Author Archives: susanfletcher2012

Energy management

How do you write?

It’s a question of endless fascination to me.  I’m insatiably curious about how other writers manage to get their stories on the page.

Some writers, it seems, hit on an ideal method early in their careers, and they feel no need to experiment. But I am restless, restless. I keep thinking there must be a better (easier?) way. So, over the years I have experimented with different writing methods across a variety of dimensions. I have tried outlining and not outlining. I have tried writing before breakfast, writing late at night and, on deadline, writing from dawn till way beyond dusk. I have tried blasting through a complete draft without going back; I have tried polishing each chapter as I wrote it; I have tried writing up to the point to where I got stuck and then feeling my way through from the beginning again. I have tried prewriting doodles in notebooks; I have tried keyboard stream-of-consciousness. I have tried writing out of chronological order; writing longhand; writing in coffee shops; writing with friends; writing in a rented space; and writing with a hat pulled down over my eyes (thank you Norma Fox Mazer).

You know, reading that last paragraph, I think I need to adjust my expectations. Am I thinking it ought to be easy? But why should it? Why can’t writing just be hard? And so what if it is?

In any case I am experimenting again—this time with energy management.  I’ve been reading that we’re more productive when, instead of working without a break for hours on end, we divide our time into discrete intervals, oscillating between spurts of intense work and frequent periods of rest.

This idea intrigued me, because I know that some of the time when I’m “working” I’m fuzzing out in front of the screen, or making excuses to do easier things rather than hard ones—looking up some research tidbit online, or making a new pot of coffee, or reading an article about writing, instead of actually, you know, writing. And I have noticed that I tend to do these things when I’m mentally fatigued.

What sold me on trying intervals with writing was what happened when I tried intervals in my morning workout on the stationary bike. I usually go for forty minutes at a certain steady resistance level. My goal is twelve miles, which I reach in most, but not all of my workout sessions. One morning I realized I was not on track to make my twelve miles. Just not gonna happen that morning.  So I thought I might as well try intervals: go really hard for thirty seconds, then go slower for four minutes, then hard for thirty seconds again. And repeat. Thirty seconds didn’t really feel like very long to work hard, but I had permission to dog it for the four minutes, so I did. When I had finished the workout, I was shocked to find that I had gone nearly fourteen miles. So those smaller intervals of greater intensity…really made a difference.

In my writing, I’m experimenting with focused intervals of one hour, forty-five minutes, and twenty-five minutes, with much shorter, timed, periods of brain rest in between. Tom Birdseye told me about the Pomodoro technique, where you go hard for twenty-five minute intervals with five-minute breaks. It’s actually more complicated, but that’s the gist of it. For me, sometimes “brain rest” means unloading the dishwasher or doing Pilates stretches. Sometimes it’s eating breakfast. Sometimes it’s crashing on the couch.

More productive?  The jury’s still out . I’m still tweaking, but so far I’m really liking working with a timer. I feel more energetic and focused while I’m writing. The resting part is nice, too.

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Crazy Act of Faith

Riffing off Kathi’s “Tweenland” post…

Many years ago I had the astounding good luck of being invited to join a longstanding critique group that Eloise McGraw was in. One of the rules of the group: Always start with a positive comment. Usually we did, but one time, when Eloise read the first couple of chapters of The Striped Ships, we got so involved in critiquing that we–all of us–simply forgot to say what we liked about the book.

First of all, what gall. Who did we think we were, critiquing Eloise? But that’s what she wanted, so we just, you know, scrambled to find things we didn’t think were quite working. At the same time, though, I think we believed on some level that she wouldn’t really take us seriously. Why would Eloise McGraw pay serious attention to the likes of us?

Still, I felt kind of bad about not mentioning any of the many things I loved about the story. I sent Eloise a note in the mail. The next day, she called me. She was so relieved to get my note. She had been on the verge of ditching the story!

Ditch The Striped Ships? Because of something I said? I can’t even begin to tell you how terrifying that was.

I said to her, “But you’ve written so many novels. You know how to do it, right? I mean, I didn’t think you would ever doubt that you’d be able to pull it off.”

This is when she told me that each novel teaches you to write that book…but not necessarily the next one. That when you begin a novel, you don’t have the skill you need in order to pull it off. Each time you have to somehow find a way to teach yourself what you need to know.

I think this has been true of every book I’ve written. It feels like a crazy act of faith every time.

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Another Camel Journey

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When I was just about to send my editor the final revision of Alphabet of Dreams, I began to worry about camels. I had done tons of research on camels, but it was all safe research, the kind I vastly prefer: Reading books about camels. Going to movies with camels in them. Taking brave, camel-riding people out to lunch and asking them camel questions.

So I hadn’t actually ridden a camel, myself. And now this pesky voice in my head started torturing me. “Yeah, you know a lot about camels,” it said, “but what if you’ve missed something? What if you’ve got some little camel-thing wrong, and the camel people will know it, and they’ll all sneer at you?”

I tried to make the voice shut up, but it wouldn’t.

Did I mention that I knew a lot about camels?

So finally I gave up. I went online and found a camel ranch where I could take a half-day camel trek in the desert, and I called to reserve a spot.

“The road to the ranch is kind of tricky,” the woman said.

“Tricky? What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s just that there are some clearance issues.”

“Clearance issues?”

“Yeah. In other words, better not rent a sports car or something low to the ground for driving here. There are a few potholes and such. Get an SUV.”

And such. That worried me a little. So I rented a Ford Explorer.

When I cut off the highway for the road to the camel ranch, the road still looked like an actual road. Okay, not a paved road, but still a road.

Pretty soon, although the road still looked more or less like a road, it had narrowed to the width of the Explorer–plus or minus a few inches–and the left-hand shoulder of the road had vanished entirely, replaced by a steep, plunging chasm.

Guard rails? Surely you jest. There was nothing between me and–not to put too fine a point on it–The Yawning Abyss.

I thought I was gonna die.

Later, I found out that just the previous week someone had accidentally driven off the edge and had to be helicoptered to a hospital.

When I finally got past the chasm, the road gave up looking like a road altogether. It seemed to be just a hilly field full of wide, flat, tippy boulders. I had to guess whether this wide, flat, tippy boulder or that wide, flat, tippy boulder was supposed to be the so-called road. And every time I drove up onto one of the boulders, I experienced one of those clearance issues the woman had mentioned: the bottom of the Explorer scraped, with a sickening, grinding sound, on the rock.

By the time I reached the camel ranch, I was laughing hysterically with relief to be alive. It was either that or cry, and frankly, crying is embarrassing.

Camel riding? Piece of cake. Unfortunately there was a torrential thunderstorm going at the time, and I was the highest point in the desert landscape, and the saddle had a metal frame. I looked up at the lightning forking down at me from the heavens and asked the guide to stop the camel and let me get off and walk. I’m really good at walking, I told him. It’s one of my special skills.

No go. But we made it back alive.

And I did find the one little camel-thing that I had wrong. To wit: The camel kneels down so you can climb onto its back. Then it rises to its feet, unfolding its legs in a complicated way: up to its back knees first, then all the way up in front to its feet, then all the way up in back to its feet. Before actually riding a camel, I thought you’d want to lean backward first, then forward, then backward again, to avoid being catapulted off the front or rear of the camel. But all you have to do is lean back the whole time. “Lean back!” the camel guide kept yelling at me.

So there it was—the reason for my journey. I fixed it in the book.

Above is a picture of Clyde, the camel I rode. What a total sweetheart!

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Nothing Much, Part 2

Once again I seem to have nothing much to say, so I’ll share from my journal of collected quotations.  This month’s theme:

Stamina and Faith

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” –Winston Churchill

“Above all I suffered from a naïve view that writing should be easy.  I thought words were supposed to come unbidden. The idea that errors were steppingstones to truth never once occurred to me, because I’d absorbed the echoes of the Times, that errors were nasty little things to be avoided, and misapplied that ethos to the novel I was attempting. When I wrote something wrong I always took it to mean that something was wrong with me, and when something was wrong with me I lost my nerve, my focus, and my will.” — J. R. Moehringer

“The first draft of anything is shit.” –Ernest Hemingway

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.” ―Anne Lamott

“Fall seven times, stand up eight.” –Japanese proverb

Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. –Walter Bagehot 

“I’m a bit of a grinder. Novels are very long, and long novels are very, very long. It’s just a hell of a lot of man-hours. I tend to just go in there, and if it comes, it comes. A morning when I write not a single word doesn’t worry me too much. If I come up against a brick wall, I’ll just go and play snooker or something or sleep on it, and my subconscious will fix it for me. Usually, it’s a journey without maps but a journey with a destination, so I know how it’s going to begin and I know how it’s going to end, but I don’t know how I’m going to get from one to the other. That, really, is the struggle of the novel. –Martin Amis

“To endure is the great verb—not to succeed.”–Brian Doyle

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy, then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last state, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” –Winston Churchill

“Genius is eternal patience.” –Michelangelo

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” ―Anne Lamott

“Faith is a bird that feels dawn breaking and sings while it is still dark.”  Rabindranath Tagore

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In Harmony with the Drought

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A little while ago, in our critique group, after Ellen Howard read the third-to-last chapter of a new novel, some of us began speculating about how it might end. We were hoping that things would come out well for Ellen’s protagonist, eleven-year-old Hallie. Somebody suggested that Hallie might get back with her father; somebody else suggested that the nice parents of Hallie’s new best friend might adopt her. Ellen smiled and didn’t say much for a while, then she said, “I don’t think those endings would be very believable. Sometimes it’s the character who needs to change, and not the situation.”

Ellen’s wisdom never fails. I remembered something I had read in Tony Hillerman’s novel, Sacred Clowns. Jim Chee is explaining a Navajo term, hozho:

“The way he understood hozho was hard to put into words. ‘I’ll use an example. Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried out. No water. The Hopi, or the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought.’”

I love that.

I am reminded, too, of a conversation I once had with Katherine Paterson about The Great Gilly Hopkins. I told her how devastated I was when I found out that Gilly wouldn’t be allowed to stay with her foster mother, Trotter. I didn’t articulate very well how deeply the end of the novel had moved me, and I can’t remember Paterson’s exact words in reply, but I think the gist of it was that it was time for Gilly to move on to new challenges and that, though it wouldn’t be easy, she has more growing to do on her journey.

In our culture it seems so important to be “a winner.” Maybe in every culture, I don’t know. “Loser” is one of the worst things you can call somebody. But one of the realities of childhood is that kids have to accommodate themselves to having limited power. So instead of always patching up our fictional worlds to suit our child protagonists, we might consider a hozho ending—one in which we allow our characters to grow to the point where they can somehow put themselves in harmony with a world in which things don’t always go their way.

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Gone to Mars

Last Saturday my daughter became an Iron Man.

We could talk about obsessions, healthy and unhealthy. We could talk about whether extreme training does more physical harm than good. We could talk about what problems she might be avoiding.

Let’s not. I’ve had those conversations with myself many times over the past year. Right now, I’d rather talk about what happened Saturday morning when I found out that Kelly had finished the swim, and something strange began to come over me.

I was on the faculty of an SCBWI conference that day. At first, I had trouble tracking Kelly’s progress on my iPhone; a young artist taught me how. By my mid-morning coffee break, Kelly was out of the water and a third of the way through the 114-mile bike ride. By my lunchtime, she was halfway through.

I worried most about the bike. It’s Kelly’s weakest event, and people get aggressive. They elbow you, they force you into potholes. Kelly had brand-new racing wheels; she wasn’t used to them and was technically too light for them. The bike shop guy had said, “With these wheels, you might pop off the bike.”

When I finished leading my afternoon workshop, there were two messages on my phone: one from John, my son-in-law, and one from my husband.

I called John first. “She’s running,” he said.

Running. Her event: the marathon!

I called my husband. I said, “Our daughter has gone to Mars.”

What I meant was that neither of us had ever remotely stretched ourselves that far, never pushed beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity into outer space. I mean, we’ve done some stuff. But nothing like this. What I meant was that a year ago Kelly couldn’t have begun to do an Iron Man. But bit by bit, by following her workout schedule every day, she had transformed herself into someone who maybe could.

Stephen King once said, “What problem would ten pages a day not solve?”

Truth is, with writing, it’s not just about page count. Creating something new is a delicate thing requiring patience and grace; it’s way more than iron will and discipline. And yet I wonder how much of finishing this book and then the next one is making up your mind to do something really hard and then settling into the daily work.

Turns out, the marathon part of the race was rougher than Kelly had anticipated. It was 90-plus degrees in Houston; she’d had stomach flu a couple of days before; she got a little disoriented. I didn’t know any of that yet. I tracked her on my phone from checkpoint to checkpoint; I saw that she was slowing down. At the conference, word of the race spread. Some people were pretty dubious about the whole enterprise; I get that. The most fervent supporter was a woman who had run her first marathon in her fifties. By the time Kelly headed into the last leg of the race, everyone at my dinner table was rooting for her; when she crossed the finish line the whole room cheered.

The fifty-something marathoner emailed me the next day. She’s training for a triathlon.

Lately I’ve been writing without a deadline, and some difficult personal stuff has put me off my writing schedule. But now it’s time to recommit.

Mars, it ain’t. But finishing the best novel I know how to write is really hard and also satisfying.  I can be content with the moon.

Kelly 3

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Nothing Much, Part 1

I seem to have nothing much to say.  (I’m calling this Part 1 in anticipation that this is likely to happen again.)  So I will share from my journal of collected quotations.  This post’s theme: 

Where do your ideas come from?

“Schenectady.” – Harlan Ellison

“The best work that I’ve ever done always has a feeling of having been excavated. I don’t feel like a novelist or a creative writer as much as I feel like an archaeologist who is digging things up and brushing them off and looking at the carvings on them.”  – Stephen King

“I think it must be that a writer touches some nerve, some chord that is close enough to being a universal experience that it jangles in all sorts of other peoples’ inner selves. Where the writer got it, of course, is not from knowing other people so well but from exploring himself… Writers really write for themselves, you know. Each book is a personal question answered or a problem solved.” – Eloise Jarvis McGraw

“A writer of fantasy, fairy tale or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wider. I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him.” – Madeleine L’Engle

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” – Federico Fellini

“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.” –Leonard Cohen

“Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

–William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

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