Tag Archives: writing

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?


The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.


Review: Threads of the Heart by Carole Martinez


The Threads of the Heart is an epic tale exposing the magical gifts and peculiar sufferings of a family of impoverished Spanish women. Already a publishing sensation in France and Italy, this beautiful descendant of the 20th century masterworks of magic realism deserves further attention from English readers.

Set in 19th-century Spain, Threads charts the dramatic fate of Frasquita Carasco and her five children as they struggle under the thumb of a host of madmen, and eventually find themselves walking to Africa. Ostracized in her hometown of Santavela because of the magic gifted by her mother in an ancient wooden box, Frasquita is married off to an insane wheelmaker who gambles her away in a cockfight. And so she flees this hamlet in the closed-off world of southern Spain, taking her young children with her — each of whom is endowed with an extraordinary quality that will determine the course of his or her adult life (the gift of light, the gift of death, the gift of words, etc.).

On their way they encounter revolutionaries battling the aristocracy, ghosts grinding chalk at a ragged windmill, and a host of friends and enemies who fail to halt the implacable march of Frasquita and her brood. As the journey unfolds in the scorching heat of Andalusia and Algeria, the children slowly come of age and inherit the magic contained in the wooden box. They each go on to grapple with this inheritance, one that brings opportunity and danger in equal measure. Eventually, as they marry and make their way in the world, the children must decide whether the magic passed through the Carasco women is a treasure to preserve or a burden to shake off.


The beauty of this book is in its lyricism. The sentences consistently stir emotion and conjure vivid, fantastical worlds. Carole Martinez’s imagined universe is ornate, sensitive, and well worth spending time in.

The scenery she depicts is enchanting and replete with childlike wonders rarely found in serious literature. The characters, too, are well-drawn and mysterious. Each woman in the Carasco family is incredible in her own way. Each is also flawed in a unique manner, and suffers accordingly.

The painful subordination of Spanish women to their men — a recurring motif — is acutely rendered in a series of tragic episodes as surprising as they are uncanny. So when Frasquita gets on the road without a penny or a destination, you understand why, and you hope she makes it wherever she’s going. Her footsteps are potent symbols of her wish for freedom at all costs.

Centred on this unending march, the book is something of a road-trip novel, and at times has the meandering pace of a journey whose destination is unknown.  When Frasquita and her children get involved in an anarchist uprising, for example, it isn’t clear what role this episode will have in helping or hindering them find liberty at the end of their walk. That being said, such detours are rich and pleasant in themselves, and the novel as a whole has a compelling narrative with a tender and elegant ending.

The translation is satisfying, save the occasional typo, and it’s easy to forget you’re reading work originally penned in French. On the other hand, there’s something quintessentially français in Martinez’s disposition, and the book provides a pleasant window on an emotional framework that differs subtly from our own. In this regard, The Threads of the Heart is a horizon-broadening testament to why reading translations is worthwhile.

From a debut author more used to teaching middle school than writing epics, this is an extraordinary effort, and her next novel is eagerly awaited in Europe. So far Martinez has picked up nine prizes there for The Threads of the Heart. You might think of picking it up yourself.


Thanks to Europa Editions for providing a review copy of this work.

Style No. 42: Alliteration


Two tiny pre-teens talk together, tumbling toward a tumult of total strangers. Between the two, the timid one toted a whistle, which he took to his teeth, putting air into it. The alternate youngster tightly trailed the top of his twin’s two tentacles with the tuber-like extension of his own torso. Simultaneously, toward their posteriors trolled a troubled aunty whose top was too tall due to a secret tucked toward her temples. And at the identical time, a tenebrous stranger stared astutely toward the opposite street.

Painted deity towering toward two cots together in a hotel. Took it in 2011, Varkala Beach (Kerala, India).

Painted deity towering toward two cots together in a hotel. Took it in 2011, Varkala Beach (Kerala, India).

Style No. 41: Zombie


A young boy in a zombie-repellent orange t-shirt blows pensively on what looks like a whistle. But it’s actually a small frag bomb, which he hurls into the crowd of raging undead milling in the distance, dismembering a half-dozen groaning zombies and one undead cow. His friend clings to him for dear life and observes the hungry crowd in the distance as the exploded flesh of the zombies is blown across the whole decaying congregation.

Meanwhile, a nervous grandmother approaches from behind with something strange concealed under her headscarf. “Are you alright, madam?” asks the boy. To this, she growls maniacally like a tortured wolf, menacing them with her gangrened hands and wretched yellow nails. Just then the headscarf falls to the ground, revealing her swollen zombie brain pulsing up from her open skull.

“Run!” shouts the boy. But it is too late. They cannot go forward, lest they become appetizers at a zombie picnic. And they can’t turn back, for she is upon them.

Suddenly a strange man who’d been looking knowingly the other way bursts onto the scene and withdraws a glistening scimitar. “This zombie grandma’s getting ahead of herself,” he says. Then he raises his wide blade to the sky, and with one deft motion cleaves her undead body at the neck. Her rotting head rolls down the gentle slope of the street and into the crowd, where it’s ravaged by a hungry pack of rancid corpses.

This is an example of a being who would maintain a cool head in the event of a Zompocalypse. We could all learn something from him.

This is an example of a being who would maintain a cool head in the event of a Zompocalypse. We could all stand to learn something from him.

Style No. 15: Another Subjectivity

Style No. 15: Another Subjectivity

Because it’s always worth hearing the other side of things, apparently.

Another Subjectivity

I must’ve been the only one not wearing orange in that damn town. Looked like the gods had spilled a jar of mango jam right down the mountainside. Thought my eyes might pop out at the sight of it all. I’ve never liked orange; it’s an ostentatious colour.

I might’ve liked to stay in, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not with what was hidden under my shawl. There was no turning back.

You can imagine I was nervous. Sweating like a 40-tear-old in labour. To top it off, right as I went by these two little squirts start blowing their whistle like it’s the last one on earth. I suppose childhood friendships ought to seem cute: youths going arm in arm and all that. Maybe when it’s not so noisy.

I pass them by. I’ve almost made it to the safety of the crowd.

But it’s time to quicken my pace. There’s a furrow-browed cretin only three steps back, and it looks like he knows something.

Some say Cambridge is a lovely place to study. If you’re a townie, you might fancy it a nice place to be a garbage man, or an electrician (having met a garbage man and electrician from Cambridge, I can attest to it). And if you’re visiting from out of the country, you might wish simply to sip sherry at the King’s College dining hall and wait for your sticky toffee pudding to arrive. Clicked this in January 2011, Cambridge (England).

Thank you so much for reading, you are too kind. No, really, I assure you the pleasure has been all mine, what.

Style No. 2: Double Duty

Style No. 2: Double Duty

Double Duty

A young and premature adolescent boy, garbed in orange and dressed like a human tangerine, blows his whistle, puffing through his tiny high-pitched instrument. His best friend and favoured companion — arm and superior limb draped over and hung across his shoulders and the upper joints of his arms — eyes the crowd, scrutinizing the congregation in the distance far ahead. A nervous, anxious granny-babushka, a secret classified object and article concealed in a hidden manner beneath the mantilla shawl atop and above her head and uppermost follicles, passes by and moves adjacent. Meanwhile at the same time, behind them in the background a serious man of grave appearance directs his gaze in an alternate direction and looks the other way with calculated knowingness.

Doing double duty in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Clicked this in 2011.

Hey guys! What’s up? So: two down, 97 to go. We’re on a roll now. Thanks for reading.

p.s. Let me know what you think. Suggest a style. Say hello. Leave a comment. Cool.

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What’s that? You want to share this with your friends? Wow, you’re so awesome.

Style No. 1: Notes

Style No. 1: Notes


Two boys (young). Orange clothes. Whistling, pensive — smaller one. Held by his friend (bigger, worried, looking off), arm wrapped loosely over the shoulder. A crowd. Behind: grandma passing. Nervous. Hiding something (under head shawl — a box?). Man glowering in the background. Knows something, eyes opposite.

Clicked this near Ouéléssébougou, Mali, on the road to Sougoula. February 2012.

We’re on the road! Only 98 more exercises to go. The first style in Queneau’s work was also notes, so I’m following right in his French leather shoe-imprinted footsteps. My plan — if I have one — is to borrow some styles from the original work, and to improvise others.

That’s where you come in. Nah man, not the other people reading this. You! Can you please suggest some styles for my exercises? How about dropping your idea in the comments? Wicked, thanks. You’re the best.