writer in progress: the constant learner

It is my business to know things. That is my trade. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What's the good of being an author if you can't make up a story? -- P.G. Wodehouse

The true University of these days is a Collection of Books. -- Thomas Carlyle

There are so many reasons to love writing novels. So many. And it's good to remember them from time to time, since the crushing difficulties also show up with unnerving regularity...

But there are so many reasons not to push that pencil between your eyes. So many reasons to keep going.

For instance, you can write plenty of scenes propped up on pillows in bed, putting your protagonist through one crisis after another. Very theraputic, that. I don't mind being sick half so much if my protagonist is rather worse off. What's a little cough, when she's running for her life ... again?

Also, the little things can make my day. I finally get the right name for the character, the town, the chapter? I'm happy every time I see it and feel that hole-in-one glee all over again. And if a gem of a sentence drops onto the page? Brilliant. I bask in that one all day.

Another fabulous fact about this discipline, this life, of writing?

You learn while reading other novels. Which is my first love, of course. I've been a nonstop reader for as long as I can remember. So, feel the delight: some of the best lessons I've learned have been while reading books for fun. And because I write what I love to read, I'm usually reading (and learning from) novels that fit the genre I'm writing to, the age group I'm aiming for, or similar subject matter... or, I picked them up because, hey, they looked like fun.

I always use index cards as bookmarks, and by the end of a novel, they're cluttered with notes: Fabulous sentences, my guesses at who the murderer is, questions about where the plot is going, wondering if a scene is necessary... basically, I'm talking back to the book.

And--okay, confession time--I still write book reports.

I was in the habit already, and I never gave it up after college. So every book I read gets a Word document in my computer. They aren't neat and tidy reports; I ramble about whatever grabbed my attention. I argue a lot. I note pages that I had trouble with. Sometimes I tweak the ending. Or, I just fill it with all the beautiful descriptions the author used, or I dissect the brilliant transitions.

Sometimes I wonder if this means I'm a terminal nerd.

But mostly I don't worry about it, because now and then, one of my book reports saves my novel's life. Those aren't the sorts of habits you want to break.

Two years ago, after reading On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by the genius Andrew Peterson, I spent days wondering how he did it. How he could write about the truly dark, the truly scary, but make me laugh from cover to cover? How do you sustain tension and humor at the same time? And I realized that I firmly believed he loved writing that book. He had fun; it was evident.

I was so envious.

And I looked at my ball and chain er, manuscript, and asked: is this fun? Am I enjoying this? Am I having fun writing it? ... It took all that to realize that my protagonist had turned into someone I didn't actually like. I embarked on a massive rehabilitation of the whole project, and was much, much happier.

Or, on the other side of the spectrum, I read a novel that I, um, hated. I mean, hated. I ran around the house reading terrible passages to anyone who would listen, and then I ranted further still into my report. I didn't believe any of the action, the characters, the setting, not one bit. And it had come out in a hardcover edition. What?!

I tore it to shreds, and told myself I would do much, much better than that.

I was rehashing everything I despised about the weak villain, and then parts of the villain's character began to sound, oh, just slightly familiar. No. Wait. Was that right? I pulled up my character files, read my descriptions, dialogue, scenes where the villain acted...

Wow. I had fallen for the same traps.

After writhing with embarrassment, I made massive notes for revision, and then sheepishly wrote rules for all future villains. (No antagonist gets to wear black in my books. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. Ev-er.)

And I get all this out of doing what I love to do, doing what I've done all my life: read books that appeal to me. Read for fun; learn genius things.

... Which is another thing I can do in pajamas. Fantastic.


  1. I love the notecard-card-as-bookmark idea!
    You call yourself a terminal nerd like it is a BAD thing. :)

  2. You are too polite to do so, Jenn, but part of me would LOVE to hear you rip a novel or two to shreds. The really bad ones. I would thoroughly enjoy it.