5 Truths About Writing I Wish I’d Known 20 Years Ago

Last week, I visited California College of the Arts to talk to the current crop of MFA candidates about writing and publishing. I taught at CCA for several years, several years ago, but somewhere along the line I quit teaching in order to spend more time writing. I always enjoyed teaching, though, and it was good to be back there, talking to students who are at the stage I was almost twenty years ago, and who have most of the same concerns that I had at that age.

I hadn’t really prepared anything for my talk, because when you’ve been writing for as long as I have, there’s nothing easier to talk about than writing. It’s like asking a chef to talk about food. Somewhere along the line, it comes naturally. More naturally, probably, than even the writing itself, which has its good days and its bad days. Some days, writing is like drinking water; it feels completely natural. Some days, it’s like drinking lighter fluid; it feels not only unnatural, but also painful.

I asked the students what they wanted to hear about. Were they interested in the publishing world? They were. I talked a bit about that—how it was when I was coming up, and how it’s changed, and why it’s still important to have both a trusted agent and a trusted reader. The conversation veered a bit, and I find myself sounding something like an old-timer, giving the “what I wish I’d known back then” talk. It wasn’t a talk I’d given before, but it just sort of started to roll off of my tongue, because what the students really wanted to know about was the writing life: how to do it, and how to sustain it, and if it was possible, and how.

The why, they didn’t really need to know, because if they did, they wouldn’t be pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. The why for any writer comes down to this: if you’re not writing, you’re not happy. Therefore, you write. Of course, that reasoning implies that writing will always make you happy. For many people, that’s not true at all. What I should say is: when you’re not writing, you’re not fulfilled. That’s better. Want to know if you are really and truly a writer? When you go long periods without writing, you feel a bit empty. When you write well, or at least productively, you feel fulfilled, and often, if you’re lucky, even happy.

Thank you for bearing with me. It’s been, I realize, a long and meandering path so far. But that’s what the writing life is like, and that’s why we’re lucky, and that’s the first thing I wish I’d known about writing twenty years ago: (click Read More to continue to WRITING TRUTH NUMBER 1) (more…)

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Stephen King on Writing, Grammar, & Work

Stephen King recently sat down with Jessica Lahey of The Atlantic Monthly to talk about teaching writing. King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of my favorite books on writing ever written. I love it for its accessibility, its wisdom, its lucidity, and its utter lack of pretension.

Lahey gained a new respect for the book when she used it to unlock her students’ resistance  while teaching writing in a residential drug and rehab program for teens.

At one point, Lahey asks King about the relevance of teaching grammar in classrooms. “Why bother to name the parts?” she asks, if someone “either absorbs the principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” Here is King’s response:

When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

I like the idea of demystifying writing, of naming the parts in order to make them less lofty and unattainable. The key here, though, is that we learn what we hear, and if we hear the wrong thing from an early age, we will have to retrain ourselves.

Read the entire interview, How Stephen King Teaches Writing.

Or get the book.

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Writers on Writing – Willa Cather on “Making It an Adventure”

In 1921, Willa Cather told an editor for the magazine Bookman that she only worked for two and a half to three hours each day. “If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die,” she said. “I make it an adventure every day.”

Like so many other writers, Cather preferred working in the morning when she was “fresh” and unencumbered by the day’s concerns. I always prefer working in the morning, too, although my intentions are far better than my practice. For me, the key is getting up early enough to give myself at least an hour before I switch to “mom” mode, which means getting up not a minute later than 5:00. I go to bed most nights believing I will be out of bed by 5:00 the next morning, and then I roll out of bed closer to 6:30 or 7:00, chastising myself and promising to do better tomorrow.

Today was one of those rare days when I happened to live up to my nightly vow. By 5:05 I was at my desk with my coffee, writing. By 6:30, I had written three and a half pages. Those three and a half pages felt more like 20; I felt triumphant, as if I had accomplished a great deal.

And it only took one and a half hours! Cather is on to something here. If you work in short spurts–two hours instead of five–every minute of it is more likely to feel like an adventure. If you can’t afford two hours, try one. If you can’t afford an hour, try thirty minutes. University of Nebraska Press has published a whole book of Cather’s insightful advice on writing, with the utterly unpretentious and spot-on title, Willa Cather on Writing.

Alice Munro, by the way, is a writer who accomplished much of her early success while juggling writing with motherhood. First, she wrote while her youngest child napped, and later, she wrote while her children were at school. Toni Morrison’s time was so limited as a single mother with a nine-to-five job that the time she did manage to find at the typewriter was rich with possibility. “By the time I get to the paper something’s there,” she said. “I can produce.”

No matter when you are able to make it to your writing desk, or your notebook, try to approach it as an adventure, not a chore. Merely having the privilege of an hour to write can be an adventure in itself.

This week, when you sit down to write, attempt to do it with a sense of enthusiasm for the hour that you have, the hour that will never repeat itself, this spectacular, beautiful, unique hour in which anything can happen.

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How to Get Past Fear and Procrastination and Write Your Novel

Anyone who tells you that writing a novel is easy has probably never written one. Here are the five most common statements I hear from people who are struggling to write a novel:

I don’t know where to begin.

I’ve written a few chapters, but I can’t figure out where to go from here.

I have a great idea for a novel, but the idea of actually sitting down and writing it feels too daunting.

I’ve heard you’re supposed to write an outline for your novel, so I did. Now what?

I’ve actually written a novel before, but I put it away because it isn’t good enough to send out.

No magic formula.
If you find yourself nodding your head to any of these statements, I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a novel. Writing a novel comes with no guarantee of publication, of success, of sales, of an audience. But if you’re reading this email, you probably know all that already. And I believe that you’ve already made up your mind about one thing: writing a novel is worth the time and effort, the headaches, the inevitable state of not knowing what will happen to the book into which you’ve poured your heart and soul.

You don’t have to know where you’re going.

Too often, novels don’t get written because writers think they have to know exactly where the novel is going before they begin. I worked on my breakout novel, The Year of Fog, for more than a year before I knew what would happen to the child who was kidnapped in chapter one. A year! Most of the how-to books on novel writing will tell you to sit down and write an outline first, and start writing your novel later. My approach is the opposite. There actually will come a time to write an outline, but not until you’re deep into the book, with some key chapters and scenes already written.

Try this:

While I’ve never found a formula for writing, what I have found is a process. It works for me. It has worked for many of my students.

Here are the 4 basic principles.

1.Get some stuff on the page. Write a few key scenes, and fill them with significant detail. Don’t write what you know, necessarily, but write what you care about.

2.Figure out who your characters are and what makes them tick.

3.Put it all together using a process of arrangement that involves your primary story arc, at least one subplot, and thematic associations that add depth and interest to your story.

4.Revise the novel using a revision checklist. Make sure the first 50 pages will catch the attention of one (or all) of these three key people: agent, publisher, reader. Send it out.

I call this process The Paperclip Method.

What’s different about The Paperclip Method is that it doesn’t ask you to know what your story means or where it goes when you begin. It is, instead, a highly intuitive process that requires you to simply enjoy the writing first, and make the tough decisions about what goes where later. Sounds like procrastination, but it’s really about discovery. So often, when working with private clients, I’ll praise a particular section of the book for its naturalness, for the fluidity of the writing and the complexity of the characters. Often, the surprised writer will say, “But that was one of the easiest chapters to write!”

 

Letting go of the inner tension

I think what’s happened in these sections is that the writer has let go of the inner tension of trying to make the passage fit into a predefined idea, and has, instead, written about what mattered to them in the story.

Forget you’re writing a novel.

So, if you’ve been holding back on your novel because it scared you, or because you got stuck, or because you simply didn’t know where to go, my primary advice would be to forget for a moment that you’re writing a novel.

Instead, begin here:
“I want to write this story because…”

Follow that up with:
“I care about these characters because…”

Then, see where it takes you! You might be surprised.

Learn more about writing your novel with The Paperclip Method.

 

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