A lot of these are very personal (just like the rants are my personal opinions of what is bad and overused, or good and underused, in fantasy). However, they’re all tactics that I’ve used and seen used with success. A few of them are supposed to be myths or not make sense, but that depends on the writer in question. If you’ve used it and it doesn’t help, then don’t use it. But I don’t think that other people who haven’t tested it should avoid these just because some other people have told them not to bother.
Avoid things that dull your brain.
Yes, I’ve heard about writing from your soul or your heart, too. I’m not one of those writers, or at least not a writer who can tell clearly what writing comes from my “heart” and what from my “head.” I tend to think the brain has a great deal to do with good writing in the purely physical sense, at least, given how drastically the smallest occurrence there can affect someone’s mood.
I find that I don’t feel much like writing after watching TV or playing video games. In fact, I find it much less easy to do anything that I normally find fun after those two. They exhaust me in an odd way, cloud my thoughts, or make me have to give up a whole lot of arguments with the plotline in order to enjoy whatever entertainment they can provide.
Thing is, I need my mind to write. I want to be able to know that a plot twist wouldn’t make sense, that a character wouldn’t say that, that I really shouldn’t write that scene because it would contradict something I said two hundred pages earlier. So I avoid playing video games altogether, and watch TV only when I absolutely cannot get out of it or when (for those rare shows I enjoy on their own merits) I’ve finished my writing for the day.
Other people might get incredibly stimulated by television, though I don’t actually know anyone like that. Other people may find that contact with other people tires them out, or that reading through Internet flamewars dulls their thoughts and makes them rabid. So avoid them. Ultimately, this comes down to self-discipline on your part. If those things have that kind of effect on your mind, you are the only one who will realize it, and the only one who can grab your own arm and frog-march you away from that thing before you hurt yourself.
Try integrating your creative and critical mindsets.
This is one of the things that writers who work with creative and critical mindsets entirely separate find anathema. And I respect their right to feel that way. I just don’t like them telling other people that they must create their rough drafts entirely free of self-criticism to get any work done at all, or, even worse, that creativity and criticism can never exist side by side in the same person.
If that last were true, no writer would ever be able to rewrite her own work, or beta-read anyone else’s work, or be an English teacher. It’s nonsense. Yes, working with both at once doesn’t help some writers. But don’t take it as gospel truth until you’ve tried it and not had it work for you. And practice does make it easier.
I write this way all the time now. I can remember times when I didn’t, but teaching freshman English and constantly critiquing and editing other people’s writing, in the form of essays or short stories or in-progress novels or fanfiction, have pounded it into me. It results, for me, in a nice sense of the story’s pacing. The editor part of my brain reminds me regularly that it’s been too long since I referred to Plot Thread X, and now would be a nice place to bury a little bit of dialogue or observation that will help it along, if not actually write a whole scene detailing it. Or perhaps I’ve just typed a paragraph that is completely out of place as it sits, such as a paragraph describing the grass in the middle of what is supposed to be an exciting battle scene, and I might want to delete it. I don’t catch everything, but what I do catch saves me a lot of rewriting later.
If you haven’t already discovered that you’re the sort of person who absolutely has to pour words on the page first and then look at them later, I think you could do worse than integrating these two supposedly opposite processes, and seeing what happens.
Try writing every day.
This gets derided as mechanical, or as saying that the writer will stick to quantity and not quality. Again, the people saying this are usually the ones for whom it doesn’t work.
Not even trying this has its own practical problem to go with the matter of personal taste: If you don’t write, you don’t get things done. I know far more people who talk about finishing a novel than people who’ve done it. Hell, I know a lot more people who talk about finishing short stories than people who’ve done it. To quote the first writing advice book I ever read, from an article whose title I unfortunately cannot remember, “Books do not get written in three or four days a year.”
It can be mechanical, but it doesn’t have to be. One way to vary it is to try for, say, 300 words one day, and 500 words another day, and 200 the next, and 1000 the next. Another is not to enslave yourself to always writing in the same way, at the same time, at the same place. I can’t do that, because my schedule doesn’t permit me to; students are always looking for last-minute meetings, and when I start taking classes in the fall again, I’ll only have the same schedule two days a week. I juggle. If I know that I’ll have the afternoon and not the morning free, I’ll write in the afternoon. If I know that I have a few hours before I go home to visit my parents, then I sit down and write my primary 5000 words in an hour. (I can do it; I just don’t like doing it).
This will give you an excellent idea of your limitations. Maybe you’ll find that you’re most comfortable with 500 words a day. Maybe you’ll find that you hate leaving a scene unfinished, so you write by scenes rather than wordcounts. Maybe you’ll find that a short story can be finished in a day, while it’s best for you to spend half your writing time for a novel thinking about it and half the time actually writing.
This is another reason I recommend this: because it’s an invaluable way of gaining self-knowledge.
This is primarily why the idea of a mystical writing process doesn’t work for me. It suggests that I can never have any idea where the characters came from, why I write the themes I do, where I get the plots for my stories, or- this is the thing I think is best to know- when my characters and themes and plots are getting stale and self-reflexive.
There’s a great difference between things that you can never know, and things that you don’t know right now. For me, complete understanding of my writing process is still a long way off, and I might die before I can get there. But I have developed the habit of looking back at my fiction, testing the characters and plots I come up with against the ones I’ve already written, and chopping back some of them that are too similar.
This kind of knowledge is either missing from a lot of professional writers who write the same story over and over, or they know but want to keep the money flowing in. I don’t think self-knowledge is a necessity to make money. I do think that it’s necessary to avoid repeating yourself.
And no, I don’t buy that idea that because the basic kernels of stories’ plots- things like romance or the desire for a happy ending- don’t change, that therefore it’s perfectly all right to never change what you write. Most of the time, those repetitive authors aren’t tackling big themes. They’re repeating the same kind of protagonist or character over and over, like the abused teenager who finds out that there’s a bigger world for her to be appreciated in (Lackey) or the shallow, bitchy woman who thinks all men are stupid (Jordan). They hit on one good protagonist who has personality development to a certain point and then stops (Salvatore). They use basically the same plot structure, such as a slow buildup and huge climax that involves saving the world (Goodkind). Or they do try to tackle big themes, but wind up doing them as polemic every single time (Goodkind again).
Be as honest as you can, evaluate the new ideas against what you’ve already written, and if you find that you’re using a character who could as easily be the protagonist of your last book with a name change and a makeover, alter some things. Or don’t. Your writing may not stagnate if you don’t; there have been some authors who could keep it going. But I think that it will be a lot harder to recognize when your writing does pass the expiration date if your self-knowledge remains confined to the surface of things.
Identify what part of a story you’re most afraid of.
For me, it’s the beginning. I find it absurdly hard to start a new book. I can have the opening scene in mind, tell myself to start it that day…and then wind up waiting until the next day, on which, I tell myself, I am sure to start writing. Once I am writing, I often continue on until the end. I made myself start a new novel the other day by forcing myself to sit down and write the first 1200 words. Yesterday’s 1200 words went infinitely easier.
With other people, it’s the middles of the stories that give them trouble. And with an awful lot of people, it’s endings- or just finishing the damn thing, which is different. Tinkering and playing with the book and telling everyone that you’re writing one can be lots of fun, but it can also build easily into fear of letting it go, of stepping back and telling yourself, “That’s enough.”
The other part of this is, of course, force yourself to tackle the thing you’re afraid of anyway. It won’t do any good if you know that you’re afraid of middles but then refuse to write the middle to anything.
No one else can make you write the things you love.
I will have to see if I can recall the name of that writing advice book; it had a lot of good, pithy bits of sense in it. I just can’t remember who said most of them:
- “Books do not get written in three or four days a year.”
- “One completed manuscript, however rough, is worth a dozen brilliant beginnings.”
- “Writers will find excuses not to write.”
- “If you are going to be prolific, you must like to write, and you must not like much of anything but writing.” (Okay, I do remember where that one came from: Isaac Asimov, who certainly knew what he was talking about).
Too often, I think, people ignore all this, all of which is good sense, all of which depends on the writer’s self-discipline. I’ve seen a lot of people demand that their friends make them write, that their parents excuse them from chores or a job so that they can write, that someone come along with a challenge at just the right time that happens to be just what they’re in the mood for. A good challenge or a good ass-kicking from a friend can be valuable, but they can’t make you write.
You have to do that.
People keep asking me how I make myself write. How do you sit down and read a good book? How do you sit down and watch TV, if that’s something you like to do? How do you check LJ? Writing is the same for me. I like doing it. So I do it.
The one thing you probably can’t make yourself do is love the physical act of writing. On the other hand, if writing is an actual, horrible chore for a writer, one so horrible that she would rather do anything else, I don’t think love of the physical act is the problem. Lack of a good story may be. Lack of time can be (though see that part about juggling your schedule and avoiding things that dull your mind to get around that one). Writer’s block may be.
And all those walls, it’s up to her to break.
All of these are intensely personal, and I’ve met people who do everything differently than I do and still write well. But I think that they can help, and people who haven’t tried them yet don’t necessarily belong to the camp of writers that won’t benefit by them.