Tuesday, November 20, 2012

“Are We There Yet?” Thoughts on Process, from TBA client Danielle Davis

I’m very pleased to share this piece on process, and knowing when you’re finished, from my client Danielle Davis.  I fell in love with Danielle’s writing the minute I read it, and as you can guess from this, she’s one of the most thoughtful, intrepid writers I’ve been lucky to know.  She also has some very good advice to share on the longing we all have to be done, to know that the hard work is complete, and how to balance that against the time that every project must take.  Enjoy!  -- Susan
Some call the desire to wrap up a writing project as soon as possible, too soon, “early closure.”

Students often have that.
I have that too.

It’s just so tempting to be done.

But, no. Writing is a process of indeterminable length. And every writer’s process is different, perhaps with every project.

There’s revisiting, reimagining, rewriting. Reading it aloud dozens of times.
For me, there’s walking, playing with the cat, drinking tea, watching Project Runway.
And perhaps most importantly, there’s discovering the heart of the story. Its essence. Its core. The thing authentic to me (you) and the story I (you) want to tell.

I remember the triumphant feeling of finishing my first picture book manuscript. Of course, I thought it was perfect. Hahahaha.

I kept working on it. I got feedback. I joined SCBWI. I even sent it out to agents, to editors. And then, after revision, I sent it out again.

I remember the frustration of thinking, “When is this going to happen?” followed by “Never, obviously.” I wanted process and rejection to be over. Closed. Now, please.

Perhaps it wasn’t yet perfect after all.

I moved on. There was another picture book manuscript. And another. Another. Another. Each written, revised, sent out, and ultimately returned to my mail or inbox.

Over time, I gave up on some.
Others I carried in the back of my mind, so they could root around and grow into something else.

Seven years after I wrote that first one I was up on a cold night, shivering instead of sleeping. The title floated around my head and I couldn’t let it go, just like I couldn’t get warm under the blankets. I loved the title, the characters, the idea. I just didn’t like the story.
I’d have to change it. And I finally had some direction as to how.

It started as a book about a girl who loses something and her magical journey to get it back.

But things had changed in the years since that first draft.
I’d read stacks of picture books.
Studied my heroes: Oliver Jeffers, Mary Lyn Ray, Shaun Tan, and others.
And finally, I’d had some hands-on experience with loss myself.

It wasn’t until my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer that I really got to know him. He was sixty-five. I was thirty. It was kind of late. But in his impending disappearance from the world, we connected in a way we never had or could before. Everything that had been between us fell away. Through those ten months of feeding him spoonfuls, holding his hand, listening, we became real to each other and, though it may sound strange, that’s when I finally loved my father. And he loved me.

Then he was gone.
And I couldn’t get him back.

My character had lost a special thing too, and it turned out no kind of magic was going to bring it back (at least not this time).

So what would she do? How would she cope with loss? What would be her story?

Now the book is about a girl who loses something, grieves it, holds it in her heart, and then, lets her heart grow to be able to love something else. Not the same thing, not a replacement thing, but another, different, also wonderful thing.

It will never be the same, but she opens herself to what is. Now.

While not an autobiographical story, it did take time and personal experience to find the heart of the book. The one I wanted to write, that was authentic to me.

But it doesn’t have to take a number of years or the passing of a loved one to write less than 500 words. Let’s hope not, right?!

When you resist the universal urge to be done, like yesterday already, the early closure monster can stop screaming in impatience, doubt, and despair. (Or you can ignore it.)
You can ask questions like:
What is this story really about?
What’s the heart of it?
Why am I writing this book?
How is it something only I can tell?
You can watch [insert TV show of choice].

The magic, the payoff, is in process.

When you’re there, you’re there.

It’s really about getting to the story in the story. Not the end, but the essence.