Back in the Swing

Well, I was worried, but I did it. I wrote last night, and hit my word count. I stopped in the middle of a scene, so I’ll have some momentum when I start back up this evening.

I’ve read a lot of books on writing, and listened to a lot of professional writers speak. Anne Perry, for instance, revealed that she outlines each chapter in extensive detail before she writes it. Dennis Lehane amusingly confessed that when he gets too full of himself, his friends and family call him up and read his first drafts to him over the phone.

Books can be useful, and anecdotes are fun to collect; but I quickly found that what works for one writer isn’t necessarily going to work for another. I could never do Perry’s level of meticulous plotting. And my first drafts, for the most part, never leave my computer (or often, unfortunately, the inside of my head).

But it was John Irving, who spoke to my writing class when I was in college, who gave me a useful tip: If you have to stop writing, stop in the middle of a scene. That way you’ll pick up at a place where your brain was moving, instead of having to start from a dead stop. If you forget where you were, he added, you’ll probably find that any new idea that comes to you will be better than your original.

This one works well for me. It was especially useful at last year’s NaNoWriMo, when I was writing and plotting at the same time. (I’m doing less of that this year; but still.) It helped to be able to return to something that was already partially built; it reminded me more quickly where I was, and where I had been planning on going. Last night I got through my hated introduction (I’ll have to redo the whole thing, assuming I decide to nurture this book; but at least I got a lousy first draft down), and into a scene that I’ve actually laid out already in some detail. It’ll be easy for me to pick up and keep going.

Irving said one other thing that day in my class that has stuck with me. He said that in his experience, there are two kinds of writers. There is the writer who, if he is unsuccessful as a writer, can do something else with his life: be a doctor, or a homebuilder, or something that will allow him to live pretty much normally. And then there is the writer who will either write, or be a bum. He spoke of a student of his, a kid who, he said, was the sort of person who’d be followed down the sidewalk by a cop waiting for him to do something. He said this kid was a truly amazing writer.

This was the guy. It seems a lot of people ended up agreeing with Irving on his ability.

When Irving spoke to our class, I was maybe 20, and a hopeless romantic. I desperately wanted to be the sort of writer who had to write, or end up in a cardboard box. Now I’m a software engineer, and I am hopelessly enamored of of indoor plumbing.

Go figure. But there is, I have learned, art in everything.

And really fabulous character fodder embodied in the people you work with every day.

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