The First Rule

The first rule of writing is to use fewer words than you think you need to. I violate this rule every time I put my fingers on the keyboard. (There’s always tomorrow.)

Without a Net

Last month, the day before Thanksgiving, I was pumping gas into my car, or trying to, anyway. After a few tries, the gizmo still wasn’t working. I was annoyed. I turned to step over the hose and head into the station to get an attendant. Suddenly I heard an eerie sound: it sounded just like the thwack! of a baseball and bat making contact. But it was neither bat nor ball, it was the sound of a human head—mine—slamming into concrete. I’d tripped on the hose, and I was face-down in blood. It’s so easy to forget, but this is exactly how life operates. One second you’re standing upright, absorbed in a petty annoyance, and a split second later you’re lying prone on concrete, bleeding profusely and marveling at how utterly and instantaneously your reality has changed. People have asked me, “What lessons did you learn from having your head cracked open on a filling station pavement?” I ponder this. Lesson #1: Concrete is hard. Also, be careful how you step over things. These are two parts of the same lesson, and it’s a good one. Lesson #2: That stitching thing they do at hospitals, that’s amazing. I’d never been awake for stitches before. It makes me immensely grateful that we have doctors, antiseptics, and hospitals. (Of my six stitches, Ana successfully removed five, ten days later at home; the sixth was coy, and I eventually ended up having the local doc coax that one out.) Lesson #3: Life is shockingly fragile. And, astonishingly resilient. I was flabbergasted to find myself so suddenly, unexpectedly and irrevocably at the center...

The Hard Part

I’ve just spent a week, more or less, doing what is for me the hardest part of writing: starting. I’m working on a new book for teens (will say more about what it is soon), and need to have it done in a few weeks. But that’s not the hard part. The hard part is figuring out what the book is. This is the cutting-down-the-trees part of the cabinet-making, the part in the very beginning, the part nobody ever sees. This is the part when there’s nothing to show for what you’ve been doing all day. You can easily spend the whole day sweating and laboring mightily, and end up feeling like you’ve wasted your day. Once a project is in full swing, I might turn out one or two thousand words a day, or even more. At that point, the book sprouts like an adolescent hitting high-hormone growth spurt. At that point, the project makes a lot of noise. Later, when the book is in completed first draft and it’s time to go through it, refining, rewriting, adjusting — that’s the easiest part. At that point, you’re dealing with a fully (or mostly) grown adult. It behaves itself. There’s plenty to show for each day’s effort, and it goes fast. I’ve gone through an entire book, doing full-on copy-edits and even major rewrites in a matter of days, dealing with tens of thousands of words per day. But not now. At this messy stage, the project isn’t even really born yet. I can’t see it. I don’t know what it is. And so I spend the day groping,...