I just heard about NaNoWriMo, and thought that Mork had called Ork. Bad retro-television joke, but for those who don’t know: November is National Novel Writing Month. Good timing, because I was rereading Anne Lamott’s bird by bird, and saw her dire warning to never start any writing project in December, especially on a Monday. I’ll spare you another joke about “Manic Monday” and the Bangles. Prince wrote the song, by the way.
So…what can I say about writing a novel in thirty days? For the record, I’ve done it and got it published. Wasp’s Nest comes out at the end of this month. Self-promotion ends here; but honestly, I wrote two of my novels in less than thirty days. Irving Stone was right: after writing your first novel, it gets easier. Unfortunately, unless you are a genius, you’ll spend far more days and nights editing and revising.
A writer writing about writing is like a hunter with a blow dart who mistakes it for a flute. Try hard as heck to say something melodious, something inspirational, but the end result is inhaling the poisonous dart, with no known antidote. The reason why is that nobody can teach you writing. You become what you do. Write and you are a writer.
It’s as simple as that. Published writer, popular writer, good writer, genre writer are another matter. The issue that haunts every writer is whether he or she is good. The good news is that we’ll never know. The bad news is that we’ll never know. There are too many variables that affect a writer’s success – and by success I mean, being read by others. The reality is that, unless born like Mozart who could intuit all the possibilities of the keyboard by looking at the instrument when he was a child, it’s hard work playing scales and a lot of trial and error until we progress beyond finger exercises.
Last weekend I attended the annual Boston Book Fair, which is a pleasant reminder that people love to read books. I had the pleasure of sitting in on Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Writing Your Crime Novel presentation. Energetic, fresh on the heels of publishing and promoting her novel The Other Woman, and in red heels of her own, Hank offered us a handout. While not meant to promise any kind of cookie-cutter success, the pages were reminders that all good writing is about “keeping it moving forward” and never forgetting that writers began as good readers first, that we are trying to create what we enjoyed as readers.
Hank’s points were simple: we read to like and dislike characters; we read to discover what happened along the way; we read to have our assumptions unmasked; we read to take in the sights and sounds of time and place; and we read for a beginning, middle, and end. Easy, huh? It isn’t and Hank, who would admit that she is no Mozart, has earned numerous Emmys and Murrow Awards. That should give us some insight because an investigative journalist, like a novelist, works on instinct, hones observational skills, and digs with a dog’s persistent search for the hidden bone. She reminded us, like most novelists who talk “shop,” that every experience is a potential story, every observation is a mirror of the human condition. I’ll concede that Hank’s accomplishments are a double-threat: she’s a success in two mediums: before the camera and with five novels.
There are shelves of books on how to write. Stephen King’s On Writing is a worthwhile read. Language is learned and we’ve all learned grammar, but I think we forget that the purpose of writing is to communicate, not just be correct. Read Junot Díaz and you know that people speak like that. Read Catcher in the Rye or Perks of Being a Wallflower and decide for yourself if those two novels give voice to your adolescent years. I’m arguing for authenticity. Write from sincerity and it’ll be authentic.
How, you ask from your side of the screen? I can tell you that there are exactly twenty basic patterns to the English sentence. Twenty. I can bullet them out, number them from one to twenty, but none of it will tell the story. The human behind the keyboard, or the one with the pen in his or her left or right hand, does that. The human chooses this word as opposed to that word. The writer is like the wizard behind the curtain who controls the flow of words, the descriptive images, the turns of phrases, the bits of dialogue. The sum of his or her experiences, knowledge, whether inside the soul, inside the heart, or wherever you think it resides, does all that. Do it. Sit down and write. Writing is a matter of doing. Revision is another matter. So what can I impart since I’m not Mozart?
NaNo: start small and breathe life into that small idea. Don’t say “Na” and don’t say “No” because judging yourself before you start or while you are doing it will kill the idea before it even takes root. You can always edit later. In fact, do not edit while you write. You are likely never to finish. Perfectionism kills. Write small. Start there.
Wri: write like a male driver who insists that he knows where he is going. Like him, pretend you know where you’re going. If the directions say that the place is around the corner from Dunkin Donuts, then know that there is a Dunkin Donuts on nearly every corner. Don’t see one? Have faith that it will appear; and if it’s Starbucks, then tell yourself that it is still coffee. The point is to keep driving. Keep trying, and keep writing.
Mo: Write more and then some more still and you’ll know when you are done. You will know.
I’ll be honest: nobody can teach you ideas. You can be taught to improve your writing. You could even earn an MFA. Take solace that every story has been told. The first journey story, the first coming-of-age story, the anguished heartbreak, goes back to the ancient Greeks and to other cultures before them. Don’t let it stop you.
There are no excuses. There is time, but it is your time. Nobody just works forty hours a week. There is work when you get home. The cat and the dog expect their human to work for them. Existential angst existed before the pharmaceutical aisle existed. We all have our obligations, but instead of television, write; instead of snoozing on the train, write; instead of surfing on the web, write. Here are some other great ideas for cultivating the writer within.
You are you. One of a kind. Mozart was Mozart and you are you; but the key is not to compare yourself to Mozart, or think you’re better than Mozart. Learn from the writers you admire; but be you. You are here for a finite period of time. Forever gone is a long, long time. Discipline is what will separate you from everyone else. Somebody will always judge you. Somebody will like the writing and somebody won’t. Keep at it. Don’t talk about it. Do it everyday for thirty days, and don’t mistake the blow dart for a flute.