Posts Tagged ‘Writing Process’

The Writing Process: Where

March 13, 2017

I’ve heard two conflicting schools of thought when it comes to a writing space.  Some argue that the writing space is sacred, and that you need to have an assigned space that is your writing space, where you know you’re there to write and do nothing else.  Others argue that you need to be ready to write anytime and anywhere, because it doesn’t matter; when the muse inspires you to write, you must be ready.  When I consider my own writing space, I break it down to three components: physical space, time, and mind space.

Before you set a pencil to paper or open up that word processor, you need to find your own writing space.  For some, it is easier than others.  In On Writing, Stephen King describes writing on a typewriter and a children’s desk before getting his own writing desk.  I’d imagine he’d be able to set up a piece of butcher paper on an ironing board and still manage to get his 2,000+ words per day on the page.  Max Barry, the writer behind Jennifer Government reportedly wrote in his car during his lunch breaks.  Somewhere, I once read that Hemingway would write while naked and standing in the middle of his kitchen; I’m not sure if that’s a joke, or if that’s the winning formula for a Pulitzer.  I write wherever I can find a comfortable space, but it usually amounts to the couch.  When I was first married, we had a broken old futon that served as our primary couch, and on more than one occasion as our guest bed.  We still have it, and it still serves as our guest bed.  If I had to guess how much of Absconded by Sin was written while on that futon, I’d place the number at about 90%, and think that I was guessing too low.  Nevertheless, this was my writing space through my first several completed works.

I’ve heard that a number of writers write in the morning. Barbara Kingsolver and Kurt Vonnegut are two such writers that I can verify through their own words, and I’ve seen Stephen King mention the same.  When I started out, I was a morning writer, too.  I would wake up with my wife, who had an early commute, make her lunch every morning, and then start writing as soon as she left.  If I was lucky, I’d be out doing errands by 10am.  If I wasn’t, then I’d still be on the futon at noon, wondering if I’d get out to the grocery store that day or be able to get in a short run before I started my run of job applications for the day.  Whichever way you looked at it, both my plans for the day and my physical location depended on just how much I’d written that morning.  Now, of course, I have other obligations, and I do most of my writing at night.  I’ll talk more about that in a later post.  Today, the only time I spend working on fiction in the morning is after the clock strikes midnight, if I have the energy.

Aside from the physical space, there’s also the mental space.  There was a time that I’d be in constant thought, entirely focused on my fiction writing.  It didn’t matter if I started at 7am or 11am, I was going to be working on that novel.  I would go out on a short run or a bike ride, or go to the store, and I was always thinking about Angela and Henry, the two protagonists of my story.  In fact, sometimes the mere act of rolling a cart through a store was the perfect subterfuge that allowed me to focus on ending a scene or identifying a character’s motivations.  Of course, things have changed since I started writing Absconded by Sin, and getting started is sometimes a more arduous task.  I do some of my best writing on Sundays, or after I’ve had time to decompress in the evenings.  It’s rare that I’m able to get home from work, hit the keyboard, and feel like my writing is truly at its best.  When I’m writing, and truly moving the cursor, I’m not thinking about work, and I’m not checking to see what my friends think about the new MCU movie trailer, I’m writing, and that’s all that’s going on between my two ears.

I am a writer of habit, and I have never been able to write for any sustained period while in a coffee shop.  Once, I spent the day writing from a park bench.  It was a very productive day, and that park bench was much better than a coffee shop.  However, from the perspective of physical comfort and mental space, neither was nearly as familiar as my time spent on that old futon.

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1,667 Words…

October 29, 2011

I can do it in twenty-five minutes! Eighteen! Forty-five!

No, I am not talking about a 10k race—though watching someone do 6.2 miles in 18 minutes would be a sight to behold. Nor am I talking about fishing stories or measuring contests of ill repute.

No, no, no. Let’s talk about the NaNoWriMo daily goal. 1,667 words. Not bad? Eh? That’s, give or take, a six page essay, typed and double spaced, or ten pages when you try to make the fonts that much bigger and the spaces two and a quarter rather than a simple double space. The wholly holy 1,667. It’s the sign of the beast meets Scheherazade; it’s the truly answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything; and, over the course of the past few weeks, I have seen people make various estimates, many of them well under an hour, of how long it will take them to meet that goal.

Can it be done in under an hour? I’m sure. After all, it is under 28 words per minute for an entire hour, without stopping. I’m not a particularly fast typist, but I know that I can type at that rate. However, what happens when people claim forty-five minutes? Twenty-five? Eighteen? Those who estimate that they do it in eighteen minutes write at a rate of 93 words per minute. That’s 1.6 words per second, 1,080 consecutive times. Sure, it’s still doable. Time yourself. Write anything. Go ahead. Sure, you can type that fast, but can you sustain it?

NaNoWriMo has these mini-challenges, called Word Sprints. In a Word Sprint, the goal is to beat the other person’s speed as a typist. At the end of a predetermined period of time, the two (or more) combatants then have their word counts checked by a judge of some sort (or not), and one of them is proclaimed the winner. I have no objection on the grounds of fair play or morals or anything like that, but I wonder what the experience does for someone that can conceivably finish NaNoWriMo in 25 hours or less. Philosophically, it isn’t what I strive for as a writer, and I don’t think that I’d be able to maintain the rate of speed to do something like that, let alone the presence of mind to write something cohesive and coherent.

Stephen King—who is, let’s face it—my idol, said that he could sometimes get his 2,000 word per day quota before lunch, but that he would sometimes get stuck in his study until tea time. Assuming he took his sweet time to get up in the morning, we’re probably talking about 3 hours of ass time devoted to writing. I’d have to go back and research it, but I don’t think that he was particularly writing to meet that quota, either. Instead, I think it was more along the lines of a way of meeting an arbitrary count to say that he had been productive on that given day.

When I wrote my first novel, I found that I’d sometimes pass that 2,000 word mark before lunch—sometimes overwhelmingly so–, but that my lunch would sometimes fall around 1pm. On other occasions, I would set the text aside and return to it in the evening, after my wife fell asleep. The problem was, I was no more a master of the amount of time it took me to write 1,000 words than I was the master of the time that it took me to commute to Morgan Hill during my first year of teaching. In theory, an hour is doable—especially, in the case of driving, if the trucks in the slow lane are still going 10% over the speed limit.

However, there’s always that potential that you’re not paying close enough attention, that you get in an accident, that you slip into a bit of a lull, that you have to pull off to the side to dial your buddy about Baron Davis’s missed three, or that there’s a roadblock ahead. I could be talking about writing or I could be talking about driving over the hill here, but the principle is still the same. Sometimes, what they have to say on the radio is so much infinitely more interesting than keeping that constant speed or rhythm throughout your journey—and the TV, well, good luck meeting your quota with that thing on! Sometimes, you’re looking at a nearly blank computer screen with the same line repeating over and over again (if not actually on the screen, then perhaps in your imagination): Willy Wonka traveled to Oompa-Loompa Land… Willy Wonka traveled to Oompa-Loompa Land… Willy Wonka traveled in the fourth quarter… As a writer, you have little more control over this than you would over a semi overturned at the Summit before the Woodwardia Highway. Tough breaks, commuters!

But, that isn’t to say that it couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be done. There’s always Soquel-San Jose Road, or 152, or 129, or (Heaven forbid) Salinas Road. Similarly, there’s always that little side trek that can boost your word count, or always that walk to the beach that will make you come back to the keyboard with fresh fingers. Twenty-eight words per minute is not half bad. A dozen years ago, I witnessed someone triple that rate without even breaking a sweat. If I have any luck, he’s reading this right now. However, it’s quite easy to write quickly when you’re typing from a script that has been spell-checked and proof-read and planned. What happens when there is no script, there are no players, and God only knows where there’s a stage?

I propose that writing is like driving through a completely foreign town, city, state, or country. Of course, you have to go at the rate of traffic, and sometimes thoughts are running so rampant that you wish you are Ganesh, or Shiva, or some multi-armed deity, but sometimes you just have to sit back and take it all in. Was that your stop, or is it the next one?

Over a month ago, my wife and I drove into Monterey. We were late for a function on Cannery Row, and I was driving, so we were getting later by the millisecond. I, of course, missed what may have been the only turn to get from Highway 1 to Cannery Row, so we instead tried working our way through the surface streets to get back on course. If you’ve never had the chance to visit Monterey, then you’re really missing out. On our way through the town, we went up and down hills, saw plenty of “one way” signs that were pointed the wrong way, and plenty of other dead ends. We saw old cars, new cars, expensive cars, and do-it-yourself custom cars. We even saw a guy on a tryke that was make up to look like a great white shark. However, the one thing that we did not see was a way of getting from up by the Presidio to down by the Aquarium. Since we had been to the aquarium before, and since I was in the mood for a wicked strolling buffet, we were both eager to get to our destination.

The aquarium would ultimately provide a lot of memorable experiences. Of course there was the food, the people, the food, and the giant octopus that woke up to say hello. However, what I took away from that little driving miscue was also memorable, if not entertaining, in its own way, and I wasn’t necessarily peeved that it cost us precious face time with the clam chowder.

All of those side-steps, those missed turns and trips down roads that had a Clippers’ chance in hell of being winners, and those people who were wondering what the hell we were doing, were the atmosphere that helped pull the Aquarium out of a vacuum. Similarly, all of the missteps in writing are just means of rummaging around, finding what works and what doesn’t, and sometimes adding to the atmosphere of your main plot points. Does it matter that underage bit player Jack is drinking beer at work? No. Does it add to the atmosphere? It sure does.

Though I have sat here on my soap box—okay, my wife’s piano bench—for over a thousand words at this point and have spoken as if I am some sort of font of knowledge on the subject, I’d like to think that, having written one book, I can speak with the voice of someone who has at least experienced a bit of the writer’s process and the writer’s struggles. Out of curiosity, I once tried calculating the amount of time that it took for me to actually write my first novel, and I came up with between 75 and 100 hours. Considering that it took me roughly a year to complete, I doubted the truth in my calculations. After all, my average speed is 30 wpm (at least, it was 12 years ago), and my novel was somewhere upwards of 183,000 words. Assuming that my rate has stayed the same, that would be 101 hours minimum. Assuming a 10 wpm increase, and… well, you get the picture. Not that it matters.

With that theory thrown out the window, I thought about it from a different perspective. When I was jobless, I treated my writing like my work. No, not the long, sleepless nights of my teaching career, but the forty hours per week that the average person works in an average week in their lifetime. Of course, I couldn’t write for forty hours a week, but my 7am to 12pm (roughly) sessions did amount to 25 hours a week. When you throw in the hours that I spent thinking about what I was going to write, researching the Michocan Indians, the terrain around Landers, and the roles that the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) play in the Catholic Church, it is quite possible that I tallied a 40 hour work week. Not that it matters.

I want to end on these three points. First, paraphrased by a video game (and thus cementing my sustained nerd-dom), it isn’t the amount of hours you put into the words, it’s what you put into the words. Secondly, amended to Mark Twain’s commentary, golf is a good walk ruined, but keeping score is a good golf game ruined. Thirdly and finally, I am finishing this as of 12:25 on Saturday morning. It has taken me about 66 minutes, and I have written almost 1,800 words. I guess that means that I can write 1,667 words in an hour. However, these words are not fiction, they are not part of my narrative, and they are not as coherent as I’d like. Not that it matters.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

October 20, 2011

In past posts, I’ve mentioned NaNoWriMo, and my attempts to make the whole NaNoWriMo experience easier this time around.  With just over a week left until the big event, I am starting to feel more secure in my planning.  I still need to organize my random notes, but I have at least a hundred individual notes that will need addressing.  When you spread 100 notes over 50,000 words, that comes out to 500 words per item (and falling).  That’s not that much.  In fact, that used to be the golden rule for the amount of words that fit on a page. Though I’m almost through the second novel of my adult life (and the third overall, but let’s bury that other one somewhere beneath the surface of the earth), I can already tell that it isn’t necessarily true.

My current document averages nearly 600 words per page.  That might seem like a lot of short words, and it is. Most of these pages contain dialogue that is written in the style of Arthur Miller–that is, playwright style.  There are rarely any dialogue tags, and the action is kept to a minimal.  I needed to get through the chief points of the scene, and I will try to fill things in later.  Stylistically speaking, this is a rather large departure from the manner in which I used to write. One writing teacher–I’m not sure if it was Adam or Leslie, but I’m almost certain that it wasn’t Wesley–said that it was almost as if my characters were mutes.  There was a lot of description, a lot of action, but not much in terms of speech.  He told me to look at an action film, and that the characters were almost always chattering.  When I think action, I think Stallone and Schwarzennegger. Next time you’re watching an action sequence in First Blood, count how many times John Rambo actually says something.  Don’t worry, it won’t be too hard. At the same time, Schwarzenegger movies go from hardly any dialogue “doe, buck, what is it with the genders of the species?” (paraphased from Hercules in New York) to all of the quips that he gives in True Lies.  In other words, I’ll have to find a medium between the Arthur Miller school of dialogue and a discipleship in James Michener description.

Have you ever noticed how characters seem to surprise you, no matter how simply or complexly you’ve described them?  I’m noticing that with my characters.  Eleanor, the “eye candy” of the story, started out as a character that was more or less a character tag for another character (who as of yet is not satisfactorily named). After a while, she received speaking lines, and pretty soon those speaking lines became plot points.  All of the sudden, she’s not a secondary, but perhaps a tertiary character.  Perhaps the best way of thinking of it is as how Pomona Sprout is essentially background in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and then has speaking lines in “… Chamber of Secrets,” but then becomes active in “…the Deathly Hallows.”  Similarly, Eleanor has had little to do in the first 70,000 words of my novel, but she is beginning to become more relevant. If I add a few more elements to my rough outline, she might even become important.  I am still working on shoring things up, and still need to complete the narrative leading up to NaNoWriMo, but it feels a lot better to have direction. I would like to have the luxury of doing a writing burst by the seat of my pants again, but for the time being, I might as well be content with the opportunities that I’ve created for myself.

There’s still that little matter of the title.  I’ve thought of another potential title, “Beneath the Surface,” but I am still juggling these others around.  I would like to get a good title ready by the end of October, so that I can potentially go about designing a cover.  What do you think? Polls are still open!

The Countdown to NaNoWriMo 2011 Continues

October 13, 2011

Last November, in the midst of my epic first novel, I started NaNoWriMo. It seemed like a great idea, and I’d been toying with it since hearing about it several years ago (whether in college or in grad school, I do not know). Since I was in the midst of a long dry spell for employment, I figured that it would give me something to do. I’d treat writing (and editing) as a regular, 9-to-5 job. In reality, it was more like 7:30 until whenever, but it gave me something by which I could keep myself occupied during those hours when my wife was out winning our bread. Things are different this year.

This year, I will come in to NaNoWriMo having been gainfully employed for ten consecutive months, assuming I don’t pull an American Beauty and start lifting weights and smoking pot in the garage. This employment means that I am occupied from 8:30 to 6:00, assuming you take into account my commute. This leaves considerably less time for me to work on my novel–vote below in order to help me shake the “Tentative Title” that serves as a header for each page. Due to this, there are certain changes that have taken place in terms of my preparation.

While I did my research for last year’s novel, I was still able to churn out 183,000+ words through flying by the seat of my pants and knowing my characters. Henry would always be Henry, and Brooke would always be Brooke. It also helped that there were really only two primary characters, a half dozen secondary characters, and a glut of tertiary characters. I wasn’t dealing with the Fellowship of the Ring here!

This year, I am plotting in advance, and plotting heavily. At the end of NaNoWriMo, I want to have 50,000 words for November, but I’m also aiming for the month of December to be dedicated to mop-up work. In contrast, it took me around seven months to complete my first novel AFTER WriMo. The problem with this little endeavor is that it feels less organic. I was happy going by the seat of my pants last year. I will be happy writing this year, too, because I’m not married to plot points being in order. Good thing, too; my wife wouldn’t go for Mormon marriage.

It is a nice safety blanket, that much is certain. I am busy plotting seven sections of the novel. So far, I’ve plotted three… fora total of 81 plot points or ideas–of course, I’m using plot point quite loosely here. Assuming that I divvy up the 50,000 words evenly (and allow for a little bit of wiggle room), I’ll have about 7,500 words per section. Using that as a means of measuring those three sections, those 81 plot points should cover 22,500 words–less than 300 words per plot point/idea. Wow, who knew building a safety blanket would involve so many steps!

I’ve written additional points in the remaining four sections, but I am having more difficulty than I anticipated in plotting something with this level of detail that is so far ahead of my real-time novel writing. Characters develop, they change. Even stoic characters must change a little, no matter how much they resist. That is the most difficult aspect of it all, especially considering I have a hobo slumgullion of characters with their own unique needs and personalities. In addition, I’d be covering dangerous ground if I decided to change plot points that impact the resolution.

As I was on my commute home, as well as doing some late night grocery shopping, I started to wonder about some of the most recognizable writers and their stories. Did Stallone know that Rocky would beat Apollo? Did Robert Rodriguez really go in knowing that The Mariachi and Bucho were brothers? Did the team behind the newest BSG have a detailed list of who was a cylon and when it would be revealed? I think that these three examples run the spectrum from “absolutely” to “probably not,” and it leaves me to wonder. Some books translate very well to the box office, and follow a clearly discernible heroic arc. Some books get where you expect them to be, but the journey from the alpha to the omega is a bit of a roller-coaster. And there’s the last kind of book. The kind of book that makes you go “who’s on first, what’s on second, and what the hell was I supposed to ask Alice?”

As I work my way towards the end of this novel, I wonder how much I should plot it out and how much I should leave it all to chance. Stephen King talks about writing as if you’re unearthing a fossil. The story’s all there, but you have to be careful how you unearth it. I love that analogy. I also think that writing is a means of making the subconscious conscious, and I am wondering just how much I want to funnel those subconscious processes into a very focused form of consciousness.

As with many pursuits, writing is like life. Rather than jump around from one brain dropping to another, and trying to expound on this one, I’ll leave it up to you to make the connection. How do you like to live your life?