Sunday, November 13, 2011

Making the Leap

I've been working lately on a book about writing, called WRITING TO FINISH.  The intent, as the title suggests, is to produce something that will give aspiring writers a better chance of finishing the book they begin.

My admittedly unscientific estimate says that 90% of all books people start to write go unfinished.  That's too bad, because some of them, had the writer plugged all the way through, might have been wonderful.  They might have changed the writer's life.  Who knows?  A contract, good sales, money, fame, whatever.

In fact, on a more important level, finishing a book is guaranteed to change its author's life, even if it never sells three copies.  Finishing a novel is a transformational experience.  The author is, forever after, someone who's written a novel.  That's a very small club.  Like having run a marathon, it's not something you take a snapshot of and paste in an album. It's something you carry within you, something that allows you, quite justifiably, to feel, I reached inside myself and found what it took.  I crossed the finish line, even if I was limping.

And the very act of lassoing all that inspiration and shepherding it for all those months, of dredging up the experiences and feelings you need to keep writing, of persevering in the act of creation -- well, you learn an enormous amount about yourself.  That's what I want people to experience.  So Writing to Finish is pretty tightly focused, not so much on how to write a book, although there's inevitably a lot of that, but on how to keep writing a book.

It seems to me that how someone begins a book has a lot to do with whether he or she will finish it. Deciding to write a book is much like making that other leap, deciding to get married.  In both situations, it's actually a two-stage decision.

Before we decide to marry someone, we first have to decide whether to get married at all.  We know that marriage is going to change our lives in fundamental ways.  It's going to demand a commitment of time and energy.  You're going to have to think in terms of “we,” not “I.”  Both marriage and novel-writing will bring you face to face with deep-seated issues.  The process will challenge your ability to remain committed.  It's going to give you long periods of difficulty as well as long periods of bliss.  You're going to be tied to the relationship for better and for worse, and there is guaranteed to be some worse.

So if you commit to writing a book, you have to acknowledge in advance that it's going to be a demanding relationship that will siphon off time and energy you might otherwise have spent elsewhere. You might need to make arrangements to accommodate that, even if it's only setting aside a non-negotiable writing time on an almost daily basis.  If you can't make that commitment, in my opinion, don't start writing.   You haven't got a chance.  Wait until you can make the commitment or until the desire to write is so strong that it forces you to make the commitment.

But even if you can make that commitment, whom are you going to marry?  What, in other words, are you going to write about?  I believe that many writers who abandon their books were writing the wrong book in the first place.  For at least the first two or three books, you need to write (a) the kind of book you most like to read, (b) a story about something you understand, and (c) about something that interests you deeply.

This week's issue of The New Yorker  has a sort of personal retrospective by the great John McPhee that's primarily about how, over the years, he's chosen the things he's written about.  McPhee is one of the best and most prolific of the magazine's' Profile feature writers, and in every case but one over the years he's selected the person he wants to profile, rather than having the subject assigned to him.  He looked back on all the pieces and asked himself several questions about them, and this is the most startling piece of data that emerged:  Ninety-five percent of the stories touched on things he'd been interested in before he went to college.  In other words, really deep-seated interests.

So part of the first section of Writing to Finish is, essentially, about marrying your idea: recognizing the depth of the commitment and choosing a book you can write.  Of course, even if you do everything I've talked about, nothing is guaranteed; intrinsic to the idea of making a leap is the possibility of taking a fall.  So I'll close this with a quotation from the Japanese filmmaker Yoji Yamada, the most-frequently produced screenwriter in all of modern film, with more than 100 produced:

"Sometimes you have to make your leap and grow your wings on the way down."

Tim -- Sundays


  1. What a great concept! Stan and I often comment that the best start we had for writing novels was that we had FINISHED writing other material. That commitment gave us a head start. I really want a copy of this book. When do we get it, Leighton?

  2. You're right on in your thinking! Can't wait to read the book, though I must admit that relating the writing commitment to marriage makes me think I should be writing short stories.

  3. I wish, Michael, that I could take credit for this lovely post.
    But I can't.
    It's Tim's.
    He just forgot to sign it.
    He did that last week, too, didn't ya Tim?

  4. Hi, guys --

    I certainly did forget to sign it, and I did last week, too. This is exactly how good I am at self-promotion. (But I've signed it now.)

    Thanks, Michael. This book came out of the difficulty I had finishing my latest. Once I was clear of all the drama, I thought about it and wondered how it was that I'd forgotten everything I ever learned about finishing. The book will be out either as soon as I finish it (if it's an e-book) or whenever the publisher deigns to issue it, if it's on paper.

    Jeff, thanks for a great laugh. My wife laughed as loudly as I did.

  5. Fascinating Tim - especially the McPhee reference, which really hit home. I think in a way we should try and strive to wrote the book we really, really wanted to read when we were young, even if we didn't know it. I'm still not sure I've written that book.

    Oh and I'll be ordering a copy of Writing to Finish. In the spirit of Jeffrey's gag, my wife says my writing is the one thing where I don't finish too soon.

  6. Oops! I think the problem may be that being in Australia I'm sort of a day ahead of everyone...
    Still looking forward to the book! Why don't you share some of your experiences too, Leighton?

  7. Oooohh, Dan, Wives really know where to hit us. Michael, if you're a day ahead of me, could I ask you to look at the prices of a few stocks and send them to me?

  8. This is turning into "Henny Youngman is Everywhere."

  9. I actually lived in the same apartment house as Henny Youngman in New York for a few years, and I can tell you with total truthfulness that when the elevator doors closed and you were in it with him, you were going to get eighteen floors of old jokes. He hit the switch automatically. Sometimes it was funny, but there are few more uncomfortable situations than being trapped in a small elevator with a famous comedian who's bombing. Your laughter comes back at you from all four walls and you sound like a laugh track for "Friends."