Branching Out, Branching In
I realized that if I were going to be a good fiction writer I'd have to dig in and start using my imagination. As soon as I made a conscious effort to invent, my writing process got a lot easier and a hell of a lot more fun. I'd come home from work every day, pop in that disk, and write like a fiend. I'd take a break every 90 minutes or so, have a glass of wine and a cigarette and read what I'd written so far, thrilled at how everything was coming together. A story was beginning to take shape; a story about a woman named Jordan who was sort of like me but not really, a woman who had fallen for a guy who was sort of like Mr. Ex except funnier, more neurotic and much more compelling...especially now that I'd given myself permission to really create.
During this time I made a point to seek out and read as many books on writing as I could find. And there are a lot of good ones out there, ones that helped me to become (over time) a significantly better writer. I studied up on characterization, on plotting, on dialogue. I devoured time-honored classics like Bird By Bird, Writing Down the Bones, and of course The Elements of Style. I also found a goldmine of information in lesser-known gems like (the invaluable) The Art of Compelling Fiction, The First Five Pages, and one of the best books on novel writing in the history of ever, the simplistically titled but absolutely brilliant You Can Write A Novel (before you even think about writing a novel, buy that book. SERIOUSLY!).
I also began reading more fiction than I had in years. I'd always been an avid reader, but I now had a vested interest in learning about what made good fiction work, to pick apart the author's brain and try to see the process from the inside out. I had a second job working in a library at the time, which turned out to be a very handy way to feed my new obsession. I went through the stacks and re-read some of my all-time favorite novels like The Rachel Papers, Going All the Way and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all works that are essentially about a protagonist's self-discovery through heartache (a theme I suspected was beginning to take hold in my own novel). I also revisited classics I hadn't read since high school--Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby were a few--and was surprised at how much more I enjoyed them the second time around. I also discovered others I'd never bothered to pick up like This Side of Paradise and Lolita (the former was amusing, the latter completely blew me away). I also read lighter pop fiction like Postcards From the Edge (SO much better than the film), Bright Lights, Big City (ditto), Bridget Jones' Diary, and Steve Martin's Shopgirl. It was in that library that I first stumbled upon the brilliance that is Nick Hornby, first through About a Boy and High Fidelity, then later through How To Be Good and A Long Way Down. Between all the how-to writing books and all this wonderful fiction, I felt like I had my own personal cheering section in my head, inspiring me to write more, to write better, to take my novel all the way.
PART IV: GETTING MY GROUP ON