The beginning, middle, and end, or what happens now?
A guest issue by novelist and pie-ist Amy Wallen
Happy New Year! To start the year off write (hehe), I’m excited to bring you a guest issue by my former AWP writing mentor and now friend, Amy Wallen. I’ve spent enough time trying to push her new book How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies on you that I thought it would only be fair to let you hear her wisdom for yourself!
One of the things I love about Amy’s advice is that she dishes it with humor and simplicity, which I find refreshing because writing is often so fraught and difficult. When I’m stuck in the thick of it, it’s a relief to hear a voice that keeps it easy, breaking it down into the basics that work for pretty much every project, no matter the genre. Sometimes you need a reminder that the answer you’ve been agonizing over might be easier than you’re making it out to be. At the same time, however, Amy also acknowledges the hardships and frustrations, so reading her advice is like having a kind writing friend on your shoulder to drown out the voices telling you you don’t have what it takes. I hope you enjoy Amy’s tips, which should be helpful no matter where you are on your writing journey — and the delightful illustrations from her book by Emil Wilson!
New Year’s advice from Amy
It’s a new year, and new promises to write every day, to finally start that novel, or to finish that novel are being made all around the world. For some of us the tough part is starting, for some it’s how to keep going when the writing gets hard, and for others it’s how to push through to The End that’s the most difficult. Every book has a beginning, middle, and end, and so does every writing journey. Or at least that sounds clever for this newsletter. Here are my three steps to keep writing.
You already have a character and a situation they’re in. That’s basically what an idea for a novel is. X is in Y situation. That’s your algebra lesson for today. But how do you get X in Y situation to do something? You have to make it up, which is the fun part of being a fiction writer, only you have this blank page obstacle in front of you. You have to know what happens Now before you can know what happens Next. This is where Prompts are your friends. To get any story, scene, sentence, idea started a prompt can be the jumpstart to get you going, or sometimes a nudge to push your character from one situation into another situation with a different character. Prompts come in all shapes and sizes. You can find them on websites like DIY MFA where they have a fun Vegas-style spinning slot machine prompt dispenser, or books like Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days that has a prompt for every day of the year and more, plus provocative advice on keeping the muse at hand. Use prompts to start, to jumpstart, or to restart. They are your key to move that blank page obstacle out of your way.
You got started. Now you find X is in Y situation and they are now making their way through more situations with the entire alphabet of characters. But even though you have ink on the paper, or pixels on the screen, you start to feel lost that you don’t know what you’re doing or where this is going. Don’t worry, we all feel that no matter what level, stage, age we are. That tidbit of universal writerly emotion isn’t helpful though. What do you do when you don’t hear the song, the rhythm of the story, that ever-elusive voice is slipping in and out like a distant AM radio station. I use a trick that I named Hitchhiking. Pull out a book by an author who you admire, a book you want to write like. It can be a book that is similar to what you are trying to do. Then, start with page one and copy it word for word. Yep, like you are being an apprentice to the master, which you are. It’s best to do this by hand with pen and paper. You will begin to hear their rhythm and lyrical beats of the prose. You may write a paragraph, a page, or more but keep your ears and heart open. The slow process of writing out the words will teach you how the author picked the words, shaped their sentences, and drew the mind’s eye picture for you. It won’t take long before you’ll be pining to get back to your own words and paint brush, or keyboard.
How do you know when you have finished? An age-old question. We often think we are done then go back in for more editing. Or we think we are done until our writing group readers tell us otherwise. Or we sometimes write around and around an ending just not finding a way to get X from Y situation to the resolution situation, and it feels like an ending just isn’t fathomable. Here’s a little secret I’m going to just tell you—as you edit, revise, and rewrite, when you start to notice that you are putting back in much of what you took out, then that means you are probably done.
Congratulations, you’ve written a novel in 3 easy steps. That’s a lie. Writing a novel is hard. I just read an old quote from Danielle Steel: “I can tell you how I write books. I write them with fear, excitement, discipline, and a lot of hard work.” If she isn’t literary enough for you to take advice from, Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
Really, Nike has the best advice. Just write. I think that’s what Nike said.
Amy Wallen is most recently the author of How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies: Sweet & Savory Secrets of Surviving the Writing Life. Bestselling author of a novel and a memoir, she teaches writing workshops in California, France, and anywhere she’s invited, usually with pie. As writer-in-residence at Ocean Discovery Institute, Amy teaches personal storytelling to young people traditionally excluded from science due to race, income status, and educational opportunity. She was associate director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute for seven years and founded DimeStories—three-minute stories told by the author and featured on NPR. You can join her for workshops or pie at www.amywallen.com.
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