Monthly Archives: January 2012

Here, a question which is asked by many is answered by someone far more capable than I. That is all.

Whatever

Here are three questions I was recently asked about writing. I’m going to condense the questions, because when they were asked, they meandered across several paragraphs; they boil down to three sentences, which are:

When may you call yourself a writer? When may you call yourself a professional writer? When may you say you are a good writer?

These are three separate but related questions. Let’s start with the most fundamental.

When may you call yourself a writer?

I tend to be very small-c catholic on this question and say that if you write at all, you can consider yourself a writer. This annoys people who think that tweeting about your lunch or posting on Facebook that your cat horked up a hairball does not rise to the level of truewriting, but, look, writing is an act of setting down in words the things about which you have…

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13 Ways of Looking at a Blog Post: 2

Here we go, picking up right where we left off last time:

4

Surprise yourself. If you can bring the story – or let it bring you – to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader. The moment you can see any well-planned surprise, chances are, so will your sophisticated reader.

Over the years, I’ve found that I’m part discovery writer, part outliner (with a little drafter thrown in for good measure).  As much as I may make intricate plans, though, it’s the moments when something unexpected, yet utterly inevitable, happens which are most satisfying to me as a writer.  I’ll admit, since I’ve only got a few very short stories published, and those in relative obscurity, that I haven’t gotten a whole lot of reader feedback about such moments, but once in a while I get a moment of such satisfaction in a writing workshop when the thing that surprised me when it tumbled out of my fingers and into a story gets just such a reaction from a reader.  No matter your writing method, you shouldn’t follow any plan you have so slavishly that you never let yourself write the things that surprise you.

I think I’ve used the phrase “killing your darlings” before on this blog.  In that same spirit, don’t be too precious with your initial ideas of what a story might be.  I’ll talk a bit more about this later, but for now, I’ll just say that sometimes the book (or story or essay or grant proposal or fortune cookie fortune) you want to write and the one you need to write aren’t going to be the same thing.

5

When you get stuck, go back and read your earlier scenes, looking for dropped characters or details that you can resurrect as “buried guns.” . . .

Face it: you’re going to get stuck while you’re writing.  It happens.  Earlier, I posited that one reason for getting stuck is not knowing where a scene is going.  If this happens, your first option is to just scrap the scene, but this isn’t always the best option.  Just as you should always keep separate copies of all your earlier drafts of a work in case you edit out something really good and want it back, you should hang on to those scenes that you’re stuck on.  Take a good look at them and see if there’s something you’ve already written that you can resurrect in order to give life to the scene you’re writing.

This doesn’t just have to apply to things that are still in the piece.  I often end up writing bits and pieces, sometimes entire chapters or sections, that don’t make the final cut or sometimes even the first draft, but I don’t throw them out.  Instead, I keep them as reference.  In my recent novel, I scrapped an entire chapter that I wrote from the viewpoint of the villain because it was making him too sympathetic for my tastes.  Although that chapter itself never made it into the book (and I doubt it ever will), I still found it to be a useful artifact moving forward because it gave me a chance to get more into the villain’s head, so I could better understand what he would do as the story moved forward, even if some of his motivations remained opaque to readers and the other characters in the book.

6

Use writing as your excuse to throw a party each week – even if you call that party a “workshop.” . . .

I’ll admit, since I finished college, I haven’t followed this rule, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good one.  I think it’s a great one.  One of the best parts of my writing classes at college was the opportunity, several times a week, to spend time with other writers and talk about things, both writerly and otherwise.  Being alone with your writing can be great, but you need to get out there, too.  Talk to other people about your writing.  Your friends will show you things that might have been right in front of you the whole time but which you otherwise would never have noticed.  You need to let your writing cool off, like a pie, but you should also share that pie.  Even after the pie has cooled, there are still things about it that you won’t notice if you just eat it by yourself.  Sharing it with friends will allow you to refine the recipe so the next time you bake that pie, it’ll be a bit better.  If you’re lucky, eventually someone will want to pay you a great deal of money for your pie.


13 Ways of Looking at a Blog Post: 1

I read an essay by Fight Club author, Chuck Palahniuk, which was linked on Twitter, which was titled, very simply, “13 Writing Tips.”  Partway through reading the essay, I got to thinking that there were some really great points made which I felt could be expanded upon. so, without further ado:

1

. . .When you don’t want to write, set an egg timer for one hour (or half hour) and sit down to write until the timer rings. If you still hate writing, you’re free in an hour. But usually, by the time that alarm rings, you’ll be so involved in your work, enjoying it so much, you’ll keep going. . . .

I have found, time and again, that the hardest part of writing is not knowing what to write, but sitting down and getting it on the page.  Going along with that, during that awkward period after you’ve sat down and started to write but before you’ve really gotten into it, there’s the problem of looking for a million reasons not to write.  For my part, I’ve been able to mostly isolate and eliminate (or at least curb the effects of) these problems.

Writing on the computer is great because there’s so much that a computer can do, but that’s also problematic.  Twitter, blogs, comics, Wikipedia–the list is a long one.  Even if you can just focus on your word processor, there’s all sorts of nonsense to distract you: spell check, fiddling with formatting, playing around with fonts, checking and re-checking your word-count to see how much progress you’re making.  I turn off the automatic spell-check while I’m writing, and that helps turn off my internal editor a bit, but sometimes that’s not enough.

Plug Time: Focus Writer is cross-platform and free.  When it’s running, it goes full-screen, so you can’t even see the twenty tabs you have open or your Twitter feed or anything like that.  It’s great.  There are a lot of features that I could go on at length about, but I won’t.  I’ll just say that the second half of the novel I recently finished went a lot faster than the first half in large part because I had many fewer distractions in my writing environment.

2

Your audience is smarter than you imagine. Don’t be afraid to experiment with story forms and time shifts. . . .

Worrying if you’re being too obtuse, especially in a first draft, is a huge distraction that you should just ignore.  Please, have some faith.  You can always go back later and say “what the heck was I thinking?” and cut and change things to your heart’s content, but please, before you do any of that, put whatever you’re working on in front of someone else.  A fresh pair of eyes and some new opinions are rarely a bad thing when you’re writing anything from an essay to a multi-volume epic.

3

Before you sit down to write a scene, mull it over in your mind and know the purpose of that scene. . . .

If a scene you’ve written doesn’t do anything, then it never, ever belongs.  Period.  Half the time, if I’m getting bogged down in my writing, it’s because my story is trying to tell me that I’m not going anywhere with the scene I’m writing.  Asking yourself what you’re trying to achieve with a scene is a good question to ask yourself any time you sit down to write, but it’s especially important when you’ve been sitting, staring at the screen, or the page, or the typewriter for the last ten minutes without even feeling inspired to write a word.

Also learn to recognize when you need to be writing a different scene, even if it isn’t the next one in chronological order.  In my recent novel, there were a number of places where I just left a note to myself to come back to a scene later when I had a better idea of what it would be doing so that I could jump ahead and write the action that I needed to write right then.  I know for a fact that those scenes which I left and came back to later are much stronger than they would otherwise have been because I let them sit at the back of my mind and develop for a while.

Check back in a few days when I’ll be going over the next few tips, and in the mean time, feel free to share in the comments any experiences you have relating to any of the above points.


Strike for What’s Right

Because I don’t have any control over what wordpress.com will do for the next 24 hours, consider this blog on strike until the 19th.  For more information, check out http://sopastrike.com/strike.


Accidental Wisdom

I just finished writing the first draft of my first novel and made a joke about its needing to cool on the windowsill for a little while on my Facebook.  The question was then raised by a friend if a novel is like a pie.  I was told that I should hang on to my response so I could put it in a volume that shall henceforth be known as Famous Hilary’s Famous Quotes for Fledgling Young Writers.

A novel (or short story) is precisely like a pie because if you try to dig in to it too soon after you’ve finished it, you’ll just get burned, and if the filling hasn’t congealed enough, things are likely to collapse as a result.

Anyone else have another reason that a novel is like a pie?


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