AWP Dispatch: Managing the Novel from Symptoms to Recovery

Another one from the talented & wonderful Susanna Donato:

 This session drew lots of Lighthousers, so please comment if you have another memorable takeaway! Also best "small world" moment as I went to take an empty seat, then realized I was sitting beside erstwhile Lighthouser and current Parisian Mary Ellen Gallagher.

The panelists, with a few of their career highlights, included:
* Elizabeth Brundage, former screenwriter, current author of three thrillers (A Stranger Like You forthcoming in August) and panel moderator.
* Richard Bausch, author of 11 novels and eight story collections and writing teacher; winner of many prizes and recognitions
* Jennifer Haigh, author of The Condition, Baker Towers and Mrs. Kimble.
* Michelle Richmond, author of the novels The Year of Fog, No One You Know and Dream of the Blue Room.
* Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters.

This panel was encouraging, funny, liberating and inspiring. It even came with divine license, via Bausch, who urged attendees, "I encourage you not to think about the fate of what you're working on. Whether it is published or not, it will disappear with you. Write because it makes you mentally healthy. Writing is inherently healthy and beautiful and good. It's in the Bible! If you can do it, you must do it."

(For you non-Biblical scholars, I think Bausch was referring to this verse.)

These writers generously shared their experiences, their processes and their motivations. Several swear by keeping their work top secret until it is utterly complete; Haigh said working in private "is like having a secret affair, which is so much more enticing than a stable, public arrangement." All the writers agreed that we should use caution in sharing too much about our work; many of them have a trusted first reader who provides feedback on a complete draft.

Some of them enjoy the writing process, some prefer revision. Richmond described it as parallel to liking to go out for cocktails (writing a new work) or preferring to talk with well-known friends (revising).

Some of the authors outline. Most of them don't. Haigh walks for 2 to 3 hours per day when she is composing -- she writes, then walks and thinks about what will happen the next day. Sometimes, she spends months writing about the novel -- "it takes the pressure off," she said.

Brundage has a bulletin board with images that relate to her characters' lives, to help her really visualize where they live and understand their sensibilities. Waite Clayton does a similar practice, but uses a sketch book so she can carry it with her. Richmond spends months researching to get into a book.

Other tips included:

1. Trust the part of you that isn't so aware or smart -- regain the direct sight of a child, and let everything else take care of itself.  (Bausch)
2. "I have one question every day: Did I write? If the answer is yes, there are no other questions."  (Bausch)
3. "I work 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., or for 2,000 words. Some days the words come, other days, they don't; but if you sit down and do it, eventually, it will come." (Waite Clayton)
4. When you get stuck, try to get back to the first moment that the work inspired you, suggested Richmond. She also said when she is "texturizing" -- creating the sense, feel, surrounding of a character -- she tries to forget she is working on a novel and pretend each segment is part of a short story, which makes it "more enjoyable, more devil-may-care," she said. That way, she gets texture in a more natural and more immediate way.
5. Haigh sets aside her first draft for a month, then takes it out to revise it. She finds it helpful to think of it like playwriting when she rolls up her sleeves and begins rewriting.
6. "Write the book you want to read," Haigh said.
7. You aren't carving granite. No story can be irrevocably damaged. There is only revising it. You can always fix any mistakes that you make. (Bausch)

Susanna Donato

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