Meredith Sue Willis on Writing Novels

Meredith Sue Willis is the author of a book on writing novels, Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, as well as a wide range of novels, children's books, short story collections, and nonfiction books. Some of her other books for writers include Deep Revision: A Guide for Teachers, Students, and Other Writers; Blazing Pencils: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Essays; and Personal Fiction Writing: A Guide to Writing from Real Life for Teachers, Students & Writers.

We asked Meredith Sue Willis about writing novels and her most recent book about writing.

A Conversation with Meredith Sue Willis

Q: You have published both novels and short story collections. When you have an idea for something you want to write, what tells you whether it should be a novel or a short story? Could you talk about some differences in the process of writing novels and writing stories?

A: Often my novels grow out of stories that expanded like amoebae walking. Others of my stories are outtakes from novels -- pieces that, again, began to expand and no longer seemed to fit in the novel. I stored them and eventually turned them into stories.

Sometimes, though, I'll have an idea to try something intense or even experimental that I know I couldn't sustain for a whole novel-- often it's a voice, like St. Augustine's concubine. I had a great time with her for fifteen or twenty pages, but it was clearly not going to be a novel. I believe you need to know more about the quotidian world for a novel, whereas a short story can be like a flash of lightning, intense and illuminating, but it's a glimpse, not even the illusion of a whole world.

I'm now writing a series of stories called Feral Grandmothers which are almost all experimental in tone or types of characters unlike me. The main thing for me is the pleasure of going back and forth, rediscovering a thing I had laid aside, coming up with something entirely different from my usual experience and writing, or seeing some little idea grow larger and larger as I explore a new world.

Q: "Separate process and product" is the first strategy offered in your book Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel. Could you talk a bit about what you mean by the difference between process and product and what happens when beginning writers fail to separate the two?

A: What happens when a beginning writer fails to separate process and product is that she (and the ones who get stuck like this are often women though of course not always) starts criticizing her unfinished work and sees how hopelessly unfinished it is, and gets blocked. Or, he will spend so long polishing his magnificent first sentence that he never writes a second. Essentially, it's about critiquing and polishing too soon.

Q: At the beginning of Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, you explain that the process of writing novels doesn’t necessarily have to be linear. Could you describe an alternative approach to writing novels?

A: One approach I like, which I think I invented, but you never know, is called the Archipelago Method. You write the high points, not an outline, but actual scenes, and those become the little islands (that are really mountaintops) of the archipelago out there in the ocean of the potential novel. After you've written five or six of these scenes, you may well have fifty or sixty pages, and then you can keep writing scenes, or you might start at the beginning to see leads to one, to the next, and so on.

Q: In Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, you say that a common difficulty when writing novels is running out of momentum. Could you discuss that a little? What are some strategies to maintain momentum through the whole novel-writing process?

A: It's just that novels are so very long -- and life goes on during the months or even years it takes to write one. You may even (temporarily) run out of ideas.

My own strategy which I don't exactly recommend, but it does work for me, is to have a lot of projects going at the same time. I just, for example, finished a pretty final draft of a young adult novel, but while I was drafting it, I wrote several stories, and tinkered with an old novel I'd laid aside and also wrote Ten Strategies (based on teaching notes). For me, it's like having several different kinds of reading matter on the bed side table. I like variety, and I come back to each project refreshed.

Q: In Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, you say that a novelist "must learn to sink into the process of creating." Could you talk a bit about what you mean by this? What are some techniques for achieving that immersion in the process?

A: It isn't easy to find time to write if you have a job, have a family-- and especially, being still, waiting, is not comfortable for many Westerners, not the way we achieve. We take on tasks and make plans and outline and collect information and take classes and talk to people and email and text . The sinking in I'm talking about is private and even lonely, and sometimes, you have to wait for a kind of boredom. You're looking for ways to give your subconscious and unconscious free reign for a little while.

For a practical suggestion, I'd say try writing before you do anything else that day-- no email, no newspaper. Try to stay close to your dreams. Or, alternatively, write some journal entries or even grocery lists before your creative writing, clear your head of whatever else is there, and get the writing muscles, physical and mental going. Sometimes the activity of writing primes the writing pump.

Another way to get sinking is to try things you wouldn't ordinarily do: a writing prompt, or a pencil and pad in a public square on at the beach (especially if you usually write on a keypad). Anything to shake things up and get the gears engaged.

Click here to read the beginning of Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, or click here to visit Meredith Sue Willis's Amazon page.

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