aqua fortis

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour – a Self-Interview

I was invited to do this writing process blog tour by a couple of different people over the past few weeks, but because I was traveling, I was only able to say yes just recently. I was invited by Paula Treick DeBoard (see her process post here), a fellow writer living here in Modesto, and author of The Mourning Hours (a thoughtful, gripping mystery, non-YA but with a young protagonist) and the upcoming The Fragile World.

I'm always interested in other writers' processes and their day-to-day coping mechanisms, because writing is often an isolated, isolating activity, and that tends to make us writers feel like we're weirdos alone in our self-imposed struggles—but when I read about others' writing processes, I'm reminded that we all share many of the same struggles, regardless of genre, audience, or subjectively perceived weirdness. So here's hoping I can contribute to that sense of sharing in the joys and tribulations of this whole writing endeavor—and maybe lessen someone else's feelings of uncertainty and disconnectedness. Warning: wordy...

Now that I have already-published novels out there in the world, I've realized that being a writer entails some serious multitasking: revision on one book while you're drafting another; publicizing your new book while trying to rewrite the next project. That's where I'm at now. With Underneath feeling like it just came out, even though it was a year ago, and with The Truth Against the World literally having just come out a week ago, a lot of my attention is focused on trying to spread the word about my books that are already out there.

You probably want to know what I'm actually WRITING, though, right? Well, having been informed by reliable sources that Dystopia Is Dead, I'm planning a major recasting of my work-in-progress, which isn't really all that dystopian but does have some pseudo-dystopian elements. Essentially, this entails changing the story from a supposedly real-world, hundreds-of-years-in-the-future post-post-apocalyptic setting to a fantasy/imaginary world. So…now it's a fantasy! But without magic.

Currently titled Fuel to the Fire, it's the story of what happens when a seemingly innocuous piece of new technology falls into the hands of uncompromising social revolutionaries—and what happens to the unsuspecting inventor of that technology. It's also a story of socioeconomic class turmoil, from the alternating perspectives of a girl who "has it all" but is still stuck in her predetermined role, and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who ends up mired in the heart of the social revolution. Something like that, anyway...

One thing I've heard from others here and there is the observation that all three of my published books have been distinctly different from one another. Though they're all YA, none of them fall neatly within a genre, and they aren't similar to each other, either. In a publishing world that seems to deal more effectively with writers whose books tend to occupy the same genre, I'm not sure if this is good or bad. Reviewers have noted, accurately, that all three books (despite their differences) have strong themes of identity and family, and I guess that's the thread that ties my work together thus far.

Two of my books specifically have mixed-race/multicultural protagonists, and all three talk about themes of cultural identity as well, and how to reconcile various aspects of identity. Books about kids of mixed ethnicity are just now becoming more visible and accessible, and I like to think that The Latte Rebellion, my first novel, published in 2011, was an early example. And I do plan to write more novels that feature mixed-race characters, because that is, quite simply, the world I live in.

This ties in rather neatly with my answer to the previous question! I write lots of mixed-race characters because that is the world I live in—a diverse one in which very few people are truly "just one thing." And to claim otherwise is to deny the whole fascinating world that lies within and behind each individual. I don't sit there and consciously decide to "write what I know," but the world I live in and grew up in insinuates itself into my writing no matter what. Is the answer as simple as "I write what I do because of who I am?" I don't know. Maybe.

As far as why I write YA novels, there are a number of reasons. I never completely stopped reading YA books even as I grew into adulthood. (If you know me, you know I have never lost touch with my inner teenager, either.) Also, the YA genre really started to blossom in the mid-late 80s/early 90s when I was a tween/teen and had a profound effect on my reading habits. Beyond that, I think that the teen years are a time when many people either stop reading or are cemented for life as readers, and it feels like a privilege and a mission to try to engage readers and keep them reading. And there is a truly exciting range and quality of stories being produced for a YA audience, stories that sometimes take more risks, written for an audience that clamors for honesty and a lack of bullshit yet is still willing to believe in just a little magic. And do coming-of-age stories ever go out of style? I don't think they do, because I don't think we ever stop learning and growing as humans, and that's what coming of age is about.

Somewhat inefficiently. The fickle nature of inspiration constantly reminds me that at the heart of successful writing is the ability to plonk your behind down in your desk chair and just WORK. That's why NaNoWriMo has been so helpful for me, because I'm really good at overthinking everything to the point where I paralyze myself.

One process tool I find really helpful is drawing a chart of my storyline(s). I don't work all that well with a straight outline, but being able to visualize what is happening helps me out a lot. Often it looks a bit like a flow chart that I fill in as I write, with parallel tracks for subplots, lines connecting events that happen simultaneously, blobs for critical themes or character emotions, and so forth. As an artist I tend to be a visual thinker, so being able to look at the plot helps me write.

I do have written notes, though. I usually have a general summary of the plot arc written out (what I've figured out so far, anyway) and those notes get more detailed as I write along and things get clarified in my mind. Usually when I'm writing, when I get to that day's stopping point, I jot down notes for any upcoming scenes that I've figured out. I put these directly into the Word document, right after that day's writing, so all I have to do the next time I sit down is read over the scenes I last wrote and then refer to my notes to get going. Big-picture notes get added to the flow chart, or sometimes a master document I use for the purpose of general notes.

Explicit chapter/scene outlines don't really work well for me. They just don't. Even though I like the idea in theory, in actual fact they make me twitchy.

When my brain is too packed with other things, my writing process really does not work. Writing, like any other art, does require time and attention, even if it doesn't necessarily demand constant light-bulb inspiration. I need head space in order to do effective writing. I'm still trying to figure that one out—how to allow myself time for my creative work.

As I mentioned before, overthinking myself to the point of paralysis is a huge problem for me. "Just write the damn book and fix it later," I try to tell myself. Perfectionism is a surefire road to writer's block, but lifelong habits are hard to break. So I try to remind myself of what my college Ceramics professor, Richard Shaw, used to say when our projects got to a certain point of doneness, but we beginning students were still fussing over them—"It's close enough for art."


Rachel Leibrock is a good friend from the Mills College MFA program—she is an impressively multitalented writer who, as a journalist, has worked for the Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento News & Review. Oh, and she writes poetry, prose, and YA too.

Colleen Mondor blogs at Chasing Ray, and is a longtime blogging friend both online and offline. She's a reviewer for Booklist, head honcho at Guys Lit Wire (a group blog focusing on literature for teen guys) and an aviation journalist, as well as the author of a fascinating memoir about flying in Alaska, The Map of My Dead Pilots.

Annie Choi, who blogs at Annietown, is a friend from the wayback days of undergrad yore at UC Berkeley, at which time I'm pretty sure neither of us guessed we'd BOTH end up writers umpteen years later. She is the author of two hilarious collections of personal essays, Happy Birthday or Whatever and Shut Up, You're Welcome.

Can't wait to read what you guys post!