The 99 per cent

Or: why talent is overrated. 

Sometimes we talk about stories like this: the story is an entity with its own consciousness. The story arrives, via a muse. The story reveals itself as it is being written. Writers are mere scribes.

This airy-fairy, woo-woo, magical thinking is a whole lot of nonsense. Writing isn't magic. It's good old-fashioned hard work. It is sitting your butt in the chair every single day and forcing yourself to do the work. Because trust me about this, if you don’t keep the pump primed, it will not yield a drop.

Sure, there are moments that feel sublime but the movie montage of how a book is made would look really mundane. Writing is a nose stuck in a refugee law text book. It is hours trawling the internet for photos of jail cells and then more hours trying to find the correct combination of words to evoke said jail cells. It is reading over something you thought was insightful and poetic the day before only to discover it has morphed into toxic waste. It is revising a chapter for the tenth time. It is writing the same sentence five different ways and then reading each option out loud. It is chucking months of work and going back to square one. It is persistence and effort with a healthy dose of self-hatred. And most of the time it is also working despite deep uncertainty. Not knowing if the story is any good. Or else, knowing it is not good but hoping it might eventually get better.

Where the work  happens

Sometimes, because we are often asked and it is difficult to properly describe how stories are invented, we writers revert to supernatural explanations. Harry Potter famously appeared to JK Rowling in a train car. I believe this anecdote because that is how many of my characters have rocked up too. I’ll be tossing and turning with insomnia when a little girl appears out of thin air.

This is called inspiration (1%). Then comes the perspiration (99%). Now I have to make decisions. What’s this little girl’s name, age, and future vocation? Is she introverted or extroverted, a pessimist or optimist? Decisions mean constraints and constraints are important because good writing is precise. You can’t be specific when you are writing about a character if you haven’t nailed down the details. But then the real questions are: What does this character want more than anything? Who far will she go to get it? And for that, I free write pages and pages and pages, most of which will never leave my notebook. From all this random riffing emerges a picture of who the character is and from there the plot evolves.

It does everyone a disservice to suggest there’s a fairy who selectively whispers sweet nothings into the ears of a chosen few. Talent is real and it sure is helpful but it’s highly overrated and not the key ingredient. If you want to be a writer, write. Do the work. I repeat: talent is not necessary. Work is necessary. That’s the 99%.

Don't lose the plot

A few weeks ago I submitted my very final revisions on The Boat People to my Doubleday editor (praise hands, please). Although I sent off the final manuscript waaaaaaay back in April, there have been rounds and rounds of copy edits (I've lost count of how many), first on the Canadian side and more recently south of the border. I'm incredibly grateful for these reviews and the meticulous copy editors with their magnifying glasses because quite frankly there were MISTAKES. So many typos and instances of poor spelling and factual inaccuracies and poor grammar and on and on and on.... Good thing there are editors to catch the ball when I drop it.

Cartoon by the talented  Gemma Correll  ( via Instagram )

Cartoon by the talented Gemma Correll (via Instagram)

But now. Now. Now, I'm eager to disappear into a new project. When I began The Boat People I dove in without any kind of outline. And that was a mistake I paid for much, much later, when just as I was trying to sell the book, it became apparent how many potholes were baked into the plot. Yikes.

Some writers swear off outlines and others swear by them. I can see the arguments on both sides. Having a detailed a plan and then sticking to it doggedly can strangle creativity. But equally, following your nose without even the faintest hint of a map can be perilous too. Trust me, you don't want to be writing the synopsis - four drafts and two years in - only to discover major structural problems. Note to self, I thought back in late 2015: Start with an outline. Write the synopsis before the novel.

Mind you, this is only my second novel. So what do I know? Not much. But this time around things will be different. Fellow Port Authority writer Morgan told me about a site which outlines the "Snowflake Method" for novel design. Fair warning: It's also an advertisement for software. But you can ignore the software ads if you like and just focus on this post that breaks down how to write a summary (which is different from a synopsis) and how to flesh that short overview out into a more detailed outline.

To be honest, I skipped a lot of the opening blah-blah-blah and went straight to "The Ten Steps of Design." This is the meat of the method. What was particularly helpful for me (as someone who knows nada about playwriting) was to envision the story in three acts and really meditate on epiphany, desire, and conflict, the three key ingredients that captivate readers.

I stopped at the end of step 7. Step eight is about selling a book proposal and step nine gets into more detailed outlining of individual scenes...which is where I draw the line, at the moment, on planning.

What I'd like to do is set up my outline, work on my characters, and then go back to Robert Olen Butler's method of imagining scenes. I'm hoping - this is the goal anyway - to strike a balance between pre-planning and intuition. We'll see how that goes...

Advice from other writers

Glimmer Train - long time home of incredible, award-winning short fiction...have you all submitted work to them? you really should - has a couple of instructive essays on their website at the moment.

First up, British author Rowena Macdonald's tips for writing dialogue. My favourites are: 2. Don't dump too much information in dialogue. In real life, we don't always helpfully explain what's going on AND 7. Don't be afraid to let conversations hang unresolved in mid-air and move onto another scene.

MFA director Josh Henkin explores the link between plot and character. Plot, he argues, is discovered by interrogating character: "My graduate students often tell me they have trouble with plot, but what they're really telling me is they have trouble with character. I remind my students to ask themselves a hundred questions about their characters. Better yet, they should ask themselves a thousand questions, because in the answers to those questions lie the seeds of a narrative." This is a truth I know and yet somehow often forget. When you're stuck on something, go back to character.



Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Here's some solid advice I got a year and a half ago about plot and structure: banish the words "and then" and replace them with "but", "therefore", and "meanwhile."

But is the idea of conflict and opposition. The good guy wants something but the bad guy stands in the way.

Therefore there must be an escalation of action and tension. The good guy does something to get around the bad guy but he hits a roadblock he must overcome.

Meanwhile suggests a parallel narrative, two plots happening in tandem. When one story hits a climactic peak, you cut away ("Meanwhile, back at the Ranch...") to the other.

Editor Tony Zhou explains in this video and if you still don't get it, have a look at this post on Vox.

Lost the plot

Tessa Hadley has perfected a magic trick. And I want to know her secret.

She writes these novels - the most recent one is the excellent The Past - that break the rules of plot. Specifically the main rule that plot should progress in an Aristotelian arc. Characters are introduced. The scene is set. There is pressing conflict and tensions mount toward a peak. The handgun is shot, secrets are revealed, the story blows wide open. Then, climax discharged with, characters settle into a new normal and denouement eases into conclusion.

That is the formula. It's what readers expect, what keeps pages turning. But then along comes Tessa Hadley. And she's got no truck with any of that.

In The Past four middle aged siblings gather in the country home of their grandparents. Hadley tells the story through the eyes of the grown children and then, rewinding a few decades, from the point of view of their mother. Secrets are revealed, sure. There is a mystery, yes (the decaying carcass of a dog is found in an abandoned cottage) but it doesn't feel very pressing. There is a romance, yes. But it isn't very urgent. Doesn't this sound like the world's most boring book?

And yet, The Past is a compulsive read. I finished it in just a few days and then was sorry it wasn't longer (this, incidentally, is how I devour all her books and stories). What is it about Hadley? Her prose is faultless. She has a way of finding words for the things that are indescribable; her writing thrums with arresting moments of insight. And in her stories, character is queen. Her imaginary people - so flawed, so foolish, so endearing - continue to resonate long after the last page is read.

Is this the secret? Can conventional plot be replaced by insightful, well-crafted prose and pitch perfect characters? Are those three ingredients sufficient to propel a story forward? Somehow, I don't think it's as simple as following a formula. My suspicion is it's the exceptional writer who can pull this off, conjure story without plot. And those rare birds aren't giving away any of their secrets.