Skip It, Move On, Come Back Later

I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.

Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.

So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.

Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.

A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.

The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.

Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.

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Y Is for You

Why (Y?) doesn’t “you” begin with U? Why isn’t it spelled “U”? U and I — how symmetrical, how perfect. Twitterspeak finally got it right.

You is the second person. I’m talking to you. You’re the one I’m talking to. You are being talked to by me.

You is the second person. (You are the second person?) The second-person point of view is rare in fiction, unlike the first and third persons (people?), which are all over the place.

I’ve copyedited two novels in second person, both by the same author: Zoran Drvenkar. The first, Sorry, was the first second-person novel I’d ever read and it blew me away. It’s a thriller and as the story coalesced and came clearer I felt pinned to the wall (if you’ve read the book you’ll understand why I shouldn’t have said that) and blinded by headlights at the same time.

Would it have been so riveting in third person or first? I don’t think so.

Drvenkar’s second novel was titled, oddly enough, You. It was good, fascinating, but not as riveting as Sorry, possibly because this time I was wary and less willing to be riveted.

You know, I’d never seriously considered writing in second person before I started this blog post, but now I’m thinking some second-person freewriting exercises might be useful for the novel in progress.

This is Wolfie‘s very first paragraph in second person:

You dash toward the leftmost swing while your friend Hayden dawdles along behind, scoping out the playground action as she walks. Several other swings are free, but the one on the end is yours. By the time Hayden catches up, you have freed your thick nearly black hair from its red scrunchie and are shaking it loose.

Hah. I could get into this.

P Is for Point of View

When you’re blogging A to Z about writing and editing, P, like C, offers a dizzying array of options: place, placement, paragraph, period, periodical, prose, poetry, parallelism, proofreading, page, point of view, parenthesis, person, persona, present tense, past tense, prize,  production, project, projection, picture, photograph, pronoun, pseudonym . . .

Gay Head Cliffs

This is what I see when I think “point of view”: a vantage point from which you can see a lot but there’s a lot you don’t know. These are the Gay Head Cliffs, where a crucial scene takes place late in my novel in progress.

I settled on point of view (POV) because it’s playing a significant role in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Wolfie has two POV characters: Shannon, an artist and graphic designer in her 50s; and Glory, an artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs. I’m writing both in what’s called a limited or close third-person POV, meaning that each character’s scenes are shown through her eyes and first-person pronouns appear only in dialogue.

In omniscient third-person the usually disembodied narrator knows everything, including what’s going on in people’s heads. A couple of times while in Shannon’s head I’ve caught myself writing something that boils down to “Little did she know . . .” This suggests either some form of omniscience or that Shannon is looking back at these particular events from some point in the future.

In a previous draft I started to write Shannon’s first chapter as if she already knew what was going to happen, or at least most of it, but this didn’t ring true to me so I jettisoned this approach. In the novel, Shannon and eventually other characters are feeling their way toward a piece of knowledge — a secret or a mystery, if you will — and because of the nature of that knowledge they can’t afford to be wrong.

“Hindsight is always 20-20,” so the saying goes, and for Shannon to know too much too soon would undercut the uncertainty that is driving the story. The other thing is that I still don’t know how the story ends. If Shannon knows and is holding back on me, I’m going to be pissed.

Only one person knows the secret and he’s not speaking to me, Shannon, or Glory. What Glory knows is buried deep in her subconscious; she has no words for it. Shannon is growing uneasy, but in the absence of clear evidence she fears she is projecting from her own childhood experience and her work as an adult sheltering and advocating for abused women. So without words or clear evidence how do I figure it out and convey it all to my readers?

As it turns out, my two limited-POV characters were giving me clues before I caught on to what they were doing. In giving Glory an aptitude for drawing and an interest in web design, I was cleverer than I knew. Clues appear indirectly in the actions and occasionally words of the characters, but the most direct clues come in the form of images, some created by the characters and some drawn from the story. (For more about where images come from, see my 2014 blog post “Grow Your Images.”)

In writing it so often happens that limitations foster ingenuity. A length limit can impose focus on prose that wants to sprawl. The discipline of rhyme and meter forces the poet to pay attention to the sound and placement of each word, to make each word count. (Prose writers can learn a lot from writing and reading poetry.) And in Wolfie the limitations imposed by the incomplete knowledge of my two POV characters are stretching me as a writer and helping me find new ways to tell a story.

On Second Thought . . .

I started the new year by blogging about the only New Year’s resolution I recall making in my adult life: write every single day until I finished The Mud of the Place, my first novel.

mud-cover-smShortly thereafter it dawned on me that a similar resolution might help me do what i say I’ve been going to do for two or three years now: turn Mud into an ebook. E-publishing was still terra incognita to me in late 2008, which is when Mud came out. I didn’t even get my first e-reader for another three or four years.

Be careful what you write about. It may give you ideas.

I’ve been partly mulling and mostly hiding from this idea for a week now.  Once I started this blog post, it took two days to finish it. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution in my adult life — and I kept it.

I’ve got a theory about why so many people make so many resolutions and why so many of them fail. We pit what our mind thinks we ought to do against what our body is willing to do, and the body nearly always wins. Mind can’t beat body into submission, not for any length of time, because mind needs body’s cooperation to do anything.

Mind also needs body’s cooperation to stop doing something that mind thinks it shouldn’t do. I’ve got a few stories about that. As a chronically left-brain person, I was startled, perplexed, humiliated, and ultimately humbled to learn just how powerless mind was to stop body in its tracks. If you’ve ever dealt with addictive or compulsive behavior, you know what I’m talking about.

My Mud resolution worked because body was involved from the get-go. It was willing to sit down at the computer and open a Word file. At this point mind would realize that its worst fantasies were unfounded, the novel in progress wasn’t crap, and whatever wasn’t working could be identified and fixed.

So I’ve been dancing around the idea of making this new resolution because body knew that mind wasn’t fully committed to the idea of turning Mud into an ebook.  If mind were fully committed, it would have happened already, the way I signed up for the beginning guitar class in November (very scary) and have been practicing ever since.

True to form, I made a good start on the ebook project before I choked. I started researching ebook services. I got an ISBN — Speed-of-C, which published the trade paperback version, was happy to let the ebook sail under its flag. The book was printed from PDFs, so the corrections made in the production stage had to be transferred to the Word file from which the PDFs were made. I did that, then I started cold-reading the Word file straight through.

To my delight, the thing was good. I still liked it. I was still proud of it. But there I stalled, and kept stalling, until a few days ago I got the idea that I could make a New Year’s resolution about this.

So for the last few days I’ve been letting myself think about why my mind might not be quite ready to do this thing. As usual, the reasons were lying around in plain sight. I just had to look at them.

As a former bookseller who knows a few things about publishing, I did not believe that Mud of the Place would make a big or even modest splash in the wider world. I did believe — hell, I assumed — it would receive serious attention on Martha’s Vineyard, which is both where I live and where the novel is set.

It didn’t. Both the two weekly newspapers and the two independent bookstores largely ignored it. (The Vineyard Gazette did assign it to a capable reviewer, who wrote a thoughtful review. One of the bookstores did pay some attention — five years later, and that because a booklovers’ travel group based in Minnesota featured Mud in their two visits to the Vineyard, in 2013 and 2014.)

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If you write a pretty good novel, and no one pays attention, is it worth doing again?

Long story, but to say the least I was skeptical. Mind decided that serious writing was a waste of time. I put it aside. I looked for ways to fill the hole in my life where writing had been: training and competing with my dog, getting more involved with local politics and even running for office, training as a mediator . . .

Meanwhile, body was subtly, sneakily, rearranging my psychic landscape. Almost exactly six years ago, long after most of my friends, I got on Facebook. Loved it. Ever since I read about Margaret Fuller, I’ve fantasized hosting a salon, even though my verbal talents are more literary than conversational. Facebook was interlocking salons, mine and everyone else’s. I wandered from room to room, listening, talking, having a ball — and realizing that I didn’t need the Vineyard newspapers or bookstores to reach an audience.

Maybe a year and a half after joining Facebook, I started From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, my Vineyard blog. Two years after that, I started this one.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

By then I was writing seriously again. I was even, muses help me, working on another novel. It was, I eventually realized, “all sprawl and no momentum.” It was suffering from “a surfeit of subplots.” By the time I set it aside, however, one of the subplots had coalesced into Wolfie, the novel I’ve been working on ever since (which, by the way, makes excellent use of my detour into dog training).

Like Mud of the Place, the novel in progress is set on year-round Martha’s Vineyard. It involves several of the same characters, about 10 years later. This, combined with my growing awareness of the online audience and e-publishing in general, made me think that keeping Mud alive as an ebook would be a good idea. I started working on it.

Then I choked.

What if the ebook version, like its paperback predecessor, fell in the forest and made no sound? It’s a definite possibility. Could I handle it?

I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I’m making this resolution anyway: Every day I will do something toward turning Mud of the Place into an ebook. “Something” can be as modest as proofreading two pages of the Word file at five minutes to midnight, but I will do something.

Watch this space. You’ll be the first to know when I get there.

 

Letting Go, with a Safety Net

cut-chapter-4This morning I deleted chapter 4. Selected the whole damn thing and zapped it. The old chapter 5 is the new chapter 4. Viva chapter 4!

When reading through the printout of draft #2, I couldn’t help noticing that chapter 3 segued nicely into chapter 5 and chapter 4 felt like an extended detour. At present Wolfie has two point-of-view (POV) characters. Chapters 3 and 5 were from the POV of the 50-something woman. Chapter 4 was from the POV of the sixth-grade girl.

When the timing is right, the POV switch works. The idea is to switch just when the reader wants to know what the other character is up to. This time it was more like a TV thriller cutting to a commercial in the middle of a high-intensity scene.

Another thing: When I wrote draft 2, chapter 4, I wasn’t a big fan of Felicia, the sixth-grader’s mother.  Dead giveaway: The woman won’t use linguiça in her kale soup because she thinks it’s unhealthy. In my world that’s a deal-breaker. But Felicia has become deeper, more sympathetic. She’s caught in the middle of a difficult situation, but she seems to be on her daughter’s side. So I was more than ready to jettison all evidence that I was underestimating Felicia.

So I did. I jettisoned the whole chapter.

However, I’ve got a safety net: If at some point I have regrets, or a vague hunch that there’s something in old chapter 4 that might come in handy, draft 2 remains on my hard drive, and it includes old chapter 4.

If experience is any guide, I won’t go back, but knowing that I can gives me permission to be ruthless. When revising, sometimes you really do have to be ruthless.

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

Recently I introduced a client to the wonders of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. Like many Word users, she wasn’t aware of its wonders. (As a longtime user of Word, I sometimes become so obsessed with its PITAs that I forget how wonderful its wonders are.) With Track Changes you can delete a word, a phrase, a sentence, a whole paragraph and see how your text reads without it. You can flip back and forth between with and without, or leave it to deal with some other time.

You can experiment. You can play with your prose. If ruthlessness is sometimes called for when you’re revising, so is playfulness. Revision is creative work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Be ruthless. Be playful. Be brave. You can always go back to an earlier version, but if you’re anything like me you usually won’t want to.

Paper Wolfie

Draft #2

Draft #2 is printed on mostly on the back of other writers’ drafts. The green pages are leftover flyers from the Spirituals Choir I sing in. Note the long comment on the right. Those are notes for draft #3.

Yesterday I printed out draft #2 of Wolfie, the novel in progress. At long last I’m ready to embark on draft #3.

I’ve been edging toward this point since early June, ever more slowly, it seems. One of Zeno’s paradoxes has been much in mind — you know, the one that says you will never reach the wall you’re walking toward because first you’ll be halfway there, then you’ll be three-quarters of the way there, then you’ll be seven-eighths of the way there, and so on.

Logic or no logic, math or no math, if you keep walking sooner or later your nose is going to collide with the wall. Work or no work, heat or no heat, I kept writing and I did get to the scene at the end of draft #2.

Which is not the scene that ends the novel. I’ve got two or three or maybe four scenes to go before I get there. I’m standing at the brink of a narrow but deep chasm. Between the tendrils of mist wafting by I can glimpse what’s happening over there but I can’t see it clearly. I need to find myself another crossing point or build myself a bridge.

That’s draft #3. Draft #3 is a daunting prospect because several threads have been growing through the cracks of draft #2 and who knows how they’ll weave together or what else will want to change in the process? Draft #2 is going to tell me all this as I reread it and the many notes I’ve jotted to myself on the journey, some on the computer file, some in my notebooks.

But draft #2 didn’t start talking till I’d printed it out.

A week or so I was reminded of how important the visible, tangible weight of a manuscript can be.  I’d written a scene (in longhand) from one perspective, then stalled. What next? I wondered. So I wrote the scene again from another perspective — an omniscient overview that I haven’t used anywhere else in the book — and what next flowed out of my pen as fluidly as — well, as fluidly as the black cherry ink I was writing in.

I typed both versions into Word, intending to weave them together but wound up staring at the screen with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. Brain freeze. The two versions glared at each other like strangers who don’t want to dance. So I printed them out, and while I read them, page by page, pen in hand (loaded with fiery red-orange ink), they began moving together: this sentence here and that paragraph there and you don’t need this little bit at all . . .

Getting eight or ten pages to dance together isn’t such a big deal. Now I’ve got 466. One of my mantras has long been “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” Draft #2, it’s up to you.

Thanks to writer Glenda Bailey-Mershon, whose recent post about cutting and pasting in her Weaver’s Knot blog helped inspire this one.

Writing as Discovery

I’ve got a new morning ritual. After I light a candle or two — currently it’s a Yankee Candle, because fat candles in glass jars last a lot longer than tapers in candlesticks — I open The Writer’s Chapbook at random and read a couple of passages.

The Writer’s Chapbook is, says its subtitle, is “A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers.” This is true. Organized into a couple dozen topics, the book consists of extracts from interviews conducted from The Paris Review from 1953 onward. Some extracts are aphoristic; others are full-blown anecdotes. It’s like listening in on an intense conversation among extremely accomplished and articulate writers, and because the writers in each chapter appear in alphabetical order, the likes of Anne Sexton, Georges Simenon, and James Thurber may show up on facing pages.

There are two editions out there. I borrowed the 1999 edition from the library and knew almost at once that I had to have it. Turns out it’s out of print and very hard to find: copies on BigBehemoth.com were going for $299 and up, and I dropped out of an auction on MegaMarketplace.com when the bidding sailed past $30 — that copy eventually went for $71. With a bit of persistence, I scored a used copy of the 1989 edition for less than $10, including shipping.

So this morning I opened to two pages in the “On Performance” chapter. On the verso (left-hand) page was this, from playwright Edward Albee:

Naturally, no writer who’s any good at all would sit down and put a sheet of paper in a typewriter and start typing a play unless he knew what he was writing about. But at the same time, writing has got to be an act of discovery. Finding out things about what one is writing about. To a certain extent I imagine a play is completely finished in my mind — in my case at any rate — without my knowing it, before I sit down to write. So in that sense, I suppose, writing a play is finding out what the play is.

And just opposite, on the recto (right-hand) page, novelist John Barth was saying this:

I have a pretty good sense of where the book is going to go. . . . But I have learned from experience that there are certain barriers that you cannot cross until you get to them; in a thing as long and complicated as a novel you may not even know the real shape of the obstacle until you heave in sight of it, much less how you’re going to get around it. I can see in my plans that there will be this enormous pothole to cross somewhere around the third chapter from the end; I’ll get out my little pocket calculator and estimate that the pothole will be reached about the second of July, 1986, let’s say, and then just trust to God and the muses that by the time I get there I’ll know how to get around it.

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is fast approaching its second birthday. All through the first draft and well into the second, I told anyone who asked “It’s about the rescue of a dog and the rescue of an eleven-year-old girl and how they rescue each other — oh yeah, and the dog is based on my Alaskan malamute, Travvy.”

Then one character told another the tale of how she’d failed to rescue her father, who had been devastated by the shooting death of his three-year-old grandchild. And my protagonist, who as a teenager fled a violently dysfunctional family, gets a phone call from the younger sister she couldn’t take with her. To make it more fun, no one is sure exactly what the girl needs to be rescued from, though it’s pretty clear to all that she needs rescuing.

So yes, Edward Albee: writing this novel is finding out what the novel is. And yes, John Barth, I suspected the obstacles were out there, but until I drew closer I couldn’t see what they were, never mind how I was going to get round them. If I’d thought too hard about it, I would never have started.

But I’m trusting the muses and my fountain pens, and the candle burning on the table to my right, to show me how it’s done.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

How Clear Is Clear Enough?

20151007 blot 2The English language is a mother lode for punsters. So many words and phrases have multiple meanings. Viewed from a different angle, an innocuous phrase becomes hilarious. I love puns.

The very same quality makes English rich with possibilities for ambiguity and confusion. Here’s an example from the scene I took to my writers’ group last night. Shannon and Jackie are doing some sightseeing. Shannon is driving.

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed out Jackie’s window.”

One group member stalled on “pointed out.” After a moment she understood what I meant, but, she pointed out, “point out” can mean “call attention to” as well as “point to something outside.” (See what I mean?)

At this point, I have a choice: leave it as is or reword it. On one hand, this is not a gaffe that will provoke the reader to gales of laughter. On the other, this is not a sentence that I want anyone to stumble over. Most important, it’s easy to fix. This morning, while reviewing the feedback from my writers’ group, I made a little change:

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed a forefinger toward Jackie’s window.”

Part of an editor’s job is to misread everything that can be misread. The writer thinks something is perfectly clear; the editor says, “I’m not sure what you mean here.” This is one reason that writers sometimes think editors are a pain in the butt. (Being both writer and editor, I often think I’m a pain in the butt, so don’t feel bad.)

This is also why it’s an excellent idea to have others read your work before you send it out into the world: peers or colleagues, a writers’ group, maybe even a professional editor. At the very least, let it sit for a week or two or three, then read it as if you’ve never read it before. Be warned, though: This takes practice, and it’s never as reliable as having others read it.

Often a reader’s “Huh?” will prompt a rewording that works better than the original. Sometimes you’ll decide to stick with the original, perhaps because it’ll be readily understood by your target audience(s), or perhaps because all the fixes you come up with make it worse. It’s the writer’s call, but writers are usually better off for having some idea of how our writing is coming across to readers.

The Importance of Place

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

Two days before the late January snow fell, I drove all the way to Aquinnah to see the Gay Head Cliffs. My Alaskan malamute, Travvy, rode shotgun, his nose usually as far out the window as it could get.

In the Forester’s back seat were two of my characters, protagonist Shannon and her long-estranged sister Jackie. Shannon’s in her mid-fifties. Jackie’s three years younger. They survived their violently alcoholic family in different ways, Shannon by fleeing, Jackie by sticking it out. After almost four decades of minimal contact, it’s Thanksgiving weekend and Jackie has come for a visit.

I live on, and write about, Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Martha’s Vineyard is famous, not least because the president and one of his recent predecessors vacation here. I write about the place and the people who are still here when the celebrities leave.

Gay Head light

The Gay Head lighthouse. In a major engineering feat last fall it was moved 129 feet back from the cliff that was eroding out from under it.

The Gay Head Cliffs are celebrities in their own right, celebrities who never leave. People who know nothing else about Martha’s Vineyard have seen them in photographs. Shannon, like me and many another year-round resident, is somewhat jaded about both celebrities and tourist attractions, but she’s showing her sister around and it’s late November: no chattering crowds, ample places to park.

At this point I realized that my mental image of the cliffs looked like a picture postcard. I hadn’t been there in years. I couldn’t remember the path down to the beach or what the beach looked like. Hence this mid-January expedition. I kept my eyes on the road, occasionally scratched Travvy’s back, and listened to Shannon and Jackie talking in the back seat.

After I parked the car — there was no shortage of available space — we walked past the silent summer shops and up to the observation area. Shannon and Jackie leaned on the post-and-rail fence. Shannon pointed out over the water. “That’s Devil’s Bridge,” she said. “Major hazard to navigation.”

Jackie shaded her eyes against the sun and squinted. “I can’t see anything,” she replied.

“Neither can the ships,” said Shannon.

Most Vineyard people know about the wreck of the City of Columbusa passenger steamship bound from Boston to Savannah. It ran aground on Devil’s Bridge, a submerged rocky shoal, in the dark early hours of January 18, 1884, and quickly sank. Despite heroic rescue efforts that morning by the Gay Headers and the crew of a passing vessel, 104 died; only 29 were rescued.

The anniversary had just passed when we drove to Aquinnah, so it was on my mind, but when Shannon said “Neither can the ships,” I froze. Rescue is a major theme in my novel in progress, starting with the rescue of Wolfie, the title character, who was inspired by (you guessed it) Travvy — rescue and the difficulty of recognizing threats before it’s too late. And there it was, arising naturally and unobtrusively from the place where my characters stood.

Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.

Regional writing, writing deeply rooted in place, sometimes gets a bad rap. Regional writing is only about that region, so the thinking goes. It’s not universal. (If this reminds you of the equally popular notion that writing about women is only about women, and writing about people of color is only about people of color, while writing about white men is universal — it should.)

If William Blake could “see a World in a Grain of Sand,” writers can find a whole world in a particular place, and readers can learn more about their world from following a writer’s words into places they’ve never been.

For another take on where imagery comes from, check out my earlier blog post “Grow Your Images.”

Trav on path

The path to Moshup’s Beach is a lot longer and wider than I remembered. That’s my sidekick, Travvy, waiting for me to put the camera away and keep walking.

Moshup's Beach

Once I realized how rocky the beach was, it was easier to hear what Shannon and Jackie were saying as they picked their way over the rocks.

Sturgis’s Law #6

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #6:

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Every aspiring writer has heard it: “Write what you know.” It’s a terrible cliché.

Well, no, it’s not so terrible, because there’s truth in it. There’s truth in most clichés. The trouble with clichés isn’t their lack of truth. It’s the way they become ossified into conventional wisdom and, gods forbid, rules.

Think about it. If you write what you don’t know, people are going to find you out — unless your skill is such that you can persuade them that you do know it, even if it contradicts what they know, or think they know. This means that you actually know quite a bit.

You probably didn’t start out with all the skills you needed to tell that story either. You developed them on the way.

travvy in field

This is Travvy. The fictional Wolfie looks like his twin brother, but they’ve got different stories to tell.

Knowing stuff is great. Some imagery and a major plot thread of Wolfie, my novel in progress, has grown from what I know about dogs, specifically Alaskan malamutes, particularly Travvy, the Alaskan malamute I live with, on whom the title character is based.

Both Wolfie and my first novel, The Mud of the Place, are set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where I live. Any plot can take place anywhere, but the places where it unfolds will affect how it happens and who the characters are. People are influenced by our surroundings, both past and present. The better you know your settings — both those that exist in real time and those you make up, and those that are a combination of the two — the more you’ll know about your characters.

On the other hand, when you set out to write a history of X or a biography of Y, you rarely know everything there is to know about the subject. I’ll go out on a limb and say you never know everything there is to know about the subject — and when the book is in print and getting great reviews (let’s be optimistic for a moment here), there’s still more to be learned.

The same goes for memoirs and novels. Memoirs are about your own life, and in fiction you get to make stuff up, so maybe you don’t have to know so much? Ha ha ha. There’s nothing like writing to show you how much you don’t know, and how much of what you do know is incomplete or not quite right or even downright wrong. So memoirists and fiction writers do what historians and biographers do to correct the errors and fill in the gaps: research.

Memoirists may interview family members, reread old letters, or cross-check remembered facts and dates with written records. Mystery writers don’t generally start off knowing a hundred ways to commit murder, or what a body looks like when it’s been shot at close range, or what police officers do at a crime scene. And so on.

Think of writing as a journey of discovery. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Write what you want to find out, what you’re curious about. If you’re a “planner” — you like to plot everything out in advance — choose a destination that intrigues you. With my first novel, The Mud of the Place, I thought I knew where I was going, but that’s not where I ended up.

Wolfie started with a fairly simple “what if?”: What if a dog like Travvy was running loose in my town, hassling and probably killing livestock? That was answered pretty quickly, but not before it had segued into a question I’ve long been obsessed with but haven’t dared think too hard about. It goes something like this: Hindsight is 20/20, but what do you do when you begin to suspect something bad has happened and maybe is still happening, there’s no way of finding out for sure, and the price of being wrong is very, very high?

Well, I, like my characters, am still somewhat in the dark, and I, like them, have been drawn into unsettling territory: the powerlessness of children, the trickiness of memory, the barriers we throw up against what we can’t afford to know. I’m having conversations with teachers, therapists, and others who’ve been confronted with comparable dilemmas. I’ve read and reread many accounts of adults who have managed to survive similar situations.

Perhaps the strangest thing that’s happened so far is that one supporting character is an animator: he works on animated films with computer-generated graphics. Where the hell did that come from? I’m not a big moviegoer, and apart from a book I worked on some years ago about Pixar Animation Studios, I knew zip about animation. But I knew, immediately and intuitively, that the fact that this guy was an animator could be significant. So I’ve been reading up on animated films, and particularly what animators do.

No way am I ever going to be an animation expert, though I certainly know more about the subject than I did two months ago. I don’t know everything there is to know about Martha’s Vineyard either, but I do know it well enough to know what I don’t know. And that’s enough.

P.S. Here’s an article I turned up while procrastinating researching this blog post. Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Don’t Write What You Know” from TheAtlantic.com. It’s very good.