"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Long Answer to a Brief Question

Before I get to the answer, a brief review of my morning.

I wrenched myself away from the Lodge and headed to the Capitol this morning for what I'll described as my first real session in the House. We actually legislated! We voted consent to several bills. But one bill sparked a lot of debate, resulting in our first floor fight, managed with great decorum (mostly), and our first roll call vote. It was a hard choice for me, because I felt the committee's majority and minority opinions had merit. A lot of people I respect hold the minority view. I was very conflicted, but eventually voted with the majority. The session wasn't very lengthy: we started at 10 and finished by noon.

On the way home, to celebrate having legislated, I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for a White Hot Chocolate. It must be new. Last night I saw my first television ad for it and couldn't resist. It was as decadent as I feared. Really tasty, until I was about 2/3 finished, at which point it tasted too sweet.

In my comments section, Janice recently asked, I often wondered how people write novels. Is your method something you learned from someone else, or did you create it?

For me, it's partly instinct and partly learned behaviour. I suspect that's true for most writers. My method is somewhat different for each book I've written...while at the same time being a lot the same. I try to plot and plan as much as I can in advance--if I'm going to contract on a proposal (full synopsis and 3 to 5 chapters) that's essential. But even so, when writing each scene and chapter, I leave plenty of room for my subconscious to work freely.

I can be very methodical and nerdy (my outline is my best friend). But I'm totally dependent on fun, funky, touchy-feely stuff. Treading the ground where my characters walked. Getting out of my chair or sofa to physically block a scene. I employ various aids to visualisation--drawing a floor plan of a house, mapping a location, sticking characters' faces on a relationship chart. In the past I've given my characters things that are my own--dogs, clothes, a piece of jewellery, a favourite flower or colour, my birthday.

I play games with myself. In one book, the female protagonist had a name from a Shakespeare play. I took lines from that play, ever so slightly paraphrased so they didn't sound Elizabethan and out of period but were recognisable (to actors or Shakespeare scholars), and placed one quote in each chapter, in dialogue. I'm the only person in the world that knows about it. (Ooops, not any longer!) When my editor suggested a minimal change to one of those very lines, I resisted. And I won.

Back when I wrote my first novel, I'd never taken a creative writing class in my life (unless screenwriting counts). But I was a literature major as an undergrad, which taught me how to analyse--which really helps in the revision phase. Planning a novel is fun and thrilling. Crafting a novel can be a long, hard slog with enough sublime moments of inspiration and joy to keep me going. Revising a novel is my strength, and I'm lucky to have professional experience as an editor. I'm not always as objective about my work as I probably should be, but I can be very tough. I'd rather edit myself ruthlessly than have the editor do it to me.

During my career, having heard many lectures on writing techniques, and having taught fiction writing myself, and from working as a free-lance editor, I've gained a some sophistication about what it is I'm doing, and why, but honestly, it's still mostly instinctive. On some level, I'm basically always flying into the mist--even if I'm clutching a map.

I'm not married to my method. We writers L-O-V-E hearing about other writers' processes. We believe--we hope--somebody has a magic formula or easy shortcut...because the work of really good authors seems so effortless. Such is not the case! And what works for other people doesn't necessarily work for me. Sometimes trying out a new approach is mind-expanding. Other times it's frustrating.

Within the past 24 hours a colleague who has published many more books than I, and has probably hit every bestseller list there is (multiple times), was asking me about my character chart--seeking that magic formula. Like I said, we are intensely curious about each other!

I'm hoping for a productive afternoon, despite feeling a bit weary--not from legislating. Very early this morning, between 3 and 4 a.m., Ruth needed to go outside. Once we were all comfortably settled back in bed, inspiration struck. My brain got stuck on a new scene I need to write. The good news is that while lying there in the dark, I composed a huge chunk of it. The other good news is that I have perfect recall of all that dialogue and narrative.

The bad news is that my thoughts were flying so fast, I didn't get back to sleep until a little while before it was time to get up.

That's the other reason I stopped for that shot of liquid sugar from Dunkin Donuts.

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