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.

Long Walks in Spring

This spring I’ve been going for a lot of walks. Sometimes it’s a stroll around the neighbourhood in the morning before work. A hike on nearby trails on a weekend morning. A quick meander to a little garden behind a nearby museum before dinner. A visit to the local botanical gardens to see the new growth. Daffodils and tulips in April, cherry blossoms and magnolias and lilacs in May, irises and peonies in June. And now the roses have started to bloom.

A trail through the forest

In an ideal world, every morning I would get out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, and go for a walk. The temperature would be cool enough for a light sweater, the sun in its eternal process of rising, my neighbours quiet, barely any cars in the street.

I would let my bleary mind wander through the world of whatever story I was writing. As I walked I would reveal situations, deepen motivations, clarify meanings. And I would return home, coffee drunk, and sit down with my laptop to write, write, write.

Lilacs

But what happens instead? I pop in my earbuds and listen to a podcast or an audiobook and get swept away into another world. Someone else’s world. Or I put on music and look at houses and their front gardens, the insides of cars parked on the street, the birds on the wires and in the bushes. Or I get caught up in thoughts about everything but writing — politics, money, job, people, and all the ways the world is a horrible place.

What I want to do while I walk is immerse myself in the world waiting inside my head while moving within the physical world. Diving into an incomplete fictional world is scary and difficult, so the concrete nature of the sidewalk provides some stability.

Magnolia trees

Away from the screen, glimpses of other worlds come into it, little pieces that don’t fit the whole but somehow inform it. Shards of influence break into the wide blank expanse of what a story might be. You worry about everything you don’t know yet and fear that it’s all a mirage. At some point you can see it all laid out, like seeing every frame of a film at once and knowing in a moment everything that happens. It’s impossible. You are left with a memory of that glimpse, the universe within a second, but nothing of what it contained.

Somehow walking feels like part of the work. It’s a way to look at the story from a distance, away from the screen, and consider how it all fits. But I can’t seem to write a story without words. I can only get anywhere while I’m sitting at the keyboard, as though an accumulating word count is all that matters. Perhaps it is. There is no book without words. But there are no words without — what? What am I really looking for? Time to think? Space to imagine? Paths to wander? The words might disappear entirely if I don’t stretch my legs, look at the sky, breathe the imperfect air.

Cherry blossoms

Every year I forget that spring is my favourite season. A renewed love for bright green growth and tender blossoms creeps up on me as though it hasn’t happened every year of my life. There is a special energy as colour and warmth emerge after an eternal-seeming cold. It’s easy to forget how impossible it seemed to survive the winter.

I should expect no more from these spring walks than a breath of air in this stifling city, some fresh gleam of colour against the grey and brown, a step light enough that I can feel the earth press back against the bottoms of my feet, like a gentle nudge of acknowledgment, a squeeze of approval. I want more, of course, but perhaps that could be enough.

Be Awkward, Quick, Insolent: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

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If You Want to Write - Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, written in 1938, is a precursor generally to the various books on the writing craft which I love so much and more specifically to The Artist’s Way (which I wrote about here). The three central messages of the two books are the same. Anyone can be an artist. Everyone has heaps of creativity inside them and probably need help to get access to it. And the only way to make real art is to find your true self, be kind to it, and tell the truth.

Unless you’re prepared for a fully loaded dose of affirmation, inspiration, optimistic encouragement, earnestness, and repetition, proceed with caution! If that doesn’t scare you, watch out for the old-fashioned conversational tone and slightly odd punctuation and grammar. Writers of the present century, aspiring or otherwise, are more likely to enjoy contemporary books on the writing craft.

Even aside from all of that, it might have been a bit much for me to read If You Want to Write so soon after finishing The Artist’s Way. Like Julia Cameron’s book, If You Want to Write is more about discovering that you can write, even if you think you can’t or aren’t good. The focus is on working toward becoming what you might call good, whatever that may be for you. It’s not about crafting beautiful sentences or a compelling plot or engaging characters. It’s about finding the thing inside of you that you want to write and getting it out on the page in an honest and truthful way. Reading two similar books about this so close together has pushed me to a saturation point.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some nuggets of insight to be found. Here are some of my favourite parts.

Being careless

Before Julia Cameron came along, Brenda Ueland had her own version of the morning pages:

“Write every day, or as often as you possibly can, as fast and carelessly as you possibly can, without reading it again, anything you happened to have though, seen or felt the day before. In six months look at it. A drawer full of paper will have accumulated. You will see that what you have written with the most slovenly freedom — in those parts there will be vitality, brilliance, beauty. By being careless, by taking it off on paper as fast as you can, you will not write what is dutiful and boring to you. You will not lumberingly over-explain, as they all do in political speeches and articles on economics. You will go straight to the point— be awkward, quick, insolent. Oh, this over-explaining! It is the secret of all boredom.”

I also like this advice about writing as though you will throw away what you create: “I don’t think we trust our imaginations enough, use them rightly. Self-trust is so important. When you launch on a story, make your neck loose, feel free, good-natured. And be lazy. Feel that you are going to throw it away. Try writing utterly unplanned stories and see what comes out.”

All should work

“Everybody in the world has the same conviction of inner importance, fire, or the god within,” she writes.

“The tragedy is that either they stifle their fire by not believing in it and using it; or they try to prove to the world and themselves that they have it, not inwardly and greatly, but externally and egotistically, by some second-rate thing like money or power or more publicity. Therefore all should work. First because it is impossible that you have no creative gift. Second: the only way to make it live and increase is to use it. Third: you cannot be sure that it is not a great gift.” 

Personality and the true self

A lot of what Ueland has to say about writing is about finding your true self and writing from there, not putting on a character or trying to be someone you’re not. But how, she asks, “to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves?” Her answer:

“The only way to find yourself is by recklessness and freedom. If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one. In fact, when you are in a fury it is a wonderful time to write. It will be brilliant — provided you write about what you are furious at, and not some dutiful literary bilge.

Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.” 

Learning about yourself is what gives your writing that coveted personality:

“The personality behind the writing is so important. This is what I call the Third Dimension. On the paper there are all the neatly written words and sentences. It may be completely objects, with ‘I’ not written there once. But behind the words and sentences, there is this deep, important, moving thing — the personality of the writer. And whatever that personality is, it will shine through the writing and make it noble or great, or touching or cold … or supercilious or whatever the writer is.”

Planning before writing

A friend asks Ueland if she has planned the book and made an outline. She vehemently answers in the negative. “For when you begin to plan such a huge edifice of words,” she writes, “your heart fails you. It is too hard, it will never get done, it is too complex and frightful. No, write what comes to you now. More will come later. The river will begin to flow through you.”

I’m not sure this is useful advice for all writers. Sometimes it helps to know the big picture before you begin to write each chapter. Many writers are very capable of dealing with an ambitious work. There’s no need to tell them that it should seem difficult if they don’t actually feel that way.

It’s obvious from this book that Ueland followed this advice while writing it. Each chapter is a thing by itself, without much sense of a cohesive whole, and there is a lot of repetition and even some contradiction. It’s still readable, but a little haphazard. If You Want to Write itself isn’t a strong argument for not planning before you start writing.

“No, I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan it afterwards. You write it first because every word must come out with freedom, and with meaning because you think it is so and want to tell it. If this is done the book will be alive.” 

This advice is useful for starting with an exploratory first draft. But it’s not going to help people who already have an idea of what their book is about but need to do the work to figure out how to put it together. Planning is helpful for avoiding that scramble in the dark every time you sit down to write.

But it’s equally true that if you don’t know what you’re writing and how you’re going to start, outlining and planning isn’t really going to get you anywhere. Sometimes you just have to stop making excuses, stop living inside the hazy world of your grand ideas, stop pretending that one day the story is going to write itself. Sometimes you just need to get down to the work.

The way to make it better

Although so much of the book is about finding your inner artist and facing the fear that you can’t write, If You Want to Write also has some excellent concrete advice about writing.

How to get better: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad, mawkish stories for that will show you many things about yourself, and your eye and taste and what you really feel and care about will become clearer to you. If you write a bad story, the way to make it better is to write three more. Then look at the first one. You will have grown in understanding, in honesty. You will know what to do to it. And to yourself.”

How to revise a story: “When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to write it over again and make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words. Try to see the people better. It is not yet deeply enough imagined. See them — just what they did and how they looked and felt. Then write it. If you can at last see it clearly the writing is easy.”

How to be interesting: “The secret of being interesting is to move along as fast as the mind of the reader (or listener) can take it in. Both must march along in the same tempo. That is why it is good to read your writing aloud to yourself. As soon as your voice drags, cross that part out.”

Related

There is another book about writing with a lot of similarities to If You Want to Write that came out just a few years before, in 1934: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (available as a PDF), which I first heard about via Writing about Writing. Here’s a preview:

“There is a sort of writer’s magic. There is a procedure which many an author has come upon by happy accident or has worked out for himself which can, in part, be taught. To be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way, first considering the main difficulties which you will meet, then embarking on simple, but stringently self-enforced exercises to overcome those difficulties. Last of all you must have faith, or the curiosity, to take one odd piece of advice which will be unlike any of the exhortations that have come your way in classrooms or in textbooks.”

If You Want to Write, Here’s the Book for You at Literary Hub.
Brenda Ueland at Wikipedia.
Buy the book directly from Graywolf Press.

How Writing Has Been Going Lately

I wrote the first drafts of two novels last year. I wrote them quickly — the first in three and a half months at around 800 words a day, and the second in less than two months at about 950 words a day. I started the draft of a third novel in early December. I expected it to come out as quickly as the other two, but so far it hasn’t. 

Writing lately

Writing lately has been slow. I try to work on it every day, and sometimes I fail. My average pace is somewhere around 200 words a day, and I’m nowhere close to the end of the story. There are many days where I’ve written nothing at all and other days where 300 words feels like a feat of incredible strength. It’s been months since I’ve written several hundred or a thousand words in one session.

That sounds like a lot, but on a day like that, the majority of the words are terrible. The volume is important, though. The point is getting inside the writing, moving forward, thinking of new ideas while in the thick of it, not from the outside. In the middle of a thought about something else finding insight into what is really going on in a scene. There need to be a lot of words because it’s often only at the end of a long stretch of sentences that something good or useful emerges.

Most mornings I type up a few sentences and call it progress. I feel lucky if I manage more than one paragraph. Sometimes that tiny beginning turns into something bigger and I get a few hundred words down in a morning, but most of the time it’s just words that reiterate something I’ve already written, that add a silly thought on top of another silly thought, that carry on a conversation with nothing in it. I don’t feel like it counts as progress.

Shifting form

Part of my problem with writing lately is that the story doesn’t even feel like a novel anymore. Somewhere along the way, the part I’m working on turned into a short story. Part of me wants to continue the novel, while another part wants to cut out this piece and work it into a thing that stands on its own. 

I’m meandering on the outskirts of the story, looking backward at what I’ve already written, wishing I could make something of that, rather than continuing to move ahead. But having begun a novel that shows signs of going somewhere, I am compelled to continue it. Yet having a vision in my head of a short story, I am compelled to consider what it would mean to have a short story finished, done, without having to commit to an entire novel yet again.

A novel is fundamentally different from a short story. I can’t hold them both in my head at once. I’m finding it impossible to have it both ways. So I creep cautiously along, barely making any headway. And I keep thinking: what if it were a short story, something I could submit somewhere for publication on its own?

Writing lately

One step at a time

It feels so important, the piece of fiction you choose to be the first thing you send out into the world with your name attached to it. So I’m trying not to think about it. There are no limits to the kind of writer I can imagine myself being. I have not chosen a voice, a genre, a geography, a set of themes, a primary concern. Those choices shouldn’t be important. I feel nearly as likely to publish a contemporary romance novel as a book of prose poetry or an obscure literary novel or a self-help book. And with thinking about what I want to try to get published first, I feel like I have to choose. It’s a decision I don’t want to make. Is that why I’ve been slowing down?

After all the first drafts I’ve been writing lately, I really just want to finish something that I can put in front of other people. I don’t know what will happen after that, but that’s the first step. I have a sentence-generating itch in my fingers that won’t go away, not even on those zero-sentence mornings. The inevitable feelings of inadequacy and frustration and fear should make me want to quit. Instead they’re the motivators for continuing to work at it until I make something that I can maybe, if I squint and tilt my head and not think too hard, be proud of.