- Katie Calautti
Your Questions About Writing, Answered
If you follow me on Instagram, you know I've been none too shy about chronicling the ups and downs of writing my first novel. I've highlighted the process here in blog entries, as well ( if you're so inclined, here's Part 1 and Part 2). But lest I lose sight of why I'm sharing all this (to clear the rocky path a bit for others!), it seems pertinent to take some of the writing questions that land in my DMs to a more formal environment.
Behold: my very first book writing Q&A! And by "A" I mean: answers from a gal who's still bumbling her way through, but who thanks you kindly for seeking her advice all the same. If you're struggling to start, if you're in a blocked patch and thisclose to quitting, if you're pacing your living room tearing your hair out over character backstory or scene structure (couldn't be me!), I hope this helps you feel seen. It's all normal. It's all unavoidable. Keep going!
Q: I'm currently in a writing class, and I think I'm taking things too personally. How do you deal with your ego getting in the way of doing the work? It's not that I think I'm so great but I'm psyching myself out, my confidence is on the floor, and I don't feel present. Any critique feels like a question against my ability to accomplish my task and I logically know that isn't true.
A: Oh lovely one, this is a Very Big and Nuanced Question. I hope it's comforting to know this is pretty much a universal problem for creatives, no matter how far along they are in their careers. There is always going to be a teacher or a reviewer or an editor who has "suggestions" or criticisms that bump all up on your edges. You're going to feel caged and stuck by your own expectations for yourself, because they are often going to be so much further along than your actual skillset. I've heard writers talk about this over and over (seeking out podcasts and interviews where writers discuss this is very helpful).
My writing partner likes to tell me to give myself permission to laugh at myself and my mistakes or bad executions, then move forwad. Not to take myself too seriously and not to fixate or linger. He's a great reader because he keeps emotion out of everything and is solely focused on mechanics, so I've learned to stop expecting some kind of pat on the back for any of my work (phew, that in itself was a journey).
As part of my day job, I'm an editor, so whenever my ego feels particularly bruised I think about how I edit and advise writers. It helps me further understand how we can all accept criticism and advice—it's so often not personal (though it's sometimes projection—leave that). Instead of railing against dissenting opinions, learn to recognize when a critique is truly in service to making your story as good as it can be. That's the stuff you take.
It's important to know that this kind of narrative writing work is different than any other kind of writing you may've done (editorial, online); you're learning the skills like a true beginner, and that fact in itself is humbling and frustrating in equal measure. This is the thing that's messed with my confidence the most throughout the process of learning to write fiction. For a long time I wanted to feel like I had a leg up with all my years of writing experience, but once I embraced the fact that I'm a student and I'm going to make rookie errors, I felt a lot freer and I steadily retained more knowledge because I wasn't struggling against it. Plainly put: you gotta smother your ego for the sake of your story. Kill your darlings, indeed!
Apropos to the subject, this Ira Glass quote on the creative process remains the most comforting, refreshing piece of advice I've ever encountered:
About your class: sometimes a class is simply not for you! With my first try manuscript, I dropped serious coin for a month-long intensive with a writing teacher/lauded author, and I loathed every minute of it. I felt uninspired and bored and like it gave me no practical skills (and then I felt angry that I wasted my money). But in the long term, it introduced me to basic structure and helpful writing habits—it also taught me that not all advice is good and not every "teacher" is right. You'll develop a gut instinct of knowing when to listen, when to think critically about an edit and agree with it, and when to fight for your decisions.
My advice is to use the class as a personal exercise—realize that it doesn't have to be the end all be all, it doesn't have to give you what you thought it would, and that this is just the beginning of your journey and you're going to learn so much more. The less seriously you take everything and the more pressure you remove from yourself, the faster you're going to get to where you want to be. Your personal writing journey is going to unfold in ways you don't expect, so try to travel light!
Q: What are your thoughts on fully outlining versus just going for it?
A: Ah, the age-old question: to be a pantser or a plotter? I talk a bit about this in my Part 1 blog, but in short: pantsing is when you just start writing without a plan and let your first draft go in rambling directions (you fly by the seat of your pants, get it?!); plotting is when you diligently outline your novel and follow that road map (for the most part) as you write.
This is a very personal decision, and one you may change your mind about repeatedly with practice. I learned the hard way to be a plotter—I was too overwhelmed to understand the three-act structure when I wrote my first try manuscript in 2018, so I just went forth with the dang thing from a blank page. Four months and 60,000 words later, I had a holy mess on my hands. Turns out, my "novel" was only two acts long and it was also such a wreck that I didn't have the energy or enthusiasm to stick with it. My story idea was good, but it wasn't strong enough to be fleshed out into a full manuscript (Kristen Kieffer of Well-Storied has a great podcast episode about this). If you'd like to spare yourself all that time lost, I recommend at least partially plotting before you begin. But I don't regret the experience—everything I've done, however wayard, has gotten me to a place of greater understanding.
This go-around, I spent almost four months outlining my manuscript's plot and creating detailed character sketches. I learned I was far more confident and productive when I sat down at my computer and had a set of bullet points to prompt me. I also created a more robust story because I focused on the complete picture before I began and spent time thinking about the how's and why's of character motivation and scene direction.
But that's just my preference. This is a highly divergent topic among writers. Some even shun both options—story analyst Lisa Cron likes to say, "A plague on both your houses." I highly recommend her book Story Genius and her guest episode on The Shit No One Tells You About Writing for more on her outlining perspective. It all comes down to your personality and how you do your best work—do you need the freedom to experiment and discover as you go without a set of rules, or do you prefer to have some organization and direction? Either way, you'll have to edit after your draft is done—plotters just (in theory) tend to have less structural edits.
No matter which you choose, you'll make major discoveries as you write that will change or create plans. Act and scene structure will always be a bit of a mystery at first until you just do it and learn about it for a while. In short: writing is how you find your way with this one.
Q: What's your take on finding your own voice yet fearing imitating writers you love?
A: I was once told that good writers write how they speak. This may apply to memoir more than fiction, but I think it's an interesting jumping-off point if you're looking to find your unique writing voice. It's a lot of pressure to figure out how you'd tell a story when you're staring at a blank page and a blinking cursor. So record yourself talking! It can be about anything—give yourself a prompt or Google one, then expound. When you listen, pay attention to your diction, your filler words, your pauses, your inflection. Transcribe it, read it over, see how it flows. Then write a few short meandering paragraphs about anything in that (your!) voice.
It may also help to interview a friend or family member about your speaking and storytelling styles. Ask about how you use humor, self-deprecation, if you're a rambling recounter or you get straight to the point. Do you use a lot of flowery description when talking about something, or are you more clinical and factual? Do you pause a lot to think, or speak quickly in run-on sentences? All of this makes up a voice, and none of it is something you have to find—it's already yours! You just need a new medium or an unbiased ear to help you uncover it.
Your voice will always be an amalgam of things—what you're currently watching and reading and listening to, what you grew up consuming, your past and present environment, your family and upbringing. I often notice that when I'm reading or watching something that's far from my own voice or the subject I'm writing about, my writing at the time changes and takes on a divergent tone—so I keep that in mind and curate my stiumli accordingly. Creatives are influenced by so many outside factors—they can be used to your advantage as long as you notice how they're affecting you and your work.
It's good to keep in mind that you don't want to straight-up copy writers you adore, but absorbing some of their style is inevitable—and sometimes even helpful. I'm currently brainstorming my second book idea, and I know I want its comps (aka: the book/film/TV shows it's most inspired by) to be a mixture of two specific books and one movie. So I've been blazing through the back catalogue of both authors in order to work through my main character's voice and potential themes to include.
That said, if an author has a schtick or a very specific way of writing or using phrases, you'll want to stay away from repeating those in your own work. Use them as inspiration to find your own unique versions so your writing is more of an homage than a facsimile. I firmly believe in trusting your gut—you'll know when you're not writing what's true to you becuase it'll feel icky. Uninspiring. Straightup wrong. Follow what lights you up, what flows, what feels authentic.
Q: How do you write when you have a deep fear of failure?
A: Ah, dearest—I'm sorry to inform you that failure is an intergral part of the writing process. And the human process! Any process, really!! That's the beautiful thing about failure—it's the great equalizer. Everyone deals with it. Which hopefully assuages a bit of your worry, because failure won't make you special or set you apart in some horrifying way. It just means you're breathing! Try to further remove the fear of its impending arrival by recognizing failure for what it is—a teacher.
Every time you write a crappy scene, you learn what you don't want to write. Every time you mess up a bit of dialogue, you figure out how to write your way into a better exchange. Every instructor who picks apart your work shows you how to accept (and sometimes deflect) criticism. Every editor who rejects you simply isn't the one who'll be enthusiastic about and supportive of your work—their dismissal opens the door for the right person to step in. If you're failing, it means you're growing, pushing, moving forward, figuring out how to honor your truest self. Failure is the first signpost of new horizons ahead! To turn back when you see it is to quit when you're almost at a fantastic destination.
Forgive me for sounding trite, but attitude really is everything, here. You have to remove the stigma you've created around the idea of failure. Start with the word. Rename it. Let's call it Frank. Frank is that friend who has the absolute worst timing—he shows up when you've just started rearranging your kitchen, settles in comfortably, and announces that he's starving while waggling his eyebrows in an expectant look. There are pots and pans everywhere. The fridge is defrosting. The oven's on self-cleaning mode. You could toss up your hands and order takeout—that's letting Frank force you to expend. Or you could kick Frank out and tell him he's in your way—that's letting him make you inhospitable. Or you could throw something together using whatever you can reach that'd been pulled from the bowels of cabinet corners and refridgerator drawers—that's using Frank to your advantage. What you make may be inedible, but it also may be your new favorite meal. Either way, you used up leftovers and stretched some new culinary muscles—a win-win for the future of your kitchen and your cuisine!
Meandering metaphors aside, here's a personal anecdote. I'm afraid of querying agents. I've been told the process is time-consuming, wrought with rejection, anxiety-inducing, and generally soul-destroying. I'm afraid, ultimately, that I'll fail to find representation. So I fought the fear off with a plan—I'm going to celebrate every single agent rejection. I'll print it out and put on some loud music and dance while waving it around. I'll find the joy in knowing that each "no" means I've weeded out someone who isn't the right fit, and it's bringing me closer to the person who is. And if it all leads me to no one, well—this manuscript wasn't meant to be my first book. I'm sure I'll cry a lot, maybe throw something, punch a few pillows, mope. But I know myself—I'll try again with the next manuscript, and potentially the next one, and the next one.
I write and put my work out there despite the rising fear it creates because I can't not do it. And I have a hunch that's why you do it, too. So do it. Keep doing it. Do it despite. Do it anyway. And when Frank inevitably shows up, invite him in and let him tell you a story. The moral will always be illuminating.