Michelle Wittle On the Great Novel Escape

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel in about three days. I never left my computer or my house. I just typed until my hands turned red and my fingernails were just pink soft tissue. For about a week or so after the first draft of the novel, I let people read it. I changed things around a bit. I added scenes and characters…all the usual writing draft stuff.

Then, I stopped playing with the novel. I just left it in my laptop. I did back it up on one of those flash drives some people are prone to wearing around their neck. I knew the novel wasn’t complete; I just needed some time away from it. Also, I had another novel idea brewing and I wanted to write that one out as well.

It’s been about three years and I thought maybe it was time to revisit my first novel. I searched high and low for the flash drive I saved the novel on and each one I plugged into my new computer laughed at me as if to say, “silly girl, your novel isn’t in here”.

I figured it was no big deal because I could just go into my computer’s hard drive and just copy it out of there.

I figured wrong.

My Mac was dying and acting all kinds of crazy, so a few months back I erased all my work from it and put it on those cute hanging flash drives. I didn’t think I erased my novel.

Oh, but I did erase it.

Now I am faced with a bigger problem. I need a completed novel in about two weeks’ time. In my head I think about how easy it was for me to write the first draft of my first novel. It shouldn’t be that hard, right?

You know what I am about to say…WRONG.

Because I have evolved as a writer, it is now more difficult for me to finish a novel in just three days. I am taking the second novel I wrote and I am reworking it. I am about 41,000 words in and I still don’t have an end in sight. The characters are being coy with me. They are making me work extra hard.

In my head the mantra, “show don’t tell” keeps going off every time I just want to write down the scene.  

I am getting tired and cranky.

I need a nap.

But I need a workshop draft more.

So, every day I wake up at 7am and start writing more and more of my novel. I take lunch and bathroom breaks and that is the only time I step away from my writing. My knees hurt and I have a cramp in my leg.

It’s all my fault really. I am the one who said I wanted to be a writer.

Michelle Wittle on Being a Writer verses an Author

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

When I hear the word, “writer” I think of a man in a brown hat with the word “press” in the brim of the hat. He normally has a white shirt with a brown tie. He definitely wears penny loafers and carries a steno pad and a pen. He is usually the one chasing a story.

However, when I hear the word “author” I think of a very Hemingway type of man. He has the white hair and beard. He wears a plaid jacket with velvet elbow patches and smokes from a pipe. His voice is soft and he has a British accent. He sits in his study surrounded by first editions of many fine pieces of literature. At his desk he has his typewriter and the blank pages of his new manuscript.

Although there are two distinct visions associated with each word, both of the words mean the same thing. Don’t they?

Well, not really. I actually looked up the definitions to the word “author” and “writer” in the American Heritage College Dictionary. The word “author” is defined as someone who is the original creator of a piece of literature. While the word “write” is defined as a person who writes for a living. Both definitions agree that an author and a writer have to do with writing, but there is a difference between the two.

But here is the bigger problem. Which one do I want to be?

Do I want to be the writer who just writes what they need to in order to make a living? Or do I want to be the person who creates an original piece of literature? Can I have it all?

If I am being honest, I know it is impossible to have it all. You can write a well received book and you can make money from it. However, I don’t think you can go into the writing thinking you will write the most awesome piece of literature and people will pay you lots of money for it. I don’t want to write just anything to make money either. I want my name to be on pieces of work I am proud of and not pieces of work I wrote to eat that week.

It’s funny because while I was growing up, when people asked about my career aspirations, I told them I wanted to be a writer. But I don’t want to be that guy with the “press” hat running after a story. I want to be the guy with the cool library and the typewriter.

With that realization, I know now I have to give up a few things. I won’t be able to maintain myself as a freelance writer because my heart won’t fully be invested in it. I was once told that my sincerity and passion comes through in my pieces. If I become a writer, I know I will lose that part of me. But understanding myself as an author gives me a certain amount of freedom. I can write when and how I like. I don’t have to rush a piece because of a deadline. I can let my work breathe. My work will not consume me.

Although most people hate labels, I think it is imperative to define one’s self in the writing field. If you know what you want out of your writing and you know why you are writing, it will be easier to write. Your purpose will always be in your head and it will give you comfort in a community with such little guarantees.

Michelle Wittle on More Conversations with David Wroblewski: Revisions

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Remember when you were in high school and your English teacher told you to go and revise your essay? What did you do to it? Most people would have taken the essay back to their seat, mumbled a curse under their breath and looked once again for spelling and grammar mistakes. Perhaps a sentence or two were changed and then it was time to write the whole essay all over again.

Most people were taught this was the acceptable mode of revising.

While spelling and grammar are corrected in the drafting process; they are not the only things that should be reviewed and reworked.

According to David Wroblewski the writer of the bestselling novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, revising is the best part of writing. His suggestion to aspiring writers is to overwrite in the first draft. Wroblewski revealed that in its infancy, his over five hundred page novel was at least one thousand pages. Wroblewski also admitted that he hates writing the first draft. In his eyes, the first draft of the novel is the clay. It is nothing but raw material and a vague idea. As one begins sculpting the novel, new things will develop and the novel will begin to start forming. For Wroblewski, watching his lump of word clay turn into a novel is the best part of the writing process and it is the most rewarding.

I agree with Wroblewski. When it comes to writing, I think it is imperative to just write the thing out. Do not stop to fix the spelling and grammar because it is a wasted effort at this time. Also, you may tend to get so caught up in the mechanics of the sentences and word structures that you will lose your focus and the creativity. Spelling and grammar are road blocks writers use to stop themselves from telling the story.

I had this one story that started out as a page. The characters had no names and all I had was the basic idea of what I thought should happen in the story. Now, the story is twelve pages long. My characters have names. I even introduced a mom in the story. The story now has a specific day and a symbolic reason the actions are happening on that day.

The only spelling and grammar check I have done is the one that can be found in Microsoft Word.

Because my story’s flesh is still being manipulated, I can’t worry about the mechanics of it. I could be correcting spelling and grammar that might not even make it into the final draft. Through writing the story, I may find that I need to change the narrator or add another scene. I am still revising the story. When will I be done?

For me, I know my story is done when I can look at the story and nothing overly bothers me. I could surely fine tune things; everyone can find things in his or her writing they would like to fix.  But when the story doesn’t bother me anymore then I know it’s done.

Revising isn’t just fixing spelling and grammar like I was taught in high school. Revising is looking at the work and making sure the story the characters want to tell is being told in the best way possible.

Michelle Wittle on Working Symbolism into a Novel

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

My first introduction to symbolism in a novel was as a ninth grader in English class. We were reading Lord of the Flies and my teacher kept pointing out all the symbols in the novel. I thought it was so clever of the author to leave little clues like that throughout the book. To me, it seemed that symbols were just individual clues that helped the reader understand something about the character or theme of the book. Although I knew symbols were parts of the whole story, I just never saw them as things that should be woven throughout the story.

All that changed when I met David Wroblewski.

I was very lucky to be invited to Rosemont College this past Tuesday to meet and discuss writing with the writer of the novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Most times when attending a writer’s book discussion, the writer will share a bit of the novel and then answer questions. After that it’s on to the signing of the books. However, at Rosemont, we all sat in a circle with Wroblewski and we just talked about his book, writing the first novel, and his views on writing in general.

Many things the group discussed I found to be very helpful. I took three pages of notes and the talk was only for an hour and a half. However, the biggest light bulb that found its clichéd way to the top of my head was the discussion on symbols and how to incorporate them into a novel.

Wroblewski looks at writing symbols as if he were creating a braid. At first the writer introduces everything to the reader. In a sense, the writer overwhelms the reader with information so it is difficult for the reader to pick out what is important at that time. No one likes solving the murder mystery on page three of a three hundred page book. That isn’t good writing and it bothers the reader. So, take lots of information and introduce it. Because the writer will be bringing it up later on in the novel, there is no need to explain why this is happening here at that point in the novel. Then, as the novel progresses, start bringing your symbols back into the fore front and also let them fall back to the background. The reader will start to pick up that this thing that keeps appearing and disappearing is important.  There will come a time when the reader finally figures out what the symbol was doing in the story and the reader will have that, “ah-ha” moment. It is like that basic writing mantra: “show, don’t tell.”

I will give you an example from Wroblewski’s book to explain this point further.

The book opens with a prologue. It is there the reader learns someone buys a bottle of poison from an alchemist in South Korea. The reader doesn’t know who the person buying the poison is or what they need it for. As the book progressed, Edgar’s uncle comes to visit and abruptly leaves. A few days later, someone dies of a brain clot. The book continues and Edgar finds a needle with some crystals in it. He falls asleep and after he wakes up, Edgar sees the needle is broken and the grass around the needle is now white. Towards the end of the novel, the bottle of poison is rediscovered and more deaths occur.

So, this bottle and poison keep weaving in and out of the story. By the third time the bottle and poison are mentioned, the reader starts really picking up the fact that this is important.

It is so sad that I have been an English teacher for many years and a writer for even longer; yet, it is now I understand the impact of writing a good symbol. I always thought they were just individual little clues. However, now I see that while they can be individual, they need to be placed time and time again in the writing to make them more powerful.

Michelle Wittle on a Short Story About Nothing?

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Some say a story that is devoid of the four basic elements of the short story can’t be considered a story. Also, some say that if a short story doesn’t have one of the four basic plot outlines, it can’t be a short story. I say both arguments are wrong.

Two women are sitting at a park. They are talking about their life. They get up and leave.

I think the above words are a short story.

While it is true, it is certainly short; I feel it honestly be considered a work of fiction.

With some added details about the characters and perhaps what they were discussing, I think this could very well indeed become a sustainable short story. However, others would disagree and say because the story doesn’t follow a traditional story arch; it isn’t a story at all.

However, look at Seinfeld. The TV show was based on the premise it was a show about nothing. I disagree completely with that theory. The show was about a group of characters and how they interacted with each other and the world. What are the four basic plots? Remember, man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. God, and man vs. self?  In just the description of the show, there is man vs man and man vs society.

Let’s not forget that TV shows have become an influential part of how writers write. Look at all the chick lit that has been published in the past few years. Would chick lit be as popular if it weren’t for Sex in the Cityand other shows just like it? So is it any wonder why these short stories about nothing continually keep popping up?

In the case of the short story about nothing, if we could spend ten years watching a show about “nothing”, we can read a short story about “nothing.”

I still want to argue the point that a short story that doesn’t have the four basic elements (setting, plot, character, and theme) can’t be considered a short story.

Look again at my story in the beginning of the blog. Are characters in the story? Is there a setting? Is there some resolution? The only thing my story doesn’t have is a conflict. However, if I were to go in and flesh out the dialogue, I bet there will be a conflict. Most likely it would be a conflict of man vs self, but without having the dialogue it is hard to say with certainty the conflict.

I think the four elements of a story and the four basic conflicts are so ingrained in our minds, we can’t help but write them in. If a well developed picture of a person or two people talking is presented, the basic elements will be there.

Can we have a story about nothing? I don’t think it is possible to have a story about nothing. Even if it is just a simple conversation or a person just looking at a chair, thoughts are happening. Something is happening. In that something, a conflict will come along and a conclusion will surface. How many conversations have you had with people about nothing, yet you still came away from that conversation with something?

It is human nature to want to give things meaning. We have to find the connections. As writers, we connect things all the time. Sometimes it happens so naturally, we don’t know we did the connections until someone else reads our piece and points it out.

In conclusion, every story, either spoken or written, is about something. Therefore, there is no such thing as a story about nothing.