As I said once before, I’ve had little experience with web sites. And since my eye operations, it’s clear that I can’t keep up with all the nice letters people have been sending me. Therefore, I am starting a blog. Imagine! A year ago I didn’t even know what a blog was. (Was it something you found under the plug in the bath tub? Or a creature that lived in swamps and carried off lady biologists? I didn’t know.) Now that the meaning has been explained to me, a blog seems like a very good idea. It’s like a diary one leaves open.
First of all I need to answer a couple of questions. Where, exactly, is the Oasis I write about in The House of the Scorpion? There are two locations. The place I was trying to describe was the Quitobanquito Oasis in the Organ Pipe National Park south of Ajo, Arizona. Unfortunately, it was placed off limits because of drug smuggling activities. When Harold (my husband) and I tried to sneak in via the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range, we discovered a man dying of cold and thirst. And so we had to load him into the car and return to Ajo.The place I actually described is in the town of Paradise in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. It is on a major bird migration route and is very beautiful. When I was a child there were old abandoned miners’ cabins there as well as a grape arbor. Early one morning I walked to the old graveyard and saw a mountain lion suckling her two cubs among the grave stones. On another occasion I saw a bear scratching his back against the rough wall of an old cabin. There was also a wild burro that used to come into our kitchen and steal pancakes off the table. It was, and is, a magical place.
Many of you have asked how to become successful writers, so here are the tips that worked for me. (I learned to write novels in central Africa, 1,000 miles from the nearest creative writing teacher.) First of all, don’t even think about going to college to get a Master of Fine Arts degree (or MFA). All this gives you is a useless bit of paper.
(1)You need to read a lot of novels. Stephen King recommends reading a book you like three times in a row. The first time you are swept away with the story. The second and third times you begin to see how the story is arranged, how suspense is built, why you like certain characters and why the ending feels right. When you read an excellent book several times, you are picking up a rhythm. You’re learning how to pace your action, draw characters, how to bury hints and dig them up later. It's like learning to talk. You didn't worry about style as a baby. You screamed, warbled, cackled and repeated meaningless syllables over and over. Language was music. All the while speech patterns were sinking into your subconscious. Good writing skills are accumulated in the same way.
(2) In the beginning it helps to retype scenes you like. For some reason this trains you on a deep physical level. It’s like playing pieces of music on the piano. After a while you discover that you can actually write music of your own. Raymond Chandler (a crime novelist) taught himself by using someone else’s plot and his own descriptions. Unfortunately, he couldn’t publish his book because that would have been plagiarism. Plagiarism is a HUGE no no. You can learn from copying, but you can’t print it. Artist train themselves in the beginning by copying paintings, but they can’t sell those either.
(3) You should only write about things you find interesting. Don’t write about what you think someone else wants.
(4) If you have trouble getting started, put a notebook by your bed and write the first thing that comes into your head when you wake up. It doesn’t matter what you write. The point is to reach the subconscious mind, which is close to the surface at that time. This is where creativity comes from. You learn to recognize the mind-set so you can reproduce it at will. I got this idea from Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. If you are connected to the subconscious (in a writer’s trance) you can effortlessly call forth whatever memories you need. Time doesn’t seem to pass, although you may actually spend hours at the typewriter or computer. You are also safe-guarded against writer’s block.
(5) Many problems with writer’s block are caused by self-criticism. Here is a tip from the poet William Stafford: If you find it difficult to write, lower your standards.
(6) Writing in a heightened state of consciousness is very tiring. You will need to take breaks. To keep the door to the subconscious open while one is resting, many writers play solitaire or do puzzles. I do sudoku. Playing a musical instrument is good, too. The point is to avoid interaction with other people.
(7) Try to set aside a time and place to create every day. This takes discipline. Also, you need a place where you do nothing else but write. I know this is difficult if you live in a crowded apartment, but it’s important. Also, it’s good if you can lock the door to keep other people out.
(8) Some authors make careful outlines. This is especially true of mystery writers who have to keep everything straight. Ruth Rendell and P.D. James are masters of plotting and well worth studying for that reason. Sometimes an outline can help you out if you have writer’s block, but I have found, personally, that my creativity dies if I try to follow a pattern.
(9) This is how I do it: I write the first draft of a novel in one long sweep. I don’t rewrite or make an outline until I’m finished. One of the hardest things to keep going in a novel is the excitement and flow of the story. If you stop to criticize yourself, or to let other people criticize you, you’re going to stall. Don’t correct the spelling, don’t agonize over a metaphor. Write.This preserves your unique personality, the quality that sets you apart from everyone else. It can be destroyed by trying to please too many people. I know authors who take their stories from workshop to workshop. They rewrite constantly. The product sounds like something written by a committee.
(10) Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. People who do new and exciting things are often criticized by idiots. If we listened to critics we’d still be living in caves and eating raw squirrels.
(11) New writers are often afraid to pull out all the stops and go over the top with insane descriptions and situations. It’s almost impossible to go over the top.
(12) Some people dread the first few minutes before they begin to write. They are afraid nothing will happen when they sit down. The door to the subconscious might not open. Force yourself to try. The fear passes after a few minutes. You might not write anything good, but so what? Shaquille O’ Neal doesn't hit the basket every time either.