On Monday, I opened my draft and read through the 5,000+ words I had written in the past week for NaNoWriMo. Let’s forget for a moment that I should probably be somewhere in the 15,000-word range by now. I am still not worried about reaching my goal, and here’s why: after I read through my current draft, I realized that all I had, save for about three pages, was back story, back story, and more back story–you know, all that information one needs to know about a character that isn’t necessarily relevant to the action. At that moment, I realized I needed help.
Like a lot of bookish people, when I need help or inspiration, I turn to books. For many years, like a lot of people out there who are interested in writing, I’ve turned to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. When I need straight-out, get-off-your-butt-and-write-you-can-do-this inspiration, nothing works better than this book. Plus, she’s funny. Take a look:
I know some very great writers, writers who you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can be sure that you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.)
I need to bring up radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked, here…If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. You might as well have heavy-metal music piped in through headphones while you are trying to get your work done. You have to get things quiet so you can hear your characters and let them guide your story.
On Monday, though, I didn’t need inspiration to hear my characters, or to get moving. I needed what I’ll call technical inspiration, or in other words: how do I get off the endless wheel of back story and character description? For that, I turn to a book I recently discovered: Story, by Robert McKee. Technically, this is a book for screenwriters, but it is the best book about the mechanics (if I may be so crass) of writing a story that I have ever read. I’ve taken several workshops, read all kinds of books, have several writer friends, but one thing I’ve never really experienced, outside of this book, is a terrific technical discussion of how stories work. Writers like to talk about ideas, about prompts, about writing exercises, and especially, about other writers. But they don’t always like to break it down, to talk about the technical aspects. I think, in their defense, that this is because they fear people will believe that story can be reduced to a formula. In a sense, it can. But as McKee points out in is books, it is all the specifics one brings to character and story that make it unique. The process need not be mysterious–the characters bring us the mystery of what it is to be people in specific circumstances and reacting to those circumstances in unique ways.
So I spent some time with Mr. McKee (well, with his book), and now I have an idea of how to proceed, of what I need to get on the page. My characters suddenly have someplace to go. It was exactly what I needed to get the story moving again. (And no, I am not starting over. I’ll worry about editing those first 5,000+ words when all is said and done.) I would highly recommend this book to anyone wondering what to do next in a scene or a story, or particularly if you decide your 50,000 words might be better for the screen than for the page.
On that note, the Wall Street Journal had an article this past week entitled “How to Write a Great Novel,” where many well-known published writers discuss their writing process. A few of my favorites:
Orhan Pamuk: Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk often rewrites the first line of his novels 50 or 100 times. “The hardest thing is always the first sentence—that is painful,” says Mr. Pamuk…Mr. Pamuk writes by hand, in graph-paper notebooks, filling a page with prose and leaving the adjacent page blank for revisions, which he inserts with dialogue-like balloons. He sends his notebooks to a speed typist who returns them as typed manuscripts; then he marks the pages up and sends them back to be retyped. The cycle continues three or four times.
Kazuo Ishiguro: He collects his notes in binders and writes a first draft by hand. He edits with a pencil, then types the revised version into a computer, where he further refines it, sometimes deleting chunks as large as 100 pages.
Dan Chaon: His most recent novel, “Await Your Reply,” which has three interlocking narratives about identity theft, started out as scattered pictures of a lighthouse on a prairie, a car driving into the arctic tundra under a midnight sun and a boy and his father driving to the hospital at night with the boy’s severed hand, resting on ice. He described each scene on a card, then began fleshing out the plotlines, alternating among blue, pink and green cards when he moved between narratives.
Margaret Atwood: Ms. Atwood, who has written 13 novels, as well as poetry, short stories and nonfiction works, rarely gets writer’s block. When ideas hit her, she scribbles phrases and notes on napkins, restaurant menus, in the margins of newspapers. She starts with a rough notion of how the story will develop, “which usually turns out to be wrong,” she says. She moves back and forth between writing longhand and on the computer. When a narrative arc starts to take shape, she prints out chapters and arranges them in piles on the floor, and plays with the order by moving piles around.
Amitav Gosh: Amitav Ghosh’s first novel ended in failure. He was in his mid 20s, doing research on agricultural development at a think tank in Kerala, India. He worked on the first draft for a year. “It was terrible and I had to throw it all away,” he says…”It never gets easier; it’s always hard, it’s always a test,” says Mr. Ghosh, who splits his time between Goa, India, and Brooklyn, N.Y. “I’ve reached a point in my life where if a sentence seems easy, I distrust it.”