Branchings of a wandering mind
Some Thoughts on Writing
At the moment this is a collection of a few posts I made on an old blog. I plan to go through and re-write them eventually into something more coherent and, well, better.
Two years ago I had all sorts of assumptions about what I was capable of doing with my writing.  I could never write more than a book a year, if I could even do that much. I couldn't stick to an every day schedule, or hit certain word count goals. I couldn't write action sequences. I had to have an outline and know exactly where I was going. You know, I can't even remember all the things I thought I couldn't do. I've gotten so far beyond that.

I write every weekday morning before work, and at least one weekend afternoon. I may not be consistent about getting as many words as I want (I would like to do hit 1000 a day, this week it's been 400-600) but I'm consistent at getting something written. I've written some exciting scenes and been good at it. I'm willing to give anything at least one shot, and I completely believe in my ability to be a professional writer. I've found that I need to know the end of the story, and at least  a page or two ahead, but not necessarily any more.

That's not saying I don't have doubts, fears, and down swings. Hell, I have a ton of them. I think every writer does. You always hit that time where you think what you're writing is never going to measure up to what you know it could be. But I don't limit myself any more. And breaking those limits has been one of the most exciting things of the past year.

Many writer have rituals around where, when and how they do their writing. There is always the danger of becoming too attached to them, of course.  If you have to sit in the blue chair with your coffee in the green mug in front of the poster of Hawaii (to remind you of what you can do when you're a famous writer, of course) what happens when you're visiting Aunt Lizzie for a week?  Or when you're stuck waiting while your car is worked on for two hours, and it would be the perfect time to get some writing done, but you don't have your blue chair and your green mug and your poster?

On the other hand, finding ways to tell your brain "now it's time to get to work" can definitely help your productivity. I've never tied myself to writing in a certain environment, but I have tried small things that are portable. Like playing certain music, playing a certain solitaire game, even a certain smell (a sandalwood mix was nice). I've switched from music to a looped falling-rain track, which I don't use all the time, but I still do five minutes of solitaire before and between every fifteen-minute writing time. (Fifteen minutes seems to be about the limit of my concentration when I'm not in the middle of a good stretch. Sometimes I keep going when the timer goes off, but I always do at least the fifteen. Well, almost always.)

However, I've come around to trying a dedicated space for writing at home. I don't think it's something I'll depend on too much, but I have to admit that it could help. Right now I've been writing in the mornings and evenings sitting on the couch in the living room with my laptop. Problem number one is that I have to do this while the Kid is in bed, which limits my time. Number two is that the laptop has been plugged into the internet all the time, and since the couch is more comfortable than the computer desk, the laptop has morphed into my primary online computer. I'm pretty good about not going online when I'm supposed to be writing, but that's still not a good thing. I live in a two-bedroom duplex with the Kid, so a dedicated room is out of the question. This afternoon I shoved things around in my bedroom to free up a little space. I now have a comfortable chair facing the window which is going to be used only for writing in. There's a phone there within arm's reach so I don't have to jump up when it rings, and, since I don't use wireless, there's no internet access.

I'll add a few decorating touches soon, since I want this to be a place I enjoy being in. And I'm going to be strict about my no-sitting-without-writing policy. Now we'll see how long it takes my brain to learn to flip the writing switches when I sit down there. I'm on vacation this week, which on the one hand means I ought to have more time for writing, but on the other means a lack of schedule and more things going on. Hopefully this writing space will help me focus on getting a good number of words out despite the chaos.

I'm hitting the point now where I'm starting to weave in the new writing with the old draft that's already written. It's tricky, since while the old draft may be fine, it doesn't always fit with the new beginning. I think I need to re-read the six chapters I have done and make lists of things I need to remember, continue, or wrap up. It's too easy to slip back into what's already written and forget where I was going. I need something to remind me of all the little threads I need to keep weaving.

I hit a point yesterday where I realized that the way a particular scene had been done just didn't work any more, and had to backtrack a few hundred words. I'm still learning how to tell the I-just-don't-want-to-write hesitation that has to be pushed through from the this-is-wrong hesitation that means I have to go in a different direction. (At least I finally figured out that if a scene is boring and uninteresting to write, it probably won't be interesting to read either.)

Sometimes it's as easy to fix as asking myself, what's the worst thing that could happen now, and making it happen. Sometimes it means going back several pages and re-writing. A serious block for me has so far always been a story issue, luckily. And as long as I'm sitting my butt down in the chair consistently every day, I don't usually have too much I-don't-want-to-write blocks to work through. Take a few days off, though, and that can change. That's the major reason I've actually stuck to a write-every-day schedule. Well. Mostly stuck to it. A little flexibilty is good, right? Right.

I read an excellent post by the author Maggie Stiefvater titled The Giant Butt-Kicking How to Write a Novel Post. It boils down to this quote:
All of these questions are really one question: "How do I write a book?"
And the answer, which I will explain in depth, is a simple two-parter:
1 – You decide to.
2 - Butt in Chair.

There's a lot more to it, of course.  You should go read it.  But that's the essence. Want to write a novel? Tell yourself you're going to do it, set aside consistent time, and stick to it.

Amen.

Now, I didn't always agree with this. I remember the first time I listened to the audiobook of Steven King's "On Writing" I took exception to the part where he talks about setting a daily wordcount goal and sticking to it. A few short years ago I spent more time planning, rewriting, re-plotting, etc., then actually writing. I sure as heck wasn't consistent.

In my experience over the last year, though, butt-in-chair is the most important rule of all. Everyone has different schedules, everyone has different methods of pre-planning, different tricks to keep themselves going, and so on. But one thing every professional writer that I've heard discuss this has in common is that they have either a consistent schedule or consistent goals that they hold themselves to. I know that making a habit of writing at certain times every day has been the best thing I could've done for my writing.

Speaking of habits, I'm still doing my five-minute warmup with mindless solitaire, and I've added a consistent piece of music with it. I've been doing more 30-minute sessions than 15-minute lately: I think I'm getting my brain trained to concentrate on it better. And getting my creative muscles a little stronger.

I expect that every writer has certain tendencies they have to be on guard against. Things they instinctively do that they have to prevent, catch in the act, or fix later. One of my biggest problems is a desire to make everything okay.

It's the same desire you have as a reader. (At least most of the time.) You want the sympathetic characters to be all right, to reconcile problems, to be happy. As a reader that desire is part of what keeps you reading, hoping that everything the characters are going through will turn out okay in the end. That means, of course, that part of my job as the author is to make sure you don't know until the end whether or not it will be okay. To keep the tension high.

Occasionally  I'll realize that I'm writing a scene to help out my protagonist. She's reconciling with a family member, resting and re-hashing information, being protected, whatever it happens to be. I have to remind myself that I'm not wrapping up problems yet. I still have to throw a few more rocks at her before I can get her down from the tree. So I backtrack a bit and toss another problem at her.

It's an interesting thing to watch. I enjoy writing terrible, emotionally wrenching scenes and what have you, but if I'm not paying attention I automatically slip into let's-fix-this mode. It might be something I'll grow out of as a writer, I suppose. If I do I'm sure there'll be another problematic tendency to take its place.

I didn't get as much written this weekend as I wanted to because I was dealing with my sagging-middle-of-the-book problem as well as recovering from another making-everything-okay scene. I had written in the older draft that after an exciting, dangerous close shave, she's reunited with friends and family, everyone regroups, and they go on to something else. I was trying to write that scene, but it was giving me a red flag. Nope, not working, it said. Throw more rocks, remember?

So I deleted a couple thousand words and came up with a completely new scene that I'm pretty excited about. I got about 1600 words done on it yesterday, and it came along nicely this morning too. I still don't know what's going to happen next, but this should give me some interesting opportunities.

There is an interesting contradiction that I've seen in myself and that I suspect is also true for many other writers, or artists of one sort or another. On the one hand is a rather inflated ego. I think this is probably necessary for most artists. I mean, really, you need some pretty high self-confidence to think that anybody would want to see whatever it is you're creating. And there are plenty of times when I think my writing is something special. In fact, there have been many times over my life that I've been sure my talents in one area or another were better than they really were.

The other side, of course, is debilitating insecurity. It can show up when you're smacked in the face with the fact that you're not as good as you secretly think you are, but it also gnaws away at you when there's absolutely no reason for it. It's an odd, uncomfortable see-saw ride. For me, at least. And balancing out isn't easy. It's easy to say that you're not the best and you're not the worst, but it's a lot harder to shut up the feelings. Not voices: it's nothing so easy to reason with as actual statements. Just feelings that you have to tease out, look at, and understand.

One thing I'm thankful for is that I am able to look at my false confidences and insecurities and understand what they are. I'm not an insufferable mass of pride, and I don't get knocked out by my doubts. The not getting knocked down is partly thanks to all the writers who have shared their own fears online and taught me that, no, it's not just me.

So, yes, I think my current draft is an awful mess of dropped plot-lines, unnecessary scenes, missing scenes, missing description, and many other irredeemable failings. But I keep going because I'll fix it all in the end. And then no doubt I'll be sure it's the best novel ever written.

There are lots of ways to split writers into different categories. Everyone's different, of course, but there are certain tendencies that people share to one degree or another. Plotters and Pantsers (as in by-the-seat-of), for example. Another that I've seen is writing speed.

Speed might be the wrong term, actually. It has more to do with how easily the words come out. I've known people who sit down, open up some sort of vein, and fill up pages. Some lucky people can do this and the pages are filled with good stuff.

On the other hand, there's me. You've heard the advice to sit and just write without stopping or thinking? I don't do that. Words don't flow, for me. They're dredged up with effort. Some other people I used to write with would come back with pages full of good story while I had a half-page or so. The good part is that what I dredge up is usually more good than bad.

Now, I'm not assuming those prolific people I'm talking about are the norm. And I have no problems with how I write. It's not a deficiency of imagination or ideas on my part. It's just the way it works. But I wonder sometimes about how writing feels for people who can just ... write.

Writing is like practicing an instrument. I remember as a kid I always hated practicing, but when I actually sat down and did it, it was kind of fun. (I have no issues with practicing now. Nope. None at all.) And sitting down to write, getting my hands on the keyboard, is sometimes the hardest part. Especially if I skip a few days. The less I write, the harder it is to write.

Guess what I've been having a problem with lately?

I think the same goes for writing blog entries. I'm tempted to start posting daily, just so it becomes more of a habit. Hm, I've had the same experience with exercising, actually. Small amounts daily works better than trying to do a lot every few days.

You'd think that I'd learn something from this.

Of course, the problem with writing blog posts more frequently is that I very rarely have something to say. Something that I think is interesting, at least. But the problem with that problem is that I have to learn how to write a few hundred words even if I don't know what it's going to be.

More writing = easier writing.

In theory.

(I want to live in theory. Everything works in theory.)

More writing should also equal better writing. Practice makes perfect and all that. So, hey, easy solution to all my problems: write more! Now, if I could just do something about that wet-noodly thing that calls itself my willpower...

It's been an interesting week in publishing. I feel like I ought to say something about ebooks or discounted book prices. (For reference, three new ebook readers were announced this week, and big box stores have been in a low-price war over a few bestselling books.) But, really, there's not much for me to say. I don't feel, as a publishing outsider, that I have anything particularly relevant to contribute.

What I can talk about with a little more authority is being an aspiring author as the publishing world is turned inside out.

It's very easy to pay too much attention to the State of Publishing. Every day someone is talking about huge changes, arguing that the changes aren't so huge, saying things will stay the same, or proclaiming the End of Publishing As We Know It. It's easy to latch onto every bit of news and try to figure out how it will affect your chances of getting published, or your experience once you are published.

And there certainly are some big changes. From ebooks to recessions to restructurings, there has been a lot going on. The problem is that no one has a fully functional crystal ball. The same bit of news can be (and usually is) analyzed by two people into two opposite conclusions. As easy as it is to watch publishing news obsessively, it's also very easy to become completely confused.

And let's not forget discouraged. After all, if book publishing is falling apart, why even bother trying to get your novel published? Editors are picking up fewer debut authors. They're dropping midlist authors. Agents are pickier. Ebooks will make the big publishing houses fall apart. No one will be able to make any money. And so on.

All that might be true. But it's not going to change what I'm doing. I've always known having a career as a published author would be a hell of a lot of hard work, and would probably take a long time. Now it might be harder? Okay, I can deal with that. And who knows, all the doom-and-gloom might be completely wrong. It's certainly an exciting time to be part of, however it turns out. Yes, things like promotion might be a bigger job for authors now. There are also a lot more opportunities to find and connect with readers than there used to be. I won't say that there's a silver lining to every cloud. There isn't. But your attitude can make a big difference in taking advantage of what's there instead of being weighed down by it.

My plan? Write the best damn book I can. It might get picked up by an editor and do awesome. Or it might not. Same old crap shoot as always. If it falls flat I go on to Plan B: write a better damn book. Rinse, repeat, continue as above. I keep an eye on publishing news so I stay informed, but I don't obsess over what might happen in the future.

The biggest thing that successful authors have in common? Perseverence. That's not going to change. So the best thing an aspiring author can do is to keep on writing, submitting, and not worrying about crossing bridges until they're underfoot.

I have finished the second draft of the book, finished revisions on it, and begun sending it out to the people who have agreed to read it.

Eeek!

I'm feeling an interesting mix of relief and excitement from finishing, nervousness from people reading it, and dread from the next cycle of revisions coming up. Not much excitement, which is odd, when I think about it. I just finished a book to the point that I need other people's perspectives to make it better. Yes, I'm not finished with it. But shouldn't I be happier that I got this far?

Writers are strange people.

Since the subject is obviously very much on my mind I thought I'd talk about feedback: other people's opinions, expressed nicely or otherwise, and the acceptance thereof. It's a big topic. I'm going to save listening to and dealing with feedback for a little later when I'm getting my own input back from my beta readers. I suspect I'll have a few more insights then. Or agonies to share. Whichever. For now I'll stick with the pre-handing-over-work phase.

To start with, friends and family. Especially family. The common counsel is to never ever ask family or close friends (especially anyone you've ever slept with) to critique your work. Whether they're too close to you and won't want to hurt your feelings, or don't think you'll ever make it and will be too harsh, or whatever their reason is, they simply can't be objective enough to give you good feedback.

I'm sure in most cases this is true. However, it doesn't have to always be true. Take me, for example. I'm lucky enough to have a few friends and family who understand the value of good feedback and know that I won't blow up on them if they say my book isn't perfect. My mom and brother are writers themselves, and their insights have always been helpful. You do have to be careful asking for feedback from people that are close to you. They have to be the right kind of people and you have to have the right kind of relationship. But don't discount them just because someone said you can never ask family to give you opinions on your work.

No matter who you're asking you should be careful how you ask. Try not to make anyone feel like they're cornered or that you expect them to say yes. Also, try to make sure they understand that critiquing a manuscript is different from breezing through a novel. It's helpful to be up front about a timeline: I requested that people get their feedback to me within a month. This way you're not sitting around chewing your fingernails waiting for people to get back to you, and they know that they're making a commitment to do this in a certain amount of time. I also sent out a letter with my manuscript with some examples of the types of feedback that would be most useful to me. This helps make sure that what you get back is something you can actually use.

Lastly, on the value of feedback in general. It's crucial. I know that I simply cannot see the big picture very well on my book any more. I don't know when I'm not explaining something well enough, because I already know all the answers. I don't know which scenes resonate well with readers and which ones fall flat. I don't know if my characters come across right. So the more opinions I get, the more I can understand the book's strengths and weaknesses, and the more tools I'll have for making it better.

I haven't had to plot out a new story for a long time. I'd forgotten how hard it can be. I'm in the brainstorming stage: writing down lists of ideas, no matter how good or bad they seem to be. Soon, hopefully, those ideas will coalesce into something that resembles a feasible plot. Going by experience, it will be quite different than the finished product, but it still has to look good as it is.

There are people out there who can sit down with a blank page, start writing, and see where it takes them as they go. Not me. I need to have that framework of an outlined plot, even if I end up warping it into something completely different. I need to know something about where I'm going before I can go there.

It may be hard to come up with a new story, but it's still exciting. So many possibilities. So many different ways it could go. Thinking up a story is a little like starting a new relationship. You see all the good things that you could fall in love with but none of the annoying little flaws. There's still the possibility that this one could be the best ever. Reality will set in eventually, of course. But there's no harm in enjoying the rose-colored glasses while they last.

I'm afraid I don't have any amazingly useful plotting techniques to share. Not even any halfway decent ones. If you're the sort of person who thrives on index cards and outlines I highly recommend Alexandra Sokoloff's blog. She has a huge amount of wonderful information and tools. Unfortunately, I'm the sort of person where trying to follow most of her advice just makes my head hurt. So I muddle along intuitively until I get something that feels right.

I suppose that's the best advice I could give. Do what feels right. Whether it's index cards and charts or a few scribbled notes or nothing at all, try a few things and find the type of plotting that works best for you. Just don't spend too long on it. You can plot the soul out of a book if you keep working at it. Don't be afraid to start writing before you know all the details.

At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

- Lao Tzu