How I Write

Felicia C. Sullivan
Jan 16, 2018 · 13 min read
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Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

For me, everything is about that first line and where it takes you. Some writers are driven by plot, the delicate arrangement of chess pieces, while others are drawn in by a character and the ability to go on a journey with a new fictional friend. And some writers live for the music words make — they hold the beauty of the line above all else. There are hundreds of books and essays that purport to teach you the mechanics of writing. Between the books, manuals, writing workshops, and MFA programs, everyone seems to have a magic formula, but few cut through the noise and show you how to find your own way. Few tell you the way can be messy, filled with false starts and experiments gone wrong, manuscripts buried in drawers, and the stories that make you shudder whenever you re-read them. I’ve been at this for 34 years and I can say that the mess is the journey. The mess and mishaps ultimately form a clearing that reveals your distinct voice and style.

For five years, I wrote stories that you needed a weedwacker to wade your way through. They were dense, flowery, filled with extraneous exposition. The kind of stories where you found yourself banging your head against the wall, screaming, WILL SHE GET TO THE FUCKING POINT ALREADY? Two years after that, I wrote fiction modeled off the likes of Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, Amy Hempel, and Gary Lutz because they seemed like word fakirs. They awed me with their language acrobatics; they would take a meaning of a word or an image and upend it, and you would find yourself looking at the world a little differently — it’s sort of like being in the Upside Down, only your experience is with paper. Both styles didn’t fit. I found myself in my thirties unsure of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it because I was still in the process of mimicry and experimentation.

Some writers know their voice and style at the get-go. It took me 20 years of writing to master mine, and I still consider myself a student. Writing is still hard, but the joy is in the work and the possibility of what it can breed. Writers live for this, I think, the magic of seeing the world they’ve architected all the way through. I’m not famous. My books don’t sell a hundred thousand copies. The “cool kids” don’t follow me on social media. But this isn’t about the business of books, rather, this is about the love of what you commit to the page. I’ve devoted my life to the practice of reading and writing and it’s yielded results of which I’m proud (two beautiful books, lots of stories published, and a few awards).

But the work is where the joy resides. I love writing, live for it, regardless of the outcome.

In 1962, Peter Orr asked Sylvia Plath what sort of things she wrote about as a young poet. She said, “Nature, I think: birds, bees, spring, fall, all those subjects which are absolute gifts to the person who doesn’t have any interior experience to write about. I think the coming of spring, the stars overhead, the first snowfall and so on are gifts for a child, a young poet.” This rang true for me. I wrote in a tactile way about the stories my senses told me. I wrote about how rain felt on bare skin, the sound of my mother’s voice, and the tastes and smells of the food everyone in the neighborhood made. I wrote what was in front of me because as a child that felt big enough. A young writer describes the world as they encounter it with their limited vocabulary. As they grow older they begin to compare the things they encounter with how those things make them feel. The interior world starts to form, their vocabulary becomes richer, yielding a sense of power. They realize that their internal and external worlds aren’t necessarily harmonious.

Experience becomes wholly subjective, and although it took me decades to feel confident in my voice and style, what interested me as a child continues to fascinate me as a forty-two-year-old adult. I’ve always been fascinated by familial discord, loss, and broken people in a perpetual state of dressing and re-opening their wounds. I like familial mess and never tire of navigating it.

During a workshop in the Columbia MFA program, a student dismissed a story of mine by saying, family stories are so done. We weren’t supposed to talk while our stories were being critiqued, so I had to restrain myself from shouting out IS THIS REAL LIFE? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? What I ended up saying was that every story’s been told, the joy is finding new ways of telling them.

Up until 2009, I lived a great deal of my life in the writing world. I worked in book publishing, I founded a literary magazine, I published my first book and a dozen or so short stories. My friends and first readers were writers. I had a Columbia MFA — a decision I’ll keep paying for until the grave. And still I was lost. I found myself copying styles from different writers. I felt guilty because I wasn’t the kind of person who could wake up every day and write (also because I had a full-time corporate job), and there’s this sense of constant competitiveness in publishing that felt, for me at least, suffocating. I didn’t know who I was as a writer because I was focused on the external — everyone else.

Someone once told me that a writer is always writing, even when there’s nothing on paper. I spent the next four years as an agency executive, and although I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I stopped reading the bold type authors of the moment, and simply read stories I liked. I read for pleasure and for study. How did this writer structure her novel? How did this writer master a child’s POV and an adult’s in the same chapter? How did this writer pace her novel, knowing when to drop the right clues at the right time? I didn’t write, but I dissected and mapped. I wrote in the margins of the books I loved. Unbeknownst to me, a draining job had manage to compact my free time so I spent it with the books that mattered to me. I had started to winnow down to that which was essential, and in doing so, I spent those four years finding my style and voice. I read Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson and learned how to make effective use of white space. I read Kelly Link, Nick Flynn, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aimee Bender, Alessandro Baricco to learn how to be imaginative with words and rediscover the feeling of play in writing. I read Junot Diaz, Denis Johnson (who once said in a workshop I attended that people never speak the way you want them to. Dialogue isn’t about a Q&A, it’s about not answering the question, revealing what’s between the lines. Dialogue has to reveal, not inform) and Nabokov to understand the mechanics of good dialogue. I read Zadie Smith because she’s Zadie Smith.

In short, I created my own program filled with teachers from whom I could draw knowledge. After four years of not writing a single story, I realized that my style was a fusion of traditional and experimental writing. I loved characters and storyline, but writing in a linear way felt daunting, and I wanted to play with language without it being masturbatory. My whole was the sum of many beautiful and disparate parts. When I wrote what would become my second book, for the first time in my life I felt assured. I knew that my style wouldn’t please the masses, but it pleased me and the few people who are impacted by my work. Much like life, writing is about finding your tribe and trimming the fat.

After a rough 2017 (I published my second book to tumbleweed and crickets), I transformed my bitterness and perspective and made myself return to the part of writing that brings me joy — the writing itself rather than the business of it. I resolved to write 52 stories this year, sketches, really, but an exercise that will keep me moving and creative. As a result, a few friends asked about my process. I thought it might be helpful to take you through the mechanics of how I drafted the first part in what will be a serial.

First, I have a notebook where I collect words and lines. I know that sounds weird, but whenever I come across an image, song, line from a movie — anything really — that puts me on pause, I write it down. For this particular story, I drew inspiration from the Aziz Ansari allegations (please, I beg you, no hot takes about this, as it will derail the purpose of this essay) over the weekend to craft a story about a girl’s disappearance. The story lays blame on a great deal of people in the town with the exception of the girl’s actual killer, whose story manages, oddly, to get dwarfed. I like stories with multiple points-of-view because it gives me freedom. I get to be the Sybil of a story, manipulating speech patterns, language, etc. I started with an image, a line, which is how I start every story. The line may not be the first one, but it has to be a line that draws me in. I have to convince myself that it’s easy to walk into this new world, when in reality it will likely take forever to create it.

I wrote the line in my notebook, read it aloud, and tooled with its structure. Rhythm and cadence are important to me; I have to feel like lines are singing as I read them aloud. In this crude, early draft, I got bumped by using the word “photographing” in a line whose syllables were lean. At the same time, I made sure that I had the vocabulary and vernacular of autopsy — or at least the basics. I never get bogged down on getting everything right because that tends to derail me and stops the flow of writing. I tell myself, just get it half-right and you’ll figure out the rest later. No matter what, keep moving.

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First draft of what will become a paragraph
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Final result

After I get a few core lines down, it’s then I’ll start drafting the story in a Word doc. Then, I ask myself what I want this section to do. What point does it serve? Why is it here? Is every word essential? Does every line or image (or the bulk of them)work on multiple levels? This may sound daunting, but it’s not. Think about when you learn a new exercise or start a new workout routine. There’s a whole set of moves and lexicon you have to master. At first, it may feel overwhelming or confusing, but after a lot practice you get the hang of it. And when a teacher says check your form, it’s a reminder for you to return to the essentials. Now, I write with the moves ingrained, but the tough part is returning to basics, making sure you’ve answered the bigger questions that serve the story, and that you’ve exercised restraint.

Everything I write is deliberate. Every character is essential. Every word has been considered. I only introduce a storyline or character because they’ll give the reader something no one else can. In the above brief section, I sought to accomplish three things:

  1. Give you clues about what happened to the girl through examination. Only in an autopsy do we learn the time, cause, and manner of death.
  2. Contrast the heinous nature of the crime on a child with the everyday goings-on of these character’s lives. We live with daily horror but have somehow become slightly immune to it. This, for me, sets up the world I’m about to dive into.
  3. Foreshadow, through some of the technical aspects of this paragraph, elements of what’s to come in the story, hints of who the killer could be, and his/her intention.

Once I justify the existence of the paragraph (because don’t you hate when you read something and it has no place in the story and it does nothing to further or inform the character or plot?), I go line by line.

Years ago, I had the privilege of studying with Nathan Englander, and it only recently dawned on me that he had a tremendous impact on my work. After workshop, I would spend up to two hours with him in his office. He’d print two copies of my story — one had general comments on plot, character, plausibility, structure, and pacing, while the other was basically the equivalent of a literary bloodbath. In an act of sheer generosity, he would take me through my own story and teach me how to trim the fat. He would ask, Why this line? Why this word? Is this the right word? Could another word do the work of two? Why is this here? Did you write this because it sounded pretty? For Nathan, if the word didn’t have a purpose it didn’t belong in the story. There’s no other way to describe other than to say it was surgery. He was surgical with my work and he taught me how to be surgical with my work. While it’s okay to overwrite and spew in a Word document, you better believe in the editing process there will be a butchering. I go through several passes before something feels final to me.

Then, I think about dialogue. The hardest thing to do is capture the rhythms and nuances of how people really speak to one another. For example, one of my friends asked me how my day was going and I said, I hate everyone. I didn’t directly answer her question and dialogue rarely does that. Instead, dialogue is supposed to tell you about the character, how they speak and think, and how close they’re holding the chess plot pieces to their chest. I view dialogue as a puzzle where I come out of it learning something more than what was being told to me. I hear Nathan in my head asking why dialogue versus narrative? Justify it. So, if I just want to reveal facts I tend to play in narrative and if I want to muddy the waters and add some layers to the story, I’ll insert dialogue. The dialogue, at least for me, acts to tell you what’s between the narrative lines.

If you want me to have a heart attack, ask me to do an outline. I’m the kind of writer who likes to develop plot as I go, which often leads to dead ends and a lot of rewrites, but it’s the only path that thrills me. However, I have found that when you’re working on a novel, it helps to have a general map of when things happen and an overall working timeline. It gives you a sense of pacing (are you dragging the story out unnecessarily without a payoff for the reader?) and helps reconcile issues with verisimilitude. I owe my life to the copy editors of my last two books because they’ve pointed out inconsistencies that were crucial to earning the reader’s trust. Once a reader is lost or doubts your control of this world, it takes a lot to bring them back. I only use outlines for bigger projects, rarely, if ever, for short fiction.

Every writer has their Achilles, and mine is structure. I’m incapable of going from A to Z. I’ve tried it, trust me. I can’t do it. I like to meander, move within spaces of time as a technique. However, this often drives the reader bonkers. Nearly every criticism of my books (with the exception of this writer blows, etc.) is: WHY CAN’T SHE WRITE IN A CHRONOLOGICAL MANNER? For my last book, I spent two years on structure — ripping the book apart, re-arranging chapters, shifting timelines — until the story made sense in my head. I try to answer for: why is this particular chapter (or section) here? There has to be a reason for the timeshift and a larger purpose for the structure. One reason could be to show contrasting states in plot, character, or culture/setting that serves to elevate the story and imbue a larger meaning. Another reason could be pacing or plot-related. Through flashbacks, a character could come to a realization or a story reveals itself.

Many readers won’t be there for the structure ride, but remember, not everyone is your reader.

Finally, I take a step back and look at all my characters. All my characters have to serve a purpose and I have to enjoy them in some capacity. Often, my favorite characters to write are moral defectives. You hear actors say, as a person I hated him, but as a character I loved him. Moral ambiguity and unlikeable characters are fun for me to write because I get to explore the fringes of societal norm. I get to say the things I’d never to think to say and try to understand why people do the things they do. I wrote an essay on creating polarizing, unlikeable characters. Likeability is tricky and wholly subjective. I like to read and understand people who pull me out of my comfort zone, and in doing so, I hope to exercise a greater sense of empathy.

As a child, I wrote to understand the world around me. I wrote because I had a terrifying childhood and writing made sense of it for me. People call it therapy or catharsis, but I aim, as Plath says in her interview,

I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant to the larger things.

My work is relentlessly dark and, in parts, personal, but I’ve learned to turn the mirror away from myself and reflect out into the world. With my last book and my new work, I’ve started to think about the bigger things, political and culture norms, and I think this is part of what’s exciting about being a writer right now—looking out at the world and interpreting it. Those are the gifts that only life can bring.

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