The Alchemy of Writing

We’ve all heard of great writers who suffered tough childhoods. Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Wolfe, James Baldwin, Jeannette Walls, just to name a few. The challenges may have equipped them with unusual insight, or pushed them deeper into their imaginations, or taught them outsized observational skills as part of the need to survive. I can intuitively understand why their difficult experiences might have enhanced their writing to the benefit of the rest of us. But what intrigues me is why people with damage or heartbreak might be driven to write.

One reason might be the desire to live in another world for a while, with a different mind and a different life. In this way, writing can be a solace to both writers and readers. When I had to get through major surgery in college, I remember rereading my old favorite, The Lord of the Rings. I wanted to lose myself in characters whom I already knew and loved. In other times of need, I’ve turned to literary fiction for its depth, fantasy for its heroism, and poetry and short stories for their insight, such as those collected by my friend Ellen Wade Beals in Solace in So Many Words.

But nothing is more absorbing than creating those other lives yourself. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of sympathetic imagination – the need to carry your characters’ attitudes and feelings inside yourself and write from their perspective, reflecting your characters’ pasts, not your own. In the New Yorker profile on Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, she says that when her brother died, “it was a solace to be able to disappear into her fictional world and momentarily distance herself from actual life.” Not only can that move into fiction give you a respite, it can remind you that there is more than one way to process trauma, more than one way to live with scars.

The chance to craft a different ending could be another reason. That doesn’t have to mean something akin to a classic storybook ending: “and they lived happily ever after.” No one, except maybe Cormac McCarthy, ends a novel with “and eventually everyone died.” We arc our stories so that loss and danger are something that our protagonists survive and learn from. Writing gives us hope because, no matter what we throw at our characters, we can imagine a path to the other side.

Beyond that, I believe the act of writing itself is a comfort. My love of storytelling began when I was five and used to roam the block while my mother and sisters napped, feeling alone but not wanting to join them, making up sad little stories that I’d tell to myself. My mind would inevitably shift in focus from the feeling of sadness to the beauty of the sad little words – which of course meant I was no longer sad. There’s an alchemy in writing, a harnessing of inner resources. Once the effort to capture something in words takes precedence, it refocuses the mind, inspires the imagination, and enlists the eye and ear. An inherently solitary act that somehow makes us feel less alone and more connected – as if creating words to be read invites the reader inside at the act of creation. Turning dross to gold.

Plotters vs Pantsers

Are you a plotter or a pantser? That’s a popular question at writing workshops these days. The truth is we all do some of both. Plotters often find themselves furiously rewriting when they realize that their characters would react completely differently than they thought they would. In writing as in life, nothing tempts fate more than a good plan. And what pantsers haven’t been slowed to a crawl because their characters get stuck and nothing seems to be happening? That’s when even diehard pantsers need to put in some serious brainstorming time away from the page. In either case, you can use questions to move back and forth: Why is this character reacting this way? What if this happened instead?

For me, it usually works best to dive in for a bit – to try to capture in words the voice and personality as it most vividly strikes me. A character can be a kind of sounding. You intuit that there’s a story there, but at first you may not know what it is. You may need time to discover it. If the character occurs to me in a situation from the start, then that’s easier, but if not, then I try to think about what’s lacking in that character’s life and what’s especially difficult for him or her. I mentally throw things at the character and see what reverberates. I spend time in my head and on the page.

However, I did make an adjustment earlier in my writing, specifically for novels – after I wrote my first book on instinct and it ended up in a nice box on my shelf. That’s when I decided I needed more education on plot. For my second book, I did better by putting more work into plot near the beginning. I stayed open, but went in with more ideas.

Because of that experience, I like to suggest that you try to structure your approach to new work with a view to pushing yourself in your areas of weakness. If you’re great with character but weak on plot, then push yourself to consider the what ifs of plot – to get some ideas on the table. If you’re great with plot, then try to invest some early work on your characters and whys. See Leading Against Your Strengths.

But I think the most interesting distinction here has to do with where you find yourself when you ask the questions that lead to story. Do you feel like you’re more outside the character, thinking “what if I – the writer – toss this at you”? Or are you deep inside the character, with your hands in their knots, thinking “why do you feel this way” and “why did you do that” and looking for what could happen to put that to the test? Yes, we all do some of both, but where do you spend more time? Outside or in? On what ifs or on whys? Both are necessary to all kinds of novel writing – it’s part of the dynamic, the inside and out of crafting story – but we’re going to vary on where we fall in that continuum. Where we fall may have a lot to do with whether our work is more in the literary or the commercial camp.

The essential thing is to connect the two – to use your instincts about your character to pose the most challenging what ifs; to answer your what ifs with the most honest character reactions and follow up with the deepest whys. To try always to keep in mind a relationship of resistance and challenge between character and plot events. Even if your emphasis is on the whys, you need to destabilize resistant characters with outside events to open them up to new questions, to get them cracked open, and ultimately to get them to change in some way.

Pace Beyond Plot

Every novel has a rhythm, and pace is the speed at which a novel’s events unfold. But “pace” also has an implied meaning in the market. It tends to get equated with lots of action. So what does pace mean for a non-plot-driven novel? What really matters is that the book is compelling and keeps readers turning the page. Pace can go beyond plot. I like to think of it as character-based pace instead of plot-based pace. Pace that works for the non-plot-driven novel, using techniques that enhance plot-driven novels as well.

1. Mysteries of Character

Intriguing characters have secrets, not just the kind they keep from the reader, but also important things they don’t realize about themselves. The resistance we find in characters often springs from unrecognized inner fears and conflicts. As for the resources that characters must summon to overcome the obstacles in their lives – these, too, may not be known until they’re needed most. Treat these aspects of character as the mysteries they are. Spool them out, don’t try to solve them too soon, have there be consequences, keep readers on edge.

2. Unreliability

Unreliable narration uses character mysteries as a driving engine. Broadly speaking, we see two different kinds of unreliable narrators: a character’s deliberate unreliability, as in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and unreliability due to personal blind spots, as in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The manipulative narrators in Gone Girl add to the pace because we’re anxious to find out what’s actually happening and we worry about what they’ll do. In The Goldfinch, the character’s failure of self-knowledge creates tension because we’re concerned about him. While a classic mystery poses secrets at the level of plot, unreliability poses secrets at the level of character that keep us reading forward.

3. Surprises of Self-Perception

Literary agent and writer, Donald Maass, suggests that predictability is what makes a novel a slog, and not just on the level of plot: “Relationships can unfold predictably too. Inner lives can plod down an obvious path.” See Getting Ahead of Yourself and Your Reader on Writer Unboxed. Instead, Maass looks for inner shifts in self-perception, awakenings, new understandings – the ah-ha’s of interiors. Changes that in turn have implications for plot. His answer to pace is to bring about inner changes and address the implications before readers arrive on their own.

4. Relationship Stakes

The plot of many novels centers on solving, or failing to solve, a relationship. But even if you don’t have a relationship plot per se, your protagonist’s inner fears and resistance to change will affect their relationships. Readers feel the cost of those issues most acutely when critical relationships are put at risk.

5. Deepening to Intensify

Depth and good writing are key to creating pace with lower levels of action. We need to know that a moment holds stakes for your character, but that doesn’t need to mean a “tell.” You can use revealing gestures to expose a character’s true feelings. You can summon up a vivid memory tied to the senses or captured in a fragment of scene. You can expand meaning with metaphor, either ones that carry power on their own or that build on imagery from earlier in your book. If you bring energy to your writing, it will read with energy, which in turn will contribute to pace.

6. Rhythm of Language

Finally, think of what it means to hold a reader spellbound. You’re weaving a spell with your rhythms and words. While shorter, choppier, even fragmented sentences can work well for the pace that goes with action, mixing in some longer sentences can be good for character-based pace. Long sentences sink us in time. The moment seems to enlarge – a place for increased focus and sharpened perception. See Tension in the Telling.

The action may slow, but we can be captivated nonetheless.