Getting Started: The Journey of a Thousand Pages Begins with a Single Word—And the Delete Key

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I got a pleading e-mail from someone who is beginning her first novel and who—despite having known me for a long time and having read my work—imagined that I could help her. This is what she wrote:

“I suddenly realize that I don’t understand how to write fiction. If I put in all the details, it could be boring. If I gloss over everything, it’s a plot summary. There’s something in between the two extremes, but if I write the whole story in the in-between way, I think it’ll still be at least be 10x longer than it should be. So what do I leave out? Which parts should I write long, and which short?

“I’m not sure how to pick what order things should go in either. Is straight chronological too boring? Are flashbacks too artificial?

“Also, I don’t have a name for my protagonist.

“I haven’t started writing because I’m still debating with myself about these things. I also haven’t started writing because I don’t know how to start writing.

“The only advice I can find anywhere is ‘don’t do X’; but what should I do?”

Let me be perfectly up-front here: I don’t know the answers to these questions.

I can’t even say, “I only know what answers work for me,” because, honestly, I have no actual system that I use to decide long or short, detailed or spare, chronological or not. I don’t even have a system for picking names for my protagonists (although I wish I did).

But I do have this one little bit of advice:

If you have something written down—however unsatisfactory—you have something you can work on and revise into something you like better. You can revise it forever, in fact; though I don’t recommend this. (Sometimes you just have to move on and resolve to do better on your next book.) But you can’t revise what you haven’t written, so forget everything else and just get some sort of story down on paper. Make it as long as you like.  10x what it “should be” is actually just about right (every manuscript reads better after a thorough pruning, I find); but if the only way you can get the story down on paper is as a plot summary, then write a plot summary, and plan on gradually fleshing it out. Chronologies can always be changed; flashbacks introduced or eliminated; whole episodes and characters put in or taken out ad libitum. Just write. Do it; don’t think about it. Then re-write and re-write and re-write.

That’s almost all the advice I have.

I also have one handy writing tip, but it’s not actually my own. It’s something I got from my husband, the biochemist. He says that when a cell is about to synthesize a protein, it first secretes a “leader peptide,” whose function is to tell the cell where to direct the protein it’s about to make. A leader peptide is absolutely essential, but once its job is done, it’s immediately destroyed. By analogy, he destroys the “leader peptide” of every scientific paper he writes.

Having tried this in my own work, I can confirm that this tip works for fiction, too. Once you’ve begun writing in earnest, go back and delete the first paragraph you wrote—if not the first page or even the whole first chapter. This is the secret to a punchy beginning.

But mainly—just write. Just sit down and write. Do it now; today.

Tomorrow you can figure out what to name the protagonist.

NaNoWriMo: Fifty Thousand Words Containing an Infinity of Possibilities

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I have my own National Novel Writing Month project going this year—one just a little outside the official parameters of NaNoWriMo. I know. Shame on me. But I hope I can be forgiven for playing fast and loose with a few rules on the basis of the fact that I write novels every month of the year, not just in November.

Forgivable or not, instead of attempting a whole book this time, I’m allowing myself the treat of writing as many first chapters of books as add up to the requisite 50,000 words. I love writing (and reading) first chapters, and I’ve always resented the fact that under ordinary circumstances, I’m limited to just one at a time.

I love the way that, when I begin the first chapter of a new book, all the possibilities are still open. Oh, sure; I have an outline, and I know generally how the story is going to go. But nothing is certain until I actually write it down. Before I start typing, the protagonist can still be either fair or dark; rich or poor; wearing a crinoline or jeans or a space-suit. After that, over the sound of the keyboard clicking, I can hear doors slamming shut. By the end of chapter one, the protagonist is immutably tall, white, jeans-clad, and has three kids and a job from hell. What makes it even worse is that a lot of the former “choices” that I have now petrified into “facts” aren’t even things I care about. The job from hell is a plot-point, and I need it to be that way; but the jeans were an option. —Only now she’s wearing them and I can’t suddenly say they’re a cocktail-dress.

(Or at least, I can’t without some rewriting. Some things are worth rewriting, and when they are, I think I may brag that I do not shirk. I was well into my latest book when I realized that an immutable plot-point just had to mutate. Out of 148 pages of work, I was able to save exactly 36. But this—though necessary—was very painful; and I can’t imagine doing it for jeans.)

So to get back to NaNoWriMo, it’s a great thing in which everyone should definitely participate, and do so with a due regard for the rules. Except me. This year I’m breaking them. I’ve been hard at work for a long time, writing within increasingly restricted parameters, and now I’m going to let go and have some fun. The first chapters I write seem to vary an amazing amount from one to the next in length, but as nearly as I can calculate, 50,000 words works out to about six of them. Six whole new worlds, full of almost infinite possibilities, to play in for a month…

Or, since I’ve already finished the first one—five new worlds. Paradise!

And next year, I promise to play fair again.

NaNoWriMo

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It’s November again, National Novel Writing Month; the time when those who subscribe to the Holy Truth that anyone can write a novel must dust off the old keyboard, lay in a supply of snacks, and call me up in a state of either panic or despair (other states also acceptable) to ask me for a plot. Go ahead: Do it. You won’t be the first to call; you won’t be the last to call; and honestly, I don’t mind.

Not that I really understand why anybody would need help my help to come up with a plot. Plots are the easiest thing in the world. For starters, there are books full of them (the classic is Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations); and if the ones in the books are too bare-bones to stimulate your imagination—and some people have complained to me that they are—there’s always your own life and the lives of those around you to draw on for inspiration.

In fact, there’s everything around you to draw on for inspiration. I may have mentioned that as a child in school, I failed to learn much arithmetic. One reason for this was the distracting quality of so-called story problems. Set up a situation like, “Janie’s mother gave her seven apples. She gave Janie’s brother Ted nine apples,” and my mind was off and running. “Mother always gives me fewer apples than she gives Ted,” thought Janie resentfully. “It’s because he’s a boy. Mother says it’s a Man’s World, and I must just get used to it. Well, I’m not going to get used to it, Mother. Someday I’m going to take this Man’s World of yours and make it my oyster!” (I was big into food imagery as a child.) By the time that, in my mind, Janie had grown up, extracted herself from the stifling influences of both Mother and an unsuitable marriage, and become the rich and powerful founder and CEO of a company that produced women’s shoes that were somehow both stylish and comfortable, arithmetic period was over, and I wasn’t any closer to figuring out how many apples were left in the barrel for cousin Ann than I’d been in the first place.

So—trust me. If the reason you hesitate to participate in National Novel Writing Month is because you can’t think of a plot, you need hesitate no longer. That bad date? Novelize it. Setup: The protagonist’s life as it is before the date—happy, sad, boring, lonely; your choice. For convenience, make it your own life; or your own as you wish it were. Easy-peasy stuff. Just description. Rising action: He/She asks protagonist out! Yay! Or, not yay: you only said yes because your mother made you. (Extend this part, if necessary, by detailing some of the preparation for said date. For NaNoWriMo, you’re supposed to write at least 50,000 words.) Conflict: It’s the date from hell!/it’s paradise! Put in some stuff about that. S/he’s everything you ever wanted! S/he’s a crushing disappointment! S/he’s a psycho who locks you in a room and tortures you mercilessly. –Okay, that wouldn’t be my thing; but maybe it’s yours. I won’t judge you. Resolution: Happy—you’re right for each other. Sad—other. Grotesque—your tale emanates from the afterlife, where his/her tortures sent you. (Don’t ask me to read Grotesque.)

See? Nothing to it. Now just pick a setting—city; suburbia; seventh moon of Jupiter—and you’re ready to write.

Almost ready to write. You’ll also need some characters. Don’t ask me for any characters. Plot–yes. Setting–not my specialty, but okay. But not characters. Mine are all personal friends, and I won’t share.

Creative, or Just Crazy?

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Before I started writing semi-seriously myself, I wondered why so many writers seemed to have come from “difficult” backgrounds. And by “difficult,” I mean specifically family situations with some seriously mentally ill people in them. It seemed like a lot of writers had also been poor; but in fact being poor and having mentally ill relatives—especially close ones—are not unrelated. It’s expensive to have mental illness. Seriously mentally ill people can’t keep good jobs, they make bad financial decisions, and even a brief stay for someone in a locked ward will cost the family a bundle.

Eventually I figured out (I think) why mental illness and writers are so often linked—and it’s not in the way that some of my literature professors said it was. They thought that having some crazy (their word) relatives meant that the authors themselves were probably also crazy; and that for the authors to be a little crazy helped them to write.

This is confusing “crazy” with “imaginative,” I think. Writing’s actually pretty hard work; and unless you think being self-motivated and disciplined is a sickness—okay; you might be right at that—crazy is the last thing a writer should be.

But if you know any mentally ill people, you know that they are often unpredictable. Furthermore, a lot of mentally ill people act more or less unpredictably depending upon how the people around them respond to them. Ergo—and you can believe me on this, because I know what I’m talking about—people who live with or close to mentally ill people often become hyper-vigilant to the thought-processes—however subtly expressed—of other people. They learn know that if they misread the mental state of a person with mental illness, their mistake may engender worse and more unpredictable behavior.  And since it’s hard, sometimes, to tell just who and who isn’t mentally ill, it’s best to be alert to everyone else’s mental state.

Okay, very sad. On the other hand, could there be better training in the world for people who want to create believable characters with credible motivations than to grow up hyper-vigilant to the way other people think and act?

Nope.

So the lesson here is that if you want to write and you have no known crazy family members—and after checking first to be sure that you’re not the one who’s mentally ill—you must, for the sake of your writing, drive at least one close relative around the bend immediately. Don’t hesitate: After all, it’s for art.

Some Pretty Good Reasons Not to Write

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A really good reason not to take up writing as a hobby is because writing is lonely. Really lonely. Since humans use the same part of their brains to write and to talk, they can’t do both those things at the same time. Knitters can knit and talk; ship-modelers can build ship-models and talk; artists can paint pictures—even a masterpiece—and talk (the illustrator Neysa McMein—you young folks won’t know her—used to throw massive parties in her studio and sit at her easel, a glass of champagne in hand, and turn out covers for Liberty magazine while doing her duties as a hostess); scrap-bookers can scrapbook; poodle-trainers can train poodles—all while talking. But the only way writers can get any writing done is by shutting out the rest of the world and getting on with it. I actually can listen to music while I write—but I don’t really hear the music.

Another reason not to write—at least not fiction—is because it’s self-revealing. Even if you don’t want it to be. Even when you think it’s not. Someone I hardly knew (and, frankly, wanted to impress) asked me what techniques I favored for dealing with my anxiety. She said, “I know you have panic attacks. I read Ant-Lands.” (!) Well, damn.

Also, no writer is ever successful. Ever. This is mostly because nobody can define what success as a writer means in the first place. Are you a successful writer if you publish a book? Two? Ten? A best-seller? Quit the day job? Achieve Immortal Fame and Glory? Okay, that last one definitely would qualify as “success.” —On the other hand, long before the Immortal Fame and Glory thing kicks in, you will be dead.

Articles like these—the second one meant to be humorous, but containing a sting of truth—are illustrative:

Toil, toil, great writer, for anonymity awaits

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But I’ve said enough on this topic. Now I have to get back to writing on my novel.