“Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people will throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”
A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, 1919
Note: “picture palaces” = elaborate movie theatres
Over the weekend, I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline. No doubt, he’s received criticism for his ideas. But I’m not here to add to that.
Smith’s advice runs counter to most books I’ve read. Not only does he recommend writing without an outline, his Rule #3 states that after you’ve finished the first draft, you should not rewrite. Period.
He also says he never rereads his stories after he finishes them.
Yikes! What a terrifying thought! Like choosing a pair of pants and a shirt from your closet with your eyes closed, then leaving the house for a job interview without checking the mirror.
In truth, Smith does reread small segments. His method involves “cycles” of revision. He writes a few hundred words, revises, then writes a few hundred more. He “outlines” as he goes, jotting down a summary of each finished chapter. But he doesn’t know where his story is going. Like Abraham in the Old Testament who left his home “not knowing whither he went.”
Mapping Out the Story
Each day, we live our lives into the unknown. We set goals and make plans to reduce uncertainty, but if we are too dogged with our agenda, we become rigid. Predictable. Boring. And bored.
And this can happen with our writing as well.
I’ve been reading books about story structure, trying oh-so-hard to outline, and using software designed to micromanage my story’s plot, themes, setting, and characters. There’s nothing wrong with approaching the craft this way. It works for a lot of authors.
And yet, I can’t find a compelling reason to keep writing. There’s nothing to explore. I’m bored with the story before I’ve started the rough draft.
Tossing Out the Map
Though I can’t embrace all of Dean Wesley Smith’s recommendations, here are three take-aways from his book:
“Enjoy the Uncertainty”
Replace fear of the unknown with excitement, and enjoy the random ideas that take you — and your readers — to unexpected places.
Don’t forget to have fun! This means playing with a sense of wonder or absurdity:
Your shy, introverted heroine stepped into the bakery for a gluten-free, low-carb, lemon curd Danish, but she robbed the place instead! And the ATM on the corner shot out classified documents instead of cash….
“Think for Yourself”
In D.W.S.’s words:
“All writers write differently. And that includes you. My way of producing words won’t be correct for anyone but me. So instead of listening to others looking for the secret, just go home, sit down at your writing computer, and experiment with every different form and method until you find the way that produces selling fiction that readers like and buy. Find your own way to produce words that sell.”
Writing into the Dark is a counterweight for those who advocate extreme outlining. If you’ve lost your creative spark or your enjoyment of writing, this book is for you.
by Meg Dowell You don’t know which projects are going to succeed, and which ones are going to fail. Many people assume that because I’ve been writing for a long time, I now do so professionally, and I give advice on my blog, I’m the expert who knows it all. And with that […]
I got an email rejection letter today. It’s not the first.
I printed it out for posterity. Stephen King tacked all his rejection slips to the wall. He thought it was important to keep them, so I will, too. (Not that I’m in the same class as Stephen King.)
“By the time I was fourteen, the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” from On Writing
By the time I was fourteen…
Wow! I need more rejection slips!
They are proof that I’m actually writing and submitting. Rejection letters are not signs of failure, but records of my effort.
Not dead ends, but detours to different paths.
Stories abound of famous writers who were rejected but persevered, winning literary prizes and becoming best-selling authors. Hemingway. John Grisham. Madeline L’Engle. Rudyard Kipling.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected twelve times before publication. (Not that I’m in the same class as J.K. Rowling either.)
Rejection letters can be excellent motivators, unless you consider them the last word on your manuscript’s value, which you should not do. And they should never be used as an excuse to quit altogether.
Creating is hard. So is trudging through the Sahara without a canteen. If you’re in need of a cool drink, pick up a copy of Cartoonist Stephen McCranie’s book, Brick by Brick: Principles for Achieving Artistic Mastery.
Beautiful and wise, Brick by Brick has taught me about the creative mindset in a way few other books have. It’s packed full of insight and whimsical artwork drawn in soft shades of peach, brown, and aqua.
The title comes from the idea that a tower is built one brick at a time. “That means your measure for success is not how tall your tower is, but whether or not you’ve laid your bricks for the day” (p. 16).
In the introduction, McCranie says the comic essays stemmed from what he’d learned in his first two years as a professional cartoonist. He realized his experience might help other artists, but rather than tell artists how to create, this would be a “book about how to be a creator.” More than a “how to” manual, it’s a “how to be” book.
The comic format, a harmony of illustration and prose, grabs me in a way other books on the creative process have not. It’s written with honesty about his own failures, his struggles with self-doubt, and the principles that got him on the right track.
With a hearty dash of humor (I love his “deadlinosaurus rex”), he warns us to set realistic goals, break them down into small steps, and plan “backwards so you can live forwards” (p. 29). He offers tips to improve your craft and stay motivated while avoiding potholes along the journey.
The most helpful chapter for me (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is “You Are Not Your Art” – a pep talk for anyone who has invested too much of their identity in their creative pursuit.
“Hug the Elephant” is an insightful peek into the nature of beauty. “Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect” explores how to improve your skill by studying the experts in your field, and he gives tips to learn through imitation.
Other section titles include:
“Turn Your Pain into Plans”
“Planning for the Possible”
“Two Fallacies to Watch Out For”
“Taste is your Teacher”
“Be Friends with Failure”
“Know Your Artistic Lineage”
“Diversify Your Study”
“Get Stuff Done”
“Fun Gets Done”
“Divide and Conquer”
When I flip the last page of the “Conclusion,” my vision is sharper, and I’m motivated to follow McCranie’s advice: “Go outside and look for dragons.” Creatives of all types will find Brick by Brick amusing and inspiring.
Writers, artists, dreamers, read this book. It’s nothing short of powerful. You can buy it on Amazon or on McCranie’s website doodlealley.com where you’ll find more resources and see a sample of his drawing style.
Update: Yesterday, I received a copy of McCranie’s newest book, Space Boy. If it’s half as honest and uplifting as Brick by Brick, it will be well worth the read.
Ah, there’s nothing like being infatuated with a new story idea.
I’m over-the-moon excited when a fresh tale is brewing in my mind, because this one will be the best ever! I’m prone to rush headlong into my manuscript, hitting the juicy highlights of the narrative. But the devil is in the details…
The Problem of Weak Writing
“Details.” That’s what my literature professor said I lacked when I (tearfully) asked her why I couldn’t earn more than a B on my papers. What I thought were precise essays were actually vague. And boring.
The fix? Brainstorming. For the next essay, I chose my topic, then I made a list of all the relevant ideas I could think of beforeI sat down to write. The result? An A.
Details — especially those involving the senses — breathe life into a story and cast a spell of verisimilitude that pulls in the reader: The hour-glass birthmark on your antagonist’s forehead. The leaning tower of books in the den and the frayed fabric on the easy chair. The way your protagonist’s mouth quivers before she answers her opponent.
Without them, characters are lackluster, rooms are empty, and plot holes abound.
How can you imagine all those necessary details?
Draw from everyday experiences.
Even mundane items — small things — can lead to big developments. For example, simple clues — a ladybug tattoo, a missing key, a white pill — may identify the murderer in a who-done-it.
I like to carry a notepad in my pocket as I go through my day and jot down my observations, or record them in a voice memo on my phone.
Here are a few little details I noted while doing my morning chores. I may use them in my new masterpiece novella:
Outside my kitchen window, the yellow faces of sunflowers swayed in the wind.
Bacon popped in the microwave, and the aroma filled the room.
I accidentally hit the lever on the mixer while it was in the up position. The paddle spun at high speed and slung muffin batter all over the kitchen — and me.
Upside-down bats lined the wooden frame over the barn door.
I might use the mixer episode in a humorous scene as my protagonist tries to impress a potential love interest who works as a chef. Or the image of the bats would enhance a gloomy, suspenseful atmosphere in a mystery. You get the idea.
Natalie Goldberg says this in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:
“Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else….Using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.”
How do you mine your everyday life for ideas? Let me know in the comments.
Have you thought about giving up this writing thing?
Have you wondered if you should devote so much time to this endeavor? Whether you should risk your sanity for it?
Is it worth all the SACRIFICE when you get so little in return? So little validation. So many rejection letters.
No money. Nil.
Or perhaps your half-finished story has never seen the light of day. You’ve hidden it in a drawer or on a hard drive, too afraid to show anyone. Too afraid to finish.
Meanwhile, your writer friends publish their work, get noticed, climb the rankings on Amazon. A few have published with the Big Five, won Pulitzers, and made millions. These may or may not be your personal friends, but they write the books you read.
You suspect your writing is not on the same level as theirs. You feel like a dandelion amongst roses. Like Ira Glass explained, a gap exists between what you admire – your taste – and your ability.
Should You Quit?
Perhaps the better question is, Can you quit?
Discouragement sets in because writing is hard. Believe me, crocheting is much easier. Or knitting.
Can you give it up and keep your sanity? If the answer is yes, then you can take up a more rewarding hobby. Like knitting. (I’m not knocking knitting. I have two projects going right now.)
Or maybe you’ll choose to do the hard thing because you want to write. Or you need to write. And you hate knitting.
And maybe you’ll decide that success isn’t measured by rankings or money or even popularity. Maybe success means making a small difference in the world.
Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It
STAY THE COURSE. Don’t give up.
No one else can write with your unique perspective, with your experiences, your voice.
You might object, “Too many voices are clamoring to be heard already!”
But none of them are yours. You are the only one who can write your way. You are the only one with your voice.
If you study the craft, if you do the work, you WILL inspire someone else. If your story, poem, picture or post can help one, anonymous person, is it worth it?
Keep writing. Accumulate a body of work, and your influence will grow. You may not win a Pulitzer. You may never make a bestseller list. But you will reach the right people – your people – with your authentic words.
One bright morning, my husband and I flew in his little Maule MX-7 from our crooked, grass strip to his parent’s house sixty miles away. As we cruised toward the sun, a few cotton-ball clouds dotted the patchwork of fields below us, but the skies above were clear.
Ten minutes later, a solid white blanket cloaked the ground.
Fog is intimidating when you’re on the road, but it’s downright hair-raising from the air, especially for this white-knuckle flyer.
After vowing silently never to fly again, I pointed out the obvious to my husband. “We can’t land in this!”
“It’ll lift before we get there,” he said, his hands firmly on the control wheel.
We followed the straight line on the GPS screen until we reached the destination point — his father’s farm. We circled the area and searched for an opening in the clouds but found none.
Anxiety taunted me: What if the fog doesn’t lift for hours! The plane will run out of fuel!
We circled again. I prayed, HARD. After one more go-around, the summer sun burned a hole in the fleecy cover, and we were able to land.
Despite my doubts, my husband knew what he was doing. He had studied the forecast and knew the weather conditions – dew point, temperature, and wind – were improving.
How Are Your Writing Conditions?
Sometimes, even the most conscientious scribblers inadvertently create their own WRITING FOG — a hazy state of confusion and bewilderment. Momentum slows, and finishing — or starting – a project becomes a tricky prospect.
If this occurs while you’re working on a story, you can’t see where the plot is heading. Or maybe your theme becomes fuzzy.
You may encounter Writing Fog between projects: one work is complete, but your vision for the next is blurry. You become disoriented, panicky, uncertain of your goals. You’re afraid you’ve lost creative energy. You’re afraid of crashing.
What Causes Fogginess?
Lack of planning. When I was a homeschooling mom, I was a dedicated (compulsive) planner. I scheduled every thirty minutes of my day. If I didn’t, I couldn’t get the laundry done. Or the meals. Or anything.
But I reached a point where my ever-increasing To Do list was making me nervous. So, I swung to the opposite extreme and NEVER made a schedule. No plans, no calendars, no lists. This also had its problems, such as missed appointments, late bills, and a serious lack of focus.
Winging it with your writing will give you similar results. That’s not to say you must write a fifty-page outline before you draft your story. And it’s okay if you can’t envision exactly what your next project will be. But a little planning can prevent you from getting lost. Think of it as GPS for authors.
This condition is a symptom of the never-ending, futile quest for Perfection. It’s a trap. A labyrinth of circular thoughts which leads right back to Start, or worse, to No-man’s-land. When you over-think, you edit beyond the point of practicality. Is revising your work for the thirty-ninth time really going to make a significant difference? Or are you simply stalling? Finish the thing already. Excessive analyzing stems from not trusting yourself, which leads to another pitfall…
Too much advice. I love my writing podcasts, blogs, vlogs, courses, books, and #writingtips. But they can be too much of a good thing. All the brilliant but conflicting voices become a jumble of blah, blah, blah, until I don’t know what to believe. One expert says to create extensive character profiles; another says to allow characters to grow organically. Who’s right? In the end, you should go with your gut.
Over-dependence on others’ advice makes you passive. Passivity leads straight into the pea-soup of self-doubt and indecision.
If you’re in a muddle, and you can’t see the next story, the next scene, or the next sentence, consider whether one of these three conditions is to blame. Here’s hoping the mist will clear and bring your thoughts back into focus.
As a budding writer, I was utterly dismayed by one of the first pieces of advice I received: write what you know.
Write what I know? Where’s the fun in that?
I wanted to write about England, which I’ve never been to but I’m in love with.
I wanted to write about portals to other worlds, like Narnia. Visions conjured from clouds and wind. Erupting, sentient volcanoes with agendas, and evil wizards disguised as noble leaders. None of which I knew.
Here’s what Roz Morris, author of Nail Your Novel, has to say:
“You don’t have to write what you know — you only have to write what you can GET to know. The chances are, if you’re interested in a subject, a place or an era, you can find out enough to convince a reader. “
That was good news. Research was important if I was going to write about a place I’d never visited and a time I’d never lived in. As for fantasy elements, I’d need to flesh out my settings with sensory details and backstory.
“Writers do this all the time…If you should stick only to what you know, we should worry about the thousands of authors who write about murder.”
I wrote a novel. It was technically my second — I completed my first novel for NaNoWriMo in 2013. But I hid it away, and I have no regrets on that score. It was truly terrible.
I spent three months on the first draft of my second story. This was THE story I wanted to tell, the one that came from deep down. It gushed out of me like a geyser in the space of three months. Then I rewrote
Image by Mitchell Joyce via Flickr
it three times over the next five years.
During those years, I read a million writing books and took a course on novel structure. I submitted chapters to Critique Circle – a great place to learn from other writers and readers.
I polished the story as much as I could, but I needed expert advice to mold it into a masterpiece worthy of the greats: Austen, Bronte, Dickens. Well, at least to make it good enough to self-publish.
To reach my goal, I hired a highly recommended editor (who shall remain nameless) and sent her the first five chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t expect coddling. I expected criticism. How else could I improve the story? I wanted criticism.
I got it. Plenty of it. On every page. As I read through her sometimes blunt comments on the first couple of chapters, I saw many errors I had missed. She pointed out other elements I had failed to develop. But she was spot-on, and I knew I was getting my money’s worth. I was enthusiastic about revising…
Until I got to her comments on the fifth chapter in which I introduced another prominent character, the Love Interest.
In a nutshell, the editor told me not to “waste my time” on the novel because this character was fatally flawed.
I am, admittedly, sensitive. If, like me, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve – or if you insert your heart into your story — BEWARE. Less-than-gentle (yes, harsh) criticism can cause acute myocardial infarction.
I have also been known for taking things too personally. But in this case, it felt personal. You see, anxiety and I are old friends, and the character in question suffered with an anxiety disorder. The editor couldn’t believe that someone with severe anxiety could also be high-functioning and rational in other respects. Ouch!
I asked many questions about her conclusion and explained the character arc — her growth from fear and solitude to strength and victory.
The editor stood her ground.
It’s been a year, and I haven’t had the fortitude to delve back into my novel since I received feedback. At the same time, I can’t get the story out of my system. It haunts me. Family and friends have encouraged me to send the chapters to a different editor. Maybe I will.
Over the past few years I’ve submitted short stories to four other editors. Each offered words of instruction and encouragement while not sparing the red marks in my manuscripts. They made my stories better without crushing my spirit. They were worth every penny.
Hopefully, my experience will help someone else. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
1) Don’t wait FIVE YEARS before you get professional advice on your story. A good editor will catch developmental weaknesses that will save you time in the long run. And everyone needs an editor because everyone has blind spots. Even editors need editors. You may not agree with everything they recommend, but they will catch mistakes you missed.
2) If you don’t gel with one editor, hire another. You are paying them to HELP you, not tear you down. Some people will say it’s their job to tell you the cold hard truth, but the WAY they tell it can encourage or discourage, inspire or demoralize. Find a professional who gives it to you straight in a constructive way.
3) If you feel strongly about a story, don’t allow ONE person’s opinion to hold you back. I’m still learning this lesson.
Perhaps this should be number four: if you can’t work with one editor, don’t wait a whole year before you find another. Maybe it’s time to dig through the box by my easy chair and pull out that manuscript…