For the Birds…

I recently read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (mentioned it in last week’s Reading Wrap-Up). If you’ve yet to read it, I highly recommend picking it up. Bird by Bird is an excellent craft book–not too technical, not too preachy, full of concise,  snappy chapters, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

As I was perusing Bird by Bird, I got the urge to reread bits of my very first manuscript. As I’ve said before, Novel One is tragically low concept epic teen romance that has lots of sweet little scenes I’ll always love. It also has a forced “plot,” loads of over-writing, and characters that are conveniently clueless. In other words, Novel One is completely unsellable.

Now, I’m sure Novel One’s flaws are run of the mill for first (and second and third) efforts. I made mistakes lots of new writers make, learned as I went, and improved with time. I read tons of YA and piles of craft books, and picked up tips and inspiration and lessons along the way. And, it just so happens that a few of my favorite lessons from Bird by Bird  apply directly to Novel One. I’ll share them as they apply to my own writing and maybe save you some trouble. 🙂

1: BE FLEXIBLE – While writing Novel One, I had a very specific direction for the story. And I took it there, even though at times it felt forced and unnatural.  I also had exact, detailed scenes in mind, scenes I eventually wedged in, whether they fit the overall story arc or not. All this pushing and coercing and throwing around of my writerly weight resulted in a story that reads like this: Say what?!

I failed my characters. I neglected to listen to them. I didn’t let them guide the plot. Instead, I molded them, made them do certain things and act certain ways just for the sake of the storyline (which, honestly, wasn’t even all that strong). What I should have done was let the plot grow and expand and change as I got to know my characters.

2: DO NOT BE AFRAID – The earliest drafts of Novel One are so very vanilla. I followed all the rules. I didn’t let my characters swear. I barely let them kiss. They all drove nice cars and lived in tidy houses in a lovely town. They spoke politely and made good choices. Sure, a few bad things happened to them, but through no fault of their own. These people–their lives–were flawless. The reason for all this vanilla? I was afraid of what people (my parents, my husband, my friends) would think if I really went there.

Over time, I’ve developed courage and an anything-goes attitude. What difference does it make if one of my characters drops an F-bomb? Who cares if she wears a skanky top or drinks a beer once in a while? So what if she thinks about school and friends and family and boys and–gasp!–sex? If she’s in character and the story is moving forward, she can do no wrong. But I never went to any of those places in Novel One because I was too focused on my mental naysayers, watching them shake their heads and wag their fingers, listening to them preach about what’s appropriate. And now the story’s a snoozefest.

3: GET IN THE ZONE – Novel One is choppy and lacking in voice. This is partly to blame on my previous lack of flexibility (and experience), but my failure to get in the zone and stay there is also responsible. By “the zone” I mean that delightfully elusive place where you’re focused and typing and barely thinking. Suddenly you glance at the clock and three hours have passed. You’ve written 5K words without ever looking up from your computer screen.

For me, the zone is a silent room, a comfy chair, and a burning candle. I have critique partners who find their zone while listening to loud music through headphones. Others like to work at a certain table in a specific coffee shop with an iced Chai beside them. I need to be in my the zone in order to listen to the voices in my head. I need to listen to the voices in my head in order to find MY voice. (Is this all making me sound slightly crazy? I’m not alone, right?)

I didn’t know about the zone while writing Novel One. I wrote whenever and wherever, and it always took me ages to find a groove–if I did at all. Now I try hard to give myself the best writing conditions possible because only when I get into the zone does my best writing emerges.

I’d love to hear about your first manuscript. What beginner mistakes did you make? What craft books have you found most helpful?


18 thoughts on “For the Birds…

  1. Carla Essen says:

    OK, I don’t write books, but I write research reports, and I have to be in the EXACT SAME CONDITIONS as you to come up with anything insightful, or be productive! I sometimes think I can rock the coffeeshop virtual office, and then 2.5 seconds into the blaring Starbucks music, I have to bag it and go back home. I hate how anal I am!

  2. katharine owens says:

    I love your vanilla description– Anne Lamott has a nice line where she encourages writers to just put aside what their friends and family will think, and I LOVE that. She is so right.

  3. Rebekah says:

    I love this post. I have been working on this novel on and off for 17 years (and I’m not even 30 yet). By now, I’m pretty attached it to, not surprisingly, but I don’t think it’s going anywhere. It was really good to read that you have to be in your ideal environment to get in a zone. Lately, I’ve only written when I have a free moment at work, so of course I’m distracted. But I also thought maybe it was just that I’m not a writer like I was when I was younger and that I should give up and move on. I’ll have to make a point to try writing in different environments and hopefully find something that’ll work for me. And maybe pick up Bird by Bird while I’m at it.

    • katyupperman says:

      I hope you like Bird By Bird if you decide to check it out, and good luck finding an ideal writing place. I find I’m much more productive when I’m in mine.

  4. Lynn Rush says:

    Oh yeah. First book ever…Light of Truth. **blushes** I do believe it will never come out from under the virtual bed…but we’ll see. Gosh, the mistake…NO POV!

    My first crit over of that book, the girl said, “Um, do you know what POV is?”

    And of course I didn’t. LOL!!! I had NO clue. Years later…I have a little more of a clue, but learning daily. Always learning… 🙂

    Great post. Have a fantastic day.

  5. Rebecca B says:

    I can’t stop gushing over how much I love BIRD BY BIRD.

    Oh, and I hear *voices* in my head, too. Strangely enough my characters are most talkative (to me) while I am running. Maybe I should do a marathon with a tape recorder?

    • katyupperman says:

      Love the marathon idea! You’d have a whole novel by the time you finished! My characters are noisy when I run too. Also when I drive. And clean. And shower. 🙂

  6. Alison Miller says:

    Okay – I totally want to read this. Funny and a good craft book. I’m there. I loved Save the Cat for similar reasons. I’m going to try a new craft book with my next ms – First Draft in Thirty Days. I’ll let you know how that goes.

    And again – we’re very similar. I need someplace silent and a comfy chair to write. Not tried the candle, but I may have to do that. 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      First Draft in Thirty Days sounds right up my alley. Definitely let me know what you think!

      Glad you liked Stolen… See what I mean about the Stockholm Syndrome?

  7. Jessica Love says:

    Ugh. I suck. I have had Bird By Bird for awhile now and I haven’t picked it up yet. I haven’t finished On Writing yet either. :-\

    I need my zone so bad right now.

    • katyupperman says:

      Don’t feel too bad–I haven’t read any of On Writing (though it is on my TBR list). My zone has been a little elusive lately too. Maybe we can blame summer?

  8. Amie Kaufman says:

    Oh, Novel One was baaaaaaaad, and committed the cardinal sin — in the end, the adults saved the day, and the kids’ bacon! Whoops!

    Still, I love it to pieces, because it was what taught me I could finish a book. I’m rewriting it right now, but I haven’t even pulled out the old version to look at it. The premise is all that survived, but I do love that premise, so fingers crossed!

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