Adventures in writing

I haven’t done much writing of my own for a long time (blog posts and e-mails excluded). There’s always something getting in the way – a job, dirty dishes, children requiring attention…

But over the last few years, I’ve slowly and tortuously managed to write a novel-length piece of fiction. This is a pretty Big Deal for me. Growing up, I always had my verbal/writing skills praised, and this was couched in terms of intelligence. Even as an 11 or 12 year old, I can remember a specific incident of putting a writing project away and deciding not to continue because I feared that it wasn’t perfect enough, that anyone who read it would decide that everyone had been wrong all along and I would be exposed as the unintelligent fraud I had always been. Since then, I’ve found writing extremely difficult. I would start a project, get midway through my first draft (which is about where the initial euphoria of inspiration starts to wear out), realize that what I was writing was the kind of thing only an unintelligent person would write, and give up.

So being able to stick with a project for so long (and to actually reach an end, no less!) is a very big step for me.

Even bigger was letting anyone see it.

In addition to my concerns about appearing unintelligent, I also worried about what I might accidentally reveal about my private psyche. My main character is a lot like me, in both personality and formative experiences. Even though the situation she’s placed in is entirely fictional (there’s magic and vampires, so rather out of my realm of experience), her perceptions of those events are very much mine. And very much private. They are the things I would perhaps rather no one know that I secretly think about them.

I had to close my eyes when I hit “send,” but I did it. And it took me a week after getting the first review back before I was finally able to open it and look.

As worked up as I had made myself, the comments my reviewer left really weren’t that bad! Still, it’s quite a process to dissociate myself as I read. There are times when I play around with words or grammar, when I invent words that have the right feel for what I need, when I omit punctuation to convey a particular messiness of thought, that my reviewer didn’t grok at all. Worse, she thought them errors, and so I appear unintelligent.

But I expected those feelings, and the week I took before opening her comments document was precisely intended to prepare myself, to get into the right frame of mind to read her comments impersonally.

What I didn’t expect was her disbelief at several details of my main character’s past. These events, she writes (I paraphrase), wouldn’t happen like that. Couldn’t happen like that. Yet they would and could, and I know that because they did. The parts she found most unbelievable were the parts I had borrowed from my own experiences.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I found it upsetting, so much as unsettling.

In any case, I’m glad that I went through the exercise, as painful as it was. I feel looser now, somehow, like I’ve already been for a swim in the deep end so there’s nothing to fear from the kiddy pool. I’m already excited to work on a final draft, incorporating the comments I’ve received (and I need to re-write the denouement, which is bloody awful right now), and then to move on to something new.

I’m also incredibly proud of myself just for finishing. Good or not, I did it, I wrote a novel. If I die tomorrow, my eulogy could honestly call me a novelist. I am brimming.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Read: 27 June, 2015

Bird by Bird is another book about writing, based in large part on the classes Lamott teaches (the conceit fades in and out, but by the end she addresses her readers directly as if they were students who had just completed her course). The style reminded me more of Writing Down the Bones, rather than Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, in that it was more of a pep talk, more about attitude, rather than the actual mechanics of writing. And pep talk it certainly was. In fact, if I were to summarize the thesis of the book, it would be: “Keep at it, don’t be discouraged, you can survive this!”

I enjoyed the book, and I mostly liked Lamott’s writing, but I didn’t feel like I got as much out of it as I had from Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s book make me keep putting it down to go write, and I’m still using many of its prompts. Bird by Bird never really gave me that feeling. As I finished the final page, I did feel like I wanted to pick up my writing project and work on it for a bit, but it wasn’t the frantic feeling I got from Bones.

Still, I found Lamott’s writing to be interesting, if not truly engaging, and the book is full of little gems, little pericopes that I thoroughly enjoyed. I doubt that this is a book that will stick with me, but I did enjoy the ride while it lasted.

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Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Read: 18 February, 2014

In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg takes a Zen-inspired approach to creative writing. And, indeed, her descriptions and advice use writing almost as a form of meditation – of being actively present in one’s life and environment.

I found it to be a very interesting concept, and it’s certainly inspirational. It took me days longer to read than it should have because I had to keep putting it down to go write for a while.

The approach was a little New Age-y for my tastes at time, but I only cringed a few times and the rest of the book made it quite worthwhile.

In terms of the kind of advice, there’s very little (almost none, really) attention paid to the mechanics of writing. Rather, Goldberg focuses on the mindset and habit of writing, the way to approach writing. In that way, it was quite different from what I was expecting, and had almost nothing in common with, say, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction (except in the advice to practice often and a lot). So I think it works really well for someone who either didn’t take to Burroway’s methods, or who would like to approach the subject from a variety of different angles.

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The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans

Read: 28 July, 2013

I enjoy reading “how to write” guides because I find them so informative – not in my own writing, but more in my reading. For some reason, they seem to speak to me more than the “how to read” guides I’ve tried.

These sorts of guides highlight things that writers should be paying attention to, and that translates well into what readers should be paying attention to. I feel that it gives me some insight into thought and planning that may have gone into whatever book I happen to be reading.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is quite a good book, presenting six steps (each broken down into a number of smaller considerations). Of course, following the steps won’t produce a good book, but they do highlight the things that a writer will need to think about to write in the genre.

I found it interesting, and I think that it does have some use for both writers and readers. And, while geared specifically towards fantasy and science fiction, plenty of the advice is applicable toward other genres.

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Atonement by Ian McEwan

Read: 2 October, 2008

Amazing. Just, amazing. It hurt to read Atonement because I didn’t want anything to change or for the characters to be hurt. But at the same time, I had to read on and find out how it would end. I had a couple late nights because I just couldn’t put the book down.

The major strength is the characterisation. Even background characters were given enough detail and depth that they feel like living people. By the end of the first chapter, I felt that I knew these people, that they were my neighbours or possibly even friends.

The other major strength was in the realism of the plot. Everything that happens is set up so that the reader knows that there is no possible way that a consequence can be avoided. Yet at the same time, I found myself hoping so much that something wouldn’t happen that I would almost convince myself that it couldn’t, making it not only surprising but also heartbreaking when the inevitable caught up to the characters.

If pressed to find a flaw, I would say that the exposition of the second, third, and fourth parts could have used some work. McEwan seems to want to plunge his readers into a story without a map or compass, making the first couple pages of each part a confusing and difficult read as I tried to figure out who the characters are, where they are, what’s going on, etc. This is acceptable at the very start of a novel, but going through it four times was three times too many. It isn’t terribly difficult to answer the whos, whats, and wheres in an interesting way and it would certainly help to ease the transition into each portion. As it stood, the start of Part Two had me put the book down until I had the courage to go through all the work of figuring out where the story was. By Part Three, I was more accustomed to McEwan’s trick, so I stuck it through. By Part Four, it was still unpleasant, but I was so close to the end and I just had to find out what happened to everyone.

It’s a fairly quick read, but not a superficial one. Be prepared to devote all your attention to Atonement until the final page is reached. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their interests (though if you love psychology, writing, or history, especially World War II, that would be a bonus).

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How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Read: 18 August, 2008

Overall, I’d say this book isn’t terribly useful. It didn’t present very much new information and I felt that I had read much of his advice before in a better form. In fact, the only part I was truly pleased with was his explanation of MICE. I also enjoyed the final chapter that brought down the all-too-common sense many amateur writers have that they can just sit around doing nothing and inspiration will come to them and make them great.

If you are considering writing for the first time (and, really, this book applies to any writing, not just Science Fiction and Fantasy) and have never before tried to learn anything about the craft, this book would probably make for a reasonably good starting point. If, on the other hand, you’ve been writing and reading about writing for a while, this book will largely be a waste of time.

That being said, it is a very short read (it took me about two hours to plough through) and something may resonate for you, so why not? Also, I really enjoyed the portion about MICE (found a little more than half way through the third chapter) and I would say the book is worth checking out from the library just for that part.

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Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway

Read: 1 November, 2007

I have read quite a few books on writing fiction and I must say that this is the only one that I have ever felt had any merit at all. Most books of this type give instructions, personal opinions, and leave it at that. I’ve often felt somewhat disappointed because I learned little from reading them. Reading this book, on the other hand, I frequently felt that I was learning a great deal.

The format for each chapter is an explanation first, then some short story examples, and then single and group exercises for readers to try. I found this format to be extremely helpful. The examples were well-chosen and referenced during the explanation sections and the exercises were creative and fun.

Usually, I would not recommend creative writing guides simply because they tend to be full of crap, but this is one that I urge anyone who is interested in creative writing to pick up.

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