On Writing Well: Enjoying the Process as Much as the Product

For about the past year I’ve been in some nebulous writing space when it comes to my next novel. While I’ve been pounding out short stories each month, I’ve also been furiously scribbling notes in parks, in the car, at restaurants, and at my desk. I’ve been creating massive family trees and designing sets. I’ve been writing scenes and sketching outlines and placing them aside, not quite sure where to go next.

I’m calling this conglomeration of activities the “germination stage” of the new novel. And this past week the germination phase came to a close as I entered the “gathering stage.”

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A little bit at a time, I have gathered together what seem like the best of my ideas and put them into a structure I think will work for telling my story, which will span from 1859 to the present, encompassing several generations of a family’s history, but which I have determined I will tell through three separate POV characters. The scope of this novel has created unique structure issues for me (my first novel takes place over a few months and was written entirely from one perspective). The uncertainty about just how to tell the story has stymied my efforts to actually write the thing. So last week I sketched out 30 chapters and essentially outlined the entire novel, something I’ve not done successfully in the past.

In addition to the outline, I’ve gathered scads of images: railroad maps, house plans, photos indicating clothing styles and covering historical events, garden designs and tree profiles, quilt designs and furniture examples, photos indicating mood and available technology. I’ve taped all of these to two pieces of foam board (connected in the middle with packing tape so they fold up and can be made to stand up on the floor or a table). It’s sort of a primitive Pinterest board where I can see everything without accessing the internet (which, generally, one should avoid doing if one wants to get any writing done).

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The process of gathering is just as beneficial to me as the actual product. It makes me review everything I’ve been thinking of, makes me order events in my mind, makes me realize where events need to be foreshadowed in earlier chapters, shows me what I need to research. The product itself (the boards) will serve as a road map for my writing and as inspiration when words aren’t coming easy.

Sometimes we have an idea for a story that balloons so much that it’s hard to keep everything straight in our heads and we lose sight of the main thrust of the narrative we want to create. In times like these, going through your own unique process of gathering and ordering your ideas is so useful. Now that I have all of these words and images on my little idea boards, I feel mentally ready to start tackling this project. Everything is there, I just need to breathe life into it.

Have you been avoiding a big writing project because you just didn’t know where to start or how it would all hang together? Perhaps you should try making it more visual. Get it out of your head and into reality and maybe you’ll find the pieces fitting together in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, since my gathering is done, I need to get on to the next–and most exciting–step: writing a world into being.

Editing Out the Cowbirds

nestLast week my husband, Zach, and I were over at our friends’ house. While our sons tore around the house and our husbands scrutinized slabs of meat on the grill, my friend Kristin told me with a little glint of excitement in her eye that they had a bird’s nest in their juniper near the front door. She knew that I, the consummate animal-lover, would want to see it, so we went down the porch steps to the blessedly quiet outdoors.

Being allergic to juniper, I allowed Kristin to part the boughs and I peered into a small nest that held five eggs: four tiny blue eggs with speckles on one end and one creamy egg with speckles all over.

“You need to get rid of that white egg,” I said.

Kristin looked at me, her face a swirling mixture of puzzlement, suspicion, and intrigue. “Why?”

“It’s a cowbird egg. It’s a parasitic bird. The cowbird chick will be larger than the others and will push them out of the nest or eat all the food and the other babies will starve.”

Now Kristin looked positively flummoxed. “What?!”

“Yes, they lay all their eggs in the nests of other birds. You need to get rid of it.”

After I assured her that the mother bird would not reject the nest if it smelled like human (besides vultures, birds actually have a very poor sense of smell) it was decided that Kristin would fish the offending egg from the nest so that I wouldn’t break out in a hideous and persistent rash, but I would be the one to heartlessly dispose of the egg. I tossed it into the backyard where it could become a tasty treat for a blue jay, crow, or garter snake.

As a child, such an act would have seemed to me to be very harsh, cruel, morally reprehensible. To even squish a bug was a sin to me. But I am an adult and my sensibilities have been hardened by the knowledge that we have plenty of cowbirds in Michigan and if that nest contained the brood of a rarer bird, like a warbler of some sort, the threatened species was the one that warranted my protection.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lesson to be learned here (beyond the avian one).

In our interaction over the nest, Kristin was the writer, I was the editor, the nest was the piece of writing, and the eggs were content.

When we act as writers, we love the piece and everything in it. Then we share it with someone else, looking for critique. When we act as editors, we see a problem the writer does not. We helpfully point it out (hopefully with tact). We explain why it’s bad for the rest of the piece to leave it in there. And then it’s the writer’s job to trust the editor and actually pluck the offending egg out for the greater good. Sometimes the writer needs an extra push here and there, sometimes she needs reassurance that it’s the best course of action, and sometimes she needs the editor to be the bad guy. (“Yeah, I loved that part too, but my editor said it had to go.”)

When you’re writing for eventual publication or public consumption, you can’t go it alone. When we write, we need others to look at our work and identify the cowbird eggs, the parasitic parts that need to be removed so that the good eggs will survive and mature.

Who is editing your work? If you’re thinking of self-publishing, this is an essential component. Yes, self-pubbing is relatively easy and very cheap, and maybe you have an awesome platform to help you market your book and sell lots of copies. But don’t make the mistake of going it alone. Every writer needs an editor. And there are a lot of freelance editors out there.

If you have trouble finding one, let me know. I kill cowbirds for a very reasonable price.