Writing the first draft of a novel has been challenging, fun, frustrating, exhilarating, depressing and wonderful. Over time I've been able to learn enough to get on the right path and I've accepted that each writer is on her own to figure out what works best for her. Here are some things I've learned that work for me:
1. Books and classes on craft can be a huge help, but only when I take advantage of them at the right time and only if I'm not subconsciously using them to procrastinate. The trick is to close the book, finish the class, stop effing around and get writing.
2. Reading is crucial. I am convinced that 97% of what I know about writing, I've absorbed through a lifetime of reading.
3. Web sites and blogs on writing, books, publishing and literary criticism have taught me a great deal. Starting a blog has introduced me to a writing community and it's helped me to clarify my own thoughts. On the other hand, the internet is the single biggest threat to my writing time, so I've had to tackle my addiction. Sometimes I specify a time limit for web surfing, or I go offline for a specific number of days, or deny myself internet access until I've hit a specific writing goal. All of those methods work, but it's absolutely critical that I establish limits.
4. I have to write every day or I lose rapport with my work. Author Tayari Jones made a comment I loved after she returned from a vacation. She said, "My novel is like a cat. It's mad at me for leaving it alone for a week. Now it refuses to speak to me." I find this is true for me. If I don't keep the novel with me all the time, it gets cold. Daily word count goals don't work for me. If I don't make the number, I feel like I've failed and I'm discouraged. My goal is to write something every day, and I usually end up writing more than I expected. Sometimes I only manage a paragraph and now and then I miss a day. If I'm really stuck, I hammer out a piece of flash fiction that's unrelated to my novel or I jot down notes about the novel and that usually triggers something.
5. To my surprise, writing longhand works for me. I used to write exclusively on my laptop, but this summer I started writing in a notebook and it opened up something different. I still generate quite a bit of new work directly on the keyboard, but often it's after I write a fair amount in longhand and transcribe it. Writing in a notebook allows me complete isolation from the internet. I always have a notebook and pen close by so I tend to write more. I've captured many more ideas since I started doing this because I don't need to get my laptop and open a document when inspiration strikes.
6. I've tried several approaches to writing a novel. I doubt I'll ever be someone who outlines. I've written chapters and edited as I wrote them. It seemed to work pretty well at the time, but in hindsight, it didn't work nearly as well as I thought it did. For the last several months, I've been working the story out as I go along. I am committed to moving forward until I get to the end of the first draft. I thank Tim Hallinan and his Writers' Resources for helping me understand the importance of finishing a complete first draft and giving me a sense of urgency to do it. As many wise writers have said, "you can't revise a blank page".
This is what is working for me now. Next week may be different. I feel like I'm working with wet, raw clay and by the time I get to the end, I'll have something with a recognizable shape. I may have to tear entire chunks off, or move them around, or add some, but I'll have something I can work with. Throughout the process, I've made notes on lots of things I need to change. I confess to rewriting my first chapter once already, but I've resisted further temptation to stop to rewrite and revise before I finish.
The first draft is nearly done, but I'll share something that many of you may find horrifying. I still don't know how it ends. I'm not one of those people who has known from the beginning exactly how the story ends.
Scott and I watched the movie, Married Life on DVD tonight. I always watch DVD special features and sometimes I'll even watch the movie over again with the commentary on, so I can understand why the film makers made certain choices. Married Life had three alternate endings and the film makers screened them to decide which one to use, based on audience response. This is a common practice and it's not surprising that the reason many novel adaptations end differently on film is that test audiences often react negatively to a book's original ending.
I've been struggling a bit because I'm ready to end my story and I haven't yet had that moment of clarity I was hoping to have. I suppose if Hollywood spends the time and money to shoot and edit four separate endings for a movie before they decide which to choose, perhaps I'm not the only writer in the world who is challenged by the end. I've noticed that Amazon reviewers tend to complain about unsatisfying endings more than just about anything else. No doubt, there is a lot of pressure on endings.
The importance of the ending to a novel varies for me as a reader, depending on what kind of story it is. Mysteries and thrillers have got to tie things up at the end or the book is ruined for me. With more general types of fiction, the ending is still important, but less so as the reader isn't usually expecting a "payoff".
What about you? Can you enjoy a book all the way through and then be disappointed by the end? Have you ever been angry at an author because of how a book ended? Do you tolerate a mediocre book, hoping for a payoff at the end? Does genre factor into it for you?
For writers, when do you know the end of your story? Have you rewritten endings that you initially thought would work, but then decided were wrong?
Odds and ends:
Rent it or buy it, but watch Young at Heart. I will watch this anytime I find myself whining about the unfairness of growing older. This documentary is uplifting and touching. I challenge you to make it through without crying at least two or three times and I promise you'll laugh most of the time.
Everybody has probably found Pandora Radio by now, so I wanted to share my Art Tatum Radio. It's something I can write to. Maybe you'll like it.