“There is a false debate between pantsers and outliners, those people who write by the seat of their pants and those who meticulously plan every writing session. In truth, we are all both of these — they are two sides of every writer’s psyche.”
On November 11, Stuart will teach “Plotting Your Book with Scenes and Narrative Arcs” at ACC Highland in Austin, TX. This class will introduce strategies for developing plot lines around recurring themes and breaking a novel into scenes to diagnose missteps and missed opportunities. We asked Stuart about the books he’s learned from, advice he gives often and advice he thinks is overused, and what people will take away from the class.
What is a book that you recommend to people over and over? What makes it so compelling?
One of my favorite books on creativity is by the filmmaker David Lynch: Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. As writers, frequently all we read are books about writing. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Paris Review “Writers at Work” interviews as much as the next person. I just think a lot can be gained by immersing oneself in the creative life as a whole, and not just our literary slice of the pie. Lynch’s essays are very short — they can be digested before a writing session to help you sink in. And then sink all the way down.
In your own work, what has been one challenge posed by the craft, structure, voice, etc., of a book that you’ve had to puzzle out?
I recently completed a short memoir for my daughter who was going to college at her request (actually, at her insistence!). The challenge was that I know her so well, and she knows me so well, that I couldn’t find a narratorial voice that felt authentic. It all seemed like a big put-on, until I started writing each chapter as a letter to her. Then it fell into place and is probably the best thing I’ve ever written. But I got there by admitting to myself that I didn’t know what I was doing . . . which opened up a way to do it.
What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?
Trust the drafting process. This sounds like an ad for my class coming up in November, but I really mean it. Know what draft you’re in. The first draft requires a very different approach than the second or third draft. You start in different places, you expect different things, you find your writing session “win” differently. Every writer needs to have her or his own process by which they try out material, see what the best parts are to bring them up a level, and then decide on an idea’s best expression before moving on.
Is there a common piece of writing advice that you wish people wouldn’t put so much stock in or follow too closely?
I think finding your voice is largely a misunderstood concept. Your voice is your voice when the outside world doesn’t interfere. Saul Bellow called it the “prompter” (and he said we all have one, so don’t think it’s reserved just for geniuses!) — that source of words that is fed to you just as you become conscious of them. To hear that voice we might exercise before a writing session, meditate, consume adult beverages (it’s been done before) so that we can listen for that voice. We can’t go get it somewhere else though without it sounding terribly affected.
What is one thing that people will take away from this class?
I won’t cannibalize on my trust the process answer above, although it is tempting. That’s really the heart of it, but I will say one more thing. There is a false debate between pantsers and outliners: those people who write by the seat of their pants and those who meticulously plan every writing session. In truth, we are all both of these — they are two sides of every writer’s psyche. It’s knowing when in the drafting process to lean on which side that is the real trick. Plus, it will be fun.
Click here to learn more about and register for Stuart’s class.
Click here for our current class schedule.