Tag Archives: writing process


So, I’m in that place I call Tweenland, and I’m not talking about that genre of children’s literature that is broadly written for kids in their “tweens.” Nope, rather I’m in that place between projects, somewhere on the other side of Donesville but not quite near enough to Drafthaven.

Drafthaven is the realm where all of my inadequacies rise to the surface. My friend and fellow author, Jeanette Ingold, once told me that every time she starts a new novel, she feels as though she has to learn all over again how to write one. This, from a woman who has written several highly-acclaimed novels, a craftswoman of the highest sort. It’s hard for me to imagine that Jeanette, with all her acumen, has to relearn anything. But Jeanette is also canny, and she wouldn’t say that just to provide comfort.

No, I think what she meant for me to see was that each and every story has its own sensibility and its own requirements, not only of the research and the prose style and all those other things, but it also has its own requirements of the author herself.

The Underneath, for example required me to to figure out how to finish, to see a project all the way through to the end. Keeper required me to be honest about the difference between anger and heartbreak, and to choose the latter over the former. True Blue Scouts needed for me to remember joy, joy in the writing, joy in the story, joy all around. When I think of each of those books, I can see that I had to learn about all of those things, and more, in the process of bringing each book to the page.

But Tweenland is so cozy. I like it here. It’s a great place to be lazy and catch up on reading and watch sitcoms and stare. Staring is good. But it’s also like that place in Pinnochio where its all fun all the time . . . that is, until it’s not fun. Eventually, it gets boring. I’ve got to get out of here!

But I keep getting stuck by the question: what is it that I need to learn in order to start the book I want to write? It’s hard because until I actually put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, there is no way of knowing. I’m caught in my own circular argument. Like Jeanette said, I’ll have to learn how to write this new book, and I’ll have to do it as I go. And it might make me feel really, really dumb, and I might not make it all the way to the end, and what if I get stuck, and what if it doesn’t make sense and what if nobody likes it and then nobody likes me? Ack!

Tweenland is better!
There’s chocolate.
Sudoku puzzles.
Cats who don’t care whether I ever write another word or not!
Double ack!

What I do know, for certain, is that the project that is waiting for me has something to teach me, and that until I begin I won’t know what that is. In fact, I may not know until after I’m finished. That is highly likely. What I also know, but hate to admit, is that staying in Tweenland is a trap. If I get too comfortable here, I’m likely to stay forever. And then what? Will the world be lesser without one more Kathi Appelt book? Of course not. But will I be lesser?

Again, I don’t know. And that’s one of the wonders of creating a story—encountering all of the “I don’t knows,” maybe especially the one that is meant only for the author herself.

Drafthaven calls, with all its crazy sinkholes and roadblocks. I need to go there. Yep. It’s time to put my boat in the water and leave Tweenland, at least for the time being. And what do you know? There’s a boat right there for you too. Grab a paddle. I’ll meet you on the other side. I bet Jeanette will be there too.



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A Valentine from the Teacher

If you’ve recently accompanied a child or grandchild to the store to look for Valentine’s Day cards, you’ll have noticed plenty of choices for cards to send their friends, and even a great many options for cards to give their teachers. But, at least in my neighborhood, there were no Hallmark-type greetings for teachers to send their students. Which is fine, because I really want to write my own. And here it is:

To every student I ever told to put their novel in the drawer and start all over; to every new writer I asked to scrap a character, a scene, a metaphor; to every one who wrote me for advice and to whom I replied, however gently, Kill your darling, THANK YOU. Thank you for your grace under fire, your courage, your resilience, your can do/won’t surrender attitude; for teaching me so much about starting over unafraid. On this day, when we remember the people we’re thrilled and deeply grateful to have in our lives, I remember you. Image

Why now? Yesterday has a lot to do with it. Yesterday, I shared my latest draft with my writers’ group. I was more than a little excited about this manuscript, a novel whose opening some students and colleagues heard in a reading at VCFA. It’s a book about the young woman who danced John the Baptist to death. Working title? The Gospel of Salomé. But the story took an interesting turn after those early chapters—it acquired a second narrative voice, that of John’s most famous follower, Jesus Christ. The idea sprang, not from free writes or from any plot imperative, but from the headings in my Scrivener outline. Since I’d grouped the early chapters together under a section heading, “The Good Daughter,” it felt intriguing to connect the next (unwritten) chapters with the title, “The Good Son.” And who would this Good Son be? Who else?

Wow! How risky is that! And scary! And BIG! Flush with my own daring and feverish from leaping off one of the biggest writing cliffs I’ve ever contemplated, I wrote like crazy. I don’t eat breakfast, anyway, but I started skipping lunch, too. I wrote around the clock, skipping niceties like showers, walks, and answering the phone. Which means that, yesterday, when I finally turned my draft into the group, I had a great deal invested in it. But I wasn’t really worried. The whole risky concept was sure, I thought, to bowl them over. Besides, I knew the language was incantatory, even hypnotic at points, and I was, frankly, looking forward to hearing this reflected in their comments.

It wasn’t. Now everyone in our group is a published author, so we can all take an ego punch. (You can’t be published multiple times without having been rejected multiple times.) Still, I was stunned when my dear and precious readers, instead of praising my Jesus’ slightly ADD but enchantment-laced voice, asked me why I needed Him at all! They didn’t mean this in a religious sense, mind you. They were asking from a purely literary, craft-oriented perspective—why had I developed this second view point? What did it add to the story? How did it grow my central character, Salomé? How was it worth the risks, historical, motivational, and structural? Why not tell the story without it?

And this is where my students come in. You see, without the precedent they’ve set, I don’t think I could have possibly taken this in stride. But their example has been lodged in my psyche each time I ask a new writer similar tough questions, each time he or she rolls up their sleeves and tries whatever I propose. Sure, there is sometimes gnashing of teeth, not to mention moaning at the bar; but almost always my students are willing to put aside their disappointment, their agendas, even their ideas about why they write. And just go for it.

So I will, too, Sweethearts. I will, too.


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Mosquitoes, Whining in My Ear

In one of the essays in The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

The mind is an irrational thing. It operates in its own conditioned, instinctive manner, so we can fight and flee our way through life.

I am a slow, ponderous writer. I often find myself caught without a mosquito net, with those whiny voices in my ear, drowning out any possible coherent thoughts. I stop. I listen. The work freezes. I set it aside. Sometimes I can go back and wrest some momentum out of some of those pieces. But sometime, sometimes, they just stay where they are. Inert. Dead.

But fiction is not life. Life plays out in far messier ways. Life demands that I wake up and pay attention.

When terrible things happen in the world I  find myself questioning what I do for a living. Writers are not “essential personnel,” are they? Here we are now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, and I’m dismayed at my own self-indulgence. We live in a world where a 19-year-old ends up bloodied in a boat in someone’s back yard, after having dropped off a bomb intended to kill and maim crowds of people. Obsessing over process seems irrelevant. I’m jolted out of any residual state of feeling sorry for myself.

Still, the thing we call process will take its toll again, I know. Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about this in 1920, in her essay, How Flint and Fire Started and Grew.

…on taking up the legible typed copy and beginning to glance rapidly over it, I felt fall over me the black shadow of that intolerable reaction which is enough to make any author abjure his calling for ever. By the time I had reached the end, the full misery was there, the heart-sick, helpless consciousness of failure. What! I had had the presumption to try to translate into words, and make others feel a thrill of sacred living human feeling, that should not be touched save by worthy hands. And what had I produced? A trivial, paltry, complicated tale, with certain cheaply ingenious devices in it….

From the subconscious depths of long experience came up the cynical, slightly contemptuous consolation, “You know this never lasts. You always throw this same fit, and get over it.”

So, suffering from really acute humiliation and unhappiness, I went out hastily to weed a flower-bed.

And sure enough, the next morning, after a long night’s sleep, I felt quite rested, calm, and blessedly matter-of-fact. “Flint and Fire” seemed already very far away and vague, and the question of whether it was good or bad, not very important or interesting, like the chart of your temperature in a fever now gone by.

So there. Momentum is everything. The only way is to keep on keeping on. I’m swatting at those whiny mosquito voices and paying attention to the only work I know how to do.


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Challenge, Counter, Controvert: Subverting Expectations — Uma Krishnaswami

In Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Divisadero, the narrator says, “I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.”

Elsewhere he writes of a steeple:

“Built in the thirteenth century, the belfry had been constructed like a coil or a screw. It had one of those unexpected, heliocoidal shapes–the surface like a helix–so that as it curved up it reflected every compass point of the landscape.”

It’s the surprise in this text that keeps me reading. How can you look into the distance and see those lost people everywhere? How does so expansive a word as “everywhere” manage to loop me back so close to the narrator’s consciousness? How can “everywhere” conjure up personal, proximal space? The belfry, too, curves up in a single sharp, clear image. Yet its multiple reflections seem created purposefully, to reflect “every compass point” and thus to distract the reader’s mind into attentiveness.

So how does all this internal contradiction work in narrative, given how much we’re taught to prize logic and order? Shouldn’t the work of crafting a story be all about trying to figure out what makes sense?

I will admit that I love complication and contradiction. I love the places in books where meanings rub up against one another and create new and mind-boggling patterns. Always did, even as a kid.

I’m writing this from India where continuum and contradiction are present in tandem: Republic Day flag-buntings and traditional rice-flour kolam on thresholds and sidewalks, the whir of ceiling fans and the shrieking of tropical birds at daybreak. Here, controverting meaning is part of daily life.



Take the other day, for example, when I went to the bank. A young woman was seated at a table as people came and went. She was creating mehndi designs with henna paste on customers’ and bank employees’ hands. A caricaturist was working away in a back room. A bank employee directed anyone who caught her eye: Mehndi? Quick sketch? Naturally, I volunteered.

The bank, it turns out, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This birthday bash could last a week, a couple of weeks, or a month. No one is quite sure, but a party is promised at some point soon.

This mega-promo deliberately sets out to disrupt your sense of what is normal, so you’re compelled to ask, Why is this happening? What could it mean? That asking keeps you guessing, and more to the point, it keeps you from walking out. Maybe you’ll open a new account, or refer a friend. See the parallel with a reading experience?

The henna went on cool and dark green. Within an hour the leaf paste had flaked off, leaving a pale orange tattoo. A few hours of later, it turned a deep, glorious brick-red, the pattern having been fixed by the heat of my palm.

So it is with challenge, countering and controverting. It heats text up. It shifts expectations. It disturbs the rhythms of normalcy. When it’s done right, it can keep us turning the page.

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