windshield-wipers.cfm

So this tells me how hard I want the rain to fall: If it’s too hard, the driver probably has to pull over. If it’s just sort of spitting or misty, it’s perfect weather for my scene without the distraction of "Let me interrupt the creepy to just mess…with…this…darn…wiper…Hold on, Evil, having some visibility issues here…" Details, details.

Anyway, I spent a good twenty minutes on this one small moment for two sentences in what will probably be a 600-page novel. Do the math. This is why I don't get out much.

But while research can certainly pin you down or force you to come up with creative ways around a sticky point—“Those high-falutin’ windshield wipers were invented by a crazy automotive wizard and that's why they're so super-fast!”—Most times, research can set you free. 

When I was researching REBEL ANGELS, the second book in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, I knew I wanted to have scenes set at Bethlem Royal Hospital, a.k.a. Bedlam. I corresponded with Colin Gale, the archivist there, who directed me to some wonderful resources. It was while reading these interesting case histories that I came across something truly extraordinary: Bethlem Royal Hospital hosted periodic dances open to the public. You read that right—they opened the doors of the asylum to the public for a dance. It was believed that such social activities were important for the well-being of the patients. (By the late 19th-century, treatment of the mentally ill at BRH was much kinder than it was in the horrific days of the 18th-century when it earned its nickname.) This single discovery, which I never in a million years would’ve imagined, opened up all sorts of possibilities for interaction. I was able to have the patient, a young woman named Nell, deliver vital information to the girls in a rather theatrical way in a public forum. Plus, it was a criminal amount of fun to write.

But back to DIVINERS, Book the Second, and that itchy little fact about the windshield wipers. Why so much attention to detail for a throwaway moment? Well, maybe because I’m a geek. (True) Maybe because God is in the details, as they say. (Also true.) Maybe it’s a form of procrastination, um, kind of like writing a blog about research instead of writing the actual book. (Why, that’s CRAZY TALK!) Maybe because I’ve made mistakes before and it bothers the hell out of me when I do. (Sadly, true. And thank you to the kind folks who have taken the time to school me when I’ve been wrong about something.) When that happens, I feel like I’ve messed with the reader’s trust. I’ve punched a hole in the world I’m trying to construct—it’s a loose brick that can send part of a wall tumbling. But also, I really want to know for myself, because it helps me become a part of that world if I know the limits and the possibilities.

And for the record, I’m really grateful for automatic windshield wipers and car radio.

*Do not worry. This is not going to be the actual title of the second DIVINERS book. But it is what David Levithan calls it to make me giggle.

**Did they have car radios, though? This was the second question brought up by this one sentence I was trying to write. Once again, I went on the hunt and found this: http://www.radiomuseum.org/forum/first_car_radios_history_and_development_of_early_car_radios.html  This would seem to suggest that they did or that they could have been around, but the iffy-ness around the dates means that I will have to do more research if I want to state conclusively that these two characters are listening to the radio in the car in early 1927.  You always want more than one source. 

On Gratitude

Today, the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced, which is always an exciting day in our field—like the Oscars for books. This year was no exception, with many surprises announced and, as always, my perilous TBR pile grows ever more tippity with titles. “Tippity with Titles”—alliteration fans, I am here for you.*

What was so cool was seeing book titles trending on Twitter! Yes, book titles and author names trended on Twitter! Attention: We haz control of your Internetz! Mwahahaha! Also, I can’t believe it’s January. And not even new January but a week-away-from-the-end January. Yow. When did that happen?**

I’ve been living in the Writing Cave for so long I’ve forgotten how to do anything but work. So it was such a treat to spend five days at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) earlier this month as their writer-in-residence. It was a life-changing experience for me in many ways. As excited as I was to be there, I was also very nervous. Whenever someone wants me to talk about writing, I feel a profound lack of authority on the subject. Usually, I avoid the topic by shoving food into my mouth then making “I’m sorry, as you can see, it would be rude for me to speak” hand signals. This gives me the air of a very polite psychotic. But truly, all I know about writing could probably be summed up in these profound thoughts:

  1. Sit down to write.
  2. Write.
  3. Have snacks on hand.
  4. Build a community for support.
  5. Read.

That’s it—the sum total of my advice, unless you want to get into specifics about snacks. (Morning: bagel & coffee. Afternoon: brownies & water. It is important to hydrate. And to brownie-ate.***) So I felt more than a little trepidation about standing at a lectern. At any moment, I expected someone to rush into the auditorium and shout, “J’accuse!”**** This is the Fraud Syndrome. Perhaps you have experienced this?

I wasn’t always a great or willing student. Unfortunately, a great deal of my education was wasted. This is not due to my teachers and professors who were mostly excellent. No, the fault is squarely mine. I was a doodler of pages, a looker-out-of-classroom windows, a constant daydreamer, teller-of-jokes-in-class, and, sometimes, a pig-headed arguer of wrong notions from which I refused to be separated even when confronted by evidence. Sometimes I would even argue a point I didn’t believe in just for the sake of argument. I think some of this stemmed from insecurity over feeling that I wasn’t nearly as smart as everyone else in the room. (Of course, arguing for the sake of arguing rather proves that notion.) I had a pick-and-choose game plan that involved skipping out on lectures that “bored” or intimidated me (most science and math) and sometimes not giving my all out of a fear of failure. Of course, failure and boredom and intimidation are all part of the learning process, but you couldn’t tell me that.

As a consequence of my misbegotten youth, I’ve spent a loooot of time learning how to become educated—yes, learning how to learn. I had to acquire the willingness to be taught. The willingness to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Could you please explain that to me?” A willingness to look like the dumbest person in the room. I had to develop an openness to other points of view, to the idea that that my ideas might not be as right as I thought they were and that letting them go isn’t being “weak”; it’s being smart. I began to add the words “explore” “examine” “question” “wonder” “consider” to my educational vocabulary. Oh yeah, and “listen.”

I never went to grad school, though I would’ve liked to very much. But by the time I started getting my act together, I needed to have a job and support myself and so my learning took on the patchwork quilt approach. So I decided that while at VCFA, I wanted to be open to everything. I wanted to go as a student, too, and attend everything that I possibly could while there. I did, and it was extraordinary.

There were wonderful lectures by Matt de la Pena, Betsy Partridge, Susan Fletcher, and Mark Karlins. Leda Schubert & Bonnie Christensen led a great research workshop, which included a guest appearance by the extraordinary Katherine Paterson*****. I also had the pleasure of hearing a few wonderful grad student lectures on topics ranging from the omniscient narrator to writing outside your culture, race or gender. Coe Booth and I stretched out in my dorm room and munched some snacks and talked about where we were feeling stuck with our books. And there was time, too, to hang out and get to know many wonderful, smart, engaged and engaging people.

I came away from these experiences with new insights, with a new way of seeing my writing. Honestly, my synapses were firing like the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks display. It was like all of the hamsters in my brain who usually lie around on the carpet with empty pizza boxes while watching infomercials on ShamHamsterBalls suddenly went from “ ‘sup? When’s din-din?” to “Holy Edification, Batman! We are receiving pellets of wisdom from the mothership! To the wheels! Fly! FLY!”******

After Susan’s lecture, I went back to my room and cut several passages from the third draft of DIVINERS. They were sentences that I could now see were lazy or not as strong as they could be. My verbs needed some jazzing. (Another educational moment: I remember reading Jane Yolen’s THE SWORD OF THE RIGHTFUL KING in which every single one of her verbs socked me right between the eyes—nothing passive about them—and I thought, wow, I really need to up my verb game.) Matt’s talk about patience and taking your time was fantastic, and I looked back at places where I had been in a hurry and had not drawn out the action in a satisfying way. Thanks, Matt. Again and again, there were moments like this. And in round-table (well, oval-table, really) discussions with students over food that was…well-plated…it was brought home to me the amount of thinking and rethinking that goes into writing a book.

Being a student was wonderful. I guess that’s the thing I’m trying to say here: We’re always learning. There is never a moment where you say, “Well, I’ve got this writing thing down.” I left VCFA with even more questions about DIVINERS. And so, new books were procured. I put in a call to my amazing research goddess, Lisa Gold, and asked for some leads on my rather specific questions. The stalwart Tricia Ready and I will head back to the MTA Transit Museum this week for another round in the archives. I will keep digging—into the research, into the work, into the lives of the characters; I will keep thinking, keep the channels open for something I might learn that will change how I see. And so it goes, to quote the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. But I also left Vermont with a sense of gratitude—for the chance to be a storyteller, for the company of people who love books, for the educational opportunity. I’ll be honest with you: I also left feeling a little scared about the work ahead of me. But scared is good. Scared is the enemy of complacent. I always want to be a better writer than I am. I want to find the best way to serve the story I’m trying to tell. I have a lot to think about.

This past year has been a tough one, writing-wise. Fracturing both elbows back in March put me waaay behind on the writing and even the reading. (Holding a book when you can’t really move your arms without pain—not conducive to a nice reading experience.) At times, I thought I would lose my mind both from the dizzying pace and from my inability to make the various puzzles of the book intersect and work as they should. I am not a linear writer, nor am I particularly good at organization, including outlining. I tend to write madly, stop suddenly with a “Wha????” look on my face, and, in a last-ditch act of desperation borne of utter confusion, try to outline or organize the various threads/character arcs of the book. Usually, I get to about number 14 on my bullet pointed “(p)outline” before I am seized by a new idea at which point I abandon the outline and start writing until, maybe one hundred or one hundred-fifty pages in, I’m forced to reorganize. Lather, rinse, repeat. Amazingly, it all works out in the end. Or, as my friend Bill would say, “The worst thing that can happen is that they take us out into a field and shoot us.”******* Bill plays piano and sings in a lot of NYC bars. His sense of what’s a problem and what is not is finely honed.

And so I am back at it, still searching, still thinking, still learning, still writing. Fortunately, I have friends and brownies both at the ready. And when I’ve put this baby to rest—or the production team wrestles it from my grasping hands—and before I dive into the research on DIVINERS #2, I look forward to reading from that stack of award winners. I’m sure I will learn something there.

*Tippity Titles does sound like a children’s book heroine. Or a porn star.

**It happened right after December, Libba. Keep up.

***Brownie-ate should absolutely be a word. “Dude, it’s four o’clock. Time to Brownie-ate for sure.”

****I really don’t know why the villains of my nervous daydreams are always French.

*****Seriously, this woman is amazing. If you ever have a chance to hear her speak, go at once. Or, like, whenever they open the lecture hall.

******The hamsters in my brain don’t get out much.

*******This is good perspective. As opposed to, “OMG, THIS IS SO TERRIBLE THAT AN ANGRY MOB WILL CHASE ME INTO THE FOREST WHERE I WILL BE FORCED TO LIVE THE REST OF MY DAYS SURROUNDED BY DISGRUNTLED FOREST ANIMALS WHO WILL GRUMBLE ABOUT MY ADVERBS!” That is lacking in perspective. And possibly sanity. 

Killing Your Darlings

I need to do something here, people.

No, I’m not going to perform an alien autopsy (too messy) or jump on a couch to profess my love for Katie Holmes. (She seems lovely but we’ve never met.)
 
I need to say hello to Paula from Baltimore. * waves * Hello, Paula from Baltimore! Now, you may rightly be asking, “Who is Paula?” Oh, silly people. She’s Paula! You know…from Baltimore?
 
Wait…you don’t know Paula from Baltimore? Huh. Well, she’s cool.  I’m sure you’d like her.
 
Here’s the story: A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Baltimore Book Festival where I met Paula for the first time and I promised I would blog about it all. Except I didn’t. * facepalm * So in September, when I had the pleasure of attending the Baltimore Book Festival again (in the pouring rain—thank you so much, stalwart book lovers, for coming out in that wet mess. You rock!), Paula walked up to me and said, “Libba Bray, I have a bone to pick with you.” She gave me the stern face. Paula gives good stern face. I’m just saying. I could feel my butt firmly entrenched on the naughty mat from whence I rarely stray. I’m usually in trouble for something. Just ask my friends. Anyhoo, Paula pointed out my transgression and I promised her that I would give her a shout-out here on the blog. So, HEY PAULA! HOW’S IT GOING DOWN THERE IN BALTIMORE?
 
Now, I have made good, and when next we meet, Paula will not give me the frowny face.
 
 
I am hard at work on the second draft of THE DIVINERS. Second draft is really a misnomer as there are a gazillion revisions, large and small, that go into the writing of a book. Everything from revising two lines of dialogue so that it sounds more authentic to moving chapters around to throwing out entire sections that—sad as it is—simply must go.
 
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” This refers to the arduous process of cutting things from your manuscript which you may very well love—perhaps you find them clever or you like a set-up or turn of phrase. But somewhere along the way, as the writing takes its twists and turns, you realize that those things you love no longer really serve the story. Maybe it serves your ego or that burning desire you've always harbored to write a wombat love story filled to the brim with witty wombat banter. (Those wombats, so devilishly clever with a line. Also, try saying "witty wombat banter" three times fast. I just did and I had to untie my tongue at the end.) But serve the actual story? Not so much.
 
This just happened this past week. In the original draft, I had written a scene that takes place at a big, Gatsby-esque party. I’d spent weeks lovingly crafting scenes of decadent partying, layering in social commentary, adding that dollop of simmering romance and a reflection on grief. There were some evocative passages about the moonlight on the Long Island Sound and the echoing light of the city in the distance. These are the moments as a writer that make you say, “Boo-yah!” and celebrate with a brownie. Then you scratch the scene’s tummy and say, “Who’s a pretty chapter! Who’s a pretty chapter, huh? You are! Yes, you are you are you are, hunny bunny puddin’ pie.” (This is ugly. I usually try to spare you from knowing these things, gentle reader. But it’s time you saw the world for what it is…a deeply strange and uncomfortable place populated by many drive-thrus.)
 
So I was very happy with this scene. It was dandy, EXCEPT….that it stopped the story dead. DEAD. Crickets chirping. Hell, I probably would have tried to work those chirping crickets into the TOTALLY DEAD scene and pretended it was metaphor.
 
My editor, Alvina Ling, gently suggested that I might consider cutting it. Two dear friends who also read the manuscript early on suggested the same thing. “But it has pretty imagery,” I said. “And someone vomits in a funny way.” They looked off into the distance and said nothing.
 
Now, I love me a challenge (please see: Wombat Love, the Musical!), and I thought, “There has to be a way to make this work!” So I spent several days trying to do just that. Turning it this way and that. Playing with the placement of the scene—perhaps if it took place earlier or later in the action? And then, the realization began to sink in, like when you understand that no amount of make-up will cover that zit and calling it a “mosquito bite” isn’t fooling anyone. That scene, pretty as it may have been, full of stylish ennui and one amusing vomiting moment just wasn’t cutting it. To quote the great Bette Davis, “It. Won’t. Play.” (Thank you, Margo Channing.)
 
With a heavy heart, I axed it. But the funny thing is, once I cut that scene, I was liberated. I went on a cutting rampage. As of this posting, I’ve jettisoned five of the original chapters and ripped out an entire character storyline, which I am now retooling so as to make it more germane to the plot. (Usually a good idea in general.) It’s like the eleventh hour of “Project Runway”, after you find out that you have to start your couture clown dress all over using only staples and a few handfuls of fertilizer, and then Tim comes in, takes a look at the dirt and staples all over you, your bloodshot eyes and borderline psychotic grin, puts his finger to his mouth in a thoughtful way and says, “I’m concerned.” And you say, “No, Tim, it’ll all work out—I swear!” And you staple some fertilizer to the floor and laugh.
 
This revision is due in…* squints at calendar *… 22 days. My manuscript has been blown apart and is in complete “I don’t know what I am yet” tatters. I am fully psychotic and so terrified that I’m living on coffee and Tums and sometimes I go up to perfect strangers, pet their faces and say, “You have a beautiful light inside you. Shhh, don’t speak. Let’s just have this moment together. You smell good.” Interestingly, I have not been arrested yet.
 
But the game’s afoot. And hopefully, when that dress heads down the runway, it will be, “I had no idea it was made with staples and fertilizer!” and not, “You know what this novel needed? A funny vomit moment.” 

See you on the flip side.

The Ever-Popular I Suck Playlist

One of the things that continues to surprise me about the writing life is how bloody impossible it can seem at times. I always feel that somehow I should have figured out how this whole thing works, but I swear that every single book is like learning how to write all over again. It’s learning not to break and run when you start dredging up those ghosts of the subconscious, those deep-down scary things that we do our best in our everyday lives to ignore. I’ve written five books now, and I know this is part of the process, and yet I am always surprised, dismayed, and panicked to find myself in this spot. I’m telling you this happens EVERY SINGLE FRIGGIN’ TIME.

Usually, I get a sense that this is about to happen because I become agitated and completely avoidant. I will whimper and pace the way dogs do before a bad storm. There will be a few days, maybe a week or two, sometimes even a month, in which the writing feels terribly stilted. False. Awful. The equivalent of small talk at a party where you don’t know anybody and you can’t leave yet because somebody else is driving, and so you just have to keep standing in the corner holding on to your sweating seltzer glass saying, “Really? How interesting. I did not know that about elephants.”

I hate this part. Hate it. These are the days when I come home with the comic book dark cloud scribbles over my head, and when my husband asks me how the writing’s going, I sigh and press my head against my palms and moan, “Terrible. I can’t figure this thing out. I don’t know anything about writing books. You have to tell them I don’t know how to write books. The last five books were a fluke, and now it’s over. Over, I tell you. I’m so sorry. I tried. I have to go watch The Simpsons now.”

If this part of the writing process were an iPod track list it would look like this:

Track #1: I Suck
Track #2: I’m Not Smart Enough to Write This Book
Track #3 No, This Is Different
Track #4: Maybe I Could Become a Firefighter/Gravedigger/Finger Puppeteer
Track #5: I Suck, Parts IV-VIII
Track #6: Why Can’t I Write Like (Fill in Blank)?
Track #7: This Doesn’t Happen To (Fill in Blank)
Track #8: Will You Help Me Fake My Death/It’s the Only Way/My Life in a Storage Unit Medley
Track #9: I Suck (Extended Dance Remix)
Track #10: What Was I Thinking?
Track #11: This Is Hopeless! (DJ Flail ‘N’ Whine Mix)
Track #12: So Overwhelmed I’m Underwater
Bonus Track: Also, I Hate My Hair

I’m in a weird no-(wo)man’s-land right now. BEAUTY QUEENS comes out next month, May 24th, and I’m very excited about that. (More to come. Watch this space.) But I need to make headway on the first book of the DIVINERS series. And I’m still trying to heal the broken elbows and keep the wheels of my non-writing life greased and working. So my attention is very divided.

When I’ve done school and library visits and people have asked me how I deal with writer’s block, I usually say that I do a free write. That the act of confession on paper helps me to get out of my own way.

So what would I tell you if I could? I would tell you that this book scares me. That on some level, it feels too big, too unwieldy, too…much. Like I’m a very small knight in ill-fitting armor dragging an untested sword, and I’m staring up at a gigantic, multi-headed, fire-breathing dragon who’s working a good smirk. (Those dragons, big on the smirk, which, if you ask me, is just overkill. I mean, dudes, you’ve already got flight and fire. Give the snark a rest.) These fears are, I’m sure, pretty universal. But in the moment, they feel so very personal.

This is the magic/curse of writing: That in crafting your fiction, you leave yourself open to sudden moments of unguarded truth, and you have to be willing to tolerate that again and again. You have to keep raising your sword and charging, even knowing you could retreat scorched and missing a limb. You have to keep doing it even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to.

Right now, I’m sitting in a café in Brooklyn. It smells like hard-boiled eggs—not my favorite smell. The music is plaintive and reminds me of road trips through Texas countryside in the rain when the car has gone quiet and everyone is riding in some mutually respected bubble of silence, an unspoken recognition that some distances cannot be traveled so easily. There’s a lady having a loud conversation on her cell phone a few tables over, and if this were a movie, I would rip it from her hands and break it John Belushi-styles with a sheepish, “Sorry.” Behind this LJ screen, Scrivener waits with a smattering of half-thoughts, broken phrases, and ideas that I hope I can connect into paragraphs, then pages, and so on, into a story I want to tell, a story I have to tell though I don’t know why yet and I’m sure I won’t know for a long while. I hate what I’m wearing and my hair looks like shit and what I want to do is go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and feel all the towels. I want to look at all the perfectly made beds and imagine the life I would have with each one—“This polka dot duvet cover is for my imaginary beach house life, which will be free of care and worry; these paisley shams say, ‘Welcome to my townhouse in Cambridge; Fondue party in five.’” Or maybe I’d sit in the darkened halls of the Natural History Museum, one of my favorite places, and imagine myself as part of the antelope exhibit, eyes open and searching, ears alert, mouth mid-chew on some delicious grass. I want to escape, which is the very reason why I have to keep at it. Because I know something’s about to break through. And when it does, I really hope I’m there to catch it.

How’s your writing going?

In praise of the free write

This morning I had a rare treat. I got up early (as is my wont) and went about my errands, fetching carby breakfast goods for the household, and I stopped into a little café near Prospect Park and decided, what the hey, I’ll sit and have a scone and a cup of coffee all by my lonesome. This is actually one of my favorite things to do: sit in a café in early morning drinking coffee and watching the world wake up. It makes me feel like I have a secret. Sometimes we just need to make a date with ourselves.

After what felt like a marathon spring/summer of writing, I turned in Beauty Queens to David Levithan last week, and I am now in that strange, no-man’s land between first draft and revision, between old project and new. I always have other writing projects simmering on back burners, but I found my fried brain & soul needed a solid week of doing nothing but reading, walking, doing summer things with The Boy (Hello, Yahtzee and Scrabble! How ya doin’, swimming pool? What’s up, ice cream cones?) and trying to sort through piles of mail and other piled-up things before jumping in again. I describe this period as the post-partum depression. I usually feel restless, not right in my skin; too wired-tired to concentrate on anything and a little out-of-sync with the world. (Well, THAT’S not unusual. LOL.) I hate that summer seems to be going by so quickly. Already, there is a warning of September in the air. The clouds have that storing-nuts-for-winter fullness to them. School clothes are hanging in the store windows. I’m not ready! I demand more summer. Harumph.

In the midst of this, I decided to look through my boxes of old writing journals. I spent an afternoon reading through my scribblings. I’m a big proponent of the free write. I often talk about how it helps unmask whatever fear lurks behind the writer’s block. This blog serves that purpose, too. But there’s no substitute for a notebook, a pen, a quiet corner, and the sort of stream-of-consciousness writing that you allow to just happen without stopping yourself.

I think I need to get back to that place and do more free writing. Maybe we could all agree to squeeze in some free writing in the next few weeks as summer winds down? Might be a fun shared exercise? You could post the links to your free writes so that we can all check them out. I might even be able to supply a prompt or two. (At least until that manuscript wings its way back to me.)

So, here’s a notebook free write I did a few years back. I remember it was Labor Day weekend and I was betwixt and between and unable to sleep. So I went for an early morning walk around my neighborhood. This was what came out of it.

Five forty-five a.m. Saturday morning
Can’t sleep.
Resigned, I tiptoe through the dark
Careful not to wake the husband, the boy, the house
Feed the cat who weaves between my legs
Awake and hungry like me
Turn the lock, open the gate, and I’m out
Into the sleepy stretching streets of Brooklyn

Walking down Fifth Avenue
Umbrella under my arm, two bucks in my pocket
Past the bodegas, those constant night owls,
The OTB, Designs by Julie, All Hail the Laudromat,
The 99-cent store promising a wonderland
Of whimsical pencils, laundry sheets, white dishes
Plastic toys, pink flower barrettes, saints’ candles,
Washcloths, four to a pack, because nothing should be
Alone.

Walking the streets of Brooklyn
With my iPod on high
Sufjan Stevens singing about Chicago but I’m
Thinking about New Orleans
Laurie and me driving over the Lake Ponchatrain
Bridge in the dark, all white knuckles and high hopes
Stumbling through the French Quarter with Mary
Drinking beer with the Scottish bartender
Throwing darts that always missed
Dancing down Bourbon Street in black lace and
Smeared mascara, cemetery angels under sea level
At five forty-five a.m. so far from
Brooklyn

Light rain falling; the wind blows a dirge
That whispers across my neck
“October’s coming.”
Traffic lights do their Busby Berkley routine
Red, yellow, green in perfect synchronicity
Slick streets shine with color, letting the sky know
It’s time to come awake
Red, yellow, go
Four college boys fresh from a bar
Weave down the street
Drunk on youth, they snap pictures in the dawn
Freeze-framing themselves in a moment
We nod and pass, nod and pass

Newspaper truck idles on the corner of Ninth
Delivering the DailyNewYorkPostTimesofOurLives
Beside the promise of coffee, 24 hours a day,
7 days a week
For those who can’t sleep.
Fluorescent bright bleaches away the night
And HelloMyNameIsSiham offers me a medium, two sugars and cream
Shiham with her shy smile, round belly, pink-and-orange
Dunkin Donuts hat atop her beige hijab
A clash, a confluence, a compromise of cultures
An advertisement for the borough

Up the hill on 9th Street, the shops are closed till seven.
In the distance, the BQE buzzes with the lights of cars
People coming from
People going to
People who can’t sleep at five forty-five a.m.
High on a billboard, Magic Johnson
Smiles down like God
Over the cracks in the sidewalk where leaves of grass grow
Offering a miracle ten years too late
For the boys I lost

The lady in the baby blue jacket staggers near
Enough that I can smell the 100 proof evening on her
Breath. “Miss,” she asks, soft as a child, “Miss,
Are they on?”
She points to her false eyelashes, glittery as stars,
They peel up at the corners of her eyes
“Could you fix it?” she asks, and I put my finger
To the soft caramel of her skin, patting down till it sticks
To the dried tears there. “How do I look?” she asks.
“Beautiful,” I say and mean it.
The light changes. No longer revealed, she moves on.

Cross the crest of Seventh Avenue, wander down Tenth
The brownstones jigging and jagging the length
Of the hill, crooked teeth in an old man’s face
Sixth Avenue, Eleventh Street, Twelfth, Thirteen
The streets criss and cross toward home
They stretch across my soul like a Jupiter line
While Sufjan Stevens whisper-sings in my ears,
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”

Down at the bottom where the Gowanus tries
To become something new, the dark’s lifting
Hot Bagels rolls up its iron nightgown
Miguel sweeps the sidewalk of cigarette butts and Friday night’s revelry
Dogs pull their sleepy leash holders into Saturday morning
Tired new parents stumble with their small fidgety
Cocoons toward the salvation of
Breakfast. Daisy’s Diner winks neon at them
And they follow like johns
The biker boys and tattooed love girls roll out as they roll in
The night shaking hands with the day
Punch the clock and hang your ticket
A busy intersection of saints and sinners

Turn down my street where the paper boy’s been
The stoops glow blue with plastic bags
Full of stories about other people, other
Places, other lives printed in black-and-white
That always smears, smudging your fingers
Leaving stains

And I’m too alive to sleep
Too alive to sleep
Too alive
To sleep