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Ask a freelancer: Kicking novel procrastination to the curb

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Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Salon, and the Rumpus, among others.  In Ask a freelancer, Chadburn fields questions about writing, the blogosphere, platform building, and all things scary. She don't presume to know everything but she knows people that know more things than her and if there's one thing she’s learned it’s that there's nothing to be gained from withholding information. Reach her atfictiongrrrl(at)gmail.com or follow her on Twitter. She loves your whole outfit right now.

Dear Freelancer,

I was wondering if I could get a bit of advice from you? I want to finish a novel I started. Any advice or can you point me to any websites? I have the novel in my head but its failing to make it onto the screen/page! My mother had taken my kids for the whole summer and I’m still procrastinating! Any advice would be helpful

—Heady

***

Heady—

My quick and short advice to you is to just write. Write write write write. If you get stuck. Read, read, read read read. My favorite craft book is Stephen King’s On Writing.  I also love John Gardner’s The Art Of Fiction, and Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House; if you can read those I think that may be helpful.

If I look back on my stories I will find that my first piece of fiction was about where I lived. I told lies all the time. I had a lot of shame for lying but later I learned that I told these lies to survive. The shame that birthed these lies outweighed the shame I gained from telling the lies.  

When I’m reading a novel the first thing I’m looking for is—where is the home? I want to know, because I don’t read to escape. I read to connect. I read to connect to the author, the characters in the novel, to humanity. I want to know that someone else shared my stories. I want to know that someone else woke up with their cheek stuck to the cushion in a booth at a 24-hour diner. I want to know that other people spent many nights thinking the moon was chasing them. The moon was their personal friend following them from one house to the next. I want to know that other people grew up surrounded by a hybrid of languages and smells and foods and sometimes were forced to wear T-shirts with the name of a summer camp they never visited. I am a Black pinay lesbian that grew up on Spam and rice and mangoes that were sliced in a crosshatch pattern with the peel flipped inside out. I have Dutch-Indonesian and British foster parents, I have a Greek Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish foster family, I have American foster parents. I have survived two brothers, one who had a penchant for risky sexual behavior and the other for needles. Everyone in all my homes tried a hundred different ways to escape their skin. Some of them wanted to fuck their way out of it, some of them wanted to drink their way out of it, some of them wanted to eat their way out of it. Eating until their arteries clogged with animal fat, no longer able to breathe. I would wake up my grandmother in the middle of the night to make sure she was still breathing, the same way I would slap my brother when he would start to nod out from too much heroin. Life was just an in-between-time for them. An in-between-time before there was more quiet and darkness. They lived to shut down, my people. I look on at other people that seem to be comfortable. They seem to move with ease. I want to know their secret. Their secret to capturing the moments, filling it up, and living in joy. 

This is why I read. While I enjoy traversing the grounds of other people’s lives, lives filled with ease and grace, or lives of a different world entirely, lives of a different species where the power structure is completely reversed from that of our current known society, I never want to go so far so as to not be able to look back and see where I came from. Because that is the real material. I write to love. In order to love I need to be in the safe place I am today and in order to value the safe place I am in today I need to have come from the unsafe place I was in in the beginning.

Luckily for us we finally found a point in time at the end of the tunnel of our own private crisis, or the fruition of our commitments to everyone else on the planet aside from ourselves, to do what it is we love to do best. To honor that piece of us that makes us who we are.

The thing is—everyone has at least one good book in them. What separates writers from everyone is getting that book out on paper. Treat this time—where your kids are with your mother—as a precious incubation period. What Stephen King refers to as the closed-door process. During the closed-door part of writing, just get it all out on paper. Don’t worry about revision. Don’t worry about inner or outer critics. Once it’s out you can go back and look at it with a critical eye.        

The 100 page mark seems to be a significant point in the juncture. Once you hit 100 pages and you know you still have some 200+ pages to traverse, you may want to outline the novel. Think about its structure and where you want the climax and the falling action to be.

Finally, think back to why you feel compelled to write this story. Why is this the story you need to write before you die? What’s your motivation? Keep a reminder of this motivation close by.

Now go get it. No Internet. No television. No more tongue suicide. Just write. Start small if you have to: 1000 words a day.

—Freelancer

Photo by hang_in_there/Flickr