I am coming up on six years of being a writer. On February 20, 2012 I put words to paper for my first – still incomplete – novel. Since then I have not yet published anything (except this lovely blog) but I have finished writing two short stories; finished a second novel; started three other short stories; and have four rejections to my name. While my publishing may have been limited, 2017 was a big learning year for me, and from that learning, I am hoping to get two pieces polished in 2018 and start circulating them through the journals I’ve identified as good fits for my work.
One evolutionary writing step happened this year, when mid-book I would switch into reading-as-a-writer mode. As I read, I’d start thinking about what the author was doing, and learn from that new perspective. Below are 3 works that helped me grow as a writer in 2017.
Slade House, by David Mitchell
I didn’t know reading-as-a-writer was a real thing, until I saw a talk by Jennifer Haigh. Part of her process is to find keystone works. Not books she wants to copy, but books that do something well that is relevant to her work, and new to her, such as using the first person point-of-view or being set in the same time period. Her recommendation was to find this keystone book, dissect it, take notes, and learn how a published author accomplished the task you are attempting.
As an avid reader, this process makes sense to me. While most writing books stress that you have to read to be a writer – a writing skill I’ve always been good at, the not-writing one – they don’t tell you what to do with all that reading. But now I know there is a catalog of works in my head that I can refer to as a writer when I’m trying to do something new. That said, sometimes fate and the muses smile and the right book falls in your lap at the right time.
That’s what happened with Slade House. I’d just finished reading it when I saw Haigh’s talk. Instantly I realized that I’d just read a keystone book for my in-progress novel. Slade House is set in five vignettes spaced exactly nine years apart. Each section is told in the same setting and has common characters, which is exactly what my book does, but in annual increments. I was struggling with how to size each mini-story, and keep the pace moving, which Slade House does incredibly well. There were mini-climax moments in each time period, but the overall plot of the book escalated up to the final climax in the last year. Again, this is exactly how I want my book paced. Based on Haigh’s suggestion I got out my note-cards and spreadsheets and analyzed how Mitchell created his story. I now have a guide for how to move my story along, avoid repetition in my world building, and write something that might work for publication. Oh, and that elusive comparable title I’ll need for querying agents? Done.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi
This book could have gone on my list of most hated books for 2017. Bacigalupi wrote a novel about climate change, a topic about which I am both passionate and have close to expert knowledge, and I hated it. Best of all, I read this for my beloved Apocalyptic Fiction class, so I got to publicly explain my loathing, which is why magic happened.
It’s easy to hate a book. It’s easy to dismiss the author, say they suck, and quit reading. It’s hard to sit in a class for three weeks and tease out the exact moments that turned you off, then dissect those moments, then hear other’s contrasting opinions, then have an epiphany, then explain to the other writers in class your epiphany: real characters and believable interaction are more important to me than plot or world building or theme or language or anything.
The moment when Bacigalupi’s tortured heroine springs from the chair she’s been strapped to and starts cleaning out her rescuer’s bullet wound made me want to throw my Kindle across the room. People do not act that way. People do not jump up when they have been physically tortured to care for some person they might have a crush on. Women do not dismiss off their oozing wounds, throw a shirt on over their naked torso and become ad hoc medical professionals. I do not want to write unbelievable scenes like that. I want humanity. I want you to feel the desperation of torture, experience the burgeoning attraction between the heroine and her rescuer, understand the agony of pulling a shirt on over shredded skin, and realize, with the heroine, that her survival requires that her rescuer doesn’t die. That is how I wanted the story told, and I am so grateful for Bacigalupi doing it in the completely wrong way, so I can understand my values as a writer and how I want my story told.
I will never read that book again. If I had a paper copy I would have composted it to save others from having to read it, but I am a much better writer for having struggled through the reading and understanding.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer? Do you ever want to quit and do something sensible? When this happens, go find Madeline L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech. Unfortunately, it’s been removed from her website, but it is published in the back of the 50th anniversary paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time. It’s worth a trip to your local library to find it, but don’t read it in the stacks or you might find yourself crying next to children looking for the dinosaur book section.
The section that matters to me begins with a quote that is now hung up next to my writing desk, “Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.” L’Engle goes on to talk about her writing of A Wrinkle in Time and says, “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice.” I read these words – the words of an author I have loved since I was a child, the words of the first author I ever met in person – when I was ready to give up on my stories. I found the process of editing too hard. I was never going to be any good at grammar. I had totally screwed up and published the first draft of my best short story on my blog and no one was ever going to publish it. I was just wasting my time. Again, the muses smiled on me when I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books and then thumb past the reader’s guide to find inspiration when I needed it most.
I write like Madeline L’Engle writes. I write because I have a story I have to tell. Maybe no one but me and my mom will ever read my stories – and she won’t even read the dentist one – but a Newbery Medal winner feels about writing the same way I do. Reading her speech kept 2017 from being the year I quit writing.
In 2017 I found a book to show me how to architect my novel. I found I book where I learned how not to write. And I found a book that inspired me to keep writing. What did you read this year that changed you?
A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.
– Madeline L’Engle, 1963 Newbury Medal Award Speech