Sandra Ruttan is a relative newcomer with more talent than newcomers should have. (Don’t they know they’re supposed to write three or four bad books first?) Ruttan skipped that part of the development process, when What Burns Within established her as a writer of mysteries/police procedurals that are tough, tightly plotted, jammed full of persuasive characters, and as fine-drawn and conductive as a copper wire. One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is, “Leave out the parts reader skip.” Ruttan’s books are pared to the bone. Having read two of her books (What Burns Within and The Frailty of Flesh), I’m not surprised that what she has to say below is long on action and short on woo-woo. She can be contacted at http://www.sandraruttan.com/
Perhaps you’re still buying the magazines filled with writing advice, still scouring blogs like this one that offer insights and strategies about getting your ideas out on paper. If you’re reading this, I suspect that’s why you’re here, and guess what?
I know the secret. You don’t have to send me your social security number and bank account information. You don’t even have to send a cheque for $100. You don’t have to copy an advertisement for my novels and send them to 15 people via e-mail, with the caveat that if they don’t buy my books and send the ads on to another 15 people within 10 seconds that they’ll have bad luck for ten years.
You don’t even have to write down the first letter of ever word in this post and decode the secret. I’m just going to tell you.
The secret to writing a novel is to write the novel.
The secret to overcoming writers’ block is to write the novel.
The secret to writing the book that’s buried deep inside you and trying to get out is… you guessed it… to write the novel.
Seriously, I start getting nervous when I’m asked to dispense writing advice. There wouldn’t be whole magazines and books devoted to how to write novels if they didn’t sell, and what worries me is that there are a lot of aspiring authors out there looking for that magic bullet, that elusive little secret that will serve as a shortcut and enable them to splurt out this Great Novel…
As though there might be a few magic writing pills that will enable us to overcome our creative constipation, and the story will come pouring out of us.
Writing is a creative pursuit, but it’s also work. It may not be the same as digging a ditch, but we don’t channel spirits or record visions. We do have to discipline ourselves to sit down regularly, to stare at a blank screen or page and begin to fill it with words. And we do have to make sure that those words fit together to tell a story.
I think one of the worst things about living in our highly disposable fast-food drive-through-banking generation is that we want everything, and want it right away. We’ll take a pass on a proper nutritious meal for the convenience of McDonald’s, and worry about what the fat and calories are doing to our waistline and health later on. We’ll buy on credit today and worry about paying the bills later.
The problem is, those philosophies begin to seep into every aspect of our lives, but there are no shortcuts to creative genius. Some days, I sit down and the words flow. Other days, it feels like I have to fight for every letter, and much of the time the only thing that separates the published author from the aspiring is the determination to keep going on the days writing feels like work.
When I started out I scoured interviews, looking for some tidbit, some suggestion, some secret that was going to make it all click. I thought I’d have a light bulb moment, and suddenly know the one thing I could fix that would make it all come together. I tried emulating the routines of successful authors, tried adopting their schedules. I even took a creative writing diploma, and I was taught to outline and draft up character bios before starting my story. I was given checklists and tips that were supposed to help me through the process. For some writers, these strategies work, but I followed them to the letter and fought with the story until I finally gave up on it for more than a year.
The problem was, I was trying to push myself into a mold, trying to find a formula, instead of figuring out what worked for me.
I had to lose my outline and bios in a move and be left within nothing but three written chapters before I learned that part of the problem for me was that I’m not an outliner. I fly by the seat of my pants. I start with an idea, a genesis, and the story flows from there. Sometimes, I know something that will happen partway through the story, or near the end, but I never have it all outlined.
Learning to step away from outlines was a significant step for me. I took those three chapters and started on chapter four. When I was able to finish the book, I came away from the experience with more than just the confidence of knowing I could complete a manuscript. I came away from it understanding that there’s no one magic formula that works for everyone.
Read how a number of writers work. If your current process isn’t working for you, try something different, and remember, no two books are the same. One technique might work for one project, but a different story might require a different approach.
There are people who’ve aced every English exam and have a degree proving their capabilities with the written word, and there are those who’ve never taken a creative writing class in their life. What classes you’ve taken won’t make one iota of difference if you aren’t able to put your butt in a chair regularly enough to bring a work to completion.
Be open to trying different routines and strategies. Work on improving your grammar, on expanding your vocabulary, on being precise with your words. Heed good advice when it’s given, just remember that the most important thing you can do is develop the discipline to sit down and actually write.