Writing Process Blog Tour

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My VCFA classmate, Sarah Tomp, tagged me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. I’ve been reading my way back through the chain of posts and have loved finding out about what people are working on and how they approach their writing, and I’m excited to reflect on my process and work, as well. Thanks for thinking of me, Sarah!

You can read Sarah’s post here. Her YA novel My Best Everything comes out next year and is about love and moonshine (yes, making and selling it)!. Unexpected combination, right? Her new project, which she describes in her process post, sounds similarly compelling. Sarah’s bright with a big heart, and that permeates all of her writing. I’m looking forward to her novel’s release.

This blog tour is a little unusual in that instead of writers visiting each other’s blogs, the questions move from one person to the next. Sarah tagged two people, and I’ll continue the tour by tagging two more at the end of my post.

Now for the questions…

1.     What am I working on?

I have two complete YA novels, one that I’m actively revising while the other simmers. The active project is a contemporary, realistic novel called Lifeline. The background novel is a genre piece set in an alternate version of our world. It’s called Darkness and was my MFA thesis novel, although I’ve rewritten it since graduation.

2.     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Lifeline is about a second generation Bengali girl, but it isn’t about being Bengali. The main character also has two parents who are alive and not evil — rare in children’s literature! Mostly it’s about two girls who are best friends, and they love each other as best friends do. The problems in their relationship don’t come from a fight or falling out but mental illness and a desire to protect each other from what’s going wrong in their respective worlds.

I mentioned above that Darkness is set in an alternate version of our world. Steampunk is based on the idea that at one point in history, technology development took a different direction than what actually happened. Instead of electricity, the world is powered by steam. The entire genre is based on that “What if?” The world in Darkness takes another moment in history and applies the same, “What if __ had happened instead?” and is developed from there. As far as I know, no one has picked this moment and built a world around it…

3.     Why do I write what I do?

It took me a while to find the right form for my writing. When I was in school, I loved fantasy and mostly wrote stories with fantastic elements. I got into poetry as a high school sophomore and concentrated on that through college and into grad school. I was doing research in education when a colleague (well, more of a colleague of my adviser) asked me about my writing and interests and suggested I try YA. He worked with kids in prison and had been reading the books that resonated with them and had been impressed by the YA novels he’d read. I was skeptical — I wanted to be a “serious” writer — so he told me to keep an open mind and sent me a couple of books. I tore through them, remembered the YA novels that had meant so much to me when I was in school, and started to read everything I could to learn about what was possible and what had been done.

YA novels provide the right space for the questions I want to explore. Teens ask big questions and have big problems without necessarily having the support or resources to work through them, and adolescence is when people really start to figure out who they are and who they want to be — a perfect age for every kind of fiction.

Although Lifeline and Darkness are completely different novels, the questions driving them are related:

— How do I survive when the people I care about most are falling apart?
— How do I survive when the world is dangerous and I’m afraid of myself?

4.     How does your writing process work?

When I first started to work on novels, I was a plunger, not a plotter. I thought creativity meant diving into things and figuring them out along the way. This worked for poetry, but after throwing out 200 pages of a novel that I’d already started over three times, I decided to give outlining a chance and was amazed to discover how much work I could save myself simply by thinking through the story before writing it. (I know, right?)

Now I have long planning stages before I write. I “doodle” characters and scenes in my journal. Usually I have one big idea or scene — the climax or some pivotal moment — and then I try to figure out how the characters reach that point. I also tend to have a character or a relationship in mind as I start doodling. Once I have a strong sense of the characters and a general idea of their trajectories, I open up Scrivener and start to outline on notecards.

Depending on the novel, this part can vary. Darkness has three distinct parts, and the outline reflects that. Lifeline has several threads that I wove together and track through color coding  Once I have an outline, I print it out and try to find holes, essentially critiquing the outline the way I would a novel. I also map the scenes to a calendar to make sure the timeline works and to see if anything interesting pops up from the dates, from weather variation to holidays, that can serve the plot.

Once I’ve revised the outline as thoroughly as I can, I write. This goes quickly. I wrote the first draft of Lifeline in nine days. I knew where I was going and pushed through a full draft while my husband was on a trip. I led a feral existence for as long as it took to write, grazing and scavenging for food instead of eating proper meals, and sleeping as needed, mostly through naps, so that I could immerse myself in this world.

I let completed drafts sit for a few days (a week if I’m disciplined) before printing out a hardcopy for a read through and initial critique. I repeat the process of questioning the manuscript and characters, switch to the outline, revise the outline based on my notes, and then revise the manuscript.

At this point, my process becomes less extreme. I take several weeks to plan a revision and will take a month or two to write, usually working through a scene per day. I don’t write every day — I need both thinking days and inspiration days to recharge. When I’ve done as much work on a draft as I can on my own, I send it to beta readers for feedback, and this usually sparks another round of questions, outlining, and revision.

Now that I have an almost 3-month old, I won’t be able to draft an entire novel in a week and a half — I have to take care of him even if not myself! — but I expect to continue to alternate quick drafting with slow thinking and planning. One thing that has already changed — I’ve been switching between devices more often and wrote this blog post on my husband’s old iPad in Evernote  I expect I’ll be writing more on the go and whenever I can, so I’ll probably take notes digitally instead of on paper so that I can find them more easily.

Outlining turned out to be one of the most creative parts of the process for me, which initially took me by surprise. I daydream scenes and possibilities, jot notes, and then imagine other paths for my characters. I don’t always stick to my outlines —sometimes as I’m writing, the scene comes out differently from what I’d planned —but I always take a step back and think the story through to the end before I begin writing again. I’ve learned that I’d rather toss out a 5-page outline than a 200-page draft!

Up next:

For more process posts, please visit Gwenda Bond and Stephanie Burgis’s blogs next week!

Gwenda and I overlapped as students at VCFA. We shared an adviser her first and my final semester. She’s a fabulous writer with impeccable taste in books. Her third book, Girl on a Wire, is coming out this fall. I tagged Gwenda because she loves to talk shop. In addition to her work as a journalist, Gwenda has written three incredibly different books and collaborated with her husband on a fourth. I’d love to know more about how she tackles such diverse projects.

I’ve gotten to know Steph  through blogs and social media, and she’s a wonderfully warm person and excellent writer. I love her middle grade magical Regency books and can’t wait for her novella about grown up Kat. I also tagged Steph for selfish reasons. She’s the mother of two young children — a toddler and a baby — and yet she’s one of the most consistently productive writers I know. I have no idea how she juggles everything, but she’s great at all of it, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about how she does it.

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