I got so much from Page After Page. It was not a book of technique or a step-by-step guide, though it did have exercises. It described a philosophical approach to why writers write and what it takes to be a writer. The book helped me to see myself as a writer and that I had what it took to sustain a writing life which I had unknowingly been living for years. As I read and contemplated chapter after low-keyed chapter, I began to realize that I had built up so many internal barriers and created so many false definitions, I believed being a writer was a claim only someone lucky enough to publish could make.
If Page After Page was an altar-call to be a writer, then Chapter After Chapter was a devotional, a “…meditation…”, as Heather puts it, on “…the art of writing a book.” I cannot express how grateful I am for her distinctive“…approach to a special kind of writing life” (Sellers 1). Based on my experience with Page After Page, I read each chapter with anticipation, appreciating each carefully crafted idea and observation. I found so much that resonated with me personally in each chapter, that I had to resist blasting through the whole book in one or two settings. I put the brakes on however, and took nearly two months to read it giving over time to reflect, meditate and think on what she’d had to say. As a result, even the parts that at first blush seemed unrelated to me and my experience, I nearly always found an application within.
Chapter After Chapter is divided into three parts. The first is devoted to preparations just prior to plunging into the process of starting a manuscript. The second section concerns itself with the writing of a novel-length manuscript and the unique challenges a writer faces during that stage. The third and final part offers advice and observations on the process’s post-writing phase.
The first two parts were the most pertinent to me as I’m far from anywhere near the publication stage of the process. This does not mean that I found nothing presently applicable in the section three. On the contrary, the chapters were quite informative in preview and will be invaluable once I reach that stage of the process.
In section one, I found so many rich veins of precious ore that I’m sure I will be refining for some time to come. Three chapters in particular, “Surround Sound,” “Positioning” and “Faith in Writing,” stand out in a gallery of outstanding offerings. In “Surround Sound” Heather returns to a theme from Page After Page wherein she paraphrased the age old adage that for every day a writer takes off from writing, his muse takes three. I have suffered this, “…insidious mental weed called Creep” (Sellers 52) without realizing it. How many times have I allowed the intention to write or a specific project to ‘creep’ right out from under me until it died a hardly noticeable death? The observations and advice in “Surround Sound” gave me strategies for recognizing Creep and how to prevent it from taking over my writing garden,
“Positioning” contains great advice that bears immediate and dramatic fruit. I now position or ‘pre-position’ every night before I sleep. I open what ever Word doc. manuscript I’m presently working on, prepare new headers, label it for the next morning’s session, then reduce it to the taskbar. I open my handwritten writing log, date and time it for the morning. I might add a directional note or two reminding me of what I hope to accomplish during my morning session. I set the dogs’ dishes next to the library door where I write. Finally, I fill the coffee pot and set the timer of Oh-Dark-30 and lay out my work clothes for the next day. It is amazing how much energy this simple ritual gives my writing time from 04:00 to 05:30. As I have said in other blog entries, no other 90 minutes during the whole day is nearly as productive. If for nothing else, Heather’s advice on the how, why and wherefore of setting up this ritual was worth the price of the book.
Being a man of faith myself, I appreciated “Faith in Writing.” Its message resonated strongly with me. As the title suggests, writers must have faith in their writing and in the act of performing it. Writers work hard and quietly in monkish isolation, striving for an intangible goal, a construct only they can see within their hearts. This is as true a description of faith as I can think of. People outside writing find this odd or even irritating as we faithfully soldier on true toward our invisible goal.
The chapter further explores the non-writer question of what good is a world full of writers when realistically only a few of that burgeoning group will ever take their writing beyond self-publication? Her thought provoking and dead-bang answer taps into a part of me that responds with giddy and relieved happiness at having found a kindred spirit who ‘gets it.’ As an educator, this touches me deeply.
There were so many other insights gained from this section and its chapters: “The Book 100,” “The Burden of Being” and “Once Upon a Whine,” to name a few. My copy is covered in handwritten notes, underscores and yellow highlighter. The center section was no less insightful and thought provoking, providing immediate results. Its chapters, “Wise Guides,” “Briads” and “Stuck/Unstuck,” were exceptionally helpful.
In “Wise Guides,” Heather points out that many of us in our gushing need for guidance rush to the How-To-Write-Fiction/NonFiction/Genre bookshelves for advice, buying or checking out all kinds of books on writing. In a desperate frenzy we read about this author’s method and that author’s exercises. I think that the very week I read that particular chapter, a parcel arrived from Writer’s Digest containing no less than three writing books, two of which began with the title: “The Complete Guide to Writing…” I nearly laughed out loud. Heather suggests in “Wise Guides” that we should narrow our choices and carefully choose but a small handful of ‘advisors’ from both the this-is-how-you-do-it camp (books on writing) and the this-is-how-I-did-it camp (books like the one we wish to write). If we try read them all, we’ll lose time for writing our own manuscripts and be conflicted to boot.
It is with unabashed pleasure that I admit to one of my Wise Guides being Chapter After Chapter representing camp one, and Robert E. Howard from camp two, specifically “Red Nails.” Her rationale for suggesting this strategy and her explanation on how to go about it lifted from me the heavy burden of knowing so little and the anxiety of failing to take in all the how-to’s before attacking my own manuscript. I felt free to pursue my writing and did not feel pursued by hounding experts baying after me,
(indent)“You didn’t read my ‘Idiots Guide to Novel Writing and Publication’…there are secrets here you must know! One false step…and it could be over before you begin!”
(indent)“You must finish ‘The Writer’s Adventure in Archetypes’ if you want to use archetypes and don’t know how? What if you do but don’t do it right!?”
(indent)“You can’t write good dialogue until you’ve read, ‘The Fiction Conversation: A Guide to Knowing If It Sounds Real,’ and done all the exercises herein. You don’t want your character’s to sound stupid…do you?!”
Stop the hurting!
This chapter helped me to shush the guilty voices in my head and to concentrate on my manuscript, Wise Guides at my side ready for a quiet consult when I needed it.
I have mixed feelings about “Braids.” Part of this has to do with where I was in my manuscript at the time I read the chapter which was right after finishing one of those it-wrote-itself sections and I was thinking ahead to the manuscript’s end game. I had already passed the mid-point of my story and it is this vast desert in the middle that Heather uses as her chapter’s a guiding metaphor. The middle of a manuscript can be a place of sun-bleached manuscript bones, a place marked with the tracks of wandering and lost writers. In nautical terms: a manuscript middle can be the doldrums. You’ve worked so hard and suddenly, poof, no steam, no pop, no interest.
Heather suggests that this is the very spot a manuscript needs some zest, an “…element of discovery…” to lift it from the sands of boredom and lethargy (149). An additional storyline might just be what the doctor ordered, adding life and a thickening to the plot just where it’s at its thinnest.
She illustrates the success of such a strategy by relating the story of a creative writing student named Christian. The point she made with his story, again, struck a cord with me and I looked back at my middle and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t strained, rushed and thin. I could see where I’d been wandering about a bit, making half-hearted attempts to find water. It needed something and I suspected I knew what that something might be.
“Braids” suggested that rushing toward the climactic moment might have been a bit premature. Though it’s good to keep the ultimate goal of a manuscript in the mind, trying to push the manuscript toward its end is not a good thing. I have found, in my limited experience, that a manuscript is organic and alive to our subconscious and there may be some unexpected growing to do in areas our conscious mind had not planned for but which makes the manuscript richer and more complete. I wonder if I did not suffer from the doldrums right there in the middle and without realizing it skated over the issue with poor writing in my eagerness to be on my way toward the end of the manuscript. Though I may have tweaked the chapter’s intent to fit my need, it nonetheless highlighted a weakness in my manuscript and a method for improving it.
“Stuck/Unstuck” afforded me concrete strategies for dealing with this writing bug-a-boo. I’m sure every writer eventually develops a tool chest of personal strategies that work for them, familiar tried and true instruments of lifting a manuscript out of a tight spot or sticky mire. I remember one particular section of my manuscript wherein I was at a critical juncture, but I couldn’t get beyond a certain sticky point in the scene to make it work. Every option either made no sense or fell flat as disingenuous.
I took the “Make a List” strategy and became Santa bloody Claus! I made a list of no less than 112 ‘ways’ to escape the trap I was in, some of them plausible some ridiculous. Key, however, was allowing the list to go where it wished and I found myself making sub lists. One of these was a list of reasons why I felt the scene’s content wasn’t working, why I was struggling. I went over the list again, crossed out the bad boys and girls and underlined the good boys and girls. From there I continued the exercise until I lit upon a solution that wasn’t far from my original yet murky and nebulous idea. This time however, it was more considered and tempered by the other ideas that came up during the listing exercise. The time it took to draw up the lists? All damn day, two counting the time I took that evening to think about the last version before my writing session the next day. The list, as Heather suggested, “…gave [me] back [my] power to choose” (168).
As I mentioned in and earlier entry, I finished my manuscript’s first draft on September 16th and am now preparing for the longer revision stage by construction an accurate outline of the story as it is now. Thus, parts of section three of Chapter After Chapter do not yet ring as truly as I’m sure they will in future. This does not mean there aren’t gems to mine…oh, no. In fact the very first chapter, “Writing Is Revising” had plenty of rough cut gemstone to contemplate.
Over and over I remind of my composition students of that age old adage, “…great writing is not written; it is re-written, re-written and written again…” They groan and know a re-visioning of their work is on the homework slate. In this chapter Heather makes it clear that rewrites are actually a refining process similar to the process a musician or athlete goes through when they are perfecting their art. Each practice, eath go-through is a new version of the old set or exercise. There will be failures, glaring problems will make themselves known (something my students most decidedly do not want to acknowledge), but the process of trying this that ultimately fails and that which improves is like purifying gold in the fire. Writing is refined in the re-writing/re-visioning crucible. Impurities are gradually leeched out and burned away producing a subtly changed and lustrous manuscript. She makes many more amazing points, a couple of which I have to quote here for their pith and truth.
(indent)“Writing is not furniture assembly” (177). Hear-hear! By all the gods, hear-hear!
(indent)“Learning is a series of little improvements punctuated by many, many, many terrible disasters” (178). If there is one reason for present day mediocrity in so many fields of endeavor, it’s this propensity to avoid the difficult and crave the easy. Head ache? Take a pill. Weight loss? Do the same. Change the channels on the T.V.? Use the remote.
(indent)“If you wish to rise, Sextus, do the difficult,” said Ben Hur’s Mesalla. True, true.
There is more to this chapter than simply stating the obvious: writers need to re-write and re-vision. Heather offers a way of seeing revising, of working through the process, that removes it from the realm of drudgery and grind and elevates it to its proper station as a mark of the mature writer. I don’t think I’ve ever looked more forward to the discoveries I’ll make during my revision process as I prepare to separate the wheat from the chaff of my first draft.
An observation on a final chapter and then I’ll close my epic of blatant and unrepentant hero worship. Though I have a lot of ground to cover, many things to learn and an enormous amount of words to write before reaching the point of deciding if my manuscript goes under-the-bed as a point checked off my Bucket List or is prepped for a run at the ‘brass ring’, “No One Tells You,” was a chapter I got a lot from. Here, Heather points out that there are many customs, taboos and truths about the writing sub-culture, particularly about a writer’s post-publication state of being, that no one tells you about. For example, she unapologetically, yet gently, deconstructs the I’m-a-published-author-and-the-world-is-at-my-feet stereotype many of us in the unwashed masses category have dreamed up concerning how it will be after we publish our first missive. The truth is very few will walk the highroad of King, Rowling and Tolkien let along soar to the heady heights of Fitzgerald, Kafka or the Brontës.
“Writing a book doesn’t gain you entry into the Special Club of Famous Authors. Your life, post-book, looks like your life now” (223). She follows this statement with a confession of how she erroneously thought it was going to be, how she learned otherwise and a list of 11 hardcore “No one tells you…” items every writers who aspires to publication should be aware of concerning, “…author etiquette…” and “…how to market your book” (225, 227).
One of the many gems in this chapter was the humorous-because-it-is-too-true paragraph that starts out, “Reality check: The club of people interesting in books and authors is pretty small. That’s why most of your co-workers and friends can tell you who wan the last American Idol, but they don’t know who won the last National Book Award (224). Tragic and true (by the way, that would be Jaimy Gordon for Fiction; Patti Smith for Non-fiction; Terrance Hayes for poetry; and Kathryn Erskine in the area of YA fiction for 2010.
As time goes on and I pursue my writing craft, I know I will come across other experts in the field whose advice and suggestions illicit from me epiphany-al moments and similar blatant admiration…maybe. My reaction to Heather’s observations may simply be a case of my effective filters having never been provoked by her style or the synchronicity of the right things written for me to read at the right moment in my life. I also acknowledge that what I understood and what Heather intended might not be the same either. All three are probably true, but what is also true is that I know I will return to her guides often; indeed, she will likely be one of my “three wise guides” from now on. And I’m sure I’ll gain even deeper insights into the craft, art and philosophy of writing and how they might be applied to my own humble attempts.
Originally posted in The Salamander’s Quill 1.0 now deleted.