“Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people will throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”
A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, 1919
Note: “picture palaces” = elaborate movie theatres
Over the weekend, I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline. No doubt, he’s received criticism for his ideas. But I’m not here to add to that.
Smith’s advice runs counter to most books I’ve read. Not only does he recommend writing without an outline, his Rule #3 states that after you’ve finished the first draft, you should not rewrite. Period.
He also says he never rereads his stories after he finishes them.
Yikes! What a terrifying thought! Like choosing a pair of pants and a shirt from your closet with your eyes closed, then leaving the house for a job interview without checking the mirror.
In truth, Smith does reread small segments. His method involves “cycles” of revision. He writes a few hundred words, revises, then writes a few hundred more. He “outlines” as he goes, jotting down a summary of each finished chapter. But he doesn’t know where his story is going. Like Abraham in the Old Testament who left his home “not knowing whither he went.”
Mapping Out the Story
Each day, we live our lives into the unknown. We set goals and make plans to reduce uncertainty, but if we are too dogged with our agenda, we become rigid. Predictable. Boring. And bored.
And this can happen with our writing as well.
I’ve been reading books about story structure, trying oh-so-hard to outline, and using software designed to micromanage my story’s plot, themes, setting, and characters. There’s nothing wrong with approaching the craft this way. It works for a lot of authors.
And yet, I can’t find a compelling reason to keep writing. There’s nothing to explore. I’m bored with the story before I’ve started the rough draft.
Tossing Out the Map
Though I can’t embrace all of Dean Wesley Smith’s recommendations, here are three take-aways from his book:
“Enjoy the Uncertainty”
Replace fear of the unknown with excitement, and enjoy the random ideas that take you — and your readers — to unexpected places.
Don’t forget to have fun! This means playing with a sense of wonder or absurdity:
Your shy, introverted heroine stepped into the bakery for a gluten-free, low-carb, lemon curd Danish, but she robbed the place instead! And the ATM on the corner shot out classified documents instead of cash….
“Think for Yourself”
In D.W.S.’s words:
“All writers write differently. And that includes you. My way of producing words won’t be correct for anyone but me. So instead of listening to others looking for the secret, just go home, sit down at your writing computer, and experiment with every different form and method until you find the way that produces selling fiction that readers like and buy. Find your own way to produce words that sell.”
Writing into the Dark is a counterweight for those who advocate extreme outlining. If you’ve lost your creative spark or your enjoyment of writing, this book is for you.
by Meg Dowell You don’t know which projects are going to succeed, and which ones are going to fail. Many people assume that because I’ve been writing for a long time, I now do so professionally, and I give advice on my blog, I’m the expert who knows it all. And with that […]
I got an email rejection letter today. It’s not the first.
I printed it out for posterity. Stephen King tacked all his rejection slips to the wall. He thought it was important to keep them, so I will, too. (Not that I’m in the same class as Stephen King.)
“By the time I was fourteen, the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” from On Writing
By the time I was fourteen…
Wow! I need more rejection slips!
They are proof that I’m actually writing and submitting. Rejection letters are not signs of failure, but records of my effort.
Not dead ends, but detours to different paths.
Stories abound of famous writers who were rejected but persevered, winning literary prizes and becoming best-selling authors. Hemingway. John Grisham. Madeline L’Engle. Rudyard Kipling.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected twelve times before publication. (Not that I’m in the same class as J.K. Rowling either.)
Rejection letters can be excellent motivators, unless you consider them the last word on your manuscript’s value, which you should not do. And they should never be used as an excuse to quit altogether.
Creating is hard. So is trudging through the Sahara without a canteen. If you’re in need of a cool drink, pick up a copy of Cartoonist Stephen McCranie’s book, Brick by Brick: Principles for Achieving Artistic Mastery.
Beautiful and wise, Brick by Brick has taught me about the creative mindset in a way few other books have. It’s packed full of insight and whimsical artwork drawn in soft shades of peach, brown, and aqua.
The title comes from the idea that a tower is built one brick at a time. “That means your measure for success is not how tall your tower is, but whether or not you’ve laid your bricks for the day” (p. 16).
In the introduction, McCranie says the comic essays stemmed from what he’d learned in his first two years as a professional cartoonist. He realized his experience might help other artists, but rather than tell artists how to create, this would be a “book about how to be a creator.” More than a “how to” manual, it’s a “how to be” book.
The comic format, a harmony of illustration and prose, grabs me in a way other books on the creative process have not. It’s written with honesty about his own failures, his struggles with self-doubt, and the principles that got him on the right track.
With a hearty dash of humor (I love his “deadlinosaurus rex”), he warns us to set realistic goals, break them down into small steps, and plan “backwards so you can live forwards” (p. 29). He offers tips to improve your craft and stay motivated while avoiding potholes along the journey.
The most helpful chapter for me (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is “You Are Not Your Art” – a pep talk for anyone who has invested too much of their identity in their creative pursuit.
“Hug the Elephant” is an insightful peek into the nature of beauty. “Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect” explores how to improve your skill by studying the experts in your field, and he gives tips to learn through imitation.
Other section titles include:
“Turn Your Pain into Plans”
“Planning for the Possible”
“Two Fallacies to Watch Out For”
“Taste is your Teacher”
“Be Friends with Failure”
“Know Your Artistic Lineage”
“Diversify Your Study”
“Get Stuff Done”
“Fun Gets Done”
“Divide and Conquer”
When I flip the last page of the “Conclusion,” my vision is sharper, and I’m motivated to follow McCranie’s advice: “Go outside and look for dragons.” Creatives of all types will find Brick by Brick amusing and inspiring.
Writers, artists, dreamers, read this book. It’s nothing short of powerful. You can buy it on Amazon or on McCranie’s website doodlealley.com where you’ll find more resources and see a sample of his drawing style.
Update: Yesterday, I received a copy of McCranie’s newest book, Space Boy. If it’s half as honest and uplifting as Brick by Brick, it will be well worth the read.
Ah, there’s nothing like being infatuated with a new story idea.
I’m over-the-moon excited when a fresh tale is brewing in my mind, because this one will be the best ever! I’m prone to rush headlong into my manuscript, hitting the juicy highlights of the narrative. But the devil is in the details…
The Problem of Weak Writing
“Details.” That’s what my literature professor said I lacked when I (tearfully) asked her why I couldn’t earn more than a B on my papers. What I thought were precise essays were actually vague. And boring.
The fix? Brainstorming. For the next essay, I chose my topic, then I made a list of all the relevant ideas I could think of beforeI sat down to write. The result? An A.
Details — especially those involving the senses — breathe life into a story and cast a spell of verisimilitude that pulls in the reader: The hour-glass birthmark on your antagonist’s forehead. The leaning tower of books in the den and the frayed fabric on the easy chair. The way your protagonist’s mouth quivers before she answers her opponent.
Without them, characters are lackluster, rooms are empty, and plot holes abound.
How can you imagine all those necessary details?
Draw from everyday experiences.
Even mundane items — small things — can lead to big developments. For example, simple clues — a ladybug tattoo, a missing key, a white pill — may identify the murderer in a who-done-it.
I like to carry a notepad in my pocket as I go through my day and jot down my observations, or record them in a voice memo on my phone.
Here are a few little details I noted while doing my morning chores. I may use them in my new masterpiece novella:
Outside my kitchen window, the yellow faces of sunflowers swayed in the wind.
Bacon popped in the microwave, and the aroma filled the room.
I accidentally hit the lever on the mixer while it was in the up position. The paddle spun at high speed and slung muffin batter all over the kitchen — and me.
Upside-down bats lined the wooden frame over the barn door.
I might use the mixer episode in a humorous scene as my protagonist tries to impress a potential love interest who works as a chef. Or the image of the bats would enhance a gloomy, suspenseful atmosphere in a mystery. You get the idea.
Natalie Goldberg says this in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:
“Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else….Using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.”
How do you mine your everyday life for ideas? Let me know in the comments.
Have you thought about giving up this writing thing?
Have you wondered if you should devote so much time to this endeavor? Whether you should risk your sanity for it?
Is it worth all the SACRIFICE when you get so little in return? So little validation. So many rejection letters.
No money. Nil.
Or perhaps your half-finished story has never seen the light of day. You’ve hidden it in a drawer or on a hard drive, too afraid to show anyone. Too afraid to finish.
Meanwhile, your writer friends publish their work, get noticed, climb the rankings on Amazon. A few have published with the Big Five, won Pulitzers, and made millions. These may or may not be your personal friends, but they write the books you read.
You suspect your writing is not on the same level as theirs. You feel like a dandelion amongst roses. Like Ira Glass explained, a gap exists between what you admire – your taste – and your ability.
Should You Quit?
Perhaps the better question is, Can you quit?
Discouragement sets in because writing is hard. Believe me, crocheting is much easier. Or knitting.
Can you give it up and keep your sanity? If the answer is yes, then you can take up a more rewarding hobby. Like knitting. (I’m not knocking knitting. I have two projects going right now.)
Or maybe you’ll choose to do the hard thing because you want to write. Or you need to write. And you hate knitting.
And maybe you’ll decide that success isn’t measured by rankings or money or even popularity. Maybe success means making a small difference in the world.
Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It
STAY THE COURSE. Don’t give up.
No one else can write with your unique perspective, with your experiences, your voice.
You might object, “Too many voices are clamoring to be heard already!”
But none of them are yours. You are the only one who can write your way. You are the only one with your voice.
If you study the craft, if you do the work, you WILL inspire someone else. If your story, poem, picture or post can help one, anonymous person, is it worth it?
Keep writing. Accumulate a body of work, and your influence will grow. You may not win a Pulitzer. You may never make a bestseller list. But you will reach the right people – your people – with your authentic words.