[Greatest Hits] On Writing #4: The Secret to Consistent Productivity and Getting Things Done — Momentum

[To satisfy both goals of 1) moving all my on writing articles over here from LJ and 2) providing more high-quality posts to readers, I’m offering up a second On Writing post this week, one of the classics]

Once you start writing stories or a novel or poems or even essays, if you write every day you develop a head of steam. Not only does writing become a habit, but you don’t feel right if you don’t write. You feel off balance, leaning forward, like you’re standing atop a racing train and suddenly it’s pulled the brakes. You’re going to fly off. Get lost in the sky. Crash.

I’ve been feeling like that. Unfulfilled. Off balance. Uncentered. Because I haven’t bee writing and I haven’t been submitting short stories.

Well, I’ve got good news to report — not only have I started submitting stories again (I was at 0 out-to-market), but I wrote 4,211 words yesterday on a from-scratch rewrite of my WOTF Semifinalist short story “The Eye of God.”

It was one of the first things I wrote after I started writing again, and I was never completely happy with it. I tried rewriting it a few times, just a once-over edit, but it never really worked. I always knew it needed a rewrite from scratch and a different voice. Well, yesterday I was finally gripped with a passion to fix the story — and now there are only two scenes left. Two very difficult scenes. A steep hill for my train. Sure, it’s off to a racing start but that hill is still scary.

But I can do it. I can do it. I can get up that hill.

And you know something — you can too. We’re all little-trains-that-could, here. Maybe you’re writing something that’s beyond your skills and it feels stuffy and stilted, maybe you’re plagued by self-doubts about your editing prowess, maybe you’re a pro looking for a better writing process because you feel unfulfilled, or maybe you’ve always wanted to write and you’ve just never started.

Well, my advice is to just shovel some coal on the fire and get the engine started. Get the wheels turning. They may creak, they may be rusty, but get them turning an the rust will come off and the creaking will get better. Get your train started. It doesn’t have to be an Olympic start. Plenty of time my train just starts limping ahead 100 or 200 words at a time. That’s fine.

Because momentum BUILDS. As long as you keep the coal shovelled and keep water in the boiler, those wheels will turn — and that train will MOVE. And if your train is moving, eventually you will get to the destination.

On Writing #14: Synopsis and Query – The Art of Summary

The art of the query letter and synopsis is not summarizing your entire book. This is what took me forever to learn. It’s about IGNORING VAST SECTIONS OF YOUR BOOK. Boiling things down to the fewest characters possible, the fewest events possible.

My most successful query letter so far has almost no plot information at all, just a very quick reference to the the story to get a feel for it, and then my credentials. Just enough to hook, no more.

My synopsis, similarly, has very few character, very few plot developments. I rebelled against this at first, I felt like I was almost writing a different story, but then I realize that summary more about CHOOSING WHAT YOU LEAVE OUT than choosing what you leave in. This is because you have to leave out almost all of the book. A short summary CANNOT hold you entire novel and still make sense, unless almost nothing happens in your book.

My synopsis ended up being very high-level, much more high-level than I thought it would have been when I first started trying to write a synopsis. Eventually I realized that I needed to emphasize style and voice and a few main characters — because really, anyone reading the synopsis is just trying to get a feel for the book. So you’ve got to put the “feel” in, but you don’t need anything else. (But don’t forget to put the ending in! There are no secrets in a synopsis!)

So, dear reader, I am saying you need to cherry pick your novel. Make it make sense, but show surprisingly little of the plot (especially in the query letter). But I have this warning too: be careful how you summarize. Summary is a completely different type of writing than what most of us are used to in fiction, and it’s very easy to emphasize the WRONG parts, and make the story seem like something it isn’t.

Here are two examples:

1) (via David Brin on facebook)
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
— Marin County newspaper’s TV listing for “The Wizard of Oz”

2) The infamous “Shining” trailer on YouTube

I think these talk for themselves, but let me say it one more time to let it sink in: Summary is about DECIDING WHAT TO LEAVE OUT. Think about it. What did the summarizers leave out of the above examples?

Ok. ‘Nuff said.

On Writing #13: Momentum and Focus — And a Trick to Keep Novels On Track

Finishing the rough draft of a novel is all about momentum and focus. It’s about not giving up halfway through, not giving into the temptation to go write something else when you’re almost done.

Novels are big. You have a long way to go until the end, and chances are things won’t be perfect after the first pass (there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — a famed “first draft” novel — actually went through several revisions before publication, and I have sneaking suspicion this happens to all of them).

Basically, don’t worry about making your novel perfect the first time through. It’s probably not going to happen. The key is to keep slogging on. Don’t let your momentum wane or you might get stuck. Don’t give into temptation and go write a different book or you will (most likely) never come back to this one.

I hear you ask, dear reader: But how? How do you keep going when there is so much still broken?

I use three relatively common techniques (and while I have not sold a novel yet, I have, at least, finished several, and gotten a full in front of an agent).

A) I revise the previous session’s work before starting new words. This is probably the most common technique out there, and it works for many of us (everyone is different, of course). I simply re-read and edit-as-I-go all the words I wrote last time. It gets me into the voice again, and into the flow, and it helps keep the total number of continuity errors down.

B) I keep a “Fix Later” list. Sometimes there are really big changes — changing the sex of a central character, inserting a character/theme you’ve just invented throughout the rest of the story, or maybe I’m worried that someone’s pistol is anachronistic or changing brands — edits that would require some research or maybe even days of work to fix. In these situations, I usually just jot down a few notes about what I think is wrong on my “Fix Later” list. Then I put it out of my head and pretend it’s already done. It’s kind of like Wile E. Coyote running on air, and it’s probably the most important technique I learned to actually finish a novel.

C) I fix the ones that give m nightmares. Sometimes B) is not enough. Sometimes your brain starts to feel out of balance and can’t “pretend” anymore that all the edits have been made. In these few situations, I go back and make the edits that are bugging me ASAP. Best practice is to keep these times to a minimum, less the momentum of your novel die.

My current novel editing process:

1) When the “very rough” draft is done — meaning that I have have finished writing the last chapter — I work through all my “Fix Later” list. This takes a while. As I go, I find more scenes that I don’t like and places where I’m missing info. I make a list of these too. Then I fix them. Once all these basic edits are done, I have a first draft.

You say: A first draft! You must be done, right?
You must be ready for beta readers?
What do you do with a first draft then?
Well, the primary rules is — I don’t show it to anyone. It’s only a first draft, and not even really that. It’s the first take of the first draft.

2) Now I search the first draft for overused phrases, -ly words, etc, and make sure I need them. If I HAVE to have them, I leave them. Otherwise they end up dead on the floor. I now have the first draft, second take.
So you’re done, right? Beta reader time?

3) I now read the whole first draft to myself, ALOUD. Reading aloud really helps me catch rhythm mistakes, missing words, awkward phrasing, and (unintended) grammatical errors.

I also usually can see the major clunky bits of scenes, and I end up either adding description or taking away stuff I don’t need. Lots of scenes get rewritten from the ground up.

Once this is done, I have a second draft. And before you ask, no it’s not done.

4) Now I read the second draft aloud to my wife (or other willing victim, though I have yet to find one). The performance of the piece makes me note where things still don’t move smoothly. Also, she will catch flaws as well. When this is done, I have the third draft.
Ahh, beta readers now?, I hear you ask.
Yes. Now you’re right.

5) This third draft goes to beta readers. After I incorporate feedback from them, I have a fourth draft and (hopefully) a submittable novel.

But if you’re hoping this is the end of the story, let me burst your bubble right here: I haven’t sold a novel yet, but I’ve heard that this is just the beginning of edits. The agent may request changes, then the editor at the publisher, then there are page proofs, galleys, etc.

My advice: Write a novel you love, or you may end up sick of it.

On Writing #12: So You Want to Write, But You Can’t Find the Time

So… You want to write. Maybe you want to write short stories, books, poetry. Maybe you actually want to finish a memoir, or you’re in love with the idea of publishing articles.

If you’re like a lot of us out there, the problem you’re having isn’t finding an IDEA. Ideas are cheap. Once you start writing you’ll be drowning in them.

The real problem you’re having is just WRITING. I don’t mean stringing words together so they make sense (that can be an issue for even the best of us, but it’s not the focus of this article) — let me explain.

Just about everyone I’ve met says they want to write a book one day. Most of them probably could write some astounding stories too.

So I ask them: Why haven’t you written?

That’s when the clearing of throats and mumbled excuses start pouring forth — usually excuses eventually boil down to one common thread: that with kids and work and “everything else” they can’t fit it in. They just never find the time.

The Time Problem – I Have It Too

I get the time problem. I really do. I have a job. I commute 45 mins each way every work day. I have a kid, a wife, several very demanding hobbies other than writing. While the baby was learning to sleep (6 months to 18 months old), no matter what I tried I could NOT find the time. Every spare moment I had had to be dedicated to sleep. Time is an intense problem for me, and sometimes — in very special situations like the one above — there is no solution.

So how is it that I write fiction? that I study writing, and find time to write about writing itself? How do my friends do it, too, with their busy lives?

It’s Hard – And Not for Everyone

It’s HARD. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Evne for the most gifted and natural of writers, fitting their art into a busy modern life is PAINFUL.

We all have to give things up, and some of us have to sacrifice more than others, and for some of us — sometimes — writing does not fit.

The cost of fitting it in for those people is just too high. And there is nothing wrong with that. Priorities have to be set!

There are Things that Should NOT be Given Up

Many of my readers may be shocked — floored, even — to hear me say this, but there are MANY things more important than writing. I might even hazard to say that MOST things in life are more important than writing — among them family and health and, yes, even freinds. These things, I believe, should not be cut back or pared away in an extreme manner. Maybe you have to duck out of a few of your friend’s birthday parties, yeah, but don’t ditch them all together. Life is for the living, people! And definitely don’t make your spouse or your kids suffer for writing. Take what tmie they are willing — and happy — to give you, but listen to them and listen to yourself. There is a limit to how much time it is appropriate to take away from them — and writing time is not worth causing either them or you permanent relationship stress.

I also do not recommend quitting your job or changing to a much simpler job to find time to write. This HAS worked for a few writers, and it might work for you if you have the right bent and the right set of situations – single, no kids, or a spouse with a ton of cash. But I am the sole income for my family unit, and — for someone in my situation — reducing income voluntarily is an impossible decision to make.

So what do you give up then?

Alright, we’ve looked at a few things I do NOT universally recommend: quitting your job, your family, your friends, your health.

But if you want to fit writing into your life, some things do have to budge. This is obvious: it’s a simple fact that the number of seconds in a day is finite, and there are PLENTY of things out there to fill them.

Your job as a writer/aspiring writer is to identify as many spare seconds and as many wasted seconds as you can, and then make a plan to use them to empower your writing.

I’ll warn you, these ideas are nothing new — but perhaps my experiences with them can help you pick which tools will help you.

Step 1) Carry a small notebook with you. It has to be small so it can fit in your back pocket or your purse or somewhere else where it can be convenient, unobtrusive, and omnipresent.

This is the book where you write the random ideas that fall upon you during the day. Some call it a journal. Some call it a writer’s book. Some just call it a scratch pad. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s useful.

Me — I have a tendency to write on whatever paper is at hand, forgetting that I have the journal with me — this gets many of my ideas lost in random notebooks. I end up with piles and piles of notebooks with one page full. But every once in a while I go through them. Collect them all together. Cull out the bad stuff. That, or a stumble randomly across an idea when I’m looking for a shopping list. The juices start flowing right there, right in the middle of everything else. Suddenly, I have an idea, a new persepective on a WIP.

Some say you should journal every day. Maybe they’re right. Me, I just jot ideas down when I am possessed by the muse to do so (maybe that’s why I’m so poorly organized). I go weeks, sometimes months, between notes, then I do ten in one day, every day, for a week. This is the only way I have any hope of capturing the fire.

Even for the poorly organized like myself, journalling is a valuable tool.

Step 2) Find the spare seconds I was talking about — and schedule them.

One book I read (I do not remember the title) recommended that you write every time you take a bathroom break or coffee break at work. Just one, two lines. This is extreme, but I have tried it. It does work, but only for certain stories and only when I am in a certain mood. Perhaps it will work for you — it certainly cannot hurt — even if all you write is junk, you will be getting better, you will be practicing. Just don’t be discouraged if the quality isn’t as high as you were hoping.

But, seriously, you do have to fit writing into your life. Some of my frieds get up at 5:00am every day and write for an hour before commuting an hour to work.

Others write every night, 10:00pm to 11:00pm.

Me, I write at lunch for about 45 minutes. I reread the previos days work and fine-tune it lightly, then I proceed to write the next bit. Sometimes I get 0 new words, soemtimes 250, and on a few rare and wonderful days I get lucky and get 2500.

As little as 15 minutes a day can keep you going, but you really need 30 minutes to an hour on a regular basis. Move things around. Make that one, scheudled writing space. It’s okay if it’s only on weekdays. The schedule is the important part here.

3) Think about making writing a ritual.

This is the “sacred space” concept, and is tied intimately with the idea of scheduling the same time of day.

This is idea that if you make a special place or a series of things you always do before you write, writing will become a habit and you will always fit writing in because otherwise you will not feel right.

Go to the same restaurant every day (I do Schlotsky’s) and write there. Or maybe build something more elaborate — always ride the stationary bike ten minutes, take your shower, and then write. or light a couple of candles. Maybe play the same song before you start, listen to it deeply. Maybe, like Stephen King used to, Write in a small utility room so your family will not come out to bother you.

There is a danger to this, though. I now write nowhere but this one Schlotsky’s. What happens if it closes? What happens if I need to write on the weekend and I don’t feel like driving across town?

Jay Lake can write anywhere, in any sitting or prone or standing position. This is a decison you have to be careful of making, because it can limit you — but it can also keep you writing when nothing else will.

4) Cut back on TV, Video games

You don’t have to give them up. But you probably will have to cut back.

Most of an American’s day is filled with TV. I don’t even have cable, and I still watch an hour or two of it per day.

This can be hard to do. Prime Time TV is essentially it’s own ritual, it’s own sacred space (the same concept we just discussed). Video games give you instantaneous positive feedback – the same type of feedback most of us are hoping to get from our writing.

Your writing is in direct competition with these two time sinks. Writing takes work — unlike TV. Writing is slow and takes a LOT of time to get feedback on — unlike video games.

It’s amazing anyone breaks away long enough to write, really, considering how powerful TV and Video Games can be, emotionally.

But, really, here’s my experiences cutting back:

For video games, I’ve had two different things work:

1) Play your video games only AFTER you’ve written your minimum time or word count. If you don’t write, you don’t get to play. This worked for a while for me, but eventually I gave up.

2) What’s working right now: I play video games only in a certain time window every day. I am allowed to play in that time window — one hour, right after work. I set an alarm, or my wife does, and when teh alarm goes off I have to leave. Period. Slowly this has become a sacred space, and I just don’t feel right playing at any other time of day.

For TV:

Same things as above work for TV.

I also cancelled my cable, and I only watch the shows I want to watch on Hulu, or I use the money I would have spent on cable and buy an entire season of a show.

The real key here has been: I have 2 shows, maybe three, that I watch, and I tend to watch a whole season at a time — two weeks, one episode a night, or one weekend with most of them piled all together. No waiting for the next episode, no wondering what happens next, and entire series are out of the way in a relatively small amount of time.

Maybe it’s bad, but I binge on TV. But then for days and weeks I don’t care about it anymore.

I keep up, but it’s not central to my life, or my evening, and this frees up time for me to do writing drills or just to THINK about my stories — and that, in iteslf, s an imporant activity.

There are Many More Ideas Out There

Like I always say, you have one of the most powerful research tools in the known universe at your fingertips — the internet. The problem with it is that half the stuff you read will be wrong — but when you’re looking for time saving tips, you can usually sort the wheat from the chaff pretty easy.

So go, find more ways to save time, apply them. And then share with me, so I can find more time too!

On Writing #11: Deliberate Practice Drill – Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

In everything from sword fighting to martial arts to painting to — yes — WRITING, one of the key ways the good get better and the better become experts is to analyze the styles of those they respect.

Perhaps you like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code”, perhaps for you the Sookie Stackhouse books are just the best series ever, perhaps you are amazed by Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, perhaps you cannot understand how Herman Melville creates such emotion and vibrance in every line. There unnumbered different writers, different readers. We all have different goals and different tastes, but if we want to write — and write well — this takes DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

I am not here to give a lecture on deliberate practice, to define it, or to discuss the “10,000 hours to expertise” theory. There are plenty of books, articles, and links out there about them.

I do need to put a disclaimer here first, though: Beginners who start deliberate practice find it boring, slow, and it usually causes them to drop out — it is much more important for beginners to just HAVE FUN. Deliberate practice is for later, after you love your hobby already, so you can get that much better at it. So if you’re new to writing, maybe you should skip this post and come back to it later, after you’re already in love with it.

In case you haven’t heard about Deliberate Practice, here is an overview, but this is not exhaustive:
– The best in any field get that way NOT because they work “harder” than everyone else, but because they work “smarter”
– Normal practice is not good enough — just playing your sport, writing a novel, going out and doing a gymnastics routine, playing a new song on a piano will get you good, but it will take a long time, and you may never be one of the best.
– Deliberate practice is the type of practice where you design, participate, and review drills that improve SPECIFIC ELEMENTS of your chosen field. This includes such things as: Playing blues scales in different tempos and rhythms, drilling specific kicks/angles/passes for soccer players, practicing that ONE MOST difficult step in your martial arts form for hours, etc, etc.
– There is no limit to the types of drills that can be created as part of deliberate practice, but some will be of more use than others.
– The best of the best usually grow to LOVE their drills and exercises for their own sake — because they can see how much the drills make them better.

For a more detailed discussion of Deliberate Practice, check here: http://www.suite101.com/content/deliberate-practice-a132437

Just remember, if you’re still new to writing, don’t let deliberate practice chase you away.

So now that you know what deliberate practice is, or at least you have a general idea, let me discuss one of the drills that I do to add to my toolbox and improve my writing skills:
Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

Whoever your favorite writers are, whether the critics love them or hate them, there is always something you can learn from a pro. In general, since books are made of words, these lessons involve tearing books apart — dissecting them, if you will — so you can see how the different parts of them work.

There are many ways to do this. I’ve designed perhaps 5 different drills, analyzing the structure within an individual chapter, the way chapters are organized in novels, shifts of POV, voice, mood, metaphorical analysis — but, really, I can’t fit them all in here.

So we’ll focus on one: Quick and Dirty Style Analysis.

I’ve already talked about style/voice at length in On Writing #3, but process described there is when you want to completely grok and work into your own DNA the way your favorite writing genius works. What if you don’t really have time for that. Or what if you’re comfortable with your current voice in the middle of a story and you don’t want to risk your voice changing dramatically half way through — but, at the same time, you can’t stand the thought of NOT learning, NOT getting better.

Well, this is where Quick and Dirty Style Analysis comes in.

1) Find your favorite book, or at least on that affected you greatly.
2) Find your favorite part of that book.
3) Copy your absolutely favorite paragraph/sentence out LONGHAND on a blank piece of paper.
4) Take this sentence apart. Find it’s structure. Find why it works.
5) Switch out nouns, verbs, adjectives in the same structure. The move the words around. Cut out articles, play with the phrase. See what does work, what doesn’t.
6) Repeat with more sentences until you think you understand how the person you are learning from does some of their best tricks.
7) Implement the techniques you’ve learned as you need them.

Note to beginners/intermediate writers: I’ve already said I don’t think you need to do this drill for the very good reasons stated earlier. But if you ignore me and do it anyway, Do NOT copy directly — or even summarize the work of — another writer in your own writing. Copying or summarizing even small parts of someone else’s work is Plagiarism. Don’t plagiarize. Ever. A little later on you will learn how to give an homage those who have influenced you, but this early don’t worry about it.

Okay, that’s it.

Wait! This isn’t easy, you say. No, it isn’t. It’s hard work. All of writing is hard work. But this drill is effective.

And let me be clear — a many writers do this, or do something similar.

Variations of this drill that I have seen people do (that I actually use myself) include the following:
A) Simply underlining/highlighting sections you like and coming back to read and chew on them again
B) Writing out paragraphs from your favorite book long hand just before bed and dreaming about them
C) Doing what William Faulkner used to do — picking up a book he considered an old friend, and turning to directly to your favorite passages, and imagining you are in the room with the writer.

All I have done here is introduce a little actual analysis to the process — and depending on your temperament — or depending on your mood that day (this is my case) — this drill may not suit your needs. Feel free to ignore it, change it, or mix it up. I sure do.

Art, after all, is not a science. It cannot be contained. And every writer is different.

Many of us, though, have stumbled into similar processes because reading and thinking critically about other peoples’ writing is a great way to get better at writing yourself. Simply put, IT WORKS.

[Greatest Hits] On Writing #3: The Myth of “Finding Your Voice” and How to Develop One (or Two or Three) of Your Own

Well, since I’m actually in the middle of a writing project and I haven’t had time to fully develop this week’s post, I thought I’d offer up one of my most popular articles, a kind of re-run or greatest-hits, if you will.

So: Without any more ado, probably the best article so far on the blog: “On Writing #3: The Myth of ‘Finding Your Voice’ and How to Develop One (or Two or Three) of Your Own”

One thing I’ve seen endless posts on is “Finding Your Voice”, as if there is a magical voice that is yours — and one day you’ll just run into your voice and BOOM you’ll be a real writer with a real style.

First I need to be clear here. I’m not sure if this is a revolutionary view, but it is certainly MY view and I haven’t seen it anywhere else:

I do NOT believe that if you keep writing you’ll just accidentally run into “Your Voice” and then you’re done and the quest is over. In fact, I don’t believe that a writer has a single voice at all. No, indeed, I believe a writer has as many voices as he/she decides to DEVELOP, and each of those voices will be unique to the writer.

You see, VOICE is a TOOL. Each voice is slightly different, sure, and each one has different strengths. That’s why having multiple voices at hand is extremely useful — each voice can be employed in a different story or even in a different chapter in the same novel in order to heighten certain effects.

Voices can be short. Brutal. Rhythmic. Human skin stretched tight on drums.

Other voices twist and writhe about and keep diving into different holes until you can’t see where they’re going in the dark tunnels of mind and then in one heartbeat they leap out at you and grab you like you’re a rabbit and shake you once, twice, thrice and leave you bleeding and twitching in the mud.

They can be anything you want. Quick, sassy, velvety, violent, whatever.

But all voices have two elements in common:
1) They are composed of words
2) In order to use one, you have to DEVELOP it first

There’s that word again. Develop. Why do I keep saying “develop” when everyone else says “find”? Well, first let’s discuss how most writers develop a voice.

How most writers develop a voice
We are all, to some extent, built in with a certain voice and a certain style. It is an amalgam of what we have read and enjoyed, mashed together with whatever you remember from English classes, plastered over with yours or someone else’s opinions on Grammar (Strunk and White, anyone?). The problem is this style we start out with (usually anyway) just isn’t good. Go back and look at your last failed short story, or — if you’re established now and none of your stories fail — go back and look at one of your early short stories from high school or junior high. See those stilted lines. Why are they stilted? What’s going on? Why does that high-school/college/whatever prose seem impossible to disentangle even though you’ve rewritten entire BOOKs now?

Why? Because the style/voice in that piece is in conflict with itself. It wants to be the way you talk and think. It wants to be the way Hemingway talks and thinks. And don’t forget your Composition teacher or your favorite SF writer or Strunk and White either. It’s a vast CACOPHANY of OTHER voices, all struggling to be heard. All drowning each other out.

Why does it take people 1, 3, 10, or even 15 trunk novels to finally find a winning voice? Because it’s a lot of work to overcome those voices, especially when you don’t know that you’re trying to write like other people and follow all these built-in rules. Struggling blindly like this, it’s amazing anyone develops one voice much less two or three or more. No wonder it feels more like you “find” your vioce than a conscious decision to “develop one”.

Sure this process works. Eventually. If you don’t give up. Plenty of writers have gone through the process and ended up writing well or even dazzlingly. The problem is, this is the hard way of doing it. “Writing Like Other People” is exactly the process of DEVELOPING voice, yes, but you can speed the process up.

Let me show you how.

A repeatable process to develop voice and style FASTER.
Say you really like Cormac McCarthy. You’d like to write a bit more like him, adopt a few of his flourishes. Good on you, he’s a great writer. A Pulitzer and a National Book Award are hard to argue with.

But how do you do it?

Step 1) This is the obvious step. You’ll need to READ him.

Sadly, this is where most writers’ plans on developing a voice END. You read “The Road”, “Blood Meridian”, and “All the Pretty Horses”, and think “Well, I hope that rubbed off.” But strangely, it doesn’t seem to work. So maybe you read again and again (pleasant but not strictly necessary). This is similar to brute-forcing your way into a password-protected computer. Hard, brutal, and it may eventually work, but it will take time.

Step 2) Define WHAT YOU LIKE about him.

In this step you are defining to yourself EXACTLY what you like about the author. This equates almost precisely with WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN from the author.

Me, I like the lack of commas and apostrophes and quotation marks. To me, the streamlined prose falls straight into my brain faster and with less effort without all the noise. You may HATE this, though. If you do, don’t put it on your list. Me, I also like his use of “and” to connect long lists of very simple sentences in All the Pretty Horse. I love his vast vistas that yank directly at your soul in Blood Meridian. I like his short, terse, chopped up prose in The Road. I like his images that burn like fire in your mind.

Your list might be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than mine. That’s okay. We might like him for different reasons, but that’s why you do this:

So you can figure out what you need to focus on.

Step 3) Figure out HOW your author does the things you like.

This is the hard part. Sometimes you have to call in friends or relatives or even other writers to look at a passage and help you noodle HOW or WHY this unexpected sentence works or how he crafts this particular list of images. Where are the roots of them? How does he marry the words syntactically?

Like I said, this can be pretty hard, but all you need is one to three bullet points to keep in mind about any stylistic element.

Step 4) Write an inspired piece. Preferably three. And then try it on a novel or a novella to let it really sink in. (This is, like step 1, is something that many writers do, but without steps 2 and 3 it usually falls apart or reverts to your previous voice.)

Sounds simple, right? I’ve been reading McCarthy, so I should write a Western. Actually — no. I don’t recommend that at all. I actually recommend taking elements from TWO DIFFERENT WRITERS and doing your best to mash them up. That way you don’t get too trapped in one author’s vein. That way YOU can take the elements and make them YOURS.

An example, my short story “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” ( http://www.chizine.com/teddy.htm ) was my second attempt at mixing McCarthy’s style from The Road with Paul Jessup’s blend of surrealism and postmodernism. It sold to ChiZine. I did three stories in this vein, each in a different setting and working on different elements of voice and theme, and of them #1 sucks and is trunked and #3 is still making the rounds and seems to get me more personalized rejections and “please-submit-again”s than any other story. Still, it may never get published. But that’s okay. All three of these were experiments, and I learned staggering amounts from each of them.

Step 5) Do it again if you want to. There is always something to learn out there. Melville’s ability to send shuddering meaning into even the whizz and smoke of a rope. Chabon’s ability to express the entire history of a tenement building that has nothing to do with the plot and still keep you hooked.

After all, these are your saws and your lathes. Keep them sharp!

On Writing #10: Beating Writer’s Block

(A blog-note first: I will now be posting something new every Sunday! Check back every week for a new article!)

Writer’s block is something I’ve been having extensive experience with recently, since the birth of my daughter interrupted every routine, from writing to Martial Arts. Until about June, I was on a daily grind of at least 500, usually 800-1000 words. And they were good words.

Now I’ve “fallen off the wagon”, and for a good long while. I have new rhythms in life, new responsibilities at work and at home that threaten to eat every second of time I had.

How you overcome writer’s block is a two-step process:
1) Fill up your soul with images and emotion.
2) Put your Butt In Chair (BIC) and write (preferably on a scheduled basis.)

Let’s start with an explanation of Step #2:

BIC. This is what I’ve been avoiding. The alone-lonliness of writing. The fear of having no words, no mind, no beauty left in my soul to share. I just haven’t had any ideas, and when I tried to write anyway, everything was dead and lifeless.

Still, I will be trying to schedule time at lunch every day to write. At least 30 mins, with a goal of 100 words. This WILL work if I do it — and it will work for you too — the problem is DOING IT. It’s not fun to sit there with no ideas and write crap until the ideas come.

Now lets move onto Step #1:

This has been a long dry spell for me, with many false starts on projects, but at least one very successful story. But as I’ve told others in their dry spells, the secret to writing READING, and more than that — reading INSPIRING WORK. Read something that will inform your stories — style or substance or content/facts or even just something AMAZING.

Listen to high-quality audio books during lunch or morning commute. Carry an old 120-page paperback in your back pocket to read at spare moments during the day. Read another book before bed and jot down ideas and lines you like.

From good writing comes good ideas. These are sulfur and mercury of our alchemy — the Red King and White Queen, male-female in union that gives birth to the philosopher’s stone we are seeking. Throw yourself from the lip of your alembic and dive in.

On Writing #9: On Cipher Characters, Why They Can Be Flat, and How to Fix Them

Yes! A new “On Writing” post, and hopefully a good one.

This time we tackle characters that are ciphers for the author, and why they typically are flat, and some techniques to fix them.

A Definition

What do I mean by “characters that are ciphers for the author”? I mean, characters that are very similar to the author in many ways — attitudes, traumas, even life events. In fan fiction these are often called “Mary-Sue” characters, where Mary Sue has Teen Hunk Idol #3 fall in love with her and they live happily ever after (though Mary-Sue’s actually have a distinct advantage over some author-ciphers.)

The “Art is Emotion” Theory, the Basics

First of all, for the rest of this to make sense, I’ need to express my theory (and I’m sure other people have expressed this theory before, though I haven’t seen it) that art — all art — is primarily about conveying emotions to person watching/listening/smelling/tasting/feeling it.

Art is emotion. (Yes, I realize this is not a theory unique to me, but it took me a while to reinvent the wheel.)

An abstract painting, music, a short story, a novel, a poem, an award-winning movie, a beautiful chair — the reason these things touch us is that they work within our socio-cognitive framework to take the viewer/reader/audience on a journey through an emotional landscape.

The emotional landscape in most of adventure novels is tension — primarily fear/excitement/anger-based — but a novel could theoretically be built off joy, profundity (done well by Milan Kundera, actually), or any other intense emotion. But the goal is not just to convey a single emotion: a novel must take a reader through an emotional “journey”, moving one emotion — or mood — to the next in a subtle and convincing way. (But how to do that is another story, and most likely another “On Writing”.)

Why Cipher Characters Are Flat and How to Wring Emotions Out of Them

The problem with characters that are ciphers for the author (or very close to being so) is that most authors don’t know themselves very well. I know I don’t. I’m sure there are exceptions, but for the large part we are too close to ourselves to understand our motivations and actions and reactions clearly — and thus we are also too close to cipher characters. We cannot see the details of our bodies to convey the emotions easily, and we feel the emotions so naturally that we forget even to describe them.

So you get phrases like “Gerald was excited” instead of “Gerald fought back the glee that shook him from gut to fingertips.” Obviously, “Gerald was excited” doesn’t convey much actual emotion to the reader. It doesn’t make the reader feel the excitement.

This is bad because ART IS EMOTION, as stated above. Without emotion, there is no art.

It is very hard (for me, at least, and I theorize for many others) to describe our own personal emotional journeys. Memoirs, for instance, can be notoriously difficult unless they are written many years later, with great hindsight, and personal emotions are just as are to write in fiction if your character is yourself. (A notable to exception — many Mary-Sue stories are quite successful, but I think that is because of the novelty and intensity of infatuation — the very rareness of the emotion makes it easier to describe).

At this time, I know only three ways to wring emotion out of a cipher:

1) Increase the Character’s Emotional Intensity – Focus on unusual and intense emotions (such as falling intensely in lust with a Scottish woman, going to your child’s funeral)

2) Put the Character in a Challenging Situation
– Focus on unusual and intense situations that cause unusual and intense emotions (such as being in a world full of Vampire Teddy Bears, racing toward a cliff in a car with no brakes)

3) Increase the Character’s Emotional Distance From Yourself –
Make the character that is ciphering you much more distant. The two primary ways I do this are:

  • Give them traits that are not mine (ie, change the character’s gender, make them of a different political persuasion)
  • Take traits that I share with them and blow them out of proportion so that the character’s personality changes (ie, focus on the character’s grief and sense of estrangement/alienation))

Basically, this is a cheap and easy way of turning a cipher character into a REAL character that stands apart from you.

A Fourth? Solution: Creating a Lens for the Audience to See the Character Through

The “audience” — readers — need to see this character moving, acting, need to see the emotions on his face like in any Oscar winning picture or at least like in any Blade movie.

With a story, the camera can be positioned in the character’s emotions and thoughts or it can float externally, or it can be any combination of the two. Much like a camera in film, if you move the character in and out you can get different effects, highlight different elements. Even get close-ups.

A primarily thoughts/emotions camera can be a little slow, boring, and unsubtle for some readers, and also leads to “Gerald was excited” without any detail added in. But the external camera — where most of your story takes place — runs the danger of not conveying emotion at all unless the writer is very clever with word choice and the rhythm of the words themselves. Both cameras have their strengths and weaknesses, and using a camera built somewhere in between will have a mix of strengths and weaknesses from both.

This is not a unique concept; it is often discussed as the “emotional distance” from the character.

Figuring out emotional distance is not enough, though.

In order to show the audience the character’s emotions, you need to develop a framework — a specific technique or “style” to describing them. Here are a few questions to answer to develop a framework: Is Gerald a stranger to his emotions, or is he familiar with them? Will you use similes to describe his emotions or what he sees? How about metaphors? Are you looking for a particular mood for the character? Are there any key words or images to emphasize (such as: do you always describe him like a rainstorm)?

Since the lens is the portal through which the movie is put on film, I like to think of any combination of “emotional distance” (camera position) and “framework for showing emotion” (style) as a “LENS” — it is the portal through which the movie is made and where the focus is controlled:

Say you go for a lens where Gerald is tightly controlled and internalizes most emotions (Lens A):
Gerald stared at his wife wondering why her makeup was so perfect. So fresh. He squeezed down a sudden rush emotions in his belly, not understanding or even knowing what they were. All he knew for sure was he felt she was lying.

What if you prefer a slightly more externalized reaction from Gerald, but you still want him to remain a stranger to his own emotions (Lens B):
Gerald’s hear fluttered and squeezed and threatened to stop and he wasn’t sure why. It was just a button on his wife’s blouse. Just a stupid button buttoned through the wrong hole. He tried to turn back around and type the last words of the screenplay, but his fingers shuddered. Gibberish shot across the screen like curse words in a comic book. Her shirt had been perfect before she left. Why had she taken her shirt off? Was she cheating on him?

There are, of course, infinite levels to this.

You can zoom in and zoom out, but switching between lenses requires care. Perhaps I can write more on that later, but let me focus on this for now:

The nice thing about having a lens (or two or three), is that it is a re-usable tool. As long as you understand what you’ve designed and you at least think about it, you’re likely to get the character’s emotions across to the readers without saying, “Gerald was excited.”

No, Not a Fourth Solution

So I said there were 3 solutions and this a fourth solution? Can I not count?

Actually, this isn’t a separate solution. The lens will help you, sure, but if you don’t do the work and find a personality trait to focus on, or get the intense locations or emotions going, this may not save you alone. To me, this augments the other solutions.

With a lens one or more of the other tricks, you should be able to solve any problems you might have with a character that is a cipher of yourself.