Saturday, January 30, 2010


Does this scenario sound familiar?

Brilliant idea/spark/character/scene/etc. pops into your head, and you think: "Shazam! A novel hath come upon me."

Spurred by your brilliance, you scribble pages of notes, draw pictures of brooding eyes and flowing hair, draw maps, perhaps--paper the walls around your desk with post-it notes, all with mysterious phrases on them: "Is Deroc poisoning the ketal?" "Communication through runes--circles on floor."

Then, with a somewhat tenuous or solid grasp on your idea, you open that shining, fresh New Document and write that first sentence, that mother of all hooks. (Another bullfrog yelped, its throaty bellow cutting through the humid air.) "Oh yes," you think. "This is golden."
Sentences turn into paragraphs, which string together coherently, and the next thing you know--hey! You've got some chapters going on!

At this point, you stop and draw a plot curve, add in some random notes here and there, sit back in your chair and start imagining what the cover of this bad boy is going to look like in the bookstore.

(Then you obsessively check your email, blogger, Twitter, and Facebook three times just-in-case-you-missed-something-new-while-on-the-other-site.)

These feelings of self worth may continue for some time, a week, two weeks, maybe even three. You've written ten thousand words, perhaps twenty. Or less. The page count grows daily. Every so often you format the page into 6"x8" to see how many pages it "really" has in "paperback form."

And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, you come to realize that you somehow wrote yourself into the first mini-climax of the plot, and it's terrifying. What the hell were you thinking? You weren't really supposed to get a story out of that shower/dream/driving idea! It was just going to be another 8 pages added to your long folder of My Documents failures (though you know they're really just WIP's that you'll get around to sooner or later. The world needs those ideas.)

But somehow the muses inspired you just right, and BAM!

There's no Emeril here, though.

Just you and the solitary keyboard.

Cue more email, blog, twitter, and Facebook to give you temporary relief from your fears. Look at all those people who have agents! There's still hope in the world! Geez, anybody with half a brain can write a book.

So you open back up that document, which by now you may have lovingly crafted a name for, or you may still be calling it Draft 1. You stare at the last sentence you wrote.

You have a pretty good idea of where you want this scene to go. You know the emotion that you want it to evoke in both characters and readers. You may even know where the scene after it is heading.

And this is when I open my Pandora's Box. "You suck!" "You can only write beginnings!" "You've never finished anything in your life!" "You're never going to be a real writer." "You wrote better stuff than this when you were 12, and there's a 200 page document to prove it."

Time to call in the big guns.

My big gun is a fairly small, innocuous-looking book that you've probably seen mentioned all over the blogosphere: Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott.

"What possible help could a book about birds be?" Well, this is what briefly crossed my mind when I saw the required reading list for the last creative writing class I took in college. But I bought the book anyway, and let me tell you: it's worth it. There are tons of writing books out there, and to each their own, but I really love Lamott's voice.

Here she is, published how-many-times-over, has had several careers in writing, yet she faces the same fears that I do every time she sits down to write.

If you don't have any books about writing, I'd suggest you try to find a copy of this one. It's fast and easy and funny as hell. My particular favorite chapter is called "Shitty First Drafts," and let me tell you, it's really ringing true right about now (40 pages, 18223 words) for me.

So to all of my blogging friends out there, friends stopping by, or people who resent me calling them my friend who are in a really craptacular place in their book right now, I'm going to leave you with two quotes, neither by Lamott, but both in her book:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way (and if you're like me, it's going to be at 35mph, night-blind, and terrified that a deer or rabbit is going to jump out at any moment--metaphor this how you will). -E.L. Doctorow

When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a big crayon in his mouth. -Kurt Vonnegut

Happy writing!


Ella said...

Hello, I can so relate to what you said. I have recently been told, I write well..HUH?! I did
well in hschool/college, in writing. I can remember teachers telling other students, "You should write, you have a gift". I never heard those songs of praise. Fine, I am artsy, some stuff good, some sucks. I am trying to face my fears and post it all. It makes me feel queasy thinking about it. I will browse around and look at your other posts. I feel your anxiety;
I just turned in something for an article and I didn't even get the email with Thanks for your
contribution or Thanks for your ...... They asked me to write it. I don't know how all this works?!

Anonymous said...

I loved this! And I love me some Anne Lamott. Haven't read a lot of her work but what I have, I've loved (that is a very poor grammatical sentence thingy I just typed... ooooops).

See you tomorrow!

Summer Frey said...

I'll give you a pass, Amanda, because you're a science teacher. ;-)

Guinevere said...

I have Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird on my coffee table in front of me right now. Love it! I love her laidback approach and light-hearted cynicism and the pragmatic encouragement. My copy is from the library, but I want to get a copy for my own.

Luna said...

Yes! I love the chapter on Shitty First Drafts, too.