fiction writing


I just realized I’ve spent practically an entire month away from this blog that I truly do love writing…and I can’t for the life of me remember why I haven’t even stopped by to dust the place off, sweep away some of the cobwebs, and open the windows and let the air in.

Oh, wait. I know. I’ve been in recovery from writing a novel. Rehabbing, as it were. I cleaned the house, started washing dishes again, threw out a bunch of things I was sick of having around me, and did practical things like the taxes and the FAFSA (the student aid application…trust me, you don’t want to know)…and then I went to Florida to visit with my stepmother.

She and I have no right to love each other as much as we do. She was my father’s childhood sweetheart, and he probably would have married her except that one day when he was 21 and she was 20, they had a lovers’ spat. In the only impulsive act he ever did in his life, he packed his suitcase and took off for another city, where he got a job as a civil engineer and waited to see what life was going to serve up to him before he went back to Helen.

But–and in the movie of his life, the ominous music would play here–life had other plans for him. When he rang the doorbell at a boarding house where he hoped to rent a room, the front door was opened by my mother. He later told me that he’d never known anyone who painted her toenails before. She later told me she’d never met anybody so handsome and so lacking in confidence.

They got married five months later, and I was born ten months after THAT.

Thirteen years and three children later, they had a bitter divorce…and after a time, my father found his way back to Helen and spent a very happy twenty years with her, before he died of kidney cancer in 1989.

My mother considered Helen her sworn enemy, and for the rest of her life, I had to hide the fact that Helen and I had long, meandering, wonderful conversations about love, writing, creativity, God, children, politics; that sometimes we would get on the phone and three hours would pass in the blink of a minute. Sometimes, for days after one of these long talks, I walk around speaking to Helen in my head, arguing, showing, explaining.

And so last week I went to see her. She is frail now and has trouble walking. She has Crohn’s disease and there are very few foods she can eat without her stomach (she calls it “The Boss”) giving her fits, so we don’t eat much. We sit on her screened porch, surrounded by azaleas and impatiens and roses, and we talk and talk and talk. We need a flow chart to keep track of all the conversations we are having simultaneously.

We have lost many, many people between us, so many that we think of ourselves as survivors. She tells me about her childhood, I tell her about mine. We talk about love and writing and friendships and the reasons that we stayed friends even though we might never have discovered what was good about each other.

She asked me what it feels like, writing a novel and trying to hold these ideas in my head, and how do I know when it’s right, and what keeps me from going crazy with the sheer uncertainty of it all? And I, having just finished writing my novel–and having just gotten the reassuring news that my editor LOVES it–was so full of myself, saying how FUN it is, and how the words just COME OUT, that they can’t be stopped. I heard myself saying all these things, saw myself forgetting that a video of the last few months would instead show me walking hunched over, brow furrowed, eyes staring blankly in space, spending my days pacing in Starbucks with not a plan in my head, and then jumping out of bed in the middle of the night and feverishly writing until the sun came up.

Isn’t it funny, how one mood doesn’t remember the other? How we go through such times and then say of them, “Oh, it was GREAT. I LOVE writing a novel!”

I didn’t email much while I was in Florida, but a friend sent me this link to a talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love…and in it, Gilbert says everything I wish I could have said about that state we go through when we create something: the panic, the fear, and the moments of feeling as though we have been touched by something divine, something that we secretly know has nothing whatsoever to do with us.

Take 20 minutes and stretch out and watch it. You’ll be so glad you did. Not only is the message so reassuring, but the quality of her voice alone is enough to calm your nerves.

Remember when I wrote that post, the one that began, “It’s DONE! It’s DONE!”?

I can’t even remember how long ago that was, but let’s just say it was a post that suffered from premature optimism. The book wasn’t done. Ha! It was laughably undone. Little did I know, but I had finished a preliminary draft. I passed it around to friends who read it and instantly knew certain things about it that I couldn’t see..mostly that it wasn’t finished.

I considered breaking up with all of them and looking for new friends, but in the end, they were right and I was wrong, and I was grateful for their suggestions. It’s not everybody who will look at a manuscript and tell you that you’ve used the word “actually” about one thousand times, and that they wanted to come to your house and HIT you if they read it even one more time. 

But now–NOW the book is done, and it is even in the hands of my trusted editor and agent, both of whom are reading it. Typically, this results in yet another round of writing and changes, but that’s okay. In the meantime, my characters have quieted down and are living their lives without me paying any attention to what they’re doing.

And I am…well, what am I doing?

I’m trying to remember what it is people do when they are not writing a book for eight hours a day. I feel like someone who has had the engine running for so long that now that it’s supposed to be shut down, I can’t seem to find the OFF switch. It’s a little disconcerting, I don’t mind telling you. If I’m not careful, I may end up doing things like cleaning the house. Also, I need to return to the gym, a place I abandoned when I realized that the two hours I would spend there could be put to much better use writing.

This past week, I did two readings and signings of KISSING GAMES OF THE WORLD. I was a judge at the town-wide spelling bee for adults. I talked on the phone to people I haven’t talked to in months. I took several very long hot baths. I made airplane reservations to visit my stepmother in Florida for later this month. I chatted with a telemarketer. I cooked actual dinners that did not come from a bag. I went and read what everybody I know is doing on facebook.

And today I took a walk on the first spring-like day while everything melted like crazy.

I hate to say it, but I’m waiting for some characters to come and find me. What fun is procrastination if you don’t really have anything you MUST do?

There is hardly anything left of me right now, but the novel is done.

It’s 11:30 at night, and, no, I’m not at the Starbucks, but only because I think they are finally closed. Instead, I’m right here, on my couch, a place that can also serve as a place to write a novel in a pinch. I spent the day at Starbucks, drinking iced tea and typing as fast as I could. And then came on home for dinner and to finish up.

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  I don’t mind telling you that it was a terrible fight at the end, with the characters taking up arms against me and insisting that I had gotten them all wrong and that they would NOT allow the book to end the way I planned.

One of them actually wanted whole new scenes written about his childhood. Can you imagine?

But for tonight, anyway, I have vanquished them.

And I’ve emailed the last chapters off to my friends who have agreed to read it for me and to tell me the truth…

And tomorrow I’ll sit down and start the re-reading process myself.

But for now–well, I did do a high-five with my husband, and we did a nice slow waltz around the room.

It has a tentative title: The Year You Think of Nothing Else.

Sums up just what it’s been like for the past 12 months.

My famiSandiShelton-jlb-11-06-08-6326fly keeps laughing at me when I explain to them that I am actually on a book tour right now and therefore should be treated with the utmost respect.

But I am.

It’s just not a tour of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, where I put on decent clothes and stand up in front of a microphone and read from my book, the way I did when this picture was taken back in November. (My friend Judy Barbosa took this picture of me reading at R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison.)

Trust me, this is NOT how I dress for a virtual book tour. Right now, for instance, I am wearing a stained, torn sweatshirt with yoga pants, mismatched socks, and mucklucks. My hair does not look like it does in this picture.

So, for those of you who don’t know and who keep asking me what I’m talking about, a virtual book tour is where I go visit people’s blogs and web sites. They invite me over and let me either post something about my book on the blog, or else answer their questions, or get interviewed by them. It gets posted, and then I go back and answer comments and questions that their readers have.

What is the point of this, you ask? I can hear you asking this.

As with any book tour, it’s to get information out there about my new book, to bring it to the attention of people who might not have bumped into it in their regular lives. Some of the blogs I’ll be visiting are often visited by readers looking for new books–and it’s good to get to tell them about mine.

I didn’t create my own virtual book tour. A young woman named Jaime Sylver, who works for www.pumpupyourbookpromotion, run by Dorothy Thompson, made all the contacts and the calls and recruited bloggers who might be interested in having me come for a visit. I’ll be doing this all month, and linking to the blogs where I have landed.

Today, for instance, I wrote a guest post for The Plot, in which I interviewed Nate, the main male character of Kissing Games of the World. Even though I thought I knew him very well, having spent the past year writing about him, I actually learned a few things in the interview. You can read the interview with him here.

I have to say, it’s fun being on tour this way. Last time I did it–back when A Piece of Normal came out, I made lots of new friends in the blogosphere.

And that’s the best part of all. That, and not having to put on real clothes.

 

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Yes, it is that time.

My deadline beckons me, and I have to stop doing all the fun things I’ve gotten accustomed to doing lately and go finish this book that is now on its (ahem) THIRD DEADLINE. This one is January 31st. (I think when you set the third deadline for yourself–or worse, your editor sets it for you, then you really do have to go and finish the damn thing.)

I know, People of the Internet. This means I have to stop doing fun things like opening presents and drinking wine and meeting friends for lunch and talking on the telephone and taking baths and sleeping eight hours a night and eating candy and cooking dinner. (Sorry, honey, no dinner for a while.)

I may even have to give up some of the not-so-fun things I’ve been doing a lot of lately, like shoveling snow and ice off the driveway and folding laundry and washing dishes. I don’t think my book will let me take down the Christmas tree either.

In fact, I think I’m just pretty much going to move to Starbucks and emerge right around the time the groundhog comes out. They have an armchair there in the corner that already knows me well, from last year when I was camped out writing Kissing Games of the World. My plan is to live there throughout January, living on Zen tea and iced tea (I find if you drink the two things simultaneously and alternately you are never either too hot or too cold. That is my tip for the day.)

Already I am practicing saying “no” to things, a word which is not in my native language. But it is good for me to practice…and to tell you the truth, there is a wonderful sense of purpose when you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, and it’s not just hanging out and reading the Internet every single day. I’m taking my inspiration from Nova and BlogLily, both of whom have just undertaken and succeeded at massive writing and revision projects, despite the fact that they both work full-time and had to get up early in the morning, work in coffee shops or trains, and stay up late at night to get it all done.

This is the only way I know to really, really complete a novel: to be immersed in the finishing of it, to bat away all the distractions and focus the mind completely on what comes next and next and next in the plot, even when you think you might go insane.

To tell you the truth, I am happy and grateful for this moment–to put away the candy and the telephone calls and the overindulgence–and dive back into this book, which I love, and be for a while with these characters of mine who are right now so screwed up and pained and confused, and they are waiting and calling out to me to come and solve everything for them.

It’s so nice that I already know how I’m going to do just that.

I’ll be checking back in here and recording how it’s going–the blog is an indulgence it’s hard to give up. And also! Almost forgot!! I’m going to be showing up at various blogs here and there this month, doing guest posts (don’t worry–I already wrote most of them) and answering readers’ questions and comments about my work. I’ll keep you posted in case you want to come visit there, too.

In the meantime, hope all your resolutions are resolving themselves. My resolution is to…well, you know.

The Book Lady, aka Caryn Caldwell, is one of the best reasons I know to live in modern times. She’s one of the friends I’ve met here in the blogosphere. Yes, we now hang out.

I have no idea what she looks like, but I know her humor, her sensitivity, and the fact that she has the funniest cats in the world. Also I know that she’s working on a Young Adult paranormal novel, and also that she’s hilarious and brilliant. I’ve been meaning for some time to link to this fabulous post she wrote about what to do when you have writer’s block. She actually came up with 41 things that can help you get beyond the panic, and find your way back to your book. So many of them are delicious and wise, and if you are writing something (or worse yet, NOT writing something) you should go immediately to her post and read them all…but here are two of them that I thought were particularly wonderful:

  • Skip ahead to what you do know and write that. Sometimes you’ll find that the scene you agonized over really doesn’t need to be there, or in the meantime you – or your subconscious – could think of a good way to fix it.

 

  • Think of ways to make your characters’ lives worse, then implement them. It’s hard to have a book if you don’t have conflict.

 

And so, the other day she asked me if I would like to do a guest post on her blog–her newly renovated, fresh, clean blog–and I said yes, and to make a long story short, I got to hang out over at her place and talk about my characters, Jamie and Nate, in a post called, “Where Do These People Come From?”  So if you’re ambling around on the Internets, stop on by. I’m vowing to answer all comments!  

I have spent the last few days following my poor old blind golden retriever around the back yard, serving as a kind of Seeing Eye Human. (Really, I ought to get me one of those little outfits that seeing eye dogs wear.) My job is to keep him from slamming into trees and from tripping on little pieces of grass. And because he is dizzy still, he holds his head at an amusing tilt, which often causes him to walk in circles. We make quite a fine pair out there. It is a little like following Mr. Magoo, who is pooping.

But with all this dog-tending, I have been neglecting to say that good things are happening for Kissing Games of the World, my new book…which I would like to talk about for a moment, if you wouldn’t mind so much.

I was just reading on Nova’s wonderful blog, Distraction No. 99, about that let-down feeling that comes once you’ve finished a novel and how much that is like postpartum depression. (Maybe this is why I’m not letting myself finish the novel I’m writing now–it’s been too soon since my last bout with postpartum book depression!) And it made me realize that sad to say, there is something similar that comes once a book is out there in the world, too. If finishing the writing is like postpartum depression, then what follows its publication is probably like the day your kid heads off to middle school. All you can do is sit back, watching it go, knowing it’s going to be judged and criticized and bullied in the playground. And somebody is sure to point out that its ears are too big, and that it could have been so much more interesting and delightful if, say, J.K. Rowling or James Patterson had written it instead of you. Or–as one man so aptly pointed out about my previous book, A Piece of Normal, and I quote: “Call it dysfunctional I have no other name for this kind of thing.” (I have no other name for it either.)  

But oh, yes. I was going to talk about the good things! (Sorry–just got back from running in the pouring rain, in my bathrobe, through the woods behind our house, following the dog who just discovered that if he actually RAN as fast as he could, he had a 50 percent chance of missing some of the trees, roots, pieces of grass that had tripped him up previously.)

Good things are these:

  • BlogLily, who is a talented writer who manages to write even though she is working full-time as a lawyer and has three boys, wrote the most amazing, kind, lovely review of the book on her delightful blog. She wrote these words which I am going to read whenever I feel again as though I can’t write another word:

The great thing about Sandi’s book is that it’s both fun and beautifully written.  You never feel like you’re being cheated when you’re in her generous hands — the characters are interesting, full of life, troubled, funny.  And my goodness, that woman can pull you in.

You can read her complete review here. (I, of course, am too shy and modest to include any more of it.)    

  •  Ravenous Reader (Becca Rowan) also posted a great review, for which I am undyingly grateful. She said:

Shelton has a pitch perfect ear for dialogue, and  I particularly enjoyed her characterization of the two little boys, Christopher and Arley, each with his own lovable, quirky personality.   Jamie is the perfect combination of gentleness and strength, while Nate–well, he’s one of those guys you gotta love, even when you feel like giving him a good swift kick.  The chemistry between the two characters is palpable, and you can’t help but root for their relationship to flourish. 

Most of all, I loved watching the process of Nate’s growth, and it struck me that sometimes our lives seem fulfilling and satisfying, and then – BAM! – something happens that sends us careening in unimaginable directions which take us to the place we were meant to be all along.  With the real world around us so topsy-turvy these days, it was rather comforting to see that change can be positive and exciting.

  • It also got a starred review in Library Journal, which said:

Shelton’s third novel is an engrossing, charming, and often funny exploration of love and the relationships that result. Though the slow-building and complicated relationship between Jamie and Nate plays a role in the story, it is the relationships between Nate and his son and Nate and his deceased father that allow the author to explore love in its different incarnations.

For the first time in a year, I am currently not writing a novel.

It’s not that there’s not a novel waiting to be written. It’s still there. It’s living in the computer, and a whole lot of it is stacked up on the floor near the dining room table. Also, it’s buzzing in my head, waking me up in the night, tapping on the windows, whispering in my ear.

I suddenly know more about this novel than I know about my own life! Now is that the damnedest thing, or what?

Two weeks ago I could easily spend a whole day sitting in Starbucks staring at the unrelenting screen, begging my subconscious mind please give me some morsel of detail about what comes next! Tell me, damn you, what Annabelle is thinking! I would say that and then I would get up and order another cup of tea. Then I would realize that it was too hot in Starbucks to drink nuclear-temperature hot tea and so I would go and order iced tea instead. I would peruse the CDs for sale, gaze at the interesting cups and gadgets for sale, then talk to the chess players and the Scrabble players who are always there. I would scan the headlines of the newspapers. Then I would sit back down and push some commas around and glance at my watch and realize that it was time to go home and start supper.

But now I am not writing a novel. I am publicizing a novel. A week out from the release of Kissing Games of the World, I am doing interviews and arranging events, and writing little notes, sending chili peppers through the email system (see previous post), and then trying to figure out how to withdraw them. I am also praying for the improvement of the economy so that people will buy books again. 

And so now–NOW!–what does my novel-in-progress do? It dances and sings! It plays like a movie in my head. I now understand everything about Annabelle and her husband, their kids, their past history, her parents, her parents’ marriage, her mother’s illness, what Annabelle carries in her purse and how she walks and talks and even what songs she plays on her iPod.

I know the end of the book. But I don’t have time to write it yet. I have to wait.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Is this just my routine tendency to make progress on something ONLY if I am supposed to be doing something else? Do I have to create an elaborate ruse for myself in order to accomplish anything? 

Or is it true that novels bloom in darkness, not when the light of effort is beamed down upon them? Maybe they prefer to sneak around and come out when you’re busy doing something else.

Just tell me this: Has anybody else noticed this?   

I just don’t know how to act anymore. I start out each day fine, reading the polls (which are good), and then looking at the stock market (which often starts out good and turns bad when some government official says things are actually quite dire)…and then I sit down to work on my book (sometimes good, but lots of days this novel feels like it’s just taken a turn in the spin cycle of the washing machine)…and YIKES, THE DEADLINE IS COMING.

I can get very hyperventilational easily–an unruly paragraph can do it, as can a 678-point drop in the stock market (even though, as a disorganized person who never quite got around to investing, I don’t have an awful lot of money there). But then, just like a child, I can get all excited and happy again simply by the fact of end-of-the-season tomatoes, which are so sweet and full right now that you can just stand at the sink and eat them like apples. And that reminds me that I bought a big sack of apples and will make apple crisp this weekend, and I am absolutely POWERLESS before apple crisp. Can’t resist it!

But then I wander over to the laptop again, having worked out a crucial scene in my head…and whoops, there is the stock market again, falling below credibility, and then I have to go read what all the economists think about it, and these days it may only be Kai Ryssdal’s casual, cheerful voice that is keeping many of us from freaking completely out. Today he came on the radio even when it wasn’t time for Marketplace, just to announce that this was NOTHING like the Great Depression. Nothing at all like it.

But good news came today on the computer! Yes! I received another review of KISSING GAMES OF THE WORLD, which is waiting in the wings for its debut on November 4. This one came from Romantic Times, a site that reviews fiction. And here is what they said, making me happier even than the ripest tomatoes:

"Shelton’s warm, sentimental love story is told with a tenderness of heart and a nurturing eye guiding complexly drawn characters. She effortlessly melds love and loss with heartrending care, exposing the layers of a budding romance with a deft hand.  It’s full of humor, flaws, and a togetherness of spirit fit for any modern love story where family is what you make it." 

And tomorrow I get to catch the train and go to New York and sit down with the publicist for the book, and we are going to figure out how to, you know, actually get the book into people’s hands! Involving perhaps readings and blog tours and calls to book clubs and oh, who-knows-what-all. If you have any ideas for any of this, I would of course LOVE to hear them!

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks there are novels lurking in Starbucks, just waiting to be written.

At any given moment, the Starbucks near me is filled with people typing away on their laptops, or else staring off into space hoping that the right word will appear. I am often there myself, when the words on my porch have all gotten used up and I have to go find better ones.

But it’s a curious thing, writing in public.  As Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, why is it that people now expect desk space as part of the deal when they buy a cup of coffee?

Today was a curious day in Starbucks. Apparently it was Give-Away Day. Employees kept coming out from behind the counter–out into the office space–bringing with them paper cups and pots of new blends they wanted us to try. At one point I had to explain to a well-meaning, smiling guy in a green apron that I am actually not a fan of coffee at all. I am a tea drinker, I said, and pointed to my Venti black tea, unsweetened, extra ice, as proof.

“Ah, but have you tried taking some of our HOT teas and having us brew them up into iced tea for you?” he said.

Now why would I do that? I couldn’t think of a good answer, so I just said, “Actually, the black tea suits me just fine.”

He went away, but a few minutes later was back, passing out cups of oatmeal to some of my fellow office workers. A man had to interrupt his cell phone call to explain that he actually wasn’t in the mood for oatmeal right then. Another  worker, a woman whom I know is writing a memoir about her childhood in France, had to remove headphones when the oatmeal was thrust in front of her. “Thank you, but it’s four in the afternoon,” she said. “Oatmeal is kind of a morning thing.”

Starbucks wasn’t deterred, however. When I went up to the counter later to get a cookie (nobody had offered me oatmeal), the guy pointed out a cardboard cup sitting off by itself.

“You know what that is?” he said. “That’s some orange spice tea I’m brewing for you. It’s cooling now, and soon I’ll put ice in it, and you’ll have a whole different iced tea experience.”

And sure enough, a few minutes later–there was a glass of tea to go along with my OTHER glass of tea. All around the room, people were sipping their unfamiliar blends, or tasting cups of oatmeal they didn’t want, struggling to get back their momentum for work.

I can’t figure out what’s going on. Maybe Starbucks is trying to drive us out, pester us with niceness and generosity.

One of my fellow writers packed up his stuff early, shoving his laptop down in its case, his cell phone into his pocket, and his glasses into his shirt pocket. “I can’t take this today,” he said. “I’m going to have to punch out early, take some time off today.”

“Where are you going to go?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Someplace where I can relax and just take it easy.”

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