Random Quote: Dinaw Mengestu on writing when tired

I found this great item: 5 writing tips by Dinaw Mengestu in Publishers Weekly. Mengestu is the author of ALL OUR NAMES and has a host of honors and awards.

This is from Tip #4 about growing “less precious” about conditions under which writing happens.

Steal time from the crowded world even if it’s only a few minutes, or a blessed hour. Take being tired and emotionally exhausted as an excuse to take excessive liberties with language, with your imagination.

I am often tired and emotionally exhausted. How wonderful, instead of always bemoaning this fact, to think of it as liberating.

What I learned after nearly killing myself on this book

After roughly a year of work, I’ve hit a big milestone with a revision I didn’t quite believe I could do. I’ve sent in a draft of a book I’ve been working on for years and completely rewritten in the last year.

I know I still have more work; this is merely the lull between what I hope will become increasingly milder writing storms. But this was the big one – get to the end of the story, write the whole thing through from the map we had brainstormed last May. This was a year of trying to write every night after work and the kids were asleep, starting around 9:30 and hoping to go a few hours. And then being really regimented on the weekends: Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons (my husband getting to write the other half of the weekend).

I had a lot of I don’t know if I can do this moments during the last year. My editor may still come back and say, guess what? you didn’t. So who knows what will happen with this book? Maybe nothing. But, as far as learning from the journey goes – it was an amazing year. So, three things I learned along the way:

Trust outlines, kind of: We went through an outlining process. And I hate outlines, because I’ve always been an exploratory writer who wants to be surprised. (I love genre fiction, but can’t stand most of what I read because it’s so depressingly predictable, running on such well-oiled grids.) But, that said, it was really helpful to do a three-page outline/synopsis of the book. Here’s why I don’t totally trust outlines – during this process I produced outlines and they were like, nope, you’re way down in the weeds. So I don’t know if I can outline on my own. Or, outline only with professional help.

When stuck, change anything you can: For at least the first third of the book there was a lot of old material that I could draw from, even though it had to be totally retooled. Then, the book takes off into the unknown. I got really stuck. I had my outline, but felt frozen. So I spent some time writing almost what you might call jacket copy for other characters, making their stories feel as suspenseful and gripping as possible. This was helpful on a couple of levels: It made me realize I had drama all around. It got me excited again. And I realized, hey, I’m not totally hopeless. I also changed POV whenever I got stuck – wrote hard parts in first person (the book’s in third). I switched to writing longhand instead of on the computer. Then I switched back. I used any little trick I could to feel like I wasn’t beating my head against a wall. Again, jury’s still out on how well I’ve done this. But at least I got stuff down on paper and kept moving forward instead of stalling out.

Study other writers’ books: I know people say they can’t read in their genre when they’re writing, that it mucks them all up. There’s definitely some truth to that, and it feels lousy while you’re writing to encounter a book so amazing you want to end it all. What I did when I felt really bad was to study a page or a scene from other books. I’d type them out. I’d get down to the level of mechanics to see how an effect was produced: suspense, big emotion, etc. It’s easier to tackle those problems if you try to copy someone else (obviously not in a plagiaristic sense, but on a craft level). I’ve tried to create my own cheat sheets for things like introducing characters, writing a fight, creating suspense, and so on based on writers who do those things well.

Lastly, I totally created a habit of writing even when I was dead tired by rewarding myself with chocolate. I ate so much chocolate this last year I was buying eight or ten bars at a time: 85% (90% when I could get it), not too sweet (don’t want to get on that sugar mood rollercoaster). Lindt, I couldn’t have done it without you.