Writing The Squid
I spent this weekend in Fairplay with a dozen writers working on book-length projects, and a few wise and witty instructors. As with most Lighthouse gatherings, the company was superb, the writing inspiring, the talent daunting. Also, the weather was beautiful, the hotel was charming, the fire was crackling, the wine was flowing. I could go on. Really. Just ask any one of the people in Fairplay with me. I talk too much. Sometimes I even sing, and for that I am truly sorry. In my defense, I’ve already mentioned the flowing wine, right?
Despite a bit of ill-advised caterwauling, I think we all left Fairplay feeling better about our writing and maybe a bit daunted by the work ahead. At least, that’s how I feel now, a full 48 hours later.
Though I could never pack everything we learned into a blog post, I thought I’d pass along a bit of the collected wisdom from the weekend.
- Writing makes your gut hurt. From the pithy William Haywood Henderson, the instruction to write about the stuff that bothers you. When you get that sinking feeling in your stomach and you’d rather run away, then you know you’ve hit upon something worth writing.
- The agent wants to love you. The agent wants to hate you. From editor, former agent, and publishing guru Shana Kelly. Agents are people who love books. They want to find a book they can love. Maybe it can be your book, but if the agent doesn’t love your query letter/book proposal/first few paragraphs, then s/he will never get a chance to love your book. In fact, if you don’t follow the rules for submission on the agent’s website, if you come across as obnoxious or clueless, then the agent will be happy to hate you. It’s so much easier to reject someone you hate. And they must reject someone.
- Make your own writing retreat. From the brilliant and charming Erika Krouse, as she explained that she sometimes camps out in a cheap hotel in the middle of nowhere, a place with so few distractions and so little charm that writing is the only option. Yes, it’s dandy to rack up prestigious fellowships and spend weeks or months at official writing colonies, but when the goal is to write, it’s the solitude that counts.
- You learn a crapload about fiction writing by reading poetry. This is an actual quote from Mr. Henderson. It explains itself, I think.
- You’ve already beaten the odds. From the aforementioned Shana Kelly. Most people don’t even write the book. Of those who start, most don’t finish. Getting a book published is hard work, but so is writing a book. In other words, we succeed every time we sit down and put pen to page.
- Put some squid in there. Yep, squid. Wondering how that relates to writing? Well, I’ll try to explain. According to Mr. Henderson, Melville’s short chapter on the futile pursuit of a squid contains everything that MOBY DICK is about. Far from being a plot diversion, the squid chapter contains the very essence of the book. Bill’s advice for getting some squid in our own books? Pull out random sections and read them out of context. Make sure that every page, every sentence, shores up the book’s themes.
There you have it! I’m going to be spending the next month or so searching for the squid in my own novel and slicing out anything that doesn’t reek of calamari. I may sequester myself in a seedy motel for a few days to really focus on the task. Also, I’m going to explore taking a workshop or two with Erik Krouse. I definitely have more to learn from her. When I’m ready to submit, I’ll take a few deep breaths and try to remember that I’ve already beaten the odds and that somewhere there is an agent who wants to love me.
Meanwhile, I’ll be looking forward to good news from my fellow Fairplay compatriots. I have no doubt that many of the attendees will have books on the shelf soon–all packed with squid, of course.