The Burning Question
Sometimes it seems as though no author interview is complete unless the writer is asked about her process. How does she write? The answer to this question is often mundane: the time of day, whether she writes at home, by hand or on a computer. This seems an odd answer, but appears both satisfactory and expected.
Why is this? Why do we care about the time of day something was written? It paints a certain picture, which is interesting enough in itself, but does it account for why it crops up over and over again?
I think this fascination is in part due to the gap between the complexity of the task and the small number of requisite supplies. Being armed with a blank piece of paper, a pen, and the ability to construct sentences, does not inspire instant confidence in your ability to produce something like a novel. So the question of how you go from someone sitting there staring at the endless nothingness of a blank page, to pouring out line after line of brilliant prose seems reasonable enough.
Part of this confusion is due to the traditional portrayal of the artistic process. The writer a poor, suffering, morose sort wanders around in a depression until the muse takes pity on him. Once inspiration strikes, this same sad sop is transformed into a madman of productivity who sits down to write an entire book in the span of a single booze-fueled weekend. Genius delivered, the end.
This seems to imply that there is some sort of magic step between the empty piece of paper, and a weekend of brilliance, if only we could find it. And maybe there is—If you find it, please let me know.
Unfortunately, in my experience it doesn’t seem to have much to do with whether you are a night owl who types at the computer while listening to death metal, or an early bird who writes everything by hand while drinking chamomile tea. And even worse news, even if your coffee could deliver it, that weekend of productivity is barely scratching the surface.
Okay, that might sound obvious, but in one way or another I believed both of these things for many years. I had my own ridiculous rituals of coffee and candles and utter silence (let’s not get into the rage I felt at being interrupted just as I thought inspiration might be approaching). And as far as what it took to write a novel, I thought that if I strung enough vignettes together, added some background, and had tight prose, that would be enough.
But instead of the brilliant work I thought I had created, what I ended up with was a heap of rambling pages, loosely connected, vaguely interesting, but not a book.
At the root of my confusion were two major misconceptions: 1) that I should only write when I was inspired, and 2) that page count was what was standing between me and a finished book.
I have since been trying to disabuse myself of these beliefs.
Writing from Inspiration
I like to think of writing like exercise, and more specifically, running.
For people who aren’t runners, running does not sound pleasant. Sure every once in a rare while you are so happy and bursting with energy you feel the need to run. And you try, and that lasts about 10 seconds. You are done running for another decade or so.
The rest of the time, running sounds like a horribly boring and painful activity. If you waited until you were moved to run, you could go most of your life without ever jogging in place. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to learn how to run, just maybe not like that.
If you’ve ever tried to take up running, you know that the first few days are unpleasant. It feels way worse than those moments when you were inspired to run. But if you keep trying, it becomes easier as your body adapts and adjusts to this new activity. It still takes some convincing to get yourself out the door, but once you start, you aren’t as aware of all the aches and pains. Then something weird happens; you actually look forward to running. Instead of feeling relief if you have to miss a day, you are actually disappointed and a little grumpy about it.
This isn’t going to happen if you only run on vacation, or on full moons, or when you have your favorite jacket and matching socks and you feel really in-tune with your body. This only happens by repeatedly getting out there and actually running.
Writing isn’t running. I get it. But even though writing seems like a magical and mysterious art, there are parts of it that really aren’t much different. You need to do it regularly if you want to lose the fear of the blank page. Like anything else, you have to practice to improve.
So in order to get over this, I committed to writing on a regular schedule. This did two things for me. It gave me that much needed practice, and it established a habit. Once it was part of a daily routine, it became much easier to overcome the hurdles of getting started.
Word Count = A Novel
While Being able to write a lot of words is definitely required in order to write a book (see above), it is not sufficient—unless, of course, you have an infinite amount of time, a monkey, and a typewriter. While the writing habit gave me the ability to write pages, it did not help me to understanding how the pieces of a book fit together, what should be included and what to cut.
So another hard-learned lesson was that getting to page 300 and writing “The End” did not mean that I had written something someone else would recognize as a book. This can be hard to recognize because producing that first 300 pages is an incredibly time-consuming and difficult activity, especially at first, particularly if you are waiting on inspiration. Once you finish that draft you are filled with such joy that you want to share it with everyone. Unfortunately, a first draft is as much of a book as a tin of cake batter is a cake. Yes, you could eat it at that point, but it will probably make you sick.
My experience of trying to write a novel without a clear concept of what should go into it was as though I had decided to bake a wedding cake from scratch without a recipe. You can imagine what that cake would taste like; it’s best you don’t imagine the book.
It turns out you can’t just put a bunch of events together, even if they really happened, and hope that it will magically make sense to your reader. If you’ve ever listened to someone try to tell you a joke that goes on and on without ever seeming to get anywhere, then this should immediately make sense to you. Even though I had read a lot of books, I soon found there was a big gap between my taste and ability. I had to learn new vocabulary, techniques, and ways to see stories from an entirely new perspective, before I could go about improvising my own.
A Better Answer
So I don’t think the question of a writer’s process is a pointless one. As long as we move beyond talking about what the author looks like while writing. When we instead talk about what a writer actually does to construct the story, then these are techniques that can help you improve.
My goal now is to learn as much technique as I can so I don’t end up back in the kitchen flailing about. In my next few posts I will go through some of the things I have learned and the techniques that have helped me the most. We all want the key to producing consistently excellent stories, but in reality it takes people years of study, failed attempts, and many, many drafts. Those are the things that make you better. What it has almost nothing to do with is whether or not you write by hand.