I am amazed that writing books can still teach me anything. But they do. I’ve been reading two of them lately: “Nail Your Novel” by Roz Morris and “Several short sentences about writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
“Nail Your Novel” has given me a technique to get past the mulling phase of a novel. That phase during which the basic story ideas keep rolling through my head without going any further. Morris suggests making notes about the novel, whatever comes to mind. These notes are tucked in a box (I have a small carved wood hinged one) until they build up into a significant pile. I’m assuming I’ll know when I’ve got enough.
The notes are then sorted by theme, plot, characters, and scenes, and consolidated onto index cards. The writer organizes the index cards to create an overall outline or plan for writing.
The beauty of the notes is that if thoughts about the novel are repetitious, there’s no need to sort through the notes to see if one has already been written. Merely write a new note and throw it in the box. While Morris doesn’t say anything about the amount of repetition among notes, I’d venture to guess that whatever thoughts recur often point to something important the writer wants to convey in the novel.
“Several short sentences about writing” examines writing at the level of sentences. Klinkenborg makes a number of points that I haven’t seen in other writing books. He says that writing students aren’t taught to notice things. It’s this noticing and claiming the authority to write about what is noticed that is important in writing.
Instead, students are taught a stultifying form of writing “that [has] almost nothing to do with real communication” (pg. 30) and leads to boredom. You know the format: An introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion that restates the three supporting points and ideally links back to the introduction. Because, naturally, the reader is too stupid to remember three simple points without having them reiterated in the final paragraph.
Not only is this form of writing dreadful for students (and must be unlearned as quickly as possible), it has to be horrendous for teachers to read year after year.
Klinkenborg eschews the notion of writer’s block, telling writers not to get caught up in the idea that writing must come naturally or be inspired or is dependent on particular conditions. “Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions, with anything, starting from nowhere. All you really need is your head, the one indispensable requirement.” (pg. 80)
At one point, Klinkenborg suggests thinking and thinking and thinking of sentences, rather than writing them down. My immediate reaction to this is, “Are you nuts?” There’s no way I can remember several sentences floating about my head. It’s hard enough to keep one in mind, a feat I can only manage if I repeat the thing over and over until I get to a piece of paper.
Yet, how else do I explain how an article I’ve been thinking about for days or weeks manages to appear quickly and well-formed once I set it on the page? The thinking is the writing, with the physical act of writing an important formality in the process.
“Several short sentences about writing” is one of those books that begs to be reread. It’s deep. There are parts I silently argued with. Points that shifted as I read more.
They layout makes the text look like poetry. It also invites dipping in at random.
The line that stopped me short is this one: “The piece you’re writing is about what you find in the piece you’re writing.” (pg. 110)
Think about that one for a while. I will.