When things are quiet on here, I know a post about procrastination will liven it up, but things are pretty lively at the moment. However, I've come across a post about it on the splendid Wait But Why blog which is so good that I'm going to share the link, and my take on it too. But first, a thought or two about why you might find yourself procrastinating.
Sometimes you're unconsciously waiting until the work only needs to be just-good-enough. Sometimes your Inner Critic is in charge: in a bid to stop you writing he's found a dozen reasons for you Not Getting On With It, or declared that it's all been done already. Once you've learnt to ignore him he'll dress up as someone else to persuade you. Sometimes you've simply run out of fuel because of what else is going on in your life. But whatever the cause, you can sort it out or ignore it, get shot of the children or the day job, have the perfect snack and your favourite tea steaming gently in the sunlight (no, let's not have sunlight because then you'd have to go for a walk, no? Call it rain and cold, but no, the saucepan under the leak in the roof won't have filled up for another three hours) and .... still find it incredibly hard to jump into the water and start swimming.
And that last post of mine is where Tim Urban's two Wait But Why posts come in. In Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, he introduces the divided way a procrastinator's brain works and, like any writer, he's embodied the abstract stuff of psychology in psycho-geography and imagined creatures. There's the half of your brain which is the Rational Decision Maker, who wants to plough on through the Dark Woods of the hard work involved in writing (in our case) a book and reach the point where it's enjoyable and even exciting, and anyway the end is in sight. But the other half is the Instant Gratification Monkey, who can only see the horribly boring and unrewarding work under his nose. So Monkey wants to run away and play in the Dark Playground: that place full of email-checking, biscuit-eating, Facebook noodling, trivial research you'll need later, cheese-on-toast toasting, pencil-sharpening, checking out flights for your holiday in case the prices go up later, Wikipedia-link-following, email-checking, Twitter-twerking, coffee-making ...
Of course, the harder the task, the more Monkey wants to run away and play. The stuck plot, the baffling research, the 99,999 words still to go, the bad feedback, the book-trade's-imploding-it's-not-worth-it glooms on the Net ... all of these are like feeding Monkey e-numbers until he's hyperactive. It's only when you're close enough to your deadline that the Panic Monster appears, and terrifies Monkey into agreeing to stay with Rational Decision Maker as RDM hacks onwards, probably very hurriedly and carelessly and without enough time, now, to do a decent job.
Let's leave aside the question of how some people find it so difficult, even as adults, to shut the Monkey up, though I'd put a bit of money on it being something about fear, from perhaps young childhood, that anything you don't grab now will be lost. And let's leave aside the question of why you (okay, I) and anyone else with a very active Instant Gratification Monkey could have found themselves with a job which involves huge, single projects that take years to get from first idea to first sale. That's just what seems to have happened, and now you (okay, I) and anyone else all have to deal with it.
And then in his second post, Tim tackles How To Beat Procrastination. That's not just about practical ideas though he's got some good ones, such as ways to cut the vast, shapeless, impossible or (Monkey feels) impossibly long task down into possible-looking chunks. A house gets built brick by brick, as he says, which is delightfully similar to Ann Lamott's principle of Bird by Bird, and is why I keep word-by-word spreadsheets, on the stripey-sweater principle, to track my mounting wordcounts. And if the one-day-at-a-time is beginning to feel a bit 12-Step-Programme-ish, well, who said that procrastination isn't an addictive behaviour? After all, it's complete with the waste of time/money, the desire to change, the backsliding, the badly-done work, the lost job, the despair? Who said that you aren't going to have to replace the story you're living with - that the Monkey always gets to decide what you do - with another story? And who said that learning to change the story in practice might not take a while?
So Getting On With It is also about recognising the point where you can, and you must, choose to enter the Dark Woods of working, and not let Monkey drag you off into the Dark Playground. Only by staying in the Dark Woods and hacking your way onwards, will you get to the point where it starts to be self-propelling, and the end - the pleasure of having written - starts to feel achievable, the way that you can smell the sea before you see or hear it. And it's only by practising making that choice, over and over again (Monkey has a short memory) and often enough, that the connection gets made, brick by brick, somewhere deep inside you: you can choose not to be at the mercy of the Monkey. You can choose, today, now, to work.
So, you've written a good deal of longish stuff, and know something of what it takes to sustain a project. And you've got lots of ideas for stories, and several of them look promising for a book-length project. The interactions and conflicts they set up might be enough to fuel a novel, or the seam of travel or life that you're drawing on is rich enough for your creative non-fiction. But of those promising ones, which should you commit to?
How can you make sure that, some months of research and writing down the line, you won't realise that this was the wrong project? How can you be sure that when you reach the (almost) inevitable Thirty Thousand Doldrums, you'll have the stamina to haul yourself across and out of them? And how can you decide that this project is one which, further still into the relationship, you'll still love enought to resist the lure of The Other Novel, and stay faithful to the end?
You can't, of course. And even if, a year or three from now, you look back and think you made the wrong decision, you'll never be sure. So, in default of an answer, here are some questions to ask yourself, which might help you to decide:
- Which idea looks likely to make a rich experience for the reader? Which will provide you with the opportunity to build in the most drama, big changes, compelling voices, settings which are gorgeous or grim? Of course, it depends what kind of writer you are whether the best opportunities are those to be found in space, in Troy, or in the back yard of your local pub.
- Which is going to land you with the most heavyweight research? Will that be a bad thing (work, time, money)? Or a good thing, in forcing you you find ways to turn Rose Tremain's "inert data" into living prose?
- Which idea is most likely to exploit your strengths as a writer, whatever you feel they are? If you're not sure what they are, ask your close writing friends - you might be surprised. Which idea will enable you to avoid the things you're not so good at? For a rumination on that issue, click through to Ask Your Talent.
- On the other hand, which idea is most likely to stretch you as a writer? Are you willing to take the risk that this first shot at a thriller, or a spaceship, may not go so well? On the other hand, the challenge might draw writing out of you that you never imagined you were capable of.
- Which world will you most be happy to spend time in? Happy, that is, in the endlessly-intrigued-and-curious sort of way. That might not be the most obviously appealing world at all.
- Which idea embodies, in a big way, a theme and/or situation which is most potent for you? Not just interesting and potentially dynamic - all sorts of ideas can be that - but something which will, as it were, raise your writerly heart rate and blood-pressure? I'm not normally one for the tortured-artist school of writing, but I do think that our best work is rooted in whatever situations and themes are most potent for us: Jerusha Cowless explored that here.
- What idea is most likely to find an audience? Not necessarily most likely sell, because that's only one kind of audience-finding that writers do. But it is worth thinking not just about what elements, themes and conflicts intrigue you as a human and a writer, but what are most likely to intrigue readers as humans and readers. If the idea you want to write for all the other reasons, fails on this reason alone, then ask yourself: how will you make this outwardly unpromising idea intriguing, and then irresistibly compelling?
When you've got tentative answers to some of these questions, then it's only sensible to commit a bit of time to testing the idea: reading round the topic, thinking about where the drama in the story would come from (I've tried and abandoned dozens of ideas because the initial idea was interesting, but I couldn't find the story that would power it). You could try freewriting, brainstorming, writing a single scene which at the moment you think might be at the heart of the conflict, or a trivial scene which nonetheless will get your character-in-action acting most characterfully. You could sketch out a plot, or a story, or do whatever other plan-y things you like to do, just to see how it feels. No commitment, no bones broken. How does this feel? Like a house you could live in? Like a job you couldn't just do, but really enjoy throwing yourself into? Like a (wo)man you could marry?
And there's one much more intuitive, a-rational test to help you choose between the possible ideas: which is the project and the character that won't go away? Which do you keep ignoring but it keeps on clamouring? Semi-ignoring it, while you do other projects, is a good test, partly because it never does a project harm to sit on the back of the stove, gently simmering and having things added to it while it stews down. But it's also because of the value of forgetting: using your memory as a sieve may be the best way to choose a project. Sometimes the one you end up writing should be the one that just never went away.
This is the second part of a two-part series: click here for Giving a Reading Part One - Getting Ready. (newly expanded 6/2/14) .
I've given readings everywhere from a minute basement bookshop space to the Hay Festival, and of course the setup varies wildly, but here are some suggestions of things to think about, for you to pick and chose. If you have a publicist a good deal of the prep will be done for you, and she'll know the answer to a good deal of the questions. But it's worth thinking about what you need, and asking her to organise it.
But whatever the event, don't beat yourself up for still feeling that it's all very complicated and scary. We are talking about performing: a moment when you stand up and let other people see you, and think whatever they'll think about you and your writing. If you're wired to feel that people are judging you and probably finding you lacking, then you won't switch that wiring off overnight. It helps to understand that performing raises your adrenalin levels - your fight-or-flight response - which has various consequences. It heightens your awareness and makes your mind and your body move quickly and feel no pain. It's a legal high, in a sense. On the other hand it gives you raised blood-pressure, tunnel vision, shaking hands, dry mouth and the need to pee. So do respect the fact that you're nervous or scared, and try not to feel a failure if things don't work out too well. The most professional thing in a peformer is to know what you need to do your job properly, even if others look casual or don't seem to care.
When You Arrive
After the Reading
And that's it. I hope that all this has helped, not daunted you. Most of us get to be reasonably comfortable with this stuff, but not everyone does. For more for the people who go on hating it, have a look here, at what This Itch of Writing's agony aunt Jerusha Cowless said to novelist Jenn Ashworth. You're not alone, and there are things that can help. Break a leg!
As an ex- wannabe-actress, I actively enjoy the performing side of being an author, even if I do need plenty of Piglet-time afterwards before I can get back into writing-mode. So I'm looking forward to providing a Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, on 27th November, and if you can make it, do come and say Hi afterwards. I've never been to Belfast, either, so I also hope I'll get a little time to have a look round.
It's always particularly easy and enjoyable when you're slotting into an established structure and venue, as with the Literary Lunchtimes, but I was surprised to find myself actively happy, a couple of weekends ago, as I turned off the A1(M) to Harrogate. It had been a long drive through Friday traffic from South East London, the sky over the Pennines was inky black and slashed with lightning, and there were rain-soaked roadworks. This was a brand-new festival, and I hadn't got much time left to to prepare an event I was chairing, billed as Wives of Tyrants: Tudors to Nazis. Why was I feeling so happy, and so looking forward to it?
As an author your only responsibility at an event is to be audible, interesting and well-mannered company for the audience and the other authors; it may not be easy, but it is relatively simple. Elizabeth Fremantle and Jane Thynne did it all just brilliantly. But when you're chairing, you're trying, in real-time, to find the coherence in two or more writers and their books and what they have to say about them; you're trying to draw out a discussion from them that the audience experiences as a well-shaped, coherent, intriguing and satisfying forty minutes; you're trying to hold back on what you might say about your own work because it's not about you, today; you're trying to fit in the readings and the questions, and still land the plane dead on 10.58 ... and you're nonetheless trying to avoid making the discussion so complete, or so focussed on the non-fiction interest, that the audience decide they don't need to buy the novels at all.
I love chairing, but in many ways it needs more prep, and can go more horribly wrong, than my own events. So it was nice, too, that the whole festival took place in the same, large, comfortable, agreeably Victorian hotel, The Old Swan. In the gaps where I was tired or had done enough talking and listening for the moment, I could just disappear upstairs to my own room and kick my shoes off. I don't think I once got that lost-in-translation feeling I usually get at some moment, where you eye the hospitality tray and its potlets of nasty UHT milk, and want to be at home.
The first Harrogate History Festival was the brainchild of Manda (MC) Scott, chair of the Historical Writers Association, after an earlier festival, and a marquee-full of books, were drowned in the floods. A roof and solid walls make life so much better, Manda decided, and who better to team up with than Harrogate, which has been hosting the crime writers' equivalent for a decade?
Another thing that made Harrogate such fun was how smoothly it ran: even the microphones were the nifty kind which curl round your ear and you're scarcely aware of. I don't think administrators and curators and committees get nearly enough gratitude when events go well, considering what a difference it makes to our performance if we can relax back onto a solid structure of the right things happening in the right places at the right times. My singer sister suffered hideously when no one remembered to tell her and the other singers till the day that a production of L'Orfeo was to be at Baroque pitch, but even with less critical issues there are always the times where no one knows where you should go, lack of publicity makes a thin audience, and no one's cordoned off the event space or silenced the coffee machine.
Yes, any festival's function, at one level, is to sell: sell tickets; sell books and more indirectly authors-as-brands; sell hotel rooms, drinks, nearby attractions, and next year's tickets. It worked, too: the bookroom was packed, 2000 people bought tickets - far more than even optimistic estimates - many events were sold out and all were full, and all is set for the second Harrogate History Festival in 2014. And the fact that all the authors and chairs must be paid has been built in from the beginning. But what really made Harrogate such a blast was that although we were all in economic relationships with each other, it genuinely felt like a communal event too: the gathering of the Clan History, if you like.
There were writers I already knew, from old hands like Robert Low to students from the Arvon course that Manda and I taught, blogging friends such as Sally Zigmond and Alison Morton, there were Self-Editing graduates, blog readers, strangers in the book room who bought my books, strangers in the greenroom who've written more than I ever shall, strangers I sat next to in other sessions and agreed or disagreed with. The jam-packed event on the Search for Richard III sparked interest in my own A Secret Alchemy; a Random Penguin publicist said something super-useful about the book I'm basing on this blog; historical crimewriter Andrew Taylor and I had an illuminating conversation, over a late-evening Chinese meal with Lloyd Shepherd and Robert Ryan in what used to be the Royal Baths, about the different ways writers work.
The more people I talked to, I realised as I drove away through the most deliciously sunny Sunday afternoon, the stronger a sense I had of a web which connects readers and writers of every kind to each other. We were all readers before we were writers, of course, and the web is spun from our endless, shared fascination with the Otherness and Sameness of the past to our own time. I'm glad we'll all be back in Harrogate this time next year.
These are all the posts I think I mentioned at Arvon Lumb Bank, when M C Scott and I had the pleasure of spending a week talking about writing historical fiction with fifteen writers who are rash enough to want to join us - and then wrote some truly fantastic stuff. We also had a splendid evening with Robert Low, ex-Para, ex-journalist and current Viking.
If you were there, and remember me mentioning a post or a book or a topic which I haven't put here, do say so in the comments, and I'll do my best to dig it up. If you've been digging in the Tool Kit section of the blog, quite a few of these will be familiar, but some may not.
And I distinctly remember mentioning Sarah Stovell's novel The Night Flower, as a great example of first-person historical voices working in parallel, because it wasn't at that point published (it is now). And also Linda Buckely-Archer's children's time-slip trilogy Gideon The Cutpurse (calle Time Quake in the US). I know there were others, obviously, so let me know if I mentioned anything else you haven't been able to track down.
READING LIKE A WRITER:
AN EDUCATION IN WRITING: in which I dissect 100 words of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day. Just watch those verbs...
BOOKS FOR WRITERS : all the books I mentioned should be on this list, including The Seven Basic Plots, and if you remember one that isn't, mention it in the comments here.
SHOWING AND TELLING: the basics : even though you know this stuff...
PSYCHIC DISTANCE: what it is and how to use it : the examples will be familiar...
CHARACTERISATION-IN-ACTION : some of these will be familiar from our Arvon week, but there's more
MORE ON CHARACTERISATION : which comes more naturally to you: thinking about characterisation from the outside inwards, or from the inside outwards?
PROLOGUES : why you probably shouldn't, why occasionally you should.
POINT-OF-VIEW AND NARRATORS SERIES:
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 1: the basics : what point of view is, what a narrator is, and why it matters
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 2: internal narrators : character-narrators who narrate in first person
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 3: external narrators : limited, switching and privileged point of view in narrators who narrate in third person
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories : how to work with a moving point of view, second-person narrators and other stuff
DESCRIPTION : how to stop your descriptions being slabs of scene setting, and turn them into storytelling
6 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DESCRIPTION : more on the how and why of evoking places, people and everything else
FLASHBACKS AND BACKSTORY : how to handle the stuff from Before The Story Starts.
SIXTY-PLUS WAYS OF ARRANGING THE SAME 11 WORD SENTENCE ; yoga for writers, in other words
SENTENCE STRUCTURE AS STORYTELLING: how the order of the elements in your sentence can make such a difference
HOW THINKING ABOUT GRAMMAR can help your prose to sing
THE COMMON SCAFFOLD: all the things which get into your first draft for good reason, but then need fishing out again
CLUSTERING : as a way of finding material, with a picture of the clusters I worked to develop a story.
TWELVE TOOLS (NOT RULES) OF WRITING : just what it says on the tin
THE THIRTY-THOUSAND DOLDRUMS : somewhere between 20k and 40k, and decided that the whole thing's a disaster? You are not alone.
SCRIVENER SOFTWARE : why I'm a complete convert to the only writing software real writers use, whether they're pantsers, planners, or imaginers-on-paper.
THE SYNOPSIS: Relax! : the synopsis won't make or break your novel's fate, but it can help to give it the best chance. Here's how.
Winchester is just finishing, York is in September, then there's Verulam, Swanwick, the Historical Novel Society, which is not just historical but international,since it alternates between Britain and the United States, Getting Published, WriteConZurich, the Romantic Novelists Association and another which I can't talk about yet ... and dozens more. I'm talking about Writers' Conferences; you may well know the kind of thing I mean. If you don't, my impressions of York 2012 are here, and if you think that asking an aspiring writer to spend a money on their aspirations is like the Pope suggesting that putting money towards re-building St Peter's is the best way to shorten your stint in Purgatory, then I refer you to scriptwriter and teacher Jon Spira.
Most conferences provide the famous "one-to-ones". You submit a couple of thousand words of your work, plus a synopsis, and then for ten or fifteen minutes, you get to discuss both the writing, and its prospects in the market, with a publisher's editor, an agent, or a book doctor. The editors and agents are principally looking for oven-ready new books and authors (rare), or likely prospects (not uncommon), but the ones who like doing conferences do genuinely want to help. The book doctor is someone like me: probably a writer, certainly someone with experience at the editing-teaching interface. We like helping too.
But, of course, you want to prepare, to make the most of what feels like a blink-and-you'll-miss-it slot. Don't stress, though; the person sitting opposite you will have plenty to say, and is very likely to have made notes or marked up your script, for you to take away. You could also:
On the day, do try to strangle at birth your urge to meet feedback by explaining things at length. Of course it may be relevant that X is all resolved in Chapter 16, but I've done one-to-ones at York when, try as I might (and, if I'm honest, how hard I tried depended on how shattered I was by that point in the weekend), I couldn't get a word in edgeways. Every point I made about the piece was met with a barrage of reasons which sounded sensible, but were actually defensive. Anyone who's done a writing workshop will know just the kind of response I'm talking about - in themselves, or in others.
It's not just that explaining why your work doesn't need changing isn't the most useful way of spending your nine-and-a-half minutes (and at York Obergruppenfuhrer Susan makes very sure that's all it is). It's also because, if you're busy defending your work, you're not listening to the opinions you've so carefully and expensively sought out. And, even more importantly, you're not letting your creative brain grasp the new possibilities being offered; you're just fending them off and entrenching yourself in the current situation.
And during the session
So, when you revisit the advice, what do you do with it? It's up to you - as all advice is, whoever's giving it, at least until someone's paid you for the book. Accept, adapt, ignore ... So, for any advice you need to remember that
So your job is first to separate out the editor's "not-working" from their "because", because the former is right (at least for them though maybe not for everyone) but the latter may not be. You can accept the problem, without accepting their solution. If you do accept the solution, fine. If you don't, you have to come up with your solution to the problem they've highlighted.
Finally, many conferences offer you more than one slot, so what do you do if the advice is conflicting? I suggest you try to deconstruct both sets of feedback separately, in terms of problems and offered solutions. Are they wanting the book to be two different things? One sees it as edgy mum-lit, the other full-on psychological thriller? Which is closer to how you see it? Where are the overlaps, and where are the conflicts? Are they both recognising the same problem but coming up with different solutions? How would you solve that problem? If they're recognising different problems, do you agree with both? Can you solve both?
And finally, finally, don't let the one-to-ones dominate your sense and experience of the festival - or your decision about whether the money will be worth it for you. I've heard far too many stories from agents and editors of formal one-to-ones which yielded little, this time, but excellent, informal one-to-one-type encounters in the bar, after a workshop, over breakfast. And that's before you count in the workshops, the mini-courses, the book signings and the lifelong writerly friendships...
The other day, something I was reading tossed a tasty short-story idea into my lap: two people in a particular situation with dramatic possibilities. If you think of craft as a process of problem-finding, as Richard Sennet puts it, then the problem I had found was how those possibilities might be realised. And I worked out how quite quickly - how the problem could be solved - how it could be written. I knew what the voice would be, how the structure would work, and that it would end up as a decent short story that quite a few readers would enjoy. At which point, all desire to write it melted away. I knew the answer to the problem that the idea presented, and felt no urge to glue the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair for several days, in order to spell it out word by word.
Obviously, in one sense, I was wrong: that spelling-out is also, in itself, a process of finding problems, and then solving them: "How do I write this sentence?" is really a question of "What am I trying to do with this sentence?", and once you answer that, the how is answered too, within the limits of your current capabilities at choosing and arranging words. And, of course, I was wrong in the sense that one can always do it better, or worse, in terms of the effect on readers or the money in the contract.
But I wasn't wrong, creatively speaking, to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a decent story. These days, some of the time, I know my writerly self: I had not only found the problem, I had solved it, and it was that very certainty that meant there was nothing to fire up and fuel my creative engines. Imagine a scientist who gets fascinated by a phenomenon, and spends a year or ten observing and imagining and analysing it, to work out how it works. The human, physical-mental joy of creative thinking is at full-tilt; that's why she came into this business. Once she has a theory that is proved to express and explain how that phenomenon operates, the job is done and there's no more of that joy to be had from it. The scientist moves on to something else: either a new phenomenon, or a new puzzle posed by this one. And mountaineers, too, can't find the fire and energy to put themselves through all the sweat and agony to do the same climb again. Saying, "But there's one tricky bit where the path's washed away," isn't enough to sustain the desire to climb the whole route and reach a top you've already climbed and reached: they look for a new route, or a new mountain. Why should writers be different?
And would I have been wrong in commercial terms to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a saleable story? Perhaps: I have rent to pay. If I'd had to try - if it had been a commission, say - I would have taken a leaf from Rachel Aaron's book, and gone on trying to find a problem, inside that story-idea, that I did feel an urgent, passionate desire to solve.
Maybe I would have been wrong to refuse to write it on spec, too, if it was a story which might get me lots of readers or money or both. But perhaps not. A deliberately found, not naturally-arising, problem is not such rich or efficient fuel. Things not working out is always a possibility a creative artist has to live with, of course: human creativity is nothing if not wasteful. But with something that doesn't arise naturally I know from experience that I often make the wrong judgements about the project: I stick where I should twist, and cut where I should add. It might not, in other words, have turned out as successful as it looked as if it would.
So, as ever, I'm not saying that I - or you - should ever refuse a project because it will do well as art or commerce, or refuse a project it because it won't. There's no merit in the snobbery that assumes that anything written for money is whoredom, nor in the snobbery that assumes that refusing to write something saleable makes you an idle dilettante. Snobbery is sterile, and this is a decision about fertility: about the fundamental mental-physical joy of creative thinking, and its relationship, in each of us, to our own particular, writerly self.
DON'T FORGET THE 500th POSTIVERSARY COMPETITION:
Keep those entries coming! Closing date Friday 31st May; full details here.
Q: I'm being kept up at night by one rejection; four full MS are still out there. The agent in question is super starry and it sounds like she gave my MS a thorough reading. She said some nice things, even said I nailed some things. But she said she didn't get a new perspective, neither was she challenged. I've also come across a lot of stuff about risk in writing. I am now wondering more generally where I actually take personal risks, and finding that I'm not doing it much. I guess the book that is looking for a home took a long time in the writing and is probably the 8th iteration of the original idea, so what might have been a new perspective is old hat. But more seriously the things that have affected me in life seem so far in the distance that to bring them up as material feels like a weird contrivance. My second novel is halfway done at least in draft format and although it has plenty (I think) in terms of new perspective I don't feel exposed in the writing of it - not really. Yeah, I'm trying stuff with voice but everyone is doing that to some extent. I know writers who only ever write about their lives and relationships. I don't think that's me so much. Am I alone?
A: I think it's easy to be vague and touchy-feely (or macho and suffering-artiste-ish) about how it's necessary to dare all and bare all if you want to write well, but I'm not sure it's the whole truth. It certainly isn't a guarantee of good writing that the original source experiences were difficult or powerful. But, conversely, it's not a guarantee of bad writing that they weren't, or that you didn't have them. And heaven help any of you writers if you felt tied in to writing about your own lives and relationships - how boring would that be?
Having said that, I do think that for most of us, the best writing comes from places and materials which are really potent for us. That potency may be transmuted into other characters and situations, other worlds, other times, but it still connects with something quite fundamental inside ourselves. If you're not trying to find some kind of direct emotional (in the broad sense) connection with the story you're telling, then you're not going to find and write what's particular and individual and therefore real-seeming about this story. As John Gardner puts it, it's by the convincingness of the particularity of the story, that you persuade the reader to buy into the whole thing even though it's fiction. And the more individual and particular to you it is, the more likely it is to challenge and surprise a reader, and offer them a new perspective. That direct connection needn't be dressed in the settings and relationships of your own life, but even if it's not there at the start of your thinking about "what if...", you do need to find it as you work.
So it's easy to assume - non-writers do assume - that the best writing comes from the newest, closest, most vivid (and so probably painful) stuff. But you also need distance. When Emma has set out to write a story which will enable her to explore something pressing and important to her, it doesn't work. Sometimes it really is too raw: she's dodging being really honest about something difficult. Sometimes it's that the project gets lumbered with her need to write about that stuff, and the needs of the stuff trump the needs of the project. Sometimes it's that this stuff is so potent for her that she just doesn't realise she hasn't done enough for the reader: readers who don't find this particular situation inherently potent may need more help to find these characters-in-action convincing. But one way or another, her relationship to the stuff messes with her writerly compass.
For Emma, the necessary distance only comes with time, and/or when the project is something else. Then, the material from experience has no more and no less status than any other material, as she was thinking about in Yours to Remember, Mine to Forget. Then, the potency of the experience supplies your writing-engine with high-octane fuel, if you're willing to let it. But it is just fuel; it's the project that decides its own direction and organisation, and what fuel it needs and what it doesn't. As Nora Ephron said, she did finally make a happy marriage, but she only found a way to write about happy marriages by writing about cooking, in Julie & Julia.
So I don't think that bringing up the distant past in order to use it as fuel for the present project is necessarily a contrivance; I think it's probably the best way to use it. Only people who don't understand the distance thing (read: non-writers) and assume that there's a direct correlation between how recent the experience is, and the how immediate the story feels, will think it's contrived or inauthentic. The rest of us (read: writers) know that the sliver of ice in the heart is necessary: it's what provides the distance - the duality we need - in order to re-experience and re-create experience in the service of the story.
If what the agent says resonates with you, and you want to do something about it, I wonder if somewhere in the iterations that deep, and live connection with your concerns has ... not exactly gone, but weakened. Perhaps you've so taken its presence for granted, that you haven't spotted that it's been nibbled away (at least for some readers) as you've worked at other things? Perhaps as things changed in the novel and you were concerned with the mechanics of cutting it apart and solving problems and stitching everything back up again, you didn't go looking to connect with that original fuel-source afresh.
Much-revised novels are like the proverbial knife which has had four new handles and three new blades. It is in some sense the same knife, but the question is, do both handle and blade still work together to cut the same things with the same precision? And if not, do they cut different but just as good things with the same precision? It's the last bit which can get lost.
As to whether you don't feel exposed in the new novel - and whether that matters... It could be that you're suffering from Submission Blight: that awful self-consciousness that comes over so many writers when their work is somewhere out there, being judged, from the first competition entry to the reviews of your twentieth novel. Submission Blight is an auto-immune disease which allows your Inner Critic to get the upper hand.
It could be that the new, different project doesn't make it as clear as the first one did, where you might find the most powerful, new material for it - inside yourself, or out there in the world. That needn't mean it's the wrong project, just that you haven't yet seen which large and small aspects of the story offer that scope.
Or, yes, it could be that the piece is full of things which could work better - be better written, more powerful, more challenging for the reader, more radical in perspective - but you've decided, consciously or unconsciously, not to do them that way. There are a hundred thousand choices of that sort in any novel, and you do have to choose. There are always perfectly sensible reasons for choosing not to go down a road which you may not even be acknowledging to yourself is difficult for emotional, political or practical reasons. You might be right that something's too raw still and must wait for another couple of novels. You might be right that drawing on something from a long time ago might seem contrived. You might be right that a ton of research would be needed and you're not sure you could handle the material anyway. You might be right that this topic is one which can't be a sideshow in a novel, but only the main subject, and that's a different novel.
Or you might not be right. How do you tell? I'm not sure you can, although shying furiously and desperately away from an idea is a sure sign of its potency for you - and therefore potentially for the novel. Whether it would be right to put that potency to the service of this novel is a different decision, and has to be controlled by your overall sense of what this novel is. It might be too rich: like putting rocket fuel into a Morris Minor and watching it explode into shards. But certainly on a smaller scale, I do think a willingness to be as open and naked to the writerly demands of the situations in your story is very important. And that can be difficult to do, especially if in other areas of life things aren't being so easy at the moment. But readers know, instinctively if not consciously, when you're pulling your punches in a piece of writing. Even when the only person you're not hurting is yourself.
Emma Adds: Re-reading Jerusha's reply, and seeing the comments, has made me think of a couple of points. First, that when Jerusha's talking about "emotional connections" she doesn't just mean heartbreak, or love. She also means things like fear, triumph, excitement, frustration. You can no more write a good thriller if you're not willing to find those places in yourself and let them fuel your story, than you can write good mumlit if you're not willing to find the places where the stuff of family life lives.
Second, Jerusha is careful about confidentiality, so it's I who can produce an example of how you don't need to have experienced a trauma directly, to evoke it effectively. The first time I wrote about a divorce I was happily married. Years later, after I was divorced, I came across that MS again, and realised I'd got it right. I'd imagined how it feels by spinning together the usual threads from which we all make our stories: what I knew about marriage, and breaking up with boyfriends, and friends' experience, and things I'd read in fiction and non-fiction. Out of that - it turned out - I had spun together a convincing rope of story, even though no strand in it came from precisely that situation. And that was the day I realised that, despite having had a very ordinary and boringly un-dreadful life, I really could be a writer.
Posted at 01:09 AM in A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Book Trade, Craft, Creativity, Historical Fiction, Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt, Research, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE FUEL TANK, THE IDENTITY CARD, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)
In Conditional Validation I was talking about how Malcolm Bradbury saying "They're good. Keep going" was enough for Ian McEwan to - well - keep going. We tend to think that the "they're good" is the important bit of that, but I more and more think that in some ways "Keep going" - said by someone whose knowledge and judgement you trust - is just as important. The thing is, they're two sides of the real question, which is "Is this worth doing?".
Mind you, Hilary Mantel said on Front Row that having won the Booker twice is no help at all, when you sit down to work on a new book: it's like the first day you started to write. In other words, the energy doesn't come from the pleasure of doing something know you're good at or are admired for - because that evaporates at the sight of the blank page. The energy to start in (again) and keep going comes from the knowledge that it will all turn out to be worth it, when you finally get to the summit. It's that knowledge which keeps you going over the endless immediate difficulties and setbacks of the terrain. Every step, every day, every month, every novel.
I realised this all over again recently, when the novel I'm working on was being profoundly awkward, at a moment when I had let into my psyche more of the routine book industry doom and gloom than was wise. As a result I was feeling the routine hysterical conviction that the novel, as a creative form and a way of earning money, is dying. Some writers and would-be writers seem positively to relish* feeling like that (or I assume they do, or why would they blog and tweet and grumble about it all the time?), but all it does to me is make it extremely difficult to get on with the novel. But this time, my agent happened to ring up to see how I was getting on; I said something about how disheartened I was. "Well, let me tell you why I'm optimistic about the long-term future," said my agent, and proceded to do just that. When your agent's been in the trade long enough to have only just missed Allen Lane, you believe what she says. And I put down the phone, rolled up my sleeves, and barrelled into the novel with as much energy as if I'd just had two strong coffees and a fan letter.
The novel hadn't miraculously solved its own problems, and the industry hadn't changed a hair: what had happened was that the work that the novel still needed suddenly seemed worth the energy and time and loneliness, and (let's admit it) occasional boredom that it was going to demand of me. When I thought that all might be pointless, I had no energy. When I thought it was worth it, the energy came rushing back.
And I think making it seem worth it is also one of the functions of a teacher. I was surprised, in writing But Can You Teach Creative Writing?, to realise how important a part of my job isn't just to provide a safe space for experimenting, say, or technical tools: it's to help the writers to feel that what they do is worth it, that there's a goal worth aiming for, that it's realistic to think they might reach it.
But in the end, I think you have to decide for yourself what makes it worth it, and then do your damnedest to seek out those things. And, perhaps, be prepared to acknowledge that they're beyond your reach, and either change your idea of what makes it worth it, or give up. For me it's having readers. Coming from the storytelling, not the journaling end of becoming-a-writer, I know that If I had no mechanism for reaching readers, I wouldn't write. But not everyone is like that: for some the act of writing is self-fulfilling.
And one final thought about what your writing is worth. As Claire King was discussing on her excellent blog some time ago, what we pay for something is a crucial component of what we feel it's worth. There are lots of good reasons for giving your work away for free on occasions: for charity, as review copies, as exposure in a place you want to be seen, as a twenty-four-hour ruse to get yourself top of a "bestseller" ranking. But I do think that anyone who consistently doesn't expect to be paid for their professional creative work is sending out a very strong message: that they don't think their work is worth it.
Far be it from me to tell anyone what to do with their life. But, I don't know about you, but my life is far too short to spend on anything as frustrating and badly paid as writing, if it isn't, also, profoundly worth it in all the ways that matter. I want it to be good. I want to be able to keep going. I need to feel it's worth it.
* I asked a psychotherapist friend why so many people seem determined to hear and even relish only bad and depressing news. "It's a form of masochism," she explained. "They're getting off on it." So next time someone insists that we're all going to hell in a handcart and refuses to hear your evidence for the reasonableness of a bit of optimism, you can quite legitimately and exactly describe them as that technical term: a w***er.