For the love of the story: Lessons in writing
I once read that you can teach someone how to write short fiction, but when that person decides to write a novel all you can do is stand on the shore and wave goodbye.
As a writing teacher, I should object. I should insist that I can teach someone how to write a novel. And, sure, I can help students with parts of novel-writing. I can teach aspiring writers ways to improve their characterization or make their setting more vivid or tighten their sentences or ensure their plots are compelling. That’s all true. Still, I cannot say “I will teach you how to write a novel” without feeling like a fraud. I have recently published my fourth novel, and each of those four times I had to learn anew. Every single novel involves its own unique voyage.
There are some points of commonality from one book to another, though. Discipline, for example, plays a key role in my writing process, always. I can teach that. By committing to a course and a series of assignments with deadlines, an aspiring writer learns not to wait for the muse. A writer must show up at the page every day, regardless of inspiration. Without that kind of commitment, nobody finishes a novel.
In my decade of writing fiction, my biggest lesson came in learning to trust my process. If I show up at the page, put in the time, and follow the novel where it takes me, I will in the end have something worth sharing with the world.
Here are some other tidbits I have picked up along the way, ones that help pull me through the long journey from idea to submission to publication:
- Give yourself permission to write “really shitty first drafts.” This great bit of advice comes from Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird, she insists this permission is the first step to becoming a writer. If you expect your early draft to be perfect, you will never write a word. Just get your story down. Once it’s on the page, you have something to work with. Think of it as raw material. Nobody but you should see that first draft anyway.
- Sitzfleisch. I learned this word from Canadian novelist Lauren B. Davis. It means “chair glue.” Spread it on your seat and sit down. That’s how novels get written: butts in chairs. I cringe when people want to tell me the idea for their great novel. An idea is worth nothing. Sit down, put your pen to your paper, and start working. And then keep working – day after day after day, until those days become months become years. That’s the only way to turn an idea into a novel. Then you have a real thing to talk about.
- Read. Read, read, read! Literature is an ongoing conversation. To enter it, you must know what people have said before you and what they’re saying now and how they’re saying it. To pipe up without having listened is an act of utmost arrogance. You don’t know if you have anything worth contributing until you have studied the field.
- Don’t be afraid to break rules, but be sure you know those rules first and that you understand how and why you’re breaking them.