Last week, I flew back home with my daughter. Side benefits included lots of play time on the farm for Kaylee, but the main reason for the trip was because I’d been asked to come back and do a reading and signing at the county library in my old home town.
Very cool, you might think, and as far as I’m concerned, you’d be absolutely right: it was cool, and I was extremely flattered and excited and not a little humbled by it.
Then the librarian (who is also the librarian for the high school) told me that he’d spoken with English teacher at the school, and she was also interested in having me in to speak with her seniors, specifically the seniors who were gunning for the horizon with college-level or college-prep curricula.
At which point, things went from very cool to semi-terrifying, for reasons I doubt I need to explain to over thirty.
Still, I got myself under control and made contact with the teacher, who told me that what the seniors were interested in more than anything (she guessed) would be me talking about how I’d gotten started writing seriously, and how that had turned into a finished, published book.
Oh, I thought, that’s just me talking about NaNoWriMo, then. I shrugged at my computer screen. Well, that’s a piece of fucking cake.
And not to give the ending away, it really kind of was.
The school building I went to as a senior was torn down a few years after I graduated, so it wasn’t quite a perfect homecoming, but there was a enough there that I recognized (names, faces, a particular sandstone archway), and enough new stuff (the theater, oh my god you guys, the theater) that I didn’t mind. Like finding a favorite bit of memory, but restored and updated, rather than perfectly preserved and sterile.
And then there were the kids. Holy crap, the kids were awesome. I’m sure I’ve done many things in my life that were more fun than talking with two groups of high school seniors about to graduate from my old high school, but it easily tops the list of Hidden Things-related events I’ve gotten to do.
So I talked about writing. About where ideas come from. About my first few years doing NaNoWriMo. About bad guys I’d covertly named Shit-Eater. About the inspiration that comes from living in a place so harsh and simultaneously amazing.
I answered a lot of questions — easily the best questions I’ve been asked in a long while. Funny questions. Serious questions. Tough questions.
Best of all, questions that didn’t worry about whether or not they were too mean or too hard or too silly — questions that wanted nothing more than an honest answer.
I wish I could remember them all, and what I said. I tried to be as honest as they deserved.
I had a great time.
I did. The teacher did. I had no idea if the seniors did.
I mean, I hoped. I thought maybe the answer was yes, but I didn’t know.
Until the next day, their teacher emailed me.
Of the twenty kids I talked to, five wanted to try writing a book. Right now. Wanted pointers. Had her send along their contact information and one more big question:
“What’s the deal with the NaNoWriMo thing? How do we do it?”
And just like that, I’m back to semi-terrifying territory again.
Things have been a little quiet around here. Let me see if I can explain why:
I don’t want to imply that when you have a small human to take care of, you can’t get anything else done, but I (at least) tend to let non-essential systems atrophy. Navel-gazing (which, I will be honest, is often what this blog is about) drops off tremendously, twitter accumulates a cobweb or two, the elliptical machine gathers some dust, our front yard…
My god, guys; the front yard. Seriously. If it weren’t for the pallet of wine-in-a-box I sent the planning committee last Christa McAuliffe Day, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to paper our family room in letters from the HOA.
None of that implies I’ve had nothing going on. On the contrary, I’ve been a busy little beaver, even on the internet, just not here. Contracted writing gigs. The slow push towards book publication (more on that soon(tm)). Basically, since I don’t find I have the mental bandwidth for rumination and musing aloud, I focus on concrete writing tasks meant to ensure that I’m hitting the keyboard every day. For instance, I’ve been writing articles for a number of gaming sites and, when said sites are inevitably swept under by a wave of spambots and turned into the internet equivalent of a Brood Mother from Dragon Age, I come back to my gaming related blog and write stuff there.
Indirectly, that’s what I wanted to talk about.
Four months ago, as the little man started to release us from the iron grip of Infant Sleep Schedules, I took a look at what I’d been writing since his arrival and found that examples were a little thin on the ground.
“I need to get my fingers back on a keyboard,” I thought to myself. Then I sighed, because the very idea seemed kind of exhausting. What to write?
“Baby steps,” I replied to myself, then giggled madly, because… you know… ‘baby’… and I have a baby… and…
Still needed a lot more sleep at that point, I think.
Anyway, what I decided to do was just write about what I was doing in this MMO I was playing. That’s it. I found the situation I and a couple of my friends had put ourselves in to be kind of compelling and interesting and dammit even if everyone else in the world thought it was boring as hell, I didn’t.
That was the key, really; it interested me, so I wrote about it without needing to be prodded. Hell, it was something I looked forward to every day and as a result, I was putting a thousand or fifteen hundred or two thousand or sometimes three thousands words down, every day.
What I didn’t worry about at any point was is someone going to read this? Hell, I assumed that no one was reading it (except Kate, who always reads everything, because she’s wonderful). It was always kind of a surprise when anyone I knew mentioned it. One friend who didn’t play took the time to tell me that he enjoyed the stories, even if he had no intention of checking out the game. De went so far as to try to figure out why I liked the topic so much that I was writing about it every day, because it was curious.
In any case, that didn’t happen that much, and honestly, I didn’t care. Throughout the whole thing, I’ve been writing for me. Partly to remember; partly to just be writing something; mostly to entertain myself.
Then, a few days ago, I logged into a website that — if you do the sort of things that I do in that game I’ve been writing about — is pretty much the single most important website to have on speed dial.
And at the top of the page, before any of the important stuff that you actually come to the site for, there’s a note that says “Hey, if you’ve got a few minutes, you should really go read the posts being written over at this blog here,” and it was me they were linking to.
Easiest example of what that was like would be if you were really really into knitting, and you blogged about it, and one day you went to Ravelry and found a link to your little blog on the front page.
Now, I’m not telling you any of this to brag (because that would be… incredibly ridiculous) — the point here is that I wrote the thing I wanted to write and (observing the constraints of the topic) wrote it well.
I didn’t network. I didn’t “promote my brand.” I didn’t “find my audience”; I did a thing I enjoyed, and an audience found me.
Are We Even in the Zipcode of your Point?
NaNoWriMo is here once again, and a lot of writers are revving up their engines for another fifty thousand word sprint. I’m watching it all happen with what is, for me, an uncharacteristic silence, because it’s an interesting thing to observe. A lot of excitement. A lot of nervous energy.
A lot of people wondering if what they’ll write is going to be marketable.
Chuck Wendig will be the first to tell you that writer’s write, and that is absolutely true, but I want to point out what they don’t do, so they have time to write.
They don’t seek their audience. They don’t fuck around with SEO. They don’t network.
Alright: yes they do, but not while they are writing.
I don’t want to make it sound like professional writers can ignore that kind of stuff but, in my opinion, thinking about any of that (or, god forbid, if what you’re working on it “saleable”) while you are supposed to be writing is the worst. possible. thing.
When I was a kid, I used to go fishing with my dad and granddad. (I was generally terrible at it, because I over-thought it, but if I remembered to bring a book along to read I usually ended up catching the biggest fish, because I left the line alone.) One of the things that always used to confound me about river fishing in a boat was the tie-line. It didn’t matter how I pulled that line into the boat in the morning, or how I coiled it up, or how well I’d avoid disturbing that coil during the day — when we got back to the dock in the afternoon, that fucking rope would be tangled up.
I would pull at it, and frown at it, and start to work through the knots and twists, but whenever it seemed like I was making any headway, I’d look at the parts of the pile I wasn’t working on and realize that the whole situation had only gotten worse.
The closer we got to the dock, the faster I’d work (because tying up was the one cool boat-thing I got to do), and the worse it would get.
Then we’d pull up about ten feet off the dock, and my dad would look down at this colossal fuck-up I’d managed to assemble in less than ten minutes.
“Just throw it all in the water,” he said.
“Throw it in and let it float there for a minute,” he’d continue. “It’ll sort itself out.”
So I did.
And it did.
That’s what I’ve found in writing. Do the thing you want to do. Do it as well as you can. But don’t get ahead of what you’re doing and start thinking about what this thing will do.
More than a few years ago, I was having a conversation with De Knippling (whom I met in college) about our mutual childhood history, growing up in the midwest. This was after both of us had moved away and, by happy accident, found ourselves neighbors again in Colorado. De was talking about the fact that there is damn little in the way of supernatural fiction set in places like Iowa and South Dakota. I, never willing to give a straight answer when snark will suffice, said “That’s because nothing magical ever happens out there. Ever.”
“Now that’s bullshit.” She gave me one of her ‘you’re being stupid right now’ looks, then hit me with a “Duuuuude.” You have to know De to really understand how she says this, but I will try to convey it by explaining that the word, as spoken by her, sometimes has three syllables.
I said nothing, but probably had one of those purposely-not-getting-it expressions on. She rolled her eyes. “You know better than that.”
(And she was right, of course. I did, but it’s not something one generally talks about.)
“In fact,” she leveled a finger at me, “I dare you. I double dog dare you to write a midwestern paranormal for you next story.”
So I did. More than a few years later, that story has an agent, and that agent is shopping it around with a couple publishers, and I have De and her double-dog dare to thank. And blame.
When I think of De, I think of her unflinching, untrammeled sight into the heart of a thing. She is an excellent critic, but equally able to see a magical, whimsical, childish truth that grownups try to ignore.
I asked her to drop in today and share her memories of growing up in that magically non-magical place (because I like hearing her say the stuff that’s in my head) and then I made her talk about how that background led to her writing a zombie outbreak book set in her current home town.
(She says it doesn’t at all, to which I can only reply “Duuuuude.”)
Doyce asked me if I wanted to write something about growing up in South Dakota. Of course I said yes; I’m trying to talk him into a project in January having to do with the Weird West.
We both grew up in the Weird West, really, although we grew up in slightly different areas. He grew up near a small town called Miller, South Dakota, and you can pick up other entries about it on his blog. I know that it’s affected the way he tells stories by a few of the things of his I’ve read.
I grew up slightly differently than he did, also in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been trying for years to explain what it was like, or why anybody should care, but what it comes down to is that it was a profoundly magical place, and not in a nice way.
It didn’t seem, at the time, like living five miles away from our nearest neighbor, eight miles away from the nearest spot on the map (Lee’s Corner, population 2), or having no running water at the school was magical, but it was. There is nothing out there. It’s like the Australian outback; it’s like Siberia; it’s even like a remote mountain in the Himalayas sometimes.
There was grass, and there was sky, and everything else was something that someone dreamed up. Trees aren’t natural; they’re a sign of people. Fences are a trail back to someone’s house. And houses are there only as long as someone tends them, day in and day out, like something fragile. Otherwise they’re a hollow gray shell that’s been stripped bare by the wind and the dust.
The wind out there’s enough to smother babies, just suck the air out of them, so you always cover their faces. It’s enough to pick you off your feet and throw you in the sky if you spread your coat wide. The coyotes are closer to you than your neighbors, and a lot louder. The blizzards kill someone every year, like a sacrifice to a very cold Hell. The summers kill, too, and you hide out in the basement, because air conditioning is only something you see on TV. You can see for about ten miles of grass in any direction, and it’s like being on an ocean, only you don’t get seasick. And the flies, the horror of the flies, the constant, awful crawling when the cattle are around.
And then there are these cracks in the ground, where water has run (yes, we do get rain, big deadly storms that set things on fire almost as often as they put them out). Most of the time, you can see them coming, but sometimes you can’t, and people have driven trucks or ridden horses right into them.
For the longest time as a kid, I had this secret fear that we’d go out into the fields during the summer and I’d lose my parents.
When my brother and I were very young, we were left in the pickup truck with books, water, and a cooler full of sandwiches while our parents drove tractors around. We would run around; as long as we were within earshot of the truck, we were okay. We’d make up stories, pick on each other, dig holes in the dirt–anything to pass the time.
I just knew that one of those cracks was going to open up under my parents. They would drop in, and the wheat would cover them up again in long, golden waves, and I’d never see them again, and I’d never know what happened to them.
I’ve tried, time and time again, to find a way to explain that feeling through a story–the nothing, the crack in the ground, the disappearing — but I’ve never done it justice. I’ve been trying to figure out how to phrase that in terms of a fairyland, in which the mortal realms and the fairy realms lie side by side, with sometimes tragic results.
The magic is close, very close. And, from the inside, it looks perfectly ordinary.
While I’m waiting for that perfect idea of how to do this, I write other things, of course. The idea that the magical is ordinary, even banal, crops up in pretty much everything I write. I know that people want to think of magic as extra-special, something that can lift their lives out of the ordinary, but I can’t help but write about the magic that people take for granted or adapt to so quickly that they forget it was ever magic. That’s what life is like now to me anyway–you’ve probably never noticed the magic of a stoplight, but I didn’t live in a town with a stoplight until I hit college. When I discovered the Internet existed, I cackled.
I have a book coming out now called Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse. It’s not about magic, of course; it’s all about zombies, and I don’t consider zombies to be magic–more of an odd type of SF. (This probably would be more obvious if Michael Crichton had written a definitive tale of zombie disease vectoring instead of The Andromeda Strain, but there you go.)
However, I did take the idea that a change big enough to rewrite the genetic material on our planet could be inserted in our lives and used it to show that we’d do more about it than run in terror and barricade ourselves in the nearest Impregnable Fortress. We’d use it as an excuse to steal comic books; we’d stick our fingers in it and see what it tastes like; we’d try to be heroes and end up almost ready to kick our refugees into the arms of the monsters because they’re that annoying.
And sometimes we’d even switch sides, on purpose, because that was the only way to get the job done.
Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse comes out at the end of November. Hot tip: if you preorder it here, it’s 15% off, which is apparently the only place that is true.
So awhile back (damned if I know exactly when), Amy Spalding (who’s one of the coolio authors Kate represents) muttered something about being stuck on a scene she was writing.
I, feeling helpful, said, “Dude. Ninjas.”
And she was like, “Wait, what?”
And I was like, “Ninjas. They attack. Problem solved. The end. You’re welcome.”
And she was like, “Dude. I write YA Romance. No ninjas.”
And I was like, “DUDE. Genre-Appropriate Ninjas. GAN. The GAN in YA Romance is Kissing. ATTACK!”
And then she was like, “Whoa… that totally works.”
So let’s talk about Genre-Appropriate Ninjas and how they make everything better.
“Have somebody come in guns blazing, and figure out who they are later.” — Raymond Chandler
Man… Chandler. There was a guy who knew about ninjas. Am I right? Chandler had a method with his stories that make them — at least for me — kind of breathless. There’s no fat there — no time when the main character gets to just sit still for a little bit and simply ruminate like a thoughtful cow. No. He might get a moment or two, and then boom, something happens. There’s no downtime — there’s always something that the MC needs to react to.
All those things are what I like to call ninjas.
It isn’t all throwing stars and bullets
Put simply, a genre-appropriate ninja attack is any sort of event or piece of information that requires action (and often a significant choice) from one of your characters. (A particularly fun G.A.N. attack is when that’s all true, and you don’t already know what they’re gonna choose.)
Don’t get me wrong, I like throwing stars and bullets, but the Chandler quote up there highlights only one small part of the larger Ninja Toolbox, and let me assure you he used the whole thing — why should we do any less?
You know the thing in the noir detective thriller where the main character is like “Damn, I need to talk to Sarah McHotness and get some answers out of her, but no one knows where she is… ahh hell, I’m just gonna go back to my office and sack out for a couple hours, I’m beat.” Then he gets back to his office, and who’s waiting in his office chair? Sarah McHotness herself, of course; the one person it couldn’t possibly be, it is, so now what do you do, hotshot? The cops want to talk to her, the mob wants to kill her, anyone standing near her is probably a dead man, and she’s hiding in your office. Go!
You know what he isn’t going to do? He isn’t going to take that nap he’d planned; he isn’t going to ignore the girl in his office.
Sarah is totally a ninja attack. Sure, so is the guy who comes in guns blazing a few pages later, but that’s the obvious ninja attack; one thing we know about ninjas: the subtle ones are the most dangerous.
Chandler uses the HELL out of these things. Every time the story pacing starts to lag — hell, any time the speedometer drops below fifty — he attacks the scene with something unexpected that the MC has to react to: guy with gun, lady with a problem, married lady making with the kissy-face, dead partner, cops show up for a chat, mob shows up for a chat, cops and the mob show up for a chat at the same time, automotive homicide, et cetera. That’s what I mean when I say his stories are kind of breathless — he never lets up.
(Complete aside: As a result of this method, his stories — and many if not most good stories from that era and somewhat later — are lean, mean, storytelling machines that rip right off the page and tear down your eye canals in about 150 pages or less. They are whip-thin racing greyhounds, and the bloated 750 page couch potatoes clogging up bookstore shelves today could do with a big dose of the cardio workout that the previous generation of writers gave their books. But I digress.)
Now, Chandler’s novels are short by today’s standards, but that’s okay for us because NaNoWriMo novels are short by today’s standards. (It is so hard for me not to put standards in air-quotes. Rant for another day.) We can totally use this pacing trick to keep the story zipping along and to make sure we have something fun and interesting to write.
Also, if your story’s wrapping up too fast, GAN attacks are great for throwing a monkeywrench complication that stretches things out some more.
What Is it About, Then?
So here I go repeating myself. A Genre-Appropriate Ninja attack is:
Something happens that cannot be ignored and which demands some sort of response.
[Bonus Points if:] You’re not entirely sure what your protag is going to decide to do.
You’ll learn something you didn’t know (or weren’t entirely sure of) about the character when they make their decision about what to do.
Character and Conflict. Character and Conflict. Lather, rinse, repeat. That’s the story.
Speaking without any sort of genre specifics in mind, I think you can break your GAN attack down into a few types.
Dilemma: You grab two Important Things and make up a situation that forces the character to make a decision between those two things. Finding the Important Things is pretty easy – take what you know or think you know about the character, pick two things that seem to be roughly equal in importance, and set up a situation where somebody’s gotta choose. This sort of GAN might result in the character losing the thing they didn’t choose, but this isn’t necessary, and it might be better (read: more incredibly awkward and painful for the character at a later point in the story) if that doesn’t happen, and the un-chosen thing/person comes back to confront them with a heartfelt “What the hell?!”
Be ready: your character may decide to pull a Batman and change the situation: they don’t accept that they can’t get one thing without losing the other, so they put a third thing at risk, trying to save both of the original things. This is awesome. Go with it.
The cool thing is you can start out with a small either/or decision and continue to revisit that choice, gradually amping up the tension.
“Oh, you decided to go with her over him, huh? Well what about now? Oh yeah? What about now?!”
Which leads us to:
Escalation: this is essentially returning to some previously-introduced Dilemma, upping the stakes. Basically, you take the unselected option from a previous dilemma and make it more important or more endangered. Maybe before the choice wasn’t life or death, and now it is. Maybe it affects more people this time.
Maybe now there’s a giant flame-throwing bug. Whatever.
Identity Crisis: Someone thinks they’re one thing, and they find out they’re something or someone else.
“You totally suck, man!”
There. Hit em with the Sith Lord Daddy and see what happens.
Something Totally Weird: Exactly what it sounds like. Something really weird happens which can’t be ignored because it’s so… weird. With no particular clue about a solution, what we learn about the character (hopefully) is how they try to address the event.
Maybe they go a little crazy.
Actual Ninjas: You’re kind of out of moral dilemmas, but you still need to get the action going. It’s at moments like these that we give the floor to the Reverend Raymond Chandler. Boom. Bang. Kiiiyah. Fzzzwap. Kaboom. Kapow. Braaaaaaains. Whatever.
Take this guy. Give him a knife. Oh yeah. Good times.
Does your guy fight or run? Do they freeze? Are there innocents to protect? Valuable stuff that needs to be kept from harm? Watch, learn, and write it down.
Every story has ninjas
I thought I might go through a list of genres and list out specific Genre-Appropriate Ninjas, but I like this idea better: Think about it for about 60 seconds, and then tell me in the comments what kind of ninja attack ideas you came up with for your story. Alien abduction? The authorities show up? The authorities don’t show up? The deal falls through? The jock asks her out before the cute nerd has a chance to?
All right, nanowrimo people: it’s that time again.
The first five days were kind of wild and crazy — you didn’t really know what was going on in the story — the characters were sort of running around going “Look what I can do! No, me! Look!” and you let them have their head and run it out.
The next seven or so days, we got a sense of what was going on and where the thing would take us, and that sense of purpose and vision imparted a lot of fire and motivation to the writing. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to ride that right down to the point in a few days when you realize that a bunch of your favorite people need to die.
However, that’s if you’re lucky. In other cases, you’re at this point where… well, things are happening, but you’re not sure if they’re going anywhere. In fact, you’re not sure if the story is going anywhere. Your loved one comes into the room where you’re sitting and looks at you for a few seconds and then says “how’s the story coming, hon?” And you’re like:
You sit down at your desk to get another couple scenes down, read the last line you wrote, think about what should happen next, and:
Pretty soon, it’s time to go pick up the kids and you’ve written all of a forty word paragraph in which the main character sits around thinking about how he doesn’t know what to do next.
Doubts start to creep in. Maybe 50 thousand in 30 days is just too much. Maybe you already told the one good story you’re going to tell. Maybe you’re brain is broken. Maybe this thing is going to be no good. Maybe it’ll be actively bad — the kind of bad where you give the finished draft to some friends to read and their feedback is basically:
I’m not going to make you feel better about that. It’s (theoretically) possible that all those doubts you have are grounded in indisputable fact — maybe one of your friends is one read-through away from a horrible disfigurement — I just can’t say.
But here’s the thing: none of that matters.
I’m going to have to get a little Midwestern on you now; that’s just who I am.
When I was growing up and going through junior high and high school, I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. A lot. First chair in band. Marching band. Jazz band. Choir. Swing choir (yeah, glee, whatever. shut up). Oratory/Debate. Drama. Newspaper. Yearbook. Football. Basketball. Wrestling. Track. Was there more? I think there was, but it’s all kind of a whirling haze.
In the parlance of the region, I “kept busy”.
You might say I dabbled in a lot of things, and you’d be right: with the exception of the music stuff, everything just kind of came and went with its appropriate season. My folks had a very simple rule for any of these projects: I could try anything I wanted, but if I decided (after the first serious introduction) to keep going with it, I had to finish it. Period. No exceptions. Every time I signed up for something, it meant rearranging schedules, figuring out who was going to get the car when, and generally bending everyone into pretzels to make it work. You want to do wrestling? Fine; you’re in it til the end of this season. Yearbook? No problem – but you’re not done til this year’s edition goes out the door. It didn’t matter if I lost every fucking match I ever competed in (I did), or if my particular style of prose was often very wrong for the yearbook (it was) — I was in, by god, and I wasn’t getting out til the bell rang.
So let me lay this out for you now: you’re in til the bell rings. It doesn’t matter if the story stinks, or you can’t think of an ending, or everything seems to be coming apart at the seams; you’ve asked your friends and family to bend around your schedule for the last three weeks, and if you quit now, you’re basically giving them a silent but nonetheless profound “fuck you” and walking off down the street, whistling a carefree tune. In short, you’re an asshole.
And, come on, you’re not an asshole. You’re tougher than a little bit of story ennui. You’re the kind of person who wants to finish up a story and set it in front of all those people who helped you get through the rough parts and say “This is for you. Thank you. It’s a little busted in places, but I think it’s a good start, and I can fix the rest.”
You can’t fix something you never finish.
You don’t really know if you like the game unless you stay in a full season.
A Few Tricks
All these “hoo-rah, you can do it” speeches are fine, but how about some actual concrete stuff to try?
If you’re feeling like you don’t like what you’re writing or where things are going, there’s things you can do.
If things are sort of sans direction, make something happen that your protag has to make a decision about — not just react to, but actually make a tough decision about: do I save the bus full of children or my sister? Stuff like that. Hard decisions, preferably ones you don’t already know the answer to.
Are you over-describing stuff? Stop. Switch to nothing but dialog for awhile. If you’re protag doesn’t have anyone to talk to, FIX THAT RIGHT NOW.
Is the scene boring you? Drop it and skip to the next. Flag it with a [finish this later] and move on.
Are you stuck on how to get through the current scene, but you’re writing a solution anyway? STOP. Go write some other scene — that reluctance is your brain telling you that you’re writing something stupid and that it will give you something not-stupid LATER. Write some other bit, and maybe that’ll even explain how to fix the other scene. Hindsight is actually useful when you can jump back and forth in time.
If all else fails, attack the scene with genre-appropriate ninjas. I am totally not kidding. You’re writing a romance? Then genre-appropriate ninjas (GAN) might be an unexpected kiss from an unexpected person. Boom. Ninjas. Every genre has ninjas.
Now, Chuck’s post is awesome for a number of reasons; the most valuable bit of advice is simply that we need to trick ourselves into paying attention. It might be as simple as putting “the internet” on another computer from the one you’re doing your writing on, or in another room. It might be something like Scrivener’s “writing mode” or WriteMonkey’s… umm… entire interface — that blanks out the rest of the screen and reduces the chance you’ll be distracted. Those are all good tricks.
There’s only one problem, and it’s a relatively tiny one: Chuck’s a full-time writer — man’s a pro (in more ways than one) and as such, there’s the teensiest possibility that some of his tricks aren’t things a part-time writer will find applicable.
So let’s go through the day of a Furtive Writer and add a few things to Chuck’s list of focus-tricks.
Wake up 30 minutes before you need to be at work. Snoozebar got a workout this morning, didn’t it? Send spousal unit to get The Child dressed, and throw yourself into the bathroom, shower, and closet, hopefully in that order.
Thank god for Oatmeal Squares.
Arrive at work only five minutes late.
Check email for all your accounts (work and personal). Catch up on Twitter and Newsreader. Do work stuff. Maybe get 300 words down in a 15 minute sprint, but probably not.
Go back out to your car, hit the nearest drive-through or pull out your brownbag and wolf a sandwich and soda. This leaves you 45 minutes. Pull out your laptop and get typing. You should be able to get roughly 650 words out in this time, assuming you don’t fuck around. Don’t fuck around.
If there’s some kind of wifi near where your car is parked, hook up to it ONLY in the last five minutes of your lunch break — just long enough to save your WIP and let Dropbox sync.
Back to the office. If you were using your work laptop to do your writing (not recommended if you have any alternative), reconnect it to the network and let Dropbox sync up.
During your entirely legitimate 15 minute afternoon break, knock out another 215 words. Otherwise, use your time-wasting allotment to look up stuff you needed to know at lunch, but couldn’t look up then.
Pick up The Child. Arrive home. Make supper.
If you’re a super-parent, do nothing but hang out with the child until bedtime.
If you’re a pretty-good-to-all-right parent, alternate between some quality child/spouse time and pasting that stuff you looked up this afternoon into the spots in your WIP where you left text like [GDP OF SLOVAKIA HERE]. This will add about 100 words.
If you’re going to make up for some bad parenting at Christmas, drop your kid in front of Backyardigans, hand them a sandwich, and disappear til bedtime.
The Child’s Bedtime
Read to your kid. Steal ideas from their chapter book.
Blessed Silence of Night
You have gotten anywhere from 600 to 1300 words down. Assume it’s 600. Also assume you want about 2000 for the day, so you need about 1400. That’s two 700 word (roughly 3-page) scenes. Get to work. If you’re lucky and the words are flowing, you’ll be done by about 10 pm. If you aren’t, you’ll be done around 12:30 am.
Stagger to bed. Set the alarm for an hour before you have to get ready for work, so you can get some writing in. (This will never work, but it can’t hurt to try.)
Sound familiar? I expect it does.
So here’s a few extra tips I’d suggest.
Make sure whatever laptop you’re using has them. Nothing sucks more than really getting on a roll and having your laptop go dead.
This seems really counterintuitive, but you probably want to make sure that any ‘out of the house’ writing you do is somewhere with a decent internet connection. You don’t want to have it on all the time, but WHEN you need it, you want it to connect easily, quickly, painlessly, and you want it to be super-snappy-fast.
Simple: if it fails to be any of those things, you will fuck around with it, which will waste a lot of time. A lot. I’m just saying.
Have analog means of writing available. Sometimes the laptop isn’t an option. Sometimes you just want to write something down for later. Sometimes you’re someplace where people will look over your shoulder at your screen, but would never DREAM of looking at your longhand notes — society is a weird like that.
Back up early and often
I use Dropbox. Use whatever you want, so long as you use something. This is not. fucking. optional.
Don’t bring an external mouse with you
The harder it is to use your laptop to browse the internet, play Farmville or Torchlight, or scroll back to correct your previous work, the more likely you are to focus on writing. You. Keyboard. Screen. That’s it.
Personally, I do almost all of my writing on my little “triple e” — a netbook I bought awhile back as an award for meeting a tough goal. It’s comfortable to type on for long periods, has about a six to seven hour battery life for writing purposes, and when I combine it with a Logitech lapdesk, I can use it damn near anywhere (I mention this because the netbook itself is too small and too top heavy to really ‘work’ on your lap for more than the most desultory use, in my opinion). The netbook technically has all the same distractions available to it as my desktop (which, if I’m honest, is 90% a gaming rig), but they aren’t as easily accessible, aren’t as fun to use on the netbook, and generally just aren’t worth the effort — I don’t even like using my newsreader on the smallish screen. When I sit down with the netbook, I’m working; one keystroke disables the wifi, another opens either Word (for revisions) or WriteMonkey (for first drafts), a third shuts down my touchpad (so I don’t do something stupid by accident) and off I go.
For whatever reason, I’m shit at writing in the morning — I seem to have engineered my life so that interruptions occur in the A.M. — even when I try to get shut of distractions before lunch, stuff just happens that I HAVE to deal with. I’d RATHER write in the morning, and maybe eventually I will shift things around so it’s possible, but right now? No. That’s me. Your mileage may vary.
How about you? What tricks do you use to leave yourself NO OPTION but to write? Give me something I can steal.
Early this month in the comments for “the Gazebo post”, I wrote:
I’m definitely in the camp that believes you have to be the greatest defender of your time.
Sometimes, you need to defend your time from yourself.
I want to dig into this in a little more depth.
“Time Management” is the sort of catch-phrase that makes people nod along when it’s mentioned and roll their eyes when no one’s looking. Books like First Things First and Getting Things Done are often quoted, rarely read, and even more rarely put into use. (Or, if they are, they become a ritual of masturbatory to-do-list-maintenance that doesn’t actually accomplish anything but which looks and feels like you’re doing something. Productivity Porn, is what it is.)
Now, I read those books because part of my day job involves taking high-concept crap like that and boiling it down for blue-collar guys who need to know it. The end result of all that reading was a two-hour class during which the students get a blank pocket notebook and a double-sided business card on which I printed the entire ‘manual’ for the class.
About two years after I started teaching that class (and generally adopted its methods for myself), my wife came to me ‘in an emotional state’, as they say.
If you don’t know, Kate runs a pretty successful literary agency, specializing in YA and middle grade fiction. She does a great job, but she was starting to feel like some things were getting away from her: emails were backing up, for example.
She asked me if I could help.
So I showed her my little business-card manual, and gave her the gist of the thing.
“That’s it?” she said. She looked doubtful, but muttered something about giving it a try.
Months later, she’s so caught up on her work that she gets private emails from other agents and editors that say “I don’t know how you do it! I can barely find the time have a nervous breakdown anymore, let alone keep up with actual work.”
So… just for fun, let’s say the little system works. Let me give you the absolute basics.
The crystalline core of the thing focuses on Doing, because we as a species suck at Doing. Between people interrupting us and babbling away with no provocation, reminders from our email and calendar, our phones, Twitter, IM clients, facebook, Tumblr, new readers, and… you know… a life, it’s just hard to block out some uninterrupted time and then actually use it for whatever task it was intended to be used for.
So we try solve that problem by doing two things at the same time: Checking Twitter while visiting with family. Emailing while making lunch. Writing while doing… anything else.
I’m mentioned before that there are very few activities during which I’ll multi-task; I think the list starts and ends with “folding laundry while watching a TV show”. Pretty much anything in my life that I think is important enough to do, I believe is important enough to get my full attention. When that doesn’t happen, the end result of the two ‘intermixed’ activities is usually substandard. In fact, every single activity you try to do while also dealing with some other activity will probably suck, even if you don’t notice it right away.
You must avoid doing that.
That means focus.
So, here’s a few rules I (try to) follow to help me DO during those times I have allocated for Doing.
1. Focus on one task at a time.
This single-minded focus doesn’t have to go on for hours at a time. If you get on a writing streak then sure, go for it, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Do 30 minute sprints. Do 20 minutes. Do 10. Whatever works.
Eliminate all distractions. Shut off Twitter, Gmail, YIM, AIM, GTalk. Close your door, if you can. Make sure the cat, dog, kids, spouse, and coworkers are all are fed, then ignore them.
Don’t multi-task, and don’t let yourself get interrupted.
2. Seriously, don’t #*$#ing Multitask.
The supposed efficiency of multitasking is an illusion — it hurts your productivity, increases the chance of error, and generally makes the end product suck more than it should. It’s a good way to avoid two things you don’t really want to do by fucking them up simultaneously. Don’t do it.
The human brain is amazing in many many ways, but it positively sucks at concentrating on two things at once. As soon as you try, you can guarantee you’ll miss something important.
3. Control Who Has Access to You
“Timmy, Daddy needs some alone time right now, okay?”
Stop and think about something for a second: who has unrestricted access to you at virtually any time?
The answer to that question says a lot about who you are.
I set my GTalk Status as Busy most of the time because I know that there are very few people who will be comfortable sending me an instant message anyway (provided they feel they have a good reason). The people that know me well enough to ignore that message are the people on my All-Access list.
If you don’t control this, you’ll be typing along, just getting into a groove, and someone will ping you. You need to answer, right? You don’t want to be rude.
So you answer, and they need you to do something for them, and… well… you don’t want to, but pretty soon you hear yourself saying:
… and you’re screwed.
4. No one else gives a crap if you Finish.
No they don’t.
Not even him. Not her either. No one.
Not even me; I’m distracting you RIGHT NOW with this post.
You are the only person who cares about getting your story done, and the only way to make that happen is to viciously (perhaps anti-socially) defend the blocks of time you set up to write.
“Sorry dude, but I’ve got another two pages to get done.”
You must do this, even if the interruption sounds like fun.
There are a lot of rules when it comes to writing. Writers love to scribble down mandates like “don’t do this” or “always do this” and pretend that we’ve solved part of the vast jigsaw puzzle of creativity.
But the thing is this: pretty much every one of those rules can be broken or ignored, if you have a good reason for it.
I want to be clear, here: I think most rules about writing are good rules, and are valuable. “Try to leave out the part of the story that the reader’s going to skip.” That’s a good rule.
But, like most things, if you get good enough at the work, you’ll run into some situation where the rules you love are not only inapplicable, they will actually make the situation worse if you adhere to them.
(Warning: If you are at all unsure you’re qualified to decide whether or not to ignore a rule, I would like to humbly suggest that you aren’t. You will know when you’ve reached that point, without checking with anyone else first. Until then, stick with the rules. I know how pretentious this sounds. Please trust that I don’t mean it that way.)
This is why I tell people not to listen to the advice I have about writing (as opposed to NaNoWriMo): when it comes to writing, I’m going to automatically assume that I’m unqualified to give advice; I’m not an expert yet.
Let me demonstrate that by poking holes in the rules I’ve mentioned here in the past.
The basic idea here is that when you sit down to write, you must get some words out on the page — you should be producing, not wasting time — the first million words that you write are going to be glittery unicorn shit anyway, so you might as well get them out of the way as fast as you can.
That’s not entirely true. If you sit down like that every single morning at eight o’clock, you’ll develop your work/write habit, yeah, but there’s a tendency when you’re in that mindset to approach the whole thing in a very rational frame of mine, and we aren’t any of us very rational people. If you’re in that kind of frame of mind, and you get stuck, you’re going to give up on writing for that day in about fifteen minutes.
So sometimes when you sit down to write… you don’t write. You woolgather. You shut the fuck up and listen to the echoes in the empty spaces of your head, because those echoes are coming from somewhere — some whispers and hints and intuitions that are sneaking around just past the corner of your eye, and you need to lie still to trick them into the light. Do that. It’s okay.
The basic idea here is to describe everything in your story by using three facts only. A good guideline, yes, but be ready to cast it aside when you need to. Maybe (like me) you never describe the physical characteristics of your main characters for the entire length of the story — the readers never find out if her hair is auburn or blonde, kinky or straight; what kind of shoes she likes, or what color her jacket, eyes, fingernail polish, or lip gloss are. If that’s the right thing to do for you, then go for it. On the flip slide, maybe you feel a pressing need to describe one particular character in your story in absolutely excruciating detail. Will anyone remember all that stuff? Hell no, but if you’re dishing that kind of detail, then the detail itself really isn’t the point; maybe it’s telling us something about how obsessed the observer is, or how fastidious the subject is, or… I dunno. I’m not you: I don’t know why you decided to drop a microscope on this guy, but if you did so, there’s probably a good reason for it, besides needing to bloat up your word count.
“Any word you have to look up in the thesaurus is the wrong word.” — Stephen King
I’m a big fan of this rule, but it’s one that attracts a lot of flak. Non-writers often comment with something like “But… what if I actually pick exactly the right word? Are you saying I’m stupid? Are you saying the thesaurus is always wrong?” Writers, on the other hand, can almost always trot out some example where they’re writing a character with a particular kind of vocabulary: someone who would never say shit when they can say excreta. Yes, fine: you’ve nitpicked the particulars of the statement to death; you win the Internet again. Go you.
They kind of miss the point of the statement, which (taken in context) is simply that you should write with the language and vocabulary that you have immediately to hand; the tools with the most worn and comfortable grips. Writing with those words helps you sound exactly like yourself on the page, and that helps your story’s authenticity and honesty. It helps the story be true, at least in the sense of a realization, if not as an actual fact. Taken in context, it’s a very nice rule.
And, of course, there are times when you should — when you must — ignore it. Aside from anything else, you will grow as a writer/reader, and your vocabulary will expand, and what was once a thesaurus-word may become a you-word. Even then, sometimes the word you need — the perfect word — will be a word only found in a thesaurus.
(I’m still suspicious of perfect words: perfect things are rarely true things, and true things are rarely perfect, and on the whole I’d rather be true than perfect, but I’ll leave that navel-gazing alone in this case.)
Oh… man. I dunno. This one is tough. I like this rule. This is a good rule. Adverbs are largely useless, lazy, slugabed motherfuckers and I won’t have anything to do with em.
Sometimes… an adverb is just the right way to say it.
Sometimes. Yes. Fine.
God that hurt to write. Ouch.
Some Things Are Not Rules You Ignore
There’s a difference between rules and tools. Rules are the things I mentioned up above. We will learn when to ignore those, just as we’ll learn that most of the time we shouldn’t.
Tools are something different. Tools are things like spelling. Grammar. Punctuation. Tools require respect. You don’t paint your house with a screwdriver; you don’t frame a wall without your hammer.
Create whatever you want to create, but build the fucking thing correctly, is what I’m saying.
Leave the AWOL punctuation and a weird aversion to quotation marks to guys like Cormac McCarthy or Charles Frazier. On anyone else (and, in fact, even on them) it looks like pretentious fuckery, and that’s all I have to say about that.