Writers With Answers

Editor's Note: Every Tuesday and Saturday, for the foreseeable future, we'll be posting some short answers to literary questions from Lighthouse faculty. 

Tuesday, April 7: What do you think is one of the most common roadblocks for beginning/intermediate writers and what advice do you have to overcome it?

Paula Younger: A lot of beginning writers talk about writing instead of doing it, and they become too attached to their ideas. They have an ending in mind and they rush through their story, ignoring the majority of the story where the rising action and character development happens, to get to the ending. That ending isn't as powerful or as great of a twist as the writer expected because it hasn't been earned. They are left with flat characters, little tension, and a story that could take place anywhere. The writer missed out on what a story is. Write and finish, but also take your time. 

E.L. Doctorow has the famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

It can be hard writing a book-length manuscript that way, but this works well for stories and essays. Take your time. Slowly make your way forward in your story. 

The other common writing advice is to plant yourself in a chair, stay in the room and write. But staying in the room also means staying in the room of your story. Pay attention to what the situation and the character gives you. Fumble around. Try things out. Surprise yourself and have fun. That's the best way to make it surprising and yet believable for the reader too.

Erika Krouse: I think one of the biggest writerly roadblocks is the myth of the golden pen—the idea of natural talent. A talented writer is supposedly able to produce great writing without trying hard, but that's simply not the case. This expectation hampers many writers at every level, making them stuck, scared, demotivated, lazy, intimidated, or even (sometimes) too egotistical to get out of their own way. It's hard to feel inspired to write when you're judging yourself and your work as "good" or "bad."

Rather than try to write something good, try to write something interesting. And for a subject to interest others, it must captivate you. Stop monitoring yourself and follow your passions. Grammatically.

Rachel Weaver: I think the biggest roadblock is expecting that it will take much less time than it does to write a book. Then self-doubt creeps in when suddenly it’s been a couple years and your friends have switched from asking you in excited tones how the book is coming to avoiding the subject altogether. Most of us start out thinking I’m going to write a book! We imagine writing two, maybe three drafts, and then bright lights and big cities. That’s what I did, anyway. And when that didn’t happen, I figured I was not good at this whole book writing thing and that I better get some nicer shoes and get a job in a bank. But I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, I stuck with it, draft by draft, year by year, studying all the intricacies of craft, and working at it until I could get all the moving pieces working together, all of which was one of the hardest and most satisfying things I’ve ever done.


Saturday, April 4: How do you keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed as you are working on a book length project? Or, once you get overwhelmed, what do you do to combat it?

Jenny Wortman: I keep myself from feeling overwhelmed by breaking the project into small pieces. Usually this comes naturally, as I mostly write short and flash fiction. But now that I'm writing something that could be a novel, I look at it as linked stories or a novel-in-stories, which helps me navigate it both practically and psychologically. The other thing I always do, no matter what I write, is give myself permission to write god-awful first drafts. I invite sloppiness and sloth into the process, and that cuts against my perfectionism until I have enough material to shape into something better. Knowing I'll make significant changes later allows me to relax and get the words on the page.  

John Cotter: One of the things that makes writing a book so taxing is the loneliness: you have no one to talk with about it, at least not anyone who really understands the details you understand, feels the urgency of the thing in their bones. So, you need a friend; more specifically, you need a friend who is exactly you. You can make such a friend for yourself with just ten minutes a day—or less—by keeping a novel journal, a running catalogue of your ideas, doglegs, fears, changes of heart, inspirational jags, triumphs, existential frets. I like to keep my journal electronically, in a single document, typing new entries at the top of the page and scrolling down to read the older ones. Try it for a couple of weeks and you'll see how helpful it becomes: the journal becomes a voice that speaks to you, cautions you, cheers you. Just the other day the novel I'm writing began to feel sort of endless and impossible. Scanning through my journal that night, I was amazed to see how quickly I'd put a few chapters together only the month before; I realized I could do that again. I commiserated with my own fears—and smiled to see that some of them had been unfounded. I felt relieved to see all the bad ideas I hadn't pursued. I was put in mind about a note for a scene I'd wanted to add later on. Now was the time to add it. The journal helps you understand both yourself and the book being born, and feel less alone.

Karen Auvinen: I work on one chapter at a time. I don’t think about the next chapter or the next section or the end. I just work, for the most part, on one piece at a time. Of course, it helps that I have an outline and a proposal already written—so I kinda know where I am going. When I’m focused on a chapter, it’s the only thing that exists. If I get ideas that come later in the book, I just put them in a file labeled “extra” so I don’t have to worry about them. The only way to write a book is one page at a time.    

Robert McBrearty: Break the longer work into smaller pieces. Select one scene to work on. Set a timer and for the next 20-25 minutes, focus just on that one scene. Don't answer the phone, don't check your email. Just stay very concentrated on that one scene. When your timer goes off, take a 5-minute break and then come back for another 20-25 minutes on that same scene. Chances are you will improve that scene or at least you will be seeing it more clearly. At the same time, by improving that scene you may gain a greater understanding of the larger picture as well. Maybe you learn something about a particular character, or you discover the right voice or tone or something important about the theme. The next day, try the same approach with another scene. The timer approach works well for me. Knowing I have a break coming up helps me keep focused on what I'm doing. Most of the time, even if I started working reluctantly, after the timer goes off the first time, I'm usually really into the work and I keep resetting the timer and I'll end up working for several hours. I try not to worry too much about the results from day to day. Don't worry about solving all your problems at once. 


Tuesday, March 24: How much pre-planning or outlining do you do before you start a story or novel? Why do you find this method works best for you?

Tanja Pajevic: When I’m writing essays or memoir, I always plan out what I’m writing. It may change as I go, but when I’m writing about real-life events, it’s too easy to go down the rabbit hole. That’s why I take the time to get clear on the specific story I’m wanting to tell, why I’m writing it and who it’s for. From there, I plot out my narrative arc. This helps me stay on track and somewhat organized instead of falling into overwhelm. By contrast, when writing short fiction or poetry, I write my way into the piece. When I tried to do that with memoir, it drove me batty as well as added months (if not years) to my projects.

Sarah Schantz: All the way from grade school to my first years of college I used to panic whenever a teacher asked for an outline. I never could wrap my mind around how to write one or why I needed to (I did however love those sloppy thought bubbles some teachers did on the board with you). Now that I’ve taught for a long time, I understand why outlining was so difficult for me. Any kind of writing is a form of deep thinking. Studies in pedagogy have demonstrated again and again that people formulate ideas when writing they wouldn’t otherwise formulate (or formulate as quickly just thinking about). I needed to write to discover what I even thought or knew before I could even possibly begin to organize my thoughts so I always just wrote my essays way before everyone else just to create the outline I needed to turn in (until I said screw it all and dropped out of high school). Now I can outline simply because I work in a college Writing Center where I help students outline all the time (it’s also easier to outline someone else’s ideas).

Creative writing is no different. The only real outlining I do before writing is to sometimes come up with constraints or a prompt to follow. For example, I sometimes write the Before & After of a particular event, or make a list of ten words I want to use, then weave them in. But mostly I write to find out what it is I need to say. To bump into the ideas I apparently need to explore. To meet the characters who evidently wander around my psyche waiting to be discovered. To see where it is my characters are going. I’ve likened the writing process to being a medium before because it’s true—when I write, when I am really writing, it’s like I’m not even there and I’m just a vehicle for the story to channel through. But that does mean I end up with messy plots that need a lot of shaping, coaxing, and reworking, which is when I do use plot systems to weed out what I don’t need, to reorder, or add the connective tissue.

Daniel Levine: Outlining the story arc, before I actually start to write, has begun to feel like drawing a map to a place I’ve never been, based only on what I’ve read and imagined. It’s useful. Otherwise you’re bushwhacking blind out there, stumbling into ravines, branches whapping your face at every turn. Having the map, the outline, guides you through the raw space. But what happens to me is the gradual realization that the map doesn’t—it can’t—actually depict the storyscape because the story doesn’t exist yet except in my head. The map was my armchair fantasy of the territory, not the actual lay of the land, which I think you can only discover by writing it—trimming away the wilderness until clear paths emerge.

That’s when my maps start to be really useful: once I’ve slogged through the story a few times and realized what it’s actually about. Then I can stamp down those paths and chart out the details and distances with much more precision. I think the problem with mapping everything out with exactitude in advance is that you limit your opportunity for discovery. You get attached to the way you’ve preconceived it, and maybe try to force the landscape to fit your map, rather than the true way around.

So by all means, outline before you start. But don’t be afraid to wander, get lost, turn your map over to the blank side and draw it again.  

Victoria Hanley: When writing fiction, I’m purely a pantser (fly by the seat of the pants). No outline. As pantsers everywhere understand, this method is agonizingly delightful. When writing nonfiction, I have a vague plan in advance but carry it in my head rather than completing a written outline—which inevitably leads to the need to revise and rearrange. Why go about things this way? Well, every writer is different, and apparently, it fits my nature to leave a lot up in the air when writing a first draft. I’ve tried other methods—such as attempting to outline fiction or to be more concrete when planning nonfiction. The result? Discouragement leaning toward depression. Therefore, I stick with what works and urge other writers to find their own path to a draft.