Keeping Still

I’ve become a big fan of Facebook as a means of keeping in touch with fellow authors.  It’s been fun to show up a writers’ conferences and feel that so many people are already friends.  I know more about some of them than I do about people I’ve said hello to for twenty years in the mailroom at my college  (although I know more about some of them as a result of Facebook as well.)

Some of my author friends are slogging through writing the middle of books and getting little cooperation from their characters, some have newly released novels or are counting the days till release,  some are just starting research, and others are resting up for the next one, perhaps still wondering what indeed it might be and whether they have it in them to take it on.  Some are dealing with rejection and some with a little more success than their life energy can handle.

But we all know essential things about each other that no one else really can–those things that are part of the private world of being an author.  And so it came as no surprise to me that there was an outpouring of comments to Sandra Gulland’s recent post, which she entitled “Post-Finishing Doubts.”

“Now that I have finished the first draft of The Next Novel, I’m awash with doubts. I don’t think I’ve gotten to the heart of the story,” she writes.   But he nice thing about first drafts is that it’s not too late.  The hard part is that we may feel we’ve already given it everything we can, or are willing, to give.   And so the question becomes something akin to what Robert Frost meant by “what to make of a diminished thing.”  The book isn’t as good as we wanted or hoped, and perhaps we will have to resign ourselves in the end to John Steinbeck’s sentiment that “It’s not good enough, but it’s the best I can do.” If he felt that way about THE GRAPES OF WRATH, what hope could there possibly be  for mere mortals like my Facebook friends and me?

There’s a deeply uncomfortable window of time when one has finished the first draft of a novel and has no stamina or creative juices to call upon to address one’s dissatisfactions or doubts.  It’s easy to get a little freaked out at this point.  I’m there myself with my novel THE LAWS OF MOTION.  I can envision seeing it published some day,  but I wouldn’t want it fixed in print just the way it is right now. The problem is that at the moment I don’t know how to make it better, nor do I have the energy to dig right back in, even if I knew what needed to be done.

I’m with Steinbeck on this. I think his attitude is probably the healthiest one to have while negotiating the huge amount of work involved in writing a book.  My first pass at a scene won’t be good enough, but it will be the best I can do at the moment.  The second pass will be the same, and the third, fourth, and twentieth.  And then eventually the whole work really will be the best I can do, and it will be time to send it forth and hope that some of the lessons I learned stick for the next one.

A friend of Sandra’s put it perfectly in her Facebook response: “This may be a ‘keeping still’ time,[to] allow what you’ve done some time to be absorbed without wondering and worrying about it for a bit.”  Another recalled those great Orson Welles ads for some cheap wine whose name I have long forgotten. In a stentorian voice he proclaimed, “We will sell no wine before its time.”   Perhaps we will finish no book before its time either.


On Research

In the Q&A session after a recent talk I gave,  someone asked how I go about  the research involved in writing historical fiction.   SInce I am now in the early planning stages for my fourth novel, it’s a subject that is very close at hand, and I thought I would say something about it here.

  I have tried out a number of research strategies in the course of writing my novels, and I have settled on a method that works  efficiently and effectively for me.  First, I spend a number of months just reading about the era in which a book will be set.  I read histories, cultural studies, biographies, and anything else that seems essential to a basic understanding.  At this point I’m not sure who my characters are going to be, or even what the personality of the main character will be like, but it’s important to have a good sense for what their culture makes them likely or unlikely to do, think, or say.

As I study, I am making note of particularly colorful people and events, to see if I can figure out a way to work them in. As the chronology and cast of characters begin to emerge, I figure out a timeline and settings for the novel. Because I always have a strong female point-of-view character, I can then give her a date of birth, a name, a family background, a place of residence, and so on.  From there, I build my initial plan for the novel, incorporating a broad outline of the key characters’ life stories into the chronology I have established.  Unlike some authors I know,  I don’t outline in any more detail than this, because I’ve learned from experience that the story will turn out differently as I get to know the characters better.

There’as an amazing point in every book where the characters take over, and I feel more like the recorder of something that really did happen than the inventor of it. Emile Zola called his works “experimental novels,” meaning that when a character is put in an situation ( i.e., a new experiment), who they are will drive what happens.  That’s when a book begins to have a life of its own. I know generally how my characters will react to their situation and what decisions are consistent with who they are, but I don’t know exactly what they will do or say next.  Sometimes they surprise me as my fingers fly over the keys, but I end up realizing that what I wrote was consistent with who they are at a deeper level than I had understood before. When they take on additional depth for me, they do so for the reader as well.

Because I usually get inspired to start writing before I have studied more than the best general sources, I stop often to fill in the gaps in my knowledge on a need-to-know basis.  The advantage of this approach is that the research doesn’t drive the novel, but rather the needs of the novel drive the research.  I don’t like it when a historical novelist intrudes to share background information, regardless of how interesting it is.  To me that’s fictionalized history rather than historical fiction.  The characters and the story have to come first on every page, and the task is to find a way to share interesting information through the characters.  If a writer is thinking about how to build in as much as possible of the research he or she has already done, the priorities will shift away from the most immediate tasks at hand, character development and plot.

No research plan is perfect.  It can be a little scary starting to write without having all the material I need.  Perhaps in earlier times more research was necessary from the beginning. Today, with information about almost any topic available in seconds online, I favor keeping my mind as free as possible of anything except the immediate writing task at hand, and the floor of my study as clear as possible of stacks of books I may or may not ever use.  And for that, my ever-patient and supportive partner (who shares that study with me)  gives a big thumbs up as well!


Coming Down with a Book

I’ve named it CWS, this affliction I suffer from: Chronic Writer’s Syndrome.  It starts out simply enough, with the feeling that just maybe you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to take on the challenge of writing a full-length book, and before you know what’s happened, a few years have passed and you don’t feel you’re living at your fullest unless you are writing  a book. 

I have written four books in six years,  beginning  in early 2004 with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, and ending with a finished first draft of THE LAWS OF MOTION in September 2009, so I know how CWS sets in.  You get,  say, 80 percent of the way through one book, and you find your mind wandering to what might be next.   It’s a subtle, almost unnoticeable process by which another set of characters from another place and time start tiptoing into the study and sitting down to wait quietly for you to notice they’re there.

Next, I find my breaks from writing being taken up with online bookstore crawling for works on the subject of the next novel, as well as quick online searches for answers to little questions that start lodging in my mind.  At this point, there might still be a battle going on between several ideas for books– probably lucky those characters aren’t really sitting in my study, since it might get ugly!  I haven’t been grabbed yet by one idea or another, but by some subtle process I can’t explain, one concept, or era, or character emerges, and everything else is put aside as I  acknowledge to myself that yes, I now know what I will write next.

Diane Ackerman very wittily calls this stage of the process “coming down with a book.”  And I have come down with one.  This is the stage where writers tend

With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center

 to be very possessive and don’t  to share much, so all I will say at the moment is that it will be set in Iberia in the era known as Age of Exploration.  It will be  a multi-generational saga, set in the richest cultural and historical  setting I  have ever worked with. It will be the most difficult challenge of my career as an author, and I am ready for it.

It’s a little rocky for me right now, since I don’t really want to be coming down with another book quite so soon. I am always  exhausted physically and emotionally after finishing a project, and I order myself not to jump into the next thing.   And this time I was doing a little better.  I’ve been writing book reviews for various publications,  creating  new materials for my  humanities classes at San Diego City College, and developing presentations for upcoming appearances. But  it’s not feeling like enough.  I’ve learned that, surprisingly, I could do all those other things and be writing a book too, since having less time is good motivation to use all time well. 

My good friend and fellow author Stephanie Cowell gave me this beautiful advice about this dilemma:  “It’s hopeless to fight it. The wonderful stage of beginning something is it’s so free…you don’t have to make the thing come together as a whole piece. You are just wandering in a wonderful new country like a tourist with money in her pocket and no place she has to be, sitting in a cafe, drinking wine thoughtfully….”

I like it.  And who says CWS has to be all bad?  How about a few tapas with that wine?
With author Stephanie Cowell in New York
With author Stephanie Cowell in New York

A Super September

Thanks to all my website readers for making September the most-visited month yet since the launch in January 2009. 

I broke the 1000 mark for  the first time, having 1068 unique visitors, who made 1951 total visits to the home page over the course of the month.  The number of foreign visitors has been steadily growing too, the most numerous being German, Canadian, Dutch, French, and British. 

 By far the most popular part of the site is the diary, which had over 3500 hits, many of these directly from the RSS feed. The most frequently hit diary entries include “Begin Again, Ernest, and This Time Concentrate,” Will the Woman in the Corset Please Get Off the Court?” and “Judging a Book by Its Cover.” 

Interestingly to me, all four of my books, fiction and non-fiction, published and unpublished, got roughly the same number of visitors to their sections on the site.  Hope that’s a good sign of interest in my future work! 

In a few months, I’ll soon be doing another major update and refurbishment to the photo gallery and the books section, so I hope you’ll keep checking in.  Again, thanks for your support not just of me but of  all those who work hard to write better than they think they can.