Another writing pep talk from a writer:
So, say you’re writing along, and you think you’re writing a scene about two characters visiting a grocery store, a grocery store that you are almost sure is going to play a very important role in your book, and you’re a little bored, writing about the grocery store, and the characters are feeling a little sleepy to you, but you are plunging ahead like a good writer citizen, writing along, and as you’re working, the desire to write a paragraph about an anthill pops into your head.
“No!” you tell your head. “I am writing now about aisles packed with cereal boxes! There are no anthills here!”
And you keep on writing, about cereal boxes, but you think in the back of your mind it would be so fun to write about this anthill, so enjoyable, even though it has nothing to do with anything, even though your protagonist has already said she dislikes ants, even though you yourself are afraid of anthills, having stepped on one as a child, which meant you found little ants in your cuff for hours after, even two climbing into your ear at bedtime. With effort, with diligence, you smash down the ant impulse, spend your writing time that day on the grocery store, and that’s that.
My job today is to remind you that novel writing is not essay writing, it is not memo writing, and it is not about staying on point. It is just fine, even good, I’d say, if at this point you have no idea what the point of your book is. You are exploring now; you are trying to find the book. You are learning what comes out of you if you take your work seriously like this for a month. You may or may not have an outline, but it doesn’t matter—what we hold in our heads before we write is RARELY in sync with what shows up on the page, and if I were standing and saying this in front of you with a megaphone, I would say this next part especially loud and clear: The Page is All We Get. What shows up on the page? Well, that is your writing. The full-blown perfectly-whole concept you may have in your head? Is just thought. (I don’t mean to be scolding. I do all this too.)
So, why NOT try out the anthill? My friend Phil once said that if I wrote every day what I felt like writing that day, then my writing would not be dutiful. It would have life and interest in it. It was one of the sagest pieces of writing advice I ever got. What a concept! It seems so basic on the surface, but there’s something radical in it, too. How amazing, to think that when I was bored with the book, it might also be boring to others? That obligatory prose does not serve the fiction writer? That being a good student is not the goal here? The grocery store mentioned above is a choice made before the writer dove into the book itself and it may or may not stay in the book, but if the writer is not feeling at all interested in the grocery store moment, then that anthill might be a clue, a little signal from the unconscious, like a finger pointing to a rock, which is saying, “Look! Pick me up! Look under me! Try me out! There’s stuff here!”
What’s there? You have no idea. Maybe it’ll go somewhere, maybe not. If you do follow my advice here, by the end of the month you will have quite a few tangents that go nowhere, that give you nothing (except hopefully fodder for future work). This approach involves loads of cutting later. But, the payoff is that you will also have a higher ratio of non-dutiful writing: of lively prose, of prose that reflects your interests, that reflects YOU, and from that writing, you can start to see your preoccupations, you can start to get a glimpse at what ideas/characters/moments/settings might interest you for the length of a novel. (Who knew, you might think to yourself, reading over the pages, who knew I was so interested in an old retired fireman in Ohio and his collection of gardening shears?)
Not getting bored of my own story and/or character is one of the main struggles I have had with novel writing, and I have put to bed big chunks of work that just didn’t sustain my interest.
My main caveat here is to keep an eye on yourself—if you are enjoying working on a scene, and it’s causing you pain or discomfort to write it, and you bail on the scene because of that, that’s different. That’s not dutiful writing. That’s fear. Do try to stay in scenes you enjoy writing but find painful. But! If you’re just not up for it that day, that’s okay too. It can rest for awhile. Truly. It won’t go anywhere. It’s in you. Go to that anthill, instead—maybe it’ll actually lead you back to where you need to go. We are surprisingly structured and repetitive in our preoccupations. And this NaNoWriMo process does not have to be linear.
So, in a nutshell: go where the writing goes. Follow your interesting work. If, on aisle 4 of the grocery store, character 1 starts to open up a peanut butter jar and eat it, and character 2 is so irritated she goes to flirt with a guy on aisle 3, and if this scene was supposed to be their first kiss—well? Maybe it’s just not their first kiss at all. Maybe the guy on aisle 3 will end up being incredibly important. A poet friend of mine, Allyson, once said, “It’s so strange how our mind knows more than we are aware of it knowing.” It IS strange. It’s one of the strangest things of all about being human. But it is also your great and unending resource, and your instincts and impulses, your non-plans, your tangents—although messy!—(if you follow this, you will finish the month with a mess of pages! That I promise! But who cares?) have a higher chance of leading you to a deeper, more layered book.
Aimee’s fourth and most recent book is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. She lives in Los Angeles where she teaches creative writing at USC.