I always start with a very small kernel of a story. For Do Not Become Alarmed, it was the idea of children in danger who don’t know how much danger they’re in, because they’re kids. For the short story Madame Lazarus, the last short story I published, it was a man trying to keep his dog alive with chest compressions. Then I feel my way forward, in the dark. I wish I could start with more of a plan, but I find the story as I go, and I think the best ideas come when I have no idea what happens next.
My first drafts tend to have a lot of dialogue, because what happens between people is the most interesting thing to me. And what’s unsaid, unanswered, or avoided in any human conversation is as important as what’s said. I was a theater kid in high school and college, and I think rehearsals and acting classes were a great place to learn about dialogue, and about how much people communicate with their bodies, with actions and pauses and deflections.
I work at home, in the morning, and I feel really lucky to be able to do that. I’m smarter in the morning—my brain feels fresher, and I’m more able to make interesting decisions before it’s cluttered by the day. I try to keep the mornings clear of emails and other business, though sometimes I fail at that. After a few hours of writing, I run out of steam. I can tell I might make things worse instead of better. I try to save emails and errands and favors and other work for the afternoon. If I’m at the end of a project, making tiny changes, then I can work all day. I have a chair that tips back, which I think has saved my shoulders and back. This year I got a treadmill desk. I still can’t do difficult work at it, but I can do emails and phone calls and easy editing while walking, and it’s good not to be sitting so long.
For the last two books, I’ve used the word-processing program Scrivener. It’s so smart, and it recreates the clunky system I had with a lot of different Word docs, but it keeps them all in one document. It’s so hard to keep a 350-page novel in your head, and I love the way Scrivener lets me toggle back and forth between seeing the novel laid out on index cards, chapter by chapter, and seeing the manuscript itself—between macro and micro. There are a lot of small things to learn about the program, so it helps to have a friend guide you through it, but the 10-minute tutorial on the website is a good start.
I also use Freedom to shut off the Internet on my computer while I’m working, and that’s been essential, too. It means I can’t restlessly go look at Twitter without entirely realizing I’m doing it. It was bad enough when the Internet was just jokes and red-carpet photos and “What color is this dress?” But the news now is so constant and so hideous that it makes me despair. If I didn’t turn it off for set periods, I couldn’t get anything done.
I have lots of initial readers. My husband is a great early reader, for which I am insanely grateful. I try not to be impatient when I can hear him turning pages very slowly in another room. I give the earliest drafts to one person at a time and spend months addressing their notes. Some notes seem all wrong, but if I wait a day or two, I often realize they’re exactly right. When you’ve spent two years working on a novel, you need fresh eyes to tell you how it’s working.
Someone asked me recently how I find those early readers, and that’s changed over time. I was in a workshop in graduate school, so I got used to the idea of multiple readers, and I read their work in return. A critique group can serve in that way. Now I trade manuscripts with a few other writers, though not as a group, and it works out over time. And I’ve asked people with specialized knowledge to read drafts for me. The Apothecary was set in London in the 1950s, so my father-in-law, who lived there then, read it early and gave me a list of corrections I could never have flagged on my own— police cars didn’t have sirens yet, and this character wouldn’t be able to get nylon stockings—because I wouldn’t have known what to look for. A friend who has a child with Type 1 diabetes read Do Not Become Alarmed and helped me with the medical and emotional details. It’s an enormous favor, for someone to read a whole manuscript, and readers you can trust are so valuable—when you find them, you need to protect them and repay them. If you don’t have anyone you can ask, I think a freelance editor or reader can be an important investment.
I have to say, too, that I’m suspicious of advice, or rules. These are things that work for me, but what works for one writer is so particular. Sometimes it’s reassuring to hear advice that rings true and makes your own practice seem less crazy or lonely. Sometimes you hear things you want to try. Sometimes you hear things that sound all wrong. You find your own way, eventually, and it’s yours—you don’t need to compare it to that of anyone else.
(c) Maile Meloy
About Do Not Become Alarmed:
When Liv and Nora decide to take their husbands and children on a holiday cruise, everyone is thrilled. The ship’s comforts and possibilities seem infinite. But when they all go ashore in beautiful Central America, a series of minor mishaps lead the families further from the ship’s safety.
One minute the children are there, and the next they’re gone.
What follows is a heart-racing story told from the perspectives of the adults and the children, as the distraught parents – now turning on one another and blaming themselves – try to recover their children and their shattered lives.
Order your copy online here.