Develop these 5 Writing Habits for a More Productive Writing Life
Writing advice columns will often tell you to write every day, write a certain number of words a day, keep a journal, or find a writing group. While all of those practices are good, they may not work for you. During my 15 years as a professional writer (I count my years as a “professional” from the date of my first book publication), I’ve noticed a few writing habits that help me be productive and keep my writing practice fresh and lively. After all, when writing is your job, it can begin to feel like a job. That said, it feels like a job I’m very fortunate to have. Just like with any other job, though, I have good days and bad days, days when I can’t wait to get to work and days when I’d rather be hiking or sunning or running off to the movies.
First published in 1998, this book of short stories by the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is just as rich and complex and strange as it was seventeen years ago. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting, and if you haven’t, it’s time to discover the short fiction of Karen Joy Fowler.
The best fiction sucks us in by presenting opening lines we simply can’t walk away from, because they raise so many intriguing questions, and we can’t leave until we have the answers. For this reason, I often begin fiction writing workshops with a study of the opening paragraphs of novels and stories.
What a first line shouldn’t be: boring or overwrought. Nothing is more irritating to me as a reader than when the writer uses the first line to show off, rather than to start a story. Anyone can show off, but it takes something more to let the reader know, in the very first line, that a)you can tell a story and b)you’re about to do just that.
What a first line must be: clear and suggestive. Clear because the reader should not be trying to untangle words in your very first sentence. Suggestive because the line must suggest a character, or a place, or a situation, or a problem, or some combination thereof.
Here are a few of the first (or almost-first) lines from Black Glass:
From The “Elizabeth Complex”:
There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever blamed her father for killing her mother.
At the top of the cliffs was a castle and, inside the castle, a 15-year-old boy. Here is where it gets tricky. What is different and what is the same?
Here is the opening of “Letters From Home:”
I wish you could see me now. You would laugh. I have a husband. I have children.
To whom is the narrator speaking? And why would this person laugh at the notion of her having a husband and children?
We have to know. And so we read on. That’s exactly what great fiction urges us to do.
A Few Things I’d Tell Myself, If I Could Go Back in Time
If I were 22, I’d tell myself that all of those journals I painstakingly kept, scribbling away with colored pens while Enya’s voice spilled out of the boom box, would just end up gathering dust. I’d advise myself to get on with the business of writing fiction instead. I’d tell myself to study some really good stories, like the works of Grace Paley, instead of wallowing in Anais Nin, who always made me feel as though I was not having quite enough sex (although, in retrospect, I was probably having plenty).
A record of one’s days is relentlessly and uselessly Jungian, while a pile of unpublished stories is an education, an apprenticeship, a step in the right direction. I’d tell myself that the sentences I thought were so pretty, with all the linguistic flourishes, were actually just really long. I’d tell myself that there would come a time when I would prefer Steve Forbert to Enya, In n’ Out to Wendy’s, Ismail Kadare to Anais Nin. I’d tell myself that the only passions of my youth that I would still be passionate about in middle age would be solitude, books, and writing.
I’d tell myself that the apartment that came with my internship with Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tennessee, would be the last free apartment I’d ever have, so I ought to enjoy the two bedrooms, large kitchen, and brand new furniture, none of which I had to share. I’d tell myself that when I did start sharing an apartment, with a fellow former intern at a subsidized housing complex across the street from a police station, I should keep it cleaner. I should make greater effort to spend time with my roommate, a nice girl from Ohio, who was a lot of fun.
I would tell myself that I would never outgrow my intense need for solitude.
My desire to be quiet and alone, punctuated by brief bouts of longing for conversations with strangers, would never waver. I’d say, “When you were 11 years old, you preferred to be alone. Now, at 22, you prefer to be alone. When you are twice as old as you are now, you will still prefer to be alone. Not existentially alone, not alone in life, but alone in the moment. It is your nature; embrace it. Don’t feel the need to go out just because young people ‘go out.’ If you want to stay home and write, stay home and write. There is nothing wrong with that.”
I might say, “Less makeup. More sunscreen.” And “Cable-access news is on its way out, faster than you can say pleated jeans.”
I’d tell myself not to worry, that I would not always be poor and uninsured, that I would not always have to pay for necessary surgical procedures on my Visa card or agonize over the purchase of a pair of shoes from Payless. I’d tell myself that the cheap shoes, like the credit card surgery and the tanning salon job that paid $5 an hour and the cable-access news job that paid nothing, were minor bumps on the way to a more comfortable existence.
Oh, I’d tell myself to stop after the third beer and the second shot. Definitely, I’d probably tell myself that.
When the elderly gynecologist patted me on the knee suggestively and whispered that I had a pretty cervix, I would assert that I had every right to slap him. There were a lot of people I should have slapped in those days, but, having been raised in a Southern Baptist church where teenaged girls were referred to as “righteous foxes,” I was conditioned to graciously accept shady compliments from men in positions of authority.
I’d tell myself to end the engagement to the sociopath sooner, and to be kinder to the next fellow, who was and is a very good man. I’d tell myself that the sociopath and the very good man would both soon be a matter of history, anyway, because in a couple of years I would walk into a stuffy classroom in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on the first day of my MFA program, and meet my life head on. I’d tell myself that this would be a good time to forgo the small talk and quote Grace Paley instead: “Hello, My Life.”
I’d tell myself to keep the shoes and the dress I wore on that irreversibly significant day, and to throw away a lot of other stuff, instead of carrying it with me from apartment to apartment, house to house, for many years, watching it expand, sponge-like, to fit whatever space I lived in.
I'd tell myself that a decade seems long until it's behind you.
That the shortest decade I would ever experience would be the one between my son’s birth and his tenth birthday. That on a spring day in 2015, the boy who once felt as light in my arms as a loaf of bread would look up at me and say, “I bet I can pick you up.” And then he would pick me up. And I would realize that the next decade would move even faster than the last, and I better hang on and practice “being in the moment,” a skill for which there would one day be many helpful apps.
“What are apps?” my 22 year old self would surely ask. To which I would reply, “I really can’t explain it.”
I’d tell myself that the next twenty years would be okay. That all the places I couldn’t imagine going, I’d eventually get to.
I’d tell myself that I would work in Beijing, and I would work in the Empire State Building, and I’d see the Northern Lights in Iceland, and I’d ride a bus through Patagonia to Ushuaia, the town “at the end of the world,” that I’d honeymoon in Budapest and take my kid swimming in Oslo’s public baths during a startlingly warm Norwegian summer, that I’d get lost on a mountain in a thunderstorm in Slovenia and be rescued by a troop of young boys who, many years later, would find me on a thing called Facebook, which was on a thing called the Internet, which predated those things called apps.
I’d tell myself not to lose the photograph my boyfriend took of me with my parents on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty in 1999, the last photo of the three of us together. In a few months my parents would be divorced, my boyfriend would be my betrothed, and we’d be on our way to San Francisco, the city of my dreams. In the photo, my parents, who have not yet told me about their plans to end their thirty-year marriage, stand on either side of me, and in the background, the Twin Towers rise up, so ugly and imposing, and yet, it seemed, so reassuringly permanent.
If I were 22, I’d say, “Don’t worry, you’ll keep writing.”
Because the need to write would never go away, and through every bump in the road that desire would keep me going. It would always be what I came back to, my parachute in case of tragedy, my planned soft landing. Well, if A, B, or C happens, at least I can write about it. Though, deep down, I understood that, in the face of real tragedy, it was quite possible that I would cease to write. Because words can only take you so far. Because there is such a thing as the unspeakable.
More optimistically, I’d remind myself that I was young: at 22, I couldn’t wrap my mind around that fact. At 22, I believed my time was very short, that I must do and experience everything as soon as possible. I’d tell myself that, one day, life would indeed be short, but for now, the road ahead was long and meandering, and scary and sometimes dangerous, and often not very easy, and yet, mostly wonderful. I would tell myself that the next twenty years would bring more happiness than I expected, less turmoil than I feared, and, blessing of blessings, nothing I couldn’t handle. I’d tell myself to stop worrying so much, and just get on with the ride.
This post was inspired by the #IfIWere22 tag on linkedin.
Looking for something good to read that’s shorter than a book but longer than a blog post? Here are a few well-researched, well-written essays and articles from the past few months that I keep coming back to:
Why clear explanations are a matter of kindness, not to mention good storytelling
I recently came across Paris Review interview with Haruki Murakami. When asked how he chooses his story line and his voice, Murakami says,
I get some images and connect one piece to another. That’s the story line. Then I explain the story line to the reader. You should be very kind when you explain something. If you think, it’s okay; I know that, it’s a very arrogant thing. Easy words and good metaphors; good allegory. So that’s what I do. I explain everything very carefully and clearly.
I love the way Murakami connects authorial kindness with the reading experience. There is no place for arrogance in good storytelling. If you come from a place of, “The reader can figure it out,” you may be coming from a place of arrogance. Yes, reading is an active experience that requires thought, but reading should not necessarily require high wire acts of mental gymnastics.
Often, a lack of explanation comes not from arrogance, but from a genuine misunderstanding of what has actually made it onto the page. In this case, you’ll be well-served by having a trusted reader explain the story as he or she sees it. Listen openly, not defensively. Then, look for the missing links. What did you think was on the page that your trusted reader hasn’t figured out? If the reader’s experience of the story differs wildly from your intent, it can be tempting to blame the reader. “It’s there!” you might say. “On page 67, I mentioned how…”
But remember this: it isn’t the reader’s job to understand things that are opaque, to “get” something that is buried under layers of overwriting. No, it is the writer’s job to make things clear.
When you think about how to present your story to the reader, carefully and clearly should be your mantra. Carefully because each word matters, and clearly because clarity is the sign of a well-thought out story and a strong narrative voice. One of the highest compliments I can put in the margins of a book I’m editing is, “Yes, direct and clear!”
What the reader wants is:
clarity of story line
clarity of character motivation
clarity of language
Whether you’re writing a very literary novel, a mystery, or a memoir, most readers will appreciate directness. Tension arises from the choices characters are confronted with, how they respond to those choices, and the way in which the various puzzle pieces of your story are aligned–not from a sense of confusion intentionally introduced by the author.
I think Murakami is the perfect writer to deliver this message, because his novels are so complex and nuanced. His books are proof that one can be both straightforward and intellectually challenging; one can write with clarity and complexity. The two are not mutually exclusive.