my writing challenge: a case study

I haven’t been seeing as much progress in my novel as I would like. Novels take time. My brain takes time to understand connections in the story or among characters. I get that. But I was slipping into a kind of stupor with the whole thing, allowing the process to meander rather than chasing the threads of the story eagerly and with purpose.

Basically, I got lazy.

While I was content in my laziness, I saw a slew of tweets from writers I follow. “Just wrote 4,000 words!” Or “Hit my goal of 6,500 words revised!”

I’m always happy when a fellow writer has met their goal, but these tweets bowled me over. Huge writing sessions like this are mentally and physically impossible for me, aside from intense burnout so bad I don’t write for days afterwards, which ends up doing more harm to my output longterm.

Everyone has a different optimal creative process. It’s important for me to remember that, so I don’t get too hard on myself. (And it’s important for you to remember that, so that if you do have the superpower of MEGA word production, you don’t think I’m a total wimp…)

Anyway. Confronted with prolific writers on Twitter and the reality of my own laziness, I set up a writing challenge for myself.

Write at least 1,000 new words a day for a week.

I wanted to see if I could push my output and the plot forward at the same time. I limited myself to a week because when I do too much of this kind of forward writing without allowing myself time to analyze, chart, take notes, etc., I tend to follow rabbit trails to alternate versions of my book’s universe that don’t work (see the novel as multiverse). I can also burn out (see 4 paragraphs back).

I didn’t set a daily start time or a length of time I had to be writing. I’d just sit there until I got to 1,000 words.

In this experiment, I used this cool site called 750 Words. It’s meant to help writers be accountable to their daily writing. The idea is that every day, you write 750 words, which is about 3 double-spaced pages. You type your work and the site keeps track of how many words you write, how long you write, your writing streak for the month, as well as other things like your most often-used words and the mood of your daily writing. It’s free to create an account, and you can choose to set your work to private, so no one else can see what you’re up to. It’s pretty great.

Screenshot 2017-07-13 09.12.45
Here’s a screen grab of a page.

Off to a flying start

The first day or two was easy. I enjoyed getting my characters into some action without knowing where we were headed. I had so little trouble getting to 1,000 words, I was worried I hadn’t given myself a high enough word count goal.

Days three and four proved my worry wrong. I fell into my more typical writing rhythm: I stalled out around 350 words, and again around 650. Once I hit 800, it was easier to get to 1,000, but I had trouble staying planted in the chair. If I hadn’t pushed myself through those stalling points, I probably would have walked away and not written any further.

Trouble…

I hit a plot wall. I didn’t know where my protagonist or the story could go from where I had written them. I started to wonder if my protagonist had chosen a certain response not because it was right for her or for the story, but because I needed more words to finish the day. My goal was words, not authentic decisions made according to her central desire. Losing sight of my protagonist’s central desire is dangerous. It puts the whole future of the story on uncertain ground.

I gave myself permission to back up to a plot point I had already passed and choose a different decision for my protagonist. Some of the stuff I’d written only the day before would be obsolete, but if cutting it kept the story aligned with my character’s central desire, it was worth it.

Lesson

I realized if I meant to get out 1,000 new words a day, they wouldn’t all be usable words. In fact, something like 10% of the new words I ever write are final, usable words. And that’s probably a generous percentage.

So I went back, rewrote, and passed the place I’d gotten stuck the day before, feeling more confident that I was moving with my characters rather than forcing them to march with me.

Writers and teachers often say the first draft is garbage, and that it’s important to let the first draft be garbage. First draft material is all changeable, no matter how long I spend perfecting my word choice. It carries the story so that I can start understanding it and know how to tell it better. Then, after you’ve spewed it all out, you sift through it and use what you can.

Revelation

In spite of knowing all of that, deep down, I don’t think I’m okay with writing garbage. During this exercise, I often had to force myself to let a sentence be imperfect and move on. To take the first words that occur to me and not to question them. To really commit. Parts of who I am struggle against that process: my desire for control, for perfection, or quality.

So, basically…

You have to figure out how to write, and you have to figure out how YOU write. 

Becoming a better writer involves an ever-deepening self-knowledge.

The page will teach you what you need to know about your story and about yourself.

Write. Think. Listen. Write.

(If you try this or a similar experiment out, let me know how it goes! Next week, I plan on slogging through the 7,000+ words I wrote for this experiment. I’ll definitely share any and all thoughts on THAT delightful process with you, too.)

the value of story

Confession: I’ve been dealing with some artistic jealousy lately.

I started watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, which provides documentary-like looks into the lives and philosophies of the world’s most successful chefs. The culinary arts are fascinating to me. They’re also always in high demand. Because, well, we all have to eat.

Between jobs, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the kind of life I want to inhabit. The chefs I’ve been watching have each chosen very specific lives for themselves that support  and challenge their creativity. The heart of New York City. Modena, Italy. The ultra-remote Andes Mountains. Most can afford to do so because of the success and popularity of their art.

I think in words, not flavors. Unfortunately, creative writing isn’t very lucrative. But if I spend energy on a career in which I can support myself, in which I can be considered financially “safe,” pay rent, and eat, I find my life isn’t worth much to me. If I stop writing, I stop living.

So, if you’ll let me, I’ll just climb up here on this soapbox, for myself and for all the other artists out there who need their art to live but can’t live on their art.

Our society should value story just as much as it values food. 

maslow-pyramid
Image from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Most of are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Here’s a description from “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” by Saul McLeod (2016).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

Maslow stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behaviour. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on.

The world you belong to, you reading these words online from an easily accessible electronic device, has a fairly stable base. You’ve achieved the first levels of Maslow’s needs: physiological (food [though maybe not the level of cuisine on Chef’s Table], water, shelter, rest) and safety. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have achieved a sense of social belonging. If you’re REALLY lucky, esteem.

But I doubt any of us have dominated the pinnacle of the pyramid: self-actualization, realizing, becoming, and achieving the best version of yourself.

In this part of our journeys, story is crucial. It can help us navigate toward self-actualization, or keep us from it.

Here’s an example.

All my life, I read (and watched) stories full of characters who inspired me. People like Robin Hood, King Arthur, heroes, who fought for what was right, stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, faced and defeated evil. In my most formative stories, none of the female characters were appealing. They had boring or minimal roles, were defined by their sexual activity (Maid Marian), or did things I couldn’t get behind, like cheat on King Arthur. Who does that?

As I grew from a girl to a teen to a woman, I devoured story after story and never found a definitive female character I could fully identify with. I didn’t realize how much this had hurt me until I saw the new Wonder Woman movie.

Diana is educated. She is wise. She doesn’t allow herself to be sexualized, ignored, or talked over. She is physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally strong. Secure in her abilities and identity. Not only does she fearlessly go to war against evil, she leads others into the fray. Her strength begets strength. Her power is shared, and doesn’t diminish anyone.

During that foxhole sequence, I experienced what I can only compare to a psychological breakthrough, what one might go through in a productive therapy session. Something deep inside me recognized her. FINALLY, my heart screamed. HERE she is. THIS is who I want to be. Word for word, move for move. This is everything I needed, need, will need. I cried a lot. Every woman I’ve talked to who has seen this movie also cried. Every single woman.

That’s the value of story. We find belonging. Choose what kind of person we want to be. We travel to places we’ve never seen, meet characters we’d never otherwise encounter. The ones we sympathize with and the ones we despise give us a sense of where we belong, who we are, and who we want to be.

When story isn’t valued, when the payday is more important than the art, we get used-up, washed-out books, plays, musicals, and movies that give us the same four or five options. We get brainwashed, almost, into believing this is all life is. This is all we could aspire to. The blushing bride. The lonely old maid. The wicked witch. The stressed mother. Throw a couple of stock characters together, make a few billion dollars. It’s irresponsible at best, reprehensible at worst.

Story is also the means by which we share our experiences. It helps us understand our existence, our identities, and our choices. It is so important. Maybe the most important.

I read a biography of Oscar Wilde once called Built of Books. I believe I can claim that I, too, have grown as a result of the stories I have read, been told, watched. Whether I like it or not. I’m still wrestling to understand the part story has played in my life, and how I want it to function in the rest of it. Why, when someone dismisses my recap of a novel with, “Oh, that’s just a story. It didn’t really happen,” that all of me wants to scream back, “It still matters!”

Writer Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has thought a lot more about this than I have. I’ll leave you with a few quotes from him.

Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.

Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

3 Books to Inspire Your Writing Life

The writing life is often an isolated one. Writing groups are few and far between. The internet alleviates this somewhat, but is an imperfect replacement for real fellowship.

All of us live with and through books. That’s part of the reason we got into this writing business in the first place. So why not look for companionship, encouragement, and strategy in the voices of experienced writers on the page?

I often find myself dragging to my writing time, staring grumpily at the work in progress (garbage, of course), and generally having a horrible attitude. I need encouragement to keep going. Reassurance that the daily writing grind is worth more than the sum of its word count.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing is work. But when it starts to feel like work day after day, when makes you miserable, and you start wondering whether not writing would make you less miserable, you need some inspiration. A chiropractic realignment of your writing life. Energy flowing along your meridians. You get the idea.

Here are three books I’ve found encouraging in my own writing life. Some (if not most) of what I blog about here comes from books like these.

1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne LamottREAL

Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.

Lamott gives her hilarious, painful, honest take on the writing life. She confronts the anxiety, psychosis, and stress of writing head on. Yes, it’s hard. Really hard. And she admits that, using her own experiences as a backdrop. She argues we need to be kind to ourselves. Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts,” tackle short assignments, and imagine your inner critical voices as mice shut up in jars. It’s invigorating. And funny. Anne Lamott can be scathingly critical, self-deprecating, hilarious, uplifting, and right all in one sentence, and she almost always is.

2. Art & Fear, David Balyes, Ted Orlando

art_fear

You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.

I’ve referenced this book in another post, but it’s worth the double mention. This little book is geared toward artists of all disciplines, not just writers (though as the authors are writers, writing does come up). Bayles and Orland define art as a verb, not an object. The text reads like a thesis against quitting art, the action. It systematically addresses and debunks the main reasons artists quit, most of them to do with fear. At the same time, the text provides encouragement not to do the most dangerous thing of all: quit doing art.

3. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

anniedillard_thewritinglife

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This is an undisputed classic, the king of books on the writing life. If you’re only going to read one book from this list, read with this one. Dillard writes with poise and grace, perfectly encapsulating situations the solitary writer imagines she alone experiences. Writing is taming a lion, the inchworm’s struggle to find the next blade of grass, hammering through a rock canyon. Dillard balances the necessity of writing, the nobility of it, and the struggle in this slim book. I read this one every year, or sooner, if I need to.

 

There are many other books that could fit in this list, some of which I haven’t read yet (Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, for example) but these are the ones I have on my shelf that I have and will read over and over.

I hope you pick up one of these books, engage with the writer who wrote it, and find encouragement to keep doing what you love. Even if it doesn’t feel like love sometimes.

 

writing in revision: a case study

I recently tried a revision experiment with a short story of mine, and I believe the results have implications beyond the piece. So here’s a case study on revision from my writing life…

A few years back, I wrote this short story I really loved. It felt complete, had a cool time-travel concept, and an interesting ending. I researched speculative fiction journals and started sending it out a year ago. I sent it out a lot. A lot. And it was consistently rejected via form e-mails. I know that rejection is a big part of the writing game, but I was legitimately confused about why no one seemed to want the piece.

I watched The Shining for the first time about a month ago. I know, I know, I really should have seen that one already. I’m just now starting to get into the horror side of speculative fiction, H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King and etc. I’m super behind. (All book/author recommendations welcome below!!)

The point is, as I was watching, I realized that without ever having read or seen The Shining, I had it ripped off in this short story. Not the plot, but the setup: guy takes care of ski lodge over the winter. Things happen. Etc. The similarities were undeniable.

Of course no one wanted the story. Every single person who screened it has seen The Shining. I’m like the only speculative fiction in the world person who hadn’t. And I was mad about it. How was I supposed to know I had ripped off a movie I had never seen?

JackShining
Watching The Shining like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I stewed about it. I didn’t want this piece to die a slow death in my Dropbox folder for such a ridiculous reason. I’ve been wanting to write some speculative flash fiction for a while. This seemed like a good opportunity. On a whim, I decided to cut it down to a flash fiction piece. I’d turn a 3,000 word short story nobody wanted into a 750-word flash piece no one would be able to resist.

I was a little intimidated. But I was also frustrated. And I love de-cluttering. #minimalism.

I slashed 1,000 words without breaking a sweat. It was amazing how much bulk the story had been carrying it didn’t need. The story could do without so many of the paragraphs I had slaved over. Without all the excess, I could see the heart of the story in a deeper, clearer way. I even came up with a new ending, one that fit the story so much better than the one I had.

At 1,800 words remaining, I started doing a lot less backspacing and a lot more staring at the screen. How on earth could I cut 1,000 more words? I’d be amputating essential limbs, cutting out organs the story needed to survive. As a last resort, I tried condensing two scenes. It didn’t work.

I left the piece alone for a while, came back to it, ready to try to squeeze it down to at least 1,000 words. It wouldn’t squeeze. So I stopped trying. I decided some stories aren’t supposed to be flash pieces.

That might sound like surrender. I didn’t meet the goal I set for myself, after all. But I learned so much about the story I had been trying to tell and so much about what is essential to it. I’m confident in sending it out again, reincarnated and slimmer.

We writers think through words. As we think, we leave them behind on the page. A great majority of this mental processing flotsam isn’t for the story. It’s for us. Terry Pratchett once said,

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

I might add that sometimes we need more than one draft to tell the story to ourselves. But this is a necessary step. If we don’t know the story, we can’t tell it to anybody else. So we write, telling ourselves the story on the page. This is the fun part for me. But in revision, we have to figure out what is there for us and what the reader needs, which parts of the work exist to lead us to the real story and which parts are the real story.

For example, in the piece I slashed, I originally started with a phone conversation in which the protagonist is interviewing for the job taking care of the lodge. That scene functioned to get me into the story. It helped me understand who my protagonist was and how he got to the place where the story could start. But it wasn’t the heart of the story. I cut the whole conversation.

It’s not often easy to figure out what parts are for you, and even if you have, it’s not often easy to cut them. Annie Dillard devotes the beginning of her gorgeous book The Writing Life to throwing work away.

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.

The part you must jettison is not wasted. Getting caught up in that mindset can be dangerous and disheartening. No work is ever wasted. It served its purpose.

In her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says something similar to give clients permission to give away unused gifts. It’s acceptable to give them away because that item has already served its purpose: you received it, and along with it, the love or appreciation it conveyed to you from its giver. Be thankful, and then let it go.

Work you jettison has served its purpose. It got you to where you are. So appreciate it, thank it out loud if you need to, and throw it away.*

 

*It can be easier to delete if you save a backup copy of the document in another file. That way, you know you can go back to an old version if what you cut turns out to be a horrible, horrible mistake. In my experience, something once cut never finds a place in the work again. You decided it could be cut for a reason, after all…

imposter syndrome: writer’s edition

I am not very kind to myself or my writing. It’s a funny thing. I am kind when offering feedback on other’s work. I always try to give their work in progress the benefit of the doubt. I don’t extend this courtesy to my own writing.

I’m never really satisfied with my work, and it takes a lot to convince me something I have written is successful. This lack of kindness is especially present for me in the revision process, when I am forced to assess what I have done on the page. Garbage. Unfortunately, because what I write feels like an extension of who I am, of my mind and my imagination, I also assess myself in the revision process. Garbage.

Writers also feel inadequate when writing first drafts. Staring down that blank page. Aren’t I supposed to be a writer? So why can’t I write? And then, after eeking out a paragraph or two, garbage.

Imposter syndrome sets in. Hard.

Self-criticism leading to self-hatred will not help us. In fact, habitually patronizing those mental states may keep us from being successful writers. A successful writer is: someone who keeps writing and never quits. 

In their wonderful book Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland write,

Quitting is fundamentally different than stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.

art_fear

What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit.

One of the fears I believe I share with many other writers is that my work isn’t good enough. I read amazing writers like China Mieville, Kazuo Ishiguro, Susanna Clarke, Jeff Vandermeer, and it’s very clear to me (as an English Literature major) that the sentences I have strung together in NO WAY compare. It’s like I’m using a lesser version of the English language.

I stumbled across this quote by Ira Glass a year-and-a-half ago in video format. Here’s a link: https://vimeo.com/24715531. It’s about 2 minutes long.

Here’s a transcript as well. I’ll add some bold lines for emphasis, but it’s worth reading the whole thing.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Bayles and Orland also write,

vision is always ahead of execution — and it should be.

On an early spring day last year, I sat in a patch of sunlight with a growing kitten. The window gave me a good view of the vines growing on the fence outside. It’s an old network of vines, and an old fence, and the strands of it wind in an inextricable knot through the wood. And then, there are little branches dangling loose into the air. One tendril in particular was reaching out for the house. It bobbed on the wind. I could almost see it straining.

The vine stretches, reaching for where it wants to be. It will get there, eventually, but only by growing. So slow, imperceptible from day to day. Vines are patient. They know they will get there. It’s a matter of preparation, growth, and time. When it can touch the house, the fence, the pole, and grasp it, it is ready to do so. It is thick enough to support the weight of its branch.

You may see where you want to be as a writer so clearly, but you can’t get there. It’s like the chasm between the fence where you started to grow and the house where you can flourish, climb all over the walls and windows. You can’t jump. There are no shortcuts. We grow into the writers we will be slowly. By doing a lot of work.

Nothing in life is a sprint. Even literal sprinting competitions take years of training. You can’t do it all in a day, or a week. Do your work for today. Trust the work you are doing. That 1/8 inch you grew will one day exceed your expectations. You’re reaching for the house? Reach for the sky. You will get there, but only if you don’t quit.

So don’t.

writer unblocked

One of my students is obsessed with the concept of writer’s block. In her mind, writer’s block is this metaphysical monster or force that’s totally impossible to overcome. If she’s got it, she finished.

She’s right to be worried. An unknown entity that stops her from being able to write completely? Yikes. If her conception of writer’s block is accurate, we should all be terrified.

I happen to think she’s wrong.

That sense of being frozen, staring at a blank page or screen, with no idea what to do next can be conquered. It belongs to us, after all: writer’s block. It’s our block, not some opposing dark energy from without. It comes from us, and we can move it out of our way.

What makes writer’s block difficult to maneuver is the sense of a total absence of words. Too often I assume that what I’m feeling is truth. But emotions aren’t always trustworthy. This one in particular. Because of course, the words are there. As long as we breathe and think and move, we have words.

Don’t believe me? Try this free-writing exercise.

Get some paper and your preferred writing utensil. Set a timer for five minutes. Once it starts, you have to start writing and keep writing, NO MATTER WHAT. Write about anything. Your earliest memory. A place you love. Something that bothers you that is really quite small. Take the first idea that occurs to you, commit to it, and write. Don’t spend time wondering if it’s good enough to write about. Just commit and write.

I had to do this a lot in a classroom setting. A professor would give us a prompt and we’d write. Sometimes, they’d want us to share from what we wrote after, so I didn’t have the option to sit and stare at my paper. It was terrifying. But once I did it a couple of times, I started to realize that there are always words available. There is always something to write. The ideas fill from beneath, writes Annie Dillard, like well water.

The ability to grab the first idea you think of and write it out is one of the most important skills I’ve learned since I started writing seriously. It takes practice.

Practicing that skill through free writing is a great way to jumpstart your writing time. Find a prompt you like or think about a problem in the piece you’re working on, set a timer, and write until the timer goes off. Once you start letting the words out, they’ll keep coming.

Speaking of writing time.

I know there are mixed feelings in the writing world about scheduling writing time, writing every day, and etc. I recently saw Twitter light itself on fire over an article claiming that if you don’t write every day you’re not a writer (or something to that effect). Some of this is personal preference. It has to do with the way your brain works and the circumstances you need for optimal creative processing. However, there is something to be said for the heavy lifting writing habits and rituals can do in the fight against writer’s block.

In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about her daily workout ritual. She gets up, hails a cab, and goes to the gym every day at 5:30am. She doesn’t think about it. She just does it.

It’s vital to establish some rituals–automatic but decisive patterns of behavior–at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

I had a teacher who lights a candle before she writes. It’s a ritual, a signal that now she is leaving the every day and entering writing time. I often make myself a cup of tea before writing. The process of making tea and having a mug next to my computer helps me settle down. I’m going to be there at least as long as it takes to drink the tea. This is also the reason it’s a good idea to have a dedicated writing space. It adds to the ritual, which strengthens the habit.

Because if writing is a habit, just another thing we do, a regular activity, it will come to us naturally. Defeating writer’s block, filling emptiness with words, will be something we do daily. And the more we practice defeating it, the better we’ll get.

John Cleese advocates a dedicated creative time of 90 minutes. Not too long to burn out, but long enough for ideas to develop. He believes that knowing you’ll be doing this creative thing for a set period of time helps you surrender to the idea and begin to be creative. If you’re going to be there for an hour and a half, you might as well get something done.

Flannery O’Connor also advocated a dedicated writing time. She set aside 2 hours every morning and did not allow herself to do anything else during that time. No reading, no research. Only writing or staring into space. Some days she’d just sit at her desk and stare. But she’d be there, ready to write, every day.

I love that image of her just sitting there, waiting. Even if we make writing a habit, if we develop our own rituals, if we practice free writing, put words down on the page even when it feels like there aren’t any, we may still have days where no words are written. This is not failure or writer’s block. It’s just another part of the writing process’s cycle. A lot of the work in my process happens internally. Me getting things straight in my own head. Sometimes my subconscious needs time to process, too. Our subconsciousnesses don’t always let us know what they’re up to, the jerks…

But before we blame our subconsciousnesses and sit passively through our writing times, we need to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to deal with our impulse to not write.

Because no one will ask us to keep writing.

Because we will only be writers if we keep writing.

Because the only thing that will keep us from being writers is if we stop.

 

 

my biggest (writing) weakness

There are two kinds of writers. Those who love writing first drafts, and those who love revising. I love writing first drafts. The first words of a new idea open a hidden door into a new world. Writing the first draft is exploring it, breathing foreign air, seeing new places unfold, and strange characters share their secrets.

I write fast, excited, and as I’m prancing along in a euphoric state (“These are the BEST four paragraphs I’ve ever written! I LOVE the concept of steampunk dirigible pirates! That’s TOTALLY never been done before!” and other delusions) I leave huge knowledge gaps in my wake.

In my last post, I talked about novel writing as a process of sifting and identifying of the unknown. Fiction in any form does not allow anything to be unknown to the writer. What you don’t know always shows on the page.

Insert anecdote.

The first time I submitted a short story to a workshop, my peers discussed my protagonist’s apparent ambivalence to what happened in the story. They couldn’t tell what he wanted or how he felt about events as they happened. From what they read, they couldn’t define his central desire. So they asked me. I didn’t know either. I hadn’t even thought about it.

This discovery proved valuable, and frustrating.I have a consistently difficult time understanding and developing my protagonist’s central desire. Even if I attempt hyper-vigilance as I write, I don’t see into characters’ hearts; I see their actions.

Not knowing a protagonist’s central desire or motivation is a huge vulnerability to any story. Protagonists push plots forward by making decisions based on a central desire. What they want, how far they’ll go to get it, and whether or not they succeed define the scope of the story.

If I let my protagonists make decisions before I understand their desires, I steer them into situations that do not serve their desires, and therefore undermine the plot and the story as a whole. The same thing happens if I lose sight of my protagonist’s central desire or change it partway through the story.

This is part of the reason I’ve had difficulty in plotting to the end of a novel I’m working on. I have tried a couple of different trajectories, but they weren’t right. They didn’t fit the story. I had tried to move forward without taking the time to understand, define, and prioritize my protagonist’s central desire.

Many times I have tried to sit down and verbalize what a character wants and map their actions forward from there. But I’ve found a character’s desire is almost never immediately accessible to me. Maybe a better way to say it is, my characters’ motivations are never complete, or static. They evolve. They clarify in incrementally advancing waves. Each revision, each new, better draft, lets me dig one layer deeper and see one click more in focus. Like at the optometrist’s. Two is better. Three is great. Four is like I’ve got bionic, telescopic eyesight.

And it is my knowledge of character motivation that develops, not the character’s motivation itself. Flannery O’Connor wrote,

You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive. … Once you have done a first draft then read it and see what it says and then see how you can bring out better what it says.

I see what my characters do, not what they feel. But in what they do, characters reveal what they want. Their motivation is already on the page in a gesture, an offhand remark. Even when I can’t articulate what a character wants, the character already knows, and is showing me on the page. It’s up to me to notice it, interpret it, in order to “bring out better what it says.”

So, what if we want to understand our characters more fully, but the page doesn’t seem very willing to help? Here’s a few things that I’ve found useful in the past.

  • Think outside the page. Switch up your process. You may be too trapped inside the page to see what it says. Make lists of things like character desires or objects in a scene. Draw flow charts of timelines, emotional reactions, and potential character choices. The goal is to get your brain thinking about the story from a new angle, one that might let you glimpse what you don’t know.
  • Take a break. Put the manuscript away, even for a weekend, but the longer the better. Sometimes time is the best thing you can give a story. Your brain will forget the exact sentences and you’ll come back to it fresh and ready to REVISE. (Ugh.)
  • Get some feedback. Give the manuscript to a trusted friend, ideally another writer, or a very well-read reader. Ask specific questions about your work. Things like, “Are there any places that seem fuzzier than others?” and “What do you think my protagonist’s motivation is?” You can also have them tell you what the story is about so you can gauge their understanding for things you’ve left out.

I’d love to be able to say that I have conquered my writing weakness, that I always know what my protagonists want, but I don’t. I’m working on it. As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

In my case, “recovery” is that brilliant work I envisioned when I wrote the first draft. The work that will share the thrill of discovery with a reader.

With or without the steampunk dirigible pirates.

 

the novel as multiverse

One of Flannery O’Connor’s most popular statements goes, “I have to write to discover what I am doing. …I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say.” The more popular paraphrase is a little easier to parse. “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Novel writing is the process of identifying and moving through the unknown. To write a novel, you navigate a multiverse.

According to the multiverse hypothesis, the universe we experience is only one part of the multiverse: an infinite set of parallel universes separated by exercised chance or choice.

A rolled die has the possibility of landing on any of six numbers. Perhaps in our universe it lands on a one. In a different universe, it lands on a two. In another, three, and so on. Every possible variation occurs somewhere within the multiverse.

I have found the process of writing a novel harmonizes with the multiverse hypothesis. As I generate pages and revise them, different versions of the story become known. One choice differs, and a new version of characters, events, setting, plot, and world unfold. But I’m not the god of the multiverse. I’m an explorer with the ability to jump dimensions and discover these alternate realities. Everything about the story already exists in potentiality. The writer just lives it, then writes it down.

This all sounds rather blissful. If only.

The unknown story branches off in every possible direction. As one direction becomes defined, more unknown spawns further on the horizon. I tend to be so preoccupied with new discoveries that I don’t notice the new unknowns that have come along, too. I tinker among the things I know without considering what I still need to find out.

This is very typical of my writing process. Dazedly unaware of the things I don’t know, without the awareness necessary to push myself past into the unknown. I don’t notice that I have entered an unstable version of my story’s universe. I keep writing. I spend time, energy, and pages on this structurally unsound universe.

It doesn’t work. Places I thought there would be a door, there are only walls. Characters refuse to behave the way I thought they would. Their actions are inconsistent. Consequences feel wrong. The universe begins to crumble out from under me. That, I notice. The crumbling, the inability to move forward, or the sensation that, even though I could move on, something is off. Something I can’t see is sabotaging the work.

Time to backtrack, rewrite, revise.

For me, revision tends to feel like flailing in those foam pits they have at gymnasiums. Lots of energy expended, few visual results. Discouragement comes easy when entire chapters and characters suddenly become superfluous.

Again, Flannery O’Connor wrote,

Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well.

During the years I’ve been exploring this novel, many different universes have branched off from the original. I can’t count them. I don’t know how. Parts overlap, some were deleted, and some I’ve only imagined and never written down. Other universes were shallow, ill conceived, and forgotten. They sloughed off like dead skin. Some were more difficult to let go.

But the multiverse functions as a whole. Just because we happen to be experiencing a certain universe doesn’t make it superior to the others we never experience. Without them, our universe wouldn’t exist. All possibilities must be accounted for. One part isn’t more important than another.

And so, like Flannery, I have to trust that no work is wasted. Not even the time and resources I used up exploring tangential universes. Revision brings a story closer to its best form. Learning what is wrong for a story can be nearly as helpful as learning what is right. But I’m convinced that no one (or very, very few) arrive confidently at a “right” place when writing a novel. We move closer by degrees, by inches, by the occasional step and rare leap. Every now and then, a revised page, scene, chapter, feels improved, more right. Maybe not perfect, but closer to the story it should be, the one it wants to be.

The universes I abandon help me determine what the story is not. Their sum guides me toward the universe I am hunting for. All the versions I discarded still exist in the multiverse of the story. If I look through the black lines of text into the white space, I can still see them. My readers won’t. But the universe they page through will be held together on all sides by its invisible, infinite multiverse.

prequel: why write about writing

I’ve been practicing creative writing since I was a kid. Never studied it formally. My education was free at my local public library. After college, I thought, well, heck, I’ve read all these books. I’m going to write one.

So I did.

It was bad.

I had no idea what I was doing. I could feel all the flaws but I couldn’t define them or point to them on the page.

I got into graduate school to study creative writing. That’s when I really started being a writer. Not just performing the act of writing, but understanding what it means to develop a story, to read like a writer, and to engage purposefully with the creative process.

In grad school, I had this amazing opportunity to teach a classroom of undergraduates a multi-genre intro to creative writing course. It was a total blast.

Now, I have graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, applied to over 30 academic jobs, and had one dud phone interview. There’s this one requirement in all applications to teach creative writing. Strong history of publication. Code for: Published one book, minimum.

I’m working on a book. (It’s going to be great. If I can get it finished. Then published.) But until it’s done, my chances of teaching creative writing are slim. So what do I do until then? Write lesson plans for an imaginary class? Never write down, and thus forget, all of the little things the work teaches me every day?

No. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

My goal is to record and share my writing life: strategies, frustrations, triumphs, what works, what doesn’t work, and what I learn. To keep giving, freely and abundantly, so nothing is lost.

If all this is just me preaching to no one on a soapbox in my little corner of the internet, that’s fine. I take myself too seriously anyway.

But if you do happen to find this blog, and you like what you see, read along, friend, and let’s see where the page takes us.