Essentials

I’ve taught composition for more than a decade, and so I feel somewhat hypocritical when I admit that despite instructing my students to use outlines (as an essential part of the writing process), I never do in my own writing; at least, not fictional writing. I find outlines stifling. I find them a waste of time. My thoughts are often too disorganized to wrangle into the proper format. Instead I put fingers to keyboard and “run” with the story. Though, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this practice – it’s just what I have found (after decades of trial and error) that works for me. And therein lies the best writing advice I could humbly dispense – go with what works for YOU, the writer. If your practice doesn’t follow standard guidelines, don’t spend a moment worrying. If you craft the conclusion before anything else, more power to you. If you meet characters while writing (characters you did not expect/anticipate prior to beginning the narrative), pat yourself on the back.

Remember that writing often moves in fits and starts; when you hit your stride, don’t look back, just go with it; you can always return to what you wrote while in the groove and revise – which, as any writer knows, is about 2/3 of the overall process. On that note, I don’t usually keep a daily word count – and I wouldn’t recommend doing so, especially not for novice writers. It can be a useful motivator, but only if you don’t beat yourself up for failing to reach your word count goal. Here are my essentials for writing, in no particular order:

1. Singularity of Focus (or, No Excuses) – I live (and therefore write) in a busy household, occupied by husband, daughters, pets, and a myriad of tasks that require daily attention, such as dishes, laundry, packing of school lunches…you get the picture. If I attempted to wait for that magic moment of peace and quietude, I would accomplish zero work. Instead, I make time. I steal away with my laptop (outside, if the weather here in the wilds of MN is warm enough; in fact, my favorite workspace is on the back porch), insert earbuds, and tune out the rest of the world for that span of time. Day or night – I’ve been known to wake at 3am or thereabouts, get a pot of coffee going, and work like a demon until breakfast needs making. In fact, some of my most productive writing happens during those hours. I love Nora Roberts’ sage advice, “Stop fucking around and write!” And even if it requires some effort, stop fucking around and write! The point is, I tap into the ability to focus, rather than waiting around for the “perfect” writing time, which doesn’t actually exist outside of myth.

2. Music – I find music an essential component of focusing. For each book I’ve written, I have a corresponding Pandora station. For example, with Heart of a Dove, I listened incessantly to my Bluegrass Revival channel, which featured an incredible variety of amazing artists such as Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Wailin’ Jennys, The Be Good Tanyas, Crooked Still, Kelley McRae, Red Molly, and Jay Ungar. I depend on music’s ability to stab at my soul (and I’m using ‘stab’ with a positive connotation here), the same way I feel when deep in the writing groove; I would wither up without access to music. Once in a great while, I feel like the universe and I are maybe even a little bit in tune – in some small, albeit significant, way – for example, when writing a scene about Lorie and Malcolm discussing the afterlife and what lies beyond and the song “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” by the Be Good Tanyas suddenly streams into my ears. In those moments I experience a little thrilling chill up the spine. Also, the sound of a fiddle makes me feel as though all could actually be right in the world.

3. Reading Material – When I’m deeply sunk in the heart of a novel, writing every day and gladly losing myself in another century, I admittedly struggle to find reading time. However, reading is essential to writing, no question. In the past two years, I’ve reserved the bulk of my reading time for nonfiction (taking me back to my college years), but when I am able to select the research material, as logic would suggest, I find the reading far more enjoyable. I devour anthologies of letters and journals (John Ransom comes immediately to mind); short stories or chapters of longer works set in the era I am currently researching – such as John Jakes or Larry McMurtry; and adore memoirs written by former prostitutes, such as “Soiled Doves” by Ann Seagraves. I prefer nonfiction texts with a specific focus, such as a book dedicated to the making of eyeglasses in the nineteenth century. Or illustration plates from Godey’s Ladies Magazine, to get a feel for the fashions of a time far removed from my own. I visit my local used bookstore on a weekly basis, and my number is tacked up on their corkboard because they are kind enough to call me if any of the titles on my handwritten list appear in the store. I love them dearly. They put up with my eccentricities.

4. Fellow Writers – I can’t write enough about the importance of connecting with fellow writers. As in any profession, or even hobby, people who work together, or share/experience the hobby together, “get it” in a way that outsiders do not. Empathetic ears are essential to the writing process; your fellow writers will understand, sympathize, empathize, and be willing to listen, even if the “listening” is through a channel such as email, texting, or other forms of nonverbal messaging. Just as those of us who’ve been employed in the restaurant industry know immediately what to do when someone yells, “I’m in the weeds!” writers understand exactly what you mean when you wail, plaintively, “I’m stuck!” Or if you’ve recently had a sleepless night concerning the font choice for your title. Or when you’re blubbering and tearful, clutching a bottle of wine by its neck, because you’ve written the last line of your latest manuscript. Oh, that is a bittersweet moment. Truman Capote wrote, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Startlingly melodramatic? Yeah – and I’m not comparing myself to Capote, for the love of all that’s holy – but writers GET THIS concept. It is tremendously difficult to separate the thrilling pride of accomplishment with the finality of the finished product. We can’t help the twitching in the fingers that begs for just one more revision. Enough said. Don’t pester your non-writer friends with this issue, because they won’t invite you to book club anymore. Or for drinks, because God knows you don’t want to get a writer drunk and simultaneously on the subject of writing.

5. Emotional Connectedness – This one may be the most essential component. If your heart isn’t in your writing, I guess I would ask, “Why bother?” If your characters don’t talk to you, tug at your arm and demand your attention, if they don’t keep you up at night and evoke occasional strong emotion, then…I would wonder why you want to write in the first place. There’s a reason you chose to write your latest manuscript – no matter what, even if your characters are living through a hell of your own making, you should have a devoted personal connection to them. You should feel their pain, experience a sort of buoyancy at their triumphs, curse them when they won’t behave they way you intended, but what they should never fail to do to you is provoke an emotional response. You created these protagonists, their love interests, friends, families, and sidekicks, various enemies, assholes, stepmoms, paranormal creatures, pets, pawns, secondary losers, passersby, line cooks in all-night diners, taxi drivers, illusionists, dentists, clerks, mentors, lackeys, ex-boyfriends, the gum-chewing guy in the second row, and I could go on but won’t, so if you aren’t emotionally moved by these voices you create from the fantastic whole-cloth of your imagination…why are you spending time writing about them?

Final words for the day – find your No Excuses Happy Place (even if it doesn’t “fit” any guidelines or preconceived notions of the writing process), insert your earbuds, and get to writing!

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