MIND MELD: Writing Tools and Exercises
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November is National Writing Month, the month of Nanowrimo. In celebration, this week’s question involves Nanowrimo and other writing exercises:
Here are the answers from this week’s panelists:
NaNoWriMo makes you stop thinking about writing and start writing. The act of writing regularly and under every kind of condition (inspired, bored, happy, cranky) is what produces good writing in the end. Practise, practise, practise. Trial and error. Imitate the classics, then deviate from the norm. Every kind of cliché comes down to the same thing: keep writing until it stops being awful.
Then, when you’re comfortable with how and what you write, push yourself in another area so it goes back to being awful and work your way out of it once more. And don’t forget to learn to edit.
Find your own challenge. The same one might not work every time. Try a new one. Less letting people tell you how to write and more getting people to tell you how you have written.
The value of NaNoWriMo is that it trains aspiring writers (or even existing writers) to write novels (or more appropriately, novellas). They’ll figure out its different constraints: It might be the discipline of finishing the draft first and editing/polishing it later; or learning the value of an outline (or not relying on one, depending on your process); or realizing that you don’t need to write your novel in chronological sequence; or simply having the camaraderie of other writers support you in your endeavor.
A recommended writing exercise is tricky: I’m a short story writer and reader for example, so exercises that I might recommend aren’t necessarily applicable to the craft of novel writing. Having said that, a good resource to check out is Juliette Wade’s blog and the podcast Writing Excuses.
Any writing exercise – or excuse – that gets a writer to writing is bound to be of some value. How much value is another question. To be a successful writer over time, one must plant one’s self firmly in front of whatever method of production of words works for you as a writer – and write! If it takes too many gimmicks or too much outside “inspiration” for a would-be writer, it’s unlikely that writer will be successful in making writing more than a hobby or a part-time profession. The question is whether a writer can get down enough well-chosen words to tell an entertaining story that does more than merely entertain. Any mental tricks that work are useful, but from what I’ve seen, writers are so different in their approaches that what works for one may not work for another. For me, early morning exercise walks with the energetic Aussie-Saluki often result in new ideas or approaches that inspire me to sit down and write. Things like Nanowrimo don’t even interest me, but I’ve heard others claim that Nanowrimo was just the thing. In the end, it’s what works for each individual writer.
Some writers love Nanowrimo and get a lot out of it, but people shouldn’t be discouraged if they don’t complete it or if they find it just doesn’t work for them. Everyone’s experience is different, and you have to find the writing exercise that works for you.
I’m sure someone’s already mentioned the Write or Die software, which punishes you if you pause for any length of time. I’m not big on being told what to do by a piece of software, so I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work for me. I’ve heard people mention a similar application called Written Kitten that rewards you with pictures of kittens for hitting a certain wordcount, which might be more my style. But both of those are exercises in pushing for wordcount, not fostering creativity.
I have participated in some great writing exercises at workshops during SF/F conventions.
When I was a guest at WriterCon, I got to run a writing exercise program already set up by a guest who was unable to come to the convention at the last minute. The exercises were brief paragraphs describing situations or moments, like a character has to break bad news to another character, and so on. The participants already had characters in mind that they wanted to write about, and I would choose an exercise, set a time (usually about five to seven minutes), and they would write furiously until time was called. There was no formal critique, since the idea was to just open your brain and let the scene pour out, and not worry too much about prose style. I would ask for volunteers to read their work and we would discuss it a bit, then move on to the next exercise. Everyone had headaches and carpal tunnel by the end of the program, but it was fun and they said they found it helpful.
I also got to be a participant in a program Julie Czerneda did at ArmadilloCon in Austin, TX, one year. The workshop participants broke into small groups, and had to create a setting and two different alien protagonists based on randomly assigned characteristics. Then we added conflict and plot elements to create an outline for an SF story. Working in a group and sparking ideas off each other was a lot of fun, and we came up with some great stories and alien characters.
One of the odd things about the ambition to be a writer is that sometimes we like the idea of being an author more than we like to actually write. Why we avoid something we claim to enjoy, I don’t know, unless it’s just so much harder than it has any decent right to be. NaNoWriMo makes us do it, and in the giddy company of hoards of other people who are casting caution to the wind and determined to pound out a story. And it makes us write quickly, under deadline, so we have no real chance to procrastinate. It’s like jumping into a frigid lake–with a lot of other drunk partiers. You don’t tiptoe around and decide maybe next summer. So yeah, I like Nanowrimo for that reason.
I’ve looked at bunches of how-to-write approaches, and find most of them mechanical and a bit arbitrary. In contrast, my favorite centers on the principals of screenwriting, where the emphasis is on narrative structure as it relates to a compelling story. I like to use this approach to build story architecture and to diagnose trouble areas. When you hear phrases like plot point one and midpoint, you’re in the arena of film structure. One of the best known teachers of this technique is Robert McKee. As applied to the novel, I recommend The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and, as well, his teaching blog at storyfix.
I’d say that the biggest benefit to writing 50k in a month is figuring out if this writing thing is for you. I meet so many people who say they want to “be a writer” who actually mean they want to sit on a beach and drink pina coladas all day while spending their million dollar advance. There’s this romantic idea that “being a writer” is all about the part of the job that’s hyped in the media – the mega-dollar deals and theme parks and movie bling. What folks often fail to see if the soul-grinding work that got folks to that place, and the continuing toil in the trenches to keep churning out fun, engaging, quality fiction. Hype makes that process look glamorous, when in fact, it can be a pretty anxious, tedious time that eats up years of your life.
I wrote the first sentence of my novel God’s War in 2003. It wasn’t published until 2011. There was a whole lot of work and angst during those years that only a few people followed (mostly those who read my blog). But the “mainstream” media report was just “three book deal!” When the “three book deal!” mention is the first time you see a writer’s name, it sounds like they just banged out something on the beach one day, got a call from a publisher, and started collecting checks. In fact, it’s generally the culmination of many years of pounding on a keyboard in obscurity, chain-smoking in some cockroach infested garret. Well, it was for me…
Don’t get me wrong – I love what I do – but I also recognize, like many professional writers, that what we do is work. Nanowrimo means writing every day. It means writing rather a LOT every day, and that means sitting your butt down in a chair and not doing much else but writing and thinking about writing. I got a similar experience at the Clarion writers’ workshop when I was forced to churn out a short story a week… every week for six weeks. These kinds of experiences give you something you really need when you’re starting out – not just discipline, but something even simpler. They help you figure out if this writing thing is really for you.
One of my classmates at Clarion said, at the end of the six weeks, that it actually helped them realize they didn’t want to write for a living. And that was a really valuable thing to learn. It saves you from wasting a lot of time and passion that you could be using to fuel other things. Writing every day – sick, exhausted, pissed off, drained, uninspired, or overly caffeinated – is how most writers who write to eat live.
At Clarion, I learned that I could write a high volume of stuff without burning out, and that writing for a living was something I could do. That’s a good thing to know. Now I have a day job where I write marketing and advertising copy for 8-10 hours a day, and then I come home and write another couple hours of fiction most nights so I can push out a book a year and maybe a short story or two. I also pick up the occasional freelancing job, which can be another few hours a month. When I was writing novels in my teens for fun, I never dreamed I’d be writing as much as I do now.
Now, I will say that once I started writing for money, the “write every day” advice I always heard just didn’t work for me anymore – at least not for writing fiction. I write so much for the day job that forcing fiction every night just wasn’t productive. I was just spewing crap. I’ll go weeks or months without writing fiction sometimes now, and just let my mind process stuff. That changes, though, when I’m contracted on a novel. When that happens, I have a strict writing schedule with a daily word count that needs to be met six days a week – and more on holidays. And because I have a great deal of experience and discipline with daily writing quotas that I picked up through exercises like Clarion and self-imposed “write every day” periods early in my apprenticeship, doing this for 6 months or so at a stretch is no big thing.
I’d challenge anybody flirting with the idea of being a writer to spend just 4-6 weeks writing every day, or, at minimum, 5-6 days a week. You’ll find out very quickly if you really enjoy writing… or just the idea of being a writer.
I think that Nanowrimo, like every other formal technique for producing, is only as good as it is suited to the writer who’s using it. For the binge writer, Nanowrimo is a good opportunity to bypass the internal editor and get workable draft onto the page. For the writer who needs to be held accountable to others in order to produce, then Nanowrimo offers an opportunity to do so in an environment of people who are more or less in the same boat.
However, for a writer who isn’t suited to producing that volume of words in a compressed period of time, Nanowrimo seems like a pretty self-defeating setup that will just breed frustration and put a spanner in the works. So, if you need that amount of external stimulus to start writing, then you need to make sure you don’t get caught up in other people’s productivity, and have something in place to keep you writing after the calendar flips. But at the end of the day, whatever gets your ass in the seat and writing something is an effective technique.
NaNoWiMo starts with the idea: if you sit down, every day, and write, at the end of the month you’ll have something. Maybe not a GOOD something, maybe not even a FINISHED something… but there will be words on the page. Fifty thousand words, if you “win.” Fifty thousand words is a lot of writing. It takes focus, and determination, and more than a little bit of craziness. And it takes working at it, every single day. NanoWriMo doesn’t worry about what you’re working on, the genre or the voice or the style or how polished it is at the end: only that you hit the word count.
Like “Novel in 90,” which calls for participants to write a minimum of 750 words a day, every day, for 90 days (resulting in 65-70,000 words at the end), and the shorter-goal #1k1h bursts on Twitter, where people focus on getting a thousand word written in an hour, the goal is less about perfecting your style, and more about honing your work habits. Getting you from “what if I’m not in the mood today?” to “I will do this, every day.” On getting it _done_.
And that – the embodiment of “Ass in Chair” so many of us preach as part of how to succeed in writing – is why I think NaNoWriMo has real value for aspiring – and already practicing – writers.
I think the greatest value in Nano lies in writing quickly and thereby letting go of the inner critic that can frequently shut down your creativity and your writing flow. It also asks writers to write every day, which is something that is a necessary skill to learn. Just don’t think that you’re done when you’ve got a draft. You’ll likely need to rewrite three or four times if not more. Just because you have words, doesn’t mean they are good.
As for other techniques, stretching exercises can help. Keeping a journal of ideas is always a plus. But more than anything, write. Finish. Revise. Write more. Do it all again and again and get better. Share your work and get feedback. Read, learn how to craft words and how to tell stories. Read. Read. Read. Write. It’s the only way.
I think Nanowrimo is a great challenge. I love the fact that so many people participate each year. Nanowrimo is teaching people how to write: how to trust the process, believe in their storytelling skills, and jump over that critical voice that stops so many writers. By writing fast, they’re learning how to become professional writers–writers who finish work on a deadline, whether or not the muse feels like showing up in the morning.
Challenges are a great way to work on writing. Whether it’s Nanowrimo or a short story per week, the writer then learns discipline, which is the key to a long-term career.
One problem with Nanowrimo is that some participants spend the entire year revising the book they wrote, and probably killing what makes it good. They should do a continuity revision, continue to trust the process, and mail the work, then move onto the next one. And that’s the other problem with Nanowrimo. Too many writers finish the book and put it in a drawer. There should be a requirement that the writers who finish their book in November have it out in the mail or self-published by January 1. Maybe someone should start that second part of the contest. I’m sure it would help countless writers finish the last, important step of the writing process.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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