The Next Big Thing

One of my overflowing bookcases.

A fun Q&A has been circulating around writers’ blogs of late. Each person answers questions about their work-in-progress then tags other writers to do the same. I was honored that Ann Mah, author of Kitchen Chinese and the forthcoming food memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating, thought to tag me in “The Next Big Thing.”

While I rarely do these sorts of chains or talk about works-in-progress (makes me so nervous!), I thought I’d take the plunge and tell you a bit about my novel. Plus, I love sharing the love; I’m excited to introduce you to some writer friends.

What is your working title of your book?

WHEN THINGS WERE GREEN

Where did the idea come from for the book?

When starting any piece of writing, it’s usually an image or a small detail that arrives first for me, not an overarching idea.

I was walking through Harlem one day and overheard some teenage girls gossiping. One said: “she’s pregnant and never even had sex.” Well, wow, how does that happen?!

I wondered about those girls and their beliefs and knowledge of the world. I went home and immediately wrote a scene, though what came out featured a young girl in a small town in Georgia in an era before I was born.

I came to learn the young girl was Esse and then I got interested in her daughter, Ceiley. What would it be like to grow up with a mother who claims you were immaculately conceived? Then a stranger came to town, a handsome man in his thirties with something troubling him from his past. I said hold up, who is this? I want to know about him. And hang on, why is his mother Elizabeth so sad?

That’s how it happens for me. I can’t explain the workings of the subconscious, but I try to follow where it leads, put the pieces together. I sit with characters until they start to tell me their stories. And let’s just say there’s a lot of talk in small towns and plenty of folks eventually opened up.

Georgia oat field? Southern U.S. (LOC)
Archival photograph in GA, 1940. A section of my novel takes place in this period.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction/Southern fiction.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In 1977 Greer Michaels returns to the small southern town of Banning, Georgia after sixteen years of exile to care for his dying mother – and confront the haunting secret from his past.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Any casting directors want to help? I have an ensemble cast! Esse, Elizabeth. I need a curious and sassy teenager to play Ceiley and maybe a young Nicole Kidman for Caroline. Greer, I believe, is an undiscovered talent. (Though I wouldn’t complain if Shemar Moore took the role. And yes, I just spent too much time surfing the web for gorgeous actors).

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Oh, if only the crystal ball would tell me! I have been querying agents; getting close, but no cigar. I’m excited about trying the small press route, as there are a ton of great independent publishers out there. Self-publishing isn’t off the table, either, as blogging has taught me how much I love DIY and interacting directly with readers.

Mostly, though, I don’t want to be too impatient. I thought the book was finished, but I’m stepping back and taking stock. Does it need more work or have I not found the right advocate yet? I have to make sure the book really is ready and trust that it will find its way into the world if it’s meant to.

One of my revision techniques

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’m an incredibly slow writer, one who polishes each sentence as I go. Every new word feels as if I’m “inching forward in the dark.”

What that means is that I’m editing all along, so it’s hard to even define what a first draft looks like for me. One of my MFA advisors – the wonderful Clint McCown – reminded me that I may take a long time getting words onto the page, but that I need far fewer drafts given my method. I just have to accept I’m the tortoise, not the hare.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

When people hear that it’s a novel set in the South in the 1960s and 70s, they immediately think of The Help. Race and societal issues play a role in my novel, too, but my characters are contending with different sorts of personal wounds.

One agent told me there were traces of Home by Marilynne Robinson in my story and another said the tone and subject matter was “reminiscent of Toni Morrison, though did not feel in any way like an imitation.”

Well, hot dang! I would never in a million years compare myself to those amazing writers, but it sure was nice to hear! (Softened the eventual rejections, too.)

Possible author photo?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I don’t sit down with any sort of conscious agenda. The girls I overheard really did provide the initial spark and I went from there. There’s a lot of mystery involved.

I usually don’t know what I’ve written until I have a full draft. It was quite moving when one of my beta readers told me the main takeaway she got from my novel was resiliency. The characters suffer, but in the end she felt a sort of redemption. I didn’t set out to write about human resiliency, but if that’s what shines through, I’m glad as I believe in that so strongly.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Some readers figure out pretty quickly the truth of Greer’s past and for others it comes as a total surprise. It could be interesting to see what camp others fall into. I think both experiences provide tension: the suspense of not knowing – or of knowing before Greer does and having to watch him face it.

As a last note, I’m personally in love with Greer. But I’m willing to share him.

That’s it!

If you’d like to read the first few pages of WHEN THINGS WERE GREEN, feel free to click here.

I’d love to know what you think!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now for the really fun part. I get to “tag” a few writers who will answer the same questions. Looking forward to hearing about their work!

Sophie Hardach, novelist (and former Reuters journalist) who I interviewed right here on the blog! She just turned in her second novel to her editor – congrats!

Jodi Paloni, pal from my MFA program, whose short story “The Third Element” recently won second place in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.

Sarah Seltzer, another Vermont College buddy, and journalist. Her first published story “Empty Nest” recently appeared in Joyland. It’s great!

Sophfronia Scott, another of the VCFA fam, though I’ve only ‘met’ her online so far. She’s an author, speaker, and writing coach with quite the impressive resume.

And finally, some reader love: I know Amy Kortuem exclusively through this blog! I’ve gleaned she’s working on a memoir – Paris plays a role. Did I mention she’s a harpist?

Tagged writers, feel free to answer the same questions above and pass it along!

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26 Responses to “The Next Big Thing”


  1. 1 Tanya in Transition October 24, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    I’m giggling cuz of all the strange things going through my mind like how easily your book could have been a religious tale of the 2nd coming of Christ. Yes, pregnant without ever having sex. I digress…

    I would read your book in a heartbeat. I love reading (reason #1), I think you’re awesome and I’ve never read a book by someone I know (#2), and it sounds like a mighty fine story anyway (#3). Who doesn’t like a good book about ‘haunting secrets from the past’?

    Good work!

    • 2 paris (im)perfect October 24, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks, Tanya. Indeed. Eavesdropping has its rewards. I wanted to stop and listen to the rest of their conversation, but that one line was enough to get the imagination fired up!

      And I hope you (and many others!) will some day get a chance to read the book. I so appreciate your support.

  2. 3 Elena Azzoni October 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    I love this!!!! Also, this is me! It was quite moving when one of my beta readers told me the main takeaway she got from my novel was resiliency.
    :)

  3. 5 Jodi Paloni October 24, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Sion, Hearing about the writing of this novel reminded me of the novel itself. The first time I was introduced to ‘When Things Were Green’ was at your graduate reading and I was so engrossed in the scene and captured by the voice, I wanted to purchase a copy so I could devour the entire thing right then. Next, when I read your manuscript in an airport outside of Rome at 5 am while waiting for a 10:00 am flight, I remember wanting everyone heading on to the plane to pick it up at the airport bookstore. I believe we will see this novel in an airport bookstore one day. Keep the faith. Let it breath. Find a reader you really trust and make one more pass. This is advice I am actually telling myself. : )

    • 6 paris (im)perfect October 24, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks, Jodi. Very, very good advice. I feel like I am SOOO close. But I really just need to let it breath right now indeed. I’m taking baby steps toward writing new things just so I have some distance. I think one trusted reader and one more pass could get me to gold. I hope you’re right about the airport bookstore! :)

      Thank you!

  4. 7 Amy Kortuem October 24, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I loved finding out about your novel and your writing process! I’m a slow writer, too. I agonize over words and sentences, too. I edit as I go, too. I’m so glad to hear I’m not alone in not being able to “just write and write fast and get it out and then go back and edit it.”

    I’m off to (gulp) tell you all about my work in process and bug my writer friends!

    Thanks for the honor of the tag, Sion.

    • 8 paris (im)perfect October 24, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      You are not alone! I had actually included a riff on the writing fast vs slow in the original blog post, but the post was getting too long! But basically, yes. The more we learn about our own process and accept it, the better – especially when we recognize its benefits! I adore Anne Lamott and I think her concept of the “sh*tty first draft” liberates a lot of people. But it’s also okay if we don’t engage in that kind of fast, messy headlong compositional work. I mean, in my example, it’s actually the tortoise that wins the race! (Though writing isn’t a competition. But you know what I’m saying).

      I’m excited to read about your work-in-process. I’ve loved hearing bits and pieces about it here in the comments and look forward to learning more. Very happy to pass on the love to such a supportive reader!

      • 9 Amy Kortuem October 24, 2012 at 6:08 pm

        I love Anne Lamott’s first draft permission, too. I just can’t do it! I am an advertisting copywriter in my day job, and I have to write for as many as 600 products a month. There is NO TIME to draft at all – the first draft is what gets online.

        I think this has affected the way I write when I’m working on my essays and memoir. I forget that I am able to come back to the line or the section that needs revision. I’m terribly uncomfortable leaving it “unfinished” too! But I’m finding ways to make it work for me. I think, like you, my “first draft” is going to be at a different stage of progress than a writer’s who writes like crazy with the idea of going back eventually.

  5. 10 Karin P October 24, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you so much for this post, Sion! I loved hearing more of the background of how you came to your novel, or how it came to you. I knew most of the story already, but to see it all neatly written here in a post, was really, really nice.

    We’re headed into another NaNoWriMo season. This will be my 5th (and I have “won” for three so far). It’s encouraging to read about your organic process — I keep hoping that one of these Novembers I will happen on the idea that “sticks” and I will find the magic to get a solid draft of something worth revising.

    I truly hope that When Things Were Green will find a happy home with a publisher, and soon. :)

    (P.S. I have been reading, but am few and far between on the comments these days. :) But wanted to chime in on this one because I love your book so. And I wanted to say “hi” and tell you I have been enjoying posts, even when I don’t comment!)

    • 11 paris (im)perfect October 24, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Aw, so nice to hear from you Karin. No worries – it can be hard to keep up and comment on everything floating around the interwebs! I’m happy to know you’re still out there reading and enjoying.

      Also, yes! NaNoWriMo! That’s where you have got me beat for sure. It could be a good experiment at some point, especially in light of what Amy and I were just discussing up there. What would it be like for the really slooooooow writer to force herself to write like crazy for a month? :)

      I believe you will find your material. I’m glad it was encouraging reading about my organic process. Lord knows it is that! No hard and fast rules. (Though a little scary not knowing what the “next big thing” will be. Who will utter the next amazing line of dialogue like those girls that will set me on a new path? :)

      Thanks again for your support, Karin. When Things were Green went through one big structural revision since you’ve last seen it. Who knows if it will take another! :)

  6. 12 Karin P October 24, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    “Thanks again for your support, Karin. When Things were Green went through one big structural revision since you’ve last seen it. Who knows if it will take another!”

    Absolutely!! You and your writing are completely worthy of *much* support! :)

    And wow! Now I am dying to know what has changed… and why!! Alas, no chance to go up to the Rosa Bonheur for a coffee (or in the Ghetto Pad). Maybe someday! :) I’ll just hold out that I’ll have a published copy in hand very soon, and can find out that way. ;-)

    NaNo is crazy, but liberating. It’s an interesting experiment. My biggest hope for NaNo is always that I find a seed which I can nurture into growth the tortoise way. But to write with “literary abandon”, as they describe the month at NaNo HQ, is wild. Uninhibited! Frustrating at times, and completely exciting in others!

    I really think a writer should try it just once, just to say he/she did it. It’s like having a whirlwind affair! *grin*

    Have I convinced you yet?

    Just doooo eeeeet! You have six more days to decide and plan!

    • 13 paris (im)perfect October 24, 2012 at 4:53 pm

      You would be a great spokeswoman for NaNo indeed. You have *almost* convinced me. I just might! (What tends to happen as I start to go on a writing tear, though, is that I then find something I want to work with and then I slow waaaaay down to my normal pace again. We’ll see.)

      Also, thanks for your curiosity! The novel’s story has stayed the same. I just hope I made the chronology a little easier to follow. (I got some good advice from one of the awesome novelists I tagged up there – Sophie Hardach I’m looking at you!) I tried to make the 1977 chapters run completely chronologically and intersperse historical chapters so each time you popped back up into 1977 you knew exactly where you were in the forward story. I also wrote a little more about Ceiley so her voice carries throughout, too.

      Who knows…long process, this!

  7. 14 Ann Mah October 24, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    After listening to you talk about inspiration on The France Project, I was so excited to learn even more details about your novel here. I love the scrap of conversation that inspired it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you find a good home quickly because I want to read it!

  8. 16 Lindsey Tramuta (@LostNCheeseland) October 24, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Oh Sion, I SO want to read this! So beautifully articulated and I can already imagine the characters coming to life.

  9. 18 Tammee October 25, 2012 at 1:37 am

    Your book sounds awesome…can’t wait until it’s published. If you are interested in small presses, Unmanned Press is looking for submissions for fiction (though that’s mostly all I know about then except they have a fun Tumblr…lol)

    • 19 paris (im)perfect October 25, 2012 at 11:39 am

      Thanks for your kind comment and the suggestion, Tammee! I’ve just checked out Unmanned Press and they *do* look awesome! I’ve just submitted a short story to them! (They also publish a Short of the Month). How fun – thank you! :)

  10. 20 Sweet Freak October 25, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I cannot wait to read your book! xo

  11. 22 Jennie October 25, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Sion, please get this book published ASAP. I want to know all of it!

  12. 24 cynthia October 31, 2012 at 3:40 am

    Sion, I loved reading all these details about your novel and your writing process. And it’s cool that your novel takes place in Georgia. Did you live here before Paris? I also enjoyed seeing the photo of your revision process–very familiar!

    • 25 paris (im)perfect October 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      Cynthia, yes, this is the even stranger part about it…I didn’t live in Georgia. It’s all-out fiction. Again I refer to the mystery of the process; I just felt in my bones from the beginning that’s where it was set, which I admit I do question sometimes. I mean, I grew up in North Carolina – why isn’t it set there? Then I decided, I had already transported myself to 1961 (and in one section 1944) and that’s also obviously something I haven’t lived myself before. The freedom of fiction is being able to imagine ourselves into different worlds, no? And hopefully drawing out the deeper universal themes. (I hope!!!)


  1. 1 The Next Big Thing: Breaking the Rules | The Artist's Road Trackback on November 20, 2012 at 1:04 pm

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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