The Diamond Age of Content

In Search of Lost Time

I have a serious tabbing issue. Not dabbing, tabbing*.

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The tabbing problem. This isn’t even as bad as it has been but I’ve been on a pretty aggressive tab-reduction game and I forgot to document it as its worst so you’ll have to take this as evidence. (Also it’s cute that an earlier form of this piece is pictured here too.)

My issue is not easily tracked. It might be to do with focus but it has its roots in a more positive thing: data, information, excitement, etc. When they’re easily accessible I become so intrigued to investigate, to dive, explore, I end up with the tabbing travesty you see above.

I want to open up my avenues of interest rapidly and, not unlike a magpie, collect all the shiny things but never end up doing anything much with them.

That’s right: I’d rather open more tabs before looking at the content contained within the tabs already open.

I should note that I’m not saying we should close the internet. Far from it: I think I should be developing more complex systems in being able to engage with material in a good way rather than in a stressful way. When I think about the sheer multitude of things we have at our fingertips, though, it really astonishes me.

We live in a sort of Diamond Age of Content, with around 500 original scripted shows predicted this year, an increase from last year’s 455, for example, there’s a perspiration-worthy amount of material of interest. And that’s just TV. Think about the ways in which we can potentially amuse ourselves.

Our issue nowadays isn’t that we don’t have good enough content but rather that there’s so much more good stuff than time available to consume it all in. From books, TV, film, video games, podcasts, social media, and more, we can glut ourselves beyond the typical limits of satisfaction.

This is particularly startling when you consider that we only have a certain number of time per day, one hundred blocks, to be precise, and a limited overall number of blocks in our lifetime. That means how you spend them counts. Not so easy when everything is fighting for your attention. How many times in a week can you count someone saying “oh you have to watch/read/listen to this?” or seen an advert of something of interest? I’ll wait.

It bothers me a lot, which is part of a wider way of thought that’s led to the tabbing. But this is only at my laptop and while I spend a lot of time there, it’s not the only place I consume content.

Note: this is just an exercise in spending time in leisure effectively which means I’m omitting other things like eating or travelling.

Time Divided

The way I think I (unevenly) carve types of time—ways to spend time on a given activity. For example, reading. You could read a book—which can be read physically, digitally, or in audio—or an article, which could be a magazine, newspaper, on Wikipedia, etc.

Part of effective time use for reading time is picking one activity and doing it with some degree of depth. So I’ll read that NYT piece over bits of Infinite Jest or vice versa. I want to read both but if I flit between the two mercilessly then I get a great deal less reading done while also wasting time. One solution to deal with this inaction is to open the tab of the article(s), save it for later. Only, this has the potential to continue ad infinitum, especially when scrolling my newsfeed.

Infinite Jest or the New York Times? 

Listening time: Now consider other content, such as podcasts. There are so many podcasts of interest that I want to listen to. At the same time, however, several songs are buzzing in my head and are begging to be listened to and I can’t focus on the spoken words. If I don’t indulge then I’ll think about the music and not listen to the podcast. Of course I can’t do both and whatever I’ll pick will consume a significant portion of time. That’s in a good scenario. Often, I’ll just be so intrigued by the choice of music or podcasts on show that I won’t even listen to anything. I’ll just open the tabs on YouTube or click subscribe on my podcatcher.

 The Daily or Arctic Monkeys?

Watching time: All the TV, films released all the time, YouTube vids.

Brooklyn or Brooklyn Nine Nine? 

TV is so fucking good and there’s so much of it. When someone recommends me a show and it has an excess of five seasons I sigh because there’s just so much of it ahead. That might fill someone’s heart with joy, especially if you love the show. But I also think of it in terms of lost time. I’m a very picky watcher and I want to invest my time wisely. What if it isn’t for me and is instead detracted time from a show that does?

There are other things such as, I dunno, hobbies: games, playing an instrument, drawing, writing books (or these essays). Out of those I have to pick one, then do that thing for a set time.

Let’s not even talk about social media and what you can do with it. No wonder people call it the attention economy, things jumping for your attention and eating into your time.

That was fairly exhaustive because I like to make you work as a reader. In all seriousness though, what I hope to get at is to devise a (limited) system of pickiness as an entry point to cut through the fat.

What I Want From Content

You can’t save time like money, store it up and take it all at once snuggled under a pillow fort on a dreary day. At best you can economise by being selective. With it being limited, you want to invest it well with at least equal returns.

For such a selection process I might need to be a little more stringent than in the past and make harder choices, create a good way of judging if it’s worth the time. The things of interest should be least one of the following:

a.) educational: enhances existing or generates new knowledge.

b.) fun/pleasurable: sustains or increases pleasure.

[c.) cohere with certain values I possess]

Note: I’ve put c.) in brackets because I think that this selection criteria might not be within other people’s selection process. c.) is interesting, though, mostly because it can be overruled by either a or b (or both) so it’s really a third possibility. For example, if I don’t agree with the message of something, it will serve as educational.  I’ll explain a bit more but watch as someone proves me wrong.

What values am I talking about? The biggest one is: well-developed characters from many walks of life—or typically what we mean when we say “diverse fiction”. That’s well-developed characters including ones we see less of: women, “POC”** characters, characters who are non-heterosexual, etc. All of these needs also to not defined by such things.

So: a character (see: likes, dislikes, merits and flaws) who is gay; not the gay character who is inserted to serve some illusory sense of inclusion and representation. And there’s a correct execution for this as well.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a great example of being aware of social issues but weaves them intricately into the tapestry of the show’s reality. Read on ahead and see some of the reasons why I enjoy it a lot. Again, though, it need not have these things to be entertaining but it’s nice to consider. I’d take one well-written black character than 25 shoddy stereotypes.

Anyway. It seems that the values of TV and film tend to reflect bankable trends opposed to any other values. This is usually because risk is not particularly financially viable. This isn’t the entire picture, true, but it is a strong guiding principle.

The common perception is that films in particular are made with the intention of making a well-selling piece before a well-told piece. Which is not to say that something that sells well isn’t well told, but films are a business and I suppose protecting those interests come first. There is a nexus between them, a sweet spot of good enough for both investors and audiences. It’s why franchises are huge right about now***.

An issue you might run into here is that a degree of variety is lost. Now, we have to stop here for a sec because this seems to contradict my central point of narrowing down how to spend to time. But I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit in having a variety of things to hold one’s interests.

For example, I was a little disappointed by Doctor Strange, which on one hand introduced newer elements to the exhaustive list of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This, however, was packaged in a fairly formulaic way. Not saying that formula is necessarily a problem, especially if the story is told well, but when it echoes a previous film in the same universe too sharply (Iron Man), in essence you could at best only derive an equal amount of pleasure from it.

But I kind of get it: it’s doing something different and if it’s too left-field then their wider ambitions will fall to the wayside. Film-making is more complicated than just a couple of people with a vision. There are lots of other factors (studios, investors, etc) which in some way dictate the shape of the finished product. But let’s move on.

So to summarise, I want my stuff to be varied on top of either being educational or pleasurable. This isn’t an extra letter in my list because it doesn’t target a specific medium as opposed to collectives. I want the types of books to be varied as opposed to one piece of thing with twenty different genres contained within, for example.

Now that that’s cleared up, I have to address the plenitude. The selection criteria must already apply in some capacity to the stuff that I’m foaming at the mouth over. Put simply: I have to say no to the new stuff. This sounds simple but is still somewhat tricky.

Time Regained: Saying No

Okay, so the tabbing issue can be summarised as such: I’ve seen something interesting and might not have the time to look at it, so I open a new tab with the intention of revisiting it at a later point.

Part of the problem is that newer interesting things appear and I open them up in a new tab as well. Eventually: tab-lock. The intention is to revisit but with every passing day the chances to revisit in a timely manner begin to dwindle. Often, the things I leave open aren’t half as interesting as I might have thought they’d be so it seems like a waste of time overall.

This is a good place to put in a notion of resistance. Maybe a time-limit: if I don’t revisit it in under say three days then it’s getting axed. I’m only going to stress myself out in spending several days clearing tabs. Eliminating sooner will help me guide my thinking towards actually beneficial content. I shit you not that to clear the tabs I would need about 3-5 complete days. Essays, articles, video features, walkthroughs … a lot of stuff that I don’t ever revisit for months at a time. It’s exhausting and it’s slowing my browser down.

It’s not all been bad though. I’ve been using The Great Suspender**** recently and it’s been an interesting extension for me. (It’s out now for Firefox as well as an add-on so if you want to give it a go, I say proceed.) I thought it would have been an enabler to my awful tabbing but it’s been a boon … to an extent.  It’s made me carefully consider what I find interesting to be really interesting.

When I do my tab cleanse every 3-6 months, I often leave the experience drained and not having gained much. But when they’re all suspended, a glance at the title, reloading the page reveals I’m not as interested in it at present as when I first viewed it. It’s helped in dropping the tabbage by maybe a few percent which is small but significant. This is an option but not the solution. I’ll definitely need to develop more defences against my problem but that’s do with my wiring–something to grow out of. At the very least, I could bookmark some of them for the future.

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The way this works is that you can set a time limit for how long a tab is inactive before it is suspended, like 1 hour, for example. You can also suspend and not suspend at will. I think the intention of this is to speed up the browser but I’ve been doing it as a tab killer. I’m sure that there are extensions that fit that need better, but that’s something to explore later on.

For other content I should do one of two things: 1.) Say no and 2.) apply the one episode rule. I can’t possibly watch everything suggested so some things I will need to pass up on. That’s not an easy decision to make but it needs to happen for peace of mind. I don’t have to consume anything. “I have to watch this show.” Nay, I say. I reject it!

A softer approach to decide if I can stomach spending more blocks of time on something will be through the one episode rule.

I’ve been considering the active implementation of this for a while. I say one episode because that should be the requisite amount of time to see if this this thing has piqued my interest. More broadly, though, it’s a way of thinking that is not exclusive to episodic content.

So the rule: If it grabs me within the first episode, I’ll keep watching. If not, drop it. It took me too long to get to this point. I stopped watching House of Cards about half a year ago during season 2. I realised too late that I hated the world and characters. The writing’s good but the aggressive amorality was wearing me down more than it was enthusing me: I had no-one to root for, essentially. So I stopped. Now I can watch other things in its place. Like *goes quiet* anime.

Same goes for books: I used to stick it out to the end even if it was mostly boring. But recently I’ve been using the library pretty heavily (my wallet is sickly). What it gives me is a better range of choice without the extra “but I paid money for this” which I guess keeps me reading something that I don’t like.

If it doesn’t work for you, don’t suffer through it. Especially if, like me, a fear of yours is wasted time. Move on to others; your to-read/watch list is waiting for you to make a dent in it. This isn’t to say stop after the first line. I know within 100 pages whether or not I’ll like a book. Often I stop well before then.

A good question to raise here is if the above stated criteria can overrule the one episode rule, to which I answer: I suppose so. If a book isn’t particularly pleasurable but is pretty educational then sticking with it is not such a wasted effort. At least then you walk away with something—you have something to show for your efforts. You need to approach this with some judgement; I can’t speak to your specific needs.

But if you walk away with nothing then what’s the point of engaging with it at all? You read for a reason that isn’t suffering, I assume? Just to make it crystal clear, here’s an example: if I don’t a certain philosophy (Ayn Rand’s, for example) when reading it but had never known about it before in-depth then that’s a worthwhile experience. I’ve learnt something new.

In saying all of this, there’s something that’s been neglected: before any of the above can happen, I’ll have to weigh the newer content with the existing stuff I want to get into/have already invested time into. For me, I would say that my pre-existing list takes precedence over newer content. I would say at a rate of at least two items on my existing list need to be engaged with before introducing new things into the fold. I think I can be pretty strict with this for myself. So finish several books before buying/renting new ones.

For time division, I’ve found that having specific times of day helps guide the content towards meaningful consumption instead of mass hording. I think the issue for me is the plenitude of it all isn’t ordered in a way that’s useful for me. It might be ordered by genre but we’re talking about music and podcasts fighting for your attention alongside books, TV, etc. I’ve found that giving them their own space helps.

So, I’ll try my best to start my day by reading at least 20 pages of a book at a time. Then after I might go through social media and see an article of interest and read that. The day at large I have to choose and shape it around what’s happening but the option to head outside for an extended period of time usually puts a podcast in the driver’s seat, as they work better listened-to at one time as opposed to in bits.

When my podcasts of choice have finished, then move to music. Inverse where desired. The push towards this is to create corners/boundaries where there aren’t any. I know what I like and, coupled with an elimination process means that there’s a high chance I will actually do it. For watching media, after the book, YouTube would be a good to watch, which leaves the evening free for either a film or a TV show. If I pick one on one day, the other must follow on the next. TV show one day, film the next. That way I can get through content sort of in tandem.

Morning: Read books (at least 20 pages); social media for articles specifically; YouTube (1 video)

Afternoon: Podcast > music

Evening: TV or film (pick one).

And I think … that’s a post. To summarise: To get over the tabbing issue, I’ll need to be strict and review whether or not opening up a new tab will be worth my while or an addition to the problem. For new content, consider the one-episode rule. That usually gives me enough of an impression to see if I want to continue. Finally, if I make the consumption slightly more structured then I think I can tackle it effectively. This is by no means a holistic approach, but it’s a nice start. After a trial run I might do a reflective post to assess its effectiveness and change or develop it as appropriate.

*first—and last—dabbing joke/reference
**As someone who fits under the umbrella of BAME/POC, I’m not actually fond of such terms. However, it’s commonly understood and it’s a simple catch-all; I’m not inventive enough to come up with an equivalent. Also, I can swallow my ego for twenty minutes when there are wider social issues at play here. My concerns surrounding this are pretty nuanced and not all coherent but I might write about this in the distant future. No promises though. Thanks for checking in but scroll back up for the main action you sweet silly person you.
***Thanks, Marvel, though you are most certainly not the cause, you’re definitely part of the problem. In saying that, though, I just gobble up your shit so who’s the real chump? In seriousness, what Marvel has done is interesting to analyse as it’s emblematic of modern cinema: a film that’s familiar in the sense that we know what type of film it is, but it does the familiar in a well-enough executed way that audiences enjoy. It makes a tonne of cash, critics love it. The studios are then given essentially free-licence to build a franchise, which is in its own right is quite cool: doing a big connected universe of content for a slightly more fringe slice of pop culture. Marvel’s success pushed its comic book rivals DC to start creating a shared universe as well. No doubt, this is what prompted the Star Wars extended universe to happen. I mean, you look at the billion that Rogue One made worldwide … Star Wars is going nowhere. And neither are franchises. It leads me to wonder what the next big thing is after comic book related media stops, or at least cools down, in the next decade or so. Also, a quick point is that Marvel are by no means the first to do a franchise but they are the biggest and most successful. So.
****This is no way sponsored content. A friend recommended it to me is all.
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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.