Monday, December 14, 2009

More writing about writing...

Well, I'm still slacking off with regard to finals. I hate my accounting class with a fiery, burning passion for reasons...well, I could go on all day, but I suppose the upshot is that I do not feel that I got what I paid for, there. It would've been smart to drop it when I had the chance.

I was too proud. Accounting's always been easy for me. Of course, that's only when the instructor does their job...


Everything else was fascinating, but it's just been a tiring term. I spent five hours on game theory with a study group today, and feel no better prepared than I was for that final at the start of the day.

If there was ever anything in this world that made me feel inadequate, it's that particular application of logic. Don't remember the last time something was so hard to wrap my head around.

So here I am again. Taking a break from taking a break from...well, you get the idea. Anyway, I promised to talk about how I've been going about writing last time, in case anybody was interested. So, here goes...

A lot of people complain about not being able to write because they don't have any ideas. This simply isn't true. The human brain is a magnificent thing that is constantly offering us all sorts of scenarios:

'What if I could get Monday off from work?'

'What if I could date a supermodel?'

'What if there are zombies in the basement?'

Everybody does this, basically all the time. We even do it when we're sleeping.

So the trouble isn't having an idea in the first place, the trouble is that we feel our ideas aren't worth the trouble to develop. That they aren't good enough, that they're too boring, that they aren't special.

The thing is that almost every story, from horrible scrawl to enduring classic, had a humble beginning. Just to pick on one that was mentioned to me tonight, take Star Wars. It's assembled from what amount to stock pieces: a young man who learns he's the Chosen One and gets a magic sword. A mysterious teacher and a beautiful princess. An evil wizard and a black knight.

That's all very forgettable, and yet here I am, mentioning it decades later. I suppose you could argue that the special effects bought it a place in the history books, but many stories without that edge have had a similarly lasting appeal.

The truth is that an idea doesn't have to be new and unique to be worthwhile. Not the beginning of it, and not the pieces. It isn't necessary to wait until you have a notion that will set the world on fire. Almost any idea can be the seed of something decent, or even something genuinely good, depending on the execution.

The thing that's needed to finish it is, simply, discipline.

Every time I write, I see something wrong with what I'm doing. Something that could be better. As a result, I'm tempted to second guess myself at every turn. To rework a piece over and over in search of that one, perfect moment where it becomes something beautiful. Something people will remember.

I want, very much, for the things I say to be remembered.

The trouble with that is that I can't get more than half a page without feeling like that. I'm doing it now: this blog post could definitely be organized with more elegance. It could be less choppy. It's hard not to do something about it.

I believe that most people feel this when they write. Happens a lot with people I talk to about why they're not doing it. I think a lot of them think the behavior is helpful, that it polishes what they're doing...and that they simply do not have the endurance to see it through to the end.

That's not true, though. Basic editing is good. Endless revision is not. Nothing's perfect, and no amount of tweaking can change that. All it can do is keep a person tied up so that they never finish what they were doing.

In this, I've been lucky because of my background of not-writing. My understanding of the narrative process is derived largely from interactive activities, rather than solitary ones. Like I said last time, I never kept a notebook and wrote in it or anything.

Instead, I learned how to spin a yarn mostly over D&D books. Well, and a host of other games that most of you have probably never heard of. Ones I like much better for a variety of nerdy, nerdy reasons that I will spare you all.

This is good because of the pressure it applies.

If you have a live audience, you can't say, "Well, I'll tell you what happens in six hours, after I've had some time to think about it." You're on the spot for the whole day, and you have to be able to react to the unexpected at almost every turn. You're forced to roll with ideas that you might discard if you had a whole minute to consider why they're bad.

Eventually, this can become natural if you let it. I'm used to working with ideas that are not necessarily the best and trying to rapidly cobble up something that people won't immediately reject. To take something familiar and twist it just enough that it's interesting again.

It gets a lot easier with practice.

The only down side to this is that I'm used to a lot of feedback. When you're playing a game like that, your audience is right there. You have the opportunity to constantly read them and adjust what you're doing if it's not working. You also get instant gratification when it is.

That's heady, and I'm a little hooked on it. I'll admit that even now, I have a small circle of readers that I constantly poke about what they think of every little thing I've written, pretty much daily.

I think I'm bothering at least some of them, and I'm not sure what to do about that.

It still beats not telling a story in the first place, though, I think.


Getting back to what I hope might be useful, the other thing I've done is to develop a multiple document system for writing. I use:

* A primary document which contains the bulk of my rough draft.

* A separate document for the scene I am currently working on.

* A document for material I've scrapped, in case it had a turn of phrase I decide I wanted after all.

* A document to brainstorm in, stream of consciousness style.

The rule is that I can do anything I want to the scene I'm working on. I can play with it, throw it away, anything. However, once I'm mostly satisfied, it must be cut and pasted into the rough draft. I've done some simple spreadsheets to look at how fast I write, and I have some rules of thumb concerning how long material should generally be left there.

The primary rough draft is to be left as untouched as possible. I don't alter it for content, only typos and the rare continuity glitch. At first, I tried not to look at it much at all.

This keeps my eyes away from things I'd want to nitpick most of the time, but leaves everything where I can easily find it.

I think that's probably enough for tonight, since it's almost 2AM. Hope this was of any use to anyone.


  1. This is a really good systemn, because of avoiding the endless re-write, which is a TRAP of infinite dimensions!

  2. Thank you :) I had no idea it was that way for you! AIE!

  3. Thanks for your kind words, both of you. :)

  4. Look, TV has shown me numerous examples of a writer sitting down with a pack of smokes, couple bottles of wine, flurry of camera angles and presto - novel! Are you calling TV a liar? Again?

    I'd like to disagree with this "discipline" thing you're touting, but 1/2 a pack of cigs and numerous bottles of wine later and I still have no novel. I suppose it might indicate that your methods might be a little more sound. Isn't that always the way?

    Liking the blog :)

  5. Hehehe. Thanks. :)

    (And I don't smoke or drink, so I had to try something.)

  6. For the recotd: not bothered by it.

    Granted, will probably have a tiny bit less time once I start classes in two weeks, but hey.