A treasury of writing wisdom

goldfish

As I near the end of my 50,000 word goal (6,500 words away!!), I find myself in need of a little encouragement. The NaNoWriMo organizers said that Week 2 was supposed to be the hardest, after the novelty wears off and you’ve gotten through the rush of first ideas. In my case, they’re wrong. My rush of first ideas somehow lasted three whole weeks, and now that I am SO close to the end, I feel like my head is going to explode.

And so I went to revisit all the Pep Talks that have been sent out over the month. You see, as the insanity that is NaNoWriMo progresses, we get weekly pep-talk emails from various published authors who are entitled to give advice because they’ve Made It Big. I find some of the advice has been so lovely, that I’d like to pass it on. All of it relates to struggling through that first draft, ugly, unweildy beast that it is.

Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo Founder and Director, on the excitement of getting started:

I can’t help but feel giddy as I ponder questions like: Will this be the best novel I’ve ever written? And, secretly: Will this be the best novel ever written in the history of humankind?

Because it really could be.

Then the writing starts, and by the second sentence, two new questions have occurred to me. Namely: What am I doing? And: Could this be the worst novel ever written in the history of humankind?

And you know what? It really could be. But that’s fine.

A second excerpt from that same pep-talk:

The books we write in November won’t start out like the novels we buy in bookstores. Because the novels we buy in bookstores didn’t start out like bookstore-novels either.

That is very reassuring, because mine is a ridiculously jumbled mess, full of bad grammar and worse cliches.

Jonathan Stroud, author of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, has my admiration for saying that he drags his novels “kicking and screaming into existence.” That is a wonderful mental image. Also, his thoughts on the ease of writing:

If “inspiration” is when the words just flow out, each one falling correctly on the page, I’ve been inspired precisely once in ten years. All the rest of the time, as I’ve been piecing together my seven novels, it’s been a more or less painful effort.

And on the joy of creation:

Alchemists tried for centuries to turn base metals into gold. Every time we sit down and put words on paper, we succeed where they failed. We’re conjuring something out of nothing.

Phillip Pullman, author of the Golden Compass Trilogy, was a bit lectury about the importance of regular work in his pep-talk, but this little gem is definitely true and important to remember:

…a bad day’s work is a lot better than no day’s work at all. At least if you’ve written 500 words, or 1000 words, or whatever you discover is your most comfortable daily rate of production, the words are there to work on later. And when you do visit them in a month’s time, or whenever it is, you often find that they’re not so bad after all.

Now back to Chris Baty for his Week Two pep-talk. I adore him because he pulls out the most random things. Thus:

Week One of NaNoWriMo tends to be all about characters. Our imaginations have been leaving a lot of them on our doorsteps lately, and it’s pretty much all we can do to bring them in, give them names, and teach them the rudiments of steering their battle-yaks.

Battle Yaks?? Awesome. That’s what I forgot to do with my characters before setting them loose. Now, on the pain and distress of Week Two:

Enthusiasm dwindles, fatigue rises, and we begin squinting at our manuscripts, thinking, “This derivative pile of crap is my literary statement to the world?”

Was he IN my BRAIN when he wrote that??

And now my favorite writing metaphor to date, compliments of Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge Terabithia and many other wonderful books:

I live in Barre, Vermont which calls itself the “Granite Capital of the World.” Outside our town are enormous quarries, so when I speak in local schools every child has a mental picture of a granite quarry. “You know how hard it is to get granite out of the quarry,” I say. “You have to carefully score the rock and put the explosive in to make the great granite block break loose from the face of the stone. Then you have to attach the block to the chains so that the cranes can lift it slowly out of the hole and put it on the waiting truck. That’s the first draft. It’s hard, dangerous work, and when you’ve finished, all you’ve really got is a block of stone. But now you have something now to work on. Now you can take your block down to the shed to carve and polish it and turn it into something of beauty. That’s revision.”

I absolutely adore the idea of writing as a dangerous undertaking. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “I feared nothing. That was foolish of me. A writer off-guard, since the materials with which he works are so dangerous, can expect agony quick as a thunderclap.” But it’s all worth it, and when you’re done, you have this lumpy chunk of first draft to carve up into a beautiful sculpture of a novel. I think this is a step that so many would-be authors forget about: your novel needs a first draft, and the first draft is not going to be wonderful.

My friend Margit (who is a published author, and therefore eligible to hand out advice) compared this to the 10,000 pots theory which, while I don’t think she invented, she gets credit for because she told it to me. If you want to be a master potter, you don’t sit down and create a perfect pot on your first try. You sit down and start cranking out pots. Maybe your first 9,000 pots are crap, but you get better and better as you go, so that when you have 1,000 wonderful pots, you’ve really accomplished something. (I’m paraphrasing what I’m sure was more elloquent in her own words – sorry Margit!)

Okay, back to highlighting the pep-talks. Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries, cracked me up with her description of the follies of cheating on your work in progress with a newer, shinier story:

…the new story always seems better than that old busted up, out-of-control story you’ve been working on for so long.  That new story has the aura of dewy freshness to it.  It’s calling to you!  It’s all, “Yoo-hoo…look at me!  I don’t have any plot problems and my characters are way-intriguing and some of them wear leather jackets and oh, yeah, you know that weird transition thing you’ve got going on near chapter four that you can’t figure out?  I don’t have that!”
I know.  It sounds good.

But how long until some other story idea comes along and twitches its enticing little characters at you, and you decide to abandon this new one for it?  How many words will you have then?

I have suffered from the inability to be monogamous to a story since I was 7 years old. I have whole notebooks full of started stories that were abandoned because other stories needed to be started instead.

Back to Chris Baty for the Week Three “get-to-30,000-words-no-matter-what-you-have-to-do” pep-talk:

If you need to have your characters sing “American Pie” in its entirety or recite some of their favorite passages from telephone books, so be it.

Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, passes out some really invaluable advice about characters and conflict:

When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

the essence of fiction writing is creating a character you love and, frankly, torturing him. You are both sadist and savior. Find the thing he loves most and take it away from him. Find the thing he fears  and shove him shoulder deep into it. Find the person who is absolutely worst for him and have him delivered into that character’s hands. Having him make a choice which is absolutely wrong.

I knew this already from my nerd club, but I really could have used the pointer about Day 4. I had somehow concocted a complete premise with no conflict. Duh. Realism is not fun!

Now, from Chris Baty’s Week Four talk, I’ll share with you the entertaining opening metaphor, and let you figure out for yourself where he’s going with it:

Between my apartment and the Office of Letters and Light, there is a monster of a hill. I bike to work, and I always take a long route that steers me safely around the behemoth. I do this because I have the calf muscles of a goldfish, and because I’ve developed an aversion to feeling like I’m going to die first thing in the morning.

But yesterday, I summoned all my courage and headed up the mountain. My word count wasand still isstuck in the low 30,000s, and I wanted to ride the hill to remind myself what the 40,000s in NaNoWriMo felt like. After struggling through an ordeal in which my lungs felt like twin meat-logs roasting on gyro spits, and my heart beat so fast that I feared it was going to try and make an emergency exit through my nose, I reached the top.

I love Chris Baty.

And those are all my pep-talks to date. I think I’ll get two more before it’s all done, and if they’re good, I’ll let you know. Until then, I need to stop procrastinating in every way I know how, and get some writing done!

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2 thoughts on “A treasury of writing wisdom

  1. Hey! Nice to see some alumni action on the WC blog! If you’re at all interested, we’re looking to start including alumni features – it can be anything you want, but some ideas might be life updates (what you’re doing, job, grad school, travel, marriage, baby makin’, etc.), WC memories, photos (old or new), even stories or poems. Leave a comment or email (jashaw@coe.edu) if you’re interested, and spread the word!

    –Jenna

    PS: Good luck with the NaNoWriMo.

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