Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Writing Process

I talk to myself.  Sometimes out loud.  In public places.

It’s been going on for a long time.  I remember the first time I was made aware of it: I was 18.  I was standing in a friend’s house, in conversation with her and our mothers, when I realized everyone had stopped speaking and they were staring at me.  My mom looked horrified; the others amused.

“What?” I asked.

“You were talking to yourself,” my friend, Kathy, said.

“Uh … no I wasn’t,” I replied truthfully.  “I’m just listening.”

“Oh, yes you were,” my mom said.  “You were staring at the floor, your lips were moving, and words were coming out.  But you weren’t talking to us.”

I could feel my own eyes grow round.  I scrolled back in my mind to what had recently passed there.  I could not recall a single thing the others had just said … but a perfectly realized image of another person, a figment of my imagination, who had been regaling me with her story … popped up.

I had been talking to her.  That’s how vivid, how real, she had become, that I could turn off the actual conversation going on around me and slip into her world. 

I was mortified.  And yes, a little scared.  It was one thing to be the family daydreamer, the “absent-minded professor,” as I was known.  Perpetual preoccupation was an annoying, but endearing, habit. 

Talking aloud to make-believe people was another thing altogether. 

For me, writing has been a socially acceptable and necessary release of the pent up energies of the characters and stories which inhabit my imagination.  I don’t know why they are so insistent, but it has always been so.  Transferring their voices, their faces, and their lives, from my mind to the page is what we call “the creative process,” and I’ll confess:  it’s very hard and I don’t always enjoy it.  But for me, the alternative is odd behavior and (if you talk to my family) rotten moods, so I really have no choice.

For the past few months the blog tour known as “My Writing Process” has been alighting at author websites throughout the internet.  It involves answering four questions about writing, then passing the baton to several other writers who post one week later.  Author Katie Quirk invited me to get on board today, and it’s been fun not only to think about “process” (usually I just … do it) but also to discover many, many authors I had never come across before.

Katie is the author of A Girl Called Problem, a middle-grade novel set in Tanzania. She is currently working on a memoir about life with a newborn baby in India.  Originally from Washington state, Katie has taught English and writing for over ten years to students as diverse as Spanish-speaking third graders in the California farm belt, Berkeley community-college students, international high-school students in India, and Swahili-speaking journalism students in Tanzania. She currently lives in Maine with her husband and two kids.
So here goes!  I encourage you to visit Katie’s site and learn about her work, as well as check in with the authors I’m linking to below.
What are you working on now?  All my books to date fall into the “young adult” genre, but the manuscript on my laptop right now will most likely be considered “new adult.”  Meaning my audience will include readers 16 and older … but mostly older.  It is set on a college campus and involves a criminal accusation.  The working title is “Rage.”
I always like to try something new, narratively speaking, with each book, and this latest is a departure for me not only because the audience and subject matter is quite mature, but because I’m writing in third-person limited for the first time (my other books are all narrated in first person.)  I’m also alternating between a male and a female point-of-view, so … a lot going on.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?  I write realistic fiction and I embrace challenging topics.  Death, eating disorders, racism and next up, crime, if I had to list the order.  Peppered with plenty of humor.  I remember seeing “August: Osage County” on Broadway years ago and realizing how absolutely necessary it is, when dramatizing, to leaven brutal truth with humor.
Interestingly, my main characters all play sports, although “sports” was never my intended theme.  Soccer dominates, as does tennis.  It’s come as quite a surprise to me, because while I love sports and play sports, I was quite a music and literary geek in school.
Why do you write what you do?  I never intended to write realistic, young adult fiction:  it simply happened.  Now, I’m incredibly grateful to have found a creative outlet in this genre.
Young people lead with their hearts when they read, and I love getting on board that emotional roller coaster with them.  I love creating characters they love and hate, story lines they tear through, books they reread.  The books that changed my life were all books I read as an adolescent.  When I open my email and some young reader from a middle school thousands of miles from my home in Maine tells me he LOVED one of my books … that’s incredible.  It’s such a gift, such a privilege.
How does your writing process work?  The simple answer is:  I work best in the morning, after a cup of coffee and a walk with the dog.  I work best with regular hours spent at the computer, day after day, until a predictable rhythm is set.  The phone, Facebook, emails, the doorbell … that all knocks me off course, and I need to be disciplined and tune out distractions.
The more complicated answer:  I might have an “idea” for a story (for example, in my first book, Brett McCarthy:  Work in Progress, I knew I wanted to write about friends growing apart) but I cannot get started until I know my characters, and that involves writing many, many, many pages which no one will, or ever should, read.  Sometimes it is discouraging to get to the end of a day of writing and realize that absolutely none of what I produced will end up in a final draft … but I have to trust in the process and know that eventually the real story will emerge on the page.
I pick up a lot of hitchhikers along the way and also throw a lot of people off the bus.  Writing for me (and this is not my original metaphor, I borrowed it) is driving on a foggy night:  I can see only a few feet ahead of me, but I trust that if I keep moving forward I will eventually make it to my destination.  That said:  sometimes unexpected folks wave you down along the way, and you have to be open to letting them in.  Mr. Beady, in Brett, was just such a hitchhiker … a completely unexpected character … and he soon became one of my favorites.
Only this week I threw two passengers off the bus.  This was in my work-in-progress, which originally had four narrators.  Interestingly, the ejected passengers were both older adults.  They were slowing things down and distracting me with their particular problems and complaints which were not moving the story forward so … off they went.  I’m better able now to listen to the two college students who are left.
I write slowly, in a linear way.  I also know the end.  Some writers say they write to discover the end, but I write to figure out how to get there.  Maybe that’s why I take in hitchhikers:  I’m hoping they can give me directions.  Sometimes, when I’m stuck, or really having no fun at all and the writing feels like drudgery, I will treat myself to writing a scene out of sequence, some scene or chapter I’m really looking forward to, and that helps propel me out of the doldrums.  It’s also a bonus, to catch up to that scene and feel like, “Wow, that work’s already done!”
Next up:  Please meet Anna Eleanor Jordan (Anna Boll) and Sashi Kaufman, who will post on Thursday, June 5th.  Both Anna and Sashi were on the teaching faculty with me at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference this May.

Anna Eleanor Jordan (Anna Boll) is an author, illustrator and educator.  She runs a school and library booking business for authors and illustrators called Creative Bookings and writes freelance curriculum for authors, illustrators and publishers.  Her poetry appears in Highlights High Five, Babybug, and Ladybug magazines.  Her illustrations appear in the picture book Fufu and Fresh Strawberries (The Telling Room.) She has an MFA and Picture Book Certificate from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MSEd from the University of Southern Maine.

Sashi Kaufman is a middle school English and science teacher in Portland, Maine.  Her first novel, The Other Way Around, was published by Carolrhoda Lab in 2014. 


  1. What a pleasure to read about your process, Maria. In many ways, even though you know the end of your story, your path sounds quite intuitive at this point--taking on character hitchhikers who may help you find your way to the end, or who may get thrown off the bus. I appreciate how you describe your writing process as being about figuring out how to get to the end. That's the material that offers us real insight into human nature and that provides the fodder for a good story. I look forward to seeing you tonight!

  2. I love how you say "Some writers say they write to discover the end, but I write to figure out how to get there." I feel the exact same way, but I've never been able to put it into words so clearly. I can't outline or plan my plot ahead of time, but I do usually know where I'm headed.