My dad loved to dance, and he must have been pretty good at it. He died long before he should have and my mother would always tell me how much she missed dancing with him. She and he square danced regularly with a group in town for many years. When I was too young to leave at home, I’d go with them to the local dance hall and play outside while they had a good time inside. When I was older, I disrespected square dancing and did not follow in their footsteps.
I, in fact, don’t dance at all, if I can avoid it. I have danced, and have taken lessons, and enjoyed it when I did, but proved I am not a natural. It isn’t lack of ability – once I had gotten the Texas Two-Step down, I did well. That is, until they said that I should turn my partner and do it backwards. Dance backwards? Was I then to count backwards?
Ah – that was the real problem. With regard to music, I had been trained as a musician. Not having a natural talent for that, either, I was able to play because it was based on math. I just had to count to maintain control. And I did, kind of, in most circumstances, sufficiently, I guess. I mean, I was a tuba player - it’s not like I had to learn any melody.
Okay, back to the point. I equivalenced dancing with playing music, and therefore, with counting.
Ask the people that I’ve danced with. Instead of expressions of joy and pleasure, my face was mildly panicked because I was silently counting – 1,2,2,1,2,2 or 1,2,3,1,2,3 or 1,2,1,2. And dancing backwards? How do you know where you’re going? Aren’t you going to run into somebody doing that?
Okay, well, how about dancing to music that has you relatively uncoupled from a partner, like, you know, those people in videos? Yup, I’ve been on a dance floor when that music was playing and it looked like I was having a spasm.
The problem is that my brain is chained to counting – the beat of the music, at some given interval, determines the moves that I make, and I count along until some periodicity makes me change. Some of you might say that I just need to practice more and I would not disagree. Some of you might say that I should take up clogging and I would not disagree. Some of you might say I should stay seated and I would say that you must have seen me dance.
I think my problem is that I learned things backwards. I should have learned to dance on the inside before I tried it on the outside. I needed to embrace the music, let go of my inhibitions, my clumsiness, my shyness, and my embarrassment, and just dance on the inside while I was sitting in a chair, or driving downtown, or hiking. I needed to forge some sort of internal clock that kept a beat so that I didn’t need to count. I needed to forget doing anything with my feet until the musical energy, rhythm, motion, drive, and closed-eye focus spilled out of me, that my body just had to shake and move and jump and shout and lose control.
It should be that way with writing. Practicing to make yourself better will come later. The first thing you have to do is hear the words on the inside, feel the passion of the idea, the richness of the idea, the conviction that words need to be written, and let it all build until all those words burst onto the paper.
Then dance like nobody’s reading.
I have, in times past, written technical articles on project management. Simply stated, having identified something you want, project management provides you with the “tools” to manage all the activities and resources to get what you want, ideally with efficiency and effectiveness.
Let me illustrate using adjustable archery.
You have a target in the distance, a bullseye in the center. What you want is to shoot an arrow that hits that bullseye. In adjustable archery, you are allowed to adjust the arrow as it travels to the target. That is, after leaving the bow, the arrow is going slow enough that you can run along next to it and use your finger to nudge it up, or nudge it down, or nudge it faster or slower, or tilt it up or down - whatever it takes to change the flight of the arrow so that it hits the bullseye. You can make these adjustments for the whole distance to the target. In that way, you compensate for unexpected gusts of wind that blow the arrow off course, or rain that slows the arrow down, or, heaven forbid, the situation where the target falls off the holder and you have to stop the arrow in midflight while you set the target back up.
Well, there’s another way.
You have a target in the distance, a bullseye in the center. What you want is to shoot an arrow that hits that bullseye. Suppose, however, that you don’t adjust the arrow, you adjust the target. That is, after leaving the bow, the arrow is going slow enough that you can run down the field, grab the target and move it around until, as the arrow comes closer and closer, the bullseye is exactly matched to the path of the arrow. If, for whatever reason, the arrow goes a little left or a little up or a little in a direction that you didn’t expect, you move the target as needed. And, in fact, if the arrow has performance issues (it wobbles, for instance, so the tip of the arrow varies uncontrollably), you can make the bullseye bigger.
Try not to get hit by the arrow, by the way.
Let me jump from this analogy to the act of writing a novel.
Some writers are very good at knowing the beginning, the middle, and the end of the novel they are about to write. “Outlining” is an established and respected first step to developing any story. I read of an author and her friend going to a deserted cabin in the woods and spending every minute of every hour over the next few days wrestling while defining a new novel. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, action by action, dialogue by dialogue, developing backgrounds to the characters as they go, working forward and backward, tweaking the plot or the drama or the emotion or the character arcs, they will work out every detail of the story until they have a full outline that covers every aspect, from beginning to end. They will not leave until they know they have a gripping, captivating, terrific, blockbuster of a novel.
Exhausted, the author goes back home and writes it up. Her focus will be entirely on putting words on paper that match the outline exactly.
I should point out that this lady has produced many incredibly popular novels and she’s rich, rich, and rich.
Then there’s me. I would note that I’m poor, poor, and poor, but let’s not get distracted.
I don’t create detailed outlines because I expect that the arrow (the plot, characters, etc.) will end up going in ways that I didn’t expect. In that case, instead of spending the effort and time to adjust the arrow to get it back on track, I just watch it. As it nears the end of its flight, I may see that it’s going to entirely miss the target (the climax, the ending). I will have to either move the target (change the climax or ending to match the flight), or throw away what I’ve done and shoot another arrow.
If missing an expected ending seems to be a regular event with my novel writing (and it is), I’ll not worry about the ending. I’ll develop a promising beginning and start writing. Along the way, if something goes differently than I thought, or becomes more complex and difficult, or begins to look more interesting than what I expected, I’ll let it roll; maybe it will work out, maybe not. Maybe a character does something that I didn’t expect or begins playing a larger part than I intended. I’ll write it that way and see what happens. I’m making up all the words, anyway; I’ll just make up different ones. I won’t sweat the end of the story because a different ending may be a better ending.
If my arrow does end up in a better place than my target, I typically assume that I had the target in the wrong place to begin with.
The important thing is that the story be honest, truthful, and authentic, and be a story that the reader will believe in.
It’s not only me (I’m not that original). I’ve read of other (famous and well-respected) authors who work with an unconfined attitude, with no worries about changing a story, with the courage not to be frightened if a plot seems better going in a different direction than expected, or if a character suddenly feels more authentic if, when encountering a closed door, will break it down rather than stopping to pick the lock.
I rarely begin a novel where I have no idea where I’m starting, where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, but I’ll listen along the way and move the target if I need to.
I was at a book association meeting last week and, having introduced myself as the author of several middle grade mystery and adventure stories, the lady next to me leaned over and asked how I developed the discipline to write all those books.
In my past life, I had the kind of job that demanded I be disciplined, energetic, dedicated to my products, focused, on time and awake, and always aware of managing the time and resources to accomplish what was expected of me. I made lists like you wouldn’t believe.
I don’t have that kind of job anymore.
The following comments about myself and the way I write do not apply to those people who work for someone else, who have deadlines and objectives, or job descriptions, or multiple jobs, or bosses who measure them against some nebulous criteria of quality, efficiency, or effectiveness. If you have a deadline, or a timetable, or a plan, or need a paycheck from your writing, then obey the writing teachers who quote whoever it was that first said that you have to plant your butt in your writing chair and not leave it until you have words down on paper. Those teachers are right.
That being said, it’s not right for me.
I look undisciplined; I look lazy; I look distracted and arbitrary and shiftless. I act much of the time like an old dog laying in the sunshine, slobbering over a bone. I putter, stroll around the house, make yet another cup of tea, or will suddenly go on a walk in the afternoon. I might even take a nap. Sometimes, I just sit in my recliner and stare into space.
I bounce back and forth between working on my new book, reading other books, or how-to-write books, or magazines, or blogs, or paying bills, or checking Twitter or Instagram or news websites, or working on my blog posts, or looking at my bookshelves at all those books I could be reading, or putting in the laundry. I could clean the bathroom, I guess.
But, in the background, I’m thinking about what I’m working on, of my choice to be a writer, of why it’s important to me to write well, of my characters and plot and descriptions and emotion and tension and whether all those things are working or not. I’m thinking about what I’ve written so far, whether it’s going in the right direction or not, what the next step is, and encouraging myself to be patient and to push on to finish what I have. I can fix things later, but I have to finish now. I’m thinking about whether it’s a good story, and whether people will want to read it, or whether it’s really just plain dull.
I look undisciplined and undirected and capricious, but it takes these motions to settle myself down to be honest when I put words down on paper. Honesty is a fundamental requirement for me to be an effective writer because I have not in times past been particularly honest in my words or my personal life, so it does not come easy.
Focusing on honesty gets and keeps me fully ready to write. If I am honest, I will be able to tell if the story I am writing is the story I intended to write; I will be able to tell if it’s working or if I’m just pretending; if I am authentic, my characters will say what real people say; if I am grounded, my readers will see themselves in my words; if I am simple, my creativity will add dimension to my stories, not fluff.
When these things happen, my seeming lack of discipline proves right for me.
Someone asked me on Friday why I write books and I, as I have to others, lied with my answer.
It’s easy to say “because it’s fun,” or “it keeps me off the streets,” or “because I want my grandkids see their granddad doing something useful in his old age.” It’s also because most questioners want a short answer.
To be truthful would take more time and explanation: writing helps satisfy my need to solve problems. I love to solve problems. I’ll write a whole book just to feature a nice problem for which I’ve made up an elegant solution.
You might be acquainted with Smoke Dreams, a novel I wrote that features the remodeling of an 1870s mansion. I loved writing that book because I got caught up in the details of how the house was originally built and the details of how the remodeling would be done. When you’re dealing with a hundred and fifty year-old house, every change spawns problems.
I spent endless joyful hours imagining authentic solutions – the foundation, the windows, the kitchen, the wiring, the insulation, the sheetrock, the porch, the roof, installing those cute little plastic pipes for hot and cold water, replacing the cistern, etcetera. I was a DIY junkie high on This Old House reruns! I even read two books about the evolution of toilets in the last half of the 1800s so I could understand what the bathroom might have looked like. We have no appreciation of the technological leaps that got us from outhouses to flushable porcelain bowls.
I must have written five or six pages of background on going to the potty before I admitted that nobody but me cared; the old toilet is not even mentioned in the final version of the book.
I love solving problems and that’s the nature of remodeling and rebuilding. If I ever win the lottery, I may build a house identical to the one in the book just to see if my solutions work.
My problem solving sometimes waits until the end of the book. I proofread a manuscript last night of Outlaw, a new Mogi Franklin mystery being published on May 1st. I had started the book with my history prelude (about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), written about half of the story establishing the characters and plot, and then had this great idea for an ending where Mogi gets himself into this terrible, horrible, awful situation from which there is absolutely no escape. He’s a goner! Without question, the boy is going to die!
Let me be truthful. When I thought of putting him in it, I had no idea of how I was going to get him out of his terrible, horrible, awful situation. No clue. I just knew that him being in that situation was going to grip the reader and have them sweating in their chairs thinking that this might be it – hasta la vista, baby, out of time, end of series, goodbye America, too bad, Jennifer.
I kept writing believing that I’d think of something. Close to the end of the book, I had Mogi imprisoned in a stolen homemade mini-submarine, in two hundred feet of water at the bottom of Lake Powell, running out of power, its front end caught in a mess of wires tied to a small mountain of explosives with only a minute left before they were timed to explode.
I was getting a little nervous.
It took a couple of days and a Tom Hanks movie, but it finally came to me. I made a small change in the beginning of the story and then watched him make his escape – a little damaged, but recovering nicely – and you will never – never – be able to guess how he’s going to escape until you read the book.
Even after all the times I had been through it, I read the proof up to that point and was raising my hands and pumping my fists when he did what he does.
Another problem solved!
When I was eight or nine, my parents bought me a Polaroid Swinger camera for Christmas. I hope I’m remembering the name correctly; it was a handful of black and white plastic that was generally shaped like an old Land camera with the bellows extended in front. After you loaded the film, you looked through the viewfinder, found your target and pressed the button. After a few clicks and whirs, a small (2 by 3?) photo would slide out the back. It was wet, the instructions cautioned, so hold it only by the edges.
The impressive thing was that the film showed nothing when first ejected. I would lay the film flat on something, weigh down the edges to keep it from curling up, and then the family would crowd around as we watched the picture slowly reveal itself. It might take thirty seconds or a minute, but the image which I had seen in the viewfinder soon materialized like a ghost out of the void. Afterwards, waiting the official time, I’d smear special gunk over it to stabilize the picture.
Other than my parents discovering that they had bought a financial liability (a youngster will take a picture of anything and everything, soon requiring more film), the camera was a true gift. Seeing the image appear turned out to be more fun than taking the picture.
People are the same way. If every person wore a checklist on their chests – vain, supportive, kind, angry, friendly, depressed, happy, smart, dumb as rocks, will let you down, will pump you up, conservative, progressive, talks too fast, doesn’t talk at all, loving, hating, great companion, snippy, perpetually critical, hates cats, loves snakes, genuine, false, simple, complex, shallow, etc. – with their true attributes checked, people would be a lot less interesting. We like interesting; we like finding out something we didn’t know; we like being surprised. We like someone being revealed to us rather than knowing everything when we first meet them.
As for ourselves, we like being interesting, and we like surprising people. We even like surprising ourselves. We also hope there are parts of us that people are either slow to figure out or never find out at all. And we like to change.
The next book you read, pay attention to the characters. See if the ones who are slowly revealed aren’t the ones you remember most.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.