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Off to the Castle

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For those of you who are working on long, complicated, often overwhelming projects, tell me some tricks you use that inspire you to go deeper into the work. I’d also love to know how you break up your novels and memoirs into more manageable tasks.

Yes, I’m still alive. I know I haven’t been very visible online since November, but I’ve been trying hard to keep my mind free of clutter while I work on this new novel. Up until now, I’ve been doing the bulk of my writing in New York, but I’ve begun to pack for my stay at the Hawthornden Castle (in Scotland), where I’ll be living this fall, thanks to very generous funding from the Drue Heinz Foundation. This week, they sent a packet with details about my stay, including the fact that I can get a hot water bottle delivered to my room if I get cold. The picture above is one of the caves I’ll have access to while I’m there. I can’t even tell you how excited I am to go on this writer’s retreat and get some serious work done! Mostly I’m packing flannel, sticky pads, pens, that sort of thing, but I also want to take your good ideas with me.

Because I haven’t been playing on Facebook or Instagram during this break, I’ve had more time in the real world—visiting book clubs and radio shows, attending dinner parties and plays. It’s been a great wake-up call to reconnect with a world I can physically touch.

And while I’ve had to learn how to say no more consistently, in order to protect my time, I did blurb this book that was physically pressed into my hands… pretty sure it will be made into a film.

“I spent much of my childhood inside DARPA, where my father was Deputy Director, and this book captures the imagination and double-edged sword of our greatest scientific leaps. The same technology that can cure the world’s ills might also cause us to spiral into our own greed, selfishness, and vanity. Charles Soule’s Anyone is a remarkable, consequential novel and a terrifying wake-up call.” (Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams)

My family has been moving in some new and interesting directions. Mr. H and his pop-punk band, Bad Mary, toured Japan, playing six gigs there before he had to return to the much more normal life of a professor. My youngest is now living in Brooklyn and working for a company that uses stop-motion animation in commercials and short films. And my oldest has been presenting research papers. Here’s a link to his first publication (just be sure to turn your math brain on before you click).

Once I’m off to the castle, only my family will be able to reach me via a landline phone reserved for emergencies. Other than that, I’ll be completely off the grid, hopefully doing a lot of writing and saving up stories to bring back home. (If I don’t come back, please have someone check the caves!)

Before I go, some thank you’s are in order… First of all, The Flicker of Old Dreams won some awards and some kind praise, and I’m grateful for everyone who helped bring the book to other readers. And thank you to these awesome folks: Yellowstone Public Radio, Women Writing the West, Billings Gazette, Byron Reads Now, NBCC’s Critical Notes, Roundup Magazine, Foothills Sun-Gazette, Book Bound with Barbara, Writing Unblocked, Daily Inter Lake, Western Writers of America, Great Falls Tribune, High Plains Book Awards, Billings Gazette (again), Lively Times, Front Porch Books, The Belle of Cowbell, Reading Glasses, USA Breaking NewsAuthorsInterviews, Montana Book AwardVanderbilt News, and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who said of this about TFoOD “A lyrical meditation on life lived outside the city; this powerful novel of resilience, redemption and human imperfection will leave you breathless.”

As always, I’ll end by sharing some of the books I’ve read since my last post:


Emily Fridlund, The History of Wolves
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Tommy Orange, There, There
A.K. Small, Bright Burning Stars
Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account
Oliver Sacks, Gratitude
Anne Rice, The Witching Hour
Alice McDermott, Charming Billy
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Richard Powers, The Overstory
Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light
Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons
Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends
Marcia Butler, Pickle’s Progress
Daniel Mason, The Piano Tuner
David Oshinsky, Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem
Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
Ryünosuke Akutagawa, “Rashömon”
Jim Ray Daniels, The Perp Walk
Ann Hood, The Red Thread
Yuyi Morales, Dreamers

And a few re-reads:
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere


Talk to me about ways you keep inspired on your long projects. What are your tricks for keeping the work fresh and exciting? Let’s help each other stay inspired.

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  • Watson, Eudora
    September 24, 2019

    What an adventure! Very excited for you.

    To answer you question briefly: conferences, reading, manuscript software, word count goals, working on the wrong project, my readers, and my writer friends keep me inspired and working.

    The longer answer: Getting ready for conferences was my summer go-to for staying on task and energized – first the Adirondack Center for Writing in Lake George, NY, then the Slice Conference in Brooklyn. Having these bookends kept me from slacking off in the middle. For inspiration, I took the hint from your long “what I’ve been reading” lists and got back to my reader-self: she’s been a long time in the wings. (Just read: The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz, and Good Talk by Mira Jacob.)

    A few weeks before the Slice conference I finally started using Scrivner -it was a steep learning curve, but for me the program is an excellent tool in seeing, and working on, the structure of my novel, Lucky. It made it so much easier to find passages, check on consistency, etc. It seems so dry – a software tool! But by helping me make my way around in the manuscript, it really contributed to the immediacy of the work. I felt up-close to the story in a way I had never been before.

    Another seemingly boring thing, a word count goal, kept me going back to the page. I knew I needed to add about 8,000 words to Lucky for the Slice conference, and that goal got me to the desk daily.

    I did feel I needed to get some distance from the book at one point, but rather than stay away I worked on other long projects. By the submit date in late August I had by 8,000 words on the novel, and 20,000 words on three other WIP. I had a lot of fun throughout.

    (At the Slice conference I had a really lovely meeting with an agent – she loved the sample and requested the full manuscript. Even if nothing comes of it, it was very gratifying to hear her enthusiasm for the story. That’s pretty inspiring. )

    • Susan Henderson
      September 24, 2019

      Hooray about the full ms request!! How were the conferences overall… what made them worthwhile and what made them exhausting? I think conferences are particularly wonderful and simultaneously awful for writers because so many of us are introverts and need/hate to get out and network.

      I tried Scrivener before and became so lost and frustrated with it that I opted to lose all I’d written and just save myself the headache of being so far outside my thought process. But I’m glad it’s working for you! And I want to hear more about being inspired by working on the wrong project… 🙂

      • Eudora Watson
        September 26, 2019

        Sorry Scrivener was a nightmare for you. I don’t see it as being friendly for composing at all, but I used it when I had 60,000 plus words and wanted to visually organize it. I’d rather be able to do the same task with sticky notes, but pieces of paper boggle me. Because I had a bulk of work, I could put it in a “project” and then to parse it out, doing the same task over and over – repetition being key to my learning any computer task

        In regards to working on the approach of being comfortable working on the wrong project – what I did was very similar (in my take on it ) to advice you gave someone and they later reported it as successful in a blog post. I was looking for the exact words they used in thanking you, but instead was reminded about a good book you posted about: She Would Be King.

        So, failing that retrieval of a quotation – which might have been something along the lines of you go into the studio and see what’s there (?) – I’ll say it was like going to the backyard to see who shows up for a pick-up game and finding out when you get there what game you’ll are playing: kickball? softball? tag? In my case it was sit down and see which story wanted to play: the disaster novel (my sweetheart was very dubious when I dove back into the goings on of those characters), the ghost story saga (“I can see you’re enjoying it”), Rachel’s story (a sort of prequel to Lucky, and therefore somewhat more palatable to my sweetheart), and finally, oh! here you are ! Lucky – ready to go. I think not minding that I went far afield allowed me to cross-train in terms of motivation, story pace, scene building.

        By the time I went back to the novel that had a deadline, I was far more ready to play at a more serious level: I had the habit of daily, solid, word-count production, I was refreshed from the freedom, and I was ready to apply what I knew of the craft to Lucky. When I dumped an entire section, edited with a precise hand, gave a character more of less space on the page, I could do it with an attitude of “Nothing personal, this is what I do.” Looking back, I think it helped me privilege what the story could be – its potential – over what the story had so far become. Some thing like that.

        • Susan Henderson
          September 27, 2019

          Whoa, this is fascinating. I love imagining as kids showing up and what game do we all want to play together. How clear and emotional and freeing that image is for me! And you’re the second writer who’s talked in terms of cross-training. (Calling Kim Chinquee!) It’s funny because I read better when I switch from novel to essay collection to poetry. And I write better when I pull sections of the novel out and pretend it’s a stand-alone piece of flash fiction or an essay. But I’d never thought of intentionally using it to re-charge my system.

          Someone should collect all the wisdom here and make a writer’s survival handbook out of it. I’m blown away by the genius and generosity you all bring to this space.

    • Billie Hinton
      September 24, 2019

      I’ve been not so much in a writing slump as I have been very engaged with some family stuff for the past year that has absorbed a lot of my energy, time, and attention, so I’m not sure I have good advice for how to stay engaged with a long project… at the moment I have the same novel that just needs one final read/tweaking as needed, another novel that is on the third draft and I really love the last edit I did, and a trilogy of novels that I am trying to adapt into TV series format. All of this has been on my writing stove for at least 3-5 years. In the meantime, I’ve used the writing and submitting and a number of publications of shorter material to buoy me along the longer way. I hit some nice work streaks especially when I go on retreat (usually 3-4x per year) and that has kept me in the game. Right now I’m taking a remote class with Jeannine Ouellette called The Art of the Fractured, and I knocked out two essays in forms that fit the material and made me so so eager to be at the desk to work on them, and we’re only into week 3 this week! She assigns a lot of readings and I feel like that is part of what has got me so revved up. I read a lot, all the time, but this is focused and directed reading that is instructional while being gorgeous. If you haven’t read it, Jo Ann Beard’s The Fourth State of Matter, which was published in the New Yorker several years back, is a stunning essay that just blew the lid off the box I was in with an old piece of an essay I really want to write. It has been exciting. I love the remote part because I am getting excited while sitting in my garret and not having to leave home! 🙂

      Congratulations on your award and I remain excited for you to be going to Hawthornden – what a wonderful time that’s going to be.

      Something I read in the past couple of months that has had a huge impact on me is Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism. His Deep Work had a big impact last year – both are books that speak to my desire to totally unplug from social media and stay that way, but while I take fairly long hiatuses, I go back, and I get sucked in again, and I realize I stop working when that happens, so I go offline again, etc. etc. He talks a lot about the addicting things that are built in to the various social media platforms and I can’t help but think that some of my slump is a result of simply not staying totally off the social media sites. I know, without question, that it uses time I don’t really want to lose to that.

      I think having deep work days is the key. I get them when I go on retreats, and I used to have them built solidly into my weekly routine. I’d love to get there again.

      Looking so forward to the Hawthornden report that will come later this year. Enjoy every moment!

      • Susan Henderson
        September 24, 2019

        Awww, this is so helpful! And I love hearing about your garret and knowing you don’t let your writing remove you from life itself.

        So happy to hear your revisions are going well. That’s actually a fun time to put it all aside for a bit, catch your breath, and then take some final sweeps through it!

        My kids are big into digital minimalism. And what I’ve learned from staying away is exactly what you’re describing… that simply clicking on the app or scrolling, whether you engage or not, is feeding the addictive behavior and fragmenting your thoughts. It’s hard to get that balance right, and so true that the apps are trying hard to make sure we don’t!

  • Christopher Lincoln
    September 24, 2019

    Writing is the man cave of my life. The place where I go to hide everyday. At this point it has become necessary for my wellbeing. That part aside, I often use Keynote to create a spreadsheet of what each character is up to alongside a brief summery of chapters. Pretty basic stuff, but it’s helped me break through logjams numerous times.

    Hope you have a terrific adventure.

    • Susan Henderson
      September 24, 2019

      Yes, the writer cave is necessary for my well-being too. I like the idea of a few notes, summaries, and not much else. That feels nicely pared down.

  • Ric Marion
    September 25, 2019

    Susan, I was wondering if you were going to resurface before your next big adventure. So glad to see this post.
    I tend not to get into large involved projects. I write fairly straight forward stories and all those secondary story lines and characters seem to fill in automatically. If Bob has blue eyes on one page and green eyes on page 340, someone (usually me) will catch it. I think if I worried about that during writing, it would distract from the story.
    So nice to hear about your kids… and life.
    The postponed trip to Paris with my youngest is due to start next week. We have been putting together all the places we want to see, all the things we want to do, still have a bit of Hemingway research to get done, but we will be staying in the heart of the Movable Feast. I can’t wait. Hoping it will generate enough magic to push me through to finish the WIP. If not, at least I’ll have nice pictures.
    Your adventure sounds like a great time to unplug, unlock and just let it happen. I’ve done that a time or two. Driving three hundred miles, locking myself in a motel room, and simply writing. It does wonders. Can’t wait to hear about it all, including the ghosts and whispers from long ago writers who, undoubtedly, walked the halls before you.

    Life is good, the Magic continues.

    • Susan Henderson
      September 25, 2019

      Ric! I love how my blood pressure goes down whenever I hear from you. And your advice, as I hear it, is so simple: focus on the story (and not the window dressing) and it all works out. I also like your seemingly simple but pretty profound use of the word “unlock,” which may be what I need most… and what I’d lost sight of.

      Have a wonderful time in Paris! Can’t wait to hear all about your Hemingway research! I have no doubt you’re uncover the magic you need.

  • Maury Feinsilber
    September 26, 2019

    In a lot of ways, this blogpost reminds me of the lost art of “catching up with” a friend as was done long ago by letter, not so long ago by a phone call, and sometimes still via the serendipity of fate bringing you and them together at just the right place and time. What a fantastic array of life has been happening in your and your family’s sphere.

    Now hundreds of pages into writing my second novel, yesterday I experienced that feeling of being in a maelstrom of words and information, all of my own creating yet all in its way seeming foreign and confusing as hell. I had to literally close my eyes for a few moments and reign in my feelings of being overwhelmed, which helped, and then looked at – skimmed at best – my notebooks to refresh my memory of where I’d come from, which I believe will help me to know where I need to go. I, by purposely not thinking about it too much, distilled entire chapters down to a few words, almost like how an exit sign on the highway indicates a place without giving a clue to all who and that are there, jotted them on post-it notes, and then continued. It helped a lot.

    So there’s one piece of anecdotal advice, but I think perhaps the most helpful thing for me to do when the sh*t starts hitting the fan is to remind myself of the initial spark that ignited my interest and excitement in the making this novel in the first place. We may love our spouse for a galaxy of reasons, but there’s usually one star, bright or faint, that inspired the love in the first place.

    Knowing a tiny bit of your novel-in-progress from your previous posts, Sue, it seems so fantastically clear to me that this residency in Scotland will be the *ideal* locale for your continuing on this endeavor. Like many others here, I’ll look forward to hearing all about it once you’re back on this side of the Atlantic.

    • Susan Henderson
      September 27, 2019

      This. Is. Exactly. What. I. Needed. What you said here just made something go CLICK inside my brain. The initial spark. Remembering that is the light not to lose sight of in the maelstrom of good and bad ideas. Focus on one the one star that struck you above all others. That. Is. It. And thank you.

      Going to write that on sticky notes and post them all over my garret in the castle. And, yeah, for someone who writes better while walking and who needs to constantly (and physically) explore a place, I’m excited about awakening all my senses and having the time to write in pure silence (or the baa-ing of sheep!) and keeping that one star at the center of my thoughts.

      Maury, serious thanks for this. And !!!!!!!!! about being so far into the new novel!

Susan Henderson