Wednesday, November 04, 2009

What Are You Trying To Say?

by Marcus Sakey

I do maybe 30% of my writing on a laptop from various locations: in front of the window, standing at the counter, on the porch with a cigar. The remainder I do in the second bedroom we've rigged as a den. The split system works for me; mobility shakes me up when necessary, but generally, what I need is a room with a door that closes and a window that looks out onto a brick wall.

As a fringe benefit, this means that most of my writing is done facing a proper desktop monitor. And like any proper monitor, I’ve covered it with scraps of paper.

I started this back when I was freelancing as a copywriter. Sometimes the work is about headlines and campaigns, but more often, especially when freelancing, the work is body copy, which is essentially the text inside the brochure. It’s considered less glamorous, but—no surprise—I always liked it, because done well, that’s the part that is really going to sell someone.

I don’t remember the specific project I was working on, but it was something lengthy and detailed, with lots of information that needed to be conveyed without boring the reader. And so I found I kept repeating one of my writing mantras to myself. It’s a line I go to all the time when trying to trying to craft an argument, formulate a tricky sentence, or organize my thoughts:

What are you trying to say?

Simplistic, I know, but it’s one of the all-time great clarifiers.

Find yourself bound up? What are you trying to say?

Can’t figure out which information you need to include? What are you trying to say?

Wondering how to structure an essay? Well, what are you…you get the point.

Anyway, I was repeating it aloud so much that I printed it out and taped it to my monitor, front and center, so that every time my eyes and attention drifted, I was reminded of a first principle.

As you can see, one thing led to another.

The quotes framing my monitor have been collected over years, and each had to grab me, shake me, and, most important, help me. Real estate is at a premium, so it's a zero-sum game; for a new ont to go up, an old one has to come down. Some are my ideas; some are from other people. But even after staring at them for years, I still find them helpful, so I thought I’d share them. If you're a writer, these are gold:

“The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build. My idea of hell is a blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to think of a single thing worth saying, a single character that people could believe in, a single story that hasn’t been told before.”
-Neil Gaiman

“There is a wall that I hit during the writing of every book. It’s usually around the halfway stage. I start to doubt the plot, the characters, the ideas underpinning it, my own writing, in fact every element involved in the process. Progress slows.

There is always the fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea here isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere, I’ve taken a wrong turn.”
-John Connolly

“If you don’t feel that you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”
-John Irving

“There are very few mistakes in life that can’t be corrected if you got the guts.”
-Richard Price

“I half commit myself to some distant future date. But most of the intervening period disappears in a kind of anxious state of walking about. You cannot start until you know what you want to do, and you do not know what you want to do until you start. Panic breaks that cycle. Finally a certain force in the accumulated material begins to form a pattern.”
-Tom Stoppard

“Get the story launched at full gallop. Introduce characters who are, if not completely likable, at least people with a core sense of integrity. Keep the plot complex enough so that there’s always a twist coming. Pay attention to your character’s emotional lives. Learn to introduce conflict in every chapter.”
-Tess Gerritsen

“The best must never be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius, there is always craftsmanship.”
-Robert Harris

I've got three lines of my own up there, reminders of my own personal foibles:

“What are you trying to say?”

“You are hereby released from writing the perfect novel.”

“Terror is better than ennui.”

Oh, and there's also a cartoon of a naked woman drawn by my wife. That doesn’t really help with the writing, but does make me smile.

So what about you? Anything you’ve read or heard that helps with your own creative process? Anything taped to your monitor?


Dana King said...

Nothing taped to my monitor, but I might start with "What are you trying to say?" It's so obvious it almost seems silly, until I think about how many times I've stumbled around looking for the right word or phrase, so caught up in how I'm going to say something I forget to focus on what it is I want to say. If it's no longer clear in my head what I'm trying to say, how can I describe it in a manner the reader will understand?

Thanks for this.

David Ellis said...

Great post, Marcus. My favorites are the John Irving quote and your released-from-writing-the-perfect-novel.

jnantz said...

I don't have anything taped to my monitor, but I do have one on the wall in my classroom and one in my head. In my class there's a James Thurber quote, "Don't get it right the first time, just get it written." I love that one for kids who freeze because they're worried that first story or essay draft won't be good enough. They're right, but that's the point of revising, and many of them still need to learn that.

The second is something Michael Connelly told me at a signing when I was just a dopey fan (still am) that mentioned I was stalled on the book I was writing. He had used the metaphor of surfing to describe writing, in that the hard part (the paddling like mad) is getting to the third act. But Act 3 itself is the ride, the tube. So he took a picture with me, then said, "Get back up on that board, get yourself in the pipeline." That was something so cool (that he'll never remember because it was just a master of the art throwing offhand encouragement to someone he'll probably never see again), but it was exactly what I needed to get that first manuscript finished. Now if I can just finish one that is saleable....

jnantz said...

Hey, wait a minute! You give us all the quotes, but not the cartoon? What a ripoff...

Kevin Smith said...

It's not on a monitor now, though it was on an old and long-discarded laptop at one point. I can't recall exactly who said it (might have been E.L. Doctorow), but the line was a calming one for all those who had a beginning but no ending: "Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights reach, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Marcus Sakey said...

I love both the Doctorow line and Connelly's metaphor. That's spot on.

The cartoon is in the picture, man. I wouldn't rob you of that. ;)

Anonymous said...

Kurt Vonnegut's Eight Rules to writing (these are technically for a short story, but i think they still work just fine)

1.Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2.Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3.Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4.Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5.Start as close to the end as possible.

6.Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8.Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Although he did say that all great writers tend to break all of these rules except the first