Backwards and Out of Order: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Introduction: My Writing Process Blog Tour
Several months ago I saw this blog tour making the Twitter rounds. Several writers I follow posted marvelous accounts of their writing processes, and I secretly longed to be invited along. So when Karl A. Russell asked if he could tag me in his post, I was thrilled, not only because I get to join the tour, but also because it was Karl who invited me. I made Karl’s acquaintance through Twitter and the weekly flash fiction contest The Angry Hourglass hosted by Rebecca J. Allred. His stories consistently impressed me with their pure, cinematic style blended with poetic leaps. That a writer of his caliber had named me as someone whose writing he admired, well, let’s just say I’m still smiling. Thank you, Karl, for the invitation!

And so, here we go…

What am I working on?
I’ve got a few projects in the works right now, which seems to be my constant state. Book two of my Regency Magic series, Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, is currently in the hands of three marvelous beta readers. I’ve got more work to do on Margaret, but I’m not thinking about her until September.

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing short stories. The daughter of a good friend is in the hospital, so I’ve undertaken a little project to entertain her. I sent the first story, “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Itchy Feet” (she likes Encyclopedia Brown mysteries) about two weeks ago. I’m planning to write at least one more before the summer’s end. This week I started work on “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Purloined Puppets.”

I just finished a second draft of a super creepy story called “Irina Voshnikaya,” affectionately nicknamed “Vampire Ballerina.” Emily Street, my writing partner (about whom you’ll learn more below), gave me the idea after I confessed that I prefer theatre to film when I’m acting because I like to “borrow” the energy from the live audience to feed my performance. Emily thought that would make a great story. I agreed. At first I envisioned it being a story about an actress playing Hedda Gabler—she would need all the energetic help she could get. But since that would involve re-reading Hedda Gabler, I revised the setting to a performance of Swan Lake, and “Irina Voshnikaya” was born.

Although I’ve been absent for a few weeks, I try to get a story in to The Angry Hourglass as frequently as possible. I love writing flash fiction, but I’ll talk more about that below.

Finally, I’ve started research for a new novel about (non-vampiric) ballet dancers called Anna’s Piece. I’m planning to start the first draft in October—provided Margaret Dashwood edits go smoothly. So far by research I mean watching documentaries about ballet dancers, contacting a friend who attended North Carolina School of the Arts for an interview, making a list of all the dance books available, and reading Dancer by Colum McCann (a lovely book). I have every intention of dragging this old body back to a ballet class or two just to remind myself what it feels like. (And I’m dragging Emily Street with me!)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This question stumps me a little as I am not consistently faithful to any one genre. My two Regency Magic books, Margaret and Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven, straddle at least two genres: Jane Austenesque fiction and fantasy (of the Harry Potter variety). From the first genre, my work differs because it includes magic and from the second, because it’s set in Jane Austen’s England and borrows Jane Austen’s characters. I invent many of the characters, too, and they tend to resemble ones you’d find in Harry Potter. Both books feature young heroines rather than young heroes–so that’s another point of overlap and difference.

As for my other work—I’ve written a few horror stories for Ungodly Hungers, the first collection of short stories (actually the first book) that Emily and I published as Luminous Creatures Press. Having read only some horror—Dean R. Koontz years and years ago and Stephen King, also years and years ago—I can’t say how my stories differ, except that women populate them in higher numbers than men. However, I love Edgar Allen Poe, and I’d say that my story “Lucine’s Gaze” has Poe-ish qualities.

Our section story collection, The Painted Dog and Other Stories, fits more squarely in the fantasy category. I’m not sure how these stories differ from others in their genre. I aspired to a Neil Gaimen-esqueness in the real world settings I’ve chosen, but I don’t think I really succeeded.

After I finish Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, I’m taking some time off from Regency Magic to write a couple of novels that I think will fit more squarely under the heading “general fiction.” While Anna’s Piece got its start in a fantasy / magical realism short story, I’m going to explore keeping everything rooted in this world—specifically in San Francisco and the San Francisco Ballet. I’ve also got plans to write a historical fiction novel about a woman who grew up during the Depression. It’s based on a piece I wrote for The Angry Hourglass months ago. I have no idea whether or not these books will differ from others of the same genre in any significant ways, but I think that’s okay.

Why do I write what I write?
Regency Magic got its start in a tiny story in which Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice finds a magic book and becomes a sorceress. I had played Mary in a stage production of P & P and felt she deserved a little adventure of her own, which led me to think the same for minor characters in the rest of Jane Austen’s books. Plus I really like inventing magic spells. I intend to write five more books in the Regency Magic series: one each for Jane Austen’s published works and a final book currently called “The Avengers” because all the Regency Magic heroines will work together.

While the Regency Magic books adhere to an Austenesque style, I’m still discovering my own voice and style. I aspire to clarity, precision, and elegance in my writing, which is why I was so happy to discover flash fiction. It has taught me to write with more economy, lending more power to my writing. I’m also learning what I can leave out, allowing the reader more play for interpretation. That learning process has been revolutionary for this ex-academic who was trained to take readers by the hand and guide them through an argument rather than trusting them to supply the missing bits for themselves. Other writers posting to the Angry Hourglass have taught me so much, too: Karl Russell with his cinematic clarity, Kristen Falso-Capaldi with her ability to reach in and tug out my heart with the simplest words and images. The flash fiction community is filled with lovely writers who support each other’s work, which is an added benefit to joining it.

As for genre and that sticky question of fidelity, when Emily and I first started working together, I was certain that I would write fantasy fiction. We had bonded over reading George R. R. Martin, Mary Stewart, and J.K. Rowling. (We also bonded over our shared past as ballerinas and many other things). Emily writes marvelous fantasy with beautifully drawn worlds, which is why she often gives me notes like “how does this magic system work?” and “who made that law about magic?” But aside from the authors listed above, I don’t read much fantasy. My favorite authors are John Irving and Kate Atkinson. I’m keeping my eye on Anthony Doer, too. (If you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See, go get it.) Lev Grossman has an interesting piece in the NY Times about moving from literary fiction to fantasy. For my next few books I’m moving in the opposite direction.

How does my writing process work?
When I started thinking about this blog post, I jotted down a few notes. The first one for this section reads, “Backwards and out of order,” which sums up my basic process. I started writing my dissertation by working on the final chapter. Then I wrote chapter four. Next came the chapter that ended up second, followed the chapter that leads the whole thing off. I wrote the third chapter fifth. Then I re-wrote the last chapter because I had finally figured out what the dissertation was about between writing chapters two and one. That’s when I realized I didn’t need the fourth chapter, so I cut it. Finally, I wrote the introduction. Naturally the finished product bears no resemblance to the dissertation prospectus I had written for my oral exams. (That’s a whole other story about how I don’t outline.) I’m planning to begin the first draft of Anna’s Piece right in the middle.

With all this backwards and out-of-order-ness, I go through a lot of drafts, leaving plenty of time in between for things to simmer on my mind’s back burner. I give myself permission to write pure shit for at least two of those drafts. No one sees the first one. Ever. Not even Emily, who reads all of my work. I find the first and second drafts painful, especially when I try to write things in order. On the other hand, I love revision. I love finding exactly the right word, making my sentences as crisp and clean as possible, and clearing out anything unnecessary—I have no trouble killing my darlings. Well, okay, I don’t so much kill them as move them into an outtakes file, but you get the point.

I tend to think best in writing, so I’ve always kept a journal for working through whatever is going on in my life. Now I keep a freewriting journal for each project to help me make sense of my stories, figure out sticky plot points, and generate ideas. Entries might be small notes like “start Anna’s Piece in the middle!” Or they might be long explorations of events in a book—how to get Mary Bennet back to Hertfordshire from London (with the Folding Spell, of course!). I’d be lost without these files.

Tag!
And now it’s time to introduce three writers whose work I admire:

Callie Armstrong

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A Southern writer transplanted to America’s Midwest, Callie writes haunting stories that linger with me long after I’ve finished reading them. She develops rich characters in beautifully drawn settings. I love the brutal honesty of her writing. She’s also one of my favorite tweeps.

You can find many of her stories and her musings about writing on her website.

Kristen Falso Capaldi

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Kristen is a high school teacher, a singer / songwriter, and a writer of fiction and award-winning screenplays. She writes with clarity and complexity, even in stories of as few as 150 words. Somehow Kristen manages to create stories that grab me and leave me breathless without any trace of sentimentality. Like Callie, Kristen is another favorite Twitter friend.

You can find Kristen at her new blog.

Emily June Street

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Co-owner of both Luminous Creatures Press and Flow Pilates Studio in Fairfax, California, Emily is a reader, a writer, a cyclist, an archer, a trapeze swinger, and a Pilates instructor. She is also the mother of two adorable canine dragons. Emily packs her richly imagined stories with excitement and gorgeous imagery. I count myself very lucky to have her as a writing partner and a friend.

You can find Emily at Luminous Creatures Press and her new blog.

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