SO WHAT’S IT FOR?

Or more important, who's it for?

This website, still not quite two months old, took an enormous amount of effort to put together. Some from me—I'm responsible for the content—but even more from Andy Malone, my quite fabulous web designer, builder, master and custodian. Yet, at least in my mind, the question remains. (It's not Andy's job to worry about the philosophy!)

Who, for instance, did I have in mind when I decided we would have a section called On Writing with various short essays about the craft?

And didn't I realize that an abbreviation like “ms” only means manuscript if you're a publishing professional? Otherwise it's a modern equivalent of Miss or Mrs. Or maybe a disease.*

The answer is I never approached the concept that way. Here's what actually happened:

I've had other sites at various stages in my writing life. This time I wanted something less static. More dynamic. Like… well, like some of the food blogging sites I love and frequently visit. So the answer to the question about On Writing is simply that I thought of it as an equivalent of the “recipe” section on a food blog.

Yeah, but everybody eats. Everybody does not write books.

That occurred to me. So did the response. Everybody who eats does not cook, much less bake. But the audience for food related sites seems to be pretty much unlimited. And I remember years ago a dear friend who seldom went beyond scrambling an egg saying she was an avid reader of cookbooks. They satisfied her desire to eat spectacularly good food when she couldn't get it. (We were living on a small island off the coast of Africa in those days, but that's a whole n'other story.)

I also remember reading somewhere that people interview writers because mostly everyone loves stories. What the interviewers are really saying is, “Show us your magic.”

I can't do that because it isn't perhaps magic, but is so mysterious I can't claim to understand it, only share the journey. And hope that if you don't tell stories. you enjoy reading about them. As well as reading the stories themselves.

*We're working on a glossary. If you have any suggestions for definitions you'd like to see, please tell us in the comment section below.

 

 

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GIVE UP? MAYBE IT’S TIME

I am not talking about writing. I'm convinced those of us compelled to tell our stories in words to be read can't stop doing it and remain our true selves. Writing is coded into our DNA.  Besides, talent—in whatever quantity—is a gift not to be scorned.

The giving up I'm thinking of has to do with those horrible times when a story just won't come together.

I've learned that sometimes a change of activity will make an appreciable difference. Having begun by applying backside to chair, I've had to make the decision to separate the two. Just get up from my desk and go do something else, preferably pleasurable.

Personally I usually cook or bake. By choice, something challenging. Croissants, a Pavlova, an old-fashioned Beef Wellington. (My husband always said he loved “plot problems.”) My drug of choice need not be yours. Walk or jog or go to the gym. Garden or knit or binge watch a favorite show. Whatever gets those analgesic endorphins going, that's what to do.

 

On occasion none of the above will work. Cue the kind of “giving up” to which I'm referring.

Sometimes the only way to find the direction a story (or a character, or a particular plot point) needs is to stop thinking so much about it. Sit down and start a scene. Any scene. Maybe the one you think should come next even though you have no idea of how it should actually be developed, much less how it should move the story forward. Perhaps a scene you've been working toward without actually knowing how you're going to get there. That critical moment when A confronts B, or C decides to leave D, or E writes the letter or finds the key or buys a ticket… A place in this ms you have known must come eventually, though just now you don't know how to get there.

In City of Dreams that's how I wrote the scene where Christopher tries his first blood transfusion (using dog blood). In Bristol House I did the scene where Giacomo the Lombard drags his daughter to Smithfield to watch the witches being burned in slow fires—at least fifty ms pages before it occurred—because I could not figure out how to bridge one of the transitions from contemporary to Tudor London. In 27 Sin Eaters Street… well, I'll tell you about that after the novel is published.

My point is that sometimes a writer need to give up worrying about how to get there and just go.  Write the scene. At least begin it. Set it somewhere.  Anywhere. You'll figure out later how the characters got there. Write a conversation without thinking about what brought it about, or what it portends. If normally you're someone who works from a detailed outline, rip it up (or at least set it aside).

Don't think about anything. Let the act of writing be the thinking. Let it move you into the zone.

This is writing from inside, from the gut. Writing as a kind of meditation; mindfulness achieved, perversely, by lack of concentration. Once in a while this sort of giving up and giving in leads to an enormous and quite wonderful breakthrough in the life of a particular ms. A blessing from the writing gods.

May they smile on us.

A Room of One’s Own…

The view from my office. Which I religiously do not face when writing!

A fairly long time ago I remember someone telling me that the way to start writing each day—which every writer knows to be the hardest part of the job—is to, “apply backside to chair.”

All these years and books later I think there's more to it. Yes, essentially you have to commit to it and do it, but there definitely are ways and means that can serve as effective jumpstarts. Aids to getting you into the zone, if you will.

One that underpins pretty much everything else, is where will you write. For me, Virginia Woolf's famous advice is unbeatable. A writer requires “a room of one's own.”

Woolf was speaking of women at a time when they were unlikely to have a study, much less a home office – such were the domains of men – but the issue remains one to be addressed.

I have written in a number of different settings because I've had to, but even when I couldn't claim an entire room (living in an inevitably cramped Manhattan apartment for example), I've carved my working space out of my home.

I know writers who rent office space, or go to a café, or arrange for a writing desk at a library or some other public venue. But it strikes me they're mostly men. Getting away from the kids and the cooking and the cleaning.

Women, not so much.

Daisy, in my office, doing her share of the work.

I wrote my first novels on an old LC Smith manual typewriter and thought bliss was an electric IBM. These days I dock a (heavy) laptop and have a full size keyboard and monitor on the old pine door with legs that serves as my desk. So I can free up the laptop and take it with me if I must, but I'm not tortured by the screen size or keyboard limits. (And if you're younger than I you may not have issues with what I see as limitations. Different strokes for different folks…)

Another critical component is a good chair. I bought an Aeron years back with an unexpectedly excellent royalty check from Norway. (On City of Dreams, a story set entirely in pre-Revolutionary New York City. Go figure.) As for the chair, best investment ever. They're cheaper now I believe, but the Aeron is worth whatever you have to spend for it.

Also, I must face a blank wall. Which I admit is quirky and maybe crazy, but there it is.

I have one other pre-writing ritual that works for me though I don't know that it would for anyone else. I play a couple of hands of solitaire (sometimes more!) before I get going.