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Question of the Month: A Book

by Susan Henderson on December 2, 2016

For those of you working on a book or some other long project, tell me a little about where you are in the process. Or maybe just how that process feels right now.

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It will take a few LitPark posts to describe the long project I just completed. (I wasn’t willing to talk about it at length until I was certain I’d come out the other side.) At times, the process felt like chaos. I felt lost, full of doubt, and afraid I was writing something too big for my capabilities. As many of you know, at one point, I threw everything away and started over.

Again, I’ll share more specifics later. But I read an interesting book recently, Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight. In the forward to the book, it’s described as Kerouac’s 11-year writer’s block. He worked feverishly at this manuscript, but the result is kind of a glorious gibberish, almost like a jazz artist scatting. Sometimes he makes observations or writes what he hears in the accents he hears them in. Sometimes the work is emotional, sometimes pointed, and most often, it is a look into the soup of his mind.

I found it so comforting to read because it’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to my thought process and why creating something that is eventually linear and comprehensible is such a struggle for me.

Here’s a page from the book (I just randomly opened to this one):

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This page happens to be one of the easier to follow and visualize (and hear). It actually reminds me a good bit of James Joyce. Other parts of the book are harder to reach. But I wanted to share this because we each fall into stories in different ways. Our brains are different. What we attend to most easily is different. And in the end, the journeys we take to find and tell our stories are as unique as we are. After eleven years of working on Old Angel Midnight, Kerouac wrote On the Road in one short burst. My hunch is that he couldn’t have written it without first writing this.

So I had described much of the process of my latest project as being one of chaos and doubt. But at some point, the chaotic pieces began to make sense and fit together and tell the story I didn’t know if I was capable of telling. The passages I had worried were digressions turned out to be crucial. I wasn’t as lost as I felt. And one day, I looked at the stack of pages and thought, wait a minute, I think this has finally become a book.

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Oh! So I almost forgot to share my news! I sold my new book, again to HarperCollins. My editor this time is Sara Nelson. I’m unbelievably grateful to Sara and to the whole crew there and to my incredible agent, and to you, my writer’s support group.

We’re on this long, winding journey together and I couldn’t ask for better company.

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I’ll end, as usual, by sharing the books I read since my last post:

 

Octavia Butler, Kindred

H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds

Caroline Leavitt, Cruel Beautiful World

Jack Kerouac, Old Angel Midnight

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Hans Fallada (translated by Michael Hoffman), Every Man Dies Alone

Marcy Dermansky, The Red Car

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time

Paul Harding, Tinkers

Emma Cline, The Girls

and Triple No. 3 (a chapbook from Ravenna Press)

 

Oh, and one re-read:

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (It’s kind of embarrassing how often I re-read this book.)

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Now, let’s hear from you. Tell me about your work. Tell me about its heart, what excites you, and what terrifies you about it. And what you need to see it through.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher Lincoln December 2, 2016 at 3:26 pm

I’m working on a complete rewrite, too. Glad so see that yours worked out. Congratulations!

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Susan Henderson December 2, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Thanks! And congratulations for having something to completely rewrite. Always an intimidating process because you can’t judge how hard it will be or how long it will take until you come out the other side. (Want to say what it’s about or what the working title is? No worries if you don’t want to share. I’m just curious.)

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Renee Thompson December 2, 2016 at 4:27 pm

First, congratulations, Susan, on this terrific accomplishment. You’ve worked hard, and deserve this success. My own book (novel #3) is almost done. Like you, I scrapped the whole thing five chapters in, then sent an email to Christian Kiefer (THE ANIMALS) to ask if he’d be willing to brainstorm with me. He did (!), and I’ve got a real story now. I won’t say much about it, except that it’s contemporary, and features a falconer as its protagonist. I hope it’s worthy of readers. (Working title: THE LAST FALCONER and then THE WINTERISTS. I know neither of those will stay.)

On a separate note, I’ll also mention I just finished Alan Heathcock’s VOLT. Dark, intriguing, beautifully written. Loved it.

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Susan Henderson December 2, 2016 at 4:35 pm

I’m thrilled you’ve written about a falconer! When you’re in need of a blurb, let me know.

Going to look up Heathcock. I’ve never read his work before but like the sound of dark and beautiful.

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GC Smith December 2, 2016 at 7:27 pm

A falconer. Interesting. There are a series of Joe Pickett thrillers written by a guy named C.J. Box that feature a falconer. They are decent reads.

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GC Smith December 2, 2016 at 7:18 pm

Susan, it is good your book is completed and with your publisher. Congratulations.

I am where you were, chaos and doubt my middle name. But that’s nothing new. I went to college and graduate school taking no notes and skipping as many classes as I could and muddled through. I wrote as a government economist because I thought I could and was too dumb to know I couldn’t. Somehow several books crediting me (some alone, others collaborations) were published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then I tried fiction and some of it has worked despite my lack of rational method.

My four novels were written without outlines. I had no solid idea of where I was going as I wrote but I got there, first with crappy drafts and then, with revision, improved stuff, actually stuff that is considered by others as readable, even good. Unfortunately several agents failed to get it published. My first novel, White Lightning, murder in the world of NASCAR racing, went through three agents who sent it to several several publishers. I received great encouragement, even gratis editing by a friend (a retired Little_Brown editor) but ultimately no deal. Frustrated by the treacle slow process I gave up and self published, essentially for my own bookshelf.

But I continue to write because I like to write. I’ve have four novels, one book of short stories, and four books of poetry. The books are primarily ego trips, but I’ve sold quite a few of the novels. Nobody buys short stories or poetry.

I’m currently into drafting a second NASCAR murder mystery and mixing it up with today’s nasty racist and misogynistic politics. I have a black race car driver (same guy as in the previous novel) who is in this book murdered. My race team is owned by a woman who replaces the murdered driver first with a white male but later with a woman racer. The protagonist is a “good old boy” race team manager forced by circumstance into armature crime solving. He is essentially an apolitical guy who must to come to grips with the nastiness of the far right antagonists at the root of treachery and murder. Short of solving the mystery the race team, owned by his lover/wife, will fail so my protagonist has no choice.

As usual I’m writing without an outline and letting the story develop as it will. It has worked in the past and hopefully will work again this time. But, I never know how it will come out and sometimes I have to back track and throw a lot of “blind alley” stuff away before going in a different direction. Despite my half ass approach to novel writing I enjoy the process.

Time will tell how this one tentatively titled To Live And Die In Dixie will come out.

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Susan Henderson December 2, 2016 at 7:38 pm

It is so healing to hear you talk about your process. That’s where we spend most of our time, and it’s where we all have to dig in and push past the doubt and the sense of being lost again and again. It helps to know we’re all walking the walk.

Sometimes I think endurance is the number one quality a writer has to have. I hear you about the crappy drafts. Crappy drafts are better than blank pages, and they lead to better drafts. In my first (and sometimes my fifth) drafts, every sentence begins with the word And. Often I can’t write full sentences. Sometimes I write in caps SOMETHING BIG AND IMPORTANT SHOULD HAPPEN HERE and then I go on and write another inconsequential and unintelligible sentence. And sometimes I’m just blocking a scene or describing a room, just to keep knowing the fictional space or to write some basic bones down.

That chaos and doubt are on this journey with us kind of makes sense. We’re always pushing for clarity and some sense of story or meaning that makes it worth others reading it. We’re making patterns out of chaos, meaning when the world seems meaningless, looking for complexity when we’re tempted to find simple answers. Ain’t easy stuff we do.

I like your working title a lot. And like you, this divisive election found its way into my writing.

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GC Smith December 2, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Oops! Spell check changed amateur to armature and I didn’t catch it.

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Susan Henderson December 2, 2016 at 7:39 pm

I love bad spellchecks. I don’t why. I just get a kick out of them.

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billie hinton December 3, 2016 at 12:17 am

So happy for you and your new book – and so look forward to reading it!

I decided a couple of months ago to pull the ms that had been slowly making its way to a few agents (none took it on, two mentioned structure as an issue) and pay for professional feedback. The amazing Caroline Leavitt read it and now I’m going through her notes and making several key changes. I think working with an editor is actually my favorite part of the writing process at this point. It feels luxurious to have someone’s take on The Whole Thing. And notes! I am in final edit heaven. :)

I think the best thing she has done is remind me what the heart of this story is – ultimately a tale of a father’s love for his daughter and her revelation when she realizes that – and how to work things a bit so the heart of the story is truly front and center.

And I’m also in the midst of one child doing graduate school applications while the other one is completing her first semester in college. They are both keeping me balanced – I get to watch from the front row as they take on their own passions. Which is proving to be as exciting as writing novels is!

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Susan Henderson December 3, 2016 at 12:26 am

Thank you!

I’m thrilled you worked with Caroline on your book. She’s incredible, and good for you for valuing your work enough to invest in the very best help. What a beautiful heart your book has, and I love when someone can boil it down to such clarity.

Good luck to your son and his applications. I think my oldest (also a senior) is going to go ahead and do grad school at MIT. If you roll straight from the undergrad to grad program, the Master’s program is just one year long. (How did they grow up so fast?!)

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billie hinton December 3, 2016 at 12:40 am

I have no idea how they grew up so fast – I am convinced that the whole concept of time travel comes from being a mother and having the mind-blowing multiverse moments when you look at them now and suddenly you are back when they were babies, then something takes you back to your own childhood and then back to the present moment. I’m sure this goes exponential when any of them offer us the role of grandma!

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Susan Henderson December 3, 2016 at 1:44 am

Your time travel theory feels true to me!

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Despina Yeargin December 3, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Congratulations! How wonderful! I can’t wait to hear more. Intriguing.

Giving birth to word babies can be very painful. It takes way too long, and the babies sometimes take on characteristics that we aren’t thrilled with. Sometimes we wonder how it was possible to give birth to such an amazing creation! Hahahaa!

I am on a clearer and more focused path of my own now. So much is brewing! I am grateful for the clarity and for the TIME to write.

Much love coming your way.

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Susan Henderson December 3, 2016 at 2:08 pm

Despina, Thank you! And more is coming, the whole rollercoaster ride will be on display.

I love the birth analogy for books. Seems like books are more prone to breech and Caesarian births. And you’re right about those surprise characteristics, like a recessive gene comes through and it takes us a while to recognize or understand and adapt to what we’ve produced. Seeing it that way actually makes me feel more tender about the process.

I will drink a toast to your clearer, more focused path. And would love to hear more details when you’re ready to share them.

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Eudora Watson December 3, 2016 at 8:50 pm

I love this line from your blog: “The passages I had worried were digressions turned out to be crucial.”

I am working to turn my attention away from the train wreck that is our current electoral process and towards settling contentedly into writing as many potential digressions as come into my head and find their out through my fingers.

Congrats on your new book contract! I’m looking forward to reading your novel when it comes out.

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Susan Henderson December 11, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Eudora, I’m so sorry your comment got caught in one of my filters and I’m just now seeing it.

I know the feeling of trying to crawl out of the shock and numbness of this political season enough to write again. I think we need writers’ and artists’ voices more than ever now. Maybe this will inspire your work: http://lithub.com/art-can-transfigure-hatred/

Sorry again to just see your post this morning. So glad you’re here!

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Jessica Keener December 3, 2016 at 11:45 pm

First, I’m so happy about your great news. Your novel is gorgeous and emotionally powerful. I know how hard you worked on it and reworked it and tore it apart and rearranged it. I also know that this is what I also end up doing with my novels. I wrote the draft of a new one in 2015 and it has been rising in the oven for many months now with an occasional peek. At first, I organized my time around word count. And, because I’ve had less time these past few years (working at a full time day job) I set myself up for a 1000 words a day for two weekend days a week over the course of about nine or so months. That produced a first draft. First drafts take the most energy out of me. Now I’m at a place where I need to organize my time and vision in a different way. It’s not about getting stuff out, it’s about shaping and reshaping and digging deeper and knowing who my characters really are and why and what and how. I’m extremely fidgety right now, which tells me it’s time to get back into the mess of it. I can’t question myself. If I do, I’m sunk. So, I’ll pretend that it will work out somehow. I guess you can check in with me in about a year or two to see how it’s going.

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Susan Henderson December 4, 2016 at 12:12 am

Thank you for so many ways that you helped me along the journey. When you’re in it, when you don’t know that you’ll come through the other side with anything good or finished, or even your sanity, it helps more than you know to have wise, understanding, encouraging voices calling you out of the fog.

Remember when I started every sentence with And to keep the flow and to shut down the critical/editor side of me? And how I just wrote out of order, whichever character or scene seemed to call me at the moment? It was like a lesson in learning to listen to my instincts and not to all the you-musts and you-shoulds of my head. Intrigued by the fidgetiness and what part of the book might draw and eventually sooth that sense of restlessness.

I’m also anxiously awaiting Strangers in Budapest! As soon as you’re given a book cover or an Amazon link, I’ll post it here!

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Joan Wilking December 4, 2016 at 1:28 pm

So happy Harper Collins bought your book. You know how much I loved so many aspects of what I was privileged to read and can’t wait to read the final version. As for me, after so many years trying to place my first novel, it won the Wild Onion Novella Prize this week and will be published by Curbside Splendor next Spring. I hope that evetually bodes well for my other two unpublished books and numerous short stories, which I’d dlove to see published as a collection or several collections.

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Susan Henderson December 4, 2016 at 2:06 pm

Congratulations!!! Tell us a little bit about it and give us a title so we can be on the lookout! I love stories of persistence and novels finally coming into the world. I absolutely believe that will open the door for the others to follow. Such great news, Joan! Good for you for not giving up.

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Joan Wilking December 6, 2016 at 3:51 pm

The book is titled Mycology. It’s set primarily at the leading edge of the AIDs epidemic. The story is told through the multiple POVs of a conceptual photographer, a world reknown composer and a male prostitute turned art dealer. Each section of the book opens with a vignette from the natural world, which recount the journey of poisonous mushroom from the forest floor, to the hands of a forager, to it’s final desiccation and demise.

I just revamped my author website and will be adding content to it in the coming months.

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Susan Henderson December 7, 2016 at 11:28 am

That sounds so good. I’m already captivated by the mushroom journey. It must feel like such a relief to know these stories have finally found a home.

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Ric Marion December 8, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Susan,
Late to the game, as usual. The process – ah, hard to discuss as I’ve been stuck in the most massive writer’s block – found it interesting you would reference Jack Kerouac’s – spoke to me, yes it did. My book, came up with the premise – all good so far except no solution. Came up with solution, did outline, did first ten pages, can’t put it down, what happens next, the crucial hook, all done. Everything good so far. Blew through the outline – 300 pages condensed into 50 – what comes next? There is still plenty to write, but I am totally blocked. It just isn’t happening. Even with encouragement from my Writer’s Circle, and kids, and friends, nothing is landing on the page.
While little is happening on the actual writing side, my natural curiosity is taking me down strange and wondrous paths. (shameless plug for blog page here). I think, and hope, my writer’s block is meant to be, knowing when I complete the journey I’m on, mentally and spiritually, I will be a different person than the one who started the book and that will only make it better. I am in a magical space right now, everything – and I mean everything – personal, business, family, health – is going so much better than one can imagine. I truly wake each morning wondering what great surprises await me.
Congrats on finishing your latest, Susan. I look forward to reading it.

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Susan Henderson December 8, 2016 at 10:09 pm

I’m glad Kerouac helped us both. I’m always so grateful when writers who make it look easy with a finished piece of work peel back the layers and show that creating work can make you feel so very lost.

Supposedly the premise is key to everything so you are likely not as lost as you feel. Sometimes I try to jarr my senses when I’m stuck by watching silent movies, reading poetry, listening to opera. Just kind of searching for something to strike a vein but not prompt thought so much as sense. Also I try to formulate what my question is–why do I need to write this particular story? how can I get these two characters who don’t want to have anything to do with each other to meet or have to work on some task together? Once I have my question, I go on a long walk. Something about walking gets me unstuck. Don’t know if any of this will work for you, but just throwing it out there. I trust that you’ll there, if not through a front door than through the back.

So glad for your magic!

Oh, and link your blog here for everyone! Make it easy for people to visit. : )

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Ric Marion December 8, 2016 at 10:51 pm

Susan,
Just click on my name – it will take you straight to my blog.

Here’s the pitch line: Newly married Gil discovers his wife ‘blinks’ out of existence, disappearing for hours and then returning with no memory of the event, insisting she hasn’t gone anywhere. Desperate to find out where she goes, and if she is in danger of not coming back, he searches for the answer. And, when he discovers it, must decide if he can live with that knowledge.

So many ways this can go, I have no idea why I’m stuck. Waiting for Godot – I suppose that’s as good as any.

Thanks for your support.

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Susan Henderson December 9, 2016 at 12:52 am

I’m totally intrigued! I don’t think you’ll be stuck for much longer.

Off to catch up on your blog….

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