Of all the things I’ve tried to do in 2009, trying to write every day was by far the hardest. I haven’t even come close to meeting that goal, but I have written well over 100,000 words. It’s surprising how quickly those words add up, even if I only write a few hundred a day.
I’ve been writing stories since childhood, but I’ve only been writing in earnest since 2008 (the year my daughter was born). Having a kid was a wake-up call. Turning 40 this year was a kick in the pants. Mortality. I got to work.
I’ve taken a number of fiction-writing courses, both during and after college. Most of the teachers I liked and admired. I learned quite a bit about technique. But the things I’ve learned this year, actually trying to live like a writer, have been more eye-opening than any classroom experience.
Eleven Things I Learned This Year About Writing
1. I’m happier on days that I write at least a few hundred words. In fact, I feel a little crazy if I don’t. Not just like I didn’t get something important done — actually a little crazy. I feel gloomy and irritable and have thoughts like “What’s the point of it all?” You’d think this would be motivation enough to write everyday. You’d be wrong.
2. On any given day, I’ll do almost anything to avoid starting to write. When I’m in the flow, writing feels great. But getting there is usually difficult. As a newish writer, the parts of my brain that upload the storyline of the entire novel, reflect on each character’s desires and emotional state, consider the experience of the reader, etc. are still a little weak and flabby. On most days it takes a fair amount of time and a good chunk of willpower to load up the brain-RAM and start processing. To avoid that strain, I find distractions. I’ve got Leechblock installed in my browser — I only get 5 minutes of my big time-wasting sites before the app cuts me off — but that doesn’t mean I can’t do the dishes, exercise, work on a track, do some programming, read a book, take out the trash, pay the bills, etc. before starting to write. Sometimes I end up with no words and a very clean house.
3. Same time, same place, concrete goal, no distractions. You have to take what other writers say with a grain of salt — what works for them might not work for you. Bucketloads of successful writers sing the virtues of writing longhand, insisting that working on a computer leads to sloppy writing. To me, to write anything longer than a poem in longhand sounds unreasonable (if not ridiculous). How would you back up your work? How would you do a “Find and Replace” if you decided to change the name of a character?
However, one piece of advice that I’ve read from many different authors that I admire, and that I’ve found works for me as well, is to write in the same place, at the same time, every day, and to keep working until you’ve reached your daily word count goal.
When I follow that advice, the work gets done. When I don’t, it doesn’t.
For me, the earlier I start, the more productive I am (in terms of both quantity and quality of work). On days that I get up a 6am, sit down at my desk, and just start writing, I can usually bypass all the tomfoolery the lazier parts of my brain throw my way.
Distractions come in a thousand varieties (some people seem trapped in a purgatory of permanent iPhone/Twitter/Facebook/RSS feed distraction). This is an area I still need work in — my biggest weakness is checking email. Getting up and wandering around my house is also a problem. Putting on headphones and listening to blip.fm helps keep my butt in my chair, and the right music can loosen up my imagination.
There’s no single remedy to conquer distractions, but I found this article on concentration to be illuminating.
4. Physical state matters, and the right vitamins and nootropics can help. I try to stay in reasonably good shape. I eat a not-very-strict version of the paleolithic diet, get enough sleep, lift (not very heavy) weights, stretch, and meditate all because it provides the minimum amount of energy and mental clarity I need to write. I realize this isn’t true for every writer, but for me, the quality of work I produce is directly correlated with my physical and mental well-being. If you’re the type who can stay up half the night drinking whiskey and still write brilliant prose in the morning, well, lucky you. Most other kinds of work I can do if sleep-deprived (or even mildly hungover), but not writing.
If getting enough sleep is important, is being even more awake better? To some extent, I think yes. I drink coffee and tea, and eat dark chocolate. I’ve noticed several vitamins give a slight boost to my ability to concentrate and “find the right word,” most notably thiamin (B1) and niacinamide (B3, the non-flush form of niacin). If I really want to ramp up the productivity then I’ll take a few milligrams of Hydergine, or a nootropic blend called Get Smart. I stay away from the stronger stimulants like modafinil and any type of amphetamine like Adderrall. The possible boost in productivity isn’t worth the risk of getting addicted to speed. Same goes for nicotine.
One underrated brain fuel is lactic acid. Have you ever wondered why your thinking gets sharper after you’ve just exercised? It turns out the lactic acid might be an even more efficient fuel for your brain than glucose.
5. Reading quality fiction is important, but you don’t have to make yourself eat spinach. By this I simply mean that there are so many great works of fiction in the world that there’s no reason to make yourself read books that you don’t find compelling. If you’re slogging through something, why bother? Put down the book, ask someone what happens in the end (if you care), and find something new to read that lights up your brain. Think of the opportunity cost! If I hadn’t put down these books:
- Silas Marner by George Eliot
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- Middlesex by Jeffry Eugenides
I might not have had the time to read these books:
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
- Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
- Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Terror by Dan Simmons
- The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
Your list might be reversed. Or maybe you are one of those people who blasts through novels so quickly that it doesn’t matter if you’re only lukewarm about them. I’m not a fast reader, and I’ve gotten slower since I’ve started to pay more attention to how prose is constructed.
6. The deconstructive habit — reading will never be the same. Once you start, it’s almost impossible to not deconstruct something, to take it apart in your mind and observe how the pieces fit together. There’s something a little sad about this, but I don’t see any way around it. I still immensely enjoy reading fiction and expect that I always will, but the experience of reading is a shade less immersive than it once was.
The flip side of this is a newfound respect for my favorite authors. Here’s a passage from Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet that recently impressed me:
He had now come to the mouth of the very defile in which he had left them. Even in the darkness he could recognize the outline of the cliffs which bounded it. They must, he reflected, be awaiting him anxiously, for he had been absent nearly five hours. In the gladness of his heart he put his hands to his mouth and made the glen reëcho to a loud halloo as a signal that he was coming. He paused and listened for an answer. None came save his own cry, which clatterred up the dreary, silent ravines, and was borne back to his ears in countless repititions.
Doyle seamlessly describes the physical environment, the emotion of his protagonist, and the foreboding nature of the situation with just the right amount of detail. The prose is neither spare nor overwrought. It’s just right!
My point is that once you start to write in earnest, you notice things about the prose itself. The analytical part of your mind is engaged. If you were playing a video game, it would be like keeping a window open where you keep an eye on the sourcecode of the game application. It happens with musicians too — a bass player singles out the bassline in a composition and thus becomes less aware of the music a single thing or unified experience.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this … it’s just something that I’ve noticed happening.
7. Technique happens. Writing courses often focus on technique, and that’s probably appropriate for a classroom setting. It’s something concrete you can teach about writing. An instructor can show students examples of the active voice vs. the passive voice, an awkward sentence vs. a well-constructed one, etc. There’s nothing wrong with courses like this, or with books that explain how to improve the quality of your prose, but neither is a substitute for steady, incremental improvements made by writing (and carefully reading and revising) hundreds of thousands of words.
I say this as someone who is still very much in the process of fixing problems with my prose. When I read something that I wrote a few months ago, I invariably see room for improvement. But I no longer cringe in horror. Writing, like anything else, improves with active practice. I’ll keep reading and re-reading books about writing (Stephen King’s On Writing will make you cross-examine every adjective) but now that I’ve seen my prose get better, I won’t worry about it so much.
7. Finding an authentic, comfortable voice. I can’t explain how exactly this happened, but one restless night in October of 2008, I woke up with a few paragraphs of prose in my head, expressed in a new, unfamiliar voice. The new voice spoke in the third-person, but it was less formal and more inside the heads of the characters (at least compared to the voice I had been using in recent short story attempts). I lay awake in bed for about an hour, composing lines in this new voice (which felt more like me than anything I’d experienced before), until finally I got out of bed, turned on my laptop, and started typing. The words flowed more easily than they ever had before, like a dam had been broken, and I continued writing in that same voice until I had a first draft of my first novel.
I wonder if other writers have had similar experiences. I wouldn’t say that writing is now effortless — it’s still quite difficult — but the words come more easily now. Even if I’m walking uphill, at least I’m walking in shoes that fit.
I don’t suppose this is a permanent condition. I’ll probably need a slightly different voice for the next novel. I can imagine slowly feeling less and less comfortable with my current writing voice over time, until I have to reboot and find a new one.
8. If you’re bored, they’re bored. I don’t have any proof of this, but I intuitively feel that if I’m bored while I’m writing a passage, then I’m probably writing a boring passage.
I don’t think writing should ever feel like a chore (as for revisions, that’s a different story). It it feels like I’m slogging through, something needs to change. My own active interest in the prose serves as the canary in the coal mine.
9. Just follow. It was an interview with William Gibson that gave me the confidence to not worry if I didn’t know where the story was going. Gibson follows his characters, and they decide where the story goes (whatever they decide to do informs the plot).
I find great joy in writing this way. The process becomes more akin to exploring or uncovering as opposed to building or constructing. If, like me, you are prone to boredom and restlessness (even with your own creations), then I recommend this method. I’m excited to get up every morning and see what the characters are going to do.
This won’t work for every type of story. Writers of mysteries, in particular, need to know what happens in the end. If they don’t, you end up with floundering stories like the plot arcs of Lost or The X-Files. I’ll bet those shows were fun to write in the beginning though, before the writers wrote themselves into a corner.
10. The most valuable 10 minutes of the day. That would be the time when I wake up, but am only half-awake. If I remember to reflect on my characters during this time, I’m often rewarded with an insight, or a plot twist, or a connection I hadn’t before considered. I wish I could call that state-of-consciousness up on demand.
11. Go ahead, quit! If you find yourself discouraged about writing, with your resolve wavering, then why not quit? Give up your dream and your ambition. Give up the headache and the difficulty. Give up writing altogether. I promise you’ll be happier for it.
I can recommend this course of action with such enthusiasm because I’ve done it a number of times myself. Reading my own wince-worthy prose, I’ve sworn off fiction writing at least five times in my life. Each time, after a year at most, my resolution would crumble, and I’d give writing another go. Does the world need my books? I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m happier writing, and working towards being a novelist, so I’m going to keep doing it. For the moment, I’ve sworn off quitting this habit.