Last Thoughts for Revise the Novel Month

Whoa–what a month it’s been. Besides trying to understand what it means to be a writer, I also found myself embarking on a serious self-improvement overhaul.  That’s why so many of my thoughts are life-thoughts.

Writing is a life.  It’s a lifestyle.  It filters into every other aspect of who we are.  It’s an identity–it provides a certain perspective on the world around us.  Hopefully, it provides a more generous attitude towards others and ourselves; hopefully it keeps us curious and non-judgmental.  It definitely keeps us disciplined.  It keeps us persistent, a little ambitious, and resilient towards the things that seem to want to try and steal that identity away from us.

I highly recommend these month-long projects, which I’m now just starting to embark upon.  Here’s a bit of reflection on the experience:

I tend to make goals for the distant future, but by keeping the month in mind, I found myself more focused on keeping the daily routine.  I didn’t work on my novel every day (in fact, I deliberately took Sundays off from it), but by knowing I was in May, and that May was Revise the Novel Month, I had an easier time keeping a clear goal in mind. For me, it was shape the thing up to send to manuscript clearance for the MFA and to send it off to a few friends for the next time I dedicate a month to the novel.  I did this, but it was a severely bumpy ride.  I had drama to deal with (which is why you got a post about it, of course), I had a lot of self-doubt and days of flat out laziness.

It’s not done. (I didn’t expect it to be.) There are many months of work to come; as many as it will take to see this thing come to a place that feels ready to send off to agents and publishers.  I plan to keep on dividing the work into month-long projects.  I might spend a near-approaching month on character development, for instance, with short exploratory assignments.  I might spend the month writing scenes that may or may not go into the novel.  I might then spend another month shaping the first fifty pages, or the first act, or however this project unfolds.  My routine is going to change drastically because I won’t have as much time once I start working again in the real world.  This scares me, but I think the monthly plan is going to be a huge asset.

If you do the monthly project thing, I highly recommend you start with poems.  They don’t have to be good (mine weren’t especially).  But they are manageable and they help us to think more deeply about words.  And I found myself continuing to write poems, even through revise the novel month.  They are, at their most base state, a fantastic verbal exercise for the prose writer.

My next project is to take a bit of a break from the novel in order to work on music.  I did this in April, when I focused on poetry and language.  I think that the month off definitely helped me in terms of filling the well with energy and willingness to work on the book.  By the end of April, I couldn’t wait to hang with my characters again.  Hopefully this will be a repeated experience.

My last thought: You can do it.  If you’re writing a novel, you have to keep reminding yourself that.  It’s hard, but you can do it.  You have everything you need to do it well.

Thought for Day 29: Round Up Your Allies

Being a writer takes a lot of discernment about the kinds of people you let into your creative process.  I can’t imagine being a writer without friends to read my writing.

Allies are people who make you feel confident. They are your friends, first. They want good things for you.  They, like you, are on “team better world.” They are honest but never mean.  This doesn’t mean they are always nice for the sake of being nice, or don’t offer criticism.  But their criticism is always constructive.

Unfortunately, there are some competitive writers out there who want us to feel bad about our writing so they can feel better about their own.  Learn to spot them.  Put them on a list of writing enemies. Don’t let them go near your work.  That doesn’t mean they are your enemies though.  You can still grab a beer with them from time to time.  They just don’t get to be your writing ally.

Your new writing project is a newborn child.  You’re not going to let just anyone hold it.  No one has the right to tell you to kill your newborn child.

Also, ask yourself if you are a constructive critic when someone asks you to read their work.  Are you generous while you read?  Assume that there is something good about what you’re reading and look for it.  Then try to spot what’s getting in the way.  You wouldn’t publish it because … but you would publish it if …

Make a list: who can you trust with your writing? Who brings confidence to your work, wants you to write the best you can possibly write because, well, they like you?

Thought for Day 17 & 18: Don’t Fake It

Authenticity is one of my favorite words.  The people I get along with most are the ones that I feel like I don’t have to hide anything from.  I don’t like hiding things.

Lucinda Williams, that blues-americana goddess, is a great example of artistic authenticity.  If you want to “hear” authenticity, hit the play button.

I just want to live the life I please/I don’t want no enemies/I don’t want nothin’ if I have to fake it.

You don’t have to fake it, Lucinda. You prove that very well.

And so it goes with writing.  Especially with writing fiction, which calls us to be more authentic than ever because we have to persuade the reader that the story they are reading is true.  Not real, but true.  There is a distinction and it’s our job to search out what that distinction is, exactly.

Part of being an authentic writer is to be honest with ourselves about where our story is at.  We can’t fix its problems if we don’t acknowledge them.  This means that when we get a critique, we allow ourselves to be pissed for a few hours/days/months until that negative energy rolls away and leaves behind a constructive thought we can take to the revision.

It also means that we are honest with our drafts about the paragraphs we’ve stuck there as place-holders so we can bypass the hard scenes to write–the ones that make us uncomfortable.  Often those paragraphs are full of inauthentic sentences.

If you’ve taken a fiction workshop, you’ll know that a lot of time is spent on logic.  Our colleagues scan our work with a BS radar and look for places where it seems like we’ve bent the truth to get through a scene that we don’t feel comfortable writing. Writing takes courage, folks.  Meanwhile, our colleagues mark our drafts for the sentences that don’t convince them. (Robert Olen Butler, by the way, is a genius at this. I got to take a five person workshop with him here at FSU and he would go through our drafts, sentence by sentence, and point out where the words lost their contact with authenticity. It’s on the shortlist for best workshop I’ve ever taken.)

Part of the fiction writer’s job is to convince the reader, and that doesn’t come from learning how to lie real well.  It comes from being as authentic as possible on the page.

Oh, and being authentic off the page is good practice for nailing authentic sentences.

Thought for Day 16: Keep the Drama on the Page.

This was my favorite part of Julia Cameron’s THE RIGHT TO WRITE (which I am about to finish after I write this post). She says:

For a writer, personal drama is the drink of creative poison.  For a writer, the willing engagement in power struggles is an act of creative sabotage

(p. 41).

This is the truth.  We are living in world of crazy people–all people are crazy. It’s true! All people are self-absorbed. Especially artists. Especially talented ones. You included. Me included.  That doesn’t mean we have to contribute to the world’s craziness.  Our writing can and should bring order to this–help us process and perhaps contribute to the eradication of all hate and harm by acknowledging hate and harm, by getting a handle on it.  If you must act on drama, journal about it.  Save it for your characters’ conflicts.

We don’t have a choice about whether drama will get into our lives but we can learn how to deal with it before it takes over us and prevents us from writing. Here are three ways we can keep drama from interfering with our work:

1. Do our best to avoid it. 

We can start by being careful how we handle other people–especially in romantic/physical situations.  In all of our relationships, romantic or otherwise, avoiding drama looks like keeping other people’s best interests at heart. Pretty simple.  This doesn’t always work, though. People lie. People keep important information from us.  Even so, a lot of drama can be avoided if we go at the world with our best intentions.

2. Be aware of our own power trips.

Writing can help us acknowledge when we feel powerless.  Sometime we will. This is just going to happen.  But by acknowledging this, we can prevent ourselves from using whatever power we have  to harm others.

Do harm to your characters instead. It will make for a much more interesting story.

3. Rise above criticism.

People are going to say mean things to us, or mean things about our writing. Not all criticism is constructive.  But an important aspect of being a writer is having a thick enough skin to sort through criticism and pull out the constructive stuff.

4. Remember that people are time and energy.

Avoid the ones that waste your time and energy.  That doesn’t mean you have to be mean to them.  (See #1). Be respectful.  Love everyone. Even so, loving everyone doesn’t mean handing over your time and energy for them to sabotage it. Sometimes the most loving thing you can to for a person is to leave them alone to their own devices.  Loving someone sometimes means acknowledging that you can’t fix them. It means letting them learn how to fix themselves after you’ve treated them with your best intentions. Ultimately,  you choose who you spend time with and who you think about.

Got drama? Shake it off. Bring it to God, if you are prone to do such a thing. Acknowledge when you need to ask for forgiveness from folks.  Don’t expect anyone to apologize to you when they have hurt you. No matter what, know that you are bigger, more complex, more beautiful than whatever is trying to get in and sabotage your work.  Ultimately, we decide what to worship (what to give power to).

For more information, listen to David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College: