I’ve been writing a novel.
If you know me in real life or read this blog at all, well then, you know I love to write. This probably doesn’t surprise you at all, and in fact, I sound very like all your other friends who like to write and who are also “writing a novel.” Honestly, the longer I think and write and talk about this novel, the more it seems that really, everyone who enjoys writing should have some kind of “novel” perpetually in the works.
What I have found true is this: there is a lot of advice for writers, from writers, in the world. If you seek it, you shall find your cup floweth over with the wisdom and suggestions and rather strange practices and patterns of other writers. There are those who say you should write quickly, get everything on the page as fast as you can while the story and the characters are still fresh and hot. (This is how Stephen King writes, and how he suggests others do, too. This is also a pattern Ray Bradbury used to write the first draft of Fahrenheit 451–he wrote it in nine days in the basement of a library.) There are others who say you should write slowly, mulling over the story in your brain, and allowing the material to mature in your mind. (Walter Benjamin advocated for this.) There is plenty to read about the processes of other writers. There is also plenty to absorb where people write, how many words they set themselves to per day, how and where they come up with ideas, and the styles that arise out of the hours they do spend on the craft.
Writing fiction, making it all up, and imagining scenes and characters that I then must describe to the reader, to paint the pictures in that reader’s head, is exceedingly more difficult than writing non-fiction. I have always felt that way, and so have always somewhat-consciously veered myself away from it. I studied history, after all. Writing factual narratives and history is certainly a lot of work, it requires huge amounts of research and patience, and a commitment to nailing down every fact. So you might think fiction would be so much simpler. But extracting an entire world from the depths of your brain, and making it engaging and real using only words–that is absolutely more taxing. I go back and forth over the value or it, strangely. Even though I am absolutely story-obsessed, as I think many humans are: we love a gripping story, on TV, in a movie, in a book, a news story, a magazine, a blog post, a Youtube video, a tweet. But I place an entirely different value on a story I know is “real,” compared to one I know is made up–no matter how beautifully and triumphantly the story is written or told or otherwise transmitted. I often wonder if this is fair of me. But it’s the truth.
Anyway, fiction is not something to which we can come to lightly, fleetingly, as if we really don’t want to work that hard. But that also does not mean that we have to write 1,000-page tomes a la Mr. King or George R. R. Martin. There is value in the “less is more” idiom in fiction, and in all writing. One writer contemplated sparse prose and how the music of Miles Davis inspired such expansive use of both the music and the silences.
Rather than squeezing as many notes and changes into solos as possible, Davis dispensed with clutter and ornamentation and pared his mode of expression down to one defined as much by the notes and phrases he played as by the silences left between them.
Unlike so much fat-cat prose, Davis’s solos didn’t divert from their emotional center by wowing the audience with speed and facility. With less distraction, the force of his music landed more squarely on me.
I started to experiment with economy as a form, hanging fewer phrases and images on the white walls of my essays.
The music is defined just as much by the silences as by the notes themselves. This is also a significant idea in quilting and quilt design: the negative space on a quilt face tells as much of the story as the parts are shaped and patterned and colorful. And when you describe something or someone in a story, the things you do not say can in fact say even more in their absence. I find this inspiring because, as a person who has spent her life in the writing of real events, I find it hard, exhausting, to force myself into long, luscious descriptions and flowery tangents in my fiction. But I want it to be a conscious decision, a real development of the character, when I parse my words; I do not want it to be the result of lazy or unfinished character or narrative development. Sometimes the negative space of a quilt can be the hardest part to work on. The same is true in writing.
I have also found great respite in the theory of author Michael Erard, whose day job is as think-tank researcher, but who has written vast types of styles of things in his life, pieces much more interesting than lofty and dull research reports. He waxes eloquent about the relationship his many types of writing have on each other, using the analogy that he both walks and dances, and that both are requirements, and each inspires and informs, to an extent, the other. He argues that working on and reading technical articles, academic pieces, news stories, fiction, statistical reports, any and all of it, stretches your brain and your creative, writing mind in ways that would be impossible otherwise. Imagine if you only ever read things resembling 50 Shades of Grey, and other terribly-written but terribly successful works? That is the prose that would be inspiring your own words. It just happens, your brain structures sentences the way it’s used to hearing them. Stephen King also says the same thing in his memoir on the craft: that reading a lot and writing a lot are the only way to be good at writing. And if you don’t read a lot, your brain won’t know what to do. And if you do read a lot, your brain will already know what to do.
As a person who has come to fiction through a very large forest of non-fiction, these are lovely and comforting theories. I read about a huge variety of topics, and the ones that interest me most sometimes feel (even to me) quite erratic. But I am often surprised how seemingly unrelated topics blend and connect and touch back to things I have read before, as far away from each other as can be in the spectrum of “categories.” And now I can chalk it all up to a healthy exercising of my styles of writing. Also, since I’ve been writing about crime (that’s the subject of my novel; it revolves around a murder that has occurred), it has been immensely helpful to dive into the crime genre, a place I’d never ventured before. But it cannot be the only thing I read, lest its influence creeps too deep and I am a clone of all other true-crime and crime-novel writers. But I still have to be able to write dialogue as it would sound in a police station, understand investigations and how they really work, and learn more about the minds of criminals.
This is a relfection on things I have learned about the craft of writing, since I have begun to seriously ask the question, how do I write fiction, a few months ago. But really, I’ve asked this years ago, too, and I read On Writing for the first time in eighth grade, back in 2001. It’s always been there, tickling at the back of my head. That does not make it easy or simple to do. I struggle often and avoid it often, too. I’ve studied and sought careers in journalism and history to avoid the ‘fiction’ arena. Yet here I am. Not a professional but simply a fledgling writer, with an idea for a book. It is comforting to be now part of the community of quirky, disciplined writers of all the eras of humanity before me, who each had his and her own method of writing. I’ll leave you with just a few:
Truman Capote wrote lying down, as did Marcel Proust, Mark Twain and Woody Allen.
Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Fernando Pessoa and George Sand all wrote standing up.
Roth also “walks half a mile for every page”.
Roald Dahl wrote in a shed.
Philip Pullman used to write in a shed, but eventually gave it to an illustrator friend.
Umberto Eco has a converted church as his scriptorium. One floor has a computer, one has a typewriter, one in which he writes long-hand.
Haruki Murakami commutes into a city apartment in Tokyo where he writes.
After the publication of Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell came to the office at the The New Yorker magazine almost every day for the next thirty-two years without filing another word.
Dashiell Hammett published nothing after he was 39 – he felt he was repeating himself but never managed to find a new style he felt was good enough.
Ray Bradbury wrote an early version on Fahrenheit 451 in nine days on a rented typewriter in the UCLA library basement.
Will Self uses a wall of Post-It notes to plan and structure his writing.
Elmore Leonard writes on yellow legal pads.
Michel Faber corrected the first manuscript of The Crimson Petal and the White with house paint because he couldn’t afford Tipp-Ex.
Gustav Hasford was a serial hoarder of very overdue library books, and had 10,000 of them in storage lockers.
Don DeLillo types each paragraph onto its own sheet of paper, so that he might concentrate better.
Gay Talese would pin pages of his writing to a wall and examine them from the other side of the room with binoculars.
Jonathan Safran Foer has a collection of blank sheets of paper.
Cormac McCarthy said that his perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper.
Ethan Canin copied John Cheever paragraphs out to learn what made the man’s writing tick.
Anthony Trollope required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour.
J.G. Ballard, a fan of discipline in writing, prepared very long outlines and aimed for 1,000 words a day.
Walter Benjamin advocated delaying writing an idea as long as possible, so that it would be more maturely developed.
Richard Ford and his wife shot a book by Alice Hoffman, after she had given his book Independence Day an unfavourable review.