And You May Ask Yourself…

The Talking Heads have a song called “Once in a Lifetime.” Let me time warp you to 1980. I was a mere 15 years old.

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

Thirty years later, I’m sitting up at 5:02 a.m. on Martha’s Vineyard. My sleeping patterns have been erratic since I got here, subject to the whims of late night writing and socializing, acid reflux, and creative insomnia. They feed us healthily, but if I kept this up, I’m sure I’d cause some sort of major health problem. This has been a glorious week.

David Byrne’s song asks the musical question: How did I get here? Many things happen to people around my age. We begin to take stock in what we’ve done with our life in a way that we theoretically knew we would when we were younger.

I was right about one thing–I am pretty happy with the whole altruistic what I’ve done for others angle, and I’m happy that teaching has helped me make a contribution. No meaningless life issues here.

If Bryon and I were to have a midlife crisis, it’s probably the issue scaffolding our conversations of how we’d like to do something else that’s a little more creative and personal. We do a great job with the time and money resources we have in that regard, but I know that if the money were there for us to do something else, we probably would start some sort of new venture. Overall, though, we are happy with how things have turned out. And Boss, if you’re reading this, no worries. I plan to retire a teacher, unless the Terry Pratchett tidal wave sweeps me out of the office.

Yet, at those pivotal life changing moments, you find yourself really introspective. Life changing moments. Let me show you them.

I am at an invitation only writing workshop. I am here with 8 instructors, a variety of industry professionals who have dedicated the last week to my instruction and education as a writer. I am here with peers in ability, good writers who will get better. The reason we are here is that these instructors saw something in our manuscripts that made them believe that we could be part of the publishing industry, that we could be successful if we made our fiction work. Yes, my real estate has gone up.

I’ve been told by several people here that they see a lot of potential in the manuscript that I submitted. They see what you all have seen in Substance over the years, something in fantasy that is different that what’s gone before. Although I need to make a concerted effort to make it the novel, and ultimately, the series that it could be, I may have stumbled onto something that could be bigger than myself.

I may have the chance to make characters that people remember, even if they don’t remember me. It’s what I’ve always wanted.

Although I’ve received suggestions on how to really make the novel better, I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback. Laura Mixon said, “I kind of love this.” The turn of phrase alone made me glow on the inside. Deborah Doyle said she thought it could be illustrated by Edward Gorey, and I beamed. You’ve all been saying that for years. The images translated.

My toughest session was with John Scalzi, who was terribly straight with me about what was on the page. It was great. Scalzi helped me re-conceive my method of composition. It turns out that while some writers edit themselves line by line as they write, I constrain myself structurally. There are all kinds of extras in the closet of my subconscious, but I don’t think you readers want to see them. I think that the story needs to be linear, without digression.

Scalzi wants me to write all that extra stuff in the closet. He wants me to puff the story up to 120K, writing down everything, and then he wants me to ruthlessly cut stuff out. Every tangent, bit of history, wherever I want to go. All about the characters and their petty clashes and problems. Multiple generations of damned Klarions and Gales and why they’ve got this conflict.

He’s encouraging me to play. They say here that the first draft should be for the writer. If I play, then I know. If I know, I can milk all that information for all its worth, and give readers just what they need. Because right now, I’m holding back, and it turns out I’m not telling them what they want to know. Ironic, eh? My students have exactly the same problem in their papers.

I can do this. It’s like being given permission to skip. It appeals to my instincts. It’ll be a lot of work. Essentially, it’s world building. When I’m done, I’ll know this family, their world, and their saga inside and out. Then I can share it with you.

That’s going to be a lot of hard work. A lot of self-indulgent, enjoyable, delicious and crunchy hard work. It’s like asking me to eat truffles. I don’t know if I can, but if you insist…

All right, all right. So I’m looking forward to doing this, you betcha. I’m going to really make something of this. Even if I only write one damned series in my life, it’ll be the Klarion saga, realized gloriously. I’m going to see the troll book through first. I’m going to write that werewolf thing. I’m going to do a little sewing (mostly because there’s been talk here about alternative creativity helping the other kind. Oh, and I WANT to.)

And then I’m going to write this amazing fantasy classic that will come, in future years to be immortalized with Gormenghast and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Yeah. This is my ego. This is my ego on steroids. But I am just that pumped up.

If you ever have this opportunity, take it. You know I’m not much for hype, but I’m not kidding. Take it.

I hope you’ve all had a good week. I’ll be back in the real world soon.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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