Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Draft 6 - Swept Away

Words come. Rushing. Tumbling. In a torrent that seems to have no end. Two odd pieces fit together for something new, or a character begins to chatter, or a vivid dream sweeps you out of this world and into a land of wonder.
Congratulations. This is a good thing, and it can become the basis for a work you and your readers will cherish. You may capture all there is in detailed notes or you may end up writing complete scenes. Either is fine.
But you are cheating on your work in progress. Assuming you have prepared for the day’s writing with details on what you intend to write, do you still have the commitment? Will you honor the promise you made to yourself the day before? Will you have anything left to offer?
Professional writers complete their work. They meet their deadlines. And even after a luscious detour with a strange and wonderful new story, they go back to the familiar work they have invested in and do the job. They may stray, but they come back.
They are well aware of the professional risks story promiscuity represents. Most pros chased infatuation after infatuation when they were beginners. And, if they were writing articles and short stories, they could get away with it. But, being drawn away from a book-length work is serious. This is especially true when you are writing the middle when the prose it ugly, the story arc is showing cracks, and the manuscript seems like a mistake. Tempting new stories seek out authors during those desperate times and lure them in.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with being swept away and dallying with the new story for a while, but promiscuous habits can lead to a series of uncompleted works and unfulfilled promises. Infatuations burn out, and people who do not take a professional approach end up with piles of unfinished manuscripts.
Go ahead. Indulge yourself. But keep you promises. Finish your book.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing Prep 7 - Dreams, Dialogue, and Disasters - Observation that Counts

My muse stalks me. She is always dropping ideas, concepts, and images into my brain. More often than not, I don’t pay attention. At times, I say “aha!” but I fail to capture the bits that give me goose bumps. But as I’ve grown as a writer, with a particular eye to being more productive, I’ve gotten better at claiming these gifts.
They can come to me at any time, but they typically arrive in dreams (rich in images), good conversations (which generate unexpected ideas), disorienting experiences, and disasters that force me to improvise (both of which challenge my perspective, often in wrenching ways).
Here are my guiding principles:
·      At ease – I give myself permission to be in the moment, especially when I am in distinct situations that are not likely to be repeated. When I visit a strange place. When I get into a conversation with or see the actions of someone who is eccentric or strong-willed. When I have one of those moments in a relationship when there is a surprise or a big decision is made.
·      On notice – I usually pick up the narrative of my life. I can tell you what happened and why it interested me. But I often have to remind myself to pay attention to the five senses and my emotional state. Not only are these valuable additions to any story, but they also help put me back into the moment, deepening my recall of the experience.
·      In words – I write down my observations in complete sentences (a tip found in Ray Bradbury’s advice to writers). This is wonderfully helpful in saving the time lost in trying to figure out what I meant when I jotted down single words.
·      In time – Getting things down why they are still fresh is essential. Much of the best the muse offers comes as smoke that is carried away by the slightest breeze. So getting to work without excuses (of course I’ll remember later) is an essential discipline. (Applying the experience immediately is usually a bad idea. Bad experiences, in particular, need to age and change shape over weeks, months, and even years.)
Most writers are obsessive about gathering notes. Some transcribe overheard conversations. Some keep journals. Some are obsessive picture-takers. When these gifts of the muse are regularly gathered, put into shape, and filed in a retrievable fashion, you have a resource to draw upon whenever there is a dry spell or a hole in a story that needs to be filled. Best of all, the habits of effective observation build over time, making it possible for you to see things other people can’t and to make connections that add spark to your work.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hidden Gems of How to Write Fast

I might have titled this the least popular blog entries. Hidden Gems sounds better, doesn't it? In any case, here are four entries that didn't get much attention. Give them a try.

Get Your Groove Back!
Emotions Hook Readers (and Drive Productivity)
My Achin' Back!
Write a Letter to Your Character

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tools for Writing 1 - The Joy of Dictation

I use Dragon Dictate for about half of my drafting. By switching back and forth from typing to dictating, I have cut my chances of repetitive stress injuries in half, but there are other benefits:
  • Now that the program allows for a more natural flow of words (vs. one word at a time), I get to hear the prose, especially the dialogue, from the time of its creation.
  • I write about 20% faster with dictation.
  • I am discouraged from rewriting as I write, which keeps me in a creative mind and avoids interference from the editor in my head.
For me, adjusting to dictation was as difficult as my transition from writing by hand to using a typewriter and from using a typewriter to using a computer (about a month of upset in each case). But I will admit that I have advantages in being a bit of a techie and in having early experience (as part of IBM Research) with dictation. This is not to say that the experience is painless or perfect, even today.
  • Dictation seems to work better with nonfiction than fiction. The names and cadences of dialogue seem to throw the program at times.
  • Sometimes the emotion is muted because fully acting things out makes for strange errors. Also, I am tethered by my headset.
  • When I see an input error, it distracts me from the drafting. This usually is only a slight bump in the flow. However, I have been known to get frustrated and fight with the system (and angry voices do not transcribe well.)
Nevertheless, I would hate to go back to just typing. For one thing, I like the "feel" of dictating. Just as some writers edit better from printed copy and some brainstorming works better with a pencil and piece of paper (in my case, a poster-size page), dictating provides an option for capturing mood, emotion, and flow that other approaches do not. When I begin a writing journey, it's as if I have a fleet of cars rather than one vehicle for commuting. That gives me one more edge as I explore the limits of productivity.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Escaping the Filter Bubble - Refilling the Well 2

We shouldn’t be parochial. The Internet gives us amazing access to knowledge, new perspectives, and communities we never knew existed. It’s Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica and more. Yet, somehow, many people end up listening to the same people, reading about the same topics, and moving barely inches from tightly held positions.
Part of this is tied to how flooded we are with information. Part of it is natural, as our brains work to avoid dissonance. And part is technical, as search engines provide us only with what we are allegedly interested in. (See the marvelous TED Talk on “The Filter Bubble.” 
As writer’s we need to be aware of this since it can make our work stale and repetitive. One way to stay fresh is to consciously explore things that don’t interest us. We need to connect with people we disagree with and people who have very different experiences and worldviews.
  • We need to be open:
  • To listen
  • To avoid judging
  • To offer respect
  • To overcome fear
  • To walk in others’ shoes
  • To learn, continually
While it is possible to stay in a narrow worldview and succeed by deepening it, even this approach benefits from being challenged by other possibilities. And for most writers, startling perspectives can shock us out of complacency and lead to new insights our reader hunger for.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing Buddies

Most people write more if they are held accountable.  The simplest approach to this is to get someone to regularly ask, "How many words have you written [today, this week, this month]?" This resembles the Weight Watchers weigh in, providing a public declaration that others can respond to (it is hoped, with encouragement). There are online versions of this, most notably through the NaNoWriMo community.
Checking in regularly with a writing parole officer is just what some people need, but some may need to reach higher. For one thing, by just providing a number, it is too easy to cheat. It is too tempting to include what Kristan Higgins calls "writerly things" (think blog entries or notes to editors – instead of things that are words bringing the story forward) in the word count. The words could be on a side project instead of the main work. Or the words could be notes on the story, character sketches or even an estimate of what the writer wrote in his/her head and just needs to get onto paper.
Having a writing buddy makes this sort of cheating less likely because the words themselves need to be turned in. This helps with productivity both because the work is hard to dodge and because quality becomes a factor.
There are other payoffs as well. Encouragement comes at a higher level because the work can now be referred to directly (wonderful description, clever use of metaphor). It also becomes possible to have discussions that include advice, explorations of material, answers to questions and specific feedback.
Just having someone else reading the work – which is driven in part by the need to communicate – has a salutary effect. Along the way, there is real companionship from someone who understands. Writing can be a lonely business, so such a relationship can be invaluable. Besides, you know that when you finish, someone with real investment in the material will be there to say congratulations.
All this, of course, depends on having the right writing buddy. Having someone who is unreliable, working on a different level, negative or doesn't "get" what you write can be actively harmful. With that in mind, here are some criteria for a writing buddy:
  • Find someone who is about at the same level. Since you are reading and providing feedback for them, a person who is working at a lower level is likely to be frustrating and less helpful.  Mentee/mentor relationships have their own charm and value, but they are not the same as the writing buddy relationship.
  • Their output should be similar and they should be reliable. A big asymmetry in workload can feel unfair. Delays in reading and feedback can become an excuse for writing less.
  • Having similar goals may also be important. For instance, a person determined to self-publish might be annoyed by a commercially focused buddy who fulfils genre requirements when they "should" just tell their story. In the other direction, a commercial writer might be insulted when suggestions to add a few elements or cut a scene to fit a market are ignored by someone committed to self-publishing.
  • Mutual respect and trust are essential. This may develop over time, but both buddies need to avoid any violations. A typical problem is a caustic comment. When this is direct, it's bad enough. When it is made to a third party, it's disastrous. When it is made to a third party and the manuscript is shared with that person, the writing relationship (if not the friendship) is probably dead.
  • While there is a need for candor, writing buddies need to keep their criticism positive, generous and supportive. At least in early critiques, it is wise not to point out more than three concerns. The good work needs to be explicitly noted and praised. And overall, any critique must come across as helpful and encouraging.
  • A writing buddy should be a natural audience for your work. They need to enjoy and respect your genre and your style. If they don't "get it" the criticism becomes mechanical at best, scathing at worst. This problem should be evident early in the relationship, but it can even happen with a good writing buddy when a new work takes a different direction. In those circumstances, the writing buddy needs to explain the concern early on (and this honesty needs to be appreciated without argument).
  • There should be good "chemistry" between the buddies. I don't know how to explain this, but, when you are in the situation, you'll know if it's there or not.
  • Ultimately, critiques need to be expressed in ways that are helpful. This does not mean that a buddy's prescriptions need to be complete, clear and actionable. Most suggestions on how to fix writing aren't quite right. But the concerns need to be expressed, in most cases, well enough so a second look is productive.
Having the right writing buddy can become a springboard for more productive writing – both for you and for your buddy. This can be a great benefit in achieving your goals. It also can provide a reward in the enormous pride you'll feel when your buddy succeeds, too. Maybe you'll even get a thank you in the book.
Copyright © 2012 Peter Andrews

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Writing Is Juggling

If you've ever tried to juggle, dance, or learn the steps to an advanced martial arts kata, you'll know what I'm talking about here. You are performing at a high level, you add something to it, and disaster strikes. Within a few tries, you can't even do what used to come naturally.

Writers love courses and book that provide tips and advice. The more, the better.  I teach, so I am the last person to discourage this perspective. But trying to integrate several significant new approaches into your writing all at once can be a recipe for disaster.

And those problems are normal. I first learned of the phenomenon I call "dropping the juggling balls" (or dropping the chainsaws when I am looking for danger) when I studied Piaget. It is related to the way we learn and organize new information. When we are little, we go through these fumbles so often, we barely notice them. We just keep on keeping on. But they happen less often for most of us when we are older.

As a result, writers who are diligent about working on their craft can end up discouraged and depressed. I thought I had talent...  I thought I had figured this out... I thought I'd never make this mistake again...

No, you are not becoming a talentless, inarticulate hack. You are growing in your craft, and these are the accompanying pains. So cheer up. Something good is about to happen.

Once you adjust your attitude, don't give up learning new skills. But consider resolving to master only one challenge at a time. Focus enables learning.

Writing requires high-level juggling -- character, plot, style, grammar, tone, theme, setting and more. Sometimes they come out the way you want them to all at once, but that is rare. Becoming a master writer is a livelong exercise, so expect to drop a few balls along the way.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Draft 5 - Writing in the Fourth Person

I audited a writing course with John Casey, and he mentioned once how people seemed to be speaking more and more in the fourth person.

Fourth person?

Some conversations seem to consist almost entirely of quotes from movies, tv, and other media - the fourth person. John didn't make any disparaging remarks about this practice (he was talking to college students after all), but I have often recalled it when I've been trapped in a conversation that is almost devoid of wit and originality. Other people seem to be totally engaged as all the pop culture buttons are pushed - but why?

I am an advocate of getting words on paper quickly, of not worrying about getting every fact right, about filling out all the descriptions, or about writing scenes destined to be cut. Creator first, editor second. But with this license comes responsibility. When you get words flowing, it is easy to begin spouting shopworn, secondhand material. A little of this isn't fatal. Too much is, at best, a waste of time. At worst, it can feel close enough to right to lead to self delusion.

I have written whole chapters and complete short stories in the fourth person. Luckily, I was called on it, and I had the sense to admit my mistakes. I have a sixth sense for the "this is really easy" feeling now.  So good friends can help you.  (Note, the kind of plot borrowing that writers do all the time is not the issue here.)

How do you avoid this?
  • Prepare properly by reaching for emotions before you begin to write. Acting techniques help.
  • Make it a habit to take risks with your writing.
  • Journal your own experiences and do primary research, so you have authentic material to draw from.
  • After you finish an especially easy and painless session, make a note. Then look the next day to see if the work is shallow and lacks honesty.
  • Imagine reading the writing ten years into the future, and see if anything is too much of the current era.
Writing in the fourth person can sneak up on you, but it is unlikely to be a persistent problem. Just being aware of the danger is usually enough to keep it at bay. In my experience, more people are held back by the fear of sloppy and lazy writing than by actually committing the fourth person to paper. With a few precautions, you can write fast without falling into this trap.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Six Ideas on How to Prepare to Write Productively

When I started this blog just over a month ago, I knew it would be too much material for some readers. That's why I have labeled many of the entries. Today, I'm highlighting the entries on Writing Preparation. I hope you find something that is useful to you.

I'll be posting similar collection each Sunday.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bigger 4 - Creating Endings That Buzz

Songs that won't let you go are called earworms, but I'm not sure what they call great endings that buzz around your head. Like earworms, the only way to get rid (temporarily) of buzzing endings is by sharing them with someone else.

Of course, this is exactly what you want people to do with your stories. You want those final words to hold onto people and force them to start conversations. But how is this done? Here are a few things to try:
  • Delicious ambiguity - Spoiler alert for Inception. This movie ends with a spinning top that might be on the verge of falling - or might never fall. The sense of the entire story depends on what happens next, and the director does not let you see what happens. Which has led to endless discussions.
  • An image - I think first here of the freeze frame that ended Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as they rushed to take on what looked like the entire Bolivian army. That shot was much imitated (diminishing its punch), but I think it worked because it showed action, but did not complete it. The audience could imagine the likely (hamburger heroes) or the unlikely, one more daring escape. I read The Grapes of Wrath decades ago, and I still can see the image of Rosasharn trying to save a starving man with the milk meant for her stillborn child.
  • A mixed ending - One of my teachers called these bittersweet. The hero wins the race, but he loses his love. This is somewhat expected and isn't guaranteed to stay with readers, but it beats a pure happy ending.
  • If only - Somehow a tragedy that happens only because nineteen things go wrong can get its hooks into you. You  keep going back to see if one of those wrong turns might have been avoided. Were they all inevitable? Were some less inevitable? What would have happened if any of them went the other way?
  • A good joke - This is a dangerous one because it can trivialize the whole story. Caper movies use this approach, and I think immediately of the ending of The Sting (I must be in a Newman/Redford mood) where the trick is turned. (Interestingly, Ocean's Eleven turns its trick, but has a powerful image ending - the almost religious assembly at the fountain.)
  • A revelation - This may be the most powerful and difficult. If you can have an ending that reveals how society works, how people work - how WE work - in an elegant and satisfying way, people will hold onto that ending with both hands. To Kill a Mockingbird does this for me.
Bigger stories deserve great endings. First and foremost, satisfying endings that are wonderful because of everything that went before.  But if that ending can start a buzz too, the story is more likely to find the audience it deserves.

Also of Interest:

Good Endings 1 - The four essentials 

Good Endings 2 - Satisfaction testing

Friday, July 20, 2012

Every Other Friday - Doug Solter Interview

Doug Solter went to college at Oklahoma State where he earned a B.A. in Radio/TV/Film production.
Doug started writing in 1998, and three years later his fifth screenplay, FATHER FIGURE, became a semi-finalist in The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. Two more scripts ranked in the top 15 percent of the Nicholl Fellowships for two different years and his tenth script, RAIL FAN, became a quarter-finalist in the competition in 2009.

Tell me about your novel Skid:

My young adult novel Skid is about a teen girl racer from Oklahoma who travels to Europe to race in Formula 1. She starts as a test driver for a struggling German racing team and then claws her way up to competing for the world championship. Meanwhile, she wrestles with an awful secret regarding her father's deadly car accident while trying to make sense of her best friend's romantic feelings for her. And the stress of her new job isn't exactly helping.

What drove you to write Skid?

Growing up, I've always loved car racing. My dad would take me to SCCA races at the road-racing circuit near my home. (It's the Oklahoma track featured in the book.) I particularly fell in love with Formula 1 due to the excellent John Frankenheimer film Grand Prix starring James Garner. That planted the seed of wanting to write a story set in the world of Formula 1.

But, I didn't want the standard young-guy-is-mentored-by-the-older-guy type of sports story. When I switched from screenwriting to young adult novels, I saw this idea in a new light. What if the girl was a teen? I wrote a previous script version of this idea with a woman in her early 20's. But cutting that age by six years made a huge difference to the story and thus fueled the book. Please excuse the pun.

What were your biggest obstacles?

First was getting into the head of a teenage girl. Many young adult stories are told from the first person point of view, and I had to describe and interpret the world through a restricted point of view of a girl. So I had to summon whatever acting skills I possessed to make that POV feel real. 

Second was getting the teen voice down. Teens are very smart. They know if you get them or not. Usually an adult talks down to them or tries teaching them how to be or how to act. When you write for a teen audience, you have to look at them as equals. You can't go in thinking, “Oh, they're only kids,” because that's NOT how they view themselves. 

You must also put aside all your adult experience and write from a view point that looks at the world with shiny, new eyes, ready to dive in because death is somewhere out there at infinity. Teen characters don't have this prepackaged wealth of experience that adult characters have coming into a story. As an adult, it's easy to forget this.

What are your productivity tips?

Write every day. Or if you must skip a day, feel guilty about it. Even if it's just for an hour. Write. You'll get more accomplished than most people who wait for “inspiration.” Inspiration will fail you. I'm convinced that the Writing Muse lives under a pile of work, and she only comes out when you're slugging it out with your story. She might give you the idea in a shower, but she doesn't like helping you write it unless you're fully committed to the project.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Collaboration Dos and Don'ts part 2

Last time, I covered some of the advantages of collaborating, along with a few guidelines for success. But as I indicated, things can go terribly wrong. The work can slow precipitously, turn in the wrong direction, or even stop.

Many of the problems that crop up are exactly those that writers working alone face.
  • Insufficient research
  • Scenes or stories that require a higher level of craft
  • Starting in the wrong place
  • Working from the wrong point of view
  • Having a secondary character take over
  • Unnecessary detours
  • Life gets in the way
  • A loss of enthusiasm (which seems to strike almost all writers halfway through the book)
  • Indecisiveness
  • And more.
 Some people argue that writer's block is a fiction, but writer's crawl is endemic. Unfortunately, any of these normal, expected problems look different when you are inside a writing partnership. Disagreement on the cause of a problem is likely. Blame (of yourself or your partner) is a mortal danger. If you want to collaborate, first look at yourself and be honest with your answers to these questions:
  • Do I think a criticism of my writing is a criticism of me?
  • Am I good at diagnosing story problems?
  • Do I have good interpersonal communications skills?
  • Do I avoid conflict until it becomes nuclear?
  • Do I always have to be "right"?
  • Do I blame others when things go wrong?
  • Do I have an ego the size of Mall of America?
  • Am I closed to compromise?
  • Do I consider challenges to my "vision" to be deranged?
If the answers to any of these are yes, you should consider not collaborating. If your prospective writing partner would answer yes to any of these, buckle up. You're in for a bumpy ride.

But beyond personalities, there are some projects that are not good candidates for collaboration. I would never collaborate on a personal project that involved exploring sensitive, questionable, or private aspects of myself. No partners need apply for work on a project designed to be the keystone of my career. If I am taking huge risks, I'd rather take them alone. And if the project looks like a blockbuster in the making, I'll get the novel done and put off collaborating until I get a call from Spielberg to work on the movie.

Collaboration can be a joyful and productive experience. But it can also be an ordeal and a time suck. So think hard about yourself, your partner, and your project before you jump in.

Have you had a dream collaboration? Or a nightmare partnership? What did you learn?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Collaboration Dos and Don'ts part 1

When my wife and I decided to write a novel together, we jumped right in and cruised all the way to "The End." (The only rough point was the dreaded "version control" episode.) This is the sort of collaboration fantasy that many writers dream about, but rarely achieve. Like overnight successes, there is more than meets the eye.
  • Both of us came to work together with mutual respect.
  • We had knowledge of each others work as professional writers.
  • We had a common concept for the book.
And we had a clear understanding before we began of who the final decision maker was (my wife).

After lots of discussions, we fell into the pattern of my writing the first draft (the bones) and my wife writing the next draft (the flesh). Rewrites were less directed (hence the need for strict version control). Overall, it was a fabulous experience, and I am still proud of the story we created together.

By the time we chose to coauthor a novel, I had made a career of collaborating: Speechwriting (with the principal). Writing for radio and theater (working with announcers and actors). Coauthoring a book, developing IBM reports with teams, and editing. Those experiences helped me to know that our working together made sense, and they alerted me to potential problems.

I gained some of my knowledge the hard way. My first efforts at collaborating were disasters. I got lost on several round robin attempts. I provided a detailed critique of the first few pages from a fellow Clarion student (and never heard from him again). I exposed an early draft of a short story to a writers' group that savaged it (and my coauthor never really recovered). So:
  • Don't begin until you have a common goal and both of you are committed to achieving it.
  • Don't overwhelm your writing partner with feedback, especially in the drafting stage.
  • Never expose your collaborator to public humiliation, and be aware that the public face of your work belongs to both of you.
Collaboration can speed up your writing. It provides a sounding board for ideas, accountability for writing every day, and a division of labor that may make up for your weaknesses. Under ideal circumstances, it seems as if elves are doing all the work as you sleep. But creating ideal circumstances? That's a big job. For some people it is harder than working alone. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Writing Prep 6 - Decluttering Your Brain

Putting yourself in front of the keyboard doesn't automatically put your brain into your writing space. Good (and bad) conversations may still be running through your head. There may be the lure of a donut or the worry of a bill. You may have aches and pains of the body or the heart.

Distractions that are in you mind may be the hardest to counteract. One reason why I like to write first thing in the day, to begin by completing yesterday's sentences, to cue myself by setting a timer, and to put on (wordless) music is that these provide rites of passage from the mundane world to the world of my imagination.

But it doesn't always work. Reality can be pretty intrusive. This is why I have brain decluttering exercises in reserve. If you have the same problem, you might want to give them a try:
  • Make faces at yourself. No. I'm serious. Go to the mirror and change your expression to one that is intense. I understand that smiling actually releases chemicals that make you happy. Frowning, scowling, sneering, or looking wide-eyed in amazement seem to have similar effects. Make a face, and you will feel something different. This pulls you away from the distraction in your brain. For extra credit, put the look on your face that you imagine your protagonist has.
  • Take a deep breath and clear your mind. This is classic, and it becomes easier with practice. Meditation lowers your blood pressure, too, so you get a bonus.
  • Get it all on paper. Force yourself to write out everything that is whizzing around in your mind. I call this the chocolate sundae solution because a friend of mine used a similar technique when she was dieting. If she felt an overwhelming urge to eat a chocolate sundae, she would eat sundaes until she had an aversion to them. This is a twist on Oscar Wilde's quote, "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself."
I will point out that I don't count ANY of this as my writing time. Do that, and you face the risk of decluttering until the timer goes off. You don't want to lose a day of writing this way.

How to you declutter your brain?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Writing Prep 5 - Distraction Number One, Husband Interruptus

I wonder if kids still put "Keep Out" signs on their doors. They had a certain vogue in my house when I was growing up after a TV kid displayed one. During one of my teaching gigs, a swarm of female students claimed that the biggest distraction to their writing was the spouse who did not understand that sitting quietly in front of a keyboard did not equal an invitation to chat or an indication that she had idle time in need of a task. (Can you fix me a snack?)

The problem was quickly termed "husband interruptus," and I went to my crack team of writing colleagues for answers. These included:
  • arsenic (but that seems like overkill) 

  • leave the house and go to the library, Panera Bread or Starbucks
lock yourself in the potty
  • rent him a movie he's been wanting to see and then put it on for him
  • headphones
  • give him a notebook with the heading: Things to ask wife in an hour
  • try to fix something" (i.e., with a hammer or crowbar, guaranteed to hurt more than help) and let the super handy hubby get to work (works best with controlling type-A personalities)
I suspect, with slight modifications, these can also help with wife interruptus, children interruptus, roommate interruptus, and pet interruptus.

How do you protect your writing time? How do you keep the people in your life from stealing precious minutes at the keyboard?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How to Write Fast Top Ten Posts - June/July

How to Write Fast celebrated its first month this past week. It has had over 1,200 views from 20 different countries. By number of views, here are the top ten posts:
  1. Guest Post - Write Faster with Scrivener (with Gwen Hernandez)
  2. Writing Prep 1 - Inspiration is not your friend
  3. Draft 1 - Stop endless looping
  4. Every Other Friday - Kristan Higgins interview
  5. How to Stop Dithering
  6. Up Your Productivity
  7. Draft 2 - Write to Someone Specific
  8. Writing Prep 3 - Highlight your reasons for writing
  9. Eat the Elephant
  10. Don't Dream It, Be It
Thank you, readers. And please let me know if you have questions or topics you'd like me to cover. Write to howtowritefast@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bigger 3 - Take Me to Monte Carlo

Is your setting big enough for your story? Middle-earth or Manhattan, you need to give the same consideration to where your character fights his battles or duels over cocktails as you do to their dreams and desires. If you don’t, you risk two things:
First, the story might suffer. This is obvious for survival stories, where nature is the antagonist. But it is also true for To Kill a Mockingbird, where both the heat and the social constraints press the characters to reinterpret their values. Too often, writers take setting off the table, and they lose the potential for conflict. West Side Story would not have been as effective in the suburbs.
Second, the story is less attractive. The people who make James Bond and Mission Impossible films know this. Most of the locales for their stories are places where people visit in droves. In fact, those movies take advantage of millions of dollars invested in promotion and in giving visitors wonderful experiences once they get there. Why shouldn’t your story take the same approach? Why go to Des Moines (actually, a lovely city in Iowa, but not a vacation destination) when you can go to Dubai?  
Of course, a story can take place in horrible places. I do not want a holiday in Shawshank Prison or the Alien-infested Nostromo. But I don’t mind watching characters in these extreme environments. Those settings will repel as many people as they attract, but they will attract enough to make me happy.
Bigger does not need to be outrageous. Even modest locations, like those in Jane Austen, can make a story bigger if they are keenly observed and play an important role in the story. Her civilized locales in England may not have high concept going for it, but there is enough detail so readers feel immersed in the reading experience.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to create a bigger locale:
  • If I wrote a travel brochure for this place, would it attract any visitors?
  • Can I change the location to one that will make people curious about my story?
  • Can I imagine a setting that will put more pressure on my characters, forcing them to make difficult and irreversible decisions?
  • Have I imagined my story’s location so deeply that I can describe it completely enough to immerse my reader?
Of course, conflict and emotion are what a story is about, so the setting (usually) should not overwhelm these. But attention to setting and deliberately making it bigger can become a vital part of enticing and holding a reader to enter into the world of your story.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Do You Listen to Music When You Write?

Music can help the words flow or it can get in the way. For me, music serves several purposes that make my writing sessions more productive.
  • I use music to cover auditory distractions.
  • Music inspires me, creating mood and emotions.
  • Music sets rhythms in my head.
  • Since rewriting (especially ferreting out junk words and typos) is my least favorite part of writing, I use music to make the experience more pleasant.
  • A forty or fifty minute piece makes a great timer, setting the boundaries of my work period.
I can write without music. (If fact, the only sound I have as I write this blog is the perking of the coffee maker.) But music contributes to my productivity, as long as it does not have words. I cannot ignore lyrics. I sing along in my head. (This may be a leftover from my memorizing every jingle and TV theme song I heard when I was a kid.) The only music with words I can listen to is music in a language I don't know. Opera works great because it is full of emotion.

My wife seems to be able to listen to anything, even have the TV going when she writes. I know writers who need silence during drafting and need music during rewrites. Some people need silence all the way through.

If music is part of your writing practice, specific tunes and the style of music may make a difference. Film scores, classical music, heavy metal, jazz -- they may not be equally valuable (or horrifying) at different stages of writing. But, if you understand how music impacts your productivity, it can become an ally.

Try different styles at different stages, and track your experiences. The number of words written is only one factor. Make notes about how you felt as you wrote, how the music impacted the rhythm and emotion of your work, how it inspired you, and the quality, too.

If you understand how music and silence make a difference for you, you'll have a way to write more and have more fun writing.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Guest Post - Write Faster with Scrivener

It's my delight to welcome Gwen Hernandez as the first HTWF Guest Blogger. Gwen is the author of Scrivener For Dummies (Aug 2012, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.), and the teacher of popular online Scrivener classes for Mac and Windows. Before she started using Scrivener to tap her right brain for tales of romance and suspense, she worked as a computer programmer, business school instructor, and manufacturing engineer. Learn more about her book or classes, and get free Scrivener tips, at www.gwenhernandez.com.

Looking for ways to be a more productive writer? Consider Scrivener. This writing software—available for both Mac and PC—not only lets you write the way that works best for you, it also provides some handy features for motoring through your manuscript at top speed.
What do you do when you’re in the writing flow and you suddenly realize you need to change something two chapters back, or you have a great new idea for the ending twist? Don’t stop your momentum by going off to work on those other sections.

I create a file within my project that I call Change Log. When inspiration strikes, I jot a few notes in the Change Log and then get back to what I was working on. Not only does this keep me moving forward, but I find that many times I end up changing my mind about the “great idea” later, so waiting to make the change saves me even more time since I don’t have to undo it if a better idea comes along.

If you come to a section of your story and realize you don’t have the information you need, or you just can’t seem to get the words right, don’t stare at it for three hours. Add an annotation—a colored bubble of text that stores notes and reminders right within the text—and move on. Alternatively, you can add a comment, which creates a colored link to a word or phrase, and shows up in the Inspector instead of embedded in the text. You can use the Formatting Finder to easily search for annotations later.
Are you trying to meet a specific word count goal for your manuscript? Do you need daily goals to keep you on track? Scrivener has you covered with project and session targets. Just enter your manuscript goal and your daily goal. Scrivener tracks your progress and provides a colored bar to show you how you’re doing.

To track your progress within a single document, use a document target. This is handy if you have a minimum scene length, or are working on an article or story with a specified word count requirement.
Do you find the main Scrivener interface distracting? Try working in Composition mode (called Full Screen in the Windows version). Not only does this calming view block out the busy-ness, you can choose your favorite background color, and (currently on Mac only) even add a background image.

Scrivener can also help you keep your research at your fingertips. No more searching through stacks of printouts or trying to find the right Internet bookmark. Simply import documents you refer to regularly into the Research folder in your project. For websites that you frequent while writing, you can add a Reference so you can quickly open the site when you need it.

Those are just a few of the many ways Scrivener can increase your writing productivity. Got questions? Ask away. I’ll check in throughout the day to answer them. Thanks to Peter for having me today!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Confidence and Joy - Kafka was a riot at parties

Sorry for those writers who identify with the anxious, tortured Franz Kafka, but his friends told biographers that he was fun, a great conversationalist and a quick with. His humor bleeds through in his stories, if you're paying attention.

And I think, even though he didn't sell much during his lifetime and he asked that all his papers be burned (they weren't), he had a good sense of his own worth as a writer. He rushed in, wrote in an eccentric voice, took on his worst demons, and triumphed. And by triumphed I mean he got the work done, and I strongly suspect this gave him joy and built his confidence.

Confidence when you sit down to write and joy when you finish a manuscript are what drive the life of a writer. More than money and fame and publication. In fact, money, fame, and publication without confidence in your talent and a sense of accomplishment can actually stop (or corrupt) your writing. Think of Ralph Ellison and Harper Lee. Or the many stories about Hollywood destroying writers. Or Salinger hiding in his fortress (though there are rumors of books hidden away there).

Don't let this happen to you. Remember the first time  you eagerly sat down to write a story that burned within you and seemed to fill pages effortlessly? And how great you felt when you wrote "The End"? I hope you still have that confidence and joy everyday because it is jet fuel for the writing experience.

But maybe not. Part of the confidence and joy came from a lack of perspective in your early years. If your parents teachers and friends loved your story, chances are that it was not greeted by editors with the same enthusiasm. Reality checks can grind away at confidence and crush the joy. Sell something, even a book that becomes a bestseller, and the trolls will come out to point out glitches, call the work derivative, and make vulgar comments. Authors live in a public space filled with people who have high expectations, the need to pull someone down, and absolute clear views of your faults.

To have a writing career, you need to maintain the confidence and hang onto the joy despite this. Here are a few suggestions.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people.
  • Don't let doubters read your stuff. (If possible, don't let them know you write.)
  • Don't feed the trolls.
  • Promise yourself celebrations when you succeed, and keep those promises.
  • Don't read negative reviews.
  • Created and keep things around that remind you of accomplishments. (I keep a portfolio of work I'm proud of, check off what I complete, and somewhere have a nice note from Michael Crichton about a speech I wrote.)
It is up to you to find ways to maintain your confidence and to allow yourself joy. Dedicate a portion of your creativity to coming up with specific actions that will support your outlook on writing. Then follow through on them.

Oh, and it is okay to create an angst-ridden persona. It might even be good marketing, but you'll have to avoid putting a lampshade on your head at parties.

What about you? How do you provide yourself with the positive emotions that fuel productive writing?

NOTE: This blog is one month old today. I'm having terrific fun, and I appreciate having so many readers. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Draft 4 - Style and the Fast Writer

An Officer and a Gentleman includes scenes where the character struggle through an obstacle course. No one runs the course with any style or grace the first time through. Elegance comes with practice and repetition.

Drafting your story is like running that course the first time, lots of stumbles, falls, and backtracking. With rewriting -- and attention to all those things from mechanical problems to what it sounds like when you read your prose aloud -- your style emerges in its full strength. Renee Miller has written an excellent blog entry on rewriting for style. As Damon Knight put it, "style is the music that comes out when you turn the crank." He counseled against worrying about style directly.

And yet, I find that there are decisions I make at the drafting stage that have a huge impact on style. The first is choosing the audience. This immediately constrains my word choice, the rhythms and the pacing. Think of it as dressing appropriately for a party or a conference.

I also do over half my drafting using dictation (Dragon Dictate). It helps me get a lot of words on paper and discourages any temptation for looping. But it also gets me hearing the sound of the words from the very beginning. That sound is a bit artificial to accommodate the program, but I've gotten used to that over time, and saying the words out loud with constraints is still preferable to hearing them in my head.

In particular, it helps me to get a sense of the characters. In good times, they do a lot of talking to me, and voicing their dialogue encourages them to keep the conversation going. Since dialogue is about a third of the final text, really hearing those sentences come out jumpstarts my feeling for the style of the work as a whole. I often will do an entire writing session with nothing but my characters talking to each other.

Finally, the style gets a boost in the draft stage just because this is a time when the passion goes from spark to forest fire. Choices that engage me lead to ideas and images that ultimately turn this story into a good friend. Any story I've completed evokes a distinct feeling in me - the same sort of beyond the description, body/mind feeling I get when someone names a person I know well or a city where I've spent time walking the streets. This feeling is directly connected to style for me. At the beginning, it may not flow. By the end, I hear unique music that comes out when I turn the crank.

Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Stop Dithering

Dithering - I have a positive talent for it that only became obvious when I started writing seriously. In school, I plunged into homework assignments without hesitation. On the job, I worked my way through the day's to-do list without hesitation. With my writing?
  • I had a great dream. Maybe I should get that on paper.
  • Should I go back to that suspense story? Maybe I've let that character problem sit long enough.
  • Ooh! That reminds me. I've got notes for a great new SF premise.
  • etc.
It's great to have a lot of ideas and to be eager to get to work on something. But no one I know has mastered typing on more story at once (though there is an apocryphal story of Napoleon writing a letter with each hand while engaging in a conversation). A writing career caught between two or more projects will starve.

Making a decision is the answer. My practice is to decide the day before, and I usually like to do this at the end of the day, when my body is reminding me of how much work writing is. I am much too ambitious in the morning. If I can't decide, I go to my criteria - due dates, my passion for a project, how clear the job is, whether I have a breakthrough idea, and so on. I have even been known to score out or force rank the next day's work. I'll do anything to get a specific writing task at the top of the next day's to-do list. Because otherwise I know that I am at risk of dithering.

And, if I had any doubts about my talent for dithering, they were resolved a few years ago when I discovered the phenomenon of micro-dithering. Here's what happened:

I was well into writing a novel, so there was no question of which novel I'd work on. I had a big scene coming up, so I dutifully wrote down my task, finishing that scene, for the next day. I even knew how the scene was supposed to end. But the next day when I sat down to write, my brain started generating questions. About the character, about the setting, and about what I'd already written three chapters before. Notes were made. Web searches were done. Minutes ticked by. The day was -- unproductive.

This happened several times before I realized what was going on. The cure for me was to schedule the next day even more tightly and to turn off the wi-fi before I even started my writing. On reflection, the reason I fell into micro-dithering that first time was because of fear. I was drafting a scene that was painful and emotional for my character -- and for me. Inside, I knew that the experience would be unpleasant and the execution would be difficult and liable to fail. No wonder I couldn't commit. Dithering can be a "kid in a candy store"phenomenon, where it is difficult to choose between attractive alternatives, but it is more likely to happen because you don't want to put your hand on a hot stove.

How do you stop dithering (and micro-dithering)? I commit to the task, specifically, the day before. I don't want my brain to have any wiggle room. Another good practice is to enable yourself by anticipating what you will need the next day -- in terms of research, review of a previously written chapter, character descriptions, etc. -- and have it all prepared and at hand. But the most important way to avoid dithering may be understanding its root cause for you and countering that cause. You may need to write down what you fear and put it into perspective. You may need to talk yourself into torturing a character you love. You may need to gird your loins for a battle with your personal demons. 

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”
-  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Does your work suffer because of dithering? How do you fight back?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bigger 2 - Put Everything at Risk

Damon Knight once looked me in the eye and said, "I enjoyed reading your story, but... "

But? What could be wrong with my story?

"But no one is going to care much about a guy who will lose his job if he fails. Raise the stakes."

Okay. Right. Put the Universe in jeopardy or something. But what? I lost interest in the story before I found the answer.

One way to make a story bigger -- and make it more likely that your hours of effort will reach your audience -- is the raise the stakes. But how?

Here are some suggestions:
  • Find out why it matters so much to your character. In the nonfiction book I'm writing now, the heroine, America's first female botanist, studied hard, defied society by turning down a suitor, slipped into a forest filled with hostile Native Americans, and incurred her father's wrath by outdoing him. For what? To study plants? I think she did it to save her sanity. 
  • Make it a decision. My character was pushed into botany, but she chose to become one of the best, and she sacrificed to make it happen.
  • Make it irreversible. Making it impossible for a character to step back from a decision and return to life as it was. Once my character turned down her suitor, she shackled herself to her father's goals. She would succeed in becoming a scientist, or she would spend the rest of her life in charge of cheese production.
  • Imagine the worst. If my character fails, she loses her job.  Hmm.  But she really loses the chance to explore, to be the first to discover new species, to have rich conversations with  people like Benjamin Franklin, to act with a level of autonomy, and to keep a brilliant and agile mind occupied in a world of routine.
  • Imagine the best. Full success would mean becoming famous. A trailblazer who showed women were as capable as men. Having new species named in her honor. Possibly even traveling to Europe and being feted by the great scientists there.
  • Play another card. Why is "Luke, I am your father," one of the most memorable lines in film? Because from then on, Luke knew he would achieve his goal only if he was willing to sacrifice his father.
  • Make it a good card. Luke also had an amazing, new possibility open up before him when Darth Vader told him the secret of his paternity. He could forget his hopeless quest with the rebel alliance, and be more powerful than he had imagined.
  • Oh, and make the revelation painful. Darth's little secret made the beloved Obi-Wan Kenobi a liar. Ouch.
Since my story, Ingenious Daughter, is nonfiction, I can't give it a Star Wars moment. I can only look for them in the past. But fiction that aspires to be bigger needs to look for these moments and test the limits.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Every Other Friday - Kristan Higgins interview

Today, How to Write Fast begins a series of interviews with productive writers – and we are starting with a bang:

Kristan Higgins is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author and two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award. Her books have been praised for their "genius level EQ, whippet-fast, funny dialogue and sweet plots with a deliciously tart edge" (USA TODAY). She lives in Connecticut with her heroic firefighter husband and two extremely advanced children, one shy little mutt and an occasionally affectionate cat.

Tell me about SOMEBODY TO LOVE
SOMEBODY TO LOVE is my ninth romance and tells the riches-to-rags story of Parker Welles, a single mom, as well as a children’s author with a hefty trust fund. When her father loses all her money in an insider-trading deal, Parker has the summer to flip the one asset she has left: a decrepit house in the coast of Maine. Coming to help her is the last person she wants around—her father’s attorney, James Cahill. But her back’s against the wall, and she can’t turn away his help, so there they are, stuck in a 900-square-foot house, her son off with his father for three weeks… I defy them not to hook up.

What drove you to write SOMEBODY TO LOVE? 
I’d been thinking about Parker for a while; she first shows up as the best friend in THE NEXT BEST THING, in which she gives sage advice and seems quite content as a singleton. I wondered what she’d be like if I took away that trust fund and mansion, as well as her book series, with which she has a love/hate relationship.

What were your biggest obstacles? 
Blending the casts from the two previous books was a challenge, as well as making sure that a new reader wouldn’t feel left out if she hadn’t read those two previous books. The other obstacle was staying true to the things I’d set up in the previous book; I had this great idea for Parker’s relationship with the father of her son; then I reread THE NEXT BEST THING and thought, “Nope. Can’t do it. It’s just not true.”

What are your productivity tips? 
Turn off your wifi. We teach ourselves to have ADD with wifi, I think. I also keep a weekly page goal and almost never miss it. Daily can be tough; if you commit to 15 pages a day but then have a sick child or need to get other things done, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Weekly allows me to have a life outside of writing while still keeping my eye on the prize, as it were.