Friday, December 31, 2010


It's just another day, really, the last day of the year, and yet, because there is the ritual of changing calendars, it's an opportunity to reflect on the past year, come up with plans for the new year, and generally jerk out of the often automatic frenzied mode in which we seem to live much of the rest of the year.

So, when I think back to my writing this past year, I see all the books I was dying to write at the beginning of the year, but that I didn't get to. Yet.

Oh, if only I could be more efficient, the lament goes. If I were more efficient, my mind would pop from one idea to the next, with freshness and vigor and I'd have written more. It's inevitable, the self-flagellation. The regret.

And yet, there is the other side. That writing isn't a nine to five job. Stories take the time they take. Sometimes years of putting away before they fall into place. Several of my books have lain fallow as it were, for years, before coming to ripeness and publication.

And people write differently. The challenge is to find the way you write best, the way that works for you, and to make peace with it.

For instance, I know writers who are prolific, and they write in a way that is seemingly chaotic to me, with forays into multiple stories simultaneously.

But I can't do that. If I try and force a style of writing that isn't right for me, it's mind-splitting and ultimately, a waste of time.

For me it's important to take time to replenish the burp pot. Yup, burp pot. As in burp pot of ideas.

I sort of have this image of ideas simmering below the conscious mind, in a huge pot. And as you stir -- and often even when you don't -- ideas burp up.

That pot is filled with a stew of life experiences, the people you know, the books you've read, the things you've dreamed and done, your travels...

And sometimes, you just need to take time out to live. It all feeds that pot. Sooner or later, that mish-mash of life will burp up new ideas, fabulous ideas -- that is, fabulous to you ideas that you must write about.

So, my end of year reflection, while still tinged with regret for the books that didn't get written yet, also includes an acceptance that some stories take time, and that all the time I spent not writing was still feeding that pot.

Excuse me while I burp.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Second Draft Blues

Ah, that painful process, where the euphoria of completing that first draft is swiftly replaced with loathing, fear and disgust as you re-read your peerless manuscript and discover it ain't so peerless after all. That it's more full of holes than swiss cheese.

Stinkier than limburger cheese or rotting gorgonzola, and twice as ugly.

A word of advice: relax. Accept that this is the process. It's a long, slow spiral of many drafts before you get to the heart of the last draft.

To use another image, writing fiction is a labyrinthine process, full of dead ends, sudden turns, obstacles and wrong turnings.

You can, as I often do, waste energy berating yourself with gems like, "If I were a better writer I'd get it righter first time around!"

I don't know any writer who does get it right first time around.

It takes the maze-like twists and turns to discover and uncover the story you want to write. It is all part of the process, so relax and enjoy it. It's absolutely necessary to take those wrong turns in order to find the right ones.

Often, that first draft is just scaffolding. Necessary to tear down, but absolutely crucial to build the stunning structure you will end up with.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Recommendation on Writing Fiction

From my posts below about debunking writing myths, it probably won't come as a surprise to hear that I haven't, by any means, read all the books ever written about the process of writing.

The best way to learn about writing, I think, is to just get on with it and write.

Oh, you need to read, of course; you learn from reading wonderful writers. That's a given.

But if you spend too much time studying writing, it can stymie your natural voice and natural skills and make you an imitator. Or trip you with too many theories and not enough practise. Or ensnare you in the convoluted business of studying writing instead of getting on with it. (I'm up on every procrastinatory technique, believe me!)

That said, here is an excellent book about the process of writing fiction. It discusses setting, character, plot, point of view, the shapes of a story, the process of editing, and much more.

I have a copy and when I get stuck over some writerly matter, this is my go-to book:


It is clear, insightful and comprehensive.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Debunking Some Writing Myths 3

Here's another piece of advice writing teachers tend to hand out: always do a story outline before you write.

To which I say -- maybe.

Maybe you're the kind of writer for whom this is necessary; maybe this is the kind of story with so many convoluted and intersecting plotlines that you need an outline to keep things clear in your own head.

But maybe you'll find that making a story outline destroys any interest you have in writing the story. That an outline corsets your characters and prevents them from taking on life and leading the story in a direction that you'd never, ever planned, and yet is SO right.

If you do decide to make a plan or story outline, it is crucial to understand that it is just a guide and that it must never be followed slavishly.

I've written novels for which I've never done a story outline (not on paper, anyway -- although I always have a sense in my head of the arc of the story and how the tension must build) and ones where I've done fairly detailed outlines.

When writing fantasy or mystery, I've found a general outline useful because it's a way for me to keep interweaving plots, and the motives behind all my various characters' actions straight. (Yes, if the story is to make sense, every character must have a believable motive for his/her actions.)

I've also found an outline useful as a way to try and capture the feel or atmosphere of the story once I think I have it right. Usually, I will go for a walk (many walks, actually!) to pound out ideas, and to try and move the trajectory of the story forward in my head. Then I jot down notes -- snippets of ideas and snatches of dialogue as they come to me. Once I feel that I have all the pieces, and that they fit, and I have a sense of the atmosphere and the voice of the story, I may write an outline, just for the relief of knowing I have that as a reference in case I forget a small piece of motivation, or plot detail, or some such thing.

But inevitably, I have found that once I start to write the story will go off on a trajectory that I hadn't planned -- but that is right. Well, right enough for that draft, anyway.

Some writing teachers suggest making a chapter by chapter outline. Some writers I know do this.

You have to find what works best for you. I couldn't bear to do a chapter by chapter outline because it would bore me to death to write the story. I like to discover and explore as I write and if I have every event and detail pinned down in the outline, I think I'd find it a slog to actually write the story. I'd just lose interest in it. But that's me.

To outline or not is something each writer must decide for her/himself. It may even vary from story to story.