I had something nice happen, writing-wise, this week. I was working on a short story, going through the usual rigmarole of getting it started and it was taking forever. But I wasn’t angsting about it. I just kept poking at it, making tiny progress until my time was up. When I went back to it the next day, it all fell into place and I started cranking the words out. Just like I expected.
That was the cool thing. I expected it. I used to stress about days like that, when the words wouldn’t come, or worse yet when they came in a rusted out Trans-Am, reeking of Hai Karate. Now I don’t. I know they are there, swirling around in the subconscious somewhere, sorting themselves out. I just have to poke at the keys for awhile until they’re ready. But I know it’ll happen eventually, and they’ll come rushing out.
They still occasionally show up in the Trans-Am though.
*Thought I should put that up there to explain what Hai Karate was. Which was a thing that really existed. As was that commercial. What the hell, 70’s? What the hell?
So my niece recently graduated with a degree in English with a Publishing Emphasis. She’s made a blog for writers, editors, and book lovers: The Rewrite Woman. She just started it, so it’s a bit bare-bones, but I anticipate she’ll fill it up with lots of wordy goodness.
As long as we’re promoting, now is as good of time as any to mention that I’ve got a story out in Sidekicks, available now.
Last week I said I’d have more to say about failure and writing.
When I first started writing, like a lot of people I felt that *this* book had to be made perfect, *this* story had to be my very best. I was like the students in the quality half of the pottery class, trying to make one perfect pot.
It’s not until I moved to the quantity half of the class that I started to make significant improvement. Of course, it’s impossible for me to say that the improvement was definitely a result of trying to write more stories, since I was doing a lot of other things differently as well, and I’d learned during my quality phase too. All I can say is that when I started writing more stories–doubling or more my annual story output–they started to get noticeably better.
Which is not to say that I don’t have a long way to go. But it does explain why I have a ridiculously long list of stories sitting around waiting for me to revise them while I keep writing new ones. I keep telling myself I should fix that, but it’s too tempting to think about the pottery class analogy and make a new pot instead.
So Natalie Goldberg has a new book on writing out: The True Secret of Writing. Since Goldberg wrote a book that inspired me in college–when writing was a dream that I didn’t dare pursue–I thought it’d be a good day to list the writing books that have helped me along the way. They might help you, too.
On Writing by Stephen King. If you read one book on writing, make it this one.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. It’s a classic for a reason.
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. A great book of short exercises to help hone voice, characterization, and scenes.
How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card.
Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks.
What are the books that taught you how to write?
It’s spring break this week, and the kids are visiting the grandparents for much of it. Am I getting a lot done?
Well the house is clean, sleep has been slept, and the world has been saved many times from Diablo.
My writing goal this week has been spring cleaning. I have my little herd of short stories that needs to be out and about, looking for a home. I’m terrible about making sure they are kept in rotation– it’s far too easy to be distracted by the shiny object of a new story. So I’ve been diligently looking for markets, sending things out and logging the results. I’ve also been doing some light revision on a few of them that could use it.
As of now, I have twelve stories out. There are three more sitting by the door, two idling in place because the markets I want to send them to are either closed for the moment or have one of my other stories in process. The other is getting cut down to size, since it’s too long for most markets and needs the trim. Then there are the three rough drafts that need their revisions and polish. They should be ready to go soon, and then I’ll have eighteen.
Eighteen stories, out looking for love.
Sigh. It’s like watching moths circle a bug light.
Last week, a guy at my Toastmasters club gave a speech about failure that included an anecdote about a pottery class. A teacher told half the class they’d be graded on the quality of their best pot. The other half would be graded by how many pots they made. (The whole story is here and a bunch of other places on the net.)
Of course, the group that was aiming for quantity ended up with better-quality pots than the group whose goal was quality. Why? Because they got more practice. Of course, they had to strive to make better pots even though it wouldn’t affect their grade, otherwise they wouldn’t have learned anything.
I have more to say about this, which will have to wait until next week. So I guess I’m assigning homework: apply this story to writing.
Last weekend I went to FogCon, and had a lot of fun.
FogCon is great because a lot of my confriends go to it, and it’s in San Francisco. Which tends to be a lot nicer than central Illinois during March.
However, as usual, little sleep occured. Between shifting time zones, staying up late to talk, and the time change, very little sleep occured. Then when I returned, I found that I’d brought a souvenir cold back with me. Not a bad one, but it has managed to up my need for sleep while simultaneously making it harder to sleep.
All of this is just a long road to saying that my brain is currently mush.
But the writing must go on!
Which it does, slowly. Mushed out like this, I have two strategies. The first, write like I always write. Meaning, I do all my traditional rituals. Go to the place I usually write, get the music I usually listen to, and settle in. Habit helps push me forward. The second is do some revision. Coming up with something new is the hard part of writing for me. Sanding and refinishing the old is easier. So it’s been a lot of rewriting and polishing the last few days.
What do you guys do when your skull has become a pudding cup?
Right now I’m a little obsessed with watching West Wing–you know, that early-2000’s TV show that starred Martin Sheen as the President of the United States. I’ve always been inspired by TV and movies as well as books and WW is tripping those triggers left and right. Watching a show as a writer isn’t much different from reading a book as a writer; the medium is different, sure, but a lot of the same lessons can be learned. Here’s what I’ve picked up on so far:
1. Dialogue. Sorkin really kicks ass at this. All his characters have unique ways of speaking and personalities all their own. In the visual medium we don’t have internal dialogue to tell us about a character, so the actor and the verbal dialogue have to do that for us. Witty repartee is the norm for this show.
2. Tension. Sorkin has this in spades. It comes on several different levels: macro tension from, you know, world and American politics; micro tension when skirmishes between characters blow up on a daily basis; internal conflict (for example, when the press secretary wants to date a reporter but won’t allow herself). There’s also great conflict resolution on display. Yes, the characters fight and express their own opinions and sometimes go off the rails on each other, but in the end they’re all working together for a common goal.
3. Strong female characters. They are all over this show. I can’t think of a single female character that backs down from fight or agrees with someone just because the person they’re talking to is a man. The women are opinionated, feisty, intelligent, and driven individuals that also acknowledge that they want someone to kiss them. They are interesting and complex.
In some weird timing the other day, I ran across Chuck Wendig’s post How to Read Like a Writer. (If you have not read his blog before, and are sensitive to language, beware.)
Weird timing because I saw it about a day after thinking I need to do more of that.
I still read very much like a reader. Even when I’m critiquing something, I have to stop and pull myself out of it and force myself to think about why it is or isn’t working for me. I haven’t taken a literature class since high school–not that the sort of analysis then would be any use to me as a writer.
What I decided was that as I read, I should think about why the author made the choices they made about the world, the plot, the characters, the structure, and so on.
Wendig has a lot more to say about the subject than I do (nice of him to save me the time). Once I pass Reading Like a Writer 101, I’ll take another look at what he’s written.
Do you consciously read like a writer or has it become a habit?
So I’m thinking about writing two projects at once. This is not out of the norm for me–I take frequent breaks from the novel WIP to write a short story here and there. But now I’m thinking about juggling two longer projects at once; a novel and a novella. The novel is YA that has heavy-ish themes but is light-ish in tone. The novella–as I picture it in my head, anyway–is heavy in theme and tone–it’s about an estranged father and daughter reconciling just as the world ends. I wrote it as a short story years ago, but it didn’t work for a variety of reasons, one being that my ambitions outpaced my skill. I’m feeling the urge to break out the idea again, rework the structure, add more depth, beef up the length. I might be a good enough writer now to do the story justice. Plus it just feels like it’s time to write the story. The writer-brain is a funny thing.