It’s that time again! Actually, it’s not, but you can smell it in the air: that smoky melange of burnout, hope and desperation that is National Novel Writing Month. Though I’m probably not participating this year, here are some links from last year to help you gird up for your journey through jacked-up word counts and mutual despair!
For preparation and planning ahead, try out The Hailstorm Approach, your guide to prepping in seven days or less.
Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless. – Neal Stephenson
Whenever I read Neal Stephenson’s books (I’m making my way through REAMDE at the moment), I often find myself stopping and checking the dictionary, or Wikipedia, or both, to figure out what he’s talking about. Not that Stephenson is particularly difficult; he just happens to be as dense as Gibson and equally fond of charming-but-colossal infodumps: “The protagonist was playing a game of World of Warcraft. He sent his dwarf in to mine some gold. And now, an extensive historical overview of geology and the mining industry to lend this moment context.”
I appreciate Stephenson’s attention to detail. Having recently finished with a long run of indie novels, REAMDE has called attention to how much detail many other authors skip over for the sake of expediency. Not Stephenson. Before that gun on the mantlepiece gets fired, you can be damn sure you’ll know everything about its manufacture, capabilities, and mechanical quirks. (The only reason this works is because Stephenson rarely does it gratuitously. These trifling details serve the story.)
Anyway, while picking my way through REAMDE, I found myself interested in Stephenson’s mention of the “flow state,” a mental state of mind which one of the characters — a ridiculously profound fantasy author — must achieve in order to get his work done. Since being ridiculously prolific is something I’m in favor of, I decided to find out more about it… and now I feel kind of ridiculous that I’d never heard of it before.
The “flow experience” is defined by psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi by six factors:
1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. merging of action and awareness
3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience (Wikipedia)
All of these add up to a state that a lot of creative types think of as being “inspired” or “struck by the muse”:
These exceptional moments are what I have called “flow” experiences. The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as “aesthetic rapture.” (Psychology Today)
In a curious bit of coincidence, my research into flow found this article, which linked the flow state to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” which I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post:
According to pioneering research by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it normally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. Over that time, your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action. Think of the way tennis champion Roger Federer, after years of training, can gracefully combine a complicated series of actions – keeping one eye on the ball and the other on his opponent, while he lines up his shot and then despatches a crippling backhand – all in one stunningly choreographed second. (New Scientist)
The New Scientist article goes on to talk about the possibility of dramatically shortening the time required to obtain such mastery through acquiring the “flow state” — although, as I said yesterday, I’m less interested in tracking hours than I am achieving greater creative output.
Does all this sound mind-numbingly clinical yet? Boy, I sure hope so.
So in reading all this, I began thinking about my own obstacles when it comes to achieving the “flow state.” Here’s what I came up with.
1) Regular practice. The wealth on contradictory advice on how often and regularly one should write is well-heeled, so I won’t regurgitate it here. In my work, however, I find my gears rust up pretty fast. A few days without writing, and it’s a huge struggle to really find my groove. I started this blog in no small part to address that concern and compel myself to write daily no matter what. It’s turned out to be slightly wanting in terms of execution, but that’s how we learn from our mistakes, I guess.
2) Poor planning. This is basically the cause of 1). My least productive days are the ones where I get up, check my email or voice mail, and then basically react to things until all the time is gone. The days where I block out writing time and stick to the plan are far more productive. I’m sure there’s some clichéd adage about failing to plan being a plan to fail… oh, wait, that’s it.
3) Distractions. This is the big one. And now, an annoying autobiographical interlude!
Years ago, when I moved out on my own, my first place was a beaten-down old house in the middle of nowhere. There was no life within a quarter-mile in any direction. I lived on a blasted plain of dead grass and abandoned farm equipment. Now, of course, it’s all been developed into cracker-box condominiums, but back in the day, I was Robert E. Howard. It was just me and my little Apple II. There were long stretches of time when I didn’t even have a working phone.
I lived there for about three years, and in that time, churned out a huge body of work. All of it was garbage — I was young, stupid, and completely ignorant of proper storytelling craft — but I did nothing but write, in no small part because writing was all my little computer did. It had no games, no Internet access. It was a glorified typewriter.
Now, I’d love to say “and that’s the way it was and I liked it,” but in truth, I really love the information age. I love having oceans of data at my fingertips. I like not having to hoof it to the library to do research on some trifling factoid that’s holding up my story. I think the twenty-first century is awesome. But I have far more distractions now than I did then. Creating that kind of isolated environment doesn’t come easy anymore. It means forsaking not only the telephone and the doorbell, but email, Twitter, Facebook, G+, and the churning Sargasso of yummy information that beckons one like a siren onto the jagged shoals of farting around.
For me, finding the flow state means shutting out all distractions as much as possible. Some people can write on buses or in crowded coffee shops. Not me. I’d have to wear earphones and probably blinders. My attention is too easily diverted from the work. My best stuff comes when I slam down all the mental bulkhead doors and quarantine myself with my writing. Only then, after a lengthy struggle, does the flow state happen.
Of course, I’m not about to say that my experience is universal. I stopped writing in groups and at coffee shops because it doesn’t work for me. I think too much about what other people are writing. I worry about how much coffee I have left. I tune in on other people’s conversations. I can’t achieve that lovely fugue where the world recedes into fog and all that’s left is the page. I need to be alone, with nothing to pull me away, for the surly muse to emerge from her abattoir.
But that’s my experience. What’s yours? Can you write amidst distraction? How do you cope with it?
While chatting with my partner-in-crime Tracy McCusker of Dusty Journal this afternoon, we started talking about the hoary old guideline of 10,000 hours to master your writing (or whatever skill you’re attempting to master). At which point she dropped this delightful bomb of bitterness into the conversation:
If I see that 10,000 hours, I CAN MAKE YOU DO IT QUICKER tidbit on another blog, I am going to hate-spew a geyser.
First of all, 10,000 hours? That’s a handy approximation that may or may not be supported by scientific testing. Instead it is provided as *whatever kind of metric* everyone can use! But bam! with my SHAM-WOW WRITING COURSE I can cut that down to 8,000. What a bargain?!
Disclaimer: I haven’t read Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book in which the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule” is first mentioned, and I don’t really have a problem with the rule by itself. I believe the myth of “overnight success” is one of the most poisonous lies in our profession. I do, however, think that obsessing over the raw numbers themselves is a mistake. If you’re truly seeking mastery of your craft, there are better places to put your focus than how many hours you’ve clocked.
1) Make mistakes.
There’s a reason all the books on writing tell you to write every day, or at least as much as you can. It’s because all the theory in the world won’t teach you anything until you dive in and start getting dirty. The 10,000 Hour Rule is less about the hours themselves than about cultivating passion, routine, and a wish to learn from your mistakes. Of course, you can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t start making some. So strap on your helmet, get in there, and start screwing up.
2) Fail outright.
One of the shaggiest adages from life’s Barrel-O-Advice is that “you learn more from failures than from successes.” There’s a terrific Ira Glass quote about this that sums it up more beautifully than I ever could, so I’ll just post it here.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Note that Glass doesn’t mention “hours” at all, but rather a body of work. Of course, building a body of work takes time, but the work matters most. Time is the means. Work is the end.
3) It’s not the hours, honey, it’s the mileage.
Say you were to write twelve books, all featuring the same plot, the same characters, and the same basic story arc. Maybe you change a few details here and there, but essentially you write the same book twelve times. Have you really gotten any better? Have you learned anything? If you have, it was probably by accident. The hours you spend should not be comfortable hours, breezily covering the ground you know well. Push yourself. Write something scary and exhilarating. Make some mistakes. See how it all fits together?
4) It’s not a numbers game.
Seriously, no Hours Police are going to show up at your door in overcoats and porkpie hats and chastise you for not putting in enough time. If you have indeed turned out a book before it was sufficiently polished, or sent out a query before you really have it nailed, your time deficit is likely to be reflected in unhappy readers, poor reviews, and rejection slips. Again, the real point of all those hours is to fire up your passion and your drive, not check off ten thousand tiny boxes with a #2 pencil.
5) Find what works for you.
Of course, all writing advice is ultimately disposable, including the advice you’re reading now. Maybe you’re a prodigy with enormous talent and you’ll make the squishy, uncertain status of “mastery” in 5,000 hours. Maybe you’re busy and unfocused and it will take 20,000. Either way, you’ll get there when you get there.
Which is not to say you should just relax and assume it’ll all work out — quite the opposite. One of the biggest lessons you learn as a writer is what a cruel and cunning enemy time is. His arsenal of weapons (deadlines, fatigue, scheduling conflicts) is enormous and daunting, and you’ll have to fight him every step of the way.
Don’t focus on how long you’ve been fighting. Learn to fight smarter and fight better. And above all, keep fighting.
I apparently think people wink a lot. My characters need to tone down their eye issues.
I used several rhetorical devices without realizing it (e.g., anaphora), and adding a few more helped with pacing and intensity.
After I was done laughing, I started thinking about the things I tend to use a lot in my prose — either things I’ve caught myself, or things other people have pointed out to me. Since I’ve been doing a lot of editing lately, here’s what I like:
1) Characters nonchalantly examining their fingernails to show how unconcerned they are with the situation they’re in. I’m so fond of this, apparently, that one of my readers said he expected it during a certain scene and wondered why it wasn’t there. Apparently that’s my shorthand for “I could kill you right now, but you’re not worth the trouble.”
2) The desk confrontation! Character A sits behind his desk, clearly plotting something. Character B bursts in and demands ALL RIGHT SUNNY JIM WHAT IS ALL THIS MONKEYSHINES. They then spar verbally until someone gets mad and leaves. I know, this is awfully specific, but it shows up a lot — so much so that I try to weed it out when I see it coming. I’ll set it somewhere fresh and inventive, like an underground parking garage, or… hmm. You know, forget it.
3) The Inept Bad-Ass. I love characters who are apparently hapless, but have some inner reserve or talent that overcomes their generalized lameness. I’m also fond of “Fool” archetypes who are too clueless to know any better, but get through the story through a combination of blind luck and the charity of others. Fortunately, I don’t usually make that guy the protagonist.
4) Characters raising one eyebrow in consternation or amusement. I’ve chopped that out so many times. No one wants a book of people doing Spock imitations. I also write people “barking” laughter a lot, which I suppose we could all live without. Woof woof!
In sufficient volume, these become risible cliches. You can’t read a discussion about Jordan’s Wheel of Time without someone mentioning the constant tugging of braids and adjusting of articles of clothing. I’ve never read WoT, but apparently it’s legendary for this kind of thing.
On the other hand, these personal chestnuts can add voice and character. Stephen King’s characters, for example, tend to fall back on a library of homespun Maine aphorisms and turns of phrase. Chuck Wendig’s characters lay out some of the most blistering and inventive profanity the written word has ever seen. Predictable? Maybe. But not necessaraily evil.
The key, I imagine, is whether these elements derive from character and contribute to story, or whether they’re filler because you can’t think of anything better to write. If the former, keep them around. If the latter, jettison them without mercy.
So what’s “that thing you do?” Any confessions you’d like to share?