Archive for October, 2010
In the end, every successful writer finds his or her own way to solve the problems associated with writing. They find their own sources of ideas, their own way to develop their ideas, their own pace, even their own places to write the best.
Yet the thing they all share in common is actually doing it. It is the act of writing that separates writers from everyone else, whether that writing takes the form of a weblog, a short story, a novel, or any other kind of writing.
This may seem like an obvious thing, but I find that most people I talk to who lament about wanting to be writers aren’t writing. Anything. Not even a journal or ideas scratched on napkins.
The next 30 days are designed to cure that problem once and for all. If you want to write, and if you don’t talk yourself out of it, sit down at your keyboard and pound out 1,667 words or so for the next 30 days. If you do, even if you don’t make it until the end, you will discover amazing things about yourself along the way, and that is a journey that will have been more than worth it once it is complete.
If you’re writing for perfection, you’re writing to fail. Perfection is what editing is for.
While writing is a different process for every writer, my style seems to be to create first drafts that are more like skeletal remains (premains?) that finished works. They’re a lot like a T-101 from the movie the Terminator, a shiny mechanical skeleton devoid of form or personality, a caricature of what I want my story to be.
In other words, its crap, and it will need a lot of work before it becomes the story I intended.
Thomas Edison famously said both “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work” and that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Those same ideas apply to writing.
Sure, all of us writers want to experience the ecstasy of the moment of creation. I think, to a degree, that’s what we all strive at writing for, yet we cannot ignore that, in some way, writing is a job that we have accepted. Jobs are hard work, and work doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to, especially when the work is creative.
The secret to succeeding at writing is to just write it, knowing full well you’ll probably have to go back and write it again. And again. And again.
That’s OK. It happens to everyone.
Recently, a researcher discovered that Jane Austin’s work benefited as much from her creative efforts as it did from the efforts of a good editor, which is unfortunate because most people have believed the fiction perpetrated by her brother after her death that her novels sprang from her pen complete. Unfortunately, the fiction that good writers are somehow able to produce perfect, complete work without effort has infected writers continuously since those heady days where every artist was a great master.
The reality is something entirely different. Most writers have to craft their stories the same way potters or sculptors craft clay. Most writers write something, then add to it, take away from it, wad it up and throw it in the trash, then dig it out and add and take away some more. That’s the natural process of writing, and again, that’s OK.
What’s most important, especially if you’re just starting as a writer, is that you’re writing at all. Start with quantity first. The quality will eventually come.
Another question that people who are not writing yet tend to ask writers is something along the lines of, “How do you do it?” “Do what?” I usually ask, to which they respond, “You know, write.”
Well, my years of experience tell the that, in order to write, you have to, well, write.
It’s really as simple as that, after a fashion. Writers write, usually every day, and usually a large number of words.
The pace for NaNoWriMo, as an example, is 1,667 words per day. If you write exactly that many words every day for the 30 days of November, you will end up with 50,010 words on 30 November, 10 more than is necessary to “win”.
My goal has been, for a while, to write 2,000 dedicated words a day. What are dedicated words?
As it turns out, I write a lot in the form of emails, posts and replies on social networking sites, an a variety of other venues, mostly on the internet. That kind of writing is what I call opportunistic writing. It can end up totaling thousands of words a day, and most of that kind of writing amounts to very little in the long run.
On the other hand, dedicated words are those committed to a specific idea with the intent of developing that idea to a conclusion. I rarely count my opportunistic writing toward the dedicated total, which means I must budget my daily allotment of words carefully to be sure I have enough to dedicate.
Now, I know that some people write more words, and some people write less. I think there is a critical mass of dedicated words a writer needs to write every day to make the effort worth it, but that critical mass will vary from person to person and sometimes from day to day. While my goal is 2,000, I have, on occasion, written many more words than that.
However many words you might write, the key is that you must be writing them every day. Set a goal you know you can reach and start writing. That’s the only way it works.
I think one of the most challenging aspects of writing, especially with fiction, is finding how a story will end.
I’ve found that most writers can find beginnings and middles, but most of us find the endings to be elusive. I suspect that this elusivity comes from the fact that the ending of a story often contains the answer to the question “why?”.
For me at least, the end of a story explains why the characters went through all of these things from the characters’ point of view. The ending represents the point, the conclusion to all of the events that proceeded it. It doesn’t even have to be a happy ending for these reasons to be true, but the need for explanation is still there.
While I am writing a story, knowing the ending serves as a kind of lighthouse for the writing process. Knowing the ending helps guide me through the story, especially at parts where it wants to meander or get lost. In a lot of ways, knowing the ending is what helps me generate the beginning and the middle.
Of course, finding the ending can be easier said than done, which is why I think so many writers struggle with the idea, and thereby with writing complete works themselves. I think the solution to this problem is to engage in the active thinking I referred to before when I wrote about how to find ideas.
Very often, I find that the stories that I write that succeed the best are the ones I’ve thought about the most, and in doing that thinking, I discover that I inevitably have to deal with the question of “why is this happening at all?”. Once I deal with that question, the rest of the story seems to flow from that answer.
One of the questions people who don’t write yet tend to ask people who are already writing is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
Frankly, there is no answer to that question because the process is different for every writer and, at least for me, different for every idea. While I can’t answer that question directly, I can answer it tangentially, and partly by issuing a challenge.
I think one of the things that differentiates people who write from people who don’t is a specific kind of world view. People who write, in my experience, tend to pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the world around them and tend to be–this is even true with fiction writers–realists and pragmatists. I think the source of a lot of writers’ ideas tend to be events happening around them changed through the filter of their own creativity.
Writers tend to achieve this state of realism and pragmatism by being deeply connected to the events of history and of their own times. Writers tend to be the most voracious readers, tend to be deeply involved in politics of one sort or another, and tend to be willing to learn just about anything that happens to come along. In my experience, it is not unusual to find writers who are also engaged in a dozen other pursuits unrelated to writing.
This connectedness serves as the engine for creativity, constantly exposing the writer to new thoughts, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Inevitably, these new things will periodically create an idea strong enough that it becomes the basis for something the writer will write, mostly because that’s what writers tend to do with such ideas.
So, if you want to find your own ideas, the first step is to get connected. I probably spend 3 t0 4 hours everyday just reading through my regular cycle of weblogs, news sources, and social media connections, and that does not include the books I am reading. Because of the amazing tool of social media, I conduct dozens of conversations a day about things that catch my attention.
I’m guessing, because I’ve never really kept track, that this behavior is good for at least a couple of new ideas a week. Now, most of those ideas die young due to disinterest or lack of follow-through, but I probably commit at least 3 or 4 ideas to some more formal status every month. That’s 36 to 48 ideas a year. Of course, most of those ideas won’t go much further, but a few of them will, and those few ideas that do move forward is what writing is all about.
For a new writer, I recommend carrying a notebook around. Granted, you can use a smartphone or a tablet, but I find that writing ideas by hand adds an extra level of intimacy for new writers that helps them see how their ideas come into being and how they can develop them. Down the road, every writer develops different styles for developing ideas, but everyone has to start somewhere, and the notebook works for a lot of people.
Once a new writer has some ideas captured, he has to think about them. By thinking about them, I mean actively mulling them over in his head kind of thinking. I find that this idea of active thinking is one of the hardest things for most modern people to comprehend and achieve. Most people don’t actively think about things. They feel. They react. They don’t think. If you want to write, you have to learn to think, actively and intensively and extensively. I have sometimes been accused of being lazy or distracted, and I can assure you that what I was doing during those times was thinking.
Finally, once a new writer has developed an idea by thinking about it, he has to act on it, but that action does not have to be good. I can assure you that most of my idea development is crap, but within that crap are the gems from which good stories will come. Frankly, if a writer never puts out the crap, he never gets the gems either.
So, at the end of all of it, I guess ideas come from life and being connected to it. From there, ideas are what the writer does with them.
[This is a repost from my Worldview weblog]
Yesterday, I made the point that writing is good for civilization. It is also good for you.
It’s a simple equation as far as I am concerned. Writing helps exercise the brain, and the brain, just like other parts of the body, needs such exercise.
While exercise taken in the form of healthy living and work that is also physically demanding is the best form of exercise for the rest of the body, physical exertion in the form of dedicated periods of exercise still serve the purpose. In the same way, one does not have to write for other people to see in order to gain the benefits of writing.
NaNoWriMo represents an opportunity to begin a mental exercise regimen that will benefit your brain for the rest of your life. No one has to see what you write–the process for proving you’ve written is not set up that way–and you can still benefit from the amazing network of writers who also participate even if you keep everything you write secret.
Yet, even then, even with the pressure, frustration, and tight schedule NaNoWriMo represents, your brain will benefit, and so will you. Think about it. Even better, write about it. It’ll be good for you.
[This is a repost from my Worldview weblog]
A week from now, National Novel Writing Month begins, which endeavor challenges its participants to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Success requires writing 1,667 words a day.
Many people, mostly non-writers, ask why in the world anyone would want to do such a thing.
For me, the answer is that NaNoWriMo represents a chance to establish a daily writing habit or to exercise a habit already established. To be a successful writer, one has to write, and the most successful writers do so every day. And, I believe that intelligent people write.
That second reason offends a lot of people, yet I think that no one can avoid the clear link between intelligence and writing. We spend as many as 21 years of our lives or more learning, most often through the study of the writings of intelligent people. We entertain ourselves by reading the writings of intelligent people. Even if we chose only to watch TV or listen to music, those scripts and songs were written by intelligent people (that is, people intelligent enough to write, at least).
The written word is a powerful force, and has been for most of mankind’s history. The written word has created nations and destroyed them. It has the power to inspire and encourage millions. It has inspired acts of courage and imagination and acts of treachery and abomination. When it is the right words, I believe the written even has the power to save people’s souls or destroy them.
I believe that our modern society does not give enough credence or respect to the written word or to the people who write them. Civilization has been built, in part, on the shoulders of writers, their ideas, and their actions, yet today too many people think of writers as some sort of underclass to the people who have ‘real’ jobs.
If what I say about writing, the written word, and history are true, though, there is no question as to why our modern society struggles. Without intelligent people writing and intelligent people reading, we are not adding to the legacy of the civilization that got us where we are now. What will that say about us to future generations?
As for me, I have no intention that those generations should have to speculate about me, and I hope that many other intelligent people will join me in establishing that legacy. It can all begin in 7 days.