Here are some things I learned (or, in most cases, relearned, remembered, and/or was reminded) while writing Drowned Boy—and, frankly, since. These “lessons” are strictly for me to keep relearning, but some might find my self-talk on the subject of fiction curious.
1. Remembering about over-plotting
I always over-plot in the first draft. I blame TV and movies for this. And there may be no cure for it, because I’m doing it still, on the stories I’m working on at the moment. Perhaps it’s like knowing that you have a slice—I’m talking golf now—and aiming a little to the left. Probably it’s more like this: Drag your butt to the driving range and hit a thousand balls until your hands and back and right Achilles all ache in equal measure. Then maybe you won’t do it anymore.
2. Remember about characters
Stay focused on the characters. They’re all you have. You must let them breathe, which means tricking yourself on a daily basis, because your dumb-headed inclination is to suffocate them.
3. Remember about being clever
On a note related to No. 2, being clever will screw you every time. How some writers are able to do this successfully is not your concern.
4. Remember about not thinking
To quote my dad (and about 29 coaches I had a different points): Don’t think! React!
5. Remember about endings
Endings are the hardest part, because if the ending’s not right, then you’ve got a seriously compromised house of cards. This seems to fly in the face of the “Don’t Think! React!” dictum, but that’s a trick. Don’t fall for it.
6. Remember about getting the first line right
I only quote Frank Conroy about this one thing (though I don’t even know for sure if it was his quote or not), because I think it’s so true: The first line of a story teaches you how to read that story. Putting a story together is a lot more than thing after related thing happening; it’s echoing those first words in every line.
7. Remember about taste
There is, as they say, no accounting for taste. Indeed. And people for no reason other than this will find your work abysmal and say so, sometimes in ink, sometimes backhandedly at a party. Your job is to say: "Fair enough." Here’s the other side of this coin: People will also love your work—equally capriciously, or so it will seem—and will tell you so.
8. Remember the joy of reading fiction
Reading fiction is a joy. This weekend I was reading The Adventures of Augie March for the first time and thinking: I am so lucky! I am working right now!
9. Remember about shoddy memory
Take notes, always. Don’t say to yourself, as I said to myself just the other day: Oh, that’s a good idea. I should write it down, but then there’s no need, because I’ll definitely remember an idea that promising. This is false and pitiful logic. You will not remember it and will be haunted by this fact. Ask any cognitive scientist or judge and they will tell you what is undeniably true: Human memory sucks. This is not really even to touch on memory when you’ve had a drink or two; that probably deserves its own number.
10. Remember about “writing what you know”
When people say, "Write what you know," they mean, Write what you feel. Or possibly what you care about.
11. Remember about working
Keep your head down and work. Nobody can read about the characters dancing around in your head while you’re riding your bike or mowing the lawn. That’s because you didn’t show up for work and write the dang stories.