On My Writing Process

May 8, 2014 8:00 am | Tags: , , | No Comments

My friend, the author Kate Sweeney, whose new book American Afterlife has just been released, tagged me in a blog tour questionnaire. I asked her what the rules for this post are, and she wrote back “Rules?” I always like hearing that answer. Anyway, if you haven’t already read it, read Kate’s entry here. To play along, my job is to answer the four questions that Kate sent me, and then “tag” another author, link you in her/his direction, and the thread continues. So, without further ado, here are the four questions and my four answers:

1. What am I working on?

I have recently finished a novel, ALL THE CASTLES BURNED, and I’m seeking representation. In the meanwhile, I’m working on a pair of essays and a short story. These three pieces have been in various degrees of not-done on my laptop for a few months now. I jotted down a few things when I needed a break from my novel (which I spent three years working on) but I clearly never finished the work. So I’m trying to wrap those up. Also, a new novel idea is gestating. I’m not particularly superstitious about discussing my work, but this idea is in a very, very early stage and I don’t want to say much right now other than it’s in-progress.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t know how to answer this question. I really don’t. One of the neat things about publishing a book is that you get people to blurb it for you, people who you know or respect or a combination of the two. And while there are plenty of negative things to say about blurbs, two that I received really hit me hard, screamed “I understand what you are doing!” I also got this feeling from talking to people on my book tour, and from reviews of my book that were remarkably insightful and sharp.

But when I look at my own work, I see my influences. I see Fitzgerald. I see William Maxwell, Alice Munro, John Cheever. I see my teachers, Lee Abbott and Melanie Rae Thon, and I see my contemporaries whose work I respond to (even if, especially if, they don’t know it) such as Adam Haslett, Jennifer Du Bois, Antonya Nelson, David Mitchell, Zadie Smith, and Lionel Shriver, to name just a few. What I hope is different is that my individual view of the world, while shaped by all these writers, remains unusual and distinct in ways that I find difficult to describe.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I find it, whatever “it” might be, engaging. This seems like a very accurate and very incomplete answer. My parents were readers; my mom preferred romances and my father went for Tom Clancy, Jack Higgins, and the like. I started reading at a young age, and began writing my own stories in college. I’ve worked for three different literary journals, and have read, quite literally, thousands of unsolicited short stories over the last ten years. I read somewhere in the range of three dozen books every year, along with the bits and pieces of books I don’t finish, work published in other literary magazines, and so forth. I’m an avid moviegoer, and on the whole, love narrative art.

What I’m getting at with all this is that I’ve read a ton, and I know (maybe) what I do want to read and what I don’t. I write what I write to understand the world better, the characters that I’ve created, and to be engaged in a story, whatever the length might be. I write for interesting characters and plots that generate excitement, empathy, sadness, anger. I write about class issues, glass ceilings, and complex difficult people because I like to do so. I write because I like to write. Maybe that’s the best answer.

4. How does my writing process work?

A germ of an idea starts in my head. Then I daydream it out. Lots of ideas get discarded this way. My biggest fear as a writer has always been on the sentence level, that I don’t “write well” more than the storytelling. So I tend to know, to some extent, where a narrative idea is going before I sit down and work on it. With first drafts, I don’t worry much about getting it right. I want to see the story/book through to the end of the first draft, and then go back and reimagine and rework the piece until it’s right. Sometimes, this means entirely scrapping the first draft and going in an entirely different direction. That’s just part of the process.

I’ve tagged the writer John W Evans to go next.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

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