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.

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 Psychology of the Word-Count

speedometer-slow-to-insanely-fast-thumb9878061Recently I decided to experiment with different writing tips and tricks. This week I’ve been using 750Words. An author, Mary Robinette Kowal, pointed it out on an episode of Storyboard (If you haven’t watched that show, you really should. The specific episode is here)

The website is simple, quirky and clever. It provides a blank private slate to write on, and rewards you with badges for consistency, speed, word-count, etc. The idea is that 750 words is about 3 pages. When you hit 750 words you are alerted to your success. And every day you get points based on your consistency and word count.

The best part is that after each day a fun display of analytics pops up analyzing your speed and content. How fast did you write? How many distractions did you have? What is your writing rated? (PG, PG-13, X, etc.) What words did you use often? What tense did you write in? Mood, feelings, weather, etc. It’s quite fun and some of it is actually useful.

The problem is, and I am only using myself as a test-case here, writing with a word-count in mind (even if its just the notion of a word-count), causes strange changes in the writer’s mindset and the prose itself.

I am a competitive person at heart. I love to play myself against other people, and more importantly, myself against myself. So when there is a goal in front of me, my mind instantly and subconsciously thinks of ways to exploit the rule-set or outplay the opponent to achieve that goal, or if that is not possible, tries to achieve it through sheer force of will. That must be why I like board games and running so much! Two activities that work well with goals.

My plans don’t always work. But that is how I think. And word-count is no different. I find when I write without a goal I am a bit slower. A bit more careful choosing my words and sentences. When a goal is in front of me, however, I write fast and loose, trying to get as much out onto the page as possible.

There is nothing wrong with either of these methods, but what I want someone to get out of this article is a sense of what type of writer they are. I, for example, when writing fast and loose, tend to write crap and more crap. What I churn out may be high in word count and tell a story from start to finish, but usually it is beyond help. An editing job turns into a complete rewrite. But when I take my time and write, not slowly, but more deliberately, I find that my first draft is usually quite nice and an editing job is quick and fun because the structure is solid.

So I have nothing against 750Words, or National Novel Writing Month, or any other group or scheme that gets people to write more. Just keep in mind how your brain works and always do what’s best for the story.