The Writing Process: A Blog Relay

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

The writer Rosalie Morales Kearns asked me to participate in a blog relay Q&A about the writing process. She is the author of Virgins and Tricksters, a collection of shimmering short stories that combine erudition and whimsy, a sly feminist wit and a sense of melancholy. Rosalie is also the founder of Shade Mountain Press, a new literary press dedicated to publishing women, which in 2014 will publish two books: Egg Heaven, a collection of haunting and lyrical short stories by Robin Parks; and my own novel, Her Own Vietnam.

Check out Rosalie’s blog to learn about her writing process and see what she’s working on now.

Writing Process Q & A

Question 1. What are you working on?

I’m putting the finishing touches on Her Own Vietnam, which will be published this fall. The novel is about a woman who served as a U.S. Army nurse in Vietnam, and decades later must confront her wartime memories and the fractures in her family life as the country prepares for the war in Iraq.

At this point, the writing is completed and the book is in the design and production process. In the next few weeks Rosalie will send Advanced Reader Copies to review outlets, and then the book will go through a final proofreading before it goes to press. I’m lucky that Shade Mountain Press invites its authors to participate in all of this, from discussing the cover design to considering different styles for the chapter headings to thinking about which publications and websites might review the book.

Question 2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Her Own Vietnam is my third novel. All explore in different ways the terrain of women’s friendships. My characters tend to be politically engaged in the world, and recognize the gravitational pull of public events on their personal lives. I bring a lesbian sensibility to the work, which means a sensitivity to women’s experiences and the struggles of all outsiders to resist the undertow of other people’s definitions of them.

Question 3. Why do you write what you do?

My writing tends to start with a question. What would happen if…? What would it feel like to…? For all three of my novels, the central question of the book has come to me while I was walking. Clearly I need to walk more often.

Question 4. How does your writing process work?

I always envy those writers who say the words just come to them, and admire the writers who outline everything beforehand. For me, writing is an act of exploration: I write to see what will happen next. I start with what I think is the beginning of the book, and keep writing, seeing an inch or two farther along the path with each writing session. I generally don’t know where I’m headed until at least halfway through the first draft. (Sadly, this is also how I drive.)

Writing a novel is a little like being in love; there’s a current of energy constantly running just beneath the surface of your daily life. For that reason, I always carry a little notebook and a pen, to jot down ideas that occur to me throughout the day. Somehow these ideas lose their potency if I type them into my phone or computer. Paper and pen still have a special kind of power for me.

Passing the baton

I’ve invited two writers to carry on the relay and answer these four questions about the writing process on their own blogs. Please look for their posts next week.

Kristin Ohlson has an impressive knack for writing compelling nonfiction about serious subjects and infusing her work with warmth, humor and drama. Her latest book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, was published this spring and is collecting wonderful reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it “an important book and a pleasure to read.” Kristin also wrote the award-winning Stalking the Divine, and co-wrote the New York Times bestseller The Kabul Beauty School. Read her blog here (click on Blog and News):

Adele Levine recently published Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life Of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She is a prolific humor writer, but this powerful memoir of her years working with American troops who lost their limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan packs a punch along with the laughs. Read about Adele’s writing process here:

I hope you will explore the websites and work of these extraordinary writers. Remember, it’s still (and always) the year to read women!



Meanwhile, back in book world…


Photo by Kate Ter Haar

Photo by Kate Ter Haar

A lot has been happening in the publishing process for Her Own Vietnam. Here’s a quick update.

Rosalie, my publisher, sent me her marked-up version of the manuscript. I was not surprised to see that her edits strengthened the book. She noticed all the little writing tics that I’m blind to (like an over-reliance on rhetorical questions – who knew?) and suggested ways to alter them. I had a week to revise the manuscript and send it back to her.

Dingbats are real

Now Rosalie is working with the designer to design the interior of the book. Even as a published writer and avid reader, I had no idea how many decisions go into designing a book. They are considering elements such as the font for the text and chapter headings, how much space there should be between each line of text, and even what the “dingbats” should look like.

Dingbats are those little symbols that appear between sections of a book and signal, as our designer says, “significant breaks in time, space or consciousness.” They’re used primarily in novels, because most short stories are too concise to call for such breaks.

An invisible art

My theory is that book design – like movie music – is most successful when no one notices it. The design should subtly facilitate the reader’s experience with the book. If you notice the design as you’re reading, it’s too obtrusive.

Building the ARC 

This month Rosalie will print Advanced Reader Copies, or ARCs, to send to review outlets. ARCS are semi-finished versions of the book; for example, they may not be proofread yet.

It generally takes several months for a review to be published. Nor is it certain that anyone ever will review my book; there are far more new books than reviewers or places that publish reviews.

Leaving my hands

The publication process is thrilling and nerve-wracking. There’s also an undertone of sadness, as my book slowly leaves me. The farther a manuscript proceeds through the production process, the more the writer’s role diminishes.

Already the novel is on its way to becoming almost as much Rosalie’s book as mine. Soon it might be yours. And at that point, as you hold a novel in your hands or e-reader, it’s all up to you. In the end it’s the reader, not the writer, who gives a book meaning.


My character’s new name

Last week I asked for help to rename Rosalie Brown, a major character in my novel who shared a first name with my publisher.

People chimed in with an amazing list of suggested first names – 78 in all. Although I only need one at the moment, I will certainly keep this treasure trove of names for future use.

How to name a fictional character

In the world of fiction writers, naming characters can be a challenge, so let me share how I selected a new name out of the 78 suggested ones.

It’s technical

My choice was guided in part by writing issues. The new name had to have the same number of syllables and the same stress pattern as Rosalie, so it would not disrupt the rhythm of the sentences in which the name appears. It also had to sound good with the names of other characters in the book, and be appropriate for the character’s age, gender, race, class, region of the country, etc.

It’s personal

The name had to feel right to me. It had to convey the same kind of strength I think the character has – and it couldn’t be a name I associate strongly with a real person in my life. Among the suggestions were the names of my grandmother, my best friend’s mother, several friends, and an ex-girlfriend. Can you see why this might be problematic?

Drum roll, please

Allow me to introduce Caroline Brown. (And let’s all take a moment of silence for the former Rosalie Brown.)

Caroline was suggested by two people, and I will thank them here as well as in the book’s acknowledgments: Marjorie Fine and Michael Alan Weinberg.

Margie and Michael, Caroline Brown thanks you. Rosalie Brown, not so much.

A new name blooms.

A new name blooms.

Help me re-name a major character in my novel!

I started working on Her Own Vietnam more than a decade ago. The main character – the nurse who served in Vietnam – is named Della Brown. I named her sister, another major character, Rosalie Brown.

In a plot twist I could not have invented, my publisher is also named Rosalie. And she doesn’t think a major character should be named after her.

Darn it, she’s right.

Here’s where you come in

Can you help me come up with a new first name for my character? Her last name, of course, will remain Brown.

I will give you some parameters, and you can post your suggestions here. I am on a deadline, so all suggestions need to be posted by midnight (Eastern USA time) on Wednesday, April 23.

If I choose a name you suggested, I’ll thank you on the book’s acknowledgement page.

What you need to know about the character formerly known as Rosalie Brown

  • She was born in 1953 to a middle class white family in upstate New York.
  • Her other family members are older sister Della Brown; mother Ruth Brown; father Thomas (Tommy) Brown; partner Anne Isaacs.
  • The name needs to be three syllables long. (Why? Because otherwise the rhythm will be messed up in every sentence that currently includes Rosalie.)

Let me know if you have any other questions.

Ready? Re-name!

For a novelist, naming a fictional character is personal, like naming a child. It’s possible I will come up with my own new name for her – and it’s certain that my decision will be based on subjective criteria (the name is pretty, it reminds me of my second cousin, it just feels right, etc.).

I will miss Rosalie Brown terribly. But I’m looking forward to seeing the names you suggest before midnight on Wednesday the 23rd of April.

Hope springs eternal.

Hope springs eternal.

(Scary) Update from Book World!

Three sharp red pencils.

My editor gets down to business. (Photo by Horia Varlan.)

My publisher (who’s also my editor) told me she has almost finished editing my book. She will send me the edited version of Her Own Vietnam on Monday. That means she’s probably bent over my manuscript right this minute, her red pencils honed to scalpel sharpness, the sawdust scent of pencil shavings fresh in the air.

Okay, no pencils are actually involved. She’s using Track Changes.

But still – scary.

Want to know more about this formidable creature, the publisher and writer Rosalie Morales Kearns? (She IS formidable. She’s also warm and hilarious.)

Check out the Shade Mountain Press website below. There you can find info about the press and the publisher; the first official descriptions of my novel and Egg Heaven, the amazing short story collection by Robin Parks; AND a call for submissions for Shade Mountain’s 2015 books.

Are you a woman writer? A novelist who’s a woman of color? Shade Mountain Press is looking for you.

While you explore the website, I’ll just be here, waiting for my marked-up manuscript and biting my nails.