I am interested in the different approaches different writers take to their work. Some make extensive outlines before they write, while others are more seat-of-their-pants types. Some do extensive character work prior to writing, while others let their characters develop over the course of the first and subsequent drafts.
I want to raise the issue of writing process and share a little bit about mine. I am a former academic, a political scientist by training, and so academic, non-fiction writing is almost second nature. What I didn’t realize when I started writing fiction is that writing fiction and writing non-fiction are two very different animals. Seldom do you worry about things like character arcs, plot points, and dénouements when writing academically (though in creative non-fiction such things can be just as important). Yes, the two are very different. I spent a lot of time unlearning the academic stiffness and the formal way of writing characteristic of journal articles and academic books.
But, and this is what I really want to share, I’ve been careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are skills I picked up in academia that I seek to carry over into my writing of fiction. The primary one is that ole’ r-word: research. It took me a long time to realize that detail and accuracy is not only important in writing effective fiction, but often depends on it.
When I was in college, friends joked about how I was a flash-card nerd. I always wrote things down on index cards and studied that way, usually to good effect. Only relatively recently I discovered that index cards can be just as useful, if not more so, in writing fiction. Now I do extensive research on my novels before writing a word—thrillers often lend themselves well to the outline approach. And let me just say that I have never used index cards to the extent I do now. I take all kinds of notes on possible plot points, important topics, and ideas for future novels. I rely on these notes when developing the story and writing the first few drafts.
In addition to the index cards relevant to a particular book, I keep another constantly running collection that I add to while reading. When I come across a particularly apt phrase, a simile, metaphor, or word that strikes me, I write it down on an index card. I have categories like overall physical description, eyes, furnishings, gestures, dialogue, and vocabulary.
The point is that good research skills can be applied to writing fiction just as much as non-fiction. I wanted to bring that to people’s attention because it took me a while to figure out. If I can save anyone some time on developing his or her skills as a writer, then I’m all for it.
I had a very nice discussion with a friend the other day via Facebook about depression and how to treat it. She observed that sometimes people self-medicate and treat their depression with alcohol and/or other drugs. She included “happy pills” or anti-depressants in the same group as other drugs.
This raised a question for me. Is the use of anti-depressants synonymous with the use of alcohol or other drugs in treating depression? As someone who is dual-diagnosed and prescribed anti-depressants, I certainly hope the answer is no. I believe that the use of anti-depressants, especially in conjunction with other methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, differs significantly from using other drugs to self-medicate.
My friend said she had been depressed but had forced herself to go to the gym. She said she was able to work her way out of her depression. She also asked if food could affect depression and I said I believed so. I think if you are malnourished your chances of suffering from depression are higher than on a healthy diet. And certain foods, such as fish and popcorn, are said to combat depression.
But still the question remained in my mind, and I think hers as well. Is everyone capable of getting themselves out a depressive state by natural methods, especially without the use of prescription drugs?
I would have to say that depression varies from individual to individual. And certainly, it seems the case that anti-depressants are too often prescribed; they are used as a first line of treatment when other things might be tried initially (e.g., exercise, regulating sleep cycles, eating healthier, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.). But then I thought of how brain chemistry works and thought how it must be the case that some people are simply born with chemical imbalances that exacerbate an underlying propensity toward depression.
When I think back on some of my depressive periods, I remember there being no way I could come out of the house or get out of bed or into the shower or go to school or work.
So what do you think? Are anti-depressants simply another quick fix method of combatting depression, or do some people really need medication to augment their brain functioning? What do you think? Please let me know.
My writers’ workshop began last night, led by Joyce Allen, an excellent writer, teacher, and woman I hold dear. There are five of us, altogether. I submitted a rough draft of a short story I wrote last November. Now, I should say from the start that I’m a novelist first, and a short story writer a very distant second. Therefore, it shouldn’t have come as a shock when Joyce said that my short story was a really good start for…you guessed it, a novel.
On the other side of the spectrum is a young woman whose passion lies in the short, short form of fiction, or flash fiction. She admitted that anything longer than 750 words is a bit of a stretch. Now, this young woman is a fabulous writer, and I hope to learn a good deal from her about the form. But the interesting thing I thought about was that it is really important for us to find our niche as writers, and that one size definitely does not fit all.
Maybe because I’m a recovering alcoholic, but I often think of the different forms of fiction as equivalent to different types of drinks. A novel is like a nice glass of wine or a good beer, it unfolds slowly, over time, and it over takes several pages (drinks) to get the full effect. Short stories are like mixed drinks. You don’t have as many pages (drinks) to imbibe before you start feeling the effects—its potency is more concentrated. Each sentence adds to your literary buzz faster than does the lines in a novel. Finally, short, short fiction and poetry are like shots of straight liquor. Not a word is wasted, and there is a high concentration of meaning in a very small space.
I really think one of the most important jobs for us as writers is finding out where our strengths lie. Just as there are people with a proclivity to beer or wine, so there are those with a tendency to write novels. And while some people enjoy mixed-drinks, others like to pound shots.
Now I don’t think I’ll ever excel at the short form, (though I did enjoy doing shots for years) and I’m not sure I should spend much time trying to do so. However, and this is a big however, I think it is extremely important that we read in all fiction forms and even try our hand occasionally at a form we are less comfortable with. This is because it stretches us as writers. Novelists can learn a lot from poets, and vice-versa. In fact, I think every novelist should make reading poetry a part of her daily routine. Developing a skill in a particular form is crucial if ever you want to market your writing, but rounding out the differences by reading various forms of fiction is a crucial way of finding your niche and also sharpening your capabilities within it.
Please welcome Julie Davis, author of the forthcoming novel Down East Girl
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you are currently working on or promoting.
I am currently cleaning up last minute edits on “Down East Girl,” part I of a family saga set off the coast of North Carolina. It will be published as an e-book sometime in the summer of 2014.
What genre(s) do you write in?
Fantasy, young adult, and historical.
Do you have an agent and/or publisher, or are you self-published?
MuseItUp publishing out of Toronto, Canada.
How many revisions do you make to something before it sees the light of day?
At least three.
Who or what inspires you to write?
Sometimes I am inspired by something I read, but I often feel that the characters choose me. I feel them talking to me when I am taking a shower or driving. I realize that makes me sound schizophrenic, but that’s the way it is.
Do you outline your stories or are you a non-outline person?
I have a general outline but I often find that the story goes in a different direction than I intended. I go with the flow, because if I try to bend it to my will I get stuck.
What is one thing about you that you’d like your readers to know?
My guilty pleasures include reading People Magazine and advice columns.
What are your three favorite books?
Only three? Okay: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Fault in Our Stars.
What are you currently working on?
When I am not tweaking my novel, I am working on a YA novel about a girl who must go and live with her estranged father after her mother dies.
If you could have a conversation with one person living or dead who would it be?
What are you currently reading?
Just finished Eleanor and Park, a YA novel about two geeky teens who detest each other, but eventually connect through music and comic books. It is funny, realistic, and bittersweet.
How do you keep sane as a writer?
I keep in touch with my other friends who are writers and belong to a writer’s group. When I feel stuck, I use writing prompts, or take a walk, or watch TV. Yes, I am a horrible TV/movie addict.
If you could be any character in literature, who would you choose to be?
Elizabeth Bennett or Scout Finch.
Has reading a book ever changed your life? If yes, which one and how?
Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life, which he wrote about his battle with cancer. It helped me through a very bad period in my life while I was recovering from surgery.
What do you like best/least about writing?
Least: getting started. Best: When I get in “the zone,” and feel as if I am a conduit for the story that wants to be told.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
When you get a rejection or read something that you feel is so much better than anything you could ever write, it is okay to feel discouraged, or even to take a break from writing for a while. But just remember that your goal is to be the best writer that you can be. And never never never never give up.
Thank you so much, Julie, for sharing your time with us.
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