writing, Writing advice

Writing Isn’t Like Baking A Cake

As someone who has published five novels over the past nine years, I occasional am asked for advice from newer, inexperienced writers. I am always happy to answer to the best of my ability. Whether they like my answers, or not, is a different matter, but I always try to be honest without utterly discouraging the newbie.

Recently, someone told me that they wanted to write a novel, but weren’t sure where to begin. Should she start with the plot? Maybe she should begin by fully designing her characters. How about location? Is it better to begin with one over the other?

In a word, no.

Like many artistic endeavors, there is no correct way to begin. Writing a novel is not like baking a cake. There is no standard recipe that, if you faithfully follow it step-by-step, will leave you the proud author of a novel. Writing a novel is more like trying to herd twenty-five three-year-olds through a County Fair. You start off with a legitimate plan, then improvise when it doesn’t work. When you are finished, the product is good and an accomplishment, but bears very little resemblance to what you thought it would be.

So how do you do it? How do you start that novel?

You write a word on a blank page. It’s that simple. Now you’ve started your novel.

The thing is, every writer is different. What works for me may not work for you and what works for you may not work for the next guy. In fact, I believe every work is different. I didn’t write my second novel exactly the same way I wrote the first (partially because it was the second novel in a series so I already had the main characters created and ready to go). The novel I’m working on now is developing in an entirely different manner than anything else I’ve written. I’m perfectly okay with that.

Some writers begin with a detailed outline, working out every plot development in outline form before they ever sit down to write a scene. Others, start out with a character they really like, or find fascinating, and then create a plot around them as a means to reveal that character. Others do some combination of the two. Still others just sit down and write the story, figuring out the plot and characters as the story reveals them.

In my current project (which still doesn’t even have a working title) I began with a single scene that had been part of a dream. I am creating the plot and character depth as I go. It’s probably not particularly efficient (I’ll have to go back and adjust various things as my perception of the story evolves, but I’ll have to re-write anyway), but it’s the way the story is revealing itself to me.

So, back to the original question: how do you start writing your novel? By starting it. Start writing the story you want to tell. If you get lost, or bogged down, try outlining the chapter you’re working on. Try outlining the entire work. If it still doesn’t seem to work, try writing profiles of your main characters, character sketches.

In short, try everything. Find out what works for you.

Write. Write often and write a lot. Write to solve the next problem your novel presents you. Write the best you know how, but don’t worry if the first draft pretty much sucks. You will fix that during the revision process. Just write, one word after another. Build a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and a chapter.

How does one start their novel? By writing.

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writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Eight Non-rules For Writing

Recently, I was browsing a website called Lithub (which I highly recommend to anyone fascinated by any and all things writing and literature related) and came across an article by Elizabeth Percer entitled “The First Rule of Novel Writing is Don’t Write a Novel.” I was intrigued. The gist of her article was that all these different lists of rules for writers miss one very important aspect of being a productive (and good) writer: that writing is an art form more than an industry. Writers are artists and need to work like artists, not accountants, or machinists.

In response to this realization, Ms. Percer came up with a list of nine non-rules for writing. I thought they were so refreshing and original, I decided I simply had to share the best of them with you (along with my own interpretation on occasion). I think you will find them as valuable as I have.

So, the seven non-rules of writing.

Don’t Write a Novel

Ms. Percer states that every time she sits down to write a novel, she gets next to nothing done. In fact, she feels she often loses some critical ground. Her point that often the pressure of trying to meet a preconceived goal can make it harder to create. Call it performance anxiety. Call it the contrariness of the subconscious mind.

For an example, the famed composer John Philip Sousa really, really, wanted to write lovesick ballads (which were kind of the pop music of his time) and he kept working at it. The thing was, the songs he produced weren’t very good ballads. But when his wife changed the time signature and tempo, they became very good marches. He was a talented composer of marches that kept trying to make them ballads.

In the same way, we writers shouldn’t sit down with a preconceived notion of writing a novel, a poem, or a multi-volume history of a fictional family. We should sit down with the idea of a particular story, or emotion, or even just a simple image and simple write the story. The story (or image, or emotion) will reveal which form it should take as it’s written.

Don’t worry about the form. Just write and the form will take care of itself.

Writing Doesn’t Always Look Like Writing

Ms. Percer states that about 80 percent of her writing looks nothing like writing. Personally, I’d put it closer to 90 percent. Writing looks like daydreaming, or reading, or gardening, or driving, or sitting in the back yard watching the birds at the bird feeder. It’s about trusting yourself and your creative spirit, not that nasty hyper-critical inner voice that tells you you aren’t working hard enough. It takes both the hard-driving professional, pounding out pages on the keyboard and the playful, curious child to make creativity work.

Books Do Not Respond to Timelines, Spreadsheets, or Graphs

Timelines, spreadsheets and graphs are very efficient tools the modern world has invented to help manage time and increase our efficiency. However, it is in the nature of art to become stubbornly distant when it is asked to punch a time clock. Sometimes, these time management tools can do more to get in the way than they help production.

Ms. Percer states that because she’d a writer and not a physicist, she doesn’t believe “writing always follows the laws of space and time.” Much more writing can be accomplished in short time periods enhanced by patience, thoughtfulness, and peace, than gets done in months of “writing time” defined by expectation, disappointment, self-loathing and a diet of coffee and Snickers bars.

Accept What Comes

This goes back to the first point. If you have your heart set on writing a bodice-ripper historical romance, but all you can really come up with is a brilliant haiku about garden peas, by all means relish writing the poem about garden peas. Maybe the world needs a book of haiku centered on garden vegetables. You may be just the perfect person to create that book.

Just like John Philip Sousa, don’t reject the very good work that occurs to you, just because you had other ideas. Sometimes the story needs to be told and doesn’t care what you want.

Procrastinate

Writers like us want to create brand new works and if we’re going to do that we need to accept that the way we work is not going to look a whole lot like the way your accountant cousin works. It’s a different kind of work. This makes a certain amount of logical sense. However, in practice this can be threatening because creativity thrives with the very behaviors that many others label as lazy, self-indulgent, or some other label that might be appropriate if we were cogs in the corporate machine like everyone else.

Creative work demands that occasionally we stop and allow the well to be refilled, the slate to be wiped clean. We need down time. The key is that only you, the artist, knows when and how much down time you might need. We all need to learn to trust ourselves and have confidence in our judgement and to know when we need down time and when we’re just avoiding the work. The ability to discern the difference involves trial and error, but will always come back to trusting our instincts.

Sometimes the best thing for our writing is binge-watching a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, a little voice is telling you that the small town murder mystery you’ve been working on should concentrate a little less on the evidence of the crime and a lot more on the town’s internal politics and Game of Thrones is exactly the example you need. Sometimes, you just need to walk.

Get To Know the Demons on Your Block

Every writer’s block is different. However, most have a few things in common. Maybe you’re blocked because your standards are too high. Maybe your expectations are so extreme that your creative self doesn’t want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work too seriously. Maybe your creative self is fighting to get yourself to do something different. Maybe it’s telling us to forget about writing a best seller and just write the story we want to read.

Don’t Neglect The Rest of Your Life

At its core, great writing comes from an unrestrained approach to the things that make life worth living. If you are neglecting those things, guess what happens? You’ll have nothing to say. So you’ll eat too much Doritos, stay up too late watching reruns of ‘70’s sitcoms and wake up hating yourself in the morning.

In short, what Ms. Percer is saying is that we should stop working so much at writing and, instead, just write. It doesn’t have to be such a chore.

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