Friday Book Whimsy: Pamela Schoenewaldt Guest Post

I have taken to sending a link to my Friday book review to the author whose book I am reviewing. Much to my surprise, several of the authors have replied to my post, thanking me for the review. Being a fledgling writer, I am so grateful for the courtesy and kindness those authors display.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, author of Swimming in the Moon, also kindly offered to do a guest blog post, which I, of course, accepted immediately. She was generous enough to let me choose her topic. For me, that was a no-brainer. How does she go about writing her books, I wondered.

Here is her guest post (photo credit, Kelly Norrell):

My writing process: from bubbles and mess to books

The best metaphor I have for how a basic story line comes to me is soap bubbles which meet in air and join together. So for Swimming in the Moon, I had the bubble of the Palazzo Donn’Anna on the Bay of Naples, a mother and daughter, mother with a musical gift, the daughter wanting an education, vaudeville, mental illness, and worker rights. Now with the bubbles coalesced, I could scribble out a paragraph, or at least have a general sequence in mind.

In those early stages, I was in Cleveland doing a presentation on my first novel, When We Were Strangers. I visited the Italian-American Collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society and spoke to Dr. John Grabowski, a Cleveland historian, who described the heroic struggles of immigrant workers in the 1911 Cleveland Garment Workers Strike. Yes! The strike would be key to my Lucia’s journey.

Now to create a novel. My agent says there are two kinds of writers: pantsers and non-pantsers. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants; non-pantsers plan. I’m a non-pantser. I know, many great writers are pantsers, but I’d short-circuit if I tried to keep all the balls in the air, writing sentence by sentence, not knowing where I was going. Think of all the balls in historical fiction:

Plot
Character
Setting
Pacing
Style
Theme
Imagery
Historical research

Yikes. I wonder if writers who learned to write in the pre-computer age (going back to papyrus and clay tablets) were pushed to be pantsers, to go sentence by sentence because revision is so hard and paper (and even clay) gets expensive.

My non-pantserism was confirmed by reading that writing is actually a three-stage process: creating, writing, editing. Each one takes place in a different part of the brain. Think about it. Creating is non-linear, non-judgmental, often irrational, more about plot and character than style. Writing is more linear, logical, grammatical, selective and so forth. Editing even more so. My brain works better if I do these things one at a time.

Once the structure is set, I’ll define plot in terms of chapters (usually about 20), with a blurb for each chapter. Lots of research in this phase. Then back to the creating stage for the first chapter, starting with the blurb, going over and over, still not “writing” but sketching in scenes in each chapter, maybe key images or lines of dialogue. The lines are single space, sometimes even another font (like Arial) to remind myself not to jump to fussy “writing” just yet. With each pass, more becomes revealed/added, as if layers of plastic wrap are being stripped away and I see more clearly what’s happening inside and outside the characters’ minds.

I sneak up on the hard part: actual writing. I’ll start with the first chunk of chapter, go to double space and Times New Roman, and begin adding, cutting, reading aloud, revising, as chunks become paragraphs. And so on through the chapter, then going over the chapter many times, changing, adding, cutting. Then editing.

Of course the process isn’t neatly linear. A reader may raise a point about chapter 6 which requires changes in 1-5 and rippling effects through the novel. Or I get a better idea: more changes. Sometimes I go back in technology to index cards, each with a plot point, arranging the cards on a rug in my office. Of course, if my dog Jesse lies down on the rug, the plot gets messed up. Or maybe he’s telling me something . . .

All the while, I’m researching. With the plot and character journeys in mind, amazing things happen. You read sources as if your mind were a magnet and ideas lift off the page (or screen). The plot enriches, you understand more about the character, see more, smell more, taste more, feel yourself more in the world you’ve created. It’s a messy process, but for non-pantsers like me, mess is the way to go.

Pamela Schoenewaldt lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with my mother) was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She is the author of “When We Were Strangers” and “Swimming in the Moon”. Schoenewaldt taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a physicist, and their dog Jesse, a philosopher.

4 thoughts on “Friday Book Whimsy: Pamela Schoenewaldt Guest Post

  1. How interesting! I always told my students that writing is hard work. I think I will send this to Cathy, and she can share with the English department.

  2. I ran into your book while visiting USA and I've just finished it. I couldn't help learning more about the story and the stunning characters. I'm Italian and there is such an interesting mixture of the two cultures in what you write! Those two women ARE Italian, but at the same time so universal in their deep relationship. Brava!

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