Sunday, December 16, 2012

3 Things Writers Must Do (Besides Write)

When I was young and the world seemed easy, I had the foolish notion that writing was just a matter of sitting down to write.  A writer, armed with coffee and a computer, would sit at her desk for hours and hours, letter keys clicking, while the paragraphs and pages flowed out from her brain to her fingers to the screen.  Back when I was innocent, I didn't think of myself as naive.  I knew that there would be times of frustration and writer's block, but I figured that if I just kept at it, those blocks would dissolve and the story would emerge.

I tested this theory the summer I was nineteen, and it nearly destroyed me.   

I was not happy.  I was not even productive.  After three months with absolutely nothing to do but write, I got about two chapters written, both of which I threw away a couple months later.  In the mean time, I grew to hate writing, hate my story, hate that stuffy room with the glare of sunshine and the heat of the computer.

Writing, as it turns out, is not enough.   If you want to create a story, you need to attack it from many different angles.  Half the work is blunt force--sitting down at the computer and getting the words to come out.  The other half is figuring out what to how to write and what to write.

Here are three things writers need to do in addition to simply writing.

1. Goal-set

It's simple enough.  You might be able to write a poem or a short story on the fumes of inspiration, but the longer the work, the more discipline is required.  (And I write 800-page fantasy monsters.)  The easiest way to create discipline is to set goals.  Something specific.  I will write such-and-such number of words/ pages a day.  I will finish a chapter each month.

It sounds easy.  It's not.

Goal-setting, goal-writing, and goal-keeping is practically an art form.  And like all art it needs the magical combination of intuition, suffering. and constant practice to really blossom.  

For instance, you have to figure out what a realistic goal for you is.  If you're anything like me, you're going to horribly over-estimate yourself and then mentally berate yourself for not finishing.  You're going to agonize about what the definition of "finishing" a chapter is.  What if it sucks?  Also, different drafts create different production rates.  I can type 3 pages an hour when I'm writing a first draft.  I barely make a half a page when I'm doing close editing.

What if you have a nice writing schedule and something happens?  Maybe your grandmother dies.  Maybe you get a free trip to Europe.  Maybe you just can't write on that particular story anymore, but this other story interests you.  Should you set goals every year?  Every month?  Every day?  Are there rewards for achieving your goals?  Punishments for failing?

At some point, you start to wonder why you bother to spend so much time on goals that always seem to fail.

You do it in order to learn how you write.  You do it in order to get things done.  You do it because you have to.  Period.

2. Brainstorm

For me, this takes two forms.

First is the note-taking form, which I tend to do whenever I'm stuck.  Here I ditch my computer for a notebook and pencil and start throwing out various ideas to see which one sticks.  Or, if I'm not that far along, I whine about all the reasons I hate writing this scene until I figure out what the problem is.  Complaining is a surprisingly effective problem-solving method.   My hypothesis is that your brain gets sick of your ranting and begins tossing out solutions just to get you to shut up.

I guess that this technically counts as writing, as words are going on the page.  Initially, though, I never counted it because I wasn't "in" the story.  It was like trying to climb a mountain and finding a fallen log in your path and stopping to hack away at it.  It's all part of the experience, but you don't feel like you're going anywhere at the time.

If I didn't count note-taking, I really had a problem with the second form: daydreaming. For me, this usually involves lying on my bed with my eyes shut or staring at a single point, trying to act out a scene in my head.  Or else I start pacing circles around a room, muttering to myself.  Believe it or not, this is a good sign.  Whenever you see me talking to myself, you can bet my imagination is kicked into high gear.  It was fun, but it didn't feel like anything was being accomplished.

Yet something was.

Either form of brainstorm forces you to pause and think about where the story is going.  It's a slap to the face of the myth that stories appear fully formed in writer's brain.  They don't.  You constantly have to stop and figure out what's next and will this work.  Trying to move forward without brainstorming is like trying to drive across the country using side streets without stopping to check the map.  Good luck with that.

3. Research

Yes, even for fantasy writers.

This has two major purposes.  First, it helps you to avoid looking dumb.  Now I write high fantasy, and this genre, more so than others, gives the writer the power to say, "my world, my rules."  And that's fine.  But know that people will be using the real world to gauge things like, oh, battles and medieval villages and the effect of religion on social mores.  If you strain too hard on their credibility, they lose their suspension of disbelief and there goes the story.

The other reason to do research is to gather ideas.  Ideas don't pop out of nowhere, after all.  I've found that I need external stimuli of some sort or another to get the creative juices in my head flowing.  While it would be nice if this stimuli came in the form of, say, a vacation to Europe, the easiest and most efficient way to do this is to read books.

For example, let's say that you're trying to write a battle scene, but you're not a military expert.  You can either try to imagine your way to something and hope that you fool the experts.  Or, you can research weapons, armor, castles, and famous battles similar to the one you want to fight.  Now maybe you'll never be an expert, but at least you can see how expecting a poor farmer to transform into knights in shining armor in a week is just slightly unrealistic.  You can see how weapons and armor (or lack thereof) determine the kind of battle you want to fight and how you might lure your enemy into a trap.

It's much easier than just squeezing your eyes shut and willing a cool battle into existance.

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