Trudy and the Woman With A Lot On Her Mind

I’ve figured out why that Twelve Days of Trudy process didn’t work: I need steeping time.

I’ve tried to describe my process to people and I usually get the same reaction that I did from Bob the first time he heard me explain it: “That’s daft.” The best I can come up with is that I know who the heroine and hero are, and I sort of write in their world for awhile, doing snatches of dialogue, sometimes whole scenes, getting a feel for the place. And then when I’ve got about 50, 000 words (on a 100K book), I take the scenes and put them in order and see what I’ve got and try to figure out who the antagonist is and what the goal is, and I move them around and I think. I think about what it means and what they want and why I had to write it and it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box.

And while I’m doing that, I tell myself the story over and over and over: “This is a story about Trudy who . . .” and at some point it gels. It’s difficult to explain, but the story just starts to get thick. Gelling isn’t quite the word because there’s a point when it turns a deeper color, like a great tea does when it’s steeped long enough. Or like cookies do when they’ve baked long enough that they crunch when you bite into them, but they’re still moist and warm. And there’s a click aspect to it, too, when the pieces suddenly lock into place and it’s just Right. Yes, I know, I’m mixing metaphors, it’s an intangible. But I really know the story’s there when it starts to glow in my mind, the whole thing turns golden in my brain and all of a sudden, I’ve got a world that makes sense and people I care about.

The problem is getting to that point. And I can’t outline to it. I have to listen to the voices talking in my head and write a lot of stuff and then play with it in my brain to get to the click, the gel, the gold. This is why Bob screams, although he’s doing his best to adapt, bless his linear little heart.

But it’s not what you’d call an efficient process. And for somebody like Bob or Terry Brooks who outlines in detail first, it’s a nightmare (I know this because they’ve told me). So I really tried writing to an outline with Trudy—well, you saw me try—and it just didn’t work. I ended up with 14,000 pretty good words, but the story didn’t make sense to me. So I’ve spent the past month walking around thinking about those words, those people, trying to figure out exactly what it was that was important about them, about what they mean and how they fit together and why the Thing In My Brain made me write them.

And now for a brief autobiographical note: Everybody collects something and I collect Mexican folk art. Yes, I also collected Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper and Walking Ware while I was writing Fast Women, but that ended when the book ended. I also had a boatload of snow globes from Bet Me which all went to friends when I was done except for the vintage Mickey and Minnie globe that started it all. That’s different, that’s research, this folk art is just for me. But “Mexican Folk Art” is a pretty wide field, so I focus on three things: alebrijes (wooden animals), antique nichos of the Virgin of Aquila, and low fire terra cotta sculptures of women by Josefina Aguilar. My favorite Aguilars are in her vendor series, six-inch figurines of women with long skirts holding wares in their arms with something sitting on their heads. I’m bananas for these things, so I’ve made it a rule that I can only buy one when I’m so insane for it, that I can’t stop myself. (You can get these on eBay, usually for around $25.) To me, every one of them is a Woman With A Lot On Her Mind, and each one has a story, and I’m pretty sure I see a different aspect of myself in each one. Which brings us back to writing Trudy.

The Josefina Mindful Woman that I keep in my office is there because it nails my creative process. She has a peacock and a cat in her arms—my hero and heroine—and they’re colorful and darling and curled comfortably against her, completely in her control. And then there’s the thing on her head. It’s this insane, wild, screaming monster, tentacles flying in all directions, and it’s colorful and moving and completely disorganized and it’s pretty much what the story in my head feels like before Golden Time. Well, here, see for yourself:

One of the things I like best about this figure, and there’s a lot there to love, is the expression on the woman’s face. She has this screaming thing on her head, but she’s not worried. She knows that if she just lets it be up there, eventually it will calm down and pull itself together and become a thing of order and reason without losing any of its color and energy. She’s not happy but she’s patient, and she doesn’t have her foot on its neck, she’s letting it scream. That’s my process right there, cuddling my weird-ass heroine and hero while the story explodes in my brain as it tries to work itself out. And my goal is to be as patient as this Aguilar Mindful Women during that process, to stop beating myself up because my head is exploding.

But the good news is, the Hot Toy explosion is over and Trudy is crunchy and golden. I can tell you the story now. I have it sorted out. The structure makes sense. I love it.

Of course, my head is going to explode again with Agnes and Mare and Charlotte and Zelda (fingers crossed for Zelda) and now I’m thinking about Petal, but that’s okay because looking at this Mindful Woman figure, I’ve realized something else. There’s a real beauty in that hot, disorganized chaos, that’s where the energy comes from, that’s why the story is crunchy, because the story starts out as a monster I can’t control and makes me learn it and love it before I can finish writing it.

So I’m not inefficient at all. I’m a Woman With A Lot On My Mind.

And depending on what my goddess of an editor, St. Jenderlin, says next week, Trudy is done.

17 thoughts on “Trudy and the Woman With A Lot On Her Mind

  1. You know, I’ve been writing for a LONG time (not published though) and I think you just described my writing process to a “T”. I’m not a linear writer at all and I finally realized just recently that it seems to work best if I just write a bunch of stuff down. It doesn’t go together; it’s just thoughts, dialogue, etc. but it seems to work for me.

    I see it works for you too. 🙂 So, thank you for letting me know I’m not the only nonlinear writer out there. Have a great weekend!

  2. Couple things…

    So, I had to go to eBay and look, and this was one of the first I saw:

    It’s one of her Frida Kahlo, and, wow! Talk about right on.

    Also, you collage. Have you ever thought of doing something like this as you’re prepping for a book, since it seems to resonate so clearly with you? You could use kiddie clay or something else that would air dry and wouldn’t even have to fool with firing it. And think of the fun you’d have painting it.

    I’ve never quite grokked the collage thing, but this I think I could get. ;+) I knew I took sculpture for a reason. I’m buying clay! It was thinking about the painting that did it, though, not the modeling.

  3. Ditto what Kaitlin said! I tried once to write from page one with my detailed outline. I was bored to death by page thirty. Give me the chaos any day! You are an inspiration!

  4. I know exactly what you mean. I write that way, and I learn that way too. I always start out slow and despair, then one day I read a paragraph about conflict in stories and I think “oh! conflict! This story needs conflict!” just like I’d never heard of it before, and everything falls together and lives.

    It used to happen all the time that I’d be in class at school, not getting something, and then I’d go to another class and hear something completely unrelated and the stuff that wasn’t making sense suddenly did.

    Most people don’t make a strict plan for their lives and stick to it no matter what — they make general plans and bend to circumstances beyond their control and change their minds as they gather opportunities and life experiences. Why not write the same way? It’s more fun in the long run, I think.

  5. Well, Zaz got my word down before I got here, but I so. grok. this process. You’ve gone into the, the… process isn’t the right word — whatever wizards or alchemists did to bring the ethers into solids — anyway, you gone into more detail in this blog. That’s how I cook, too. It’s done when it looks and smells like it’s reached it’s doneness and not before or after that. I suppose that is how I do any art project, too.

  6. Your writing process makes perfect sense to me. Very logical. And Woman With A Lot on Her Mind illustrates it perfectly. Keep up the good work.

  7. Hi Jennifer,
    Congrats on getting Trudy done! I so totally get the monster in the mind process and the crunchy and golden feeling afterwards. Although I write linearly, I do it without a plot outline, and my mind monster stew in my brain (hmm…now I know where the gray matter went) in between scenes. My writing buddies call it procrastination. Ha. Now I can tell them it’s work!

    I love those Mindful Women figures you collect! Now I’m going to google for them. I’m looking around my house at my STUFF and going, oh yeah, surrrre, all this mess is really a reflection of my glory ;). I do have a sweet collection of tall “genie” bottles–they look like perfume bottles for giants. Which suits my writing personality to a T, because I’m always making three wishes:
    1) Please let my hero be strong and handsome
    2) Please let my writing be rich
    3) Please give me more time because I can’t make the deadline!

    Umm…be careful what you wish for, though. The last time I asked for #3, I had three hurricanes come through my neighborhood in 3 months. I kid you not. I still think about that wish with lots of guilt.

    Thank you for sharing your process so I know I’m not the only crazy one!

  8. Re the steeping.

    Heh heh heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.

    Sorry, just glad to find out that there are other people (outside of my siblings) who exhibit this process also.

    Maybe there is some kind of recognised term to describe this process? Does anyone know? (In order to facilitate the finding of more information on this subject).

    I find this way of doing things can produce impressive results, (I’m a scientist, and colleagues say “How on earth did you think of that?”), but also a certain amount of anxiety (it is very difficult to make up in advance the kind of timelines/proposals/plans that are deemed acceptable/necessary by linear thinkers). Well actually, MAKING the plans is easy. But you don’t know what the endpoint is until the steeping/gestation has occurred. So the USEFULNESS of said plan is really very limited, except for workplace rivals who want to beat you over the head because you discovered something interesting and unexpected about genetics/neuroscience/whatever, rather than STICKING to the PLAN that you NEVER WANTED TO WRITE IN THE FIRST PLACE. Sorry, now I’m just venting.

    “Give my X amount of time, and I’ll come up with some good stuff for us that is pertinent to Y” is what I would like to say to colleagues/lab heads (only if I never want to work in science again!).

    I also find that this applies to my writing (haven’t done much of that lately).

    Now I’ve learned to accept that this is a style of thinking that works for me, I’m much happier.

    Instead, my lovely and highly intelligent partner (whom I frequently describe as a “linear” thinker) bears the burden of frustration of dealing with my (seemingly incomprehensible) way of solving problems.

    For anyone who is interested there is some discussion of this “different way of thinking” at the following link:

  9. You are more than completely efficient, actually. It’s the difference between laying down one measured layer of thin color at a time, stroke by careful stroke unwavering, or letting the colors fall on the canvas where they will, then deciding the proper perspective to decipher the story from. Getting it all on the page how it wants to go is a good thing, IMHO, because you can’t help but be true to the story that way. Too much outlining and the juice leaks out… at least it leaks right out of my brain when I try it.

  10. Ok, so I’m REALLY nosey and this is NOT my business, what could a person possibly write that would cause the comment to be “DELETED” !!!???!!!

    I’m wondering if maybe it’s Jenny’s tattoo artist describing the what and where of this body art?

    Is it someone writing pornographic notes to Bob?


  11. I haven’t done much creative writing, but my academic writing and columnizing and blogging tend to work best that way: letting things work out in my head and in pieces on paper, and then all coming together. At least with creative writing, there’s no professor or journal editor demanding an outline by X date!

    I’ve always thought about it as letting the paper stew — new pieces get added in and eventually there’s something that has the common flavor of all the parts, such that even if you picked out all the chunks of carrots and chicken and such, there’s still what they made together.

  12. SO basically when you write, you’re mentally collaging, really: gathering bits that the girls in the basement think are vital and collecting them, and then puzzling them together when you hit a certain stasis.

    It may not be efficient but it sure pays off. Your books seem organic rather than plotted half to death.

    Also I think the price of those Aguilar figurines are about to spike. That one you photo’d is terrific.

  13. After reading all these post I’m feeling like a nerd for being a linear writer. I start from page one until I type The End. The reason that works for me is because I hate conflict. If I just wrote all the easy parts or the parts I love I would never get a story done at all or better yet forget what I needed to jab in to staunch the hole in my plot or better yet I would just have ten sex scenes and then the wedding.

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