Archive for May, 2010

Blogging Basics: Neatening up the Writing Blog

I take it as a mark of modest success that this blog has become sprawling enough I have to spend some time rummaging to find the posts I want when something calls for an internal link.  But it’s getting to be a hassle, and I think it discourages reading through the archives (not that the first few months were anything to shake a stick at), so I’ve taken advantage of the holiday weekend to neaten things up a bit.  Hopefully this will help both me and you find the things you’re looking for — there’s also some sneaky web presence reasons for it that I’ll save for another post (or you can point out in a comment, if you’re clever enough to spot them on your own).  For now, check out the major improvements:

Added the following categories, and made sure each post was labeled with one:

“Writing Life” – These should already be familiar to most of my readers; it’s my catch-all for posts that are heavily related to writing but don’t focus on a specific technique or detail.

“Devil’s Details” – When I get into the real nitty-gritty specifics, it becomes a “Devil’s Details” post.  These should also already be familiar.

“Writers Read Books Too” – For the occasional post about books I’ve read.  I have a goodreads.com account, and I don’t actually get as many opportunities to read novels these days as I’d like anyway, but when it comes up I’ll have a category for it.

“Blogging Basics” – Posts about blogs and blogging, either this blog or others.

“Personal Pages” – Anything to do with my personal life, projects, uncategorizable thoughts, etc.  These tend to be the short posts, often explaining why there isn’t a real post today, but they can be fun as well — classic highlights include the teddy bear story.

“Works in Progress” – I occasionally speak about a personal project (though not as often as I perhaps should); those rare moments of transparency get a category of their own now.

Since all posts will fall into one of these specific categories, I’ll be using tags a bit more loosely (not that they were terribly restrictive before) and trying to make sure that each post really does get a tag for every subject it touches on.  Some of them may seem a little redundant, but I’m also going to try to sneak in very specific tags for my own navigational convenience — things like the post about my teddy bear will get a tag that says “teddy bear story,” which will probably be the only post on all of WordPress with that tag.  I hope.

Enjoy the updates, and let me know if you see any other major improvements the site needs!

The Writing Life: How to Take a Day Off

Probably the biggest hurdle an aspiring writer faces is forming the habit of writing seriously, aggressively, and as productively as possible every single day. But once you’re over it, you start to build momentum, and the word count gets easier and easier to grind out.  Pretty soon it’s just part of the routine.

So, with Memorial Day weekend coming up and trailers full of stressed, sweating Midwesterners streaming up and down the highways near my house, I thought I might take a look at how to break that habit once in a while.  Even writers deserve a day off (but just the one, or two at the most — you’ll lose your momentum if it goes longer than that).  The mechanics are easy — just don’t sit down in front of the computer/typewriter/notebook — but a well-trained mind will immediately start feeling fidgety, guilty, and in general not relaxed.  So if you’re lying on your beach towel, working on your tan and running through the dialogue for the next scene you’re going to write, consider bringing out some of the big guns of relaxation…

The Idiot Box

I don’t actually own a TV myself, but I have great respect for the mind-numbing power of the soothing, flickering glow.  This respect usually translates into advising writers to stay the hell away from television.  On a real day off, however, your favorite addictive trash show can be the perfect antidote to thinking about the Work In Progress — DVD collections are great for this, or shows that are available instantly on the internet.  Having to figure out how to work a scheduled broadcast into your life isn’t as relaxing, and doesn’t give you the choice of tuning out in front of your very favorite show ever, so why cheat yourself?  Splurge on a rental if you have to, and think about nothing except how awesome your most beloved TV personalities are.

Exercise Until You Think You’re Going to Die

…or at least until you’re not thinking of much at all.  This doesn’t have to be a brutal grunt-and-sweat session at the gym (although it can be, if that’s your thing); you can wear yourself out pretty thoroughly with just a day-long bike trip or even walk about town.  The less intense the exercise, however, the easier it will be for your mind to wander back to the WIP, so judge your needs accordingly.  If you’re obsessing, you need to go for the wind sprints, spinning, judo match with a vastly superior opponent — pick your poison, and push your limits.  This particular destressor has the added benefit of being good for your body, so you get to feel doubly good, which should relax you even further!  Once you’ve had a couple Ibuprofen.

Indulge Another Hobby

Remember the Best Beloved and me becoming gods of rock?  We’re not there yet, but it’s some time off when I need it (and unfortunately that’s mostly what my guitar playing is limited to, so it’s not progressing all that quickly into godhood).  Things that are not related to written words are pretty much the only safe ground here — reading, while it’s something that I love and think most other writers do frequently as well, is not on this list; even an old favorite will get your mind in the habitual words-on-paper groove, and that leads to thinking about The Work.  Crosswords, letter-writing, and other things that I generally support as good for the writing brain fall under the same header, so aim for something very hands-on and physical, rather than creative and verbal.

Writing Life: How to Be a Functional Alcoholic

Something short and not very serious today, as I write on a one-hour reservation at a public library terminal — many of the great writers of the Western world were serious drinkers; some even managed to do themselves in by liver failure or alcohol-driven suicides.  Sounds like fun, right?  But being a boozer is harder than it looks, and so today’s Writing Life post takes a long, hard look at how to be that most classic of historical cliches, the booze-soaked artistic genius…

Writing and Drinking Tip #1:  Don’t

In seriousness, there isn’t much benefit in drinking for a serious writer.  A drink after work might relax you a bit and put you in a more comfortable frame of mind for writing, but anything more than that is going to impair the creative centers of your brain more than it stiumlates them.  Your best bet for a good literary product is probably stone cold sobriety, free from both self-indulgent booze-swilling and exhausted caffine-loading.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t have time to sleep in, eat a healthy breakfast, and begin our compositions in a calm and centered frame of mind — and it’s not nearly as romantic an image.  So for those willing to disregard the only actually healthy tip in this post, on to…

Writing and Drinking Tip #2:  Practice Makes Perfect

Unplanned benders are brutal things — the blackouts, the vomiting, the hangovers the next day.  Nights of sobriety mixed with nights of violent thrashings by the bottle are a painful way to get your drunk on.  Get yourself in shape with several drinks a day, instead, accustoming your body to the constant low-level presence of alcohol in the blood.  Starting at breakfast isn’t necessary (although a mild Bloody Mary or Paloma can add an enjoyably decadant touch to the meal), but you’ll want to have a beer by lunch at the very latest.  Follow it up with another drink after work, wine or beer with supper, and a late-evening cocktail, and you’ve got a solid daily regimen of three to four drinks as the norm.  Unless you’re a true lightweight (and you won’t be for long on that kind of a schedule), you shouldn’t ever be feeling drunk or impaired, but you’re training your body up for the serious boozing.

Writing and Drinking Tip #3:  Have Signature Habits

What would James Bond be without his vodka martini, shaken not stirred?  Find a drink that you love, and order it regularly.  Ideally, find a neighborhood bar that you like and make it a habitual stop.  Tip well, get to know the staff (in a friendly way, not a hitting-on-waitstaff way), and have the same drink each time — you can mix it up when you visit other establishments, and soon you’ll be able to impress your artistic friends by taking them to “this great little place I know” where the bartender waves and sets your drink up before you say a word.  There’s nothing like having the worldly public know your boozing habits to say “alcoholic writer!”

Writing and Drinking Tip #4:  Work While You Drink

I know, Tip #1 was “don’t drink and write.”  But bring a notebook or a few sheets of scrap paper anyway, and scribble enthusiastically at the bar or your table (a table on the sidewalk is best of all, if the climate permits) to let the world know that you’re not just an ordinary barfly — you’re a writer!  Sitting bolt upright and grabbing a cocktail napkin to scribble a flash of inspiration down on is a good gesture here and there, but don’t overuse it, and certainly never more than once at the same establishment.

Writing and Drinking Tip #5:  Mix Your Own Drinks

Nights (or days) at the bar are good for your alcoholic-genius image, but it’s eventually going to be your turn to host the salon that everyone talks about for weeks.  Hiring bar-catering services is expensive, and clutters the room up with someone distinctly outside your rarified circle of intelligentsia — stock your own bar and mix your own drinks, instead.  Know the basic cocktails (martinis, margaritas, daquiris, etc.), and try to have a few less-known crowd-pleasers to whip out when someone says “I don’t know what I want to drink.”  Don’t bother learning fellow writer’s Tip #3 drinks-of-choice, though — if they’ve settled on an esoteric cocktail, odds are they love explaining exactly how to make it to bartenders.  Indulge them.

But Seriously, Don’t

There’s honestly nothing good about drifting into alcoholism, and it won’t impress anyone anyway unless you’ve already written a couple bestsellers.  So keep the drinking in moderation, and learn to have fun projecting the image of a liquor-soaked genius if you want to — have your signature cocktail, drink at the same local bar, and all that — but be aware that it’s never actually going to help with the writing.  And if it does get to the point where you can’t write without a good stiff one first, it’s time to start thinking about seeking help…

Writing Life: Building Character through Firsts and Lasts

“Building Character” – All about writing fictional characters to meet your needs.

Trying a new category out here; we’ll see how it goes.  The general idea is to get some ideas out there about writing better characters for fiction of any sort; I’ll probably add similarly-themed posts for other large-scale concepts (which should contrast neatly with the “Devil’s Details” series of posts).

Today’s post came to mind when a co-worker complimented me on a silk-screened handkerchief and I, without thinking, said “it’s the oldest piece of clothing I own, actually.”  I’m sure that’s not a reassuring thing to hear about a handkerchief (don’t worry, it’s clean), but it’s the strange sort of personal note that real people have — they have first this things, last that things, oldest and newest and in general a whole mess of superlatives that are relevant to them in weird and personal ways.  If your character seems flat, think about what little superlative things they’re aware of, in the back of their brains — you don’t have to get it involved in the plot, necessarily, but get inside your head and think about whether or not they would know what the oldest piece of clothing they own is.  Or when their first kiss happened, or what their kindergarten teacher’s favorite color was; anything that gives you a better sense of your characters priorities (I, for example, clearly think about clothes too much).

I mostly like this idea because it transfers from one genre to the next — until you’re writing about a dystopian future where everyone has the same memories, you should be able to think up different “first,” “last,” “best,” etc. personal tidbits for each character.  The only real danger of the exercise that I’ve found is the temptation to work whatever strange things you think up for your characters into the story, which might or might not actually serve it.  Stories that put too much emphasis on specific objects are often weaker, and at that point you’ve overshadowed the character you were trying to work on anyway — he’s no longer a man who thinks about his clothes, he’s That Man With The Handkerchief.

I’d be interested in hearing what little superlative memories other writers have running around in their heads — have you ever used one of your own in your writing?  Or run through something like this same mental exercise yourself, giving a character some sort of significant object or event that rides around in the back of his/her head?  Drop me a comment…!

Writing Life: Writing on the Go

A good writer takes inspiration from the world around him/her, and my world has involved a lot of moving about lately.  Figuring out how to keep the blog vaguely updated during those travels has been an interesting and occasionally complicating factor, so let’s talk about what to do when your work or your personal life keeps you from the luxurious, wood-paneled study in which you are accustomed to composing.

Or, you know, your fifth-floor walk-up efficiency with pirated wireless.  But wherever you call your writing home, some things you can keep in mind when life takes you away from it…

Work Ahead

If you’re writing on a deadline, or for an updating project with a regular schedule (a M-W-F blog, just for example), the biggest favor you can do yourself is to write a couple articles ahead.  This takes some self-discipline, which is why I almost never manage to do it, but I always wish I had — so do as I say, not as I do.  If possible, just shift your deadlines until you’re one or ideally two ahead — if your articles are due once a week on Friday, have two ready by Friday each week to build up a backlog.  If you slip once in a while, no big deal, but in general try to be adding to your pile of finished or nearly-finished projects.  Of course, this strategy only works if you have a backed-up copy of the advance work that travels with you — I like to mail things to my gmail account as well as keeping them on a flash drive or laptop; even if I forget my flash drive or my files get lost somehow, the Google server is unlikely to give me trouble unless I’m trying to update from China.

Bring a Notebook

This is an idea I’ve talked about in detail before, but it holds especially true on the road — have a notebook that’s small enough to slip inside your backpack/purse at the very least, and ideally that can fit in a pocket if you need it to.  However, since it’s a traveling notebook, you don’t want to trade too much sturdiness away for portability; make sure you’ve got a reasonably stiff cover keeping the pages from getting crumpled or torn off as you walk and paper that won’t smear and run if sweat or rain gets it damp.  I don’t go through notebooks fast enough to have done any serious brand comparisons, but most people say good things about the Moleskin products, and I’ve also had good luck with some of the hand-bound, handmade-paper sorts of journal you sometimes find in import stores or at fair trade exchanges.

Write During Downtime

Travel tends to involve more idle minutes than day-to-day life (unless your job really sucks), so try to use it creatively.  Long delays at airports and train stations are obvious candidates for some serious writing time, since there’s rarely anything else to do during them, but they will also strain battery life unless you happen to find an outlet for your laptop — save often, or better yet just use your pen-and-paper journal.

…and Check Your Battery!

Funnily enough, typing that sentence made me think about batteries and go looking for my own power cable — which I didn’t bring.  So keep an eye on that battery life if you find yourself relying on it, realize that most computers will start automatically shutting themselves off a few percentage points before the 0% marker, and save computer time by writing long-hand and transcribing quickly.  Which I didn’t do, so that’s it for now!  More to come when I get home, or find a way to charge the battery.

Writing Life: A Quick Word on Quotation

I’ve already mentioned several times in this blog how much I enjoy a cleverly-veiled allusion, but today I thought I would tip my hat to some of the most-abused ones on the market — and to many which simply exist within the English language as truisms or old sayings, and not a specific author’s work with context of its own.

This post was to a great extent motivated by a greeting card I recently found which read “If music be the food of love, play on — Hamlet, Act I.”  This is the most benign way to screw up a quotation or allusion to another work — just plain old misattribution (it’s actually the opening line of Twelfth Night).  It’s reasonably unforgivable, since a Google search for the quote you want to use would give you the correct source, but you’re spared the embarrassment of having said one thing when you meant another entirely.

John Milton gave us a lot of good examples there, nearly all of them from the first two books of Paradise Lost — if anyone’s ever said that “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” or “Who overcomes by force, hath overcome but half his foe,” they were in fact quoting the Great Satan as an inspirational source.  Generally speaking, it’s not the image they meant to conjure.  Polonius’s advice to Laertes in Hamlet gets similar treatment — people love to remind other people to “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” or to toss off “To thy own self be true” in a solemn sort of way, but the character is a buffoon and the scene is meant to make him look foolish.  Quoting him in earnest does the same thing to you.

My point here today is actually a pretty basic one:  do your research before you slip clever hints into your prose that point the reader toward an earlier author’s work, or if you use a direct quotation.  Understand that the words and images you’re borrowing come from a broader context, and you should know what that context is — because the reader might, and they will draw their conclusions based on what they know, not what you know.  This is especially true for anything that references the Bible, which a surprising number of people know better than you would think.

Do your homework; don’t overdo the outside references.  That’s pretty much what I’ve got for you today…that and a recommendation for anyone who needs a gift card that’ll make their English major friends laugh.

Writing Life: What to Write When You Can’t Write

Anywhere that talks about writing and being a writer will agree on at least one point — write every day.  Every day, no matter what.  Maybe you get Christmas and Easter off (or Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or whatever).  But otherwise, words on paper every day.  And that’s all well and good when you’ve got a project you’re involved with, or a notebook full of ideas to flesh out, but every writer is eventually going to hit the day when there’s nothing to put on the page.  Even the grocery list’s already done for the week.  And those days can get to feeling like the dreaded writers’ block long before they should (as previously discussed on this blog).  So how do you chase it off, and get through the day with no good inspiration to fuel your writing?

First off, relax. In fact, take a moment to congratulate yourself — frustration with not getting words on the page means you’ve internalized the “write every day” work ethic.  That’s one of the hardest battles in the writing life already won, so remember that the current bad feelings are symptomatic of an overall good trait.  Then start worrying about what to write, and here is where I strongly advocate listening to your gut feelings — if you’re not feeling good about your works in progress, set them aside for a day.  Forcing yourself to write bad, frustrating prose will just sour you toward what might otherwise be a fun and profitable piece of writing, and it isn’t going to produce much that you’ll keep through all the edits anyway.  Instead, find another excuse to put words on the page:

Write Essays You Already Know

My advice tends toward the mercenary side, and short non-fiction that you don’t have an existing contract for is notoriously hard to sell, but we’re just talking about reasons to write here.  Setting aside all the ongoing projects and writing a short piece on some unrelated subject that you already know not only gets words on paper, it fills you with the confidence of someone who Knows What He’s Talking About (or she, as the case may be).  Give the world your “Essay on Kissing Like Clark Gable,” if that’s what you’ve got a solid handle on.  Day jobs can be fantastic creative fodder for these; mine them shamelessly for short, informative topics.  Fifteen hundred words on “What Really Happens to Your Netflix Envelope” probably isn’t going to win any Pulitzers, but it’s words on paper, and if you spend a lot of time dealing with Netflix envelopes it’ll probably be pretty good words on paper.

And since I am mercenary about these things — put the essay to use, if it comes out any good.  Stick it up on your blog, if you have one that vaguely fits the subject, or find a forum for people interested in the topic and post it there (with a link to your website/blog at the bottom).  I keep my own drafts and random, off-topic essays on Google Knol, which is a sort of clearing-house and critical community for short, informative pieces.  If you’re not on it yet, it’s probably worth your checking out and at least getting a profile on; you don’t need anything except a Gmail account.  And you can get some exposure for yourself and your writing for free, just by posting your frustration-cleansing essays.  Pretty cool, no?

Write Personal Letters

Alternatively, if essays aren’t coming to mind, write a friend or a relative with the news from home.  It’s easy, quick, and has the added benefit of reminding acquaintances that you’re a writer who does strange, writerly things like compose actual letters.  E-mail works just as well, but a handwritten letter in its envelope has a nice, tangible heft that gives a better sense of having accomplished something — valuable positive reinforcement when you’re struggling to write.

You can’t put personal letters online for added exposure the way you can an essay, but you can still get some extra milage out of them if you find a friend who’s willing to do some back-and-forth writing.  Slipping a few pages of a work in progress for editing and commentary gives you an excuse for sending the letter (and adds some impressive heft to the envelope), or if you’re lucky, you can get someone to play some sort of back-and-forth letter game with you — trade letters adding one line at a time to a poem, or even write letters from the point of view of different characters that you’re trying to flesh out.  Whatever comes to mind and you can convince someone to join you in — it’s all writing, and that’s the goal here.

Free-Associate Wildly

If you’re having a day where even a letter to Mom (and she’d appreciate one, by the way) seems like too much creative energy, take the time-honored, last-ditch solution of writers everywhere and start writing gibberish.  Just put a word on the page — your name, or the first object you see; anything at all — and then follow it with another word, whatever seems to fit best.  Don’t stop writing until you’ve hit your daily quota, whatever it may be.  If punctuation or line breaks seem called for, use them.  As long as the pen is moving, you’re doing your job.

Realistically, the end product of free-association isn’t going to be useful as much beyond fire-starter, so save it for the absolute direst of straits.  But it’s still a tangible output, and you may surprise yourself — often, after a page or two of gibberish, the writing starts to improve in its own nonsensical way.  Even gibberish can be clearer or murkier, and most people’s seems to improve as they go along, shake out the kinks, and in general get their brain back into the writing groove by the simple expedient of using it to write.  And that’s really the final goal here.

Got your own strategies for writing when there’s nothing to write?  Know a letter game I should be mentioning?  Friends are too lame to play letter games with you and you want my address?  You know where the “Comments” button is…

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