Monday, May 9, 2011

Guest Blogger: Anti-Advice from Erin Bow

We're doing something new this week. Here on Shrinking Violets, we talk a lot about how the strongest promotional strategy is to write an aMaZinG book, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about the writing process from time to time. And we're going to start this new feature with a BANG! I'm very excited to have children's fantasy author Erin Bow here today to give us some anti-advice...

How to Get Stuck and Brood
(anti-advice for writers)

Hey fellow writers: here's a deeply bad idea. Google "How to Write a Novel." Three million four hundred thousand hits, and presumably at least some of the posters think they know, and can convey to the searcher, how a novel is written.

The top return is from the Snowflake Method guy, who gives us the "ten-step process for writing a design document." It includes step eight: "Make a spreadsheet detailing the scenes that emerge from your four-page plot outline." Further down Google's list are others, many others, who while they don't win my heart by naming themselves after well-known figures in fractal mathematics, do still offer the prescription, the method, the one true key idea that will make the grand words come to you and order themselves into some kind of story.

And then there are the books -- oh, shelves and shelves of books -- on how to write. A writer could crumple under the weight of all the words about writing. (Do painters have this problem? I suspect they do not, if only because painters don't assume they can write instructional books, and for some reason paintings on how to paint don't sell well.) Still, these books are attractive, because they Seem To Know What They Are Doing, while I, A Writer Of Very Little Brain, generally feel Entirely Surrounded By Vague Flailing. So the authority is tempting, even seductive.

But giving one's self over to authority has its downsides. Chief among them is that one generally discovers that one has been Doing It Wrong. This can lead to either strained efforts to Do It Right, or to Guilt.

I will acknowledge that trying new ways to write can lead to good stuff too: you can be stretched in new ways, think about new ideas. Sometimes one falls into the navel of writing, and finds it is dark there, without much room to manoeuvre. Perhaps trying someone else's writing method can help one pull one's head out of the place where it is stuck. One looks around, blinking in the sudden light.

But I think the Doing It Wrong and the Guilt are the more common reactions. Oh, fellow writers. Don't you already feel that you're Doing It Wrong? Don't you already have The Guilt? Why are you seeking out more? I wish we could be more gentle with ourselves. Here is my gentling manifesto:

  •  No process that results in writing is a bad process.
  •  No process that results in a miserable writer is a good process.
  •  No one process works for everyone.
  •  No process works for long.

No, you do not need to write 1000 words every day. No, you do not need to outline. No, you do not need to make a spreadsheet. No, you do not need to write first thing in the morning. No, you do not need to give yourself permission to write crap. No, you do not need to push through the spots where you are stuck.

What you need to do is not the same as what other people need to do. You need to write your own words in your own way. You need to find the process that helps you do that. And when the process breaks – for they always seem to break – you need to find a new one.

Me, I find a writer's notebook valuable, love to write snatches of overheard dialogue, descriptions of the people walking by in the street. Other people want to dive straight into a fictional world. I like to work in a highly ritualized way: the same few hours, in the same place, with the same cup of tea and the same music and the same smell from the same candle, etc. Other people think that's a bit much, and recommend prescription medication for me. Presumably some of them are coaxing spreadsheets to emerge from their four-page plot outlines, which I think is a little much.

The point is, it doesn't matter. What works for you, works for you.

And can we talk about “pushing through”? Oh, we live in a culture of pushing through. We go to work sick. We take pride in that, in our exhaustion and productivity, our general busyness. Working while sick, writing when we don't want to write. And, well, there's something to be said for it. Writing can be like dating: you have to think twice about standing writing up just because you feel like it. After a while, it will stand you up too. So, me, at least, I've got to be present, even when I don't want to be.

But being present is different than pushing through. I've learned to respect my deep resistance to pushing through. Sometimes I am not ready to write something. I need to brood – not brood in the Edward Cullen sense, but in the Mother Goose sense: I need to sit with my embryonic work and keep it warm. Or, since we are mammals, let me put it in mammalian terms. Sometimes, particularly before tackling something big, I need to wait. It feels like waiting to go into labor. You cannot will yourself into labor, though most of us, by the time we reach that stage, deeply want to. And even once in labor, there is no point in pushing before you're ready to push.

Don't worry, you won't miss the moment. It will track you down.

I have some pretty bad days when I forget this, when I try to rush the moment. Days when I work hard and do nothing, when I'm a battery hooked to a non-conductor, ending in tears of anger and frustration. Sometimes I do worse than nothing: Worse, because that pushing through pretty often puts me astray: I get somewhere, but it's not where I intended, or I've wrecked something important on the way.

Wait, wait. Be patient. Wait in a different way than that “blocked” feeling, that feeling that pulls you two ways like two horses: wound tight, but lethargic; defensive, but like a fraud. Do the ninth-month waiting. Feed and tend yourself lovingly, feed and tend the writing. Me, I write an essay, a poem, or if working on an essay or poem, a story. A friend of mine does fanfic. Go for walks, do your stretching. Breathe.

Is this too much? Especially for the boys out there? Let me try one more metaphor. This last year I learned to bake bread. I discovered that my favorite kinds of bread are the ones that don't need much kneading – or any at all. They get their rise from being swampy and goopy and much more wet than you usually think of a good dough being. (Hey! Just like my writing process!) They have to rise a long time. (Hey, just like my .... yeah, you get it.) And generally they're cooked hot. Very, very hot.

In the interest of being hypocritically helpful, I give you:

Things I learned about my writing from learning to bake bread:

You can overwork things: knead bread that doesn't want to be kneaded and you'll have bread that only double-stomached animals can eat, because it needs to be chewed as cud. Kneading develops the gluten, you see, the long strands of protein that give the bread its structure and strength. But you don't want a bread to be all structure and strength. You want it to have softness too. Whatever process you use for your writing, leave room for softness, for mystery, for levity, for surprise.

Enjoy the process. There's plenty of good bread in the world already, and most of us can get some without fuss. So why make it? For the smell, for the feel in the hands, for the pure satisfaction. When I sold my first book I had a bad spell when I forgot that writing was fun, because now I was a Professional Writer (Of Very Little Brain). Remember: for the smell, for the feel in the hands, for the pure satisfaction.

Rising time is as important as kneading time. In bread baking, it's obvious, as it is not in writing. Some times the right work of the moment is not to work at all. Things need to sit and develop. Don't poke them. Be patient.

No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can't put in your book can be used to wash the floor, to live in the soil, to lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.

But don't take my metaphor for it. Find your own metaphor. And run with it.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~ 

Erin Bow is the author of Plain Kate, a Russian-flavored fairytale novel for young adults, out now from Arthur A. Levine books at Scholastic. In addition to ignoring books on writing, Erin ignores parenting manuals on raising two small girls, self-help books on marrying other writers, and cookbooks of all sorts.

Twitter: @erinbowbooks


Irene Latham said...

"Find your own metaphor." Brilliant! Thanks, Erin, you, poet, you. xo

Laura Josephsen said...

This post is brilliant and I so agree with it! Thank you for sharing it!

liz michalski said...

My eyes stopped at "Enjoy the process." It's hard to remember that, but really important. Thank you.

storyqueen said...

This is a great post! I loved it...and I kind of need to read stuff like this right now.


vmichelle said...

Oooh... in this vein, one of my favorite books about writing is The Secret Miracle, precisely because it opened my eyes to how many different ways there are of being (a writer)that were all "okay".

CS McClellan/Catana said...

According to all the how-to advice I've skimmed on the web (no books, thank you), everything I do is wrong. But if you keep doing what's wrong according to the "experts," and what's right for you, you'll eventually be able to thumb your nose at them. There's almost a kind of hysteria about the need to write *every* day. As if you're going to lose the thread and never find it again.

Katherine Longshore said...

Thank you! I think all writers struggle at times -- even more so when we are also trying to be marketers and bloggers. My favorite bit of advice that I will now stick on my wall:

"Don't worry, you won't miss the moment. It will track you down."

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Yes! The permission to approach my work with freedom has really helped me release the guilt of not measuring up to others' standards. I've never approached a project the same way twice. And that's okay. There's no mystical formula that works for me, just a lot of sitting, reading, and trying.

Yat-Yee said...

Your post is so totally awesome! I am going to link here from my blog and call it my blog post for the day.

Now I want to make me some wet bread.

Carrie said...

Thanks for the brilliant post! I definitely needed to be reminded that it's okay if I only get a little bit done some days. The baking bread metaphor was perfect. Except now I think I need to bake some bread ;)

Stasia said...

Fabulous post. Something I think every writer needs to hear. THANK YOU for making my Monday!

Michelle Gregory said...

this was beautiful and just what i needed. thank you, Erin.

kathrynjankowski said...

Great post, Erin. Love the metaphors!

I've likened writing to panning for gold: it takes patience and determination; you have to be willing to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations for days/weeks/months on end; and you need to sift through a lot of grit to get to the stuff worth keeping. ;-)

Gerri Lanier said...

" Wow, your words put a lot about writing into perspective. Thanks so much, Erin! You made me realize that I've been too hard on myself while working on revisions. Yes, I should enjoy the process, as well as take time to brood. With your words in mind I've gotten comfortable with my individuality as a writer.
* Best wishes......

Brian F. said...

We think a lot alike. I frown when I hear people giving writing advice that's based on absolutes. I have writer friends whose processes simply wouldn't work for me. And they go crazy trying to figure out how I get anything done the way I work. I spent too long thinking I'd never be a writer because I didn't "keep a journal" or "write every day." I'm doing just fine making my own rules and enjoying my process.

Mary Witzl said...

That is well said. No process can work for everybody.

Way back when, I found one of those 'how to write a killer manuscript' sites on the internet. The author insisted that reading other work was bad because it messed up your writing process. Even back then I knew that was bull hockey for ME.

Keely said...

Thanks Erin- just what I needed to hear some common sense after a week of sick kids and high hopes!

Unknown said...

"Some times the right work of the moment is not to work at all. Things need to sit and develop. Don't poke them. Be patient." What a fabulous post, Erin.

Your words of wisdom help me feel good about taking a step back and letting my story breathe before I start whipping it into shape.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I've gone off on many a long rant about other people's "Rules of Good Writing" (much to my husband's dismay.) My mother always tells me that when it comes to parenting advice, the only good way to use "experts" is to find one who agrees with what you thought was right in the first place, and then take comfort in the confirmation of your opinion. That's the writing expert you've just been for me!

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated the contrast between pushing it and being present. My metaphor is that the muse doesn't come every day, but I try to be there five mornings a week at the usual time just in case she shows up. But this post really helped me realize that there are days when I should leave early instead moving words around.

tone almhjell said...

I loved this. Sometimes I feel so intimidated by all the recipes for writing right that I question everything I'm doing. Twitter can be disheartening. Blogs can be draining. But sometimes they nurture, like in this post.

Heather Kelly said...

I think I love Erin Bow! :) Can't wait to now read her book. The best recipe for writing, I guess, is to make up your own. I find this post to be very supportive. Woo-hoo!

Faith King said...

When I sold my first book I had a bad spell when I forgot that writing was fun, because now I was a Professional Writer (Of Very Little Brain).

Me too!

I felt the guilt for not wanting to write Every Single Day like my coauthor. I convinced myself that I wasn't really a writer, only an imposter who was tolerably good at grammar.

And then I got over it. I like the gestation analogy, because my characters tend to enjoy cuddling up inside my head, safe, lazy, and warm, protected from the incrimination of typos, critics, etc. So now I'm happy to just coax them onto the page here and there in little spurts, sometimes weeks or even months apart. But they're usually spurts of writing that I'm pleased with.

Great post!

Ever said...

This is exactly what I needed to read today. This is fantastic! I might have to put pieces of this in my inspiration book to look back on.

Rebecca Knight said...

I love the concept of letting your work "rise" versus kneading it to death! :)

Thank you for this wonderful post!

Anne R. Allen said...

This is such a refreshing post! I've been seeing so many novel-writing formulas these days. And lists of musts and don'ts. An so very, very much about writer's block.

What writer's block means to me is, THE MUSE IS NOT AT HOME. When she's not there, you need to lure her back, not pound out muse-less drivel. The best way to lure her back is go where she is. At the beach maybe? Everybody needs some time off.

Thanks for all the wisdom here!

Shari Green said...

"write your own words in your own way" <-- yes! exactly this. :)

I'm a muller/brooder/ninth-month-waiter, too, but it took me a long while to accept that as a valid part of my creative process.

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Oh, my gosh, Erin, this is perfect! Brilliant! Inspiring! Relieving! And Delicious! Thank you so much for this. We all *kneaded* to hear it. :-)

P.S. Can't wait to read your book!

Cindy Paul said...

Thanks for sharing this post with us. Your words come as "comfort food" to me. Sometimes, we all just need to hear (I did read parts out loud) that each one of us is different and each one of us can succeed using our own unique styles.

Now I want some warm bread with honey butter.

Vonna said...

I'm a couple of weeks late catching up on this blog, but this is something I needed to hear today:

"You can overwork things: knead bread that doesn't want to be kneaded and you'll have bread that only double-stomached animals can eat..."

So I guess I read it at just the right time. :)

Kim said...

This is such a wonderful post! Exactly what my soul needed today. Thank you, Erin!

Yahong said...

ACK. This is fabulous. Ms Bow, you're a genius.

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