Ask the Unicorns: The Novelist in the Mist
Okay, homies, this is the year I finally finish my novel. I decided my discipline will include, at a minimum, waking at 6 a.m. everyday to write before work. So, I got up at 6 a.m. to write, but found myself in a bit of a quandary, stepping back into the world of a manuscript after a significant amount of time away. Any suggestions for how to tackle re-entry? I found that I had to begin with a read-through in order to jog my memory about what had been written and reacquaint myself with characters . . . then what? Need some guidance around process so as to not feel so overwhelmed.
The unicorn homies totally sympathize.
We’ve all been there. No matter how committed you are, life and its consequences can intrude, and then suddenly—weeks, months, years later—you’re trying to push through a big giant something to re-enter your book.
I muse a lot about the nature of this something. It feels like that eerie magical fog that conceals certain islands, which you can only find if you know the special witchy words AND you get the right boatman AND the goddesses agree that it’s your time to go there.
You can wander in the mists for a long time, disoriented, like Odysseus returning to Ithaca. Or you can do exactly what you did, which is to say, “Oh, hey, mists. Guess I’m in ’em. What now?”
I’m reminded here of the wonderful advice that my own writing coach, Susan Griffin, gave me over the seven years it took me to finish my own monstrous book (which, it’s important to note, was five years longer than I’d anticipated, which meant that I spent every day for thousands of days in an absolute White Rabbit panic—“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!”).
Susan, who’d already been through the special agony of a long-suffering manuscript—in her case, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome slowed her work, which you can read all about in her memoir What Her Body Thought—told me this:
A manuscript is like a lover.
You have to keep giving it a little attention, she said. Even if you just touch it every day, that helps.
In the depth of my writer’s block, there were days, weeks, when literally all I did was touch the manuscript.
I’m going to go out on a limb and extrapolate here. (Hey, Mom, don’t read past this. We’re talking about lovers here, okay?)
The thing is, if I haven’t been with a lover for a long time, even one I know deeply, there’s often some shyness. We need to get to know each other again. We can’t just get right into the down and dirty.
Do you ever feel that your relationship with your book is even more intimate than your relationship with any other person?
So if I have to be away for a long time, it’s good to be gentle coming back. A read-through is a beautiful idea, and maybe even a little gentle editing. Fixing up typos. Listening. Touching. Stroking her hair.
And then, maybe it’s time to express my intentions.
What I want to do with you now is ____.
I’m so sorry we’ve been away from each other. I missed you a lot. How are you? Here’s how I’m really feeling about you . . .
Do this as a freewrite: 10 minutes, no stopping/thinking, just write whatever comes. Get the emo out, and then you’ll probably know where to go. What parts are really begging for your touch.
And then . . .
As you enter a sustained relationship, you may want more than heat and cuddles. You may want to, you know, make plans together.
Notice I said “plans,” not “demands.” Please don’t think I’m saying you should spend hours drawing up an elaborate spreadsheet that accounts for every minute of your writing time and what chapter/subchapter/scene you will be working on at every millisecond.
There are lots of ways to make a plan. The key thing is to not take too much time deliberating—just enough to get going. One of the best ways is to make lists.
Three very helpful lists to keep:
List #1: Descriptions to write
Start a running list of things you’ll need to show not tell: characters, locations, smells, objects, moments, bodies/body parts, what everyone wears, colors that’ll be important in the book. Make the items on your list very specific to your book, and as concrete as possible: Her mood as she enters the abattoir. The key that the detective discovers in the boathouse. What the boathouse smells like.
List at least 20 items. Add to your list at any time. Repeat this exercise whenever you run out.
List # 2: Events/scenes to write
This list is short or long depending on how far you are in the book. Keep it visible and give yourself a nice bold checkmark or gold star when you do one. (Seriously—stickers are very helpful to the book writer.)
In these freewrites, try to stick with the action and keep it moving. Don’t let description slow you down; remember you can always add it later, from List #1. When I walked into the darkened boathouse, right away I could smell [insert smells here—something putrid]. I gagged, then covered my mouth with [??handkerchief? ok, describe later] . . . and that was when I heard a bone-chilling sound.
Notice that this is not fantastic writing. Remember that you can edit later. Make editing notes if you want along the way, or not: I heard a bone-chilling [ugh! cliché] sound. The air started to waver, and so did my knees. Suddenly . . . Keep the action moving.
List #3: Things to figure out
This is an excellent list to keep so that whenever you run into a big gory problem, it doesn’t slow down your writing. (OMG. I killed off Charmaine in Chapter Three, but then in Chapter Eleventeen I showed her rescuing the talking squirrel!) Instead of interrupting your own flow, just jot it down on your list: Charmaine dead in Ch2, alive in Ch11ish— fix. And keep going with your description of the texture of squirrel fur, or whatever.
Now, how do you use all these lists?
On days when inspiration is hot, you don’t. You’re rarin’ to go, so you don’t need no friggin’ list.
On days when you’re willing but just a little empty, or in need of direction, pull a description or scene. One of my clients even plays “freewrite lottery”: she writes her topics on slips of paper and puts them into a fishbowl on her desk. Set a timer, pull one, and go!
Descriptions make for great 10-minute warm-ups to ease you into your workflow each day. They’re fun and get the blood flowing into your fingertips. And you need this stuff, so it doesn’t feel like waste-of-time journaling. Ten minutes of red might result in a list of 50 different metaphors and synonyms for red, which would be helpful if your book is set in Maoist China, or an abattoir.
Scenes require more attention, so think of them as the tofu in the bánh mì of your work session. If your scene feels too big and overwhelming, chop it up. Set a timer for 15 minutes and just write the beginning of the scene; another 15 minutes: write the end. Connect them with the middle. This doesn’t have to happen all in one day. It can, in fact, be lovely to give yourself some suspense by starting something and then leaving the outcome till the next day, so you know exactly where to pick up, and are excited to get to it.
Do, by the way, accept the unicorns’ permission to introduce a sense of play into your workspace, if you haven’t already. The reality is, writing a book is a slog enough of the time, without adding a really heavy bludgeon on top of that. Whatever excites you—colored pens, cartoons on the walls, post-it notes in the shapes of sea animals—is not a waste of time, if it makes you feel excited about working. Don’t fret about wasting time.
You do know the difference between procrastination and foreplay, don’t you? If you treat spending time with your book as just an obligation or, worse, a job—well, we all know how that kind of love affair goes. It’s not pretty. The toughest instruction my Zen teacher ever gave me about my writing process was, “Enjoy.”
And on those days when you’re a little low energy, or the mists are really thick, tinker with your fix-it list. Figuring things out is satisfying, and you may not even need to compose full sentences. Sometimes your problems help solve each other. (All right, look, what if Jerome rescues the squirrel, that’s kind of good because he disappears in the second half and I wrote down that I need him to come back, too, so . . .) Edit or rewrite the problem scene till it works, or just jot a note and add it to List #2.
Look at you, working on your manuscript!
Ask the Unicorns is an advice column about living the creative life, written by Minal Hajratwala and channeled directly from the ancient unicorns of the Indus Valley. Got a question about writing, reading, relating, creating, or being desi? The unicorns know. Write to AskTheUnicorns@gmail.com. Please indicate whether you would like us to publish your name or keep your question anonymous. All questions will be considered for publication; they will NOT be answered individually.
Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), and editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013). Her collection of poems is forthcoming from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.