Walk down the “Writing” section of Barnes & Noble, you’ll find at least a dozen how-to books on writing fiction. I recommend three: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner; Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. I’ve used all three in class. Gardner’s book is seen by many as the bible. Lamott’s a delight to read, funny, more of a “get you in the mood” book. Butler works on our psyche, from where our stories are conceived—the dream world where the narrative first sparks.
My writing life is pretty basic. I write first thing in the morning, and shoot for five hours a day behind the typewriter. I don’t talk with anybody, my phone’s turned off, I’ve cut the wifi to my computer. The silence and the solitude is the field where I plant the words. I might write five pages a day, unless I get on a roll and churn out eight, which, through weeks of working them, will inevitably be edited, cut, spliced, ripped, and tightened down to four. Or, cut out completely.
This time alone is the only way I’m going to get anything done. I learned early on that novel writing depends fundamentally on self-discipline. No one’s asked you to write a novel; you’re not on consignment. No one’s pushing you. When it comes to writing a book, the only one who’s going to push you is yourself. Every day. For months, even years. This is the first challenge to many budding writers. They’ve got a great story in their heads, but only the general ideas. The only way they’re going to nail those ideas down into a narrative is by sitting their butt at the desk for a few hours a day and writing.
Now, five hours is a long time; it took me years to build up to that. It’s a gymnasium of the mind; on my first novel, I wrote for half an hour and was exhausted. But I kept returning to the typewriter gym, every day, and before long I was writing one, two, three hours a day. I missed classes. My manuscript thickened. My grades dropped. I couldn’t have cared less.
If you’re just starting, I’d suggest carving out just a half hour a day—at the same time of the day—to sit down, ignore technology, be alone, and put your fingers on the keyboard. And sit. And sit. And sit some more. Nothing comes along, no image, no character; or maybe a character comes, but you have no idea what she’s going to do, how she’s going to kick-start the story. Ten minutes in you might start to doubt; get used to it; you’ll doubt yourself your entire career. That’s part of the deal. You’ll think about the things you’re supposed to be doing, things the world says are vital. Tel the world to fuck off. Concentrate. Work through the insecurity, keep staring at the screen, don’t move. You think nothing’s coming to mind, but I promise you, your thoughts are tap-dancing with your subconscious, which has no fear. This, I believe, is what happens with me: I’m working into that subconscious like a terrier clawing into the ground to find the mole. There’s nothing like it, really, going deep into your brain, every single day. It’s not all a joy ride; demons live in us all; it’s the writer who dares to let them out. But, only for a few hours a day.
In following posts, I’ll consider character development, plot, setting, time, theme, flow, etc. For now, just sit down and be alone, every day, the same time of day, and write down the words, for the rest of your life.
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