Every writer must be taught how to write every book she or he writes, and the teacher is always the book itself.
– Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop
This week was rather eventful on the writing front.
I finished out my October flash fiction challenge. Overall, I felt like it was a success. Upon reflection, it helped me establish a few helpful patterns of thought and behavior. I learned to stop shooting down my own ideas and to follow them down their little paths instead. I got better at thinking through plot points and being a bit more agile instead of throwing up my hands and self-flagellating.
I’ve been using the technique of “meditating productively” (from Deep Work) — while I’m doing something that occupies me physically (dishes, vacuuming, walking, etc.), I’ve been deliberately focusing my attention on figuring out plot for whichever piece I’m working on. I mostly use this technique in the shower now. And by the end of the month, I didn’t have to redirect my attention nearly as much. I would just get in the shower, and my brain would think “Oh, I guess it’s time to spitball ideas about where this story is going,” and away we would go. This means that I have many podcasts that are still unlistened to, but a bunch of pieces of fiction that I think have potential. I’m more than happy with that trade off.
The other major writing event was the kick-off of NaNoWriMo, of course.
My mindset this year feels very different than last. Last year, I was full of nervous excited energy and not sure that I could write so many words in a month. This year, after some initial nerves, I’m feeling pretty calm and measured about it. I mean, once I decided I was going to do it (not try to do it). Once you just accept the truth of your success or failure, there’s no more agonizing. Like, ho hum, this is just part of my routine right now.
My plan is to write around 2000 words a day, while taking Sundays off and accounting for some lost days around Thanksgiving. I should still come in nicely at goal even with those allowances.
I still have doubts. The two loudest ones are “what if I’m not good enough to write this story yet?” and “what if I don’t have the endurance to stick with this story through the end?”. When the first comes up, I mostly shrug. How would I know if I’m “good enough” (whatever that means) to write this story if I don’t try to write the story? So although that doubt still sits with me, there’s not really anything I can do about it.
The second doubt is a slightly more interesting one. Because if you think of endurance/willpower/the-ability-to-do-deep-work as a muscle that needs exercising, then the only solution is to just do it (the Nike slogan applies everywhere).
But the deeper fear underlying both is that it’s going to be hard. That it won’t feel easy and simple all the time. That it’ll feel terrible and difficult and frustrating. And, well, yeah. I mean, it will. (That’s why one of my morning page daily “affirmation” things is “It’s supposed to be hard.”) And not only is that okay, but it’s expected, and I’m going to fucking do it anyway.
(Buckle up. I get a little rant-y from here.)
I’ve read a bunch of writing books. And if I’m going to be honest, I’m going to read a bunch more writing books. In part, it’s because there’s still a part of me that’s looking for the secret even though I know there isn’t one. (Except, write.) (But also, maybe it’s in this other book over here…) But mostly, it’s because I like to read writing books.
I like the memoir-y tomes that talk about the struggling novice writer and the eventual triumph. The ones that meditate on the inner life of writers. The ones that make me think, maybe these are my people.
I like the books that present yet another way to look at structure and plot and character and narrative. Anything to try to help me figure out my own thoughts on those things.
So. I read books on writing, and as I do, the magpie part of me likes to pull out the shiny bits from each of those books and collect them.
When I found myself furiously scribbling notes and collecting quotes for reading during the dark times, I figured it was time to just endorse this whole book: Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig.
If you’ve never read any Chuck Wendig, well, you should give him a try. He has a lot of books and a prolific blog and a hilarious Twitter feed — lots of different ways in which you can familiarize yourself with his writing. (Seriously, check out some of his Twitter exchanges with author Sam Sykes. One of them even became a horror movie.)
He has a very particular style, especially when he is talking about writing (or politics), that is equal parts hilarious, profane, and profound.
In Damn Fine Story, he breaks down the elements of a good story and tries to verbalize how to be a good storyteller. He goes through structure and character and theme, and uses a lot of Die Hard and Star Wars references to get his points across. The book is irreverent and joyful and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is, in short, very much Chuck Wendig.
In lieu of just quoting the whole thing to you, you should go grab a copy and read it for yourself. And if you know any writerly friends, it would make for a good holiday present.
Buckle up, friends. This is a long one. Mostly to help me remember/collect some tools I’ve found.
I find these tools for building character much more useful than things like “the character interview” — where you ask things about favorite colors or food or whatever — because really, who cares? Those things are just trivia. Just like your knowing that my favorite color is green or my favorite food is scallion pancakes* doesn’t mean that you actually understand anything about me.
Pieces of trivia don’t reveal character motivation and drive and desire and limitation,** which are the things you need to consider when figuring out what a character’s Problem is and what they’re Going to Do About It.
Stories begin when things change.
The change might be a death or a divorce. It might be a cataclysm that’s quiet and personal, or one that’s global or even galactic. It’s a storm, a betrayal, a loss, a gain. Story is a like a broken bone: With it comes pain, but also the chance for growth. And it gives us reason to howl to the heavens.
Stories are about change.
Consider that the first rule.
– Chuck Wendig, Damn Fine Story
Sidebar: Y’all should support Chuck Wendig because he is great and his books are great and he gives a lot of excellent motivational writing advice. You should also support him because of The Bullshit Marvel Decision. Everyone, remember to vote on Nov 6.
The only thing to do when the sense of dread and low self-esteem tells you that you are not up to this is to wear it down by getting a little work done every day.
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
This week was okay. Just generally middling. Did a good amount of work but didn’t do as much as I had originally wanted to. So much bullshit is happening right now in the world, especially because we’re looking at Nov 6 around the corner. It all feels even more dire and overwhelming and heartbreaking than usual. Putting my head down and getting creative work done is harder than usual. I know this isn’t a unique problem to me — we’re all working through this together. I had dinner with one of my sisters-in-law (she is a painter) on Friday, and we commiserated (over alcohol and delicious seafood).
Three of the flash fiction pieces I worked on this week don’t hold together as well as I’d like. The endings are a bit rushed and the arc isn’t clearly defined. Sometimes I know where I’m starting and know where I’m ending, but then I get lost along the way. I wind up on a convoluted path that doesn’t quite get to point B but maybe gets proximate to it. I think I need to do more explicit planning, really plot out the arc before I get started. Or, at least not get lazy when it comes to figuring out what comes next — just take a beat and think more about it instead of rambling along and hoping that I get there eventually.
On a previous season of Writing Excuses (I think maybe season 10), Brandon Sanderson mentioned that one of the plotting technique he uses is working backwards from the payoff moment. He figures out his big reveal/climax, and then asks what happens right before that, and then before that, and so forth until he gets to where he’s going to start. I’m going to try that this next week. Maybe between planning forwards and planning backwards, I’ll figure out the middle.
NaNoWriMo is coming up pretty soon. That’s the other thing I’ve started thinking about. Instead of starting a brand new project, I’m going to add 50k words to That Fairytale Thing that I’ve been working on. So for this upcoming week, I’m going to start in on an outline.
What are y’all working on this week? Anyone doing NaNoWriMo?
Week one of the flash fiction inktober thing down!
I’ve found this week very productive, despite the tempting distraction that is a brand new copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and an egregiously huge TV. Building in the flash fiction bit to my morning has allowed me to feel more playful and experimental in my writing again, which was something I had been missing during my more recent Large Project slog.
Some days were certainly easier than others, but each day brought with it a new little idea. Most of them I was happy to just visit the once, but there are a couple in there that I want to polish and hoard and maybe expand.
Since each piece is so short, it’s given me an opportunity to look at the finished first drafts and pick out the problems I have a tendency to repeat — it’s much more obvious when you have several drafts to look at than when you are in the midst of the one big one. I’ve gotten some perspective too on what made a couple of my other larger projects not work so well. So now, I can be a little more deliberate in how I piece things together, and I can direct my attention more consciously to my weak points.
All in all, educational so far. I do need to come up with a plan for what I’m going to do with all these first drafts at the end of the month though…
And now, a rant.
For some reason, I’ve seen an excess of articles this past week once again espousing writing “rules” in that particularly prescriptive hard-and-fast tone of voice that I find grating. This week I’ve seen a confluence of attacks, once again, on adverbs. And sometimes even adjectives.
On the one hand, I get it. All things are now STATED with AUTHORITY because qualifiers make you weak. Even though dealing in absolutes obliterates all nuance (that every aspect of everything has). That includes the unnecessarily harsh prohibition against using adverbs. (Use even one, and — egads! — you will become a Bad Writer™!)
And again, I get it. Mostly, when this rule is repetitively bandied about, it’s frequently about annoyingly using adverbs excessively and gratuitously. I get it.
But it’s said in this way, this looking-down-my-nose-at-your-ly-suffix way that makes me want to… I don’t know, glare at a houseplant (Sorry, houseplant. It’s not your fault.).
When it comes down to it, the writers that I most admire and wish to emulate are not afraid of or averse to using adjectives and adverbs. Those things are, as with any of the other aspects of language, merely tools. The writing that I like uses these tools and wields them skillfully and with great intention.
Here is Ursula K. Le Guin’s more moderate perspective on adjectives and adverbs:
Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and nourishing. They add color, life, immediacy. They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused.
I recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
And maybe, this more measured take on it is what people mean. But it’s not what they say.
(Incidentally, if you haven’t read Steering the Craft, I highly recommend it. It is a small, powerful book that can be revisited over and over again.)
This past week was generally better, both in terms of process and writing. Through a combination of reflection and tips from Deep Work, I’ve settled on a new daily framework that seems to work for me. As with everything else, it’ll need to be tested a bit more, but I have found it very helpful in organizing and providing structure to my day.
This week, I roughed out two additional flash fiction pieces — codenames “the hair thing” and “something something chess.” (Literally that is what the Word docs are called. I am bad at coming up with titles. I’ve read many short stories this year with amazing titles. How do?) Both need significant rewriting, but the first drafts exist now where they didn’t before, so that’s something. I also added several thousand words to a fairytale project. This was the thing that started as a short story last week but is quickly becoming something else altogether – I think maybe it wants to be a novel? It doesn’t really like labels…
As I’m working on these shorter pieces, I’m struck by how much better/lighter/happier I’ve been. I don’t know how much of this is leaving behind that other novel project, in which I was finding less and less joy, and how much of this is stumbling upon this new project, which is much more in line with things I read and have always wanted to write. Or, I guess, how much of it is related to process.
I’m a bit antsy and nervous about tomorrow since it’s the first day of Inktober and thus the first day of my Flash Fiction Inktober Mash-up challenge. But that’s okay. I just have to remind myself to focus on the process and not the product.
It was one of my New Year’s resolutions to find more community this year, so I can’t even claim that I didn’t know this was something I needed to do. Still, I dragged and dragged and dragged my feet until this month because the idea of putting myself out there with a bunch of strangers prickles my skin with anxiety. (Why these things give me stomach-clenching nerves while talking to patients and families and running codes when I was doctoring didn’t so much is a whole different thing altogether.)
It’s easy enough to put off doing something you know you’re supposed to do; reassurances of tomorrow or next week can go on forever until you’re dead. But then sometimes it feels like the universe is telling you a thing (I know, I know, confirmation bias), and it just seems wrong not to listen.
When I went to MRK’s author event a few weeks ago, it was after I had spent a good several days mustering up the courage and stolidly ignoring my jerk brain. But the thing that really cemented it was that I went ahead and bought her books through the Left Bank website and indicated that I was going to pick them up at the event. Because then, the etiquette bit of my brain chimes in and is all like “But you said…” and it seems like it would be rude not to complete that social exchange.
So I went. And it was fine. And I did not die of embarrassment. Really, no one much paid attention to me (duh. and thankfully). Except. I ran into an author friend of one of my brothers-in-law. I had met this person twice before, I think — once two years ago and then once again almost exactly a year after that at consecutive birthday events. (Not my birthdays. My bro-in-law’s.) We reintroduced ourselves and got to chatting, and soon enough, he introduced me to a couple of his writerly friends and told me about a writing group they all attend. (Universe: Go find a community already. Sheesh. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING FOR YOU?)
That writing group meets tonight. And I’m going.
I mean, I was feeling waffly up until this past weekend, but I have to now.
The author friend wrote me an email yesterday morning to check in and attached the pieces that are going to be critiqued. He went to the trouble of making sure I knew where it was going to be and where to park. He took the time to write such a nice, thoughtful email. And then etiquette brain was like, “Now you have to go. He went to so much trouble!”
Plus, I have told A, my sibs-in-law, this author friend, and now you that I’m going to attend. So, etiquette brain, who does not like broken promises and does not like people going to any trouble, won’t let me back out even though I still have most of the day to make myself nervous.
Thanks, etiquette brain.