Tag Archives: Novel

Writing is Hard Work and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different

new camera + new lens

Writers (and I’m talking about creative writing) who in the debate about whether or not writing can be taught say that “writing cannot be taught,” or writers who say they “don’t revise” are engaging in a game of intimidation.

Whether they are accurate or not in their assessment (if you are 140% talentless, I guess writing cannot be taught…and perhaps some brilliant writer out there really doesn’t revise their work), I hate it when writers try to make writing “magical” and solely about “talent.” It’s such an arrogant thread of thought to imply that you either have it or you don’t. Certainly, talent is a crucial part of the pie–but people with talent still need coaching, mentoring, and practice. Tons of practice and hard work.

This bucket of sick giraffe bull reminds me of my high school. I have a lot of wrath toward my high school years, so be forewarned. I went to a super cut-throat competitive high school that happened to be a public high school. The counseling office would actually publish the top 100 GPAs of students in descending order every semester. They didn’t list names, but they did list student ID numbers. Who were they kidding? You think we ultra-competitive students hadn’t memorized each others’ SIDs? We knew exactly where we all stood.

But I guess the counseling office was bored, and needed to generate work. Because I’m sure after those rankings, they’d have to do a lot of counseling. And I’m not talking about the academic kind.

Anyway–I’m talking about people who front about how easy shit is, just to intimidate other people in a competitive atmosphere. And I was talking about my high school, which was full of students with gray bags under their bloodshot eyes saying they had a full night’s sleep, didn’t study for the test at all, and the test was a cinch. For awhile I believed them. Until my father said, “Are you an idiot? Of course they’re studying. They’re just psyching you out! Now go to your room and study all night until dawn breaks.” My dad is such an Asian Dad. Literally. And figuratively. Okay. I just wrote notes to my friends all night long. Like, twelve page handwritten notes. I was destined to be a writer. But I did study, just not as hard as my father wished I would.

The claim to a well of genius/brilliance without the investment of hard work stems from deep arrogance and/or fear.

You mean to say that Jackson Pollock just threw some paint up on a canvas and that was it? That dude worked long and hard to attain those splashes. There is an entire history of Pollock paintings preceding his “drip canvases” that attest to that. You mean to say that Itzhak Perlman fell out of the womb playing a violin? That Lance Armstrong just rode his bike and rode it to victory from the start? No shit. They all worked hard. There’s the equivalent of about 100,000 bottles (probably more, but I don’t feel like researching the amount of sweat a bicyclist would exude in his/her training) of Gatorade that Armstrong had to suck down to replace the sweat from training exertion. They played until their fingers bled. Or at the least, had whopping callouses.

I know someone who was a concert violinist earlier in his life and even if he did not make it his lifelong career, he has a little hollow in his jawbone; he practiced so often and for so long, the bone grew as if his face were attached to his chinrest. Which it was. Because he practiced for hours and hours as a small child.

At AWP this week (and I’ll be quoting from AWP for awhile to come), Nami Mun at her Works in Progress panel said you can’t succeed solely on talent–that there is the concept of practice, citing Yo-Yo Ma. That the only difference between an average person and a successful person is focused practice; a “willingness to practice, develop your craft, and understand the difference.”

And Margaret Atwood, in her keynote said, “I’m startled by people who say they want to write but don’t like reading. Those people want an audience for them to listen to their sad story and that’s the end of it. They’d be happier on reality TV, because that’s less work. And yes, I said the ‘w’ word: WORK.”

PREACH.

I know that my novel certainly has waited for me to grow and develop as a writer. And that it’s guided me through my own maturity as a human being. I molded the novel into shape, and in recent times, my novel has been the thing to mold and shape me in return, and it has led me into amazing life adventures, calling to me with its needs such as much time spent on wikipedia and google and sometimes twitter for novel research. That I couldn’t write this novel eight years ago didn’t mean I could never write the thing.

It takes practice. It takes hard work. It’s pain. And it’s joy. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes my novel sucks. Whatever. Work more.

I am one of the legions of writers who has been married to a novel-in-progress for more than five long years (and I am not close to being finished). We, the slowest of writers, salute those who write a novel a year (I’m looking at you, Joyce Carol Oates). At AWP, Don Lee said he takes two years to write one novel: the first six months spent on generating ideas, another year to write the draft, and then another six months of revision. I salute you too, Don Lee.

But over cocktails, my tongue freed up by a gin and tonic at the AWP conference headquarters bar (by golly, all ten thousand writers BROKE that bar–it was four people deep, and it took 20 minutes to get a drink order in–it’s a wonder that ANYONE even got tipsy)…I announced that my novel dictates the speed at which it is written. I think at least one person said “Amen” to that. Who knows. I get drunk off half a cocktail. Some stories demand a long time. And some stories demand to be told immediately.

My novel is better than the person I am. And it’s being patient. And asking me to be patient, in turn. And to work my ass off so I can deserve the novel I end up showing the world.

And yes. I revise. Everyday I’m a better writer than the day before. I’m learning to write everyday damn day. I also had eyelid surgery so I could have double eyelids. And I hate bell peppers.

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What Works For My Writing

desk

This morning, Nova shared a list of things that work for her writing. It was so inspiring that I decided to mull over what works for me–so that I could concretize what it is that works for me…and I could possibly inspire you, in turn.

It took me a long time to figure out what works for my writing. For years I tried to write in bed but eventually I learned that the only things I can do in bed is sleep, watch TV, read, and that-other-thing-I-won’t-type-because-G*d-knows-what-the-search-engines-would-bring-me. I also tried NaNoWriMo, and from NaNoWriMo, I learned that word counts don’t work for me.

Even so, my needs my novel’s needs change from time to time. Sometime my novel needs Bon Iver, other times Jonsí, and other times Tchaikovsky. Sometimes my novel requires tea and other times decaf coffee and other times a hot drink or a cold drink.

But in general, I’ve found that this is what works for me/my novel:

Writing Partners
A large chunk of my writing occurs when I have a writing partner–and by writing partner, I mean a good writer friend with whom I sit down and write. We will sit down at a dining table and write for a few hours in silence. Or at a café. Or even virtually. And I’ll let my writing partner know my writing achievements for the week. When we write drafts, we encourage each other and hold off on critique until requested.

I’ve had two writing partners over the span of my novel, and they’ve made all the difference.

And here’s the thing: for all my love of writing partners, writing groups do NOT work for me. There is nothing that will shut me down so much as three or more of us sitting down together to write. I can’t do it. Even though I often work at The Writers Room where writers sit in quiet, working, it’s just not the same as a writers group.

Music/Headphones
I can write in silence if there is really silence. As in, a house up in the woods. But if there are people around me, or if floorboards are creaking upstairs, or other writers are whacking tapping loudly away on their keyboards (i.e., every other writing situation), I need music. The music varies (for the last year, I’ve written almost exclusively to Jonsí, and the year previous to that, Sigur Ros, and for months previous to that, Mozart’s Requiem)–but music is pretty much a necessity.

I normally do not like headphones, but this past year, I found a pair of in-ear headphones I really like, and they’ve saved me and my writing in 2011.

Beverage and No Food
Sometimes tea or iced tea or decaf latte or juice…but I’ve gotta have a beverage by me while I write. If marathoners need beverages to run, why wouldn’t a writer need one while revising/writing a novel?

Also, if I eat anything substantial, the magic ends. I can eat as much a KIND bar, but that’s it, just like training for a marathon. So I’ll write until I get lightheaded.

Writing In the Morning and Early Afternoon
For the reason stated above (not being able to write on a full stomach), I mostly write in the morning through the early afternoon. (Kind of a bummer when I was working a fulltime day job).

But I also write in the morning through early afternoon for a reason that I don’t often mention. I was able to return to my novel a couple years after my left-thalamic stroke, but I would lose steam in the afternoons. My brain would just go KAPUT. Halt. Protest. Like, to the point where I wouldn’t know how to add 2+2. Anything important had to happen earlier in the day before my brain would poop out. So I wrote as soon as I woke up, and I still do.

Wearing Something as Close to Pajamas as Possible
I used to have an ugly ugly oversized LLBean plaid robe that I wore while writing. One year, in a moment of weakness, I was convinced to throw it away. (It was really ugly). Dammit.

But in general, I wear pajamas while writing–and because I can’t always write at home, I have to wear something as comfy as pajamas while writing in public. Sometimes I look around in the Writers Room and I see this gorgeous woman wearing what must be very binding skinny jeans and feet-pinching stiletto boots and I wonder, “How can she write?”

Because if I am wearing boots when I get here, I pull them off. I pull my socks off. And I put on a pair of bumble bee slippers I have in my locker just for the purpose of comfort. If I could wear pajama bottoms here I would. But in lieu of that, I’ll wear the comfiest pair of jeans I own, or exercise pants with a nice pajama-esque elastic waistband.

The 7 Train
When I get stuck on my novel, I will take a few hours and ride the 7 Train. For obvious reasons, this is only possible while in NYC. The 7 train’s noises remind me of my early childhood spent riding the 7, and in turn, I think it hypnotizes me and connects me to my subconscious. And it makes me happy.

Allowing Myself to Write Badly
I’m a perfectionist. I don’t like to admit I am, and I spend a lot of my conscious energy telling myself, “There is more than one right way,” when I see someone doing something in a way I’ve never seen. There are good things about being a perfectionist–I’m an idealist who always wants to make things better.

But when it comes to drafting a novel and then revising a novel, perfection doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. Each step is incremental and imperfect. I’ve got to get the words on the page before they can be made perfect. Once, I even made a sign that says, “Allow yourself to write badly,” and put it up at my writing desk.

It helped me get over a writing slump.

Blogging for Voice and for Clearing My Head
When I took piano lessons as a child, my teacher made me do Hanon exercises. These were variation on scales, with the purpose of warming my fingers up. Blogging is the same thing for me, especially if I’ve come back from vacation and I’m having a tough time finding my way back to my novel.

Blogging helps me find my voice, and refine my writing voice, and it helps me clear my head, and it helps me warm up my writing muscles.

But if my writing is going well, I blog less.

However, my piano teacher always made me do the Hanon exercises.

Journaling for Therapeutic Writing
I know that I bring a lot of my personal experience to the page–but I don’t need recent, undigested personal experience brought to the page (or blog). For that, I barf into my Moleskine journal.

I have really messy handwriting. Good luck reading what I barf into my Moleskine.

***

And then there’s the flip side–things that don’t work for my writing. There are SO many things that don’t work for my writing, but I’ve decided to share just a few with you here.

Word Counts
I start doing word counts, and I can literally hear the screeeech of brakes.

Heat/hot weather
Ah summer, you slay me.

My husband anywhere near me while I write
He is the biggest distraction. And when I’m at a tough point in my writing–believe me, I’d rather hang out with him than face the pain.

Writing in anything but an empty house
I wish I could write at home, even when people are milling about, but I can’t. My novel is selfish. It wants the entire house to itself.

Also, I’m convinced that the Muse is shy and won’t visit me unless I’m by myself.

Writing anywhere but at a desk/table
I have to be in a chair with a writing surface. Facing away from a window. With no direct sunlight (foggy or cloudy days are fine near a window).

Keyboard-Whacker-Typists
Exactly.

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Sleep No More: Novel Writing

Sleep No More

Sleep No More, as described by The New York Times, is “‘Macbeth’ in a hotel,” because it’s kind of a play kind of performance art kind of voyeurism kind of spectator sport but not really any of the above. Which is why the NY Times calls it “‘Macbeth’ in a hotel”–the vaguest of monikers.

And yes, it has a little to do with Macbeth. But not really. Kind of.

The hotel in question is called “The McKittrick Hotel” built out of the ruins of three abandoned Chelsea warehouses (it’s not really a hotel, and never was a hotel, so again, kind of but not really).

Sleep No More is fiction down to the studs in which the audience spectators roam without agenda or direction. In which spectators are as much the performance as the actors; at one point, I looked around the room and wondered if the actors saw us in the same way we saw them, as we stood in masks that hid facial expressions.That they were our mirrors as we were unto them.

For the first hour, I roamed confused and alone and dismayed and frustrated and frightened, fighting every impulse to tear off my mask and leave. I didn’t really “get it” and felt very lost, just as one might feel when invited to a large, sprawling, ghostly, hotel all alone. But not really alone. Because you’re surrounded by other ghostly masks.

But then–a character rushed by, followed by a handful of white-masked spectators. I followed. Her hands bloodied, she attempt to wash them; ah, Lady MacBeth.

It was then I had a character to which I could be devoted. To follow. To be my proxy for the landscape. My curiosity intensified, and my fear receded. I followed the character through all manner of darkness to the end. A character can be a very effective tour guide.

My Sleep No More experience was not very different from my creative process. I understand that everyone’s experience is unique and based on the solitary–the performance is designed to that end, the masks making it so that people have a hard time reuniting within the space, the darkness making it so people cannot see each other. Together, but alone. Kind of.

Sleep No More:
I’m led through a winding tunnel void of light–some people feel their way through–and in my case, I yelped and a member of SNM’s staff walked me through, my hand on his elbow. Thinking I was going to DIE. Thinking no one told me about this darkness. Thinking what had I gotten myself into. Thinking hell no. Thinking I had to do this.

Novel-writing:
Darkness, (not so) coincidentally is a state that I associate with my creative process, and the source of my inspiration. It is discombobulating. It’s frightening. Terrifying. Like falling. Like dying.

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what can be better than finishing a manuscript first draft?

What can be better than finishing the first draft of my novel?

Having a friend finish the first draft of her novel, too. 🙂 Congratulations to my dear and awesome friend, Nova Ren Suma, whose support is priceless and whose commitment to writing is so inspiring. (I so missed her while she was on self-imposed twitter break so she could, with her usual diamond hard focus, finish on schedule). She high fives me for finishing before her, but I’m about 150% sure that her draft is in better shape than mine, she’s so brilliant.

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phase 1: done

completed first draft of novel

Yesterday was a good day. In the morning, I wrote a couple thousand words, and then in the afternoon, I went snowshoeing in some of the most beautiful landscapes out there: the Sierra Nevadas, dusted with at least a foot of fresh dry powder snow.

Today, I finished the first draft of my novel manuscript. It is the weirdest, yet most satisfying feeling, ever. Bizarre in that I can’t believe I’m done with the draft after four years of stop and start and stop (and stroke) and stop (and recovery) and in 2009, start and finish for good. And for dramatic measure, today is the third anniversary of my stroke, one that left me with a damaged short term memory and thus unable to write fiction for a year. When I fully recovered in late 2008, I vowed I would finish this novel, and…I did.

I’m telling you–this is a surreal feeling, I just can’t believe I’m done with the draft. I had to tear myself away from the computer when I realized, “Uh, um. I think I’m done. If I keep writing, uh, I think I’d technically be revising.”

Also, in the span of time it took me to start and finish this draft, so many things have happened in the world–we’re talking wars begun (but not ended), our first African American president elected, the biggest economic recession/depression of our lifetime, etc.) Some of my friends have given birth twice in that time span, gotten married, bought houses.

But phase 1 (complete first rough draft of the novel): done.

Now, a week off from writing the novel. And then: revisions. Yes, plural.

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