fiction writing


It’s true.

Every year we go to the Cape–pack up the cars, bring the kids and sometimes their friends, and stay in the same house we’ve stayed in for years, a 3-bedroom house that comes equipped with lobster pots and playing cards, good paperback books, electric fans, feather pillows–and beds that sag in the middle. (We joke that it’s those beds that finally make us glad to go back home–we practically need a team of chiropractors to get us up in the morning by Day 7.)

Over the years, as you can imagine, the vacations have varied in their quality. There was the year Hurricane Bob struck on day two of the vacation, catching us completely unaware. Apparently everyone else got the memo and knew to bring batteries and lanterns, filled-up ice chests, and buckets to fill with pond water so they could flush the toilets…but  not us. We had a policy then of not watching TV on vacation.

Instead, we stood there dumbly while 70 mph winds blew down trees all around us, and by the time, three days later, when we managed to work our way out of the woods of Wellfleet and into civilization, all the batteries, ice and candles were long since sold out. Because this was Our Vacation, our one time of the year to be away, we stayed there for another five days which I will not describe to you because you would know then how utterly insane we are.

In the vacation journal we keep, there is one line, written by me, which sums everything up: “Tonight for dinner we had crackers and potato chips. Warm beer for us and warm water for the kiddos.”

But why am I talking about that? This year was perhaps the culmination of everything that is GOOD about the Cape.

For one thing, there was day after day of sunshine, beach days with actual warm water (up to 66 degrees, in the OCEAN). There were stars and evening beach walks. There were steamers and mussels to eat. There were early morning runs on the bike trail. There were babies to play with in sand that was as soft as flour. There was a campfire one night, with a million stars sparkling in the Milky Way above us. And there was a lot of drawn butter.

And there was no internet.

I LOVE the internet, of course, but I have to say it was kind of nice to be back to the elements of sand and water and sun and fire and drawn butter. I didn’t even work on my novel, although I meant to. Instead I played in the water with babies.

My characters would speak to me every now and then whenever I wasn’t talking to anyone else (which was rare), but they seemed busy, too. The main character, Annabelle, pointed out that she really does love her husband a lot, even though she complains about him. She thought maybe I should emphasize that a little bit more in the opening chapters. “I’m not REALLY wanting to be done with him,” she said. Then she wafted away and wasn’t heard from for the rest of the vacation. I figured she was on vacation, too.

One evening, walking on the beach, though, looking at the nearly full moon on the water and catching the white tips of the foam, I suddenly knew the title of this novel. (Here I’ve been writing this book for six months and am over halfway through and haven’t had even one inkling what its name might be.)

It’s going to be called The Year You Think of Nothing Else.

There. That was enough work for a vacation, don’t you think?

And now that I’m back, the characters came back, too, with lots more to say. I’m back on the internet and vow to be a better blogger than I was in August.

And I gave Annabelle some nice things to say about her husband.

I’m still tanned and spoiled and fat from all that drawn butter, but it’s fall. Time to get shaking. Tomorrow I might even go to the gym.    

You know that I love the writing life…but I have to say that there was a lot about it that I didn’t expect when I signed on.

For instance, I didn’t know that a lot of it would consist of me sitting alone in a room typing things, then finding postage and envelopes and sending these pieces of writing out into the world, where other people would receive them, then send them right back to me with notes saying, “This does not meet our current needs.”

I also didn’t know that when you are writing things that you made up (e.g., fiction), it is almost impossible not to think about this world you’ve invented FULL TIME, and sometimes it starts to seem even more real than the world you’re living in…and again, you write it all down, and rewrite it again and again and again, and then night after night you wake up from the deepest of sleep with your heard pounding (sort of like Allison in the show “Medium,” coming stark raving awake) and have to GET OUT OF YOUR BED and go find your computer and write down whatever couldn’t wait until morning–and then you read it the next day and…well, in the morning light, it turns out it was really no good after all. You made the main character sound like an airhead, and turned her best friend into a caricature of a stereotype of a cliche, and oh by the way, you also you didn’t get enough sleep and now you’re tired.

And that, I’m afraid, sums up the writing life most of the time.

But then sometimes–well, good happens. Yeah, even in writing.

Sometimes you send the thing out, and the agent likes it, and then she shows it to a publisher–and one day you’re just at home cleaning mildew out of the tile grout and wondering if they still have debtors’ prisons in this country and is the food any good in them, when the phone rings and somebody on the other end says, “WE’RE BUYING YOUR BOOK!”

This week I had two of those kinds of moments happen to me, and I feel it’s only fair to share them because so much of writing–and even writing about writing–is all about the bad stuff.

But this week, Patricia Gaffney, one of my very favorite authors, wrote a blurb for my new book, KISSING GAMES OF THE WORLD. And this is what she said, which made even ME want to go and read this book:

Sexy hero, lovable heroine, adorable kids–KISSING GAMES OF THE WORLD has it all.  A complete delight.  Fall into this buoyant, funny, genuinely touching story of two incomplete people finding the rest of themselves in each other.  I loved it.

I could not be happier! Seriously, I was ready to sit down and read the galleys one more time, except that I’ve read them about 1,369 times and I could recite them in my sleep at this point.

And, as if that weren’t enough to make somebody happy for months, the second good thing that happened was that the Doubleday Book Club and Literary Club bought the rights for the book. Yay!

And so now I will go on vacation for a week on the Cape, and all I want to do is eat lobsters and ice cream and drink wine and sleep lots of hours and then sit on the beach and stare numbly at the horizon. But who am I kidding? I am writing a new book and it now owns me, body and soul, and IT will decide how much sleeping and staring at the horizon there will be, thank you very much.

I’ll be back during the last week of August!

Yes, that’s right. BlogLily invited me over to her blog, where, I’m pleased to say, things are much tidier and more delightful than they ever are around here. Her blog never has the thick layer of dust that mine seems to be gathering here in the dog days of August.

If you haven’t been to see her before, let me just tell you that she writes such thoughtful, beautiful posts on all kinds of subjects, including letting us all have a peek into her writing-and-submitting-stories-for-publication life. She is unfailingly funny and kind–just the type of person you want to have in your life in the hopes that some of that humor and kindness can rub off on you.

And I’m so pleased to be a part of her new “Author, Author” series.

Here’s the link: http://bloglily.com/2008/08/13/author-author-sandi-shelton/ .

This is me, in visiting mode.

 

I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather write than on a train. In fact, if I were rich, I think I would just ride back and forth all day long, typing away, pausing to look out the window at the scenery rushing past.

My friend Louise was asking me why train cars make such good offices–and I really couldn’t tell her for sure. Maybe it has something to do with all that clickety-clackety forward motion that makes the plot of a novel seem that it could also zoom right along.

Most likely, though, for me, it’s the fact that I am forced to sit in one seat for a period of time with my fingers on the keyboard. Left staring at a blank screen for some time, I find that words eventually come pouring forth. And by the time I get to where I’m going, I don’t want to get off. I need to keep writing.

All this is by way of saying that today I went to New York for the day, which meant that I had three glorious hours of train-writing. I wrote an argument between a mother and daughter, a description of a cross-country trip for a just-married couple, and a sex scene.

Just want to say: interesting to write a sex scene while multitudes gather around. At one point, I was typing faster and faster, probably breathing fast, when a woman watching me leaned over and said, “You must really like your work. You look so happy!”

Yeah.  

I might as well admit it: September 1st is creeping ever closer. It is now, in fact, LOOMING. Which means that I should be finished with at least the first draft of this novel. I mean, I don’t think that editors are going to come to my house and seize my laptop or anything…but I would like to have something finished by then. I want to have written THE END at least once.

But then, because one cannot write all the time, I discovered the blog of Joshilyn Jackson here, a verrrrry funny writer who is also on deadline for a novel and so has declared July National PJ Month. How funny is that! Here I was, celebrating National PJ Month too, and thought I was the only one who can’t get dressed anymore and who wanders the house muttering to invisible fictional beloveds.

So today, being Saturday, I bounded out of bed and rejoiced just a little that my family members all had Exciting Things To Do that didn’t involve me, and that I could sit around in my PJs and write, write, write my little heart out.

But instead it turned out to be one of those days ruled by the crazy hamsters who live inside my head, the ones that think anything I’m currently doing is not the right thing at all. I hate those guys!

So far I’ve swept half the kitchen, ruled out going to the gym, started a letter to my stepmother, read five pages of the second pass of the edited manuscript for Kissing Games of the World (due at the end of the week), read the first three pages of the new novel I’m writing and turned the first chapter into a prologue and then changed it back, talked on the phone to my friend Deb for a half hour, read four pages in a book about publicizing books and decided to learn how to make a book trailer and a podcast, checked out three new writers’ blogs, set up a special bookmarking section for publicity sites, read the weatherbug to see when this heat and humidity will lift (answer: never), answered five emails, watered all the plants on the porch that could be watered with one fill-up of the watering can, petted the dog, ate five grapes, contemplated getting dressed and getting a haircut, ruled that out, contemplated cutting my own hair without getting dressed. And now I am blogging.

Heaven help me, but September first REALLY is going to come, and I’m already exhausted.

Summer writing is very different from winter writing, I’ve found. This summer I am stationed out on the screened porch…which looks, I know,  like a very calm and placid world. I mean, as long as it’s not raining, of course.

I sit out here and work on my novel, drink iced tea, and every now and then jump up and spray soap solution on my plants. (That plant in the picture, for instance? The one that looks so lush with its purple flowers? It’s currently a patient in  my special Soap Hospital for Plants and has about a 50% chance of survival, I’d say, due to an infestation of aphids that I am every day at war with.)

But my main job, now that I am out here on the porch viewing nature’s ways first hand, is as a nanny to a family of cardinals who are living in the bush that is just on the other side of the screen on the upper right of this picture.

I have always been partial to cardinals due to the fact that my father loved birds, and when he was dying, nearly 20 years ago and I was sitting at his bedside, one of the last conversations we had was about a male cardinal who kept coming to the window and looking in at us. It was one of the few times I saw my father smile during that last horrible illness–kidney cancer–and so I have always associated his memory with those beautiful birds. It’s amazing how many times when I’ve been in a tough spot, I look up and there’s a bright red cardinal just flying close by, and I can’t help it, I always feel as though my father is looking in on me, making sure I’m okay.

So this year a couple of cardinals chose to build their nest right on the other side of my writing porch–and believe me, I got the message. These were birds sent by Dear Old Dad just to keep me working at my novel.

After a rather impressive time of building the nest, the female cardinal sat there for day after day, all by herself. She looked in on me as I wrote, and I kept watch over her eggs when she had to fly away for a few minutes. I felt we were creating a bond somehow. She didn’t even startle when I would get up and head to the kitchen for more iced tea, or when the dog would wag his tail against the screen. Clearly, we were friends.

I was puzzled as to why her husband never had to take a turn on the nest—I mean, fair is fair!–but one of my kids told me that I shouldn’t make too much of their domestic arrangements. “Every species makes its own deals,” said my son.

One day she left the eggs for quite a little while, and a bunch of cowbirds came flocking by, hopping up branch by branch, getting closer to the nest. Really? I thought. Am I going to have to police this nest? But just as I was getting up to go have a stern word with the cowbirds, the male cardinal, in all his splendorous red-itude, came charging into the tree, chirping and chattering and sending those cowbirds packing. It was quite an impressive display of fatherhood, let me tell you. 

And then last Sunday, just when we were all exhausted with the waiting–baby birds hatched!

We porch-dwellers were elated.

(I took this picture of them with their little beaks in the air, and you will see why I have to write novels for a living. I am clearly no nature photographer.)

UPDATE: right now, as I’m writing, both the mother and the father cardinal are on the nest, feeding the babies together. I am pleased to say that the father and mother cardinals are turning out to be exemplary parents, flying in and out at all times of the day, at least 35,000 times during my writing hours here, bringing worms and other delectables…and that the minute there is any kind of danger of other birds moving in, the father swoops down from out of nowhere and chases off the intruders.

He seems to be a good protector, and I notice that he brings by some pretty heft worms, too. So maybe he had it written into his contract that he wasn’t responsible for the egg-sitting stage.

That’s the father, there on the left, peeking into the nest while the mom is away…she probably had to run down to the Save & Discount for some Worm Helper…and on the right, there’s the mother, having returned.

It’s astonishing how much drama there can be on a summer day on screened porch in essentially the middle of Nowhere, Connecticut: epic warfare with aphids, the domestic lives of birds playing out before me, and…oh no! Now a cowbird has taken to flinging itself against the screen multiple times, clearly exhibiting bird psychosis. OMG, now it is lying on its back on the porch ledge, legs in the air and feathers all ruffled up. Perhaps this is a bird death scene (a swan song, as it were)…or merely a temper tantrum over not being able to get at those cardinal eggs.

But no. Now the cowbird flies away, the mother and father cardinals go off to dig up more worms. Little bunnies are hopping around in the garden, and a nice breeze is riffling through the screens, making the dog lift his head and smile.

Except for the busy aphids, all is well on the porch. Back to the novel, where things need to have their own dramas.

You’ve heard of the summer of love. I am having the summer of strandedness. And after two days of it, I am already learning a lot about myself.

First, may I say that I haven’t been this carless since I was sixteen and waiting for California to abolish the parallel parking requirement in the driver’s test so I could get my license.

This time, my strandedness happened because I am writing a novel that is due in two months, and meanwhile, The Third Kid came home from college, having signed up for all kinds of exciting opportunities, all taking place Elsewhere:

  • Babysitting for several families, one of whom took her to London with them for three weeks 
  • Running a summer camp, which involves putting on TWO musicals in a four-week period, using actors and actresses who are between the ages of 6 and 9 and are anxious to begin their stage careers
  • Doing an internship each evening, an hour away from home, helping to stage “Fiddler on the Roof” with middle and high school students.

A person could get tired dashing off in so many directions. A person could get tired WATCHING someone dash off in so many directions. She tears out of the house at about 8 a.m., trailing papers, changes of clothes, English muffins for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, turkey sandwiches for supper…and then we don’t see her (or my car) again until she comes home about 10:30 p.m. in a state of collapse. 

I used to be fond of my mobility, but here’s what I have learned about stationary life, things I would like to share with you in case you have a real life and don’t know what strandedness is like:

1/ Just because you are sitting at your desk does not mean that you are working. You can make yourself sit there, but you can’t make yourself stop reading wikipedia or OMG. 

2/ People call your house all day long. The phone rings and rings and rings. Telemarketers try to sneak through, even though you’ve signed up for the Do Not Call list over and over again. The firemen in your town are probably giving a parade and they want to discuss how much money you will give. Others simply want to put aluminum siding on your house. Friends call, probably hoping to just leave a quick message on your voice mail, but then they get you instead and don’t know how to get off the phone, and so you find yourself in hour-long conversations about nothing at all.

3/ Daytime television is probably one of the best arguments for outside-the-house employment that there is. Do NOT even think of turning it on, or it will demoralize you and make you wish that you lived in another century where television was not heard of. 

4/ Rabbits–yes, rabbits–visit your garden at the same time every day and munch on your basil and petunias and then hop away, to return in 24 hours, even though they don’t have clocks, as far as I can tell.

5/ Twenty minute naps are FABULOUS.

6/ Birds don’t stay on their nests as much as you need to stay at your computer. I am currently having a contest with a lady cardinal whose nest is right at my eye level, nestled in the lilac bush, to see which of us can stay at our post the longest. I am proud to report that she loses every time, flitting off somewhere to do something more interesting than sit on her eggs, and I win. Of course, if she had access to the internet on her nest like I do in mine, she could probably remain on the nest for much longer intervals, just as I can.

(To my editor, in case she is reading this: No, really! I AM writing the novel!  Honest! It’s zipping right along! Don’t even worry about it. September is still a long time away from now. I checked the calendar just this morning.)

Do you like to have music on when you write, or do you need to keep silent to hear the characters talk?

I’m mixed on this one.

I have a CD called “The Yearning,” that is all alto flutes–soft and solid and flighty, all at once. This music has been known to reverse my blood flow and explain to my heart that we’re now leaving the reality of MY life and going to some alternate world where it’s possible to imagine some things happening that really didn’t take place. When I put on that CD, my family groans and yet my monkey mind knows that I mean, “Get in here, calm down, stop reading the entire internet, and let your mind open up !”

I’ve been depending on the solemnity of alto flutes to write my books for years.

But now with this last book, I discovered something that worked better: songs that showed the emotion of the story I’m writing. In fact, while writing “Kissing Games of the World,” suddenly there was a whole host of songs that seemed to illustrate some character trait or point I was needing to make.

The main guy, Nate, was kind of a lost soul who had a deep wounded tenderness that made had made him tough and unwilling to let his guard down. I noticed that every time I’d hear the Eagles’ song, “Desperado,” I’d have to run to my laptop to get down some new insight I had about Nate. There was Nate, unwilling to come down from his fences and let anybody love him, and when I’d hear the Eagles, I’d know exactly what he was thinking.

Same with Jamie, the main female character. She’s an artist who struggles to make ends meet, and everytime she’s ever loved anybody, things have gone badly. For her, I liked “The Hard Way” by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and also Norah Jones’s song, “Cold, Cold Heart” when she can’t seem to get through to Nate.

And as for their situation and their crazy household, the only song that summed up for me the joys of domestic chaos was “Just Another Day in Paradise,” a country song by Phil Vassar.

I ended up making a whole CD of songs that would put me in the minds of the characters in the book. It seemed a little like cheating (or a fascinating new way of procrastinate!) but, hey, it worked! I felt as though I had discovered a terrific shortcut right to the heart of my story any time I heard the songs.

Some songs that helped me were:

 “I Want to Know What Love Is” (Foreigner)

“Down to Zero” (Joan Armatrading)

“I Am Not in Love” (Ten CC)

“Shut Up and Kiss Me” (Mary Chapin Carpenter)

“I Want You” (Bob Dylan)

“She’s Everything” (Brad Paisley)

“Dance Me to the End of Love” (Madeleine Peyroux)

“Real Good Man” (Tim McGraw)

“Each Other’s Medicine” (Patti Scialfa)

“Fix You” (Coldplay)

“An Innocent Man”  

 

I haven’t come up with a soundtrack yet for the new book I’m working on, but I do find that now–when I’m writing a pivotal sex scene–the one thing I do know is that the characters respond exactly to the song “Hallelujah.”

The Rufus Wainwright edition, of course. Nobody else gives me that same sense of just handing one’s soul over to another.

I think I need to go to the itunes site and find all their other songs now, too, don’t you? I mean, in the name of research and time-saving and inspiration and all.

 

 

Here it is: the advanced readers’ copy of the new book, which will come out in November.

It arrived this morning, and of course I stopped doing everything else I was supposed to be doing, and just sat down with it and gazed upon it, just the way you’d need to look at your newborn baby if it had somehow just come in on the UPS truck.

I still haven’t finished editing the page proofs, so it felt a bit surreal to see this all bound up like a real book, when there are still about 1,347,523 typos that need to be corrected, but I didn’t hold that against it. Instead, I carried it through the house and sang it a few songs, introduced it to the dog, and set it on the kitchen counter so it could look out over the rest of the house and sort of settle in.

It’s called “Kissing Games of the World,” as you can plainly see, which is the title I dreamed one night, a funny dream really, in which my husband claimed he’d written a book proposal with that as the title. His book was going to be an expose of kissing games, and so far he had thought up two of them: Post Office and Spin the Bottle. As soon as he came up with more, he would get a huge advance.

It hit me that this was a perfect title for the book I was writing at the time…about Nate, a salesman, who travels all over the world having relationships of no consequence. One of the other characters accuses him of just participating in kissing games, as a way of avoiding true feelings.

Naming books is always so hard for me. (The one I’m working on now still doesn’t even have a working title.) My first book was called “The Fortune Teller’s Daughter” in my head, except that it took me so long to finish it that somebody else wrote a book with that title, so we had to choose another. It became “What Comes After Crazy.”

The second book, “A Piece of Normal” was named by a friend of mine who mentioned that one of the crazier characters seemed to be seeking just that–a piece of normal, after her wacky childhood.  

But this book–well, it’s nice when the title just comes to you in a dream, even if somebody else in the dream was about to use it himself.

How do YOU get your titles? Please, please tell me!

 

 

You see these smiling faces? This is the Once a Month book group in Lexington, North Carolina, one of the coolest book groups in the country. I know this because I talked to them on the phone this week. They had read A Piece of Normal and wanted to ask me questions about it. Before the talk, however, we emailed back and forth and they explained that they have strict rules for their book group: (1) it must meet at a restaurant, and (2) alcohol and dessert, preferably chocolate, must be involved.

These are the kinds of rules I think all book groups should have. In fact, I made up a rule for myself before I called them, which was that I should also have a glass of wine on hand, and since I couldn’t find any chocolate dessert around the house, I opted for a bag of peanut M&Ms. Striving to be thoughtful, I did not crunch candy into the mouthpiece.

We hit it off wonderfully.

Sometimes groups want to know such things as what are the three major themes that I see developing in my work, and are my characters composites of people I know, and where do I see the future of English literature going?

THIS group, bless their hearts, wanted to know if I dye my hair–and if so, had I ever had the unfortunate experience that Lily, the main character, had with turning her hair into a splotchy  mess due to hair color kit disasters?

The answers were yes and yes.

Then they wanted to know who I saw playing Dana, the hellion younger sister–and they thought Drew Barrymore should definitely get the first shot at the part. We discussed Helen Hunt for Lily’s part, but I don’t think we arrived at a consensus. A truck might have been barreling past their outdoor table at that moment. I definitely heard them recommend Matthew McConaghey for Alex, though.

Many of my writer friends imagine that talking to book groups on the phone has to be one of life’s toughest moments–you can’t see who you’re talking to, speaker phones can be disconcerting, and as one of my friends said, “Maybe they’re making faces behind your back”–but I have to say I love it. There’s something divine about sharing a glass of wine long distance with people who are making some excellent casting recommendations for your book.

And if you’re really lucky, they’ll send you a picture of themselves talking with you. Above are: (L to R, standing): Karen, Julie, Wendy, Megan and Marci. Seated are Buffie and Dare. (I told Dare I’m going to have to name a character after her.)

If you have a book group and would like to have a book chat, click on this link: http://www.sandishelton.com/group/ and we can talk about hair color, chocolate, wine, and books.

 

« Previous PageNext Page »