It's a beautiful summer day in Sitka, Alaska. The fireweed is better than six feet tall in our wild garden and the berries are ripe and soft on their stems. Warm wind is carrying the smell of dry grass through our windows and I all most expect to see horses grazing on our lawn but alas there are no ponies to be seen.
I finished the first draft of my next novel this week and I have sent it out to two readers for a first look. My plan is to publish a Cecil book one year and a Cold Storage book the next and keep going that way for a bit. See how my readers like that. The new Book is called What Is Time To A Pig? which is the punch line to a very fine joke. I wrote this draft longer than it will end up, as I usually do in a first draft, so I can trim the fat as I rework it. The Cold Storage books are different than the Cecil books in several important ways. First, they have different points of view. Cecil books are first person from Cecil’s point of view and are pretty realistic. “I went to the store and walked up to the pig and I wondered what the heck the pig was thinking about just then…” CS books are third person and sometimes magical “He, she, it goes to the store and walks up to the pig, and the pig was thinking about what to have for dinner. ” Cold Storage books I tend to think are more like fairy tales, or screwball comedies. Cecil books are more like a wise cracking detective story gone a little nutty. I don’t really know. I just write them. I don’t like to characterize them.
Anyway. I research the book, but I usually start with a title. This is bass akwards from what most writers do. Most writers start with a plot they can pitch to an editor or a movie producer. Not me…. and maybe that’s why I’m sitting in my yard here in Alaska and not in Los Angeles. I start with a joke, or sometimes a scrap of poetry or something I read in someone’s notebook. “The Curious eat themselves” was something that the poet Theodore Roethke had written in his notebook and had always stuck in my head as something interesting to think about and when Juris Jurjevic from Soho Press asked me if I had my second mystery done yet, and I told him “Ah… no… it needs some work…” meaning I hadn’t started it because I was told to tell Soho that the Woman Who Married A Bear was the first book in a series but I never thought anyone was going to buy the first one, so when Juris asked me “what is the title of the second book?” I totally pulled out of my butt: “The Curious Eat Themselves”.
So, yes, I start with titles. Then I make a list of places I want my characters to go. Then I make a list of characters who could inhabit these places. Then I come up with the plot that takes them to these places, which fits the poetry that was set ringing when I was struck by the title. Like I said, other people don’t work this way.
Once I had to change a title, because the art department apparently got the giggles with the title I had chosen from one of my favorite haiku by Issa:
on a naked horse
through the summer rain.
The novel was called “Naked On A Naked Horse. The cover Artists apparently got giddy just thinking about it and my editor at Bantam made me change it. I drove around one weekend with friends who had read the manuscript and we came up with Cold Water Burning. Which I thought worked out a lot better than my first thought which was Fuck Off And Die, which my friends thought was immature and not helpful for the original problem with the Art Department.
Once I have title, place, characters, plot, lots of time spent staring out the window and making lists and reading and researching all of the above. I start writing. Rough draft discipline is number of words a day. Usually a thousand words a day five days a week. No cheating. No storing up in a bank. Five grand minimum. No max. Then I get to about eighty thousand I wrap it up unless I have a much grander vision. The Big Both Ways was meant to be longer. There, I wanted to write a journey book. Once the draft is done I let it sit and let people read it and then go back to it and then the discipline is number of hours a day. Usually three hours minimum. No cheating. Once I start fixing things I’ve already fixed twice OR instead of fixing things I start changing things so I begin to essentially write a whole new book on top of the book I began. I stop and let my real editor read it. Then I work with them and follow their advice to the letter. Unless one of us goes crazy or has a break down that is irreconcilable. Which has never happened. Once I get my editors revisions, I work on it until they tell me I’m done. Then there are usually two rounds of line edits after that; catching typos, and spacing issues, formatting, and proper names. I am dyslexic and most often I hire private editors here at home or close buy to help me to find mistakes, which I am quite literally blind to. Then there are book design and jacket copy, blurbs, which I am allowed to have a voice in, and I'm honored to do that here at Soho.
I have to say that I love the people I work with at Soho Press. That's it. I'm going to say it now, in case I never get any awards, they are the best.
I was lucky to correspond with the great poet William Stafford before he died, he told me “An editor is a friend who makes sure only your best writing makes it out into the world.” When he first told me that I felt that editors were the people who sent rejection letters, but now I have come to believe these words of friendship.
With each novel, I set myself a new goal, some new thing I want to try. This is what makes writing interesting. I can’t bear writing the same thing over and over. When I was a kid I loathed doing workbook homework where the teacher could just look up the answers in the book she kept locked in her desk. I felt, what’s the point of this? Why not just hand out that answer book to everyone and let us read that one and case closed. No more suffering at home at night! Writing to a formula seems like doing that kind of homework to me. It feels like the worst kind of homework, and I just won’t do it.
When I give a new manuscript to a reader for the first time, all I want to know is, “Am I crazy?” That’s it. I will get more editing down the way, I just want to know if the new twist or new technique is coming across without too much distraction. Is my hallucination real at all to you? So, it's not really, am I crazy... it's more, does this craziness come across vividly, and in an interesting way?
My insanity is a given. We should all know that by now.
In a little more than a year, if all goes well you should be able to read the well worked over version of this manuscript which, today at least, is called What Is Time To A Pig?
Here is hoping anyway.
Warm evening: our yard.
Wind brings in the smell of grass
and I hear horse bells.