It’s that time of year.  The black eyed Susans are blooming, the light is changing, the stores are filling up with new notebooks and folders and pencils.  Time to buy new shoes and school clothes, and extra long sheets for my son about to enter college!  Time to plan the year’s work as well.

My novel is off with my editor, and I hope to speak to her soon about the new draft.  My non-fiction project is half done, and, as usual, I’ve got several  new ideas, including a short story in the works. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to juggle everything–but of course I will have a much better idea about how my year looks once I talk to my editor.

My most frequently asked question is where do you get your ideas?  But a close second is how do you find time to write?  In my next post, I will do my best to answer, and to tell you some of what I’ve learned about writing and time.

Do you write every day?  What’s a typical day like for you when you’re writing a novel?  These are the questions I get most from readers.  Sometimes I want to say–it’s so quiet writing, you’d be bored by the answer.  Or, you know the expression watching paint dry?  Writing is even slower than that.

If you’re still curious–I’ll try to describe a day in my life as a novelist.  Just one day and just one novelist.   But I’ll give you an idea.

Wake up at 5:30 and pack lunches for school.

6:00 Wake the kids and run around helping them find shoes / homework / dance bag.

6:30 Eat breakfast and pack my own bag.  I leave the front section of The New York Times for my husband, but I take the middle sections.

7:00 Leave the house and start driving.

8:00 After dropping off my son, I head to my office and sit down and try to remember where I left off.

8:00-10:00 I sit and work on revising chapter twenty-six of my novel.  It turns out that a lot of writing is rewriting.  It’s a recursive process, but somehow each iteration fascinates me.  I edit my text on my computer, but I refer to handwritten notes, and a schedule of changes I’ve prepared for this stint.  My revision is due on June 30.

While working, I listen to classical music on the stereo.  If my work is going well I forget the music entirely.

10:00 I eat a snack and read the  “Dining” section of the paper.  I particularly love the restaurant reviews.

10:30 Interview with a writer who is preparing a piece for a large coffee table book celebrating the anniversary of Punahou School.

11:00 to 1:00 I start working again.  I finish revising the chapter and then eat lunch at my desk.  I pack my own every day.  My favorite–a nice herring sandwich on toast.  (Perhaps this is what it means to be a Jewish American writer).

1:00-200 I revise my work from the morning.  And I read “The Arts” section of the paper.  I read all the music and theater reviews carefully and cheer for those artists who get good ones.

2:15 Pick up my son and start driving.  We listen to Don Quixote in the car.  I can’t believe how good Cervantes is.  It’s criminal.

3:00-5:00 I return books to the library and rewrite the day’s work completely.  Now I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

5:30 Pick up my daughter from dance class.

6:00 I buy groceries and take my daughter to folk dancing.

6:30 I go home and eat dinner and work on gathering addresses for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah invitations.

7:30 I wash dishes, and ask my children if they did their homework, and try calling my son in college, and watch the sun go down.

8:00 I think about planning the next day, making lunches ahead of time, and getting a head start on the next chapter, but I do none of that.  I just doze off until

10:30 when I go to bed.

So you see, I’m just like Hemingway–without the bull fighting and the drinking.

I’ve been working in my garden lately.   I started because I was worried none of my plants had survived this unusually long cold winter.  After all, I grew up on a tropical island, and I don’t quite trust this notion of perennials.

Sure enough, however, as soon as I began raking away dead leaves I found green shoots and even purple crocuses.  Like Mary in “The Secret Garden” I discovered green points in the damp earth.  Clusters of red stems marked the rebirth of my peonies.

Writing is very much like gardening.   A discovery and rediscovery, a collaboration between art and nature.   Each draft has its season and its own requirements.  I think of spring as a time for pruning and clearing away dead sentences to reveal the ideas underneath.

This year I want to read slowly. I want to savor novels, biographies, histories, picture books. I don’t want to consume books; I want to live with them.

This year I want to write quietly in my own time, off line.

This year I want to think clearly. I want to take walks, and stare out windows and grant myself the peace to pursue my ideas as far as they will take me.

What are your resolutions for the new year?

End of Summer

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Do you feel like you should be buying school supplies? Notebooks, calendars, new pencils. I still go back to school shopping with my children, which satisfies the craving, but I have a feeling that I’ll end up buying pencil cases and graphing calculators even after my last child graduates from college.

I’ve just finished the latest draft of my book, and finished a new story as well. Now, as September approaches, I feel as though I should be starting a new project–although I have a couple outstanding. There’s something about the light this time of year, a shift from head on summer intensity to a shier autumn light. The days are cool; the air is crisp. Classes are starting up again. Everything seems possible.

The publication process involves many interludes while you wait for people to read your work.   What can you do while you’re waiting?

Here are some of the activities I’ve come up with over time.

1. Catch up with friends you haven’t seen because you’ve been working.  Listen to them say I don’t know how you finish those books all the time.  Smile modestly and avoid saying–actually I’m never really finished.

2. Catch up on reading.  I suggest a long and depressing non-fiction book, which will make any of your own worries seem trivial.   Great topics for the purpose:  the East German secret police, extinct species, an ecological disaster, or doomsday scenario of your choice.

3. Clean the house and clear your desk.  Take many loads to Goodwill.  Organize the closets.  Go to the Container Store and become consumed with storage bins.

4. Exercise until your heart rate reaches the point where you forget you ever wrote a book.

5.  Clear out the 350 spam messages on your blog.  Note your favorites, like “Your article made me shiny.”   Who said computers can’t write?  Artificial Intelligence lives.

6.  Write a short story.  My favorite post-novel activity.  They are so delightfully . . . small.   It’s like returning from a hike through the jungle and up rocky cliffs.  Your feet are bleeding.  Your arm is sore from breaking a path with your machete.  Now you sit down and soak your feet and start planting moss in a hand-blown glass terrarium.

7.  Start working on all the other books you’ve been putting off.  Just kidding!  (Maybe).

The other day I told a friend I was finishing a new book.  She said, “That’s amazing.  Do you write a book every year?”

Um, no.  More like every four years!

Sometimes I think books are like other people’s pregnancies.  They go so fast.

I get the opposite response as well.

A friend saw me working in a coffee shop.  He asked what I was doing, and I said I was revising.

He looked at me with great sympathy and said, “Still?”

It’s a bit like being in your third trimester.  Oh, you’re still here!

Well, a third draft is much easier than a third trimester.  No waddling.  No restless nights.  In a lot of ways, the third draft is the best part of the process.  You’ve got your complete story.  You know your characters.  You’ve figured out what you want to say.  You’ve worked on clarity and pacing.  Now you have a chance to make subtle changes and delve deeper.   It’s pretty wonderful, actually.

Best of all, at this stage, I get to work with my editor.   My first drafts are mostly solitary.  Second and third drafts, I get to talk to my editor and my agents.  I’m not alone!

In my next post I’ll discuss what to do while you’re waiting  . . .

When I get ready to deliver (sounds like a baby, right?) I tell my editor in advance.  I try to give her a couple of weeks notice, because she’s busy and I don’t want to startle her with a 385 page book on a random Tuesday.   So a couple of weeks ago, I gave my editor a delivery date.  April 26.

Novels are big.  There’s no way around it.  Delivering a novel is not like showing someone your 14 line love poem.  Reading a novel requires setting aside some time.  In fact, I’m setting aside a whole week to read my own book, before delivering.  It will take me the week to read it carefully–and I already know what happens.

As I read, I try to catch little glitches, cut extra words, and improve sentences where ever I can.  For this reason I always do my final read through on paper.  I believe you can see infelicities on paper that you’d miss on the screen.   Reading on paper is particularly good for continuity.  Screen-pages scroll one to the next in a confusing loop.  On paper, you stop and say–wait a second–let me look again at the shape of this chapter, or the strength of this transition.  You can also catch blank pages, widows, or orphan text in a way you can’t on screen.

On paper I can mark up my text in pen.   I print single sided, in case I need to add paragraphs on the back of a page.  I write in the margins and generally get messy in a way I can’t on screen.  Track changes just can’t capture this kind of hand written work.  Maybe someday the technology will get there, but right now, track changes are clunky.  They are simply typed text in a different color awkwardly spliced.

My draft is in good shape now.  I’m not adding new chapters at this point, or moving sections around.  In the past months, I’ve read the book twice for pacing and continuity.  My goal this week is to read and mark and input corrections at a medium pace–about 100 pages a day.  On Friday I’ll email the whole thing to my editor on my self-imposed deadline.  I’m excited!

Now that I’m getting ready to send in my second draft, I feel I can take a breath and pick up the thread here!  I hope to return to posting once a week.

Do you remember those old “Prince Valiant” cartoons in the Sunday newspaper?  They’d always start with a panel called Our Story, because nobody could keep track of the plot.  Well, it’s been a while, so I feel like I should catch you up.

Where I left off here, I’d just received comments from my editor on my first draft.  As usual, these sparked new ideas, and I set out to revise and rewrite.  I spent about eight months revising, which is typical for me, and now I’m getting ready for my final read through of the book.

Readers often ask me how long it takes to write a book and how much I revise.  Every writer is different, but here’s my general schedule:

1. I spend about a year figuring out what I’m doing.  This involves a lot of writing and thinking.

2. I spend about nine months writing the first draft.

3. After my editor reads it, I think about her comments for a few weeks, and then plunge into revision.  I’ll revise for six months to a year.

4. I send her the new draft and we work together, exchanging the manuscript.  She generally marks it up on paper, which I find WAY better than track changes in Word.  This goes on for a couple of months, until we agree the book is ready for the copy editor.

This point in the process is a happy one for me, because I’ve done the hardest work.  There may be places to develop or clarify, but I’ve shaped the book.  I’ve said what I wanted to say.   If my book were a bridge, I’d say that now I’ve built it all the way to the other side.  If my book were a building, this is where I’d hoist the flag.

Dear Blog

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I have not forgotten you. I’m just working soooo hard on my new book right now. I have no words left. As soon as I send in my revised draft, I will return here . . .

Your novelist,