Friday, February 22, 2008

On the Mommy Track

Question of the day: A personal question, if you don't mind: everyone says that when you have a baby you can pretty much forget about writing for the first year or two, but it looks like you're handling it fine. How do you do it?

Wow, I had no idea that everyone says this, and if everyone does say that, I think it's a big old bag of hooey that might give women a reason to toss out their figurative pens when a baby comes along.

For me, a funny thing happened on the way to motherhood: I became more productive than I was pre-kids. Frankly, I can't even remember what I did with my time pre-kids. Seriously. I sometimes say to my husband, "What did we do? I mean, really, how did we fill our time??" I'm sure we found some way to fill it, but the sense of urgency wasn't there. For example, I'm writing this blog post right now because I'm eyeing the clock and see that I have exactly one hour before my nanny leaves, and I sure as hell better get every last thing done that I need to get done before dinner/bath/bedtime happens. Which is a long-winded way of saying that because I have fewer hours for my work during the day, I tend to make more of them than when I had as many hours as I wanted.

So I don't buy this theory that you can't write once you have kids. In fact, I just interviewed a TV actress who said that having kids has made her all the more creative because it's opened her heart and mind in so many ways, illuminating all sorts of things that she previously missed in the world. And I concur completely.

Look, there's no doubt that kids can take over all aspects of your life if you let them (or if you want them too). I'm not one of those moms who wants them too. I love my kids more than ANYTHING on the planet, but I still need to feed other parts of myself, so...I have help when I need it (a la, my sitter), and I pour every last thing into those hours that I can. Whether or not you can afford help, there are often ways to get a repreive during the day: organize a neighborhood sitting system with four other moms, in which each of you watches the others' kids one day a week, freeing up three days for your work. Ask a family member to drop in several times a week. Hire a high schooler on the cheap.

To buy into the theory that you can't devote time to the inner-writer in you just because you're a mom (or dad) really sells everyone (and everything) short: you, your kids, and finally, your work.

So all you moms (or dads!) out there, tell me, has motherhood made you more or less productive?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I've Got Nothing But LOVE for Julie Buxbaum

So today I have a fabulous Q/A with Julie Buxbaum, whose debut novel, The Opposite of Love, is receiving a lot of attention and praise, all deserved. I wanted to interview Julie for the blog because like so many Ask Allison readers, she had a day job - she was a lawyer - before taking the leap to write a novel. And not only did she write a novel, she wrote a huge novel...and I don't mean in terms of pages, I mean in terms of advance and buzz. To cap it off, Julie is a wonderful, generous person, and it's impossible not to root for her! I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.

Here's a bit about the book:

When successful twenty-nine-year-old Manhattan attorney Emily Haxby ends her happy relationship just as her boyfriend is on the verge of proposing, she can’t explain to even her closest friends why she did it. Somewhere beneath her sense of fun, her bravado, and her independent exterior, Emily knows that her breakup with Andrew has less to do with him and more to do with...her. “You’re your own worst enemy,” her best friend Jess tells her. “It’s like you get pleasure out of breaking your own heart.”

As the holiday season looms and Emily contemplates whether she made a huge mistake, the rest of her world begins to unravel: she is assigned to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit where she must defend the very values she detests by a boss who can’t keep his hands to himself; her Grandpa Jack, a charming, feisty octogenarian and the person she cares most about in the world, is losing it, while her emotionally distant father has left her to cope with this alone; and underneath it all, fading memories of her deceased mother continue to remind her that love doesn’t last forever. How this brave, original young heroine finally decides to take control of her life and face the fears that have long haunted her is the great achievement of Julie Buxbaum’s marvelous first novel.

And here are Julie's answers to my questions:

1) You quit your job as a lawyer to become a writer. Have you always dreamt of being a writer and the law just side-tracked you for a few years?
I had always dreamed of one day writing a book, but for some reason didn't really consider novelist as a potential "career" choice. It took feeling completely unfulfilled as a lawyer to think seriously about how I wanted to spend all of that time--that 90% of my waking life--that was currently being wasted at a job I hated. As soon as I realized that there was nothing stopping me from pursuing my dream other than my own fear, I decided to take the leap. I have to admit that looking back, it was a crazy thing to do--just quitting cold turkey to write, when I hadn't really written anything before--but somehow, it turned out to be the best decision I've ever made.

2) When you quit, did you have a Plan B? If so, how long did you give yourself to succeed?
I didn't really have a Plan B. But I did decide when I quit the law that I had to be okay with the possibility that I could spend a year writing a book that would end up just being a pile of paper that lived in my drawer for the rest of my life. I figured regardless of what happened, the experience of writing my first novel itself would be worth it. Once I started writing, though, I became completely hooked, so I think even if I hadn't sold the THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE as quickly as I did, I would have found a way to feed the habit. I probably would have started temping as a lawyer, or maybe found some sort of part time gig, so that I could keep writing. I can't imagine a life now that didn't include finding time to write.

3) Tell me how you went about writing the book…did you quit your job, then sit down the next day and, voila, a novel?
My last day of work was a Friday, and I started working on the book that Monday. Sadly, it wasn't voila, novel, though that would have been great. My writing experience had lots of fits and starts: some great writing days, some days where I thought I should just give up and go back to my life as a lawyer, some tears, and every once in a great while that wonderful feeling that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

4) Do you outline your plot and the book? I know a lot of writers do this…and I don't, because I like to let my characters take me where they want to take me. But part of me wonders if I'm missing out on this huge breakthrough because I neglect the outline!
I outlined for about two weeks, when I first started writing, but I was off outline within three days. The only thing that remained standing from my original conception of the novel was the opening scene and the ending. I am not formally outlining the second book because I agree with you. If you feel beholden to an outline, then your characters can't take you where they want to go, and for me that has been the most fun (and the biggest surprise) of novel writing!

5) Your book is everywhere! (Including a huge poster in the Barnes and Noble by me!) Have you been actively involved in the promotion or did Dial mostly come up with the promotional/advertising plan for you?
Thanks! I can't tell you how happy it makes me to hear that you have been seeing it around. One of these days you'll probably catch me shamelessly taking a picture of that Barnes & Noble window! I have to say I've been incredibly lucky to have the support of Dial behind me. They've done a great job with the promotional/advertising side of things. At the same time, I think it's important to do my best to get out there and promote THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE. Admittedly, that's scary and often outside my comfort zone, but I don't want to later regret not giving my book every opportunity. It sort of feels like having a child in a way.

6) A lot of writers, myself included, have found that the actual publication of the book to be the most nerve-wracking of the entire experience. Have you found this to be true? How do you deal with the pressure?
Absolutely! I didn't realize until recently how it is both utterly terrifying and thrilling to release a book out into the world. My New Year's resolution was to not ruin this experience for myself by stressing out too much. But the truth is some days I feel intense pressure, which I realize is silly and entirely self-created because I am not even sure I could articulate what I feel pressure about. On the other hand, I've been making time to just sit back and enjoy and revel in the excitement of it all. This is a once in a lifetime thing--a literal dream come true--and I'd hate to look back and kick myself for only dwelling on the nerve-wracking parts.

7) I know that you're working on book #2…we've been talking about improving your work and evolving as a writer a lot on the blog…are you doing anything differently this time around?
I fully agree with what you've been saying about making sure you are constantly evolving as a writer. I am very proud of THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE, but I sincerely hope I look back on it years from now and think about how far I've come. With my second novel, I'm trying to be more ambitious and less scared of taking risks as a writer. My process hasn't changed, but I find I am much tougher on myself this time around, which I think is a good thing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On Improvement, Part Two

So last week's post on Writer Unboxed generated some interesting comments and good food for thought. Not least because I spent the holiday weekend pouring through a new book, the kind of book that you can't believe you've been reading for hours because it seems like time stood still while you were flipping each page and the kind of book that you stay up waaaaaay past your bedtime to "just read one more chapter." The book was Barefoot by Elin Hilderbrandt, and man, I just loved it. (FYI: I don't know Elin, nor do I know her agent, editor, publicist or anyone even remotely connected to her, so I'm not just saying this to pimp her book! I really and truly loved it.)

Anyway, for those of you who didn't read my post last week, the general summary is this: first stabs at novels often suck, even if you don't see this at the time, and as a writer, even a published one, you should always strive to boost your writing each and every time you step up to the plate. I sincerely feel like Time of My Life makes leaps and bounds over The Department, and well, I don't even want to think of how crappy my (unpublished) book was before that. And Suzanne, a blog reader, posted an interesting comment - or interesting to me at least - was how she rarely heard published authors saying that they could improve their work. I guess the assumption is that getting published is enough.

Maybe for some authors it is. I think we could all name a few authors who churn out books year in year out in which the names are changed and maybe the plot is slightly varied, but more or less, the author hasn't cracked his or her success code. Hey, it works for him or her, and I don't have any problem with this.

But for me, I mean, what's the point of writing - whether you're working on your still-unpublished novel or your follow-up to your bestseller - if you're not trying to one-up your skill set each time? I think that this is where we, as writers, ideally all stand on the same ground, regardless of where you are in your writing aspirations and success. Look, it sucks when your first (or second) novel doesn't land an agent or doesn't nab a publisher, but I have enormous respect for people who can dust themselves off and say, "The experience was part of this ride; this career isn't a horizontal line; next time at the plate, I might swing and actually get a hit."

All of which leads me back to Barefoot. I read it on the recommendation of someone (I can't remember who now, because I sent a friend a note thanking her for the suggestion and it turned out she hadn't suggested whomever recommended it is out there, thank you!), and I'm now interested in going back and reading Hilderbrand's other books (she's written six). And I'm curious to see if I can tell the difference between the first one and the sixth...because I hope that if I'm ever able to eke out six novels, that readers will be able to note the difference in quality in mine. That, to me, is what marks a successful writing career, and that, to me, is a big part of what this is all about. (That said, if all of her books are as good as Barefoot, I seriously might show up on her doorstep, kneel at her feet and ask her for her secrets!)

So tell me, have you read debut novels and been blown away by future books by the same writer? Or is this whole learning curve that I subscribe to overblown? Maybe you're just born with the ability to be a good writer and if so, each and every time you knock it out of the park? (As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts and questions on this subject!)