My Writing Process

Thank you so much to Margaret Locke for inviting me to participate in the My Writing Process blog tour!

1)     What am I working on?

At present, I’m finishing a contemporary novella, a romance between a good girl staffer and a bad boy rocker. It grows out of my series, The Easy Part, but it’s uncontracted so I need to get back to my other work in progress: the third, untitled book for that series. I don’t want to say too much about that project, other than it’s set on the campaign trail, the hero is a Democrat, and the heroine is a Republican. It should be out next year.

Oh, and I have a book coming out in April (Special Interests) and I cannot wait  for you all to read it. (Cannot wait! But also feel a little sick about it going out into the world. Now I need some chocolate.) And I’m on the cusp of edits for my second Easy Part novel, Private Politics, which will be out in September.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Most of what I’m writing now is explicitly political. The characters fight about policy and their pillow talk is about fundraising. Other romance writers have considered ambitious, professional women in love (see James, Julie) and there certainly have been political romances (Unfinished Business, The American President, Strange Bedpersons, Fatal Affair)–but in general romance writers have been told to avoid such potentially controversial matters.

Beyond my sort-of-kind-of-different subject matter, what I have to offer is voice: fresh, smart, and witty.

I mean I hope. Jeez, I’m bad at self-promotion.

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True Favorite Words

The EndSo I lied when I listed my favorite words. You’re shocked, I know. But I left two off. My two favorite words are “the end.” Only when used together of course. They don’t much for me separately. But as a pair they are magic.

I spent NaNoWriMo last year writing a book that I’ve been calling The Easy Part (the title is going to change; stay tuned). Then I sold that book to Carina. I realize you’re probably not supposed to say this but it was a fairly straightforward book to write. I understood Millie and Parker so well. I understood the conflict between them. I understood so many of the major scenes. The book feels like a movie in my head, one that I needed to figure out how to pour onto the page.

That isn’t to say I always achieved what I wanted to in terms of the writing. Oh no. It fails in ways too various and sundry to list here. And revising that book was difficult and circular and I’m not half-certain I did it well. But my main concern in writing the first draft was always, “Am I achieving my vision?” Not “what happens next?” or “is that what he would do?” The problem, in other words, was one of translation.

This spring, I started the sequel to The Easy Part, which features two minor characters from it. I felt strongly that they should be together. But when I told anyone about it, the response was always, “Really?” Adamant, I strode out…only to get stuck in the mire.

This was not an easy book to write. Writing on a deadline was scary. Writing with a more limited sense of audience was scarier. Writing and revising at the same time was the scariest. But yesterday, I typed “the end.” Today I skimmed through it and finally felt the words. And at some point next year (or whenever it releases), you’ll be able to read through the crazy, scandalous, opposites-attract story. Please come back then and let me know how I did.

And Now for Something Completely Different

I’ve been writing fiction for nearly three years now and if I had to characterize myself as a writer, the adjective I would use is capricious. Or whimsical, if we’re being kind; fickle if we’re not.

I often have several works in progress, generally set 150 years apart. (Though oddly, I’m writing two books right now set in DC.) On a given day, I might write several hundred words on one, do some academic writing, and then pick up the other. I might read a few chapters from a small contemporary romance and then a biography of a woman born in 1862. There’s simply no through line that ties together my reading and my writing. I’m all over the place.

These fissures show up in the product, if not within a single work than certainly between them. When I read Brave in Heart and then one of my contemporary projects, the voice sounds so different to me; two different people could have written them. I feel almost like the romance writer equivalent of Monty Python. “And now for something completely different…”

I can imagine that I could spin this for you in a positive way: “I am large, I contain multitudes,” there is no contradiction here. But at a time of expectation in terms of author branding and consistency, I’m not sure how I work is a strength. The one is not like the other. If you liked Brave in Heart, you might not like The Easy Part. If you like The Easy Part, I’m not sure you’ll like Brave in Heart. Both come out of the mess that is me, but they represent different moods, impulses, and sensibilities. I don’t know which I should pursue moving forward, but doing both may not be possible.

What expectations do you have for authors in terms of brand or consistency? Do your favorite authors work in different genres or sub-genres? How do you feel about that?

Title, Part Deux

The contemporary work-in-progress also has a title, The Easy Part. The phrase comes from an essay from Marjorie Williams’ collection The Woman at the Washington Zoo, which is one of my favorite books about DC.

But some day, when she’s old enough, you must also tell her that compared to the complexity of doing right by those you love, being a brain surgeon is the easy part.

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing lately, but I have been doing planning. Thoughts on my “boom and bust” writing process will be forthcoming.

Title

The novella has a title now: Brave in Heart. It’s a phrase from the poem “From Newport to Rome,” which first appeared in Julia Ward Howe’s collection Passion-flowers (1854). I need one more good week of writing to get it done. With dissertation demands, and a number of contest announcements approaching, I’m jittery and distracted and not at all productive. Nailing down a title felt good, however, so here’s hoping that the third act follows soon.

Gone Feral

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about the inner voices that plague her as she works on first drafts:

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained. (26)

Right now, I’m struggling with two works-in-progress that have gone feral. I haven’t written in a serious or sustain way in nearly two weeks and the dogs have escaped.

One draft — the historical novella — is a mess. I’m working on the third act. The end is in sight. But I have plotting problems. Somehow, the opening is both too fast and too slow and at the end, I’m having trouble giving the resolution time to breathe because I’m really not good at writing subplots, which is what I need to fix my problems.

The other manuscript — a contemporary single title — is progressing nicely but I’m afraid of screwing it up. There are no major plotting problems. The male protagonist has a nice, complicated backstory. (If anything, the heroine is too perfect.) They don’t get together too quickly. And as I move into the second act, I’m afraid I’m going to destroy everything I like about the manuscript so far.

So I’m procrastinating by blogging, which is logical and reasonable, right?

Mood Music, Part 2

This is for the Washington contemporary which is at 25,000 words and now has a complete outline. A victory plan if you will.

I have realized that I have a tendency to write complex heroines and too perfect heroes. I’m annoyed that my heroines always have these “issues” that need to be fixed and that the conflict in the hero’s trajectory is always external. I need to fix that.

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Show Business

For the past two weeks, I have found myself writing the first drafts of scenes entirely in dialogue without any narrative, exposition, description, or even tags to indicate who is speaking. Then I go back and fill in the details in a second pass through the scene.

I think I developed this habit because I was trying to do a better job of show don’t tell, but it’s helped me learn about how I imagine scenes in my head. First, I hear them and then I see them. While it takes several passes, I feel like I get to layer this way, like adding more and more paint to the canvas. It’s made me feel that perhaps the dialogue is the key element for me as a writer. But know that I need to get over my fear of writing narrative and description, because they can be part of active, show-y writing as much as dialogue.

Do you write scenes start to finish in one pass or do you write them over several sittings, focusing on different elements each time?

How Historical?

I read a lot of historical romance. Much more than I read contemporary.

In part, I think this is a hold-over from my childhood, when I rarely read anything written (or set) after 1920. In part, it’s the fantasy: the dances, the beautiful clothes, and the exoticism of the past. In part, I found a group of really wonderful writers who I like to read and that’s what they write. But I struggle as a reader, and now as a writer, with trying to understand whether historical novels are merely set in the past or whether they take something else — narrative structure, style, tone, etc. — from their setting.

Nineteenth-century novels differ from twentieth-century ones in many ways, including their use of description, dialogue, and exposition. If you’re writing a novel that you want to feel as if it could have been written in 1820, the plotting is likely to be slow, it’s going to be long, and there will be a lot less dialogue and a lot more description, all by contemporary standards, of course. I’m also not sure that anyone will like it.

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Mood Music, Part 1

After a few weeks away from it, I’m back to the historical novella. I don’t like the first three chapters, but then I think it finds itself. I’m not sure what to do about that problem. Cut those chapters and work the vital material in elsewhere? Switch POVs? It’s fairly obvious that I need to find a critique group if this is going to be a project I continue to pursue.

In the meantime, here’s my mood music.

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