Fiction Writing Boot Camp, Part 2

writing boot camp marisha pessl
“There will be times when the job is easy. There will be times when it's a slog. Sometimes the words will pour out of you like hot honey; other times they'll be those little shards of nachos found at the very bottom of a basket of tortilla chips after your husband ate the entire thing while you got up to go to the bathroom.”

Here is the second installment of my hacks for writers. (Check out Part 1 here.) Like all advice it can be worn straight off the rack, carefully tailored, unstitched and made into curtains, or rejected altogether. Your writing process will be individual to you – so these are suggestions, not rules. The key to it all is repetition.

6. Go M.I.A.

Your novel is your baby, your work of art, your secret. This means it requires your full attention. This means no email, cell, or social media within a mile of your writing space. Your writing space needs to be your Area 51. A mysterious blackout zone with only one authorized person. You.

I feel most comfortable closing the doors, pulling the shades, and sealing myself in vampire-like, but you should find what feels comfortable for you. You should feel like a cavewoman at the dawn of time, seeking the first spark of fire. I do allow myself the internet and music, but the internet is used for research purposes only (and I tend to use it only later in the day and will write a TBD so I can keep moving). Music is a tool to get me emotionally inside a particular scene. I check my email only three times during the day, in the morning, at lunch when I’m outside of my office, and then at the end of the day when I’ve finished writing. This means you will be unreachable, off the grid, á la Ted Kaczynski. And it’s wonderful.

7. Embrace the Rut, the Drags, and the Mopes

One of the most helpful things for me to learn was to accept the doldrums as a natural part of the writing process – just as those days when the trade winds are at my back. There will be times when the job is easy. There will be times when it’s a slog. Sometimes the words will pour out of you like hot honey; other times they’ll be those little shards of nachos found at the very bottom of a basket of tortilla chips after your husband ate the entire thing while you got up to go to the bathroom. Embrace both states. Because nothing is actually wrong. It’s the job. The beauty is this too shall pass, like every other moment in your life. Just keep moving forward, even if at times you slow to a crawl. You’ll still get there.

8. Editing: or the Art of the Japanese Bonsai

The editing process is when you start sculpting the wet clay. Trimming the bonsai. To do it well requires a little ballet of: 1. letting your novel sit a little bit like a cake, 2. looking at it from all angles, 3. getting feedback (I suggest a handful of careful readers), and 4. going with your gut.

I like to print out my draft, rereading it while handwriting notes in the margin. As I write the first draft, I keep notecards of all the things I want to go back and change – so my next draft incorporates these ideas. They can be everything from plot twists that need to be set up beforehand, deeper characterization, a new direction to expand the middle of the book, plot threads left for dead like, “What happened to Luke’s mom’s lover???” The key is to take away as much as you put in. Coming from someone whose two novels could feasibly be termed “overstuffed,” this is always a challenge.

Lately I’ve found it helpful to think about negative space – the spaces between the words – as much as the words themselves, just as composers use rests as much as the notes. This is why removing is just as crucial to building, because your reader is a part of the book. He or she will be filling in those spaces. Key, too, is knowing the time to take your leave. And only you can recognize this moment, when it’s time to stop fussing and walk away. This is as good as it will ever be.

I’d say Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the most glorious piece of editing I’ve ever read. Because it’s just as much about what he doesn’t write as what he does. In the silences and spaces there is gut-wrenching tension and the reader’s heart breaks.

Keep in mind he wrote this when he was 72 and it was his tenth novel, so your skill for sculpting, adding and subtracting, and walking away will be a lifelong challenge.

9. Be a Closer

This is where we head into Glengarry Glen Ross territory. It can get a little sales-y. But to put it bluntly: the coffee’s for closers. You need to learn how to close your novel, stunningly, artfully, so your mark – the reader – never sees it coming.

Too many great books start out strong and then fizzle 3/4 of the way through. In other words, the novel started selling you the most stunning piece of lilac-covered land in the Loire Valley, you were ready to spend your life savings on it, and then for unknown reasons the writer wandered off, mid-pitch, to go have lunch at Olive Garden. This isn’t going to fly. You need to stay there, focused, the entire time, talking, conjuring, hammering the last golden nail in the last rafter of the dream house, until the very last word. You need to know how to close.

The best writers in the world are the best closers. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. They are the leaders standing atop the mountain, more shimmering myth than flesh-and-blood. Most of us will write our entire lives and never get into the same zip code of these people. No matter. It’s about the attempt.

So work on your close. Try a few different endings. Test it with readers. Read it out loud. It’s going to be messy and uncomfortable as you fight it out. You’re going to feel like a loser. You’re going to feel like Jack Lemmon cold-calling retirees to sell a sinkhole property in the Florida panhandle. You’ll fail more times than you succeed. So what. If it’s too tough, you can’t close the leads you’re given? Then sorry, pal, you can’t close shit, you are shit, hit the bricks and beat it, ’cause you are going out.*

*For the full motivational speech, please click here.

10. Remember the Joy

Through all of the above, it’s crucial to keep in mind just what it is, exactly, you are doing. You are writing a book. In other words you are crafting one of the most astonishing inventions of mankind. You are building a cathedral, using mere words on a page.

This thought alone will see you through the rest – the good days, the bad, the dogged rewrites and genocide of darlings, the realization you took a wrong turn 300 pages ago.

By writing a book you are entering a group of sages and madmen, hacks and dreamers, people long since dead who had the courage to fumble their way down a dark path, just as you are, to shine a flashlight on one small corner of existence.

So feel joyful about what you get to do.


That’s it for now. Stay tuned in the next few days for the Open Mic writing questions that I’ve received on Facebook. I’ll be answering them bullet point-style, and next week my Fall Required Reading list (Final Exam and Dad-style lectures not included).