Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Writing

"Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire, then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to be a writer--and if so, why?"--Bennett Cerf

My answers are yes, and I don't know.

* * *

I came home from the Moonlight & Magnolias Conference inspired and confident. Then I had to complete the second 3000 words of my novel for my online writing class and submit them before midnight on Thursday. I haven't received my instructor's evaluation yet, but my classmates have been pretty tough on me. The thing is, they're right. And I'm feeling really frustrated.

Writing has always come easily to me. But my experience is in writing nonfiction. I aced every school assignment I ever did. I can crank out a five-paragraph essay, or a research paper, on any topic, and it will be organized and thorough. In tenth grade, my biology teacher told me that a paper I wrote based on a science project was the best writing he had ever seen by a high school student. My master's thesis was a snap. Because if I am writing about a subject I know well, like music education, my first draft is nearly perfect. Revision? What's that?

But now I am trying to tell a STORY. Which is coming from my IMAGINATION. It's an entirely different game.

"Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."--Gene Fowler

* * *

I am a working single parent, and it is hard to make time for writing. And when the going gets rough, it's easy to get sidetracked.

"Being a good writer is 3 percent talent and 97 percent not being distracted by the internet."--Anonymous

Of course, it's not just the internet that's distracting. Life itself is distracting. And as my faithful readers know, my life has been one dramatic roller coaster ride these past few months. But maybe that will prove helpful to my writing down the road.

"Everything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And later on you can use it in some story."--Tapani Bagge

The thing is, I've been talking about writing a book for almost ten years. Naturally, I wish I had started working on it ten years ago. But as my fiftieth birthday approached, I realized that I could easily let ANOTHER ten years go by. I made this my maxim.

"The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn't write."--Unknown

I signed up for an online fiction writing class in March, and got to work. I learned about setting, character, point of view, dialogue versus descriptive writing, how to write a scene, how to combine scenes to tell a story. It was wonderful. I have always been an avid reader, and I can discern a great book from a mediocre one, but before I took that class, I might not have been able to tell you WHY. Now that I better understand the elements of fiction, I want to reread all my favorites. I will appreciate them even more now.

* * *

However, I felt so frustrated by my less than stellar performance in my own writing last week that I briefly considered throwing in the towel. After all, I already have a couple of full-time jobs. I don't really need anything else to do--certainly not something capable of causing so much pain. And the writing presents many challenges--developing complex, sympathetic characters, writing realistic dialogue that moves the story forward, creating conflict that will keep readers turning the pages. Then I stumbled upon this quote.

"First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about."--Bernard Malamud

And I decided what I need to do is just get this story on paper, as quickly as possible. After it is finished, I can rearrange and cut and clarify.

Towards that end, I spent this afternoon working on a very low-tech project. I got a three-ring binder, printed out all the work I have done on my novel so far, and put it in the binder. I also printed character profile templates (12 pages each!) for my four main characters, and I have started filling them in. That will help me to define exactly who they are upfront, and to be more consistent as I write about them. And whereas I have been working from a very sketchy plot summary, now I am putting together a detailed outline, determining what is going to happen in every scene of every chapter from the beginning to the end. I may change my mind about some of this as I go along. But I think part of the reason I am having trouble building momentum right now is that I really don't know where I am headed. I understand there are people who sit down in front of a blank screen and write a book from start to finish with no outline whatsoever. The story tells itself. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

I'm going to finish this project tomorrow. So that when Monday morning rolls around, and it's time to write, I will know exactly where I need to start.

* * *

"No one is asking, let alone demanding, that you write. The world is not waiting with bated breath for your article or book. Whether or not you get a single word on paper, the sun will rise, the earth will spink the universe will expand. Writing is forever and always a choice--YOUR choice."--Beth Mende Conny

I'm not going to give up. I choose to write.


Cindy said...

Pam -- how wonderful that you are following a long held dream, through the mud and the mire. As you know, rarely does something that is worthwhile, and dearly desired, come easily. I'm so proud of you for seeing this through. And I look forward to reading your novel, autographed copy of course.
X0 Cindy J.

Pam said...

Thanks for the encouraging words, Cindy! You will definitely get an autographed copy! :)

Steph @Red Clay Diaries said...

Hooray for you! I can't wait to see a finished product. Like you, I can't just sit down to write a story. And changing gears a little to outline is probably a great way to keep making progress.

You know I'm rooting for you!

Pam said...

Thank you, Steph! Creating the character sketches (still unfinished) and a detailed outline helped me ALOT. I know my characters much better now, and have a much clearer picture of where I am headed now. I think it's a great story; I hope others will, too!