Category: writing

From nothing to flesh and bone

frankensteinI’m in the throes of the hardest part of writing a book and I’m only 5,000 words into it. It’s always this way when I first begin a novel. I’ve done the research, I’ve set the scene, I’ve plotted the storyline, I’ve prepared my notes. I begin, and I immediately run for the Advil to chase away the thundering headache from those first attempts to write a character whom I’ve never worked with before.

For me, the aspect of novel-writing that takes me to the mat is character-fleshing. Not character-creating; that part is easy. Character-creating is sitting in Starbucks or on my patio with a yellow pad and mechanical pencil, happily imagining someone who who wants something. I like that day. It’s invigorating. The unvigorating part is giving that wispy, personish idea flesh and bones. That part doesn’t happen on a day; it happens over the course of agonizing weeks while I squeeze out of that character’s nothingness a somethingness. Moving her forward on her quest to have what she wants requires that I know her intimately; that I know how she responds to change. I have to have already imagined how she thinks, and what makes her sad, what makes her angry, what makes her feel safe, feel threatened, feel empowered, feel defeated. And I have to tease the readers into caring about her, and whether she gets what she wants. The character has to have flaws and virtues. Strengths and weaknesses. It’s mentally exhausting. When I finish writing this blog post, I will click off every Internety¬† thing I have open (distractions, distractions) and will spend the rest of the day making the flat girl in my laboratory come to life. And I will do it tomorrow and the next day. And the next, and for likely the next 30,000 words. By the third-of-the-way mark, I am usually over the worst of it.

I will have to pull off the first third by writing as if this character was already this richly detailed person whose deepest thoughts are already known to me. Yep, that’s the killer. A character reveals herself as I write. And yet I can’t write unless I know the character.¬† Scary stuff, that.

I love this quote from a CNN interview with Mo Willems on this conundrum of which comes first.

“CNN: Which comes first: the characters or the ideas?
Mo Willems: It all depends. A lot of people think of ideas as objects, or animals that you hunt. You go into the woods, you find an idea, you capture it and you bring it home. And ideas really are more like gardens. And every day, you’re planting lots and lots of ideas. Some of them get eaten by birds, and never go anywhere. Some of them grow up to be really horrible things. Some wither and die. Every now and then, over time, some idea grows up to be big and beautiful and filled with fruit. You can cut that down and burn it for profit. So it’s an evolution.”

And the evolution happens – for me, anyway – not on lovely Starbucks day, but in the grueling salt mines of writing that first third.

It’s a wearisome wonder. A demanding delight.

Call me when it’s over…

Find me here

Just thought I’d let you know that I’m guest-blogging over at Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writer’s Blog these next couple of days, chatting about the art of writing at an accelerated pace.

I happen to write fast. I don’t insist on it, not for myself or for anyone else. It just happens to be how I write. Sometimes people ask me how I can write a book so quickly. (I usually start and complete a novel in 6 to 10 weeks). I had to think about it the first time someone asked me. So I did think about it and I figured it out. I am sharing my method, if you want to call it that, on Randy’s blog.

The wise Mr. Ingermanson, also a speedy writer, is the Snowflake Man. His process for plotting a book, patterned after the ever-intriguing snowflake model, is one I can firmly get behind because it’s similar to my own technique of planning a book. I blueprint it, right down to the light fixtures. Not because I have to, but because it’s just what I do.

Hey, check out Randy’s snowflake page right here.

And then come by the blog and see how I do what I can’t help doing. . .

Lessons from the virtuoso

I finally got through two weeks of old newspaper articles I’d wanted to read during a busy stretch of September. In the mix was a eulogy to Luciano Pavarotti, and as I read it, I couldn’t help think there was a lesson here for the writer. If motorcycle maintenance can teach the principles of Zen, then surely I can learn a thing or two from the eulogy of the legendary opera singer.

The writer, John Timpane, obviously a Pavarotti devotee, said there were three things about the singer that distinguished him from everyone else. First, he had the voice. He had that which came from the “province of the Creator.” You either have a divine instrument woven into your vocal chords or you don’t. I feel this way about writing. You can learn to write, you can learn to be a better writer, but the gift of weaving words together so that they are more than just squiggles on paper, well, that comes from a well you did not dig yourself. It was given to you. People who say to me, “I just don’t see how you can write a whole book!” have a different well within them. Writing, for me, is work, but it isn’t a chore. The well has already been dug. I just dip my bucket.

Two, Pavarotti had musicianship. He knew his talent. He was intimate with his craft. He knew his talent needed exercise, discipline, and rest. Timpane wrote this: “You must grow expert in the history of music; the rules, the legacies of thousands of other performers. It’s religion. It’s slavery.” Above that, Timpane said you must move beyond the didactic and somehow touch human emotion. It’s not enough to have taught yourself all that you can, all that is available to you to learn. You must be technician and artist.

Thirdly, the master had the ability to meld what he knew and what he could do into performance. Pavarotti knew how to entertain. He knew how to make the audience love him. He knew what would make them stand up and cheer.

Timpane wrote that few can master all three abilities: unequaled talent, mastery of the craft, and audience connection but Pavarotti nailed them all.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know enough about Pavarotti to know if this is true of him, but I do know that I was challenged as I read this eulogy to throw down a plumbline to see how I measure up to him as an artist. I don’t know that I have exquisite talent, but I certainly can do more to master whatever talent I do have. And as far as improving my audience connection, well, I simply must. Every writer must connect with his or her audience. There is little reason to write a thing if no one is going to read it.

Pavarotti’s voice, mastery and skill was a rare blend, Timpane wrote. But I’m sure that doesn’t mean there’s no point in imagining that I could do with my gifts and passions what Pavarotti did with his. Surely it is not a waste of time to consider that. . .

Have a restful weekend, Edge people.