Once a month, a group of Austin’s most successful writers, as well as movers and shakers in the publishing business, get together for drinks and conversation. I rarely go to these events because, well, I live in the boondocks and it’s a long trek into town. Besides, I’m not a big socializer. After a day of work, I’d rather hide under the bedcovers. But last Friday night, the group was supposed to meet at the Blanton Museum for its once a month B scene event. I immediately RSVPed yes because one of my favorite singers was headlining the event — Suzanna Choffel.
You may have noticed that I said “was supposed to meet.” That’s because hundreds of people attended the Blanton event, and among those hundreds it was nearly impossible to find the gathering of writers. So, by myself, I perused the Blanton’s current art exhibit called Desire, which is fascinating. Well, let me restate that, it’s fascinating to a sex writer. I was watching a curious short film when Gianna LaMorte, a sales rep for Random House, and Colleen Devine Ellis, a publicist for the University of Texas Press, grabbed me and jokingly accused me of watching porn.
Laughing, I left the film to join them. After all, friends in the industry had finally found me. They glanced at the art while I scootched closer to what appeared to be several yards of white thumbtacks, all in a nice straight line, pressed into a white wall. On inspection, there was a tiny black and white photograph on each tack head, as though one were looking through a peephole. Gianna and Colleen too quickly moved on. Well, too quickly in my opinion, not quickly enough in theirs. They weren’t enamored with thumbtacks. In fact, the only exhibit they liked was a sculpture of black roses, which I barely noticed. But it was near that sculpture that award-winning novelist John Pipkin spotted us. Like me, John was relieved that he’d finally found someone he knew.
But most of all, I love to talk to John because I can get him to blush so easily, especially when sex is mentioned. Since we were standing in a sex-oriented art exhibit and since I’m writing a book about sex, needless to say, John blushed often. He is so cute when that rose blush warms his creamy cheeks. Yes, John, I know I’m embarrassing you. And if your wife is reading this, she has nothing to worry about. I’m too old. You’re too good. And I only tease those with whom I know I’m completely sexually safe. But, boy, you’re a charmer.
After maybe an hour, we moved away from the sex exhibit, closer to where Suzanna was going to perform, John stopped blushing, and we seriously talked about writing and the writing process. When John talks about the writing process, I listen. His first novel, Woodsburner, was named one of the best books of 2009 by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and the San Antonio Express-News. And – and let me emphasize this and – it won the 2009 First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. He received the prize at an awards banquet in New York where he was seated with Nan and Gay Talese. (Yes, I’m jealous.)
Woodsburner revolves around a 300-acre fire that William David Thoreau accidentally set near Walden Woods and how that fire affects the lives of John’s four main characters – Thoreau; Caleb Dowdy, an opium-addicted, fire and brimstone preacher; Oddmund Hus, a man who lusts over his employer’s wife; and Eliott Calvert, an inept playwright, bookseller, and seller of porn. (Yep, that’s a lot of sex by an author who blushes so easily at the mention of the topic, and I haven’t even listed all of the sexual references in his book.)
After spending three hours with John, I felt emboldened to ask him for one to three tips for working through the struggle of writing. Here’s what John suggested:
1. “The first tip is not terribly original or exciting, but it usually seems to work for me, and in fact I just followed this method earlier today. When I’m at a loss for where to start writing, I’ll often begin by revising the previous day’s work. This helps to bring me back into the story and remind me where the characters are. Often revision produces new ideas to carry me into the next chapter or scene.
2. “I’m a big fan of maps and outlines, so whenever I get stuck, I usually return to my outline to see what I originally thought might come next. Sometimes it’s easier to play with scenes and conflicts in outline form because it allows you to juggle ideas above the fray, rather than struggle with them in the trenches. And, as horribly as un-sexy as it sounds, I tend to map out ideas in spreadsheets (yeah, I know). Keeping ideas organized and compartmentalized in a spreadsheet buys me the freedom to wander around from idea to idea when I’m writing. So when I get stuck, I’ll often just spend a day tinkering with the ideas in a spreadsheet to see where I am and where I’d like to go next. I also like index cards*, and I currently have a big bulletin board in my home office covered with color-coded index cards. Sometimes it helps to be able to physically move scenes and chapters around. (Plus, there’s a certain satisfaction in stabbing frustrating chapters through the heart with a thumbtack.) So, I usually have two or three different versions of the same story mapped out in different visual formats, and sometimes one format helps me to see the way out better than another.
3. “Let the characters do the work. When I’m not sure where the story will go next, or how a particular conflict or struggle should be resolved, I try to turn to the characters involved to find out how they would react to the situation. In this way the characters shoulder the burden of moving the plot forward. This helps in two ways. First, it ensures that the plot develops out of character’s motivations and actions/reactions. Second, if I have no idea how a character would react in the scene that I am working on, this is a good sign that my character is under-developed and needs more refining. Most of the time when I find that my plot is stuck, it isn’t because I don’t have enough ‘twists’ ready at hand, but because I haven’t thought through my characters carefully enough, and as a result, I have no idea what they should do next. If the characters are full developed, they can help push the plot forward. (Conversely, if the plot pushes under-developed characters forward, then the characters begin to seem like two-dimensional vehicles for external conflicts and ideas.)”
I want to point out that like Joe O’Connell, the award-winning novelist I quoted in Working Through the Struggle, John is a writer, husband, father, and teacher. He teaches at both the University of Texas in Austin and Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. I say that to emphasize that if one says one doesn’t have time to write, one doesn’t really want to write. John crafted Woodsburner while he was executive director of the Writers’ League of Texas. Being executive director of the WLT is a hellaciously stressful job requiring morning, noon and night commitment on weekdays and on weekends. Because of that, John rose at four each morning to boot up his computer and write Woodsburner. That’s commitment. And that’s another reason I like John Pipkin.
* In December 2009, best-selling mystery and suspense novelist and friend Jeff Abbott blogged about Scrivener, which I gather is an Apple-only computer software program that, in essence, combines John’s spreadsheet concept with his index cards. Jeff highly recommends Scrivener. I can’t offer an opinion — I’m a PC.