By G. Neri
Sometimes, the battle to conquer a book is so long and arduous, you feel like throwing in the towel and saying, never again. So how (and more importantly why) do we even bother to do it over and over?
The why is easy. You do it because you can’t not do it. A director once wisely said of acting: if you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead. But if someone tells you you’ll never be in the movies and you still pursue acting because you can’t live without it, then you’re an actor. God help you.
I say the same thing about writing. I write because that’s how I express myself. Even if they told me I’d never publish again, I’d still do it. So the real question then is, how do I find the magic to write a new book?
I believe writing is a lot like having a baby: the human brain deliberately blacks out all the pain–the endless sleepless nights, the diaper changing, the spit up, and the emergency visits to the ER. Otherwise, you’d never have another kid! My mom says she can’t remember the six years she spent when she had and diapered her three boys in successive years.
And I can’t really remember the pain certain books have caused me.
I am an accidental novelist. It was never a dream of mine, nor did I think I ever would (or even could) write a novel. It was only because my writer’s group literally tricked me into writing my first novel Surf Mules (Putnam, 2009) that I even tried.
It had started off as a short story. But my group liked it so much, they kept asking for more. So I kept writing and they kept pushing, until it was too late to turn back. Like it or not, my short story was now becoming a long story. It was on its way to being a novel.
But it was only because I’d had seen fellow writers make it through their novels, chapter by chapter, that I thought, maybe…
Later, when I was on vacation with my family on an island in the Baltic Sea, I was cornered into cutting 70 pages at the eleventh hour to finish the book. It was my “Barton Fink” moment, and I literally lost it. The story, the main character, the whole reason I was even a writer.
This in the midst of the long-delayed battle to complete Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, illustrated by Randy duBurke (Lee and Low, 2010), which took almost 15 years to see the light of day. Things were looking bad, but somehow, I was talked down from the ledge and the book was miraculously finished in time and I lived to see another day.
Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty from Greg Neri on Vimeo.Barely. The incredible praise Yummy has received helps to damper the pain we endured to see that book through. But had I not already written a draft of my next potential novel during the happy breaks between versions of Surf Mules, I might not have done it again in the aftermath of those battles.
But those experiences lead to my forthcoming book Ghetto Cowboy (Candlewick, 2011), which, surprise, was also an accidental novel. Originally written in free-verse, my editor casually pondered perhaps this could be straight up prose instead? She was right, but this time, after all that heartache (and a few more not worth mentioning), transcribing it into a novel became a pleasure. Green lights all the way, everything going my way and suddenly, I began to think, Hmm, this isn’t so bad.
Cyn asked me to talk about some of the things I am taking into consideration as I begin this epic journey once again. And it is a big step.
I mean, just the notion of writing the Great American Novel prevents many would-be authors from tackling this daunting format.
Especially since my agent thinks this one is the one.
It’s a lot to take in.
So I find myself resorting to all the advice I constantly give kids when they ask for advice on writing. But here, I am giving it back to myself:
1. Give yourself permission to write badly. That’s right. Even the greatest writers I know admit their first drafts suck. So forget even trying. The first draft is all about getting it out of your head and onto paper (or disk). It’s the number one obstacle that keeps would-be writers from ever finishing a novel. They get stuck trying to make every page, every sentence and every word perfect just right. Forget it.
Just find a word, throw together a sentence that communicates the basic idea and move on. Know that it will suck. Embrace its suckage.
As a former animator, I learned, never stop to make fixes. Keeping moving forward until you reach the end, then go back and fix. Otherwise, you’ll never get done.
2. Thinking is writing. A lot of people talk about how writing everyday is important, but I think thinking is way undervalued. Many of my books have spent months and years clanging around in my brain. And then, one day—boom! The answer (and it is often a simple one) hits like a lightening bolt, and suddenly, the stories, even the ones that I had struggled with through many versions, become clear.
And often in one go, I write it and it’s essentially done. It happened with Ghetto Cowboy (It’s a fish out of water story!), Yummy (it’s a graphic novel!), Chess Rumble, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Lee & Low, 2007)(the whole book is a chess match!) and Surf Mules (the road trip is like the shark in “Jaws;” if you wait too long to see it, people will leave!). Thinking is good.
3. The story knows what it wants to be. This is the main lesson I learned from making my latest book, Yummy. Sometimes we force the story into places it doesn’t want to go, and, surprise, it ends up not working. I was a filmmaker when I first thought of telling the true story of an 11-year-old gangbanger who made the cover of TIME magazine in 1994.
But movies turned out to be the wrong medium when it came to asking myself why I should tell this story. It turned out Yummy really wanted to be a graphic novel.
Young teens needed to experience this story, kids who might be drawn to gangs. But ten-year-olds would not get into an R-rated movie version of Yummy, nor could schools show it. But as a middle-grade story in a comic format? Bingo. That would appeal to urban boys who don’t read. The book wrote itself after that.
4. Follow your characters down the rabbit hole. I often think of myself as a kind of documentary filmmaker in writer’s clothing. I create the world and its inhabitants, but then I let them go and follow them around to see what they do or how they get out of the situations I create for them. I literally don’t know what will happen. They become living, breathing people and they end up leading me. Christopher Walken once said: “If you can’t surprise yourself, how do you expect to surprise anyone else?” Listen to your characters. Be surprised.
5. Become a child, and see the world for the first time. I’ve spent years learning the craft of storytelling, mostly as a filmmaker, where structure is everything.
So now when I approach a story, I deliberately try to forget everything I know and approach it as naively as possible. I usually don’t outline or plot. I know where I am starting and basically where I am trying to go, but I don’t worry at all about hitting certain plot points by certain pages. Like in real life, I like to wander and explore.
The excitement of the unknown is like being a child experiencing something for the first time. It’s why I write YA.
I once saw Michael Stipe draw a circle on a window and say, we all start a new project in the same spot and as we make our way around the circle, we learn and grow and work until we become masters of our craft. But the act of creating every new project must start the circle over, every time: naïve and fresh like a newborn baby.
The story must be a real experience not a calculated venture.
6. Pace yourself: the two-page rule. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I used to write by inspiration, and when it would hit, I would write until I had nothing left. I’d write myself out. Problem was, it might take days or weeks to refuel and have another go.
So now I pace myself. I limit myself to say, two-to-three pages a day, even if I have six-to-eight in me. What happens by forcing myself to stop, is that those extra pages ferment in my brain until the next morning and boom, it comes rushing out, already pre-written.
The more days that pass like this, the more the reserve builds, and by the end, I am writing my pages in 20 minutes as opposed to eight hours of struggle.
It is also important to then give yourself the rest of the day off as a reward. Don’t worry, your brain is thinking for you (see above).
But usually (almost always), they rarely make it off the list as planned. It’s usually the eleventh-hour surprise that takes over and becomes my next book.
And it happens while I am playing around with my top three or four ideas on the list. It sneaks up on me from out of nowhere.
A project I handed in a few months ago was a perfect example. There I was, minding my own business, when out of the blue, someone sent me a link to a YouTube video. When I watched it, it made me sit up and go, wow! But it was only when I started Google-ing the subject matter to find out more that I discovered the real story.
And then it was like, WOW! It quickly consumed me. For two weeks I researched it like crazy. And then in a mad fit, I wrote the whole thing in another few weeks or so, and there it was. One minute, it wasn’t even a kernel of an idea, the next, it was a finished book. Completely unexpected.
So don’t be afraid to walk through those unanticipated doors when they pop open and invite you in. You never know what you’ll find.
I’ll admit I’ve had my doubts as I’ve spent the last few months thinking about writing my current work-in-progress novel.
How did I ever do this before? How in God’s name did I ever write six books? How am I ever going to do it again? But as I look at this list, I am oddly comforted. I remember what I’ve learned and that the final step to beginning a new novel is this:
Barton Fink was right: There’s no road map for the life of the mind.
So don’t overthink it. Just let go. Get in the car, turn on the engine, and drive.
You will find your way.
He is also the author of the YA novel Surf Mules. His latest book, Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, was named one of the Best Books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews. It also has received five starred reviews–from Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, School Library Journal, the Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books, and VOYA.
G. Neri lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife and daughter.