Today I welcome Emily Arsenault, author of The Broken Teaglass, In Search of the Rose Notes, and Miss Me When I'm Gone. She has worked as a lexicographer, an English teacher, a children’s librarian, and a Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Shelburne Falls, MA, with her husband and daughter. She is currently at work on her fourth novel. I love her books!
When people ask me if I am a outliner or a “pantser,” I never know how to answer.
The truth is, I am envious of outliners and pretend to be one. I convince myself I know how the book is going to end as I start it. I like taking indulgent trips to Staples to buy all of the organizational supplies I think an outliner needs: big pieces of posterboard and Sharpies, Post-it notes and 3x5 cards. At the beginning of a project, I plan out an ending, because I presume that’s what mystery writers are supposed to do. I describe my ending to my husband, who asks warily, “Are you sure that’s how you want it to end?” because he knows how these things go and would like to avoid the shitstorm that will almost certainly hit him in approximately four months. And I act very offended at his suggestion that I don’t know what I’m doing. Since I am a professional.
And then I begin to write my book. After about 50 pages, I’m usually on a roll. I start giving myself a daily word count requirement—about 1,000 words at this stage. I reward myself with a Coke if I hit my daily quota. I start listening to bluegrass music as I write—banjos really get me going, typing faster and faster. This is when I start to really enjoy spending time with my characters, especially getting to know them through their dialogue.
The story, at this point, does not really resemble what I’ve written on my Post-It Notes, but whatever, at least pages are being filled and I get to keep mainlining my sweet bubbly Coca-Cola. And then, usually around page 200, something happens. A terrible feeling comes over me: I’m writing toward the wrong ending. Now that I know the characters better, I simply can’t see them doing or saying the things I had been planning for them to do.
Sometimes I try to shut out this realization for a couple of weeks. I keep writing toward the original ending I’d planned. Or I try to write the final pages ahead of time, just to assure myself the ending will work. And guess what? It doesn’t work at all. It’s ridiculous, in fact. There is no way I can force my characters to participate in such a wildly stupid ending.
“Now I have to start the book all over again!” I sob, cursing and hurling manuscript pages and Post-it notes and Sharpies as the cat skitters under the bed and my husband puts on his jacket and heads to the corner store to buy himself a bottle of gin. He knows that for the next couple of weeks he’ll have to endure me second guessing everything I’ve written so far, using him as a sounding board as I talk to myself about how the book should end/why I am writing this book/why I write books at all/why failure will always find me.
And when that’s all through I calm down and realize that what I have here is 200 pages of decent character development, from which I can still fashion a story. The story will be different from what I originally conceived. It will require that I gut what I’ve already written, but much of it—the best of it—will probably be salvageable.
This is how it always happens for me. I often wish this wasn’t the case—and always pray that the next book will go differently. But three books out of three, this has been the drill: I always need a basic preliminary outline to give me the confidence to push through the early pages. Little by little, I always start straying from it. Little by little, I always write myself into a minor nervous breakdown. And little by little, I write myself out of it.
Miss Me When I’m Gone, is a story within a story about the death of Gretchen Waters, the author of Tammyland – a memoir about her divorce and her admiration of the famous women of country music. When Gretchen takes a fatal fall down a set of stone steps after a public event, people assume it’s a tragic accident. But her best friend from college, Jamie, who is made her literary executor, starts to piece together Gretchen’s notebooks for what would have been her follow-up to Tammyland. As she goes back to Gretchen’s hometown, to search for clues, she discovers that Gretchen’s life was far from normal. Gretchen had become entangled in a search for the person who killed her mother 20 years before, and the identity of her unknown father. The more Jamie digs into Gretchen’s notebooks and tape recordings, the more she feels her own life is in danger and begins to realize that Gretchen’s death was not an accident after all. Miss Me When I’m Gone will be released on July 29.
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