Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
There are many ways to write a novel. Some like to outline, create resumes for their characters, or allow the writing process to unfold organically, letting that in-the-moment feeling reveal itself in a draft. Whatever the preferred approach, returning to the work consistently is a demon many writers face. Daniel Torday describes his method:
At the beginning of each project, I take the Word file I’m working on and put the point size at 72. I select the percentage view at top and put it at 500 percent. And then I just type forward. For as long as I can allow myself. Which for a novel can be months. A year, even. Now look, I get it. This sounds nutso. I’ll confess that I often can only last a month or so before I have to go back, put my file back to 12-point font (Baskerville, obvi) and 150 percent view.
Although this is an unorthodox approach to novel writing, it prevents Torday from the vice that haunts many writers.
But while I’m working, this process somehow games a whole bunch of the hardest aspects of writing a novel: it gets me to stop tinkering. It keeps me from worrying about the quality of what’s come before (I can’t even see what’s come before!) and allows me just to forge ahead. Forging ahead means accruing words. And perhaps the only definition we can hold the novel to is that it is a drastic, almost unnatural, accrual of words.
Torday believes the whole point of this process is to simply get the words down on the page. Does it matter if the words are flawed? He is a strong proponent of messy drafts:
Novel drafts are by definition going to have lots wrong with them. In fact I’ve come to think that novels succeed when they create and then solve big, intractable problems. That’s the gambit. It’s like being a ski jumper. No one cheers when a ski jumper takes off. They cheer when she lands successfully. They comprehend clearly what the problem was: the ski jumper wanted, first and foremost, to not die. The novelist can’t solve problems until there are problems to solve on the page. I’ve come to believe you can actually push the process by accepting those things, creating them even, and dealing with them later. With my most new book, Boomer1, this meant dealing with three separate voices, which the book alternates between a half-dozen times over 350 pages. But again this crazy process somehow addressed it—rather than worry about the syntax or diction or something technical in what distinguished the voices, I just listened to them. Typed. Listened. Typed. I couldn’t go back and scrutinize.
He confesses his newest work isn’t following his “truly bizarre” process, but is clearing the path for a different way to conceptualize his novel. He’s made peace with both approaches:
I’m neck deep in work on a new novel now and I’m finding myself doing something new: just thinking a lot about the book, and not writing at all. Thinking about it while I’m running, while I’m cooking, while I’m in the shower. Holding as much language in my head as possible for as long as possible, and then letting it land on the page a little more naturally. To this new version of myself, the old crazy process isn’t all that useful. It’s crazy, but in a new way. Maybe I got here, now, by moving on from that. And maybe that’s exactly what a writing process is good for. To have something to stray from. And then, when in doubt: 72-point font. 500 percent view. Get typing.
Whether your working on a novel, essay, short story or a memoir – the takeaway in two words is to just write.
The Bell Dings for Me: On Writing with a Typewriter, Toby Juffrey Goode, Cleaver Magazine
Writing retreats are a place to generate ideas, converse with others about your latest work, and to have uninterrupted time to write. Toby Juffrey Goode talks about the feelings that accompanied her prior to a recent writing retreat and confesses:
I’m headed for the women’s writing retreat I attend every January in Palm Springs, California. I’m anxious. The five-hour drive facing me isn’t the problem. It’s the slump I’ve languished in for too long. I haven’t touched my memoir manuscript in months. A few essay ideas poke at me, but I ignore them. My heart isn’t in it. If not for the women I look forward to seeing and the money I paid up front to attend, I’d sit this one out.
When she arrives at the place of her retreat, the historic Casa Cody Inn, she looks for Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, the facilitator of the retreat. While searching for her, she finds her in a room with three typewriters. DeMarco-Barrett makes her an offer:
“You’re welcome to try one out while you’re here,” she says. “If you want.”
I’m rooming next-door to Barbara. During the day I hear her typing. And I love the sound.
One particular night she’s typing while I read in bed. Rhythmic and meditative, the sound soothes me. I want to fall asleep listening. I shut my light. She stops typing. I’m disappointed.
Goode decides to “play” on a typewriter and with some hesitation hauls it to her room. An unexpected surprise occurs:
I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.
After becoming smitten with this typewriter, Goode decides to buy one and take it home.
Now an integral tool in my writing practice, Smith Corona welcomes me, idea-filled or empty. Of course you’re going to write, it says to me. Why else would you sit here? So, I act as if. I slap keys. Words splay across the paper, add up to sentences, and run into paragraphs. Prompts and free writes still help me, but my typewriter gets me moving out of my own way. Blank whiteness begs for more—good or bad makes no difference.
I am intrigued by Goode’s love for her typewriter and felt a whir of nostalgia for my Smith Corona. In high school, I remember typing and feeling the absolute joy of the ding at the end of the line, viewing the words appear on paper. Sometimes my fingers typed too fast and I’d pull out the dreaded correction tape to remedy my errors. The typewriter was more than an apparatus – it meant something, as Goode points out:
But my Smith Corona sentences read perfectly imperfect, as they should at this point in the process. The snap-snap of the keys scores my mantra: write freely, write freely. My inner critic quiets.
I type away. The bell dings and cheers me on: another line! I may not have a page worth saving. But I love the physical effort required, and I’m proud of the wadded up white paper balls collecting by my feet. They validate that I showed up. I’m in the chair, thrashing in a pool of possibility. I hate my writer self a little less.
This piece inspires me to shop for a typewriter and feel the freedom of writing without the distractions from my laptop.
How to Process and Filter Feedback, Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer), Writer Unboxed
When your work is critiqued, it is hard to evaluate which feedback is helpful. Whether it is an essay, memoir, or a novel, understanding what revisions to make is integral in polishing your work. Annie Neugebauer offers a list of tips on how to navigate critique of your work. To start, Neugebauer suggests reading the feedback:
Step one is fairly easy straightforward: consume the feedback. If you’re reading notes, I highly recommend finding a private, quiet place so you can go at your own pace and so you don’t have to school your reactions. If you’re listening, and if your reader doesn’t have notes to hand you after they’re done talking, go ahead and take notes as they go (unless you can record or have a killer memory). Try to resist asking too many questions, especially if you’re new. Clarifying what someone means is fine, but you’d be surprised how easily that slips into justifying or defending our intentions instead. You can sort through that part later; for now, just listen and absorb.
Once you digest the feedback, try to listen to your emotional response as you read or hear the comments made about your work:
You might feel things as you listen. Some of them might even be bad feelings. That’s okay. Emotions are not only important, but biologically required. So don’t beat yourself up if you feel sad, disappointed, angry, scared, overwhelmed, etc. That’s all normal. (It’s also why I generally prefer to read feedback in private.)
Of course, if you’re in person you’ll probably be socially obligated to hide or subdue some of these feelings to seem “sane” and “professional.” (Bah.) Do what you must, but even if you have to bottle it up, I highly recommend letting it out later. Let it aaaaaaall out. Let it have free reign for a while—good and bad. Be excited, be intimidated, be whatever you need to be.
And more importantly, pay attention to what you need to be. To take every drop of romance out of it: emotional reactions are data. How we feel right away upon each particular piece of feedback is invaluable information for later, so stop trying to stymie it. Instead, let it happen and take a mental note. Pay extra attention to the things that make you the most defensive.
It is helpful to take some time away from your work and then implement a plan to organize all the feedback. Neugebauer suggests using logic to work out next steps for revision.
Once you feel your emotions calming down and your subconscious speaking up, it’s time to come back to the WIP. Luckily, you already organized your feedback itself, so the process of going through it now should be slightly less daunting than at first. I usually end up with a bulleted list, and I go through item by item working out two things: 1) Do I agree with this feedback? 2) How could I address the problem?
Those gut instincts from earlier are going to be your most valuable resource for whether or not you agree with each suggestion. If something made you feel hopeful or excited, it’s an obvious yes. If it made you feel angry or scared, it’s something to talk through. If it didn’t make you feel much of anything, it might be an easy yes or a clear no.
Taking these crucial steps while evaluating feedback helps the writer process, step away, and then ultimately return to the page again for revisions.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!