Writing Decisions - Cross Country
In early October, I spoke at the Clarence Book Review Club about some of the decisions I made while writing Cross Country. The CBRC is a great group of book enthusiasts, and I really enjoyed sharing my writing process with them.
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I recently had the opportunity to speak to the Clarence Book Review Club in Buffalo, New York. This is a wonderful group of people who love books and gather monthly to share their interest in reading, writing, and authors.
I shared with them some of the decisions I made when writing Miss E. and discussed my original idea for the story, my choice to write in first person from the perspective of a high-school-age girl, and the evolution of the characters I created.
Questions from School
How much planning for the story do you do before writing?
I think every writer would probably answer this question a little differently, so this is really just my answer.
For Miss E., I had four or five important events that I knew were going to happen in the story, including the very end. By the time I started writing, I’d replayed those events over and over in my mind until they were very clear, to the point that it was almost like watching a movie. When it came time to write those chapters, it was very easy, and I found myself looking forward to those points in the story so I could write them.
The spaces in between those events were less planned out. In some cases, I only knew that I had to get from point A to point B and sort of knew how I was going to get there, but I hadn’t decided on all the details. Those chapters were often harder to write, usually where I got stuck, and sometimes rewritten later. I would have had an easier time with them if I’d planned more, but I also would have lost some of the spontaneity of the story. Some of my favorite parts of Miss E. were not planned and only happened because they felt right at the time. So while big-picture planning is important for the overall story, I don’t think every detail needs to be outlined. A good story and interesting characters have a life of their own, and there needs to be room for the characters to grow and the story to evolve.
I also think the type of planning that is done for a book depends on the story. Miss E. has a main character who is actually based on a real person in American history. I knew it would be important to get that character right, to make her believable as a real person. So a lot of research and planning went into that one character. I did almost the opposite for Cross Country, the sequel to Miss E. In that book, the main characters take a road trip across the United States. While I had three or four characters in mind that they would meet along the way, I didn’t plan out much about those characters, and other than their final destination, I didn’t plan much of their route. That was all on purpose, because I wanted the writing process for Cross Country to be very much like a spur of the moment journey. I could see a little ways ahead and knew where I was eventually heading, but I’m definitely pleased with all the surprises that happened along the way.
What is your writing routine?
When I first started writing Miss E. I didn’t really have a routine. I just wrote when I felt like it, and would sometime go months without writing. That’s one of the reasons it took me almost three years to finish writing the book! Those breaks from writing made continuity in the story a challenge. I had to reread the last couple chapters each time I started writing again, and once I was done with the book, I reread the book cover to cover, almost all in one sitting, paying careful attention to consistency - was the voice the same the whole way through, did the characters seem the same… I had to do that because the book had been written over such a long period of time.
For Cross Country, I had a much better routine. Writing is not my only job, and I also have a family that likes to see me occasionally, so I don’t write every day, but I do try to write at least two or three times each week. Some days I didn’t feel like writing, but I made myself get started anyway, and usually once I started, things felt right and started to flow. Writing regularly made things much easier. I always felt like the story remained fresh in my mind, and when I sat down to write, the events and characters felt familiar, like I had only just left them and was stepping right back into the story.
My favorite time to write is at night after my kids and my wife have gone to bed. While they’re still up, there’s a different energy in the house. It’s not that it’s noisy (although sometimes it is), but because there are people around, I want to be with them and pay attention to them. Once I’m the only one awake, I’m able to put all my attention into the story and characters. I also feel that when a story is first being written, it’s a private thing, something that’s just between the story and the writer. So writing at night while everything around me is quiet and still helps with that too.
I also really like to listen to music while writing. Both Miss E. and Cross Country are set in the 1960s, so I created playlists that were full of songs from that era. That music helped create a mood for the stories I was writing, and because I was mostly listening to the same set of songs over and over again, the music became background and wasn’t a distraction.
What is the editing process like?
Editing is such an important part of the writing process! I told my students that when I was a teacher, and now I know it for certain as a writer. Only the best of friends and maybe my mother would want to read one of my first drafts, but they’d never see it, because I wouldn’t want to share it with anyone at that stage anyway.
I really like to write without any backing up to edit. I will sometimes reread a chapter before starting the next and make some small edits, but mostly I just like to move forward with the story and worry about editing later. That helps me get the story onto the page, but it also means that when it comes time to edit, there’s a lot of work to be done.
After a book is finished, I’ll read through it several times, each for a different reason. One read through, I’ll look for consistency. Does the story have the same feel all the way through? Does the narrator use the same voice? Does one chapter flow into the next? A second time through, I’ll focus in on areas that I know need more work, characters that need to be further developed, plot lines that need to be fit into the entire story. I’m never looking for things like typos and punctuation during all that, I’m focusing on story and characters and voice, but I’ll certainly make those minor fixes too as I see them. I’ll reread again and try to see the story as if I’m reading it for the first time - which is really hard to do because I’ve already read it so many times!
Then it’s finally time to give the book to some readers. I am lucky enough to know some wonderful teachers and librarians who are willing to spend some of their reading time on a book that’s not quite polished yet. Their feedback is so important and helpful. At this point in the process, I’ve been with the story for so long, I really need the opinions of someone looking at it for the first time. Their response to each chapter tells me how readers are likely to react. Are they curious? Are they confused? Do characters seem real? That feedback is very helpful.
One example from Miss E. is a transition that Bets goes through. At the beginning of the book she doesn’t want to see her father go off to the war in Vietnam, but that’s about as far as her opinion goes. She eventually ends up staging a protest against the war at a school pep rally. I had two or three early readers say how surprising and unexpected that event was. I wanted readers to be a little surprised, but I didn’t want the protest to be totally unexpected. Rereading the chapters leading up to that event, I realized I hadn’t given any clues that Bets was changing her thinking. As the writer, I knew it was happening so it made sense to me anyway, but for the reader, her actions just seemed out of character and way too surprising. I had to revise several chapters to fix that. So the feedback from those readers really had an impact on the story.
What do you do when you get stuck?
Thankfully that didn’t happen too often. I guess there are different kinds of stuck. If I just wasn’t motivated to write, I usually made myself sit down and write anyway. Sometimes I was stuck with a difficult chapter. I knew where the story needed to go and what needed to happen in that chapter, but I just wasn’t clear on how I wanted to describe the events or dialog that needed to come next. At those times, I pushed through as best I could, knowing that I’d need to come back to that chapter to revise or maybe even rewrite entirely. But pushing though and at least getting something on the page helped me move on. Fixing a chapter later is much easier than staring at a completely blank page.
There were a couple times when I was writing Miss E. that I was struggling with what to write next. To get myself unstuck, I skipped ahead and wrote a chapter that was very clear in my mind, a chapter where I knew exactly what I wanted to write. Then, I could go back to the chapter I was struggling with and work toward the one I’d just written. It gave me a goal to move toward that felt closer and easier to reach, and because I knew exactly where I was headed, I had a clearer picture of what I needed to write in order to get there.
Was it difficult to get your book published?
Well, first of all, we need to rethink what it means for a book to be published. When we think of publishing, we tend to think of the traditional publishing process - sending a manuscript to publisher after publisher, and hoping maybe someone someday will like it enough to print it and put it in stores. There have been so many changes in the last five or ten years, that writers have a lot more options now. Publishing at it’s simplest just means that a piece of writing has been polished to the point where it is ready to share and then it’s made available to readers. You can do that by exporting a Google doc as an ePub and sharing with friends.
There’s now a whole range of publishing options - everything from traditional publishing to self publishing, with many options in between. The route I took was somewhere in the middle, sometimes called Indie publishing. I didn’t have a major publisher promoting my book, but I definitely didn’t publish all by myself. There was an illustrator who created the cover and editors who helped polish the story and made sure the text was error free. Then there were others who turned what I’d written into an eBook and printed book, and finally put it out there in the world where people could buy it and read it. Maybe I could have done all that by myself, but I was glad I didn’t need to.
So to answer the question, “Was it difficult?” Yes, it was. It took time and effort. It was a lot of work. But I always knew it was something I could do. There are enough publishing options available now that it someone has writing that they’ve worked to polish and perfect, and they really want to share it with readers, they’ll be able to do it one way or another. Having a book published so lots of people can read it is definitely exciting, but actually writing the book in the first place is the greater accomplishment.