Some evenings during our writing residency, we hit our stride, writing the best, swiftest paragraphs of the day. Other evenings, we spend reading our work aloud to correct and rethink what we’ve accomplished that day. Sometimes, though, we are spent from the day’s work and cannot sit upright at our desks for another couple of hours, let alone think clearly enough to form our own sentences well.
Even on these nights, it’s not easy to stop thinking about phrasing and transitions, about perspective and historical fact, about all those things with which we’ve grappled all afternoon and will still be pondering the next morning when we return to our desks. On these nights, we sometimes look at the two bookshelves in the cabin to see what they have to offer, books that must have been donated or left here by previous residents.
Some of the books on writing are sadly dated, and others deal with complicated writing issues so cursorily that they’d likely set even a beginning writer back. Others, though, as we flip through their pages and without knowing the authors’ other books, have reminded us of important things about fiction and narrative nonfiction.
Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham
The first job of a writer, especially the novelist, is the production of pages. Almost any pages are better than no pages. Once you have some copy in the box, you can fix it later. If you’re sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike, you’re not producing anything but frustration for yourself.
The more you get into the groove of regular production, three or five or ten pages a day, at least five days a week, the easier you’ll find it is to produce. That’s not only because you’ll be developing the habit of writing. It’s also because nothing feeds work like previous work.
The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray
You need time that is just for writing. Let your family and friends know your schedule. […] As the novel grows and you need more time, post a new schedule. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t answer the door. Don’t use this time to pay bills or worry about your life. This is writing time. It is sacred. Here every minute counts.
Some writers make it to Chapter Two before they loop back for a big, intensive rewrite. […] If you heed the voice, if you loop back, if you invest your time and energy in the first of the novel, you use yourself up. […] by hanging about in the opening pages, you won’t generate the energy that starts to build, as if by magic, somewhere around the midpoint of your book.
The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall
Hemingway’s principle was to “leave water in the well,” stopping each day when he knew what he would be writing the next morning. Other devices are useful also. One is to set the problems to be faced in tomorrow’s writing in your head just before bed, so that the unconscious mind will work on them through the night—often to produce the solution by morning. Or studying tomorrow’s problems in a hot bath at the end of the day. The hot water, the soaking, and the relaxation seem to effect problem-solving. […]
Lower your standards and keep going is William Stafford’s advice for dealing with writer’s block.
Plot by Ansen Dibell
The common definition of plot is that it’s whatever happens in a story. That’s useful when talking about completed stories, but when we’re considering stories being written, it’s about as useful as saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles. It doesn’t tell you how to make one.
The first thing to realize is that generally you’re not going to begin at the beginning. Your story’s start, the actual words that begin the narrative, will be a good way along in the progress of the events you’re imagining.
Just as the rich get richer, pages beget pages. Do the math; if you write one page every day or seven pages every weekend, you’ll have a draft of a book in less than a year. To produce pages regularly, you need to stick to a regular schedule.
Don’t do major revision too early in the process. You don’t have to finish a complete draft or ignore small missteps, but build a critical mass of your book before you go back for an overhaul. You’ll make smarter changes if you understand your book more deeply when you start to make those changes.
Sleep on it. At the end of the day, set up the mindset for your next writing session. Read a few pages about the topic or about the writing issue that’s tripping you up. Outline in your mind the next section or chapter, or ponder possible opening sentences. Develop a bedtime ritual that encourages a writer’s mindset.
The what of your topic or your story may get you started, but once you decide to write a book about spaceflight or a novel based on your grandfather’s life, the major what problem is solved. Knowing what plot—or any other writing element or technique—is doesn’t mean you know how it works for this book. Concentrate less on what the chapter is about and more on how to write the chapter—how to begin, how to turn events into narrative, how to write about what you’ve chosen.
FINALLY, consider a writing residency. Being able to step out of your routine to focus on a book project and establish daily writing habits is an amazing opportunity. While it’s great to establish focus and habits in our day-to-day lives at home, a writing residency makes that the raison d’être.