November is National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never participated in the official month, but I did follow the excellent system proposed by Chris Baty in his book No Plot? No Problem! to write a novel in a month. I’m a big believer in creativity boot camp as a way to spur ideas and to get things done, and it turns out it is possible, and quite exhilarating, to write a novel in a month.
So, in honor of NaNoWriMo, I’m posting these eight writing tips from one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor. Her work isn’t for everyone, but I love it. In fact, I love it so much I can hardly bear to read it — does that ever happen to you?
O’Connor’s collected letters have been published in The Habit of Being. These letters are fascinating, and among other thing, include some interesting advice and observations about writing. O’Connor was a very idiosyncratic person, and this advice is idiosyncratic, which makes it more interesting than a lot of writing tips that I see collected.
1. “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.” In my own experience, I think this is one of the most important habits for a writer to cultivate. Writing regularly both spurs creativity and speeds productivity.
2. “Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.”
3. “I can discover a good many possible sources myself for Wise Blood but I am often embarrassed to find that I read the sources after I had written the book.”
4. “I suppose I am not very severe criticizing other people’s manuscripts for several reasons, but first being that I don’t concern myself overly with meaning. This may be odd as I certainly believe a story has to have meaning, but the meaning in a story can’t be paraphrased and if it’s there it’s there, almost more as a physical than an intellectual fact.” O’Connor’s work is permeated with meaning to such a degree that it makes my head explode.
5. “That is interesting about your reading some Shakespeare to limber up your language before you start; though I think that anything that makes you overly conscious of the language is bad for the story usually.” This is a very interesting point; I’m not sure I agree, for myself. I don’t read Shakespeare to limber up my language, but I do deliberately read certain writers because of the way they use language, in the fond hope that their influence will benefit me.
6. “It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged.” I heartily agree with this. I sometimes speak to people who imagine that they need to quit their jobs before they can start writing. I started writing while I had a full-time job (twice).
7. “This may seem a small matter but the omniscient narrator never speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do it you lower the tone.”
8. “I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas.” This is her most important point; I think about this observation often, and try to grasp its meaning.
I always enjoy reading writing tips from writers, from Mark Twain to Stephen King. Have you read any particular helpful advice about writing?