Thursday, August 30, 2012

lasagna for fifty: why writing with a book deal is a whole different game

One thing I did not expect when WILD AWAKE sold is that writing when you have a book deal is very different from just writing. It’s the difference between cooking a meal for yourself at home and cooking for a restaurant full of people: sure, it’s still lasagna, but there are all sorts of new demands and constraints and variables and pressures for you to deal with in your shiny new professional kitchen.

Suddenly, the lasagna needs to be ready at a certain time, and the seasoning needs to please dozens of people, and it can’t be burnt on the outside but frozen on the inside, the way you sometimes eat it at home.

“Why am I so stressed out all of a sudden?” you wonder. “I friggin’ love making lasagna!”

Here, dear writer, is why.

Deadlines are real.

When you have a novel under contract, there are going to be times when you get your manuscript back from your editor with a note like this:

Hey author! Not to freak you out, but if you don’t have this revision back to me in two weeks, we’ll have to push the pub date for this book to the year 2089.

And you’re like: “OMG! LOL! SNAFU! SOS!”

Deadlines aren’t always that brittle—there is usually some amount of wiggle room built into the schedule, although how much depends on the publisher you’re working with, the genre of book you’re writing, whether or not it’s a series, and how much cred you have as an author (are you a well established literary genius who always blows her deadlines but produces masterpieces every time? or are you an unproven debut author whose novel may or may not be a masterpiece worth waiting for?)

Before the book deal, you could write when you felt like it, let the manuscript languish in a drawer for three months in the winter when you got depressed, or decide lasagna is a pain in the ass and go out for Chinese food instead. When you sign a book contract, you might have the most flexible and understanding editor in the world—but you’re still “on the line” to produce an amazing piece of writing in a certain timeframe, and that can be more daunting than you might expect.

You’re not allowed to leave the kitchen until the counters are clean.

One of the great things about working with a publisher is having a bunch of really smart people read your book before it comes out. One of the annoying thing about having really smart people read your book is they spot all the teensy inconsistencies you would otherwise have been too lazy to iron out—for example, they check to make sure that the scene in which a certain character refers to it being Monday actually takes place on a Monday (cue a trip down the insane rabbit hole that is trying to fix your novel’s timeline).

But they also hold you to a higher standard on the bigger picture aspects of your book, and if you’re not used to being sent back to the drawing board for a stronger ending, a clearer character arc, or a more convincing solution to a plot problem, you might not be prepared for how exhausting it can be. Even if you’ve had beta readers and critique partners, it’s not the same as having an editor, agent, and publishing team whose own careers depend (to a greater or smaller extent) on the quality of the book you ultimately produce.

In short: if there are crumbs and splatters on your countertop, you’re going to have to stay and clean them until that kitchen is sparkling. Your “good enough” may not be the same as your editor’s “good enough” (and thank god for that!) The truth is, your first published novel may well be the first time you have ever been forced to truly confront your own weaknesses as a writer—not skim over them, not move on to another project before they are addressed. There’s a lot of pressure there. It’s a great and necessary pressure, and one that should leave you a better writer, but it should not be underestimated going in.

Rumplestiltskin wants your baby.

If you signed a multi-book deal without having written the second and third books already, you have made a promise to deliver something enormous—something that will consume years of your life and reams of emotional energy. Knowing that your unwritten novel has already sold can be a wonderful feeling—you have security, you have an editor you know and trust, you know what you’re doing for the next two years. But writing a second novel someone has paid you for and is counting on you to produce is very different from writing a first novel whose publication is only a lovely dream.

Unless you are an exceptionally chill and clear-headed person, you will probably feel some amount of anxiety about this sold-but-unwritten book. When you sit down at the computer, you are not just writing—you are writing The Book. Asking a particular story to be The Book is a lot of pressure to put on a fledgling idea. Instead of exploring it with an open mind and letting yourself make mistakes as you did with your first novel, you burden it with demands and expectations: it needs to be perfect, it needs to come out a certain way, it needs to work OR ELSE.

No matter how flexible and understanding your editor may be in reality, you may nevertheless be paralyzed by the idea that, whereas you were free to tinker and meander as long as you liked for Book 1 and could have chosen not to finish it at all, you are now beholden to Deliver a Novel, and there isn’t time for failed experiments of the kind you were content to dabble with before.

You’re about to find out what’s behind Door #3.

Before your novel is published, everything is still possible. You might shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. You might get a blurb from the Pope. Your novel might be chosen as an Oprah’s book club selection, or win a big award, or be integrated into highschool English curriculums nationwide. All these mights are very exciting. It’s like being a contestant on The Price is Right—will there be a shiny convertible behind that door? A yacht? A new house?

As long as the prize remains obscured, the possibilities are boundless. But when your novel comes out, those infinite possibilities solidify into a single reality. And even if that reality is amazing—glowing reviews, brisk sales—there can be a strange and guilty sort of disappointment mixed in with the joy. After all, what real-life outcome could possibility compete with infinite possibilities? Publishing a novel means finding out what’s behind the Door #3 of your imaginings, and that is a more dangerous endeavor than you may realize.


There are, of course, many wonderful things about writing when your novel is under contract—encouragement, validation, access to talented people, a feeling of momentum and purpose and definite goals. If I have focused here on the more dire/existential crisis-y parts of writing under contract, it’s because I myself was unprepared for them and startled to learn of their existence. You can adapt to the pressures of writing under contract and learn to thrive in those conditions as with anything else. But it will never be the same as making lasagna at home.

I would like to know: If you are not-yet-published, have you given any thought to how things might change for you as a writer and artist once your novel is under contract? If you have published a book or are under contract, what do you have to say about that experience?

Monday, August 27, 2012

dark house, empty bowl: on leaving the world for a novel (and making it back alive)

My novel sold almost a year ago. Since then, it has gone through two or three rounds of revisions and two rounds of line editing. At the end of last month, I drove down to the Hay and Feed store to pick up my copyedited manuscript (UPS doesn’t deliver this far back in the canyon) and spent the next two weeks making my final changes.

For the first day or two, I treated the copyedits casually. After all, the book was already written. The problems that had confounded me in earlier revisions, I had safely solved. All I had to do now was sit back, relax, and strike out an occasional adverb with my pencil.

But on the third day, it hit me: this was my last chance to make changes larger than a word or punctuation mark here and there. After this, any weak scene would be weak forever. Any lame line of dialogue would have its lame self stamped onto paper thousands of times when the book went to the printer. Any garbled almost-truth would stay that way forever, straining for meaning and falling short.

Over a long revision process, it can start to feel like you have infinite chances to get things right. That, even if you don’t nail that chapter on this round, the answer will surely bubble up by the time the manuscript comes back to you again. This is not to say that I didn’t strive to get things right on every previous revision; but there’s something about a finish line that makes you question even the scenes you had previously considered strong, and the paragraphs you had gotten used to skimming over without really reading, so convinced were you that they were in the clear.

From that point on, casual went out the window. For the next ten days, I hardly left the rickety card table I’d set up in the neighbors’ spare room. I went in and out through the back door, avoiding the patio where my friends sat talking in the shade, pre-empting human interactions with averted eyes and a rushed hello. Eating was an annoyance I profoundly resented. Similarly conversations longer than a few words. I felt keenly that this was my last chance to say something true with this novel; my last chance to take as many “almosts” as still remained and push them until they were there.

In my determination to put everything I had into this last chance, I lost my sense of taste and smell. If you asked me which clothes I was wearing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you asked me which plants had blossomed by the back door I barged in and out of several times a day, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. My body hurt, and by the eighth or ninth day a profound exhaustion made it harder to work for longer than an hour at a time, although I was wary of straying more than a few feet from the stack of paper on my desk.

I did find the truths I was pushing for—a few of them, anyway—but a few that really mattered. I dropped off the manuscript at the UPS counter in the nearest biggish town and we drove on to San Francisco. As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my mind was still on the manuscript, running through the new sentences I’d written the previous day. But the moment I stepped out of the car, something inside me shattered. There were flowers everywhere. The wind was cool. The air smelled of eucalyptus. I stood on the sidewalk and cried.


There’s something violent about attempting something that requires your whole being, whether it’s finishing a novel or fixing a car the morning before they tow it away—to use up everything you have in its service, to focus on the task with such intensity that the “you” who is sitting at the table is a light-starved animal denied the experience of its own senses. It’s hard to come back into the world after cutting yourself off from it so completely, wrenching to realize how painful the separation had been. It’s like coming home to realize the dog has been locked inside for three days without food or water: pure anguish as you fumble desperately for something to feed it.

As writers, we are constantly mining our own experiences—not just events and emotions, but the subtle experiences of our senses, the smells and sights and sounds. But there are times when the act of writing demands that we cut ourselves off from the very things that allow us to write in the first place, and when that happens, something is depleted that needs to be replenished in a real, physical, bodily sense. We can’t live in our heads, drawing on a tired archive of sensory information collected months or years ago. We need to live in the world, in the flowers and wind and eucalyptus, encountering them directly moment by moment. This is the only way the animal of the self will survive when our art calls us away for days or weeks. This is the only way to ensure it will still be alive when we come home.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

and then it was August...

Why hello friends!

Hilary here.

It feels ever so rude to let the INTERN part of this blog slurk off into the night without saying goodbye, especially since you have all been so friendly and generous and welcoming for so long, but there is a time to take off your cape and duck mask and speak in your real voice, and that time has come for me.

With that in mind, How are you all? I have missed you so much in these past few months of fretting and procrastinating and wondering how, exactly, to talk to you without my duck mask for protection (note to self: just freaking do it.) What are you writing? How are things going? What strange or shocking things have you learned? What have been your brightest victories and your worst disappointments? In short, what have I missed in this period of most egregious slurkery?

I am living far from the city now, in a cabin full of books on a dry and spiky mountainside in northern California. Our internet consists of a single ethernet cable shared between six adults; brawls frequently ensue. I have been so worried, lately, that I am not a Real Writer; that I am a girl in a duck mask holding a bag of plastic jewels; that I have lost my way and will never find it again. Sometimes I think I need to live in a cave for fifty years before I can say anything that's really true. I make all sorts of plans, about caves and mountaintops and scratchy robes, and end up loafing around in the hammock frowning at the treetops, wishing I was more rigorous or fierce or brave than I really am.

Objectively, though, things are pretty good. There is a king snake living under our cabin who eats the mice, and a skinny little green snake in the pond who likes to poke his head out when you're swimming, and a million tiny lizards darting across the dusty road; there is a telescope for moon-watching and a basket for mushrooms; what else do you need?

I have various pieces of news about my book, which has a new title (again) and is now called WILD AWAKE, and many pent-up thoughts about writing and publishing that have been piling up in my head while I've been trying to sort this whole INTERN/Hilary thing out. Mostly, though, I've just missed you, and I hope you all feel just as welcome in this space as you did when it was INTERN.

More to come over the next few days and weeks. For now, hello again. It's nice to meet you—for real this time.