Part of the Tour is passing the baton on to another writer to run with on their blog. I chose Will Alexander, author of the 2012 National Book Award winning Goblin Secrets. He is not only one of the best writers I know, but one of the kindest and most thoughtful people, and a valued beta-reader for my WIP. Look for his post on (or around) 6/17/14.
1. What Am I Working On?
I have just sent a final draft of a middle-grade fantasy called The Evil Wizard Smallbone to my agent. It is set on the coast of Maine in something like the present--if the present included Evil Wizards and selkie towns and werecoyotes on motorcycles. Soon I will begin the process of turning two novellas into a clockwork-punk ghost story/mystery novel that may be YA or may be adult, or possibly both. Or neither.
2. Why Do I Write What I Write?
Because that’s what I like to write. In my graduate student days, I wrote a lot of things I had to write, and I did not enjoy it. Writing is hard work for me (see below), and when I left the academic life, I swore (in the Scarlett O’Hara vein) that I’d never write non-fiction again. I did, of course, and do—into every working writer’s life a little non-fiction must fall, and I’m resigned to that. Sometimes, I even enjoy it. But when I write to please myself--and to say some things about family and friends and class and history and gender and folklore that I think need saying--I'm feel as if I'm doing the work I'm meant to do. I'm just grateful that it often pleases editors and readers as well, since I can no more “write to the market” than I can fly to the moon.
3. How Does My Work Differ From Others Of Its Genre?
It’s old-fashioned. My middle grade books are more like the classic children’s books in their structure and their wandering plots than the streamlined, fast-paced middle-grades most people are writing now. I think these books are grand, mind you. I enjoy reading them; I just can’t write them. When I write for older readers, my models are the Victorian novel and those modern novelists who looked backward for their inspiration, like Angela Carter and Leon Garfield and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I love rich language and unfamiliar words and strange, regional idioms, and I use them, as Elizabeth Goudge and Dorothy Dunnett did (if not as well) without apology or explanation. This does not make me unique—Neil Gaiman is a master of all the various registers of high diction and low, and so are a host of other writers. But it does make me slightly unusual.
4. How Does my Writing Process Work?
Long ago, a friend compared my writing process to the growth of a coral reef: layer after layer of words, laid down, knocked off, rebuilt, doggedly, patiently, over the course of—well, centuries would be a gross exaggeration, but that’s sure how it feels. Certainly writing a book takes me longer than the year to eighteen months most publishers (and readers) prefer.
The truth is, I’m not actually a very good writer. My plots resemble Swiss cheese (bland, yellowish, and full of holes), my characters resemble puppets (Mr. Punch yells; Mrs. Punch drops the baby), my writing is uneven. The dialogue that sings in my head turns into inconsequential chatter on the page, and transition that seemed brilliant on the walk to the café turn out to make no sense whatsoever when written down.
Really. I’m not being modest here. Just ask my partner and first reader Ellen, or my first-tier beta readers. They’re kind, but firm. This Will Not Do, Dear. What about the werecoyotes? Why does she like him? He’s a train wreck. What did you think you were doing in Chapter 6? Why? Why? Why?
So I go back and try to make all that clearer. And then I do it again. And again.
Between public drafts come self-imposed drafts to fix problems I have identified myself—although sadly not until I’ve already followed those problems through a chapter or even a complete draft. Sometimes the fixes are suggested by conversations with helpful friends, but mostly I have to figure out myself what will make my book more like, oh, a good complex cheddar or a nicely veined and aged French blue.
Luckily, I like rewriting. My last novel went through ten drafts. Most of my short stories take at least seven. The Freedom Maze took twenty-seven, not counting turd-polishing passes over chapters I ended up discarding. It’s not an efficient way of doing things, and I don’t recommend it to anyone else, but it’s my process and I’ve come to accept it, if not to love it.
When I’m well into a project, I write every day, or as close to every day as I can manage. I prefer to write in cafés, but really, I can write just about anywhere. I scribble on the subway (most of this post was written on the Broadway Local) or waiting for a doctor or my dinner date or on an airplane or on a park bench or in a museum. I can even write at home. The café is for intensive, uninterrupted drafting or editing. They make better chai than I do, and if I need to know what a character looks like, I have only to look around me.
Zero drafts are always by hand in a notebook. Zero point one draft is when I type it into the computer. On the continuum between pantser and plotter (did you think it was a binary? It’s not.) I alternate between making it up as I go along and planning ahead. I usually go in knowing the beginning, a couple of things in the middle, and the end, all of which is subject to change. Except the end. Mostly. When I have no idea what is going to happen next, I narrate my plot—frequently to Ellen, but not infrequently to friends at lunch or strangers encountered at parties or even to myself, in notebook scribbles or daydreams on long walks. When I’ve got a complete draft, I make an outline and a timeline on a Google calendar print-out of whatever year my WIP is set in. This is very useful, and if I’d thought of it sooner, I might have finished Freedom Maze in only twenty drafts.
I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. I do pass-through revisions for plot, passes for character, passes for theme, passes for voice, passes for structure. Most of these remain private—it does not do to abuse one’s beta readers. They get exhausted and cranky. Finally, when I am finally almost satisfied with the product, (or Ellen tells me to let go already), I send it to my agent or editor who either does or does not ask for changes.
And then I start on the next thing. I’ve got a list of novel ideas that should last me for the next forty years or so, at my present rate. I better get cracking.