Dear Writer Girl Episode #4
Greetings and Salutations,
#dearwritergirl is a bumper edition this week, answering questions from three people, rather than the usual two. In a period of time when I am finding it hard to fit in ALL THE THINGS it is lovely to be able to answer questions about how to keep going, how to keep going...and...how to keep going :-)
As usual, if you'd like to ask a question, tweet @leoneross and hashtag #dearwritergirl or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like to remain anonymous, just say so....
It all ends September 30, which means we have three episodes to go. So do get involved. I will try my best to answer your question in the week you send it, but can't always promise. But I will get to you.
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.
I hope something resonates with you this week! I went deep! Grateful for it!
Dearest Writer Girl,
How do you keep going if you've started a story with an embellished memory? Do you know your ending, or do you just keep going and hope for the best?
As always, I can only speak about my own process with any confidence.
I am not a fan of just hoping for the best - at least when it comes to writing.
I am aware that there are published, successful writers out there who just follow the tide of their imagination and trust that plotting points, themes, sparkling metaphors and some appropriate ending will wash up on the shore -- and that this trust works very well for a certain type of creative mind. So the first and most important strategy is to become mindful of which circumstances, approaches, feelings, and beverages work for you while writing.
As for me, after 30-something years of writing seriously, I now know have to approach novels with an ending in mind, and a map for how I get there. It's different when I write short stories, as you'll see in a minute.
I have only written three novels in my life. The first was plotted in advance and its spark was ignited by my outrage about Mike Tyson's rape of Desiree Washington, and particularly how the black community responded to that rape. It took me six months to write. My second novel was plotted in advance and I wanted to write about a man going mad, haunted by memories of the American South.
Two novels, down. Plotted in advance, had some clear ideas about endings.
Then for a variety of reasons, I developed a case of ‘writers block’ on the novel form. A block so deep and wide and long and ferocious I didn’t think I’d ever get past it or ever write another novel. When I finally started number three, I could only do so in kind of manic, flailing stream of consciousness, vague ideas of magic and addiction falling around me like petals in a storm, like explosions of flesh. No plan at all, just the urgent need to put word after word down, or something inside me was going to atrophy. Fifteen years later, that novel is finally coming to an end.
Fifteen years, my dears. I have to shake the shame on that one.
Now, I cannot say for sure that every unplotted novel I ever try to write will take 15 years to finish, but you can see why I won't take the chance on hoping for the best again. I genuinely think I learned a LOT in these 15 years, but novels, plotted or unplotted in advance, feel like holding faith for a very long time. Novel writing feels like holding your breath, and I can't do that anymore without knowing where the shore is. Going into it without a safety net, without a plan of action, without even so much as a suspicion that my protagonist is going to end up good or not so good, is insanity for me.
I’m not proposing a straitjacket, though. Things can leap and grow and change - plotting a novel ain't colouring by numbers, or it shouldn't feel that way. You always leave space for the novel to take over and become itself, almost by itself. But what I am talking about is a commitment. A commitment to what the damn thing is about.
Deciding what a thing is ABOUT, what it is FOR, is key. Now that doesn't mean those who set out with a spark and no roadmap don't know what's it's about, eventually. It comes to them. It finally came to me, across 15 years. Just that for every published writer who says they just surfed the tide, I see hundreds, yes, hundreds of student writers, stuck in the middle of the ocean, blinking and frustrated, stuck in the middle of something with no discernible meaning, no direction, sinking deeply, concluding they're not very good.
Stop sinking and plan something, dammit.
Yes, I know this metaphor been goin' on for too long.
Now, having said ALL that, short stories are a bit different, for me. Which is why I wrote so many of them, alongside that steaming, amazing, necessary messy 15-year novel. I can dive in to a short story - from whatever spark, a memory or something else - without an ending or plan and trust that I will find the thing
Let me do some brainstorming from scratch right now, so you can see what I mean.
Here we go.
When an idea occurs. I ask as soon as possible, what is it about? As I let that roll around my mind, I begin to write, with authenticity my only objective. Authenticity - not perfection. The first task is to write down words that are my truth, without reservation, without hiding, without apology. At this stage I ignore [or try to ignore] technical errors or clichés or clumsiness.
So lemme grab a memory for you, Gina.
I remember seeing a young woman in an orange dress, dancing on the street. I know the memory is worth my time because I wanted to quantify her, wanted to freeze-frame her, wanted to understand that moment, that energy that innocence, that openness, wanted to share it.
I don’t know what the story is about, but I’m writing and writing and writing the truth of that moment, the flash of her red skirt, and the cellulite leaking out from underneath that crimson, and the young boy watching her leap along the road in Oxford Circus, and his mother, who hadn’t seen the dancing girl, pulling at his hand, dragging him along the street and that small motion has become a metaphor for carelessness, the kind of carelessness that comes from the mother's need to survive, so because the mother of the small boy is frightened, and because she’s tired, she is unable to see this dancing moment of freedom and suddenly, something switches in my head, because I am always looking for the purpose of the story, the PURPOSE of the story, and I think, who will this little boy become, this little boy who has a whole sense of self embedded in that freedom moment? WHAT IF -- the most magic words in writing and creativity -- what if the little boy who sees the dancing girl on the road, what if his erotic self is forever imprinted in that moment, but he hasn’t realized it? And then ONE DAY when he’s 30, and walking down the street with a briefcase -- the briefcase being a metaphor for his mother's dragging hand and his mother’s fear -- he sees a dancing woman again, and it turns his whole world inside out, because up 'til now, he’s been a good boy, like his mother wanted him to, been responsible, and gotten jobs that are responsible, but suddenly he sees a woman dancing down the street, and he has to have her, it’s the same energy he once saw but doesn't remember, the same freedom that he’s begun to feel leeching out of him for every hour that he spends in that small, slightly grubby office where he works. And for reasons he doesn’t understand, but I, the author understand -- because I know his heart, and I know who he has been, and I know about his pain and the sacrifices that he has made -- he follows her. WHAT IS THIS ABOUT? I ask myself, and the rest of the story is coming -- it is a story about a lonely, angry man following a woman who dances through puddles and knows her own skin, and I am wondering as I write this, how will it all end, this trailing behind a free woman through the streets of London, a strange man following a strange woman? Because you are always writing towards an end, because the end if the POINT.
I'm stopping now and asking myself what I want to say to the world about a thing.
I become aware of two possibilities.
Either the man will be better as a result of watching this woman or he will be worse as a result of watching this woman. If I have him, at the end of this story, stop the woman and hurt her in some way, I will be making a statement to the world about loss of hope, and the kind of curdled anger that can reside in a resentful man and burst out of him in some yawning, unexpected moment. If I have him watch the woman, and as a result of watching her freedom, and her beauty, and her pain and her selfhood, he decides that he is uplifted and inspired and brave enough to feel his own painful emotions, and grow, I make another statement about the world and men and women within it.
And that ending, my dear Gina, will very much depend on my feeling about the world at the time.
I will probably go and write that story now. Thank you :-)
This: whether you plan on the basis of that memory spark or whether you trust the gods, at some point you must commit to communicating a particular idea or set of ideas. I really do think that if you don't do that, the story will never work, whether it was planned, or not.
There is no best way. There is only the writer who hasn’t actually committed.
Dear Writer Girl,
How do you sustain energy (mental/physical) to write when work, life and everybody gets in the way?
I don’t know. I mean, I genuinely don't.
I don’t have children, or a husband, or a wife, and my cats tend to take care of themselves in that feline, fuck-you way, so I don't understand people who write and have more responsibilities than I do. I have an extremely demanding, full-time job, and sometimes I decide to take on things like this blog, which take up even more time. [Ok, mostly to put off writing]. I don’t understand people like Toni Morrison who had children and still got up at the crack of dawn and wrote ferociously. Some days I feel like a very bad writer indeed. Constantly kvetching and threatening to give it all up. Mostly, I write to commission, when the guilt of the deadline shifts me into midnight grafting. I think of running through the hills in a frenzy. I consider taking up with a rich and unattractive old man. Again, all things that distract me from writing.
There’s 24 hours in a day. You have to sleep for some of them. That leaves about seventeen hours. Eat, fuck, exercise, have conversations with people, work, and you probably have a fraught half an hour left. If you've decided to have a healthy, balanced life.
Maybe go for tired, stressed, hysterical...but writing, anyway?
Sharon, I dunno.
I do know I'm stubborn as fuck and generally have no life.
You have my deepest sympathies.
PS. I once had morphine in hospital. That sorted everything out. Like, three stories in six hours.
My book felt so exciting at the beginning. Now I'm not so sure any more.
The short, rude answer to your lovely, well-meaning question:
Boy, get a grip and write the damn thing. Life is not a circus to amuse you.
My longer, more thoughtful answer [maybe only a little less rude]:
Writers often lose impetus and excitement ... because they expect to be excited all the time.
I’ve come across a lot of student writers and new writers who expect to feel happy about writing. All the time. Particularly when writing a novel. But the reality is that there are peaks and troughs. Some days you hate the thing. Some days you are stuck. Some days you’re so taken with your own soaring ability you think that you could rule the world.
The point is, writing is work.
You take the good days with the bad. You accept that this is part of the process and trust that a really good day or really good hour will return, because it will if you stick to it.
But there are several other things to consider. Some writers lose impetus after a really passionate beginning because they don't actually understand story, and so they become unhappy because actually they don’t know where to go next or what to do next. So they call themselves rubbish, and they stop. This kind of writer doesn't assume it's all going to be exciting, they're willing to put in the graft, but they're stuck and feel a bit scared. What they need is craft knowledge.
What I know is this: a [traditionally plotted] story has a period of time devoted to orientation, when the writer sets out his stall, and when the reader comes to understand where we are and what we are concerned with and what to worry about; also, a story has a period of time devoted to conflict, when a person or a series of people are challenged by circumstances, or challenged by their own hearts, or challenged by an elephant or challenged by a hurricane or challenged by the aching need for connection, or drugs or meat and that the belly of the novel is concerned with the thousands of ways that human being might dance that dance of resistance and potential change and selfhood, and that at the end of it all, people are not quite the same as they were before. There is a period in a story when we see that change, that shift. It's usually called the end of the story.
When we move through this narrative dance, this structure, bringing our own personal experiences and voices to it, other human beings react viscerally and wish to be part of the dance and lose themselves in the dance.
So learning your craft can keep you excited -- or at least the superior, if duller, cousin of excitement, which is determination -- because you know what’s next. You have a shape, you have a frame. I think that everybody who has ever wanted to write a novel should be required to take one of their favourite books apart. Grab Margaret Atwood or JK Rowling or Ian McKewan and interrogate the magic by pulling it apart. Divide the book into different sections or scenes, and ask yourself of each section: who it's about, who holds the point of view, the section’s purpose/s, the nature of the tension, how the section ends, and any other notes that you think are important about structure and authorial intention. Do this to every single section, on small pieces of card [yes, real paper] and then when you’re done, spread that shit on the floor or a large table and just look at it. I have never met a writer whose perspective didn’t change after doing that meticulous work. I did this one mad summer with McKewan's 'Atonement', Louis de Berneries's 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', Katherine Dunn's 'Geek Love' and Mario Vargas Llosa's FUCK HUGE 'The War At the End Of The World' and nothing was ever the same again.
The final point to be faced here, is the real possibility that your idea is a lemon i.e not good at all. Actually there are two final dreaded points here -- your book could be a lemon, and maybe on top of that, you’re not ready to be a writer.
I know I'm cold.
You find out whether your book is a lemon by studying the craft in ways I have suggested – is there orientation, conflict, change? What is it really about? Seek out a writing group or writing class or a good set of test readers [not your mum!] READ READ READ READ READ. Ask yourself what you’re passionate about, and why you started writing this book in the first place. Put your butt in a seat and rack up the hours and the words. As I suggest to Gina in the first letter, above, identify what it is that want to say. It has to be something that you care about so much or are so fascinated with that you're willing to keep going. Finding out whether you're a real writer -- rather than someone who just wants to be a writer -- may involve asking whether you are stubborn and determined enough to stay the course. In the meantime, you develop a sense of humour about the challenges. You're gentle with yourself when it seems beyond you. You commit yourself to the story. You get hugs.
You put your butt on the chair.
Like, right now.