Monday, March 10, 2014

Welcome to the #WritingProcess Blog Tour!

The #WritingProcess Blog Tour connects authors all over the world with the intent to share blogs and the writing life. I was tapped to contribute to the blog tour by Natalia Sarkassian, who writes fiction and nonfiction. Her short fiction has received several awards, and her nonfiction depicts an up-close and deeply personal understanding of foreign and exotic cultures. I've had the pleasure of reading portions of Natalia's novel-in-progress, Mrs. May in Egypt, a book that captures the current troubled climate in that country. Do check out Natalia's blog, Post Cards from Italy, where you'll find her photographs to be as enchanting as her writing.

I must confess that I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about myself on this blog, but since I have no other blog available, I decided to use this resource as an opportunity to introduce you to me and to some of my fellow authors. As you explore the #TheWritingProcess Blog Tour, be sure to click on the links from previous contributors. I can assure you that you are in for a real treat. All of these authors are immensely talented folks, and I'm delighted to be included in their midst.

The #WritingProcess Blog Tour asks the participants to answer four questions, so let us begin:

1) What are you working on?

For the past few months, I've been working almost exclusively on the revisions of my novel, Blood of a Stone, forthcoming from Tuscany Press in June 2014. This is a historical literary novel set in first century Palestine. The story follows the adventures of a slave who murders his master, sets out to silence those who could reveal the truth about his past, and eventually finds redemption for his crimes.

Prior to beginning the revisions of Blood of a Stone, I was finishing a draft of my second novel, The Double Sun. Set in the mid-20th century, the story is narrated from four distinct points of view and spans thirty years. The Double Sun is about a family of downwinders, people who have suffered the adverse affects of radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb tests in Nevada during the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these downwinders have been afflicted with cancer and other serious illnesses.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

This is a tough question to answer because I'm not sure how it does differ. However, I can tell you what my readers and critiquers say: My writing tends toward the dark side in that I often write about unlikeable or troubled characters, people who may have good intentions but who make terrible choices. I have also been told that I have a sparse, direct voice--nothing too flowery. Much of my fiction is historical in nature or requires a fair amount of research to add verisimilitude. My first novel, for example, takes place 2000 years ago. My second novel begins in the mid-1950s and ends in the 1990s. Many of my short stories also have a historical setting. Perhaps that speaks to my passion for history and my love of research.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I've always been fascinated by difficult, unstable, or unhappy people. What makes them do the things they do? Why do we love them even when they hurt us? And there is that ever important question: What if? What if Character A does X to Character B, what will happen? Delving deep into my characters, exploring their flaws, foibles, actions, and desires, helps me better understand the human condition.

4) What is your writing process?

Diane Lefer, also a participant in the #WritingProcess Blog Tour (visit her blog, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty), once told me: "You are a careful writer." At the time, I wondered if being a careful writer was a good thing or a bad thing, but Diane, who was also my advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, explained to me that she wanted me to take more risks, throw away my cautious nature and see what happens. She sent me off to read Kate Braverman's Squandering the Blue, and I've never been the same since. Risk is now my middle name.

That said, I tend to be an organized writer when it comes to managing my time and my projects. I work on a regular schedule--usually in the morning--and set deadlines for myself. I begin every day filling out a planner, and the highest priority item is the writing. A few years ago, I began thinking of myself as a working writer. In other words, writing is my job. It may be a job that I love, but it's still a job that requires commitment, meeting deadlines, planning, and punctuality. I know that sounds rigid to some people, but when I used to rely on inspiration, I spent a lot of time rolling out unfinished drafts, submitting little, and publishing almost nothing. The change in my mindset has resulted in a higher level of productivity and what I believe to be higher quality writing.

My short stories are often formed around a single image or snippet of dialogue that sends me off on a quest to know more. My novels begin with the ending. I imagine a character at his final destination and begin to sort out the journey that brought him or her there. Years ago, an early mentor taught me the technique of story-boarding a novel. I still use this method for drafting a book and for the revisions because it allows me to see the big picture. In both instances, I block out the novel on a giant bulletin board where I write a one-sentence description of each major scene on an index card. Those cards are then arranged under the appropriate chapter headings on the bulletin board. This makes it easy for me to see where I need more scenes, where I have repetition, where the pace lags, etc. I've shared pictures of my story board for The Double Sun and my revision board for Blood of a Stone below.

My story/inspiration board for The Double Sun:

You'll notice that I have headings for years as well as chapters because the story spans three decades. The chapters all have titles, and the scene cards are arranged below the chapters they appear in. On the right side of the board, I've posted my inspirations for the book, including photographs of various settings in the novel.

My revision board for Blood of a Stone:

Colored index cards! Since the story is essentially mapped out and is in the process of being revamped or remapped, I've used color-coded index cards to indicate what revision stage the scene is in. Green cards are still waiting my final revisions. Yellow cards are "good to go." The chapters for this book are numbered with no titles. Earlier versions of this book had different colored cards. It may be all an illusion, but the changes in color give me a sense of progress.

Be sure to tune in next week to read the words of Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan. Jenna and I first met in a writing workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I earned my MFA in Writing. I remember that particular workshop as one infused with enthusiasm and excitement. My fellow workshop participants, including Jenna, were incredibly supportive, and we spent a lot of time engaged in stimulating discussions about craft. Jenna is also involved in roller derby, something that scares  the stuffing out of me. Her bio and a link to her blog:

Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan is a  writer, editor, and teacher based in  southwestern Pennsylvania. Her articles and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Numéro Cinq Magazine, Connotation Press, Extract(s), and Mingle. She previously served as an assistant editor for the journal Hunger Mountain. In 2009, she curated and published Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories,  a collection of prose, poetry, and photography by seven women writers and artists. Jenna received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011 and is currently working on several prose manuscripts. Visit Jenna online in The Word Cellar, where she writes about everything from navigating the writing life to venturing into the world of roller derby.


Leandra Wallace said...

Nice boards! I always love getting to see visuals of other people's processes.

Anonymous said...

Great post -- I love your idea board.

patricia burroughs said...

I always love reading about other authors' processes, and yours was particularly interesting because I've witnessed some the results.

Love your story boards!

Jeanne Lyet Gassman said...

Thannk you all for your lovely comments. Glad you liked the story boards. They are my lifeline for keeping track of events in the novel.

Jeanne Lyet Gassman said...
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Kimberly said...

I love seeing how other authors write. I'm a craft nerd. Your story boards are amazing. I want to do something similar but I wind up writing with my laptop on the couch as my basement office is cold.

Thank God for Scrivener!

Jeanne Lyet Gassman said...

Kimberly, you could try using Post-it notes, sticking them on a wall. I've done this when I was working while traveling.

Kimberly said...

I don't really have a free wall to look at and I think my husband would freak if I tacked up post-it notes in the living room. LOL.

Between my Snowflake program and Scrivener I can do my visuals on the computer.

Jeanne Lyet Gassman said...

Ha! The sacrifices we have to make for our art! :)