New Deadline + Tumblin’

Okay, so maybe December was a bit optimistic. APRIL is my new goal for finishing a draft of my suffragette novel.

I have made many, many goals to complete a novel in the past, but I know I’m going to make this one. Because if I don’t finish a draft of some novel, any novel, by my [fierce] birthday, I am going to have a Crisis.

Also, I have been playing with tumblr. It’s mostly functioning as a Pinterest-y board of 1910s stuff right now, but in theory I could eventually start writing on it or something.

“A Skeleton Story” and Writing Process Highs

I feel like my writing process works best–or is most pleasurable, anyway–when it’s a mix of fast stream-of-consciousness and slow cooker.

A Skeleton Story” was like that. I wrote a radically different draft in early 2010 for my then-writing group. It was called “Sofa’s Life Index” and in retrospect, it was two stories in one, a story about a girl’s first hookup and a story about a girl coping with her older sister’s eating disorder. The middle of “A Skeleton Story” is from that original draft (from “Confession” to “Threats”).

I put it aside when I entered grad school because grad school was going to be about learning how to write a novel. Writing a novel, as it turns out, is really freaking difficult, and I ended my first semester with only three or four paragraphs that I was actually proud of.

At the post-semester residency, I read the aforementioned section of “Sofa’s Life Index” for my student reading, because I didn’t have anything coherent to read from my semester of novel-ing. And that’s one of the reasons why doing public readings are important, I’m reminding myself now, because it forces you to evaluate your own work to find the most worthy part. The rest of “Sofa’s Life Index,” the part I didn’t read, was kind of crappy, but what read got so much encouragement from my classmates that I wanted to turn it into something.

Fast forward a year. I’d just been through a huge breakup which required me to move out. I was crashing on couches and in guest rooms of generous friends, trying to keep up with grad school work and figure out a new job and where to live. So, a dark place. I did a lot of freewritey one-off exercises during that time, and one of them was about monsters. It would later turn into the beginning of the story.

At the end of that semester, with a workshop deadline in two days and nothing to workshop, I wrote “A Skeleton Story.” It poured out of me in this long, intense fourteen-hour stream. I so rarely have writing experiences that sustained. I don’t remember making the conscious decision to connect the monster idea to the skeleton theme, or to have Sonia begin to succumb to an eating disorder herself. The story just seemed to magically crystallize, fully formed. And though it then went through a workshop and rigorous editing process where patient friends helped me obsess over word choice, plus a submission process that included a few rejections, the thrust of the story was written in 14 hours after my subconscious ruminated on the idea for a year and a half.

I’m now experiencing something similar with my current novel-in-progress, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between the two writing processes. My novel is a historical YA set in 1912 – 1913, among its themes being the suffragette movement and women’s education at that time. I got the idea to write about those themes two years ago, and I (pre-emptively) decided it would one day become my third novel, since I was already working on a novel and it would probably take me forever to research the time period thoroughly. I spent the following two years thinking about that era, listening to podcasts and reading fiction and nonfiction on the themes, but barely writing anything down unless the idea was absolutely urgent.

Then, this fall, because I was in a huge rut with The Novel I’ve Been Working On Forever, I decided to write my suffragette novel for NaNoWriMo, as a way to shed my inner critic for awhile. I was shocked by how it flowed right out. I’m going to try and finish a draft by the end of December.

Long rumination, fast drafting. Maybe that’s my writing process? Or maybe that’s a gift I’ve gotten twice so far, when I really needed it, and it won’t come with every story or book.

This is probably a pretty boring post, but I love writing process talk. Especially discussion about writing that feels magical (my favorite is Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on muses). We’re all trying to crack that code, maximize the joy and minimize the pushing-one-shitty-word-in-front-of-another feeling.

Reviewing all this emphasized a lesson I consistently have to re-learn: that writing is an exercise in humility and community. If I had never taken the chance of reading that piece of “Sofa’s Life Index” aloud, if my classmates hadn’t been generous enough to walk up to me afterward and insist I finish it, that story would have sat in a folder. It’s tough post-grad school because you don’t have built-in deadlines and peer critiques, but you must keep asking for favors and counting on others’ generosity. I can’t thank everyone who helped me write “A Skeleton Story” because I can’t remember everyone in my workshop, but it definitely wouldn’t exist without Rob Costello, Laurie Morrison, and Rachel Bergmann. So thanks, guys!

Oh, and the rest of you . . . go read “A Skeleton Story“?

“A Skeleton Story” News and an NYC Reading

It’s been a weird summer.

I was going to get into exactly how this summer was weird. I’d planned to write about being between jobs and life phases, about the experience of trying to use my sudden excess of time to finish my book and not getting that far, about the lows of jobhunting and not having a home that’s mine and the highs of vacationing in beautiful places and seeing my girlfriend more than I’ve gotten to in the past year. And then I was going to write about limbos, about how the time between getting your MFA and publishing your first book is One Big Limbo, because you’ve made writing the center of your life but suddenly you’re without your community. But it turns out, I don’t want to write about limbo. Living it is exhausting enough. I’m exhausted just from writing this paragraph.

So I’ll get to the good stuff instead, and talk about the breaks, the things that remind me that I’m a writer. Which is a useful reminder to have right now.

1. My short story “A Skeleton Story” was a finalist for the 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize!!! The cool things about this are numerous. One is that Rebecca Stead, of When You Reach Me fame, was the judge. So a woman who has written passages that have made me cry read my story and liked it(?)

Blows my mind.

Also, when I saw the list of winners and finalists, I knew half of them. Most from VCFA, and one friend from my high school creative writing class. (Really, what are the odds?) So I am in very good company.

2. My girlfriend Carmen will be in a reading on Thursday. If you are in the NYC area, you should definitely check it out. The reading is called “The Disagreement Presents: Satan Verses Your Dentist,” so who knows what it will be like. Also, it is at Culturefix, which has fancy drinks. Also, Carmen will be reading from my favorite thing she has written. And that is saying a lot.

Thursday at 7pm, people! Hope to see you there.

“The Arf Thing” gets an interview!

I spent grad school in a program specifically for writers of children’s and YA lit. As you might imagine of that particular population, it was an extremely warm, friendly, and enthusiastic community.

So the fact that L. Marie was one of the most generous people I knew in that community should tell you something. A talented fantasy writer, she was always telling people what she liked about their writing. That, or crocheting people flowers. I’m not even exaggerating.

These days, L. Marie champions her classmates’ and other writers’ work on her witty and insightful blog, El Space. Today she interviewed me about my recently-published short story, “The Arf Thing.”

So click here to learn my inspiration for writing the story, my thoughts on short story visibility in YA, and a see pretty sassy picture of Edgar Allen Poe. And make sure to scroll through the whole blog for interviews with other up-and-coming writers.

My First Short Story Publication (!!!)

It’s been a long road, you guys!

I started writing “The Arf Thing” in late 2010, when I was still in grad school. At the time, I was writing a draft I didn’t like of my novel, and I wrote this story to prove to myself that at least I knew how to do something. I was also watching a lot of “It Gets Better” videos—that whole campaign was just beginning. Sometimes I think that all of my short stories, if you put them together, are kind-of sort-of like my version of an “it gets better” video.

I’ll talk more about my inspiration for writing “The Arf Thing” on L. Marie’s wonderful blog next week. In the meantime you can read the story here, on Lunch Ticket.

Sometimes quotes I like are too big to tweet

This really resonated with me, today.

From Maureen Johnson’s blog post, Bringing the Madness Underneath to the Surface:

“I don’t like my books to contain INTENTIONAL MESSAGES, but this might be one. Life is going to deliver shocks. It just is. Shocks are normal. The ghoulies and beasties that pop up in stories are shocks to the system—but the characters move on. They have adventures that incorporate this NEW INFORMATION. They accept change.”

On Community, and the January 7th Reading I Did at Bluestockings

So the other day, I was on YouTube, watching John and Hank Green’s An Evening of Awesome at Carnegie Hall (I am a huge John Green fan). And I was struck by the fact that the speech John Green gave about his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, was all about collaboration. I have been thinking a ton about collaboration and community lately.

A few months ago, a girl I was really into asked if I’d like to be a part of this LGBTQ Scifi and Fantasy Writers reading that her friend was putting together. I said yes, because you don’t say no to an opportunity like that. But I was terrified. Some of writers on the list were well-known names. The others had, at least, published short stories.

I had not been able to publish a short story since grad school. And my novel was, to put it generously, slow going. I had moved to a new city a month after graduating. I’d started working full-time again, at a new job, teaching preschool. My novel-writing had been shunted to early morning, before school, or at night, and I was lucky if I could force out a few good paragraphs in those tiny blocks of time.

As the reading got closer, that girl I was into, who I had since started dating, kept updating me on the publicity efforts of the reading. “A bunch of my friends from out of town are travelling to the city for it,” she told me. And: “Hey, we got a mention in Time Out magazine!”

“Great,” I would say, while experiencing the sensation of my internal organs rattling madly inside my body. I didn’t even know what I was going to read.

The most frustrating thing about my anxiety was that I knew it was unwarranted. It was just a reading! It did not have to determine my worth as a writer. I knew this. I knew that the way I was stressing was a prime example of one of my faults—how much pressure I put on individual events. Like when I was working toward my final reading in grad school, I felt like the reading had to be this peak, this moment of triumph that would legitimize all the struggle I had undergone in my final semester. Which is ridiculous, right? Because writing is not performance. You cannot write for some imagined moment of glory. Your words have to be enough for you, on their own.

In desperation, I reached out to my graduating class at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (We call ourselves The Secret Gardeners.) I posted on the Gardeners message board about the reading and my anxiety about the reading and how hard writing had been for me, post grad school.

Here are some of the things my classmates said:

“You are an amazing writer. Just remember that. The writing will always be there.”

“Please know that you’ll be fine at the reading; you’ve got 31 Secret Gardeners + cheering you on.”

“Whether it takes you 15 days or 15 months or more, it will take just the right amount of time. Because when you do get published–which you will–you will look back and say, thank goodness for all of those bumps along the way, because they got me here, which is exactly where I need to be.”

What they said didn’t surprise me, exactly. I mean, I knew my class was full of generous, supportive people. But I was surprised by my reaction, which was that I bawled all over my computer screen.

Clearly, I needed those encouragements. Whether or not I was supposed to need them. I needed other people who had seen my work to tell me I was going to be okay.

And then I got to Bluestockings, the bookstore that hosted the reading, and everything was awesome. I met Sam J. Miller, who had organized the whole thing, who was friendly and comforting in his down-to-earthyness. And I met Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, who were kind and gave me sweet pre-reading advice (“Don’t worry! I know two-thirds of the people in the audience, and they are very nice”).

the tremendous pre-reading crowd!

the tremendous pre-reading crowd!

Everyone’s pieces were, of course, amazing. Delia read a hilarious scene about a gay wedding between witches, narrated from the point of view of their housewife next door neighbor. Ellen read from The Fall of Kings, as she is currently in the process of recording the audiobook. Rick Bowes’ dialogue cracked us all up. Sam’s piece was funny because it rang so true, and then took this beathtakingly tragic turn in the span of a couple sentences. And my girlfriend Carmen Maria Machado’s story, We Were Never Alone in Space, was everything I’ve come to expect from her fiction—rich and layered and gorgeously strange.

Most of the readers. Observe that post-reading glow!

Most of the readers. Observe that post-reading glow!

I still don’t know if it was a bad thing for me to need the reading to go well. Maybe it was. I know that you cannot rely on other people’s approval if you want to be a successful writer. But what I’ve come to learn is that it’s perfectly natural to need other people’s support. In his speech, John Green said, “I know that books seem like the ultimate thing that’s made just by one person, but that’s not true either, because if I had been alone in the abyss of myself, The Fault in Our Stars would never have existed.”

If I ever finish my novel (which I WILL, dammit!) it won’t be through the force of my own effort. I mean, that will be a part of it, sure, but it’ll also be thanks to my fellow Secret Gardeners. And my family. And the teachers at VCFA, and my girlfriend, and my friends, and even, to an extent, the people who came to the reading at Bluestockings, and the people I read with, those published writers who laughed at my funny parts and made noises of sympathy when things got tough for my character.

I’m still feeling it, the after-glow of the reading. A sense of gratitude and abundance, despite my still new-ish home and my early-morning/late-night blocks of writing time.

The act of writing is so solitary that it can be easy to forget that at its heart, writing is a community effort. It’s about giving a part of yourself to other people who are willing to to take the time to look at it. It’s about saying, “Here is a thing I noticed about the world. Maybe you will recognize it a little.” Hooray for communities—for LGBTQ people, for speculative fiction nerds, and for people who are into visiting a bookstore on a Monday night to support authors and authors-to-be.