Beginning in the Middle
Beginning in the Middle
I came to writing late in life. I was 45 before I wrote my first line of fiction.
After twenty years of running my own business, I decided my ladder of success was propped up against the wrong wall. I jumped and landed on the idea of writing novels, without the slightest notion of how naïve that would sound to most people. Not realizing that 98% of the people born after John Bunyan wrote Pilgrims' Progress had had that very same thought but with nothing ever coming of it.
I knew I didn't have time to begin at the beginning, by reading all the classics, getting my MFA, interning at Coffee House Press, and hanging out at author readings every night. I had to jump in the middle. I only had time to find the things that worked—for me. I didn't want to get sidetracked by all the professional credentialing, and the trappings of the cultural aesthetic, honing my facility to joust intelligibly with the local literati about the virtues of postmodern literature or the impending death of the novel. I just wanted to write. On the job training was my only option.
Of course I still get intimidated by authors who have been preparing for their writing careers since they wrote their first short story at age three. But that's not my reality. I have to avoid situations that make me feel shameful about lost opportunities. Wallowing in feelings of unworthiness can really cut down on your creative time. You can't love your characters and hate yourself at the same time. And anyway, your characters don't know that you're an imposter unless you tell them.
I'm finding there are more and more people like me, some older. People with a story they want to write even though they haven't "earned the right" to write. Searching for those fabled Golden Rules of Writing that everyone must have learned while we were out living the non--literary life.
Here's the good news and the bad news--there are no rules. Except for this one: Rule Number One: Rules only work for those who make them. But of course, if you have reached my age, you probably know that already. If you are young, take it as fair warning. It will save you a lot of angst.
So instead, I'll share what I call my 7 Guiding Principles Plus 1. No writing teacher instructed me on these principles, and if one had, they probably wouldn't have worked. I had to discover these truths myself—through 8 years of writing badly. They are personally tailored for my writing disposition, and grew out of my specific writing challenges. They may not hold the same import for others. But I hope they will provide encouragement for some of you beginning writers to go out and discover your own guiding principles, your writing touchstones that keep bringing you back to true center, to the reason why you wanted to write to begin with. In the end, we each have to find our own North Star.
1. Story comes first, writing second. It's easier to learn to write if you first have a story you are excited to tell, than trying to learn the techniques with no place to hang them. Story provides the drive and context to learn the techniques. And it's a lot easier to learn the "how to" if you first know the "why."
2. Don't worry about writing what you know. Write what you are drawn to know. If it takes you five years to write a novel like it does me, this is what sustains you over the long haul. Plus, the reader wants to share the immediacy of the author's sense of discovery, not feel like they are being led down a road you have already carefully laid. Ask not what questions you want to answer for your reader, but rather what questions do you want answered by writing this book.
3. Let your characters drive the story, not your agenda. I began my first book as an attempt to get even with everybody who had ever done me wrong. When I released those two-dimensional villains to their own destinies, they became the most fascinating and complex of characters.
4. I can't make my characters go anywhere I'm not willing to go first. If I have problems dealing with intimacy, control, sex or compassion, how can I expect my characters to be any better at it? Writing well will require visiting some untidy, unfinished, raw or dark places in our souls.
5. First learn to swing hard--worry about precision later. Actually I stole that from golfing great Ben Hogan. I apply that rule to character development. Most would-be writers after being warned to make their work "realistic," are too careful with their characters, keeping them reined in and constrained, whether we are talking emotions or dialogue or actions. I like to push my characters over the top, to test them under extreme conditions. I hone them later, after I know what they are made of. What you end up with is more concentration of potentiality within the character. The reader can sense this potential living in the breast of the character, whether the character acts it out or not.
6. Tension is a good thing, in both the reader and the writer. When I first began writing, I didn't trust the reader to follow where I was leading. So for important scenes, I would foreshadow for the reader what I was about to do, then do it, and then review with the reader what she should have learned. I discovered the reader had more fun when I just wrote the scene without all the signposts. The tension resulting from the "missing" bits gave the reader a chance to participate in the telling of the story. It's ok to make the reader uncomfortable. It's called tension and why most of us read. What you don't say is just as critical as what you do.
Now, as for tension in the writer, a certain amount of perturbation is also a good thing. I use that big word because that's the term my professor used in my undergraduate chemistry lab. Sometimes when you pour two liquids into a beaker, they just don't like each other. There is perturbation, or a disturbance, and the liquids refuse to stabilize into a solution. Often students will give up too quickly and pour the troublesome mixture down the drain. But sometimes, if you leave it alone, and under constant heat and pressure, something amazing happens. The two liquids stabilize into a higher more elegant state of equilibrium. Heat and pressure over time. When I've backed myself into a plot corner and can see no way out, or a character just won't believably do what I insist that he do, I become not only tense, but distraught, believing the elements I've put into place will never coalesce into a story. I'm doomed. I brood and sulk and tell myself I might as well quit. Or devise some flimsy band-aid of a solution or bring in a deus ex machina to save the story. And then after sufficient brooding and sulking (time plus pressure plus heat) a solution pops out of nowhere that I had never considered. Usually when I'm jogging or in the shower or driving my car. The solution is elegant, surprising, totally believable. Organic. It's a solution I couldn't have logically thought myself to. In the book, it becomes one of those wonderful moments that delights the reader, who swears, "I didn't see that coming, but it makes perfect sense."
7. Ask for help, but choose wisely. As a writer, I have thin skin. Some feedback can send me plummeting into an abyss of shame and take months to recover from. I have learned to be cautious. I test potential readers, teachers and book groups. If they are prone to give advice that starts out like, "If this were my book…" or "This is what I would do if I were you…" or "Here are the 102 things that you are doing incorrectly," I cover my ears and run screaming in the opposite direction. I look for readers who care more about learning what story I'm trying to tell and then doing their best to assist me in getting there. Nor do good readers use your work as a way to make themselves look smart by listing all the problems they were clever enough to find. I'm only human and as a writer, I can usually only improve on one or two things at a time before feeling overwhelmed. I need a reader who can help me zero in on one or two of the more strategic, issues, those that if addressed, will naturally begin to clear up the others.
Bonus Principle: Write what you know. Ok, I know it sounds like I'm reversing myself. But here I'm not talking about math or horses or the Civil War or New York City traffic or gourmet cooking. If you have a story you care about, and it involves making an exquisite meal in a Manhattan brownstone in 1963, you'll learn that. I'm talking about knowing at a passionately felt, deep-down-in-the-bones level. A place that isn't about facts and numbers. My stories will always be about belonging, finding home, and lost children. That used to embarrass me, but I look around at authors whom I most respect. Even though they may have written dozens of books, if you look closely, they seem to always be working out the same issues for themselves, whether it be grief, or betrayal, or redemption. That is what they are most attuned to in life and what they pick up on when they walk into a cocktail party or go to the grocery store or wait in line at the DMV. That's where their antennae are pointed. These are the questions they live, and want most the the answers to, knowing they may never find those answers, but have to keep asking anyway, working themselves closer and closer to the beating heart of the truth. When you can name that for yourself, you will know why you write.