Friday, November 16, 2007

Icing On The Cake

from Jacqueline

(Having trouble with our blogger today, and cannot add graphics - sorry!)

There’s a tendency, among writers and non-writers alike, to talk about the blank page that looms forth in front of you, and you’re thinking, “How the heck am I going to fill that thing.” It’s a story that is familiar to so many, and we all nod our heads and say, “Yep, that’s me.” But the truth is that the task in front of us isn’t necessarily paralyzing, nor is it to do with one blank page. That “oh heck” feeling comes in many different packages. And sometimes it comes as “oh heck lite” and sometimes it graduates to “oh ...” (add own favorite expletive).

So, now you know, I have just started a new book. Yesterday. I knew I did not have a dose of the famed writer’s block, even though I had set November 1st as the start date and that was two weeks ago. I knew that, eventually, I would knuckle down to the page, because I regard deadlines as sacrosanct, and I’ve a pretty packed schedule before this book’s due at the end of March (almost two months out on book tour early next year, plus three major papers to write for my course). In the two weeks between the agreed-with-self start date and the actually-hit-the-keys date, I have been mulling and mulling and mulling (and it wasn’t wine I was mulling, it might have been more productive if it was) the story in my head until it began to spill over, out of my mind, through my fingers and onto the page. Sometimes I think it’s a bit like baking a cake. You do all the ground work – you blend your characters, scenes, the arc of your story and you let it cook away in your imagination (at a medium temperature for months), then one day it’s cooked and ready to ice. Ah, the icing. That’s where you fill your icing bag with words and phrases, with images, wit, sadness, grief, laughter and everything that brings story to the page. You choose your design, and on the day of writing you squeeze that icing out with all the control, dexterity and creativity you can muster. And one day you have something you can put on the table in front of guests.

But if you stop to think about the actual task ahead at any point, it’s like looking down when you’re climbing up – don’t do it.

A couple of years ago, I was putting off the start date on MESSENGER OF TRUTH, my third novel, I began having severe pains in my finger joints. Great, I thought, just what every writer wants – arthritis in the fingers. I massaged my joints, I rubbed everything from Devil’s Claw to Emu oil into my joints; I bought a hot wax hand bath; herbal mitts that you nuke to warm up your digits – anything to take away the pain. And I called my friend Vicki, who does various types of healing. She looked at my fingers and said, “You need to get writing.” I told her that I wrote every day. “No,” she said, “Your book’s stuck in your fingers – start it and the pain will go away.”

So I did, and it did. Make of that what you will.

Last week my fingers began to hurt again, and I knew it was time to get writing. And yesterday I began. 1500 words. Stephen King (I’ve said this before, I know), in his book, “On Writing,” says that you can write the first raw draft of a book in three months if you write 1200 words a day. Ever since I read that, I’ve tried to follow his advice. Sometimes I write more, but never less. It’s a benchmark, and it works for me.

But I know it’s important to cut yourself some slack – breaks work, setting treats works (when I’ve finished my 1200 words, I’ll go for a hike!), walking works. We all have our writing rituals, our processes, that work for us, that’s how we get books, articles, academic papers and blogs written. And when you’re a writer, you write – that’s what you do. Even if you put it off for a while.


  1. I used to shoot for 1000- 1200 words. But now it takes so long to upload my blogs I don't have the time. Not really. Just another excuse.

    I shoot for 1000 every day with the weekends for extra editing.

    Good luck, Jackie,

    Jim B

  2. I can't do a work count because I like to war over a word or a paragraph until I find the right tone, regardless of the time it takes. Or maybe I'm just rebellious. I don't want anybody--including me--to tell me how many words a day I have to write.

  3. No wonder I have such problems. I can't bake a cake! And if I tried using one of those icing squeez-i-ma-jigs, there'd be a mess from ceiling to floor.

  4. I love that your fingers felt better after you started writing. I think for me it's my brain that hurts.

    Bon voyage on this next journey, and may you see many wonderful places on your way to the far shore of it!

  5. Jackie, I really appreciate your "icing on the cake" analogy. Truly that expression fits; you're "sweetening" something that is already good. All the subtleties, that icing, which actually gives the most meaning to what one reads, or writes, and brings the story to the page.

    We all enthusiastically await your next cake, be it a Grand Marnier Mousse Cake, Italian Rum Cake, a Chocolate Truffle Cheesecake or a Blueberry Poundcake......surely it'll be tasty.


  6. from Jacqueline

    Just shows there's no one way to work. I work in a state of angst about ever being able to write another book until I'm halfway through, then I ease up - if I've written half, then the other half will follow. In each book I try to do something different, go for a different mood, which is why I spend so much time thinking about it. By the time I sit down to write, I've more or less got the story in my mind, but not set in stone, which leaves plenty of space for the unexpected to turn up and surprise me.

    I like having a word count to aim for. I don't actually think about it as I'm writing, or check up on my words, but it's nice when I come to my stopping place only to find I've written the number of words I wanted to write. The thing is that, for me, it's a journey (as Cornelia says), a pilgrimage through all sorts of challenges, emotions, highs and low. Each day has its milestones, and I won't always make to to the next stopping point, but I love the process - and the mystery of it all. Which is just as well!

  7. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Jon. Now, of course, the mention of those cakes makes me want to zoom out to the bakery for an instant carbo-loaded sugar rush - but I can't, I've writing to do!

  8. "First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."


  9. Thank you, Anon - that quote's a keeper!

  10. I think the cake baking is a good analogy. But how about following a recipe aka an outline? You'll never sit there wondering what happens next cause you'll already know.