Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Musing on Writing

In 1994, I opened up a notebook to jot down some words that were floating around my brain. They rhymed and fell into a poem I named "The Game." I closed the book and ignored it until words started invading my brain again.
In 1996, I had a teacher who noted my scribblings and gave me free access to the class computer to write out an entire book. I loved it. The book was horrible, of course (I was only 16), but as much as I hated the driving words in my brain, and I dismissed the thought of ever actually publishing anything (after all, it was common knowledge that writing was worthless--a hobby, not a "real job"), the actual act of putting words onto the page was intoxicating.

This tendency was encouraged by many of my teachers, from that history teacher to my English teacher, my theatre teacher and even my Biology and Botany teacher. Even then, when I had to go to the library and sift through aromatic tomes rather than ordered lines of text on a screen, I loved to research for my writing. A poor student in standard classroom work, if given alternative assignments, I thrived and went above and beyond.

I filled notebook after notebook, and it was years before I renounced the pen(cil) in favor of the keyboard, but hand cramps were a large factor in that decision. There is something missing from a computer that the scrawled fonts and sketch-strewn pages of a composition book can give you--emotion flows into the pen visually. 

My editor-aplha-reader commented, "Your drafts are so crazy clean, you freak," which got me to thinking about the writing process. For me, I'd say that I spend quite a bit of the day with my muse buzzing around my brain, whispering not-so-sweet nothings that I feel an almost obsessive compulsive need to document, but how much of that is actually spent writing?

Courtesy hisks on stockxchng
Well, for one, that depends on my knowledge of the subject matter. Assuming that I know the location well enough, the local culture, the language, idiosyncrasies, professional terminology and procedure... I can shoot out 500-1200 words an hour. I can put out 5,000+ words in a day (my personal best appears to have been 8,671). 

I get caught up in the details a lot, though. I'd say that writing my current project is about 3-4 hours of writing content and 4-5 hours of research--largely because I'm writing about places I've never been. But sometimes I'll end up spending an hour reading up on something that I only need one sentence worth's of information for. Why? I'm weird, that's why.

I was the same way when I wrote fanfic. I think that is what I have to largely thank for getting to the place I am as a writer now. I started out immature, messy, never letting anything be seen until my beta (a nice Australian lady who had me spelling colour her way while she tried to deal with my atrocious American spelling) had cleaned it. Alternately, I also offered my own services as a beta reader. I only offered to authors who had some serious talent, and it tended to be a huge commitment, but an invaluable experience.

I've written over 60 short stories, ranging from a little over five hundred to over eighty-three-thousand words. I'd tried and scrapped multiple books before I came across the one that clicked. I'm sad that the book I spent 13 years writing is probably total trash, but if I'm honest, I'll admit that it's more than likely. 

Writers are always asked for advice on writing, so there's a ton of varied, awesome and conflicting advice out there. But one thing all writers can agree on:

Just write.

courtesy hoboton on stockxchng

The single most important thing you can do as a writer is write. Every day, even if it's something simple, small. It doesn't have to be fiction. It can be a blog post, some musings on twitter or livejournal, lively debate on the flammable internet. Or it can be fiction--poesy, fanfic, short stories, or, if it's November, head on over to nanowrimo (well, you can head over there any time of the year, but the biggest activity will be in November).

I hear the most, "Well, I have ideas, I just haven't gotten around to writing them down."

Why not? Seriously, even if you're just jotting down notes, writing an outline or whatever your process is, don't say, "some day." Open up a word processing document and start writing. Don't worry about it being just so, just do it. Don't let fear or uncertainty stop you.

If, like me, you write in a linear fashion (which is apparently quite rare), then some of Stephen King's tips might help: Crank it out and don't let more than 3 months pass between beginning and end (while he apparently is a stickler, I say set your own goal, as there is no cookie cutter for a writer) and then let it sit. This is actually pretty important for me: if I go right back into something I've written, depending on the length, I'll pick up a few errors here and there, but I won't be able to clean it, not thoroughly. He suggests months and honestly, I agree. As much as that hurts when you really want to get out a piece, you can't do a healthy revision while it's still fresh in your mind, and your brain is autocorrecting you.
"Read a lot." Another sound bit of advice from Mr. King. If you're like me, you have severe ADHD, and your brain gets kicked into the right mode while reading, and then it goes skipping off down the lane, leaving behind the world you were trying to engross yourself with. Even if you don't have ADHD, this might be the case. At the very least, the more writers voices you get exposed to, the more your own can grow. The more your vocabulary grows, as well as your punctuation and grammar skills.

Most of the rest of his advice really describes why I hate him as a writer (that's right, my favorite advice comes from a writer whose voice I abhor, though I love his stories). He's the anti-Anne Rice. "Brevity. Adjectives are the fucking enemy." Above, I linked to Laurell K. Hamilton's advice and she's a third, totally different type of writer.

Anne Rice is The Perfectionist. She does exactly what Laurell K. Hamilton says is the death of a book. She won't let herself proceed until it's polished to a gleam (she's another person with a writer's voice that I cannot tolerate). She also violates Stephen King's call for brevity. On a Nathaniel Hawthorne level. LKH violates his admonishments on adjectives. He violates her gold-shit balance rule (he only kills 10% of his darlings, to her 20%-70%). These are three major authors and they write nothing alike. Their 'rules' are antithetical to each other's process.

Where do I fall? Somewhere amongst it all. I naturally write with brevity, but rife with adjectives. I cull as I go. If I have any break in writing the story, I go back and reread it from the beginning. This gets me back in the mindset of the characters and gets their voices back in my head (no matter how easy it is to peek in on their world, I feel this is critical for me). Every day, I reread the most recent bit that I did before breaking for the night to get my pace back on.

When editing, after I go through it 5-6 times with at least a few weeks in between revisions, I get nitpicker guides and go through seeking out the biggest literary geek complaints. I check out all my word usages, and to be honest, I still missed stuff that I'm correcting for post-publishing revision (which I can only do because I'm self-published).

And on that--why am I self published, you might wonder? Is it because I don't have confidence in my work? No. I know my work is good. I believe in my story, my characters and my premise for the target audience. Is it a lack of patience? Oh, yes. I cannot wait to get my work out there and share it with people. Let me share a quote by Stephen King that I came across while finding a good link to his advice:
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
I write to entertain. I believe that entertainment is one of the most important things in life. For me, it goes: air, water, food, sex, entertainment, stability... Yup, it's that high up there for me. This might sound like a first world issue, but it's not. In the third world, entertainment is just as alive--stories told at the fire, sticks drawing in the dirt, clay painted on the body, beauty in necessary work--the muse does not have an income bracket. It is born to its artist regardless.

Truthfully, the reasons I self-published were: 1. I get royalties immediately. Sure, I might only make $50 for the life of my book, but I get that first check a lot sooner and a much higher percentage.

2. I control my work. No one is naming my book for me (well, I suppose that's only partly true--I did have a poll and ask my friends to help me pick a title) or telling me that something vital to character or plot development is unnecessary. I'm a little Anne Rice there, I suppose. 

3. I really care more about getting it out there to the people who actively seek out the topics I write on--who genuinely want to read something interesting and out of the box.

Would I like to be picked up by a real publisher, despite all that? You bet your Aunt Fanny. It's just not my top priority. Especially since that requires something that I am lacking: schmoozing skills. You have to woo your agent to get that work out there. I'm disabled and part of that is that I have serious anxiety.
If I wasn't a major extrovert, I'd probably be a recluse. While I love socializing and get out as often as I can, I cannot do what I've read is required to attract a good agent. I wish I had Jim Butcher's humor and tenacity with the subject.

My advice? Read a bunch of advice from professional authors and use LKH's 30/70 rule. 30 percent of it will help you and 70 percent will be trash. Write and find out who you are as a writer. Set goals. Adjust them. Drop them. Fail. Succeed. Don't expect to be any of the authors I've mentioned in this post. Don't believe that you can't be, either. Don't judge yourself by other people's rules for themselves.

Don't let this scare you--let it inspire you.
Never let the first person to read your book be someone whose opinion could crush you. Never be afraid to listen to criticism and ask why. If someone can't tell you why, they're either 1. reading something they shouldn't have been (not something they're interested in) 2. an asshole/troll 3. just not a fan of your writer's voice or 4. correct, but shouldn't be giving out criticism because they clearly aren't capable of writing if they can't describe or explain something.

Above all: Don't over-think it.

And buy my book.

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