Friday, November 29, 2013

A Writer's Thanksgiving List

If you had the time and inclination yesterday to check in with social media between, say, the turkey dinner and dessert, you must have seen all the posts sharing what people were most thankful for.  Here is my writer’s list:

  • ·Your journey is your own.  None of us can predict, when the first fleeting story idea comes to us, whether it will ever see publication. Perhaps like me, you have traveled a rocky path through elation and disappointment, success and failure.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but each journey is unique and incredibly rewarding.
  • We travel in good company.  So many wonderful, incredibly talented, encouraging, challenging, loving people attend us along the way.  Fellow writers, industry professionals, readers – people who make the journey fun and meaningful, who are rich in experience and wisdom and willing to come alongside us.

  • Print isn’t dead.  People are still buying books.  Honest-to-goodness books! Pick up a book, open to the middle and inhale.  Feel the pulse, listen for the heartbeat. It’s still living and breathing. 

  • Ideas are endless.  You may struggle to find ideas, but as the world changes and new experiences are open to us, potential is created for new story ideas or for putting new spin on old ones.  Fresh discoveries are made every day.  The world has not 'arrived' yet.
  • Technology is in hyper-drive.  Never has it been easier to do research, learn the craft, polish a manuscript, query an agent, increase your circle of influence, develop a social network, cyber-visit a location across the globe for setting, find the perfect photo of your character and back it all up in the cloud.  Sister, it’s a loooong way from making carbon copies on a typewriter. (Amazingly, it hasn't been so very long ago...)

  • Self-publication is an option.   Writers no longer have to go the traditional route to get stories into the hands of readers.  Okay, there are hurdles and challenges, and money is involved, but it’s a possibility for those who choose it. 

  • We have the great privilege of creating art.   The act of creation does something wonderful inside us.  It fills us and feeds us.  Read the Creation story in Genesis again and see the mixture of creative abandon and order described there.  Create art every day.

This is really just a beginning list, and we’d love to add your contributions.  What a great time to be a writer! 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Write the Story you Want to Read

"Filled with restlessness and longing, he began to read." The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (page 74).

We've all heard it before: write the book you want to read. We give mental assent to this phrase: Yes, yes. What I want to read. Only that.

And yet.

We sit down to write and the screaming memes drown out the book we mean to write. The voices of people who would judge the work before it sees light of day (we ascribe this, usually without knowing if it is true or not). The voice of mom, or our Sunday School teacher, or whoever. If only we could be left alone with our thoughts.

Dig around for some cup of courage that allows us to write through the din of voices. We tell ourselves no one will read the darn thing anyway, save some glassy-eyed agent's assistant. Who will know if we pour our misunderstandings onto the page?
Banish the memes and what is left? The basket is lighter. Honest prose. True story.

And yet.

There is the doubt that we are not up to the task. A story grand as one we want to read certainly requires a steady hand. And look. Our hands tremor. Our word reach is puny. We must look up the word rigour in the dictionary because we most certainly are using it incorrectly.

Sign up for NaNoWriMo and learn to let the words fly, land where they may. We sprout wings and realize trusting ourselves isn't the point. That writers are, primarily, untrustworthy folk. There's joy in that.
Memes exiled, the issue of self trust resolved, we solider on with the scraps of truth left to us. The basket is nearly empty. True story.

And yet.

There is the story. The tapestry in our minds has turned to a single clanging gong on the page. Stiff, shrill, obvious. We have misplaced our campfire enthusiasm, shelved our wide-eyed curiosity in favour of experience. By accident we bought into the social media gimmick that word count and to-do lists, and deadlines mean we have arrived (where, exactly?).
It turns out we must rid ourselves of ourselves. Dissolve ego in the acid of honest prose, good story. The basket is empty.

And yet.

We are left with exactly all we had in the beginning. Nothing more than our restlessness and longing.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Ariel Lawhon

Welcome to another instalment of the Carpe Annum Interviews. Each year, Novel Matters choose a handful of writers to interview on the blog. We're happy to bring you a familiar face to the Novel Matters blog, our friend Ariel Allison Lawhon.

Ariel Lawhon is the co-founder of the popular online book club She Reads. A novelist, blogger, and life-long reader, she lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart. Her next novel, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, will release from Doubleday in February of 2014.

NM: Ariel, welcome to the blog. Let's begin by telling us about your latest book, due out Febuary, 2014. 

AL: My newest novel is called THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THEMISTRESS and will release from Doubleday on January 28th, 2014. It revolves around the real-life disappearance of a New York State Supreme Court judge in 1930 and is the story of three women who know what happened to him but, for different reasons, choose not to tell.
I’d never heard of Joseph Crater until I read an article about him in The New York Post nine years ago. I didn’t know that his disappearance was the biggest missing person’s case of the twentieth century or that he was a household name for almost fifty years. It was fascinating. But in all of that, what intrigued me most was his wife Stella, and her strange yearly ritual. Starting on the first anniversary of her husband’s disappearance, she would go to a bar in Greenwich Village and order two drinks. She’d raise one in salute, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are!” Then she’d drink it and walk out of the bar, leaving the other untouched on the table. She did this every year for thirty-nine years. After reading that article Stella Crater took up permanent residence in my mind. I’d close my eyes and she’d be there, in that corner booth, a glass of whiskey in her hand, practically daring me to tell her story. So I did.

From the jacket copy:

A wickedly entertaining novel that reconstructs one of America’s most famous unsolved mysteries—Justice Joseph Crater’s disappearance in 1930—as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best.

Stella Crater, the judge’s wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge’s bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has Judge Crater to thank for her husband’s recent promotion to detective for the NYPD. Meanwhile, Judge Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city’s most notorious gangster, Owney “The Killer” Madden.

Then, on a sultry summer night, as rumors circulated about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, Judge Crater stepped into a cab and disappeared without a trace. Or did he?

After thirty-nine years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a corner booth at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge’s favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella begins to tell a tale—of greed, lust, and deceit. As the story unfolds, Stella, Ritzi, and Maria slyly break out of their prescribed roles, and it becomes clear that these three women know a lot more than they’d initially let on.

With a layered intensity and tipsy spins through subterranean jazz clubs, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS is a gripping tale that will transport readers to a bygone era. But beneath the Art Deco skyline and the intoxicating smell of smoke and whiskey, the question of why Judge Crater disappeared lingers seductively until a twist in the very last pages.

You can read an excerpt of WIFE MAID MISTRESS here

NM: Ariel, you know a great deal about the way a writing career can ebb and flow. You've taken an unusual path and, with the upcoming release of your latest novel, a triumphant path. But it's always a rocky way, isn't it? One day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next--not so much. Have you figured out ways to separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?

AL: A timely question indeed given that I recently got my first Publisher’s Weekly review. It was—ahem—not good. However, that review was immediately followed by one from Booklist which was glowing. I mention this because these reviews did three things to my battered writer-psyche. First came a bizarre case of self-doubt. (Is my novel really “disappointing?”) Then came a celebration. (Yay! I wrote a book that is “genuinely moving and filled with pulply fun!”) Finally I stood still and wondered if the two reviews cancelled each other out. (So basically I’m at zero?)

But here’s what I learned: none of it matters. The only things that matter right now, today, are the words on the page in front of me. That’s what I can control. And I will never find joy in this profession—much less write another book—if I can’t enjoy the actual process of writing. So I have to touch the story every day. Even if it’s just a word or two. The only way to stay sane is to write.

NM: Sanity is a wonderful thing, I've been told. Tell us about bit about the choices you made as a writer along the way, and what lies ahead for you. 

AL: I would love to be a book-a-year writer. But I never will be. WIFE MAID MISTRESS sat in my brain for over five years before I got the courage to start writing. My current work in progress has been stewing for a similar amount of time. 

NM: What happens while all those stories are stewing?

AL: The good news is that I have about five viable novels waiting at any one time. And I’ve learned to stagger them, to know which comes next and which needs to cook a little longer. An earlier me tried, unsuccessfully, to write several at once. 

NM: Good news is often followed by bad news. Right?

AL: The bad news is that the writing itself is still a slow process. I write and rewrite. Piddle and rearrange. Research. Write some more. I have lots of false starts. WIFE MAID MISTRESS went through six different drafts before I really found the story.

NM: Six sounds like a lot, but I suspect it's close to the norm for many novelists. Can you walk us through what some of those drafts looked like and what got changed?

AL: I played with different narrators, tense, and timeframe. And then of course once my agent got her hands on the finished manuscript we revised two more times with a specific eye toward submitting to publishers. Those final revisions were done with a scalpel. Fine tuning pace and tension. We were trying to eliminate reasons for publishers to say no.

NM: All that revision, winnowing the book down to its most tasty bits, here's the question: did you write with an outline, or did you wing it for each draft?

AL: I am, to put it mildly, a plotting addict. And a huge fan of John Truby. I buy a new copy of his book, THE ANATOMY OF STORY, every time I start a new novel. And I work my way through methodically. I know all sorts of things on the front end. Characters and Plot and Theme and Symbolism. And I always think that I have a solid grip on the story and where it’s going. Which, for the most part, I do. But every single time I am gobsmacked by epiphany when I get into the guts of the story. For me, surprises only come after I do the hard work of unraveling the story itself.

NM: It's interesting to hear that careful planning in no way negates the role of epiphany, nor does it guarantee a perfect first draft. I've learned, though, that it helps a great deal. So, after all you've gone through as a writer (so far), if you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself just starting out?

AL: Storytelling and Writing are two very different art forms and, to be a good novelist, you have to master both

NM: Excellent. How would you explain the difference to yourself?

AL: I would tell myself that Storytelling is the momentum behind a novel. It’s the skill that keeps a reader turning the page. The ability to draw someone in and keep them engaged. And Writing is the craft. It’s the mechanics. How we take the Story and translate it to the page in a unique and compelling way. For me Storytelling is all heart and enthusiasm while Writing is technical and deliberate. I would tell myself to focus on those two things and everything else will fall into place.

NM: In the midst of dividing story from writing, what's your go-to thing as a writer, that one thing you can't be without while you're crafting a novel?

AL: My Macbook. Multi-colored Sharpie pens. Coffee. THE ANATOMY OF STORY. Empty notebooks. Scrivener. Lip balm. Sorry, that’s not one thing. And I guess it proves that I’m not as low-maintenance as I’d like to believe.

NM: Oh darling, join the club. Now that you're surrounded by your writing must-haves, who is the one person--aside from the obvious agent and/or editor--you turn to for advice?

AL: I track Bonnie down on Facebook’s chat feature and poor out my woes. Seriously. If not for one marathon chat with her, WIFE MAID MISTRESS might not exist. I’d written an early draft of the novel only to realize that it was painfully, hopelessly dead. And while we were discussing the myriad reasons why that version of the story would never work I asked, “What if this story isn’t about the judge himself but about the wife he left behind?”

Her response? “Shazzam!”

I’ll never forget that. Nor will I forget the power of asking “What if?”

The indomitable Stella Crater was born that day (the fictional version at least).

NM: I remember that conversation well. Writer friendships are so important. Glad I could be a cheerleader for you, but truthfully, you had it all well in hand. Moxie galore, Ariel. And that is the focus of these interviews. Sharing moxie with the wider writing community. What advice do you have for our readers?

AL: The two hardest pieces of advice I know. First: write. There is no career without the writing. There is no book without the writing. There is no writer without the writing. Second: write the story that scares you most. The one you’ve been avoiding and that you’re certain you can’t pull off. Show up every day even though you’re terrified and write THAT book, holding nothing back.

Bonus advice: keep a box of tissues handy. You’re probably going to cry a lot. The work is hard and you’ll be riddled with self-doubt. You’ll spend a lot of time circling the story, frustrated, because it matters to you and you want to get it right. The beauty of writing the story that scares you is that it’s impossible to be half-hearted about it. 

NM: I'm tearing up a little just thinking about it! We know you practice what you preach, tell us about one of your Carpe Annum moments as a writer.

AL: There are a lot of easy answers to that question. Writing an impossible book. Leaving CBA to publish in the general market. Spending years building a sturdy fiction platform (all of those are posts for another day). But none of those things would be the truth. They were side effects of the real turning point. Everything changed for me when I realized that if I wanted to have this job—and I did, I still DO—then I had to sit down and write a novel. I knew that if anything were to come of this dream it would spring from a finished novel and nothing else.

NM: If that doesn't inspire us all to pick up pen and get writing, nothing will. Thank you, Ariel, for sharing a part of your writing journey with us. We look forward to your novel's release (and we adore the cover!), and sharing your work with friends!