W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No. 12 The Year in a Life of a Writer


Because I was travelling on assignment from Geneva to Boston, I was given the luxury of business class, something my thrifty New England heart would never allow had I been paying for it. However, I had no problems enjoying the new seats that allow passengers to stretch out completely. Unfortunately, it was a day flight. Sleeping was unnecessary. Movies passed the time. One of the special selections was a documentary about English mystery writer, Minette Walters. I watched every minute trying to glean hints on how to write better.

The documentary covered the year plus Walters spent writing THE SHAPE OF SNAKES. What she talked about can be an example to all writers.

Walters sat at her computer and bragged how she had finished three chapters that day. However, before I could go into a complete funk on my own lack of productivity, another scene had her moaning it had taken her twelve hours to write two sentences. Thank goodness. The woman is human.

When she wrote about a ridge she carefully changed the "ridge" to "spine" and then gloated because "spine" was more picturesque. If we are dealing with serpents it fits. In fact in the book there is a bit more slithering going on than in some of her other books. Whether it is a snake image or another detail, Walters was extremely careful in her selection of each word.

A small English village was the setting for one of her scenes. She visited it to get a feel for the area, and told the viewers that her foreign readers love when she gives a thoroughly English feel to a scene.

Poet Rita Dove said in a "Poet & Writers" interview a few years back reading lets us live other lives. As a reader I'm grateful to Arthur Golden for letting me live as a Geisha or Barbara Kingsolver for sharing a drive to Arizona with her and an Indian foundling. Walters was giving her readers another life, and as writers we should think about creating other worlds for our readers. What may seem mundane to us, can be exotic to others, a lesson I learned at the University of Glamorgan. I had written about a 1950 bomb drill in a grade school as routine. My cohorts, all English, found it fascinating, but couldn't understand why I was intrigued by a Barbara Pym jumble sale.

Walters invited her readers into a lot of other lives, and her research added depth to her writing. Because one of her characters sculpted, Walters visited a stone quarry and from that visit picked up just enough extra details to make her scene more vivid. (see samples)

Later in the year she announced she finally figured out who the murderer was. Hurrah!!!! Despite the school of thought that all details, characters, etc. should be worked out in advance, not everyone does. For those of us who write it as it comes, watching a best-selling writer do it my way felt wonderful, but then we all know that there is more than one way to create. Creating to rigid rules stunts creativity. For all of you who determine all details in advance if it works for you, don't stop. If you don't and feel guilty about it, pack away that guilt.

I was equally cheered when her agent hated part of the book. This isn't because I wish her ill will, but the idea that a best-selling writer could be so challenged was inspiring. We all can be better. Walters had relied heavily on letters and documents as part of the story, which was what her agent wanted taken out. They stayed, but I bet if she were a first-time author she would have lost the battle.

She had her doubts. At one point she sat at her kitchen table and figured she had enough money to quit writing. She wondered why she was putting herself through the torture. The next day she was back at the torture machine, her computer, puffing her cigarette and taping out new text.

There is something comforting in knowing that as writers we all have moments of self-doubt, moments of satisfaction when we nail a phrase, critics, etc. So much of our time is spent alone, but we are not alone in our experiences and in our hope that tomorrow we will get up and the words will flow from our brains to the keyboard exactly as we want them to.


All samples are from THE SHAPE OF SNAKES

"We heard the sculpture workshop before we saw it. A constant rat-a-tat of hammers on chisels, over laid by a whistle of wind through a polythene canopy, that had been rigged above the sculptures heads. It was a scene of intense industry because everyone was there for a purpose, to learn how to work in three dimensions. White stone chippings littered the ground and a fine white dust clung to arms, hair, clothing like baker's flour.

My last port of call that day was a small 1930s semi in Isleworth with pebble-dashed walls and lattice-style windows.

"You better believe it," I agreed slithering around the bonnet of the car.

The following day I drove my mother to Kimmeridge Bay on the Isle of Purbeck. It was a beautiful summer morning with puffs of white cloud dotted across the sky, and we climbed the cliff path to the Clay Tower on the eastern arm of the bight. Larks sang in the air above us, and the occasional walker passed us by, nodding good day or pausing to look at the bizarre folly behind us that some long-dead person had built as a sentinel to guard the ocean approaches.


1. Visit some familiar place and try to make a reader from another country feel the place. A New Yorker might chose a Deli, a Swiss might find a café with a fondue specialty, a person in Holland a walk along a canal with or without a windmill in the background. However if you do include a windmill, does it make a sound? Do it in less than four sentences.

2. If you are someone who writes as it comes, try mind mapping the plot for a short story. Mind mapping involves writing a word, circling it, and then letting your mind wander and adding words, connecting them, etc. It might start out as the word tree. You'd write branch, gift, to father, ten years. This might trigger the thought red flannel shirts, jeans, work boots. When you have the details, then list all the habits of your main character. Outline the way the plot flows.


If you are someone who always plots out in advance everything in your story, try to free write. Sit for five minutes and keep writing no matter what. Don't lift the pencil from the paper (or take your fingers from the keyboard). If you can't think of anything keep writing the last word. Just let it flow.

(This is not a suggestion that you change your technique, it is just to stretch your working habits into new areas one time.)


Immediately last month after I mailed out my newsletter which contained the suggestion about starting or improving a writing group, I came across this book, WRITING ALONE, WRITING TOGETHER. It's available for $10.47 from www.amazon.com and tells how to maximize the benefits of working in a group.

D-L Nelson is an American who lives and writes in Geneva, Switzerland and Argeles-sur-Mer, France. Her stories and poems have been published in six countries, including being read on BBC World Radio. Her novel, Chickpea Lover: Not a Cookbook, will be published in February 2003. She works as the Overseas Correspondent for Credit Union Times covering credit union activities around the world and teaches writing at Webster University's Geneva campus.


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