Saturday, February 28, 2009

How Not to Become a Writer

Q: Your writing is pretty good now. How was it when you started?

A: I began writing romance novels in middle school but got away from writing when I was working my way through college. It took me years to get back to it.
I made several false starts at writing novels as a grown-up. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t do my homework first. What I brought to writing was a lifetime of reading and a love of good books. But there is a method to the craft, as I eventually discovered.
The first book I wrote as an adult was a murder mystery in a local setting. There was a strong autobiographical element—the main character was a rebellious teenager whose father was a truck driver. That effort dwindled away and the manuscript itself disappeared during a computer disaster. From that, I learned to back up my work.
The Warrior Heir was my second serious attempt at a novel as an adult. I plunged into it headlong, then spent the next five years revising it as I learned more and more about how little I knew going in. The final book bore little resemblance to what I started with, except it was a fantasy, and the main character was named Jack. After that, I found an agent and a publisher bought it and I was an overnight success.
I feel blessed to have published my first novel—though in a way it wasn’t.
Don’t do as I did. I think too many writers quit focusing on craft too soon and turn their attention to marketing before their work is really ready. I’m frustrated when I go to writing conferences where there is no attention paid to craft. It’s all about query letters and how to find an agent.
Even now, I am constantly learning, and trying to get better, to the point that it's hard to open one of my published books without wanting to put sticky notes in. (I understand that’s a common affliction of writers.)
At least now, when I read the novels I wrote when I was in middle school, I can see the bones of the writer in the prose. I'm distant enough from them to say, Cool! that I was writing then, instead of aaaaargh!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writer Rituals

I like hanging out with other writers. We usually begin by complaining about those things we CAN’T control—the price of necessities such as paper, ink, and food; the state of the publishing business; bad reviews or, worse, no reviews; rejection; spouses who expect that we actually make a living; and agents and editors who don’t put us at the center of their universe.
After we’ve worn that out, sometimes we discuss craft.
I like to ask my colleagues about their writing process, especially in those areas where we disagree (writer throw-down, anyone?)
I ask questions such as: Do you write in the early morning or the dead of night? Does your muse live at home, in a dedicated studio, at the beach, or at the local coffee shop? Do you write to music or demand silence? With or without chocolate? On the computer or in longhand on handmade paper? Mac or PC? Times New Roman or Courier?
Do you seek critique from others, or does early feedback kill your creative spirit? Do you like to travel in a pack or seek isolation?
Do you do extensive outlining and preparation before you sit down to write, or do you just launch, assuming it will somehow work out? Once you begin to write, do you write headlong, barely pausing to eat or sleep, or do you write for two hours and quit for the day? Is your daily word count 250? 500? 1000? 2000? Do you measure your progress in pages? Words? Time? Pounds of cashews?
When you revise, do you edit their original draft, or rewrite the thing entirely from the first paragraph? (that notion gives me the shivery-shudders, but that’s just me). Do you write the entire piece, and then revise? Or revise as you go?
Do you look forward to sitting down in front of your computer—hand-stitched journal—audio recorder—private stenographer—to write, or is it actually painful? Do you have to be “in the mood” or do you create your mood by forcing the issue, by sitting down and getting your hand moving?
Ask a few dozen successful writers the answers to these questions, and you’ll get many different answers. There is no one right way to write, and very few unbreakable rules. The wisdom of other writers can be helpful to you—but writing by its nature is a solitary endeavor. Each person has to find her own best method, and her own true path.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hard Words

This weekend I’m thrilled to be at Kindling Words, a retreat for published authors, illustrators, and editors in Essex Junction, Vt. Nancy Werlin is leader of our author strand, and last night the noted author and illustrator Ashley Bryan was our keynote speaker.
Mr. Bryan read poetry, particularly some pieces by African-American poets. He read a poem by Eloise Greenfield, from her book, Honey I Love and Other Love Poems. I didn’t catch the title, but the gist of the poem was, I bought some candy, and now it’s gone, I built a sand castle, and now it’s gone, I wrote I poem and I still have that!
It reminded me of an epiphany I had recently when we visited the Morse Museum in Winter Park, FL. The Morse houses the country’s largest collection of Tiffany art glass and paintings.
Now, I’ll tell you right now—I’m into gaudy. And I mean gaudy in a good way. Those brilliant, layered, leaded, folded, enameled, iridescent glassworks give me goose-bumps. Not to mention the jewelry that grabs you by the throat and makes you take notice. I also love the idea that everyday objects can and should be beautiful, that all art shouldn’t be sequestered away in museums where you can’t get at it when you need the lift that fabulous art and design can provide.
There were photographs of interiors of homes Tiffany designed and decorated, including commissioned works as well as the family mansion in New York City and his estate, Laurelton, on Long Island. Some of the rooms were too busy to sleep in, but there was extravagant attention to detail.
The sad thing is, most of those buildings have since been burned or demolished. Much of the artwork at the Morse was rescued from torn down homes, churches, and public buildings.
And I was struck by the ephemeral nature of beautiful things, natural and man-made. Of course, there are beautiful natural and man-made wonders thousands and millions of years old. But when beautiful buildings and natural wonders get in the way of what we call “progress,” we tear them down. Hurricanes come through, and knock them down.
We writers deal with intangibles. Most people would consider words to be less substantial, say, than marble pillars. But both words and music are durable. They can be captured and preserved in myriad ways (more ways all the time).
That’s the wonder of great books and beautiful music: they can create beautiful imagery over and over again in the minds and hearts of people around the world. Of all the arts, they are renewable. The summer night or the broken panel of glass can’t be retrieved, but they can be recreated in the mind through music and prose. We can enter the garden any time we want by turning the page.