Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beware the Interview with Beware The Hawk author A.J. O'Connell

For the first time ever, Working On A Novel has a guest, someone who worked on a novel and got it published and is working on another novel. And she still agreed to be in a writing group with me.

A.J. O'Connell's recently published e-book, Beware the Hawk is about a snarky pink-haired courier who works for a secret anti-government group and gets ensnared in a conspiracy involving her inept co-worker, a hot mechanic, an iPhone and a leg injury. It was recently published by Vagabondage Books.

She's been all over blog world answering sensible questions about the book, but she's at the world's dorkiest writing blog now and has agreed to answer some dorky writing questions.

Welcome A.J. So tell us about the gear you use when you write. Number two pencils? Dictaphone and personal secretary? Macbook Air?

Thanks for having me, Robert.

For the most part I use a battered MacBook, which I've covered with stickers in defiance of Apple's anti-sceptic aesthetic. There was a time when I did all my first-draft writing longhand, but at some point in the '90s I found that I could think better if I wrote on a computer. Originally I took to the computer because I type faster than I write, and I was better able to keep up with my thoughts. Now writing with the computer is a habit.

I use the laptop and Microsoft Word for most writing and drafting, but sometimes it's impractical. Like when I'm in the shower. I'm like Wally Lamb in at least this one respect: I get a lot of ideas in the shower. So I have three diving slates that hang in there. They're little pieces of white plastic with attached pencils. If I get an idea, I scribble it down and then I transcribe it when the slate dries. They are my favorite pieces of writing gear by far.

I've talked before on this blog about my feeling that the energy I would use capturing every thought that comes along during the day doesn't actually help. Obviously, the writing slate, which is very cool, represents the opposite theory -- capturing every thought when you have it. Do you think it helps? Do all those notes help you get the job done? Also, what's your hot water bill like? Can you use that as a tax deduction now that you're a published writer? 

Actually, I tend to agree with your "writing time is time to write theory." I find that notes I scribble in the car or speak into a recorder tend to be useless. I lose the notes, or the idea I took down loses its je ne sais quoi because I wrote it down, and thus allowed it out of my head before it was fully developed.

The shower is a little different. It's my time for problem-solving. When I get in there, my brain goes to work on trouble spots in my fiction. I just took a look at my slates. They are covered with little scenes and writing exercises and attempts to resolve plot and character issues. Half of those scenes won't make it onto the computer, but a few of those paragraphs will  crack some major problems.

I don't know why the shower is such an effective writing tool. Maybe it's because there are no distractions in there. Maybe it's the water. I will admit to taking some long showers when I really get working on my fiction, so I should probably check with our accountant about that hot water bill. 

Can you give an example of what you mean by "issues" or "problems"? I know when I'm having a problem that I have to stew on, but I have a hard time talking about that problem with another writer. For all the anxiety that the growth of MFA programs has made this work too crafty and technical, I feel like we still have a really limited vocabulary for discussing the craft. I'm curious if you have any better luck describing a problem in your work than I do.

It depends on the problem. The most common problem I have with my work is easy to describe, in broad terms. I call it The First Five. It's plagued me for years.

It goes a little something like this:
I have a great idea for a story. I have two or three interesting characters with compelling problems. I write about five pages of decent story and then I lose direction. I have a hard time finding something to drive the story after those first five pages.

Telling you why I have a hard time getting beyond those first five pages is more difficult, because each story seems to have an individual issue that stops me on page 5.

Recently you saw a story in our writers' group that's giving me trouble. In that case, I couldn't get beyond the first five because my protagonist has to make a big decision, which is central to the story, but I don't know her well enough to know what she would choose. This seems obvious, after a meeting of our writers' group and a week or two of distance from the piece. But while I was writing, it would be hard for me to step out of the creative process, plunk a finger down on the page and say "This is what's wrong. This is why I can't go on." 

Speaking of our writing group, you shared part of an earlier draft of Beware The Hawk with us, and I remember one part that didn't appear in the published version. Readers will see a funny description of the Fung Wha bus, but you had a more extensive scene on the bus with more of the funny. I'm not questioning the decision to remove that, but I'm curious to hear about the thinking behind it. Was it one of those "kill your darlings" situations? How'd you feel about letting it go? Was it your idea or your editor's to cut it?

Speaking of our writing group, indeed! It was your suggestion to cut that scene, Robert. 

I wrestled with the decision to axe those pages. Ultimately, I decided that they didn't serve my story. As short as my book is, there was no room for a long scene with no clear purpose.

I still have that scene, and other deleted scenes. I may use them for marketing purposes, or for my web site, or for other work. 

Yikes, is that true? I don't remember, and I really didn't mean it as a leading question! I hope I framed my advice more openly than that. Like think about how this scene serves the story OR think about cutting it.

No worries! You were very professional about your advice, and you were also correct - the pages needed to go. Also, now you know that I really do take the advice I'm given during writing group.

You imply that there was a practical limit to how long it could be, which I wouldn't have expected with an e-book. Am I wrong about that presumption? Was your publisher concerned to keep it under a certain length?

There are a couple of reasons that I referenced the length of the book. For one thing, the manuscript was solicited to be part of Vagabondage Press's novella series, so to  did have to stay at novella/novelette size.

But when I wrote earlier that the cut scene was too long for the size of the story, what I meant was that it wasn't proportional to the rest of the work. I had written a short book, comprised of short scenes. That first long scene disturbed the rhythm of the rest of the book. No matter how much I loved it, it had to go.

You and I have something in common -- experience working on newspapers. Do you agree with my theory that once you write for that kind of regular deadline writer's block becomes a non-issue? (Writer's block is kind of out of fashion anyway. You never hear writers complaining about it anymore.) How has the experience of writing for newspapers affected your process when doing your creative work?

Ah, you share this theory with Anna Quindlen and Kim McLarin. While I was studying for my MFA, I wrote a research paper about reporters-turned-fiction writers and both authors mentioned this.

McLarin (who was my mentor, and who wrote Jump at the Sun and Meeting of the Waters) made this great comment about words not being "precious" once you've been a reporter, and I agree with her. When you're writing two or three stories a day for a newspaper, you don't agonize over your language. Not every word has to be perfect. Your job is to get the story right, to have the story done by deadline and to make the story fit the space allotted for it.

So I do agree, in part. As long as I have a deadline, I do not experience writers' block, because I have the discipline to sit down in a chair and work through the problems in my story. But if I don't have a deadline, and haven't given myself one, I do experience something like writer's block, although I think it might be more accurately described as laziness, or an unwillingness to get into certain material.

Writing for a newspaper has also made me better at tight writing. The job of a reporter is to tell a story with the fewest words possible. I've always written short, but journalism helped me strengthen my short prose.

This blog has an outsized preoccupation with what music should be playing when I write. (Something, but not nothing. No vocals, because that seems to distract me more than a melody alone. So it's usually classical.) How about you?

I can't always listen to music while I'm writing - I'm easily distracted -  but music plays a very important part in my creative process, especially when I'm in the early, dreaming stages of the writing process.

Back in the day, I used to make mix-tapes of the songs that inspired whatever daydream I was working on. Back then, I was a teenager, and I spent a lot of time skulking around the neighborhood, listening to my tapes on my Walkman, dreaming up whatever it was I was going to commit to paper in the evening, when I was done with my homework.

Now I have playlists on iTunes for many of my projects. When I'm starting to work on a novel or a long story, I come up with a list of songs that seem to capture the mood of the piece I'm working on. The job of the playlist is to keep me in the world I'm creating. I actually pulled out my old laptop and looked at an old playlist for Beware the Hawk. It's not the original, which was on a CD or a mixtape and has been lost in the mists of time, but the songs on this list include Moby's "Run On," Supertramp's "Goodbye Stranger" and the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," among others.

A lot of this blog obsesses on word counts and page counts, and I know down to the word how quickly I write per hour and how many hours it took to write a draft. How do you "measure" your work while it's in progress? Do you want to share anything about your pace, or do you find that counterproductive?

Wow. I don't do anything like that; I'm afraid that all the measurements might distract me from the work. Also, there are days when I can't produce much at all, and it would be depressing for me to compare those days against my average.

When I have a good, clear writing schedule (i.e., the summer), my goal is to produce at least 500 words a day, a lá Graham Greene. I find that having a goal of 500 words is attainable and not at all intimidating. Sometimes it takes me all day to write 500 words, but often when I set a 500-word goal for myself, I find myself producing two or three times that amount.

That, however, is during the best of times.

This semester, life has gotten hectic. I have more paid work to do during the day, and my writing time has suffered. In an effort to boost my productivity, I am trying something new: for the first 15 minutes of every day, I've been writing longhand in a blank book. I set a timer and write.

Note: I started doing this last week, at some point during our interview, so I wasn't lying for the first question, when I said I never write longhand anymore.

This has been working well so far. I often write well past my 15 minutes. I've written much more in the last week than I have in the last month, and I'm making progress on a short story. For the sake of this question, I counted what I wrote in 15 minutes this morning: just shy of 250 words. When I type them up later this week, I know they will grow by at least another 100.

It's interesting that you "made a liar out of yourself" during the few days we've been having this conversation by tinkering with your process in a significant way. We operate with narratives about ourselves -- I work best under pressure; I work best with a yellow shade over a 40-watt bulb three feet to my left; I can't work without without my lucky penny -- but in reality we're always tinkering with our process and our conditions trying to trick ourselves into writing for another day.

It's true, we do create personal mythologies about how we work, when really, if we're dedicated, we do whatever it takes to keep writing. 

Another frequent subject of this blog is the books I draw lessons from. (Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Novel by Jane Smiley; Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by L. Rust Hills; How Fiction Works by James Wood; Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway; Conversation with Toni Morrison) I've compacted these into a hardened dogma that I judge everything by. Do you have similar resources that form the basis of how you talk to yourself about your writing? (Do you talk to yourself about your writing?)

It's funny that you mentioned craft books. Just last night I was looking at my stacks and stacks of writing books and thinking about how I never really use them. That's not true; I do read them, if I need something specific from them. There are some books that I find to be more useful than others. In general, I find it difficult to use craft books. I read them and I make notes and I dog-ear pages, and I then instantly forget the specifics of what I've read, or which book it was in.

More valuable to me as resources are the lectures I've attended in grad school, and at conferences and the handouts from grad school professors. I keep a file folder of writing exercises, outlines, and notes from lectures. It's worth mentioning here that I'm a synesthete, and that my own doodles during lectures and notes (even the placement of the text on the page) help me to organize information better than any craft book can.

I don't have a hardened dogma based on these resources. What I have instead is a rich mental compost comprised of all the craft books I've read, all the lectures I've taken notes on and all the interviews I've read or done with authors. I pull from that when I'm working.

You ask if I talk to myself about my writing. I like to talk to myself about my writing, but I limit these conversations, because I feel they are not always productive for me. At best, I distract myself from my work with these discussions. At worst, I fear that I will create a negative feedback loop which will keep me from being able to write freely.

Though I've never discussed it explicitly, one of the running themes of this blog from the beginning has been the challenge of being an autodidact at writing fiction, homeschooling myself along the way as best as I could. Your case is interesting because, while you got a MFA, we're celebrating the publication of a book that was written prior to that formal program. Tell us about your self-taught years versus your MFA years.

This was a tough question to answer. It actually took me hours to think through this response.

I don't think of my pre-MFA years as being particularly self-taught. The study of writing was never my focus. I've always considered myself to be a practicing artist rather than a scholar. Because of this attitude, I spent a long time avoiding the study of writing and simply wrote.

This didn't work out very well for me, because I practiced my art in a vacuum, or with a small group of other writers who were also operating, more or less, in a vacuum.

I worked - I participated in National Novel Writing Month every year and produced work for writing groups -  but for the most part, I was spinning my wheels. I didn't have good writing habits. I would experience bursts of productivity, but the productivity was not sustained. I did write Beware the Hawk during that time, but I didn't finish it until after the MFA.

I mentioned that craft books don't work well for me. In an attempt to correct my writing problems (not being able to finish anything, not having direction, etc.) I accumulated many craft books anyhow. I would read them but I wouldn't retain the information, and I also wasn't sure which books deserved my attention.

The only books that helped me were actual novels. When I had a good novel in my hands (John Steinbeck's East of Eden and John Gardner's Grendel spring to mind, as does Shanghai Baby, by Wei Hui) my prose would improve and I would become more productive. But there too, I had problems, because I wasn't sure which novels would trigger this response.

I discovered, after several years of this approach to writing, that what I needed was to be apprenticed to a successful writer. Bill Roorbach wrote a decent essay about this, called "On Apprenticeship," which was published in Poets & Writers Magazine in 1995. Like an artist or a dancer or a martial artist, I needed a master.

My MFA provided that; for two years I worked with different mentors who led by example, and who guided my reading, my writing, who were able to give me suggestions about my habits, and point me to resources that would help me with my specific problems. The formal education gave me some context for the work I'd been doing.

I still consider myself an artist, and I still put more weight on practicing my art rather than studying it. The difference is this: now I have a vocabulary to describe what I'm doing, I have a firmer knowledge of craft and better writing habits. I know where to go for the guidance I need and I'm a member of a large community of writers who are very generous with their advice and expertise.

I'm more committed to life as a writer now, and I also now consider myself to be a legitimate author. Working with mentors who were living and working as writers and teachers made me realize that a writerly life was possible for me.

I don't think writing, or any kind of art, can be taught. But it can be guided and put into context. 

What a fun coincidence that you mention East of Eden. As you may know, the format of this blog is inspired by the journal Steinbeck kept while he was drafting that novel. I've been fascinated with it since I first discovered it 20 years ago. It's definitely one of those "for fans only" artifacts. If you're not intensely curious about either the writing process or the trivia of East of Eden, it's deadly boring. But when I'm struggling, I get a kick out of seeing the Nobel prize winner at the height of his confidence laid low by the trouble of finding a stationary store that carries the exact pencils he needs. It's 18-months of daily complaints I'm sure he never intended anyone to read.

You've mentioned Journal of a Novel before, but I did not realize that it was written while Steinbeck was working on East of Eden. I've never read it, but since it's about the creation of a brilliant novel (Wasn't writing an epic like that daunting? How did he make Cathy so terrifying when we know so much about her?) and since it's influenced a respected fellow writer, I am more than willing to pick it up. After all, it's a journal, not a craft book.

I'll loan it to you next time I see you at writing group. One last question before we finish. There are a lot of other cool things we could have discussed about your new publication -- the experience of using an e-book publisher for example -- but I imagine a lot of that is covered elsewhere. Please share a few of your most recommended links to learn more about the book, where to buy it, and where you've had a chance to answer some other interesting questions.

I am delighted to share some book-related links! You can find out more about the book over at my blog, where I shamelessly promote myself and my work. The book is available in three different formats (Kindle, Nook and PDF)  at my publisher's site, and in many, many formats (from Sony Readers to Palm devices) at Smashwords.

I've done a few interviews and guest posts since the book release, but one of my favorites was with Brooke of Books Distilled. She posted a review of the book and then posted an interview based on the book a few days later. That was a lot of fun, and made me feel like kind of a celebrity.

This interview, however, has made me feel like a different kind of celebrity altogether. I've always been enamored of the author interviews done by the Paris Review; I love reading the long, conversational interviews with writers like Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson. Your comprehensive questions, and the fact that we've been doing this interview over the course of eight days, really does give it the air of an old time Paris Review interview, even if the interview has been done via email.

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. It's been a pleasure, and you've made me re-examine my own thoughts about writing. 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you once again for this interview. This sounds cheesy but it's true: it's been a very valuable experience for me.