Andrew Willett, at it again.

Category: writing

A thing I do.

The Book, the Grumpy Bear, and Me

19th-century woodcut of Bodhidharma meditating
Bodhidarma meditating, Yoshitoshi, 1887

So the other day I did something kind of momentous, but to explain I have to tell you about Daruma-san. You may have seen these roly-poly little Japanese dolls before. They represent Daruma, aka Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Chan/Zen Buddhism to East Asia in the fifth or sixth century. He was said to be stubborn, hairy, and determined: a symbol of perseverance. When someone gives you one, its eyes are blank. At the start of a project — I dunno, say, “I want to write a novel” — you paint one eye. Now he stares at you one-eyed, wishing you success and encouraging you along the way, until you finish, and paint the other eye. 

A million years ago, I decided to stop piling up endless notes and write that novel. A friend had given me a Daruma, and I figured he’d be great for this purpose. Away we went! And eventually, after a lot of writing and revising and lying on the floor questioning my life choices… I had a manuscript! Time to get it published! Unfortunately, the ms then spent a few years trapped in a publishing Phantom Zone, and by the time I could drag it out, I was told by people in the biz that although it was good, well written… the market had moved on. This book, they couldn’t sell, but thanks anyway. “I’d love to read the next one you write,” they said.

I felt like such a failure. And I let Daruma stare at me one-eyed from my dresser for years. But the other day I realized that I was being unfair to myself and Daruma — that I had moved the goalposts on us. I had wanted to write a book! And then I WROTE A BOOK. 110,000 words! And it was good, even! Maybe I’ll write another; maybe I won’t. (I do have an idea.) But that work happened, and it was time to celebrate that and move on.

So I did.

What’s the etiquette on flogging your shiny new publication on Twitter? How often is too often? Also, how subtle do you have to be when mentioning it in the presence of co-workers? Is the all-office email address over the line?

Asking for a friend.

2018: And So We Begin Again

So where were we? Jeez, the last time I said anything of substance in this forum I was still single. (Don and I made honest men of each other on Labor Day, and the wedding was, as the phrase goes, everything.) The new year started with an auspicious portent: a fiction sale! My short story “Mrs. Peak and the Dragon” is part of Abyss & Apex‘s Q1 2018 issue. It’s an old favorite of mine that was sitting around waiting on some indefinable Oh but it needs more tweaking, and so I’m very glad to have been nudged into just sending the damn thing out already.

And now it’s time to start building up those write-all-the-time muscles again, because I’m gearing up to write another novel. (More on that later.) And where better than in the pages of a blog that pretty much everyone has forgotten exists?

Nest the Corners, Smooth the Edges, and Fold in Thirds

While I was at Boskone last month I had the opportunity to sit down with my alpha readers for Mojo City. To my delight, they approved of the shape of the first draft, and their concerns about what would need to be fixed in the 2.0 release matched my own. They even, dare I say it, enjoyed reading it. And having spent a month away from the thing, I’ll be starting up that revision process sometime this week by sitting down and reading the 1.0 version for the first time since I closed it down. I’m looking forward to finding out what’s actually in it, as opposed to what I thought I put in it. And, of course, there will be lots of $PLACEHOLDERS to finally make specific — a series of walks through Chinatown and the Lower East Side are in my future — and characters who need to be made deeper and more believable. I think it’s going to be fun once I get into the groove, but I can feel an echo of the same resistance that kept me from starting the first draft: I don’t know all the answers yet, so how can I be sure it’ll be perfect? What if I screw it all up?

To which I say: Crikey, man. Pull on your big-boy writer pants and just start. You can fix anything you break in the 3.0 draft. Plus, hey! Here’s a video that will teach you how to do something you always kind of fake your way through, never the same way twice. It is, as the nice lady says, “one of the biggest challenges you’re going to face in your life.” And now that you can surmount that, how hard can finishing the damned book be?

Learning Experience

Six years ago I started thinking about a novel. Six months ago, I started writing it. And yesterday, to my surprise and delight and relief, I finished the first draft. I am pleased to announce the birth of MOJO CITY, Version 1.0, weight 98,000 words, length 450 double-spaced pages.

To do it, I had to learn a bunch of different lessons: How not to let fear of the blank page keep me from starting at all; how to maintain forward momentum on a project that, when I started, seemed impossible; how to navigate the straits between leaving room in the writing process for spontaneous moments of invention and knowing exactly how my story was going to get me from A to B to C and on to Z. But most of all, I had to learn how to write an imperfect draft without leaping off the balcony.

I mean, you hear this over and over: Your first draft will stink. Everyone’s first draft stinks. That’s what they do. But it’s one thing to hear that delivered as fact, even from teachers you respect at writer camp, and quite another to believe it. My own impulse toward perfectionism has always been my own worst enemy. It kept me from starting the book for years: what if I turn a good idea into a bad book? With a short story, you really can put off starting the first paragraph until you have the whole thing mapped out in your head. It’s a strategy that will produce completed pieces. But when you’re about to embark on a voyage of 98,000 words? Safer for now just to keep adding notes to the pile. Start later, when you’re more sure of what you’re doing.

But no. Did you know that if your character is standing outside a blown-up pizza joint talking to some cops but you really need him to be in Washington Square, eating falafel with a bodhisattva, but you don’t know quite how to get him out of his current conversation, you can just write


and come back later? Like, in the second draft? And that’s a totally acceptable thing to do? So you can go on and write the scene that you actually have in your head, instead of agonizing over a transition that will make more sense later? It’s true! I did it. So can you. You can also direct your main character to the scene of an incident at $INTERSECTION, and then have him later meet a friend to hear a band called $CLEVER NAME.

This was a revelation. And, more important, it was the crack in the dam that let me get out of my own way and just write the damn book. Characters flat? Fix it in the next draft. Language undescriptive? Fix it in the next draft. Causality questionable? Chronology dodgy? Geography unreliable? It doesn’t matter. In the words of James Thurber, “Don’t get it right. Just get it written.”

You probably knew all this already, dear reader. But I spent a few long years fighting to absorb this truth into the marrow of my bones. And I don’t want to forget it. So I’m putting it here.

So that’s what I’ve been up to instead of writing the blog. How about you?

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