In Part 1 and Part 2, I discussed my frustration with conflicting writing advice; the best time to write, how many words, etc. Even the act of writing itself doesn’t have consensus. There are authors, like Gaiman, who write longhand with a fountain pen. Aside—I’m in full Gaiman mode at the moment. Read four or five of his books in the last year and am watching his Masterclass on writing. He posted pics of a writing room in some remote part of New Zealand that literally looks like a medieval hobbit hall. Writing magic, using a fountain pen, in that setting…wow. Hand sweeping across the page invites flow; after not writing longhand for twenty years, I started (in cursive) with morning pages. However, my handwriting is so illegible I can’t read most of my words, even minutes after I wrote them. And I type faster than I can write, so writing long-hand is a non-starter.
Even the way authors approach starting their work varies. The great divide is between outliners and pantsers. After my first brutal attempt, I tried outlining my next two stories. I found outlining too restrictive, too prescriptive. The template I used was logical, described action in the scene, the theme, the conflict, how the character started out, how they ended, etc. And it was fun to lie out, but much harder to implement. Writing an outline felt like homework, more than something creative. Like I’ve mentioned before, though, knowing the end is critical. I just heard Joyce Carol Oates (I haven’t read her yet, but she swirls around the writing space like Gaiman and Stephen King) on The Tim Ferriss show; she needs to know the ending, the beginning and the title. Gaiman, in his Masterclass, added some more interesting color; he said besides knowing what the happens in the story (plot), know what the story is about… the examples he used were women’s role in society and secrets. Add to that, some advice from Koppelman: what are the stakes in every scene? In the Godfather, every single scene is a battle, where the characters come out higher or lower than they did before.
Another piece of canon advice is to have a minimum number of words to write every day. Professionals have a high number, beginning and intermediate advice usually has totals less than 1000. My current target is 500 words. This is a pretty common and made sense while commuting and pressed for time. I have more time (pandemic commute) and should increase that number. Regardless, the math works; 500 words a day are two short stories a month or a novel in six months. Without editing. Just sit consistently and pound out words, in whatever time you have.
Most pro’s have a different time horizon. In the Paris Review, authors describe a habit that lasts anywhere from two to five hours every morning like Hemingway and Vonnegut. This blurb from Howey resonated:
He added (I can’t find the quote!) he usually discards the first 500-1000 words, as just warming up. Yikes. Does that mean most of my writing should never had made it past the first edit? I’ve noticed getting into a good groove requires the coffee to kick in and a few hundred words. Maybe the compromise is to increase the word goal on weekends and target 500 on school days. It’s an interesting thought…double the output 3 days a week.
The last area of conflict is how to harness creativity. I’ve read a lot on this topic; one of my many fears is twenty-five years in corporations sucked the creative juices out of me. I marvel at authors that can consistently come up with grand worlds and ideas. I’ve found that the routine helps; somewhere in between the meditation and Morning Pages, and writing consistently, creativity is more available. Story ideas flow more easily than they did a few months ago.
Sit and do the work. The creativity comes from working the muscle, putting in the reps. I’ve seen it work. I’ve found creativity occurring outside of the work as well. And not just during long walks or showers. I’ll have a vivid story idea while working or driving. Or, I’ll just have a very positive, enthusiastic feeling toward the story I’m writing or piece I’m editing. And I want to work on it, right then. Sadly, I rarely have the chance. Counterpoint:
Reading this, I immediately have the same fantasy. I’m in a remote location, working on a piece, or multiple pieces. It’s just me, the woods and mountains, and a supply of paper, a laptop, coffee and shitty cell service. What could I do? Could I be more responsive to the whims of creative moments? And edit and whatever, all day long? The key is to be bored; a condition I never experience.
So what is the best way to reconcile conflicting advice? Throw up on the page, or write carefully the first time? Edit as you go, or wait until you finished? Small chunks of writing work, or long, multi-hour sessions? Schedule creativity and work like a muscle, or is it impossible to schedule? When the web was new, I spent a lot of time researching the best way to do things. Lose weight, eat healthy, raise kids, manage finances, etc. No shortage of best practices and success stories on these topics (multiply this by two with emergence of podcasts over the last eight years). When I’m lazy or close-minded or in a rush, I just look for answers. Don’t explain how mitochondria work, just tell me the routine to follow. But I’ve learned that best practices, methods, diets, rules only need to work for one person. We are all so different, in our biologies, backgrounds, situations and places in life, priorities and abilities, no advice or routine is one-size-fits-all. Unfortunately, the individual needs to do the work. Read all the advice and see what makes sense. Make the changes, especially if they are “low cost” (trying meditation on your own in the morning only costs time and effort). If these methods don’t work, shuffle the deck. Just because one method works for a famous podcaster doesn’t mean it will work for you.
I’ll shake things up. I will read the previous day’s writing and make minor edits. I will push the daily writing goal out to 750 on the 2-3 days that I can. I’ll schedule 2 editing sessions a week, with enough time to sink into the task. Make time for non-fiction reading. And re-evaluate, again.
Above (pictured) is my writing shelf. More precisely, my advice-on-writing shelf, books I’ve bought over the last year. It looks like a lot, but I restrained myself from buying three times as many. It’s easier to read than to do the work. Not pictured are all the websites I’ve consulted. A lot of expert advice and techniques in these pages. Write every day. Have a habit, a dedicated writing space. Get feedback. Read your writing out loud. Read good writing.
Not all the advice from these “canon” books and websites agree. This isn’t unique to writing advice. Health is a field I’ve followed for years with wildly divergent opinions. What is the best diet (med/paleo/vegan)?
Surely there’s a consensus for the best way to approach the most basic activity; sitting and writing words, pages. At first, the advice seemed clear. Throw up on the page. Don’t worry about quality. Just get a shitty first draft done. I’ve embraced this method, it helps me get into a flow and moves the writing along. The shitty-throw up approach is helpful while trying to hit a word-count target.
A closer look, though, yields contrasting opinions. One that jumped out was Hemingway (yes, ridiculous to emulate a great, but most good thoughts on writing come from talented writers).
Here’s the key: he only wrote a few hundred words per day. Five hundred words spread over five plus hours isn’t throwing up on the page. More like agonizing over each word, each sentence. Hemingway wasn’t alone. Vonnegut would work all day on one page, around 300 words. To make it perfect. So, these two masters worked deliberately.
This could be a matter of interpretation, of course. Maybe they started the day with “throw up” and just kept editing. Maybe Vonnegut wrote two thousand words and just edited them to death, and got one usable page?
Crafting each sentence carefully, deliberately, with intent, is the opposite of throwing up on the page. With a year of writing under my belt, I see both sides of this. Writing without the internal editor is very useful. But it leaves a lot of work for later. One thing I learned, and have read little about, is the incredible time and effort involved in editing. If you create something better the first time, maybe the edits become easier. It’s frustrating when I read an early draft and note all the problems. Grammar. Lazy sentences. Missing references. Continuity. Too much stage direction, too many micro movements.
Editing is another example of conflicting advice. Everyone agrees you should write every day. But should you edit every day? And does that count as writing? I’ve done well with a daily writing habit. Editing, though… not so much. Stories are piling up; I have four short stories and a novella that needs serious work. But during the work week, I only have limited time… so I spend it writing.
Early on, the advice I followed was to start every morning, every writing session fresh. Don’t read what you wrote yesterday. It may be terrible! And you want your inner critic, your inner perfectionist to stay away. Big, creative thoughts.
But the titans sometimes have a different approach.
And this makes sense. Worth noting that Didion writes mostly non-fiction. But this seems more efficient; by the time you complete your writing, you have given the draft a once-over. Reading what you wrote yesterday puts you in the right frame of mind for today’s writing.
Seinfeld looks at this differently, as well. I like the sentiment that you shouldn’t edit and critique what you wrote today; let the idea sit with you, and the good vibes from the work rest with you for the rest of the day.
My current take; if I had more time during the day (say, 4 2-hour blocks in the week to edit, consistently), I wouldn’t mix the editing process with the morning words. I haven’t found those eight consistent hours, though, so I will try the Didion approach…at least make progress toward editing every day.
The morning routines of highly successful people, especially writers, are well documented. Hemingway. Stephen King. Koppelman. Holiday. Different writers in different genre’s, but all have a routine.
My morning routine: five-thirty wake-up, glass of lemon and salt water, Five-Minute Journal. Then the heavy work, Cameron’s Morning Pages. Twenty to thirty minutes of Vipassana meditation. Then five hundred words.
In early December, the walls closed in. We hadn’t taken a “real” vacation all year; the last time I rode a plane was over a year ago. A few months earlier, we had gone up to the Catskills and rented a cabin for a few nights, just to break the monotony. On a whim, we made another reservation in Mountain Dale, near Monticello, NY. The family wanted to get away, and I needed to mix up the routine.
During the before-times, I’d take two family trips and two-three adult weekends, sometimes to Florida for spring training, or to a cabin in the Poconos, with friends. I loved these getaways, not only for the fun, the careless eating and wine drinking, but for the little change to the routine. And it puts that all-important event on the calendar to look forward to.
This year amplified the need. Yes, having long mornings to carry out a routine is nice… but it can seem like a job. Reminds me of why I stopped competing in triathlons… the training, the races, the gear seemed more like a “have-to” rather than “want-to”.
The break in the routine worked. Waking up somewhere different, writing in an unfamiliar room, overlooking a wooded, snowy backyard with animal tracks invigorated the writing. Banged out a new short story for a contest and, while walking through the woods with my daughter, came up with the idea for a (longer) short story for New Maps, my second submission.
And when we came back, only four short days later, the routine at home seemed fresher. Not a burden, easy, and the writing came easy for a few days. Routines are great; breaking them consciously and coming back to them is even better.
Postscript: We’ve been back for a month as I write this. Yesterday, the routine felt sour, the writing tough, the enthusiasm low. But even minor changes helped, today. Tried to have fewer distractions in the morning (l love speaking with my family, but any non-creative input in the middle of this routine is death), played music and wrote this post instead of battling through a rough patch in the story. An unexpected snow flurry while having my first sip of coffee helped, too.
Underlining, marginalia, folding back the pages in books is one of life’s little pleasures. Still seems taboo, even all of these years out of school. I mark up most non-fiction books with underlines, asterisks and notes. This feels right in the moment and helps to solidify concepts or lessons from the book. Interacting with the words, rather than just reading them, is the first step in understanding the material.
Over the years, I became comfortable with mark-up and honing in on important passages. However, while marking up a book last year, I realized I didn’t have practice or method for internalizing whatever I underlined/circled/got-so-excited-about-I-jotted-notes-in-the-margins. I needed to review the text and the lessons.
Hence, the read-again shelf was born; books with important ideas I need to revisit. I’ve read about other people’s methods: Ryan Holiday’s and Dave Perrell’s come to mind.
In theory, I open a book again in front of my computer, two or three weeks after finishing. I’d scan for the underlines and file the lessons/takeaways/etc. in Evernote under Book Notes. And add a new action or reminder to my daily schedule.
There is a strong resistance to starting. It seems like hard work, not nearly as fun as just reading. And the pile isn’t big, maybe seven or eight books. Some of them disappointed me, like Stillness or The Second Mountain, so there can’t be that much information to transcribe. In fact, it may be the opposite; I got mad at the authors while reading and mostly disagree with their ideas.
I love books. Buying them, holding them, cracking their spines. New and unread books have a special spot on my bookshelf.
I remember when buying books was a chore. One option was the local library, with a limited selection but no penalty if you didn’t enjoy a book. The local bookstores, Waldenbooks and BDalton, had a better selection, but the stakes were higher. I felt obliged to finish any book from retailers. Now, both of those barriers are gone with Amazon Prime, my Wishlist and cheap used books. Books cost the same as when I was a kid, but my pockets are deeper.
When my mood is high, the to-read pile is thrilling. Who knows what new knowledge or story or character awaits? Or the warm embrace of a great story? As an amateur writer, every story is a learning opportunity.
When my mood is low, though, the pile mocks me. So much work to do. And the pile gets bigger, quicker. Coming into December, the pile got too big; it can only (as per my rules) get as high as a one bookshelf, about sixteen inches. I resolved, not for the first time, to stop ordering new books until this pile reduced to only two or three books. Then, my wife needed gifts for me. Nothing easier than ordering books off of the wish list. After that, a good friend recommended this book, and I purchased it right away. Finally, the founder of my company sent out his annual gift (always a book)…which looks interesting but is roughly a million pages and made the pile dangerously high.
So, once again, I have a moratorium on ordering new books. I think four or five remaining is the perfect time to re-stock. The balance of books on the pile is off, though…the mix of fiction and non-fiction. I try to have one of each going at once. Right now, I am reading Neverwhere and a book on Creative Space. Next, a book of short stories and a book on technology or trees. But the remaining books on the pile skew heavily toward non-fiction.
The best hedge is to re-read fiction. I started at night, re-reading Cheever’s short stories. I recently did the same with David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Reading fiction a second time allows me to see what the author is doing, more of the mechanics of what they are writing. And lets me keep the 1:1 reading ratio.
I wrote Crystal Grove in the spring of 2020, during the most restrictive part of the lockdown in the US. In my sunroom, I watched the first morning rays catch and disperse in crystals dangling from trees. It got me thinking about a family with crystals hanging in their yard. One of my quarantine habits was an evening walk around the neighborhood, and toward the end of that walk I’d pass a ramshackle house with a large yard, complete with an old doghouse slowly collapsing in their backyard.
These two ideas formed the skeleton of a story. An evil house that rattles the crystals, or something like that. My wife’s quarantine hobby is getting deeper into Reiki. So the idea progressed to a dark, Reiki power effecting women in the neighborhood. Write what you know.
I finished about forty-five thousand words back in September. It needed editing before I could share it with anyone. But I didn’t want to work with it… it seemed broken. This nameless issue I had with the piece hung over me, and blocked me from moving forward with any writing projects.
Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman showed me what was wrong. First, I didn’t even know what genre the story was; it wasn’t horror or magic, nor realistic narrative either. So what was it? Gaiman’s work is the closest comparison—magical realism. Not magical, with ancient characters based on myths and old stories, something more mystical. And, while reading Ocean, I figured out what else the quarantine had injected into my story.
My piece was depressing. I tried to make it realistic, a husband and wife arguing and mis-communicating and yelling at their kids. And then coming together to solve the problem. But, instead, it read like the husband and wife were angry and hated their kids and each other. Misery jumped off the page.
I wasn’t upset or mad at my family during the early days of COVID-19. But the fear, bitterness, and general unhappiness of the moment seeped into the piece, a glimpse into an unhappy home, rather than a peek into the life of a regular suburban family.
So I started a rewrite. And it feels much better. I went for a lighter feel and didn’t worry about realism. It’s a far cry from what Gaiman can do with his prose, to create that magical feel, but his influence pulled me out of the darkness.
Basically, it’s a collection of sentences clustered around different elements of writing. Each sentence ends with a line break. I can’t follow every thought and intention, but it reads well.
A few things stick out. About 1/3 of the way in, Klinkenborg introduces grammar and the structure of sentences. First, he knocks down one of my previously held beliefs:
“Many people assume there’s an inherent conflict between creativity and a critical, analytic awareness of the medium you work in.
They assume that the creative artist works unconsciously And that knowing too much about matters like grammar and syntax diminishes or blunts creativity.
This is nonsense.”
Whoops. I’m in this camp. A quick reading of this site uncovers subtle grammatical flaws. Not so much spelling, but 102 level grammar. And I agreed with the “writing has some magic and flow so you don’t need to be an expert in grammar,” schtick.
I went to an excellent school system and took honors and AP English classes. I don’t remember spending much time on Grammar (with a capital G). A lot of time reading and writing analysis and looking for the deep meaning in stories, but very little time talking about the mechanics of language. Or, as Klinkenborg explains, the creation and editing of sentences.
“But you do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs…active and passive construction…relation between a pronoun and its antecedent…verb tenses…nature of participles and their role as modifiers…subtleties of prepositions—the hardest part of speech….”
I had to look up a few of these terms. I was introduced to them in sixth grade, but didn’t learn the real mechanics…I was an avid reader, and instinctively knew a wrong sentence without knowing the correct grammatical label.
So maybe I’m like a musician who never studied, can’t read sheet music, but still shreds on the guitar?
“The names of the kinds of words, their relation to each other. and their functions.
Like a painter’s knowledge of color and the laws of perspective,
A jazz musician’s knowledge of chord structures and his instrument.”
The last time I read poetry was in high school. The lessons were dry and focused on the mechanics of the poem. I only remember one piece, Woodstock by Joanie Mitchell (and only because it the famous CSN&Y song). And that was my total interaction with poetry. Fast forward to now, Creating Short Fiction includes an entire section on writing lyrically. Knight, the author, recommends understanding poetry to improve the quality of prose. At his suggestion, I read The Poets Handbook. It didn’t resonate. The only nugget I pulled out was a better understanding of the rhythm or cadence of a phrase. Like iambic pentameter, with the words building up then down. I read about Bob Dylan and his admiration of Dylan Thomas. I knew of Thomas, but wasn’t familiar with his work. Or so I thought; his most famous piece is “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night”. This poem captures me. And I finally see how structure, meter, repetition, and carefully chosen words work together to create such a powerful piece.
From Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Beautiful, haunting. The repetition and usage of “Do not go gentle into that good night. /Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” lends the piece so much power, so much force. There are only 19 lines, and Thomas uses these two lines 8 times. This is a villanelle which requires the repetition of two lines throughout the piece. Their meaning changes through the poem, starting philosophically and ending literally. This is a nice poem to read, but it should be heard. Poetry is meant to be listened to out loud. Check it out here. Stunning. Thomas wrote this poem for his father as he was dying; it was not a hypothetical exercise. The emotion seeps out of every line.