Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Fast Draft Challenge: Hurts and helps

Throwing words, sentences, and paragraphs onto a page in a rush is like running a race. If you're out of shape you may finish with a limp or even come up short. If you write regularly, you'll get to the end most days, but some will be easier than others.
Since fast drafting is one of the critical steps I mentioned in Productive Writing Stripped Down to the Essentials, I'll dig into it a bit more this time. (I've drilled down on Story Premise and Drafting Goals in previous posts.)
Lots of practices and attitudes can get in the way. Here are a few that may hold you back:
  • Perfectionism - Drafts are all about allowing yourself to make mistakes, but that isn't easy for some people. Putting down words and creating scenes that won't make the final draft can feel sloppy or like a waste of time. For most people, it's not. It's a great time saver that keeps you moving forward so the story can be exposed. Rewriting is where things get fixed. Getting that part of your mind to quiet down and let the words flow takes practice.
  • Looping - There can be an irresistible urge to fix what is written as you go along. This knocks you out of creative, composition mode, and slows things down -- often to a stop. It can be difficult to let it go when you see ways to make it better, but, for most people, the starts and stops get in the way of productivity.
  • The right word - Good writers make the best word choices for final copy, but stopping to search for the best word as you compose can trip you up. I've found, for my own work, it's best to just put something down if the third word I come up with still isn't quite right. Inevitably, the best word comes to me in rewriting. (Sometimes I put questionable words in italics or just add an asterisk at the end.) Similar to this is uncertainty about spelling (put it down phonetically) and reaching for a fact (see bagel below).
  • Lack of commitment - This is similar to dithering, but in real time. It is not unusual to have other scenes, other stories, and other work suggest themselves as you work on your draft. Somehow, you know the words will flow if you just change projects. This is usually an illusion. If you've set your goal for writing, consider it a promise to yourself. Keep your promise, and then feel free to go after the shiny objects.
  • Interruptions - The words are flowing and then you hear the familiar "bing" of new email. Or you have the desire for a cup of coffee. Or the cat jumps into your lap. Do what you can to eliminate interruptions and temptations. Track what happens anyway to see if it stops you too often. Take steps to give yourself the time and quiet you owe yourself.
There are certainly more problems with keeping the words flowing. Sometimes the juices don't flow for no apparent reason. All you can do is write down a noun, and then a verb, and keep building stuff that is horrible but keeps you moving forward. A process one of my mentors called (I'll paraphrase) "defecating masonry."
Usually, it doesn't come to that. To provide some help, here are a few things you can try:
  • Remind yourself it's not a watercolor - You want perfect? You can get it in a later draft. Everything can be fixed, and no one needs to see this version.
  • Use a timer - It's like a starting gun, and it puts a definite limit on the minutes you need to dedicate to composing.
  • Fill in with bagels - I just write the word bagel when the right word or fact refuses to come to mind. I clean up the bagels later on.
  • Be ready - That means having your premise and your goal for the day. Sometimes it also means getting research done and answering questions about the mood and the purpose of the scene.
  • Use a dictation program - This is especially valuable if you tend to loop. Rewriting as you work is very difficult when you are dictating.
  • Interview your character about the scene - When I'm lost, I turn to the character who has the most to lose in the scene I'm writing. I cut and paste questions onto the page and write his or her answers.
    • How do you feel about the other people in this scene?
    • What do you need or want?
    • What's in your way?
    • What happens if you succeed?
    • What happens if you fail?
    • What's at stake for you?
Are there days when I use everything in this toolbox and still have a blank page when the timer goes off? Yes. But it's rare, and I've seen days when I'm blocked become more rare over the years. When it happens, I shrug my shoulders and let it go. Usually, I forget about it. Sometimes, I change my writing goal for the next day. I don't chastise myself or brood about the "failure." Often, I've found, the best writing days follow a day when nothing worked. That's a helpful perspective to keep in mind.

Upcoming classes
January 5-30, 2015 How to Write FAST (online) http://www.yosemiteromancewriters.com/workshops
January 13-February 17 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) https://writerscenter.org/courses/science-fiction-and-fantasy-writing-workshop
February 2-15 The Perfect Setting (online) http://ce.savvyauthors.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Calendar.eventDetail&eventId=2149
Februrary 25-March 11 How to Write FAST (face to face) Westchester Community College http://www.sunywcc.edu/continuing-ed/ce/

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Persuading Yourself: Arguments to keep you writing

Almost every fiction writer working on a big project will hit a wall along the way. Usually, it comes at about one half to two thirds through the drafting, though it can also come during the revisions.

Often, unhappiness builds as incomplete and broken scenes accumulate. Sometimes, the muse goes on vacation and the words and ideas stop flowing. Plot problems seem intractable. Characters who were happily chatting away go silent. The whole idea of writing the book or script seems ill-conceived, or you conclude you are not the right person to be writing it.

I advise my students to create a list of arguments early on that will convince this frustrated self to keep writing. Ten to twenty single sentences can usually do the job, and they should be written as soon as is practicable. (Before drafting is good. No later than before you finish Act One, or 15-20% of the manuscript.)

Some of the questions I listed last time in A Story Premise You Can Love and Cherish can help you write these arguments. I always have a bit I'm passionate about and my hook to the market (or at least a key audience) on the list. But that still leaves a lot of list to go. So here are some prompts that might help:
  1. Passion - "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." You may just be head over heels in love with the story that's in your head. That's fine. How do you articulate it to the future you who has fallen out of love? I usually try to write a poetic line that expresses the core of the work. For one work of mine, it was "Three bullet holes in a wall plaster can't hide."
  2. Market - Can you get specific about what will create the buy decision? Usually, this is a fresh angle on something with a known audience. (Ironically, I'm working on a fresh angle with zombies.) If you can express this element in a logline that convinces other people now and will convince you in the future, you've got it.
  3. Career or brand - How will this work advance your career or establish/deepen your brand? If you are writing a book that is the second in a series, that's a good reason to finish the book.
  4. Challenge - What about this work stretches you as a person and/or as an artist? Can you articulate that? For instance, writing from an unfamiliar point of view (different gender, religion, culture) might be reason enough to write and finish a book or script.
  5. Explore a concept - Years ago, I wondered, after reading Philip K. Dick novels, about the impact of memory erasure and implantation on romance. This resulted in a long short story (which I sold) that led me to a deeper understanding of how we grow through failed relationships. (Yes, it sound like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I got there years before the movie. Maybe Charlie Kaufman is a Dick fan, too.)
  6. Explore a character - This is almost always on my list. I'll hear a distinctive sentence from a character and write down that quote. For me, it works like the poetry in the first prompt above, evoking a world that fascinates me.
  7. Do some good - Does your work expose and evil? Inspire philanthropy? Encourage and guide? Great. That's an excellent reason to finish. I have a story where a character throws his friend's life into chaos (loss of job, pursuit by police, being mugged). But the consequences to the friend are less than the danger of self-indulgent complaining -- which can be devastating spiritually.
  8. Honor a person - When I lose people in real life -- either because they die or because they move on -- I often use them as inspiration for a character so a part of them can still be cherished.
  9. Create art - The sentences written in answer to this one would vary widely. For me, it has to do with what might live on in the work, what delight it might bring aesthetically, and what I have to share.
  10. Pay off investment - The investment could be time, money, energy, reputation, or whatever you put at risk to take on this project. But don't just mention that in your argument. Mention the possible payoff (money, fame, reputation, etc.), too. Otherwise, this argument is just a bludgeon.
  11. Keep a promise - The most obvious one here? The work is under contract. But, even if it's speculative, chapters and scenes could be owed to a writing buddy or a reader.
Note: These are only useful if they can convince a future you, so use your best talents of persuasion. Also, the statements need to be specific. In teaching, I've found a lot of people default immediately to generic statements. Ideally, each sentence should be phrased in a way that is particular to the work in progress and can't be applied to any other works. If the statement can be applied to another work, be suspicious.

Recently I've taken a new view on my own lists. In addition to doing the basic work of keeping me going, I try to make some of the statements part of an Argument for Excellence. My aim is to take the work, especially in the revision phase, to a higher level of competence, making it more engaging, meaningful, and authentic. This is not easy, but keep it in mind once you've completed some works to your own satisfaction.

Your main goal is to get around, over, or through the wall you hit with a big project. A good set of statements should persuade that future you and lead to success.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Story Premise You Can Love and Cherish: 10 questions

Few things are more important to getting attention for and selling your story than the premise. But, as mentioned in the last post, your premise, whether it is a phrase or a paragraph, is a foundation for productive writing. I recommend taking two weeks to formulate a premise for a book or screenplay, and that's if you are someone who is tuned to noting down ideas and connecting key concepts in interesting ways.

Getting the premise right is essential, so I've put together ten questions you can use to test yours:
  1. Are you passionate about the premise? Is the concept one you want to delve into? Will it lead to answers that will matter to you?
  2. Do you know who you want to share your story, findings, or thesis with? Who is the audience for this and what compels you to bring this material to them? Do they share your passion or will they need to be lured in?
  3. Are you the right person to write this? Stretching and getting into areas that make you uncomfortable is fine (perhaps essential for the most valuable work), but can you gain the knowledge, perspectives, insights, and emotional connections that will make your version distinct, essential, and true?
  4. Is your premise clear? Does it include all the elements (e.g., for a logline), and are these specific, evocative, logical, and accessible? Is it complete enough?
  5. Is it the right time for you to write this? Has the idea fermented long enough? Have the ideas been pushed to the limit? Do you have enough information and understanding to start? Have you developed background and a few focus areas (theme, character, plot points, arguments, questions)?
  6. Do you have good reasons to write this? Have you put together a list of 10-20 arguments to present to yourself when you enthusiasm and confidence wane?
  7. Is the premise rich enough? Does it support a book-length investigation without padding or adding adjunct material?
  8. Have you investigated comparables? Are there similar books, movies, or other media around? Do you have something new or under-explored to add? Could one of these provide a good model for your work?
  9. Is it marketable? Does it fit a particular genre? Does it catch the zeitgeist? Does it have appeal? Does it exploit your platform?
  10. Have you chosen the best medium? Why a novel or a script or a nonfiction book or a play or graphic novel or a speech?
It may not be necessary to have good answers to all of these before you commit to your premise, but reviewing these questions may reveal holes or deepen your understanding of what you intend to undertake. For many writers, who have a long list of possible books, more than could be written in a lifetime, this list can help with prioritization. And the greatest value might be shortening the list. It is very easy to spend too much time on topics that are flashy or popular, but not high quality.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Productive Writing Stripped Down to the Essentials

I've been doing a lot of teaching, speaking and mentoring over the past few months (one reason I haven't been posting), and it has forced me to hone down my advice to four elements.
To finish a 50,000-word manuscript in one year, follow these steps:
  1. Take two weeks to formulate a premise, thesis, a goal statement, or logline that is distinct, rich, and inspiring. Write anything from a sentence to several pages that can be your touchstone for the rest of your one-year assignment.
  2.  On the day before you begin your draft, write down your drafting goal -- a sentence or two about what you will achieve the next day in your writing session.
  3. On the day you begin your draft, reread your drafting goal, set a timer for at least 15 minutes, and draft without editing. When the timer goes off (or later in the day, write a drafting goal for your next writing session.
  4. Repeat: Draft without editing at least 15 minutes a day and create your drafting goals no fewer than 5 days a week.
That's it, but the devil is in the details. Creating a premise that 1) is rich enough to support 50,000 words, 2) engages your heart and mind, and 3) will move your toward your writing goal (usually a sale) isn't easy. Similarly, expressing a writing goal that moves the work forward and provides clear guidance for the following day takes practice. It may be a few weeks before these don't frustrate you half the time. For many people, the only way to do this effectively is to create an outline or a detailed synopsis, and this must reflect an understanding of the structure of your work and audience expectations.

While, based on my teaching and mentoring virtually everyone can write at least 200 words in 15 minutes (200 words X 5 days/week X 50 weeks =50,000 words), there are two prerequisites that can be problematic day in and day out.

First, they need to know what to write (a good drafting goal), and that can fail in the face of "better" ideas. The goal is a promise to yourself that must be kept even if writing something else is more attractive. Finishing the Work In Progress (WIP) is non-negotiable, even when it feels like a disaster or a fool's errand.

Second, the 15 minutes of drafting must involve putting words down recklessly. No editing, no research, no searching for the exact word. This is a sprint.

Repeating can be a problem, too. Life gets in the way. People get sick. Families have emergencies. Bosses require overtime. But the bar here is purposely low. Not writing everyday. Not dedicating an hour or demanding 10,000 words a week. Are you and your book and your writing aspirations worth 15 minutes a day for 5 days a week? Isn't this a gift you owe yourself? Do it for a month, and it will probably become a habit. You'll come up with strategies to fit it in. And the words will add up.

Based on hundreds of students, this process will work for better than 90% of the people reading this blog. (There are some writers who cannot start writing when the timer/starting gun goes off. There are some who can't adapt to 15-minute intervals. There are some who cannot put drafting high enough on a priority list even to meet the low-bar commitment. And, of course, there are some people not meant to be writers.) This is not to say that this process is easy. Some key capabilities need to be built. Bad habits may need to be broken. There are inevitable setbacks (such as the "this book is crap" moment that comes at the halfway to three quarters point). And I haven't even mentioned revision here.

All of us will need to keep reading and developing craft and handling criticism and observing life. This isn't exactly a royal road. (And an ambitious writer will soon find him or herself adding to these steps and dedicating more time.) But I've found it is the simplest way to turn a non-writer into a writer and to turn an amateur into a professional.

Note on why I dropped out of social media. I've neglected you all for months, but not because I don't love you. I've had an avalanche of opportunities, including interest in novels and short stories by editors, rewrites on novels, a chance to contribute to a nonfiction book, new classes, a Hollywood option, and more. Many of these should be one-offs, driven by interest in a backlog of materials that I put out there for the first time. So, I've had lots of good news, but I expect it will come in more manageable bits going forward. That means I'll be back to weekly blogging.