I’m really glad Dave and I kept our DVD player. If you watch movies and boxsets on DVD you get something that isn’t usually available on streamed versions – the extras, with interviews about the making of the piece, or the casting, or the design, or the adaptation for the screen. Sometimes they’re a bit throwaway, sometimes they’re deep and insightful, but all have a sense of creative energy, a love of the project, a pride in the artform, and a sense of a lot of talents coming together.
Publishing a book is like that too. Perhaps there are fewer people involved than on a movie or a TV show, but there’s still a sense of great and noble effort. Well, I think it’s noble.
That’s one of the things I’m talking about in this interview, with satirical and speculative fiction author Andrew Verlaine on his show Publishing Talks.
Andrew is at the beginning of his publishing journey, with a novel scheduled for 2025. We talk about the surprises he might face in the production process, the different experts who contribute to the polish of a published book, like the different trades in a filmed work. We talk about the constructive nature of editing, how a good editor will help you discover your superpowers and also your blind spots – and then, with luck, open your eyes. And about the finicky and fine work of making something as complex and wondrous as a book, which a person will one day read and experience, will keep on their shelf, will buy for a friend as a gift, and might never forget.
With three novels releasing in a 12-month period, Cynthia Newberry Martin is at a real turning point in her life. She began the novels in the 1990s and at long last they’re ready for readers. But she’s already a strong presence in the writing world, thanks to a blog series she started in 2009 – How We Spend Our Days – of essays by writers on their daily lives. The guest list is huge and impressive. Everyone will find at least one of their favourite authors in there – here’s just a smattering of mine – Alexander Chee, Cheryl Strayed, Jane Smiley, Dani Shapiro.
My first question was this: how did the blog series start?
Shortly after I created my blog, which was called Catching Days after the Annie Dillard quote ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’, I wanted to include guest posts. And I wanted them to be linked, not random. For the first 20 years of my life, I was obsessed with French, and I loved a column in French Elle magazine about days in the lives of women. So I thought, what about days in the lives of writers? I called it How We Spend Our Days, also after the quote.
I was studying with the writer Pam Houston at the time, and I asked her to kick things off. That was August of 2009. I’ve published an essay every month since then.
Dipping into a few, I find them supportive and honest about the mysterious act of creating a book from slippery thoughts and urges. What emerges is a belief in the artistic process, even when the writer themselves is uncertain where they’re going with an idea. Taken together, they’re a testament to persistence, the enduring nature of the artistic vocation and the drive to see more in the everyday.
Stop me babbling – you’ve seen a lot more of them than I have. What do you take from the essays?
Babble on, I agree! I love how the writers invite us into their lives, how they at the same time demystify and honour this thing called the writer’s life.
I think the details and obsessions mentioned go toward giving us the confidence to be who we are. And the inspiration is endless —it’s okay to not write every day, to write in the middle of the night, to think about the possibility of a baby, for writing to be out of the question.
Tell me about your most recent release, Love Like This.
Love Like This is the story of a marriage. After 22 years with children at home, Angelina has been counting on the empty house to rediscover who she is, but it turns out her husband Will has been counting on something else. Nine days into their child-free life, he announces he’s been fired and is home to stay. But Lucy is the character who steals the show, I think. She gives the novel its heart.
Why did you choose that title?
I have zero memory about where it came from. It seems to have been there from the beginning. I remember liking that the word ‘love’ could be understood as a noun or a verb – that the title might be imploring readers to love like this OR it might be describing a kind of love.
The cover is so intriguing and striking. What does it enshrine for you about the novel?
Hats off to Jessica Bell for the cover. Love Like This has four main characters, and each has a sort of animal association except for Will who is totally about the house. The pink eyes were all Jessica and brilliant. Angelina so wants to be seen. And I just love the black.
In your work, what themes or curiosities do you return to or worry over?
I’m obsessed with time to myself, as in I never have enough. I grew up one of five, and when I went away to college I requested a single room on my freshman hall. So my main characters struggle with that push-pull between the self and the other — alone vs together, leaving vs staying, here vs gone, freedom vs love. Marriage and long-term relationships put the squeeze on time to oneself and are the perfect vehicles for digging into this.
On your bio page, you describe your ‘crazy years’, when you were working as an editor on several literary magazines, studying for a postgraduate degree and participating in a writing group. Tell me more about the craziness. How long ago was it?
That was mainly 2010 and 2011. It was insane. On so many nights I sat in the corner of a dark room while the whole family watched TV or a movie. I could barely see but was trying to be there and also get my work done, editing one thing after another as fast as I could and with a packet of writing and commentary due every month. I would leave a couple of days after Christmas for residency. I missed New Year’s Eve three years in a row and my anniversary and my youngest’s birthday two years in a row.
Of course, I loved all of it, but my migraines were coming more often, and I was stress eating with no time to exercise. At the beginning of 2012, I had to start saying no.
What is less crazy about your life now?
Actually, with three books coming out in a 12-month period, it’s not less crazy now. Good point.
I’m going to leap on another intriguing line from your bio… a residency at Ragdale, a playroom, a tower and a shower of pages. Do explain.
Ragdale is a wonderful artistic space, peaceful and inspiring. A former country estate complete with prairie, just north of Chicago. The original house and barn were built around 1900. Each of the rooms has a name. The room I stayed in was called the Playroom.
Aha.Playroom with a capital P.
It had steps up into a cupola where you could look out over the grounds. I would work up there, and the work I was doing was revision—I was actually finishing Love Like This. When I was done with a page, I would wing it down the steps with a satisfying flick of the wrist.
Actually, there are so many lines in your bio that I enjoyed. This resonated personally: ‘I want to figure out how to be in the world as I am in my head.’ I always say I’m wild person trapped in a cautious one. Tell me how you’re living on the outside as loudly as you are on the inside.
Before I started writing, I was private and all closed off. Now I’m private but opening up about it. I still think lots of things I don’t say. So much happens in my head. But before, I was trapped up there, tight, guarded. With writing I’m letting the bridge down. I escape onto the page and then into the world. And the more events and interviews I do, the more I speak. It’s a process.
You have another novel coming out soon, The Art of Her Life, which tackles this idea of inner life versus outer – a character who lives more in the world of art than the here and now of family.
The Art of Her Life was the first novel I ever wrote. I started it in the late 1990s when I had a house full of children. The main character Emily needs a lot of time to herself, but there are her two children who need her and the man she loves who wants more from her. Now that I think about it, the world of art was Emily’s starting place for getting out of her head and into the world. And as the paintings and words and life of Henri Matisse swirl around her… well, I don’t want to spoil the story.
I haven’t yet given you the chance to talk about your novel Tidal Flats… let’s do that now!
Tidal Flats was actually the fourth novel I wrote, although it was the first one to be published. At the time I started it, my last child had just gone to college, and I was no longer chained to the house—whoops, I meant to say, I could travel more. I began to spend a week a month in Provincetown.
The novel turned out to be about a young couple, and the big question that spilled onto the page was whether two people who want different things from life could make marriage work. Cass wants a husband who comes home at night, but Ethan’s work takes him to Afghanistan for weeks at a time. Ethan wants children but Cass does not. How can they make it work?
You also write short stories and essays. How do you decide what deserves short treatment, and fiction treatment?
Someone asked me this question at an event a few weeks ago. The first thing I’ll say is that if I have a point, I write an essay. I had to learn this the hard way. That novel is still in a drawer.
The second thing is, I really don’t write short stories any more. The last one I tried turned into Love Like This, and I only started that as a story because I was determined not to write any more novels because they took too long, and I couldn’t seem to get them published. When I feel like all my characters have so much to say and that I can move in any direction, it’s a novel. When I feel floors and walls and ceilings, it’s a short story.
Was anyone in your family a writer or other kind of creative? How did writing start for you?
No one I know of. We were all super left-brained, except for one sister eight years younger than me. I was organised, a list-maker, good at languages. My parents encouraged me in all these activities.
The first 20 years of my life were all French all the time—I learned it, spoke it, taught it, lived it. The second 20 were practising law and raising a family. All the language and law were easy and grew my left brain three sizes. While I’m sure a certain amount of language proficiency was good for creative writing, my right brain/creative side was the size of a peanut.
When I was pregnant with child number three, my family life ate my legal career. While I’d always been a reader, for the years I stayed home with the kids, reading became a lifeline to the outside world. Fast forward six years, when child number four was two years old, and I started to have a few minutes to myself. I thought about going back to practising law. But I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to create magic. I wanted to become a writer.
That is so lovely. What magic are you making at the moment?
Temporarily nothing. All my time is going toward launching the two new books into the world. But last May, when it was time to start developmental edits on The Art of Her Life and then on Love Like This, I was two years into a new novel called The Glove Factory. I currently have a self-imposed deadline to get back to it the Tuesday after Labour Day. When I last worked on it, The Glove Factory was about a librarian turned private investigator (married and divorced three times) who returns to the Cape Cod town where she used to live — which leads her on a quest for the place of the past in the present and the need to make peace with all her past selves.
You’re launching three books in short succession, books you’ve been working on since the 1990s. That’s almost a new phase of life.
I decided I needed to celebrate big-time. I wanted to do something to support indie bookstores and spread the word about other books from indie presses. Indie publishers are great, right? For most of them it’s a labour of love, not profit, which means they have little to no funds to get the word out. So I decided I’d visit at least one bookstore in every state to talk with readers. Not just about my book but also about the book of a local author also published by an indie press. That’s 50 bookstores, 50 writers, 50 books. And these indie-published books are so good! You can find more info about the tour plus the list of books I’ve read and photos here.
I have a friend on Facebook who posts thoughtful quotes about writing. This, from literary agent Jonny Geller, struck a chord. ‘One thing you learn working with good writers: the easier it was for you to read their story, the harder it was for them to write it.’
My last novel took 23 drafts, and people find this surprising. Why would you rewrite that number of times? But you get seized with love, a love for what the book could be.
And that love can be hard won. A creative person thrives on a mission. If the mission hasn’t arrived when we’re ready to work, we have to somehow find it, which can be thoroughly dispiriting. Nick Cave has just written about trying to start his next album. He talks about a profound feeling of inadequacy, ‘the familiar feeling of lack.’
Every time you listen to a complex and beautiful album, or read a complex and beautiful book, its creator has likely been through this.
Once the mission is found, the work begins. In my 23 drafts of Ever Rest, I was all the time grappling with the very essence of the book. Everything went on the analyst’s couch. Was this scene in the right place? Should I move it? Should I use it for a different purpose, perhaps to make exposition more interesting, perhaps to create a more exquisite conflict? The next revision, I’d change it all again.
Frequently, I’d change a scene’s point of view. Indeed, the novel began as one point of view and became seven, because that’s what I eventually needed.
What a lot of fuss, you might say. And how disorganised. Roz, I thought you had a process.
I do have a process, but there is no faster way. A book has to find what it wants to be, its personal mysteries, its distinctive humanity. And this hard and haphazard journey is also a joy (eventually).
I promised to tell you how
So if this kind of writing is also your inclination, here are some lights to guide you.
Just before we recorded this episode I’d been chairing a roundtable at a writing conference. I was struck by how our books come together from fragments. Snippets of inspiration and research; structures that reveal themselves in pieces which we join together like a jigsaw puzzle; snatches of voice that suggest characters or perhaps the narrative tone of the entire work; the contributions from beta readers and editors later on; the way we might be pleased with certain parts but have to sweat over others. Books are long haul; they come together from so many directions. This creative process is what we’re talking about in today’s episode.
Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
My guest this week has a novel of three complex threads – as you can probably guess from the above description. He says music was as much a part of the process as his notes, plotting and character building. Indeed, he found his way to a music style he’d never before warmed to – prog rock and, specifically, King Crimson. I’ve seen this before with contributors to the series – experiences and interests that you never took much notice of become suddenly essential. As you work on the book, it works on you. Other musical essentials for this author were Kate Bush, who I could never disapprove of, and he says the novel was so essentially ‘Bush’ that he began the edits by playing Hounds of Love on his iPod. He is Philip Miller and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:
Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?
There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.
In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.
First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening. When to speed up or slow down?
This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.
Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.
More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.
So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along. How to keep the sense of pace?
This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.
This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)
Where to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion
And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).
The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.
Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?
Yes and no.
Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.
Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.
There’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.
NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies
So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here. Follow this link and go to Facebook.
Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.
My guest this week traces her novel to a series of musical and poetic influences. She says she can’t write or think in silence, but music or poetry orders her thoughts like a steadily flowing river. In her novel, her characters are travelling from darkness and confusion into light and her muses were WB Yeats, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Sandra Leigh Price.
My guest this week has a novel about a woman who has kept her past identity hidden. The novel is its reckoning, of course, and its author had a challenge in evoking the many colours of her protagonist’s progress from child to woman. So she built herself a soundtrack. It’s a mix of radio theme tunes from her own childhood (possibly the first appearance in the series of Listen With Mother), traditional songs that conjure a powerful sense of place and melancholy reminders of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Drop in on the Red Blog to meet Anne Goodwin and her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week delved into personal experiences to write her latest novel. In the 1970s she was working on a psychiatric ward where electric shock treatment was taking place. Years later, troubled by what she had seen, she wrote a novel. She turned to music to reawaken her own memories of the time and to create a cast of characters who are lost in the midst of a broken system. She remarks that her Soundtrack is as much about her own inner world as her characters’ – a line that for me is the very essence of the Undercover Soundtrack series. She is Diana Stevan and she’s on the Red Blog with the music that helped her write The Rubber Fence.
My guest this week grew up in the Mojave desert where rain was a rarity. So a key for her creative space is the sound of wild, wet weather. Sometimes it’s tracks that include storm noises, but she’ll just as easily tune into a rain station at the same time as a piece of music. The sounds go in tandem, whipping up just the right tumult for her writing. So it’s probably not surprising that her work has a Gothic element; she writes what she describes as Victorian and Gilded Age with a Gothic twist. It certainly went down well with USA Book News, who voted her first novel 2013’s best cross-genre title. She is Stephanie Carroll and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.