The write way

Walter Mosley has a new book out: This Year You Write Your Novel. From the excerpts given here at the NPR site, I’d say it’s a good, hardheaded collection of useful tips and sage advice for people trying to get started as writers:

There are all kinds of ways for people to cajole themselves into starting their book. Some get a special pen or a particular desk set at a window looking out on something beautiful. Others play a favorite piece of music, light a candle, burn incense, or set up some other ritual that makes them feel empowered and optimistic. If this is what you find you must do to write — well… okay. Rituals frighten me. I worry that if I need a special pen or desk or scent to start me out, what will happen when I lose that pen or I’m on vacation or a business trip and my window looks out on the city dump?

My only ritual for writing is that I do it every morning. I wake up and get to work. If I’m in a motel in Mobile — so be it. If I am up all night, and morning is two o’clock in the afternoon, well, that’s okay too.

The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, almost all first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen — or into the tape recorder, if you work like that.

Your first sentence will start you out, but don’t let it trip you up.

Absolutely true — that is, absolutely true for me. I pissed away years of good writing time because I was waiting for inspiration to set me glowing. I thought that once I was enveloped in that hard, gemlike flame, I would crank out reams of finished pages in long mad bursts of creativity.

What actually happened, of course, is that I accomplished precisely zilch in the way of writing. Waiting for inspiration was my first ingenious method for undermining myself. And then, when against all odds I found myself actually getting words onto paper, I fell back on another, equally fiendish way to clutch up. Mosley knows all about it:

There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away — even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner?

All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can’t go on until these questions are answered.

Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later.

Boy, that was a great way to keep myself wallowing in an unfinished project. From my late teen years and through my college years, I sullenly poked at a novel, dreaming up ever more ambitious themes and subthemes that would require deep-dish research into arcane areas of theology and science. True freedom came when I abandoned the research and simply tried to write a narrative based on what I’d been dicking around with. That’s when I learned that my brilliant concept for a novel was simply a big echoing jug with a hole in the bottom, one that I could spend my life filling and refilling with no results.

Writers are not engineers. When an engineer comes to a canyon, he has to figure out a way to bridge that canyon. A writer can simply sail over the canyon and continue on his way. When I encounter a pothole, I write past it and leave a little mental orange cone on the site, so I’ll remember to come back and fill it.

The same goes for a stretch of lousy prose. You can always come back and buff it up. The important thing is to finish. Don’t lose your momentum.

Here again, Mosley hits the bullseye:

You begin with a sentence and keep on going. Maybe you will follow the plan assiduously; maybe you will be diverted onto another path that will lead you far from your original ideas.

Whatever the case, the work is the same. Some days will be rough, unbearable; some will be sublime. Pay no attention to these feelings. All you have to do is write your novel this year. Happy or sad, the story has to come out.

Stick to your schedule. Try to write a certain amount every day — let’s say somewhere between 600 and 1,200 words. Do not labor over what’s been written. Go over yesterday’s work cursorily to reorient yourself, then move on. If you find at some point that you have lost the thread of your story, take a few days to reread all you have written, not with the intention of rewriting (though a little editing is unavoidable) but with the intention of refamiliarizing yourself with the entire work.

Using this method, you should have a first draft of the novel in about three months. It won’t be publishable. It won’t be pretty. It probably won’t make logical sense. But none of that matters. What you will have in front of you is the heart of the book that you wish to write.

There is no greater moment in the true writer’s life.

A big part of my personal time-wasting method was to kid myself about chasing the muse. You can’t chase the muse. You have to give the muse a chance to find you. An orderly schedule is a writer’s best friend. Putting your butt in the chair at a certain hour every day will, after a while, do something to your brain so that the areas reserved for creative activity start sparking.

You want me to come out and say it, don’t you? Okay, I will. Great writing begins with your butt. (Let’s see if that gets into Bartlett’s.) Put it in your favorite chair at the same time every day, and it will guide you. For me, the morning is the best time. For you, it may be the afternoon. You will know the time of day when you feel the most focused. If you haven’t figured that out yet — something I find very hard to believe — then do so. And, above all, act on that knowledge.

Don’t try to write everything in one burst. Set yourself a quota. A page a day is a very practical kind of quota. Write a page a day, every day, and by the end of the year you will have a novel-length pile of pages. Write two pages a day and in a year you’ll have a Stephen King-length pile of pages. Write three pages a day and in a year you’ll have a Tolstoy-length pile of pages.

Notice how I said “pile of pages” instead of “novel”? That’s because once the pile of pages is finished, your work is only half done:

Your first draft is like a rich uncultivated field for the farmer: it is waiting for you to bring it into full bloom.

Or, to put it another way: Early to bed, early to rise; revise revise revise. Nobody writes a great first draft. Plenty of writers say they do, or said they did, but they are and were liars. That’s why one of the better advice books for writers is called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

Another good one is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I also like Stephen King’s On Writing. But the best writing advice I heard, the kind that really made me serious about doing this kind of thing, was a few sentences spoken by P.D. James during a 60 Minutes profile. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but she said she really started getting somewhere as a writer when she realized that nobody else was interested in helping her accomplish something, that she would have to make the extra effort by getting up an hour early every day and making herself write.

Works for me. It will probably work for you, too.

One thought on “The write way

  1. geoff says:

    The guilt! It burns!

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