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.8. Hurl!
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.”
Updates to Untitled Breschard are now complete. Hope you enjoy it and that all the linkypoos are working correctly. Still having the old internal debate about Comments On/Comments Off. Do I wanna be Spalding Gray or on the Troll Patrol? Tweet me @Breschard or contact me if you feel strongly one way or the other.
Again with the bacteriophages! Mad scientists at the National Academy of Sciences have engineered sections of DNA to be used for plain, old data storage. (Like, dude, yer playlist is inside you.) Quote:
After some 750 trials, the team struck on the right recipe of proteins, and now have their sights set on creating a full “byte” – eight bits – of DNA information that can be similarly manipulated. The work is at the frontier of biological engineering, and senior author of the research Drew Endy said that applications of the approach are yet to come.
“I’m not even really concerned with the ways genetic data storage might be useful down the road, only in creating scalable and reliable biological bits as soon as possible,” Dr Endy said. “Then we’ll put them in the hands of other scientists to show the world how they might be used. One of the coolest places for computing is within biological systems.”
See, it’s cool. Turning DNA into storage, no chance of that replicating and going pluooey! He’s not really concerned.
Well, zombie creators, show him why he better be.
One of my preferred science fantasy/fiction themes is the unintended consequences of scientific discovery or its intentional misuse. Because humanity is struggling every day to survive its own technological age, it’s the issue of our time upon which everything else rests. Here’s a bit of it, as discussed by Michio Kaku.
Now git to work.
“And make no mistake about it, you are dumb. You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You’re barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb,” said Aaron Sorkin, speaking at Syracuse’s commencement.
Sorkin also offered these kindly, if standard commencement words:
“Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance—and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy.”
Your morning procrastination video.
A Q&A with the filmmakers who decided to turn Ken Burns into a story here. Now git to work.
This weekend a lot of writers took note of the Sunday NYTimes article by Julie Bosman, “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking“. Bosman reported that we writers need to work harder. It’s not enough to be in marketing and promotion mode half the time. It’s not enough to being tweeting and blogging up a storm on the side. If you want to stay a writer, you need to up that output and be prepared to give away more of your work for free. Quote:
The push for more material comes as publishers and booksellers are desperately looking for ways to hold onto readers being lured by other forms of entertainment, much of it available nonstop and almost instantaneously. Television shows are rushed online only hours after they are originally broadcast, and some movies are offered on demand at home before they have left theaters. In this environment, publishers say, producing one a book a year, and nothing else, is just not enough.
To tell you the truth, this article wasn’t a surprising read for me. What did surprise me was the reaction of some other writers.
Chuck Wendig, a writer I dig on Twitter, wrote a post called, “On the Privilege of Being a Writer” detailing the hard lives of labor of his ancestors and telling us writers, to paraphrase his wonderful Wendiggity voice, “Stop crying you stupid crybabies. You aren’t doing mother f*#%ing manual labor.”
Another writer, Marie-Paule Graham, tweeted to me that we needed perspective as we aren’t curing cancer. And, of course, she’s right. Writers aren’t on the path to curing cancer. (Although, it should be noted, the medical and pharmaceutical industry hasn’t cured it either.)
What we writers are, however, is part of the economy, that big, screwed-up, globalized division of labor and allocation of wealth machine. If it makes a writer feel better to take the view that being a writer is like being a privileged escapee from the workforce because we writers can work in our pajamas if we want, well, OK. But it happens not to be true. We’re not that exceptional. Unless you are Ted Kaczynski writing your manifesto on home-pulped paper in the woods, you are part of the economy.
Since the banking crash of 2008, America’s productivity has notably grown in spite of a workforce that now has five million fewer workers. Fewer workers are carrying more of the workload (and without the army of worker mecadroids modernity promised us!) If you’ve ever been the survivor of a layoff, you’ve been told before, “Sure, you get to keep your job. And the reward is you can do Bob’s job too, since he’s fired. Of course, your pay will stay the same. Employment is prize enough!”
It’s simply more work for the same pay. The literary market is demanding the same sacrifices of its workers. While I’m certainly grateful I’m not confined to a career of hard manual labor, these developments are nothing to be happy about. They are a formula for burn-out whether applied to writers or teachers or ‘cubicle creatures’.
But enough with gratuitous rhyming. What happens now to the writers who aren’t machines, who can’t brand-up and hire a team like James Patterson, who can’t turn out literary product like widgets? The literary world has had its share of one-hit wonders. Are publishers even going to take a look at a writer with one fabulous book if they don’t come with a ready-made “platform” or if they can’t be certain that a steady stream of more will follow?
Writers have always lived by “publish or perish.” But like the rest of economy, the current market may be steering towards the entrenchment of a literary 1% in which 99% of writers work away for little benefit and the top 1% sucks the wealth out of the market on the backs of others.
UPDATE May 18: Marie-Paule Graham wrote me to say she thinks her tweets were misrepresented in my reference to them above. So, you decide. Here’s our brief Twitter stream of 13 May below:
Maryann Breschard @Breschard @mpg4 2K a day is like rock n’ roll on the road. U can only do it for so long before the burnout comes & u trash a hotel room.
Marie-Paule Graham Marie-Paule Graham @mpg4 @Breschard Tell that to the cancer doc with her never ending stream of patients. Perspective is all I’m saying
Maryann Breschard @Breschard @mpg4 OK, but tell the cancer doc in question he or she now has to see twice as many patients per year for the same pay.
Marie-Paule Graham @mpg4 @Breschard She does. AND this year she took a pay cut.
Again, I would argue that writers being required to produce more for less pay (no advances, free novella giveaways, etc.) and doctors being required to do more and take pay cuts are both reflective of the something common in the globalized workforce.
Video: James Lipton provides Mitt Romney with human-acting tips.
From andrewsullivan.com who sourced from nymag.com. JL’s full column here. Now git to work.
Giving new inspiration to sci-fi writers everywhere, researchers in the US have used viruses to generate electricity. Fiction is no stranger to the trope of tiny power sources but, hey, we can always use new ones. Especially something that’s self-replicating in the right host and has the chance to get out of control.
So now, just think, the next time mucus is dripping from your nasal orifices and your skull is filled with cold virus, you might feel too addled to work but you are really a source of limitless power and could take over the world if the viruses in your head were aligned properly.
But who cares? We writers can make something disaster-y and character-challenging out of anything!
…on my website. Sorry to anyone who stops by and finds missing pics and misdirected links. In about a week, the bandages should come off and the site will be coolly functioning and more visually interesting to read.