A couple of weeks ago, I started my first new project in about three years. Once I finished my edits for The Spy Chasers of Maple Hill, I went back to an old YA I’ve been working on forever. I sent that to my agent and the next day started working on a middle grade that’s been percolating in my brain for over a year. I’m not going to talk about the project itself, not out of superstition, but out of self-consciousness. What if nothing comes of this book? What if the idea is dumb? I will, however, talk about the process of jumping into a new project.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird for the first time. (In my head I keep calling her Annie, as if we are old friends.) Lamott recommends writing the “sh@tty” first draft. That’s the only kind of draft I know how to write. She also talks a lot about day dreaming, sitting at the computer and just staring at it while the ideas coalesce. This book came out in the 1990s, pre-Internet explosion. Can anyone still sit in front of the computer without clicking open a browser and checking all their favorite sites? Even Lamott is on Twitter now.
Still, I have found my way to daydream. Each Tuesday I drop my kids off at my mother’s and walk to the local library. It’s about a ten minute walk, just enough time to get my thoughts going. This morning, one week before this will actually be posted, I thought about this post. On the way home, I’ll think about my work in progress, hopefully, though I will be distracted trying to decide which of the multiple coffee shops in Portsmouth, NH I should visit as a reward for all my hard work today (1426 words today, but who’s counting? Oh wait -- that’d be me). Movement seems to jostle my ideas free. I can sit in front of the computer like some sort of religious pilgrim, squeezing my brain for one good drop and nothing comes. I walk upstairs to grab a load of laundry and suddenly I have too many ideas to catch.
I don’t watch much television. My husband and I cancelled cable because we are both addicts and can’t have it in the house. We do much better streaming specific shows than channel surfing. Anyway, a good deal of what I do watch is police procedurals. My favorite is Homicide; I’m a big fan of Bones, and I just got hooked on The Fall. Writing a first draft I feel like a detective. I have an idea and it’s perfect in my head, but when I follow it out on the page it’s like a lead that’s gone cold. Just when I am filled with despair, sure that the whole book is going to be filed away in the records department unsolved, a new idea comes my way, and I am hot on the case again.
Fits and starts. A good day here. Days with nothing. That’s how this first draft will get done. And it will be terrible. I promise you that. But there will be good parts. And once I get that story down, I can start revising. That’s where the real work comes in. A final metaphor, then: perhaps writing a novel is like building a stone wall. The first step is to dig out the stones, tracing the property map of your brain for those rocks that will be strong and solid. You construct the wall as best you can with those stones, but some of them won’t work, and you’ll pitch them back into the forest. You’ll find you need some smaller stones to fill in the gaps, maybe even a few more foundational pieces. New Englanders know that a true stone wall doesn’t use any cement, so you’d better be sure you have all the right pieces and you fit them together so it will stand up straight and true.
That phase is yet to come. For now, I gather rocks.