Writers and Words: Creating a Universe with Words

Writers in conversation and interviews with writers are among my favourite things to read on the internet, whether I’ve read their work or not. I’ve been sharing them in my monthly newsletter for the last several months, but there just isn’t enough room for all of them, so I’m sharing some of them here on the the blog.

Nicole Chung guest-edited Two Bossy Dames with Elena Yip and wrote about her memoir All You Can Ever Know:

“As harsh as I can be about my own stuff, I know writing can be worked on. I know it can be improved. I see it every day, as it’s my job to try to help other writers with it — to believe in the potential of a story and believe the necessary words do exist. So when I was most anxious about or frustrated with this book, I would try to remind myself to trust that process.”

Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III exchange emails about the writing process (all the quotes are ADIII’s but the whole thing is worth a read):

“I am constantly in awe that if we just show up to the desk in an open and receptive state, with faith that something will come, something always does. How do I start a book? Slowly, even with that ‘wired excitement and fear’. I’ve noticed that it tends to go better for me, creatively/artistically speaking, if I know very little before I begin.”

“I write like this until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, trying to find the causality that makes story itself. This can take me three to five years, working five to six days a week. After all that, is when I begin to fully commit myself to the final structure of the book, which means I start cutting sometimes hundreds of pages, and rearranging the sequence of scenes (plotting, as you know), until I finally end up with what feels like the leanest and truest shape of the story. If I do this structuring too early in the composition process, though, I find that I’m prematurely anticipating someone reading all of this, which keeps me from fully surrendering to the story itself, which I know will lead me down paths and whole passages and characters I will ultimately end up cutting.”

“Because this entire act of creating a universe with words, it seems to me, is not about the writer at all, or even — in the first stages of the novel’s creation anyway — the reader; it’s about unearthing and setting into flight these nearly sacred beings called characters, no matter how flawed or reprehensible many of them may be. Blaise Pascal writes: ‘Anything written to please the author is worthless.’ Such a harsh line, but true, I believe. This is not to say that we writers cannot take pleasure in the daily act of writing; I certainly do, and I know you do, too. But it truly does seem to me that if a life of writing creatively is nothing else, it is a sustained act of practiced empathy, where we keep stepping into the question: ‘What’s it like to be you?’”

Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Powers in conversation at a farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia where BK lives:

BK: “As novelists we’re looking for the universal that makes a reader understand that a human person is a human person regardless of where and when and how.”

RP: “Very few people writing now are as absolutely, viscerally persuasive at the level of the scene and the character and the transactional vignettes while still in the service of grand architecture and a thematic preoccupation that manifests itself in all kinds of ingenious ways across the journey.”

BK: “That’s one of the many things I love about revision: Any weak parts, if their motivations aren’t clear you can back up all the way to the beginning, and you can begin building up motivation right from the start. And you get to connect things across time, across place. I would so much rather revise. I wish I could just pay someone to write my first draft, and then I would just revise.”

Alice Adams asks, Why does anyone write?

“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters.”

Ursula Le Guin on labels:

“Where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

See also: Labels be damned.

The novel and short story in dialogue.

Authors on the stories behind their novels. 

A bonus for anyone needing more books for their to-read list: One month reading feminist classics, and a thread of the best overlooked books of the last ten years.

Taking Notes, Wondering What Happens Next

1

I wrote last month about the first stage of my first serious attempt to revise a first draft. The plan involved reading the draft from top to bottom and taking notes along the way without making any revisions, not at the paragraph, sentence, or word level. (I confess to adding paragraph breaks where they were needed and fixing obvious word choice errors and typos; that’s it.) The point was to see where I was and try to figure out where to go before I start to rewrite.

I’m nearly done (6 pages to go) and starting to suspect that this was probably the easy part.

2

Taking notes is fun. Too fun, perhaps, because the notes are threatening to become the volume of a novel themselves. I’ve been avoiding thinking about what to do when it’s time to read them. I’ll probably end up taking notes about the notes, and then more notes about those, in a never-ending cycle of notes from which I and this manuscript will never emerge. When will I get back to writing?

3

One of the best parts of taking notes is that I get to use my editor brain. I imagine my comments to be those of a great editor, incisive and insightful. I imagine I have ideas that no one else would have, that I can find nuggets of splendour in the pile of rubble that is my first draft. But most of the notes are rambling and wondering and questioning. No great insights, nothing clever or sharp. In fact, the notes are mostly questions.

I can’t stop my writer brain from responding in questions to what my editor brain has to say. It’s eager to please, to have an array of solutions to the problems my editor brain points out, but it doesn’t know the right answer. Neither editor nor writer know the answer yet, because of course that’s not the point. The point at this point is just to ask questions. The answers will come.

4

Being consistent with this practice has been harder than the practice of writing every day. Writing first thing in the morning, especially if you’re not all the way awake, is a special kind of thing. Reading your own work and applying critical thinking skills to it and then taking notes about it is something else. Morning is perhaps not the best time.

It’s strange to think not about forming sentences and paragraphs, but to step back and think about the story. What’s really happening. What should be happening. Does what’s happening make any sense. Instead of focusing on what am I going to write today, I’m thinking how am I going to turn this into a good story.

Many mornings, I give up before I start. When I can’t summon the critical thinking skills, when I have other things to worry about, when I’m at a part of the novel I know will not survive revision. The easiest thing to do with such a mess is to ignore it.

Reading your own writing can be weirdly vulnerable and unnerving. I don’t like being exposed to scrutiny, not even my own. I want to cringe and look away. I get so ashamed of whatever idiot wrote that paragraph or thought up that plot twist a few months ago. Whoever wrote that sentence is clearly full of themselves, braindead, tone-deaf. But it’s useless to think that way. Every morning is practice for standing back and looking full-faced at what is there. Taking it for what it is and dealing with it. Doing it more often can only make it easier, right?

5

I know my story, or what my story might be, so much better now. I think I know what I want to say, but I don’t want to focus on that part. I need to focus not on what I’m saying but on what the characters are doing. What action makes sense? Where are the conflicts and how are they resolved? I think too much about what things mean. I want to focus on the concrete things that happen because of what things mean.

6

Perhaps I’ll do something like Olivia Laing’s serial killer wall or a subway map or some other method that’s probably less effective than it is evidence of an unhealthy obsession with office supplies. Something that makes me feel like a detective with some serious crimes to solve or a tourist with some serious sights to see or my mom with serious errands to run on a Saturday morning.

Before I start rewriting anything, I need to do more work. The notes aren’t enough. I need an outline. Something complicated and layered and scalable, to make sense of this jumble of ideas. I need a frame that can adapt to what I need it to be, that will remain strong enough as I build on top of it, remove pieces beneath it, and replace everything that hangs upon it.

So, index cards. Maybe another spreadsheet first. I’m not trying to do anything innovative with the story structure. The plot isn’t supposed to be complicated. But figuring out the mechanics is something I’ve never been good at, and it’s something I want to do better. I’m trying to follow the rules, but I also want to be able to feel my way through it, the way I’ve always done. It still needs to feel right.

7

I’m trying to remember that none of this writing is really me. It’s just a story, just a bunch of words I put together, and every time I look at it is an opportunity to make it better. But it’s not me that’s getting better; it’s the story getting better.

Every morning is darker than the last, and it’s only going to get worse. I’m trying to imagine how I might deal with index cards on the couch under a blanket on these dark autumnal mornings, with just the floor lamp nearby for light. Maybe it’s time to get beyond the couch. Maybe it’s time to migrate to the dining room table.

Reading, Revising, Rethinking

That draft I’d been working on since June? And trying to finish in August? I wrote the conclusion mere hours before leaving for our trip to Nova Scotia. It ended up at about 64,000 words, 111 pages, with a scene I had not in any way planned to write. But it got done.

Over the last month, I’ve reread the first 44 pages, making notes as I go. I’m not revising or rewriting, not yet. I’ve technically started the revision process but not made any changes other than maybe five words that were so incorrect I couldn’t let them be. But I haven’t been paying attention to the sentence level or the paragraph level, much less the word level. I’m not debating word choices or wondering if the dialogue works. All that will come later, in this master plan I’m creating as I go along.

Revising is like a foggy road

A foggy road in New Brunswick

For now, I’m reading to see what I have and figure out how to make it better. Add a new character, find a stronger motivation for this action, add more action instead of describing what a character thinks and feels. (Show, don’t tell.) I’m trying to see the story with a bit of distance to understand whether it works or not. (It doesn’t, not yet.) And think through the possibilities of how to deal with the problems and simultaneously figure out what the story’s about. All while taking copious notes.

And notes are indeed copious. I have a spreadsheet where the first column is the chapter, the second is the page number, and the third is a brain dump of critiques and ideas relevant to what’s happening on that page. Most of the notes are rambling thoughts about whether some element of a scene works, whether a character’s thought or feeling is convincing, how this part is connected to this other part that I still need to figure out. Most pages have a few rows.

Every time I write a note in a cell that goes beyond what a single row displays, I let the words run on into oblivion. There are many more words in one row than the spreadsheet can easily display. I don’t expand the cell to show the full text of what I’ve written. There’s no wrapping. I let the sentence end where it will. It’s not easy to reread the notes, because I’m not planning to do that for a while.

For the notes that seem the most important, the ones with ideas that appear significant, I put an asterisk in the fourth column, cutting off even more of the text than in the rows above and below. Showing less of my run-on thoughts, hiding them away for the time being, as a way to signal their importance to my future self, who will have to bring it all together and make some sense of it. And to reassure my present self that I don’t have to think about it just yet.

There’s a separate worksheet for notes that aren’t related to anything on a specific page. Overall structure, related plot threads. Research notes, character ideas, themes. Comments that wonder how the pieces fit together. A random collection of the things you’re compelled to put down when you’re trying to will a novel into existence.

The spreadsheet idea is something I heard on a forgotten podcast or blog post or essay. You read the first draft and write down everything you want to change before you start the second draft. That way you get a full picture of what you have and what you have to do. You wait to make decisions about what to change until you have a grasp on the whole, rather than trying to rewrite it from top to bottom or piece by piece. That sounded like solid advice to me, an excellent alternative to the stacks of unreadable comments in a Google doc, so I’m following it.

I wish I could remember where I heard about this so I could thank them. Or maybe I should wait until I know whether it’s actually been useful or not.

Changing the Whole Nature of The Thing: Zadie Smith on Some Aspects of Craft

I’m nearly finished the first draft of the novel I started in June, and I keep thinking about Zadie Smith. Specifically about her lecture, “That Crafty Feeling” (2008), where she describes two breeds of novelists: Macro Planners and Micro Managers. These are ugly words, as she says herself, but they usefully describe two methods of approaching the ordeal of writing a book:

“A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot, and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page. Because of this structural security, he has a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forward or backward, their difficulties multiply with their choices.”

Zadie Smith herself is a Micro Manager:

“I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose between three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea what the ending is until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

“Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I feel I have to be very careful: I can change the whole nature of the thing by changing a few words.”

For the Micro Manager, the first twenty pages of the book are “a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question: What kind of a novel am I writing?” The risk of this approach is that the first twenty pages can become “a pile-up of too careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark is passed.”

How about a house building metaphor to make the difference between these two types especially clear:

“Macro Planners have their houses basically built from day one and so their obsession is internal — they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers like me build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.”

Not my type

I keep thinking about this because I’m not sure which type I am. I plan in only the most basic sense, with only the roughest of ideas about the kind of novel I want to write and about the protagonist and their journey. Start at the beginning, continue to the middle, and finish at the end. The house of my novel is in no way built when I begin, and I’m still trying to figure out what style of furniture I want. Actually, even coming to the end, I’m still not quite sure if it‘s a townhouse, a McMansion, a chalet, or a shack in the wrong part of town (it’s a bit like playing M.A.S.H.). Would dwelling on the first twenty pages help me figure that out?

I charged through my first twenty pages and did not look back. Did not edit what I wrote the day or the week before, because how else do you write sixty thousand words in two months with only an hour or two a day? Revisiting and obsessing over anything slows me down and cuts into my breakneck speed typing time. Make a note of the problem, the gap, the thing I‘ll need to think about later, and then move the hell on. I know I‘m going to rewrite it all later, so what‘s the point of trying to rewrite it in pieces, instead of waiting for when I have an idea of what kind of surgery the whole thing will need? (Reconstructive, extensive, excessively risky, with an intense recovery period.)

The final few thousand words

Obviously, I don‘t need to fit either of Zadie Smith’s types. I can write my novel however I want. But I still keep worrying, just a little bit, as I face down these final few thousand words, these last few scenes, that I‘ve gone about this all wrong.

Of course I’m questioning everything I’ve done to get here. Because why not. What I’ve accomplished is just not good enough. Could be better. Could make more sense, have better sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Better character names, more character names. (Fun fact about this draft: the protagonist does not yet have a name; she goes by A.) Could be so much more than what I’ve made of it.

But this doesn’t help. Here’s what I really have to say: I’m almost finished another first draft. It’s easier and it’s harder than the first two and a half times. Different but mostly the same. I doubt it’s going to get better until I really and truly face down the revision process. It’s going to be much harder than getting down a lot of words every day. More things are going to change more often than I can imagine, and I’m probably going to change them back again before I revise it again. And that’s going to be fine.

But not until after I take a vacation. Drive across the eastern bit of this mighty continent, stand on some rocks to look out at the ocean and breathe in the salty air, and drive back again. We’ll see what that will do for me.

Doubt and interrogate

Maybe I shouldn‘t be reading lectures and essays like this when I‘m in the thick of writing. They make me doubt, just a little, that I‘m doing it right. But that doubt can be good, because it keeps me out of the bubble. Keeps me thinking about the parts beyond the story itself, the bizarre reality of what I‘m making with all these words. I do think that helps.

Zadie Smith’s whole lecture is worth the read for anyone embarking on the thrilling voyage that is writing a novel, if only to interrogate the usefulness of the question of aspects of craft and decide that there is no one right way to go about any of it. A little bit of everything seems true. It just depends on the day.

Scaffolding

I‘m going to end this with a part of the lecture that gives me comfort at this stage and which I hope to remember when the time comes:

“When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but a lot isn’t. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it.

“I use scaffolding to hold up my confidence when I have none, to reduce the despair, and to feel that what I’m doing has a goal, some endpoint that I can see. I use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey, though by doing this, like Zeno, I infinitely extend the distance I need to go.

“Later, when the book is printed and old and dog-eared, it occurs to me that I really didn’t need any of that scaffolding. The book would be far better off without it. But when I was putting it up, it felt vital, and once it was there, I’d worked so hard to get it there I was loath to take it down. So my advice, if you are writing a novel at the moment and putting up scaffolding, well, I hope it helps you, but don’t forget to dismantle it later.”

1000 Words Every Day

I participated in #1000wordsofsummer, a sort of challenge to write 1000 words every day from June 15 to June 29. Jami Attenberg started it on Twitter as a thing with a friend, but it spread quickly on Twitter and Instagram, with hundreds of people playing along. It’s simple: Jami sends an email every morning with words of encouragement and advice from writers. And you write 1000 words every day.

When I saw the original tweet back in May, it seemed like a great idea. Totally doable (I wrote the first draft of two novels last year, not quite at a pace of 1000 words a day, but pretty close) and maybe even fun with a virtual accountability group of strangers. So I added it to my calendar, signed up for the mailing list, and then promptly forgot about it.

At the time I was working on the second draft of one of the aforementioned novels. I wasn’t thinking about a new project but struggling through the problems of the current one. I had reached a point where I had no idea where the story should end up. The book wasn’t playing, and I wondered if it was time to try something different.

Then I kept seeing the challenge in my calendar as the start date approached and, without thinking about it consciously, without planning it at all, a new idea began to brew.

I made some notes the night before and started writing the first draft on June 15. It sounds simple when I put it like that. But it’s an accumulation of what I’ve already done. It’s a different approach into a universe I’ve been writing in and thinking about for a while, something that finally feels like the beginning of something. It starts at a simpler place, at a point further away from where I’ve already been. Just to see where it goes. No pressure.

What’s become clear from this experience is that I’m all too eager to start new projects. The revision process is so difficult and, so far, uncharted. I have no idea what I’m doing. The process of writing a first draft, however, is familiar now. I know that I can write a novel-length project; when I sit down, the words will come eventually. At this point, that part is comparatively easy. What I haven’t figured out is how to take the next step, closer to the finished project. I don’t yet have faith that I am capable of editing a project to completion. And at this point it’s still scary enough that beginning a new project feels safer.

So far I’ve been able to avoid facing the flaws in the projects that are still in draft. I haven’t had to deal with the mistakes I’ve made, which means I haven’t been able to learn from them. After not having anything close to a finished product, that’s the next worst thing: I could be writing better first drafts if I were more intimately acquainted with what I’ve been doing wrong in them, by having to fix them in subsequent drafts.

My routine for the last two weeks has been the same as before: I write morning pages for about ten minutes first thing in the morning, drink a cup of coffee, and get to writing. I usually get the day’s 1000 words done in an hour. On a good day it’s more words in less time. On an imperfect day, I need another half an hour later in the day to make up for the slack. That’s the beauty of this challenge — without it, I would be satisfied with 300 or 500 or 700 words, but I have a goal to reach, so I put in some extra time to make it happen. Always it’s easier than I think it’ll be. Which doesn’t make it seem any less impossible when I sit down to begin.

Some of my favourite parts of the #1000wordsofsummer daily emails are Will Leitch quoting Roger Ebert — “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before” — and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney talking about “the deeply unglamorous task of tolerating yourself long enough to push something out” and Hannah Tinti comparing writing to pottery because the failed creations recycled into the clay ages it like a fine wine and Ada Limon on silence being the place where writing begins. I almost never read the emails until after finishing my 1000 words every day, but they remind me of what I’m working toward and what I aspire to do.

If all goes as planned, by September I’ll have another first draft completed. So many things could happen before then! If I get there, it’ll be time to get beyond the first draft. It’s terrifying to face what once made you so proud but may turn out to be a pile of garbage. It’s not enough to be proud; you have to keep going. You have to figure out where you went wrong and how to fix it. So that’s my next step. After this one, enough of first drafts. Time to face it.