Blood in the Gears: Paul Tremblay on the Craft of Writing
Paul Tremblay is the Bram Stoker Award winning author of The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil's Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and the story collection Growing Things. His new novel, Survivor Song, will be published July 7th, 2020.
What is something you know now about writing novels that you wish you’d known when you first started out?
I started writing short stories, so I slowly transitioned into novels eventually. My first few attempts were failed attempts. And what made that transition difficult was the realization of how much a novel is a marathon, compared to the sprint of a short story. What’s been helpful for me is just to focus on the day-to-day. What am I trying to accomplish for today—whether it’s 500 words, or to finish a particular scene, maybe even edit and add to what I’ve written the day before. So, the novel is a marathon but you need to find ways to break it almost into “interval training,” if we’re going to go with the running analogy. You can break it up into little sprints or jogs.
When you sit down to write do you set any goals for yourself in terms of how long you’ll write, or how many words, or finishing a scene?
I always set a goal so I can either be happy or disappointed. Or I should say, more disappointed. I’ve found that’s what works for me. I need deadlines, or at least self-imposed deadlines. Because the novel is such a long process I need to have those little victories spread throughout, otherwise I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. In terms of what the goal is, it honestly depends on the day. I have a full-time job, and busy life with family and what-not, so if I only have an hour then my goal is to write for that hour and see what happens. But if I have more time then I set my goal for 500 words. Since I’m off for the summer I have more time, so I try to make that 500 words a minimum, and if I hit 1,000 I’ll be really happy. At the same time, I try and give myself permission to miss those goals and not beat myself up too much. But you don’t want to miss them every day.
Studying writing is great. Learning the nuts and bolts and gears of how to write is obviously important. But at the same time, I think that too many young writers lose sight of experience as being as important to writing. And not necessarily the experience of writing, but of living, of meeting people and listening to them. I started to become more comfortable as a writer when I realized that even if my ideas were riffing on, or inspired by other stories, pretty much every idea or story has already been done in one form or another. What makes it new, the magic of fiction, is that it’s coming through the filter of your own unique experiences. Don’t be afraid to use your personal experience, but also don’t be afraid to seek out other people and learn about their experiences.
When you begin a work that you know is going to be a novel, is the ending clear to you?
More times than not a sort-of end is clear to me, if not the exact end. The only novel I’ve written without a clear end was The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. And actually, the end changed after my first draft. Typically I have a beginning and ending in mind, and a good idea of how to get from one to the other.
With The Cabin at the End of the World, the ending seems very risky, in a way. There are a lot of directions you could have taken it, and where you took it was the most challenging. It demanded the most of the audience. Did you know at the time how challenging the ending would be for some readers?
I did underestimate how most people would react to the ending, honestly. I thought that most readers would assume one thing was happening anyway. For one thing, I really try not to write with an audience in mind, for in that way lies madness. There’s no way you can anticipate what thousands, potentially, of people are going to think about a book, or a story that you put out there.
When you write, what is it you’re looking for at the sentence level? When do you feel like a sentence had said what you want it to say?
As someone who hasn’t been technically trained in writing, it’s hard for me to put into words. I really go on the rhythm and the feel of the sentence when I’m reading it in my head. I rely on that a lot. And that comes from just reading all the time. And to me, that’s the only writing advice that’s worth anything, or I should say, advice that should be universal. You have to read a lot. It sounds so trite, but I see people push back against that all the time and it makes absolutely no sense to me. When I read now, I’m able to get lost in the story, but I find myself often looking at what the author’s doing on a sentence level—if I enjoy it, or I find it lacking in some way. I typically read 70 to 80 novels a year, and have since 2000, and I try to read from as many different genres as I can. And part of that goes back to my lack of self-esteem for not studying English, or writing. I was a Math major so I feel like I’m always playing catch up. And from reading so many books I feel like I know what a good sentence feels and sounds like.
But on a sentence level, I do try and avoid repeating words. Making sure that the sentences in a paragraph don’t start the same way, unless there’s a reason for it. So I do sift through that minutiae part of it.
Is that something that’s happening as you’re writing? Are they instinctual decisions, or are you thinking that through as you’re doing it?
I’m thinking it through as I’m doing it. I’m definitely an inveterate editor as I go. I’ll write the sentence and go back…if I wrote longhand it would really be a mess because I’m always deleting and going back, cutting and moving stuff around. And always picking through the sentence level stuff from what I did the day before, or the scene I’m working on. I’m always going over and re-going over before I move on to whatever new stuff I’m adding. And I still edit once I have a full draft. I feel like I’m always tinkering with word choice.
What is your process from having an idea that you think could be a novel, to having a completed draft ready for publication?
For the majority of my novels I have written some form of outline or summary. Before I start the first page, I’ll take a few weeks, or a month, and write out a 10 to 15 page plot summary. And once I have that map in place, then I’ll write the novel. I know some writers don’t like working with a map, or knowing where the story is going. And that’s great, you have to figure out what works for you, but for me I have a difficult time making up plot as I go. So if it’s a really plot heavy or twisty kind of book, that’s when I lean a little bit more on writing the outline. With A Head Full of Ghosts I didn’t write one. I feel like I got lucky with that story. Almost right away I had the three-part structure, I knew the beginning and the ending. And I kept a notebook to track ideas and peek ahead at what I might do.
You know, I try to make every book feel different, just to remind myself this story is different than the previous one. So when it feels like it’s harder, it’s okay but this is a different story. This is what it has to be. Any sort of mind game I can play to trick myself into going through that marathon process again is helpful. And once I have that summary, I start writing and that’s where it’s into the marathon mode, where I start setting goals for myself: getting 500 words a day, and I miss a day or two, then I’m looking to get 2,500 to 3,000 words that week. And if I get between 10,000 and 12,000 words, that’s a pretty solid month. I try to ramp things up as I get closer to the end, and I’m usually approaching deadline then, too. I try to break it up into manageable chunks to give myself some goals I feel good about meeting.
Earlier, you mentioned editing. It sounds like you’re doing a lot of that as you’re moving forward. Are you editing the previous day’s progress, or editing what you just wrote as soon as you’ve met your daily goal?
I’m immediately editing what I did the day before. And if it’s a novel, usually I go through the whole chapter if it’s small enough, or the previous scene. By the end I’ve gone through most sections in the book at least 5 or 6 times. Who knows, maybe even more. Sometimes it feels like I’m running in place, but eventually I move forward. You know, 500 words a day doesn’t sound like much…
But it adds up.
Yeah, it definitely adds up.
So by the time you’re done with a first draft, it sounds like you have a pretty well edited first draft.
I’m very jealous of the writers who can just spill it out, and then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. So my first draft tends to be somewhat clean, but I still do some major rewrites once I have the thing, as a whole, in front of me. Typically, one of the last things I do, before I send it to my editor, is print it because you always see different things when it’s written out in front of you, as opposed to on the screen. And if I don’t read the entire thing out loud, I read much of it out loud. That’s more just to catch some of the rhythms. You’d be surprised how many typos you catch too when you’re reading it out loud.
Looking at The Cabin at the End of the World from a technical perspective, it seems that you pulled off something really difficult. Did you have an outline for that book?
I did, and I had to write the outline against my will. I had an idea of the story, and I had most of it in my head, but I was off-deal at the time with William Morrow. The original deal was for two books, and I told my editor my idea for Cabin and the short story collection Growing Things. But she needed something to bring to the sales team, so they needed 50 pages and a summary. So I kind of wrote a half-assed summary. It only covered maybe two-thirds of the book, because I had a vague notion of what the ending was, but it was different at that point. But even in the summary I wrote, I said “well, does this happen at the end, or does this happen at the end? I don’t know, I have to write it to find out.” When my editor finally read the book she said, “I knew this was going to be really hard, but I also knew you’d pull it off, congrats.” But then she was also like, “I don’t know how people are going to react to the this. We’ll see.”
For those who have read The Cabin at the End of the World and are curious about Paul's thought process regarding the ending, he wrote an essay for the paperback edition of the novel. You can find it online HERE.
If you haven't read the book, it's best to avoid the essay as spoilers abound.
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