Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding Time to Write: Block it Out

“Brick by brick, my citizens. Brick by brick.”—Roman Emperor Hadrian

Waiting for inspiration is a waste of time. Creativity doesn't really work like that. You don't wait around for it to show up, and then get to work. This puts the process exactly backwards, and is detrimental to a developing writer. You sit down to write, and as your brain bangs ideas together, interesting things happen. So sit down already!

When you're learning this craft, your writing time can and will be frustrating, difficult, slow, and exhausting. This makes the prospect of sitting down to write each day that much more daunting. It becomes oh-so easy to find something else to do with your free time if you are feeling at all unmotivated to write. You make deals with yourself. You procrastinate. “Oh, I'll write some later when I have more energy, more time, when this show isn't on T.V., after the Olympics are over, it's not like I’ll get that much done anyway, I'm not in the right mindset,” all that crap.

How do you overcome this impulse, reliably sit down, make progress, improve your writing, and feel better about the whole process?  Try this:

Block out time, and stick to your schedule.

You can not improve and you will not finish projects without sincere effort. Sincere effort starts with time management—getting your butt in that chair. But don't fret; you don't have to kill yourself slaving away. Anyone with an artistic disposition is likely taken with the idea of working only once the sun goes down and toiling through the night fueled by little more than coffee or alcohol, and passion. If you're struggling to meet a deadline, you may have to burn the midnight oil, but otherwise, write when you would normally be awake. Writing is thinking. Every person I know thinks better an hour after breakfast than they do at 3 am.

One to three hours regularly set aside to write pays dividends. 1½ to 2 hours is probably a sweet spot for most people, but if all you can spare is 45 minutes, then get your 45 minutes. My first semester in college, I would wake up at 6:30 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so I could write for a little less than an hour before class. It was not much time, but I always felt better about the rest of my day knowing I had put it in, even if I didn't get another chance to write.

Decide ahead of time when you will write and for how long. Write it down if you have to, but when the appointed hour rolls around, no matter what you're doing, get your butt in that chair and get to work. Don't let yourself be distracted. Don't pop online for a few minutes here or there. Concentrate. This is your writing time. Use it to write, even if you're just writing ideas. It doesn't have to be the same time every day. It doesn't have to be the same duration. If you have to skip days, that's fine, but write when you can. I know this sounds overly simple, because it is, but it still works.  

Start promptly and, just as important, stop when the time is up. Finish your thought, save, and get on with the rest of your day. You'll feel secure in the knowledge that however much you wrote, and however good it is or isn't, you were there and you were working. You put your time in, and you'll be back tomorrow. Now you're free to do whatever you want, guilt free. By the end of the month, you'll have real progress that you can be proud of.

Pick a time, sit down, and do it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

R.A. Salvatore: Writer's Block and Being an Author

"If you can quit, quit, because if you can quit, you're not a writer."—R.A. Salvatore 
R.A. Salvatore was my fantasy youth. Anyone who loves sci/fi or fantasy has their first novel that opened the genre to them. For Salvatore, as with many other fantasy authors of his generation, that book was The Hobbit. For me, that book was Homeland, which started The Dark Elf Trilogy. The adventures of Drizzt Do'Urden and his friends throughout that trilogy and the many to follow didn't just make me a fantasy enthusiast, they made me a reader.

In this clip, Salvatore gives his seasoned perspective on writer's block: “There is no such thing as writer's block. You know what writer's block is? Writer's block is lack of confidence. […] Forget it. Sit down and start typing. Type. Type. Type.”

Having written more books than years he's been alive (55), more than twenty of which have been New York Times best-sellers, doesn't mean Salvatore is the final word on writing, or even on writing fantasy, but it does mean maybe you should listen to what he has to say if you're interested in a career as a working author.

Thanks for the adventures, Bob.  And the nostalgia every time I read, or re-read, one of your books.

Do you have any books that started you as a reader, in fantasy or any other genre?  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Crying and Writing

"I'd try to make you sad somehow
But I can't so I cry instead." —The Beatles, I'll Cry Instead
If you're crying when you're writing, are you doing it right?

In a word, no. Your emotional state when writing is not an indicator of the quality of your work or the emotion that will be evoked in a reader. Your crying does not mean a reader will find your work moving. Your laughing does not mean a reader will find your work funny. Being emotional is not the same as effectively communicating that emotion.

This isn't to say that if you are crying when you're writing, you're doing it wrong. There are several reasons you might be emotional during a project. Maybe you're reliving some difficult experiences, either to record them or borrow from them. Maybe you're just an emotional person and you're trying to really empathize with your characters. This is all especially acceptable during a first draft, when you're just trying to drill into a story and feel it out.

My worry, though, is that writing is not like acting. It's not performance art. No one can see the tears on your keyboard. I've sat through many readings of poetry and short stories in which the writers have forced undeserved emotions onto the reading of their work. If you cannot help but get emotional when you consider your work, of course you won't be able to tell if it's any good. You're too close to it.

In order to judge the quality of your writing, you have to be able to step back and look at what you have done dispassionately, like a passing reader who happened to pluck it from a shelf. Revision. Rewriting. Rethinking. These are the tools of the trade. They are how you learn to write, and how you (eventually) write well. You hammer out your ideas, get some distance on them, and then sit back down, dry eyed, and see if you can make anything of it.

Hopefully you'll find good things in your writing, even if it's just parts of conversation or pieces of description. You'll know these because you've read good books before and recognize competent work. But when you come across less effective sections of your work—too heavy handed, lacking character motivation, overt expositional dialogue, boring, etc—if you can be honest with yourself when you see these flaws and diagnose them, right there! You're doing it right.

As a writer, you're always going to be bias about your own work. You have to learn to compensate for this bias, or at least be aware of it. Everything you write is going to seem that much better to you (or worse, depending on your inclination, or just the time of day) because you wrote it. This is what makes learning to be critical of your own writing, and thus learning to write, so difficult.  

That is why we all need a good editor—another pair of eyes on our work to tell us when we're full of shit, and when we've done something really well. The perspective of a serious reader is invaluable. If you sincerely can't tell what is good and bad in your writing, ask someone with a critical eye to read it for you. Have a friend who thinks the Sherlock finale wasn't so good for reasons 1, 2, and 3, but still enjoyed other parts for reason 4 and 5? They're probably a good place to start.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Read This: His Majesty's Dragon

     “'Very well, but do hurry,' he said. 'I would like to go up to those mountains. And I could just eat those,' he added, looking at a team of carriage horses standing nearby[. . .].
      'Oh, no, Temeraire, you cannot just eat anything you see on the street,' Laurence said in alarm.” —Naomi Novik, His Majesty's Dragon

What would it be like to have a baby dragon, fresh out of the shell, choose you as his lifelong companion? How would a person feel if this choice meant you had to abandon all your life's ambitions, from career success to marriage and family, and join the Aerial Corps in service to king and country? Captain Will Laurence, a man of duty and propriety, formerly of the HMS Reliant, discovers that while this charge is at times deeply painful, it is also the most wonderful thing that could have ever befallen him.

Set during the Napoleonic War in a Europe where dragons, while not exactly commonplace, have been harnessed, bred for speed and size, and incorporated into the military as the Aerial Corps, Naomi Novik fully imagines the impact and use of dragons in a society, right down to the massive amount of livestock that must be kept on hand for their feeding. Oh yes, dragons eat a great deal—something Laurence learns all too quickly as baby Temeraire strains the provisions aboard the Reliant, at least when he isn't sleeping, as they sail fast for home.

Though some of the book may be dedicated to Temeraire and Laurence training with the Aerial Corps in Scotland, as well as subsequent battles with Napoleon's forces, His Majesty's Dragon is not about dragon battle tactics. It's about the journey Laurence and Temeraire make together into the clandestine ranks of dragon riders, where the usual stiffness of British society falls away, and women find equal footing among their male counterparts, a state of conduct Laurence struggles adjusting to. But more significantly, the story follows the development of Laurence's touching kinship with a creature as extraordinary as Temeraire. He never knew anything could be so dear to him as his own dragon.

The two of them are really lovely together. It's worth a look.

I'm not alone in my appreciation of Novik's Temeraire. Last I heard, Peter Jackson bought the film rights to the series. If my word isn't good enough (and there's no reason it should be), maybe you'll take a hint from Pete.