Writers Learn From Each Other / Continuously Writing
The first thing a beginning writer does is look at other people’s books, wondering if they can do the same thing. This approach leads to an assortment of strategies: looking at who is telling the story, where does the writer begin, how many pages do they spend telling this part and that part?
Writers Learn From Each Other:
The first thing a beginning writer does is look at other people’s books, wondering if they can do the same thing. This approach leads to an assortment of strategies: looking at who is telling the story, where does the writer begin, how many pages do they spend telling this part and that part? How many characters are present at one time, and what are they doing, and how to get them sort of on stage and off again?
You’re looking at books differently now. A few of your favorite comfort reads are never going to be quite that comfortable again. Not because you don’t still love them, but because now you’re always going to read them with a more discerning eye. Many more questions have occurred to you, and you begin to compare one book to another, because surely there must be some analogous parts to guide you. You’ve developed a habit of going to bed early with a cold cloth on your head.
After a couple of weeks of serious study, you’ve either lost five pounds or gained them, depending on your inclinations. Perhaps you’ve determined that most of your favorite books start with a main character with a task before him, or with two characters talking, or with somebody having bad luck—splashed with mud or their bike tire is flat.
These are good. Tasks could go badly, talking characters could end up in an argument or become competitive, or the bad luck could result in worse circumstances.
Or you’ve gone deeper and realized you often like characters who’ve made a mistake and feel they must redeem themselves. Depth is good, you’re onto something here.
For one thing, you’ve got a character tied into a problem, that’s a twofer. Better yet, the problem is specific, the character has done something wrong, and they want to correct the situation. If they don’t know precisely what to do yet, that’s okay. They aren’t going to get it right the first time, anyway.
Really, you’ve lucked out, because you have specifics, and they are the very first thing a writer needs. Specific character plus specific problem plus the character needs to feel better about the whole mess. This generates the very next thing story needs: a goal. I’m thinking, a total fix-up and a happy ending.
Immediately, your job as the writer, having been gifted by the angels of writing, is to put yourselves in this character’s place. When you make a mistake, what’s your immediate reaction? To justify it, to cover it up, to pretend it was someone else’s mistake, to act like you didn’t even notice your mistake and hope no one else noticed, to grumble to someone else about it as if it’s their fault you made that mistake—yes, this is exactly what to do, start thinking about your own mistakes and how you’ve mishandled the ones that were hard to claim. Surely you’re not so grown up you haven’t made any mistakes this week.
You’re doing this on paper, of course. Writing a little note to yourself. Or putting a word to represent the mistake in a circle in the center of the page, then writing lines out from it like the spokes of a wheel, just the scribbled thoughts you have on that mistake. Keep shifting the paper around so you have a place for a new spoke right after the last one.
The main thing you’re feeling around for is, the exact reason why you don’t come clean in the first place. Why you don’t say, yes, my patient died and I feel really bad about that. Or, yes, I did cost the company ten thousand dollars with this teensy little accounting error, but surely my obvious remorse will save my job. Adult mistakes can be terribly far reaching, but they are being made every day. And we still justify, cover up, blame, and so on. These strategies are obstacles, very real obstacles, to resolving a problem.
Obstacles can come in human form, and we call that obstacle the antagonist. They can come in ways that keep us from recognizing them, we call them the boyfriend, or the BFF, or even, the dog. Obstacles don’t have to have legs to make us unhappy; obstacles can be financial, health related, skill related, energy related (as in, we were too lazy to fix that drip before it became a hole in the floor under the sink), and, of course, obstinacy related.
This brief period of soul searching will find the force that your resistant character must finally gather himself up to overcome. That opposing force may, over the course of a story, take two or three forms. Think people and circumstances, in the most general way, and from there, consider what kind of opposition your character must defeat.
This is enough to get a story well started. Later, of course, after a first rude shock or two, your protagonist will need to come up with a plan. He’ll need to do battle three or four times (this will be the bulk of the story), and finally, at nearly the end, he’ll have to deal with the actual fact: that he is this weakling, this chickenhearted, flailing upstart who makes mistakes, and then justifies, covers up, blames, and so on. Now he’ll have to come up with the grit to take responsibility for his mistake, which has by now become plural, mistakes.
And—whether or not he is forgiven, he goes on from there in a new way, less weak, less flailing, and just a little bit more satisfied with who he has proven to be.
Depth is good, you say, but it doesn’t narrow the possibilities of what to write down as a first line.
Or does it?
There’s “Maryjane didn’t realize right away that she was in the wrong.”
Or, “Will ate the cupcake meant for the new teacher before he saw the welcome card, and he didn’t know what he’d say to the teacher when she found the card and the empty paper plate. So when his friend, Steve, said, ‘Oh, who cares anyway? Nobody saw. Throw away the plate and it’s over,’ he let himself off the hook. Sort of.”
And there’s “Aunt Patty is fed up with me.”
You go on from there, having figured out you need twenty chapters of ten to twelve pages in length (or whatever variation on that appears in the books you’ve looked at).
You get five pages written and it looks pretty good, basically you’re describing a character who is in the act of making a mistake, or just having made one, or alternatively is the victim of an event, is reacting to that fact. But then you have to write something that sends you back to poring over other people’s books, wondering exactly how to lead up to an event, show or tell the event, and get past it to the next part. This is fine, because most likely the books you pick up won’t have an event that is just like the one you’re writing, and they won’t need to; you’re looking for the subtle points of transition: getting characters in and out of rooms, deciding how much of the conversations we imagine really need to be on the page, what should they be doing when they talk, and what to do if you have more than two characters in the room at the same time? *
But you’ve begun, and that’s something.
Recapping, you need a character with a problem that makes him want to fix that problem but it won’t be easy. They know what’s right, they just don’t like it, or they know what’s wrong but feel powerless to do anything about it. Even better if you’ve managed an event that creates reader involvement, meaning the reader has seen something on the page that makes them want to see an action or event that rights a wrong, metes out justice, or otherwise improves your protagonist’s life.
You need people and circumstances that make this problem difficult to resolve. The protagonist is going to have to try several times, and there’s going to be a bigger last ditch effort that finally succeeds. From there, he goes on with his life in a more grown up way, there’s been a positive change even if your protagonist was eighty five years old to start with.
*For a valuable example of more than two characters in a room, read Jeanne Ray’s Step, Ball,.Change. Chapter seven, the dinner table scene, is all you’ll ever need to know. But read the whole book, it’s priceless.
If the first hurdle to writing a book is to tackle that first blank page, then the next hurdle is to do it day after day after day. It’s a messy business. I just remind myself, every page in a book was once a blank page. I’m okay moving along with that in mind, and with messiness in general.
This year, I’m turning a messy two-story garage into a space for another kind of mess—painting. The past couple of weeks have been all about emptying the space (or coming as close to empty as I can hope), replacing a garage door with found doors (Restore), repairing the cement seams in the floor, removing half the upper floor and installing windows, buying mortar paint to whiten the dirty gray walls, then realizing I still haven’t gotten the obsolete vacuum cleaner system off the wall (it’s like the word in a manuscript you can’t see anymore). . . the list goes on. I’ve noticed the work is like the grass growing (which the grass is, because I’m busy in the garage), after beginning, the work is never a blank page. What needs to come next is always clear to me, always directed at the ultimate goal of a clean, well-lit space, always, always, always, at the end of day, somehow successful. Not finished, not by a long shot, but something I started out to do is done. It’s much like a novel.
Even knowing this, there’s a kind of friction to starting, especially starting writing. Lately, I’m bone-tired, and friction looks more like a series of speed bumps, each one higher than the last. I’ve had to pay attention to the way I get myself going, and I’ve had to be more deliberate in my methods. It’s not enough to read what I’ve already written for fifteen or twenty minutes before I begin to daydream, which leads to writing by hand or on the computer. Lately, it’s not enough to read the last page I wrote yesterday, to know what I need to write next. The creativity trickle, always ongoing in all of us, wasn’t thinking about this character’s problem, it was thinking about how to get that vacuum cleaning system off the wall without calling somebody who wants $65 an hour to do it.
So I’ve got a method for jumpstarting the kind of creative energy I need:
At the end of each writing period, I do a word count, so I have the number of pages (or paragraphs) I actually wrote.
I write a summary of those pages, for my eyes only, which helps me to know if I moved the story along, or if I just did the thing Steve Martin says makes writing so easy—just put down any old word that comes to mind (he says it charmingly in Pure Drivel). I’m asking myself, what just happened here in terms of an event? Who drove this scene (is it a scene with a setting and dialogue, emotions expressed, but also drawn from the reader—good work, or is a character just telling what happened—a section that will need to be revised into a viable scene?)
I also put down any thoughts that come to mind. Things like: this somewhat lazy character is turning out to be fairly good at getting someone else to supply what he needs—do I present this as a good thing or a bad thing, which one works for the story? That introverted character negotiates social events too well to be really introverted—is that character hiding something?
I think of what might logically come next—a reaction to a challenge, responding to an embarrassing or ambiguous situation, an answer to a Big Question. I try to finish on a small turning point in the story, so that something fresh might present itself tomorrow.
I ‘label’ the scene I think needs to be written ‘the wedding,’ ‘the confrontation between student and teacher,’ ‘help little brother find his lizard,’ whether or not it comes next in the storyline. Most of the time we have an upcoming scene we know will turn the story, or maybe we know only the working parts. I think it helps to keep those in mind (so the vacuum system solution isn’t all that’s flowing when the creativity trickle springs a gusher). Of course, I write down any details, any dialogue, that comes to mind. I write down as much as comes, even if it’s only a debate of the purpose of that scene.
When I begin the next day, I concentrate on what I thought should come next (unless I come to the table with a scene that appears to be writing itself, and not one word is vacuum). In this scene-wanting-to-be-written situation, I write that scene. Then I move on to the work I planned for that day, writing toward this drafted scene.
At the end of the writing day, I do a word count. I write a summary of those pages I wrote today. In other words, I start all over at the beginning of this list.