Though I’m tempted to make up some fun and fabulous things to explain my blog absence, you’re likely not reading this for a list of excuses. So, I’m just going to skip the stories about battling miniature dragons made of stained glass and evading the Sinaloa cartel’s top hitman (his name is Gary and he’s from Scotland) and jump right in:
It’s commitment time. I’ll be blogging every day for the next three months. Those entries won’t be nearly as long as this one.
Why am I doing this?
Just another brick in the road to being a successful writer. That road requires me to acquire the habit of writing because the only real failure of a writer is not writing. Just like brushing my teeth or waking up at 4:30 AM to exercise every day, it’s all about building habits. I don’t like doing those things every day. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I do them anyway because I know Future Phil will thank Present Phil. Also, I don’t purposefully take breaks from those things. Life will take those things away on its own and I don’t need another reason to lose the discipline.
Why blog every day for three months?
According to The One Thing, it takes 66 days on average to build a habit. Maybe a little bit less for some things. And then a heck of a lot more for others. I figure that after 90-ish days (too lazy to pull up the calendar), the message will be clear one way or another. In truth, I plan to do this every day so long as it makes sense. That could be the three months, that could be the next three decades (Whoa).
What follows below is a stream of consciousness format you’re likely to see from me. A whole lot of things being said without much thought given to order. I may attempt to put something coherent together, in case you’re actually reading this, but that’s not the point of this exercise. It’s to get comfortable with a commitment to writing.
Alright, I said I’d jump right in and there I went with the lengthy preamble:
I’m a regular reader of Dean Wesley Smith’s blog and recently took an online workshop of his (Editing Yourself – sample here). He and his wife (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) are controversial figures in the writing community — apparently, they are persona non grata after being invited as guest lecturers at a rather well-known writing boot camp and telling the students they’re killing their voices with all of the critiquing and rewriting. Worst of all, they told them that writing should be fun! It becomes drudgery under the guise of self-improvement and a “No Pain, No Gain” mindset.
I understand both sides of the coin. Trust me, I’m usually feeling the pain of my workouts the next day, but I know they’re good for me.
And yet I can’t help but admit how much Dean and Kris’s creed resonates with me. It all seems to be about getting over fear doing things The Wrong Way and needing to ask permission. It’s a total mind-shift.
No more: “If I don’t have Mortimer die in Act 2, it will ruin my story because it doesn’t fit Bob Nobody’s plot model on which I paid hundreds to take his class…and oh man, I’ll never get an agent without getting that right! I’m just not cut out for this…I think I’ll give up for awhile until time has healed the wounds and I start this cycle over again.”
More: “I don’t care if Barb hates this. She’s one reader. I’ll put the work out there, forget about it one second later, and carry on with this next fun story burning a hole in my brain!”
Again, the prior mindset leads to paralysis and guess what…years later and I still have nothing to show for it. Do I want to be a writer or not? No one ever said this would be easy, but that doesn’t mean what I think it means. The hard part isn’t the writing or learning to write. The hard part is the paradigm shift. It’s how you look at yourself and the things you do. It’s about overcoming fear. Because if you’re fearless, then there’s nothing to stop you from writing a shipping container-level of crap.
A big thing I’ve learned from Dean and Kris is that artists and craftsmen, quite simply, cannot see their own work. They’re translating things in their mind’s eye into another medium — words, colors, textures, and so on. It’s up to the other party in the transaction, the reader/observer/appreciator(my favorite), to translate them into their own mind’s eye. You already have the image in your head, so how can you judge whether or not you’re successfully sending that to someone else? You can only put it out there and have the other person tell you if you were successful or not.
So with that in mind, how do you become better? It boils down to a single word that everyone else in almost every other creative field beside writing seems to acknowledge — practice. Once you shift your perspective, that comes naturally. You’re not afraid to write bad anymore. You’re not afraid of feedback because you just listen, and if you agree with the advice, you apply it to the next work. You just write, and learn, and write some more.
That’s how you get better at translating. That’s how you move forward and stop looking back.
You learn what does and doesn’t work.
But that’s not the only thing you learn.
Personally, I’m learning a lot about what doesn’t work for me in regards to process. As Dean often says, there is no right way to write, but there is a whole hell of a lot of wrong ways. I’ve tried both meticulous outlining and shitty first drafts in the past. Always seeking to write that perfect book (The Pursuit of Perfection – another great read by Kris Rusch). I’m finding myself more productive these days by doing the following:
Over the past three months, I’ve exiled myself from Facebook and other forms of social media. After reading about the virtues of taking a 30-day break (Cal Newport’s Deep Work) from social media to objectively evaluate its value, I knew it was a challenge I needed to face if I wanted to be an author. The number of times I found myself mindlessly thumbing through social media apps on my phone was astounding. So much time wasted. Time not spent with my son and wife. Time not spent educating myself.
The biggest thing I’ve been missing out on? Time not spent enveloping every synapse in the motions of a good story and the lives of intriguing characters.
Studying what I’ve read.
I’m working on outlining five fiction novels I’ve recently read (currently in the middle of #2). The genres are all over the map — historical fantasy (The Lions of Al-Rassan), high-action urban fantasy (Monster Hunter International), slow-paced urban fantasy (American Gods), thriller (Every Dead Thing), and historical fiction (The Pillars of the Earth). I’m quickly learning that when I’ve been planning my novels, I haven’t had nearly enough bones on which to slap on some flesh. Not enough characters, not enough conflict, not enough disasters, and so on. I’ve also learned that while there are some universal truths to structure, there is so much variety in execution. It’s a part of author voice, and not only that but each author seems to write each book with its own voice.
So the Truth is revealed! There is no secret to writing the perfect book. To that, I say both Well Shucks and Hallelujah!
I’m still not comfortable with purely pantsing things as I know the aforementioned universal truths are not yet ingrained into my subconscious, so I’m partial to Take Off Your Pants, but only the first half dealing with a simple one-to-two page outline. Just enough to make me confident to hit the page running and not feel tied down to it.
No, not the kind involving pedals and tight pants. Another piece of advice from Dean. The idea is to create as clean of a first draft as possible, doing a light round of editing during the writing phase while still in the creative mindset with absolutely no rewriting once you hit the end. To “fix” things at the end would be to eat away at your own voice.
Cycling is something I did instinctively when I first started writing. Again, I was doing it all wrong! In my quest for knowledge, I “learned” that writers had to write shitty first drafts and that writing is rewriting. To “edit” during the first draft is the worst possible thing any writer could do outside of murdering the neighbor’s prize-winning Siamese and blaming it on the kid in the wheelchair living in a trailer down the street.
But the thing is, I actually produced work doing it this “wrong way.” (Sorry, I’m killing you with all of the quotation marks.) Was the writing good? Parts of it, but as a whole, no. Does that mean I failed? Not in the slightest. It was one of the few stretches of time in my short writing career where I was practicing regularly, and therefore, succeeding in the best way possible.
I DREAD having to revisit a story after the first draft. I’m tired of it at that point. I’ve gotten it out of my system, but now the Gods of Writing are telling me I have to spend an untold number of days and weeks staring at the damn thing again!? Nope… That may work for some folks, but now I know that at this moment in time, it does not work for me.
And so I’ve become comfortable again with writing a little bit, cycling back and adding or erasing details, and then typing some more new words, and then repeating. This is how I finished a recent short story and how I’m working on my current story. No more fearing the voices of “But you could be writing needless words, because what if the structure needs major surgery!” Yeah? If it does, then I’ll keep that in mind for the next work. Thanks for the info, you stupid, little, frightened kitty cat of a critical voice.
During all of this fiction-writing stuff, I’ve also been re-teaching myself computer programming (Python). I haven’t touched the stuff in awhile and it’s becoming more and more important for my day job. It’s something useful to know these days, at least until I can finally live the life of the full-time creative.
Along the way of my learning journey, a revelation hit me. For some reason, I’ve seen writing as needing to be learned in a different way than the way I’ve learned everything else in my life. With programming and most other learnable skills, it’s always about daily immersion and repetition. Deliberate practice. Constant study. Constant application and facing the fear of the unknown. Just trying things and having them not work, having to deal with the mental (and oddly physical) pain of trying to figure out something that feels like it’s going to crack your mind in half.
Why the hell should writing be any different? Because of some deep-seated belief that it’s art and can’t truly be learned in any other way than through some misguided, lazy man’s osmosis? Nope. To truly make progress it going to take lots of sweat and tears (no blood unless you’re susceptible to paper cuts). It means constancy and consistency.
It means ass in chair. Writing.
It means reading. A lot.
It means willing to be bad.
And so we come full oval (let’s face it, this post wasn’t a clean circle). A three-month commitment to posting once a day on this blog scratches out at least a couple of those to-dos. It gets my fingers on the keys. It gets me excited about writing.
What will I write about? I don’t know. Will I make it three months? I sure hope so. But if I don’t, one thing will hold true: I’ll know a little bit more about myself than I didn’t before. I’ll know if I tried to bite off more than I could chew or if I just gave in to more excuses.
What more can I ask for?