Writing Is like a Fungus

orange fungus on stump

Orange jelly fungus on a stump

Already, I’m letting this blog down. It’s been too long since I’ve written. Well, I’ve been writing, and that’s the good news, just not here.

What’s been happening? I’m working on a novel. My second, so you’d think it would be easier, right? Nope. Now I know all my weaknesses and found some new ones. Got to the dreaded middle and stalled, so I’ve been regrouping by rereading my favorite writing guidebooks: Story Genius, in particular, Author in Progress, Plot versus Character, and Word Painting (though that’ll be more helpful in the rewrite stage). There’s no one book or teacher or class that will solve all your writing problems. As in most things, everything in moderation.

I also look to existing novels for inspiration. The Likeness by Tana French got me through my first novel. Both are first person point of view (POV) and no one handles multiple characters moving about in a room and talking to each other like French does. She’s a master of gesture and expression—maybe because she’s also an actress.

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith is among my go-to references this time. Though I’m trying to keep to one POV (that might change on rewrite), I’m inspired by Griffith’s storytelling and how she incorporates a large cast sprawled across a long timeframe. You wonder why Marghe has gone through this grueling trek across an alien continent. Sure, she changes, both literally and figuratively, just as she should. But when the climax arrives, she revisits everything that has gone before in persuading the other characters to do what she thinks they need to do. So every scene that came before led right to this point, nothing was wasted. It’s masterful.

The Evolution of Love by Lucy Jane Bledsoe is giving me insight into how to push a character to her limit and how to show scenes hitting her “third rail” as Lisa Cron puts it in Story Genius. TEOL is very good, by the way. I’m not finished yet, so am anxious to see where it goes.

Perfect Little Worlds by Clifford Mae Henderson has a character with a specific, though unlabeled, personality quirk (it is labeled in the blurb but didn’t need to be—you know…labels). Alice is one of those secondary characters who leaps off the page and steals scenes right and left. Not by grand gestures or flamboyant “acting,” but by distinctive speech patterns, gestures, and actions. You’re not hit over the head with her challenges and she’s not a problem that has to be solved by the others. She’s a mirror for others to see themselves in new ways.  I got depressed by this book. Not because it’s bad—no way! It’s excellent and that’s what bothered me. I didn’t have half that quality of characterization in my cast members.

Some writers refuse to read, or read in their genre, when writing. I find it like priming a pump—and it doesn’t have to be in the same genre. Add a little outside inspiration to get the inner creative juices flowing. I wish it worked better, but I at least have that.

For this story, which has a much larger cast than my first book, I realized I needed to get to know my secondary characters better, figure out ways they can hamper my protagonist’s progress toward self-enlightenment. I’m also struggling with what might be sophomore slump for a writer. Because now I know how hard writing is, I’m more cautious, which is bad. Plus, this book isn’t keeping me awake at night like the first book did. The characters aren’t talking to me, forcing me to pay attention to them. I don’t think it’s because it’s not a good story. Every time I think I should give up and let it go, it comes back to haunt me. It wants to be told. I want to do it justice and I’m not confident I’m good enough for it (that horrible internal editor has to die!).

The photo I chose for this piece had no particular significance originally. But then I got thinking. It’s not that fungi feed off dead things—that isn’t what I’m after. The amazing thing about fungi is that they exist under the surface, underground, sprawled across acres, not just consuming dead things, but also helping living things (read The Hidden Life of Trees for more about that). What you see on the surface is only the fruiting body—it’s time to spread spores so here comes the mushroom or slime or some other amazing feature (we’ll avoid stinkhorns for this discussion; ’nuff said).

So much of what goes into a book—fiction or nonfiction—is unseen. Not just the hours of time spent on research and brainstorming, but also the story itself. For every 100 pages of a novel, there are probably thousands more of backstory that never gets used other than to help the writer understand the motivation behind a character’s actions. Readers want the action. They don’t want the navel-gazing that led to it. Some is needed—you need to know why something happens or else it can’t break that wall of disbelief—but not as much as you might think.

Fall is prime mushroom season. Now away from the city, I see the astonishing variety—corals, jellies, purple, orange, yellow (won’t mind if I don’t stumble on dead-man’s fingers).

May the writing be as productive!


For more:

The Likeness by Tana French (it’s a series though and In the Woods should be read first to get the full effect)

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

The Evolution of Love by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

Perfect Little Worlds by Clifford Mae Henderson

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Author in Progress, edited by Therese Walsh and content by the wonderful contributors to Writer Unboxed

Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke

Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan (I’ll be using this much more later)

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben


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