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.
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.