On Writing

Writers get questions. “How do you come up with your ideas?” is the classic. And my answer? I don’t really know. Except perhaps the simple fact that I’m always looking for them.

I think everyone has stray thoughts that could form the basis of something creative; but such nuggets are too often swallowed by the tyranny of the day: the need to get the children to school, to file that report, to take out the trash. But if you’re a writer, when one of the stray thoughts arrives on your driveway like the morning paper, instead of driving over it on my way to the grocery, I snatch it up and commit it to a computer file. Out of the hundreds of ideas I have, only a handful prove useful, of course. But at least none are forgotten.

Most people panic when the teacher asks them to write a one page essay. They have an aneurism when facing a ten page term paper in college. So, they naturally wonder, “how do you manage to write something that fills six hundred pages, even if it is double-spaced?”

Consider the problem of trying to eat a cow. Cows are enormous. And yet, most of us have probably eaten at least one cow in our lives. How did we do it? One hamburger at a time.

So writing a novel is just like eating a cow. I do not get up in the morning and sit at my computer and keep typing until I’ve reached that six hundred page mark without stopping. Rather, I set myself a more manageable goal of ten pages per day. If I work five days a week, then I can turn out about two hundred pages a month. In three months, the first draft will be done.

The phrase “first draft” expresses another key to actually writing anything. Some people that I went to school with would struggle over each sentence in their term paper, each paragraph, rewriting and reworking it as they went until they got it just right. They were lucky to have the paper done in time.

I don’t work that way. Instead, I just let the words fall on the page, however they happen to fall. I consciously choose not to worry about whether it sounds good or not. This is a psychological mind game I play with myself: I explain to the perfectionist in my head that it doesn’t matter if it is horrible right now. It is of no importance if the sentences are misshapen or if the story currently makes as much sense as the lyrics of a song from the sixties. So what if I can’t remember the name of this character? Just pick any name out of the air and move on: put words on the page. Don’t stop. You can worry about making it sound okay later, when you’re all done. When you finish the first draft, I patiently tell the worrywart in my brain, you can go back and cut out the lame dialogue, the hackneyed phrases, the poorly constructed descriptions. Then you can recheck that fact.

What this peculiar mind game I play with myself allows me to do is to relax, to eliminate the stress, to undo the bondage, and to actually write. Then, during the rewriting, I smooth out sentences, correct spelling, and make sure that the characters keep their same names all the way through, along with fixing the other continuity issues. Creating the first draft, I only get to see the book in ten page snippets, each snippet separated by a night of sleep. In the rewriting, I’m able to see it finally as a whole, and make sure it flows well.

The strangest aspect of the writing, however, is the weird fact that although I have a good idea of where the story is going, and even though I’ve laid it all out in my head how I’m going to get to the end of the story, writing the book sometimes is not that much different than it will be for the reader who reads it later.

For instance, in my current rewrite of the novel that I just sold, the editor wanted me to take the flashbacks and make them linear. Given that there is a gap in time between the events referenced in the flashbacks and what’s going on in the rest of the story, I was faced with building a bridge. So I laid out a series of eighteen plot points in between and then set to work. I had definite ideas of what the characters would do and what they would say. But then a funny thing happened: the characters took control of the story and some of the things I thought they’d be busy with, they weren’t. They did other things instead.

How can that be? Are not the characters simply made up things over which I have complete control? How can figments of my imagination start telling me what they want to do and start living their lives as if they are independent of me? Almost sounds psychotic.

But that’s the beauty of successful character creation: they must become alive. If they don’t, you’ve failed. It may sound crazy, but that’s what happens in the books and stories and movies where the character is someone you remember more than the explosions and special effects. Think about Captain Kirk in Star Trek. Or Scotty. Or Dr. McCoy. Think about your friends and family. All of them have character traits that you learn about as you watch them. And you know, based on their past actions, how they will behave in the future, in any given situation. Any character in a novel has to become alive like that, and once they do, the author loses a certain amount of control: he no longer can make them do just anything at all; they can only do what is part of their nature—the nature he created for them. And then you have to adjust your plot to fit them, rather than the other way around.

Send to Kindle

About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
This entry was posted in Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *