Being a Better Writer

writing

I couldn’t sleep if this post didn’t have a picture like this to lead it.

In university I was a member of the Creative Writing Society. There I bonded with a diverse group of people who are crazy enough to spend copious amounts of time writing.

I was having coffee with one such friend from CWS (let’s call her Lana). Inevitably we strayed onto the topic of writing: We traded ideas about things we’ve either written or wanted to write (one of the best thing of having writer friends is being able to keep doing this without the person you’re speaking to getting weary by your earnest but misdirected insanity). Now I heard a lot of cool ideas from Lana, things that are possibly more original than anything I’ve seen in the market right now.

Her problem? She lacks focus. Dozens of ideas blossom in her mind to be chewed over, maybe even started, but are inevitably put aside for the next exciting idea, never to be finished.

This isn’t me having a go or deeply criticising her. Far be it for me of all people to be a critic of not being able to focus on one project at a time. I am victim of similar vices; I have a bunch of posts lying in the drafts because of the way my brain is designed, as well as numerous little side projects stuffed under the mattress. That being said, the amount of projects that I finish versus the amount I don’t is weighed greatly in favour of completed things. So while I’m not criticising my friend, she is one example of many that helps to show a ubiquity when it comes to writers and their relationship to the craft. I think it’s worthwhile so we can see what our issue is—of many—and maybe come to some sort of solution about fixing it.

Focus

First, when I say writing requires focus I mean a lot of focus. You have to translate your whirring thoughts into tangible and intelligible symbols and that takes a lot of effort. Also, you need time to work on your project, something that’s not easily available when you have other considerations like a job, a degree, kids, etc. To keep perspective about marrying your basic needs and your desire to craft, keeping focus in mind is key. Effective time management, for example.

Focus is the only way that Projects ever get finished though. All the poems, literature, songs, plays, TV shows, films, games, etc. that you may or may not have consumed, these all had people who sat down and wrote something. They focused on a Project; they finished what they set out to do.

If you explain this to a writer, you’ll get a dismissive wave and they’ll be wearing a distracted frown, eyes on their special Project. They know that. Who doesn’t? Way more qualified people have discussed this, so I’m not going to belabour the point.

What you might not see in the thinking of the writer is why they can’t focus. A large aspect of Not  Writing comes from fear. The Project is a delicate thing that is a part of them, part of their DNA. In a lot of ways, their writing is them.

I’m asking a lot, I know, but imagine having a newborn. A precious, squalling pile of flesh. It cannot speak or feed itself. It is so tiny, so vulnerable, and you love it very, very much.

Now imagine if someone—let’s suppose a tetchy nurse—says that your baby is ugly, apropos of nothing. Worse, imagine if your loved ones did that. That’d be devastating. Why would you say that about my baby? It hasn’t hurt anyone. It couldn’t.

Writing is like that. This precious thing you’ve invested energy into? What if it’s utter crap that no-one likes? And the potentiality of those negatives dulls the brain and freezes the fingers.

If you get to that stage in thinking, that’s sad.

First and foremost: writing should be selfish. It’s yours before it’s anyone else’s. If you like it, then no-one else need to. Seriously. If you can finish something and you look at it with endearment, you’ve succeeded. Nobody else’s opinion on it matters.

Besides, writing that is good and true to the writer will always find a way to its correct audience. Don’t get me wrong though: when those kind of doubts are assuaged, there’s still the issue of doing the thing. In that there will be snags.

The temptation here is to move onto the next thing as soon as you get stuck. Why bother with this thing if it’s not working out, especially considering there are millions of other better ideas that are howling for a little love? Lana might have this problem too. That issue will not suddenly change when you move to a new project because at some point you’ll run into the same difficulties and again, the temptation here is to move on to another idea. With this model, your ideas will be scattered like tombstones across the landscape behind you*. Sooner or later you’ll need to finish a thing.

I’m pretty sure she’s well aware of this. Even with that knowledge, it’s still fucking difficult. But there’ll be an ongoing dissatisfaction if this becomes your only relationship to the craft, much greater than any snag mid-project.

There are ways around this. One such is how writers like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson write multiple books per year. The advice they usually give is that they tend to move projects when they get stuck and that keeps the words flowing. Splitting your attention across multiple projects might seem a little promiscuous but it might help in reducing an ideas overload in the head. Also, you needn’t write linearly if there’s a snag in the writing. You could write a different scene and come back to the issue later on. This is less confusing than you think and if anything it will reveal the path forwards. The point is to try something.

The Time Issue

You might have got to this point and thought “Well, yeah, dude. This is nothing new.” Okay, true. But what have you done about it? To which another person might add “I don’t have time to write!”. This is something that’s worthwhile to investigate, because it kind of gets to the heart of some people’s issues:

  1. Writing takes a long time to produce.
  2. I do not have a lot of time to write (given commitments x, y, & z)
  3. Therefore, I’m literally unable to write (given commitments x, y, & z).

I want to take this opportunity to say that that’s not strictly speaking true. Mostly because of the second one. My target audience and likely readers are undergrads, post-grads, and maybe recent graduates. You know … grads of varying degrees (with varying degrees, ba-bum tsssh). These people with their varying degrees of busyness are quite different from a CEO, for example. But even with a 16-hour work day you can still write. You might not want to but you can.

For example, I recently did a work experience for two weeks, where I would work 9:30-17:30 daily. Impossibly strenuous, I know. To get there from my brother’s flat was a four-minute walk to the tube, then a half an hour ride. So an hour round trip, roughly. Now this placement was ongoing when NaNoWriMo began. On one day there was a problem on the tube line which meant having to get two buses back home.

Unfortunately, two of them terminated early so the journey, which should take an hour maximum, took two. So I got quite frustrated. Basically, I didn’t feel like writing when I got back. I vegged out for a little bit, true, but then I thought to myself the significance of NaNo to me—to commit to something that’s important to my well-being—and sat down and wrote.

It was horrible. Gruelling and miserable and slow. But I did it. I met my daily word count after a long while and then promptly went to bed. What I’m getting at is writing isn’t always going to be a barrel of laughs. If you wait to feel inspired—or are buoyed along by the enticing prospect of The Other Project—then you’ll write infrequently and that’s not going to be much help to your ambitions. Now, despite my next section I should add that I’m not necessarily advocating for a year-round write every day kind of situation. I don’t and I still manage to get quite large word counts in a year. I’ll explain more in a little while.

Narrow goal and stretch goal (word count limits)

NaNoWriMo is an event where you challenge yourself to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Crazy right? Fifty thousand words. To give you some perspective, The Great Gatsby tots up to just over 50,000 words, which is about 170 pages.

This sounds large and unattainable and it might be the first time you do it: I didn’t do it the first year I tried back in 2010, but since then I’ve completed it five years of the seven years I’ve done it. I’m not boasting but merely trying to say that if I can do it, you most certainly can, too.

To make something like that achievable you need to break it down into workable chunks. Think of working on something in relation to stretch goals and a specific plan to get there. For NaNo, the stretch goal is to complete your 50,000 word novel. The specific plan would be the minimum 1,667 words (rounded up) per day to get there. This is much less scary now, right? It’s still a fair amount to do in a day, especially considering commitments xyz.

But here’s a thought: you needn’t constrain your writing time to one part of the day.

If you commute to work, think about scribbling some ideas down to and from there. If you drive, of course don’t do that, but you still have lunch breaks, certainly? Even if you write a sentence down, which can literally take a few seconds, you’ve written. Oftentimes I’ve developed whole scenes from a few scribbled notes I did earlier on. No notebook? A note in your phone or a blank text work just the same. No phone? Leave a note on your hands.

The point is that it’s about those digestible chunks: If you find a spare few moments, use them. Even the daily word counts don’t need to be done all at once. Typically speaking on a “work day” my attention span can only really manage sub 2000 words which means the word count for NaNo is within my attention span limit. It might not be the case for you. Weekends are good for this sort of thing (provided they’re free).

Being pretty knowledgeable about your attention span will help you focus, especially when you break it down. Because when small digestible chunks get further subdivided, it really does make all the difference. 100 words every hour will be a breeze. Sure if you follow that strictly over the course of one day it will take you all day to get to the desired word count limit. But when you start and get a rhythm going, it’s pretty tough to break it: you’ll find that you’ll get a respectable word count much quicker than imagined. I tend to find that I write more than I thought I could by starting from modest goals: “Write 100 words and go eat dinner” but then I end up writing 500 words and my stomach is growling. Oops.

And, to be clear, the stretch goal needn’t be as extreme as 50,000 words in a month. It could be a different, much smaller, value. Last year, I was fairly committed to writing 3,000 per month** which is 750 words per week, which is just over 107 words per day. Broken down into those figures, they don’t seem so gargantuan or absurd, do they? That’s not even an hour’s work. It’s nice to look at it in terms of the bigger picture, too. 12 of these 3,000 word months will give you 36,000 words in a year. It’s no novel but you’re well on your way. And by the end of Year 2 you’ll have something much more substantial. Think about that long game.

The same for poetry: try a poem per week. Fit the structure to your needs. Script? Several pages per week. Song? You know the drill. Etc., etc.

It’s a work in progress that starts little and eventually adds up over time. To come back to my point from before: I don’t even think you need to write every day to produce the desired amount of work. Even though I am a committed (see: addicted) participant of the respective WriMo events, the main thrust of the advocacy is regularity of writing. Habit-setting is a good way of actually finishing things.

Quality

Beyond the fragility of feeling towards the Project, there might be an issue more localised which is to do with idealisation vs actuation. Last week I talked about how there was a disconnect between the art I consume, the art I want to produce, and the art I actually create. When I started writing novels for real that was very upsetting. I wanted my stuff to have lots of subtle foreshadowing, tasteful subtext, rich characterisation, and an engaging plot which will give it “unputdownable” status on its jacket. My books would make people more moral or some shit. No-one could stop me and my raging Genius.

The reality? Not so good.

Seriously. Those words you write the first time? Stale prose, 2-D characters, obvious unnecessary subplots. Incestuous undertones (don’t ask). Bad rhymes and lazy imagery. Nowhere near close to that ideal. It’s probably because you have good taste***. A lot of creators have that fear. Perfection is the Great Enemy of creators.

And that’s okay.

First drafts need to be crap so you can make it the thing you’ve always known it to be. But you need to finish it and you’ll do that through focusing on the long goal, of working toward its betterment. Now this seems to be in direct contravention of what I said up above. To be 100% clear: above I said that it’s sad if you think your writing’s utter crap. What I’m saying here is some understanding of the qualities and noticeable deficits of your work will go a long way. The first go isn’t going to be gold, but neither is it going to be entirely awful. It’s a learning experience!

Writing that you become acquainted with in popular spaces (novels, poetry, TV, film, etc.), is made in revision and the sooner that’s digested the better your relationship will be.

Writing’s hard and that’s probably why moving on is so enticing. When you start it’s so new and exciting, it might even be easy. But then doubt starts to set in and its flaws are on clear display, and the mood is definitely lowered. Resisting that harsh critic will be the first in many steps to higher quality writing. Sure, I’ve been writing for a while but I’m still learning new things all the time. There are some projects that I’m legitimately proud of that literally would not exist without me writing its shitty first draft. And yes, it’s easier said than done but the potential pay-off should help in assuaging some of those fears. It’s that ideal that you should be working towards, that stretch goal. The specific steps to get there is through constant reformation.

Editing, essentially, is where all the craft comes into writing. The first draft should be reserved for putting the ideas down. Once they’re down, it becomes much easier to develop things into what you want it to be. Thinking about producing that ideal thing the first try will only disappoint and stump you when you come to the page. Enter the writing room with the full knowledge that what you’re putting together needs to be a bit crap before it’s good.

“What about the ideas, man?”

A lot of the things discussed here presuppose that you have a fully-formed idea and the only thing stopping you is yourself. This section is to be the diving board for ideas.

I would recommend ogling. Not that perverted gazing, ogle (though it is about as intense). Focus on the way people talk: are they assertive dominant speakers with direct communication, measured and confident diction, or are they accommodating speakers who steer conversation less directly? Do they use hedges and markers of sympathetic circularity (“um … like … y’know”)?

The best way to collect information if you’re too self-aware to look at strangers (which, let’s be real here, is likely) is maybe pay attention to specific actions of your loved ones. How do they look when they’re excited versus when they’re mad? Are there specific actions attached to certain emotions or do they remain consistent irrespective of mood? Does someone have a lisp that’s noticeable, a way they kind of look up and away into the clouds between—or sometimes during!—conversations, only to pulled sharply back to the ground? Posture, hairstyle. What can you see? It can be the simplest thing. Someone biting their lip, for instance.

Despite what I just said, don’t simply steal from reality. What I’m trying to tease out is what your observations can tell you. What sort of story can they possible evoke?

If, for example, you have a character that has certain traits, don’t copy everything down to the appearance from whom you observed it from. Let’s say there’s someone you know who bites her lip when she’s deep in thought, and reacts to them in real-time, as if she’s engaged in a real verbal conversation. It might be a nice character feature—and will add to realism if you’re taking it from a real person as opposed to an imagined character—but part of the challenge (and fun!) of writing is the creative embellishments.

Take the image of the woman biting her lip again and ask yourself the range of possibilities involved. Why is she doing that? Is she bored? Why? Perhaps she’s in the waiting room. For whom? Is it her awaiting results or is she yet to have a test yet? What can she see, smell? What does this situation (or someone in this room) remind her of, make her fear?

Is she waiting on someone else’s results and here for moral support? Perhaps she’s more worried than her counterpart. But then, who is that supposed to be? Relation, lover? A stranger she feels responsible for? Why?

You could picture her on a date, or maybe just before, and she’s nervous, catching herself on a bench … where? NYC? Seattle? Hong Kong? Leeds? Mozambique?

You see how many different scenarios you can pull out from a simple action such as biting your lip? I pulled that out on the fly. It’s hard to believe because this has been written down so all you have is my word, but honestly, there are so many ways to tell a story from even the simplest of details. You just have to pick a thing and build. It might not lead to anything or might lead into something much bigger. You won’t know until you try. Either way it’s exceptional practice to be able to consider things like that, though they needn’t be so specific.

For other mediums, the same applies, but there might more specific needs. It’s nice to imbibe the rich imagery of your favourite poets, listen to the ways your favourite bands or artists make music, or observe how your favourite screenwriters or directors write and present their features.

The temptation from here is to maybe copy certain styles and then develop there. How about this: when consuming the art you like, what’s missing? What is it that you’d really wish to see? I’ve seen this a lot for people encouraging aspiring book writers but there’s some malleability—some universality—that can be applied here. That might be a good jumping off point for going forward in your writing crusade.

Okay, here are some things to get the juices flowing!

  1. Pick a place and a time of day. Who is your character and what are they doing there? 
  2. An invasion of your hometown has occurred it is [object to your right] but luckily [object to your left] is there to help out. What happens? (I acknowledge the wackiness of this one.)
  3. Write about something memorable in a character’s life. Why is it so significant and how does it shape who the character is? 
  4. Pick a colour! What’s significant about it in your character’s life?

If you think prompts are lame then you clearly don’t like writing as much as you pretend to. Anywhere can be a jumping off point, you just need the right sort of push.

Other resources include:

Writing Excuses. Great (and short!) podcasts about many aspects of writing with an added dimension of specificity.

There are other places like here.
For songs, try here.
For poems, have a look at this.
For scripts, have a peek.

You can also do a Google search. The possibilities are endless.

Okay, you’ve proven that you have more than enough focus to read this. Now go and write! Good luck.

* I took that line from Donny T’s inauguration speech. I found it to be darkly poetic.

**These days I’m averaging 5000 per week. For the most part these posts are part of the problem but I do get some other bits of creative writing done. Regularity has been a big boost.

***It says a lot that I’ve mentioned that Ira Glass quote twice in two weeks now. I hope this doesn’t become a trend, great as it is.

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