God, how is half of October already gone?
Last night I went to Cris Moracho’s event at McNally Jackson for her amazing debut novel, Althea & Oliver — one of my favorite books Penguin has ever published. We got to watch her have an awesome conversation with her editor and I went home feeling super inspired.
When asked about her writing process Cris said that she’d gotten one bit of really useful advice from Alexander Chee, which was to keep something of a “blogroll” going. This was literally a document of all her notes: every day when she sat down to work she would put the date at the top and anything for that day under it — so that if she scrolled down it took her back in time chronologically through all her past notes. Going all the way to the bottom she would reach the material from her very first draft. Any time she cut anything from her writing, she pasted it into the space for that day. If there was a quote she kept thinking about, she saved it there. This ensured that she never lost anything as she worked on the novel.
I keep several different documents in my Scrivener folder for notes and outlines, and often find myself dating them for ease of sorting / searching, but it somehow never occurred to me to put everything in one place like that. I’m in love with the idea, and I’m going to start using a “blogroll” style log myself.
Later when someone asked for her advice on writing secondary characters, Cris referred to one of her characters as an example. Howard is known for using toothpaste to style his mohawk, and as a result of the “pervasive peppermint odor” he has been nicknamed “Minty Fresh.” Cris talked about how making his character was not just about those details, but about pinning down the fact that Howard is able to take a dumb nickname and own it, turn it into something that makes him badass. She said, “It’s not about the running time on the page…it’s about how sharply focused you can get with those details. They go a long way.” I loved that advice.
After the event, back home and in the shower, I mulled over my recent changes to WRBTD (the urban fantasy novel), trying to puzzle out some stuff about the characters and the structure. I was already rinsing off and stepping out of the tub when I randomly thought of USLS, the project I’ve dubbed “my China novel,” and a kernel of an idea popped into my head.
Just earlier this year I had rewritten a huge chunk (somewhere between a third and half) of that novel with a completely new voice and new plot, and then set it aside because the story just wasn’t working the way I wanted. So when the idea came I scrambled out of the shower and rushed to my computer to get it down before it could vanish…
Somehow I ended up glued to my computer for a good thirty minutes, typing away furiously, dripping water all over the couch. When I stopped, I had produced a brand new outline for the entire novel. I sat there dumbfounded for a long moment: I had never done an outline so quickly. And, even better, I had never before managed to pin down such a tight plot in an outline. My usual process for writing consists of: messy outline > messy drafting > cut the big meandering stuff > restructure if necessary > shave down to the bare necessities > repeat any of the previous steps if needed > line edit.
After getting over that sudden burst, I began to worry that my brain had shifted away from WRBTD. It occasionally happens when I get stuck on a novel that I’ll start thinking about another project, get a good idea, start toying with it, and then suddenly I’m waist-deep in the project I’m “not supposed to be” working on. I was so excited to do my next rewrite of USLS when I got that outline down so solidly, but thank goodness when I woke up this morning my mind was a hundred percent back to WRBTD.
Funny how these things work. I can’t wait until I have the chance to write this new version of USLS, but I’m also so relieved that I was able to turn my focus back to my primary project. It’s obvious that my creative muscles needed the chance to work at something different, something to reset the gears.
Man, I love the special magic of ideas that come in the shower.