The following is an outtake from an upcoming interview with Gail Anderson-Dargatz in The Puritan’s Issue 36, Winter 2017. Stay tuned to our News & Announcements for the launch.
Katy Wimhurst: I’ve seen you quote John Gregory Dunne’s comment, “Writing is like manual labour of the mind; a job, like laying a pipe.” Can you tell me about the daily pipe laying, your writing “job”?
Gail Anderson-Dargatz: People view writing as a mystical art form, but I see it as a trade and approach my teaching on that basis. I call my students “apprentices” and myself a “journeyman.” I hope to be a master in my 60s. Writing is one part talent, one part skill and craft, and five parts practice. Just as learning to play the piano takes years of instruction and practice, learning to write fiction takes years of mentoring and practice. On a daily basis, that practice means writing scene—action, dialogue, beats—first. There’s your pipe. Lay one pipe after another and eventually you have a working system, a novel. The fittings are transitions, exposition, and description. The thing is, unlike with plumbing, as we write, those scenes—those pipes—won’t connect at first. A mistake apprentice writers make is to think they should write their novel as their reader will read it, in chronological order (chapter one, two, three …). Few novels come together that way. Instead, we just write scenes as discrete units, not necessarily knowing, at first, where they will be placed. Only later do we start to put the system together. So, build the pipe first, then put all those pipes together later. Those pipes can go together in a whole variety of ways.
People view writing as a mystical art form, but I see it as a trade and approach my teaching on that basis.
It’s like putting together a magic jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces can fit together in many different ways to form different pictures. You might hand the dialogue from one character over to another, say, or the conflict of a secondary character over to your protagonist. Or you might morph two or more characters who fulfil the same function in the narrative into one character. I do urge the writers I work with to use outlines, but as brainstorming tools, rather than planning tools. Work out structure, but understand that when you actually sit down to write scene, your characters will surprise you and change everything.
Before I had kids, I was a night owl and would write for hours, deep into the night. Now, though, I do my writing in the morning, while my mind is fresh. And I pace myself, as I recognized pushing too hard led to anxiety and even depression. Now I see 250 words as a good day; 500 words is fantastic. I can pull together a draft in a year at that rate.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz has been published worldwide in English and in many other languages in more than ﬁfteen territories. Her latest book, The Spawning Grounds, is slated for release in September 2016 and is her first literary novel since the 2007 bestseller Turtle Valley.