Zen Writing

Imagine writing a book a hundred years ago? Writing it long hand by candle light? Or on a primitive typewriter? Most of us think we are blessed to be writing with today’s technology. Computers, printers, spell-check, word processor auto-formatting. Scrivener, outlining and novel-building software. Email and submissions managers.

How could we possible write a novel or a story let alone edit it without all those tools? But I’ve found in my experience (as what I would call an Experienced Amateur writer), that all of those tools and features get in the way of actually writing.

Distractions are everywhere! Even things that seem productive are really just distractions. Now, this is all just my opinion, but I have found that my best and most productive time is when I am just writing on my computer and not thinking about anything else on the screen. If I misspell a word, I don’t want to see that red-squiggly line. It will interrupt the flow and make me want to fix it. But that can always be done later. After I’m done being creative.

It took me a while to figure that out, and I had to leverage some technology and software to get back to the spirit of what authors were doing hundreds of years ago. Mainly because I can’t write long-hand quickly.

Here are some things I found that are very useful for that productive time:

  • WriteMonkey – A simple full-screen text editor that lets you easily control the writing experience. If you have a Windows-based system, try it! I used it until I got my Chromebook.
  • Chromebook (I chose the Acer C720) – Cheap, easy to use. Starts in seconds. Isn’t full of distractions (Well, the internet is always a distraction, but see the point below). Basically, it’s a typing machine for me and nothing more.
  • I now use Google Docs full-screen with the menus hidden. Looks just like WriteMonkey did.
  • Windows Notepad – When all else fails, go with the classic. I use this one when I’m not on my own computer.
  • Turn off the internet if you have no self-control. Unplug the network cable, turn off the router, whatever you have to do to keep you mind on writing instead of browsing.
  • Find a location where you just write and do nothing else. No internet. No TV. Train yourself like Pavlov’s dog. When you sit in the chair or couch or bean bag or or wherever, your writing glands should start salivating.

After the writing is done, I go back to the distraction filled world of fully-featured software that helps me organize and polish my work.

My recommendation is to clearly separate your time actually writing from the time you spend doing all the other stuff. The latter has to get done, but it should never impede the former.

What I Learned While Writing My Fourth Novel

This week I finished my 4th novel, Furnace Man. Now don’t jump up and cheer just yet. This one, like all of the others, is unpublishable.

I thought I had something going in the first few chapters but I quickly realized there were too many problems for this to be a workable idea. Still, I persisted, because I was learning so much by going through the process.

So now that the draft is complete and safely in my “trunk”, I can forget about it. But I won’t forget all of the valuable things I learned. Here are a few:

The protagonist should be active.

The one in my book spends the first 75% of it just letting events happen to him and not reacting in a manner different than he normally would have have his whole life. Although the situations might be interesting, his lack of action was getting old.

Backstory needs to have action.

There was a lot of history that my reader was discovering as he went on. But that history didn’t really have much going on. Their were a few big events, but I was saving them for the climax. Other than those, there just wasn’t enough to sustain interest (even my interest!)

Never even think about using a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

When I first conceived of this idea, many years ago, one of the characters was the dreaded MPDG. I wanted to change that while writing but the character never worked. Her roots were tainted by that horrible cliche.

If the reader spends the whole book in a person’s head, that person better be interesting.

My narrator was a two-trick pony and those two tricks weren’t enough to sustain interest while I went around setting up all the salient story points for the climax.

Do not outline the whole book!

At least for me. It may work for some people but I don’t like knowing what is going to happen too far ahead in my stories. Finding things out while writing is what pleases me.

When inspiration strikes, just go with it.

There were sections of this book that really worked and those were the scenes or that I had not thought of before hand. At points while writing an idea came to me and I wrote freely. Remember, if it doesn’t fit in the story, you can always cut it later. But if it makes you happy to write it, don’t stop yourself.

And finally… Things need to happen.

That sounds obvious, but what you think of as “things happening” before you write might not amount to much of anything when you are writing. I ran into this problem a lot. I think it has to do with my previous bullet point. Things I assumed would take up a whole chapter really didn’t need to, but I only found that out while writing.

A lot of work went into learning some simple truths. But that’s life, right? A series of lessons with answers that hindsight tells you were obvious the whole time.

Going Cold Turkey

The number one hindrance to my writing progress is the internet. There is no shame in that. (I don’t think.) I’m sure most people have that same problem, even if they aren’t specifically trying to write. The internet and things it provides can be wonderful and useful. But it can also suck you in and keep you from getting what you need (and even want) done.

I know this. People in my situation know this. But what can we do? I tried to limit my time, which works to a point. But when I sit down at my laptop to write, the internet is just right there. I have even contemplated getting rid of internet access altogether. Now that would be going cold turkey!

But luckily there is another option. And this one is very simple and practical. It’s a clever peice of software called, you guessed it, Cold Turkey. It’s free. All you do is install it, set a time and it will block your computer from connecting to specified websites until that time is reached. And it is NOT easy to bypass. So make sure you know what you are getting into!

I started small. I set it to black all my homepages (social media sites, email, etc.). When I’m ready to write, I set the timer for 30 to 45 minutes. Then, I write. Simple and effective. I can usually stop myself from using the internet for 30 minutes, but it really helps me concentrate when the option is not even available to me.

After that time is up, I’m usually too invested in what I’m doing to stop. So I keep writing or working until I come to a natural stopping point. (Usually, when I just can’t take sitting down anymore.)

So if you are having any of the same problems, I highly recommend this simple remedy. Install and enjoy.

Word Music

This year I have been trying out different writing habits to see if anything fits with my own personal style. For the past two weeks I have been writing with music. Usually, I write in silence, attempting to avoid all distractions.

But I read some interesting things from Chuck Palahniuk about how listening to music helps him keep a consistant tone to his writing, and how for each novel he listens to a different set of albums to help do that. Here is an excerpt from an interview he did with Bookslut:

The music depends on the tone of the book. In a way, I use a single piece of music to re-create the same mood each time I go back to a project. By listening to it — again and again — I quit hearing the words, and almost hypnotize myself into a fictional world. Andy Warhol used to do this with a record called “I Saw Linda, Yesturday.” His friends grew to hate that song.

And again from ChuckPalahniuk.net:

I use music like a drug. For this non-fiction writing, I like “chill” music – with “Chill Factor Audiotherapy” playing right now. But for editing, I’ll listen to the Chopin Nocturnes that Tiffany Wong sent me. And for the first draft of my next angry story, maybe… Pink Floyd. Other stories, Country and Western. What can I say? I’m a mess.

I think its a good idea. Music does set a mood and it theoretically could help your writing keep the same tone over a time period. For some writers it may work well. But for me it causes too much distraction. My brain is a little too finicky. When there is sensory input coming in I don’t create information at the same rate I would otherwise.

This is the second habit (trick, method, etc) that I’ve researched this year and the second one that I am not going to use for myself. It just goes to show that not all writers are the same. What works for one might not work for another. I just hope, by the end of year, I learn something new that will help make my writing stronger.

The Gender of Pronouns

Whenever you refer to a person in your writing without using a name or a description, you usually have to use a pronoun. But embedded in these pronouns there is already a description. It’s the person’s gender: He/She, Him/Her, His/Hers.

I ain’t no linguist so I don’t know why there are different versions of pronouns. But I can see why, back in the day, gender would be an accepted way to separate them. Now, though, when people are more enlightened and the lines between genders have blurred, We don’t need artificial segregation in our language.

In creative writing it is not really an issue. You usually know the gender of the character being refereed to. And reading those pronouns just feels right. After all, we have been using them forever.

“Jane was a strong woman. When people looked at her they could tell she enjoyed doing impressive things with her muscles.”

“John was a beautiful man. When people looked at him they could tell he enjoyed doing impressive things with his hair.”

I have been working on a rule-book for a Role-playing Game. (Demonize! A competitive RPG debuting soon on this very website!) It contains a paragraph where the player is supposed to fill in the blanks to create a character. But the player could create a man, woman or anything in between, so how do you address pronouns in that situation? Here is what I did:

“In (TIME PERIOD/LOCATION) there lives a (GENDER) named (NAME). Most people see them as (OCCUPATION), but the thing they want most in life is to (ULTIMATE GOAL). If they can just get their (EVIL VICE) under control they might be able to attain that goal. In the meantime, they bide their time (HOBBY) and hoping that (FEAR) doesn’t happen. Little do they know that The Demons have taken notice of them for something terrible they did in order to get where they are today. (TERRIBLE THING)”

Notice I decided to use the “singular they” approach. It sounds fine, right? But when you start to fill in the blanks you will see that the results read quite awkwardly:

“In present day Washington DC there lives a man named Sterling Jackson. Most people see them as a US Congressman but the thing they want most in life is to be elected president. If they can just get their corruption under control they might be able attain that goal. In the meantime, they bide their time sailing yachts and hoping that they don’t get caught lying to the American people. Little do they know that The Demons have taken notice of them for something terrible they did in order to get where they are today. He once had a mistress who threatened to expose their affair. He had her killed before she could talk.”

See what I mean? Yes, I can use “He or she” and “Him or Her”, and besides the masculine pronoun always being the first part of that duet, the main problem is that it’s just too cumbersome.

I was alerted to the existence of gender-neutral pronouns such as Ze/Zir/Zirs and Xe/Xem/Xyr. But it comes down to respecting your reader. Do you really want people to have to look things up to understand what you are talking about?

Invented pronouns (chart stolen from Wikipedia)

Spivak (old) E laughed I called em Eir eyes gleam
Spivak (new) Ey laughed I called em Eir eyes gleam
Humanist Hu laughed I called hum Hus eyes gleam
Per Per laughed I called per Per eyes gleam
Thon Thon laughed I called thon Thons eyes gleam
Ve Ve laughed I called ver Vis eyes gleam
Xe Xe laughed I called xem Xyr eyes gleam
Ze (or zie or sie) and zir Ze laughed I called zir/zem Zir/Zes eyes gleam
Ze (or zie or sie) and hir Ze laughed I called hir Hir eyes gleam
Ze and mer Ze laughed I called mer Zer eyes gleam
Zhe, Zher, Zhim Zhe laughed I called zhim Zher eyes gleam
Yo Yo laughed I called yon Yos eyes gleam

Usually, no. And in the example paragraph I am working on, I feel the best choice is to leave it as-is with the the singular-they. It’s not perfect, but when it comes to grammar (and other things), we are still a society that segregates by gender. So for now this will have to do.