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work in progress

Question of the Month: Unplugging

by Susan Henderson on October 14, 2015

Talk to me about your experience with social media, the good and the bad.

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I’m just back from California, where I worked on my book with some truly brilliant people. (Special thanks to David Ulin, the best line-editor I know.)

I have been unplugged from social media since April of this year. It’s been good for me in ways I’d hoped and in ways I never expected. My goal when I made this decision was to take back the time I frittered away online and apply it to my novel-in-progress.

What I didn’t expect was to find out that social media did not steal my time so much as it clogged my head.

Let me explain what I mean.

Whenever I signed on to FaceBook or Twitter, I would scroll through feed. What I liked about this was a quick sense of catching up with friends and writers and the world. What I didn’t realize until I let it go of this habit was how much it affected my thinking and my mood.

Every time I checked in, I would absorb the daily happenings, medical scares, triumphs, political rants, looming deadlines, vacation photos, linked articles, world news, and so on of the roughly 5,000 people posting in my feed. And I would respond as best I could, hopping between congratulations to a friend who’d won an award and sympathy to a friend who’d hospitalized a family member. I fretted about my responses. They always felt rushed, but I had to move along. That list would grow hour by hour and never stop.

When I moved from the online world to my novel, my head was so full I could no longer find the thoughts and feelings that were mine before I’d opened the computer. I didn’t even realize the effect of this until I stepped away from it.

And so, when I unplugged, it was not so much that I gained time but that my thoughts and feelings were uncluttered. More accessible. I could be more present with my work, and more importantly, with the people sitting across from me in real life.

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So just quickly, for those of you wondering how I’ve been… Mr. H and I are feeling all the newness of our now-empty nest. We miss the boys and their friends and the noise and the chaos of a much busier life. We eat on the front porch more, where there’s only room for two, and watch storms and walk through museums and see cheap afternoon movies and plan trips to visit the boys. Right now we’re all dealing long-distance with the deep grief of losing one of our beloved pets. Something that doesn’t feel real yet and still catches me by the throat. I’m relieved we’re seeing both boys this month. I want to hold them so badly.

I know many of you are also curious how the book’s going. I want to talk at length about the writing process, and the process of writing this particular book, but not now, not while I’m still in it. All I can say is I’m working deeply on it. I’m allowing the process to be what it is, one of discovery, of digging, of circling back to early pages after I know more. While I keep loose deadlines in mind, my real goal is not to finish at a certain speed but rather to make this book the best it can be.

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Before I go, I’ll share with you the books I read since going off-line:

Connie Mayo, The Island of Worthy Boys (I blurbed this beautiful book!)

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Sara Gruen, At the Water’s Edge

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Annie Jacobsen, The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA

Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise

Harold Michael Harvey, Justice in the Round

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, March: Book One and March: Book Two

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

David L. Ulin, Sidewalking

Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End

Saeeda Hafiz, The Healing: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Yoga

Jen Grow, My Life as a Mermaid

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

Monica Wesolowska, Holding Silvan

Therese Anne Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho

F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

And I re-read these books:

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories 

So that’s a little about my world. Would love it if you’d catch me up on your life and your writing and your experience with social media before I disappear again.

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Question of the Month: Holing Up

by Susan Henderson on May 7, 2012

Talk to me about how you free up time and emotional space for your work, how you say no to distractions, requests, and so on when you really need to focus.

I was going to show a little snapshot of my work-in-progress—my pinboard full of drawings and sticky notes, the stacks and stacks of research books, the 150 single-spaced pages that make up the book so far—but as many of you tease me about all the time, I’m just not one who likes to talk about my work until it’s done. So rather than sharing a photo of my work, I’ve shared some of Joseph Campbell‘s (notes we came across as we were cleaning out his Greenwich apartment). I’m fascinated by works-in-progress and seeing a person’s thought process. I like how organized and balanced Joe’s ideas are, and I like the little arrows on this next one…

My New Year’s resolution was to have a first draft of my book by the time my boys were out of school for the summer. I suppose that’s still possible, but I’m not going to rush it. I want to get this right. I want to get it as close as possible to how the story looks in my imagination. (Do you know what I mean? You know how our ideas seem amazing and bigger than life until we start to scribble them down?) So I was well on my way to meeting my deadline when a fabulous new idea gripped me, and it’s taking some effort to really explore it and rework the shape of the book to include it. I need all the time and focus I can get that doesn’t belong to my family, and this means I have to be disciplined about not adding any more to my plate.

I suspect many of you struggle with this same problem. Each month I get hundreds of requests to read new books, provide blurbs, submit essays to anthologies, edit this, promote that, speak here, introduce this person to that person, write a letter of recommendation or a proposal, and so on.  There are only so many hours in any given week, and it’s easy to carve it up and give it away thirty minutes at a time. Pretty soon, you’ve given away any time you meant to devote to writing your book, and if you’re not careful, any more favors you say yes to will have to cut into your family time.

I’d love to hear what works for you. How do you keep out the distractions when you need to focus? And how are you doing on those goals you set back in January?

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I hope to see many of you this month at the Backspace Writers Conference (I said yes to this commitment many months ago). I’ll be on two panels (one literary fiction panel and one mystery panel) and then I’m staying through cocktail hour. The Backspace Conference is a great meeting of writers, agents and editors with all kinds of practical advice. If you’ve never been before, I hope you’ll consider attending. Friday, May 25th at theRadisson Martinique (32nd and Broadway) in New York City.

A few thank you’s… Thanks, as always, to those who’ve reviewed UP FROM THE BLUE at Amazon and GoodReads, and to those who ordered the new audiobook. Thanks as well to these bloggers for reviewing the Norwegian and Dutch editions of the book: Les Mye (Read Much), Bokanmeldelser, Bieb Blog Vlissingen (Flushing Library Blog), and Ly Books (Read a Book). Your words mean so much to me (and I get such a kick out of how Google translates them)!

One last note… On Wednesday, Mr. H and I will have been married for 20 years, and for 25 years he’s been my best friend. We’re not big on celebrations in our family, so the most we’ll do to celebrate is go out for dinner. But what I really like are the ordinary days—hearing about his day, going for walks, sharing a cup of coffee, working in the yard together, laughing, calling the dogs up on the bed, and just enjoying the company.

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Question of the Month: Work in Progress

by Susan Henderson on June 6, 2011

How’s your progress going? Are you outlining? Winging it? Do you set mini goals for yourself? I’d like to hear how you’re approaching your work in progress.

As UP FROM THE BLUE continues to have a life of its own (that’s the cover of the Dutch version that was just released in May), I am busy with the next book.

I’m taking a different approach this time. I’m outlining and focusing on the plot, working out all the knots that are easier to spot when the action is condensed. I’m doing this to avoid the kinds of trouble I had editing the last book so that I don’t have to unstring it once I have scenes and sentences I love.

This is where I am in the process. That mess to the right is research.

The voice for this book is starting to pipe into my head with real clarity, and this character wants badly to begin narrating the story. But I’m not allowing that just yet. I’m determined to nail the twists and turns of this plot before I let myself  loose to do what I love the most: dive deep into the human heart, find the language to describe what I find there, and discover the many surprises that, despite all my planning, won’t reveal themselves until my characters lead me to them.

So I’m here in my office (the awesome quilt is from my mom) and working away. Can’t wait to hear how your projects are going!

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In other news, I had a great time at the Backspace Conference on a panel with my editor and my agent, where we discussed literary fiction and the chemistry required to work well as a team. UP FROM THE BLUE had nice reviews in both The Daily Mail and The Sun (the two biggest-selling papers in the UK), as well as the Dutch magazine, Libelle. And closer to home, thank you book bloggers StacyknowsBookBelle, Her LucidityMikel K at the Open Salon, and Betsy’s Book Club for reviewing my book—cool sites worth checking out! Finally, not to leave out my kids: They just finished their final exams, played a killer talent show (guitar and keys on Dream Theater’s Dance of Eternity), and are now enjoying a much-needed summer break.

Ooh, one last thing: If anyone is looking to redesign their websites, I can’t recommend Shatterboxx enough! I asked them to simplify my site and make it match the colors of my book and make it easy for newcomers to find their way. Check out their page and you’ll see how varied and uncluttered and truly artistic their ideas are. (They also have a design blog!) And if you’re interested in what you see, tell Jamie and Nicole I sent you so they treat you extra nice!

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