More merry music

I seem to be on some kind of Breton music kick. I blame my husband for this. Anyway, today’s theme song is Tri Yann’s Hañvezh ar bonedoú ruz. Isn’t it merry? The “Lalalala lalenola” chorus is almost madrigalesque in its silly cheerfulness.

Er. Never mind that the song seems to be about some sort of rebellion with people being hanged and all.

In other news: I am reading through the sequel! Parts of it are glorious! Parts of it are, uh, sub-par. But! I will fix those parts and make them glorious! I am using up all my exclamation marks here because Captain Horatio Editorpants always makes me weed them all out if I put them in the manuscript!

I am feeling highly optimistic about handing it over soon, however. Then maybe I can finally play Skyrim, hahaha. I heard it’s good.

Addressing the elephant

So if you Google “second book syndrome“, a friend pointed out to me on Monday, quite a number of hits come up. Apparently the second book, just by virtue of being second, presents challenges that the first did not.

Sometimes “second book syndrome” is going to refer to the middle book of a trilogy, of course. That’s a structure issue, in part, particular to trilogies. I’m not writing a trilogy. I’m just trying to write a sequel that doesn’t make everyone who read the first book say, “Gee, she had so much potential. I guess we were wrong.”

I don’t know whether this happens to everyone, but it’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to my son. You happily go on a carnival ride – a rollercoaster, say – not really knowing what you’re in for. You live through it, obviously. Even so, even though you now know for sure that it’s not going to kill you, you’re too scared to get back on it again. You’re MORE scared than before you ever went on it.

That’s a bit what writing the second book is like. I was too ignorant to be scared the first time around. I didn’t understand all there was to lose, or how painful the process could be.

There is also significant pressure that wasn’t there before. The pressure to write something as good as the first one. The pressure to get it done quickly so that your demanding readers (and I already have some! And I’m not sorry I do!) can be satisfied sooner. The pressure to not let everyone down — and “everyone” is so much bigger than it used to be! It used to be if I choked I let down myself, and maybe my sisters (including Josh) who were getting a chapter each month. Now everyone is a large publishing house, librarians, bookstore owners, readers… everyone is potentially EVERYONE. How scary is that?

I might even let myself down. Somehow even that is more daunting than it used to be.

So that’s the elephant I’ve been carrying on my marathon. But you know what? It is an entirely self-generated elephant. I really do have the option – now that I see it, now that I’ve identified it – of putting it down and stepping away.  I did  that this weekend, in fact, without really meaning to. I was exhausted. I said, “Bite me, book!” and I slept in, played D&D with friends, and generally ignored all of it for a while.

And as I was walking to the post office one afternoon, I had a… a vision. I don’t know what else to call it. But it was like the clouds (of my mind) parted and I saw the promised land (of my book) spread out before me. A golden thread wound through it all, holding everything together, and I realized that the book was possible. All right, I realize that sounds goofy, but I saw it for one shining moment and felt my faith restored.

Faith is an interesting thing. I am not a religious person, not by a long shot, but boy do I need to believe. For a glorious instant, I believed in this book. The vision evaporated, as they do, and the next day I was back to banging my head on the keyboard in frustration. But I know, from experience, that if I’ve seen it once, I will see it again and all the more clearly.

The book is possible. I am setting down the elephant. Everything is going to be okay.

Coming up for air

But just for a moment! I wouldn’t want to be all greedy about breathing or anything.

Today is the last day of April, the day I intended to have this revision finished. It’s not finished. I’m trying not to let that feel like failure, but it’s not easy. I worked hard, which was the entire point of setting a fake deadline for myself, and that is nothing to belittle.

I can’t help but feel, however, that writing this sequel has been much,  much harder than it needs to be. Writing a book is always like running a marathon, but this time it has been like running a marathon while carrying an elephant.

Thing is, I feel virtually certain it’s an unnecessary elephant. What IS it, exactly? Why am I carrying it? How do I set it down? Can I at least get it to stop trumpeting in my ear?

These are questions I can’t seem to answer. I just keep staggering on, hoping eventually my arms will give out and I’ll just drop the damn thing.

In which Neil Gaiman makes me feel better about life

I’m not sure why, but this essay cheered me up: All Books Have Genders. The last paragraph, in particular, is something I really needed to hear right now, as I bang my head against my keyboard and shout, “Why am I not better at this after all this time??”

I’m still learning to write this book. We’ve made some good progress, coming to understand each other a bit better, over the last few weeks, but then I have days like yesterday where I finally had to admit to myself that the scenes I was trying so heroically to save weren’t worth saving and that I needed to scrap them and fill the GAPING HOLE with something else instead.

If Neil Gaiman finds writing a convoluted process, then maybe it’s ok if I do too.

In other news: doggies make us feel better! Here’s mine.

AWWWW! That’s how she sleeps, sometimes, all folded up like an umbrella. I took her out to the dog park today and she was just so cheerful, despite the rain.

Maybe I can be, too. Back to work…

Laying down layers

Some days the best analogy I can come up with for my writing process is that it’s like the formation of sedimentary rock. I put down layers over a long period of time and they slowly harden into stone.

That’s the time-scale: geologic time. Don’t think in years, think in epochs. I find this discouraging sometimes.

I just joined a choir, in an effort to get back at the world. Er, I mean, because I wanted some very different art to practice regularly without the kind of (geologic) pressure writing involves these days. Last night was the first session and I really enjoyed it, even though I suspect I sometimes sounded like a confused cow.

Anyway, I was driving home with one of my writing buddies (who also just joined – so she’s a singing buddy now too). I was telling her I had a pretty good time writing the last couple weeks, but especially yesterday. “I suddenly realized they could have a conversation about ethics,” I said. “Just a little overlay of philosophy on this scene.”

“See?” she said.

I didn’t see.

“Layers,” she said. “Like we talked about. You write in layers. It’s like oil painting, where you have to block all the major shapes and the lights and darks, and then you start to go through and start putting down other layers that you find more interesting. Right now you’re at the philo-sopho-layer…” She made a circular motion with her hand, which was probably supposed to mime painting, but instead reminded me of making pizza.

“Philoso-sauce,” I suggested. “Then I can sprinkle on the philoso-sausage.”

“Exactly!” she said, and we laughed about that for a good long time.

Pizza is certainly a tastier image than sandstone or oil paintings, and still pretty apropos. I’ve got my crust, certainly, and the sauce is mostly down (I just scraped it off one quarter and have to spread it round again). And no, I am never happy with cheese pizza. There always has to be more than that: Canadian bacon and caramelized onions and delicious chunks of eggplant (the eggplant is the theme, of course; it pops up when you least expect it and makes you WEEP). One final pass with the Oregano of Elegant Writing, and then I can pass it off to my editor.

Who will tell me it’s half-baked, ha ha ha. Or else he’ll find a big old hair in the sauce. Erg.

At least this analogy gets me off of that geologic time-scale, which I was seriously bumming me out.

Where do you get your ideas? (Part 2)

I’ll tell you where: in the shower.

If the world ever gets to the point where we can no longer take showers, due to water shortages or zombie apocalypse or whatever, that’s the end of my career. For serious.

I don’t know what it is, but in the shower my brain just opens up and all the ideas fall out (this is why it would be a bad idea for me to take one during the zombie apocalypse, see. The rest of the time my brain is protected by my very thick skull).

Various friends have suggested a diving slate for writing the ideas on, but I have a feeling that wouldn’t help. It’s not like I get out of the shower and forget all the ideas. I think if I could physically write IN the shower – with a waterproof laptop, say – then the shower would no longer be magical. It would be just like sitting in front of the computer, doing the work, except wet. I think I have to be completely unable to work in order for my brain to cut loose like that, that it’s my brain’s own special way of thumbing its nose at me.

And hey, you want to thumb your nose at me, Brain, be my guest. Whatever keeps you jolly.

Meanwhile, here’s a paean to my shower, from the Pirates of Penzance. It starts at about 1:40. (And yes, that is Kevin Kline, all dashingly mustachio’d.)

You may be having trouble understanding what they’re saying. Here are the lyrics:

Hail, Shower-head! O gurg’ling muse
Thou giv’st writers the power to chuse!
Hail, flowing font of good ideas!
All hail, all hail! Now let’s go eat some cheese!

WHAT. Stop looking at me like that. Sometimes even W. S. Gilbert had a tough time finding a rhyme.

Now entering the cruellest month

So I’m revising the sequel. I have this plan whereby I will revise it really, really hard all month and then hand it over to The Amazing Editorman at the end of April.


No, really, I can do this. It does mean I’m going to be neglecting you a bit, but that seems a small price to pay for good sequel. I do regret that my fabulous YES sandwich post is still just half a sandwich, but this is the price we pay for having a mere 24 hours in a day. Something has to give, always.

The sequel is at that stage I think of as the Terrible Twos. I pushed through painfully to the end, which was a bit like giving birth, and now the manuscript is teething and screaming and pulling my hair. It has full-body tantrums daily and will not, under any circumstances, take its nap.

What makes it harder, weirdly, is that I have a very selective memory regarding its older sister. I remember that book being a joy to write. A joy! It always said “please” and it never dumped its dinner off the side of the high chair and its diapers were filled with FRESH-CUT FLOWERS, damnit. Not at all like the little devil-spawn I somehow popped out this time.

I look at this book and say, “Why can’t you be like your older sister?” And then it pukes on me.

But of course, I’m misremembering. The first one had its long stretches of misery too. It never ate or slept; it was so ugly we had to stick a really big sunbonnet on it when we went out. It did grow up, slowly — and now I’m remembering its adolescence and feeling a little bit queasy. There’s still so much fun in store. I can’t wait.

To those of you now thinking, “Gee, writing sounds like the most miserable profession in the world!” I would like to just say: it is. And, rather like parenting, it is also the best. When it is good, it is very very good. When it is bad… AHAHAHAHAHA.

But you see, counter-intuitive as it may sound, writing this made me laugh, and laughing gives me hope. I’m actually looking forward to getting down to work and civilizing that beastie just a bit more today.

A letter from John Steinbeck

He said he loves my book! Oh, no, wait, that was in my dream. Yes, I always dream about dead authors. Did I never tell you the one where Alan Ginsberg and I were running away from groupies? No? That was one of my favourite dreams ever, although Howl fangirls are scary.

Two different friends directed me toward the “Letters of Note” blog last week, because they thought I’d appreciate this real letter from John Steinbeck. And I do, I really do. It gave me a chuckle, although I hasten to add that my own experience with editors bears very little resemblance to Steinbeck’s. His depiction has, I think, become a bit of a stereotype: the artist creates, the editors all jump in and muck it up like too many cooks. I’ve found my editors, all the way through, to be thoughtful, book-loving individuals who care deeply about what they do.

This, however, really struck me:

Miguel Cervantes invented the modem novel and with his Don Quixote set a mark high and bright. In his prologue, he said best what writers feel—the gladness and the terror.

“Idling reader,” Cervantes wrote, “you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like—”

Ah, I love Cervantes. Remind me to tell you sometime about this dream I had where he and I were discussing Proust – ye gods, that was hysterical! Especially since I hadn’t read any Proust and was faking it the whole time. Although for all I know, Cervantes was faking it too. He strikes me as the sort who could be wily that way.

But yes, hope and fear! Hope and fear! That’s what writers are full of (well, that and beans). Either extreme is untenable; the balance is devoutly to be sought, and yet I feel I spend way more time than is healthy bouncing back and forth between the poles.

This is why reading these letters from the masters is important, I think, and why blogging this stuff – where I say, “I am human and sometimes I am afraid” – is important, and why books are important. There’s a comfort in seeing the same struggle in 16th century Spain and 20th century America. We’re not alone, any of us.

My breakfast with Wallace

It seems to be performance week here at the blog!

Here’s an article by Wallace Shawn that just blew my mind. I know. Inconceivable, right? The article is also about Socialism – take that or leave it, as you wish. What really interested me, what punched me right in the stomach, was this:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

Actors are treated as uncanny beings by non-actors because of the strange voyage into themselves that actors habitually make, traveling outside the small territory of traits that are seen by their daily acquaintances as “them.” Actors, in contrast, look at non-actors with a certain bewilderment, and secretly think: What an odd life those people lead! Doesn’t it get a bit — claustrophobic?

That’s how I feel about writing. That’s it exactly. All these latent potentials that real life has no room for, and they have to come out somewhere. They come out in dance, too. That’s one reason I can get up in front of people and dance: because I am also that. I am also a dragon trapped in human form, and a princess, and a fretful lawyer, and a little Porphyrian boy. It’s all there.

Sometimes I fret that I’m kind of out there for thinking all arts are one art, but then I read something like this and think, no, that’s exactly right.


I had lunch with a friend at a Chinese restaurant yesterday. We ate massive quantities of eggplant and pork and talked about the weird minutiae of our lives. She’s also a writer, so we talked about work. I am 25-30 pages away from being done with the first draft of the sequel, and I was complaining about how ugly the draft is and how much revision I’m going to have to do.

“Well it’s just like you told me once,” she said. “You have to get all your messy obsessions and passions out in the first draft. Then you have to go back and make it into a book that other people can read.”

“When did I say that?” I said.

“Back when you were talking to me about my draft. Remember? How you have to pull out all the raw, feral parts and refine them, and layer them back in? How you’ll worry that the book is losing its heart when it loses the naked histrionics, and yet once it’s done you’ll look and everything you love is still there, not lost, but better?”

“That’s all true,” I said, “and you make me sound like an intelligent person. So how come I’m not that smart right now? Why do I forget this stuff?”

“I think that’s just how it works when you’re all up inside it. You can’t see yourself. Other people always look clearer to us. But I know exactly how you work: you’ll get all frustrated and hate everything and be convinced it’s the worst book ever, but three days later your shower will talk to you, you’ll fix it, and then you’ll be like, ‘That? That was nothing. The solution was right there the whole time.'”

I laughed, and we finished lunch. When the fortune cookies came, she opened hers first. It said:

Half of being smart is recognizing the ways in which we’re dumb.

“Dude!” I said. “I think you got MY fortune.” But then I opened up my own and it hit me so hard that my voice got stuck and I couldn’t read it out loud. I had to pass it across the table so she could read it to herself:

It’s not the end yet. Let’s stay with it.

“Yeah,” she said slowly. “I’m pretty sure that fortune is yours.”

I’m not superstitious, but the cookies were spooking me. I stuck my fortune in my wallet, in hopes that it will jump out at me when I least expect it and scare me all over again.