Dear Writer Girl Episode#1
Writing is really very hard, and those who care about it, know that.
Until September 30th 2018, I will be test-running 'Dear Writer Girl', a weekly blog series where I answer 'how to' questions about writing, from the public at large. Come back every Sunday to check out the latest 'letters'!
Anyone can write in and ask anything about writing fiction, but I don't take any responsibility for what happens next: whether you get better or worse, whether you publish, whether you attract new lovers with your reinvigorated prose...or not.
The views here are my own, based on thirty-plus years of facilitating other writers as a newsroom editor, magazine editor, teacher of creative writing craft and as a writer myself: short stories, journalism, novel-writing. You are absolutely welcome to disagree, or to ignore what I say; after all, my opinions are only based on talking to literally thousands of student writers and professionals. :-) Seriously, though: everyone has to develop their own process, and what I suggest may genuinely not work for you. At best, I hope the advice is spot-on, at worst, I hope you are so violently opposed to my advice that your own way becomes crystal clear :-).
If you'd like to ask a question, tweet @leoneross and hashtag #dearwritergirl
PS. Don't write and ask me how to publish. I don't know, and I will ignore you.
PPS. Questions may be slightly edited for clarity or brevity.
Happy Writing! (or barring that, happy hair-pulling)
Dear Writer Girl,
I am currently thinking of writing a novel and wondering how to plan the overview/plot before writing. What is the best/a good approach?
This will be The Long One:
First of all (and I will probably be saying this a lot), the 'best' way is the way that works for you. I know writers who do things about planning that I think are insane. For example, I love Stephen King and while I think most of his book On Writing is fabulous (and a confessed rip-off of the classic The Elements of Style by Strunk & White that EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ, but I digress) I also want to rip my eyeballs out every time he blithely tells people to just get an idea then forge forward, trusting the momentum of their imagination.
Yes, Stevie Smarty-Pants, that's all very well for YOU to say, He Who Has Written 58+ Novels. You can trust the dance. You know it.
In my experience, most beginner writers get stuck without some kind of plan.
There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, but it may help you to think about three basic things before embarking on a novel. Especially since a novel is a Serious Undertaking and if done well, has the capacity to not only acknowledge truths, change minds but offer succour and amusement like no other art form can.
These three things:
The Spark: What was that feeling, that moment when you thought 'ooh, that's a really good idea'? Hold on to that. Write it down and return to it often. This is an important anchor, that authentic, flaming idea that moved you to write/express. Going back to it keeps you enthusiastic. Going back to it may help when you feel lost in other planning. Keeping an eye on the spark helps you avoid Common Problem Number 1 - Writing About Every Damn Thing That Occurs To You Like You Have To Fit It All In One Damn Novel. Going back to it may help when you're feeling discouraged.
EXAMPLE: "Ooh, I would love to write about the way that damned Adrian Fitzwhistle left me at the altar. Nearly killed my mother. How I wish I'd got him back by sleeping with his brother. That boy STILL needs to die."
WARNING: DO check to see whether you really want to write a novel. Novels are hard work. Maybe you need to go have a beer with your BFF and cuss it out, instead. #jussayin
The Essence: The single most important question, as far as I am concerned: WHAT IS THE NOVEL ABOUT? This is different from the spark, although one does come from the other. You say you want to write a novel based on being abandoned at the altar in this horrible fashion. But a novel is not merely a rant. What is the message? What ideas do you want to leave us with? What is the purpose of this thing? If the spark keeps you enthusiastic, knowing the essence of your book - why it has to exist - can keep you tight and focussed. What do you want to say? A helpful phrase here can be 'underneath all that'.
EXAMPLE: "The Death of Adrian Fitzwhistle is going to be a novel in which I have fun ranting about horrible men and how to get revenge, but really UNDERNEATH ALL THAT, it's about how women learn to love themselves. And damn, its about doing that with other women. That's my essence, boi!! I'm going to have the main character Persimmon Jones, kidnap her ex and then take him to a group of the women she knows, who chant wisdom and hold him to account - but it really is about HER, not him! Yes! That makes me feel excited to begin..."
WARNING: I know amazing writers who struggle to progress because they don't know their novel's essence. Maybe something in us resists summing up our complex book in simple terms because we're DEEP, don'tchaknow. Yeah, yeah. Find out. Say it. Commit.
The End: I implore you to think about how the thing might end. If you just head off in some random direction, you run the risk of never getting anywhere....and then concluding you're crap when you're really not, just...directionless. If you know what's putting the fire under your backside (spark) and you know what you want to say about the way life works (essence) then you need to know (even vaguely) whether a 'good' ending or a 'bad' ending will help you express these feelings and ideas. And don't feel like you need a damn 'twist'. Everybody thinks stories need twists and they are the most confoundedly difficult plot types to bring off. Your characters just need to change a bit. Or a lot. But something needs to shift by the end. You don't need 'ta-da's' or confetti. Just someone not quite the same as they were, given the circumstances of the story. Of course, if you WANT a twist, go for it.
EXAMPLE: "So in my novel the group of women will eventually let Adrian go after a deep night of captivity and connection and Persimmon's going to be better off for it - they all are, even Adrian. Dang, I am deep."
WARNING: Without an end, you may never end it. I've seen writers walking around in a never-finishing daze. They cry. Moan. Leave perfectly good spouses. Eat chalk. Consider train-spotting. Take drugs. They're sad as fuck. I've been there. Don't do it. It's not romantic or sexy or 'being a writer'. It's pissing about. Name your intention and stick to it.
[If you want much more stuff, I'd suggest Novel Writing: 16 Steps To Success by Evan Marshall)
Dear Writer Girl,
How the hell DO you write good sex? I'm still struggling.
I am always confounded by this question. My heart's response is a pretty impatient one, and it goes something like this: write sex the way you write everything else. Be authentic. Use nouns and verbs and consider the purpose of every adjective and adverb. Read the ways that other people write sex and if you like it, mimic that shit. Be extremely particular and specific. Use your senses: touch, taste, hearing, mandible-sharpening, extrasensory perceptive powers etc.
Like, it's sex, not alien life, I think.
OK, I know it can't be that simple.
I know it's not that simple because people be bugging me about this all the time, like it's some HUGE SECRET. Like I have the key. Ugh. I don't have any keys.
But I do have a feeling.
I think maybe this it: you have got to like The Fuck.
Wait, now hear me out. This is not porn :-)
I did not say you have To Fuck. Virgins can write great sex. I did not say you have to write explicit sex including the word fuck. Although I DO write explicit sex, I also have my moments of subtlety and tenderness and yes, quiet restraint (shaddup, you guys in the back). I did not say you have to be good in bed (whatever that means) or have sex a lot or even like the word fuck (although I have a theory that people who don't like that word will write badly, whether they're writing about karma or giraffes or crime).
No, what I am saying is that I think you have got to like The Fuck. When we truly like things, we pay attention to them -- yes, even the bits that embarrass us to think about. When we like things, we truly sit down and think about them. To get better at sex writing you could do technical things (and you should - for a start, kill off all the heaving bosoms, members and references to storms and explosions and back-arching) but more than that, I think you have to accept sex as this complex, many-layered, astonishing thing. You have to get intrigued. Excavate. How did you learn about sex? What do you feel about sex? You have to really consider sex, and do that because you like it enough to respect its complexity. You have to work on any negatives you feel: the fear or shame or pain or reluctance. Don't run away from that shit. Include it. Let it deepen your physical description. Let it deepen the sexual connection between characters. Let what you know and feel inform the kissing and the sucking and the touching and the loving. Good sex writing is not just penises or vaginas - it is contextualised by everything a character is and feels.
Now don't get me wrong: I am sure there are writers out there who don't like or respect The Fuck and write sex anyway. We all know who they are. But you asked me about writing good, or better sex. And that's my theory. People remark on the joy in my sex writing. That's because it makes me joyful. Not just the act, but the basic body feeling, before anyone else is involved. It always has done. There is no shame. And that's my agenda: to write complex, horny sex with no stigma.
To illuminate horrific sex acts where there is no joy, so we can condemn them, together.
So what's your sexual agenda?
Because you don't have to write sex at all, y'know.
You could just be a wuss and jump-shot to the crackling fire...
[Suggestion: An oldie but goodie. Sex Tips For Girls by Cynthia Heimel is my Bible on joyful sex]