Yesterday I attended Tacoma Community College’s Write in the Harbor regional writers conference at its Gig Harbor campus. Seattle writer Garth Stein, whose books include A Sudden Light (2014) and The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008), opened the morning with a talk on how he writes. (Stein also presented a keynote address on Friday night, which I was unable to attend.)
The title of Stein’s Saturday morning talk was “It’s All About the Rock.” As this title suggests, he’s a writer who loves metaphors, and he used several of them to explain writing to us.
Here’s my paraphrased notes on the meaning of that title:
For me, writing a book is like pushing a giant boulder up a hill. At the beginning, it’s about me, the writer. I have to start pushing that rock up the hill. But once I get the rock to the top of the hill, the rock takes over and starts rolling down the other side. That point is when the rock (the story) takes over. After that, it’s all about the rock, not about the writer.
Another metaphor Stein used to describe the writing process was his advice to “write fat, edit lean.” “Nobody loves a thin baby,” he said. When writing a first draft, fatten that baby up. Put in everything when you begin. But no one likes a fat LeBron James. The writer’s job in subsequent drafts is to put that baby on a diet, to go through the manuscript with great rigor to remove excess fat, to make it as lean as possible.
He used yet another metaphor to explain plot: Plots are not guided missiles that seek out the proper plce to land; they are ballistic missiles that are launched from a certain point and then land wherever their fixed trajectory takes them. If there’s a plot problem in chapter 46, the writer can’t fix the problem in that chapter. Instead, the writer must go back to where that plot point was launched and correct the problem there. A reader builds up a set of expectations about the story on the basis of the clues that the writer launches throughout the work. The writer must make sure that the story somehow satisfies those expectations.
Writers always want to know the details of how other writers work, and the conference participants had some typical questions for Stein:
- Does he write in long hand or on a computer? He writes on a computer with the program Scrivener. He also has a sit-to-stand desk and does much of his writing barefoot, standing up.
- Does he have a fixed writing routine? He usually spends mornings attending to business matters, then writes in the afternoon.
- What writing books does he recommend? These:
- Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Stein concluded his talk with the reminder that writers must take the ego out of the writing process: it’s all about the book, not the writer. He also stressed that writers must be readers. After finishing a work of literary fiction, he told us, go back and reread the first chapter. If it’s a good book, the writer will have let you know by the end of that first chapter how the book will end.
Garth Stein is an interesting guy and an engaging speaker. If you ever have the opportunity to hear him in person, I encourage you to take advantage of it.
Right now the folks at Literature and Latte are offering specials in observance of National Novel Writing Month. And you can always get a free trial version of the software to experiment with.