As I’ve mentioned before, a few years ago when I had my first book come out, a how-to on writing at work, I did a blog for a while on the process of business writing. That blog’s now defunct, but lately I’ve been thinking of the connection between my earlier writing career (freelancing, teaching business writing, that book) and my new life as a novelist. (I never get tired of saying that out loud.) I’m fascinated by the differences and the similarities between those two kinds of writing, so one of the things I’d like to do on this blog is occasionally examine them side by side. Here’s an excerpt from one of my early entries in the business writing blog:
Nothing is as hard as making yourself start to write, because the blank page telegraphs a message to your subconscious: nothing’s here and nothing ever will be here. But this is simply a lie. Listen to it and you’ll delay forever. Make those first marks on the page, and you’re on your way. To do this, you’ve got to begin brainstorming by asking yourself questions – on paper. Thoughts disappear; notes stay. The power of writing down those initial thoughts, no matter how silly they sound, is that you then have something concrete to work with.
I’ve found this to be 100 percent true of fiction writing. Sometimes you get a quick launch with a wonderful phrase that comes into your head, or an exciting idea that comes to you while driving. But even if you’ve gotten that gift, there will come a day when enthusiasm peters out, and you ask yourself that awful question – “What exactly was I thinking when I started this thing?” The only answer for that is to keep at it on the page.
In Gettysburg, one very smart girl asked me whether I just let the story unfold as it will, or whether I know in advance what’s going to happen. That’s a hard question, because whatever you think you know, stories do unfold at will. They’re wily, strong-headed things. And yet I don’t get very far before I start talking to myself in notes about the plot. I don’t like to fly blind, just wandering with language, unless I’m doing that to explore a character or an idea – to see what it is I’m actually thinking about. And so if I do wander, it’s in discrete lumps and for a specific reason. More often I sit down and ask myself questions – What’s this character like? What’s going to happen next? What needs to happen next? And then I write notes, telling myself the story, until one day those notes wake the language part of my brain up, and the voice comes. And even when that happens, there’s the long, hard middle of a story to contend with, where you keep having to circle back to that notes-to-voice process, until you reach the end.
So I guess I come to the conclusion that at on a macro level – the need for a bottom line of some sort, and the need (at least for me) to lay some scaffolding down before I fully immerse myself in language — even an accounting memo and a novel have much in common.