Writing: Ur Doin it Rong

I saw this in an author post somewhere on the ’net:

Thinking isn’t writing.
Outlining isn’t writing.
Research isn’t writing.
Rewriting isn’t writing.

Putting pen to paper is writing.


That’s odd, because I’ve been writing in my head for years, starting circa fifth grade when I couldn’t understand the concept of an outline, but could construct a well-organized essay in my head after a great deal of reading, assimilating, and thinking. When I finally put pen to paper, the work was already done.

Get that? The hard part was not done on the paper. Ever.

And here I am, thirty years, innumerable essays, a gazillion blog posts, a few short stories, a novella or two, a speech or four, two screenplays and one stage play, ten novels, three agents, and a writing degree later, still constructing fairly well organized works in my head, and sometimes after much research. Not only that, but I write out of order.

So I have to put some scenes and ideas down on paper before the story can be fully realized. So what. Let’s face it: a novel is not an essay.

I do a lot of thinking.

I don’t outline as it is understood.

I research.

Then I rewrite. A lot. In my head.

And voila! A novel.

Now, I can write on spec, but I prefer not to. I prefer to take time to assimilate information, to percolate fleshed-out characters and their motives, to ask “Why?” a lot and attempt to plug all the logical fallacies myself, but it gets done.

What I find curious about such assertions is the assumption that that person’s experience is, to him, universal, and then proceeds to instruct the world at large that his way is the only way.

So. Authors. When you get stuck wandering around the ’net gathering advice and feeling guilty because you don’t write “right,” remember this: Writing, like life, is a journey, not a destination. You have to find your own way.

Whatever allows you to produce a finished product works. And why mess with what works?

People watching

Every breath you take and every move you make, I'll be watching you. Every single day and every word you say, I'll be watching you.Yesterday I had surgery for the first time ever (not counting wisdom teeth). It was elective and went well, so everything’s fine.

Anyway. I very rarely go out. I’m a serious hermit. When I do go out, I avoid people like the plague. I don’t care to be touched or talked at by total strangers. I’m very conscious and protective of my personal space. But.

I watch.

Maybe out of the corner of my eye. Maybe I use my ears to see (comes from years and years of transcribing for a living—you get to know people pretty well by voice inflection). Maybe a small gesture catches my eye. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen enough that I get lots of ideas for characterization. I take lots of notes in my head. I’ve even taken notes on paper.

They never know I’m watching them.

Years ago, I was eating lunch at a restaurant, reading a book (natch), and three programmers for a medical software company headquartered here were talking in not particularly low tones. They were talking about a software they were selling that controlled the machines that administer insulin doses to inpatients. They’d found a bug that multiplied the dosages many times what was prescribed and it’d killed a few people before they caught it.

I managed to keep my jaw from dropping on the floor and went for pen and paper with great stealth. (Yes, I still have that conversation written down.) I went home after work and started writing as fast as I could. Before I got the story finished, though, it popped up on Law & Order, so I didn’t bother.

They never knew I was listening.

So yesterday.

My preop nurse caught my eye. I don’t know why. She was average height, with curly red-blonde hair, average facial features, and an overweight apple-shaped torso—in short, very similar to how I envision Giselle from The Proviso to look. She wasn’t particularly bubbly; she didn’t smile; she was even a bit terse. She was relaxed but confident. She wasn’t ugly nor truly fat. Just…plain. Ordinary. Average. Whatever it was, which I don’t know, it made her very attractive. In fact, I told Dude she was very pretty.

Next up: My surgeon. He delivered TD #1. Until I went to him last month to say, “I want this procedure,” I never really knew how genuinely caring he is. I’ve very rarely had that from the doctors in my life, but this guy… I’ve never written a doctor as a character before, mostly because my relationships with them as (by turns) patient, investigator, and vendor have never really been good ones. But now I have a model from which to write one.

Last: My operative nurse is someone I’ve known for years, from church. At church, she has always been very dour and standoffish. Her husband is affable enough, and he’s our new bishop (THANK HEAVENS!!!). But I’ve never really gotten to know her because of the brick wall she wraps around herself. But yesterday… Yesterday she was all smiles and genuine warmth and caring. I’ve never seen that before, and now it makes me wonder what about being at church makes her spine stiffen and her smile to go away.

I see people watching people all the time. They sit and watch people go by… You can tell. It’s the people watchers like me—the ones who seem to not be paying attention to anything around them—who could turn you into a character one day.

And you will never know.

Reviewing too close to home

I wrote on this topic two months ago.

I still don’t know what to do, but I’m losing my patience because I discovered that writers of some of the stuff that’s really bad are giving writing advice. Oy. Stop it. You’re not qualified to give writing advice. Really*.

In light of this post and this comment,

in light of a recent romancelandia kerfuffle about writers/unpublished authors reviewing,

in light of Mormons’ cultural tendency to say nice or nothing at all,

in light of the fact that I’m a reader first and I’ve spent money on these books and I have a reader’s perspective and want to express it,

in light of the fact that writers reviewing is generally fraught with dangers, not the least of which is shitting in your own nest,

in light of the fact that my work is in no way intended for a Mormon market**…

I’m still conflicted.

Mostly I don’t relish the idea of people like OutAndAbout (and I think I know who wrote that comment) coming to bash me for MY writing. It hurts my feelings. Yes, there. I said it. It hurts my feelings. Dirty little secret: It hurts every writer’s feelings.

On the other hand, there’s a very small minority of Mormons who’d brave my stuff anyway, so the worst criticism I’m bound to get—probably anonymously—is that I’m too graphic and my characters swear and they DNF’d it after the first two pages. Okay. And?

I’ve got several Mormon novels on my TBR list (albeit heavily weighted for stuff that’s been pre-vetted by readers with whose taste I get along). One I’m reading, The Road Show by Braden Bell, is pretty good. It’s not a page-turner and it’s episodic (natch, written by a playwright/screenwriter), but that’s never bothered me unless badly done. It gets a little churchy-heavy-handed in spots, but I like it.

I read Angela Hallstrom’s book Bound on Earth and I loved it. I’m dying to write a review of that, but I have nothing to say other than “I loved it” and respond to some reviews I read on Goodreads. Oh, and that it’s a novel a short-story-writer-who’s-not-a-novelist would’ve written (which is both its weakness and its strength). I’m interested to see if she can write a long work that’s not a series of interconnecting/interdependent vignettes strung together.

So what to do. What to do.

As a compromise, I created a new alter-ego to review, but I don’t like doing that. I’m not cut out to sustain such an act.

The unnamed book I previously linked has been haunting me (not in a good way) for months, because this is what the market base for Mormon fiction, the one that wants clean and good (e.g., my mother), associate with Mormon fiction. They are the people who need to be brought back into the Mormon fiction fold, and they aren’t going to be unless Mormon fiction improves. It can’t improve unless someone just says, “This sucks. It should never have been published. Next!”

Yeah, it’s clean.

But it still sucks.

*But am I? No. It’s why I don’t give writing advice. At least not publicly. It’s hard to give writing advice to someone who feels free to harshly critique your stuff with great (if dubious) authority, but wants you to comment on theirs and the only thing you can say is, “It’s dead boring.” But instead you give advice on how to improve it, and they insist they’ve written a flawless masterpiece. And really, there’s nothing technically wrong with it except it’s dead boring. Boring sucks. First rule of writing: Don’t suck.

**Because I refuse to be held accountable for your salvation.

“Clean” does not equal good.

I want to talk about LDS fiction, the kind Deseret Book and Covenant and Cedar Fort publish.

This is not a rant. I’m not being sarcastic, nasty, snarky, hateful, bitter, or any other pejorative one might chalk up to my tone. Whatever one might read into it, what I’m feeling right now is a deep sense of disappointment.

I have several LDS novels in my bookshelf by well-known LDS niche authors. There are two I have tried to start, but while the premises are interesting, they aren’t exactly my cuppa. The prose is adequate. They aren’t boring. I put them aside for when I’m in the mindset to read them.

This past week I started a book that’s right up my alley: contemporary romance. I was really looking forward to reading this book. Imagine my dismay when I started reading prose that is amateurish at worst, and at best, suited for 12-year-old girls. It is a series of choppy sentences strung together. There is no discernible rhythm to it. There is no ebb and flow. The dialogue is stilted and too infodumpy about LDS customs and rituals, which made me wonder for whom the book was intended, if not LDS. (We already know this stuff; don’t instruct us in our own culture.) There is no nuance, no allowance for a sophisticated reader, no subtext.

At the convergence of this post on the Association for Mormon Letters blog by Annette Lyon concerning the “clean”ness of books and an inability to find any clean romances in the national marketplace* and my soul-deep disappointment in the book I was struggling with (“soul-deep” is not hyperbole), I realized that LDS fiction needs to stop worrying about a book’s “clean”ness, because that’s the default position, and start concentrating on eradicating (sub)mediocrity.



*I’m not sure why it’s important, noteworthy, or desirable to have LDS fiction without LDS characters or anything relatable to the culture. You can get “clean” non-LDS fiction in the national marketplace. You cannot get LDS fiction in the national marketplace. If you’re gonna be niche, be niche.


I am god

I have a lot of fun with my imaginary friends, thinking of them as if they’re real, telling my tax deductions about mommy’s imaginary friends and laughing about what they do with Dude, talking about them to other writers who like to talk about what their imaginary friends do, too.

We talk about them as if we have no control over them, as if they’re driving the train. In a review of Stay, reviewer Julie Weight said,

When you read Jovan’s books, you just know these characters are like real people to her. She knows them like she knows her own family. Actually, she knows them better than her own family, since she knows their motives and what they’re thinking. If you get her talking about them, you’ll forget that they are just the imaginary people who live in her head. She makes them real, however and wherever she presents them. And because of that, she also agonizes over their lives – to the point where sometimes it seems like she forgets that she’s the one in charge of their lives! All of this familiarity and love for these people comes out in the writing and the story. Because she believes in them, you will start to believe in them. She writes the characters and the stories so well that you, the reader, will become wrapped up in their lives and care deeply about what is going to happen to them.

Emphasis mine.

Here’s the thing: All that’s true. It’s really the subconscious doing the heavy lifting—we all know this. We let it do its thing and we talk to our imaginary friends and let them dictate their lives to us because we are their scribes, but…

Then they stop talking.

What do you do then?

I didn’t realize that this can get into scary territory until I was talking to another n00bish writer who speaks in the “Character X told me to do this” vernacular. It’s cute. I like knowing I’m not the only crazy person on the planet.

Then I realized… He wasn’t taking any responsibility for the words on the page, and it drew me up sharp. He didn’t know what to do when his characters/subconscious stopped. He didn’t have any confidence in the work of the conscious mind. Worse, he wasn’t sure it was even necessary to employ the conscious mind (i.e., himself) because he had himself convinced he couldn’t write without channeling the imaginary friends and taking their dictation.

My subconscious comes up with some amazing shit. Seriously amazing. Stuff my conscious mind would have had to work for decades to come up with. People are amazed when I say I don’t outline, but I don’t. At least, not in any recognizable fashion and certainly not the way I was taught in fifth grade. (I always had to write the paper first and backward engineer the outline; it was a pain.) Things tie together in ways I don’t know how it happens, and I seem to write by serendipity. It seems automatic.

But then the free-flow stops.

At some point, the writer has to take responsibility for who these people are, what they do, what they say, how the story winds out. It’s all fun and games while the subconscious is doing its thing and the writer can pretend these people are real and are simply giving dictation.

But the subconscious is notoriously unreliable and sporadic. What do you do when it takes a break and you can’t?

You start putting words down on paper.

Conscious words, words you choose and arrange, laboriously.

You take responsibility for those words.

And for all the ones you wrote when you were taking dictation, because it doesn’t matter that nobody knows how the subconscious works, what you wrote is still from you.

All you.

There are no imaginary friends.