I haven't been writing a whole lot for my blog, but I have a really good excuse: I'm working on a novel. Yes, I'm writing fiction, but it's based on true events, which helps make it very real in my mind, even if I'm taking many liberties in inventing the characters that play out the events. It's so, so unlike anything I've ever written before. I'm trying to do 1,000 words a day, as many days as I can. It is a pretty hefty goal, considering I work full time at one job, part-time at another, and try to fit fitness, a relationship, and food and sleep into the mix, too. So I'm averaging about 4,000 words per week.
I'm persevering often only because of great wisdom: a quote that I have printed off a put above my desk, that may or may not actually have been spoken or written by Ernest Hemingway: "The first draft of anything is shit."
It's okay, I can worry about the whole mess of this once I actually get the whole story out of me first. That's when I can go back to make sure my characters speak and feel like real people, and their stories line up. (Sometimes I forget what I've said about them earlier--thank God for the "word find" function in Word, for when I need to remember what I named a character's sister.)
And I've been reading lots of fiction, to learn more about how dialogue is written and how great characters are borne from the page. I always gravitate towards non-fiction, towards societal studies and historical recountings and memoirs and case studies, and even true crime. But not fiction as much. I think all writing is worthy of helping writers learn more about their craft, so I don't see any of this as a negative. But I have so enjoyed delving into the fictitious story, as a case study for how to, or how not to, write from the depths of story within, and not from a notebook filled with quotations, pieces of historical event, and other writers' and scholars' deductions before me. No, I am just writing from this unconscious place in my soul. It's pretty amazing, if you let yourself get down that deep, what can suddenly arise in a character. Who knew Bill, whose adult son is shot and killed in my novel, was a fireman while his brothers were fighting the Second World War, home in small-town Wisconsin fighting wars against the flames that were rampant in the wooden farmhouses and grain silos of the farms there? I had no idea, until this week. But there it was, on the page, writ by me.
Among a collection of books my dad recently gifted to me, his own greatly parred-down collection (as my parents continue to downsize for their own grand adventures), I received Walter Mosely's breezy 103-page This Year You Write Your Novel. My copy is signed by Mosely for my Dad, because we went to see him speak about this book together at SCAD Atlanta my sophomore year of college. It's a lovely memory of mine, and the long-time author of fiction is wise and helpful, while being very, very brief. It's kind of a little dream book.
One of the simplest and most significant truths he reminds the reader, is similar to what is written by my desk: it's the first draft, relax. Amazon reviewer Donal Mitchell says this:
[quote cite="Donald Mitchel" url="http://www.amazon.com/review/R22QJQ57HQ59EB/ref=cm_cr_dp_qtlb_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0316065498"]Writing is mostly about re-writing. New novelists often don't realize that and invest too much in emotion and angst into trying to create the great American novel in the first draft. As Walter Mosley points out, the main value of a first draft is to figure out what your story might become. I thought that this book was the best I have read to make that important point.[/quote]
I want to point again to that subconscious thing I said before. That's one of the very first things Mosely brings up, and I've found it to be so true. Fiction comes from somewhere else in the brain, somewhere than cannot simply be called up at random. If you sit yourself down sporadically to write, well, you'll stare at your notepad or computer for a long time, write a few lines, and putter out in despair. What he says is so empowering, scary, and completely accurate, all at once:
The most important thing I've found about writing is that it is primarily an unconscious activity. What do I mean by this? I mean that a novel is larger than your head (or conscious mind). The connections, moods, metaphors, and experiences that you call up while writing will come from a place deep inside you. Sometimes you will wonder who wrote those words. Sometimes you will be swept up by a fevered passion relating a convoluted journey through your protagonist's ragged heart. These moments are when you have connected to some place deep within you, a place that harbors the zeal that made you want to write to begin with.
The way you get to this unconscious place is by writing every day. Or even not writing. Some days you may be rewriting, rereading, or just sitting there scrolling back and forth through the text. This is enough to bring you back into the dream of your story.
What, you ask, if the dream of a story? This is a mood and a continent of thought below your conscious mind -- a place that you get closer to with each foray into the words and worlds of your novel.
You may spend only an hour and a half working on the book, but the rest of the day will be rife with motive moments in your unconscious -- moments in your mind, which will be mulling over the places your words have touched. While you sleep, mountains are moving deep within your psyche. When you wake up and return to the book, you will be amazed by the realization that you are farther along than when you left off yesterday.
That wondrous passage gets me reinvigorated about my work every time I read it.
He also talks about learning to write without restraint -- a big lesson for me. As humans, we naturally restrain our thoughts, be they sexual, violent, hateful, so as to normally interact with society. In good stories, these things are essential components of complex characters, as well as the events and predicaments they find themselves embroiled in. Someone might hate their children, or rape another person, or kill them, and I have to be able to write this. I must learn to write without restraint, and somehow make these people feel real.
One of the most important things you will do this year will be to create complex, authentic characters that begin at one point in their lives and advance (or devolve) to another.
Indeed, that simply-stated and immensely challenging task is one of the most important things I am doing this year. There are stories for me to tell, and my unconscious mind is bringing them out, even if right now, in first draft form, they are fit for no audience yet.