Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Are You a Productive Writer?

Productivity is more than words written per hour. In reality, it is tied to your goals and dreams. For example, many years ago, I was working on a speech for an executive. I finished and it was accepted, but I'd found a whole world of possibilities in the last few pages. When I handed it in (early), I asked the exec if I could redo the whole thing with these new ideas in mind, and he said yes.

Naturally, this took time. And my direct boss was not happy that I was going back to work on a job that was "done" when I could be working on something else. (He always felt good enough was just fine.) I didn't let his reaction distract me. I dug in, wrote the new speech, and it was a hit at the conference. It went on to be published and widely distributed. I have a copy of a letter Michael Crichton sent my principal congratulating him. (The two ended up having a breakfast together. No, I wasn't invited.)

So, productivity is intimately tied to what you intend to achieve and where your dreams take you. I'm all for getting more words on paper per hour, and I do track that as part of my productivity measurements. But I also look to see if the work is getting sold and getting attention. I look at how happy I am with the final output and what I've learned along the way. I measure things that are in my reach, like works completed and submitted. And often I raise the bar on what I consider productive writing for me.

One thing I've begun doing is using the time I save on composition to explore new approaches to rewriting and refining the work. For any of these -- conflict analysis, discovery of theme, story logic -- I look for wasted time. (There's always some.) I tinker with the process it see how I can get it to be more efficient. But my primary goal is to improve the quality in the limited time I have to create manuscripts.

One more thing -- I pay close attention to my experience of writing. Any new technique or approach that, after experimentation, takes the joy out of writing is abandoned. I'm happy to sacrifice efficiency to keep things fun.


By the way, Lowcountry Romance Writers of America is once again hosting my popular online workshop, Bigger Stories. It provides personalized help in getting the most out of your premise, your plot, and the characters you've created. Any questions? Just ask.

Bigger Stories
Presented by Peter Andrews
Dates: May 5-30, 2014

Course Description:
Fire up your readers with twists, turns, shock, and awe. Learn how to demand more from your characters and to create endings that buzz. Don’t hold back. Find out how to take you stories from good to great.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The One-Person Brainstorm in Five Steps

The best brainstorming sessions are traditional ones, with a wide variety of people coming together to throw ideas out with no judgment on even the craziest notions in the first phase.

These take time, dedication, and a willing and able group. But, for a writer flying solo and pressed by one of those nagging problems manuscripts seem to invent as obstacles, traditional brainstorming may not be available. Can you approach the level of creativity and openness of the original?


Preparation is needed:

Step 1: Frame some good questions about the problem. Write a lot of questions down. The first will be direct, but keep writing until they get weird. I had a story once where the main character alluded to a disaster caused by an employee through most of the story. I had not idea what this disaster was, but I knew it would be an unintended consequence of another character trying to achieve a cherished goal.

Q1: What was the disaster? Q2: How could the employee achieving his goal (winning the love of a colleague) cause problems for anyone? Q3: How does love upset the status quo? Q4: How does the employee need to change to reach his goal? Q4: How does that change affect what the main character needs from the employee?

And so on. By the time I got to Q20 (without having generated any answers to the earlier questions), I was asking what crime the main character had committed to break up the lovers. And I already had the outlines in my head of a peculiar world with crimes that make sense there, but not in our world.

Step 2: Once you have two or three bizarre questions, get moving around physically. It's okay to think about the questions, but it's not necessary. The important thing is to get your blood flowing and to step away from what is bothering you.

Followed by determined action:

Step 3: Don't sit down. Go to a white board or a flip chart or just take a grease pencil to a shower stall wall and start writing down answers to the questions. No filter. You can write single words or full sentences, but you can't stop until you have 50 words written down. Even better, make it 100.

Step 4: Expand on each idea so each is in a full sentence. Don't leave any of your words behind even if they seem stupid. Expand as you will on the best ideas, but avoid the most conventional. I often do this by talking about the ideas (using a dictation program, but recording works fine, too).

Step 5: Force rank at least five ideas. If you are on a tight deadline, pick a favorite and put it to work in your story. If not, leave your choice for tomorrow.

That's it. The whole process for me takes about two hours. It takes a little longer if I have already written a scene since it's harder to force the failed images and ideas (and the emotions they create) out of my head.

Oh, and if you wait to the next day and an even better idea comes to mind? Use it. That's what happened to me in the example story. I sat down to use my top idea, and it was immediately forced by a solution that demanded my attention. And I was delighted with the results.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three Steps to Resurrecting Manuscripts

I call them the zombies--those failed, broken, or unfinished manuscripts cluttering my hard drives and closets. Some are gone and forgotten, but others come back to me like memories of old friends. Inevitably, I feel I've betrayed them. The undead never got to tell their stories.

I used to pull them out and attack them with a red pen. The horrible images. The characters too stupid to live. The gratuitous plot twists. Every manuscript I ever abandoned made itself unwelcome and earned its spot on a dusty shelf. And yet...

They call to me. The themes are genuine or the concept is high or one character speaks. If the manuscript as a whole cannot be resurrected, maybe has enough juice left to become an organ donor. Words, thoughts, and dreams might fit into a work in progress or become the kernel of a short story. I might even get lucky and find I only have to have a missing piece, one my brain has picked up in the intervening years.

Over the past couple of years, I've taken a more positive approach and had some success resurrecting old works. Here's my approach:
  1. No red pen. I read from beginning to the end. I choose my time (usually when I am relaxed at the end of the day, and I take my time. I only make notes if something thrills me or sets off my imagination. The notes are on a separate page and written in full sentences. I never mark an error or write anything negative.
  2. Within a week, I read through all the positive notes. If nothing grabs me, the zombie walks no more. If I feel an emotional connection,  I record my list of ten reasons why I must write this story.
  3. I set a date to begin, and I draft the revived story. Usually this is done without referring to the original, and I mine the old manuscript only during the first rewrite. The exception is when, as happened recently, I find a manuscript that is nearly complete and only needs a scene or two added. I draft those scenes, insert them, and move onto my usual rewrite procedure.
Although I think the resurrection business can be overdone (there are new manuscripts waiting to be born), it's fulfilling to bring these still loved stories back to life. It's also wonderfully productive since much of the work has already been done by a younger version of myself.

Mostly, it clears my head, once and for all, of intriguing characters and concepts that distract me from new projects.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Organic Approaches to Fiction Writing

Apparently, you can get away with anything-- rigid plotting, reckless brainstorming, even inspiration from random marriages of unrelated terms--can lead to good fiction provided you approach it organically. This is what I've run into as I've surveyed articles on writing.

What is this magical organic writing of which they speak? Searching the whole of the Web via Google for "organic approaches to fiction," I get exactly nothing. I've decided that writing without the use of synthetic herbicides is not the answer. From the contexts of the remarks, I've attempted to derive my own answer.

First, as the articles imply, a good story can come from almost anywhere, even random term matching. One of my favorite short stories, "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," emerged from a match (or mismatch) of terms in a class writing assignment. And many of the things I've written myself have come from mishearing or misreading what people say. The title Catcher in the Rye is a twist on the song "Coming Through the Rye."

But, whatever you start with, whether it is a mistake or an assignment or something that begins in experience, I think the first step in an organic approach is owning it. Whatever the themes ideas or terms are, you need to understand them in a deep way and commit to sharing what they mean to you.

It's fine (encouraged in fact) to take your own slant. Alternate meanings and personal connotations work fine.

Connecting terms, especially those artificially thrown together, seems to be another part of writing organically. It may take some experimentation to find the proper glue. But determining the relationships between terms or images or diverse characters and ideas is worth the effort. Thing of it as a koan that, on reflection, may never provide a "right" answer, but has the power to unlock wisdom and insight you already possess.

Finally, there's the matter of growing your story or characters organically. This, I think, means letting things develop in their own time and in their own way. Writers may be tempted to push characters around, provide lessons based on their own values, or be clever. When the work is based on real life, it is extremely difficult not to shape the fiction to reflect what really happened. An organic approach a different path, giving the characters and the story the freedom to become what it is intended to be and favoring authenticity over convenience, convention, or pleasing the crowd.

I find my conclusion ironic. Most of the articles focus on making aspects of story creation easier, but all these constructs, once the focus shifts to doing things organically, exacts a cost in terms of risk, discipline, and investment.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Swat Swarming "Shoulds" - Taking positive control of your writing life

I wonder if guilt is on the same strand of DNA as writing. It seems like all the writers I know fret about what they should be doing.
  • I should be writing more. 
  • I should finish that unfinished manuscript.
  • I should become competent in marketing.
  • I should blog more often.
  • I should prepare a pitch.
  • I should do another polish.
  • I should straighten out my writing receipts for taxes.
See what I mean? Writing has a lot of dimensions. They are all demanding. No one is good at each one. And manuscripts never reach perfection. Think of all that is going on:
  • Research and inspiration.
  • Drafting.
  • Rewriting.
  • Pitching and submitting.
  • Marketing and promotion.
  • Business management and records.
  • Career planning and strategy.
  • Networking.
And each of these has many facets. Writing is a complex endeavor, swarming with "shoulds." If your not careful, as my wife says, "you can should all over yourself." I know many writers who have been devoured by marketing, rewrites, research, and "writerly" activities. Real life gets in the way. Day jobs demand. And, if you're elf-publishing, you can add another list of shoulds.

Allow me to recommend to you a TED interview with Kelly McGonigal on willpower. There are many good points, but the one that resonated with me most was "self-compassion is much more motivating than self-criticism." In other words, stop haranguing yourself and give yourself a break. You won't get it all right. Nobody does, and that's okay.

On a more practical level, one thing she suggests is you bribe yourself. I pay myself for rewriting (which doesn't appeal to me) with permission to work on something new and fun. Some people use chocolate. Others, trashy novels. What do you deny yourself that might be seen as a reward for doing something positive, but difficult, for your writing life.

What you choose do is also important. McGonigal says we often start in the wrong place by asking, “What should I do?” She says the beginning that works best is,

"when you start really slowing down and asking yourself what you want for yourself and your life in the next year. What is it that you want to offer the world? Who do you want to be, what do you want more of in your life? And then asking: 'How might I get there? What would create that as a consequence?'"

She recommends a mindfulness in your goal-making, where you spend time, once you settle on where you would like to be in the future, watching to see what small things you might change or do to get there. For me, one of these was writing my ideas and notes in full sentences. (I got this from reading Ray Bradbury's advice, but I was mindful of my problem -- indecipherable notes.)

Although the article (and book) on willpower are worth your time, I'll share one more of McGonigal's recommendations. "One of the things I always encourage people to do is to not try to do things alone, and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit."

I've seen how this works in my classes, as students cheer each other on. It becomes a bit thing to do difficult things, like writing every day in the midst of real-life challenges. I've also found mentoring is helpful since I want to set a good example.

So, here's something to try:
  1. Take ten minutes to write your list of shoulds. 
  2. Pick out one, and put the rest aside for at least on month. They are not currently interesting. 
  3. Rephrase the should as a positive. ("I should rewrite more" becomes "how can I make rewriting more fun?") 
  4. Spend a week or two looking for small opportunities that could move you toward your goal. 
  5. Then take action. 
  6. Add daily rewards and make what you are doing public to someone, preferably someone you want to demonstrate success to.
Does this appeal to you? If so, start now, or make an appointment with yourself to take on this process. And if you want to share your experiences here, they would be most welcome.