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Question of the Month: Discovering the Story

by Susan Henderson on October 6, 2014

How many of you know precisely what you’re writing about when you begin a novel?

Lantern Parade -- Thomas Cooper Gotch, ca. 1918

I love this painting, Lantern Parade by Thomas Cooper Gotch, because it reminds me of how my stories develop.

Say you’re driving or taking a shower or trying to fall asleep (these are the times most of my stories come to me), and suddenly you see an image in your mind that looks like this painting. Compelling but not quite in focus, much of it in shadow. You love the image, the mood it evokes. But mostly it engages your curiosity.

Where are they going? Is this festive or solemn? Are they silent or singing? You can’t quite see it all, but you slowly start to feel the ground under a patent leather shoe. Whose shoe? Is it broken-in or bought only for this occasion? Why are you drawn to this one girl? Will this be your narrator? Someone important to your narrator? Or simply someone who’s symbolic of… what? Sometimes images don’t hold your interest. They’re too straight forward. But this one has more and more lurking in the shadows. Who are those boys standing above it all? What are they standing on? Is it chilly or humid? What will I see in the daytime? What of this procession will be left on the ground. And where are we?

This is often how it starts… an image or scene, a voice or question comes to you, trembling and underdeveloped. You don’t even know what it is you’re holding in your mind, but it’s got you.

And from here, you are following characters and details, looking under blankets and stones. Where does this one go after the parade? What does she keep in her pockets? Who is she meeting or avoiding? You can do this for hours, weeks, okay, years. Sometimes you even think you’ve got the story figured out.

And then, aha, you bump into that one crucial object or put two unlikely characters together and something clicks. That initial image that had so entranced you has attached itself to something fierce and unsettled at your core. Your story has brought you to a question or conflict that nags at you, that lies tangled in the gut. It’s brought you to something you’re afraid to voice, something that makes you want to shut your eyes, but you are going to follow it anyway. Now you have urgency. Now you have a journey that’s not only for these characters you’ve come to know, but one you must follow to the end because there’s a stake in it for you, an answer you’ve been seeking.

Headlights of a car

This wandering in the dark, hands out, bumping into one thing and then another, is what I love about the work. It’s also what I find maddening. Because you don’t entirely know what you’re doing or where you’re going. E. L. Doctorow described it this way: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

To be honest here, if you have a profoundly bad sense of direction, a drive in the fog means there’s a good change you’ll lose your way or find yourself upside-down in a ditch. Sometimes there’s a lot of  backtracking, needed repairs, and intense searching to find the road again. Eventually, though, you arrive at your destination. Sometimes it’s a place that surprises you, and sometimes it’s a place that is as familiar as an old soul you lost touch with years ago.

Is your writing process anything like mine or something entirely different? Tell your stories! I always learn so much from them.

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If you have a minute, please head over to the Type Rope Walkers blog, where I was invited to share some thoughts on writing. My piece is called, Perseverance: 3 Tips to Help Writers Keep the Faith. Hope it offers help to some of you.

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Many thanks for the mentions in Soho Press, Tumblr, and HarperCollins. Many thanks, as always, to all of you who share your stories here and make our lives richer for it!

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Question of the Month: Social Media vs. The Real World

by Susan Henderson on September 1, 2014

How has your life changed with social media?

scoob

I love many things about email, blogging, FaceBook and Twitter. It allows a shy person with not-so-great hearing to engage in the world without awkward pauses, without misunderstanding what’s said if more than one person is talking. It allows me to work when I need to work and play when I have time to play. It allows me to connect with the writers and friends I feel closest to, even if they live far away. I really do love to hear about your regular lives, not just your book releases, but the struggles of writing in between the triumphs, the pushing through when you’re stuck, the setting work aside to tend to ailing parents. I love hearing about your kids and your hobbies and your favorite recipes. I love how I can get the news in real time on Twitter, even if I have to question the sources. I love (sometimes) seeing the world’s reaction to the news. Actually, I often hate that, but it’s instructive, eye-opening. Social media has been enriching in so many ways. But this summer I took a break from it. No blogging, no FaceBook, no streams of news feed.

cloisters

With my boys and my parents at The Cloisters.

This summer, my 18-year-old was home after his first year of college. My 17-year-old is about to begin his senior year of high school. I am so very aware of how brief this window of time is, this bridge between boyhood and manhood, this gift of both boys being home for the entire summer. They are changing before my eyes and I want to be here, I want to hear their dreams and frustrations, I want to know their friends and their thoughts, or as much of them as they choose to share.

This summer in a nutshell: Driver’s ed for both boys (yes, we are late getting to some things in our family), summer jobs, guitar lessons, college applications, walks and talks, movies, a basement full of teenagers, too many sleepovers to count, The World Cup, a homemade zombie movie, a trip to Montana for my brother’s wedding, a trip to Hawaii to visit my in-laws, novel editing (with serious help from some genius writers), concerts, wine and coffee on the front porch, barbecues, bonfires, galley reading and blurbing, and face-to-face hanging out with friends. I’m grateful for this time away and that doesn’t mean at all that I didn’t miss you.

I’m going to post some photos and links from the summer and hope you’ll share some of your summer stories in the comments.

wedding

My brother got married to the very awesome Molly, with my cousin officiating.

photo

My 18-year-old performed the entire Michael Jackson “Off the Wall” album with his band, Mike Rath and the Grapes (my son being a grape). They had their first rehearsal the day before their gig at NYC’s The Bitter End. Was the happiest show I’ve ever been to… and I hear there will be video of it soon! In the meantime, here’s the tiniest clip from my phone.


RobBridgett

I had such a great time in Brooklyn with my friends, Rob Fields and Bridgett Davis (whose new book is EXTRAORDINARY). I’ve known Rob since we were both eighteen!

zombie movie

This is my 17-year-old filming his zombie movie. He wrote the screenplay, directed and edited the film, and composed the music for it. I’ve known for a long time that he’s talented, but this year I realized he’s an artist.

badmary

Mr. H played lots of gigs with his band, Bad Mary. They’re playing Arlene’s Grocery tomorrow (September 2nd). Go see them if you can!

hawaii

I’m not a fan of the sun (or the beach, really), so when we visit Hawaii, I’m always on the lookout for shade. This is me reading David Ulin‘s gorgeous book at Makapu’u.

hawaii2

We had a two-hour hike in the rain with my boys and their friend, James, who we brought with us to Hawaii.

stillers

I loved receiving the spontaneous invitation and then making the spontaneous decision to drive down to LaTrobe and hang out at Steelers’ training camp with my friend, Angela Small, and her beautiful family.

hawaii3

Some quick thank you’s to Sincerely StacieWTF Are You Reading?vvb32readsBeckie and JeremyBlackbird Letterpress, Pretty Little Fofinha,  The Washington Post’s Ben Opipari, and The Merrick Library.

And that’s it from me this month. Except to say: Welcome back, everyone! Looking forward to hearing your answers to the Question of the Month, as well as stories about your summer!

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Question of the Month: Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!

by Susan Henderson on May 5, 2014

Why do we get so caught up in a sense that we need to hurry?

Hurry

I’ve been thinking more about last month’s blog and your comments, and it’s still with me… this slow-coming spring and the idea of planting seeds, nurturing the soil, and having faith in the importance and in the return of each season. It feels like a lesson I’m finally beginning to learn… that the seeds will grow and bear fruit; that the blank page we started writing on, where we first typed those early ideas and dreamed vaguely about a book that spoke to something deep in the soul will become something that speaks to others; that the journey is as important as the destination; that what evolves never takes the path or the shape we expected.

I’ve finished another draft of my book, and it’s starting to feel sturdy in so many ways. The shape of it is now clear and the reason I needed to write it is coming into focus. I’ve never enjoyed writing more—writing without deadlines, without the thought of anyone looking over my shoulder. I love the story I’m trying to pin down, and I even love the dance as parts of it stay hidden or try to squirm away from my control. I’m getting so very close to having the book I dreamed of writing, though I know it’s not there yet. That’s okay.

We have these false ideas of how fast we ought to do things, racing to the end. Sometimes I have to tell myself, “Wait a minute! What’s the hurry?”

I have examples all around me that what I value most, and what lasts, takes time. As I post this, Mr. H and I are about to celebrate our (hold on, I have to do the math) 22nd anniversary—27 years since our first date. Here’s a picture of us during that first year together that I posted on my author page. (I’m going to try to embed the post here but you may just have to click on that link).

Life, when you’ve lived long enough, and relationships, when you’ve seen them through enough ups and downs, can give you tremendous perspective. The strength of a marriage doesn’t happen overnight or because you will it to be strong. Mr. H and I happen to have awesome teenagers, but they didn’t suddenly appear that way. In marriage, as with raising children, it’s about day-to-day being there, listening, being ourselves, making mistakes, forgiving, realizing the one who got in trouble wasn’t always the one in the wrong, trying again, and so on. Books, too. They take time, and each writer has her own pace, her own balance to strike, and her own discoveries to make.

Sometimes the strength of a relationship is in the hard times that were weathered, the lessons learned, the humbling. Sometimes the glory of who your teens have become is where they disobeyed you and followed their own instincts. Sometimes the best writing comes from where you got stuck, when you put it away to let it breathe, when you let your guard down or set aside all the well-meaning advice you were given and wrote without thinking.

I’m still looking forward to weather where I can get rid of my coat, where I can sit on the porch without freezing, where all the seeds I planted break through the soil. I don’t even remember everything I planted. But in the meantime, I will enjoy the now, the tiny changes in color, the thick comforters we still need on the bed, the way the animals press up close at night, and the continued inspiration to dig deeper into this book. I’m fine with the pace of things. And by the way, I’m off in a week to meet with some folks about this book and feel unbelievably excited to place my manuscript into such talented hands!

If this feels like a repeat of last month’s message, it’s because some of us need help in the patience and faith department. :-) Some of us need to be beat over the head with our lessons.

So how about you? Talk to me about hurrying and slowing down and whatever you’ve learned about that, whether in writing or simply in living.

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Some thank you’s… to Great New Books and to the fine people who’ve left reviews of Up from the Blue. See you in June!

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Question of the Month: Spring

by Susan Henderson on April 7, 2014

Spring really took it’s time this year, but look what pushed through the ground after all that snow and ice melted. It’s a good reminder, I think, of those projects and relationships that can’t be rushed. The groundwork and the strong roots are hidden. The incubation period is necessary, as much as most of us don’t like to wait. So talk to me about something you did or experienced that was in motion long before you saw or felt the results.

spring1

Those of you who know me best know how important walks are to me. I do my best thinking and writing as I walk. It balances my mood and my perspective. So being shut inside my office over the winter has not been easy.

Friends ask all the time, How’s the book going? If I measure it by whether it’s ready to share, it’s going too slow. I write or edit every day, and sometimes it feels like nothing’s happening, like staring at the ground in winter and trying to believe it’ll ever be spring again.

As winter dragged on through March and I passed the several-foot pile of gray ice every time I went in or out of the house, I found myself needing to look at bright pictures of flowers, needing to see color. It’s not so different for me with writing. I want to get to the end of a round of edits and say, That’s it! It looks like the idea I dreamed of creating! I can’t wait to share it!

Alas. It’s a process of patience and faith. Recently, I needed to look at pictures of early revisions of my book (I’ll post them in the next blog) to see if I’m really making headway. And I am. When I remember it all started with a blank piece of paper, when I remember the choices I made in earlier drafts before I really knew the characters, before I owned the setting, before I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea that made me say, Wow, I realize how silly it is to think of measuring things by whether there’s a finished product yet.

I planted the seeds, the roots are strong, I’ve tended to it almost daily. I’ve done this before. There’s no flower to show, not yet, but it will come, I trust that it will.

plant

Do I know exactly what I planted? No. And this is the fun part. Writing is sort of like planting a mystery seed. You know you’re growing something, but what? A tulip? A cactus? A peony that requires ants to chew the bud open and bends toward the ground with the weight of its flower? Dunno. But spring always comes, early or late, it comes, and I look forward to seeing those first shoots poke through the ground.

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In other news, I’m helping to judge a contest, so here is what you need to know…

In celebration of its 10th anniversary, DimeStories will publish a print anthology of 3-minute stories.  The stories can be deep or dark or funny or light. They can be true or made-up or somewhere in-between. All that matters is good storytelling. Stories will be selected by an editorial board, including these fine authors.

Stories must be submitted online (click right here) and may not exceed 500 words. There is a $5 fee to help defray costs of printing. Deadline:  May 31, 2014. If you have any questions, just post them in the comments section and I’ll find out the answers for you.

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Some thank you’s…

SteveEarsUp

… to Robbins Library in Arlington, Massachusetts for reviving this essay I wrote in 2010 for Powell’s Books, and to author Renée Thompson, for featuring my greyhound, Steve, in her blog, A Year in Compliments.

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Question of the Month: Untangling Necklaces

by Susan Henderson on March 3, 2014

Ever tie your story or novel into a knot trying to revise it?

disneyland

My parents took me and my brother to Disneyland when we were three and five. I have foggy memories of twirling inside a tea cup and floating past singing pirates, though maybe these are not memories but only associations I’ve made from photos I’ve seen and songs I’ve sung.

All I know is that on that trip, I got my favorite necklace ever. (The closest I could find to it was this photo on Etsy.)

smallworldnecklace

The necklace was a little Dutch girl made of painted wood. She even had little painted braids that fit into holes in the sides of her head, and long after one of the braids fell out, I continued to wear it.

tangled-necklace

Have you ever thrown a bunch of your necklaces into a jewelry box, and then on the day you want to wear one, you open that box and find that they’re all in a knot? That’s what eventually happened to my little Dutch girl necklace. I tried to work the knot apart using fingers and toothpicks, trying not to break the chains. All the while, I considered which necklaces to sacrifice in order to save the ones I loved best.

I bring up this story because the revision on my latest book has felt like untangling necklaces. Staring at knots and wondering where to begin. Sacrificing one thing in order to save another.

How did these knots happen? During my revision, I changed the opening, reworked a key relationship, tightened this, cut that, pulled this plot thread over here, added a big new event and a character to go with it, gave the setting its own plot arc. And in most ways, the story dramatically improved. In fact, I’m very, very excited about this one because I’m trying to write the book I’ve always wanted to read.

But there was a giant knot.

I’m being kind to myself. There were many giant knots leftover from the revision, and I pinned the stuck places up on my bulletin board and stared at them for days with no idea of how to move forward.

tinkerbell-2

In a strange way, this is my favorite part of editing. It’s where the magic happens but only if you’re able to risk the whole thing collapsing. It’s that close-your-eyes-and-jump moment.

But like someone who stands on the high dive for too long, feeling the fear and anticipating all that can go wrong, what got me stuck was not so much the knot itself. True, to untangle it, I knew I would have to throw out ideas I liked and discover parts of the the book I had yet to conceive.

I stood there, frozen. Rather than thinking, This could be fun. I’ve done this before. I wonder what I’ll discover? I started wondering, What will so-and-so think if I take a step here, or here? And I could imagine the distrustful sighs, the lack of faith, the poorly hidden disappointment.

I began to be tepid. Fearful. I took baby steps. I made safe but uncreative choices. I didn’t trust the magic. Or me.

Do you have a voice like this perched on your shoulder?

This is a long post. Sorry. I’ve saved it up and that’s what happens… too much to say at one time. But here is what happened with my plot-knot. I finally reached out to a friend.

I don’t reach out very often. I come from a long line of cowboys. We are stubborn. Loners. Work horses. Never weak or needy, or if we are, we don’t admit it. But I reached out, thinking I needed editorial feedback. What I got instead was a giant pep talk and help kicking the gloomy and doubting voice off my shoulder.

The next day I was writing so fast I couldn’t keep up. I made daring changes and let the ripples begin. I wrote about things that I’m emotional and obsessed about. I scrapped parts of the book that were good in order to reach for something that made me giddy.

Am I done? No, but I’m on my way and feeling good about it.

ball chain

If I could go back to my little Dutch girl story for a moment… I was never able to rescue that necklace, but I did free up a ball chain and then hung a pocket knife to it, and that became my new look. It took being blocked from my original goal to discover something brand new. My new look was little more fierce, and probably more genuine, as well.

Amy Wallen, Rick Moody, Melora Wolff, Susan Henderson, and in back, Eber Lambert.

 Amy Wallen, Rick Moody, Melora Wolff, me, & Eber Lambert.

Speaking of revisions, I’ve been reminded recently that our stories and our processes for discovering and revising them are so personal and varied. Talk to the writers you know. Think about the writers you wish you could know—Marilynne Robinson who publishes a prize-winning book every twenty years, Jodi Picoult who publishes a big concept book every other year, Alice Munro who stays with short stories no matter who says they’re an unpopular genre. This process and this very personal time table, to me, is as  fascinating and valuable as the final product.

Over a long dinner a few weeks ago with the fine group of people you see above, we talked about revisions and finding a book’s opening and the glorious inaccuracies of memory. We talked about novels and non-fiction and movies and music and bridge closures and everything under the sun. Not the greatest picture but the only one of an exceptionally lovely night—a shot in the arm, a safety net appearing below, all the best parts of being with incredible and creative friends.

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If you haven’t taken advantage of this free contest, please consider it: Salt Cay Writers Retreat Merit Scholarship Contest.

And if you haven’t “liked” my FaceBook Author Page, just click here and then click LIKE.

Okay, let’s hear your revision stories! It’s good to have the company.

 

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