How to Read Fiction and Watch Movies to Add Depth and Feeling to Your Writing
This week has been very bad for writing. By now I hoped to be twenty five thousand words in. I’m not.
If you keep in mind that when pushed and under the gun -- such as when I got an invitation for an anthology and had an afternoon in which to deliver – I can and have written eleven thousand words in three hours, it seems as though there could be no possible excuse. And there isn’t.
I can give you all the reasons for why I’m not further advanced than the first few pages of the novel.
First, my time has been horribly cut up. But then, when isn’t it? Mostly I write in the intervals between cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, helping my sons with whatever project needs help, helping my friends with whatever project needs help, looking over page proofs, editing, running promotions on my self-published stuff, keeping track of the labyrinthine tax and business law affecting small businesses, getting exasperated at the news, and trying to get in at least an hour of physical exercise. Sometimes it’s a miracle I write at all.
A lot could be said about women and women’s role in a family, and how much I do, and not prioritizing my profession over the day to day of family routine. Most of it would be wrong.
I know for a fact, from talking to my male writer friends, that the ones who stayed home to write – i.e., were lucky enough to have a wife who could support them – faced the same pressures as any woman. It’s not a sexist thing, but an example of trying to make it in a field that very rarely pays and even more rarely pays well.
In my long, long apprenticeship (thirteen years before selling my first short story, but keep in mind that for a lot of that time I was barely writing, and rarely submitting because of this process), when it seemed highly unlikely I would ever sell, if the choice was between writing a new chapter or really cleaning the kitchen, a spit-shine (only not literally, because yuck) of the kitchen always won out. The kitchen, after all, affected other people now. Writing another chapter of the novel merely fractionally increased the chances of my selling a novel; and since those chances were minimal to begin with, to write or not to write was not a question.
The temptation to treat your writing as a fun hobby or a romantic affliction is far too strong. I’m reminded of the quote from the movie Sliding Doors when the no-good boyfriend is asked if he’s finally finished his novel and he answers: “I’m a novelist. I’ll never be done.” (The hysterical laughter that a friend and I – both of us novelists – erupted in when that line came up probably puzzled the rest of the theater.)
Even for novelists who have finished many novels, finishing each new novel requires fighting back the encroaching tide of quotidian distractions.
That this week included “interesting events” in the news, an unusual number of appointments, and other such things having to do with family and other such obligations is an explanation but not an excuse. While you’re writing, real life keeps on happening. And in the ultimate analysis, Robert A. Heinlein was right when he said:
In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.
So the goal is important, which is what I’m trying to give myself with this thirteen-week program.
Heinlein waxed eloquent about how to vanquish this sort of daily distraction in his Channel Makers speech -- a fan of mine reminded me of it on my blog:
It means working when you don’t feel like working, even though there is no one to tell you that you must. It means following these rules even when you are disheartened by a long string of rejections and your head aches and your stomach is upset—and your wife thinks you are a fool not to look for a job. It means refusing to see your best friends when you are writing. It means telling your wife and children to get out of your study and stay out! It means offending people who can’t understand that writing must not be interrupted—not for dinner parties, not for birth, not even for Christmas. It means getting a reputation as a bad-tempered, self-centered curmudgeon—and resigning yourself to living with that reputation no matter how eagerly you want to be liked—and writers do want to be liked, else they would not be trying to reach people through writing.
And trust me, I’ve lost friends who thought I was too “self-centered” and too “ambitious” because I insisted on finishing a novel on time. If you want to succeed in any self-directed field of endeavor, be it art, science, or literature, it is what is required. And it is worth it.
But there is more to it. I mean, I know these techniques of discipline and focus and I’ve been employing them for years. So why did the writing come to a complete stall, and why I couldn’t force myself to do it? If I can write an eleven thousand word story in an afternoon, how can I add less than two thousand words to the novel in progress in a week?
Part of it is because a novel isn’t a short story. I know, I know. You’re grateful for my amazing insight and wish to subscribe to my newsletter.
And yet, it’s true. When you’re writing a short, self-contained piece, all you need is an idea of the high points to hit: beginning, middle, resolution. And then you run with it. Even so, my most egregious example was the one above: the story that was eleven thousand words and written in three hours. It’s called An Answer From The North; and frankly, it is more of a prose poem than anything else. I was asked to write about “kingdoms of the fairy” so I went for a walk, and got the general idea, came back and typed it in. I’d been reading a lot of paleontological research, which managed to fall in sideways and on the sly.
The novel I wrote in the shortest time – three days – was Plain Jane, a work-for-hire retelling of Jane Seymour’s life (Henry VIII’s wife, not the actress). I could only do it that fast because the story was to a great extent set, and also because I’d spent fifteen years or so reading about the Tudors and had a background knowledge of the “touch and feel of the period.”
Of course, in addition to those three days of writing, I spent a week reading up on Jane, specifically, and researching the facts of her life, including the “everyone knows” that turn out not to be so. But that would have been insufficient if I hadn't been able to immerse myself in the period through the piles of documentaries, historical novels, and biographies I’d read of people who lived there.
And here we come to the main difference between novels and shorter, self-contained pieces: a novel by its very length and complexity needs to partake of the nature of the real world. Not literally, of course. Stories in the real world are way too complex; it’s difficult to find meaning in them; and they all end in death. In fact it could be argued that the main job of a novelist is to make order out of the chaos of real life. (At least it is if you don’t like the sort of inconclusive too-literary-for-words novel that makes you feel you should slash your wrists because everything is pointless.)
As I watched my poor novel stuck still in the starting position in this race, and with only four weeks to go, I realized I’d hit a similar point with A Few Good Men, though granted about halfway through. Which threw me. I kept thinking I needed to have more written before I hit this kind of problem. I was forgetting the difference between the books.
As with Through Fire, A Few Good Men is a novel about a portion of a revolution. I didn’t think it plausible to write a revolution that engulfed the whole Earth, even if the whole Earth was kept under a series of interconnected tyrannical regimes before. I posited that the revolution against those regimes would be piecemeal, local, and each individual “revolution” would have its own flavor and its own flaws and virtues.
The revolution in A Few Good Men starts halfway through the book. In Through Fire, we’re in the middle of it as the novel starts. And the problem was that despite all my reading on the French Revolution (which this portion of the series resembles), I was lacking the complexity of the real events.
Let me put it this way: the history books tell things as a forward progression, but they fail to inject all the uncertainties and day-to-day reverses of life at the time. This is why once I watched a series of documentaries on the Revolutionary War, the setbacks, the very real uncertainty of the time, I could make A Few Good Men sound far more true to what it was like to live in a revolutionary time of idealistic ferment, when (of course) no one knew that the revolution would succeed.
My problem with doing that for the French Revolution is that there don’t seem to be very good documentaries and/or novels set in the time period. At least the ones I could find were even more sanitized than the history books, in the sense that they had little feel for real daily life.
Still, I’ve done a little of it, and I think I’m ready.
Last week I told you to bull through the sense that you were going wrong. Most of the time this works, both for me and – I assume – for most people.
This time when I tried it, it didn’t work. So, in despair, I turned to reading things in a similar period to what I’m writing about.
Even if your work is in no way historical, there will be time periods that resemble what you’re writing about, or events that resemble the ones you’re describing. Though I don’t advise true-crime books to anyone, even those can be valuable to the mystery writer.
It reminds us that outside our neatly ordered story, in the real world, things happen with far more complexity than any writer could create.
The important thing to remember is to limit your time of working without writing. And to come back to your book ready to work and with new vision, knowing not just where you want to go and the important places to see, but also the scenic routes that make a journey unforgettable.