I was a poet to begin with.
And as a poet, I wrote slooooooooowly. Sometimes painfully so. I might spend an entire day, or week, or even month following the rise and fall of a line to its inevitable end.
To paraphrase Fred Chappell (another poet turned novelist), a good day’s work for a poet is to cross out the two lines he wrote the day before.
For someone like me in the habit of examining the universe two lines at a time, the idea of writing a novel—page after page after page, day after day after day—seemed daunting, to put it mildly.
You mean I have to write WHOLE PARAGRAPHS AT A TIME?
So, how did I get my poetry-wired brain from Point A (poem) to Point B (novel)?
Well, for starters, it took about a gazillion hours, numerous failed attempts, and the support from and commitment to my friend and coauthor Madelyn Rosenberg (shown here gleefully tormenting a toe-sock doll).
Most importantly, though, I had to let go of many of my deeply ingrained ideas about the writing process.
One. I could no longer write without “tuning in” consciously, the way I sometimes did when I wrote poetry.
It didn’t take me long to realize that strange, unacceptable things happened when I let my subconscious mind take over in fiction. I would sit down with the intention to write a romance novel, turn off my consciousness, and wake up a half hour later to find an intricate description of an old woman’s detached lung throbbing in the wildrose shrub outside an abandoned trailer’s front stoop.
Two. I could no longer count reading time as writing time.
Here’s how I work when writing a poem. I write a first line. I rewrite it. I write it again. Then I read it. Over. And over. And over until…………………………………………I’m ready to write the next line. Then I rewrite that line. Then I rewrite it again. Then I read it with the first line. Over. And over. And over until…………………………………………..I’m ready to write the third line. Which I rewrite and read and rewrite and read until…………….. I fall asleep in a puddle of drool.
Again, it’s pretty obvious this method is for crap when it comes to writing anything longer than a haiku. As I transitioned to writing fiction, I had to get comfortable with the idea that re-reading the entire manuscript from the beginning every time I sat down to work was not a practical option.
When desperate, I might use that method for paragraphs, pages, even chapters. But otherwise, it was onward! No looking back!
(Thanks for the inspiration, hat girl.)
Three. I had to get my butt in the chair and type something, whether I thought I had anything to say or not.
I’m going to let Neil Gaiman field this one for me, because he said it perfectly:
“If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.”
(Neil Gaiman. Tasty!)
And yet, even as I had to shake loose numerous impractical poetic notions when I turned to fiction, there were a few concepts which, right or wrong, stuck with me as I wrote DREAM BOY with Madelyn—and they remain now as I write my current work-in-progress.
Of these, the most crucial is perhaps this:
There are certain moments when only the exact word will do.
Yes, I know we’re supposed to spew out that first draft. Get the words down and worry about making them perfect once we have a beginning, middle and end.
Fiction-brain gets that process. I’m able to do that at least 93% of the time. For the other 7%, though, the poet in me is convinced that writing any old thing is a great idea…
There are moments in writing when I need an exact word, dammit.
Its rightness is the bridge between what came before and everything that might come after. Its rightness is what makes the work, at least for that millisecond, worthwhile. Because for that millisecond, it’s not all about word count. It’s about following the right word to its best destination. It’s about accepting language for the gift that it is. In short, it’s what makes writing fun.
Even if I end up cutting the entire scene at some later date, I need that moment to keep me going. Without it, there is no joy in Mudville. Without it, what am I doing this for?
[Note: this post previously appeared on OneFour KidLit.]