Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bill Streever: A Summary List on the Writing Craft, with a Two-Item Appendix

Ed. Note: Bill Streever will be doing a talk on "Storytelling and Science: Writing about All Things Cold and All Things Hot" on Wednesday, January 23, 7:00 pm, at Great Harvest Bread Co., 570 East Benson Boulevard, Anchorage.

A great deal has been written about writing, and a great deal more will be written, and it seems highly unlikely that I have much of value to add. Nevertheless, author and friend Lucian Childs asked me to write a blog on writing, and, more specifically, on the writing craft. I think the idea is to promote the Reading and Craft talk series that Lucian has so graciously organized. And since I have been invited to speak as part of the series, and since a speaker without an audience feels even more ridiculous than a speaker with an audience, I agreed to write about writing. Read on at your own risk.  

Because of the surprising success of my book Cold, and now with my new book Heat hitting the shelves, I get lots of questions. Most commonly, people who know that I work a fairly demanding day job ask me where I find the time. The answer to that is simple: I fit it in, just as people fit in marathon training and child raising and walking the dog.

Less commonly, but still quite often, people ask me about the writing craft in general terms. They ask how I write, as if that might reveal something that they can use, or maybe that they can repeat knowingly over cocktails, or maybe that they can snicker at, since it is quite obvious (at least to me) that I don’t know what I am doing.

Of course I could base an answer on the thousands of pages of autobiographies, biographies, interviews, and personal essays on approaches used by various authors that I have admired over the years. Or I could base an answer on the approaches I have heard about through 49 Writers. And either way, I would say that the approach to the craft of writing is extremely varied, both in terms of differences between individuals and differences over time used by individual authors. But when people ask about the writing craft, I, being as self-centered as the next guy, assume they are really asking about my approach to writing, and they are asking about the here and now.

My first reaction to questions about my approach: Change the topic. But if pressed, I might digress into the history of my development as a writer and how that contributed to the approach to writing that I use today. I could talk about the thousands of pages of scribbled notes and essays and the unfinished novel. I could and sometimes do mention the articles and short stories published in obscure magazines and journals before I started college. I could complain about my short sojourn in a university writing program and my decision to become a biologist, followed by dozens of technical papers that are written formulaically but that are nevertheless of tremendous interest to at least a dozen specialists in my particular field. I could offer the usual complaints about rejection notices and the general lack of encouragement that our society offers writers. And then I could fade into how Cold found its way into press, the opportunities that arose from its reception, how that impacted my approach to the craft, and the process of writing Heat.

If this sort of monologue does not lead to yawns and furtive glances around the room, I might offer a list of some of the tasks that, collectively, constitute my approach to the writing craft at this particular time. This is a blog, and since it is a blog I think I can get away with a long list that summarizes the tasks, dispensing with anything resembling style and even grammar.

So, the list: inspiration, research, note taking, organizing notes, filtering out the dead end inspirations, outlining, query and proposal preparation, putting words on a page in a reasonably coherent fashion, revising sentences, revising paragraphs, revising chapters, revising the outline, searching for the most engaging way to convey my story, linking apparently disparate topics, proofing, deleting, rearranging, addressing editorial comments, reviewing the galley, reading prepublication reviews and dealing with the anxiety that comes with that experience, working with my publisher’s promotions department, doing book events, seeing the new book itself arrive in the mail just before it appears in bookstores, rereading the book (the contents of which become a distant memory during the slow crawl through the publication process) in preparation for author interviews, and finally doing it all over again for the next book.

I want to point out a few things about this list. That’s right—I want to offer a list of points about the list. Blogging is great, because it lets one get away with things one would hesitate to do on the printed page.

First, the list is incomplete. But even as an incomplete list it was becoming tedious, so I stopped. (I try to do that with my books, too.)

Second, this is my list, so it may not resemble the lists of other authors at all. With luck, it will not offend anyone.

Third, any one of the points in the list could easily become (and may eventually become, if anyone expresses enough interest) the subject of another blog.

Fourth, and most importantly, the list does not include “writing.”

Wait a minute. Was that an oversight? Shouldn’t I have included “writing” as an item in the list? Why didn’t I say “writing” instead of “putting words on a page in a reasonably coherent fashion?”

It was not an oversight. And putting words on a page in a reasonably coherent fashion is not at all the same thing as writing.

The fact is that writing, at least in my writing life in its current manifestation, is all of the things on my list, and more. Writing is as much about taking notes, making outlines, revision, and post-publication promotional work as it is about getting coherent words on the page. I could (but you will be glad to note that I won’t) repeat the list and defend every entry as an important part of the delightfully complicated avocation, vocation, and occupation known as writing.

The list makes me ask myself which aspect of writing I enjoy the most. The answer: I enjoy the entire package. Part A doesn’t work without Part B and Part F. There was a time in my life when I would have said that what I enjoy most is focusing on the level of the sentence and the paragraph, searching for the best possible (within my limited talents) combination of content and cadence, and I still relish that part of the work. But I grew from that into enjoying the outlining process. My outlines are colorful flowcharts with lines and shapes joining ideas and topics, and they are done with software that allows me to make changes without too much agony. And one day I realized that taking notes, if done well, can be as challenging and stimulating as chasing content and cadence. Taking notes effectively, for use in a book or an article or a book review, requires supreme focus on a simple question: What might be useful and why?

You can see where this is going. As my writing career has matured, I have embraced the entire process. I do not resent the query process. When I am preparing for a radio interview about my books, I no longer think of it as lost time. It is time spent as a writer and therefore time well spent. When I read reviews, I no longer let my anxieties take control of the event. Instead, I see the reviews as free consultancies, opportunities to learn something about myself and my writing. (I will admit that I would see a scathing review as an opportunity to fantasize about assault and battery, but fortunately that has not happened too often. Reviewers, even when they don’t like a book, tend to be courteous.) All of it—everything on the list and more—is part of the package. It is all part of the writing process.

I will end by mentioning two other items. These items, in my experience, are part of every writer’s approach to the craft, and they are ever present in my own approach. They are important enough to deserve special mention, and they are not so much tasks as they are underlying attitudes or habits, so they should not just be added to the list. Instead, they should be attached as a sort of subtitle, or, better, as an appendix.

The two items?

First, there is the pathological sense of uncertainty, the nagging suspicion that my words have failed, that they do not come together in a meaningful manner.

And second, there is the obsession with intercepting that failure.

These are painful items to live with, being, as they are, based on persistent paranoia. But they are important to me as a writer. And so I embrace them, because like the items that made the list itself they are part of the writing craft, and therefore, for me as a writer, part of life.

Bill Streever is a biologist and writer.  He lives in Anchorage with his wife and companion, Dr. Lisanne Aerts, his son, Ish Streever, and the resident dog, Lucky (who was adopted from Sakhalin, Russia).  The four of them hike, ski, camp, dive, and bike as often as time and their varying abilities allow. His next book, coming out on January 15, is Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places. 


Deb Vanasse said...

A beautiful post, Bill, in that genuinely personal style that makes all your writing so approachable. I love the scene you set with the writer's monologue, stumbling to explain how it is exactly we do what we do. Who knows? And yet there's that great list, incomplete yet, but a brilliant illustration of what's behind the words on a page. Every day I'm amazed at how tough it can be to "put words on a page in a reasonably coherent fashion." Sometimes I worry that I'm just getting old. Today, in fact, I was going to wedge another task into the list and look up one of my favorite authors. I know she's older than I am, and she's still turning out jaw-dropping prose. But it's not about age, is it? It's about all that stuff in your list, all the work that goes into every beautiful sentence. It's about that paranoia, which you wisely advise we embrace, for - dare we say - that shimmer of doubt keeps us on our game? I hope so.

No Reins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Well said. The last two items are also prominent on my list. To string words together is, I think, to fail. Still, we must do it—hence the obsession. Ah, the writer's life!


Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Great post, Bill. And I STILL don't know how you do it all. But to start with just one of many possible followup questions: I'd love to hear more about your outlining--how you do it, what it looks like -- as well as any other methods of pre-writing/visualizing all the interconnected strands of your booklength stories, either before or in the middle of writing (or perhaps even in revision). Perhaps for another post?

Bill Streever said...

Thanks Deb, Andromeda, and Lucian. Deb, if it is about age, it is probably that we are too young, not too old. But as you said it is probably not about age. And Andromeda: in my talk at the Reading and Craft series, I will be sure to talk about my outlining process and how I use that to help organize the various threads that I try to bring together. And also perhaps in another post as well. I recently heard of a new software that helps create complicated flow charts (which is what my outlines are)--it is called iMindMap 6. I haven't tried it yet, but it looks better than the software I use now, and outlines are important enough to justify good software.