Making a Big Mess of Things

This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.

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Fall’s diagonal light

Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.

Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.

But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.

Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.

Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)

And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.

OCTOBER

It’s raining colored paper.

No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,

swooping, dipping towards the hard surface

of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields

have turned to paper, and a pumpkin

spills its guts on a front stoop.

A boy discovers it and starts to cry.

Who would do such a thing,

bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?

Something in him falters.

He imagines his house on fire: water boiling

in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.

He thinks about God and Judas

and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,

wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails

to splinters. He stares out at the fields,

counts minutes till schooltime, his breath

a neat circle on the window,

because it’s cold this October, already—

and there in the road is the flock of leaves,

swooping, dipping into the hard surface,

then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.

The cornfields have turned to paper,

and behind them the sky.

© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001

Secrets of the San Francisco Writers Conference Revealed!

The San Francisco Writers Conference was amazing.

Still life with business cards

Still life with business cards

Truth: Ahead of time, I had convinced myself that the event would be pretty stressful, full of intimidating publishing industry “gatekeepers.” I kept thinking, I just have to get through this. I had gotten myself a little worked up by last Thursday, the day the conference started, and even considered popping a Xanax before the first session. But then I went to hear Brooke Warner, Cynthia Frank, Regina Brooks, and other editors both local and from New York talk about writing and editing non-fiction, how to create a memoir book proposal, who to work with, how to categorize your work, and more. I felt immediately happy I’d trekked up Nob Hill on a hot day with a heavy bag (sans Xanax, for the record). The editors were accessible, the content was good, the format was easy, the hotel was nice—it was an utter treat to be there.

This was my first writers conference, and I’d managed to get in as a presenter in the poetry division. Saturday morning, I moderated a panel on “deadly writing habits” and then presented on a panel about how a day job can support one’s writing. Because my duties were fairly limited, I was able to attend all the sessions I wanted on Friday and Saturday: craft (in the sense of, how-to-write) sessions, meet-the-agents sessions, sessions about how to use Twitter and Facebook and other social media to build a writer’s platform. I filled my notebook to the brim with notes, ideas, contacts, questions. I collected a fistful of business cards. I pitched my memoir to five incredibly kind literary agents (three of whom gave me the green light to query them—yeah!). I had a lovely lunch with a book editor I’ve hired, a woman I felt I could be fast friends with (she’s terrific: if you’re looking for an editor, ping me via the contact page or on Twitter and I’ll connect you. Also check out the eatery Harrow, in downtown San Francisco—yum.) I met, paneled with, and read poetry with a wonderful poet from UC Davis, Andy Jones, and spent a lot of quality time with my writing-mom-walking buddy Aya deLeon (who has great news—check out her blog!). I met writers, editors, agents, publishers, teachers, social media experts, and more.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk at the conference about community. In a panel on building a writer’s platform, Andrea Dunlop from Girl Friday Productions, a Seattle-based editing/publishing/coaching business, talked about how the best way to build your writer’s platform (e.g., your stance as someone people will want to read) is to simply be a part of a writer’s community. That means reading your friends’ books, reviewing them, being in a writing group, hosting a reading series, going to readings, supporting your local bookstore, and tweeting and blogging and Facebooking about all of that. It was enormously comforting to me to hear that something as simple as having a thriving community of writers could do wonders for your work. Because I do have that wonderful community. (You know who you are.) And being at the conference was another exercise in community-building. I’d feared it would be about posturing or one-upping, but instead, it just felt supportive, like gates were opening rather than being held closed.

During the conference, I felt so invigorated, despite the fact that I was up at six on both Friday and Saturday mornings and the days went long (and my dinner Friday night consisted of some cheese and charcuterie and about three glasses of wine, which made Saturday’s wake-up less than awesome). During the week in my normal life, I often feel exhausted by working, writing, parenting, and keeping everything together. It felt promising that while at the conference I felt energized, excited, and possible, and that nice feeling stayed with me through a leisurely Sunday and Monday at home with my boys. Of course, questions were raised as well, particularly about the catch-22 that is “the writing platform”: in order to build one, you have to publish a book; but when you try to publish a book, everyone wants to know whether you already have a platform.

That, and other conundrums, will certainly stay with me over the next few weeks as I dig out from the conference: I have emails to send, tweets to tweet, notes to make sense of, ideas to put into fruition. I’ve got a handful of new connections, was just invited to join a writer’s group, and of course have some queries to send out (and a book or two to write). It’s exciting, thought-provoking, and good, and I’m so glad I went.

Is It Done Yet?

In the movies, when someone finishes writing a book, it’s with a huge fanfare. The camera pans in on an index finger explosively hitting the last key, then the writer throws back the chair and throws his hands up in the air. Finally! Music plays. Success.

In real life, it doesn’t happen like that.

Yesterday, I had a great writing day. Mostly I was proofing, but I also wrote a few new paragraphs and moved some things around. I did a quick scan for the changes I’d made. Then it was time to get L. from school, so I put the computer down and went into dealing-with-tired-preschooler-mode. A couple of hours later, exhausted, my forehead in knots from having stared at the computer for eight long hours, I walked to get sushi with some friends. Halfway there I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and cocked my head to the side.

Holy cow, I thought. I just finished my book.

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

Actually, that’s the elevator pitch version. Here’s the whole story:

1. Three falls ago (three!), I thought I had finished my book. I sent a completed manuscript to a friend’s agent. She said no thanks, and her explanation of why made me realize there was a problem with the way I’d written the story. Back to the desk.

2. That following summer, I tried again. There was some interest, but no one fell in love with it. One agent told me, “I think you need to dig deeper.” I decided I agreed.

3. I dug deeper.

4. I gave the manuscript to my writing group (again).

5. Thanks to their feedback, I wrote a prologue. I also changed the title.

6. I tinkered for another six months.

7. Yesterday, I had a great writing day. Mostly I was proofing, but I also wrote a few new paragraphs and moved some things around. I did a quick scan for the changes I’d made. Then it was time to get L. from school, so I put the computer down and went into dealing-with-tired-preschooler-mode. A couple of hours later, exhausted, my forehead in knots from having stared at the computer all morning, I walked to get sushi with some friends. Halfway there I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and cocked my head to the side.

Holy cow, I thought. I just finished my book. Then I had a beer with dinner.

Part of me wanted some fanfare, I must admit. I kind of wanted to slam my finger onto the last key, give a giant whoop, and pop a bottle of champagne. Instead I’m sitting in a coffee shop drinking a cup of joe and thinking I should probably give it another proofread before I send it out. It’s a little anticlimactic, but honestly, I’m not sure it could be any other way.

A Plug Dilemma

B just told me over a pot of pear-cinnamon jam that he’s getting tired of the plugs. I admit that my posts have been plug-heavy of late, but that’s what you get when you cross three classes with six hours in the writing lab plus two random freelance gigs that come in just as your mother-in-law and your mom are both coming to visit. Plugs are quick and easy, truth be told, especially during this very busy fall I’ve been having.

So, whaddya think? Enjoying my every-Monday pings for books and films and lectures I’m interested in promoting, or should my plugs just come up when exciting stuff is happening?

As it happens, I have no plug for today, other than to say: get thyself a writing group. It’s the best. And spend some good time with your family or your friends this week. We’re making Christmas presents (pear-cinnamon jam, anyone?) and I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving.

Here is a fall poem for today.

STEPS TO GET OVER

Again yesterday the wind rose & shook the leaves off

The trees throw shadows on the sidewalk

We trudge along avoiding each other

Because sometimes everyone is the enemy even

The guy in the trench coat & black hat lingers over the box

Where they keep the free newspapers taking one out

At the ballpark a baseball took off through

The stratosphere was pierced by a comet with rough edges

And a whole series of constellations you didn’t know

How sharp I was I just got your letter & photograph

Thank you I treasure it as an artifact of the love that never

Was I too effusive or too

Odd how the baseball takes its arc from the moon

If the moon were a motion it would be whoosh

Go the leaves on the sidewalk in a sudden brief gust

That leaves us all

Breathless is how I felt when I got your letter

And tucked it into the drawer alongside other things

Aren’t so good here since you last

Wrote memory is a funny thing because it makes us

Crazy people in the crosswalk & a marching band on the town hall steps

To get over you are too numerous to mention here

Come the cheerleaders who arrived with the marching band & will leave

On the shoulders of a hundred football players

Are birds of paradise whispering play

Secrets are not fun for the person who doesn’t notice

The sidewalk dappled with leaf-shaped light

A cigarette in winter & it’s a tiny planet in your fingers

(© Susie Meserve. First published in Cimarron Review, winter 2007.)

Plug: Lemon Reef

Today I want to plug my friend Robin Silverman’s new novel, Lemon Reef (Bold Strokes Books, 2012).

I met Robin in a writing workshop a few years ago, when she was working on this love story-cum-mystery about two adolescent girls. Now thirty, protagonist Jenna Ross learns that her ex-lover, Del, has died of a heart attack while scuba diving in Florida. Jenna goes back to Miami for the funeral and ends up mired in a messy situation indeed. The story is about friendship, love, domestic violence, and loyalty, and it is a hit. When I met Robin I remember thinking she had an idea with a lot of promise. Having just finished this book, I find that she not only has a juicy and exciting plot but a sad and very real story about two people bound for life by their love for one another.

If you’re interested in watching an interview with Robin, here’s one.

And if you’re in Massachusetts, it looks like Robin will be reading from her book at BSB’s Women’s Week Events in Provincetown. Learn more here.

Happy reading!

–Susie