Deb Olin Unferth’s Pep Talk
I’m hoping your words are spilling out in fully formed plots, intriguing dilemmas, compelling characters, and sentences that feel vital and precise. But I well know that novels are unwieldy and that getting them under control can be like trying to herd planets into a line.
Here are a few tips that I’ve learned over the years.
1. Keep in mind the initial image that you had of your book. Writers often say that they were struck with an early image or tiny scene that filled them inexplicably with emotion and inspired them to create a story around it: the image of a woman leaving with a suitcase, the image of a car fallen into the ocean, or a mattress salesman staring across an expanse of beds. For the book I’m working on now, I have the image of thousands of flightless birds running across a field. What’s yours? Return to your image when you get stuck, recover its emotional power.
2. Write the plot of your book in a single sentence. The sentence should tell the action of the story, not describe the characters or the setting, except in a word or phrase. “A man of new money attempts to reclaim his lost love.” “A middle-aged man kidnaps his stepdaughter, with whom he is in love, and drives across the country.” I like to make my sentence a little exaggerated, a little dramatic, as if being read aloud by an announcer. Keep the sentence handy, and when you start to feel lost, look back at it and ask yourself: what can I write that will contribute to this plot? And don’t be afraid to change the sentence—stories change as we write them.
3. Have model novels in mind. I usually have a few books that I’m thinking about when I’m working, books that inspire me, books that face problems like my own book’s problems, books I’m talking to. And I seek other model novels as I write, I try to increase the list. I do not go back and reread the model novels until I’m done working on the book (I don’t want to be unduly influenced), so my model-novels list might include books I read twenty years ago, books I read last summer, and books I just read. Sometimes another person’s clear vision can help me define my own clear vision.
4. Keep to a routine. John Cheever apparently woke up each day at the same time, dressed in a suit, took the elevator down to the basement, and worked among the pipes.
5. Break your routine. The way NOT to break your routine is to NOT show up at your desk at the regular hour, but rather by surprising yourself with an extra hour and a different desk. If you never write at lunchtime, one day write at lunchtime. Craziness! If you never write in the airport, write in the airport! Wow! What a rush! (You have to feel a little sorry for writers, really.)
6. Before you go to sleep, lay out what you want to work on the next day and write a little note of direction, just a few words. I know for a fact that this is helpful and yet I regularly fail to do it, but whenever I do, it pays off.
7. Write the book that feels urgent to you, that feels like a contribution. Why else do it?
Looking forward to reading your accomplishments,
Deb Olin Unferth