When I wrote my first novel, it was as a result of joining several hundred thousand people around the world in a madcap adventure called NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated. It happens every November. People with jobs and families and similar annoying distractions pledge to themselves (and sometimes to others) that they will write 50,000 words by 12:59 p.m. on November 30th.
This worked beautifully for me. It freed me from intellectualizing while I wrote. I hit the 50K mark and kept right on going, because I was riding the wild stallion that was my story – IT was in control, and I let it run. This was a first for me – despite years of study, I had never successfully put my slavering beast of an inner editor on the back 40 long enough to sustain an entire book. I discovered that I am an organic writer – I couldn’t follow an outline if my soul depended upon it.
I found that I had – forgive me a moment while I choke on the term before stating it – a ‘process.’ This is a buzzword I despise, but it’s the only one that fits in this instance. I’ve become fascinated by my own process, and very curious about yours.
Did you know that Charles Dickens wrote standing up? Mark Twain wrote in bed? I write while sitting in a piece of furniture dubbed ‘The Purple Chair of Happiness’, because of its inviting eggplant tone and generous embrace, its high back and large, comfortable arms.
Does it matter where we write? Yes, but only to the extent that it’s effective for YOU. Where do you write?
I also discovered that music was essential to the development of my characters. In the beginning, I just made myself a playlist of some favorite blues and soul, but it soon became clear that my characters wanted their own playlists. By the time I hit 150K, each character had his or her quite distinctive and evocative playlist, and there was even an over-arching soundtrack for the entire book. This, of course, is just for me – the reader will know nothing of it.
My novel happens to be about a young woman who finds herself metaphorically lost, and in a dark wood wandering, and about the three male muses who walk into her life and help her enter the crucible of her spirit; they help her to find her true ground. When I said above that the soundtrack was for ‘me’, I really meant that it is for my muses. They are quite well visualized and present, and they sometimes DO require wooing.
Some people write longhand, some on typewriters, some on computers.
Many writers are creatures of superstition nearly equal to that of baseball players:
- we must wear a certain hat (Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, wears a viking helmet when the going gets tough)
- we must eat tater tots (My friend Andrea does this ritually during November)
- we must have precisely one and a half shots of Johnny Walker Black, water back, at each session
- we must have silence
- we must have background noise
I cast my novel visually – I pretend that I’m making a movie of the book, and choose actors (or people I know) as the faces of my characters. If they’re particularly persnickety, as several of mine are, the characters cast themselves.
I have a file with photographs, menus, ticket stubs, fortunes, and other oddments that speak to me, that bring back memory I know I will want to use someday, if not today.
What do you do? Seriously. I’d love to know.
Both, I think. What do you think?
I am about to sail into the busy shipping lanes of the ‘Can Writing Be Taught’ waters. I broke rocks in an MFA program, and I taught undergraduate creative writing for a while, so clearly I believe that some things can be taught. But, with no disrespect for the gifted teachers in my own life, I must admit that 95% of what I know about writing I learned outside the classroom.
As teachers, we have tended to fall into the old error of imagining that our students – particularly the most promising of them – are born knowing the things that go into good writing. We assign stories and poems, hold them up as models of the craft, and dismiss our students to find the elements of that craft. “This is how it’s done,” we say, “now go forth and do likewise.” As though one could show a student of architecture a photograph of the Parthenon and say “There. Now you go build one too.”
Our best teachers are, of course, books. Our favorite books are our best teachers. But often, young writers absorb them without much thought as to how they are constructed.
Even if our young writers are paying attention to how their favorite authors accomplish the novel, they often feel that they must, at all costs, steer clear of any influence from others. This notion is widespread, and it’s bunkum. We are all influenced by what has come before us. Else there would be no language at all, never mind any new fiction. It is perfectly natural and healthy for new writers to actively imitate the masters – that’s one of the best ways to study the construction of a novel, and to attend to the voice, and it won’t even grow hair on your palms.
Another pitfall for new writers, and still part of the anxiety of influence: they are often convinced that they must be completely original, and by this they mean that they must produce a plot, a structure, a theme, and a tone that the world has never seen before. Again, balderdash. One must merely consult Ecclesiastes, in which it was rightly written centuries ago: there is nothing new under the sun. It’s also fun to play the ‘there are only 3 plots’ game with classes. The number, of course, varies from proponent to proponent, but the number of plots in existence is, indeed, extremely small.
It is, of course, the individual take (or voice) on the universal theme that makes a good novel. I like what literary agent Donald Maass has to say about voice in ‘Writing the Breakout Novel’: “. . . voice is a natural attribute. You can no more control it than you can control the color of your eyes – nor would you want to. To set your voice free, set your words free. . . Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable subconscious that stories find their drive and from which they draw their meaning.”
In sum, I think that a brilliant teacher can help to shape a brilliant writer (please note well that I count myself as neither), but only if the art, or talent, is inborn, and only if the craft – the nuts and bolts – are clearly defined and often practiced.
I have a problem that most writers would probably pay decent money for – I have way too much time on my hands. There’s a sad reason for this, but it’s a reason, not an excuse, and it isn’t related to writing. Or to not writing, as the case sometimes is.
Here’s a theory that will make you want to shoot me down like the dirty dog that I am if you are a busy writer: if I had very little time on my hands, I might be a more productive writer. (See? Told you you’d want to shoot me.)
I get up on such mornings, and think, here I am with the whole long day before me! Plenty of time to write. So I can linger over my french press, and THEN start writing. Invariably, the lingering is longer than I meant it to be, and now it’s time to take my pal Dancer for a walk.
Once I’m walking, well look how happy I’m making the pup, and she asks so little of life after all, how can I take her inside yet?
And then when we do finally go home, I need some iced tea and a cooling off period because we live in the oven that some joker decided to call Arizona, rather than offering a person a bit of advance warning by calling it something like, say, ‘Inferno.’
And then it is important that I read my friend Forrester’s blog (which is on my minimalist blogroll, check it out, this woman writes well. Joseph Stem is my favorite of her works.)
And as long as I’m online, then it’s probably important to keep up on my reading, so I must check out Publisher’s Lunch and other industry rags, and I swear to myself that THIS TIME, I am not going to heed the tramp of the boot-shod feet of The Revolution, whose members stridently proclaim that books as we know them are dying, no longer wanted, irrelevant. Then I’m bummed anyhow. And so the long day wears on.
If I had less time, I might get straight to the writing. It sounds like a good New Year’s resolution, doesn’t it? I’m starting my new year tomorrow. All I have to do is make sure it’s your standard Earth year, and not one of those conveniently foreshortened ones like ‘Planet b’ in the Pegasi 51 system, which is only 4.2 Earth days long. Hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t name that poor little planet.
Inspiration strikes in the oddest places – like in your bed while you’re asleep – and at even odder times – like at 4 a.m. while you’re dreaming.
When I woke from the dream I’m about to recount, I was laughing – really laughing. That’s the only time I can remember laughing in my sleep.
So you’re asking yourself whether I’m a psycho and this is some Depp-stalking fantasy. I commend you on the question, but the answer is no. What’s Johnny DOING in the basement, and why do you have to let him out? I shall unfold the tale unto you.
A couple of years ago, when I had been on an unwilling 13 year hiatus from the written word, I dreamed that I was back in grad school. We were having one of those MFA-nerd parties at my house, in the bleak midwinter, and guests were sliding around on the ice outside, and gathering in the kitchen (which is where all MFA-nerds wind up as if subject to some stronger gravitational pull), and generally having a good time.
We’d been partying away for a couple of hours when I heard a sudden crash reminiscent of a lamp breaking, or to more precise, having been broken by someone. And that’s what it was, too. It was Johnny Depp, decked out in his Captain Jack Sparrow duds, and he was causing all sorts of trouble: fondling those who did not wish to be fondled, bogarting the weed, and yes – breaking not only my favorite lamp, but all the others too. Causing the party to be plunged into darkness and disorder.
A couple of larger nerds and I wrestled Captain Jack rather roughly down the stairs and locked him in the basement. That problem solved, we lit candles and had a bit more to drink. Then someone suggested that a midnight trip to the local Lard Bar (which was what we called Denny’s) would be a plan. We climbed in our vehicles and started wagon training down the slippery road.
Halfway there, I felt a terrible pang and turned back. How could I have left poor Captain Jack locked in the basement with no means of warmth in the dead of a South Bend winter? He was fine when I let him out, though. Happy! I was happy too! I woke up laughing.
The message my subconscious was sending was perfectly clear to me. I had to stop locking up the part of myself that represented passion and disorder and humor (in this case Captain Jack, but could as easily have been the norse god Loki, or a trickster of any stamp whatever.) My passion and disorder and creative impulse had been languishing for years in the basement.
This last bit sounds made up, but it isn’t: I started writing again that day, and I haven’t stopped since.
As all experienced writers know, there are eight rules for writing the novel. Sadly, no one knows what they are.
I’m on a mission to establish my own truths (because I hate rules) about writing novels.