In writing Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It, Sundee Frazier learned that writing often leads to surprises.
Only after coming to the end of her first draft did she discover a character she intended to have show up at the end (Brendan’s grandpa, Ed) needed to arrive at the beginning. This unexpected surprise meant writing the novel all over again.
"Be open to your story changing completely between when you start and finish," advises Frazier. "Oh, and know that it could take a long while before you find the right cast of characters to tell the story you're meant to tell (it took me almost four years), but the end result will be worth it."
Most readers would say it was well worth it for Frazier. Her novel received the ALA 2008 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award, a 2008 Horace Mann Upstanders Honor Award from Antioch University in L.A., and was selected by NBC Today Show's Al Roker as his book club selection for July, 2008. (Frazier will appear on the show Friday, July 11.)
But writing for Frazier isn't about receiving awards.
It's about being honest.
"Being honest as a writer," Frazier explains, "means telling the truth about who we are, both the good and the bad."
And on days when it's difficult to put words on the page, "when those words sound horrible to me and I'm not sure they're getting me anywhere," Frazier says she "tries to remember Maya Angelou's words that creativity begets creativity, and to accept myself and follow my voice."
Recently, Frazier was kind enough to put down her pen for a moment and share her thoughts on getting the words on the page.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming...how do you get into the water each day?
Frazier: Now that I have a small child, I’ve got to dive right in. I may only have a couple hours at a stretch so there’s not a lot of time for “testing the waters” or getting-started rituals. I make a cup of tea, say my short writer’s prayer, maybe take a few deep breaths, and – splash! – I’m in. To be fair to my toddler, I’ve never been much of a routine-oriented person and I’m an avid procrastinator. Having her in my life has actually forced me to be more focused and structured, and to use my writing time more efficiently.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Frazier: I only do longer work as of now, but what keeps me afloat is breaking the huge task into lots of smaller ones (a great productivity strategy for any large project), then tackling them one day or week at a time.
When I’m drafting, for example, I have a goal of writing 1000 words a day (that’s 1000 rough-draft words – not polished). Meeting my goal is not always possible (depending on how well my daughter naps or other unforeseen circumstances), so I’ve learned how to evaluate my progress on a weekly versus daily basis. I find this approach to be more encouraging than looking at what I’ve gotten done at the end of each day (particularly on the rough days). But I really try to stick to this goal as long as I’m drafting. Oh, and I give myself one day a week off to rest.
Other smaller tasks might include revising one chapter, thinking about the structure of my novel and brainstorming scenes, trying again to come up with some kind of outline (I bounce back and forth between outlining and “free writing”), or writing cover copy or “an elevator speech” (one-sentence description) in an attempt to find my focus.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Frazier: This is so hard. I know some writers might answer, “Dry spells? No such thing. I don’t give myself the luxury of writer’s block!” But in my experience, dry spells occur often, and when they do, I have to make a conscious choice to be kind to myself rather than put myself down for not being more prolific. I especially have to watch my tendency to compare myself to writers who appear to be much faster, stronger swimmers than me. I made a commitment never to compare myself to another writer about nine years ago. Unfortunately, I made it out loud in my husband’s hearing. He never lets me forget it.
I learned a powerful lesson this spring when I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Paris with my family – pure vacation. I had been working really hard to complete a first draft of my work-in-progress before we left so I wouldn’t have it hanging over my head. I couldn’t do it. So I took along a little notebook thinking I’d jot notes to myself about my characters and story while I was in France. The only thing I wrote in the book was a daily log of the things we did. I didn’t think once about my story or characters. I was worried. Did this mean I wasn’t invested in the book? That the characters hadn’t really taken hold in my heart?
But you know what happened? I returned home, energized from the adventure of being out in the big, wide world, and the words gushed! The story absolutely flowed. I finished the draft in the next two weeks, and since then have received feedback that the end of the book – the section least revised – is the most well written part of the whole thing!
Sometimes what we need most is a break from the work – or maybe more accurately, a break from the pressure we’re putting on ourselves to produce the work. You’ve got to pace yourself, just as you do when you’re in physical training for, say, a swim meet.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Frazier: I always hated putting my face in the water when I did the crawl. I just didn’t get how you were supposed to see where you were going, and sure enough, I always ended up drifting into other swimmer’s lanes. I’m a drifter when it comes to telling stories, as well. For me, the hardest part of swimming is finding a lane and staying in it – or finding a storyline and sticking with it. I may spend months trying to figure out what the story is even about – the heart of the main character’s struggle, where the story basically begins and where it needs to end.
For example, I wrote an entire version of Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It (under the title Blood from a Stone) that was completely different in content and tone before realizing that the story didn’t end with Brendan finding his white grandfather but began there.
The up side of being so radically right-brained (the non-linear side of the brain) is that I’m great at generating material and ideas (sometimes extremely random ideas). The down side is that I always take on way too much in a story and I’m not very good at figuring out how to sequence or structure it. A quote from G.K. Chesterton that has really helped me with my tendency to drift: “Art is limitation. The essence of the picture is the frame.” I love that quote.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Frazier: Honestly, not very well. I can’t imagine writing a whole novel completely on my own. I totally depend on others for their valuable insights and objective analysis of my work (at least more objective than my own can ever be). It’s not as much a team effort as, say, synchronized swimming, but I still need others to guide me along the way, like a person swimming the English Channel. I don’t think anyone would be foolish enough to attempt doing that without someone around to help in case of a cramp or other problem.
So I’m always showing my work to others I trust for feedback, although with my current novel-in-progress, I waited until I had a whole draft before getting significant input. As I encountered blocks along the way to finishing the draft, I did a lot of musing in the form of free-writing (I probably have 500 pages of material that will never show up in the book), thinking during my runs, bouncing ideas off my husband, and reading a couple craft books on plotting to give me ideas about structure (my Achilles’ heel).
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Frazier: The part of swimming I love the most is getting to the place where I really feel like I know the characters – where they become like family. Writing scenes and dialogue becomes very fun at this point, because the characters have become distinctive enough in my imagination to have their own behaviors, responses, and quirks. They have an essence all their own that I thoroughly enjoy, and even though the writing is still hard work, I can almost sit back and watch as they lead me through the story.
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