Seeing the light (through an almond croquant)
In my last post, I wrote about big and abstract lessons I learned in the last year. That's the mantra stuff, stuff that I'd tell anybody pursuing any sort of creative endeavor or a teenage girl or really anyone who will listen.
But this post is gonna get all dog-whistley on you, because this year I also learned a lot of writing stuff that can only be learned by doing. Every work delivers a new set of lessons. These are the ones I learned and mistakes I made. Next time, I can make brand-new mistakes.
1. Set the damn scene. Give a sense of place. Describe your characters. Detail motivations. You are not a contemporary painter, so you cannot swipe a swath of paint and demand the reader make sense of it. No one will think your book is art if you are vague. It will just confuse people.
I find it helpful to write cinematically. Scan everything that needs to go into this frame. You might overwrite those parts, but it's easier to take out than add in. Plus, spend some time away from the work and ask yourself these essential questions: Where am I? How did I get here?
2. Meet your characters before you write them. My writing professor Amy Bloom used to say, "People are not bowls of oatmeal with raisins on top." Everyone knows this and yet sometimes you write a character to fill in a gap and all of a sudden she's taken a bigger role and your agent starts asking you, "Where are her parents?" "How did she get so much money?" "Why are they even friends anyway?"
You should have answers for these questions.
Try from the very beginning to know your characters inside out. Maybe you don't need to know the name of their pet bird in second grade, but you need to at least know what their Facebook profile would look like. Invite these people into your heart and home, and that's when the real, tangible world will start to build.
3. Easy on the flashbacks. Don't you hate it when someone is telling you an exciting story, then starts telling a totally different story all of a sudden? It's distracting! It's annoying!
Yet in writing, this happens all the time in the form of flashbacks. If you're doing your job right, you shouldn't need too many flashbacks. The backstory should be infused into the work. Same goes with dreams. They have their place, but realize that whenever you're writing a dream or flashback, you're taking away from the main thrust of the story.
You might think revising is like this, but it's not.
4. The real work is in the revisions. I used to imagine revising as taking a chisel to a rough-hewn piece of marble. Revising is an act of getting closer to the core, adding the details and flourishes, smoothing out the edges.
Not so. Revising is more like weaving again and again. You do it once, feel the kinks, see what patterns emerge. And then you re-select your thread, re-dye it, and weave it again. You may have smoothed out the old kinks, but now you notice new ones. Some patterns strengthen, some patterns fade. So you start again and again and again, paying attention to colors and patterns and flows. Every draft is a new piece -- stronger, tighter, leaner, with every thread doing double (or triple!) duty.
You may think, "Rewriting? No way, I'll just mold what I already have." Nope, that's not how it is. It's not a sculpture, it's a weave. I'm telling you from experience.