If you’re a regular reader of these Notes from the Toolbox, you may remember I wrote my first story at the age of seven. It wasn’t a homework assignment. No adult suggested I give it a whirl by tempting me with lessons, which is how I came to play the flute and study dance. I liked to read and was infatuated with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so one afternoon I sat down at my pink desk and wrote a story. I was proud of it and certain Hitchcock would, by some powerful magic, learn of what I’d done and offer me a contract to write for his show. I’m not kidding. My seven-year-old self was a believer.
By the time adolescence hit, my optimism was less potent but my imagination couldn’t be stopped. My English teacher introduced me to Emily Dickinson. I grab a pen and composed one personal petty bourgeois self-indulgent poem after another just like Dr. Zhivago was accused of writing and dreamed of how they would be discovered and lauded after my death. Not kidding about that either. I was liberal with gifting my poems to friends, but never once asked for help in order to up my game— too afraid to learn I was talentless.
I dove into playwriting with only a little more help, which I received from my husband who got it from his mentor Dolores Tanner at Hedgerow Theatre in Media, Pennsylvania.
Anyone can write a play, doll. It’s easy. First one person says something, then another person says something back.
Dolores’s advice worked. And so when the crazy idea to write a novel came to mind, I had no reason to believe it wouldn’t pay off. And that’s how draft one of Kaitlyn’s story turned out about as interesting as the begats in the Bible.
Enter Big Magic— in the form of free-lance editor and authority on how-to-get-published Chuck Sambuchino. I met him at a workshop sponsored by the League of Vermont Writers. He critiqued my query and opening chapter and said, “Why aren’t you going to conferences? You need to be going to conferences.” The thought never occurred to me, or maybe it had and I deflected it because only real writers went to conferences. Yeppir, I was so naïve I didn’t understand conferences were made for people like me who wanted to turn into real writers.
I signed up for the Surrey International Writers Conference and cried so hard during my Blue Pencil session the author, who was there to help, didn’t have a chance to do anything other than hand me more tissues. By the end of the four days, I was mortified I’d ever sent out my manuscript for consideration, mad as hell at the free-lance editor who told me it was ready, and furious at myself for being so bone-head stupid gullible. But in the end, it was worth it because I’d taken the first step toward success by accepting this fact— I knew nothing about writing.
It was the best of times because my mission was clear. Learn as much as possible about writing. I bought all the craft books and novels that were recommended during the four-day conference and the hours of homework began. I was eager and hopeful and jumped into rewriting— at least that’s what I thought I was doing. But you see, it was also the worst of times because as interesting and informative as those craft books were, if they were going to help me, I needed to do the exercises. I did, sort of do the ones that interested me— the ones I believed I could do; the others that didn’t make sense, which were the ones I needed to do most— I skipped. Because I didn’t have time to work on exercises when my manuscript needed to be rewritten. Yeah— Stupid is as stupid does. So, you can imagine how happy I was when I came across this nugget from W. Somerset Maugham.
There are 3 Rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
What a relief. And so, I barreled forward with blinders. Couldn’t stop myself because my subconscious mind knew if I paused too long the Whores of Negativity would rise and this time they might win. But the great thing about forward motion is it keeps the body and the mind limber and open to change. It’s been snail-like, but I’ve changed more over the past two years than in all the years from my birth to 2019.
And I’m happy to say— even without a novel on the shelves of a bookstore near you— I no longer consider myself a poser. I am a writer and like Stephen King, I do not come lightly to the blank page. I’m serious about my craft and thanks to the year of Big Edits— which started the same time as the pandemic, interesting, eh?— I’ve discovered how to write.
1— journal as the character(s) to find the story
2— write the end, write several endings to cover all options
3— solidify the arc of the protagonist and the story
4— write the turning point and climax
5— identify the inciting moment, flesh it out
6— journal as the character to uncover the demons she must wrestle
7— flesh out the emotional landscape & sharpen the major plot points
8— tighten and polish until lean and mean
“But Jocosa,” you might say. “You’ve only truly finished this one novel. How do you know this approach will work for the other stories you want to write?
I don’t. But what I do know is the sequence above got me through two rounds of revision and into my third. I tried to alter the sequence in each round, but I couldn’t. Starting from the end is the only way I can ground myself into the story.
Does this mean I’m done using craft books? Not a chance. No such thing as too many skills for a toolbox. Plus, now that I have a solid handle on my process, I can take advantage of my maddening lack of urgency to do all the exercises Big Magic delivers. But I don’t think any book can tell a writer how to write. If I’ve learned anything over the last eighteen years it’s this…
The only rule, really, is whatever works— Salmon Rushdie