‘You have to want the story’: A.R. Williams on writing (pt. 2)

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In part one of my interview with A.R. Williams here at Call of the Siren, she discussed the background of her splendid dystopian novel “The Camellia Resistance.”

But something else happened in the process. She provided two interviews: one about her novel and one about the craft of writing. As all of you consider your own projects, you may find Williams’ perspectives in(con)structive, too. What is her best insight on the craft of writing? For me, it’s this line:

You have to want the story itself, not the outcomes.

That’s a point that’s so easy, in the frenetic publishing marketplace, to forget.

There’s no better inspiration than the perspectives of a writer newly-emerged from a successful project. (Case in point: The letters of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote.)  That’s what you’ll find in the Q & A below, and I hope it helps you, my friends!

***

Is this your first novel? 

This is my first completed novel. There have been other attempts at novel-writing, but this is the one that insisted I stick with it all the way through to publication. I have a couple of other things out – a novella and a collection of short stories, but those are both decidedly adult in nature.

Non-writers don’t realize how labor intensive a story – whether it’s a short story or full novel – can be. How long did ‘The Camellia Resistance’ take to write? 

I started planning the book in the fall of 2009 and wrote the first draft in November of 2009. It took another three years (and the dedicated support of my editor and best friend) to get it ready for publication.

There was a lot of rewriting involved, and the story arc for the (planned) trilogy didn’t really settle into place until early in 2012. Once that became clear to me, it was a lot easier to see the first book through to completion.

When did you find the time to complete it? 

For me, wanting to write a book wasn’t enough. I needed two things: the first was a story that wouldn’t let me go until I’d gotten it right. And by not letting me go, I mean that [the main character ] Willow and her world were always nudging me.

Even when you weren’t writing, you were still thinking about the story, right?

Yes, I’d be commuting to work and visualizing some of the scenes that served as anchors to the story – like when Willow and Ianthe ride their bikes through an abandoned and crumbling Chicago. That scene demanded that I replay it over and over again until it felt as real to me as any of the trips I’ve ever made to the present-day Chicago.

The second thing that kept me motivated were my early readers. My editor and best friend read the first 50,000-word draft and insisted that I keep going. I had three more friends that looked over the first draft and were adamant about wanting to know what happened next. I’m not sure I could have finished it without their investment and interest.

For anyone struggling to write a book and facing a very hectic life, what words of encouragement would you give them?

As for encouragement, there’s no way around it: writing is a lot of work. It’s not glamorous like it is in the movies. You don’t get to the end of a draft, tap in that last period and send it to an editor who promptly sends back an invitation to their house in the Hamptons and an advance check for millions. You have to want the story itself, not the outcomes. No matter how tightly your idea is hanging on to you, there are days when you are going to hate it. But if you’ve got that story that won’t let you go, I  think you have to trust it.

And trust yourself, wouldn’t you agree?

Absolutely. Be compassionate with yourself: it’s going to take longer than you think to write and it’s going to be terrible in its early drafts. Make sure you’ve got everything you need to write, whether its keeping your book notes on Evernote on your phone so you can always have your “next thing” to write with you or keeping a pen and paper with you at all times.

Be open to surprises and mistakes, they always bring you something you didn’t know was there. Write because you have to, not because you think it’s going to get you something. Most books are lucky to sell 2,000 copies, so if money or fame are the source of your motivation, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Let it be terrible in the first draft and just keep going. The rewrites will be just as hard as the first draft, but at least you’ll have something to work with. You can’t edit a book that doesn’t exist, and it simply isn’t possible to get it perfect the first time around. Show up for your characters (and yourself) with as much kindness as you’ve got… At the end of the day, if the story needs telling, you’ll get there.

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4 responses

  1. Pingback: Rewrite – slimegreen

  2. I do enjoy these “writers on writing” posts. There’s always something to take away and ponder. I particularly appreciate “you can’t edit [what] doesn’t exist”. That’s another way of affirming my conviction that the way to learn to write is to write (and write and write…)

    “Be open to surprises” is good advice, too. The surprises do come, and they often reveal lessons that would otherwise go unnoticed. In my current blog post, the last line came to me as a complete surprise. After I looked at it for a while, I realized it derived what one reader called it’s “ominous” power from all that had come before. Taken by itself, the sentence is a bland statement of fact, In context, it’s something quite different.

    Eventually I remembered where I’d seen such a thing – in Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet”. No, I’m no Durrell and never will be. But the last lines of his quartet depend upon the entirety of the previous four volumes for their revelatory power, humor and sense of completion. In his hands it’s quite a tour de force. Still, seeing the same dynamic in my own piece let me see more clearly how that kind of structure can be expanded into something more substantive than a 1200 word essay.

    Such a great, thought-provoking post – thanks to both of you!

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