Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Life-Hack for the Writer

In life, there are few things I like better than knowing that some of the people I love best sometimes take the short-cuts I love. There's a trend going around on Pinterest - how repetitive that feels! - of people posting these things called "life hacks". I don't exactly want my life hacked, but I think what it means is Ways To Do Things That Make Life Easier. Today, I'm here to give you a Writer's Life Hack from P.G. Wodehouse himself:

Ask for Help

We, as writers, value our independence. Some of us have self-published and are therefore terribly conscious of our space, our needs, our turf, and our lack of marketing reach. How short is the reach of an arm that lauds itself! (That sounds like some ancient proverb. It isn't. It's a new one I just made up but it thoroughly represents the trouble of marketing your novel on your word alone.) But I'm not here to talk about the difficulties of marketing your work. Independence. 

I am going to assume that each of you gets stuck in your writing process sometimes. Not writer's block, exactly (I heard someone say once that Writer's Block is a disease that affects amateurs), but the sticky mires of What The Heck Comes Next? For some of you it might be character creation, or the research that must go into your setting. For me, it's plot and structure. I can have all the bright baubles of humor, wit, sass, great characters, promising setting, and nothing for all these fine-feathered blokes to do. When you get to such a spot, it is quite easy to panic and figure that successful writers (or, on a bad day, "'Real Writers") never experience the same. I surely never assumed that someone like P.G. Wodehouse would ever have found himself short up on plot or, if he did, he drank some Jeeves-esque cocktail that jolted him out of it and into a success like Something Fresh.

Recently, I read P.G. Wodehouse: a Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe. I found many interesting things among this prolific writer's correspondence, but the most surprising and, hence, most gratifying, was the number of times he begged plotting help from his colleagues and gave it to them in return:
"If you have a moment of leisure, here is a bit of a story that is bothering me. I want a tough burglar to break into a country-house and there to have such a series of mishaps that his nerve breaks and he retires from the profession. The conditions can be anything you like, - e.g. Pekingese on the floor who bite his ankle, etc. It ought to be one of my big comic scenes like the flower-pot scene in Leave it to Psmith. Don't bother about it if you are busy, but if anything occurs to you send it along."
and later:
"Listen, laddie. Have you read 'Pig-Hoo-o-o-o-ey'? I have a sort of idea you once wrote a story constructed on those lines - i.e. some perfectly trivial thing which is important to a man and the story is apparently about how he gets it. But in the process of getting it he gets entangled in somebody else's love story and all sorts of things happen but he pays no attention to them, being wholly concentrated on his small thing. If you never did a yarn on these lines, try one with Cap Crupper. It's an awfully good formula."
There are so many instances of advice begged and advice given that I'm holding this book rather close and taking notes. Is there anything like correspondence between writers to give one a peek into what made them successful? With so many occasions of P.G. Wodehouse begging help, I had to acknowledge that there might be something to the idea. What then? Why would it be a good idea to beg someone to help you out of your rut? The answer is obvious:

Other writers are gifted in other areas.

It amazes me how many spiritual parallels one can draw from writing. I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised - Dorothy Sayers did much the same thing (though in reverse) with The Mind of The Maker. We are told that within the body of Christ, we are given various gifts and talents:
"For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,' is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,' is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be?"
- 1 Corinthians 12: 14-19
Continuing this mental exercise, each of us is gifted in a certain realm of writing talent. There are very few - indeed, show me one - who are good at all of it all of the time. We must choose someone, one person if you cannot bear the idea of more, and ask for help at some point in time. The trick is that we have to be humble enough to take their suggestions and adapt them to fit our idea. That is probably the toughest part of the whole thing. I feel so independent that it can be a struggle for me to not reject ideas based on the fact that I did not think of them first. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is true. I suppose it comes from some shadowy fear of plagiarism, or not being able to say, 'I wrote this book' because one aspect of it - heck, even a phrase - was not my own but was brought to mind by someone else. However, there is a difference between plagiarism and between, as Austin Kleon says, "Stealing like an artist". There is a way to accept ideas and even pay homage to other authors' work without copying just as there is a way to take fashion advice and inspiration without having to buy the $1253 dress from Michael Kors.

Yesterday, I asked Jenny for plotting advice. Last week, I got a whole email full of advice for Anon, Sir, Anon from Elisabeth Foley and what's more, I intend to examine and apply some of it. I didn't come to this point easily. It still isn't comfortable to go to a friend and say, "Look, I haven't the foggiest what I ought to do with this, but if you can figure it out and tell me, I'll work with it." But sometimes that is what you need and that could possibly be the only place you'll find that perfect idea.

If anyone ever criticizes you for this method, send them here. You know what I'll tell them?
"P.G. Wodehouse did it."
That'll probably shut them up.

3 comments:

Bree Holloway said...

Elizabeth, Emily and I were just talking about that this morning: how while Elizabeth finds characters her strength, Emily and I find plots our strength and goodness do we wish we had both strengths. But we don't.

It makes me nervous just thinking of asking other writers for help with my book: but, you're right of course. :P An excellent exercise in humility, at the very least.

Finally, I must warn you that this post may bring on some character-questions from me in the future. Oops. :/

Rachel Heffington said...

Bree, the question box is always open and receiving. ;)

Miss Melody Muffin said...

Rachel, thank you very much for this post! I admit that it's usually hard for me to ask for help with my writing; partly because I'm not very confident about it and rather shy about people seeing it, partly because, like you, I'm extremely independent, and partly because I don't like to 'bother' people.

So, thank you for reminding me that asking for writing advice and help is not just ok, but sometimes vital.