How Writing Saved My Marriage

I married a writer. Even though she and I approach our writing differently, I have often said that I could not imagine being married to anyone who didn’t write. On one occasion, however, those differences were nearly our undoing.

Jen and I were planning a trip to La Jolla for her uncle and aunt’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. We would be there for four days, and Jen went into planning motion. She researched things to do in La Jolla and San Diego; she read reviews of those things; she found out how much each thing would cost and how long it took to get there. Then she wanted my feedback. Read all this stuff I’ve found, she said, and tell me what you think so we can decide what we’ll do.

I hated all the stuff she showed me. I hated reading it and I hated thinking about it. It’s not that I didn’t want to do any of it, I just hated thinking about it ahead of time. It made no sense to me. I didn’t know now what I would want to do then. Plans change. I wanted to handle this vacation the way I handled the stories I wrote: I’d figure it out when I got there.

A week before we were scheduled to leave we got into a horrible argument. She was beyond irritated with me for dragging my feet and I wanted her just to make her list of possibilities and leave it at that. It got ugly. If you did not know us well, you might have thought this was the end of a twenty-year marriage.

And then, right in the middle of this blowup, in one of the few pauses in the yelling, I thought: Wait. Jen’s an outliner. I’m not an outliner. That’s all this is about. Like all outliners, she needed her plan for the future, even though she knew that plan would change. I confessed to her that I never like to make plans, the same way I didn’t like to outline. I don’t understand how to make it work, but if she would sit with me now we could look at all the stuff together. Neither of us, it turned out, was wrong, and once we remembered that, we could be friends again.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Why Writers Must Plan to Be Surprised

Every writer I know is at some point surprised by what they write. In fact, being surprised by what we write is as dependable as it is uncontrollable. Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, came to novel-writing via screenwriting. Like most screenwriters, he had trained himself to outline his stories before he began writing them. In the middle of work on his second novel, How Evan Broke His Head, Garth’s protagonist, Evan, found himself in a recording studio. This was a part of Garth’s outline, his plan. At this point, Garth’s novel was still proceeding according to this plan.

But Garth needed to bring that studio to life, and a writer brings a scene to life with details. He couldn’t plan every detail, so he looked around that studio with his writer’s eye and saw that the sound engineer was an attractive young woman. As soon as she appeared he realized that Evan was in love with her. This was not part of the plan. But Garth had been writing long enough to know that when a character fell surprisingly in love, it was time to change the plan.

I have heard this story more times than I can count. The small, insignificant detail in chapter one – the flower pot on the ledge, the neighbor’s cousin, the squeaky floorboard – the detail the author couldn’t have planned but had simply needed to keep the story going, becomes the perfect plot device in chapter ten. Every successful essay, story, poem, or book I have written was born largely of these surprising details.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of writing to teach others. Then again, I had never planned to teach writing. I wanted to teach life! That’s what really interested me. Writing was just the way I understood life. I came up with a plan to teach a class for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association about how writing and life are all the same. The PNWA’s president asked if I’d like to teach a second class, and as an afterthought I said, “Sure. I’ll teach a class on memoir.”

It took me exactly one class to realize I loved teaching memoir. This was not a part of the plan. But I have been alive long enough to recognize – and keep doing – what I love. As soon as that class was done I arranged for another one. I became a much better writer from teaching these classes. You could say it was exactly what my own memoir needed. Plus, the more I taught it, the more I realized the students and I spent as much time talking about life as we did storytelling. Memoir is our life in story, after all. You can hardly talk about one without the other.

I admit that I remain a little finicky when it comes to surprises. I want them to be all birthday presents or letters from old friends. Since I know they are not, I sometimes try to fill in my life and stories with plans to crowd out unwanted surprises – to ensure the happy ending I believe I require, but am not guaranteed. These plans begin unraveling almost as soon as they are implemented, and I am always responsible for that unraveling. Without fail, some little detail I hadn’t planned has caught my attention. Now I’m interested, and I always love being interested, and the plan must be changed or abandoned to make room for me.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How Writing Saved My Marriage

I married a writer. Even though she and I approach our writing differently, I have often said that I could not imagine being married to anyone who wasn’t write. On one occasion, however, those differences were nearly our undoing.

Jen and I were planning a trip to La Jolla for her uncle and aunt’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. We would be there for four days, and Jen went into planning motion. She researched things to do in La Jolla and San Diego; she read reviews of those things; she found out how much each thing would cost and how long it took to get there. Then she wanted my feedback. Read all this stuff I’ve found, she said, and tell me what you think so we can decide what we’ll do.

I hated all the stuff she showed me. I hated reading it and I hated thinking about it. It’s not that I didn’t want to do any of it, I just hated thinking about it ahead of time. It made no sense to me. I didn’t know now what I would want to do then. Plans change. I wanted to handle this vacation the way I handled the stories I wrote: I’d figure it out when I got there.

A week before we were scheduled to leave we got into a horrible argument. She was beyond irritated with me for dragging my feet and I wanted her just to make her list of possibilities and leave it at that. It got ugly. If you did not know us well, you might have thought this the end of a twenty-year marriage.

And then, right in the middle of this blowup, in one of the few pauses in the yelling, I thought: Wait. Jen’s an outliner. I’m not an outliner. That’s all this is about. Like all outliners, she needed her plan for the future, even though she knew that plan would change. I confessed to her that I never like to make plans, the same way I didn’t like to outline. I don’t understand how to make it work, but if she would sit with me now we could look at all the stuff together. Neither of us, it turned out, was wrong, and once we remembered that, we could be friends again.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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The Efficacy Of Kindness

Writers who outline often site time management as a driving force behind their decision to abandon Doctorow’s “headlights on the road at night” technique. To extend this metaphor, outliners don’t have time to travel down some dead end, back up, and find the right road again. Once they start writing, they want every word pointing them exactly where they need to go.

This is particularly true, of course, if you are expected to produce one book a year, as many commercial and/or series writers are. But not everyone can outline, myself, as I have often mentioned on this page, included. And in my experience, the greatest time saving technique a non-outliner can develop is the willingness to rip up the pages that aren’t working and start again.

By which I mean, pay attention. There are a lot of stories floating in the ether. As you write, you are tuning your antennae to the story you are currently telling. It is easy, however, when you are deciding where to go next, to tune into the wrong story. If you are feeling a bit stuck, you might leap on just such a story if for no other reason than to feel the satisfaction of writing again. Very soon, however, problems will arise: characters will become wooden, the conflicts two-dimensional. You are trying to force the square peg or your current story into the round hole of the new story, and the results are predictably awkward.

The sooner you admit what you have done, the sooner you can begin tuning your antennae again. In the end, time will be wasted not because you have made some wrong decision—everyone does this all the time—but because you were afraid to admit what has happened. You might look at the wrong turn part of your story and wonder, “What is wrong with me?” or, “Why have I forgotten how to tell a story,” or, “This novel is doomed.”

Now, not only must you get yourself back to the actual story you want to tell, but you must also recover from the terrible idea you have just sewn into your psyche. I have wasted a lot of time recovering in my life. Writing without an outline requires great discipline. You must be particularly disciplined in your kindness. If you train yourself to be as kind as possible whenever a wrong turn is taken, you develop more and more courage to race ahead, knowing as you now do, that there has never been a good time to punish yourself.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing

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Delicious Ease

In his interview this month with Jeff Ayers, suspense writer David Rosenfelt described his writing method, which was not only to eschew outlining, but to rarely know what was going to happen three pages from wherever he was currently writing. I am still a little surprised to hear this from mystery and suspense writers who so often place a premium on plot twists and withheld information, but Rosenfelt is by no means the only writer in this genre who works this blindly.

I have long felt that one does not learn how to write so much as one learns to write how one writes. That is, after getting some kind of grounding in the fundamentals of story and characters and pacing and so on, your most important and continuing education is discovering how it is you work. No book can ever teach you this.

Because to some degree, the question is not, “What do I want to write,” but, “What do I want to feel like when I write?” I had never thought about this until recently. I had taken for granted a certain kind of labored suffering, a certain amount of fear, a certain amount of drafting. But then I asked myself, “What do you want it to feel like when you write?” And I realized the answer was not a lot of what I had been feeling when I wrote.

I plan to do this every day, more or less, for the rest of my life. I want it to be as enjoyable as possible. I decline the concept of required suffering. Yes there will be days when it doesn’t come so easily, but I must ask myself, again and again, how does it come most easily for me? What comes most easily for me? What do I want to feel like when I’m working?

Therefore, on the days that go well, ask yourself, “What was different about today?” Yes, I know sometimes it simply comes better than other days, but sometimes there are other factors as well. Sometimes you have delightfully low expectations; sometimes you aren’t thinking about your editor or your deadline; sometime you have outlines; sometime you are writing humor. There are no rules. You are not just discovering a story when you write, you are discovering how you discover, and within that mystery lies the delicious ease that is you being you.

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Stay Sharp

I’m in what is for me the strange phase of a novel where I am not writing, per se, only thinking. I do my thinking in long hand on a legal pad, so it might look like writing to a fly on my kitchen wall, but I am actually only talking to myself through a pen. As my wife has pointed out, I am happiest when I am doing something, so this part of writing has always made me bit uneasy. No matter how many pages I fill with my questions and answers, planning is all theory to be tested in the actual lab of the book.

But I have too often mistakenly left off this planning for no reason other than impatience. As has been chronicled numerous times in this book, there are as many approaches to outlining as there are writers. But whatever one’s approach, fear must be removed from the equation. That is, you cannot outline for months simply because you do not trust your imagination in the spur of the writing moment, nor can you avoid outlining for fear it will stamp the spark of interest before it is ever fully burning.

For my part, I had to admit that the book I am writing is so dependent on a series of specific, detailed, timed, and interconnected plot points that not outlining, in this phase of the rewriting at least, would be folly. And it has been a great lesson. Not in outlining, though that’s nice, but in patience and its critical contribution to the creative process.

I do not know if the next book I write will be like this one. Perhaps I’ll write it in one draft with no outline. What I do know is that next book will require constant patience. Mind you, as I write this, I have been outlining this latest draft for exactly three days, and expect to be done over the weekend. Patience has nothing to do with time. Patience is the willingness to wait for the answer you seek. Sometimes the wait is only another fifteen seconds, but if you pull your attention from a question too early, saying, “Fine.  Good enough,” knowing the answer has not actually come, you have dulled your tool slightly. You sharpen it with trust. Don’t worry though, ten minutes of trust can sharpen a tool dulled from ten days of fear.

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I’ll Know When I Get There

I believe I have been thinking about outlining so much of late because I am right in the thorny middle of a new novel.  This is a big novel (big for me at least), much bigger than anything I’ve written recently.  As I have said, I don’t use outlines, and so, while it is chugging along and taking shape and I think I know where I’d like it to go, there is no denying it is a beast at the moment with a dozen dangling tentacles waggling nowhere. 

So it must go for me, apparently. Jonathan Evison, who, like myself, doesn’t do much outlining, advised me to, once I know something I have written must be changed, go back and change it immediately. “All right,” I told him. “By Jingo, I shall.” But I couldn’t. I simply must get to the end to know why I started writing the book in the first place. And though I only just told you that I think know where this book is going – I don’t. I never do until I get there. But when I get to the end I think, Yes, this is where I wanted to go. And then I go back and change everything around so the story actually leads where it’s supposed, namely in one direction. 

This is why my advice to new writers is always – finish the first draft. Even if you do outline, you won’t know what the book is really about until you get to the end. Even if it’s a murder mystery, you might get to the end, only to realize the cat burglar didn’t kill the heiress’s cousin, it was the heiress’s cousin’s cousin. You never know until you get there. 

As if you ever can with anything anyway. I’m as guilty as the next fool of trying to plan out my future.  I am always wrong, and, like it or not, the future is always surprising.  All the better, I say.  Would you buy modeling clay that came pre-shaped? What would be the fun in it?  No, the blank page of our books, of our days, of our lives, is as it should be.  The nothingness, the absolute entirety of possibility, is the wellspring of all creativity. 

Dive in. 

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Andre, Pooh, and Me

First of all, I had a fantastic interview with Andre Dubus yesterday afternoon. He’s touring for the paperback release of the of The Garden of Last Days, and we had great chat.  Look forward to it in our July issue.

One thing he and I talked about was outlining. Like myself, he rarely plans out where he’s going, and we had a fine time agreeing that it was good not to have everything laid out ahead of time.  However, I do not want to give the impression that I think people who do outline are going about it all wrong. Indeed they are not. Indeed there is no right way. Jeffery Deaver writes 200 page outlines. Alan Jacobson also outlines in great detail, so much so, that he finds himself writing his novel in the outline.

What is interesting is this penchant for outlining does not always bleed over into a writer’s life. For instance, in this month’s issue I spoke to YA bestseller D. J. MacHale. He outlined the entire arc of this ten book series in one shot. And yet, if he goes on vacation with his wife, she plans everything, and he wants to go wherever the wind takes him.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you trust. If you outline meticulously because you don’t trust that your imagination will be there for you in your hour of need, then in all likelihood it will not be. Your imagination would like nothing more than to help you all it can, but it needs all the latitude you can grant it.  Likewise, you can’t feel constricted by structure.  Sooner or later, your book, story, or poem is going to have to take some kind of shape. Here you’ll have to be less of an artist and more of a craftsman. Enjoy it. Give your right brain a rest and let your linear left brain do what it does best – organize. 

But trust, trust, trust. A central theme of my interview with Andre Dubus circled around this very subject. He agreed that one must let the book happen. As A. A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh notes: A hum must come to you; Rabbit, on the other hand, never let anything come to him and would always go out and fetch it.

Embrace your inner Pooh.  

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What’s Next?

I Am Not Alone

My biggest mistake as a writer? Thinking I know what’s coming next. Or, I should say, thinking I must know what’s coming next. Oh, I’ve tried. As I was wrapping up my last novel, I took the unprecedented step of sitting myself down and outlining the damn thing because I had too many loose ends and it was high time to get every flap nailed down.

So I did it. Plot point by plot point I laid it all down. Mind you, this was five drafts in, all of which had been written without so much as a note card’s worth of forethought. Nonetheless, with a few months of writing still to do, outline I did – and that was it: I was a changed man. I marched triumphantly into my kitchen and declared to my wife (also a writer) that I had seen the light and I was a convert. Henceforth I was an outliner, by God, and I would repent the willy-nilly days of misspent youth.

And so, as I finished my now-outlined novel, I began planning my next, imagining the meticulously detailed outline I would craft for myself, and which I would follow strictly, thereby removing all the fear and doubt that comes from sitting down at the computer and not knowing what is going to happen next to my characters. I would always know, because I wrote it down ahead of time, which is what any sensible person would do.

Then, the moment of truth. It was time to start the next novel. Watch me outline. I opened my computer, opened a new file . . . and nothing. All my ideas about the next novel—smoke. It felt like trying to act in front of a mirror. Still I plugged away, burning thousand of killobites of memory on great meandering, looping, twisted storylines, until I turned dropped the outline file, opened another, wrote, Chapter One, and started writing. That was 400 pages ago, and I’m happy as kitten in a yarn shop.

So that’s me. I don’t know. I like to pretend I do, but I don’t. I just know I want to write, which I do. Just as I wake up thinking sometimes I must know what to do this day and then of course only end up doing what I actually do, so too with the writing. Because if I listen closely, there is always something waiting beyond the next paragraph, the next sentence, the next word. I’m just a translator, after all. Fortunately, whatever I’m listening to keeps talking.

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