New Project = New Process

I recently started drafting the novel that will become the creative component of my doctorate thesis. Although I’ve previously written one full-length novel, three novellas and numerous short stories, I found myself asking the question: “How the heck do you do this?” 

The truth is, my fiction writing muscles have become a little rusty. In the past six months, most of my focus has been on the craft of academic papers, assignments and my thesis. As part of honours, I was required to submit a novella, but most of the past six months were spent editing that story – not drafting. It’s a lot easier to edit a first draft than to write a first draft.

I have confronted the dreaded blank page many times in the last six months in the writing of the previously mentioned papers, but it is far easier to write non-fiction than it is to write fiction.

Non-fiction has a set structure and a particular voice. There is the introduction, a body that contains a clear argument and a conclusion. Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence and a concluding one that ideally, leads to the next paragraph. It must have a distinct voice, whether it be your natural speaking voice or one that is appropriate to the topic or in-house style guide. Non-fiction must be backed up by fact, whether that it be in the form of research or experience. Through trial and error, most of us established a set process on how best to write non-fiction pieces.

I start with a vague question or area of interest. Then I read. A lot. I make note of useful papers and record exciting or relevant quotes. This stage goes on until I sense that I have read enough material. Usually, that means I’ve started to notice links and connections between the sources and my own ideas or question. Key ideas become heading and each heading is given a particular word count. Then it’s basically paint by numbers. A conclusion is added and then the introduction. That’s my process. And it works. Your non-fiction process is likely different from mine, but I bet it’s pretty much the same every time.

Fiction does not adhere to set processes. Don’t get me wrong, I have a process, but I also enjoy messing with that process and challenging it. Fiction writing is creative after all, right?

I wrote my first novel with no outline and no character profiles. What guided me was an idea I had for a pivotal scene, the kind that happens towards the end of a novel. All I had to do was figure out how my characters got there. Of course, the first draft was a complete mess! By writing an outline, timeline and distinct character profiles, I was able to see all that was wrong with the manuscript and then fix it. Since then, I’ve written three novellas. For these, I used skeleton outlines (paragraph summaries of each chapter) while simultaneously writing character profiles. This worked better, but of course, there were still a few hick-ups. And in case you’re wondering, there will always be hick-ups! For my honours project, I decided to write a really detailed outline which quickly became the first draft, but because I was so intent on figuring out the structure and logic of the story, I spent little time developing the characters. It was only later during the editing phase that I constructed the character profiles that helped transform them from puppets to people.

For my latest project, it felt right to construct a (very) loose outline and a complete set of character profiles before beginning the first draft. I’ve set a word count for each day, and after I hit that word count I spend five-minutes brainstorming what will happen next. These ‘mini’ outlines are roughly one hundred words and are a great launching pad for the next writing session.

Now, for a word on word counts. For this project, I decided to set a fairly low daily word count. When writing the first draft, I usually prefer to get the ‘crappy’ first draft done as quickly as possible so that I can then get onto the next task: fixing it. Sometimes that meant writing 4,000-6,000 words a day. And that is not very enjoyable. This approach also zaps your energy and it usually affects your productivity the following day. So for this project, I’ve decided to end my writing sessions before I become exhausted. This way, I stay hungry and excited about the story.

I’m currently 15,000 words into the first draft. Though I know the general trajectory of the story, I will not hold the story to this outline if it no longer feels right. Stories have a mind of their own. They have their own natural and logical flow. If you show up and do the work, inevitably, the story will tell you how to write it. For instance, I started this draft with the intention of using a rotating, first-person point of view. And it totally didn’t work. So, I changed to third person. And so far, so good. Under the guise of ease, I set the story in a town I once lived in, but by the time I hit 10,000 words I was totally bored. Frankly, writing about a town I once lived in made me a little uncomfortable. It was too close to home and I didn’t enjoy seeing my fictional characters tromping around the stomping grounds of my past.

So, in 15,000 words, I’ve already realised that the setting and POV aren’t working.

You can plan and plot all you like, but sometimes, you don’t know whether or not something is actually going to work until you start writing. That’s ok though. I’ve worked on enough projects to know that I’m presently at the bottom of the hill that is my story. Though I can make an assumption about what the view from the top will look like, chances are that my expectation will differ from reality. The only way to find out though is to climb.

My Top Six Reads of 2018

If you read 50 books a year, that’s approximately 2,000 books by the end of your lifetime. When I first heard that statistic, I changed my reading habits drastically. If I wasn’t enjoying a book within the first 30-50 pages, it got shelved or returned to the library. My reading style also changed. I no longer reserved reading for when I had large slabs of time, instead, I snuck reading into the cracks of life. I read while cooking dinner, waiting for my partner to get ready and before appointments. I always had my current read close at hand so that I could pick it up whenever an opportunity presented itself. Even with this tactic, I only managed to read thirty new novels this year. (I didn’t count the novels I re-read because I rarely re-read whole novels). This number seems startling low considering that all I do is read and write (and exercise and cook and pat the dog). When I wasn’t reading a novel for personal enjoyment, I was reading journal articles and other texts related to my study. Although I didn’t hit my goal of 50 books last year, many of the books I did read were solid gold.

To celebrate the start of the new year, I’ve compiled a list of my top six favourite reads of 2018.

 

lincoln in the bardoLincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

The first 30-50 pages of Lincoln in the Bardo are pretty disorientating, but I’m so glad I stuck it out. It’s not that often you pick up a book that teaches you how to read it. Once you understand the premise and the terminology, Lincoln in the Bardo becomes a very rewarding read. It’s funny, heartbreaking and difficult to put down. The novel is about the death of Lincoln’s son William and the incredible grief the follows. Unique texture is established with chapters constructed solely of quotes from eyewitnesses. Many of these quotes are contradictory – some are even made-up! – but the point is to show the fickleness of human perception and historical accounts, and this myopic view helps to provide additional detail that supports the central narrative. Lincoln in the Bardo proves that there is still room to play with narrative structure. That a fictional book can document a historical moment without becoming historical fiction. That a literary book can combine religious themes with genre tropes. Little wonder it won the 2017 Man Booker Prize!

her body and other parties


Her Body and Other Parties
– Maria Machado

This may be the most exciting book I read last year. Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of short stories that combine supernatural, horror and science fiction tropes with a literary voice. The core themes of body and sex are delivered through a feminist lens, but the hearty use of pop culture references and clever intertextuality give it a contemporary feel. Machado cites Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson as early influences, and their mark on her work is obvious, yet Machado presents a certain playfulness that is all her own. Machado has an incredible ability to turn absurd ideas into unsettling tales filled with philosophical undertones. A woman who undergoes bariatric surgery rapidly loses weight only to discover that this fat has now manifested as a ghostly presence in her basement. Eventually, she attempts to beat the entity to ‘death’, a metaphor for our cultural conditioning to abuse and hate our bodies; to see them as separate from ourselves. One standout story was a summary of 272 episodes of Law and Order: SVU and what Machado thought each episode was really about. Some of these tiny summaries are funny; others are gut-wrenching.  Machado’s gift is her ability to write about dark concepts in a way that is beautiful and uncanny and that cuts straight to the bone.

 

from the wreck
From the Wreck
– Jane Rawson

From the Wreck is a difficult novel to describe. It’s historical fiction, but one of the main characters is an alien that lives on the surface of a boy’s shoulder; concealing itself as a birthmark. Sometimes the alien manifests as a beautiful woman. Then there’s this whole thing about horses… Rawson’s style is minimalist, and at times, I was stunned by her brevity. Big ideas, complex plot developments or philosophical statements that could easily flesh out a paragraph are instead presented as tidy, tight sentences. It takes a skilful writer to contain such an incomprehensibly weird idea inside a narrative that is convincing, elegant and completely consuming.

 

A Superior Spectre – Angela Meyer as a superior spectre

Like the above texts, Angela Meyer’s debut novel is a hybrid of historical, science, horror and literature. It’s exciting to see so many literary authors adopting genre tropes! A Superior Spectre is a deeply layered text. It crosses two time periods and two protagonists whose lives are connecting by a future technology that allows users to enter the mind of someone in the past. The concept is ambitious and Meyer’s minimalist style and fast pace stop the novel from becoming bogged down by description and world building. She also explores complex and interconnected feminist themes about sexuality and suppression and what is morally right vs socially acceptable. In the same way that Jeff invades Leonora’s mind and influences the trajectory of her life, I too felt like an unwelcomed presence; like a parasite, passively watching that destruction of a young girl’s life.

 

an isolated incidentAn Isolated Incident – Emily Maguire

I’m about two years behind on this particular bandwagon but better late than never. What I love about Maguire’s novel is that it’s a crime novel but it’s not a crime novel. There are detectives, crime scenes and police interviews, but what this novel is really about is the ramification of crime. What happens to the family of crime victims? What are the first few weeks of an investigation – and grief – really like for them? Maguire carefully weaves elements of the gothic into the central narrative: ghostly sightings, invisible presences and conversation with dead people. Coming from a small outback town myself, Maguire’s depiction of rural communities was spot on. Sometimes, uncomfortable so. An Isolated Incident proves that it is possible to write a crime novel where the protagonist’s emotional journey to more important (and interesting) then finding the culprit.

 

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – Hank GreenAn absolutely remarkable thing.jpeg

I love that Hank Green embedded his experience of becoming ‘third tier’ famous into this science fiction romp. It’s not all fun and games though, in fact, most of the novel is a running commentary on life in the digital age. And it’s not pretty. Or healthy. Writing about instant fame (or becoming famous for no reason) is a timely topic and Green does a superb job of showing how the attention we get through social media changes us – and not for the better. Though this is a popular topic for social commentators, I’ve yet to see this idea explored in a novel. Technology, social media, mobile phones and the internet are certainly mentioned in many of the books that I read, but none of these books are about these new technologies. This isn’t exactly surprising though. Writing about present-day technology is a sure-fire way to have your book age quickly. As long as we continue to ponder the uncomfortable, and presently unanswerable, questions like ‘how much is the internet changing us?’ and ‘how can we move forward without losing the best parts of the past?’ Green’s novel is likely to remain relevant. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing proves that it’s okay (and maybe even necessary) to explore themes that are timely rather than timeless.

Writing While Travelling

Place is so important when it comes to writing, and no, I’m not talking about setting. “Where do you write?” is a question commonly asked of writers. Some can write anywhere: on planes, in motel rooms, bars (?), cafes, libraries or while sitting cross-legged on their nan’s couch. Others can only work in their home office, or a particular cafe, or their dining room.

Me? I fall more into the latter than the former. My preferred choice is to work from home, but I can pretty well write anywhere. Admittedly, working in the same location at home can become a bit stale, so I enjoy moving my workstation around the house. I work just as well writing at the nook desk in my bedroom as I do at the dining table, the outdoor entertainment area, or standing at the kitchen counter – something I do when I am just so sick of sitting! When I am the only person home, I tend to relocate my workstation through the day. When everyone is home, I prefer working at my desk. Door closed.

A well established writing routine will help you rack up a seriously high word count, but this kind of repetitive and mindless practice can also become boring. The good news is that switching up your writing location can be tremendously refreshing.

Research shows that our cognitive resources become a little more depleted with every decision we make. If you get out of bed every morning, don your walking shoes, exercise, shower, dress and eat the same breakfast every day – without thinking about it! – then you will save a ton of creative/cognitive reserves for your writing.

Your work may flourish, but no one wants to live that pious lifestyle forever.

Don’t get me wrong, I love working from home. The ability to make a cup of tea, prepare lunch or go to the bathroom whenever I want – and without having to pack up my laptop and notes (library) or pay for the experience/privilege (cafe) – is so easy and effortless that it makes leaving the house seem silly.

But working from home has its disadvantages too. There is laundry to wash, plants to water and meals to prepare. It’s so easy to waste thirty minutes here or fifteen minutes there tending to the never-ending list of domestic tasks. Plus, if you’re the only one home, the temptation to ‘quickly check’ a favourite blog or social media feed becomes overwhelming. You aren’t goofing off unless someone catches you, right?

When I write at libraries or cafes, I’m constantly amazed by how much I get done. When you eliminate your proximity to nagging chores, you get a lot done. When you place yourself in a public environment where the scrolling of social media feeds would have you pegged as another unemployed Millenial chewing up the complimentary Wifi rather than a clever wordsmith in touch with his muse – again – you get a lot done.

The power strangers have over our laptop screens is astounding. Knowing that someone may flick an idol gaze our way is enough to keep the current WIP document open and the browser closed. (Unless, of course, you’re reading what is clearly an academic journal article and you are studiously taking notes in a moleskin journal. This is a different type of Millennial wanker, yes, but one you are willing to live with).

Writing on the road is its own particular beast, and it’s a question that marries well with the topic of writing spaces.

I can write while travelling, but it’s not easy. Not by a long shot.

When you step outside of your hometown – even if you’re visiting a very familiar city, or staying with close family or friends, or are attending a work-related conference – it’s difficult to not become distracted by your surroundings. Your inner child is determined to be social, to be irresponsible, to drink wine, mess up your sleep pattern and abandon all of your meticulously established rules and routines (you know, the ones that support your writing ambitions; the ones you’ve learned through trial and error).

You don’t have to write on the road. You can abandon your routine and take a genuine holiday. No one will die and I’ll only judge you a little bit. Promise. But what if you want to write while travelling?

In this instance, there are no easy solutions, but I do have four tips:

1. If you’re travelling with others, communicate your desire to write while on the road
2. Write when there is a break in activities, responsibilities, appointments
3. Write when you don’t feel like it but the time is available
4. Milk that time for all that it is worth.

Recently, I attended a music festival with some friends in Tasmania. The first few days were pretty jam-packed as we explored St Helen’s, set up our accommodation and generally caught up with one another. Pretty quickly though we settled into a semi-routine of 8am get up, outdoor exploring until 2pm, a couple hours of quiet time and then meeting again around 6pm for dinner/drinks. Now, I know this may sound exhausting (because it kind of is) but while everyone was having an afternoon camp, I was working.

Sometimes I worked on my thesis, academic proposal forms or researched articles.

Sometimes I woke up at 6am and squeezed in two hours of editing before everyone got up.

It would have been very easy to become a whinny little writer during this time because frankly 6am-8am and 2pm-5pm are definitely NOT my peak energy times. In fact, during these hours, my brain is nothing but a big old bowl of mash potato. While I don’t naturally sleep late or take naps, I do appreciate downtime, especially after sight-seeing and socialising; two activities that are equal parts rejuvenating and TOTALLY exhausting.

But I had deadlines, and though I had worked hard to get ahead so that my writing load would be less while on holidays, I couldn’t abandon it completely. Writing and engaging in deep thinking while sitting on a couch from the 1970s in a cottage in desperate need of a revamp surrounded by the snores of three weary travellers who were clever enough not to become writers was far from an ideal workspace.

Unfortunately, writing, even when you’re in the ideal situation, still takes effort. Writing within your absolute unideal situation is a little like having your car break down on the highway, you really don’t want to deal with this problem, but you have to.

I know I make writing outside of my workspace sound like hell (because it kind of is), but I chose to do it.

We (kind of) choose to be writers. No one is holding a gun to our heads. In the end, how I got through my holiday writing sessions was by changing my perception. Instead of being pissed about losing my downtime because I had to write, I saw socialising and sight-seeing as downtime. I also altered my writing goals so that they were more realistic given my energy levels and time constraints. I chose to work on holidays, but I also get to choose how I work.

All that said, we’re about to enter the busiest time of the year. So, I’m giving myself permission to take a break from this blog for the whole month of December. If I find the time, or if the muse whacks me with a big old inspiration stick, then I’ll go ahead and post. Otherwise, I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and thank you so much for taking the time to read these weekly ramblings.

Happy writing!

The Writers’ Interrogation List: Are Your Characters You?

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. I refer to this phenomenon as The Writers’ Interrogation List. I’ve blogged about this topic previously here and here and here.

One question that authors are often asked is ‘Are your characters you?’ or to word that question differently, ‘How much of you goes into your characters?’

Most authors would scoff at such a question and find the idea of an author surrogate (a fictional character based on themselves) insulting to both their imagination and the craft of writing. Author surrogates are a writing technique typically associated with hobbyist writers. In other words, they are seen as bad writing. The fan fiction community has even given these characters a nickname, Mary Sue.

A few authors – very few – openly admit to using author surrogates. Some famous examples are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (though Vonnegut’s literal appearance in the novel is more meta than surrogate, but the narrative itself is heavily based on the author’s experiences during the bombings in Dresden), and Robert A. Heinlein is Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. Of course, these are examples of author surrogates done well. They are the exception to the rule.

Typically, author surrogates are a big fat literary no-no. Sometimes, the narrator of a story is flagged as an author surrogate due to the heavy-handed social, political or philosophical commentary. I’ll return to this idea later, but first I want to discuss the idea of an author basing their fictional characters on themselves.

If an author intentionally buries aspects of their personality or experiences into a character, then that’s their decision (and they may have very good reasons for doing so). If a reader is intentionally picking a character apart in order to find signs of the author, that’s not so good.

As artists, the line between us and our work becomes very blurry very quickly.

On one hand, a book can be very telling as the author may embed beliefs, values, opinions, or real-life experiences into their work, but writing is a strategic exercise. Sometimes characters think or do things that are the opposite to the author, but they do these things because they make sense for the character and because the plot must progress. However, some may argue that all characters are a reflection of the author. After all, they are the ones who created them.

Recently, I completed the final round of self-edits on a mystery novel, and in writing this blog post, I naturally started to wonder how much of me went into my characters. Some of the characters I can identify as complete fabrications, some appear to be almost my polar opposite and others are exaggerated slithers of my personality.

It’s a weird thing to think about because we actually aren’t that unique. We all think fairly similar thought, feel fairly similar feelings and do fairly similar things. (Insert obvious banal disclaimers here). Given this ‘sameness’ – and the fact that I wrote the damn book – it makes sense that some of my characters resemble me. Slightly.

Fortunately, my main character Daff could never be described as an author surrogate. We share a few things in common, we are both Australian females who grew up in Queensland and we are close in age. These similarities inevitably mean that we share other qualities too, but we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole. The biggest differences between us is our personality and temperament. Daff loves gardening, science and cutting up dead bodies. If she were an animal, she’d be an Ox: stubborn, slow, but relentless.

I, however, am none of those things. I did pretty darn well at high school biology, but that was over ten years ago and I haven’t cracked the spine of a science textbook since the day I sat my final exam. Fucking aced it too. Just saying. But I don’t love science with a capital L. In fact, my good grades were a miracle because I flat out refused to dissect rats, animal organs and grasshoppers. What can I say? Cutting up dead stuff ain’t my thing. (Little wonder I haven’t eaten meat in 12 years…with the one exception of an unfortunate mix up at a Chinese restaurant…). Additionally, I find gardening tremendously boring. Like solitaire boring. Like post office cues boring. if I were an animal, I’d be a dragon because that’s what Chinese astrology assigned my birth year.

That being said, there is a character in my book that reads a little like an alter ego. I wouldn’t describe this character as a Mary Sue, a term that is typically reserved for idealised versions of the author, because Melissa Sweet (oh, hey! Same initials!) is a Harley riding, metal head that wears heavy make-up and way too much silver jewellery. Yeah, she’s pretty cool, but I’m way too introverted for her adrenaline-laced lifestyle.

Looking at my cast of characters, the ones that appear to be the most fabricated – the least like me – are the minor characters. The characters who exist to keep the cogs turning or to bring comic relief. Obviously, my main characters propel the story forward the MOST and they share similarities with me because I needed to have a strong understanding of who they were in order for the plot to makes sense.

Having pondered all this, I suspect that the greatest amount of ourselves probably winds up in our first novels. When examining my short stories, I gotta say, there ain’t much of me in them. Maybe this is because the motivation behind writing a short story, for me, is to challenge myself and my skill levels rather than explore a philosophical theme. Some of these challenges include writing a story where the protagonist makes you feel morally uncomfortable (Sidney Cherry), a story that uses classic horror tropes (The Bell, which you can get if you sign up for my newsletter) and an experimentation with metafiction (Haunted).

As I mentioned at the top of this blog, sometimes the narrator is an author surrogate. While I have no doubt that there are sprinkles of me in my characters, it is the novel itself that is the greatest representation of me. After all, I didn’t write a novel about grief and time, family and friendship, post-traumatic stress and trauma because those topics are uninteresting to me.

‘Are your characters you?’ is a dull question. Some novels are made to be consumed and closed, others are made to be contemplated. It’s within the pages of the book as a whole that you will gain the greatest insight into an author’s psyche. You can dissect characters if you wish, but to do so is to miss the point. It’s not about how much of the author has gone into the book, but what is the author trying to say with the book.

Reading is an Intimate Experience

Reading is an intimate experience. It’s a private conversation between two people, the author and the reader. The type of conversation that can only occur between two people: deep and cuttingly honest. You can watch a movie, a play or a sporting match with others and experience that entertainment together because the form exists outside of you.

Books technically exist outside of us too and while two people can read the same book, their experiences of that book will be very different. Reading is an internal and idiosyncratic process. We’ve all read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, we all know what happens, yet my Elizabeth Bennet will be slightly different to yours because I am reading the novel through my perspective; I am filtering Elizabeth’s life through my life, my values and my embedded biases.

I often read moving passages to my partner, but the power contained within those words is often lost when read out loud. And yes, I can appreciate that it is also being read out of context, but there is something else going on too.

When a story is read out loud, you lose the tactile experience of being the primary decoder: the person who transforms the words on the page into people, places and events. The person who is reading out loud may emphasise particular words that you wouldn’t, they may read slower or faster, loudly or softly, so that their voice influences the way you experience the story.

Reading is an intimate experience because you are co-creating a world with the author. Yes, admittedly, the author has done most of the heavy lifting, but readers are the ones that stories are written for and it’s through their participation that the story is able to fulfil its purpose.

Reading allows us to feel something, to travel somewhere, to do things and to move towards something; all while being in someone else’s body. Here, you can witness the internal and honest workings of someone’s interior. In real life, we can never know another person’s interior dialogue. They may share thoughts and feelings with us — but we’ll only ever know what they are willing to share.

Granted, the interior life of a character may not be accurate or truthful, but it is true to that character. If a story is told in third person limited or omniscient, then we have an even broader perspective. It may not be truth with a capital T, but it is a truth.

Reading is an intimate experience because your consciousness is colliding with the novel, and by extension, the author. As you progress through a novel, the boundaries between you and it begin to shrink. We talk about losing ourselves in a novel in the same way that we talk about losing ourselves in a romantic relationship. When you ‘click’ with a book you are willing to suspend your disbelief and to experience the adventure pressed between the covers. A line may fall flat when read out loud because the listener has not been involved in this decoding process and their consciousness has not blended with the novel. To introduce a different metaphor: you can’t know whether a new house will one day become a home until someone hands you the keys and lets you in.

Happy reading guys.

Writing Efficiently

There is nothing efficient about writing. I know. The title of this blog is rather misleading, isn’t it? But it’s important that people accept this simple writerly truth: There is nothing efficient about writing.

Even if you do all the prep work ahead of time, the story will likely take on a life of its own soon after you begin. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is tremendous value in doing an outline, engaging in a bit of research and constructing character profiles. This groundwork can provide you with a sense of direction and it can ease the creative stifle that often occurs when we are faced with the blank page. Taking the time to become familiar with your characters, the possible direction of your story, and the perimeters that will contain your narrative (world/timeline/genre) is a great place to start, but it’s also important that you, as the creator, remain flexible.

If you create a strict character profile and then find that said character is behaving differently on paper, what are you going to do? You could attempt to stuff that character back into their profile, or you could give yourself the creative freedom to see if this new version is better than the pre-constructed one. You’ll probably find that this character is more organic, that it is easier to write from their perspective and that they feel more real.

If your character changes dramatically, then you may need to reconsider your outline. A plot is informed, at least in part, by a character’s decisions. If your character has experienced a lobotomy, then it is unlikely that your original outline will make sense given that your protagonist (or another significant character) has a new and improved personality. Like I said, writing is not efficient. If you encounter this particular problem, you can either redraft your outline or attempt to ‘pants’ the rest of the novel.

I can appreciate that redrafting an outline may seem pointless, “what if I have to change it again? That would be such a waste of time”, but it’s not a waste of time if the outline gives you enough confidence to start writing.

The outlines I do for my fiction and for this blog are very different from the final product, but that’s ok. If an unfollowed outline assists me in the writing of a book, short story or blog post, then I don’t really care if these two documents differ.

Of course, you can attempt to follow an outline, even if it no longer feels lively or authentic. You may be able to write a chapter or a blog post “efficiently,” but what is the real cost?

Potentially, a book that has failed to meet its true potential.

I realise that I make wandering off the path sound like the way to writerly enlightenment, it’s not. There is absolutely no guarantee that following your story’s lead will lead to a better story. It’s dark out there in the forest and you don’t know what traps lay underfoot or how far it is to the next cabin. With luck, you may have a lantern to help you find your way, but if your story abandons you out there in the dark, it can be a long time until first light.

The real question is, why are you so attached to the idea of being efficient? Is it because you don’t want to waste any time? Because you only have so much time to dedicate to writing and you hate the idea of wasting hours of your life on a story that may not work?

In many ways, writing is a waste of time. Let’s be real here, the world doesn’t need another masterpiece; it has plenty of masterpieces. All the stories have been told. Every. Single. One. All the forbidden romances have ended in marriage. The bad guys got locked up. The planet was saved by a group of misfits. That weedy kid no one liked won the gold medal and became a legend. It’s all been done.

Feel better?

Once you acknowledge that writing is (kind of) a waste of time, it’s so much easier to waste time writing. If you give yourself the freedom to wander off the path, to get lost in the dark until you eventually stub your toe on a forgotten lantern, then you may wind up with a good book. And if you don’t, that okay too. The world will not end, and you probably learnt something. If you cling to the idea that writing must be efficient, if you believe that success is a story produced quickly, then there’s a reasonable chance that your work will be mediocre.

I’ve written before about how the go-go mentality of today’s world fails to support creative artists and whether we consciously buy into these external pressures or not, the collective mentality to ‘get it done now’ is clearly having an effect. In the end, you decide how you create your art. You can rush through the process or you can take five years. You can write every day or binge when the mood strikes. You can self-publish or go traditional. The real question is, what happens after you type The End? Is this art something you can be proud of, or is it just another item you can strike off the to-do list?

You get to decide.

The Pros and Cons of Writing Workshops

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the value of writing clubs and writing workshops. This is mostly because I am working on an article that touches on this topic and because I recently joined the committee of my University’s writing club.

Writing clubs and workshops are a contentious topic among writers.

Stephen King hates them.
Chuck Wendig believes they can be useful.
Cheryl Strayed and Chuck Palahniuk belong to the same one.

Other authors such as Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert and Dani Shapiro value privacy during their writing process, though they do seek out the advice of other writer friends after they have completed their final draft but before they submit it to an editor. Where writers club and writers workshops focus on experimentation and feedback on works in progress, Patchett, Gilbert and Shapiro only invite other authors into their writing room once they themselves feel confident with the work.

Writers need feedback and they need community.

You don’t have to be a member of an organised club. You don’t have to attend monthly meetings. You don’t have to read stories that aren’t your jam. But these practices can add real value and understanding to your own writing process.

Most writing clubs have a pretty simple structure. Writers distribute copies of their work to club members prior to the meeting, then the writer shuts their trap as each group member delivers their in-person critique. By nit-picking other members’ work, the idea is that each writer will better identify the weakness in their own work.

Workshops and clubs also provide writers with the opportunity to experiment with different writing exercises and techniques. I used to do a lot of writing exercises, but these days hardly any. When I get time to write, I want to work on a short story, a novel or this blog. I want to sit down and produce something specific, something that can go out into the world in some form.

Writing exercises are made for scrap notebooks, so don’t go publishing that stuff online.

Writing exercises stretch your technical ability by introducing you to new literary devices and then challenging you to apply them. Writing clubs and workshops give you the time, space and permission to mess around with your writing. Rather than relying on the tricks you’ve already mastered, these exercises push you to produce prose for the sole purpose of learning. Writing clubs and workshops aren’t about perfection, they are about mess.

They are also about community. Being able to talk about your writing process, about books that you love and resources that support you is part of the package. There is value in sharing your successes with people who really get what a big achievement publication or getting shortlisted is. People who know what it is like to open a vein and to bleed onto the page. People who share your passion for words and stories, truth and beauty.

Workshops and clubs are a safe place where you can present works in progress, but they are also places of critical growth. Let’s not sugar coat this. Having someone point out the (many) typos, flaws and weaknesses in your writing can be uncomfortable, embarrassing and even maddening. Sharing your art with someone is vulnerable, even when you know it isn’t perfect; perhaps because you know it isn’t perfect. It’s hard to have fifteen people point out what isn’t working in your piece, but if you want to grow and develop as a writer then you need to know what your weak points are so that you can start to strengthening them.

Of course, writing clubs and workshops also have their dark side. If a club consists solely of beginning writers, some discernment regarding the quality each members’ feedback may be needed. Such instances can feel a little like the blind leading the blind as members are qualified more as readers than they are as writers. Perhaps you are extraordinarily luckily and you have a professional editor in your club, but chances are you don’t. When feedback slips into personal preferences or ‘this works for me and this doesn’t work for me’, then members are not critiquing submissions on their own merits nor are they acknowledging the author’s unique voice or style.

Similarly, I have also seen how club members can begin to mimic the critique styles of others. If confident members of the group favour a minimalize style and present their feedback in accordance with their personal tastes, then less confident members of the group hear these opinions and start to adopt them as their own. Such a person may even extend these opinions to their own writing as they strip all decoration from their descriptions, dialogue and prose. If you become familiar with the type of feedback style of each member, you may become overly self-conscious and begin censoring yourself in order to avoid having John point out your love of adjectives – again! Eventually, this may lead to all members sounding more or less the same.

That being said, I personally think writers club and workshops are valuable and like everything in life, you got to take the good with the bad. Writers clubs and workshops aren’t essential they are just another nifty tool you can use. If you join a club and realise it is not for you, then great! You just figured out something about your creative process. The main thing to remember with writing clubs and workshops is that members’ critiques are really just a bunch of suggestions. If someone makes a comment that doesn’t land with you, then you can exercise your authority as an author and ignore it. However, if six people say your dialogue is a bit on the nose…well… then it probably is.

Writing demands time alone – hell that’s half the appeal! – but sometimes this solitude slips into loneliness. It’s nice to talk about the struggles we are encountering with others who have encountered them. It’s nice to have someone recognise an elegant sentence that took two hours to write. It’s nice when someone picks up a subtle literary reference.

Writing clubs and workshops offer community, encouragement and support. They are a place where you can be productive and goof-off. The trick to their success lies in our ability to recognise them for the beasts that they are: a dog that can bite and befriend you.