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Question of the Month: Focus

by Susan Henderson on October 7, 2013

How do you keep your focus and momentum on long projects?

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This is a picture of how the new book is coming along. (I’m big into bulletin boards!) Each weekday (because I’ve learned to take weekends off), I pick one chapter or theme or knot to tackle. I do many of my edits while hiking, talking my ideas into the voice memo on my phone, because my #1 motivator is getting outside and moving. And no matter whether my edits for the day are great or terrible, I always move on to something new the next day because my #2 motivator is seeing progress.

If this looks especially tidy or easy to you, that’s because I’m sharing only the tiniest glimpse of my writing process. Right now my energy is directed at these book edits. But sometime I’ll share more of the chaotic and nerve-wracking aspects of writing and revising, how some days it’s like untangling necklaces and other days it’s like blowing things up and seeing what survives among the ashes.

Okay, your turn. What tricks and motivators do you use to stay sharp, creative, and productive?

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Many thank you’s this month: To Jamie Ford for mentioning my book in the Barnes & Noble Review! I hope you’ll check out his latest, Songs of Willow Frost… #11 in this week’s New York Times Best Seller list. To The Book Blogger and Read A Book for writing nice reviews of the Dutch translation of my book. To Jessica Vealitzek for listing my book as one of her favorites of the year. And to Corey Mesler for placing my blurb of his newest book right under one of my great writing heroes:

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Thank you to Cathrine, who took this picture in a Norwegian bookstore:

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 And I’ll end with this: My husband’s band, Bad Mary, just released its first video. Now you can see some of the fine people who jam in my basement each week…

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Question of the Month: Endings and Beginnings

by Susan Henderson on September 1, 2013

Tell me about an ending for you that was also a beginning. What was that moment, how did it impact you emotionally, and what did you discover about that moment over time?

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Last weekend, Mr. H and I dropped off our oldest son at college.

The week before the move, I would spontaneously burst into tears. Is this the last brownie mix I’m going to buy until Thanksgiving break? Is this the last load of laundry I’ll wash for him? When will I hear him play the piano again?

In those last days, he and his girlfriend would hold each other, playing sad sad music. All I felt was the impending goodbye and how loved he is here. As he packed, choosing what to take and what to leave behind, it was so clear that I view him differently than he views himself. He packed his Zappa posters and soldering gun, his keyboard and his graphing calculator, but for me, he is not just the 17-year-old going off to college. He is also the little boy who’d climb into my bed after a nightmare and run through the house with a dish towel pinned to the back of his shirt. When he was finished packing, he left behind so many things that are still a part of how I see him—the teddy bear he used to sleep with, the catapults and Lego he built, the this-and-that he made from paper and all kinds of etcetera.

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But here’s a truth about this creative boy I raised: a lot of things he most wanted to do with his free time were not things any of the rest of us could do with him. He has made many amazing friends over the years but when he engaged in his deepest passions, he was always alone with them. When he applied to M.I.T., understanding the near-impossible chances of getting in, it was because it was the one school we visited where he sensed he’d find like souls.

And so we set off for Boston with the car stuffed to the roof and feeling the heaviness for what I believed was going to be a sad day. And then we arrived on campus and saw this… chop saws and piles of wood set out for the meet-and-greet.

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And this…

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Also, his dorm allows cats!

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The idea of leaving him in this place didn’t feel so much like the ending I’d anticipated, but rather leaving him in a community where he will finally, finally be deeply understood and nurtured. These are his people. These are his passions. And more than anything, as we drove home, I just felt happy for him.

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Our home is different without him. I’m used to hearing the piano. I miss him plugging his iPod into my car. I’m not used to the empty bed in the morning where he usually sleeps in with the cat curled up beside him. Sometimes I’ll pass a stack of records he left behind or come across something in his handwriting or accidentally set an extra plate at dinner, and the tears come again. Not constant, just now and then, the feeling of how much I enjoyed having him here.

Endings. Beginnings. And knowing when I see him next, there will be something new about him, a transformation that’s only possible to make by going away.

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Thank you for the nice mention my book at  The Kindness of Strangers and Frequency. And thank you to the talented Heather Fowler who interviewed me over at Fictionaut.

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Question of the Month: Big Picture Edits

by Susan Henderson on August 5, 2013

How are you with feedback? Do edits on your writing leave you feeling crushed or excited? Defensive or freed up to look at something from new angles and with new life?

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My agent is now the one and only person who has read my new manuscript, and while I was braced for criticism, I found, as I usually do, the whole process of feedback and big picture edits to be hugely fun and creative. Part of what I love best about getting his feedback is that he’s not a soft editor. He’s not afraid to kick the legs out from under the table and give me ideas that might require re-thinking the entire shape of the work.

But, bless him, he always begins with the strengths, or what creates the bedrock of the story for him—in this case, the world of the story (“It’s a spectacularly drawn landscape—physically and emotionally.”), the main character (“I love her and the way she interacts with dead bodies.”),  and two key characters (“Their relationship, their history, their rootedness to the town, each other, and the main character are perfect.”). This all helps build my confidence and my sense of what’s working.

But the important part for me is what comes next—What’s not working for him? Where and how can I make this book better? And so we spent a lot of time talking about the story’s villain (“His personality is too outsized for the story. He overwhelms the landscape. He’s not sympathetic.”) My villain, as he helped me to understand, is kind of like a Marvel Comic Book supervillain trying to fit into a Carson McCullers story. And so we talked about this character and why he doesn’t seem to fit, and how this problem creates other problems with my plot and my main character.

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I have pages of notes from our talk—notes of what I can explore more deeply, where I should slow down, and all kinds of tangents and questions and challenges. This is all thrilling to me! My mind feels on fire, re-imagining my story with these new questions in mind and this new blast of energy.

And here’s the thing… I wouldn’t have thought of any of these things. If I took two more years to edit this book, I would peck away at the sentences and trail off into interesting quirks and backstories, but I wouldn’t have taken this turn. While I sensed there was something I couldn’t put my finger on that the book was lacking, I didn’t realize how much of it radiated from a villain who isn’t organic to this setting.

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Getting feedback that inspires (rather than crushes or stunts or angers) takes having the right reader. And it takes trust. Trust that you and your early-reader can both take risks, be open to wild brainstorming, try out ideas that may fail spectacularly. I am grateful to have this kind of supportive but challenging feedback and psyched to get back to work. I can’t even slow down the new ideas, they’re coming in such a rush!

So talk to me. Tell me your experience with edits and editors, the good and the bad!

Let me close with some thank you’s: to June Sundet (The June Blog) and camillaho for kind words about UP FROM THE BLUE, to the chaperones on my sons’ AllStar tour for offering such love and care to the kids, and to the parents of MIT students who reached out to me to offer help and friendship for the journey that lies ahead.

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P.S. I had posted this a month or two ago on FaceBook but I thought I’d post it here, as well. It’s that important to me. I know I’m a little unusual in the way I use FaceBook and email, but for me, private messages are solely for my family and people directly involved with publishing my work (i.e., my agent, editor, and publicist). Everything else, including congratulations, questions about the business, requests for help, condolences, small talk and deep talk, belong in the public domain (in comment threads on my FaceBook wall or here at LitPark). Otherwise, I can’t keep up with all these many ways for people to reach me, and it causes me more stress than you could possibly know.

Here is how I said it on FaceBook:

A note about how I use FaceBook: I don’t read or respond to private messages. I do, however, enjoy interacting with everyone in the comments sections on my page. If you need to contact me for any professional reasons (interviews, blurbs, etc.), please go through my literary agent at Writer’s House. Thanks!

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Question of the Month: Childhood Obsessions

by Susan Henderson on July 1, 2013

What were you obsessed with as a child?

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Part of what I loved about writing my new book was delving into old obsessions. When I was in elementary school, I loved looking through my mom’s nursing books with the often gruesome drawings of deformities and diseases. Sometimes, she took me to her nursing classrooms, where I remembered looking at human fetuses in jars and stacks of stiff cats in clear plastic bags.

When I was in middle school, I became obsessed with one of the authors on my mother’s bookshelf, Richard Selzer, who made surgery seem like poetry. I loved to read about the instruments, the cuts, the problems that couldn’t be fixed, the torment and wisdom of both doctor and patient.

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All the while, my father would talk to me about the work he and his colleagues did at DARPA, the Pentagon, and the various colleges and institutions where he consulted. He told me about ARPANET, missiles, microchips, robots that tried to balance on one leg, digital speech, computers that might one day think, unmanned vehicles, robots that could go into dangerous places and try to fix the damage.

When I applied to college, I fully expected that I would one day be a biomedical engineer, something that combined so much of what had been swirling around me and piquing my interest for years. But after discovering the shock of my own limited brain and hopping through a handful of majors, I realized it was the stories of these things that fascinated me, not the idea of doing them myself.

As I stared at the blank page and wondered what my second book would be about, I found myself wandering back to these early obsessions with surgery and with the minds of inventors moving beyond what was known or what was even likely to be successful. I went back and read Richard Selzer’s books and found him even more fantastic than my memories (that doesn’t happen very often!) and suddenly, in fiction, I was able to go where I had failed in real life.

I will leave my story there for now. I’m still waiting to hear from my agent on the manuscript and looking forward to (and also fearing) his response. I know many of you know the feeling!

Okay, your turn. Let’s hear your stories of childhood obsessions, and which ones are still alive in you today?

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Some thank you’s: The Writer magazine, for including my thoughts in the July and August issues, and De Woordenregen.

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I’ve been away for a while so I’d love to catch up a little. How are you? What’s happening in your world these days?

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I’m thrilled to say that after a month in Winnett, Montana, I finished the new book and have sent it on to my agent. He will be the first to read any part of it, so there’s always the butterflies in the stomach, the fear of being crushed, but also the excitement that he’ll take something important to me and show me ways to make it better.

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A little about my trip… at the end of March, I flew to Missoula, Montana, where my brother lives, stayed over night at his place and caught up over wine and risotto. The next morning, we made the 6-hour drive to Winnett, a town of 181 people in Central Montana where my father, uncles, and grandparents used to live, and where I’ve very-fictionally set my book.

My hope was that being in this small town would awaken all my senses and emotions during my final edits and ignite a physicality that seemed to be absent from my book. And, oh man, did it ever! I walked through and around town several times a day, looking, listening, smelling, touching.  The trip was envigorating, lonely, claustrophobic, inspiring.

If you’re my friend on FaceBook, you can see a whole lot of pictures of this trip, from my family cemetery to the mid-April snow to the newborn calf someone drove around in his truck to keep it from freezing. I will be sharing more about the trip and the book over the next few months, but I don’t want to make this post too long, so I’ll stop here for now.

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In other news, I am so, so happy to report that after a long, nerve-wracking wait, my 17-year-old has now heard back from all of the colleges he’s applied to, and he’s made a decision about where he’ll attend in the fall. His choice: M.I.T.

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I am full of joy, relief, and gratitude that he’s able to go somewhere that is such a profoundly good fit for him. M.I.T., by the way, sends their good news in a tube rather than an envelope, and then they encourage the students to hack the tube. My son made his into a working stylophone.

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Some thank you’s for reviews and links: The Never Dusty BookshelfFru Elde – En dag i mitt liv, Convertiv, Jocosa’s Bookshelf, Bethany Duvall, Crystal Clear As Mud, Well Read Westhampton, De Woordenregen, Laila’s Leseblogg, the Wesleyan University Community Blog, and something that made me cry at Juliet DeWal’s In Spite of All the Damage. Also, thank you to Emily Rapp for writing the beautiful non-fiction book, The Still Point of the Turning World, which I reviewed here at Great New Books.

Beautiful day so I’m going to get outside and walk!

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