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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper
June 1, 2004

In which TKH describes her writing process and works on the plague...


The book (Wolf in Night) was done months ago, but the story was way, way too long.  I knew that, but just couldn't figure out what should be cut in favor of keeping something else.  Now I've cut 45,000 words from the beast, it's down to a manageable size, and I've completed the final tightening, the final changes, and the final-final fixes to the final changes.  It's done.

One thing about this book is clear:  I've discovered that I need to finish each book (the bulk of the work up to the ending) in a certain amount of time, which is about a year.  If I don't finish in that timeframe, I've changed too much as a person to stay with the original story.  Oh, sure, I could keep working for a longer period of time, but I'll just keep changing the story to suit me as I change with life.  I could rework the same book forever that way, but nothing would ever get done.  And, it's wasted work.  I should be writing a new story, not rehashing something old that should be done and put away.

Photos Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved

In the same way, I can't go on to something else, not seriously, until I know from the publisher whether that book is truly done.  If I start something else, get into that new story too far, I can't go back to the work that's just waiting for input.  I'm past that previous book already.  It's history, and I can't get into it again except as a reader.

Lots of people have asked me about my writing process, so here's my answer.  This is my writing life:   I get up at dawn, mostly because I simply wake up then.  I go directly to my writing room, with only a brief stop for morning ablutions and to get a glass of water or soda.  I'll admit that it's usually soda.  If I've been remotely useful the night before, I've cut up celery, carrots or apples to munch on as I work.

Then I sit and that's it.  I just...write, all day, from dawn till usually early afternoon.  I don't usually notice the time or how long I've been sitting, but the dog wants her stick-throwing time at 1 to 2, so she usually lets me know it's time to get up.  Sometimes, I'm so into the writing that I still don't notice the time.  In my mind, I've only been there two or three hours; I've worked on only one paragraph (it's lots more, but my mind can be quite narrowly focused sometimes).  I keep a four-foot stick to lift and toss around every so often; my heavy bag and ski machine are in the garage, ready at all times, but I often feel like my blood, my muscles, every limb is stagnant.  I can't move enough, and I can't move at all or I'll lose something important for the story.  Either way, when I'm writing, my mind is dying into darkness and exploding away from me at the same time.  Stuck in a chair, in a small world, limited by walls and skewed squares of sky, limited to only my own voice in my head.

I do things to take breaks, to let my mind percolate through ideas, issues, problems.  I score old and ancient folk songs (my "Folk Fake Book" is quite large now).  I design and build (sew, mache, woodwork, weave, etc) exotic and complex costumes that my husband tells me weigh too much and for which we have no more room.  I play guitar, dink on the piano, experiment in the kitchen, work on my no-nuts cookbook, make candles or what-have-you, can or preserve something:  pepper sauce, plum sauce, pickles, jam, whatever's handy.  Try to keep busy, that sort of thing.  Some people have noticed that I have trouble just...sitting.

I took an acrylics class this winter to try to get away from the writing, and possibly to get away from myself.  Wow, did that not work.  I merely ended up painting like I was writing.  Basically, I was simply creating a visual representation of what I'd been doing with the book that I'd just finished.  When I realized that, I "got it" for the writing.  It's as if every problem in the book was suddenly clear.

The eye, of course, is not enough.  But the outer eye serves
the inner eye, that's the point.

                          - Theodore Roethke, poet

When I stopped trying to paint and simply painted, I immediately found Nori's theme everywhere else.  I'd been in the wrong key, floundering around forever on the piano.  What an incredible relief to figure that out.  So now she's on guitar and piano and feeling much more herself.  I can write for a while, hit the piano for a while, write a bit more, and suddenly everything is night.  At last things are going smoothly.  And if that all doesn't sound ridiculously artsy-fartsy, I don't know what does.

In the meantime, I've been putting together my no-nuts cookbook.  I arranged for a birthday present for myself:  an interview with one of Portland's medical examiners to discuss plague and what one would see on the bodies left behind.  I also gave away around 500 books, cleared six 2-foot stacks of paper off my office floor, and managed to uncover the filing cabinets, art file, forensics shelf and armor shelf, none of which had I seen for two years.

Basically, if you ignore the going out for adventures, a writer's life is usually very quiet.  It's probably why I get cabin fever so badly.  This year, more of my favorite areas in the mountains burned over, so I don't know where I'll go to get away.  I might go to the east end of the state--haven't done that in a while, or far south to the Klamath area.  We'll see.

Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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