LIKE / WANT / NEED
Bonjour! I’m Erin.
The Print Shop
Categories & Series
In late 2012 I began writing my first novel, about an art heist in Paris and the relationship between a gallery owner, her artist-husband, her gallery assistant, and the man at the center of the scandal. This is where I post updates to the writing process, complain about writer’s block, and share snippets of the first draft. Enjoy!
Because I couldn’t bear to have my heartbroken election post at the top of the page any longer, here is a playlist of songs that have become something of a writing security blanket for me over the last three (!!!) years. My incredibly talented friend Herbie compiles a mix CD for me every year for my birthday, and I’m not ashamed to admit that’s where more than a few of these songs came from. The songs on this playlist either get me in the mood to write, help me stay in that headspace, or are so intrinsically linked to my novel from constant looping on repeat that they have formed an unofficial soundtrack (I want to live inside of that Active Child song; two of my characters already do). I listened to Buzzcut Season by Lorde multiple times a day when I lived in Paris (my neighbors must’ve hated me…), and almost wrote an entire blog post about one line of that song: “And I’ll never go home again.” I came home from Paris, but I didn’t really come home, because those weeks I spent there, writing, became my home. I don’t know, it sounded better in my head, but the song itself still does it for me. I know I threw in a bit of a curveball with that Shostakovich Ballet Suite by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, but I heard that song on the classical station about eight or nine years ago, and was stopped in my tracks. It is, to this day, one of the most beautiful compositions I’ve ever heard, and I’m not just saying that as a biased former-ballerina.
Happy listening, kiddos! Let me know if you end up streaming or downloading any of these & if they give you as much encouragement as they do me.
November 16, 2016 / read / watch /
I’ve been working on this novel for three+ years, and during that time, whenever anyone would ask me what it was about, my answer was always, “An art heist in Paris. It’s a backwards whodunit.” I’d go on to explain that the book opens with a character stealing a painting, and his storyline works backwards through the novel, going through each painting he stole and why, while another, parallel storyline, about his former colleague and the gallery assistant at his friend’s wife’s gallery (still with me?), takes place present day and moved forwards. Usually there are hand motions involved; I’d literally point my hands in opposite directions to drive home the plot. But it always bothered me that my novel isn’t actually a whodunit, even it if unfurls backwards; we know whodunit the moment the book opens (spoiler: Dubois!). If anything, it’s a whydunit, but that’s not really right either.
So a few weeks ago, I chanced a google of “backwards whodunit” and lo and behold, there’s actually a literary term for precisely this genre of book: “howcatchem.” And as the name suggests, rather than a mystery around who, howcatchems focus on the how. (If only I’d known sooner! I could’ve saved myself all of the gesturing!) Howcatchems are also known as “Inverted Detective Stories,” and usually start with a murder, and are followed by an investigation playing out to piece together the crime. Other crimes (say, for example, stealing 14 paintings from the Paris Sotheby’s over two years) fall into the subgenre of “Capers.” According to Wikipedia:
The caper story is a subgenre of crime fiction. The typical caper story involves one or more crimes (especially thefts, swindles, or occasionally kidnappings) perpetrated by the main characters in full view of the reader. The actions of police or detectives attempting to prevent or solve the crimes may also be chronicled, but are not the main focus of the story. The caper story is distinguished from the straight crime story by elements of humor, adventure, or unusual cleverness or audacity.”
Et voila. That’s my novel to the letter. (Swindles!)
The only problem, of course, is that I cannot bring myself to say with a straight face, “I am writing a caper!” I don’t have an old-timey tweed cap and I don’t use a typewriter. Nor do I particularly like the term ‘howcatchem’; perhaps because it’s not as frequently used as “whodunit,” it sounds less like an actual word and more like a try-hard portmanteau one must pronounce with a southern accent. Backwards whodunit it is.
PS. Want to hear something weird? I’ve already started outlining what my next novel will be, and it follows the same story structure. Apparently I have a thing for capers.
PPS. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t be working on or even thinking about my second novel until this one is finished. Fear not, that day is coming very, very soon. (eep!)
September 22, 2016 / life / dog /
Dubois turned the collar of his raincoat up, adjusted his scarf under his chin, and, shoulders strung up almost to his ears, stepped out of his building into the chilled rain that had persisted over the city for the past three days. It was a fine, mostly annoying mist, spraying him the moment the door closed behind him with a heavy thud. The usual morning soundtrack –a dog scampering to the nearest tree, the trash collectors rolling bins across the sidewalk, background noise to him on any other morning– had the sudden effect of being jarring, too loud, too accusatory. He hurried on, trying to make his feet move faster than his brain, trying to trick himself into forgetting the streets he’d memorized years ago. Right, left, left again. If he didn’t look up he could pretend he was lost. And that morning he needed to be lost.
The entire enterprise seemed entirely fucking stupid now, out of the suffocating confines of his apartment. His apartment. He couldn’t even think about it without feeling it was booby-trapped and rigged to blow. He had more still lifes than he knew what to do with. He’d taken three of them inexplicably, because they’d been there, available. And though he’d only spotted one at first, he later took two additional Henri Fantin-Latour pieces because his recollection told him they matched, that they’d make a perfect triptych of florals. Only he’d gotten them home and realized the colors were all wrong on the first one. Sleep on it, he’d told himself. They’ll look different in the morning light. And they had, only worse. As he’d lined them up on his dresser this morning, he’d become so nauseated and sickened by the sight of them that he had been gasping for air as he slipped on his coat and locked the door behind him.
I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.
Yesterday marked 100 days until I head back to Paris again, but who’s counting. (Me. I’m counting.) I leave after Thanksgiving, which sounds so far away, but with the way this year has been moving I know I’ll blink and be boarding a plane, embarking on my second solo trip to what, honestly, feels like home. It will be my second time going in winter, too, though I think late November/early December tend to be more temperate than the deep midst of March (at least, that’s what I’m hoping). I love winter, I love everything about it; the cold, the damp, the early darkness, so I’ll welcome the grisaille that Paris is known for at that time of year with an almost emo-kid excitement. Blue skies, like the ones above I experienced last spring and this one, aren’t bad either, though.
I’ve stayed true to the promise I made myself when I started this new job, and have spent a ton of time working on my novel, dedicating solid, uninterruptible chunks of time to it (along with starting my real estate license studies!), which somewhat explains my extended absences around these parts. I have a nine page outline, going chapter by chapter, of how I want the book to come together, with questions for myself, things I need to fill in, flesh out, rework. There’s so much editing and cutting out and paring down. When I first started three years ago (!!!), this was just about a French girl. Now, she’s just one character in a story that has evolved past her, into something entirely different.
The one upside to taking such an extended break from working on it for the better part of the last year is that I can approach the draft with fresh eyes, and less of an attachment to passages and portions I previously would have been unable to chop. And chop I have, to the tune of roughly 20k words. Before, I had one massive, 183 page, 80k word document with virtually no sense of cohesion, and I would rely on my memory of specific words or phrases in each scene, to ctrl+f whichever section it was I wanted to work on (author’s note: I do not recommend this strategy). Now, I have a new document, organized by the chapters I’ve set up in my outline, and have been placing in large blocks of text that I’ve already written, tweaking them, cutting extraneous backstory that, while helpful to me originally, doesn’t help the story as it stands now. I am really happy with the way it’s coming along, and am aiming to have a completed, presentable first draft by the end of the year.
That week in Paris already has its work cut out for it.
August 21, 2015 / Travel /
I keep a red moleskin notebook for all of my scribblings and novel ideas (literally and figuratively). It’s half-full of half-sentences or half-finished thoughts. It’s all over the place, but creatively, I have better luck physically handwriting (or rewriting) things before sitting down at my computer, so that I have a store of pages to use as a jumping-off point.
I’ve written before about my frustrating in attempting to decipher unfinished thoughts, so imagine my reaction when I discovered, while flipping back a few pages in my notebook, an entire page dedicated to a character I can’t even remember. I read and reread it, and while I like this passage, I cannot for the life of me figure out who the fuck Harry is or why I started writing about him. What role was he going to play? Was he going to be important? I have no idea!
Here, let’s see if you guys can make sense of this for me:
Auctions are spectator sports as much as they are flagrant shows of wealth, both masked by a facade of indifference. The more important bidders sent representatives or bid by phone, while the audience quietly surveyed one another under the guise of polite interest, when in truth they were speculating as to the presence of Mrs. So-and-so, quickly calculating which painting or buyer a particular person signified. Sylvie knew that the attendance of, say, someone like Harry deJong, an impressively slight wisp of a man who could be counted on for a bold ascot and who had a shrill, tinkling laughing, meant that the former –or even, perhaps, the current– First Lady had her eye on a lot in the sale. But that was only if he sat in the first few rows; if he chose a seat along the side, or nearer the back, or even more telling, seemed subdued, his interests that particular evening were more international. That was a blanket term for any buyer with oil money to spend, rich sheiks with expensive Parisian penthouses, or American diplomats with more money than taste. Harry could be seen at nearly every evening sale at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and his bidding pattern was so perfectly honed and subtle it was impossible to really tell what he was after. It drove the dealers at both houses crazy.
“Oh, it’s been too long,” Sylvie said to Harry, taking him lightly by the shouldrs and kissing him on both cheeks. She had to bend slightly to reach him, but for his part Harry seemed not at all embarrassed. Tonight, he wore a shocking swath of purple silk around his neck, coordinated with–
And then it just ends! Like I had a stroke mid-sentence. I can attribute my cluelessness about Harry and this passage to the fact that I took an eight month break from writing; of course my brain is a little fuzzy on the details, I haven’t touched this notebook in almost a year (I am so ashamed). Let this be a lesson, self! Writing is like any other habit. If you don’t practice, you end up confusing the shit out of yourself when you try to pick it back up.
July 20, 2015 / life / dog /
Because I surely haven’t bored you enough with talk of my writing process: while the majority of the writing I do is in paragraphs or pages at a time –fully flushed-out ideas with a cogency both standalone and in the grander narrative arc– there are other, blurrier snippets that pop up from time to time, unmoored from the novel as a whole. I’ve made mention previously of the “single sentences squeezed out of my early-morning brain on the bus,” or the half-formed lines that burst into the forefront of my consciousness before I fall asleep at night, desperate to be documented. Usually a phrase, a line of dialogue, or maybe even just two words strung together that, for whatever reason, carry an urgency that finds me scribbling by the light of my cell phone or adding yet another line to saved draft email I use for writing on the go (word count of that email alone: 9,169). More often than not, I find their rightful home in the novel without too much effort, am able to work out these unfinished thoughts eventually and nestle them in the writing where they fit, where they were meant to fit all along only it took my brain a little longer to catch up to. But then are things I’ll write down that had such an immediacy when they came to me but now might as well be hieroglyphics for all the sense they make. Herewith, a few examples:
In a way, these are as illuminating about the way this novel is going for me as the ‘official’ first draft document. But I also feel like Lucas, from “Empire Records”: “Who knows where thoughts come from, they just appear.” I love these little unfinished thoughts, even though sometimes I feel schizophrenic when they charge into my brain out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, leaving me muttering whatever it was out loud so I don’t forget it, as I’m digging through my bag for a pen.
February 19, 2015 / read / watch /
I came across this quote from author Lois Lowry over on Goodreads earlier this week. Someone asked, “What is the writing process for you…and how do you get over writers block?” Lowry’s response was incredibly simple, an obvious statement that was a lightbulb moment for me: writer’s block is a go-to cop out we authors employ when we are too lazy to buckle down. (I’m paraphrasing.) Here’s what she said:
I’m guilty of using writer’s block as an excuse many, many times over the course of the last two years spent working on this novel. And sometimes I don’t even blame writer’s block, but rather I admit to my own incapability of prioritizing. (“Last weekend was just too busy, I didn’t even have time to think about writing.”) But writer’s block is a no-questions-asked response that people sort of expect you to give at some point if you’re a writer.
Lowry is right, though.
Writer’s block doesn’t exist. You just don’t feel like writing.
When we find excuses to put off filing a big stack of documents at work –“I don’t feel like doing this right now. I wonder what’s new on Twitter…”– we call it ‘procrastinating.’ When we sit down at the computer or in front of a blank page, and the words don’t come, we call it ‘writer’s block.’ “I’m not feeling inspired. I’m blocked.” I think we believe creative pursuits operate on a different, higher plane in the hierarchy of our needs. Because writing is something I enjoy doing, rather than something I know I have to do (like getting up and going to work every day), we assume it’s immune to the same resistance that quotidian, mundane tasks present. Surely because washing and folding laundry is tedious and no where near as creatively fulfilling as working on my novel, the procrastination I experience when faced with putting away an entire basket of clean clothes couldn’t possibly be the same wall I run into when I sit down to write, only to decide the words just aren’t “ready” or “there.” It’s totally different. It’s writer’s block.
Except it’s not. It’s difficult to dig deep and find the words to put on the page; if it wasn’t, everyone could write a book a week. But while it’s hard to push through and get the writing done (the other side of the same coin: it’s easy to default to blaming the mythical trope of writer’s block), we don’t get to have the same luxury at our day jobs, because we’d find ourselves unemployed. You can’t be fired from writing a novel, so there’s no immediate accountability of a boss bearing down on you and, as a result, we’re more likely to be lenient with our procrastinating and wrap it up in a fancy name. We do our jobs because they have to be done, except when it comes to creative blocks. My mother was a teacher and my father was an architect, and neither of them ever complained about having a block in their chosen professions. “You know, I just couldn’t teach, today.” “Those blueprints just won’t come out of my head this week.”
Do your job, because it has to be done. Write, because this novel has to be written. (This is mostly a plea to myself.)
What do you guys think? Do you believe in writer’s block, and is this an over-simplified theory? Just some food for thought leading into the weekend. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
February 6, 2015 / read / watch /
Author Max Barry gave an interview over on Aerogramme Writers’ Studio a few weeks ago on how to write a novel, and I found his 15 different suggestions comforting (full-disclosure: I’ve tried more than 10 of them!) and funny (“Method #7: You consume alcohol, narcotic, or caffeine before writing. Dude, those words just gush.”) The truth is, there is no one way to write a novel, and Barry himself admits as much, saying, “If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.” Instead, his 15 suggestions are all tried and true methods writers have employed, with pros and cons for each. Some of my personal favorites, both in terms of his advice and my own chosen methods:
1. The Word Target
What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard each day until you’ve hit 2,000 words.
Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.
Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few. If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.
6. The Immersion
What: You pull out the network cord, turn off the phone, and write in blocks of four hours.
Why: It eliminates distractions. You can relax knowing that you have plenty of time to write. It encourages thoughtful writing.
Why Not: You can wind up grinding. You can feel reluctant to start writing, knowing that such a huge block of time awaits.
11. The Jigsaw
What: You start writing the scenes (or pieces of scenes) that interest you the most, and don’t worry about connecting them until later.
Why: You capture the initial energy of ideas. You can avoid becoming derailed by detail. You make sure your novel revolves around your big ideas.
Why Not: It can be difficult to figure out how to connect the scenes after the fact. You need to rewrite heavily in order to incorporate ideas you had later for earlier sections. Your characters can be shakier because you wrote scenes for them before you knew the journey they’d make to get there.
If I’ve learned anything in this two+ year-long process, it’s that here are a thousand ways to write a novel, as evidenced by the list above. But there is only one way to not write a novel, and that is to just not write. As long as I’m writing, I’ll write this novel. In single sentences squeezed out of my early-morning brain on the bus, or in immersions, in jigsaws, or with word targets. The little milestones count just as much as the big ones.
January 16, 2015 / read / watch /
“I dance ballet,” Rose said.
“Oh, good. For a moment I was afraid you were going to say you were ‘modern.’”
“What’s wrong with modern dance?” Rose asked.
“I prefer ballet. It’s more refined and elegant, more restrained. Modern dance is just…” Sylvie’s hands were rolling around each other as she searched for the right word, “It’s a mess. All over the place.”
“Don’t you sell modern art?” Rose asked, smirking.
“Contemporary,” Sylvie said, correcting her. “And you’re attempting to make a connection, but I don’t see it.” Mirette had abandoned any pretense of subtlety and was now turned fully around in her chair, facing their conversation. She suddenly felt like a line judge at a tennis match. Rose, to her credit, had realized she’d been snared on a conversational tripwire, and was politely trying to backpedal.
“You know, contemporary art just feels very frenetic to me.” She would have been fine, if she’d left it at that, but she had to accompany her pronouncement with a hand gesture that mimicked an explosion. “I know I don’t know anything about it, but from an outsider, art like Pollock seems so sloppy.” Mirette reflexively winced, bracing herself for impact.
“Sylvie, don’t bother. Rose is hopeless when it comes to this subject. I’ve tried,” Mirette said, aiming for levity and landing on desperation. Sylvie set her glass down with more force than was necessary. Mirette could feel the air seep out of middle of the table. Even Andrés, who was never more attracted to his wife than when she was passionately discussing art, became suddenly fascinated by the dark red fabric that was draped across the ceiling, feeling that certain spars were best held without spectators. Antoine leaned forward slightly, an amused and expectant smile on his face.
“This is the problem with people these days,” Sylvie said to no one in specific. She then looked Rose squarely in her face, settling the full weight of her glare on her, and leaned forward on her crossed arms. “A Pollock is more like a ballet than you understand. There is nothing ‘sloppy’ about it. Each single drop of paint is the result of restraint and composition and subtle poise, even though it looks like a bunch of unintentional noise on a canvas to most people.” Mirette was a few seconds away from throwing herself in front of Rose, who was shrinking back in her chair so dramatically she was sure to end up on the floor with a final swoop. Mirette motioned to the waiter with a quick circle of her hand that another round of drinks were necessary.
“You either buy into it or you don’t. You either go into a museum or a gallery an open, receptive vessel, or you carry in with you all the preconceived notions about how contemporary art is ‘weird’ or unapproachable or indecipherable, and then of course all the art on the walls–”
“Or the floors,” Antoine added.
“Or the floors –a pile of wrapped candy, a bed strewn with crumpled paper and trash– makes no sense. If you stand in front of a Jackson Pollock and you’ve already decided it’s paint splatters, random and meaningless, then what else could it look like to you?”
“Why doesn’t anyone have this problem with, I don’t know, someone like Monet?” Rose asked.
“Because everyone thinks a Monet is beautiful because it is, but it’s also been universally agreed that it is beautiful and everyone knows it. There hasn’t been the same unanimity about the majority of the art from the last 40, 50 years. Yet.”
“You think there will be.”
“I don’t know. And that’s what makes it so exciting. That frenetic uncertainty is exciting. It’s all guesswork, based on how much you trust your taste. On how much clients trust my taste.”
I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.
“What are you going to read now?”
“Something with words,” Mirette said, smiling.
“Can you imagine if that’s how discerning I was in selecting art? ‘Something with paint.’ Though to be honest I think that’s how some galleries are doing it these days,” Sylvie said, sipping at her coffee. Her lipstick left a red semi-circle on the outside of the cup. “Why are you walking all that way? There are bookshops on this side of the river. Christ, there’s one next door.”
There was, it was true, no shortage of bookstores of varying sizes and inventories closer than crossing a bridge, into a different neighborhood[…]The bookshop a few doors away was painted a brilliant shade of blue, narrow inside, with books stacked to the ceiling in teetering, uneven stacks, with no immediately identifiable system of organization. The owner was a sweet older man who wore big sweaters and kept the door open year round (there seemed to be a cause and effect at play there), and had a sleeping cat in the window –it might have been taxidermied, Mirette thought one day; she’d never seen it move. Tiny bookstores and the challenges they presented –if she happened to be searching for a specific title and not just browsing for the sake of it, content to soak up the dusty, old book smell and the hushed, contemplative quiet that was inevitably shoved into the back corners of each small shop– were one of her greatest joys. Like museums, bookstores were reverential, a place of endless promise and potential, only they had the added benefit of rarely being crowded with tourists wielding giant cameras. She also appreciated that in bookstores, touching wasn’t against the rules. There were no shin-height barriers keeping you away from the books, no guards finger-wagging at you when you leaned too close; you were encouraged to pick up, to touch, to flip through (to sniff, even, as Mirette loved to do in the used bookstores. The smoky paper smell was almost too heady for her to take in without feeling dizzy and nostalgic for every place that particular volume had traveled, how many bedside tables it had rested on, how many shelves). It was a deliciously tactile and sensory event for her, going to bookstores, and she knew how strange that must make her seem.
I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.