An Audience of One

You’ve read them before, Steinbeck’s rules for writing. Or maybe Vonnegut’s or Kerouac’s rules. Sometimes they are 6 simple rules like Steinbeck’s; sometimes the list is longer and encompasses more than craft like Kerouac’s. Most writers, I think, write them with hesitation and expect readers to take the advice with a grain of salt. After all, there’s no one way to approach writing. They can only really speak to what has worked for them and, at the most, maybe it gives the reader a new way to approach the craft.

Personally, I enjoy reading them. Deep down I hope each time I read one of these lists that some previously unknown kernel of wisdom will open up a whole new world for me. Most of the time, the lists serve to remind me of things I already know but sometimes lose track of, which I think can be said of many of life’s endeavors. It’s important to find ways to regain your focus. Sometimes a good list can give you some perspective or something to think about.

Recently I was reading over some of the advice posted in a series in The Atlantic.  The point that stuck out to me the most was the intriguing and practical advice to imagine that you are writing to one person.  Several writers speak to some variation of this rule.

For Steinbeck it was “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”

Stephen King might call this person the First Reader.  The idea that you write with someone specific in mind that you respect and trust to be honest and you believe has good literary tastes. This person can be a friend, colleague or loved one. King’s is his wife.

Kurt Vonnegut puts it this way: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

On a practical level it makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to open your book up to a barrage of criticism before its ready. Writing early on is very fragile, and it’s easy to get derailed by too much feedback too soon. You also want to have a reader who is critical without being harsh, encouraging without being too easy on you.

I can’t say I followed this advice during the composition of my first draft. I may have had a few particular people in mind from time to time, but not on a consistent basis. There’s something really inviting about the idea, and I look forward to using this approach during revision. I think it would’ve made the initial process a little bit easier for me.

Do you write for one reader? If so, who do you write for?


Summer Break Is Here

My first draft is done! I can’t say it is finished. It certainly doesn’t feel finished. Forcing myself to push through the last two weeks was both good and hard. I definitely didn’t do as much as I had hoped. The draft is also not as long as I had hoped it would be, but it does feel like the right place to take a break.  The draft is printed and clipped together. I put it in a folder and don’t intend to look at it again until the end of the summer. I’m going to spend this time working on short stories, doing some research, reading and building up the blog. The summer is going to bring about big changes in my daily routine and will require some trial and error, but I welcome the new season.

How do you know when a first draft is done?

When Is Enough Enough?

I’m to the point now in my novel where the basic story is complete. I’ve written all the chapters to some degree. I have all the characters and plot elements in place, if not completely developed. I’ve reached a place where I am kind of tired of writing this story and would like a brief respite from it. I know that I have some more research ahead of me and that most of what remains is description of things I’m not entirely sure of yet. In addition, I am eager to revise some of my short stories and submit those. So, my question is, when do you know if you have enough?

Part of me thinks that there must be some benefit to taking a break now. I clearly want to. I need to do some reading and research, and I know that some distance will give me a fresh perspective on the writing. Another part of me knows, however, that there are sections that are severely underdeveloped which will make for a longer and harder revision; this could make me lose my momentum. Also, when I come back to it in 6 weeks I’ll be coming back as a visitor. I’ll have to remember and relearn things about these characters and the world they live in. I think this can be a good thing. That’s the point of taking time off before revising, but I’m not sure that the story is ready for that.

I’ve gone back and forth this past week between really wanting a break and seeing a more complete end in sight. So I sat down and figured out how many pages I have in each chapter. It turns out that some of the chapters are much more underdeveloped than I recalled. The essence is there; placeholders are present, but I’ve left a lot unsaid. So I’ve decided to come to a compromise with myself. I’ve gone through my calendar and designated an appropriate amount of time to each chapter. Chapter 1 needs at least 4 more pages. Chapter 2 needs 5, etc and so on until April 19th. I’m going to give it one last push and see where I end up. Hopefully, I will end up with a more complete story.

How do you decide when a first draft is complete? Do you use words or page counts as a guide? Do you step away when you are tired? Are you content with having a complete story even if aspects are underdeveloped still?

Writing Cues

I skipped last week’s entry because I was sick. It was also my birthday last week, which means that my deadline for completion has come and gone.

This is not the first time I’ve seen a self-imposed deadline come and go. I spent the last couple of weeks wasting time at the computer. Sometimes, I would just add a comma and remove a word because I didn’t know how to proceed. That kind of writing is really unfruitful.  The thing was that I was stuck, but I didn’t realize why right away. It took a while for me to realize that I’d reached a part of the story that required me to address something I’d been avoiding until then. (The entire premise of the current story rests on this bit of scientific knowledge I knew very little about.) I could continue to write around it or deal with it.

I am not a scientist who writes fiction. I am a fiction writer who likes reading science articles and finds science fiction interesting. Because of my lack of expertise, I’d reached a point where I was left wondering if I could complete what I’d set out to do. I realized that I wasn’t going to get any further without getting into some heavy research. So I wrote down key questions that I needed answered. How does it work? What are the benefits? What are the side effects? What does this look like? Since I couldn’t bring myself to write, I read articles and papers on the subject.

Two things happened during this process. 1) I realized that part of the doubt I had about completing the novel came from the fact that I wasn’t sure if this premise would hold up to scrutiny. 2) Once I realized it could, I started writing again.

When I was in graduate school and had to read a difficult text I’d summarize main concepts on a notebook as I read. I think it is an accurate assessment of whether you learned something or not. So I started summarizing findings and practiced trying to explain what I learned to my husband, who actually is a scientist, to see if I made any sense.  And story evolved from this summation practice.

The details give authority to the characters who needed it and authenticity to the experience. I do have to warn beginning writers that not all research should go into the story.  I spent a lot of time and learned a lot of things that won’t make it in. After all, story is about the people in the end. Like every aspect of writing, I have to pick out the parts that are most relevant, add richness and authority to the story. I have to choose the information that will give the best illusion of a complete picture.

I’ve learned and am learning through this process that when I hit a wall, it is usually because I haven’t developed an aspect of the story very well, be it a character or whatever. It’s a signal to stop and think a while on what to do. Maybe it’s still a stupid idea. I don’t know yet, but I can go forward knowing it is possible to finish and confident in the direction I’m taking.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Valentine’s Day was Tuesday, and it got me thinking about all the important people in my life. Writing is such a solitary activity but having a strong support system is vital. The writer generally gets all the praise, but every writer knows that it is impossible to succeed truly on your own. The people in your life lighten the load and offer encouragement. Often, they do so whole-hardheartedly, without being allowed to read the work in progress and without any knowledge of whether the sacrifices they are making are going to amount to much in the end. They take on many roles. Sometimes they’re your editor, waiting long periods between drafts and dutifully reading multiple iterations.  Sometimes they take on the role of unpaid psychiatrist. Sometimes they are your only cheering section.

My family has supported me in my writing since I was a girl. My mother still cuts out clippings about writers and writing, conferences and free lance jobs. She calls me to tell me about a new software for writers. She buys me books. A few weeks ago my mom dusted off one of my old stories and proclaimed, “I want to send this somewhere (for publication).” I guess she was tired of waiting for me to. I know she doesn’t know exactly where to send it or how to go about that, but the gesture made me realize that I do know now how to fix a couple of the stories that I liked and shelved. I’m going to work on them and try to send them out for publication when I am done with the first draft of my novel.

My husband has been critical to my writing again on a daily basis by listening to my ups and downs, editing my blog, bringing me cups of coffee and oatmeal in the morning so that I don’t go without eating (which I will forget to do otherwise), offering to cook when it’s not his turn and taking on more responsibility so that I can carve out time to write when I’ve had a busy week.

I wouldn’t be writing all these years later without these people in my life, and if I am able to continue doing so it will be because of their help. So, this Valentine’s I want to say thank you for the cups of coffee, the clippings, the therapy sessions, the encouraging words and gestures, for never suggesting that I’m wasting my time and for reading and reading and reading my stories.

Time Well Spent

I wrote two posts before this one that might never make it to your email. My chocolate lab Westley took a nap, dusk turned into night, and the temperature dropped 15 degrees in the time I’ve spent trying to think of something I want to talk about, but when it came down to it neither post felt right.

I suppose I could’ve spent this time working on my novel. I suppose this could be considered time wasted. So much of writing is trial and error. It makes it hard sometimes to judge if you’ve made any progress at all. I don’t know that I’ve accomplished much tonight, but it feels good to have written something. I haven’t written much for the novel this week and my blog post is a few days late, but at least I’m writing again.

Westley is staring at me now. He taps his nose against the doorknob, his signal to let me know that he needs to go outside. I know that the house will get quiet and dark soon. Another day is slipping away as I type this.

In the morning I’ll slowly tear myself away from the warmth of the covers. I’ll sit down on the couch with my coffee and laptop, and I will try again to write something, anything.

Writing Resources: Books For Inspiration

This is the first of a series on resources for the writer that I’ll post from time to time. Since it makes sense to start in the beginning I’m going to talk a little bit about two books that I think are great resources for writers looking for inspiration and aspiring writers who want a glimpse into what writing is all about and whether it is for them.

The first one I want to recommend is Anne Lammott’s Bird By Bird. I read Bird By Bird in graduate school and many times since. Lammott’s philosophy on writing is reflected in her title. She gently encourages the writer to take it one step at a time. One of my favorite sections of hers, and probably her most recognized by fellow writers, is the essay on first drafts. The essay is funny and inspiring. It speaks to her personal experience and to a greater universal experience: writing that first draft. The most important thing it does, however, is take the pressure off first drafts. (Most of which are terrible anyway). The rest of the book wanders between instruction and memoir. Lammott’s rich, descriptive prose prompts the reader to look at the writing process anew.

The second book I want to recommend is Stephen King’s On Writing. This book is quite different from the above in a lot of ways. King’s book emphasizes a more structured and prolific routine. King has very specific ideas regarding good vs great writing (and writers). Something that came as a surprise to me were his insightful remarks on writing what you want. I also found his thoughts on the importance of having first readers valuable. King’s book is also a mixture of craft and memoir. I found many of his personal stories intriguing, and the heavy importance he places on the support he received from his wife touching. Being a writer all of these years, working in academia, and recently becoming a wife I was able to empathize with many of the early stories.

Something that both of these books do really well is show the amount of work and willpower that it takes to write consistently. Writing, along with other art forms, can seem glamorous to the outsider. Often, the work is anything but that.

Something neither of these does much of is provide writing exercises. Both authors provide opinions and sometimes examples on the elements of craft, but it is not the main focus of either book.

There are things that I appreciate about both books and things I disagree with in both. I think the value in reading them is that, ultimately, they encourage you to think about your views on writing, how you approach it and what you want from it.

Killing Your Darlings

The Faulkner quote goes, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” It’s not what I intended to write about today. Instead, I’d intended to write today’s post about an early spring. I meant to use it as a metaphor for something that I’ve been experiencing. However,  I can’t seem to make the connections on the page (or the screen) yet, and I don’t have it in me to cut the other post to bits right now. Sometimes you just have to build up the strength.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my novel hit an impasse. I’d written what was essentially a treatment in a flurry of excitement, but I’d also written myself into a corner. I spent days agonizing over it. My husband tried his best to encourage me. (“Just don’t put your head in the oven”, he said, finally, when nothing else worked.)

When the solution to my problem finally hit me, it was clear that about 20 pages had to go. (I’m giving you a conservative estimate; since then much more has been replaced.)  Although I was attached to certain parts, and felt disappointment in having to let go of some of the nuances I’d liked about the story, I don’t feel any remorse over the reaping. And that’s the most important thing to remember: The novel and I have both survived.

If you’ve ever written you know what it is like to kill your darlings, to look at something that you LOVE and cut it because it does not work in a piece. If you are writing and you don’t know what that’s like, then you may need to revisit some of your prose. Every writer has to do it. The best advise I can give is to kill them quickly (but if you save the clippings in a different file for future use no one’s judging).

The Spark of Life

There’s a period after I finish a book where the world and characters stay with me. If I really enjoyed the book, I relish in it longer, trying to make the feeling last. I welcome anything that reminds me of the characters or place.

When I was younger I would imagine being in the world. I would be a character I liked or add myself to the story in some way. This type of play allowed me to either empathize with a character and their motives or look at the world more closely. Often, I’d change the way things actually went in the story. Sometimes writing still reminds me of that type of play which, I suspect, is its great appeal.

The other day, I was washing dishes, and I was lost in the world of my own novel. Now, I’ve been consumed in writing before while struggling to figure out the mechanics of how to pull something off. I’ve spent many distracted days this way. (You can ask my husband.) I’ve analyzed my characters, their motives and their neurosis. But in that small and unexpected moment at the kitchen sink, I saw my story world as separate from myself. Yes, it is something I created and manipulated. Still, somehow, now it seems alive, when it did not a moment before. It has rules and a structure, and I am only there to help guide these people on their way. And that, my friends, is pretty exciting.

Tell me what it is like for you.

What’s Your Routine?

Right now I am chipping away at a rough draft of my novel with sloth-like speed. I have set a goal of writing 4 pages a day (approx 1000 words), which I’d like to finish in 2 months.

My best writing times are early morning and, sometimes, late in the evening. I’ve taken to writing most mornings, before leaving for my full time job, since I run a high risk of losing momentum if I try to sit down in the evening. This works okay most days, except when it doesn’t. And there are a lot of factors that can derail this plan. You never know what the morning will bring. While I don’t get in as much writing as I want some days, this seems to be the most effective routine I’ve found so far:

Write as much as I can in the morning. Print out the new pages. Find time later in the day, usually before bed, to make notes and fill in spaces I took a pass on that morning. Start the next morning’s writing off with the notes and see where it takes me. (**Keep getting ready time down to a minimum, 30 minutes max.)

This has been working pretty steadily. However, it has become increasingly apparent that it will be difficult to meet my initial goal. I’m often just getting revved up when my time is up; I’ve got to pack it in and head to work.

So how do you do it? How do you juggle writing, family life, and full time jobs? What is your writing routine?