Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Equipping Yourself to Write

I'm calling this series "Outrun The Corgis of Time." As I explained the other day, you need to write more to write better... but there is another reason you should work on writing more quickly and accurately. Life is short. Time's winged chariot is always drawing near -- and it's pulled by rabid corgis. You only have so much time, so if you don't manage to write all your ideas out into stories, no one else will! Your stories will die. You need to write faster and better so you can get it all done.

There is a Shoe cartoon where the Perfesser explained how to write a novel. It involved sitting at your desk, rolling a sheet of paper into your typewriter, and proceeding to "stare at it until beads of blood appear on your forehead."

I love that cartoon, but it perpetuates a lie.

There's this romantic notion that writer's block is a natural part of writing. This this mysterious and mystical thing that nobody can explain.... Except that it's got a simple explanation. When you're staring at a blank page until beads of blood appear on your forehead, you haven't equipped yourself to write. You haven't prepared.

Now, that lack of preparation may not be your fault. As I pointed out to someone recently, if you're in a concentration camp, and you're not writing, you aren't suffering from writer's block. Writing is the least of your problems, you should be concentrating on getting out of that situation. This is true of milder problems that may stop you from writing. You don't sit around and bemoan your inability to write, you put your energy into changing your life.

That's a part of your preparation.

But there's another romantic notion that also gets in your way. That's the idea that we're all born to be "pantsers" or "plotters." Pantsers, of course, are people who don't plan or prepare before writing, but just write the story by the seat of their pants. Plotters, on the other hand, do outlines and work out all the details before sitting down and writing.

These are both valuable techniques and any experienced writer should be able to do either. The thing that makes this a romantic notion is that many young writers latch onto it as an inborn lifestyle -- and that's particularly true of the pantser side of the equation.

"I'm a pantser!" declares the young writer proudly. "I don't prepare. I just sit down and write!" And then the writer proceeds to sit and stare at the blank page until beads of blood appear on their forehead.

Here's a clue: if you're staring at a blank page, you're NOT a pantser. Not a born one, anyway. You can learn to be one, though.

Real pantsers actually do prepare. They just don't do plotting or outlining. Furthermore, if you want to improve on your writing speed, you can learn something from how pantsers prepare themselves -- even if you're a plotter.

Here are some techniques to prepare you for a writing session:

1. Get a good night's sleep. (Also, make an effort to eat properly.) Sleep has a huge effect on your ability to concentrate. You may sometimes have a really great writing session when you pull an all-nighter... but that usually happens if you go into the session well rested and ready to go.

2. Warm up for your writing session with physical activity - preferably to music. Physical activity -- dancing, exercising, even doing housework -- stimulates and unleashes the 'daydream' part of your brain. Music also awakens your brain, while pulling your focus away from conscious thought.

I find it particularly helps if I exercise to music that fits thematically with what I'm about to write. It doesn't have to be obvious. A scary scene doesn't require scary music (though it can help). Look at your character's mood or attitude, and find a song to fit that, and sometimes it gets you deeper into the point of view. (Confession time, I tend to listen to Hermans Hermits when I'm warming up to write something about Mick McKee, the young gunslinger who narrates my mystery westerns. Why? Because a slice of his attention is always on his young wife Casey... and something tells him he's into something good.)

3. Hold a regularly scheduled super brainstorming session. I'll talk more about these later in the week, but basically I'm talking about raw idea generation. Just sit down for an hour or even a half hour every week and pick a subject and brainstorm ideas based on it. You can also choose to focus on a particular problem you're having with your work-in-progress. Sit there and just write down as many ideas as you can. Set a quota if it helps, just make sure it's high enough that it forces you to start writing down the stupid ideas to meet it -- because that's when you bust outside your walls and start thinking of new creative stuff.

Brainstorming is what your brain is not doing when you are staring at a blank page. You have no ideas, or no good options for an idea you have. If you want to have a good writing session, you need to resolve the lack of ideas before you sit down.

There is another benefit to brainstorming exercises -- it trains your brain to come up with ideas on demand. It gets you in the habit of thinking creatively. (This is the kind of practicing that can get you to Carnegie Hall.)

4. Write whatever. Journals, emails, blogposts, and forum posts. Freewriting and writing exercises. Pick things that will get you to just start writing (journals are especially good for this) and get used to getting your words and thoughts down quickly, even if inelegantly.

I challenge you, today, to get started on some of this preparation -- especially the brainstorming -- because I'm going to challenge you to a writing test tomorrow. But you need to be prepared first.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Good post. And I do agree with you about the plotting vs. pantsing. I can do both...I have to outline for one editor that I have and I don't have to for the others. I'd *rather* not plan a book out more than the next couple of scenes in advance...but I certainly *can* if the editor asks me to.

Ellis Vidler said...

My method for getting started when you draw a blank is to type in a sentence, anything. It can be Mary had a little lamb or whatever comes to mind. Then start editing it. Can you think of a better verb? What about the character's name? A lamb? Soon you'll be off on your own idea.

The Daring Novelist said...

Exactly, Elizabeth - you learn to do what you need to. And once you're comfortable with various methods, you're free to do what you need to.

Ellis - Yes, the "just write a sentence" is a great way to move forward. I'll talk about that and similar techniques later in the week. Your method sounds kind of like a brainstorming exercise too. I'll have to add that to my list of such exercises.

2enjoylife8 said...

A test! Thank you =) I find freewriting gets me writing, but I'm getting so sick of it. And this is coming from a staunch freewriting advocate. I think Journaling like you said is the way to go. A little more time for thought, but still gets something written. Am also adding exercise and more brainstorming sessions to my routine.