Last month I finished a round of revisions on THE HOUSE OF SILENCE and sent it off to beta readers, with more beta readers to come. While I’m incorporating smaller suggestions — for instance, one reader suggested reducing the number of Portuguese words, place names, and incidental character names — I don’t plan a major round of revisions until more of the beta readers report in. I’m not in a hurry with this manuscript because I’d rather it come out right than come out quickly. Reviews can be harsh for a book that’s rushed out too quickly, and once authors start receiving dismissive or critical reviews (or no reviews at all because of a bad reputation), it’s very difficult to persuade critics that they’ve turned over a new leaf and are now producing work of high literary quality. I used to edit a review journal, so I know that authors rarely get a second chance to make a good first impression.
So this leaves me between projects. Sometimes in the middle of writing a novel, Sexy Next Book has tempted me. Usually it happens when I’m struggling with the saggy middle — a story that’s going nowhere or, even worse, gone radically off-course. (That happened when I was writing Rogue and caused me to trash 80 pages.) My latest manuscript didn’t have that problem, in part because I started with a solid general outline and in part because a number of intervening life events — a move to a new city, a book launch for Surviving Santiago, and a number of translation projects — slowed down my writing and gave me the time to work out plot and character development problems in advance. But my single focus on this book meant that now I don’t have any other ideas in the works.
Adding to the problem is the fact that I don’t have anyone waiting for my new project except me. I wrote the first draft of Surviving Santiago in summer 2007, shortly after my editor at Curbstone Press accepted Gringolandia, because he wanted a companion from younger sister Tina’s point of view. I had decided to write something like Rogue when I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around the same time, put it aside to work on the early version of Surviving Santiago (where it stayed at the back of my mind as Sexy Next Book), and turned to it in earnest when I started at VCFA in summer 2010. ANTS GO MARCHING, my YA manuscript that never found a home (and that I have slowly been revising as an adult novel but am stuck on the ending) began as a short story for the New York State Summer Writers Institute back in 2002, but at VCFA I changed the point of view character and turned it into YA novel that I finished shortly after graduating.
At that point, I hit my first “out of ideas” roadblock. My Sexy Next Book that arrived in the middle of ANTS GO MARCHING was a middle grade novel featuring a secondary character, but it died from Passive Protagonist Syndrome. The short story I wrote for my Portuguese class eventually morphed into THE HOUSE OF SILENCE; the grandfather of the short story’s protagonist is the protagonist’s younger brother in the novel. But it took me a full year to come up with the idea, and in the meantime, I started and quickly abandoned a contemporary middle grade novel and a middle grade time travel. I then returned to VCFA as a post-graduate student, mainly to work on translation but also with the goal of jump-starting this new project — and it worked.
I can’t afford to return to VCFA, so I’ll have to find another way to move forward. I often find my novel ideas growing out of short stories — Gringolandia also started that way, from a story I wrote in a Creative Writing in Spanish class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1986 — so I’ll look through other stories that I have tucked away in my drawer. My friend Beverly Slapin suggested I write a new story based on my recent experience volunteering to pack back-to-school backpacks for children in New York City public and charter schools. It’s at least worth a blog post. And given that THE HOUSE OF SILENCE grew out of this blog post, the blog, rather than a short story, may well be my newest source of inspiration.