Making good art

In an interview with Griffin Hansen, Orlaith Holland uncovers one student’s process of writing a novel

The kettle is on. It’ll be my fourth coffee of the day. All of the windows are wide open, summer air creeping in, born of our Irish heat wave. Although I’m in my kitchen, I’m dressed neatly, as if I’m going to work. This is how I write. “Maybe if I take this seriously,” I tell myself, “I might actually get somewhere.”

It’s almost half four, and my dad is the last of my family to be shooed out of the house, off to a barbecue I had no intention of going to anyway. But today I have an excuse. My laptop sounds just as I set my coffee down. It’s 4:30 sharp – she’s punctual. “Ready to roll?”

Griffin Hansen’s setting is a little different from mine. Seated at a table in Central Park, she uses a bakery’s free wifi to message me through Facebook while sipping mint lemonade in the sun.

Hansen’s a Minneapolis native, but is currently in New York. She’s working as an assistant to a kid’s class for television writing while also writing a newsletter for a marketing consultancy “as a side job”. She’s keeping busy, as always. It appears to come naturally to her, along with a certain level of self-discipline. Although we both identify as writers, this sets us apart. It makes sense, then, that we feel like we are suited to different media.

A novel of 50,000 to 100,000 words can seem like the hardest of forms to conquer, yet this is what Hansen considers her domain. As someone who usually writes poetry, writing a novel seemed impossible to me; I’m just very out of practice with prose. There’s just too many words on the page, with no ambiguity to hide behind. And although I wouldn’t consider poetry a sprint, a novel is certainly a marathon. After the initial fire that comes with any new idea, I was 10,000 words in and hitting a wall. Which is why I wanted to reach out to Hansen: to see if there could be any method to this madness I found myself in.

So what are you currently working on?

I’m working on the second draft of a kids’ fantasy novel, although I lost half of the first draft in a computer catastrophe. I also have a set of short stories and some fan fiction stuff going on in the background.

Is it your first novel?

I don’t have anything published but I’ve completed first drafts of two other novels. One is teen sci-fi and the other is an adult mystery.

Do you tend to stick to these genres or flit around? When you start planning to write something, do you ever think in terms of genre?

I love to mix it up. And yeah, I do think about the genre although sometimes it evolves while I’m writing.

On the topic of planning – some writers will swear by having everything plotted out, while others say that you should never know how the story ends until you write it. Where do you fall? How much planning will you do prior to writing?

I tend to write an outline that is around 1000 words long. It changes as I go, often in pretty major ways. Sometimes I wish I planned more thoroughly, but I just can’t make it happen. Often I won’t know exactly how the plot will resolve itself, but I always start knowing the emotional beat on which the story will end.

Do you ever use any tools? The three/five stages of structure, etc?

On this latest story I did use the five stages to try and keep narrative balance by estimating the word count by which I needed to have covered X amount of plot.

Do you think you write similar books to those you read?

I guess. I read and write a huge variety though. I don’t think I will ever write epic fantasy, but I love reading it.

So who are your influences?

I mean, J K Rowling was first and greatest. I don’t think I could ever quantify how much she has influenced me. Russell T Davies and Aaron Sorkin for TV. Classics-wise, Shakespeare and Fitzgerald.

Do you have a routine?

I try to write 1–2 hours per day, but I also try not to shame myself if I miss a day because I find that to be just disheartening and unhelpful.

The 1–2 hours… would that have to be for a specific, main project that you’re doing, or could that be for anything?

Anything. Closer to 2 for a novel because I like to hit about 1500 words but it varies.

1500 words is roughly the recommended daily target for NaNoWriMo – is that a coincidence or have you taken part?

I’ve completed NaNo twice and participated a third time.

Do you find it motivating?

I do. I’m really competitive so the idea of a challenge gets me really excited. Also I get irrationally excited when I can make a digital bar turn green.

I understand completely; that’s why I use Scrivener.

[For those who are unaware: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is an online initiative that challenges people to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. With over 250 published novels having come out of it, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, maybe there is something to be said for the project. Scrivener is a word processor which allows you, among other things, to set word targets for writing sessions – not that it’s given me much success.]

How much do you edit?

The goal of my current project is actually to improve my editing process. It is something that’s really hard to motivate to do, and I’m still working on it.

Earlier you talked about the influence that J K Rowling had on you. Did you always want to write novels from an early age? Some consider the novel superior to all other literary forms – has this been the case for you? Was writing novels always the end goal?

I actually started writing my first novel when I was eight. Over the next three years I hand-wrote about 75 pages. I started out by wanting to write novels, but as I got older, tv and other more collaborative forms became more interesting to me. And I don’t believe in ranking art forms ever. It’s all about what speaks to you

That’s impressive for an eight year old! Young writers are often characterised as having huge egos, disproportionate to their ability. Do you think this is the case and, if so, do you think it helps/hurts their writing? And are there any other traps?

I think a certain amount of ego is necessary to be successful (or maybe that’s just my self justification). But I do think you have to find some way of getting through rejection and a culture that is programmed to doubt the viability of art. There’s a difference between deeply believing, despite rejection, that you will succeed, and not being open to criticism and growth. But that line is sometimes hard to pick out. As far as other traps go, I think not having enough ego is also a problem. Also there is this bizarre misconception, that I think a lot of paid writers perpetuate, that ideas just flow effortlessly and true writers have some mystical Muse that guides them unerringly. Whereas, in reality, writing is a lot of work no matter how talented you are.

Do you want to build a career around writing? And do you think that the degree you’re pursuing helps?

I definitely want a career that involves creative writing. Studying film and English allows me to look at a lot of other writers and cherry-pick the things that I want to try and incorporate into my own life

How do you define success?

Being recognised as someone with interesting ideas by other people in the field and making enough money to devote the majority of my mental energy towards creativity. Also when my writing makes someone cry.

Is it more important for you to write for yourself, or for an audience?

Writing is pretty solitary and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t get a lot out of it, but I do also crave validation. For me, that’s how I use fanfiction, because it’s much easier to get an involved audience as a young writer. Some of my more popular fics have been read by a couple thousand people whereas my completed original fiction has been read by like… five.

You’re an English student; have you ever purposely incorporated symbolism into your writing?

Maybe. But I tend to be more interested in interesting dialogue and wordplay than symbols.

Have you ever psychoanalysed your own work?

No I haven’t and never will. I don’t want to know…!

Are there any tropes that you tend to rely on? Something that’s common to all your work?

Female heroines who need to learn to rely on other people more. The difference between imagination and reality and how much that really matters. Parent child relationships.

Is there anything that you’ve found particularly hard to write about?

Worries about trying to be inclusive of different perspectives without appropriating experiences I don’t understand. Sex scenes. They’re terrible.

What comes first, characters or plot?

I think more of scenes first – or, again, emotional beats that have hints of both plot and character but nothing fully formed.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard?

“Don’t kill your children. Murderers do that.” – Russell T Davies in response to the advice that you should cut your favourite bits of your story if they don’t fit. He says to cut everything else. Also, this isn’t advice, but singing “just keep writing” to the tune of Dory’s “just keep swimming” is both annoying and effective.  Personally I’m going through a Neil Gaiman phase so I remember the mantra of “Finish Things,” and when I’m particularly stuck, I watch the “Make Good Art” speech.

Thanking Hansen for all of her patience and advice, we wrap up the interview so she can return to filling up that digital bar. Before turning away from my own laptop, I let myself indulge one more time in the comfort of the speech I had just mentioned, hoping for a last burst of inspiration.

At this point I know it all too well. I anticipate each joke. I know where he deviated from his own script, because I have my own printed copy, underlined lovingly. But the words still hold power. They still always manage to leave me with a smile on my face, excited and hopeful. In those moments I don’t feel special; I’m not just a lonely struggling artist, fighting a tide of tedium that the world is forcing upon me. Rather I am one of many, all searching for something the only way we know how. Griffin Hansen, myself, people I know, and people I don’t: we all feel that need to create, and that’s what makes it so exciting.

“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

Orlaith Holland

Orlaith Holland is a current Deputy Features Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Film Studies student, and was also a Deputy Features Editor in 2017/18.