No, I don't really consider myself an old dog. But when it comes to my patterns of writing I do have fixed methods I cling to. It's certainly not a miraculous process. I start with an image and build the story around it. Then I write till my fingers are sore, revise and share, revise one last time, and send off the story into the big bad world of publishing.
And sometimes this works beautifully and the story gets published. Other times it's rejected and I send it back to the drawing board for more revisions or potential mummification until I'm ready to deal with it again, but generally it's a smooth and brief process. The most fun part of it for me is playing with the words until they're just right and certain phrases or sentences give me chills. I think that part is actually more rewarding than the publishing. Well, maybe equally rewarding. :-)
Here's the rub. I've also tried to write novels this way, and it just doesn't work. Not at all. Not a bit. Novels are too big to stand on foundations of startling images and pretty words alone. And after an incredible time at the Eastern PA SCBWI conference this past weekend, I've gleaned a fresh approach to crafting a novel, and it is working wonders for me. I'm actually not going to spend the blog describing it, because that will be excellent fodder for another post. But I did learn a valuable lesson about being a writer, and that I'd like to share.
I think as writers we find ways that work and stick with them like trains running on the same tracks that always lead to the same destination. But therein lies the problem. None of us are perfect writers. And while our tried and true methods can lead us to success, they can also lead us to making the same mistakes over and over again.
Without shaking up the process, we can't shake up (and improve) our own writing. This is why it is utterly vital to go to conferences and classes, read books that tell us how to write in different ways, and study other authors' processes. Of course we won't adopt them completely, just as another person's shoes rarely slip onto our feet and fit in both size and style, but these other techniques and methods do have the power to enrich and revolutionize our ways of thinking.
Laurie Halse Anderson (gasp...amazing, incredible, superb...ok I'm done now) spoke at the conference this past weekend, and I can say without reservation or reserve that I have never heard an author so passionate, so knowledgeable about her own process, and so realistic about the good and bad of writing. She discussed the distinct stages of writing, analyzing structure, adding pertinent details, and fine tuning her novels.
Silly me, I've always tried to accomplish all four stages at once, and it inevitably made me want to go insane. That or I spent too much of my time working on the language first, terrified to write a bad sentence because I was afraid it would hang around and pollute everything it touched. My approach, which could yield beautiful sentences for short narratives, crippled my novel writing endeavours because it denied attention to larger plot points and studying the structure.
And a novel without an airtight plot and authentic characters can go nowhere, regardless of the quality of writing.
Maybe I just needed someone, an expert, to give me permission (a word LHA used a lot in her talks) to incorporate new habits into my writing rituals without fear that like a house of cards my writing would collapse. Again, if I blogged about all the good advice she offered I'd probably fill up half my blogging space, but the experience is unforgettable.
As writers we need to grow, we need to change, sometimes we need to embrace the advice of others no matter how comfortable we are in our own writing shoes, and sometimes we need to just stop writing and listen. Whether it's at a conference, via a YouTube video, in a critique group, or just through a good old fashioned book, we need to take the millions of ideas out there and sift through them to catch the sprinklings of words that enrich our own writing.
I've also included a link to LHA's video about the creation of her writing cabin. I think the space she creates is a beautiful metaphor for the space we all need to create in our brains for writing, the process, the passion, and the reality.
Laurie Halse Anderson's Writing Cabin