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On Sharing Works in Progress and Outlining

Lately my life has been a lot of travel, on planes, trains, and in a station wagon that is so beat up I am pretty sure it's not going to pass inspection today. (I'll let you know if it passes tomorrow. Please send your best thoughts to a 1993 Honda Accord station wagon.) And because my life has gotten sort of repetitive, I hope you'll forgive me if I asked for a little help with this first blog post. I asked people via my tumblr to send me their questions about being a writer. If you've got any yourself, please send me an email, and I'll try to answer them another day this week.

I'm for the first time really encountering the tension in sharing process updates with writer-friends. Excited updates/commiseration/feedback-seeking versus quiet head-down work. I'm surprising myself by being drawn to the latter. I wonder if it's not competition but rather needing to remove myself from the insecurity/reassurance cycle that the process-sharing can turn into.

The other day I was talking to a friend who had been offered a writer's residency out of the blue, and he was going to reject it for a number of reasons, but the one that he joked about was this: "My worst nightmare is, at the end of the day, having to listen to a group of writers talk about all the work they had finished that day."

We writers are a whiny lot. And not everyone likes to listen.

So look, no one can make you share your work if you don't want to. I share bits and pieces of my work pretty regularly — I am notorious for dropping a paragraph of the day into a Gchat window — and I also have someone who reads my work on a daily basis, which is a great luxury to have. But I also have friends who will write for years and years, entire drafts of books, that they won't show to anyone at all, and if you ask them how they're doing, they'll just say vaguely that they're working. So everyone's got a different strategy.

If you're in some sort of group setting, like an MFA program or a writer's group, it's inherent to the process. And it's certainly helpful to go through something like that, where people force you to be held accountable for your work. That's training for the future, in a way, when you'll have to deal with editors and critics. (Although it will never quite prepare you for people who anonymously review your work on the Internet.) But it sounds like you're ready to move on from that. I don't think you even need to explain why you're doing it. However you feel is correct. It's your work and no one else's. It sounds like you're just trimming the fat and graduating to the next step in your life. I fully support eliminating the noise.

I'd love to know what your planning process is like as a novelist. Do you have an idea and just start writing? Do you make some kind of guide or map or outline before you get into it? How much "writing in" to the novel do you do? Meaning, do you leave a lot of pages on the editing room floor?

There's no real science to the writing process, nor are there any shortcuts. Process is a personal, intimate thing. So while I am not an outliner, I know creating one helps a lot of people tremendously. They appreciate the control it gives them.

I'm a little too day-dreamy for an outline. I tend to get an idea and sit on it for a while, maybe six months or so, before I sit down and actually start writing. For me, the thinking part of writing is just as important as the writing part of writing.For me, the thinking part of writing is just as important as the writing part of writing. And then I start to hold the world a little bit in my head before I even get to the page. I suppose, in a sense, it's an outline of sorts — just an unwritten one. But it feels more amorphous. The details are unimportant that early on. I often describe it as having a sort of pregnant feeling. And then as I begin to write, I start to get a few flashes of emotional moments I want to discuss in the future, and I'll keep a running tally of those so that I don't forget them, which is also kind of an outline.

But I don't ever sit down at the beginning of a book and plot it all out. I've got this fear if I know everything that is going to happen straight away, so will the reader, and that won't be fun for anyone. As for editing, I tend to write things in a fairly pristine and minimal fashion. If anything, I'll need to add things in during my second draft rather than take anything out. I do have a great editor who will tell me when things aren't working, so once I get to that stage, I start to cut things. But I am an under-writer rather than an over-writer, so more often there is the suggestion that I should tease things out more.

I recognize why people want to control their story from the outset — it's terrifying to think about spending a year (or however long it takes) on something without knowing what will exactly happen within that time. The unknown is the scary part, but it is also the fun part. It's why people love horror movies or roller coaster rides. You have plenty of time to control your story in edits. Don't be afraid to delve into the unknown.

Note: Please join Jami Attenberg at Powell's City of Books on Wednesday, June 26, for an in-store reception at 6:30 p.m. followed by a reading at 7:30 p.m.

More from Jami Attenberg at PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Jami Attenberg is the author of a story collection, Instant Love, and three novels, The Kept Man, The Melting Season, and, most recently, The Middlesteins, which was nominated for the L.A. Times Book Prize for Fiction. She has contributed essays and criticism to the the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, and many other publications.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Middlesteins
    Used Trade Paper $6.50

Jami Attenberg is the author of The Middlesteins

2 Responses to "On Sharing Works in Progress and Outlining"

    Sarah June 17th, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Hi Jami! You say you tend to write in a minimal fashion. Did you ever feel like for that reason you couldn't practically be a working writer, considering how easy it is for some people to churn out copious amounts of decent-to-good stuff? Or did this never cross your mind?

    Polly June 18th, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Hi Jami,

    I loved The Middlesteins, congratulations, and thanks for blogging this week.

    I too am an under-writer and have recently signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown. My fantastic editor there had me make additions rather than deletions to my story collection and they made all the difference.

    I'm currently at work on my first novel and while the long form is new to me, I'm pleased with how it's going so far. What I'm wondering is what editorial advice you've consistently gotten as an under-writer for your novels. I've been so conditioned to avoid throat-clearing and summary versus scene but novel offers different latitude than story. What elements have you added in revision in response to your editor's input: summary, narrative, backstory or others?


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