Monday, August 22, 2011

Does a Writer Need a Schedule?

This is the question I ask myself over and over: does a writer need a schedule? I mean scheduled hours to sit in front of the computer or notebook and write. Do they need to be the same hours every day?

I have the enviable position of deciding how to spend most of my days and furthermore for two days of the week I have the house completely to myself (minus a gaggle of cats). I don't have to spend fifteen minutes going through a drive-through, ten minutes cramming a deep-fried something-or-other down my gullet and five minutes of writing on a thirty-minute lunch break. I can nibble on healthy food all day and write at my leisure (chocolate dipped coconut macaroons are healthy food in this scenario). It beats my schedule when I was an construction office coordinator!

But I find if I don't have some structure, nothing gets done. I mean, if I'm honest, without a schedule my spouse is likely to come home and find dirty dishes piled in the sink, dinner not even contemplated let alone started, me unshowered and still wearing my jammies, clutching a mostly-empty notebook and muttering to myself about the "research" I did on Facebook all day.  Actually, the Facebook part is more productive than I am on some of those unstructured days.

On the other hand.... Well, let me back up. The reason I am contemplating my schedule today is that I haven't had a schedule for the last week and a half. My spouse and I went on a driving trip across the Canadian state of Ontario along Lake Erie to support my in-laws who are cycling all the way from Washington state to Connecticut this summer. When we returned to our house we found our cat-sitter had not done a very good job and three of our indoor-only cats were loose. Two were wrangled in short order, but one of our youngest, an ex-feral, remains at large. I have spent many a sleepless night since trying to lure him home. That's more personal information than I normally share in this blog, but the point is this: how do you write when your schedule is out the window?

My emotions are running high, my nerves have been shot, I'm not in my most creative place because I'm running on fumes. But the writing still needs to get done. Instead of scribbling in my notebook or editing my manuscript I've been recording voice memos on my smartphone. It's kind of nice, really. I can get those elusive ideas that flit through your head in the middle of the night down in their raw form and manipulate them later. And since I'm in such a vulnerable state, it's easier to get at the vulnerabilities of my main characters.

I'm not recommending someone put themselves through sleepless nights or an emotional ordeal in order to get at some deeper emotions in their writing. But I am saying that while a schedule and routine are useful tools... I don't think they are absolutely necessary to the creative process anymore.

I am endlessly curious about the creative process. So tell me, do you have a routine or schedule for your writing? What do you do to get back on schedule when life gets in the way?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kill the Baby: A Recap of My Experience at SCBWI's 40th Summer Conference

The very first word that comes to mind when I think back on this last weekend in LA at The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 40th Summer Conference ought to be "life-changing" or "inspirational." In truth, it's "exhausting." Oh, it was life-changing and inspirational too. But all those inspiring and life-changing moments really take a lot out of a girl!

I met a new friend, Liliana Erasmus (from Aruba!) simply by replying to her tweet asking where everyone was having dinner. A couple of mojitos later, we walk into the lobby and Liliana gasps, "I think that's Judy Blume!" We consult my iPhone for Google Images confirmation and then she grabs my elbow and drags me over to Ms. Blume. I blubbered (pun intended) something about how I would not be the woman I am today, would not be here without her and Ms. Blume proceeds to give me one of those high-fives where you link fingers with the person and sort of shake hands. Life-changing and inspirational, check. And this was the night before the conference officially began.

The conference itself was full of inspirational bon mots from the royalty of our business (paraphrased where my note-taking failed me):

  • Bruce Coville: Scare yourself. Be fearless. Courage is freedom. Take risks.
  • Bruce Coville: Stop scaring yourself if you are scaring yourself into not working on your book.
  • Bruce Coville: Learn to take a compliment (on Sunday he confessed he'd wished he hadn't mentioned this at the beginning of the conference because people had been testing him on it all weekend)
  • Libba Bray: Writing is scary. Bad writing is a form of self-protection.
  • Libba Bray: Perfect wants to vote you off the island, Better wants to form an alliance. (As an aside, Libba Bray is one of the funniest people alive. Check out her video for Going Bovine)
  • Donna Jo Napoli: "I write what I need to write."
  • Donna Jo Napoli: Society is built on empathy. If terrible things happen to you, you learn empathy. But children can also learn empathy by reading about horrible things happening to characters in books.
  • Donna Jo Napoli: Write from places of joy, places of fear and places of pain.
  • Judy Blume: Get that draft done! Write straight through.
  • Judy Blume: Determination as much as any kind of talent -- that's what's going to get you there.
  • Judy Blume: The first draft is finding the pieces of the puzzle. You put the puzzle together with revising.
  • Norton Juster: Boredom is an undervalued resource. We create when we are bored.
I met another new friend, Julia Kelly, a writer/illustrator, on Friday night. I was sitting alone at the lobby bar, hoping to run in to one of the friends I'd made the night before. There was a chair free at my table and seating was limited, so she asked if she could sit with me. Naturally, we got to talking about what we were doing at the conference. After discussing my novel and sharing the pain of the one-on-one critique of the first 10 pages that I had survived earlier in the day, she sat back in her chair and drawled, "Oh. You have to kill the baby."

"Kill the baby?" I asked and wondered for a moment if I really should go inviting strangers to share my table.

"Yeah, it's time to walk away from it. Put it in the drawer for 8 or 9 months. Work on something else. Maybe when you go back to it you'll see exactly what's wrong with it and how to fix it. Or maybe you'll see it's not worth the effort. But you've got to kill the baby."

I thought about her words. A lot. I discussed it with another of my new friends, Jim Hill. He nodded solemnly. "Yep. Kill the baby."

The next day I was furiously taking notes during the panel of four agents discussing the current state of the children's book market (side note, Tracey Adams of Adams Literary was every bit as cool as Quinlan Lee whom I gushed over in my blog entry A Writer's Crush). I turned to a blank page and instead of continuing my notes I drew a tombstone. I wrote in the stereotypical R. I. P. and below that the name of my novel.

I killed the baby.

And it felt good. Mostly.

I am now working on a whole new concept: MG or YA contemporary fiction/suspense novel. I'm scared. But you know, Bruce Coville says that's a good thing.

Best of Blume: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret/Blubber/Iggie's House/Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself       Beauty Queens       Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher: A Magic Shop Book      The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics     The Wager