I’ve mentioned my writing routine; 500 words per morning and 2-3 hour-long blocks during the week to edit or other writing activities. I do most of my writing during these morning sessions. And, frankly, it’s the time I have, with a non-writing full-time job and family. Of course, I dream of more.
Hugh Howey spoke about this approach. He said it was alright, but he found he discards the first five hundred words of the day… treats them almost as warmup. My experience varies; sometimes, if I know what I want to say, it can manifest quickly. Also, I do 750 words per day with morning pages which clears the mind for writing and serves as a warmup. Regardless, some days it feels like it takes a few hundred words to get things going.
One of the pandemic mini-vacations we took last year was to a cabin in the Catskills, the week before Christmas. The kids were remote learning, and carved out a few days from work. I treated it as a mini-writing holiday and set aside more time to write in the morning and made sure each afternoon included a block of editing. This focus, combined with staying somewhere new, payed off immediately. I wrote Wasted Crisis, edited Crystal Grove, generated more ideas and had fewer blockers. Ever since that trip, I’ve been yearning for a writing retreat.
I’ve never been on a retreat of any sort; the closest I came was a 2-week baseball camp when I was 14. There are two choices; a formal, instructor-led retreat with workshops and other people or a solo adventure. I’ve researched on both.
I looked for local (within driving distance) and “dream” scenarios. I’m only looking at one’s that are more open, not the writer-in-residence thing, with rigorous applications and acceptance criteria. Not yet! Most request samples but it as long as you pony up the fees, you are set. I can use the mentoring and feedback, and I’d love to interact with other struggling writers. From a distance, there looks like a lot of upside… workshops, lessons, critiques, reading other’s work, etc. Especially for someone who needs help.
I’d need a WIP or something to work with before joining a formal writers’ retreat. My albatross, Crystal Grove, would be an excellent candidate if I could join one now.
They don’t have teams waiting at the ready to respond. They don’t run table-top exercises, don’t invest in security, or IT at all. To a small shop, IT is a cost center to manage costs on and forget. And maybe get a cool app. So both technical, security-savvy reviewers carried their worldview with them. I vacillated between ignoring them and wondering if I didn’t set up the situation correctly. In the end, I added more information about the size of the firm and the limited scope of the hack (only to one app, not the entire system).
The third part of feedback was the most useful. The story, as submitted, had an open ending. I gave Megs an opportunity to save the day and left her choice open to interpretation The reviewer argued this was the most interesting part and reminiscent to how the hacker held the fate of the company in his hands. And now so did Megs. What would she do with it? He added more questions to further drive home the point, but that was the most important part.
I agreed with this assessment, and it highlights a few of my weaknesses. Not enough character thought/development/issues. While writing, I focus on the plot and what’s happening… the most interesting part to me. But, of course, readers love characters and want to see them struggle. Struggle with a problem, struggle with morality, ethics, doing the right thing, self-motivation, etc. This feedback was a great way for me to go back and add some more elements into the piece. I did and the story is stronger.
The hard part, though, is working these changes into the story, one I’ve read ten times in the last few months. My skill in editing is the simple stuff… I may not craft great sentences and prose (yet!) but I recognize problematic areas. I can make in-line edits and tweaks all day long. What I haven’t been able to do very well is integrate larger ideas or edits. These edits are a skill and something I need to work through. In order for Megs to come to this conclusion, she needs to think and express certain things early on… can’t just plop some thoughts at the end and call it a day. I tried adding a new ideas and thoughts here and there. When I read it, though, it feels just like that… “feelings” tacked on that don’t mix in well with the rest of the flow. I can’t tell if this perceived weakness true or a reaction to having read the piece so many times the additions just jump out.
In the end, even with my frustration around the technical feedback, having a writer/editor look at the piece was invaluable. The goal now is to incorporate this of feedback into my normal writing routine.
In earlier posts, I listed “lack of feedback” as a blocker for progressing as a writer. Spitting out words every day? No problem. Writing better every day… is hard without real, actionable feedback. I submitted a short story for a contest with modest expectations… it didn’t win, but the editors offered, for a small fee, a two-page critique. Feedback.
The story (which I’ve re-submitted to other pubs based on the below feedback) called Wasted Crisis, features Megs who works in IT for a medium-sized constructions and engineering firm. They get hacked and blackmailed; she needs to marshal her limited resources to find a way out of the situation. And, maybe, improve her standing with the firm. I submitted it the day before the deadline.
The critique had three key areas of feedback, with varying degrees of relevance. I didn’t follow the submission rules correctly (included my name and information on the first page of the manuscript -of course this is required for many submissions, but shame on me for not verifying)… so, they never read it for the contest. If I submitted it earlier, they’d have sent it back and asked me to remove that identifying information. Two lessons learned. And a waste of one of the three critiques.
The second referred to my technical description of the problem. As background, I’ve worked in technology as a programmer for over twenty years, and the last ten in corporate IT. I’m not a security expert, but am well-versed in hacking, vectors, and know first-hand how companies react to hacks. The reviewer just got a certification in IT security. Basically, he had a problem with the description of the hack and what it meant. I had this story critiqued on scribophile as well, and had a wide range of reactions from reviewers there… in its original form, I included more technology that the non-technical readers had trouble understanding; they glossed over the technical “stuff”. I couldn’t let that happen…. the story is not an in-the-weeds breakdown of how to handle a hack, the hack is the backdrop to show how the character solves a problem and the moral and ethical issues she encounters. One reviewer on Scribophile, though, was also an IT security expert, and gave similar feedback. It’s very interesting… both of the tech reviewers jumped to the same conclusion… that this fictional firm ran and acted like the corporations they worked for/with. They clearly brought their biases with them. And, to be fair, their comments were correct… just not applicable to my story. The key difference between my story and their real-life experiences is the scale. Megs (my protagonist) is almost a one-woman shop. Cheap family business (if you’ve ever worked for a family business, you’ve seen this).
Cryptonomicon, Stephenson. My first Neal Stephenson book. One of my favorite reads of all time, truly immersive. I read it around the same time as Neuromancer, early in my career as a programmer. Of course, I was a corporate Microsoft programmer, writing software for people to buy computer hardware at MicroWarehouse, or internal sales tools that were so dull I can’t even remember what they did. In Cryptonomicon, the hackers (in both uses of the word) used a new operating system called Finux, a clever fictional turn on Linux. Linux was new and dangerous then (now it silently runs most of the world’s servers and devices); whenever I do something in the command line in Linux, I always picture myself as one of Stephenson’s characters. A long read by most standards, it’s short compared to his more recent books like Seveneves. Another one for the short list of books to re-read.
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill and Great Irish Short Stories, Mercier. Fortune smiled on me (or was it a bit of the ol’ luck?) with these two books. I’ve read a lot of Gaiman lately and was inspired by one of his books (Ocean at the End of the Lane) to re-work my WIP novella, and am listening to his non-fiction Norse Mythology. One of his consistent themes/subjects/approaches had been to take an ancient tale or mythology and use it in a modern setting. American Gods is the most obvious example, but Oceans at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Book have many characters from legend and myth. I wanted to try this with Irish myths and legends. While my grandparents were from Ireland, they never mentioned faeries or ghosts. And my wife is studying Irish mythology and practices as part of her energy training. Both intersect at learning Irish myths and legends. The Cahill book was mostly the history of Rome and Europe; only the bits on St. Patrick were interesting.
The last book from the pile is one of my all-time favorites. When I was in elementary school, my parents gave me The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes. I was a big fan of Holmes and wanted to be a detective. The book was amazing; hard cover, bound in green with gold, embossed lettering and painted edges on the pages. I’m thrilled to pull it out of the shadows.
Like many homeowners, we’re renovating our kitchen, and, by extension, flooring for the main floor and re-doing our living room. New floor, paint, bookshelves, furniture, etc. As a result, we’re getting rid of four overstuffed bookcases.
We have a few areas for books in the house; the living room shelves and the shelves in my office. The office shelves are well maintained and I can rattle off what books are here and when I got them, my impression of them, etc. Because of our changing use of the house, I rarely wander past the living room shelves; they became dusty and ornamental.
I sorted through the shelves to decide which books stayed. Most stayed. I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of a book. Some were easy; I had old textbooks from college (in the 90s!), falling apart and wildly dated (Principles of Management? Gantt charts?). Also parted with some below-average novels, especially tech-focused stories from the early aughts. Now I have two boxes full of books, and nowhere to put them.
A few stood out; not just classics, but works I remember fondly and would love to read again. I placed them outside the box and they surround me as I write. So, so many excellent memories. Selected titles:
A Confederacy of Dunces: O’Toole. I first saw this book as a junior-high school student in the East Brunswick Public Library, on a display. The cover and the title enticed me to check it out. I read it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it. A few years back, some famous actors were interested in making it a movie. And they referred to it as a comedy… and I didn’t remember it being funny at all. So I bought and re-read it; hysterical. Big difference between reading it as an adult compared to a teenager. On the short list to read again.
Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, William Gibson. When I was first starting out in technology, in 1998, the noir world of hackers and techno music and people wearing shades typing in the command line seemed very cool… cyberpunk. Neuromancer isn’t the first cyberpunk novel, but is the best. I’ve read it three or four times. Pattern Recognition is a much later work, part of the trilogy. I only sorta liked these books when I read them the first time, but they are held in such high regard, I want to try them again. They need a careful, slow read, as Gibson purposely doesn’t reveal everything you need to know early in the book; the reader needs to puzzle through early scenes. Intentionally. My father would hate them. As a writer, I want to figure out how he does it.
I’m pleased to announce my second published story, “The Inspector’s Legacy” in New Maps. First in print! The Inspector’s Legacy was one of my initial story ideas. Not the first story I wrote (that was an unreadable story called “Two Birds”), but it prompted me to pursue writing.
Back in the pre-Covid days, I commuted to Manhattan by bus or ferry/subway. While sitting in traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I pictured a member of the working class commuting to post-apocalyptic Manhattan while the elite lived in tall towers. The streets and subways flooded and only the service class used them.
My first job out of college was as a health inspector (actual title: sanitarian); our hero would be one too. I wanted this health inspector to be exceptional; either a quasi-superhero or a bumbling idiot (I chose the idiot). I also wanted to show part of the job; the inspections, the bureaucracy, the conversation amongst other inspectors and employees. A lot of that made the last cut, although I reduced the detail. Turns out most people found it boring. Who knew?
And the story evolved from there. Set in a wet, caste-system Manhattan, with bankers, government officials and a small army of workers providing food, water and power. Our hero, Peter (when I worked in the Health Department, two co-workers, mentors and friends were named Peter), runs into a moral issue he may or may not be equipped to handle.
I wrote it last spring and submitted for consideration to final edition of “Into the Ruins”. It didn’t make that cut, but it was accepted for the inaugural issue of New Maps, for which I am eternally grateful. New Maps doesn’t have an online presence for the actual work; if you want to read the Inspector’s Legacy or any of the other delightful stories, you can order them here.
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.