Jodi Picoult: “Lone Wolf”

Jodi Picoult began writing her first novel after being downsized from her day job on Wall Street.  Since then she has published nearly 20 novels (a book a year), written while she was at home looking after her kids.  You can see why her story resonates with me.

I’m currently reading her recent novel entitled “Lone Wolf.”  It’s an interesting enough story about two siblings deciding whether to end their father’s life support.  I could easily say all the usual things about it … thought provoking, well-crafted etc.  I have to be honest though.  For me, the life support issue is not nearly as interesting as the bits about wolves.  The father, Luke Warren, spent his life studying wolves – caring for captured wolves in a zoo and even living among them in the wild.  The book changes point of view alternating between each of the siblings, Luke and his ex-wife.  I’m rushing through the family drama chapters to get to the descriptions of Luke living among a pack of wild wolves in Canada.  Truly fascinating stuff – and yes, she interviewed a guy who actually did this.  I’ll see if I can find his story to share with you in a future blog.

In the first clip below, Jodi Picoult is giving an interview in England and teaches the two journalists to howl like a wolf.  Pretty funny stuff (although, the female journalist doesn’t look to impressed).  Ah, what an author won’t do to promote her book!  The second clip is the full interview (nearly 9 minutes).

My Muse

The gods of creative energy have a twisted sense of humour.  First they instill in us an obsessive need to produce something from nothing (a novel, a musical score, a sculpture etc).  Then they stand back and let us flounder around in our potential.  It’s almost like they’re testing us; waiting to see which of us will sink and which can swim.  Sometimes, when I’m really struggling with a piece of dialogue or an action scene, I can hear them laughing.

I find it rather rude to be honest.

Stephen King refers to his muse as a cranky little man who smokes cigars and pretends to ignore him.  Sounds about right, don’t you think?  My muse is somewhat more feminine (I hope), but no less ruthless.  She hovers around me and has developed the annoying habit of reading over my shoulder.  When I hear her “tutt” at something I’ve just written, I hit the delete key.

I use my delete key a lot.

My father once asked me how many hours I’d spent writing the book so far.  My answer was: countless.  It’s humbling to know the figure myself, but downright depressing to publicize it to the world.  Yet in all that time, my muse has seen fit to help me out only twice; first in chapter one, and then again for a small portion of chapter four.

The draft of chapter one which will likely appear in the book, was written in two days start to finish.  The two pages of chapter four were written in about ten minutes.  I love them.  I don’t want to change anything about them.  Neither, by the way, does Ed.  When he read them, he suggested taking out one small line of chapter one.  And, in all the suggestions he had for chapter four, he didn’t touch those two pages.

There is a disclaimer though.  Before My Muse helped me out, I struggled with each of these sections for two and a half years.  I easily have nine or ten versions of the first chapter and trashed them all.  They just didn’t work.  The bit in chapter four was even harder.

The truth of the matter is this: the Muses are holding all the cards.  We want what they got, and they’re not about to give it away.  They’re going to make us work for it.  Those of us deemed worthy will receive the tiniest bit of inspiration – like a dealer giving a heroine addict a hit.

It isn’t fair of course.  I’d much prefer My Muse come for tea every afternoon and dictate a brilliant award-winning novel to me.  But until that happens, I’ll keep slogging away in the trenches.

Neil Gaiman

This is an author you want to check out. He’s kooky and entertaining; a brilliant writer with a diversified career (kids books, adult novels, screenplays for tv and film and graphic novels). He wrote “Coraline” which was recently made into a movie – those of you with kids will recognize it.

I first came across his work when a friend recommended “The Graveyard Book” as something my son might enjoy. It’s about a boy, Nobody Owens, who is raised in a graveyard by ghosts. You can check it out online – he reads the entire book, one chapter at a time, at each of his book signings.

Here’s Neil Gaiman wondering why he never became a dental hygenist:

Nature or Nurture?

Is it really necessary to take writing classes in order to write a good book?

No, but you don’t have to study law to represent yourself in court either.

The general perception society has about the writing profession fascinates me.  Who knows?  Perhaps I shouldn’t dispel the myths.  Maybe it’s better if society continues to regard writing as a mysterious obsession of the eccentric few, or something The Average Joe does during retirement.  Yes, we have our eccentrics (doesn’t every profession?) and yes lots of people pen amazing stories once they finish their “real jobs” (Frank McCourt and James Herriot for example).

Here’s the rub: the publishing industry is not what it once was; it’s in a state of flux.  Even publishing executives aren’t sure what the landscape will look like once the dust of e-books has settled.  It’s getting harder to make money in this industry – and it is about making money.  Creativity is wonderful stuff and notwithstanding what I said above, inspiration – or the muse if you will – is mysterious.  Unfortunately it only shows up after countless hours of toil, sweat and sometimes tears.  My hat is truly off to those who begin a book with no clue where the seed of a story idea will take them, or those who want to examine their deepest emotions through words.  They are valid reasons to write.  But does anyone, besides the author, want to read it?

I’m having an absolute blast writing my book.  If I were doing this purely to entertain myself, then I’d probably have a very different opinion on this issue.  However, my goal is to get published and earn a living as an author.  Given the style of book I’m writing and the age of my audience, I’ll be competing against J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin for market share.  That means I’d better know everything they know about the business of writing.  As a minimum, I read everything I can get my hands on, and I practice my craft by writing everyday.  To give me an edge, I read piles of books about the art of storytelling and the publishing industry, I study “the competition,” and I take classes.

I started this book two and a half years ago as part of an 8-week novel writing course being given by a well-known author here in Newfoundland … I’ll call him “Ed” since he provides editorial comments on each chapter draft. My story idea hasn’t changed – I still believe it’s unlike anything currently on the market, but at the time I wasn’t a good enough writer to do it justice.  I knew those first few chapters weren’t working, I just didn’t know why.

When I started doing workshops with Ed, he’d say things like “you’re slipping into narrative summary” or “why would your character do this?”  In the first passage I gave him, my protagonist came across a girl in the woods, during a lightning storm at night (lots of wind and rain – the whole nine yards).  I proceeded to describe the girl in great detail, eye and hair colour, clothing etc.  Ed said “it’s very well written, but you can’t see colour in the dark.”

I laugh about it now, but an agent and/or publisher would have picked up on that right away.  I only get one chance to make a good first impression, so I’m determined to make sure I send my best work.

Are writers born or made?  I think good writers are born.  Great writers on the other hand, take the talents they were born with, and turn them into something extraordinary through years of practice and study.  Writing classes, given by reputable instructors and institutions, are one way to study the craft.

Ideal Writing Conditions

A secluded cottage by a lake would be nice – one with maid and butler service.  I’m sure something like that exists, but a first-time novelist writing on spec can’t afford such luxuries.  Instead, I’m the only adult in a house with four kids (ages 7-12) … so if I’m lucky, I’ll get a three-minute stretch of peace and quiet.

I get a kick out of people who demand strict conditions for writing – hours of complete, uninterrupted silence during which they attempt to connect with their muse and “create.”  How do they survive in the world?  Isn’t there always a distraction – as innocuous as a car horn or as tantalizing as an invitation to a dinner party?  Sounds a bit like the “writer’s block” excuse, doesn’t it?

Oh, I agree that a couple of quiet hours are essential for refining a piece of writing.  Now that school is out for the summer, I have to content myself with bits of time at either end of the day – before the kids get up and after they go to bed.  Mostly though I’m writing during those little pockets of peace that occur throughout the day – when no one is hungry, refusing to share a toy, has a scrape on their knee or is arguing over which board game to play.

They may not be ideal, but those are the conditions under which a huge portion of my book is being written.  Hey, if Jodi Picoult can do it, so can I.

On that note, I must run.  It’s five minutes past noon and the littlest kid just asked when lunch will be ready.

When in doubt, spit it out

Yesterday was nuts.  Errand day makes me tired and cranky, so you can imagine the mood I was in 10:00 last night when I finally sat down to work on the book.  I’m at a point in chapter five when two of my main characters meet for the first time, and I was trying to imagine what they would say to each other.

I tend to edit as I write.  That means it takes me forever to finish a chapter, but when I’m done it’s fairly polished.  After twenty minutes last night I had only two lines (and they were hardly Giller Prize material let me tell you), so I decided to skip the editing and spit my thoughts out on paper.  Seriously, if I’m going to draft a chapter a week, I don’t have the luxury of agonizing over every word.  At the end of an hour I’d drafted 1,000 words (ok, 943 words) and had sketched out the “bones” of the conversation.  It was stiff dialogue and riddled with clichés (no doubt influenced by the 1940s radio plays I’ve been listening to on Vintage Radio Shows), but I at least had something on paper.

I took another look at it again this evening, expecting to wrestle with it for hours – I honestly wasn’t sure which way to go with it.  But (thank God), once I got writing it started to flow … for the first time, it was more like recording a conversation overheard, less like putting words in someone’s mouth.  Pretty neat.

Writer’s Block

I’ve been asked to share my thoughts on writer’s block.  That’s easy, because there’s no such thing.  Writer’s block is merely a convenient excuse used by people who either lack talent or are too lazy to put in the hours and hard work that it takes to write a book.

Mind you, the PR work around writer’s block has been extraordinary.  F. Scott Fitzgerald has made a remarkable ambassador.  Suffering from “writer’s block” has become almost desirable; a mark of true creative genius and the necessary first step to penning  “The Great American/Canadian/European/Insert your country here Novel.”  Seriously, what other profession romanticizes the inability to work?  Does your dentist suffer from dental block?  What about the guy building your house?  If he fails to show up for work claiming he has carpenter’s block, do you pour him a scotch and think “oh this poor lad is agonizing over how to mitre a corner – what a remarkable fellow!”  Or, do you fire the bum and go on to the next contracting company?

It’s entirely possible to get stuck on a part of your book.  Happens to me all the time.  On those occasions, I either work my way through it, or do what my primary school teachers taught me – leave it, move on to another part and come back to it later.  This means that the chapters of my book aren’t necessarily written in chronological order, but so what?  For example, I’m currently working on chapter five.  I wrote the whole day yesterday and only came up with 500 words.  It’s not writer’s block though – it’s me being a perfectionist.  This is a really important part of the book and I want to make sure it’s right.

Writing a novel is not for the faint of heart.  It’s hard work.  It takes time and effort.  Accept it.

If you still believe that you suffer from this imaginary affliction, before your toss your idea in the trash, I have some suggestions:

  1. First let me ask you – how badly do you really want to write this book?  If you can’t live without completing it, proceed to step two.
  2. Pick up a pencil and paper, sit yourself down, and give it an honest effort.  Scribble a rough draft and worry about the editing later.
  3. Assess your writing skills.  Perhaps you need a grammar refresher, or need to study the art of storytelling.  Take a few classes then give your book another go.

As for me, I’d better get back at it.  The kids will be awake soon and as today is errand day – my time for writing is limited.

Stephen King: On Writing

When I heard that Stephen King had published a book about the art and craft of writing, I had to read it … call it morbid curiosity.  Feel free to debate the merits of mainstream fiction v. literature if you like, but you can’t deny that someone who has published as much as this guy must know a thing or two about the business of writing and publishing.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is part biography, part tips for aspiring writers.  I was thrilled to learn that he impaled  rejection slips on a nail and tossed an incomplete first draft of “Carrie” into the trash.  Misery (as it were), loves company.   I was even more delighted when he advocated that to be a writer, you have to read.  Here’s a clip of Stephen King giving advice to aspiring writers – makes me laugh every time I see it.