A (Digital) Room of One’s Own

My desk. Yes, those are rubber ducks.

I love seeing people’s writing spaces. From the tidy and well-organized desk to the unruly pile of papers around an overstuffed chair, the writing space can be a great insight into the writer’s mind — and sometimes it’s just fun to see what other people stock their desks with.

But equally as important as the physical space is a writer’s digital space. Unless you write longhand (and more power to you if you do, really), you’re going to have a digital environment in which you work. It’s a bit rarer to get a glimpse of these environments — a desktop screenshot might not, by default, seem very exciting — but I believe that one’s digital space is at least as important as one’s desk or table.

And now, because you totally didn’t ask, here’s a look at mine!

My Digital Space

I have a dual-monitor setup on my machine, which I once thought excessive, and now can barely live without. I hate trying to hunt through taskbars and buttons to find a particular program, and two monitors gives me way more room to breathe. I also run Ubuntu Linux, which means I have a lot more control over the look-and-feel of my workspace. Some people (especially Linux people, it seems) don’t believe aesthetics has any place in computing. I disagree. If you’re a writer, it’s likely you spend hours a day in your computing environment — why not make it an appealing one?

A terrifying glimpse into the world of the first draft.

Anyway. First and foremost, I have a separate login just for writing. (It’s called “writer.” Which I think you will agree is very imaginative.) I customized the menus to take out all the shortcuts to various games and distractions — but primarily, switching to the writer account puts me in the mood to write. It’s a mental signal to get prepared.

On the left monitor, I have my word processor(s) of choice. These days, I mostly use Zim and Write or Die. I use Write or Die to generate the raw text, which I paste into Zim for organizing. I like Zim because it constantly auto-saves to Dropbox, so I never have to worry about losing anything. Between Dropbox, my desktop, my laptop, and my netbook, I have three redundant backups, which is a big load off my mind.

On the right monitor, I have my scene list spreadsheet and my media player. I almost always write to music, and I often create specific playlists for different kinds of writing (I even have one for blogging, which is probably kind of excessive, but there it is). If I open up anything else, like Firefox or Tweetdeck, it also goes in the right monitor. Basically, the left monitor is for raw writing, the right monitor is for everything else.

Does this seem mildly neurotic yet?

“Scene 23: Then A Miracle Occurs”

While it might seem overly specific, this approach works for me. I’ve honed it to perfection over the course of years, figuring out what helped my productivity, and what ended up hindering it. The ability to write in adverse conditions is still a valuable one, but if one has the luxury of a controllable digital space, why clutter it up with distractions?

So, do you have a particular “digital space” for your writing? If so, what’s in it?

[Guest Post] Your Workshop Story Is Probably Shit

Today’s incendiary guest post comes from Tracy McCusker, former editor, published poet, and avowed pottymouth.

There’s a certain kind of story that can be found hanging around self-published short story collections and small-press slush piles. This kind of story has a certain whiff about it. It’s verbose. It’s stylized. It’s littered with impossibly academic sentences. It steps you through a scene without understanding how to frame it–noodly verbs and weak adjectives strewn across the page like chewed-up toys.

Oh yes. I know them well. I’ve read hundreds of these per year for four years.

It’s a workshop story.

When I was working as an editorial intern at Faultline, I read hundreds of short story first-pages. We churned 3,000 submissions. We published 30. It was easy to pick out the stories that wouldn’t make it into the second round of consideration.

There were the usual assortment that never made it in. The prison stories with no self-addressed stamped envelop to return a note to San Quentin. A paranoid city-dwelling protag ranting against the machine. Manuscripts typed out on yellowed paper (the same submission we received the year before). Novel-length stories jammed into fifty pages of tiny print.

But there was a second class of story that caught my eye as I perused the accompanying query letters: the workshop story. These were from the undergrad who’d been told by their adviser that their writing was super-ready for publication, despite numerous red flags that cried “amateur author!” Workshop stories were never rejected out of hand. They were sent dutifully on for consideration. None ever made it to round two. With thousands of submissions for an (unpaid) reading staff of five, workshop stories from aspiring writers didn’t get more than a form rejection slip.

This is not a case of gatekeeping, that’s such a drag. Many of the stories that did get published weren’t the most scintillating pieces of fiction. A certain roughness in quality is par for course for small press stories. A normalizing aesthetic can make a lot of these stories predictable and dull. And we’re talking about the published work. But many of these published stories had their charms: a good head for prose; an interesting character; an interesting voice. The small press was usually the first step on the ladder of the MFA/BFA to build up an reputation. To get in with the lowest rung on the publishing world.

I never grudged the submitters their aspirations.

But the workshop stories, man. They were usually shit.

True Tales of Horror: I was a undergrad workshopper

When I say these workshop stories were shit, I wasn’t sneering at these writers from an ivory tower of publication. I was in my second year of workshop, plugging away at my keyboard by night. Usually I was writing critiques. Once in a while, I pounded out a story. A couple nights before deadline. Or the night of. Day of? You bet.

It was college. Everything was due yesterday, and the pressure was on.

I wrote shit stories. This odoriferous patina clung to everything I did. I thought I wrote pretty sentences, and would preen over my clever turns of phrase. Poet-by-training, prose monkeys couldn’t compete with my 150+ word  sentences that drilled down into the very essence of societal manners merely from a protagonist entering a room.

But those sentences, too, were shit. No one could follow along. The beasts were eating their own tails. Communication was confused with obfuscation. I was making the strokes of art. But they were wild marks. I wasn’t in control of my craft. Not enough to make a unified work that conveyed what was in my brain.

And that was a good thing. Workshop gave me the room to experiment; my peers would pick apart these experiments and give me feedback on what worked and what didn’t. I look back fondly on my workshop stories. They were important stepping-stones in my creative development. But just as life-drawing studies aren’t meant to be published (unless you are that damn famous already), workshop stories are meant to be crammed in a tiny little desk drawer.

Here’s why.

1. Workshop stories are written in the haze of actual workshop.

You bang out a story. Maybe you have one stored up for just such an occasion. You’re writing down to the deadline. Or you smile as you pass around an object that you’ve been coaxing for weeks. If you’re a novice at craft when you make this object under duress or at your leisure, the object will always retain a hue of those novice brush-strokes.

Just like you don’t put your first still life up for sale, your first stories will always retain that youthful hue of partly-successful, partly-unsuccessful experimentation. The worst that can happen is a reader discovers you, reads your work, and forms a prematurely negative opinion about your work. Eventually, you may have an audience for these kinds of stories. The best you can do with this story is release it into the wild for free (or as a bundled freebie). But just as I keep my first drawings from art workshop under lock & key, you might not want readers to see just how bad you were when you started to get serious about craft until you’ve established a name for yourself as a writer.

2. Workshop stories are written for a specific audience.

Workshop stories are written and the around the embryotic fluid of their context: a group that meets weekly to read published authors and stories written for the workshop. This specific audience is at first foreign to you. You all speak different prose languages. If you’re new enough to writing, the stories have the tendency to read the same. Pop culture influence and pop literary influence is palpable.

Over the course of the workshop, this audience is primed by reading the same material, sharing a discussion on craft, reaching a consensus (or at least greater understanding) of the basic rules of writing. By the end of a good workshop, you know who your peers are. You’ve heard them critique you, you’ve heard them praise you. You know in a sense what this audience wants.

Good! You can now write for that audience. The problem is that audience is both super-literate (from having read a bunch of classic authors back-to-back) and familiar with each other (and understanding of particular readers’ wants/dislikes). This audience in no way reflects the reading public. That clever pun on The Death of Ivan Ilyich you made on page 5 that turned the key to the entire plot? Not such a big hit to someone who hasn’t read Tolstoy. Drag.

This can be a good thing. Workshops can be super-critical, influenced by stylistic concerns that your reading public won’t be. Did you eschew writing a first-person narrative about a young woman’s difficulty in a turbid relationship because that’s just so Sylvia Plath? Was your workshop genre-hostile, or even selectively genre hostile (science-fiction is the literary equivalent of gold, noir is hackneyed and artless)? Were the workshoppers just out of sync with your style/concerns/interests? All of these concerns can warp a starting writer’s sense of what they should be writing.  Writing workshops can be insular; the bubble of a 12 to 15 person setting doesn’t always carry through to the outside world.

The reading public isn’t privy to workshop concerns, much in the same way that arguments about counters and stem-height will make a non-typographer’s eyes glaze over. Your actual, non-workshop audience will get ticked off when it senses that you aren’t writing for them.

3. Even worse, some workshop stories are written for no audience.

One of the essential skills that workshop attempts to instill in its writers is how to write stories for an audience. It does this two ways: by showing a writer how their expectations match up to audience reactions; and introducing writers to the audience-community of other writers.

A writer can be led to an audience, but you can’t etc etc. Sometimes a writer will present a first story culled from their life, diary-style, replete with self-referential quirks that make no sense outside of the author’s head. Impenetrable stories are unpleasant reads. (Heaven help us if the author decides to help us out by footnoting it.) Workshop stories–especially early ones–tend to be wrapped up in what the author thinks is meaningful. Workshop authors are novices to prose that bridge the gap between what’s in their head and what’s in the audience’s head. This kind of meaning-making can take years of craft to hone, steady readers, and steady feedback.

Sometimes a writer will self-justify any criticism of their work as being “it’s not for you, it’s for me.” I am never sure how much of this statement covers a bruised ego, and how much of it is an actual writer’s belief that their writing is for themselves. Writing is meant to say something to someone who isn’t yourself.  If a writer is adamant on this point–wonderful! Start a journal.

This phenomenon is not limited to writing workshops. Look for this excuse to crop up approximately everywhere. The impetus to make art that is for oneself is fantastic; but then why insist on exhibiting work meant solely for yourself?

4. Workshop stories lack awareness of style’s function.

The function of style is not to do something stylistic. Style ain’t like clothes, worn and discarded at whim. Style communicates to your readers something essential. If you choose to write in a style that’s outside the norms, you need to make sure it is introduced early, often, and the reader is taught how to “read” the style you’ve chosen. Then you do something awesome with that style to justify its choice.

An example: switching “person” is one of the hardest things to pull off in fiction. If you write a story in third person, we expect it to stay there. James Clavell, however, gave that advice the finger. In Shogun, he would drill down from his omniscient third-person narrator into a close third, where the character’s thoughts, fears, and perceptions would bleed into our consciousness… until in a moment of supreme vulnerability, a character would begin to speak with an I-voice. Then he’d reign in the voice and pull us away from that intimacy. The breech would feel tragic. The tale of the rise of the Tokagawa Shogunate was full of such tragic breeches. Theme and style came together to create an atmosphere of vulnerability and loss that one or the other wouldn’t have  achieved.

And that is awesome.

Workshop stories generally operate on the level of experimentation. There’s the workshop story that plays around with second person (a perennial feature), but doesn’t quite know how to pull along the reader like Maile Meloy does in “Ranch Girl”. Or the workshop story that’s trying out an unreliable narrator, but by withholding too much information, the reader is simply frustrated by the multiplicity of readings rather than reveling in the possibilities Emily Carroll presents us in her supernatural fiction.

Within workshop, dabbling is important; outside of it, you need a more developed sense of just what the hell it is you are doing, and if it’s actually doing it.

5. Workshop stories generally know jack about the camera lens effect.

The camera lens guides what we seen on screen when we’re watching a film or TV show. We’re so inundated with visual culture now that there’s nary a word that can describe the effect that I notice in novice fiction. This is a failure of knowing how to pan, zoom, cut, and focus on information that’s important to the story.

Take a gander at this as an opening paragraph:

Daniel swung his legs over the side of the bed. He was groggy from the night of bad coffee, worse sleep. He got up and moved around his bedroom. He picked up his socks that he’d cast off onto the lamp in a fit of supreme nonchalance. Banging his head into the open drawer that he’d forgotten to close last night, he grumbled. He put the socks in the drawer. He closed it, walked across the room, and trudged out into the living room to make himself some coffee.

Aside from the fact that nothing remotely interesting happened in this paragraph (we learned nothing about the narrator, nothing about his state now aside from some cliched groggy-morning blues), the paragraph shows an extreme failure of the camera lens of the narrative. What about this scene is important? The coffee? The socks? Banging his head? Something that hasn’t even happened in the narrative yet? No matter your genre, every word counts and every second you need to be selling your story to your reader.

I’ll save an extended discussion about the camera lens effect for another post. Suffice to say, the camera lens effect is not a failure of editing (editing would likely clean the sentences up, or remove some of them without addressing the underlying problem). It’s a failure of the writer to choose important details with their camera lens. Instead they’ve focused on what they see the character doing in their head with their internal camera lens. They see it spool past their mind’s eye, so they write it.

Fiction is not about the details, it’s about the story. When a story is overwhelmed with finicky details (and our narrator is not a borderline autistic who needs to put those socks away or his world will be shattered), the scene becomes a waste of time.

It’s a pity (and a pain) that some workshop pieces are montages of scenes just like this one, strung together into a “story” that tells us nothing about its characters.

6. Workshop stories are pretentious, bland, cliched, or some toxic combination of the three.

It’s true. I’ve even written a story that was all three. It was about a young girl being smuggled up to Canada by her father and step-mother with the help of an ex-Vietnam vet. The short story read like a turn-of-the-century novel of manners.

The only cure for this ill is to read more, to read extensively, and to get some damn life experience that can break you out of regurgitating pop culture.

7. Workshop stories are not revised, or barely revised.

Writers everywhere say a story needs to be “edited.” What they actually mean is “revised.” Workshop stories are often not revised before they hit the workshop. The drafts that cause published writers to vomit in their mouth a little when they think back on their first novels? We read those.

Sometimes exclusively.

If you revise it once, or even twice after workshop, most likely you are still revising without a strong idea about how to fix all of the problems with your work because workshop critique was based on a first draft, maybe even an “ideas draft”. Not a finished product. What you need to do is workshop the story again (maybe even again) to receive feedback on a story that’s finally ready to be published. Most of us don’t get the chance to have a workshop story read more than once.

8. The best thing you can do with a workshop story is to forget about it until you can cannibalize it for later work.

I had seven advisers give me feedback on my workshop story! It’s totally my thesis!  I’m a special snowflake!

Here’s the Low-down Diddly Flump about writing programs. Feedback from your advisers is always aimed at the level of writer that you currently are. Feedback will attempt to push you to the next level. But if you’re at the bottom of the rope, you can only claw your way up so fast.

I have received amazing instruction from my writing teachers. Had dozens of them (been one of them), and most of them have been amazing. Yet I have a dim view of writing advice at the university level. I know how many students an adviser/instructor has to wrangle with. There is only so much you can do or say for each student before they’re pushed along to the next juncture. Even feedback on multiple drafts can only do/say so much.

I like to receive feedback from several different sources. A writing group outside the pay bubble. A writing partner who I exchange work with. Dan. A particular reader who I know likes the genre. Another reader who knows diddly-squat about the genre, but is game to give their feedback.

9. How do you know when a work is ready to be published?

If you don’t have reliable feedback of how good a work is (by producing work, sending it out, getting responses/sales), then you can only rely on a host of beta readers. Would they buy your work? Or at least read it without begrudging you the time they spent with it?

If you cannot judge how good your work is, then you need to put it away in a drawer until you have the clarity to evaluate it.

The best technique you can have in your toolkit is this: set aside three short stories, poems, whatever. One a classic from a respected author.  Another a piece by a favorite author written in the past ten years. One a piece you can’t believe was published (preferably also recent). After you have set aside your short story / novella / novel / epic poem for a few months (or years), take it out from that drawer. Read your piece side-by-side with these writers. Maybe your piece isn’t going to be world literature, but are you at least as good as your favorite author? Are you maybe half as good? One-tenth as good?

How about the piece you can’t believe was published? If you’re better than that–go ahead and throw your story into the great blue.

But if you’re not… stuff it back into the drawer.

Because polishing shit just gives you shiny shit.

 

Writers, what do you do with your workshop stories?

 

What You Leave Behind

Cartoon by Pictures for Sad Children.

This is a response to “All the Things,” a blog post by Random9q, which is in turn a response to Bullish Ink‘s guest post from earlier this week. Lately with this blog, I’ve aspired to be either pedagogical or humorous — optimally, both at the same time. This entry is a bit more personal — which is not an apology so much as a warning of possible self-absorption ahead.

In her blog post, Random talks about all the things she wants to do, and the overwhelming, sometimes crushing realization that there isn’t enough time in one’s life to do All the Things. In my experience, it’s easy to turn one’s creative drive into a terrifying binary situation where you either indulge all your creative pursuits, or none of them. Or, you may end up being what Ruth calls a “dabbler,” indulging in a little bit of everything, but not doing all that well at any of them.

I suspect this is a common occurrence among creative types — I know a lot of artists both struggling and established, and most of them have polymath aspirations to one degree or another. Writers who are musicians, musicians who are actors, actors who are writers, and so on.

I’ve also been through it myself — and I’m convinced that the key to the Creative Life™ — if we are to capitalize it so breathlessly — is this: The Creative Life is less about what you take with you than what you leave behind.

It comes down to this: craft takes time and hard work. Mastery of craft can take years, probably decades. And building a paying career out of that craft — that’s its own struggle, with its own pitfalls, separate from the act of creation itself.

I think the youthful idealist in many of us dreams of forging a masterpiece from nothing more than the very fire of our souls, and watching as the world catches its breath in astonishment. Hollywood and the infrequent shooting stars of publishing have romanticized the idea of being “discovered” like Audrey Hepburn and whisked into humbling (yet well-deserved) fame, without all that grueling, boring, unsexy legwork.

And if one such vision is compelling, than what about half a dozen? Write the novel, direct the film adaptation of your novel, write the soundtrack, and star in the lead! Why not, right? Shit, program the video game tie-in too while you’re at it, you’ve got nothing going on that week.

I’m not saying everyone thinks this, but if you’re a writer, I’ll bet it’s crept into your daydreams a time or two. And a fine dream it is. But that’s all it is.

To play off an Internet meme: finite creature is finite. Our time and our energy are woefully limited commodities, already divided a hundred different ways among the hungry goblins of our lives. Jobs, families, friends, social commitments, the inconvenient need for food and sleep: all these things, fulfilling as they are, nibble away at our time. And so we have to fit our creative lives into what space is left.

To be successful — to really excel — you’ve got to make room. A whole lot of room. And, unfortunately, it’s probably going to hurt.

Years ago, I used to make electronic music. I learned a lot, and made a lot of progress. I’d almost say I was halfway to good. But then I gave it up.

I used to draw comics, thinking at one point that maybe I’d try that out as a career. I gave that up too.

I used to have a room full of video games. Video games were my life. Hours a day, every day. Gave ’em up.

I don’t regret doing those things, because they were a blast — but neither do I regret leaving them behind, because I gave up those things for a reason: to focus on my writing. Because when I sat down and thought about it, writing was the only thing I would genuinely regret not being serious about. At the end of my life, I didn’t imagine myself thinking, “man, I sure wish I had played more Halo than I did.”

Because it’s entirely possible for you to die with your life’s work to go undone, if you are careless. And, if you don’t let that thought terrify you into paralysis, the knowledge can be a hell of a motivator.

A couple of caveats.

I’m not advising that you laser-focus on one thing, to the exclusion of all else. Not only is that likely to hurt your creativity in the long run, but you run the risk of ending up a crashing bore. Indulge your diversity. But distinguish between passion and hobby, because they are not the same thing.

Nor am I saying that a diverse range of skills isn’t possible; obviously, it is. Many actors, for example, go on to produce and direct, and quite successfully — but they usually do that after making dozens of movies, immersing themselves in their craft for years, learning it from the inside out.

A few prodigals have no doubt mastered all at once, but you may have to make peace with the fact that you might not be one such gifted soul. And I’ll be the first one to say that blows. But there it is.

Of course, Random was talking about game design, which I’m sure takes a broader range of talents than just writing — but you may end up having to outsource and delegate. I’m not really good at that kind of thing, which is why the solitary act of writing has always suited me better.

My point is this: You don’t have to feel bad about dabbling. You don’t have to harbor guilt over doodling around with your guitar when you should be writing, or composing epic porn sonnets while your film goes unedited, or whatever it is you’re doing when you think you should be doing something else.

Dabbling is fine — but you have to realize that you’re dabbling. You have to decide what you’re really serious about. You have to choose that thing. And you have to give up other things. Things you like a lot.

And that’ll suck. But it will suck less than letting the One Thing That Matters lie fallow because you’re afraid to truly commit to it.

You cannot have all the things. Sorry.

And when I say “you,” I guess I really mean “me,” because this is the conversation I had with myself a long time ago, and it started changing my entire world. If you’re letting your desire to do everything keep you from doing anything, then maybe it’s time you had a talk with yourself.

How To Lose Readers and Alienate People

Photo by istolethetv on Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I received a free book of short stories from an indie author as part of a blog contest. The author of the book didn’t ask for a review, but I gave one anyway. My review, unfortunately, was not very positive. Neither was it scathing — I had a few issues with what I felt were grammatical problems and a couple minor structure issues. I rated it below-average, but was careful to say that I enjoyed the bulk of the short stories (which I did).

A few days ago, the author (whom I will not identify) emailed me to correct me on my criticisms. She told me that I’d mistaken her stylistic choices for grammatical errors and brought up her college pedigree. She implied I didn’t understand how fiction writing “worked” and made suppositions about my own grammatical predilections. According to her, I had undoubtedly expected a dry academic text and not living prose.

Finally, she informed me that the only low ratings she’d ever received on her work came from males, implying pretty clearly that my criticisms stemmed from my gender. To be fair, she did admit that perhaps her assumption was wrong, but let the implied accusation lie anyway.

This email bothered me. Not only because it made some pretty hurtful assumptions in response to a review I felt was both honest and fair — but because it left me very disappointed in the author herself.

I’m not writing this entry to get any cheerleading. I don’t need (or want) reassurance that I’m not sexist, or that the review was fair. That’s all entirely too subjective to determine sans context, and I have no intention of sharing the review or the subsequent correspondence.

Instead, I want to urge you, writers: do not do this.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t think the book was terrible. I didn’t tear it to pieces. I said it had some problems, rated it honestly, and thanked the author for the opportunity to read the book. Obviously, the author was under no obligation to like or agree with my review, but writing me to inform me that my criticisms were invalid, born of ignorance, and possibly sexist? That’s a different matter.

Not every book that an author turns out is a winner. Some of my favorite authors in the world have turned out volumes I think are turkeys. That doesn’t stop me from reading them. I would probably have continued to read this particular author’s work — in fact, I had one of her titles in my shopping cart, thinking I’d try it out and see if I liked it any better. But that email just guaranteed that not only will she never see another sale from me, but also that I’ll have nothing positive to say about her ever again.

Of course, that might not amount to much — I’m not going to name the author in question, because I have no interest in hurting her reputation. One or two lost sales isn’t a big deal, right?

But to me, this sort of behavior screams one word, loud and clear: Amateur.

Criticism is hard to take, especially if you feel it’s unfair or unwarranted. I look at some of the one-star reviews my favorite authors get, calling them everything short of Hitler himself, and I think about how difficult that must be to swallow — much less disregard.

But that’s kind of what you have to do, if you want to be a professional writer.

Accept that not everyone will love your work or think you’re a visionary. Accept that some people will think you’re pretty damn bad. A few may think you’re the worst thing ever. Fair or not, that’s how it is, especially on the Internet.

By sending this email, the author changed my perception of her permanently. I’ll never look on her work objectively again — assuming I read anything she writes in the future. I’m likely to think (true or not) that she’s only interested in positive reviews of her work. I find it nearly impossible to respect her as a writer, because she sure didn’t respect me as a reader.

Lastly, I fear this will probably have a chilling effect on the indie books I review in the future, as I’ll be disinclined to bring up any negatives for fear of some sort of retaliation. Would you want your readers to feel that way about you? I sure wouldn’t.

Fortunately, not every writer is like this. Only two weeks prior to this incident, I left a review of another author’s work on Goodreads that was pretty far from glowing. I liked the author and enjoyed the book well enough, but I thought it had some pretty significant issues. The author liked my review, told me it was more than fair, and asked if I’d be interested in “beta reading” her next installment. I happily agreed and am looking forward to working with her in the future.

One of these authors will be getting my money, and my positive recommendations, well into the future. The other will not. My ego’s not so large that I think this will make a vast difference either way — but as indie authors, our readers are all we’ve got, and I believe they should be treated with respect. And yeah, that includes me.

So the next time you get a less-than-favorable review and feel an urge to retaliate, ask yourself: is this really how you want to be seen? Do you really want to create an environment where the only readers whose opinions you value and trust are the ones who praise you unequivocally? Do you want to “correct” your critics by telling them they’re wrong to feel the way they do about their work?

Or do you want to be a professional?

Dabbler or Disciple: How Serious Are You About Writing?

Photo by laurelville_gallery on Flickr.

Today’s guest post comes from Ruth over at Bullish Ink, who delivers some stern truths about the passion and drive the writing life requires.

Do you want to be a writer or do you just want to write?

Here’s the difference. Those who want to be a writer experience the Writing Life as an unquenchable fever in their soul and those who want to write  experience it as a casual crush.

There’s no right or wrong answer. My objective here is to simply help us figure out what we want from the Writing Life. Do we want to dabble with it like a casual date or become its devoted disciple?

Truth is, the Writing Life doesn’t want to be penciled in. It wants to screw up your schedule without any resistance on your part. It demands your slavish devotion. You want to be a writer? Cancel your gym membership. Give up your favorite tv show. Beg out of dinner dates.

Committing To The Writing Life

Think of it this way – would you only spend fifteen minutes a day with your best friend or significant other? What kind of relationship would that produce?

Imagine saying to your spouse: “Well, I’d love to pick up milk on the way home, pudding-pie, but you’ve used up your allotted time today. How about I pencil it in for tomorrow – time permitting?”

If you continually tell your Writing Life that you can only afford it fifteen minutes a day, the relationship will self-destruct. It isn’t going to wait around forever for you to get your life figured out. It’s going to pack its bags and hit the road.

Once the two of you split the sheets, reconciliation is no peach. Forget about open arms, tender reunions and mind-blowing make-up sex. It isn’t that easy  to rekindle the romance.

I’m speaking from experience here. The Writing Life and I split up a few years back. Got pretty messy. Things were said. Feelings hurt. Vows made. Just about the darkest period of my history.

And trust me, reuniting was no picnic. Took a couple years to get our mojo back. I had to put in a lot of late nights and write hundreds of thousands of words of crap before we were able to effectively communicate again.

And that’s when I realized that I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to be a writer. I was smitten with the written word. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write.

Making Time For The Writing Life

The paradox is this: we are so damn intent on figuring how to fit the Writing Life into our day-planners and warping out because there just aren’t enough hours in the day, when the simple truth is that we make time for our passion without giving it a second thought.

See, if we are passionate about writing, if our hearts pump ink and the scent of paper causes us to tremble, we will make room for writing with nary a thought to logistics.

Remember what those first few weeks of ‘being in love’ feel like? You don’t need to eat. You don’t need to sleep. You have all the time in the world to bask in the presence of your lover because you make the time.

Your calendar miraculously clears itself. Duty and obligation and busy-work fall away – unmissed, rendered unnecessary and no longer important.

That’s what it’s like to be a writer. You instantaneously and unapologetically give up activities and interests that previously defined your entire existence so that you are free to pursue your passion: the Writing Life.

Just as creative talent makes room for itself, passion makes time to pursue the lover.

The Bottom Line

So, is writing something you plug into the weekday schedule like the gym and the dentist?

Or is it something that causes you to forget to buy groceries, change your socks and flounder for your child’s name?

Are you dabbling with writing or are you its devoted disciple?

Until you move the Writing Life from your To Do List to your Can’t Wait To Do List, you won’t be able to bridge the gap between wanting to be and being.

Ruth is a forty-something administrative professional who enjoys fast-paced stories, vintage cars and southern rock. A reader by birth, paper-pusher by trade and novelist by design, storytelling is her passion. You can read more of her take on the writing life at www.bullishink.com or swing by the frugal living blog she shares with her sis at www.shoestringwithstyle.com.

The Cake is Not a Lie: Wordmongering, Write, or Die

This Nanowrimo (and yeah, we’re just about done with talking about Nanowrimo for another year, in case you’re plumb tired of it yet), I saw a lot of people swearing by Write or Die on Twitter and in blogs. I’d given it a try once or twice, but it never really grabbed me until I combined it with the up-and-coming Twitter sensation that is #wordmongering (see below). Also, on a mostly-unrelated note intended to cash in on someone funnier than me, Write or Die always makes me think of Eddie Izzard’s indelible “Cake or Death” routine:

The concept behind Write or Die is this: You write X words in Y minutes (you choose both, you lucky devil). Once you start writing, you have to keep writing. If you stop for any reason, the screen slowly turns red, and a few moments later, you start hearing the most annoying sound in the world, which persists until you start writing again.

(There’s also a “kamikaze mode” in which the application starts deleting words if you stop writing for too long. No thanks. I can easily imagine one unexpected phone call turning a writing session into a ballad of shame and wasted lives.)

At first, I was pretty dubious about this concept — isn’t typing like a crazy person the enemy of coherent prose? Don’t I write sloppily enough without extra prompting? I certainly thought so, until I realized how well Write or Die clicked with my convictions about falling out of love with a first draft.

One of my biggest writing hurdles has always been overcoming perfectionism in my initial draft. I read a big radioactive pile of advice about how the first draft is just the beginning, and first drafts are crap, and so on. I never really believed it until I typed “The End” on a few books and realized just how much work those books needed — and, until Write or Die, I didn’t realize how much I tend to agonize over word choice, descriptive details, and other tiny hurdles that slow me down.

Certainly, there’s a time and place for careful word choice, but the first draft generally is not that time. Write or Die makes sure it’s not the time. Stare into space for too long searching for just the right power verb, and the Devil’s Interval will start sonically attacking your genitalia. Which is more motivational than you might think, and less risky than writing while having a small child use your groin as a punching bag.

So I dropped ten bucks on the application. It’s the best ten bucks I’ve spent on writing tools in the last year.

I put this concept to good use combining it with #wordmongering, a community-driven 30-minute word sprint founded by Monica Marie Vincent (@MonicaMarieV) and Alice M (@notveryalice). Thirty minutes to write as many words as possible, and to blazes with your (writing) inhibitions. Normally, I can churn out maybe a thousand words an hour if I’m feeling “on.” With this technique, I could crank out over 1500 words in thirty minutes. After a quick break to give my fingers a rest, I’d come back for more.

I went from a daily output of around 1,200 to over 5,000 combining Write or Die and #wordmongering. And if I don’t feel like socializing between writing sessions (which is frequently) I just skip the ‘mongering and stick to beating the clock.

Now tell me about you.

Finding a new writing process is always exciting, especially when it really works. So I’d love to hear about your process. What are your writing routines and habits? What really works for you? What doesn’t? Please feel free to leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

(Also, a shout out to a few of my fellow wordmongerers: @JulieJordanScott, @Ava_Jae, @mohio73, @frbrown906, @GeorgeSirois, @digitalinkwell, @BPuttroff and anyone I may have missed! Interested in joining? Come on over! We have cake.)

No Go Nanowrimo: Should You Feel Bad About Not Finishing?

Well whoop-de-doo. Get out.

Another National Novel Writing Month has come and gone. Maybe you pushed through and collected your intangible little badge. (I did. Nary a free drink nor swooning supermodel in sight so far. I have been lied to.) Maybe life got in your way and you got distracted. Maybe you stopped caring about your book. Maybe you just stopped feeling like writing. Maybe space chimps replaced your brains with Captain Crunch and you liked it. Life rolls on.

So let’s say you didn’t finish Nanowrimo this year. Should you feel bad about that?

Yeah, I think maybe you should.

Bear with me.

About two-thirds of the way through this year’s Nano, I struggled a lot — as I do pretty much every year. (November really is a terrible month for a project like this, especially if you’re not used to daily output. Newcomers to Nanowrimo invariably discover this with keen astonishment, many of them waiting for that mythical “better month” when, presumably, life will stop happening.)

I was way behind. I disliked my story. Other time obligations intruded. I lost sleep. My fingers hurt. Walking Dead was on. And so forth.

A couple of friends tried to cheer me up. Hey, if you don’t make it, that’ll be okay, they said. You can just pick it up in December, champ. No big deal.

Only it was a big deal, and it took me a little while to parse out why attempts to comfort me and let me off the hook only aggravated me further. And then it hit me.

If you didn’t make Nanowrimo, and you’re unhappy about that, then it means you were serious. Or, at least, you wanted to be serious.

And if you fell short of your goal and didn’t feel the slightest bit bad, then maybe what you were doing didn’t mean much to you in the first place.

This is true of everything in life, not just writing. There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about missing the mark you were shooting for — as long as you get back up and try again. Reams of cliched platitudes have been built on this fundamental principle.

Yes, Nanowrimo is a big, frantic communal goal, and falling short, especially when you see other people go racing past you, can hurt. But don’t lose sight of why it hurts — because, presumably, you really want to write.

Don’t let that disappointment turn into something bigger than it is. It’s not a sign you “don’t have what it takes.” It’s not a soul-crushing insight on your total lack of character. Don’t start playing Pink Floyd’s “Time” over and over while squinting into the middle distance and crying. I said stop it.

Now, maybe Nano didn’t work out for you and you feel just fine about it. That’s cool too. It can be a sign you’re not serious, but that’s not necessarily the case. Plenty of writers start out with Nanowrimo and reject it without blinking an eye. Not a thing wrong with that, as long as you replace it with a process that gets your ass in the chair and words on the page. Whatever works, as long as it works.

But if you find yourself feeling crushed by this year’s Nanowrimo — take your time. Get a little sad about it. Get mad at yourself if you want to. It’s okay. Work through it.

Feel better?

Cool. Now get back to writing.

Outbound, 11/12/11

Everywhere I look, people have clever, alliterative monikers for the days when they just post a mess of links in their blogs. Feverish Friday. Shameless Promotion Saturday. WTF Weekend. I can’t do it. I’ve  thought up, and rejected, approximately a dozen lame examples just like the ones above. No offense to your alliterative link day, of course, which is funny and inventive and the only reason I didn’t use it is because you got there first and I want us to be friends.

So I decided on “Outbound,” because if you read this, that’s probably just where you are. And it has the advantage of not being tied to a particular day — which is actually a disadvantage, as I’m sure you’ll be waiting breathlessly for these links every week like it was the British Invasion.

Anyway, links.

Got a Block? Try a WEDGE by Janece Herrington at WrimosFTW. Writing advice is objectively better with a snappy acronym, and this is the snappiest you’ll see today. But that’s not all. There’s also Take This Plot and SHOVE It and Fortune, Flames and FOCUS. Now how much would you pay? Janece is the Ron Popeil of writing advice.

10 Phrases to Purge From Your Speech & Writing via Passive Voice.

An Open Letter to Authors via jessica at downtherabbithole. A must-read treatise on how self-publishers need to bring their A-game.

Character vs. Trait at edittorrent. A concise guide to going deeper with your characters.

Blog Treasures via Gene Lempp. Links to more links. Now you’ll be here all day. You’re welcome. Seriously, some great stuff here. And Gene’s not alliterative either. Yet.

31 Ways to Find Inspiration for Your Writing via Leo Babauta. Babauta’s kind of amazing. If you haven’t checked out his stuff, you really ought to. See also Zen Habits.

Can You Write 200 Words? Then Read This via Start Your Novel. Tasty words.

How to Write Quickly via Ava Jae at Writability. Ava really knows how to start a discussion and engage her readers. I am transparently jealous.

Miraculous Freak of (Writing) Nature via Anonymous Legacy. Angela’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite bloggers. She’s also a blast to talk to on Twitter.

25 Things You Should Know about Suspense and Tension in Storytelling via Chuck Wendig. I’m not sure Chuck Wendig needs any more exposure, since everyone seems to have heard of him, and with good reason. Still, if by any chance you’re not familiar, here’s your chance.

Shooting for the Moon via Catherine, Caffeinated. Some invaluable advice on using traditional publishing expertise to leverage your self-publishing efforts.

Editing: Butchering Your Creativity? via Kristen Lamb. Anyone who’s ever been tempted to edit while writing is cordially invited to stop, drop, and roll with this advice.

Okay, that’s all. Have a great weekend. And if there’s anything cool you think I might have missed, do drop me a comment. I do love me some comments.

Writing When You’re Sick, Tired, or Just Hate the World

Photo by desiitaly on Flickr.

In a perfect universe, I’d begin every writing day with nine hours’ sleep, a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, nothing on my work schedule, and a gentle rainstorm to keep me from even thinking about going outside. I’d have a clearly formed idea, a flawless outline, and several unbroken hours to work.

While I’m at it, I would also like to write with telepathy from the seat of my private jet while I get a neck massage from a Czech supermodel.

Writing when you’d rather not is one of the most important skills you can ever cultivate as a writer. Anyone can write when they’re feeling fine and the muse has just hit them between the eyes like a thunderbolt from Valhalla. But there will be days when every syllable is like a back-alley fistfight with a rabid hobo. That’s when your mettle really gets tested.

Any book, blog or seminar on writing advice will tell you to write every day, and with good reason. To me, the most important reason is this: every day that you write hones your craft just a little more. Every day that you don’t write dulls it just a little more. For most people, it dulls a lot faster than it hones. Go a week or a month without writing anything and you can practically hear the shriek of rusty gears grinding together.

Good habits are easy to build when there aren’t any obstacles in your path, but it’s an imperfect universe, and obstacles happen. In fact, obstacles are nigh-omnipresent. So what do you do when you’re sick, tired, or just plain hate the world, but you still want to get words down on the page?

The Stimulus Package

Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Stimulants! Imbibe caffeine in various forms. Take a vitamin pill. Drink a whole tumbler of orange juice. Some artificial stimulation can sometimes get you through the job, as long as it doesn’t further compromise your health.

Embrace the Delerium

Writers love to romanticize the image of the drunken author who composes his or her masterpieces while smashed. Why not do the same for the natural incoherence brought on by fatigue, sinus congestion, or having just chugged an entire bottle of Robitussin? So you couldn’t string a proper sentence together if someone put a gun to your face — they can bill you! Let your incoherence be your guide. Write whatever comes to your poor addled brain. Freewrite like an escapee from a mental ward. Some of it might end up far more usable than you think.

Shake it Up

If your condition (and your conscience) won’t allow you to work on your chosen masterpiece while half-dead, work on something else. Start something new and impractical. Try your hand at dirty haiku. You may not create anything deathless, but writing is writing. That thing I said last time about giving yourself permission to suck? That goes double for when you’re sick.

Work it In

Say, have you got a chapter where one of your characters just took a dart full of dimethyltryptamine to the face, or drank Windex till he saw a UFO? Well, would you like one? Nothing gives you perspective on being sick, tired, or full of hate than actually being those things. Now’s your chance to get those feelings down on the page. It’s not death’s door, it’s research!

Throw it Out

A lot of writers I know loathe tossing out anything they write. Their words are like their precious babies, the nectar of their very soul. Why not take a sick day from your well-manicured neurosis? Rattle off a freewrite and then shred it. Bang out a wild, incoherent blog post and then delete it. Fall deeply out of love with your words for one day. Meditate on impermanence while you listen to The Cure’s Disintegration at top volume. Turn your vitriol on your own work. You can kiss and make up tomorrow.

Just Do a Half-Assed Job

Accept that what you’re writing now probably won’t be your best, and possibly in the running for your worst. Just remember that it’s still better than nothing. Earn some street cred with yourself. Make this your war story. Sure, you might look at what you wrote a few days from now and toss it out in disgust. Then again, maybe not. But either way, you put pen to paper or butt to chair and did it, even when you didn’t want to. Go you. Pound it. High five. Okay, well maybe later.

This one goes out to my good friend Tracy McCusker, who is on the mend. Feel better, Tracy.