Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Writer's Guide

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. 
 —E.L. Doctorow
I've been writing a lot lately, which makes me feel like a freaking superhero. Sometimes, I do my best work when I'm not really paying attention to it—in fact, when I actively avoid thinking about it—because then my brain doesn't get in the way of my work. It's not that I enter some sort of fugue state or anything, just that, if I'm thinking about the work, the work starts taking on this mythic quality—it becomes The Work—and I then crumble under my self-imposed pressure.

But things have been different recently. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm writing, not just daydreaming about how JJ Abrams is going to option my book and turn it into a movie and then kids are going to read the comic based and people will cosplay it at conventions and I will be so, so rich. I'm trying to figure out plot arcs, get to know my characters (would she go to a dance by herself? No, but she might go if a friend went with her!), and build up their world so that, when I'm writing, I can flow effortlessly from a tense meeting written from one character's perspective, to a bit of dialect that marks another character as being Of Interest, to a description of a hot afternoon in the middle of a field. It's like brain yoga: I can feel the story's muscles sliding around on my body.

Dudes, it is so much fun.

But I'm not an expert at this. And while I'm trying to honour my beginner's mind (TM), I'm also well aware that I have some pretty wide knowledge gaps. I need some guides.

I'm partial to Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, a writing guide that is equal parts snark, Christian forgiveness, and actual useful tips. It's amazing, filled with great quotes from other writers and creative types, and it offers clear-eyed compassion for people who feel compelled to make or tell stories. "Often when you sit down to write," she says, "what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of—oh, say—say women." This make me laugh uproariously in high school, when the combination of low stakes and deadlines allowed me to churn out nice writing; it still makes me laugh now, because occasionally I discover that I've spent the last few hours daydreaming about an epic history of co-operative housing. She also introduced me to this incredible poem, which still takes my breath away.

So I turn to you: what writing resources have you unearthed that have changed your methods or outlook? Are there books or blogs, writers or poets, who have told you something true and useful about the process of writing? A great and pithy quote? A magazine you turn to occasionally? I'm looking for some new signposts, not to lead the way, but to help me stay on track.