I had the pleasure and privilege of attending an event at my local library where one of my favorite authors, Laura Moriarty, discussed the new release The Sharp Time with author Mary O’Connell. If only for an hour, it was a joy to be in a room full of other reading and writing enthusiasts who came out on a dreary Saturday to discuss books. I also walked away with some writing wisdom, which I’ll never turn down.
You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.
This quote from John Irving is often referenced as advice to writers, and for good reason. It’s one of the few maxims that I think applies to all writers equally. To sustain a story through outlining and editing and research, to build characters that are layered and multifaceted, a writer has to immerse themselves completely in the world of the story. Mary spoke of the difficult transition of waking up after a late night of writing, only to be confronted with the realities of daily life and people who expected breakfast to be made and permission slips to be signed. To balance writing and life, she said she carried the story with her throughout the day to keep the fire of inspiration alive. Burning embers can be rekindled if you let them smolder throughout the day.
Tell the things people don’t want to know.
Though I couldn’t find the poem that she quoted, I loved this idea. Fiction has the feel of truth when characters seem real. And real people are flawed. They do terrible and magnificent things in equal measure. They fail and they succeed. It’s not enough to write just the triumphs and the happy endings. The trials and tribulations are what make characters memorable. Maybe it’s just me, but I love getting a glimpse at the dark corners of the minds of others. I want to write characters who admit to themselves the things we all know but don’t say. I want to write characters that are true. Telling people the things they don’t want to know seems a good place to start. Like my favorite poet, Federico García Lorca, I want to write words that cut through the bone to the cold jelly of the marrow.
Build your structure around a timeline.
The Sharp Time takes place during one week. Mary said that she found this made writing a longer work more manageable, since her previous work had been short stories. Establishing the timeline let her break the story down and focus on each day. While the week format certainly won’t work for every story, using the passage of time to inform the structure is great advice. Since I am perhaps foolishly working on a novel with a nonlinear narrative, it seems to make knowing the actual order of events even more important.
In addition to my writing insights, I walked away dying to finish The Sharp Time. I’ll post a review of it and another young adult book I recently read, Legend by Marie Yu, later this week.