Overcoming Page Fright

The scariest part about beginning is simply that: beginning—sitting down and starting. Page fright is agony; even the most celebrated writers have dealt with it. Ralph Keyes gathered a few of those writers in his book The Courage to Write:

All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It’s really scary just getting to the desk—we’re talking now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine.

—Fran Lebowitz

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.

—John Steinbeck

What is so awful about starting? Why is it so difficult? Keyes wrote:

The best time of writing is before any words have been committed to paper; when all is prospect, clear in one’s mind, and clearly brilliant. The problems begin when one attempts to record that vision on paper. No matter how gifted and experienced the writer, this simply can’t be done . . . “The awful thing about the first sentence of any book,” agreed Tom Wolfe, “is that as soon as you’ve written it you realize this piece of work is not going to be the great thing that you envision. It can’t be . . .”

No book on paper can ever match the one in one’s head. What Paul Valery said of poems is true of all writing; it is never completed, only abandoned. Once writers realize this, they’re faced with a cruel choice: shall they leave their premature baby in a basket on some publisher’s doorstep, or shall they hide that poor child in the basement and turn away from writing as an impossible dream?

Accepting this harsh reality is the most important step in overcoming page fright.

Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder; they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner. If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly.

—Lawrence Block

And once we accept this fear, we might even be able to turn it into a strength, as William Faulkner did. He wrote:

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.

If you’re afraid of starting, or if you’ve already started but been brought down by fear, now is the time for a new beginning.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.

—Stephen King

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Plot Is a Four-letter Word: An Interview with Stuart Horwitz

One of my latest writing adventures was helping out Stuart Horwitz with his latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. I coauthored a chapter with Stuart called “The Expanded Series Grid in J. K. Rowling’s Novel Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” I’m so proud to have contributed to this book because it’s unlike any other writing book I’ve ever read.

Most writing books analyze contained aspects of novels—the dialogue in one book, the characters in another, the plot twist in yet another . . . you get little tidbits but never a bird’s-eye view of why one whole book was successful. With Book Architecture, we finally get that all-encompassing look.

Each of the book’s chapters digs deep into a different work: the movies Slumdog Millionaire and The Social Network, the classic children’s book Corduroy as well as The Great GatsbyHarry PotterCatch-22, and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”

Obviously I’m biased, but I can’t recommend Book Architecture enough!

An Interview with Stu

Q. You’ve said before, “Writing a book is a pain in the ass that takes years. Make sure your idea thrills you!” What was it about this book that so thrilled you that you were willing to spend years on it?

Stuart: Asking the hard questions first! On the one hand, I feel that a book has to pull at you, nag at you, and not let you go. . . . And on the other hand, I’m one of those people who just does what’s next, next.

After publishing Blueprint Your Bestseller, the concept of “series” was the thing that everyone wanted to know more about (I see that we’re getting to that concept a little bit later). I got comments that BYB had helped people take their books apart, but by the time we got to Chapter Nine of that book, “Bringing It All Together”—well, that was laughably short.

I protested that we would need lots of full-length examples to show in depth how books are reconstructed, and they should come from popular fiction but also literary classics and Academy-Award winning films, and then I thought: Hey! That’s not a bad idea . . .

Q. You say that “plot” is a four-letter word. Why? And what word or words should die-hard plotters replace it with?

Stuart: I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for suggesting that “plot” is a useless word. But it is, for two reasons. The first is that it is a singular word, and seems to stand in for everything that happens in your book that, you know, is important. One word can do all that?

The second reason “plot” is relatively useless is that a focus on plot tends to privilege events above all of the other elements of a work: characterizations, symbolism, relationships, settings, etc. Even in the most relentlessly genre-driven fiction, you still can’t consider the events apart from the personalities and the texture that inspire and surround them.

I think it’s easier to just call everything a series, which as I’ll explain in a minute, is a different use of that word than a set of volumes in a particular genre with a lot of the same characters.

Q. In your first writing book and now in this latest one you’ve introduced the breakthrough writing concept of “series.” Since it is a new concept, it can be difficult to grasp at first: What exactly is series and how can a writer’s understanding of it improve her writing? 

Stuart: Series is the repetition and variation of a narrative element so that the repetition and variation creates meaning. You have likely heard repetition and variation applied to art in general: the use of melody in music, the architectural pattern. But repetition and variation of a narrative element—what is that?

A narrative element is anything that can be identified in a reader’s mind as something discrete, for example, a person, a place, a thing, a relationship or a phrase. In fact, the repetitions and variations of series are how a person becomes a character, how a place becomes a setting, how a thing or object becomes a symbol, how a relationship becomes a dynamic, and how a repeated phrase becomes a key to the philosophy of the work.

The repetitions and variations of each series form individual narrative arcs. When I help writers with their work at Book Architecture, we gain practice graphing these series arcs, including the skills to have these arcs interact, intersect, and collide. We braid these threads of series into a whole tapestry—through the use of series grids, like Rowling’s. And we use the third tool of the series target to make sure that all of these series are about the same thing, because your book can only be about one thing.

Q. On the other end of the spectrum from plotters are pantsers. A big theme in your book is, “Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” You have an outlining technique that you say is non-formulaic, but to many pantsers, an outline in itself is formulaic. How does the Book Architecture Method approach outlining differently?

Stuart: The outline I’m talking about comes from the work itself. It doesn’t supersede the work or dictate how it should go. It is more like a map of where you are and a way to give yourself a sense of the possible directions your work can go.

The type of outline we work with in Book Architecture is spatial in nature and helps visualize the interaction between elements better than the linear list we learned in high school (you know, the one that starts 1., 2., 3. and then under 1. we get 1.a… 1.a.i…).

I love that J.K. Rowling released a snippet of her use of this kind of outline for the fifth volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think sometimes people think famous writers don’t use the same tools as us . . . because they’re just geniuses and stuff. But Rowling’s grid—and the grid Joseph Heller put together for Catch-22 featured in Chapter Six of my new book—show that they do!

Q. You’ve been an editor for fifteen years. What are the most common struggles you’ve seen among writers and how can we avoid those pitfalls? 

Stuart: Well, I think every writer could practice being a little bit more realistic. I don’t mean about potential publishing success, I mean about the writing process. We swing wildly from expecting it to be easy to trying to make everything perfect. Neither one of these approaches is particularly fun, and you have to have fun—that is the cardinal rule.

I don’t mean stupid fun, I mean intellectual aliveness, being fully engaged in what you are doing, believing in your work or changing it so that you do. That’s what we have to keep asking ourselves: Am I still having fun? If you feel that window closing, you can change tack or you can hurry up and bring things to a conclusion before you stop caring about the work altogether.

Nothing is ever going to be perfect. What we write represents a time and a place and we have to leave that “fresh feeling of not having been too well-worked,” as my friend Jim Freeman describes it. And then we go on to the next work, which is what I’m going to do after the promotional phase of Book Architecture. It’s what we all have to do.

Stuart’s Bio

Horwitz.Author PhotoStuart Horwitz is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, New York and Boston.

Stuart’s clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction, and have appeared on Oprah!, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and in the most prestigious journals in their respective fields.

Stuart’s first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, was named one of 2013’s Best Books on Writing by The Writer magazine. His latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, is already garnering five-star reviews on Amazon.

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How Rowling Revised ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

Rowling’s goal as a writer is surprisingly simple: “[Write] better than yesterday.” When Rowling sent her editor an email about the third Potter book, she wrote:

I am so sick of re-reading [Prisoner of Azkaban] that I’ll be hard put to smile when it comes to doing public readings from it. But perhaps the feeling will have worn off by next summer. . .

Rowling has also said:

You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with. [Tweet This]

‘You Have to Plan’

Even when Rowling was nearly finished with the Potter series, she still extensively outlined her work. While writing the sixth book, Half-Blood Prince, Rowling said:

I have a large and complicated chart propped on the desk in front of me to remind me what happens where, how, to whom and which bits of crucial information need to be slipped into which innocent-looking chapters.

Rowling later added in an interview:

I plan; I really plan quite meticulously. I know it is sometimes quite boring because when people say to me, “I write stories at school and what advice would you give me to make my stories better?” And I always say (and people’s faces often fall when I say),­­ “You have to plan,” and they say, “Oh, I prefer just writing and seeing where it takes me.” Sometimes writing and seeing where it takes you will lead you to some really good ideas, but I would say nearly always it won’t be as good as if you sat down first and thought, Where do I want to go, what end am I working towards, what would be good—a good start?

Rowling’s Outline for Order of the Phoenix

Rowling not only plans, she’s also not afraid to revise her plan—and revise it and revise it and revise it. Back in 2006 Rowling posted on her website a snippet of her series grid for the fifth Potter book, Order of the Phoenix.

Below is my transcription of the outline, which I created for Stuart Horwitz’s Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. (I also cleaned up the outline by writing out abbreviations and completing sentences.)

Transcribed Rowling Outline

When Rowling shared her outline, she said that it was an “umpteenth revision” of Order of the Phoenix—but she still went on to revise the outline even more.

In the grid below I’ve tracked all of Rowling’s changes between her outline and the final Order of the Phoenix. Red is what Rowling deletes from the story; yellow is what she swaps around; and green is everything she adds after the outline. Very little is left untouched.

As William Zinsser said:

Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost. [Tweet This]

Transcribed Rowling Outline with Revisions

Rowling’s Revisions

I won’t discuss every change, but the majority of Rowling’s revisions fit into two broad categories:

1. Eliminating Needless Repetition

2. Increasing Suspense

At times these two categories overlap: If you eliminate needless repetition (the parts that “readers tend to skip,” as Elmore Leonard said), you typically ratchet up the suspense automatically. (My two examples below show this overlap.)

On the other hand, these two categories still need to stand on their own. Increasing suspense doesn’t always eliminate needless repetition, and eliminating repetition doesn’t always result in suspense.

Eliminating Repetition

In Blueprint Your Bestseller Stuart Horwitz talks about the importance of striking a narrative balance between repetition and variation:

Repetition can get dangerously close to boring. You have to be careful when you have the same event or adjective or discussion happening over and over again. [But], you can’t have all variation, either . . . it is the pattern created by repetition and variation that communicates meaning.

Example of Repetition: Hagrid’s Return

Hagrid is sporting injuries quite early in the outline—before even chapter thirteen, because Rowling writes that he’s “still” getting injured, which means he’s injured before chapter thirteen as well.

But other than the unexplained injuries, Hagrid’s storyline has no significant development until we meet Grawp in (then) chapter thirteen. I believe that Rowling realized she had too much repetition without enough variation, so in the final Order of the Phoenix, she doesn’t introduce Hagrid’s injuries until chapter twenty and she waits to introduce Grawp until chapter thirty.

Example of Repetition: Occlumency

In the outline Harry is already getting Occlumency lessons from Snape in (then) chapter thirteen (the same chapter where Hagrid still has injuries). But the final book postpones Harry’s lessons until after he attacks Mr. Weasley in a dream. Why is this change important?

First, the Occlumency storyline is vital to the believability of the whole plot. As Lupin says, “Harry, there is nothing so important as you learning Occlumency!” If we the readers don’t buy into Occlumency—if Rowling can’t convince us of its importance—then the entire story is weak.

With the Occlumency storyline, Rowling is dealing with the same issue as Hagrid’s injuries: the repetition of the lessons is becoming boring; there isn’t enough variation. Rowling also needs to convince us that Harry’s situation is indeed dangerous.

If Rowling had Harry starting lessons simply because Dumbledore (or whoever else) said so, that wouldn’t be nearly as believable as Harry needing to start lessons because he’s already proven himself a threat—by attacking Mr. Weasley. Actions speak louder than words.

Increasing Suspense

Example of Suspense: Hagrid’s Return

By delaying Hagrid’s return, Rowling not only eliminates needless repetition, she also increases the suspense. Hagrid’s unexplained disappearance adds mystery to the plot, and therefore, more suspense as well.

Rowling creates another offshoot of suspense by having Hagrid return right when Umbridge is desperate to fire teachers. In fact, right before Hagrid strolls into the story, Rowling has Umbridge put Professor Trelawney on probation. Naturally, we start worrying about Hagrid.

Rowling then uses Hagrid’s tenuous work situation as the reason to introduce Grawp. Notice in the outline Hagrid is refusing to leave Hogwarts, and we only happen to meet Grawp when Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to warn Hagrid about Umbridge. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, we don’t meet Grawp until the situation is clearly out of control (Hagrid is now on probation); and instead of refusing, Hagrid is okay with being fired, which gives him good reason to bring Harry to Grawp—someone needs to take care of Grawp in Hagrid’s absence.

Hagrid’s delayed return to Hogwarts also increases the suspense in the Quidditch storyline. Hagrid shows up right after Umbridge bans Harry from Quidditch. Although Hagrid’s unexpected arrival directs us away from Harry’s ban, it also increases the suspense because we’re not focusing on it—we’ve moved on to Hagrid’s story, yet we’re still wondering how the Quidditch problem will pan out. (Additionally, Harry’s ban from Quidditch serves as his excuse for sneaking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Grawp.)

Example of Suspense: Occlumency

In the outline Harry is skipping his Occlumency lessons simply because he wants to skip them. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, Harry looks into the pensieve and sees something unsettling from Snape’s past. Snape is so furious that he throws Harry out and refuses to give him any more lessons. Talk about ratcheting up the suspense! Harry’s peek into the pensieve both increases the tension around the Occlumency lessons (as Hermione continually nags Harry that he needs to resume them) and increases the mystery around Snape’s past.

A Few More Examples of Rowling Increasing the Suspense

  1. Rowling originally has Grawp as Hagrid’s cousin, but he later becomes his half-brother. Even though Hagrid has always been soft-hearted, it’s more believable that he’d so desperately cling to Grawp if Grawp was his last lifeline to an immediate family member.
  2. In the outline Rowling has Harry running into MacNair visiting Bode in the hospital; she later deletes this scene—probably thinking that it would decrease the suspense by giving away too much.
  3. At first Rowling only has Harry suspended from Quidditch, but she decides to increase the stakes by giving him a lifetime ban.
  4. In the outline, Rowling has Umbridge not suspect the existence of Dumbledore’s Army until much later in the story, but in the final book, Umbridge not only knows about the D.A. as soon as it forms, she also immediately threatens expulsion with Educational Decree Number 24. This significantly increases the suspense, because now we’re not wondering if Harry is going to get caught but when.
  5. Originally, Rowling has Harry attack Mr. Weasley and then stay at Hogwarts until Christmas break—she even has him shop for Christmas presents in Hogsmeade. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, she has Harry and the rest of the Weasleys leave immediately for Sirius’ house. The snake attack is an important turning point in the story (the midpoint, to be exact) and Rowling doesn’t want to downplay the consequences.

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. [Tweet This]

—Colette

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What the Best Writers Know about Making It Work

Sometimes hating your novel is part of the process. That is not a cosmic joke to rail against. It just is. You will sometimes actually hate the process of writing your novel even as you fully understand that there can be no other process, no way around it. This disliking, this worrying, this fearing the worst, this plodding rather than soaring, all this is sometimes part of the process . . . You can choose to say, “I can do this even though it hurts.” That honors the process. Or you can dishonor the process by fantasizing that it must be different for luckier mortals. You can suppose that some writer somewhere, whom you envy and hate, is dashing off beautiful page after beautiful page, turning out masterpieces with ridiculous ease, laughing all the way to the computer and back, doing his effortless genius thing while you refuse to get out of bed. You can fantasize in this fashion to let yourself off the hook and avoid the reality of the process. Don’t. . . . [Much] of the time you are writing your novel you may not be pleased with it. Embrace that! Stop wishing it were otherwise. Stop avoiding nature. Stop hoping that reality were more like a pleasant dream. Stop craving the fantasy that you are a genius and that everything that flows from your pen will be honey. Embrace the reality that some of what you produce will be inspired, that some of what you produce will be dull, and that there will never be a substitute for showing up and moving your fingers over the keyboard.

—Eric Maisel, Coaching the Artist Within

I love hearing the story behind the story: how the author got the idea; how the idea progressed; the author’s struggles and successes with it. Getting a peak “behind the scenes” makes both the book and the author less intimidating, more human.

This weekend I read the mega-bestseller The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. In Green’s acknowledgements, he thanks his editor and publisher “who stuck with this story through many years of twists and turns . . . ” I sleuthed around online and discovered a Question and Answer page on Green’s website that talks about the story behind The Fault in Our Stars and the story behind his life as a writer in general:

Q. Are you currently working on a novel? A. Yes, I am always working on a novel, although I guess it depends on how you define “working” and “on.” I’ve become very superstitious, however, about saying more than that, because while I was writing the book that became The Fault in Our Stars, I promised many different stories – a zombie apocalypse novel, a novel about kids stranded on a desert island – and then delivered a very different book. [The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of two teenagers that have cancer and are grappling with mortality.]

Q. How do you deal with writers’ block? A. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts . . . so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway.

How many of us give ourselves permission to suck in our writing? And I mean really stink it up—not just kind of, but really letting things get appallingly bad.

I think most of us know deep down that every story has to start out ugly before it can get pretty, yet we still don’t give ourselves the space to mess up. And ironically, that is exactly what separates the professional writers from the wanna-be writers:

Professionals want it badly enough that they give themselves permission to suck.

What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”

—Maya Angelou

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

—Octavia Butler

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

—Anne Lammott

Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.

—Stephen King

The good news is, it’s never too late to give yourself permission to suck. The beginning of your life as a writer may already be set in stone and it may not have gotten off to a great start, but it’s still in your hands to decide if you’re going to end your writing life. You certainly can if you want to. But if you’re not ready to say goodbye, if there’s still a shred of a writer left in you that’s desperate to stay alive, then let your writing suck. It’s how all of the best writers make it to the top.

The only way you can fail at writing is to give up.

—Diana Gabaldon

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Famous Writers Who Trusted Their Instincts and Made It Big

Never before in history have authors been so readily accessible. If you google “writing advice,” you land 605,000,000 results. Like all things technological, this is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the wisdom of millions of writers past and present is at your fingertips. On the other hand, it’s dangerously easy to lose yourself trying to follow the countless, and often contradictory, advice of writers who may or may not be anything like you.

What can save you from getting lost in this muddle is paying attention to how other writers have learned to trust themselves, even when who they are goes against the grain of what’s expected. For example, a fellow writer said:

I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney.

That writer is Marilynne Robinson. She published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980. She didn’t publish another novel for over two decades. Then, in 2004, she finally published Gilead . . . and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Another writer said:

[An] iPad was given to me at a reading . . . It’s really the freakiest thing because I became an addict very fast. At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation. After all, there were two years when I read nothing but garden catalogues, and that turned out okay—it became a book.

The writer here is Louise Gluck and the book she is referring to is The Wild Iris, a compilation of poems she wrote after two years of reading nothing but garden catalogues. It also won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’m not saying that all writers who trust their instincts will win the Pulitzer Prize. I’m also not saying that the Pulitzer Prize is the only definition of success. What I am saying is that success is capricious. Most of the time success has no rhyme or reason for dismissing one talented writer and choosing another. But if you want it badly enough, your best chance at getting it is to work hard at figuring out who you are. Louise Gluck’s personal motto is follow your enthusiasm:

When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art. I just sat in Provincetown at a desk and it was ghastly—the more I sat there not writing the more I thought that I just hadn’t given up the world enough. After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, though I had spent my life till that point thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching—the minute I had obligations in the world—I started to write again.

Real writing, Gluck says, will not show itself until we are living authentically:

I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have any children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.

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