“We write every day, we fight every day, we think and scheme and dream a little dream every day. Manuscripts pile up in the kitchen sink, run-on sentences dangle around our necks. We plant purple prose in our gardens and snip the adverbs only to thread them in our hair. We write with no guarantees, no certainties, no promises of what might come and we do it anyway. This is who we are.”
Ever since starting my new novel on Tuesday, my thought process has bounced back and forth between “writing-is-the-best-thing-ever-how-have-I-gone-without-it-for-six-months-!!!” and “wow, there is so much to figure out with this new story now that I’m putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) … where to begin?” Those two ideas may seem independent of each other, but as I’ve learned over the past several years, nothing with writing is ever an island. Everything’s connected in some way. In this case? The adrenaline-filled, giddy passion that comes from beginning a new manuscript actually makes me determined to be even more organized, even more thorough, even more resolute. In terms of planning and plotting ahead of time, I’ve always fallen somewhere in the middle: I do character sketches and draw up a loose outline, complete with main messages and a sense of beginning-middle-end, but I very much believe in letting the characters lead the way once the story unfolds. It’s amazing how they know their journey better than anyone – including me! – and can whirl it in entirely new directions.
That said, there are two areas that I try to hold control over, and I’m curious if it’s the same for anyone else.
Research: This has been necessary to varying degrees in my different novels – sometimes it’s enough to draw on my own experiences with people and places, sometimes there are specific terms and processes to educate myself on, sometimes I have to trust that even though I haven’t lived through the same situations as my characters, being able to relate to them on an emotional level is just as important. And sometimes, like with my current manuscript, it’s a combination of everything. This book has required more research than any of my previous ones: pregnancy progression, adoption rules and regulations, the speech patterns and development of a three-year-old, and so much more. I devoted two weeks to research before diving in, and even though my hands were itching to type, type, type, it was still a really awesome way to learn so much about so many things. Want to know what happens in the eighth week of pregnancy? I’m your gal. Want to know what happens in a home visit for prospective adoptive couples? I have three pages of notes that can fill you in. Want to know how many words are in a three-year-old’s vocabulary? A four-year-old’s? Take a guess and then I’ll tell you what the experts say. Even with all the research though, only five days into writing the new book, I am sure of this: it is not the same for everyone. Just like real people (that feels strange to say, because after spending a year and a half with these characters, they seem so real to me), our characters are unique. Statistics, benchmarks, and data are a guideline that help shape their experiences, but more than that, they shape them. Pregnancy is not just about how the baby grows physically – it’s also about how the mother grows emotionally. Adoption is not just about which forms have to be filed – it’s also about choosing your family and being the missing piece to each other’s puzzle. Three-year-olds are not just about developmental milestones – they’re also about playing make-believe, kissing away their mamas’ tears, building a castle out of Play-Doh, and accidentally ruining a two-hundred-dollar collector doll by helping her swim in the bathtub. Research is important, but it’s what our characters do with the research that matters most.
Schedule: This is more my curiosity than anything else, but fellow writers, I’m wondering what your work schedule is like. With my first manuscript, I’d work for four days straight, then take a day off to plot the next few chapters, then jump back into writing. With my second manuscript, I literally wrote every single morning that it was humanly possible. That book was the best and most magical writing experience I’ve ever had, and it was seriously an effort to pry myself away from the computer. In the two months it took me to do the first draft, I skipped writing only two days – when we left for our shore vacation and when we came home. Even while we were at the beach, I woke up with the sun to squeeze in writing time while everyone was asleep. With my third manuscript, I worked Monday – Friday and gave myself the weekends to plan, send out queries for the previous book, and (occasionally) take a break. Now, with the fourth manuscript, I find myself using a different approach yet again. It generally takes me two days to write a chapter (sidenote: it was so strange at first, going back to regular chapter format after writing the previous book completely in diary-style), so the plan is to write for six days, take two days off for planning, lots of querying, and time to (maybe) relax, and then leap back in again. It’s funny – and really interesting – to me to consider how different the scheduling has gone for each story. It’s fitting, though, I think, because the writing process is never the same. Each manuscript is special in its own way; each spins its own web. I learn so much from each one and I’m glad that they’ve all taught me different things. It’s exciting and invigorating.
Perhaps this quote by Walter Benjamin best sums it up: “Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”
Here’s to striking resonant chords, building sturdy foundations, and weaving beautiful tapestries.