Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Travels with Steinbeck

As anyone who follows me on Goodreads might have ascertained by now, I've got a bad case of reading ADD at the moment. My "currently reading" list has 5 or 6 books on it, and that doesn't include the books I have lying around that I pick up and peruse because I'm waiting to add them to the currently reading list. One of those is Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck.

I'm having a major mid-life love affair with Steinbeck at the moment, something I talk about today in a guest post at the Nerdy Book Club. This morning, I picked up Travels with Charley and on the first page found some words of wisdom that inspired me as I'm beginning the first draft of a new W-I-P.

A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality,uniqueness. A journey is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing , and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass-bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this, a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

YES! I thought. YES! YES! YES! Not just about the physical journeys. Not just about marriage (but a zillion times yes to that, too.)
But also, I thought, substitute a novel for a trip and that's how I feel every time I start writing a new book.

One of the aspects of craft I've been working very hard to learn more about is plot and structure, because I've always tended to be more of a pantser. In fact, another thing I'm doing today is starting an online plot workshop with the awesome (and hilarious)Rhonda Helms. The software program Scrivener is a practical tool that's helped me develop my plotting skills.

But ultimately, no matter how much I try to plot in advance, I still have to write my way into the book. That's why I've become such an ardent believer in the "write it as fast as possible shitty first draft." Because as much as I might try to control the thing in advance, I have set myself free to experience the journey before it finds me and reveals its personality.

Thanks again, John.


  1. Half my copy of Travels with Charley seems to be underlined. I'm thinking that might be my next chapter-by-chapter blog project, after I finish with Witch of Blackbird Pond.

    (Also: oy, plotting. I have no trouble coming up with a premise, but making stuff actually *happen* is another story.)

  2. I'm reading Travels with Charley and In Dubious Battle at the same time. One upstairs and one downstairs. So different. I love TwC because it really shows Steinbeck's wonderful sense of humor, which you don't always see in his other books.

    I am working SO HARD to improve my plotting. I think it is a learned skill, and I'll always be more character driven that plot driven by instinct, but do think it's helping me.