The writing process can be hard to describe. Maybe that's why we writers use so many metaphors to illustrate it. If you Google the phrase, "Writing is like..." you'll find it compared to everything from baking a cake to driving at night to giving birth.
I'd like to add one more metaphor to the list: a writer is like a bowerbird.
Male bowerbirds build elaborate and often very beautiful decorative structures from twigs, rocks, and leaves, or whatever else catches their eye, even colorful bits of trash. These astonishing structures are not nests. Instead, they have a more artistic purpose: to delight. These bowers are designed to impress the female of the species.
So intricate and so unique are these bowers that some people have even argued that they should be considered a form of art. (If you've never seen a bowerbird in action, watch one of the many videos on Youtube, or check out some of their creations here.
For me, writing a book is a lot like building a bower. It's a process of collecting hundreds of details and insights and then slowly, very slowly, assembling those shiny bits of material into one cohesive shape.
And I collect advice about writing in much the same way. So far, after about 10 years of searching, here are the 10 little twigs I've found most useful to my work, some of it picked up from my teachers, some from strangers, all of it helpful. I try to remind myself of these things almost every day.
1. There are no rules in fiction. (You can do whatever you can get away with.)
2. Writing a book is hard. That's just the nature of it.
3. Sometimes, the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is 17 drafts.
4. Play your own game — not someone else's.
5. Every sentence should do more than one thing.
6. Try to think of your writing career and your publishing career as two separate things. You have some control over one of them, and almost no control over the other. (This is equally useful in good times and bad.)
7. Don't be afraid to make a mess in front of yourself.
8. Try to do a little good work every day. (For me, that sometimes means writing just one good sentence.)
9. Don't take your reader's attention for granted. The reader is busy. The reader has a lot of other things to do.
And lastly, I try to think of this one every day:
10. Be patient.
Like the bowerbirds I love to watch in action, I am perpetually collecting more twigs. Find me on Facebook or Twitter if you have something to add to my list.
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Karen Thompson Walker is a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia MFA program and a recipient of the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship as well as a Bomb magazine fiction prize. A former editor at Simon and Schuster, she wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before work.
Books mentioned in this post
Karen Thompson Walker is the author of The Age of Miracles