My Writing Process
But first, a huge thanks you to my friend and fellow Vermont College alum, Laurie Morrison for tagging me in this blog tour. You can find her wonderful post here. Laurie Morrison has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and primarily writes contemporary YA fiction. She lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches middle school English, and loves to read and bake. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.
And now for the questions and my answers.
What are you working on?
For the last several months, I’ve been working on a paranormal young adult novel in which high school students start selling their souls to get ahead in a high-achieving suburban school. I have nearly 40,000 words and I hope to complete a first draft by the end of May.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
What my project brings to the paranormal genre is a conversation about the relationship between a teenager’s dreams and the pressure to perform and achieve. My son attends a competitive suburban high school and I’ve worked at a highly selective liberal arts college. I see students who are stressed by the perceived need to make the right choices without much opportunity to reflect on what is fulfilling to them or what they want to do. I was interested in exploring the achievement mentality slantwise.
Why do you write what you do?
Although my manuscripts cross genres, there are two common threads to all of my projects. One is that they are all geared toward the young adult market. The second is that each project explores situations in which the main characters are developing an understanding of their power as people in the world, but at the same time they are trapped by the limitations imposed by age.
How does your writing process work?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked. Many of my posts reflect stages of my process, you can check out this one written recently and this one on L. Marie's excellent blog El Space from about a year ago. I was reflecting on how I feel about the process on the very day that Laurie emailed me to ask if I’d join this blog tour; the timing seemed serendipitous so I agreed to participate. Also, I’ve never talked much about how I came to write this story.
The initial spark for this story, like the inspiration for so many stories, came from a “what if?” I had always been intrigued by stories that swirled around Black Aggie, a statue that used to sit in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Baltimore until she became such a magnet for hazing and vandalism that she was moved. The stories are varied, but most of them hinge on something mysterious and scary happening at midnight: Black Aggie’s eyes would glow red; if a nearby girl was pregnant, she’d lose the baby; if a person touched her at midnight, they’d die.
My love for all things paranormal and magical made me wonder: what if the stories weren’t urban legends? What if Black Aggie possessed some supernatural element and what if the local teens sought that from her? With Black Aggie in mind and with a cast of teens that lived at the edge of the cemetery where she was placed, I started writing. In the course of the writing, I learned that one of the characters in the story had become desperate for a scholarship and had sold his soul. Aha! I had the main problem of this world.
I wrote well over one hundred pages with three different point of view characters before I discovered that the character who needed to tell the story was none of those, but rather a character I'd been playing with in a short piece I'd written. With my new character, I drafted scenes as they arrived to me until I hit a wall. I needed to define the magic and rules of the world. At that point I grabbed different tools, moving away from laptop and Scrivener to paper and pencil – brainstorming, sketching, making lists, discarding ideas, revealing new ones. I returned to the story, again writing like mad until hitting another wall.
Frustrated by the experience of flying along only to skid to a stop, I created an outline with the expectation that the story would then emerge page upon page, a waterfall of words cascading from my fingertips. Reality was quite different. Each time I sat down it seemed that the story directed me toward a new path or a new revelation. At first this was fun, but lately it feels like I’m holding on for dear life, clinging to the mane of a maniacal horse and trying for all my might not to fall off and break my neck.
Doesn’t sound awfully pleasant, does it? If it feels unpleasant, it's because I’ve been fighting the process too much. Writing is humbling. When facing the blank page, I need to remember that intention and willingness are requirements, but expectations need to take a seat outside. First drafts laugh at expectations. Speaking of intention, I'll close with one of my favorite quotes from Stephen King’s straight-shooting book On Writing:
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take names. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” p. 99
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think the maniacal horse needs some carrots. Before I go, I will tag fellow Baltimorean and fantastic blogger, Naomi Gruer. Naomi grew up in Baltimore, was educated in New England and has settled with her husband in New Jersey where she's raising triplets plus one in the Garden State while also writing, taking photos and creating awesome projects.
(Laurie Morrison photo from lauriemorrison.wordpress.com; Black Aggie from prairieghosts.com)