Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Writing as a Calling: Preserving Passion

Most of us started writing because we loved it. Of course, now we want to be the next J.K. Rowling (well, I do) but we didn't start because we thought we could make money at writing. It was because something about putting words on paper fanned a spark somewhere inside.

Most of us started out writing for ourselves. Then, somewhere along the way, we decided to try and improve our skills and learn how to write for others - i.e. seek publication. Which sounded like a wonderful idea until this thing that we did for fun suddenly turned into work.

Last time I wrote about how I try to stay disciplined and approach the creative process with a work ethic. This time it's all about the love. Here's what I do to maintain that inspirational spark that first drove me to write.

Writing is work. There is no way around that fact. But the most important thing in writing passionately is to write what you love.That may require research into trunked stories, the "shite" folder on your hard drive, or even (horrors) your middle/high school novels. (Yes, I have one of those. And no, it's not pretty.) Find something from the point when you wrote just for the joy of writing and figure out what it was about those stories you loved so much.

Michael Franti has a song with the line "I don't wanna write a love song for the world, I just wanna write a song about a boy and a girl" which I find particularly interesting. Because some authors do want to write the next Great American Novel. And some, like me, just want to write stories about characters that engage our readers and leave them with a feeling of satisfaction at the end of the book. Both of those are valid reasons to write. Knowing your reason will give you insight into why certain things you thought you wanted to write, just don't seem to be a good fit after you start.

So, here's the list of things I do to keep my passion alive.

1. Write down your reasons for writing.

You can stick these up over your desk or put them in a drawer, it doesn't matter. Write a couple of sentences (or a couple of pages) laying out your motivation for writing in general. (If you're a real organizational nut you could do this with every project but that's not necessary. I always try to figure out what I want to get out of any book I write because it helps keep me focused on the heart of the story. But not everyone is wired like I am.) It is important to WRITE THESE REASONS DOWN. Eventually you will hit a point when you want to burn everything you ever wrote because you feel it sucks. (Been there way more than I will ever admit.) At that point you need something concrete to look at. Trying to keep your inspiration in your head will fail you at that point because (and trust me on this) it will all seem too stupid for words. WRITE IT DOWN. It may still seem stupid but at least you won't forget in the heat of the moment.

2.Remind yourself of your reasons for writing on a regular basis.

Just like reviewing daily/weekly/monthly goals, you should revisit your reasons to write on a regular basis. And I don't mean just glance down the list and say "Oh, yeah. Great American Novel. Sure." Really think about it. Find that excitement that drew you to writing and hold on to it.

3. Enjoy every bit that is enjoyable.

Not everything about writing is enjoyable. Editing, kind of a pain in the butt. Trudging through the second act - like cleaning your teeth with sandpaper. But, even in the less pleasant aspects there are plenty of "This is awesome!" moments. Enjoy those. I know, it sounds a little crazy, but perspective is important. When you finish up a chapter that really had you in knots and feel like celebrating - do. Even if it's just a cookie and a cup of coffee before you tackle the next chapter. Or giving yourself an extra thirty minutes of reading time.

Writing is work but that doesn't mean you should hate it. In fact, quite the opposite. You should put in the effort because you love it. And just because you're constantly striving to be a better writer and hone your skills and sell that manuscript you've been polishing for years now doesn't mean you can't love every second. Even the ones spent editing. (Okay. Maybe not the editing part - although I've learned to love editing/revising - but all the rest of it.)

What are your reasons for writing? How do you maintain excitement when the work starts to get the best of you?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Writing as a Craft: Developing Discipline

I mentioned the other day that I view writing as work. (So far everyone seems to agree with me.) And as such that means if we're serious about being "writers" - pursuing publication, honing out skills, etc - we need to know how to keep working even when the muse isn't smiling at us.

This means developing habits and strategies to get you through the "dry spells". Here are the ones that work for me.

1. When in doubt, outline.

It's true that I don't always outline before I start a project. But once I see what kind of shape the story is taking I do like to sketch out my ideas. This might be just a paragraph summarizing the story-arc. Or it could be a detailed 3 page bullet-pointed breakdown of all the key plot points. Or a stack of index cards containing notes for each proposed chapter. It just depends. But when the creativity gets thin I have something to look at to remind me what should come next. That has proved invaluable on many occasions when I've opened up my document and just thought "I don't know what to say now." It's not foolproof, but it gives me a way to see where I'm at and where I should be going.

2. Set measurable goals.

I've mentioned this before, but it's really important. Set a goal that you can measure. This means number of words (or pages) per day/week/month. Giving yourself a specific amount of time to write every day/week is good too, but it won't produce the same results. Set a goal that can be quantified, something concrete. "I will write 500 words every day."

3. Keep your goals in mind.

Once you have set your goal, keep it in mind. When you sit down to write review what your goal is and how much you have already achieved that week/month. (This is important because some days you simply will not reach your goal. Other days you will write as much as you normally write in a week. By having goals that are not just daily but also weekly and monthly, you can see the overall progression even when a cold destroys the daily wordcount.) If you are ahead on the weekly wordcount at the beginning of a writing session congratulate yourself. "My typing ability is improving" or "That day off to sleep really paid off" or whatever. If you're behind, figure out how much needs to be done to catch up. (Maybe slipping in an extra session or adding a hundred words to the daily goal for the rest of the week.) If at all possible make it something achievable otherwise you may start to feel overwhelmed.

4. Write every day.

Not all of us can do this. But if you can, you should. If you can't then find the time to write as frequently as possible. Trust me, it helps.

5. Write to the limits of your capability.

An online acquaintance recently asked how much he should be writing every day. (He's in college and usually busy with schoolwork.) Unfortunately that answer depends on the individual. When my story is firmly in my head I can write 1500 words in an hour. (When it's not, well, let's just say the number isn't that big.) And I can normally find an hour a day to write. (Sometimes it's more but I try to be realistic.) So, for me, 1500 words a day is a good goal. For someone else it may seem an impossible dream. The point is you should figure out - given the best possible circumstances: gotten enough sleep, no unexpected crisis, etc - how much you can write a day. Then set that as your goal. Don't try and make some impossible to achieve and ultimately momentum killing goal that is way beyond you. And don't settle for something easy. Best case scenario is you write at the upper edge of your capability. When that starts to get easy then you raise the goal. (Or if life gets difficult, you bring it back down a bit.)

So, there are my methods for staying on track and writing even when I don't want to. What habits do you develop to keep the words flowing onto the paper?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Live Well. Write Well.

Today's advice is brought to you courtesy of several days of exhaustion/mental burnout over the past two weeks.

I'm sure we've all hit that point where the words just don't flow onto the page. Maybe it's just a sticky plot point. Maybe it's a "boring" stretch in the book. Or maybe it seems that for no reason at all your creative energy is gone.

Frequently this is termed "writers block". A misnomer at best. And potentially deadly if accepted at face value. Because (and here's the difficult part) writing is work. That means one has to learn to write even when the muse isn't whispering in ones ear. Even when you don't really want to. Even when you don't know how you will fit those seventy pages of remaining screenplay into twenty.

If you accept the fact that you can be "blocked" then you take a passive stance in regard to your craft. That is a mistake.

However. There are "outside" forces that can influence the effectiveness of your writing routine. The big three are sleep, stress and food.

It's hard when you're like me and counting the days until you can have something ready for submission and then (oh, please) publication. You want to use every possible second to write, write, write. And, if you're like me, you find that some of that time you wind up staring numbly at the half-a-sentence you managed to hammer out before the need for rest drove your brain into wordfail. Getting up a little bit earlier to get in thirty minutes extra writing is fine. Unless the thirty minutes less is effecting your ability to function as a writer. If you need more sleep then take it. Trying to soldier through exhaustion is NOT productive.

Stress is usually caused by family or work. There is only so much you can do to control it. (If it's a serious problem then some sort of settling technique might prove useful - whether it's a walk around the block or a few moments sitting quietly.) But when stressful things happen don't try and write anyway. (You might be that rare type that thrives on conflict. In that case, ignore this advice.) Just like trying to write on not enough sleep, writing while worked up over something else is NOT productive.

Food, well, this one is obvious. Trying to write when hungry/overfull/or full of junk food is... that's right, NOT productive. I'm not saying you have to eat all organic non-meat meals or anything. But slamming down half a pepperoni pizza and buffalo wings is probably not the best idea. Heartburn will kill productivity.

Smaller things you may also want to consider.

Limiting caffeine intake. You don't need to cut it out but chugging coffee by the barrel eventually results in shaky hands and anxiety attacks. (At least, it does for me.) You can either opt for something less caffeinated (like tea) or just limit the amount of coffee or soda you drink.

Not snacking while writing. I believe James MacDonald once said that you should never engage in any activity while writing that when taken away will "kill the muse." (I'm paraphrasing, but you get the point. This goes double for things that are addictive like smoking or drinking alcohol.) I do keep a stash of candy in the shelves over my desk. They are there are incentive to help me keep going. I promise myself a square of chocolate once I get 2k written. But I try to avoid eating constantly while writing. Before you know it you've downed the whole damn bag of candy fruit slices.

None of these things are rules and the "Big Three" should certainly not be used as an excuse to not write. But no matter how much we want to be, we are not writing machines. We are people. (Hey, writers are people too.) We get tired. We get stressed. We eat bad food. All of that impacts our ability to write.

So, take a nap one day instead of drudging through the never ending chapter from hell. Or eat a salad instead of fried chicken for dinner. Your brain will thank you. So will your novel.

Friday, April 16, 2010

That Which Doesn't Kill Us...

... will make us stronger. Eventually.

I'm not dead. Just been way too busy with real life to post anything meaningful. I have written 70+ pages on my Script Frenzy screenplay. It's awesome. Too much story to fit into 120 minutes/pages but still awesome. When I rewrite the novel it'll knock your socks off. (That being a general "you". In specific I'm hoping it will impress a certain publisher and land me an offer of publication.)

I have not yet finished my long lamented novella (which would, now that I think about it, been a much better candidate for a script-length project) but I've not yet given up hope. I have enough time to get it finished and away to the editor I intended it for. Whether I actually will or not, I don't know yet.

I also wanted to give a heads-up that this is likely my last day of constant internet access for a while. Which is going to limit my blog posting even more than it already is. But never fear, I have several "articles" in the making. Once they are written I shall get them posted.

In the meantime, good luck to everyone with their writing. I shall return (later if not sooner) hopefully with good news about works-in-progress and such.

Here's a bit of something to read in the meantime. Making Something out of Anything

Friday, April 2, 2010

Script Frenzy: Day Two

Never fear. I will not be posting daily updates regarding the Script Frenzy.

But I had a couple of things I wanted to share.

The first is this article about how to write a kick-ass protagonist. It's funny and insightful and, even if he's talking about movies and screenplays, it's still good advice for novelists.

Secondly, I have now written 16 pages in two days. It's brilliant. Not the screenplay necessarily, just the fact that I'm that far along and it's not even the end of the second day. (A quick reminder that the daily goal for Script Frenzy is 3 and 1/3 pages.)

I'm stoked. And I'm sticking with my plan to get ahead on the screenplay and then turn my attention to finishing the novella which must be finished soon or I won't meet the deadline. *boo*


Oh, yeah. Only one person tried to guess which two facts were true. Thanks, Jaydee. You were half right. The correct answers were 2. and 7. Yes, the horror movie incident is true. Someday I'll figure out a way to write about it without slandering any living person. :P

'Til next time. Keep writing. (I know I will be.)