A Few Thoughts on the Writing Process

If you’re a writer and have been writing for a while, you know the experience of pouring yourself into something and coming to a point, eventually, of feeling like it’s ready. Then you come back to it a few months later and revision is much easier. Things you thought were perfect now seem a little clanky, and something (time, distance, rest, other pursuits, other work, good reading) has given you the ability to make them right. You tighten things up, make hard (even emotional) cuts, and now you know it’s ready. This happens two or three more times. That’s the process, isn’t it? It seems to be for me.

The only way I know to become a better writer is to keep writing, keep reading, and keep building in some opportunities for distance. Stay intellectually curious. Study the mechanics of your art. Listen to great lectures. Get feedback. Keep going.

I come back to these words often:

“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you’ll dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it to the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.” (Ernest Hemingway)

Or, as Ann Hood says, “blow it up.” I come back to those words, too.

Great Book News from Some Writers I Don’t Know, Do Know, and Kind of Know

I don’t know Heather Poole, but my wife does.  Heather’s memoir, Cruising Altitude, came out today and she’s been all over radio and print.  Next week she’s on 20/20.  Congratulations, Heather!

Heather is a flight attendant, as was a writer I do know: the amazing Ann Hood.  Ann’s very successful novel The Knitting Circle is being made into a movie by HBO with Katherine Heigl starring and producing.

Clay Morgan, who writes a great blog called Educlaytion, just announced that he sold his first book to Abingdon Press.  Way to go, Clay!

Kyle Minor recently singed on with agent Katherine Fausset of Curtis Brown.  She’ll be representing and, I’m quite sure, selling, his new manuscript in short order. Kyle is a gracious dude and one the hardest-working writers I’ve seen on the web.  His talent and production are going to take him very far.

I’m very inspired but what all of these folks are doing.

Novel Progress: 3000 Words In Three Days

Ray Bradbury
My production role model. Ray Bradbury via Wikipedia.

I’m on a roll, and I thought you should know.   I had a low day yesterday at 300, but sailed through 1700 hundred today.  There’s no finer feeling in this process than organic production, the joy of the flow, the subconscious tying together of threads and layers, the dropping of symbols, the way your brain works when you let it. But (and if you’re a writer, I know you know this), you don’t ever start there.  You have to do the grueling, embarrassing, tiring footwork to break into those times you’re writing from what our cousins the athletes call The Zone.  You’ve heard of Kevin Garnett “playing out of his mind”?  Writing can be just like that when you consciously train it to do subconscious work.  The key here is work: just ask Ray Bradbury.

Not long ago I heard a sort of writing koan that went something like this:

“If you read one hundred poets, you’ll sound like one hundred poets.  If you read one thousand poets, you’ll sound like yourself.”

In the linked post from a blog called Screenwriting From Iowa, Bradbury talks about writing 1000 words a day for 10 years before finding his voice.  Now I’m not saying it will take everyone that long, but the point here is commitment, sweat equity, effort.  The point here is to write through the desires not to, to write through to your sweet spot, to write enough crap to know what isn’t.

A huge part of my productivity comes from being forced to look at my work through different eyes via workshops, peer groups, and input from professors and my thesis advisor.  Recently, I finally took some oft-quoted, not-heeded advice about writing in general from Ann Hood.  Namely, blow it up.  For me, blowing it up means messing with structure, order, and my preconceived notions about the book’s main conceits.  I’m not saying your epic tales should be written by committee. I am saying that I know my advisor and my peers are right about what’s lacking in the story so far.  Addressing those needs s up to me.  And so I shall. And so I am.

Rest assured, friends, this novel will be finished by May 1.  Do stay tuned.

Writing and Revising with Ann Hood and Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

When I was in my MFA program, I felt like the luckiest person in the world.  My classmates were amazing, my teachers brilliant.  My job in that course of study was to learn, as best I could, how to build a story.  Ann Hood told us that whatever our latent talent, we were there to learn how fiction works, and how and why it doesn’t.  She taught us to be merciless with the things we thought we’d been so clever about, and, in short, to blow them up.

Joseph Conrad reminds us that revision literally means to see anew.  Ann might say that revision isn’t a necessary evil but a necessary good.  Someone else said “anyone can write, but only a writer can revise.”   Most honest writers will tell you that the story is really written in the revision.

Beginning writers sometimes feel so beholden to their initial muse that they mystify everything and end up producing very little.  Writing is a craft.  Yes, it requires inspiration.  There are days when I stare at the page or the screen and do very little with my hands.  Then there are days when the ideas and language flow.  I can’t control which day is which, but I can do by best, on the slow days, to prepare myself for the fast ones.  The later are more thrilling, for sure.  But they don’t come without the former.  Feeling stuck?  Read a book.  Watch a well-written show.  Listen to a song that keeps raising the narrative stakes.