Writing is, in many ways, a solitary activity. Unlike music or dance or acting and other forms of art which necessitate collaboration, most writers work alone. The people and places and plots you create as a writer have to live in your head for a long time before anybody else can encounter them, and before they do there are many long days and nights spent putting one word in front of another in what often feels like a futile attempt to translate these vivid but intimate imaginings into prose. Easier said than done (and it wasn’t even that easy to say; I rewrote that sentence ten times).
I touched on this in a previous post, but living so much in your own head can make you feel (1) isolated, (2) like most of your friends are imaginary, and (3) stone cold crazy. Writing is a strange job. There’s a reason writers tend to be strange people. But the stereotype of the isolated, tortured artistic genius does more harm than good in the long run, from tricking would-be writers into relying on divine inspiration rather than revision to treating substance abuse as a key to creativity. It also conveniently forgets the fact that few writers could function without the support of other people.
If you flip to the back of any given book, you’ll likely find a list of names in the author’s “Acknowledgments” which includes publishing personnel like agents and editors as well as friends and family and sometimes other folks like fact-checkers and beta readers who test-drove the text before it went to press. Occasionally you’ll even find a “Select Bibliography” if it’s a work of non-fiction or something else requiring a lot of research. However, in my experience there are a lot of other people who contribute to the writing of a book whose names you don’t often see, and who may not even be aware of their own contribution.
The coronavirus pandemic has gotten me thinking a lot about those people. Unless you live under a rock, over the last few weeks you’ve probably watched a lot of local businesses close their doors, either due to state lockdowns or simply because the sudden drop in business made it impossible for them to keep up with operating costs. Many of these closures feel personal, not only because I miss my old haunts, but because the loss of them has highlighted just how important they are to my writing process. So in a fit of mixed sadness and gratitude and determination to do something to make this whole situation suck less, I spent last week throwing every dollar I could spare at the small businesses which have helped me write for the last five years. Helping helps me not feel helpless, even if it is in such a limited capacity.
On the off chance you would like to do the same, I’ve written the following list of local businesses without whom my writing would not happen; chances are you have hometown equivalents who need help just as badly, and I hope you’ll consider buying or donating there. This is a very small attempt to pay it back, pay it forward, and call attention to the unsung heroes of the creative process.
- Independent bookstores. By now you surely don’t need me to explain how corporate leviathans like Amazon hurt the book business. But since Amazon announced it’s de-prioritizing book sales for the duration, you really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by buying from an indie, and many of them have been working hard to move their operations online. A few of my favorites in DC are East City Books, who hosted my paperback launch, Kramerbooks, whose employees have talked up my book on social media, Capitol Hill Books, whose Twitter feed alone is worth a $20 book buy, and Loyalty Books, whose new location in downtown Silver Spring did not get the opening quarter it deserved. Another beloved bookstore of mine is Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, who hosted the biggest event of my very small book tour, and kept me knee-deep in good reads while I was a student at UNC and working on the first draft of Villains. Besides all that, any writer will tell you that there is no writing without reading. I owe these establishments a lot. Chances are you have indie bookstores nearby who would love to deliver or ship your next read right to your door. Not sure? Check their websites or try Bookshop and IndieBound. Bonus tip: many bookstores carry a lot of things besides books which might be handy to have around while sheltering-in-place, like puzzles and board games or three famed portraits of David Bowie.
- Independent record stores and labels. I don’t have a TV but I have 800 records in my living room and music has always been one of the most important ingredients in my writing process. Musicians have been suffering for a long time due to streaming services’ shameful refusal to adequately compensate them for their work. (If you’re interested in facts and figures, check out this article by Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski, from all the way back in 2012. This has been a problem for a while. Krukowski’s book, The New Analog, would also be a great read in the time of covid-19.) With concerts cancelled and brick-and-mortar record stores shutting their doors, musicians–particularly the ones who weren’t selling out stadium tours back when that was a thing we could still do–need album sales now more than ever. I know it’s old-fashioned, but what better way to revive the tradition of the listening party than by supporting the artists who made the soundtrack for your quarantine and the record stores fighting to keep the music industry focused on the music? My favorite local spot is the Record Exchange, but you probably have record store near you, too, and they’re probably willing to ship! Not sure? You can use the Vinyl District’s record locator app to find one. No turntable at your place? No problem. Most record stores also stock CDs, books, movies, video games, and more.
- Bars and restaurants. I’ve literally never written a book that didn’t feature a bar. Drunk drama fueled so much of Villains that I sometimes feel a portion of my royalties (if I ever make any) should go the good people who put up with me and all my actor friends while I was working on the book. The next best thing is donating to support the staff of my beloved college bar, Linda’s, where I spent many good nights and a few bad ones, read books and wrote scenes and staged plays and drowned my sorrows when writing wasn’t going my way. If you’re lucky, some of your favorite local haunts may have adapted for delivery. (If you’re in the DMV, I would highly recommend throwing a few dollars at Quarry House Tavern, whose Whiskey Wednesday specials have gotten me through some tough times, and whose burgers might be some of the best in the region.) If you do order delivery, please tip well! Food service workers live on tips and they’re not making many right now.
- Performance companies and venues. Guess who’s not making money right now? Artists whose art requires an audience. Unsurprisingly, live theatre is a big part of my creative process. Many theatres who have closed their doors are now wondering how they’re going to keep their actors, directors, designers, and other staff on the payroll, and it’s that much harder to do when everybody and their mom is asking for refunds for cancelled events. If you can, consider donating the price of your tickets or anything else you can spare to the people who put on shows for you when we’re not all staying home. Consider paying a little more than you normally might to stream new movies or watch the live performances theatres all over the world are putting up online. The livelihoods of the people who made them–and their ability to make art–are probably more precarious than ever before.
- Animal shelters. If you’ve been following me on any social media platform for any length of time, you have probably seen pictures of my dog, Marlowe. I adopted him from Operation Kindness, a no-kill Dallas shelter, in 2017. Since then his presence in my house and my life has done a lot to keep me off the ledge. Many animals shelters operate with very narrow margins, and chances are they’ll take any help they can get right now. And if you wanted to take a step beyond a monetary donation, there’s no better time to bring a pet who needs a home into your life. You don’t need to distance yourself from dogs or cats, and when are you next going to be home all day every day to help introduce a new pet? Don’t make any snap decisions, but if you’ve been looking for a sign from the universe that now’s the time to rescue your new best friend, consider this it.
Writing may be a solitary activity much of the time, but that doesn’t mean it happens in a vacuum. All art, I would argue, is collaborative: it is influenced and inspired and supported by so many different people in so many different ways that listing a few names under “Acknowledgements” feels insufficient. These are just a few examples of the people who have helped me make art. Apart from directly supporting artists in times of crisis, one way to support the creators you care about is to contribute to the institutions in your community which foster creativity. It may not seem like a lot, but in a time like this every little bit helps–and if enough people do a little bit, the little bits add up to something much bigger.
Stay safe, stay well, stay home, stay hopeful, and stay engaged with the people and places that enrich the life of your community if you want to see them on the other side.
Spooky season is upon us, and we’ve loved seeing all your ghastly IWWV snaps, so we’re giving away three signed copies this month! To enter, tag me in your best ghoulish Villains grams and use the hashtag #IWWVwitchinghourgiveaway.
Winners will be chosen by the Villains team in the three days leading up to Halloween. First place will have their first choice of English language editions (hardback, paperback, or UK edition), second place will choose from the remaining two, and third place takes the last one. Open to anyone, anywhere. Happy snapping!
In the Seattle area? Want to visit an island, see some Shakespeare, hear me talk about the Bard, and get a book signed? Then you’re in luck, because I’ll be at the Bard’s Boutique from 7-9 p.m. tomorrow. More info here (scroll down)!
If We Were Villains will be published in Spanish next year by Umbriel Editions, and I’m so excited to share the cover art with you. It might just be my favorite yet.
I’m so glad to be able to share this story with Spanish-speaking readers, and thrilled to have it published in a language (other than English) which I can actually read!
Hope you love it as much as we do.
Every time I send a new draft to my agent–or my committee, if we’re talking academia–there follows a strange fallow period where I simply don’t know what to do with myself. After weeks and months of a familiar circadian rhythm hugely influenced by how much work I want or need to get done each day, suddenly finding myself with idle hands can be so disorienting that I forget to enjoy it, forget to bask in the luxury of free time. I don’t want to perpetuate the (grievously mistaken) impression that academics don’t work during the summer–because the truth is that they use the summer to catch up on all the work they didn’t get done during the year because they had classes to teach and papers to grade and conferences to attend and so on and so forth–but even though I’m spending the summer at the Folger’s Paleography Institute and working on my dissertation prospectus and crafting syllabuses for teaching next year, these first few weeks have felt uncommonly free. After months working around the clock, I finished grading final papers and essays, sent a new draft of a new book to my agent, and passed my comprehensive exam on May 21. Waking up the next day when it was all over felt like finding myself shipwrecked on a tropical key with only a scrambled recollection of how I got there. It felt like paradise–until the island fever set in.
I am trying hard to mitigate my workaholic tendencies, but that doesn’t change the fact that without something to work on, I get restless. My agent is in the process of reading my latest draft, and because I don’t want us to be working at cross purposes, there’s not much I can do right now to work on my current book project. Fortunately, because I’ve never figured out how to turn off “plot bunnies,” I usually have a long list of ideas waiting in the wings for a moment just like this one–when my current manuscript is out of my reach but my brain needs something to do. So: let the plotting begin.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fanatical outliner; because I like to write in a more-or-less linear manner and because I hate staring at a blank page wondering, What next? I never start a first draft until I have a pretty solid outline to work with. I’ve heard many a protest that this sucks all the creativity out of the process, and I respectfully disagree–planning ahead lets you engage in two completely different types of creativity but (here’s the crucial part) not at the same time. Every writer is different, but personally I find it difficult to produce good prose and find the right pacing and “set the stage,” as it were, if I don’t know where the story’s going. Much easier to focus on the shape and texture and tension of a scene if the question isn’t what happens but how it happens. So, finding the narrative is Step 1. It’s hard to build a house without a blueprint.
This seems to be how many newish writers get stuck. I hear a lot of variations of, “I’ve realized I need to outline but I don’t know where to start. How do you outline your projects?” The assumption often seems to be that one can approach outlining like assembling IKEA furniture–that’s there’s a simple how-to manual which, if interpreted correctly, will eventually yield a reasonably stable bookcase (or, in this case, book). Speaking only for me, this is pretty much the opposite of how outlining happens. Despite the fastidious, buzzwordy connotations of a word like “outline,” this part of the process is messy and unpredictable and wildly experimental. So when people ask how I outline, it’s difficult to know how to answer. But because that’s the phase I’m in right now, at least until I get my other MS back from my agent, I figured I’d try to describe it.
Every story starts as just an idea. Inspiration can come from anywhere–a painting or a newspaper article or a riff in a song which makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up–and suddenly the imagination is off like an improv troupe with a prompt, trying out different personalities and scenarios, snatching and discarding different ideas until something sticks, something clicks, and the pieces begin to fall into place. Inspiration tends to ambush me, rather than tapping me politely on the shoulder when I don’t have anything more important to attend to, so most embryonic story ideas get scribbled down wherever they strike. Then I mostly leave them alone, picking them up to play with in spare moments on the train or at the gym or when I just need a break from whatever project is consuming most of my attention at the moment. Little by little, pieces fall into place. I collect ideas for characters and scenes and settings and try out different plot points as they occur to me. This often takes months, precisely because it’s a process that can’t be forced. It can, however, be helped along a little.
In the early stages, when nothing’s set in stone, a book is more about the feeling than it is about the facts, and what I refer to as “outlining” includes time spent splashing around in the aesthetic space of the story–which might mean making pinboards or making playlists or tracking down other books in the same genre to give myself a sense of what’s already out there or starting to put together a research bibliography. Inevitably I find myself discovering tidbits of character or culture that are simply too good to lose and slowly filling in gaps in that loose outline as I go. This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, actually, because it’s purely a time to play. But eventually something a little less amorphous emerges. Casts of characters solidify and their backstories gather detail. A skeletal plot begins to take shape.
This is when I turn to notecards. When I have a strong enough sense of “how the story goes” I open FinalDraft and start dropping notecards in a storyboard. (The freeware version of FinalDraft is CeltX, which as far as I know has most of the same features I’m talking about here. But you could also do this with old-fashioned paper index cards.) What I like about outlining this way is that it lets me play with structure while retaining flexibility–I can shuffle scenes around until I find the order that makes the most sense. These scene cards are pretty scant on detail, just a sentence or two to indicate what has to happen in the scene. For instance, here are the first few from my original outline of Villains:
This is pretty sparse, but eventually it turned into something that looks more like this, fleshed out by character and atmosphere and everything else that makes a book a book. However, it takes a long time to get from idea to outline to first draft, and along the way there’s a lot of time spent trying to figure out how the pieces of the story fit together, how to get from one notecard to the next when you know there’s something missing in between. That’s probably the best analogy for it–it’s like solving a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle which will eventually give you the road map you need to start writing the first draft. It’s vital work, but unlike the actual writing of prose or revision of prose already written, it’s not really something I can schedule or quantify or plan ahead. I just have to let it happen. Sometimes it’s frustrating as hell, especially when I’m excited to get started on something but I know I’m not ready yet and the muse is taking her damn time, unmoved by all my earnest pandering to her whims. But it’s also some of the most fun you’ll ever have as a writer, precisely because it is (ironically) unstructured. It’s a time to explore and discover, and there are few more exciting moments than the “EUREKA” moment of solving a plot problem or uncovering the secret of what makes a character tick. Do that for a few weeks or a few months and eventually–voilà–you have something that’s starting to look like a story.
I haven’t decided what I’m working on next. I have three different projects which are partly outlined and starting to solidify. And because I know I’ll be getting that other MS back from my agent soon enough, there’s no sense going too far down the rabbit hole with anything new just yet. But idle hands are dangerous, and an idle mind is worse. So while I’m in MS limbo, I’m going to get out the jigsaw puzzles, and have some fun, and see if I can’t make some pieces fit.
Header photo by Rick Payette.
Good news if you’re in the MD/DC area–my signing with Howard County Library has been rescheduled, and I’ll be at the Miller Branch on December 1. Hope to see you there! More info here.
P. S. Signed books make great Christmas gifts.
If We Were Villains is a Kindle Daily Deal this month, which means you can buy the eBook for just $2.99!
Click here to buy! It might just be the perfect read for Halloween.
This is just a quick update to let you know the September 15th event at Howard County Library (Miller Branch) has been postponed due to the impending inclement weather. Never fear, it’s still happening! We don’t know when yet, but as soon as I have that information I will share it here and across social media platforms.
Thanks for your patience.
I’ll be talking Shakespeare and signing books at the Howard County Library (Miller Branch) on September 15th! Drop by if you’re in the DC/MD area. More info here.
Hope to see you there!