Are You Making This One Huge Mistake That Keeps You from Writing Consistently?

I have a running to-do list. I imagine you probably do too. If your to-do list is anything like mine, it’s both finite and inexhaustible at the same time. To-do lists are like hydras. Cross off one item, and several more appear. The truth is, I’ve never gotten to the end of my to-do list.

And you know what’s on my to-do list? Yep. Writing. You know what often doesn’t get done on my to-do list? Yep. Writing.

Why?

Because I myself am making one huge, costly mistake. Writing is on my to-do list—in fact, it’s at the top. But it, like “Organize kitchen cabinets” or “Clean under the fridge” or “Learn French,” is in the It would be nice to do this if I have time category.

You know what that translates to? The It will never get done category. Just look in my kitchen cabinets. Or under my fridge. Or me demander si je parle française.

(Actually, don’t do any of those things.)

If you’re serious about writing, it needs to be made a priority. It needs to be THE priority, the one that you don’t go to bed without doing, like brushing your teeth. You need to write every day. Even if just for fifteen minutes.

I can already hear your objections, in part because they are my objections. It’s so difficult to know what to write. I’m not even sure I have the talent. Writing so often won’t produce anything good. I have to wait till inspiration strikes or the muse taps me on the shoulder.

I don’t believe in a muse, and I certainly don’t believe in waiting for one, however whimsical the idea sounds. I believe in putting your rear in a chair (to corrupt a more well-known writer proverb) and writing whatever comes. And doing that day after day after day after day.

Make a plan and stick to it. I wrote my first book, a gentle and frivolous parody, in twenty-one days because I had a deadline. Was it crazy? Yes. Do I recommend it? Absolutely not. What I took away from that experience was not a caffeine addiction or permanent eye-twitching (thankfully), but instead that the only thing I really needed to do to write was to decide to write—and then follow through.

One objection remains. I’m not even sure I have the talent. Well, nobody’s sure. Nobody may ever read your writing but your mom and your grandmother. Nobody may ever read my writing but my mom and grandmother. But do you love it? If the answer is yes, nothing else matters.

I also take heart from author Michael Cunningham, who writes:

What I do is this: I get up every morning and go straight to work, and on the good days I write with pleasure. On the bad days, I just sit there, waiting to see if something will come. On the bad days, if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a lame sentence or two, thinking, I’ll delete this later. It’s terrible, but it’s all I’ve got today. I’ve found, though, that when I look back six months later at what I’ve written, I can’t distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad. I’ve come to believe that the inspiration is always there, like an electrical current, and what varies is our access to it. And I’ve found that the best way to cope with that is with diligence, with a kind of daily determination.

There’s no magic potion. There’s no elusive muse. Only you and the paper and the pen.

So get up in the morning, or stay awake a little longer each night. Put your rear in a chair. And write.

Don’t Follow Your Dreams

Now, now, before everybody gets upset and throws his or her chair/coffee/computer at my face, let me explain what I mean by this seemingly harsh exhortation. I’m really not trying to be a dream crusher, although I do think, as a culture, the fact that we tell people to do and follow whatever they want is both short-sighted and selfish. (Come on. “Follow your dreams” is basically Disney propaganda and deserves to be questioned.)

This post is instead intended to be an encouragement to those of you who have more than one creative dream or passion at which you would like to excel still more, but don’t think you have enough time. You know. Writing. Reading. Playing the piano. Painting. Knitting. Baking.

Here’s my first and most important thought: Just try to do one thing. Choose one (maybe two if you’re feeling ambitious, but I wouldn’t advise it), and go for it. Research. Get better. Make a lot of mistakes. Talk to people about it.

And a second thought: Start by doing this one thing for just fifteen minutes a day. Write a character’s stream-of-consciousness. Scrutinize the first few bars of Moonlight Sonata. Read through a complicated recipe several times and strategize. Fifteen minutes is the very minimum—there’s no maximum within reason. You may be surprised at the progress you make as well as the restored sense of excitement you feel for your One Thing of choice.

Otherwise, if you don’t target your time, you’ll spread yourself “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” and you won’t get anything done. What could have been one or two passions, slowly and steadily cultivated in patience and perseverance, becomes five or six unwieldy passions that quickly wear out. They may even die.

For me, that One Thing—my so-called dream—is writing. Would I love to make time to bake so much that I get really, really good? Absolutely. Prinsesstårta, I’m looking at you. prinsesstrta_17336_16x9

Would I love to practice piano for several hours a day? Of course! I am ashamed at a.) how far my piano skills have fallen off the deep end and b.) how woefully incompetent I was to begin with. But if I’m to be serious about taking the novel I’m working on and attempting to do my best by it, then I need to concentrate on just that.

This doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your other passions completely. You better believe that I’ll keep tinkering with the piano and baking chocolate chip cookies. (My famous ones. Look out for the recipe soon.) But focus on one. I’m only repeating it because it’s so important and I myself need it hammered into my head.

And yes, maybe someday I’ll happily melancholy my way through Chopin and Debussy without an anxious thought and/or bake the Prinsesstårta of queenly dreams. But for now… I need to be consistent. I need to make writing my One Thing. My One Dream.

What will you choose? Your fifteen minutes—and mine—can’t wait.

New Look, New Name, Same Blog

Greetings, friends! I know it’s been an embarrassingly long time since a post, but a lot of new things have been happening with me, and one of those new things, as you’ll notice, is (sort of) this blog.

Yes, it looks different. I know. Very different. If you’re at all like me, you’re probably traumatized at this or any change. I’m sorry. You will get used to it, and you will (I hope) like it. I do!

I wanted to go for a more professional, cleaner look that reflected the new direction I’m taking this blog. Over the next several weeks there will be more changes—new pages, posts as part of a series, just to name a few—that I hope will create a more cohesive, more frequently updated blog. I appreciate your patience as I continue to sort those things out and update them, and I’ll let you know about the changes. 🙂 WordPress has a lot of really cool features…I just need to figure out what they are and how to use them.

I’m hoping to post new things at least weekly, which is a scary thing to say out loud. And, to be honest, I’ve actually delayed saying it because I have been scared about making that commitment. And I’ve been busy, but when you commit to something, that doesn’t really matter, does it?

What about the name? This is kind of a sad one for me. As much as I love “Adventures to England,” I imagine aside from the half-hearted attempt I made to explain it in one post, it’s pretty confusing for those new around here. “The Wayword Writer” encapsulates more of what I’d like to do with this blog…and has a myriad of meanings, which I appreciate. (Also, if you’re still used to typing in http://www.adventurestoengland.wordpress.com, you’ll be redirected to the updated version, so no worries there.)

Anyway, I’m excited. Here’s to everything that’s ahead!

The Research Rule

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One of the most frustrating—and the most rewarding—things about writing is that there are no hard and fast rules. As W. Somerset Maugham so delightfully puts it: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

But if there is one rule for which there is no exception, it’s that research is absolutely necessary. Thorough research. In other words, become an expert on everything—cabbages to kings. There. That’s the secret to good writing.

…Just kidding, it’s not. But it is true that good writing does not happen without thorough research. And if the thought of research fills you with sheer terror, conjuring up images of all the darkest moments of late-night scrambling for articles and dangerous consumption of black coffee from your school days, I’m sorry. Either writing isn’t for you, or you’re just going to have to get over it, because you need to turn into a veritable information magnet if you aren’t one already. (Writers often are.)

What was that? “Well, why is research so important?”, you ask? I’m so glad you did. It’s an odd coincidence, but I happen to have compiled a list of, as I see it, three ways to answer that question.

First of all, as I’ve mentioned briefly before, research gives your work depth by filling out the world you’ve created—even, yes, the world of a fantasy or science fiction novel. (These worlds have rules and histories too, even if different ones. They are presumably still on some level intelligible universes since you are able to write about them.) Research makes your world real, three-dimensional, convincing. Is your novel set in the 1950s? You need to know what people talked like, what they wore, how your character fits into his or her community. Set today? You still have to do research. If characters are to be authentic, they can’t live in a vacuum.

Research also respects the reader. It respects his or her intelligence and ability to discern fact from fiction—the sort of fiction that shouldn’t belong in your novel, like a character making an important transatlantic telephone call in 1913, when the first call of that kind didn’t even occur until 1926. You would be surprised at the number of people who have either picked up obscure facts somehow or other or are out-and-out experts. (And there are experts on just about everything.)

One of the worst things that could happen to you as a published author is receiving an email or a letter from an irate reader pointing out that your Colombian entomologist must be a bumbling idiot and not the intelligent fellow you presented him as because he incorrectly described the migratory patterns of the Greta oto (or glasswinged butterfly). It is a serious offense, and its importance cannot be exaggerated. Possibly your primary objective as a writer is to create a world that your readers will inhabit, one in which they can completely immerse themselves. That fragile illusion of reality, part of what makes reading so wonderful, shatters when they notice you have slipped up. And they will notice. They will feel cheated—and rightly so. You will have failed them.

I don’t want to get too dramatic. After all, if it was an honest mistake that you meant to look up or wouldn’t have dreamed was wrong, then you can always, with humbly bowed head, correct it in the second edition, and the third, and the fourth… And there probably will be errors that you and your editors won’t catch, and that’s all right, as long they aren’t made because you decided research didn’t really matter. You should care because your readers care.

Perhaps most importantly, research respects your characters, those people you have grown to love in spite of their flaws. (Hopefully they do have flaws, but I’ll save that discussion for a future blog post.) Although the idea may initially sound silly, it is a foundational aspect of good writing. Respecting characters as their creator mirrors the way we respect and is indicative of our respect for persons in “real life.” A goal of any good novel, or a novel aspiring to be good, is to portray a facet of human nature honestly, something that resonates with our human experience, a commonality that renders a story about eleventh century Ethiopia compelling to a twenty-first century New Yorker. A character floating along in life, not tied to her own history or what is happening around her, is not being respected. And by not respecting your characters, you are in a way not respecting the dignity of humanity. The good, life-like character is a well-researched character.

A word of warning, however, to those who are now convinced or re-convinced into becoming research fiends: research has the potential to consume your work and, indeed, take you away from it. Or, just as bad, you might be tempted to wear your knowledge like a gold star and overload your novel with unnecessary facts. This is certainly a risk, especially as information gleaned from research is often fascinating. I’m sorry to say this, but you can’t put every detail you know about the migratory patterns of the glasswinged butterfly in your novel. Only include those things that are crucial to the narrative in some way.

How to avoid this never-ending research rabbit hole? To put it in Wonderlandian terms, always keep in sight the “muchness” that is the meat of your story and what keeps you with the characters and where you’ve put them. Keep going back to that, reminding yourself why this research is important for them.

As with most of the advice you’ll receive about writing, even the research rule doesn’t have clearly defined parameters. Just, you know, don’t get too obsessive about it. You don’t need to know what your character was eating ten years ago at a certain café in Paris given that it was 1937…unless that particular repast at that particular time was somehow instrumental in forming the person your character is today because of the newspaper he was perusing, and now even the smell of Turkish coffee makes his stomach turn. Then you better believe you need to know.

See what I mean? Be thorough. Don’t go crazy. Happy researching.

Writing To-Do List: Get Inspired

Call it laziness or procrastination or recovering from illness, I haven’t been writing a lot (read: hardly anything) in the past month or so. I wish I could say I’ve been practicing to be the next Escoffier or Julia Child, training to run a marathon, or diving into a study of Arabic instead (all of which, to varying degrees, I’d like to do,) but mostly it’s amounted to a lot of twiddling my thumbs (read: watching Murder, She Wrote, the recent discovery of which has not deterred me from now being in the fourth season, still going strong.)

Then again, I did unofficially tell myself in the murky realm between the subconscious and the conscious that I would take May off and not really make any plans or do much of anything. But it’s June 5th, I’m on the tail end of recovering from a minor surgery and its ensuing complications, and I’m ready for some action.

…Even if I’m not ready, I need some action, and some inspiration.

One place I find inspiration is the work of the greats. If you want to write well, read well. I’ve never really been on board with Faulkner’s advice to “read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” “Trash” may be good for showing you what not to do, academically speaking, but I think our reading diets should be at least 1% ratio of trash to 99% of at least decent.

Full Disclosure: Several years ago I used to read sappy Christian romance novels here and there in order to laugh at their unintentionally laughable tripe, but I gave it up, in part because I became too nauseated, and in part because I felt that in some sense I was being sucked into the tropes! The last thing you want to do is unconsciously pick up conventions that don’t belong anywhere near good writing.

It’s a pretty safe generalization to say that most things we put into our brains stick. And if we don’t categorize them appropriately (e.g., invoking the name of the Lord occasionally does not a serious religious theme make), we may find ourselves committing the same mistakes and then wondering, horrified, “How did THAT get in there?”

Why? I’m not really sure. Perhaps because all narratives, even badly-told ones, are to some degree compelling. And no writer—even the best writer—is immune to making this kind of mistake. Well, you sneer, “I wouldn’t be one of them. I can read anything and not be influenced, in my writing or otherwise.” Let me speak to you frankly. You’re a snob, and you’re also delusional.

I also get inspired (did that digression throw you off enough?) by taking walks when the weather is fine. We have a beautiful park practically on our doorstep. I’m hoping to enjoy it more when I am able to take walks again.

And—oddly enough—research can be inspiring as well. I’d like to do a separate post about research sometime, but for now, all I will say is that it is essential to any book, no matter where or when it is set. The book I’m working on right now takes place in early 1920s England, and while I knew enough to get me started, there were and still are plenty of things I’ve had to learn through buying/borrowing books on everything from World War I to clothing trends and, of course, searching the Internet. Truth be told, the books have been more helpful. They tend to give me additional information I didn’t know I needed. The Internet is more of a one-trick pony in that respect. I realize none of this sounds very inspiring, but I’ve found, in my research, fresh ideas as the book gains more depth through authenticity.

Anyway, enough talking about inspiration. Now it’s time to find some!

What inspires you to write/draw/bake/be creative?

Six Fears When Beginning a Novel

After a long silence punctuated by endless character sketches, aimless dialogue snippets, and homeless place descriptions…

(Drum roll, please. And the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth wouldn’t hurt, either.)

I’m doing it. I’m writing a new novel. It’s an idea that’s been germinating in my head for a long time, something I started a few years ago, scrapped, and recently decided to rework entirely. So, in celebration of that fact, here’s a list of my top six fears as I begin—because we all know that naming our fears makes them completely and utterly disappear, right?

1. I could die before I finish it. What if it could have been great, or maybe even just good, and I was in the middle of some major revision and about to write the best scene of my life and then—poof—consumption takes me up to the pearly gates?

2. I’ll be staring at a blank page for the rest of my life. This is an ultra form of writer’s block, where I won’t be able to write ever again and will only look, glazed and stupefied, at a page with all potentiality and no actuality.

3. If I am able to finish it, I won’t have done what I set out to do. It’s Dante’s realm of the Uncommitted for writers—having attempted to make an impression, and finding in the end that nothing has been achieved, and that our hands have not been communicating properly with our hearts.

4. It will be terrible. Let’s face it—who knows how many hours, how many wide-eyed nights, how many cups of tea, how many hairs pulled out later, and it might just be kind of bad. Eh. So-so. Average.

5. No one will want to read it. Aside from, you know, kind friends and relatives. (Thanks, guys!)

6. No one will want to publish it. It’s pretty common knowledge that the majority of the breakout bestselling novels nowadays have to go through the wringer even to get a literary agent. We’re talking upwards of forty or fifty rejection notes, all mercilessly identical. This is both encouraging and discouraging. Unless what I write isn’t even good enough after that… (See Fear #4. Also—writing to get published is a complete joke. But it’s still a fear.)

Well. Now that I’ve made myself completely paranoid and a hopeless, nail-gnawing wreck, I’m going to get back to work on that novel! I was just kidding, anyway. Of course I was kidding.

Kind of?

Whatever. I love writing. Sure, it would be nice to reach people I don’t even know and see my work mean something to thousands of others and grip them as much as it has gripped me, but that can’t be why I write. If that was the truth, I wouldn’t write at all. I’d give up right now.

I write because I love to tell stories. I have to tell stories. It’s part of who I am. They will come out even if I want to keep them in.

So it’s okay if only ten people read this novel. Ten people is something.

…But just in case, if anybody finds me hiding underneath a chair, muttering never-ending back and forths between characters in a British accent and intermittently weeping about the lack of chocolate anywhere in my vicinity, please calm me down and offer a few cheering words. And possibly a Dark Chocolate bar. With raspberry in the middle.

Literary Odds and Ends: Aunts, Workshops, Feuds

Blogs are like Aunt Matildas—that pesky relative who won’t stop nagging you about your eternal singleness and has an overpowering scent of musky perfume, mothballs, and peppermints. Aunt Matilda simply won’t leave you alone until you make something of yourself, and blogs are never satisfied either. “Write another post!” Well, here I am, listening to Aunt Matilda, the old dear. One can stand musky perfume only so long.

Jump-Off Question of the Day: Do writers have inferiority complexes?

I am beginning to think we do. Perhaps somewhere in the world, scribbling away with pompous aplomb in caverns draped with gold, there are a few literary mammoths who (like Hercule Poirot) say, quite simply, “I am the best.” Not me. Although I can admire such sagacity from afar, I possess no such talent. I might rest easier if I did. No, my feelings run along the lines of a chicken staring up at a peacock (the peacock being a Literary Giant) and wondering if it forgot its feathers at home. Sound like a definite inferiority complex to you?

I had this sort of panicked feeling, no doubt resulting from this complex, as we began our Senior Seminar class, the capstone course for finishing the English Writing major. This was the writing class. The one full of a room of people who would read my work, critique my work, and then send it back, probably bloodied and battered. The poor little thing. I did so love it. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.

Actually, I’ve really loved the workshop environment. Sometimes it’s painful (Did someone really just recommend taking out that beloved sentence of mine? I spent twenty minutes figuring out just the right syntax!), but all in all, it’s been incredibly helpful. There is, however, the constant wondering if one’s literary style will be appreciated for what it is, rather than held up to a standard that doesn’t really apply. This kind of wondering always brings to my mind that classic literary feud between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who had very different styles, and didn’t mind admitting it.

Faulkner claimed that Hemingway “ha[d] never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway shot back rather hotly (though he, of course, would limit himself to “said” as a dialogue tag—sorry, Hemingway): “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Personally, without reference to the literary style of either, I think Hemingway won that round of verbal jabs. Ouch. But they’re not the only ones who have taken offense to what we’d consider the work of Literary Giants.

Charles Darwin himself came to detest one of the Untouchables. He said: “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Coming from someone whose primary fascination seems to have been with bird beaks, I find this comment a real hoot. Can you imagine how Shakespeare might have responded? Possibly starting with something like “Thou lily-livered knave” and ending nowhere near as polite as that… Or he might not have said anything at all. That is the worst fate—to be ignored! Even criticism is better than indifference.

(To be fair to Darwin, in context, he is actually lamenting the fact that he seems to have lost his taste for the poetry that he used to enjoy so much, for reasons that bewilder him—but that is another blog post entirely.)

Most people tend to focus on the feud part of Faulkner and Hemingway’s relationship—certainly a troublesome one. But they had respect for each other, noting that the other was the finest author of his time. If even Faulkner and Hemingway could acknowledge skills so unlike their own, surely that acknowledgement should be able to transfer over to today’s world.

But I’ve heard a lot—and worried a lot—about the fact that it seems like only a certain kind of book will sell as good writing nowadays. Especially because my writing is so far from that style. Cut adverbs and adjectives from my work, and I’m stuck with an article or two and a pencil with the end bitten off in despair.

Still… if Faulkner and Hemingway could exist in the same universe—even in the same time period—even as enormous successes—isn’t there room for a different kind of dish at the table? I’d like to think so. The thought keeps me writing, anyway.

Curse all inferiority complexes.

(And if this blog post is sort of random and discombobulated—blame Aunt Matilda! It’s always her fault.)