When I made my list of favorite writing books, I left an important one off the list. It’s called The 90 Day Novel, by Alan Watt. This is not to be confused with 90 Days to Your Novel, by Sarah Domet, an altogether different work that I haven’t had the chance to read.
Watt’s book presents a series of writing exercises designed to help you drive deeper into the center of your story. He helps you uncover your character’s motivations and needs and desires. The book mirrors my writing method. I believe the work comes through us, not of us. Other writers are different. They like to outline everything in exhaustive detail, crafting fifty and one hundred page outlines. That doesn’t work for me. Part of maturing as a writer is trying everything and figuring out what doesn’t work for you. For me, I see my story as a dark hallway and I’ve only got a flashlight to get me through it. The flashlight reveals just enough of what’s ahead, but not the whole journey.
Watt allows for discovering the story as you go. His exercises are simple, but allow you to slowly build up a clear vision of your world, with each step you take. He emphasizes playing on the page.
For me, his most important advice is giving yourself permission to suck. As he says you have “to give yourself permission to write poorly.” When you get stuck in the middle of a novel and the story no longer seems to flow smoothly, it’s incredibly easy to get discouraged and loose hope. You might even want to toss out the whole book, even when you’re 300 pages in, like I am. I’ve gotten in the habit of turning to Watt whenever I am lost. His book seems to work through synchronicity. You can flip to almost any page and find some fuel to get you moving again. Just today, when I was struggling again with a part of my current novel that just isn’t working, I opened up the book randomly and came across this passage:
“Characters will emerge from nowhere. We will allow them to exist. We will remain curious and write it all down. Where they come from is none of our business. If this seems too easy, we don’t question it. If it seems overwhelming, we stop thinking and give ourselves permission to write poorly. We are engaged in a process of trusting our subconscious to reveal the story to us. Our job is to remain curious.”
That struck the right cord and I just let go of my exceptions and pushed forward. Yes, it was probably crap. But tomorrow I have something to work with, a foundation to start from again. And even if I have to throw it all out, I’ve learned what not to do with my character. This is the true work of writing. You’ve got to learn to do the work, no matter what. You’ve got to find a way to write even when it isn’t good and trust that you can’t judge a work as it’s going through the birthing process.
Too often we try to view writing through the filter of our mind. Yet writing doesn’t come from the mind. The mind judges, dissects, pulls apart. It has a place in the work, but the moment of creation is just not it. As Watt says:
“If I attempted to answer these questions at this stage and understand them intellectually, I would get very depressed and want to throw the whole thing away. Our story exists beyond our intellect; it is visceral – it lives in our body. The desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve. We are channels. Something wants to be written through us and we are uniquely qualified to write it. We are not looking for answers; we are allowing ourselves to be steered toward a greater truth through a series of events to which our hero responds.”
I’m not overly concerned with finishing a book in 90 days. That’s just an arbitrary number designed to create a good book title and give people something to cling to. I don’t push the river. I write as often as I have energy and motivation and time. Sometimes I don’t have them all at the same time. That’s fine. The 90 days is just a guide. A book can go that fast or take ten times as long. It’s not really for me to decide. I go to the well and sometimes it’s dry. Even so, the book is there whenever you need an exercise to help you ask the right questions and get you moving again. In the end, writing is all about momentum and coming back to the well no matter what.