The Intuitive

The Home Stretch (Sort Of)

Winners at the 2011 San Diego Book Awards

I have completed the first fifteen chapters of my work in progress, THE INTUITIVE, and I now have only three chapters and a short epilogue to go–probably eighty pages or so.  It’s an odd point in the process of writing a book, and my guess is it may be the most misunderstood by non-writers.  Barring the unforeseen, I should be able to finish the first draft by Labor Day, but right now I know from experience I am at no more than the fifty percent mark on the work.

How can that be?  I’m at the eighty percent mark, but only half done?  Here’s  ten reasons why.

  1. The last part is the most intense. I have to continue to weave together and differentiate the stories of a dozen or more characters, most of whom are at pivotal moments in their lives.  In some ways this writing is easier than the first chapters because I know the characters so much better now. On the other hand, I am so much more invested and that can make some of the writing really painful.
  2. My protagonist is involved in some new things in the last few chapters, and that means more research to get the facts right.  There’s no coasting to the conclusion on settings, events, and situations I’ve already described.
  3. Writing is like a continuous loop.  I reread and revise what I’ve already written more times than I could count.  The first two hundred pages of the book are in good shape, the next hundred pretty good but the newly drafted last twenty pages or so will tak almost as much work to revise as to draft.  When you work like I do, you don’t worry about the quality or even a lot of the details as you’re drafting, but the time eventually comes to do that.  So I have more to do than just those last eighty pages.
  4. My first and best critic, my sister Lynn, hasn’t weighed in yet, except to say she likes the first twenty pages.  No one else has seen it at all.  There will be a stage where I make a lot of changes based on early feedback.
  5. Revising is truly an endless process, until the editor says it’s too late to do any more.  The revising now is all on my own initiative to get the book ready to sell, but my agent may want to see some tweaks and the editor may as well.  There will be a hiatus between the time it sells and the editor is ready to pay serious attention to it, but once that happens it is back to the drawing board.  By that point revision is no fun.  I feel done with the book.  I am probably writing another.  Still, these last flurries of work are part of publication too.
  6. Writing the book isn’t all the writing in the book.  I will need to write an afterword where I “fess up” to any little facts I might have adjusted to fit the story, and provide interesting information that isn’t in the novel.  I also will interview myself (yes, most of the author interviews you read in books are done by the author, a discussion guide for book clubs, and anything else that seems like a good idea (glossary, pronunciation guide, timeline, etc.)  It is way easier to do this now than later.
  7. There’s other writing to do too.  I write the copy for the book pages on this website, for example, and may need to write out other materials that will be useful when publication nears.  As above, everything I can do now, while the book is fresh in my mind, I try to get done immediately.
  8. As I get close to publication, the writing becomes intense again, because I am sent questionnaires from bloggers or journalists, and get requests for guest posts on blogs.  For FINDING EMILIE I did around twenty of these, and each takes several hours.
  9. When the book comes out, I need to be prepared to talk about it.  For now, I just need to work on what people call the “tweet pitch” (describe your book in 140 characters) and the “elevator pitch” (describe your book in thirty seconds or less).  Later I will need five minute, twenty minute, forty-five minute, and one hour versions of a “stump speech” about the book.  I will also need to come up with variants on demands for audiences interested in specific aspects of the book (suffrage, planned parenthood, unionizing, Ellis Island, intelligence testing, etc.)
  10. And here’s the biggest reason I’m only half-done:  I keep on believing the book can be better.  I believe this because it’s true.  In every read-through, I see phrasings that could be tightened, details that could be more vivid, important emotional resonance I have missed, characters and settings I’ve lost track of, factual errors I’ve made, and even things as mundane as spacing and typos.

And, might I add, I have other things to do?  Most notably, I am headed off tomorrow to spend the weekend with my college roommates in Napa, California.  I have been trying not to let more than two weeks pass between posts, so I am writing this instead of packing!  At some point this weekend, I’ll raise a glass and toast the beautiful muse who has made my life so interesting and rewarding.  For now, I just need to figure out if I need one pair of shorts or two.



The Intuitive, Uncategorized

Ready, Set, Explode

I’m not sure if nearly a month has ever passed between diary entries before, but then again I have never had a month as an author quite like this one. In my last post, I talked about how I was pondering my newest work, THE INTUITIVE,  but had not yet put fingers to keyboard.

I pondered and researched for another week or so, and then in an explosion of creativity   that has left me stunned, I produced 142 pages of a first draft between May 12 and today.  That’s 23 days to produce about 40 percent of a novel.  I’m tired and feeling in need of a little break, but every day I’m up and ready to go with the next scene, and sometimes that leads into the next one, and then…well, there’s my day.

I’m doing the same thing I did last summer, posting a list of categories of time, to make sure that I put in at least an hour a day at exercise, book promotion, and life maintenance (e.g. things like bills, grocery shopping, pedicure, shower, etc.), so I don’t get all weird.  So far so good.  I’m still sociable and coherent.

It’s funny how the pondering before writing is so essential and then ends up being almost entirely irrelevant to what is actually in the book.  My character (whose name is now Zora) is involved in a significantly different plot that I expected, with different personalities around her and different events. It’s like a real life lived in the superfast lane.  She makes choices, unexpected things happen, and the story goes from there.  You know the adage about the best laid plans–sometimes what I am typing comes as a complete surprise, just like life.

What’s happening now (I’ll stay away from plot for now and stick with process) is that the other characters in the book are starting to reveal themselves a little more. In a first draft, secondary characters often function as little more than paper dolls, one-dimensional placeholders to help the overall plot gather momentum.  Just today as I was walking back from the Farmer’s Market (category: life maintenance) I saw more deeply into the relationship Zora has with an old school friend, Louise.  Before, Louise was there to allow some dialogue that developed Zora’s character, but now I see Louise a little more in her own right, and in adding to her story, I also see where the relationship will go in later chapters, and how a painful clash between Zora and her is inevitable.

I also realized that I was missing the boat on the relationship between Zora’s parents.  In my last post I speculated about some possible dynamics, and I’ve settled on one, but I am starting to have a vision of their family backgrounds and their personal past that helps me understand how they arrived at where they are in the story at the moment.  As with Louise, knowing such things tells me more about what can and can’t happen in future chapters.

That’s how writing a novel works–a little insight here, a little change in trajectory there, but it all flows naturally when I let myself be fully open to the possibilities for the main character.  In the end everything has to rise and fall in keeping with the arc of her story.  But I’m starting to know Zora, starting to see how she will get where she needs to go, and how she will react when she gets there.  This is the point at which an author begins to feel more like the conduit of a story than its creator, the point where I get up in the morning as excited as I hope you as a reader will eventually be to find out what happens next.


The Intuitive, Uncategorized


It’s good to take a breather from writing. My time off, if you can call it that, came when I finished the final touches on The Shape of the World and got it off to my agent to market, when Finding Emilie was released, and when mid-semester papers and exams increased my workload outside of class. Since all of that happened at once, there was no time even for a thought of what novel might be waiting to be born.

Now, as The Shape of the World becomes a waiting game I can do nothing to influence, the publication flurry for Finding Emilie is beginning to die down, and summer vacation is less than two weeks away, I am starting to get restless and ready for novel number five.

The earliest stages of a novel happen only in the head.  For me it starts with a reaffirmation that despite the enormity of the task of creating a historical novel, I am happiest when I am writing and ready to get started again

That’s followed by a period in which I do a mental inventory of the ideas I’ve had and see what seems to be hovering at the door right now.  Even while I am writing another book, I am continually investigating new ideas, ordering biographies, and reading up on events and places, so there’s always a short list, but I never know what will strike me at the right minute–perhaps even a new idea someone just planted in my ear a few days before.

In all this pondering, inevitably one idea comes forward to stay.  It’s not a sure thing that will be the next book, as I learned after my false start earlier this year, but that’s the point at which the research begins in earnest, followed by the first tentative stab at a synopsis involving the main characters and a possible plot. For me this synopsis is an important first step because it gets me to focus on how I will pull the characters, plot, and historical background together.

My first question is always “what do I want readers to learn?”  From that, it becomes a question of what the main venues will be.  From there, I need to figure out how to get my point-of-view character to those places.  I also have to figure out how I will get all the necessary perspectives aired, and the conflicts and drama, both imagined and historical, set in motion.

Once I’ve gotten to that point, I pull out paper and a clipboard and start a multi-columned time line.  One column is for historical events and other columns are for the biographical events of the real-life characters.  When I have a concrete visual representation of the history, matched up with what the real-life people were up to (how old they were, where they were living, and what they were doing at the time the historical events were happening), I’m ready to start filling in some data for the fictional characters.  What’s the best year for my protagonist, Lucy, to be born so that she can be a workable age for the main events?  How can I plausibly move Lucy around so that she is in the right place at the right time?  What other characters must be filled in around her to create depth in the story and facilitate the plot?

Here, more specifically, is what I woke up asking myself this morning:

How can I use Lucy’s parents to forward the story?  What should their personalities be?  Their social and political views? What profession should the father have?  I started out thinking that mom should be sweet and supportive but a bit of a doormat to a domineering husband, and then I decided that the overall story will be so much better served if she is piously Protestant, politically conservative, and used to bullying Lucy to keep her in line.  Now that I have a domineering mother, I don’t need a similar personality in the father, so perhaps he can be the one with the bigger heart.  Or perhaps not.  Maybe this is a very difficult marriage between two clashing and demanding people.  Or maybe it’s the dad who’s the doormat, and one of the big events of the book can be his standing up for something important that matters a great deal to his daughter.

I don’t need to decide all that now.  The way a book comes alive is to make some of these early decisions about the real-life things, and introduce the fictional characters in their formative stages into this real world, and see what happens. As I go along, I will add what I need and change what isn’t working.

It may be that I’ll decide that Lucy needs a brother or sister, not arbitrarily but because something I need to accomplish can best happen by the introduction of such a character.  Will Lucy have a love interest, and if so, who should he be? What should he do for a living?  Is he suitable or socially dangerous, or maybe a little of both?

Since the setting of this book is early twentieth-century New York, and many of the early feminists will be making cameo appearances, perhaps it would be best not to fall into stereotypes about women being completed by love, but on the other hand, I write for a readership that probably would like to see Lucy have a man in her life.  Well, how about a romance that she grows out of and asserts her independence by moving on?  Always a possibility. And though I don’t want to go far afield of my own experience by making her love interest another woman, perhaps, given the place and time, this would be a good opportunity to honor relationships that did exist between some of the female leaders of the time.

Possibilities, possibilities.  Ahead of me is the excitement of not being able to type fast enough to keep up with my characters, of jumping up in the morning eager to find out what’s going to happen next. Nice to be the first to know!