“How did you finish it?”
I’m asked some version of that question a lot, with “it” referring to my debut novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. The question about the finish is not a request for a spoiler that would reveal the book’s ending, but rather, it’s an inquiry about how one simply goes about getting the thing done. Every writer has his or her own process, so you’ll find that advice on this question is equally varied, but there is at least one universal writing truth: It’s not easy. For me, scheduling makes it less hard. I know, the topic of time management is not particularly sexy. A lot of us would much rather discuss craft, creativity, or the things that inspire us. But you won’t get far with those things if you don’t master the more laborious, workaday side of writing.
It’s true, it takes a certain compulsive drive to be a writer, but a lot of us still fall victim to procrastination or outright avoidance, particularly when the writing feels like a Sisyphean struggle — and in my experience, it feels like that a great deal of the time. It may be helpful to know that giving in to that urge to do anything other than writing in those moments is not entirely because of a lack of discipline. You may be able to put the blame on your brain. The New York Times recently reported on a study that found our brains can trick us into feeling an urgency to do less important, more immediately rewarding tasks like, perhaps, cleaning up that backlog of emails rather than taking on more difficult projects in which the finish is a long way off, as is the case with that novel that’s been languishing on your desk or knocking around in your head — hence the need for scheduling.
There is the element of ritual in a good schedule, which can be a comfort. Showing up at an appointed time to a familiar place and performing your task — there’s equilibrium in it. But don’t think your schedule has to be perfect or meet some writerly ideal. It just needs to be habitual and workable for you. If a two-hour block after putting the kids to bed is all you have, then go with it. Early mornings before rushing off to your day job? Set the alarm accordingly. Many of us are quite adaptable when we need to be. In my case, I prefer working early mornings, but I usually only have time in the late afternoons and on weekends, so that is when I write. I also prefer quiet but, having worked in busy newsrooms for my entire professional life, I can handle a bit of noise.
So, find the time and — crucially — keep it for yourself and your writing projects alone. You are more apt to do this if you think of writing as what it is: work. And whether your workplace is at an office desk, the kitchen table, or a counter in a coffeehouse, showing up there without fail or distractions must be a priority. That may mean skipping that impromptu party, missing that movie with your friends, leaving that email backlog to another day. Writing is part of your routine. Your daily ritual. Treat it that way.
And even on those days when you can’t get motivated (which will be more days than you might imagine), clock in. Keep writing, even when what you put on the page proves unusable or even shockingly inadequate (which will also happen more often than you might imagine). With every sentence, you’re finding your way. You’re working on craft. And even when you can’t come up with anything at all, stay with it. As you sit drumming your fingers on your forehead or staring off into the middle distance, puzzling over how to fill that blank page, you’re plumbing the depths of creativity. You’ll figure out what comes next. And if you don’t figure it out during that workday, then maybe you will on the next one. Or the next. And here, I should probably make a note of this important fact: Inspiration works on its own schedule. So keep yours. I promise, the two of you will meet up in due time.
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This article was written by Lorraine Berry and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
As writers, we can be our own worst enemies. We may have dozens of reasons why we are not writing. Sometimes, these barriers may feel insurmountable, but James Clear argues in Atomic Habits that those barriers can be breached through a series of one percent changes to our habits. “The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do,” he says, and he offers a series of small steps to developing a writing habit.
Clear provides methods that help pinpoint those habits that are ineffective, and a large variety of tactics to create effective habits that will change what we do. His book contains clear instructions on how to develop writing as a habit, one that will feel as automatic as brushing your teeth or that first cup of coffee in the morning.
Here are five effective habits.
Habit #1: In order to encourage inspiration to strike, set up a time to meet with it.
James Clear cites a British study that showed that those who write down specific times when they will practice their new habit have the highest success rate. For writers, creating such an “implementation intention” would involve writing down a sentence that looks like this: “I will write for (period of time) at (time of day) at (location).” So, for example, “I will write for 30 minutes at 3 p.m. at the kitchen table.” By sitting down each day at 3, you accustom your brain to this new habit. Once your brain can count on you to keep your new habit, you may find that new ideas and inspiration are waiting for you.
Habit #2: If writing is important to you, create an environment that encourages you to write.
Our environment can create barriers to practicing our new habits. If your habit is to sit on the sofa to watch TV, and you had intended to write while sitting on the sofa, then the TV may prove to be too big a temptation. Instead, choose a place to write that isn’t associated with another habit. If you live in a tiny space with few options, then designate a specific place to write. It doesn’t have to be a different room. In a studio apartment, you may decide to use a different chair or to set up a small writing corner. You will attach writing to that particular place, so if you’re in that space, your brain will expect you to write. Environmental clues can be used to help reinforce your new habit.
Habit #3: Create temptations that reward you for your new habit of writing.
Habits are developed because our brain has a dopamine-driven feedback loop. It is the anticipation of the reward that causes the release of dopamine that makes us feel good. In fact, anticipation releases more dopamine than actually doing the thing we craved or wanted. You can use a habit you already have (getting up early, taking the dogs for a walk, drinking coffee in the morning) to attach the habit you are trying to develop to a reward that your brain anticipates. In this way, the habit you are developing is sandwiched between a daily habit you do anyway, and is followed by something you want. Clear provides readers with methods for identifying both the already established habits and also the things that individuals consider to be rewards. His system might look something like this:
- After (current habit), I will (habit I need to develop).
- After (habit I need to develop), I will (habit I want).
So, if you walk your dog every day after breakfast, and you need to write, but you also want to spend time on social media, you could do this:
- After I walk the dog, I will write for 30 minutes.
- After I write for 30 minutes, I will go on social media.
If going on social media has kept you from writing, this creates a system where social media is the reward you use to encourage yourself to write.
Habit #4: Make it easy to practice the habit of writing.
Wasting time is easy: we carry distractions in our pocket or give it pride of place in our living rooms. If we want to develop the practice of writing, we have to remove barriers to our practice. One way is to prime your environment with cues to your habit. So, if your intention is to write in the morning at the kitchen table, before you go to bed at night, lay out your writing implements —laptop or pen and paper. I take it further by making writing easier all the time: I carry a small notebook in my purse, have one in my car’s glove box, and leave several throughout my house. This way, it’s as easy to write as it is to pick up the phone.
Habit #5: Start with the Two-Minute Rule for new habits and continue from there.
Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll fail in some way because your committed writing time is too long. Clear suggests creating a ritual and following the Two Minute Rule as a way to prime yourself for your new habit. If your goal is to write at night, you can help to cement the habit into your head by attaching it to a ritual of your choosing, whether that’s a cup of herbal tea or changing into comfy clothes. Each evening, as you engage in the ritual, your brain will anticipate that you are about to sit down and write. Your ritual primes your habit. Next, write for two minutes. If you feel done, stop. Clear argues that two minutes is usually enough to get past any initial resistance.
Clear has filled Atomic Habits with hints like these that enable us to change the habits we dislike and replace them with habits that show who we are. In order to be a writer, you must develop the habit of writing, even if it’s one word at a time. As Margaret Atwood reminds us, “A word after a word after a word is power.”
Writing at the table © Andrew Neel/Unsplash.
This article was written by Jayne Ann Krentz and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
Give the same plot to ten different writers and you will get ten very different stories. No two will sound alike. Why? Because every author brings a unique voice to the craft of writing. Voice is everything when it comes to telling a story.
It isn’t clever plot twists or deep character insights or detailed descriptions that draw a reader back again and again to a particular writer — it’s the writer’s voice. Just to make things even more complicated, the truth is that no two people respond to a writer’s voice in exactly the same way. Some readers will never be compelled by your voice. With luck, others will fall in love with it.
Voice is hard to define because it’s a mix of so many things — your core values, your world view, your personality, your sense of optimism or cynicism or despair or anger or bitterness or hope — all those things are bound up in your storytelling voice.
And then there’s the craft aspect.
You can write successfully for your entire career without giving a moment’s thought to your voice. But just as knowing and understanding your core story can be extremely useful at various points in your career, so, too, is having a clear sense of your voice. If you comprehend its strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to figure out how to sharpen it and make it more powerful.
How do you identify your writing voice? Here’s a simple exercise: Write a scene from start to finish. It should be a scene that is infused with the emotions, themes, or conflicts that compel you as a writer.
It is helpful to think of scenes as short stories. They have a beginning that engages the reader, a middle in which emotional and often physical action takes place, and an endpoint that either resolves the narrative or provides a cliffhanger that leads into the next scene.
Give your scene to a couple of people to read. These should be people you trust. Make it clear that you do not want a writing critique. You are not interested in their opinion of your characters or your plot. You want one response, and one only, to the following question: “What is your emotional takeaway from that scene?”
Did you make your reader’s pulse kick up? Did you arouse curiosity? Anger? Sympathy? Did you scare your reader? Did you make that reader want to know what happens next? Your goal is to identify the single strongest emotion that the reader experienced while reading your scene. That response will help you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of your voice. The worst possible reaction from a reader is no emotional reaction at all. There is nothing that will kill a writing career faster than storytelling that bores the reader.
Put the most engaging elements of your voice on display in the very first sentence of your book. Readers will not give you a few pages or a couple of chapters to get the story going. You must draw the reader into your world from the very first sentence, and you do that with your voice.
Listen to your writing voice. It will tell you what kinds of stories you will write with the most power. Once you have figured out your voice, do everything you can to strengthen it and make it more compelling.
Voice is your superpower. Discover it.
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash
This article was written by Francesca Hornak and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
This year, with the deadline for my second novel in sight, plotter’s block descended. Plotter’s block is different from writer’s block. Writer’s block, as I see it, is when you have a story but the words aren’t flowing or behaving. Plotter’s block is when you’re itching to write, perhaps you’re already writing — except you have no story. Nothing to reel your readers in. All you have is a jumble of settings, characters, conflicts, scenes. Nothing, in short, that is actually going to hold that blurb. The tricky thing is that actively searching for ideas can feel contrived, and paralyzing. So there’s definitely a case for putting everything on hold, while your subconscious chews things over. But if you’re as impatient as I am, you’ll want to help your subconscious out in the meantime. These, then, are the three places I look for stories (without telling myself I’m looking).
Read the local news
Unlike the global or national news, local papers are mines of small-scale human-interest stories. And these stories, the family feuds, the individual tragedies, the community uprisings and the everyday heroes, are exactly the material a novelist needs. It worked for me, anyway. The plot I’ve ended up with for my second novel is based on a story in my local rag about ‘Patient X’ — a mysterious man who had been lying unconscious and unidentified in hospital, for thirty days. The paper’s focus was on the man: Who was he, and how could someone go un-missed ‘in one of the most connected cities in the world’? My focus is going to be on the patient’s neighbors, who find him, call him an ambulance, and are then brought together by the puzzle he presents.
Conversations with strangers
Everyone has something for your novel, if you let them talk. Case in point: after I’d found Patient X, I met someone at a wedding who told me about a strange man in her very bourgeois street in West London. His house, which he has apparently lived in since birth, looks derelict with boarded up windows. He barely speaks to anyone (although you can faintly hear him playing the violin through those window boards). But every morning he goes to the local tube station, collects a load of free papers, and delivers one to every house on the street. Immediately I thought of Patient X, and what great details these would be for the local ‘loner’ — possibly even details the plot could twist or hinge on. Then there was the man I sat beside on a plane who told me how his mother, sick of making packed lunches every morning, hit on batch-freezing industrial quantities of sandwiches every few months instead. He and his siblings would then get these frozen sandwiches — usually only half defrosted — in their lunchboxes. Admittedly it didn’t spark a whole novel, but something in its muted, suburban madness really appealed to me. And unlike a friend or relative, a stranger is unlikely to find out you plundered their life. If they do, you’ve obviously written a bestseller.
If you’re really stuck, it’s worth considering any myths, parables, or fairy tales that caught your imagination as a child. I’ve always loved the story of The Prodigal Son — I like the way its themes of sibling rivalry and unconditional parental love are so enduring, and the fact that everyone behaves badly or rashly at some point. I used it to structure my first novel Seven Days of Us, because I knew I wanted to write a family story about one rebellious sister and one who was very attached to her parents. The key to making this method feel fresh and inspiring, I think, is to reverse one aspect of the existing story. In my case, the ‘errant’ sibling was off doing good deeds, rather than squandering her inheritance, while the stay-at-home sibling was very frivolous. I don’t see any shame in this tactic — apparently there are only about seven stories in the world anyway, so it’s no wonder we all get plotter’s block from time to time. Good luck.
Plotter’s Block / Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
This article was written by Abbi Waxman and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
In my opinion, most writing advice focuses on totally the wrong thing: The wordy bit. Thinking about what you’re going to write and how to say it — sure, yeah, that’s important. Characters, motivations, yes, yes, yes. But there are other challenges bedeviling today’s writer, and several of them are misleadingly trivial and oft overlooked. I’ll tackle those instead, because “misleadingly trivial” is an excellent band name. Here are five pieces of writing advice no one tells you.
1. Wear Layers
You’d be surprised how much body temperature affects your work. Think of yourself as a racehorse; too cold and you’ll pull a muscle, too hot and you’ll get all lathery and need a really short guy to take you outside and walk you around in circles. Consider your environment, dress accordingly, then add two layers. Coffee shops are often overly air conditioned, presumably to stop writers from moving in permanently. It hasn’t stopped me, but then, I’m a highly trained professional.
2. Dress Loose
I don’t know about you, but when I’m working I either type like a dervish, caressed by the muse and happily pounding away, or curled up in the chair like a pinched worm, wondering whether it’s too late to train as a veterinary nurse. For this reason — and also the general reason that life is too short for non-elasticated waistbands — wear comfortable clothing with plenty of room. You may need to assume one of the classic writer’s positions: The Hunch, The Self-Hug, The Horrified Stare, or The Forehead-Desk Pose, and non-stretch fabrics will restrict your creative flow.
3. Bring Snacks
I personally like small snacks I can pop in my mouth while making vital author-type choices (is he frowning? glaring? frowning? glaring?). I favor nuts, because they’re high in some better thing whilst being low in some other, worse thing, and I particularly favor pistachios, because I can shell a load of them at once while making tougher choices (is the character dead? is he alive? dead? alive? both??) and then eat the resultant pile of little green nuggets during the lesser decisions (see original parentheses). Popcorn is okay, although sometimes I lose concentration because I’m fishing those little translucent kernel covers out of my aging teeth. I’ve flirted with M&Ms and other small chocolate items, but it turns out I have this weird allergy wherein if I eat pounds and pounds of chocolate my body gains weight. I think it’s just me; you’re probably fine.
4. Your Butt is your Achilles heel.
Writing isn’t a particularly dangerous job, let’s be honest. Over-caffeination is an ever-present threat, but when was the last time a writer got harpooned or ripped asunder by a giant threshing machine … while writing? Not recently. However, the literary career does take a physical toll. Non-ergonomic seating can lead to painful Gluteus Numbeous, or Neckus Stiffus, not to mention more poetically named afflictions such as Creaky Scapula, Notetaker’s Neck or, worst of all, Mangle Wrists. This is not a modern problem: Charles Dickens had a shocking case of Peripheral Plume Disease and Henry David Thoreau took all those walks around Walden Pond in order to stop his ankles from seizing up.* Take frequent rests, lie down as much as possible, and keep a bag of frozen peas at the ready. That’s my advice.
5. The Final and Most Important Piece of Writing Advice: When in Doubt, Nap.
Writing is hard. Often you can’t think of what to say, or who should say it, or what the other guy should say back to the first guy, and you end up with your hands in your pockets watching YouTube videos about dog rescues rather than getting anything done. You know what’s a better use of your time? Sleeping. Lie down, cover yourself with your softest blanket in your favorite color, and gently lower those eyelids to a count of three. When you wake up you’ll either have a solution to your problem, or just be closer to bedtime, and that’s a win in anyone’s book.
In a nutshell, that’s the best advice I can give: Wear layers, dress comfortably, maintain appropriate snack levels, watch your posture, and nap whenever possible. Keep all that in mind and the actual writing-down-the-words part will be no problem at all.
*Neither of these things is true, but wouldn’t it be great if they were?
Writer typing article © Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock
This article was written by Karen White and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
I always get a little squirmy when I’m asked to give advice on writing. I mean, what makes me an authority on the subject? Sure, I’ve written a bunch of books, but the only “training” I’ve had in my chosen vocation is the thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime so far.
I’d like to think that despite not having a lot of experience or knowledge about the whole writing thing when I started, surely I’ve learned something along the way. And I have.
In that vein, here are a few nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my nearly twenty years of being a published author. No, I haven’t figured out the magic formula that will grant a writer instant success. But I have accumulated a nice list of what not to do if you’re planning on having a career as a writer.
Do not spend all your writing time making excuses as to why you can’t write instead of actually writing. Excuses will not write a book. Finding the perfect time to finally start a book is like choosing the right time to move to another country and start a new life. There will never be a perfect time, as there will always be reasons why the timing isn’t optimal. If you have a burning desire to write a book (or move to another country), make it a priority. The rest will fall into place, and you’ll be a lot happier with yourself.
Do not take to heart everyone else’s writing style/advice/methods before you’ve given yourself a chance to figure out your own. Writing is incredibly personal. There are as many writing techniques and styles as there are writers. It’s what gives us our individual writer’s voice. It’s precious and unique and you need to own it and not dilute it with external influences before you’ve given it a chance to sprout. If I’d listened to all the well-meaning advice when I started (don’t write in first person, never start a sentence with “and,” outline everything before you write the first sentence), I would never have written my first book.
Do not surround yourself with naysayers. For whatever reason, there will always be people in our lives who will attempt to discourage us from our pursuits. Either family members, friends, or other writers will have negative things to say about our talent (or lack thereof). Don’t listen to them. It’s always easier to be a critic than the warrior fighting the battle. Just remember that it’s not about them. Your writing is between you and the words on the page. And nobody else.
Do not wait until the muse strikes before you sit down to write.This one always makes me laugh. I would have written exactly three pages in my entire career if this were true. In my previous life in the business world, I don’t imagine I would have lasted in any job very long if my attitude had been that I’d only show up for work when I felt like it. There are usually about a million other things I’d rather be doing than gluing myself to my chair and getting to work. Since I consider writing my career and not just a hobby, I treat it with respect.
Do not say my family/job/life isn’t conducive to writing a book.News flash: unless you’re independently wealthy and your family is entirely self-sufficient, this will never change. I wrote my first books in my SUV at the football field and horse barn while my children practiced. My husband traveled about ninety percent of the time for his job so I was basically a single mom for most of the week. Instead of chatting with the other mothers, or reading a magazine, or napping, I used that time to write. There are pockets of time in each of our lives that we can prioritize as writing time. Expect to let go of a few things (binge watching on Netflix, hanging out on Facebook, sleeping in on weekends) to find the time. But the time is there if you’re willing to make your writing happen.
Do not expect that the hard work is over after you sell your first book. It’s only just beginning. To prepare yourself for your writing career, start thinking about your next book as soon as you send your first book proposal to prospective agents and editors. You’ve got momentum so make the most of it.
Writers write. It’s what we do. We turn off the negative voices, we create the time and the place, and we write. To borrow words from Nike, Just Do It.
Writing/Photo by Lubomyr Myronyuk on Unsplash
This article was written by Christina Dalcher and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
A quick Google search for ‘writing advice’ tells me there can’t be much left that hasn’t already been said. Nobel Prize winners offer tips. Forty experts tell beginners what to do. Bestselling authors give us insight into their creative processes. And so on, ad infinitum. Then there’s that perfect book, half craft, half writer’s memoir: Stephen King’s On Writing. If I could only have one how-to manual on my shelf, it would be that one.
Where does this leave us, then? What guidance can I, a debut novelist and writer of flash fiction, possibly offer the world, or the emerging writer? I’ve thought about it over and over, and finally came up with two words:
We know writing takes work, and skill, and talent, and perseverance. There’s the old ‘Butt-in-the-chair, honey!’ mandate (with its cute acronym) — a writer’s corollary to the athlete’s ‘Just Do It’ mantra. You want to run? Run. You want to write? Write. There’s something so plainly tautological about it all. And there can be beauty in tautologies.
But I think fearlessness is the single quality we as writers need to cultivate, and I mean this in multiple ways.
We need the bravery to pour our emotions out, spilling ink onto paper with a little of our own blood mixed in. That’s no small trick. We need the courage to send our words into the world, knowing that once we do, a part of us is gone, floating in the public sphere, no longer under our control. If one accepts Roland Barthes’ notion that the author is dead, we authors must embrace the concept that we’re killing some portion of ourselves the minute our work leaves us. And, of course, we need the self-esteem and thick, carapace-like skin to hang on and persist when the inevitable rejections hit our inboxes. Believe me, they will hit — hard. A bland form rejection from an agent or editor can carry all the pain of bludgeon to the face, a direct smack to our very soul. Everyone who writes, or who wants to write, requires a ring fighter’s determination, a Rocky-esque willingness to go the distance, and to keep going.
Being fearless also takes us in new directions, allowing us to experiment with previously unknown forms, new characters, and diverse points of view. One of my favorite things about writing flash fiction — tightly condensed stories often under 500 words — is exactly this: Within the space of a day, I can be a cranky old man on a front porch in Mississippi, a young housewife, or a sneaky feline. Fearlessness is a gift, a license to try something different and liberate ourselves from any habitual ruts. And it need not be limited to our writing lives. We can extend it to our whole lives: to our relationships with ourselves and others, to our careers (and the changing thereof), and to how we interact with the world.
Finally, we need to forge some armor of another sort — the kind that protects us from dissatisfied readers. It’s useful to remember that old John Lydgate saying about not being able to please everyone all of the time. Every once in a while, our words may not even reach the point of unpleasing, instead inspiring far less positive reactions. Still, they’re our words and our thoughts, and we have to steel ourselves against ugly feedback. (Hint: read your reviews, or not. Then go back to doing what you do.)
When I teach writing classes, the very first thing I tell my students is to prepare for rejection and failure. Both are going to happen, sometimes much more frequently than we’d wish. The rejection and failure aren’t the focus, though; it’s what we do afterwards that counts. And what we, as creators, should do afterwards is simple: get up and do it all over again.
Would I call myself fearless? Would I use that label? I don’t know; I haven’t walked through the world with a superhero cape on my back. I do know that others have said this about me, starting with my first professor in graduate school twenty years ago. That man is gone now, and I can’t pick up the phone and say, “Hey, guess what? I believe you.” So instead, I write, a little or a lot every day, and try to live up to the descriptor. I try to fear nothing, even when that seems impossible.
Maybe you were expecting a writer’s user manual. A list of do’s and don’ts full of perennial tips like ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘avoid adverbs.’ Something along those lines. But the best advice I can give, and — in my mind — the only advice worth its salt, is encapsulated in two words.
Then sit back and watch what happens. I have a feeling what happens will be good.
Be Fearless/Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash
This article was written by Elyssa Friedland and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the difficult balance an author needs to strike between writing what we are familiar with, and therefore helping to unsure an authentic voice, and creating characters totally apart from ourselves in settings we may never have visited.
The former might seem easier and the safer route to go. “Write what you know;” it’s a familiar refrain and popular advice given to aspiring writers. But even that can be fraught with difficulty. In writing characters, places, and events from our own lives, we can all too easily fall into the trap of sharing too much detail. When setting a novel in New York City, where I live, it’s critical that I don’t mention every restaurant and boutique name that I frequent. When I find myself writing more of a guidebook to New York City than a novel, I ask myself: Is that extra detail propelling the story forward? If not, it should be cut. I certainly don’t want to limit the audience for my books to readers who live within a ten-mile radius of me looking for a great hat store.
On the other hand, there is value in sharing the nooks and crannies of a setting we know intimately well. It is the ultimate way to invite the reader to join us in the pages. Reading fiction is nothing if not an escape, and the more specificity provided, the more easily a reader can Photoshop themselves into the novel and feel the humid air, taste the freshly picked tomato, and smell the lavender — whatever atmosphere the writer is trying to suck the reader into comes alive the more detail we give.
A quick anecdote. In my latest novel, The Intermission, a critical scene takes place at a Chinese restaurant on First Avenue called Wa Jeal. This would be a case of providing too much in the minutia department. It didn’t matter that it was on First Avenue and it certainly didn’t matter what the restaurant was called. The only upshot of providing that detail were the numerous texts I got from local friends: Is Wa Jeal really good? What do you order there? Do they deliver? Yeah… you get the idea.
Setting is not the only trap where writing what you know can lead to extraneous detail. Too often we as writers like to share experiences from our former professions — probably because we are scarred by them. There are a lot of lawyers-turned-writers and much as we may want to tell our readers about the gloom and doom of law firm life, from the tedious document review at three A.M. to the hours spent waiting in the printing office for four-hundred page contracts to be bound, we need to remember: there’s a reason we switched gears. Being a lawyer was boring! And so is writing about it.
In The Intermission, I attempted to strike a nice balance between writing what I knew and writing what I wanted to know about. I refused to make either of my husband and wife pair attorneys. Instead, I made Jonathan a hedge funder — a world that is somewhat elusive to me but is prevalent in my hometown of New York City. For Cass, I decided to put her in the world of Broadway marketing. I love theater but knew very little about the behind-the-scenes making of a show. So I was able to bring my passion for the stage to the novel but also explain the mechanics of marketing a show in outsider-not-insider terms.
Likewise with the plot. Half the novel is set in New York, but half the story is in Los Angeles. I’ve visited LA many times but don’t know it nearly as well as my hometown. Having a split-setting kept my overflow details in check. I needed to make sure LA came alive just as much as New York did in the book.
Not overwriting what I know continues to be a struggle I face as a writer, but I’m certainly aware of the pitfalls. And I welcome reader feedback on the subject, as that is truly the test of whether I’m striking the proper balance.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
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National Novel Writing Month is almost here! Happy writing!
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?
The absolute first thing I do is decide my main characters’ names. I feel like I need to know someone’s name before I can start to know him or her. My favorite place to figure out first names is the Social Security popular baby names website, where you can view name popularity by birth year (back to 1879) to see what common and (uncommon) names were in the year your character was born.
After I decide names, I’ll start to make notes of other things, like birthdays/age or relationships to other characters, quirks, where a character lives, or things he/she likes or dislikes. But I start drafting pretty soon into this process. I mostly learn and get to really know my characters as I’m writing the first draft, thinking about what they do and how they react and speak when I put them in different situations. So I think the best way I get to know my characters is to write them. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, they’re often different than what I started with (and I know them much better). But then I go back and revise.
After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?
The first line of novel is really important. It sets the tone for the entire book. I want it to show what the book is ultimately about, but also to be interesting and hook the reader. When I first start thinking about and developing an idea I always start thinking about first lines. I jot down ideas, often for weeks or months. But, I don’t wait for the perfect first line before I start drafting a book. I begin with the first one that comes to me and then I keep writing from there to get my first draft going. So just the act of getting words and ideas down on the page is the most important action I take in order to actually start writing. I set a goal for myself – usually 3-5 pages a day – and I make myself sit down and write something, make some progress in the draft, even if it’s ultimately terrible and will all be changed in revision.
Most of the time the first line that appears in the final draft of the book is not at all what I started with. I keep thinking on that first line, even as I keep writing the first draft. Usually I don’t understand enough about the story myself until I finish or get most of the way through a first draft. So I start writing at the beginning, but 9 times out of 10 that beginning changes by the time I make it to the end!
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
I always write at home, and I need quiet to write. I negotiate my writing schedule around my kids’ schedules so I usually write while my kids are at school during weekdays, or very early in the mornings on the weekends or during the summer when my kids are home – really, whenever I can find uninterrupted quiet each day. I have an office in my house where I can shut the door, and I do write there, but when no one else is home I also write at my kitchen table.
I like to drink coffee while I write, and that always helps to get me thinking. Or when I get stuck, I’ll exercise. Taking a long walk, run, or hike, often helps me work through a plot a point I was stuck on or figure out a problem in my story.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
The best advice, and I got this from a writing professor in grad school, is simply, “butt in chair.” As in, just sit down and force yourself to write something, no matter what it is or how terrible you think it is. The hardest part is making yourself sit down to do it. So I don’t let myself make excuses – I put my butt in the chair every morning and write something.
What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you?
I read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott in the first fiction writing class I took, and I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I love what she writes about first drafts and I feel like it’s still important to give myself permission to write something terrible the first time around as long as I write something. I’m a big believer in the importance of revision! Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite novels, and the first I read by her. I come back to it, and her novels, again and again, because I feel like I learn so much about sympathetic character development from her. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I first read in college, always makes me think about writing characters in a world different from our own today (which is applicable for writing historical fiction as well) and the fact that characters still need to first be inherently human and relatable, no matter how different their world is from the one we know.
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