Aimee Bender wrote a lovely essay for The New York Times about the writing lesson she learned from reading “Goodnight Moon” to her babies.
“Goodnight Moon does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them,” she writes. “It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure.”
She teases the elements of this seemingly simple story apart in a wholly satisfying (and thought-provoking) way. It touches on unexpected choices, surprisingly compassionate moments, and following your instincts. Well worth reading at the beginning (or middle or end) of your next writing project.
I love being a writer because I want to leave something here on earth to make it better, prettier, stronger.
This post on Medium went viral a few months ago. It’s easy to see why:
- The title is great: How a Slight Change in Mindset Accelerated My Learning Forever.
- The content is surprising, helpful and pithy.
- The “slight change” can apply to almost any skill you’re trying to learn (such as writing a novel).
The writer of the post, Tristan de Montebello, wanted to learn kite surfing. In his first lesson, his instructor gave him this important tip: “Pull your kite in one motion into the power zone (almost to the horizon) — This will pull you out of the water immediately and get you moving.”
He noticed that most of the other beginners were bobbing in and out of the water, unable to gain speed or momentum. He spent some time observing the other kite surfers, comparing the beginners with the experts.
This is what he realized:
“If you don’t pull hard, your kite moves slowly and gives you less power. It’s not rocket science, yet 99% of beginners only pulled half way. When it was my turn, I shut my brain off, and did exactly what the pros were doing. I pulled hard, and waited for my kite to get low before pulling back. I was out of the water speeding on my first try. So why do most beginners only pull halfway? Because they feel shy. They aren’t comfortable in this new situation so they tiptoe around instead of ‘jumping in.'”
This is great advice if you’re the kind of writer who takes endless notes on what you’re going to write, spends hours online or at the library tracking down one more tidbit of research, or gets caught up in worrying about whether you’re up to the task. (Guilty as charged.)
As de Montebello writes:
Fast learners know this trick of the mind and apply it all the time. Refuse to be shy. Don’t overthink it. Once you know what to do, do it all the way. Jump in. You will learn faster, and you will have a lot more fun in the process.
Fast learners take the plunge and go all the way. They harbor the crazy hope that they might get it right on the first try.
And sometimes they do.
What would she do, that is, if she were writing a novel today?
The Austen Project asked six contemporary writers to each write a unique take on one of Jane Austen’s novels.The crime writer Val McDermid took on Northanger Abbey. Her article about how she dealt with this daunting challenge offers a fascinating glimpse into the creative process — in particular, how to deal with prosaic but thorny issues posed by modern life.
(How many books/plays/movies that appeared before, say, 2005 would run into serious plot difficulties now that smartphones allow characters to a) call for help as the zombies/vampires/deranged killers approach; b) look up directions with GPS, thus not getting lost in the wilderness or dangerous city streets; or c) easily text a boyfriend/girlfriend without worrying that a vital message will be lost in the mail?)
As McDermid writes, “When I was asked to join five other writers in the Austen Project, feeling daunted at the prospect merely added lustre to the invitation. Rework Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in a contemporary setting? How many pitfalls lurked behind that suggestion?”
She answers that with a step-by-step explanation of how she created a believable background for her Catherine Morland, determined the best setting for the novel (Edinburgh), and dealt with our pesky modern technology.
“I can testify from personal experience,” she writes, “that there are large tracts of the Borders where there is no mobile phone signal.”
If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise – attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.
H. G. Wells
I love reading about long-lost ruins, abandoned buildings, and rare manuscripts discovered in dusty libraries. If that strikes a chord with you, too, you probably already know that news stories tend to be tantalizing and frustrating in equal measure.
So the rare document was found — what happened next? So someone stumbled upon an abandoned building — who lived there and why was it abandoned?
Fortunately, the frustration doesn’t last long, because you can always make up the rest of the story if you want to. Like this:
- Find a news item about a recent historical find that intrigues you. (It may be a short item with very few details. That’s great — more room for your imagination to move around.)
- Start playing around with the basic facts by asking “what if?”
- Stick close to the facts of the story or roam far afield — your choice!
Here are a few items that recently caught my eye. Perhaps they’ll strike a spark with you…
Haunting chalkboard drawings, frozen in time for 100 years, discovered in Oklahoma school
Hiker discovers abandoned town inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Paul Revere’s work found in Brown’s rare book room
Paul Graham is a programmer, writer and investor who posts consistently thought-provoking essays on his web site. His thoughts on procrastination struck me as particularly helpful (especially his point that doing creative work always trumps cleaning the house).
“There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.
That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.
That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.”