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.
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.
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