Anyone who has ever tippy-typed away on a story has been challenged, if not outright taken down at the knees, by the same dark creatures that step up and draw swords on every writer. Beasts of inner doubt, criticism and confusion. But I guarantee, these creatures are wusses. The writers you love and admire do not have superpowers that you cannot also generate. They might defeat them more skillfully or with stylistic swordplay different from yours. But a kill is a kill. Whether it’s a good kill that all the town will discuss for years to come while raising a pint of ale to your victory or it’s a kill that just enabled you to live to fight another day, it’s about getting the job done. Here are ten tactics for just that.
1. Know Your Literary Powell Doctrine
That is, know the answer to question “So, what are you writing for anyway?” It’s your way of making sure you’re not committing your inner forces and wasting your own time for nothing. You don’t have to tell anyone your reason but You need to know. You have to sit with You for five untethered-to-the-internet seconds and ask yourself, “Are you planning to write a book to accomplish something you could accomplish some other less bloody and time-consuming way?” If you’re looking for love, adulation, riches, there are better and easier ways to get them. Life is short. Sitting for long periods of time really isn’t healthy for you. You sure this is what you have to do? For me, I wrote my first book (of non-fiction) because there were things I could not include in my documentary that I just had to say and people (I was convinced) needed to know my very unique and brilliant world-shattering new take. I found myself up on a soapbox so often and at inappropriate times that it was better for all concerned if I just wrote it down to relieve the voices from inside my head. I wrote my second book (of fiction) after I’d been toying with the idea of the story for six years and had so many folders of ideas jotted to napkins, envelopes, and magazine margins that my apartment became a fire trap. The vagueries of this unformed story became like a mosquito trapped in my bedroom at night. The buzzing just would not stop! I wasn’t going to sleep until I killed that thing! What is your mosquito? Knowing this is going to pull you through the slog, the mud, and the grenades that get thrown in your foxhole. Frankly, making the buzzing stop is also how you are going to know you are done.
2. Build a Fortress
Building a Fortress is all about protecting your time and space. It’s about finding and claiming your hip, happening writer’s shed, your creative cubbyhole. You gotta pick advantageous terrain, plant a flag there, bunker up and get to work. Your writing fortress is the place you go that not only says to others “Stay away from my walls or I’ll rain boiling tar down upon you” but says to your brain “I’m in my safe space and here to work.” If you have a fortress and go there regularly, after twenty to thirty nearly spaced visits you will actually have developed an official habit and all sorts of unconscious forces will come to your aid. So, consider from where it’s most difficult for writer-unfriendlies to approach. Are you better off at the library? The cupboard under the stairs? A cafe with a set of headphones? Do you actually have a whole extra room or home-away-from-home you can allocate just for writing? Some writers are very mobile and need only the space between their torso and their laptop to make a fort. Just remember, you’ve got to keep the fortress maintained with your presence. Don’t be like the troops in Dances With Wolves and abandon the fort. Then Kevin Costner will move in and eventually abandon the fort, too, leaving only an unfinished journal behind that gets used by illiterates as toilet paper in the end.
3. Identify Enemies
We’re not talking metaphorical enemies here. We’re talking real flesh and blood non-supportive, undermining people here. The kind that are so miserable, emotionally-impaired or creatively disconnected that they want to see you fail. I, for example, have lived off my creative work for some time, but still I’ve got an aunt who every time I see her asks, “How’s your job search coming?” My sister until super-recently used to deflect all requests for favors by lasering some sanctimonious rage my way while saying, “I’ve got a job!” (Note: The thing that stopped her was no longer having a job but that’s another story.) Every writer has got at least one official Disapprover of the Arts in their realm. These aren’t people with whom you can reason. What you’ve got to do is go Nixon on them and make an Enemies List. If you don’t know who they are, you’ll leave your guard down. You won’t remember to avoid them. So think about it. These are the people with whom you will deliberately and with conscious of forethought NOT discuss writing. You may discuss sports, weather, music, politics, religion, unified space-time theory, and leprechauns but not your writing. With them, writing is your Fight Club and your fortress is Vegas. What happens in your fortress, stays in your fortress. The point of identifying enemies is so you can avoid conflict with them and if you do have to engage, it can better be at the time and place of your strategic choosing. Like when you drop the bombshell of your three-book deal and high-ranked position on the best seller list at Thanksgiving dinner. And, if all possible, you want to keep these people separate and unmingled. Enemies that mass together tend to form fronts. The least you can do is starve them of information.
4. Have a Battle Plan
Directors don’t shoot a film without a script. Painters don’t paint without a sketch. A car isn’t built without some schematics. Houses don’t rise out of the ground without architectural drawings. Doctors don’t do surgery without scans. You get the idea? You, Writer Person, are not different than all these other builders and creators. You need a basic plan, a direction for you to write your story. Some call it outlining. For whatever reason, there are writers who refuse the structure of forethought (forethought of structure?), preferring to revel in the discovery of undisciplined writing like its a more genuine, artisan approach. But, what it is, is kinda lazy. It’s like you don’t wanna make decisions until you hafta. Many of those who throw themselves into a novel-sized book without even the briefest of outlines wind up in the seven circles of I-don’t-know-what-I’m-supposed-to-do-next hell without the poetry of Virgil to guide them out of the depths. Here are two comforting things to know about outlining: One, you can change the outline while you’re writing. Two, when you’re working with an editor and he or she says, “I want to lose that scene where the writer slits her wrists because she doesn’t have an outline.” You can look at your outline and say, “OK, that’s not the retaining wall of the story. Just a device I put in the end of act two to complicate things. Things are complicated enough that it’s gratuitous.” But you can only say that if you have a firm grip on the big picture of how scenes are functioning in your story. If you still think you’re above outlining, remember you weren’t formed without genetic code. Your maker didn’t just throw you together on the fly. Before you even had eyes the color was picked out. That’s how Gods and Creators act.
5. Focus on the War, Not Battle (and its Fatigue)
So, you wrote all week and didn’t finish your book! Did you really expect to be discharged from service and home to Momma so soon? Guess what? Wars are long-term endeavors. So is book-writing. After the shock and awe of your original inspirational output has been unleashed, you’ll likely find you’ve not fully conquered anything. At best, you’ve got a beach head established and maybe wired up some radios to headquarters. The country will remain chaotic for a while. You cannot avoid committing ground troops to a daily grind of unpredictable patrols to get the thing done. It’s a commitment to reconnaissance by fire. That’s you getting to know your intentions, your characters’ intentions, the strengths and weakness of your story by engaging with them day after day. Day-to-day engagement is the ONLY way to conquer the territory. You won’t win every battle. Some days you will fire away and your shots will miss and the next morning you find yourself on the same piece of story no further along than you were yesterday. Some days, the light will come up on the field of battle and you’ll realize you need to bury some dead pages right there before you move on. And some days, the locals will have you over for a cup of tea and tell you who the other friendlies are and how to get to the next town. You never know! Whatever the outcome of the day, remember your daily battles are advancing the war effort. Sooner or later you’ll be putting in new schools and water wells in places they hadn’t been before. It’s the long, boring nation-building type of things that makes peace and makes the people love you.
6. Map New Terrain
You know how they say “war changes you?” You know how young troops march off to war and come back different? Well, the young ‘ens come back different because they’ve gone off to foreign terrain and seen stuff up close and personal that they barely imagined before. Writers need to do the same. You can’t tell an interesting story if you don’t learn something you didn’t already know or go some place you haven’t been or even feel something you haven’t felt. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve been told before to “write what you know.” By all means, write you know. Tell us all about the terrain with which you are familiar. Write about every back alley, short cut, secret fishing creek, and curve of graceful road in your home town and in your own head. Then write about where you haven’t been, what you don’t know. Let yourself research. I was interested in chaos math and M-theory. Didn’t know a thing about it. Just liked it in a geeky, Science Channel, TV-watching kind of way. So I got some books and learned me up on some math-y things and planted some pieces into my story. The more I kept learning about the stuff, the more my story stayed interesting to me. It kept the discovery of the story itself alive. Just follow your interests, especially the unexplored ones, and let them lead you into new terrain. You’ll research and explore not knowing exactly where it’s going to lead you or your story but when you’re done people will say you’re different. In a good way.
7. Pack Supplies
Any general who’s ever deployed troops knows that right after figuring where to put the troops, he has to figure out how to keep them supplied. (Quite often, in fact, these decisions go hand in hand.) For a writer, having adequate supplies does not mean being packed with a fully-loaded playlist of music to write by, a case of Ho-hos and a caffeine supply. It means a supply of knowledge and character tid-bittery that you have in reserve. It’s a stash of secret story stuff that you’ll break out when your story gets hungry or injured or just runs out of bullets. Creating reserve supplies is really just a way of working on your story other than actually writing it. Write bios for your characters. What astrological signs are they? Did they have a good relationship with their mother? What do they want to be doing other than what they are doing? What could they use some therapy for? What about the setting? How did that town get to be so big? What’s the worst thing that ever happened there? Why does anyone want to live there anyway? You get the idea. Box these things up as inventory and put labels on them. When needed, they’ll supply your fictional world with life. You don’t want to be cut off from supplies and support like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, turning your socks into sticky bombs as one of your final acts.
Nah, I don’t mean hurl wordy rocks and stones at the enemy of the blank page. I mean, upchuck wordy rocks and stones all over your buddy, the blank page. Lady Gaga (yes, not a novelist) has given many an interview in which she describes her writing process as starting in fifteen minute bursts of uncontrolled regurgitation, a splattering of words and sounds in a truly ugly and spontaneous manner. Once it’s over she typically finds what’s she has spat out makes no sense. But she doesn’t throw it away. Instead she follows her self-created dictum of “Honor your vomit”. She mines that retched mess, sure there’s something in that chunky puddle of words that is meant to be found and re-constituted into something you can dance to. You must do the same. You’ve gotta let that first draft freely announce itself and show you what’s been half-digested inside. Don’t edit while you’re writing. Hurl while you’re writing! Spray the page with a rapid-fire projectile of words! Then clean yourself up and make your copy presentable. No one will ever know your moving words started as a crampy, acidic mess.
9. Acquiring Intel
Can’t do proper combat without a little inside intel! Intelligence is simply the low-down on who’s doing what and how they are doing it and with whom. And maybe how much money did they made doing it. No matter what kind of book you’re writing, it won’t be one hundred percent original. Yeah, your tens of thousands of words will be a unique combination of known and familiar words that have never been combined exactly that way before. But your story is going to fall into a genre. Your characters are going to have characteristics that people recognize. Things will happen that have happened somewhere before. After all, you’re not writing for aliens, are you? You’re doing something that’s been done to some extent. And you need knowledge of it. Say you’re writing a children’s book about a mouse that wants a cookie. Anybody done that before? How’d they do it? Who published it? Are there are lot of cookie-eating mice that have gone on the record with an author? This is about having a reasonable expectation of survival, the survival of your work. Intelligence in this regard is no longer hard to come by. You don’t have to move to New York City or London to get it. And there’s no excuse not to have some.
10. Fog of War
Sometimes you’ve been writing away so hard your brain starts to feel like its been battered by percussive grenades and flash bangs. You’ll have an outline but you suddenly find you don’t know where you are, what day it is, and how you got there. You’re in the fog of war! You just want your Mommy. If you press on, you might survive just fine. Or you might make some darn fool decision like plodding right on. Into a mine field. Unless you have a buddy who’s going to throw your laptop to the ground and cover it with his own body until you regain your senses, this is likely the junction at which you need to do something else, something physical, something outside, something completely distracting and engaging that has nothing to do with your writing. Sun Tzu alludes to this in his battle descriptions of “emptiness and fullness”. I have a friend who’s been writing songs and making albums for thirty years and refers to his need at some point to “let the well fill up again.” As plentiful as the water is down there in your creative subconscious, you can pump it out so fast that you get drunk on water and the well runs dry. If time doesn’t afford you the luxury of taking a break, try to engage another part of your brain. I usually compose at the keyboard. But if I start to get foggy and can’t disengage, I’ll take a pad and write by hand. The brain literally uses different pathways to write by hand and to type and you can exploit that. You can even do what the surrealists did: Free write giving yourself permission to write any loony, free-associated, unfiltered word down. By the time you’re done, the fog will have lifted along with any sense of lost panic that was disorienting you. As Sun Tzu says, “The ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.”