Friday, August 6, 2010

Nina: On Getting Out of the House

Before I published my first novel, Hold Still, in October of last year, I used to look at novels on bookstore shelves and think that it must be easier for published writers to write than it was for me. I thought that writing might be like making my mother’s (delicious!) buttermilk pancakes. The first try would be disastrous (somehow both burnt and undercooked); the second try, a little better (but too lumpy, with little clumps of baking soda); the next few attempts, just okay. But then, after a while: success! And then, each time that followed: more success!

If I hadn’t gotten the delicious novel recipe down by my first book, I certainly should have it down by the second.

So with inevitable ease and success in mind, last summer I wrote the beginning of my second novel and an outline for the rest of it. It’s a road trip story, and I determined where my characters would be on each day and what they would do and, of course, what would be done to them. My first draft deadline was in the winter, so over the fall, I followed the outline I made, checking off scenes as I wrote them. My outline became a giant to-do list.

Which was a problem.

Where did the inspiration go? The creativity? You know that feeling, when you sit down to write a scene and then, suddenly, it becomes almost a living thing, starts moving in unanticipated directions, surprises you in the best way possible? Well, I didn’t get that feeling. All of it felt like work.

But worse than the work itself was the pressure. The pancake theory burned up, was replaced with the realization that writing is, at least for me, going to be an eternal struggle—and even more frightening than that, for the first time, people will be watching. So instead of only worrying about the book itself and whether it’s any good, I’m now also worried about how it will compare to my first novel. Of course, I want it to be better. I want to keep growing.

This summer, as though rebelling against my former stick-to-the-outline self, I began my revision and expansion work as haphazardly as possible, dipping into scenes at random, adding a few lines of dialogue here and there, letting my narrator think more freely. Upon re-acquainting myself with the novel, something good started to happen. In many scenes, moments that seemed unimportant became seeds of larger moments. I thought of a whole side trip that wasn’t there before, with new characters and new events solidifying the older themes that didn’t quite come to the surface in the first draft.

But I kept questioning myself: what if these new ideas weren’t actually that great? Maybe they were just new. So I decided to get on the road.

I brought music, a camera, and a few changes of clothes. I brought my wife, who is, among millions of wonderful things, a swift driver and a gifted exchanger of ideas. We drove where my characters drive, we saw friends, and we met new people, and through it all, I was open to everything. Just as my narrator is. Almost everywhere we went, I discovered something new to add to the novel. The restaurant in Medford with cinnamon buns the size of my face and impossible riddles as reading material. The farm on Vashon Island, where our close friends are living. The friend of a friend in Portland, who told stories about working jobs I never knew existed. Everything we saw out the window as we whizzed past it.

The trip revealed gaps in the story I hadn’t recognized, and then showed me how to fill them. I’m excited, now, about where the book is going and the ways in which it continues to grow. And, though certainly no replacement for the recipe I thought I would master, I learned something that I’ll be able to apply to the next book: in order to breath life into my work, I need to get outside and live a little.


  1. Thanks for a great post! I hope to get a chance to get out and LIVE TO WRITE today.

  2. Great advice, Nina. There are no safe recipes in writing. Only soup. And 7-layer bars.

  3. What an inspiring post! I love road trips, and love your writer's outlook. Thank you for that.

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  5. I know exactly what you are talking about. One weekend out of the city cured three month's of writer's block.

  6. That's wonderful advice! Thank you for posting that!