Sunday, January 30, 2011

TALKING ABOUT THE NOVEL YOU'RE WORKING ON

Hi folks!

Sometimes, the obvious is so much in plain sight—right in front of our eyes, so close that we can reach out and touch it—that we fail to see it. That’s happened to me more times than I can count, and I’ll bet it’s happened to you as well.

One of those times this happened to me was the day I realized I was “talking” my novel and not writing it. It happened when I was sick with the flu and had to take a couple of days off work. Best illness I ever had!

At the time, I was a hair designer. Had a very successful salon called “Bold Strokes” that my wife Mary and I owned. We were booked solid weeks in advance. Each day, I saw an average of fifteen clients. I was writing at the time and it was a topic of conversation with just about every person who sat in my chair. I loved talking about my writing and they at least claimed they loved hearing about it.

“What’re you working on now, Les?” was a familiar question. Or, “How’s the novel going? What’s happened since the last time (she was in)?”

And, off I’d go. I’d regale my captive audience with what my characters were doing, what I planned to have them do. Watch their faces as I described the twist I was planning. Seeing their surprise and hearing their words of praise just felt good. Better than being hit in the eye with a short stick, anyway.

And discovered that more and more, my daily output was diminishing. And not by a little. By a lot.

I thought maybe it was all over. That the well had run dry. That it was probably a good thing that I had a trade and was good at it.

Actually, I’m glossing over what I actually felt. What I actually felt was… suicidal. If I couldn’t write any longer, what was the point? It was my life—the important part, anyway. My wife sensed my despair and began cutting up my meat before she served it and hid all the sharp instruments.

And, then, I got sick. Really sick, hurling chunks sick.

Had to go home. For two days.

Best thing that ever happened to me.

Why?

Well, because during that first midmorning, I felt good enough to get up and sit down in front of my typewriter. (For those of you too young to remember, a “typewriter” was a medieval machine used to create letters and stuff like that. Novels. Kidnap notes. It looked something like a computer keyboard does, but without the screen and the Internet. No porn available with it. If you ever get to a museum, chances are they’ll have one on display back with the arrowheads from the Nez Pierce. Look at it carefully and try to imagine writing on something without a Delete key… Now you know why it’s okay to laugh whenever somebody talks about the “good old days.”)

For months before my illness, I’d struggle mightily to write a page or two of my novel each night. This particular morning, I ripped off ten pages before I even had my first cup of coffee. Ended up with over twenty pages for the day. The next day, I did even better. Wrote almost thirty pages. For you non-writers, that’s a lot. Got fifty pages written in two days! I was back! I was a writer again!

I went back to work the next day and couldn’t wait to get back to my typewriter at the end of the day. And didn’t end up with as much as a single page, even though I’d sat in front of it for over two hours. Two stinkin’ paragraphs. Lousy paragraphs that I would have crumpled up and thrown away if it wasn’t all I had to show for my time.

WTF! (Translated, that means, “What the heck!”)

What was happening? Were the previous two days some kind of evil trick God was playing on me? Had those two Jehovah Witnesses who had stopped by placed a curse on me for telling them I believed in reincarnation and was coming back as Cheryl Tiegs' favorite bra? (I’m dating myself here, aren’t I…)

I have to tell you I honestly felt despair. It was like watching someone going crazy and then realizing you were looking into a mirror.

What’d I do? What any intelligent person does when they face a problem of this magnitude. I went home and opened a bottle of Jack and began knocking it back. What? You thought I was going to say I went to church and a minister talked to me and I had my “come to Jesus” moment? Nah… Just cracked open some Jack and tried to think. For those who say alcohol never solves any problems, well… all I can say is he’s never been to my church and heard my preacher…

It probably wasn’t the Jack, to be honest, but I did some serious thinking and realized something. What was different about the days off. The difference was I hadn’t talked about my novel to a single person.

That was it! I had my eureka moment. (Thank you, Mr. Daniels…) The lightbulb went off and I saw clearly what my almost nonexistent writing output was all about.

I was talking it all out before I got to the typewriter. I’d actually been “writing” all day when I was regaling my clients. By the time I got home in the evening, I’d already been “writing” for 12 hours. There was just nothing left. I was simply spent by the time I got home.

Do you supposed I quit talking to my clients about whatever I was working on and began to produce prodigious quantities of pages nightly? Well, as a matter of fact, I did. That’s exactly what happened. And I haven’t stopped. I mean, jeez, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but this was pretty obvious, even to me.

Like I said at the beginning of this—sometimes the obvious is in plain sight. Once you see it, it’s probably a good idea not to forget it. And I haven’t. These days, I don’t talk much about whatever I’m working on at all. I may talk about something I’ve already written, but there’s no way I’m going to talk to anyone about the work I’m planning on doing. I do that and it’s already written. Only it’s not yet on paper. I don’t see any advantage in that at all.

I don’t even tell my wife Mary what I’m working on any more. To her credit (or perhaps good sense or good taste), she doesn’t ask or care. She knows she’ll get to read it once it’s published. That’s good enough for her. I’m not even sure she reads it then, although she’s got the good grace to pay for her own copy and I can’t ask for more than that.

If you find yourself at the coffee shop or at work or wherever and talking to friends about what you’re working on, ask yourself if you’re not doing what I did—writing it before you get to your typewriter. Although… you probably have a computer…

If you think you are, there’s a simple solution.

Quit doing that.

The fee for this priceless information should you feel morally obligated to remit it is the price of a bottle of Jack.

Next week, I’ll talk about how laying on the couch and staring into space is the writer working. This one will be aimed at spouses…

Blue skies,
me

 Talking philosophy here, not novels... Seriously...

21 comments:

Donna Hole said...

Hmm, I think I'm guilty of this too. (But not the Jack - I'm a wino) I never thought of it that way; telling the story before I write it all out.

Something to think on.

........dhole

Bri Clark said...

Great post Les and I agree. Often that is the case. However, for me personally I need to talk it out. Which is why I have a small wire attached to myself. None of my friends know and I record everything I say and the people around me so I can reference it when I do sit down to write.

It's my generations notebook and pen.

RoFl...no I don't do that. I do in fact have a recording app on my iphone and when I'm talking out stuff with one of those colleague that I ONLY talk to then I pull it out. I do also have a notebook that goes with me everywhere as well.

Bri

Anne Gallagher said...

I guess it's a good thing I'm an isolated writer then. Nary a person to talk to all the live-long day.

I remember typewriters. I did ALL my work at VC on my trusty Smith-Corona. Can you imagine how much better my grades would have been if I'd had a computer?

And does chocolate work the same as Jack? I've been sober for going on 7 years and although I miss Jack terribly, (he was my favorite boyfriend) I had to find something else to take his place.

Les Edgerton said...

Glad you folks liked this. It really changed my output, Donna.

Bri, so it isn't out of line to ask "Are you wearing a wire?" when one meets you? LOL I have a recorder on my phone as well and use it for interviews for books. It's very useful.

And, Anne! I meet someone who might have more white chips than me?! Cool. At one time, I missed Jack as well, and ended up finding a replacement. Jim. Beam, that is... Seriously, good on you--that takes courage and on a daily basis. I salute you!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post, Les. It makes a lot of sense. I like to talk through some ideas with my husband, but I can't stand talking too much about them. I get antsy to actually accomplish something.

Sarah said...

This is a truth I had once known and recently forogtten. Talking about your writing is like letting the sand out of a sandbag. I need to remember to keep my lips sealed about these things. It's much better to feel like you're about to burst with the knowledge of your novel than to feel depressed about it. Thanks, Les~

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I agree, except... you knew there'd be one.

When I brainstorm plot holes and obstacles in my crit group, it always helps me write. It excites me.

But ya. We're storytellers. Don't tell your story out loud or you won't bother to write it down. Hey, wonder if that's why it took humankind so long to learn to write!

euclid said...

Great advice. Thanks, Les. Starting tomorrow...

dawnall said...

I've so been there. It's quite the procrastination plan.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, everyone! Glad it made sense.

Another thing I do is because I don't talk to people about the work any more, I'm hot to get at it each morning, but I treat it like sex in a way. I delay gratification. I begin thinking about where I left off the night before and I'm raring to go, but I force myself to drink a cup of coffee and then I go out in the backyard and shoot hoops for twenty minutes, all the time chomping at the bit to get writing. Then, when I sit down, I can't write fast enough. I do things like this all the time to "trick" myself...

Sex Scenes, you're funny! I like contrarians. But, be careful about brainstorming too much with others... you know how the camel came about don't you? It was a horse designed by a committee...

Julie Musil said...

This is great! I'm actually silent about what I'm writing about, and freeze when someone asks questions about my first draft. Not sure what that means. I'm anxious to read the next post about staring into space. And maybe we can add watching movies to the list of writerly work. (And btw, I learned to type on a typewriter, the kind with the crank for return. You're not alone out there!)

I was honored that you stopped by my blog today. Thank you! HOOKED is amazing, and I appreciate your wisdom within those pages.

T.M. Avery said...

I remember typewriters too. Some of the earliest versions of my stuff was written on a typewriter. ...Okay, so mine had a fancy, teeny, screen that was like a .25" high and 3" wide that allowed me to see mistakes before I hit the button to make it autotype it, but I had a typewriter. A Smith-Corona. They used to look at me funny at Best Buy when I asked for a typewriter ribbon.

I don't really talk to people much about my writing unless we're bouncing ideas off each other and even then I have a pen and notebook with me.

That being said, I'll need your help soon. Book is getting gooder.

patriciahollett said...

Down to earth and honest blog. Less talk, more writing. Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reading it and I'm glad you said it. And I'm glad the days of whiteout/liquid paper are gone! :)

James Curcio said...

I think I save myself from this problem through my innate reaction to the question, "oh you're working on a novel, what's it ABOUT?"

I don't know why, but that question has always been like rusty razorblades on a chalkboard for me. (The fact that I know what that sounds like from experience- let's not go there.) Of course, I smile and dash off something trivial if I'm not either talking to a writer or publisher, but I've never been one for talking out a story I'm working on. It's hard enough for me to talk it up when it's through. I want to get on to the next thing. And you want me to talk about THAT old piece of garbage? You know.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Great post! I remember those type writers, I had a modern one with an eraser key, but it never worked properly. "Kidnap notes" - that had me laughing!

I guess with all the technology around these days, it gives us a chance to edit more.

Best wishes, CJ

Dark_Word said...

Quote: I do that and it’s already written. Only it’s not yet on paper. I don’t see any advantage in that at all.

I often can't help it. I'm so excited about this new idea, this new solution to some frustrating plot point or character clash... I have to tell *someone*. I need to *share*. And then, it all fall apart like paper in water.

Quote: (For those of you too young to remember, a “typewriter” was a medieval machine used to create letters and stuff like that. Novels. Kidnap notes. It looked something like a computer keyboard does, but without the screen and the Internet. No porn available with it.

Oh man, typewriters! I remember them! I learnt on those. Fun times.

Jack Barrow said...

I there's a lot of truth in this. Something to do with the immediacy of the process. I also found that I used to hold onto ideas to use them at a later date when they would REALLY fit in but then I'd forget to use them later.

So I convinced myself that if I have an idea now I should use it now and trust to myself that when I'm writing the next book I'll have other ideas that will come up when I need it then.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks folks for all the great comments!

Julie--sorry, I was kidding about the "staring into space" column. Actually, I was going to write one and then just started staring into space (writing...) and forgot about it...

Tiffany, you're fourteen years old! (Well, you look fourteen...) How can you possibly remember typewriters? :) BTW, I can't wait to read your rewrite. I'm so glad it's getting gooder. You know, we're the only two aware of that word...

I'm with you, Patricia! No mo whiteout! Yea!

James--rusty razorblades on a chalkboard--I love mixed metaphors! Can I steal that one?

Crystal, I wasn't joking. Kidnap notes are an important part of literature. They make more sense (to me)than vampire stories... More profitable, at least...

Dark Word--you just perfectly described my own experience! We now qualify for a "club." I'm working on the secret handshake thingy...

And, Jack--this is one of the most important lessons a writer can learn. Never save anything for future work if it fits! The well will always refill, but sometimes it takes awhile to learn that. Great advice!

You guys rock!

Lydia K said...

I found your blog from Donna Hole's. This post is pretty accurate for what I do sometimes. So insightful. Need to shut my trap and write sometimes, I guess.

Nice to meet you, Les!

Les Edgerton said...

Nice to meet you, too, Lydia. Hope you enjoy roaming around in here! Donna has a cool blog--I go there all the time.

Anne R. Allen said...

Great post. Important subject. I think new novelists generally do tend to "talk out their books." It's partly that we want to know we're on the right track and partly because we're so absorbed in our imaginary worlds. (And some people are naturally storytellers rather than scriveners--Bri's idea is a good one.) I know I used to do it--until my friends' eyes glazed over, and then some. Bad for my writing, bad for my friendships. Thanks for this great reminder!