Writing Exercise

If, like me, you’re constantly bogged down by the slog, then you probably understand the frustration that comes with, well, writing too dang slow.  In an effort to take the fight to the troublesome pest and kick that writing into motion, I’ve come up with a little exercise (though I’m sure I’m hardly the first to do so) to help encourage getting those words down more freely.

It’s fairly simple.  Take a character from your story, pick a starting place or incident, and then write without stopping for ten minutes.  Without stopping.  Don’t correct mistakes, don’t touch backspace, don’t think too hard, just follow the flow of your thought process.  Write whatever pops into your head, as quickly as you can; if your mind is only a sentence ahead of your hands, you’re doing great – you might be surprised what your brain will come up with when you force it into high gear.  It doesn’t have to be canonical, it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to make sense, so long at the end of those ten minutes you have something that vaguely resembles a chunk of narrative (I’ll usually get around 500-600 words).  The best part is that you can tell your self-consciousness to take a hike, as you never have to show these to anyone.

 

So here’s one of mine that I’ll show to everyone.  (>^-‘)>  I started with the primary protagonist from The Book, put her next to a river, and everything else just came as I typed.

  The vermillion dragon lay peacefully next to the riverbed, organizing sticks in a star-like pattern, setting the end of each one next to the middle of the one before, at a slight angle so that the entire design would be saw-like. The last one was imperfect, so she began again.
  “Um…hello?” a gentle voice appeared beside her.
  Xenasi started, turning her head to look at the one who invaded her solace. It was a deer.
  “I am a deer,” said the deer.
  “I see that you are…” she said warily. “Though I’m not sure why you can speak.”
  “I am the kind of deer that can talk,” he said bashfully.
  “There is such a thing?”
  “Before you stands proof that there is.” He slumped down into a sitting position. “I have a problem.”
  “Why would you approach a dragon with a problem? Would it not occur to you that I might rather eat you than help you?”
  “It occurred.” He squinted and wrenched his face and looked away. “But I thought that you wouldn’t.”
  Xenasi blinked. “I…I guess I already ate. What should I call you?”
  “Malbulous,” the deer sighed.
  It was a ponderous name. Though it seemed unlikely to be the source of his problems. “What is this problem that you would approach a dragon to help?”
  “Well,” the deer whapped a hoof against the ground in frustration. “Well, my super-awesome-doe-girlfriend left me.
  “And…what? Why…um…what?”
  “She left me for another deer. A stupid buck whose antlers are way too big and he’s probably trying to compensate for something with them. So, anyway, I want you to eat him instead of me. He is bigger than me, so you’ll have a much more satisfying meal. I promise.”
  Xenasi had just told the deer that she had already eaten, so she was not sure how to respond. I suppose I could stash the carcass for later. “I suppose I can help you. Where is this other buck?”
  “Just down the river a way,” replied Malbulous. “If you hurry, you can probably catch him. He’s probably just…getting all over my doefriend.” He got up, but only so his subsequent sulk would have more room to express itself.
  “What about your girlfriend? Do you want her alive?”
  “Of course…”
  Xenasi stood and shook off for some reason. “What are you prepared to offer me for this favor?”
  “The tasty body of that stupid doe-stealing buckhead. Remember?”
  “Well, I thought getting that would just come out of doing that,” the dragon nonsensed.
  The deer began to gallop away. “This waaaaaaaay!”
  Xenasi narrowed her eyes, but spread her wings and took flight, easily outpacing the deer and making her way down the river, eyes searching for the other buck of whom he spoke.
  It was only after a few minutes that she came across him, getting all cuddly with the doe who was once with Malbulous. Unsure of why she was cooperating, Xenasi swooped down and lunged at the unsuspecting buck. The buck jumped in fright, and tried to dart away, but was not so fast as the approaching dragon, and came to meet his end below her claws and between her teeth.

 

That’s the kind of thing that I end up with when I do these.  Just a stupid little passage written spontaneously while barreling over the slog.  I hope it goes without saying that it’s not an accurate representation of the character or my finished writing.  (>^-‘)>  Or would have gone, as I just said it.  You know what I mean.

Anyway, it’s something that helps me loosen up a little when I’m feeling brainclogged.  What kind of techniques do you use to battle your inhibitions?

Next time, we’ll take a look at extending this exercise into zero-drafting.  Until then, bene scribete.

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A Sample

I’ve thrown up a general information page/tab for The Book, where I’ve uploaded the current draft of the first chapter for anyone interested in taking a glimpse at what I’m rambling about.  (Feedback is always welcome, of course, be it words of praise or scathing hatred, so long as you can answer the most important question – does it make you want to read more?  (>^-‘)> )

Dummy Cover

I also whipped up a temporary cover so the page wouldn’t look so naked (I never claimed to be artistically inclined, though!).  Perhaps I’ll add a progress report of some sort in the future, as well.

 

Bene scribete, friends.

The Process

I’ve read a lot of opinions from a lot of accomplished writers on how one should go about every little aspect of writing; enough to see that pretty much every one of those opinions is contradicted by someone else’s.  What does that mean?  The bad news is that it’s fairly indicative that there’s not really a tried-and-true “right way” to do anything involved in getting that book put together.  The good news is that there isn’t really a “wrong way”, either.  It just comes down to experimenting a bit and seeing what makes the most sense to you and the story you’re trying to tell.  This goes for narrative mechanics as well as the manner by which you get words on the page.  Be open to trying new approaches, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that whatever method works for you is bad.

But, since we’re here, this is my own take:

We can divide the writing process into three phases.  Hey, process and phase start with a ‘P’, so let’s just go ahead and call them the three ‘P’s of writing, because rules and sets of things are apparently more appealing with forced alliteration.

 

P!

A-P-ling

Phase One: Plotting

This is the planning stage.  It involves creating characters, settings, and plot points.  It’s doing research and putting notes together.  It’s all the preparatory work that goes into getting oneself something to write about.  I spend most of this phase in Evernote.  I started with separate files on characters, settings, outlines, and so on, but I ultimately discovered that, despite my sometimes-crippling organizational tendencies, one giant free-form file was more conducive to my creative methods.  When I get an idea, I just want to put it down somewhere, and not having to think about where to put it is more liberating than it may seem.  The less you have to meta-think about what you’re thinking, the easier it is to keep the slog at bay.  When I’m on a roll, I don’t need to switch files for different idea categories, and can freely brain-dump on whatever tangent arises.

Actually, there are still a couple other ancillary files I keep around for reference.  One is an Excel sheet which keeps track of the scene order (indicating the perspective character and a brief description of each), and the other is a grammar/vocabulary sheet for the book’s made-up space fay language (a topic for its own post!), but both of these are compiled after the fact from the primary free-form file.

A lot of planning comes down to mining yourself for ideas and figuring out how things should fit together.  So, my notes consist of a lot of talking to myself in written form.  I’ll ask myself a question about some story element, then I’ll jot down any answers that come to mind.  That usually leads to sub-questions and more strings of possible answers to those, and ends up with a big block of text that, while not pretty to look at, has helped me make a decision or flesh out a concept a lot better than just sitting there thinking about it would.  My notes may not be easy to navigate, but hey, that’s what CTRL-F is for.  (>^-‘)>

Before I start a chapter, I’ll make a high-level outline of ideas for scenes I want to include, which characters should get perspective, and what I want to accomplish with each.  Scenes that don’t make the cut often end up working their way in the next time around.  Once I have a handle on what I’m doing with the chapter, it’s time to start typing it out.

 

Phase Two: Penning

Next comes the actual writing stage.  It’s getting those ideas down into some kind of narrative.  As much as ‘writing’ is the synecdoche we use for crafting fiction, it is by far the smallest part of it.  I spend my writing days in Word.  My notes may be a jumble, but I’m a bit more organized here.  I keep each chapter as a separate document, leaving my current draft of each in the root of my writing folder, and putting older drafts in a subfolder when done with them.  When I want to make a full draft, I compile them together and label which draft stage each chapter is at.

I begin a section with Draft 0 – full-throttle, uninhibited, almost stream-of-consciousness writing.  I can finish the zero-draft of a chapter in a couple of hours.  Now, it’s terrible – unbelievably terrible – but it gives me a starting point to work with, and manages to avoid provoking the slog.  I’ll talk more about zero-drafting, later.  When I start Draft 1, it’s back to my normal writing habits.

My goal is to get four pages done in a day, although I usually only end up with two.  Sometimes I’ll accomplish nothing more than agonizing over a single paragraph for hours on end and then hate myself for the rest of the day.  (>^-‘)>  This is primarily because I’m not doing a good job of staying within the current phase.

Some advice which I should learn to take, myself – it’s O.K. to walk away for a while if you’re getting frustrated.  It’s tempting to sit tight and trudge through the rough spots, but if your brain is feeling burnt out, it probably won’t be producing that great of stuff, and associating those negative sensations with writing won’t make you eager to keep coming back to it.  A rested mind is much better equipped to work out whatever issue you’re having.

Nothing says you have to write in sequence, but I do so for the most part, as it helps me develop and keep in mind the story’s progression from the potential reader’s perspective.  Some folks, on the other hand, might write any given scene as it comes to them, regardless of its place in the narrative, so they can get it down while the idea’s fresh, or use it as a reference point to work toward.

 

Phase Three: Polishing

Finally, we have the editing phase.  It’s all the fixing, updating, changing, and rearranging needed to get that draft to a presentable state.  All of my resources come into play, here.

There are a few different types of edits.  Editing for content, editing for phrasing, and copyediting (grammar/spelling/punctuation).  For me, copyediting is the easiest, as it’s the most straightforward; there are rules and standards of language to govern it.  Phrasing is more involved and individual, amounting to rewording things so that they sound good and make sense.  Content editing is the most in-depth and demanding, as it’s adding, cutting, or shuffling around segments or entire scenes and story elements.  You can do all your editing at once, but I find that it’s more effective to work out the content changes first, then have a look at the phrasing, and lastly do a pass to check for grammatical issues.

If you’re lucky enough to have someone willing to critique your work, this is where you would consider their suggestions, but your own self-criticism and desire for improvement will usually be the biggest driving factor.  Between drafts, I’ll write notes to myself as to what I want to change, and during them, I’ll bury my head in the dictionary to find better ways to say things.  If you’re as meticulous as I am, this is where it’s almost impossible not to feel the pull of the slog.  But editing is what gets your story to a state that you can be proud of, so the need for it is as unavoidable as that stupid blue shell.

 

These three phases are cyclical; once complete the process begins anew for the next chapter, section, rewrite, or what have you.  They can each be approached in any number of ways, but the one thing that should always be observed is their order – if you write before you plan, or edit before you write, you’re issuing an invitation to the slog.

 

The slog hates you

The slog is…the worst.

 

Some people have a muse.  Instead, I have this guy.  I have no doubt that many of you are also familiar with it.  The slog is basically an anti-muse.  Its goal is to erode your ideas, make you question your judgment, and slow down if not stall out your whole creative process.  It will rack you with indecision and make the simplest of tasks take ten times longer than they ought.  It survives on frustration and unproductivity.  It is sneaky.  Out of nowhere it will give you a headache so you’ll lose focus, or make you tired so you’ll take a break.  It will distract you with tangentially related activities to divert your time and attention away from writing itself.  It gobbles your confidence and barfs on your vision.  Your failure is its favorite.

Don’t feed the slog.

 

Bene scribete.

The Tools

In order to write you need something to write with, write?  Er–right?  You don’t have to use anything new or fancy; there’s nothing wrong with pen-and-paper, a typewriter, or Notepad.  Still, if you have access to the latest technological accessories, you may as well take advantage of them!  Here are some of the handy utilities that I use:

 

Evernote

Elephantastic?

Evernote is a great online note-taking service (especially now that they have their cross-platform line-break formatting fixed!).  The basic service is free, providing you with a rich-text editor to create notes and organize them by tags or ‘notebook’ folders.  You can use it straight from a web browser, or (better yet) download the dedicated application for your computer, phone, and/or tablet, and have access to your updated notes wherever you can get to the internet (and still be able to view what’s on the device where you can’t).  When an idea pops into my head while I’m away from the computer, I’ll take a note on my iPhod/iPad, then pull it up later on the PC when writing.  Simple and convenient.  It also has a variety of plugins to other services, if you’re feeling adventurous.

 

Dropbox is for winners

It’s like a box that you drop things in.  Except completely different.

There are a lot of “cloud-storage” solutions out there these days, but I find Dropbox to be the most streamlined.  It’s more of a synchronizing service than an online storage receptacle, which is what makes it so great.  You install it on your computer, and it creates a ‘Dropbox’ folder in your user profile (or you can put it anywhere else you want).  Then, you just put your writing folder inside that, and use it like normal.  Install it on any other computers you normally use, and it will mirror that folder among them – make a change to your draft on one, and it will be made on the rest.  Download the phone/tablet application to view your files on-the-go, or access your files from the Dropbox website on computers you don’t typically use.  You can even view older versions of the files there that you’ve overwritten.  It’s portability, backup, and version-tracking all in one!  Like Evernote, the basic service is free, starting you off with 2GB of wiggle-room – more than enough for bookwork.  Great stuff.  (Psst – though if you sign up with that link you’ll score us both an extra 1/2 GB of space!)

 

Dictionary!

Words are neat

Pretty self-explanatory.  A dictionary is always good to have on hand, to check nuance or find a synonym.  Dictionary.com has some nice phone/tablet applications as well, which are as free as the website.

 

So micro

It’s not a real office

As far as the actual writing goes, I use Microsoft Office (i.e., Word 2010).  It’s sort of not free.  It is, however, the de facto standard, and most people seem to have access to it for one reason or another.  If you don’t, Open Office is a pretty popular and plenty functional no-cost alternative, Pages (for you Mac users) is only $20, or if you want to keep things simple, you could always consolidate and just use Evernote for everything!  Anyway, say what you will about Microsoft on the whole, but I find Office to be a pretty dang competent product.  Like many people, I’ve used it for decades in both a personal and professional capacity, and there’s something to be said about its ubiquity and ease-of-use coupled with the granular control it gives you over your documents.

 

So, that’s the general software that gets me through the day!  Maybe you’ve found some other helpful programs?

Next time, we’ll take a look at the day-to-day writing process.  Until then, bene scribete.

The Book

Since much of this ‘blog will be concerning my attempt at producing a book, I should probably introduce it in some fashion.

 

What a book might look like if you were a cartoon.  A boring cartoon.

A book, in case the modern audience has forgotten what…whatever this is is.

 

If you were a cartoon, it might look like that (a lazy cartoon.  Tsh).

Why write a novel?  I guess storytelling has always been something really important to me.  I’ve wanted (and still want) to be a lot of things in my life, but a writer has for as long as I can remember been first among them.  And, if you want to do something, sometimes you just have to…well, do it!  Technically, I suppose this is the third book I’ve tried to write.  I started one when I was ten, and another at fifteen, but both fizzled out when I got bogged down with the difficulty of figuring out how to get from one point in the story to the next.  Luckily, I’ve gotten a lot better at plotting in the interim and naturally have much more writing experience this time around, so this one’s getting finished, dangit!

So, what’s this thing about?  Well, that’s a good question, comma, myself.  One of the most important questions there is when considering a narrative.  One which I should…really have a better answer to by now.  Let’s try this – the first of a four or five part series, it’s a medieval fantasy (young adult-ish?), following an adolescent dragon as she investigates a strange disturbance to the land originating from the nearby human settlements.  Neh?  As the author of a work, when you have all the low-level details ever present in your mind, it can sometimes be a little tough to weed out the high-level premise and distill it into a good succinct pitch line, so it’s an issue I’ll likely keep returning to.  I’m still trying to find a balance between being too generic and giving too much away.  Maybe I can cheat a bit and ask those of you who have read the beginning how you’d describe it in a sentence if someone asked you what it was about?

O.K., so, what’s it called?  Uhhhh, hmm.  Don’t have that yet, either.  There’s a title for the second book; does that count?  No?  No.

When will it be done?  …  All right, maybe I should stop asking myself questions that make me look bad.

I’ve been working on it for a little over a year, now.  I have a couple hundred pages at various draft stages, and at least as much to go.  Progress has been slow but fairly steady.  I’m terribly meticulous when writing, hence the sluggishness – I’ve still yet to effectively shake the bad-bad-bad writer habit of mentally editing every sentence several times before I put it down (I’m even doing it now, gah!).  Well, at least I have the major elements outlined, and things seem to be getting smoother as they go, if only slightly.

Anyway, my hope with this thing is to give a window into what all goes into writing that first book as it happens, at least from one quirky space fish’s perspective.  Maybe if you’re looking to write (or currently writing!) one yourself, it’ll help to see someone else going through the trials along with you.  Perhaps you’ll pick up some ideas on what (not) to try, or maybe if you’re having an easier time than I am, you can just follow my struggles as a way to feel better about yourself.  (>^-‘)>

Otherwise, well – writing can be kind of lonely!  You spend a lot of time in your own head.  I need to talk about this stuff, to share the enthusiasm, but I’m not sure there’s anyone I can do that with in person.  So, Internet, you will be my sounding board, willing and responsive or not!  Come and join me as I take time away from writing to write about writing like a super responsible person.

 

This person is SUPER responsible.

A super responsible person.

 

The pictures help, right?

Bene scribete, all.