A Little Bit Every Day – without Fear or Judgment
I am delighted to welcome Leslie Budewitz as our guest on Birth of a Novel this week. She’s a multi-talented person and I’m confident our readers will be as inspired by her advice as I have been. A little bit about her:
Leslie watches deer and chickadees from her office windows in northwest Montana. A practicing lawyer who loves helping writers get legal details right, she’s the author of Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction, and 2012 Anthony and Macavity Award nominee.
Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and elsewhere. Her cozy series, The Montana Food Lovers Mysteries, will debut from Berkley Prime Crime in 2013.
Now, let’s hear what she has to say about writing:
“Write every day,” most writing teachers say. To many writers, it sounds ideal. To others, it’s a terrifying and unsurmountable barrier.
And because, when I started more than fifteen years ago, the very idea of writing was itself so astonishingly crazy, I paid no attention to the rule. I practiced law Monday through Thursday, wrote all day Friday and on some Saturday mornings. Wrote two novels that way. Later, I started taking Wednesdays off and with two full days a week, wrote two more mysteries, a handful of short stories, and a nonfiction book for writers. (Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure, Quill Driver Books, 2011.) My muse–clown, goddess, demon, patron saint, best friend, and worst rival–showed up faithfully on the appointed days. In a variation of Somerset Maugham’s statement that he only wrote when he was inspired, and he saw to it that he was inspired every morning at 9 a.m., she knew “this is our time.” She arrived promptly and we made the most of it. She rarely bothered me in between writing days, but if she did, I faithfully made a note, and at the next scheduled opportunity, we picked up where we had left off.
This last spring, my day job as a lawyer, researching and writing in a small civil litigation practice, slowed to a crawl. Twas a gift from the Universe, because I had just signed a three-book contract with Berkley Prime Crime for a cozy mystery series. Then I trotted my half-finished first ms. in the series off to Hood River, Oregon for a week at the justifiably famous–or infamous–Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop, led by literary agent and teacher Donald Maass. Nicknamed BONI, it’s held every spring outside Portland and in the fall in Orlando. (http://www.free-expressions.com/breakout-novel/ )
BONI turned my novel inside out and upside down. I made the long drive home, and started the manuscript over.
Two days a week wouldn’t do. I spent two weeks reviewing my workshop notes, ms., and outline, and planning the revisions. I counted up the words and the days, and realized I needed to write five pages every day to finish on time, with room to air the thing out and see it clearly.
I found a quote I’d collected ages ago. “When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself,” Isak Dinesen said. My version: “A little bit every day, without fear or judgment.”
Writing every day changed my relationship to the page, and to the text itself. My subconscious began to work more easily, seeing more connections and possibilities. I was able to implement workshop lessons and ideas easily because they were so fresh. My head was so full, I did not have time to be afraid. Well, except at three a.m., though happily not every night!
Less fear. More words.
The characters jumped to life. Of course they did–we spent hours together every day. I saw aspects of Erin, her mother Fresca, their friends, the shopkeepers, the killer, and the victim that I had only briefly glimpsed when our time together was more limited and spread out. I made better use of imagery, working so closely with it–I could see where to repeat, where to echo, where to draw out and where to abbreviate. The novel’s structure–my bugaboo–appeared more clearly. Because I knew the story so much more intimately, I could quickly see when a paragraph or scene was something I as author needed to know–not something the reader needed.
I forgot where I was and lost track of time. I surprised myself by working all day Sunday– only to remember that it was Sunday in the book, but Wednesday in real life.
Some writers say when they get “in the zone,” or “in flow,” they forget to eat. Well, let’s not get ridiculous. But we ate a lot more pasta and threw dinner on the grill more often than usual. We survived.
Natalie Goldberg refers to “writing practice.” For her, writing is meditation. In meditation, we take ourselves out of the busy-ness of life for a while. The goal is to focus–on the breath, an intention, or the interconnectedness of all beings. Writing a novel is not like that for me–it’s both work and play, and far more active. I stand and pace, wave my hands to act out dialogue, get down on the floor pretending to be my protagonist as she figures out how the victim died. I let the cat out. I walk to the mailbox when a scene won’t take shape, and dash back inside and up the stairs to my office when it unfolds before me.
But the daily act of honoring my intention, fulfilling what I see as part of my purpose in life, by sitting down to write, serves the same goals as meditation in a way that my two-day routine never did.
Flip that phrase “writing practice” around. When you are on the page every day, you can literally practice your writing. You can rewrite a dialogue exchange two or three ways. You can try a paragraph or two in a different character’s view. You can focus on a line or an image you’re not sure works, and play with it–without losing the thread. Without losing your momentum. Without feeling like you’re wasting limited time when you must produce more words.
At BONI, Don Maass made a point of reminding us not to hurry. (“Except you,” he said, knowing I had a contract and a deadline.) It’s more important to take the time to find the heart of the story and the core of the characters than to rush to the end. So, oddly, writing every day slows us down. We get to the end faster, but in a more meditative state. More connected to our stories and our story people.
And through that, more deeply connected with ourselves.
Okay, we can’t all do it. Not all the time, anyway. None of us lives in our own ideal worlds. The stars aligned for me this time, thank goodness. But you don’t need all day. An hour will do. Heck, fifteen minutes will do. It doesn’t take as long to pick up the threads when you last touched them yesterday, not ten days ago. Your muse will learn, as mine did with that two-day routine, that this is her time and you will be there for her.
More words. Less fear. Better story.
You can do it.
You can read an excerpt from Crooks, Books & Counselors at http://www.sandracareycody.com – It’s a quick bit about what constitutes evidence and is a good example of Leslie’s clear, concise writing style.