Some people think once you’ve written one book, you’ve got it knocked. After the first book, they say, it will all come easy because (deep breath), “Now, you know how to do it.”
I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work that way. (I’m telling you, because they don’t listen.)
Each book is unique in some way, usually more than one way, so it comes with its own set of problems. Willa Jo was a troubled girl, but she spoke to me willingly, in a personable way, in Getting Near to Baby.
Casey, from Say Yes, took up a position in the corner of the room, arms crossed over her chest, and made me bribe and cajole every word out of her. I ate a lot of chocolate.
Sallie, from the Misadventures of Maude March, started talking before I got out of the cemetery where I found her sister’s name, and I had to keep stopping to write down what she said on a napkin as I hurried home to get her full story down. Frankly, I rushed her a little toward the end because I was exhausted with listening.
It isn’t just the characters you have to deal with. Some genres will prove more challenging than another. I have a fondness for the covers on “cozies,” the wing chairs and sleeping dogs in front of the fireplace, the gingham curtains fluttering in the direction of freshly baked bread. Every so often I get suckered into trying to write a mystery. I figure I’ll get the dogs in there.
Well, it just ain’t going to happen for me.
Your characters, if you’re a pantser, will bring their own ideas to the work, and you’ll have to negotiate with them the whole distance. If you’re a plotter, you know there are as many pitfalls as there are plots to think up.
Structures may differ as the story falls onto the paper. One story insists on more narration in the telling, frustrating your belief that dialogue is more readable. Another book wants to be mainly dialogue, and you know, even if the story doesn’t, this is not screenplay you’re working on.
Then there’s where you’re at personally. From year to year, even week to week, your emotional state fluctuates, your level of creativity slips and slides, professional and financial stresses undermine the concentration. Vacation time comes and the whole family expects you to drop the story in a drawer till you come back.
So you have to start out with this assumption: It will be new ground every time you sit down to write. You won’t know ahead of time if this will be time well spent, or seem like a terrific waste of the day. You don’t know if anyone will like it, you can only be certain everyone won’t like it, it just doesn’t work that way either.
You also can’t put a timer to work and say, by then, it will be done. I just finished a deeply focused revision on something written hastily last summer, before the roofers started to work on the house. This was the third or fourth time I’d read through and added to it. I decided it’s as finished as I can make it. And because I had no new ideas, I pulled out a manuscript I add pages to whenever there isn’t something else to work on.
Will this story ever be finished?
Will it ever come together in a way that feels cohesive, considering I’ve been working on it for years, in what appears to be a desultory fashion. The stops and starts haven’t really been my decision. I write for a few days, and then one morning I sit down at the computer, and discover the story has turned its back on me. Said all it feels like saying just now, thanks for listening.
The funny thing is, it seems to be getting there. The other funny thing is, every time it has shut down on me, I had another idea just waiting for me to pay attention to it. The truth is, we aren’t ever going to figure out just what underground river our creative juices flow from. We're fortunate if we can just figure out what turns them on.
My advice: Structure writing time into your day. The same way you make sure you have time for flossing. Well, for brushing your teeth, anyway. If you don’t write, read. More.
If you have the luxury of time, read a little of something you love before you start writing. It reminds you, it reminds me, anyway, that there is pleasure in this endeavor, and when I start to write, I feel part of something, a big party going on, although it’s largely conducted like a Facebook interface, alone in a room. Read your old friends. Some of mine are featured on this page. Notice they aren't children's books. They're just excellent writing that another writer probably found was not much like his or her last book either..
When the writing session is finished, make a little list of points: perhaps the parts of story you’d like to address when you come back to it. Or story information, like Dad's name or the little sister's age. It’s great if you get to come back to it tomorrow, but if you don’t, this reminder will be helpful.
Also, write down something you especially liked about the day’s session: did you learn something important about the character, or about life? Life in general is theme-driven, and bits that resonate are like signposts for the writing energy.
Write down something you know about the story now that you didn’t know when you started—started today, or started the story, doesn’t matter. When you figure out what you’re getting out of it, you may find more of what you want to put in there for your readers.
And, I’m only recently coming to the wisdom in this, every five
or six writing sessions, write a summary of the story so far, as if you were pitching it to your agent or editor, or even your best friend. It puts your themes in bold relief for you, and reminds you of the value of what you’ve written so far, and helps guide you to the value of the story it will be when you finish.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
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