Tag Archives: writing

Getting into that new-book groove


“That’s the mountain I’m gonna hike? Son of a–“

Now that I’ve finished the rewrite of my last novel (Are we ever truly finished? Those are the questions that nibble my toes at night…), I’m finally able to clear the way for my new work in progress. This should be a fresh, freeing sensation, right? Honestly, it’s kind of terrifying.

I’ve discovered I have an awful time “breaking away” from the last book I’ve been working on. At least I already have a great start on the new novel, but it’s like wading through a desert. I don’t have a strong grip on the voice yet, and everything is so new, it’s daunting. There’s an overwhelming “I don’t know where to begin-ness.” I have, after all, been rewriting for the past year, which involves one comfortable, well-worn story. I know all of the characters inside-out. I can tell you the route you need to take to get from Freddy’s house to Paul’s, and about how Freddy likes chocolate milk, but won’t touch it plain. I have a grasp on my new characters, but I am still learning about them.

The new story has a ton of promise, but it isn’t broken in yet, which is an apt way to describe my life now. New town, new habits, new novel in progress… nothing is nice and cozy-comfortable yet. And as I previously established, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take well to change. I find security and sanity in the things that don’t surprise me. But I also am the kind of person who loves to go on adventures and discover new places and sites–maybe I just need something trustworthy to come home to.

Either way, I’m not there in my book yet, which is why I haven’t been writing regularly. Also, the story wasn’t coming as quickly as it had been in its fledgling days of wildfire ideas. Instead of writing for the sake of writing, I wanted to take a new approach. I decided to stop forcing the issue of writing for the sake of writing and reflect on the story outline, which is usually impossible for me. Normally, I just let the characters reveal the story to me and write when a scene comes to mind. In the back of my mind, I knew that this story had to go somewhere and I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees; the arc wasn’t as apparent to me as I thought it would be, so I just let my brain “rest” on it and gave myself a “break.” 

And then it came, like a shot out of the dark. I can’t even recall if there was a trigger. Maybe my brain was quietly working on the lock on Pandora’s Box, and one question or thought about my characters or story revealed it all to me. Either way, it changed the entire story for the better. And what’s crazy is it revealed enough for me to construct a nearly complete outline of the book. I don’t work with outlines until I’m usually reworking plot issues or am nearing the end, so this is all unfamiliar territory at this stage. I have an outline, which I now need to develop with actual pages. And it’s kind of terrifying, because I’m not used to knowing where my story is going from point A to point Z. I don’t know where to begin because I know too much, if that makes sense. And it’s not like this is a plot-driven novel.

The subject matter of my new plot is deeper and more serious than anything I’ve tried to approach before, and it’s a little intimidating. It requires the kind of research you can’t find online or in a book. I’m going to have to actually interview someone to find out what I need to know about my character’s problems. Maybe you know this or not, but writers aren’t usually equipped with suave people skills. A lot of us mumble and avoid eye contact and would rather be thrown into a pit of tigers than into a situation where we have to voluntarily sit down and speak to strangers about real life situations– IN PERSON.

So while it’s exciting to have most of my book completely outlined before I start to knuckle down and write, it’s also vexing. Sometimes I’d prefer not to see the mountain before I start to climb it. Rocks and pebbles are far less intimidating than a tower of steep, evergreen-populated granite. On the bright side, having the whole story before I start writing saves me from churning out thousands upon thousands of words I will never use. My last book took so long to rewrite because my leap-without-looking method got me into two books’ worth of material, and it was supposed to be a stand-alone novel. I would rather not repeat that offense and see those acres of words burning, the smell of their carcasses blurring my revising eyes. This time, I want to do right by my story the first time out of the gate.

Now, where to begin. 

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Note to self: Live

It's Ryan, not Bryan.

“Note to self: Don’t die.” – Ryan Adams

I deserted my novel for a month; abandoned it like a half-baked casserole in the sun. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it sure felt that way after days of beating myself in the brain trying to keep pushing forward. I left my WIP in the middle of a half-rewrite apocalypse, with pieces gutted and strung out like entrails after a hastily departed operation. Essentially, I had taken a big look at all the work that needed to be done, and the enormity of it swallowed up all the energy I had left.  Honestly, I lost track of how many days I left it, because I was afraid the more days it gathered dust, the harder it was going to be to return to it.

In the time I put my book away and hit the road, I did a lot of living. Sometimes, writers forget that some of our best material is actually gleaned from–who would’ve thought!–real life. I went to three and a half concerts in two different states and had a lot of adventures along the way, and then I took an extended vacation to California and saw a little bit of the West. It was a whirlwind of sleeplessness, hastily-scrawled journals, frequent interactions with new people, not to mention an adrenaline rush of different and fresh experiences. I got to see rare Mexican wolves with intense proximity, for instance, and fell in love with surfing. (Not that I learned the actual act of surfing. God, no. I can’t even stand up straight on dry land. I’m a born observer of more athletic individuals.) I finally finished the book I’d been reading, U2: At the End of the World, learned how to play pinball, and chowed down on some amazing fish tacos. And I saw Eddie Vedder live for the first time, in what was one of the best concerts I’d ever attended. All in all, the best month (or so) I’ve had all year.

During my concert-blitzed week, I kept a separate journal of all my experiences, something I will treasure later. I nearly finished writing about the shows before I left for California, but ultimately failed and will have to fill in the gaps later. This will be the material I will use for an idea I’ve been kicking around for my next book. It seems insane to become excited about a new project when I haven’t even finished the one I’m working on now, but it’s such an interesting idea to me, I can’t really tuck it away. For the time being, I will continue researching like a mofo, as I have been over the past few months, sucking up every detail I can about my topic that could give me layers of insight later when I may actually sit down and begin writing it.

I don't remember where in the heck this was.

When I came home, I was apprehensive about cracking open that now-cold and half-baked novel, afraid that I might’ve forgotten the important threads I meant to reconnect; afraid that same old fear I’d magically forgotten how to write at all during my month-long hiatus. But the opposite happened.

I’d been clueless on how to finish the second chapter of my book and had left it as one of the glaring holes to fill in later. It was a foundational chapter integral to the rest of the story, but I just couldn’t come up with a clever way to tie it up. But the first time I picked up my novel after my trip and sat down to begin writing, I finished that chapter. It was as if the blockage in my head had been released, and my ideas were flowing cleanly once again. I looked at the rest of those scattered entrails, and their rightful place no longer seemed so intimidating; some of them, I now knew, could be cut without sacrificing what I loved about my story, and others could be moved around to preserve my plot arc. It was all coming together anew, and just because I’d given myself the time to look away from it and see what was really important in life…

Bonnie and Clyde's last ride.



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Spectrum Surfing

My 8th grade English class was legendary. I was in honors English, and it was a smaller class of relatively intelligent, eager minds for a bunch of kids still stuck in junior high school. But it wasn’t us that made the class memorable for all-time, it was our teacher, Mrs. Temples.

Mrs. Temples never accepted our phone-in efforts, and she somehow figured out a way to push us beyond what we thought we could do to develop our minds and tastes. She introduced some of us to our first Stephen King and Shirley Jackson stories (“Survival Type” and “The Lottery”), quizzed us on the Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First?”, let the girls and boys compete with who could perform a better rendition of Bing Crosby’s “Melekalikimaka,” and assigned us the most influential stories and books I would read as a young adult. We never knew what to expect from her every class, and that’s one reason she was such an exciting teacher. To our credit, I once went back to visit her after I graduated from high school, and she told me my class was the best she ever had, because we actually went along with and understood her challenges and her mantra of trying to push beyond our limits.

But one of the most indellible lessons for me may have only been an aside; truthfully, I can’t remember what author she was talking about at the time (It could very well have been Shirley Jackson), but I do remember the idea being posed to me as a sort of challenge in disguise. Mrs. Temples said the author we were about to read did something very rare, in that he or she wrote from either side of the spectrum. Most authors, she said, (And I’m doing a horrible job of paraphrasing, so I do apologize, Mrs. Temples…) have a sort of specialized niche they focus on, and it’s the rare writer that travels far outside of that comfort zone. I don’t think she was merely talking about genres; that was only part of it. It also had to do with themes, concepts, and values. Ever since I heard that statement, I’ve been looking for authors who do write at both ends of the spectrum, and now I am trying it in my own fiction.

After I finished my first novel, an epic fantasy, I wanted to cleanse myself of the world I’d fabricated. I was burned out, to tell the truth, after about the third complete rewrite, and I didn’t want to even think about constructing another fantasy, or writing a sequel to what I’d just finished. But I was quickly falling into post-novel depression, and had to start working on a new project before I felt like I could never write again. It was my new story that pulled me out of my blackest hole of misery, dusted me off, and gave me something fresh to look forward to.

What I begun was something completely different, something I’d never tried before: a non-genre Young Adult novel. My comfort zones are fantasy and horror, and this featured neither elements in it. I thought it would be a nice new plain to venture out on, a fresh start to a clouded mind. As it turns out, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. 

The research. Oh, the research! This is the single thing that has caused more road blocks than anything wtih my new story, as my WIP is set in the early 90s, before I really locked on to the current culture and arts. For someone who was used to just making up shit whenever something needed explanation or backstory, actually having to put the writing aside to fact-check and authenticate little details was torture. Is torture. I’m still in the middle of it, though most of my research is probably stretched to where I can pull off the story without needing to look more facts up at this point. Thank God.

The "Citizen Kane" of teen movies was directed by John Hughes.

I still feel remnants of that post-novel depression, and it is coupled with writer’s block when I can’t simply make something up to get my characters out of a jam. Now I know why most writers don’t write at both ends of the spectrum: it’s torture! It’s not natural; it goes against the instincts and knee-jerk reactions. My own imagination isn’t hardwired to think about how stuff would happen in the real world; I’m much more apt to throw in a magical or horrific element than simply try to figure out a realistic way for my characters to escape dire situations. (This is where I kick myself for being a hermit and rarely getting in trouble as a kid. I could’ve been researching life for future stories!) Since I didn’t experience a lot of hard times or major trouble in my teenhood, my novel is probably more on the light-hearted side; that’s why I’ve decided to keep it in the vein of all of those John Hughes movies that are so beloved by the world. I was a wacky kid, so I understand how to write that, at least.

I hope this exercise in writing outside of my comfort zone pays off through developing areas of my imagination I may not have otherwise tapped. I’m realistic enough to know I’ll never be a legendary writer like Shirley Jackson or Stephen King, those highest tips on the pyramid we all aspire to be, but at least I’m trying to broaden my writing so that I’m not pigeon-holed as an author who sticks to one area of the story spectrum. I don’t want to recycle the same stories and ideas over and over again, and if I should ever find myself doing that, I’ll hang it up. Because if I’m not challenging myself, and therefore not pushing the limits to be better than I believe I am, what point is there in writing at all?

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