Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Susan Perry
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Diana Gabaldon is the New York Times bestselling author of the Outlander saga: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, An Echo in the Bone, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and Written in My Own Heart's Blood. She has also published a companion book to the series, The Outlandish Companion, as well as a spin-off series following the adventures of Lord John Grey. (In the UK, Outlander is titled Cross Stitch, and The Outlandish Companion is titled Through the Stones.) Outlander has recently been made into a Starz miniseries.
. Did you always know that you would be a writer?
I feel as though I was meant to write novels. I've known that since I was about 8. I have always had stories going on in my mind. I was 36 when I first wrote one down, which was Outlander. I always told stories. My sister, who is three years younger, and I shared a bedroom til I was 14, and since I was 6 I began to tell her stories.
The little voices in my head are always there, whether or not I'm working on a novel. When you're working on a novel, you try to keep part of your consciousness focused on it so you'll hear them when they come. It's an effort, because I will reach points when I've finished a big chunk of novel, or to a greater extent when I've finished a book, and it'll stop all of a sudden. There's a sort of feeling of peace and accomplishment that lasts for two or three days and I don't hear anything. In those two or three days before the voices come back I won't feel any obligation to focus my attention on the book.
But while I am actually working on a piece, I do have that feeling of needing to concentrate very hard to listen. It's not that they talk to you and you write it down. It's that you're actually working with them.
How did you get started writing the mixed-genre kind of fiction that you are known for?
The romance genre has very specific expectations, and this leads to a great deal of predictability. It's very rare to find a good romance writer who can work within that form and still produce a good novel. That's why I try not to let people refer to my own books as romances. One of the reviews said one of my books couldn't decide what kind of book it was, which I considered a sort of a vindication. I was pleased by that.
I originally intended to write a mystery for practice. But I decided not to, just because I'd never written a mystery before or any kind of novel and I had no idea whether I could handle a plot. So I said, let's write something easier. I decided the easiest thing I could write would be a historical novel because I could look things up. So I started Outlander and things got really out of hand. But when they offered me a contract for the fourth book, the others were doing quite well, the New York Times list and all that, I said this may be the only chance I get to make them let me write a mystery. Partly for the challenge, and partly from a sense of loyalty, because I read more mysteries than anything. Also curiosity, I'd always wanted to write one. and it's a completely different form from what I had been doing. They wanted book 4 badly enough that they said yes and they gave me a contract for two mysteries.
Why did you choose this particular period for your novels?
When I began writing, I thought a historical novel would be relatively easy and so I said, where should I set this? I chose Scotland, 18th century after watching a Doctor Who episode with a cute little Scottish character. If you really want to write a book, it doesn't really matter where you set it. The important thing is you should just pick a place and start in. So I began with no outline, no plot, no characters, nothing but a time and a place. But I knew the important thing was to write. Since then I've talked to many people who are working on or have finished historical novels and for almost all of them the research is actually a huge block. Not that it's difficult to do, but they get so entranced with it they would much rather do research than write. Subsequently a great many of them never do get anything on paper other than voluminous notes. I instinctively knew that one ought not to do that. I had written a dissertation and so forth, I knew what research is.
Do you have trouble with procrastination?
I will know there are certain things that need to be done or should be approached and I will sit down with the intention of doing them and half an hour later I'm still playing solitaire. Then with luck, I will finally get around to doing it. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes the phone will ring. If you let interruptions stop you, they will. You have to keep coming back to it. A lot of people I've talked to say they feel they have failed for the day and may as well give up. the next day isn't any better, and eventually they do quit.
How did you learn to deal with that? To realize that you couldn't or wouldn't fail?
Part of it in regards to writing fiction was that I wasn't going to tell anyone what I was doing. I was writing this book only for practice. My only motive in doing it was to learn how to write a novel. I never had the slightest intention of selling it, let alone showing it to anyone. No audience, consequently there was no real fear of failure. As long as I succeeded in producing a complete book, I would have succeeded. I knew I could do that. It might not be any good, but I could certainly write it.
I saw it as a necessary learning experience. I'd written enough nonfiction (doctoral dissertation, scholarly papers, essays, and so forth, as well as freelance writing for the computer press as a way of earning extra money) to realize that things get better as you keep doing them. That you could learn almost anything in terms of writing. I'd also written comic books for Walt Disney, and though these were completely different forms, yet with just a little bit of study, I could pick up what the form was supposed to be and then apply the craft to it, and there you were.
Having decided to write a novel, and having selected this time period basically at random, it seemed to me the only important thing was to get words on paper. I don't normally write any of the stuff that I write from the beginning and work straight through. I will pick up some bit of resonance, I call them a kernel, in terms of fiction it's a very vivid image or line of dialogue or an emotional ambiance (in nonfiction it's a striking idea or turn a phrase), but anything like that that I can put on paper easily, I put that down first. And then you've got something to stand on when you're working backwards and forwards. In its own good time, the first sentence will come along and you can put it where it belongs.
Consequently I developed a habit of just starting in anywhere where I could hear or see something. And so I began writing Outlander, in fact, in the parking lot of the church, I decided during the sermon to set the book in Scotland. I dug out a piece of paper from under the front seat of my car, and I began writing. General phrases, bits of things that I could conjure up from the very little that I knew about Scotland at the time, which was almost nothing. It was just disconnected jottings, but I had words on paper. The next day I began writing a character, and meanwhile went to the library. Began writing descriptions. The third day I thought I ought to have a female character. I knew novels should have conflict. I knew from the technical writing that ideas spawn ideas, it's the act of working that creates ideas, not waiting for them.
You have talked about writing in chunks. How do you do that?
I find a kernel, then I go on with it. Eventually I will come up with a plot. As I wrote chunks, I found that one thing would suggest another, even though it would not be geographically next to that piece in the finished book. But thematically or in terms of some other trigger event, it would be connected. So these pieces began sticking together and forming a kind of framework. I would get bigger and bigger chunks and finally I would have a long sequence that ran maybe 150 pages, and at this point I could see fairly well what was going to happen next.
Long sequences connected to each other like continents rising out of the ocean. First you just see the tips of the islands, the volcanoes coming up, but then as the whole land mass rises, the contours become evident. You can see where one valley leads into the next mountain.
Do pieces sometimes not fit?
When they don't fit, they fit somewhere else. I almost never throw anything away. In fact, when I finish a scene, I'll usually have a collection of what I call ORTs, little fragments left over from a feast, the phrases and bits and pieces that I took out when working on the scene, I move them to the bottom of the scene. Sometimes I'll go back and pick one of them up and hook it in somewhere else, or I'll use them somewhere else.
I keep all the leftover words. I'm not usually an anal compulsive person at all, but I won't throw away anything. If you have words on paper, you can do something with them. I would come to spots and I'd think, this is kind of a neat thing, maybe I should save it for the next book, so I'll have enough for the next book. And invariably I'd say, no, that would be wrong. Use everything you've got. This book deserves everything you can give it. Put it all in here. Have faith that something else will come along, and in fact, it always has.
What are some of the more challenging scenes you've had to write?
As I got into writing the novel and became convinced that I did have interesting people and they spoke to me, you know I could hear them, it came to me that most of the scenes I'd been doing with people talking were between two people. I had done three in a row and I had begun to notice the pattern. So I said well you know you don't want to have too much of this, this might be monotonous. Thinking back, I don't see too many scenes in novels in which you have multiple people talking, it's difficult technically. So I said let me try and do a mob scene where we have a lot of people in a gathering where the conversation is kind of general and see how that works. Can it be done at all and is it something I want to do?
There's always the very difficult emotional scenes, scenes you hesitate to write because you do know what happens and you don't want to live through that. Or because you don't want to face the technical difficulty of getting a very raw emotion down on paper. That kind of scene you tend to put off for several days. I'm not sure if you're working up your nerve or just letting your subconscious dwell on it. But usually when you do sit down to write that sort of scene, the writing itself goes fairly well. It's just the emotion accompanying it is difficult.
Do you have any advice for writers?
There are no rules. Beyond that, there are what I call Gabaldon's three rules for writing:
1. Read. Read everything. Read lots. You'll learn to tell the difference between good and bad and why things work or don't work.
2. Write. The only thing that matters is getting words on paper. It doesn't matter if you write the book in a straight line, if you use an outline, if you write it in little pieces and glue them together. Even backward. Writing is the only way you'll discover what works for you. You can't do it by thinking or by reading other people's stuff.
3. Don't stop. The only way you can fail at writing is to give up.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D. is a writer and social psychologist. She is intrigued by creative people who are trying to fulfill their potential; as a result, she authored Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity (a bestseller in hardcover and now available in paperback). The book is based on interviews with 76 top novelists and poets (including Diana Gabaldon), and explores "how writers get to the timeless realm of flow where the words seem to pour forth almost effortlessly." Susan is also the award-winning author of several other nonfiction books and hundreds of articles, essays and reviews; her work has appeared in USA Today, L.A. Times, Child, Woman's World, Seventeen, Muscle Media, and Psychology Today. For more information on her books, excerpts, information about her writing classes and consulting, a Q&A column, book reviews and links, see Bunny Ape.