4 Myths about Writing Fiction

old books isolated on whiteMyth #1: You won’t have to research. 

Ha. Ha ha ha. HA. Once upon a time, I thought that only non-fiction writers and historical novelists had to do research for their books. If someone wrote contemporary fiction, well, she would already know how life works … and anything else she could make up, right? Gosh, that was so short-sighted, it’s comical to me now. Of course, we often hear the phrase “Write what you know” (sidenote: I much prefer my writing mentor Judy’s “Write till you know”), but for most of us, that’s about one book’s worth of content. After that, guess what, you have to write another one. And it has to be different. Full of things you might not know. And even that first book … look, you’re still gonna have to research. I have read books about Greek mythology, philosophy, string theory, antiques. I’ve watched YouTube videos to learn about carpentry. I ask questions every single day to my wide network of friends, am super involved on Quora, and spend hours researching the finest details– details that, if done right, the reader will not even notice.

Myth #2: You must plot.

Nah. Sure, many writers do. But many don’t. Each writer has his or her own proclivity toward planning or “pantsing” (writing by the seat of one’s pants). You may have seen J.K. Rowling’s hand-drawn outline for Order of the Phoenix. Then again, Ray Bradbury said:

When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.

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There are tremendously successful books on both sides– and some that employed a combination of tactics. With my WIP, I pantsed the first 6-12 months, then– after I knew my characters better– ploted it out before revisions.

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Myth #3: You must know what you’re doing. 

You just need to not give up until you get there. This can take years and years … are you willing to invest that time? Do you feel called to it?

That said …

Myth #4: Anyone can do it. 

Here I defer to Ann Patchett, who shares this story in her book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (it’s sooooo good … I briefly reviewed it here):

…my husband had told her I was a novelist. Regrettably, I admitted this was the case. That was when she told me that everyone had at least one great novel in them.

I have learned the hard way not to tell strangers what I do for a living. Frequently, no matter how often I ask him not to, my husband does it for me. Ordinarily, in a circumstance like this one, in the Masonic Lodge in Preston, Mississippi, I would have just agreed with this woman and sidled off (One great novel, yes, of course, absolutely everyone), but I was tired and bored and there was nowhere to sidle to except the field. We happened to be standing next to the name-tag table. On that table was a towering assortment of wildflowers stuck into a clear glass vase. “Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them?” I asked her.

“No,” she said.

I remember that her gray hair was thick and cropped short and that she looked at me directly, not glancing over at the flowers.

“One algebraic proof?”

She shook her head.

“One Hail Mary pass? One five-minute mile?”

“One great novel,” she said.

“But why a novel?” I asked, having lost for the moment the good sense to let it go. “Why a great one?”

“Because we each have the story of our life to tell,” she said. It was her trump card, her indisputable piece of evidence. She took my silence as confirmation of victory, and so I was able to excuse myself.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper.

Compendium

I was just writing up a giant blog post about Charlottesville, and I decided to sit on it for a day or so before posting. So, even though this post might be about everything BUT Charlottesville, know that it is at the forefront of my mind and in the center of my heart. I am just wanting to ask a friend to read my post before it goes live. ❤

OCD Study
Last week, I read about this Cambridge study, which found that OCD sufferers might be able to find relief through watching someone else perform their compulsions. The article suggests that maybe a video series could be created to help bring relief to sufferers. This actually troubles me because it ignores the root issues– and I think that you run a HUGE risk of now having those videos become the new compulsion. Compulsions are NOT the solution to OCD– they are a temporary alleviation of anxiety that will almost always become an uncontrollable monster in their own right. In exposure therapy, on the other hand, immediate relief is not the goal. The goal is learning how to live with uncertainty (which is ultimately what causes the anxiety for OCD sufferers) and letting that new way of behavior re-wire the brain for more long-lasting relief. Exposure therapy is clearly the better option.

Salt Novel
I feel so good about where I’m at with this, and especially since we decided to push all the deadlines back a tiny bit. I believe this means it will come out early 2019, which feels far away, but truly, I think it’s perfect timing. I want this book to be the very best it can be, and I’m so grateful for an editor who is on the same page!

Work
Work has been absolutely insane this summer. For those of you who don’t know, my day job is working in enrollment at a local university. We have been up 12% in visitors this year, even as three of our coworkers left this summer for other jobs. Busier than ever, fewer people, plus adding to that interviewing, hiring, and training. It’s just been wild. I’ve worked there 14 years, and we’ve never had a summer like this one.

Reading
Has been slower than I’d like. I finished Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott, which was lovely and like having an auntie whisper healing words over you. I am reading The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock right now, and next up I’m excited to dive into If Birds Fly Back by Carlie Sorosiak (check out the incredible cover!).

Balance
This is the key, isn’t it? How do I balance writing, recruitment, healthy routines, and finding time for the greatest set of friends on earth? I guess I’ll start by being grateful.

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Slow, Blessed Work

I’m writing as much and as hard and as fast as I can, but it’s still painstaking, slow work.

I can’t help but think of how Annie Dillard described it:

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way.

This feels like blessed work. Slow slow slow. But I can sense the narrative arc taking form; right now I am climbing with it.

Spare a thought for me.

Ramble-some

Hi friends, I thought I’d just ramble a little bit about life, if that’s cool.

Even if that’s not cool. 🙂

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The summer has just been blazing by, which is so wild. Usually June is a quiet month in admissions at my university, but this June was the busiest I can remember in my fourteen years in this role! It’s fun– but also a little hard to not be able to catch my breath during a season I was expecting that opportunity!

I spent the 4th of July [extended] weekend working on the novel, and I polished up the first 10 chapters (approximately 75 pages) in a way I’m really proud of. Stay tuned to see if my editor agrees. There are a couple issues that I still need to figure out. Tomorrow I’m getting a massage, and I swear: I have some of my best ideas while lying on that table! Fingers crossed.

Online dating is maybe the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced, apart from writing a book, although in all completely different ways. This summer I keep switching my profiles “off”– on most sites, you can hide or suspend your profile– in order to recollect myself and get a little work done. I am talking to someone now who is sweet and fun and intentional … which means I am probably a week or two from screwing it up. #optimist

One thing I am trying to do this year is to be intentional about making sure my friends feel loved. I am trying to learn their love languages and care about them in the ways that they appreciate most (versus the way I feel most comfortable). This has actually been really, really fun and meaningful: sometimes it looks like coffee and conversation, sometimes coming up with the most perfect gift that will make them laugh, buying a gift card for grocery delivery, handwritten letters. Yesterday I got to have a video call with an overseas friend. I plan to continue this experiment/experience/intentionality throughout the year and hopefully next.

I’ve read some great books lately. I’ll post reviews soon.

Tell me about you. Please. Leave a comment about anything in the whole world.

 

The Art of Avoidance

Goal:
Work on novel.

Instead:
A girl has gotta eat, right? Better make some lunch.

And you can’t write while you eat, so maybe just one episode of New Girl. Ok, two episodes.

Speaking of food, I need to get groceries. I should make a grocery list.

Man, I love lists. What else do I need to do this weekend?

I really need to dedicate time to brainstorming. Add that to the list. Brainstorm about marking, book research, and blog.

Wow, the blog. I should blog. Yes, and that will get me warmed up to work on the novel.

Book research. I should read those library books before they’re due.

And then take notes.

And then brainstorm over the notes.

Maybe I should actually write a little bit about what I learned from the library books. That’s still progress, right? Short assignments?

I just need to run to pick up my prescription, and then it will be time to write.

Except Target exhausts me. Just a tiny nap. A short one. Well, okay, an hour. Two hours.

Crap. I napped three hours. Now I feel like a bum. And I still haven’t written. I should write.

And I will. I just have to wake up a little bit. Let me just eat some dinner, and then I’ll attack the novel.

Chipotle was not a good choice. I can’t write with my stomach hurting like this. Plus I have a headache. I’ll take some Ibuprofen, drink some water, wait till I can focus. I can’t focus when I feel like crap. No way. No one would expect me to.

Know what? ENOUGH. I HAVE TO WRITE. Write for one hour.

Writes for three.

That felt good. Tomorrow I should start writing earlier.

Sleep.

Wake up and avoid all over again.

exhausted writer

 

Bird by Bird, Buddy

I’ve been actually scared of writing, fearful of my manuscript, avoiding it at all costs. Some days it’s hard for me to understand how this could have happened: that I have learned to fear that which I once loved.

But deep inside, I know that I still love writing. It is all the other things that have added fear into the mix: deadlines, critique, even– in some ways– being paid for it.

Again and again, I have had to return to the advice of writing guru Anne Lamott: bird by bird, short assignments, shitty first drafts.

Bird by Bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Short Assignments

“Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.”

Shitty First Drafts

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

And with that said– or remembered– I’m off to work on my novel. Think of me.

Love,
Jackie

P.S. If you haven’t read Bird by Bird, man, are you missing out: get it here.

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Sacred

Last week was so incredibly productive. I had to take my laptop and write in my bed, since my office somehow seemed too overwhelming, too formal, too demanding. 

So I wrote in my bed. It was a simple measure I could take to feel safer. I don’t know. Am I alone in this?

It makes me think of Virginia Woolf, of A Room of One’s Own, of how I, at 18, was so idealistic about writing that I wrote not one but two research papers meant to disprove Woolf’s claims, and how, a decade later, I would wonder, Maybe she was right.

Man, writing is hard. I saw this posted on social media today. I felt it.

I’m not complaining. Or I’m trying not to, at least. I have a calling on my life, and I am rising to it. No, my writing life isn’t easy, but it is sacred.

Book Heroines I Adore

unsplash90Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling | Related
“The smartest witch of her age” and fiercely loyal, never gives up. Never.

Shazi from The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh | Review (and sequel)
“So you would have me throw Shazi to the wolves?”
“Shazi?” Jalal’s grin widened. “Honestly, I pity the wolves.”

Citra from Scythe by Neal Shusterman | Review
Whip-smart, deeply philosophical … but can also kick your ass.

Joana from Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys | Review 
“She must have been a nurse. She looked a few years older than me. Pretty. Naturally pretty, the type that’s still attractive, even more so, when she’s filthy.”
So strong in the face of a thousand hardships

Roza and Petey from Bone Gap by Laura Ruby | Review
Each of these girls is so strong in her own way; I adored every character in this book.

Liesel Meminger of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak | Related
She can hold her own against any boy, she knows the power of words, and perseveres through tremendous loss.

Isaboe of The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta | Related
Fearsome. Unwavering. Isaboe’s resolution and leadership are a thing to behold. She is her own boss. She loves with ferocity.

Quintana of The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta | Review 
“‘Do you know who tells me my worth, Phaedra of Alonso?’
The princess pointed a hard finger at her own chest.
‘Me. I determine my own worth. If I had to rely on others I’d have lain down and died waiting.’”
‘Nuff said.

 

 

 

Lately

I am just so tired. No, that’s the wrong word. I am well rested. I guess I’m exhausted… emotionally, mentally.

Online dating is a really great way to feel like a piece of meat. I’ve heard from about 300 guys just since the start of the year, and it’s mostly made me sad.

Writing is such a beautiful thing, and it is usually life-giving to me, but lately, it’s been a battle just to open up my manuscript.

My friends are incredible… but going through some very hard things. I want to support them well, but that takes energy too. 

I have zero dollars. Please save me, tax return.

All in all, life is so good, so lovely and exciting and challenging. I’m just exhausted, that’s all. 

Psychiatrist on Monday morning. I need to see if any part of this is chemical. 

How are you, lovelies? What are your best suggestions for free/cheap self care?