In honor of Nanowrimo’s big kickoff tomorrow (or today, for some of you), I made another Nanowrimo desktop wallpaper. This one just covers the first week, so there will be more like it coming. I don’t know how much true utility this one has, but it was fun to make anyway. Cheers. Oh, and feel free to add me as a writing buddy if you’re so inclined.
I realized belatedly that maybe I should have picked a snappier, less self-centered title, like 10 Books On Writing You Must Read in Order to Not Be a Total Asshole, but, whatever, too late now.)
A friend recently asked for my favorite books on the craft of writing. I had originally intended to go through these volumes in detail, one at a time, but nothing else about this blog has gone how I intended, so here’s my short list. I’ll probably have more to say on each of them later. I’ve already talked about Zen in the Art of Writing in detail, so I won’t say more about it here (other than “buy and read it”).
In no particular order, then:
The former will teach you the most venerable rules of grammar. The latter will teach you how, why, and when you should subvert them. Learn the former before pursuing the latter. I beg you.
On Writing (Stephen King)
Homespun advice from one of the most commercially successful authors of all time, in the easy vernacular that made him so readable. You can’t really go wrong.
Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg)
I keep this book around when I want to feel inspired. Not a lot of technical advice, but cultivates passion and enthusiasm.
Characters and Viewpoint (Orson Scott Card)
I don’t generally enjoy Card’s fiction, and to say I disagree with his politics would be a dire understatement — but this book is really good. If you can swallow giving the guy your money, pick up this volume. It’s still the best book on characters I’ve read.
Techniques of the Selling Writer (Dwight V. Swain)
Written in 1965 and still relevant, this book covers everything from structure and conflict to planning and characterization. It’s jam-packed with great advice.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) (Jack. M. Bickham)
A thin, concise, easy-to-read list of classic fiction gaffes. If you’re a beginning writer, you’ll probably find yourself guilty of more than one. Great bathroom reading.
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell)
Wry, clever writing advice delivered in a fun new way: through the context of Sun Tzu. This thing is a treasure trove.
How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead (Ariel Gore)
It’s a bit of a cliche to describe a book on writing as being written “from the trenches,” but Ariel Gore’s book reads like that. It’s full of hard-nosed advice and scruffy charm. Especially recommended for people thinking about getting into self-publishing.
The basic unit of the dramatic scene is this: give a character a goal to pursue, have them pursue it, then move that goal further away. Rinse, raise the stakes, repeat. The harder your characters fight to reach their goal (and the further they’re driven away from it), the more your readers will love it.
This is sometimes called obstacle-stacking, and my favorite example of the technique actually comes from a movie: the famous V-Wing fight from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was hoping to track down a video of the sequence to post here, but unfortunately, no dice. Basically, it goes like this:
- Indy and Marion emerge from the Well of Souls and attempt to escape the Nazis on a stolen plane.
- Indy sneaks up to try to knock out the pilot. Before he can get there, he’s spotted by another guy.
- Indy gets back down off the plane, beats the other guy unconscious, but now the pilot sees what’s going on.
- The burly mechanic shows up and starts beating Indy to a pulp.
- Marion takes the blocks out from under the plane’s landing gear.
- The pilot draws a pistol and nearly shoots Indy, but Marion knocks him out with the blocks.
- The unconscious guard falls on the plane controls, the plane is now spinning slowly in place with the propellers running.
- Now Indy and the burly mechanic have to avoid the deadly propellers while they’re fighting.
- Marion tries to stop the plane, but the hatch closes on her and she’s locked in.
- The rotating plane knocks open the gas tank of a truck. Gas spills across the runway.
- A whole mess of guards show up in trucks, armed with machine guns.
- Marion machine-guns the guards, but one of the trucks explodes, and now gas is now flowing toward the flames.
- The plane is about to blow up, Marion’s trapped inside, and Indy is being beaten senseless as deadly propellers whirl over his head.
All they wanted to do was get on the plane! To me, this is a pitch-perfect example of how to create drama: a simple goal, and things relentlessly going wrong. This is the good kind of obstacle-stacking: the kind that gets your readers turning pages, forsaking sleep, missing appointments, and alienating loved ones.
But there’s a different kind of obstacle-stacking, which is neither dramatic nor gripping. I’m talking about the obstacles people set in front of them when they plan to start writing. Here’s an example, which is completely fictional and totally not from my own life, especially not from earlier this week.
- A hypothetical author (TOTALLY NOT ME) gets up, plans to do some writing.
- But first, better check email. And blogs. And Twitter.
- One can’t write on an empty stomach, so breakfast time. Better make it as complicated as possible.
- Oops, just got another email because I didn’t turn off my email client. I mean he didn’t. Oh, screw it.
- I need coffee. I have to wash the coffee pot and filter because I didn’t do it last night.
- Is it dark in here? I better adjust the shades. Now it’s too bright. Now it’s too dim. Now it’s too bright again.
- Better clean this desk off too. A dirty desk is the sign of a dirty — coffee’s done! Oops, too much cream. Now not enough. Now too much again. Now I spilled hot coffee on my crotch. Time for several minutes of screaming and worrying about my future offspring, followed by laundry triage.
- Okay, NOW I’m ready — maybe I should read a few more blogs, you know, for inspiration. Inspiration to do what, you ask? Look, nobody likes a wise-ass.
- The cat needs attention. Well I can’t neglect the cat, that would make me some sort of monster!
- And I don’t want the other cat to get jealous, so…
- Now to spend ten minutes finding just the right piece of music.
- All right. I’m finally all set! Everything’s perfect and —
- Now my coffee’s cold.
- You know, it’s almost lunch, I’ll catch up this afternoon.
- Ad infinitum, up to and including social obligations, TV series, the gym, the laundry, the telephone, the doorbell, and so on.
If this looks like textbook procrastination, that’s because it is. But that’s what procrastination amounts to: stacking obstacles between you and your writing. Sometimes they’re perfectly legitimate circumstances that come up. Sometimes they’re just situations you make up. Life will make it hard enough for you to write without you helping.
I still struggle with the urge to wait for the “perfect” circumstances to write in: the day that I’m well-rested, have big blocks of unbroken time, feel inspired, and meet any number of ephemeral criteria. While these days do happen, they’re like a combination of leap year and Christmas. You can’t depend on them coming along very frequently.
Moving yourself further from the act of writing is drama you don’t need, and no one’s going to find it riveting, least of all you. If you want to create a series of insurmountable obstacles, put them in front of your characters instead. Your readers, and your muse, will thank you.
I have a guest post over on WrimosFTW! about how I wrote 10,000 words in a day for Nanowrimo a few years ago. These days, such an accomplishment is pretty banal; to get noticed by Nano, people now have to write 20,000 words in an hour on the back of a bus ticket while wearing a chicken suit in Times Square. In their own blood. The bar’s gotten kinda high. But back in 2005, I managed to get a brief interview and a spot on the Nanowrimo front page. And I was every bit as photogenic then as I am now, which is to say not in the least. Anyway, check it out over at WrimosFTW, and thanks to Lyn Midnight for the opportunity.
Among the many stops on what I call the Road to Getting Serious About Writing is a frank conversation I had with a close friend many years ago. He had just finished assembling materials for a book idea he’d been kicking around for years, and admitted to me that he was nervous about starting.
“Why?” I asked. “You’ve obviously got the knowledge, you’re passionate about the subject, you’re a skilled writer. What are you worried about?”
“Well,” he said, “this is my life’s work… what if I put in all that work and it isn’t any good?”
I winced because I’d felt the same way, many times. This particular fear often comes to haunt me in the wolf’s hour, when it’s three in the morning and I can’t get to sleep because of the parade of morbid thoughts stomping over my ribcage. It rears its deformed head when I’m in the midst of an editing problem of Gordian proportions. It bites my ankles in the evening hours when I’m behind deadline and my inspiration has gone as limp as overcooked linguine. It peers over my shoulder and paraphrases the bitchy girlfriend from Happy Gilmore: “All you ever talk about is being a writer. But there’s a problem. You’re not any good!” This is the worst of all, because apparently my taunting psychopomp enjoys Adam Sandler movies, and therefore so do I. If that’s not an eldritch blasted heath of the soul, I don’t know what is.
This fear is not only natural, it’s fairly endemic to writers in general. I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t white-knuckled their way through spasms of self-doubt at least once. But ultimately, it’s like any other psychological terror: you either let it stop you, or you work through it. Here are some things to keep in mind that might help you banish the lurking fear back to the unholy terror dimension from whence it came.
You’ll fail for sure if you don’t try.
This is so obvious it circles the drain of empty platitudes, but it’s true enough that it bears repeating. If you write a bad book, then you write a bad book. Or short story, or screenplay, or whatever. But if you write nothing, then you’ve got nothing. Whenever I start thinking about giving up because trying’s just too damn much work, I recall a favorite quote from Al Pacino in Glengarry Glenn Ross: “In this life, you regret the things you don’t do.” Granted, he was a crooked real estate salesman trying to hoodwink a potential mark, but… well… shut up! It’s motivational, okay?
“Not any good” isn’t an ending, it’s an obstacle.
Life isn’t like a movie. In real life, couples who finally get together after a series of hilarious misunderstandings have to learn to get along. Likewise, giving up on your book isn’t going to end with you laying on the floor in defeat and the camera slowly zooming out while the theme from Requiem for a Dream swells in the background. You’re going to have to live with yourself for the full run, so you might as well learn from your mistakes and get back in the game.
A bad book can be fixed. You can learn craft. You can learn to edit. You can get better. You have awesome opposable thumbs and the capacity to absorb new knowledge. Expecting perfection the first time around is a rookie mistake, Millhouse. Get shut of it and embrace the joyous torment of revision.
Maybe this isn’t your life’s work.
The very words “life’s work” can carry a heavy load for a writer. Certainly you have to invest emotionally in your work to get to the finish line, but it’s easy to get overly invested and start defining yourself by the quality of your prose. All the passion in the world won’t do you any good if you spook yourself into never writing again.
Accept imperfection as inevitable and don’t raise the bar so high for yourself that you can no longer spot it in the clouds. Chances are you have many more stories in you, so don’t hang the world on this one. I used to think every writer out there just polished their first book until they sold it, but a lot of them don’t. Some have written as many as twenty books before making a successful sale. So don’t write off the rest of your creative future just yet.
Like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, the lurking fears of writing can never truly be defeated. They await, dead but dreaming, for the moment when the stars are right. And when “the stars are right,” I mean when you’ve run out of coffee and you’ve been staring at the blank page for an hour and listening to the sussurrus of your hair falling out. But you can dispel these fears long enough to get your work done.
Fortunately, that’s all the time you really need.
So you decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. You’ve kicked around a few ideas and sworn to make an outline. Then things got busy. The kid got sick. You just had to find out if Elise was going to get kicked off Hell’s Kitchen. Your World of Warcraft raid group decided they were going to run Firelands without pants. Your muse packed up her stuff, gave you the finger, and knocked over your entire collection of Elvis commemorative plates on the way out the door. Or whatever. Long story short, you’ve burned your time like a Roman candle, Nanowrimo is a week away, and you’ve got nothing. Nothing! What do you do?
All is not lost. It might be a bit late in the game to meticulously plan ahead, but you can still throw something together in time for your inevitable November panic attack. It won’t be perfect, but you don’t want it to be perfect. Perfectionism runs contrary to the very spirit of Nanowrimo. Here, then, is a quick-and-dirty method for outlining that you can pull off in a week or less.
I call this the Hailstorm Approach, which is to say that it’s an extremely stripped-down variant of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. (I had considered calling it the Half-Pants Approach, but that sounded kind of dirty.) If you want a proper, useful method of outlining a novel before you write, I highly recommend the Snowflake. But the Snowflake is far more thorough and time-consuming than this, and that’s time you probably don’t have with Nanowrimo only a week away.
If you’re experienced with outlining, then you probably have no need for this. But if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer or a first-timer looking for a framework for your story, this method might help you get through Nanowrimo with your sanity intact. I broke these steps down into daily tasks, but there’s no rule saying you can’t do it all in one Herculean sitting if you’re that kind of maniac.
So here we go.
1. Pick a Genre, Write a One-Sentence Summary
Before you even start, you have to know what your story’s about. Most likely, you already have this covered; if not, well, here’s your big chance. Don’t worry too much about specifics at this point. Just boil your story down to your “elevator pitch,” the single sentence that sums up the book you want to write. You should also pick the genre(s) for your book. If you want to write a crazy, genre-mashing masterpiece for Nanowrimo, that’s fine, but it’s best if you at least know which genres you’ll be defying from the outset.
2. Better Get a Bucket
Next, make a wishlist of all the stuff you want to write about. Nanowrimo transforms November into a demanding beast, and you may find motivation and inspiration at a premium. So just write down everything you want to put in your book, no matter how off-the-wall or unlikely it might seem. Aim for one simple criterion: if the thought of writing a particular element excites you, put it on the list. You’re under no obligation to include everything on this list when the time comes to write your draft, and you can save the elements you don’t use for a later project.
3. Three Acts, Three Disasters
To keep your novel from meandering, impose a loose three-act structure for the novel. Again, don’t get really exacting about it at this point, just have a rough idea in mind. Ingermanson adds another layer onto this, called the “three-disaster” structure. These are basically three obstacles that you throw in front of your protagonists before the climax of the story:
The Three Disaster Structure says that you have three MAJOR disasters in your story and they are equally spaced. So Disaster 1 comes at the end of the first quarter. Disaster 2 comes right at half-time. Disaster 3 comes at the end of the third quarter.
Once you’ve figured these things out, you’ll have a skeletal framework for your story. This framework will almost certainly change over time and multiple drafts, so don’t sweat it too much. The goal here is not to create a rigid plan that you can’t deviate from — it’s to keep your contemporary political thriller from becoming a sci-fi epic about ninja chimps swordfighting on Mars (unless that’s your one-sentence summary, in which case, good work!)
4. Characters and Aspects
If you’ve been writing for awhile, you’re probably intimately familiar with the many intricate character charts that detail every nuance of a character’s existence. Such a thorough level of detail is probably impractical given the pace and scope of Nanowrimo, so here’s a quick compromise: for each character, come up with a name, then a set of five to ten “aspects” that describe that character. These can be anything: physical descriptors, story goals, personality traits, quotes, character tropes, a list of their diseases… anything you think sums up the characters. Don’t worry about being consistent — just make a quick sketch of each major character.
5. Relationships and Conflicts
Now that you’ve figured out your characters and their roles in the story, it’s time to start tying them together. Carve out some relationships: best friends, lovers, sworn enemies, backstabbing traitors, disapproving parental figures, whatever. If a sketch or a mind-map works better than a bulleted list, do that. Plotting out the major relationships and keeping them in front of you will lend your scenes clarity and drive, especially when characters are working at cross-purposes. Again, this is not a stone tablet to be slavishly devoted to — if you get to writing and you find something’s not working, jettison it without mercy.
6. Create Summaries for Major Characters
At a certain point in the outlining process, the Snowflake Method recommends writing the entire story from the point of view of each character. This presumes that you’ve already written a summary of the story in its entirety, though, and since this method doesn’t include that step, I recommend a slightly different approach.
Write a couple of sentences or a short paragraph describing the story arc for each major character: where they begin, how they change, and where they end up. If you’ve outlined your characters and their relationships in the previous steps, this should be pretty easy pickings. Paint with a broad brush and don’t get hung up on details — there’s plenty of time for that later.
7. Create a Rough Scene List
For the final step, break out a new text file or a spreadsheet and create a list of scenes for your novel, from beginning to end. Include the point-of-view character and a one-sentence summary of what happens in each scene. Again, this is not to be considered immutable law — just a low-level breakdown of the story.
Pick items generously from the wishlist you made above: include everything you find exciting and compelling. Try to add only scenes that move the story forward. One of the big advantages of outlining is that you cut way down on wasted scenes that go nowhere. They’ll probably still crop up during your draft, but there will be far fewer of them.
And that’s it. You now have a nice, messy framework for your Nanowrimo novel, with just enough detail to keep you going, while not detracting from the joy of the first-draft rush.
If by any chance you end up using this method, I’d love to hear about it. Criticisms, recommendations and refinements are equally welcome. Happy Nano-ing this November!
On Wednesday, I ran into the problem that plagues all public writing events: the dreaded realization that I’d bitten off more than I could choke down my already-packed writing schedule. And its sister realization: I will need to scale back my goals. By admitting it publicly. I could imagine the cheers and boos at my next check-in.
I am, of course, speaking of ROW80, A Round of Words in 80 Days.
Dan and I decided to explore new writing communities at the beginning of October. I thought that an alternative to NaNoWriMo might help me jump start my writing (because, frankly, November can fuck itself. Dan has made the case that writing can be equally difficult throughout the year, but November offers its host of unique challenges to someone who has been a professional / grad student for seven of the past ten years.) I discovered ROW80 through Chuck Wendig’s Twenty-Five Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo list. The novelty of its name drew me in. The length of the challenge (80 days) and the flexibility of its goals (completely up to the individual participant) were right for my needs.
I decided to give it a shot, fired up WordPress, and resurrected my long-dead blog.
Two weeks into the event and there are extra poems plumping up my journal pages. However, for two weeks’ worth of check-ins, I have come up short to my weekly goals. Really short. The pressure is building to reevaluate my goals and possibly change them. Because ROW80 isn’t a four week event, even blowing weekly goals for the first two weeks could result in finishing the event with my original goals well in the bag. So why bother scaling back only two weeks in? The deadline itself is so far away (December 22nd!). Isn’t that giving up?
Goals vs. Deadlines
As I wrote in Why Do You Write, Part Two, writing to deadlines can be one of the best motivation tools for a writer. You have a date that is a cut-off point for your creative exertions. The deadline gains its power by being an immutable event. Passing the deadline with work unfinished is to be marked. You are a dead man if you aren’t finished.
To combat the procrastination that arrives bundled with your deadline, the weekly (or daily) goal the tool that guides your writing output. By its nature, the goal is not as dire as the deadline. It is the template that we use to chart our uncertain progress. Goals are meant to encourage and challenge us; to escort us as smoothly as possible to the completion of any ambitious undertaking.
For those of us who write in more than a single-month sprint (where a come-from-behind win can leave you flush with success), the repeated flouting of goals can lead to a pattern of negative reactions to our work. When week after week passes with goals unmet or ignored, something has to change–the goal itself, or the writer’s attitude towards it.
It boils down to the question, would I rather feel good about surpassing an easy goal or feel kind of shitty about not living up to a strenuous goal? Which of these feelings actually motivates me?
The answer to the question is (like all things worth doing) complicated by the particulars of the event and of my attitudes towards goals.
The Event Itself
ROW80 is a writing contest that takes place over the course of 80 days. There are somewhere between 80 to 120 participants checking in each week. It’s a small circle that allows you to get to know several other bloggers well. It’s highly advised that you also have a ROW80 Buddy, who will be down in the trenches with you, checking on your progress, supporting, cheering, and mocking along the way.
The goals are flexible. The hook for ROW80 is that people with busy schedules need to have realistic goals. You tailor the writing to a sprint or a leisurely stroll, state your goals publicly, link to them using the ROW80 Blog Hop and then check-in once or twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays to announce to the group how you are progressing.
Some shoot to write every day, some set modest weekly word counts, others for specific number of minutes spent writing per day. Most participants have concurrent goals that are only tangentially related to writing (e.g. to read/comment on fellow participants’ blogs)–and some goals that have nothing to do with it, except perhaps to make a positive life change.
I respond to word counts, so I decided to set a word count goal. Because I write poetry, 50,000 words is unthinkable. I chose a word-count goal for ROW80–5,000 words or 100 poems in 80 days. My secondary goals were to write a blog posts twice a week, and to do something creative each week day.
What’s happening goal-wise?
To meet the goal of 100 poems in 80 days, I have to write at least 10 poems a week to hit the final goal by December 22nd. This is an incredibly ambitious goal, as I wrote one poem in seven days for week one, and eight poems in seven days for week two. The 5,000 word goal also seems to be a pipe-dream; many of my poems do not break thirty words. Writing posts has proven to be much simpler. I write a guest post for the Surly Muse each week, and a single check-in post for the Dusty Journal on Wednesdays. Doing something creative every week day has been off-and-on. Some days I have been entirely swamped by the mundane emergencies that motivate the working world. This goal is more of an intention than something measurable, and I don’t plan to drop the intention to do something creative each day (even if it doesn’t happen).
How do you evaluate Goals?
At the two-week check-in, ROW80 asked us to evaluate our goals according to the SMART rubric. Are your goals Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely?
Specific: Hone in on what you want your goal to be. “Writing every day” is not very specific if you have a particular project to work on. “Writing a blog post every day” or “working on my novel every day” are far more preferred as goals. They offer you less room to wiggle out of your goals (“I wrote a grocery list today! That’s writing, right?”)
Measurable: Something quantifiable. I think quantifiable goals are good when you have a specific project to work on. However, non-quantifiable/non-specific goals such as “doing something creative every day” makes room for non-quantifiable tinkering, daydreaming, journaling, drawing, and other creativity that I like to infuse my life. The thing is, don’t go crazy with specific/measurable goals or you lose out on the creative sparks that often start your projects that do require specific/measurable goals.
Attainable: Can you reach your goal, in the most perfect of circumstances?
Realistic: Can you reach your goal, given your schedule demands or your inability to take advantage of every free second (which would be all of us)?
Timely: Can you make these goals happen in a timely fashion? Can you meet your goals every week, every few days, or every day? What is the block of time that you need to schedule around?
According to this rubric, my goals are specific & measurable, and in some universe attainable (I have written 100 poems in 80 days–10 years ago) but not realistic according to my recent output.
If I have set a non-realistic goal for myself, what should I do?
I can either spend the next eight weeks watching myself miss goals or spend the next eight weeks meeting reduced goals. While the reasonable thing to do would seem to be jump on the “change your goals” bandwagon, there are some things that I need to consider before moving the goalpost.
Since I have participated in large-scale writing projects before, I know how I have reacted to meeting/missing goals in the past. If you haven’t noted your behavior in similar situations, trying to achieve unrealistic goals might help you discover how you react to both big and small goals. Instead, you could just imagine how you might react in such situations. It is helpful to write out possibilities.
These are the possibilities that I see happening:
Three Possible Reactions to Missing Unrealistic Goals
1. Because I miss my goals every week, I begin to tell myself that it is “okay” to miss goals. I no longer try to achieve this goal. My writing becomes unfocused and unambitious. I end the event with far fewer poems than if I had just written poems at my normal rate (which is about 1 -2 per two weeks).
2. Because I miss my goals every week, I try to make up lost ground later in the competition. This interferes with other creative goals. I sacrifice time to other projects. I am somewhat happy to meet my ROW80 goals, but I have put aside equally-important creative endeavors to achieve this success. To add insult to injury, I have forced myself to write more than I am reasonably inspired to write. I write a lot of junk poems to finish the competition.
3. I make time out of my free time / relaxation time to write more poems. I strive to achieve my weekly goals each week, even though I am behind. I write more poems than I would have otherwise; my desire to “make up” for missed goals gives me a large number of poems at the end of the Round than if I hadn’t joined the competition. Most of them are not junk.
Two Reactions to Meeting Reduced Goals
4. Because I meet my goals every week, I do not try to write more poems once I have hit my quota. I am satisfied to write at a reduced rate. I finish the event with more poems than if I hadn’t participated, but I have also missed out on a chance to push my writing outside of my comfort zone.
5. Because I meet my goals every week, I am not unhappy week after week as I watch myself falling further behind my (completely arbitrary) initial goals. I finish the event with more poems than if I hadn’t participated. I feel energized by my successful participation in ROW80. Because I am writing to a realistic level, I do not have to sort through a disheartening large number of junk poems.
What do I see happening?
As a writer (and as a person), I am motivated by feeling that I need to catch up to a goal that has been set in front of me. Seemingly insurmountable goals makes my surly muse sit up and take heed. If a goal is demonstrably flexible (that is, if I change a goal mid-stream), I become less invested in it. Once I know that a goal can be bent, my mind will find ways of bending it again. I will make excuses and not achieve more than what is in front of me.
Therefore, I see option (3) being the most likely outcome of having unrealistic goals, and option (4) being the most likely outcome of realistic goals.
Based on my overall goal (to publish another book of poetry at the beginning of 2012), I want to have as many good poems as possible by the end of ROW80. To make that book a reality, I feel it is important to push outside of my comfort zone.
It has been several years since I have tried to write at my full potential; so much of my energy has been going towards professional/grad school (especially in the past two years), I no longer have a good idea of what my maximum capability is for writing. It would be in my best interest to try to achieve unrealistic goals than to settle for more realistic ones. So those unrealistic goals? I’m going to be keeping them. I’ll endure the weeks of feeling like I am not measuring up for the single week where I do.
Clearly, this conclusion is specific to my circumstances. What is your reaction to unrealistic goals? Realistic ones? Which outcomes motivate you? The desire to catch up, or the pleasure in exceeding your own expectations? Do you work best when you achieve small goals, or when you chase after sky dragons?
It’s no secret that writers can be a moody, temperamental lot. Often, we find ourselves approaching our craft with all the boundless verve and energy of a wrongly convicted prisoner walking the Green Mile. Sure, there are a plenty of blithe souls who seem to float through the act of writing (or editing, or revising) like a soothing zephyr, even as the rest of us sit at our keyboards, get jacked up on Red Bull, and scream into our pillows until we wonder why ever cultivated the desire to write. While making a full-time job of seething with envy at these type-A demigods might be tempting, it’s probably not the most productive approach. What might serve you better, if you are one of these guilt-ridden, type-B writers, is a shift in attitude.
Yeah, sure. Easy enough to say, right? Changing one’s attitude just isn’t that simple. We’re writers. We’re artists, and stuff. Not to mention, we have this whole self-destructive image of the “tortured writer” to live up to.
Personally, I think the “tormented” part of “toremented writer” has almost zero utility. Despite breathless assertions to the contrary, writing is not a holy bolt from the blue that transforms your life without effort or dedication, nor a raging metaphorical psycho whose savage beatings you must endure if you are to create anything of worth. If you’re lucky, such agony-driven inspiration might last long enough to see you through a single poem, or awesome paragraph, or brilliant bit of dialogue — but rarely more than that.
Self-doubt and self-recrimination are natural emotions, but giving them too much influence can amount to self-indulgence, and that time you spend being a Tormented Artist would be better spent writing. I feel I can speak with some authority here, because I’ve felt sorrier for myself than just about anyone I know, and only recently began to question (and do away with) the romanticized-but-ultimately-horseshit myths that keep aspiring writers from getting real work done. Defeating these feelings isn’t easy, especially if you’re a chronic procrastinator. There is no quick fix or easy trick that will get you over the hump. But there are ways to beat them, and they aren’t complicated.
I recently had a chat with a fellow writer planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I asked her what the plot of her book was going to be, and she gave me a limp response: “Science fiction, I guess. I don’t know. I’m not really happy with the plot, but I guess I’ll try anyway.”
Now, I might have simply misjudged her tone, but my first thought was: there’s no way she’s going to make it. I run into this kind of attitude a lot, particularly among aspiring writers; people who feel they should be writing a certain kind of story, but when you talk to them, you get the feeling they don’t truly want to. Granted, not every idea is going to set your world on fire, but you will have plenty of time to get discouraged and frustrated when you’re mired in your middle act — if you’re just starting out and you already feel “meh” about your story, why even write it?
Writing takes time, sacrifice, and a lot of effort. If you’re going to put in all that work, at least do yourself the favor of writing something you deeply care about. And if you can’t think of anything you care about enough to write, then maybe take up something more rewarding, like carpentry or golf. And this may eventually lead you down a difficult road: if you’d rather watch Two and a Half Men reruns than write seven days a week, then maybe writing isn’t actually you’re calling — or maybe you just have some fears about your writing that you need to face down and deal with.
Don’t half-ass it.
About a year or so ago, a close friend told me that he didn’t actually care about finishing any of his projects. This guy was (and is) bright, talented, and clever, but has a long history of abandoned projects that start out strong, pick up a pretty decent following, and then lie fallow after he shrugs and abandons them. I asked him why he didn’t finish some of these ambitious projects, and he told me that he’d just rather put in a little bit of effort and get a little bit of praise in return, then move on to the next project and repeat the cycle.
That’s high on the list of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard anyone say about their creative life.
Maybe it’s haughty of me, but I think that’s just failure and disappointment in the making. I’ve tried hard to change my attitude since reading Leo Babauta‘s inspirational Power of Less. Babauta gives some simple but potent advice: if you’re going to put your time into a project, make it something life-changing and big. If you’re getting paid to write something that bores the crap out of you, that might be one thing, but if you can’t cultivate a passion for your story, you’re sunk. Seriously, do yourself a favor and find an idea you’re in love with.
Guilt is a crap motivator.
I don’t believe in guilt-as-inspiration. Some people might find it inspirational, though I’ve yet to meet anyone who got a lot done because they hated themselves. All the successful creative types I know work from a place of passion and drive. The people who sit around saying “oh God, I really should write because I am such a lazy-ass” tend to just sit around some more — and I include myself in this. Guilt might motivate you, if you work hard enough at feeling guilty, but it’s like fueling your sports car with canola oil — there are easier ways to get moving.
Don’t get me wrong, a certain amount of guilt is natural and unavoidable. But you have to choke it out before it keeps you from getting anything done. Wrestle it to the ground and make it work for you.
This is another bit of wisdom I picked up from everybody’s favorite blogger, Seth Godin (who picked it up from Voltaire): “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
It may seem contradictory to say “get excited, no I mean really excited, COME ON I CAN’T HEAR YOU” and then say “hey, expect to suck” right afterward. But that’s just how it is. You’re going to make mistakes. Your first draft will be so far from perfect that you’ll probably consider tossing it out more than once. Just learn to accept it, because that’s reality. It would be awesome if every writer could just rattle off a brilliant, totally life-changing, flawless, consistent first draft. Big news: nobody does that. So you shouldn’t expect yourself to, much less feel bad for failing to do so.
So, what am I saying here? I’m saying don’t write anything that bores you, because it will almost certainly bore your readers. I’m saying don’t beat yourself up so much. I’m saying that giving yourself permission to suck can lead you through the Valley of Suck to the Mountain of Awesome, whereas taking the shortcut through the Cave of Guilt only leads to the Lava-Filled Grotto of Hopelessness and — well, tortured geographical metaphors aside, seriously. Get excited. Find a story you love, and if you can’t, then read someone else’s stories until inspiriation finally groin-punches you. Lock your guilt in a trunk and kick it off the pier. And when you do write, write with passion or not at all.
I’ve uploaded some new versions of my 2011 Nanowrimo calendar wallpaper page with four new color schemes. Check ’em out and enjoy! I’ll be adding more from time to time through this month and next.
Every writer needs to know why they write. Being honest about your goals and your motivations will save you heartache in the long run. If you understand why you are embarking on a project, chances are you will have less once-promising projects gathering dust in the corner. In Part One, I made the case for why introspection is important to writers. The first two reasons for writing that were covered in Part One were “because I can” and “because I want to”.
For the majority of self-directed writers, “because I can” and “because I want to” cover most of the reasons why we embark on a particular project. We want to take pleasure in our craft, and/or we want to say something with our work. But now I want to come to grips with the final two reasons for writing. I will preface by saying that these two cases pose their own special challenges, and might suggest to you that some of your problems with your writing project come from the type or quality of writing that you are doing.
Why do you write the particular project that you are currently working on?
Because I need to. There is an important difference between want and need. Whereas want is defined by how it adds to what you already have, Need is defined by its absence. When you aren’t fulfilling a need, some part of the whole is suffering. When you are fulfilling a need, you feel normal. When you are writing from need, the writing makes us feel human again. Anything less than that is a want.
To write because you need to write is a matter of no small importance. There are a number of reasons why people need to write, and I won’t speculate too deeply about the underlying reasons (because they are usually of a personal nature). The first reason is for cognitive or social aid. The second reason is for relief & closure. The third (and least distressing) reason is habit. I have written for all three reasons, so I’ll do my best to explain what these three things mean to me.
The “cognitive or social aid” is like Leonard Shelby tattooing crucial names, dates, words on his body in Memento, but not because you can’t remember things. This is the kind of writing that you do to put your life in order. Using writing to make to-do lists or work schedules is fairly common; but need can be more advanced than that.
For ten years I carried a journal with me at all times. When I felt overwhelmed (in a “I am going to vomit all over this Turkish rug” kind of way), I would find an empty chair and open my journal. I would jot down words, phrases, people’s names, descriptions of the ceiling, the walls, the decor, the food–sketching out the scene before me like I was writing novelisitic exposition. All of the things my brain could not process–as I wrote them, bit by bit, reality would reassert its hold. The panic would subside and I could get on doing what I was doing. Without the journal, it was all but impossible for me to function in a social world. The upside was that I had lots of scraps of well-sketched places, of emotion crystallized in its heightened state. Being a frugal writer, I never want to throw out anything I do. So I incorporated these descriptions into short stories or poems; I used these passages to springboard into story ideas.
The “relief & closure” reason is probably the most familiar to us as writers. Who hasn’t taken up the pen (or keyboard) after a blow to the heart? I started writing daily in my late teens. The relief I was looking for–the relief from mood swings the size of a Texas prairie. I would track these moods and puzzle out wildly exaggerated reactions to mild slights. Journaling was a way to get at the cause of a low self-worth and anger.
This writing was a mental health tool. It didn’t have an immediate project around it. I had just wanted to feel better. Over time, however, the journaling became the project that I needed to collect & polish into a novella. The crisis came to a head during my senior thesis. To graduate from my program, undergrads had to put together a long paper or a creative project. I had started and stopped a collection of short stories that were pretty objects without any real emotional heat. My love of a 3rd person objective voice didn’t help the bloodless, above-it-all-ness of these stories. All of my writing projects were falling flat. My thesis adviser finally sat me down and asked me about it. I told her it was because the story I needed to tell was suffocating my ability to feel sympathetic towards any of my other protagonists. It was scuttling all of my other stories before they were even told. Clearly, she said, that is the story you need to write. You can’t be a writer until you tell it.
The worst part of this story was that my need to tell it made it take a high toll on my relationships. It was a story of trauma, and it became difficult to continue. To continue meant to relive the pain like a blow to the body. To alleviate some of that too-close-to-home-ness, a writer is advised to disguise the story. If the trauma you suffered was physical, then make it emotional instead. If it was sexual, make it psychological instead. Just bring the need and the pain with you to the keyboard.
When you are writing for relief or closure, it is desperately important that you push through the pain and finish the project. Sometimes it means that you feel lighter when you’ve finished. Other times it means you feel pressed thin–like you’ve given some essential sliver to the page. It is impossible to tell whether writing will be felt like an unburdening or a wound, but it is crucial that you find out. Because leaving that one large project unfinished means that you can never quite close the book on the event that caused it. It will rankle. And it will spill out into every other project you tackle.
Finally, and least dire, writing can become a need through habit. Dan has highlighted Ray Bradbury‘s description of physical unease at going days without writing. Those of us who develop the taste for everyday writing begin to need it like a drug. Going off of it leads to a short-term feeling of euphoria and I’m-fines–followed immediately by decline and bottoming out. Don’t be put off by that comparison; I’ve heard the same from my cycling-addicting folks. Your body learns to reward any kind of exertion with endorphines, to make you keep doing what you do. Whether it’s 20 miles of biking or 20k of words.
Usually these writing habit grow up around a certain kind of writing. Mine was journaling. Ray Bradbury’s was writing super-awesome publishable fiction.
While it was nice to be writing daily (with a bonus smugness that comes from being able to say that you write at least 300 words per day), after I worked through most of my pressing issues in my novella, journaling wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to be doing. How, then, could I channel my need to write every day into writing that I wanted to do? I haven’t rightly figured out how to switch that same level of dedication to the more optional “want-to” kind of writing. But I have learned that to make headway in the projects you want to do, you must finish the projects you need to do first. And then learn how to let go of that writing once it is no longer helping you meet your goals.
Because I have to. If you have ever had a paid (or unpaid) job where you were required to write, produce, design, draw, or create on a deadline, you know this reason all too well. Depending on how well you do with deadlines (some of us rise up to meet them, some of us procrastinate until we hit them, some of us crumble at the sight of them), this is probably the best category in terms of motivation because it will illuminate your writing persona.
If you are the type to crumble at the face of deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), there are undoubtedly a host of organizational, motivational, and self-esteem issues lurking under the guise of not being able to meet deadlines. You will need to deal with these issues a step at a time, and to let go of your preconceived notions about what kind of writing you are doing on a day-to-day basis. You aren’t making art, you aren’t making perfection, you are just getting it done.
Grad school gave me a crash course in how bad my procrastination had become when I tried to write two quarter-long papers in the course of a day. I don’t think I have overcome that procrastination tendency with projects that are imposed on me. It is the downfall of the deadline. If you know when it must be finished and you don’t have the spark of passion for the project, the temptation to ride the line may become impossible to overcome.
However, with the “have to” impulse, at least work is produced. If your self-started projects are languishing, the deadline is the single most powerful tool to get it jump-started. Most of us are programmed to respect and/or fear the Deadline; we will produce in the face of one.
If you are writing for a self-started project, you have some flexibility in setting deadlines. In my experience, the solution to this kind of procrastination is smaller, frequent deadlines with a more open-ended date for the finished product. That way work is produced at a steady rate, and the flexible finish-by date gives you a bit of wiggle room if (when) the project takes more time in revision. In my experience, when you are turning okay okay or average prose on deadlines, it takes a bit more work to make it pop when you are shaping it into its final form.
Most of us have the necessary tools at our fingertips: blogging platforms, community writing goals, public accountability. They keep our deadlines honest. Even if you fudge yours, as I am doing for ROW80 (I’m only checking in once per week on Wednesdays), a written log of work you’ve done for your self-imposed deadlines can show you how to chip away at your project, one step at a time.
If neither privately-affirmed nor publically-stated goals have the power to motivate you to work; if you don’t feel guilty/anxious/disappointed/whatever when you watch your deadlines blow by (or even if you do, and choose to do nothing about it)–at this point I’d suggest taking up a different craft than writing.
So. What does this all mean?
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to collaborate with a friend on an epically-scaled project. We were both enthusiastic fans with time to burn, so we decided to create a fan fiction alternative season for our current tv obsession (Buffy). Our fascination with Victorian England led us down a literary fiction route to old Sherlock Holmes stories and H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels. We wanted to blend pop culture and Victorian lit, and have a good time while we were doing it.
Production schedules were created, character charts were fleshed out, character artwork was drawn. Amazingly, we had attracted a stable of four writers to write an entire season’s worth of stories.
Of the 140,000+ planned words, only 16,000 of them were ever written. Only one finished episode was produced. The stable of writers evaporated, leaving an unrealized world in shambles. While the planning itself was immensely enjoyable, and I had the pleasure of brainstorming with writers who constantly impressed me, I couldn’t get past the wasted planning.
Quite simply, there was a crisis of motivation. All of the writers approached the project with different motivations. Some of the writers saw the project as an opportunity to write “worry-free”–it was just fan-fiction, right? But the moment when they were confronted with a word processor, a story, and some general deadlines, they discovered that writing fan fiction isn’t a magical gateway into writing motivation. You have to be already motivated to write. The writing won’t show up just because you do.
In fact, most of the project writers (myself included) chose to try fan fiction because they were having trouble with “serious” writing. Each writer had a novel that they would take off the shelf to tinker with. This shiny new fan fiction project promised deadlines, editors who cared about their work, and rigorous fore-planning. As each of the writers had crises of motivation–some caused by the amount of work they were putting into the project, some caused by the stress of writing itself–many of them asked the question, “why am I devoting so much energy to this fan project? Shouldn’t I be doing serious writing?” And honestly, I would have to answer yes, why the hell are you wasting time on my project? It wasn’t their vision after all.
My motivation was different; I wanted to see if I had the ability to self-start, finish, polish, and publish a single story. I hadn’t written a single finished story in workshop; I hadn’t written any kind of fiction in more than a year. I wanted to know if I still had the stuff. From this initial spark, my run-away enthusiasm of working with like-minded writers inflated the project well beyond the bounds that any of us intended it to (as noxious gases tend to do). The production schedules were a part of that bloat… they didn’t reflect in any way shape or form my honest motivations for starting the project.
Although the failure of this project squatted in the “regret” portion of my brain, it took me awhile to recognize that I did in fact accomplish my original goals. I wrote, and I revised. I wrote “Eleven Quid” in about a month; I finished it, polished it, and published it. (After its website went defunct, I slapped it up on Fanfiction.net.) By that measure, the project was a success. Had I kept a clearer focus on my goals–on my own reasons for writing–I would either kept the enthusiasm from running away with itself (haw!) or realized that the project’s dissolution wasn’t a waste of time. I got what I came for. And based on the subsequent creative output of a few of the other project members, they too found the motivation they were looking for.
The reasons a writer writes, how they started, what their goals are, and why they choose to work on a particular project have everything to do, then, with what projects get finished and which ones get discarded.
So. Why do you write?