Friday, November 1, 2019

Jigsaw puzzles and writing

One of the many cool features of my local library is that they now always have a jigsaw puzzle going, and they have puzzles you can borrow (and you can donate your own old puzzles if you're looking to declutter). 

Whenever I do a jigsaw, I always think of this passage from Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret: "She found a piece of the puzzle that fitted and felt a resounding satisfaction. How silly, she thought, that that should make me feel so good; that a piece of cardboard cut out of another piece of cardboard and then fitted back in should make a person feel so good."

There are plenty of theories about why it feels so good: that human beings like accomplishing things, solving problems, unraveling mysteries, finding patterns. Mostly what I like about jigsaws is the meditative quality of sorting the pieces and trying to fit them together. It's a very peaceful, calming thing to do, and the bigger the puzzle, the more patience it requires.

Jigsaw puzzles have that in common with writing. In fact, I was thinking that writing a book is like putting together a huge puzzle, which has some pieces from other puzzles mixed in. You hunt out the edge pieces first (the outline, if you will) and you have a sense of what the final product is supposed to look like, but in the beginning it's daunting and can be hard to know where to start. Where do all these pink pieces go? Should I work on the water or the sky? Does this blue piece belong to the water or the sky? What are these cream-colored squiggles? Is this piece ever going to fit anywhere? Oops--this section I've been working on doesn't even belong here; it's part of another puzzle!

As more and more of it comes together, it gets easier to know what goes where. The picture gets clearer and clearer. We fit it together piece by piece, the way we build a story word by word. What started out as chaos has become an organized, cohesive whole.

With puzzles, we're just reassembling what was originally whole--while theoretically, stories are new creations. But I swear that for me, stories feel more like puzzles. Writing feels more as if I'm discovering something--something that exists already in some shadowy depths of my mind, which must be fished out piece by piece and assembled in the light.


Sunday, October 13, 2019

Joining the conversation

One of the best things about publishing is what I think of as "joining the conversation." So many times, as a young reader, I would converse with a book's characters, or with my conception of the writer, in my mind. So many times I wanted to ask, "Why did the story go there?" or "What's that based on?" or say, "Here's what I took from that," or, "Here's where I wished that would go."

Writing can bring us in touch with ourselves, and often that's enough. But when we share our poetry at the local open mic, or carry on a correspondence, or publish something that finds a wider audience, the resulting dialogues are special too. As readers and as writers, we talk about themes and trends, about language, about history and politics, creativity and imagination, hopes and dreams, voice and point of view, fears and power, memory and uncertainty. Writing reflects what matters to people, and our discussions inform our writing just as writing informs our discussions. There's always "the book everyone's talking about," but there's also, "the book I'll never forget," "the first book I loved," "the book that changed my mind," "the book about which I've changed my mind," "the book everyone else loves but I just didn't get," "the book I wish everyone would read," and of course, always, "the next book I want to read." May the circle keep widening.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Solitude

"Solitude itself is a way of waiting for the inaudible and the invisible to make itself felt."
--May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

Solitude is breathing room. It's being alone, yet not feeling lonely or empty. It's finding the richness of one's own thoughts or imagination. It's the white space around words, the room for a story to grow.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Why we like them

At YA Outside the Lines, we were talking about favorite characters. My spin on the topic was to explore some of the factors that make certain characters our favorites. As I said, "We like to be dazzled." The full entry is here.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

After the debut

Five years after my debut as a novelist, I contacted other writers who'd debuted the same year to find out where they were in their journey, how publication had and had not changed their lives, and so forth. I wrote an article about my findings, which I pitched to several writers' publications ... but I found no takers.

It surprised me, because once I had my first book deal, my main questions were about what might happen next, what would happen next, and how one might go about building on that first book. What were the odds and what were the options? I think writers' resources (magazines, conferences, etc.) are great in helping writers to first publication, and they provide ongoing support for career writers. But I'm not so sure about the bridge from the first phase to the second phase.

In any case, now it's been closer to ten years, and I've seen stories unfold even more. Back when I got my first book contract, Borders and Barnes & Noble were the big chain bookstores, Penguin and Random House were two separate publishers, ebooks were so new that contracts didn't always cover them, and self-publishing through Amazon was not a phenomenon yet. So much has happened--including the recession of 2008, which dealt blows to the industry that I think are still underestimated.

In ten years I've seen many writers go on to publish multiple books--some in the same genre in which they started out, some in different genres. People have tried out or wholeheartedly embraced self-publishing; they've found careers in editing, agenting, ghostwriting. Some are writing under pen names, some under multiple pen names.

But there are those who didn't publish again, as far as I can tell, or who didn't continue publishing. On the cusp of my debut, I used to think of this as a horrible fate, to be dreaded and avoided at all costs. What I didn't realize then was that disappearing from bookshelves doesn't mean disappearing from life. Many writers turn to other art forms, or they delve into new careers, or devote more time to family. And the thing about publishing is that you never know when a new project will strike--so much is possible. The track is not as narrow as I used to fear.

So for the debut authors out there who might worry about what happens next, I would say: A variety of things can happen, and there is no one thing that must happen in order for this to be a success. There are many, many paths.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Second chances

Sometimes I buy a piece of clothing that doesn't work out the way I'd hoped. I have nothing to wear with it, or I have no place suitable to wear it, or it has an itchy tag, or something. I am slow to discard such things--well, anything, really--so they lurk in the back of my closet, waiting for another chance.

And it thrills me when I find a purpose for them, when they get that second chance. A maxi dress I bought years ago never made my office-clothes rotation, the way I thought it would, but at some point I discovered it made the perfect beach dress. A short-sleeved sweater I couldn't find a use for has jumped into the lineup during this hot summer when I need a light coverup for the cold commuter train. 

I have pieces of writing like that, too. A character, a name, a setting, a scene, a first line, sparks my interest, and I try unsuccessfully to make it work in story after story. But it doesn't fit; it's like the beautiful bronze skirt I once bought that paired badly with shirt after shirt. Often those writing fragments lurk in files for years, like the misfit clothing lurking in the closet. And what a joy when they find their proper place, when they lock seamlessly into the jigsaw puzzle of a story. 

In hindsight, it seems that piece was always meant for that story. It's one reason I don't consider a failed story to be a wasted effort. The truth is that I may not know what will be useful for years to come.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Book to movie

It was my turn to blog at YA Outside the Lines, and this month I wrote about how films can extend the lives of books. As I say there, "Largely, the books we remember for more than a generation are those that were made into movies."