Writing to Save Your Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We had a good discussion recently about writer obituaries, and what you might want yours to say. Several comments talked about writing for other than professional reasons. I liked what BK Jackson offered:

Above all, writing is my enjoyable escape and I want it to stay that way, regardless of volume. When I’m old, I want to be as excited about writing as I was in first or second grade when I was taught how to write my first sentence and that huge lightbulb went off in my head as I began to think about the power I would have of stringing sentences together to form stories.

Sure, most writers write in the hopes of bringing in some dough. They believe, as I do, that if you love your job you won’t work a day in your life.

Of course, by work I don’t mean the effort and toil that is required for success at anything. I mean in that colloquial sense of hating what you do. (Drew Carey: “Hate your job? There’s a group for that. It’s called everybody, and we meet at the bar.”)

I have a good friend who worked 20 years for a company where every day was a slog, and the culture chaotic. Being classically educated, he had his license plate changed to SISYPHS, a contraction of the mythological figure doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again.

Not so with writers who work for love and loot.

But that’s not the only reason to write, as BK noted. Indeed, there may be a reason even more important: to save us from a nasty, brutish, and dismal existence.

We all know our culture right now is a roiling sea of hate, anger, vitriol, scorn, and mendacity—and that’s just on Twitter.

So it is a noble task, in my view, for writers to provide a few hours of entertaining escapism. Indeed, the best thrillers and mysteries offer readers a form of “fear management.” They extend the hope that things like justice and love are still possible in a dark world. Time spent in a book like that is infinitely superior to hours ranting on social media, kicking the dog, or opening a new bottle of Beam.

But the act of writing itself, for yourself, is also balm for the spirit. We all know what it’s like to write in “flow,” to get lost in a world we create and the lives of characters who begin to live and breathe on the page. We know the feeling—rare though it may be—of sitting back and thinking, “Wow, that’s a great line” or “This scene really cooks.”

When a writer experiences the joy of creation, it’s good for the spleen.

Ishmael, when he felt a “drizzly November in my soul” and the desire to go around “knocking people’s hats off,” went to sea.

Writers go to the keyboard.

Maybe you don’t have a contract with a publisher, or a huge footprint in the digital space. Write anyway. Write because it’s good for you. Write novels, short stories, flash fiction. Write essays and poetry. Write whatever strikes your fancy. Then show this work to the people you love. Share it with friends. Write for your kids and grandkids (see Hooley, Steve). Write because for a few hours every day you can escape a drizzly November of the soul.

Commenter Barry Knister put it this way recently:

I am grateful for the unignorable impulse to write. Most people never have this impulse. If they write at all, it’s forced on them by the demands of work. When I stop to think of how much writing has meant to me, what life would be like without having long ago tested positive for the writing virus, I am hugely thankful for the disease.

A lawyer named George Bernau, in the hospital after a near-fatal car accident, had a revelation. “I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.”

So he wrote a novel, Promises to Keep, an alternative history of the JFK assassination. It got a $750,000 advance from Warner Books, a record at the time for a debut novel.

That’s not going to happen for the overwhelming majority writers, of course, especially in these risk-averse economic times.

But you can still write if that’s what you want out of your life.

Is it?

Read, Write, Suffer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

James N. Frey, author of the popular craft books How to Write a Damn Good Novel I & II, once gave a talk to a group of wannabe writers. He told them he’d give them ten rules which would guarantee they’d learn to write great fiction. Here they are:

Read! Read! Read!

Write! Write! Write!

Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!

Actually, that’s only nine. His tenth will be revealed anon. Let’s first do a little unpacking.

Read! Read! Read!

By this, Frey meant not just reading fiction, but also widely in all areas. “A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole. As a fiction writer, you need to be curious about the world and read about things you might not be interested in personally. Professionally, you need to be interested in everything.”

I like that. I am always reading nonfiction to expand my knowledge base. I even read random articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica set left to me by my grandfather (who sold them during the Depression). Inevitably, I find something which I’ll work into a short story or even a WIP.

Frey does advise reading fiction in your genre to know what’s going on in the market. True that as well.

Write! Write! Write!

We all know you have to write, a lot, to get good. That’s why I’ve always stressed the quota. As Frey puts it, “The more you write every day, the faster you learn.”

I’d add a caveat to that, however. The basketball coach Bob Knight once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”

In other words, you can write, write, write, but if you’re not also learning how to make your writing better, you’re just ingraining bad habits. You don’t want to be like those thousand monkeys hammering typewriters for a thousand years to randomly come up with Shakespeare.

So you get feedback and study the craft along with your daily writing. When I started on this road I bought craft books by the barrel, because I’d been told you can’t learn how to write great fiction. I knew I couldn’t, so set out to see if I could prove that admonition wrong. I think I’ve made a pretty good case. When I got a five-book contract I started calling it “The Big Lie.”

So write, write, write and learn, learn, learn.

And write not only for publication, but to practice various styles. Find that elusive thing called Voice. Frey offers the sage advice of taking stylists you like and copying their prose, word for word. Not to be them, but to get their cadences in your head, the sound and the flow of the words. Let that all meld in your head and you’ll soon develop a style of your own.

Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!

“Learning the craft of writing is difficult,” says Frey. “Creating stories is sometimes agonizing, rewriting is torturous. Dealing with editors is like being tossed into the lions’ den at lunch time. Then when you’re finally published, often your publisher will not do enough publicity and the critics will probably crown you with thorns.”

Frey wrote this before the self-publishing revolution, but the advice still holds. Even as an indie you have to work through obstacles, like an indifferent or hostile public (file this under “Reviews, one-star”).

So why do we do it? Frey: “To experience the ecstasy inherent in the act of participation in the creation of the world, my friend….Living a writer’s life, a life of reflection, of personal growth, of accomplishment, of working and striving and suffering for one’s art, that is its own glory.” (See also the responses to Garry’s recent post.)

I’m reminded of the famous “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. Remember? His soup is so amazing everyone lines up to get it. But you must order it a certain way. No talking in line, no extraneous comments, or you’ll hear, “No soup for you!”

“No soup for you!”

Kramer becomes his one ally, and says to him, “You suffer for your soup!”

The Soup Nazi nods. “How can I tolerate any less from my customers?”

Indeed! We all want to make the best soup. We want to gift our readers the best writing we can muster. That takes work. But when you see the results…when you get an email—that’s not from your mother—telling you how much they loved your story….that is its own reward.

As good old Aristotle put it, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.”

And what of Frey’s tenth rule? It is: “Don’t use too many exclamation points!”

I agree with that!

My eleventh rule would be this: “Repeat over and over the rest of your life.”

Because you’re a writer. It’s what you do.

So what do you think of this list? What would you add or expand?

Mr. Frey’s article can be found here.

On Setting Word Count Goals

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m a goal setter, but it didn’t come naturally. When I was a young pup I tended toward the Walt Whitman school of life: I loaf and invite my soul.

That had to change when I went to law school. And then when I joined a big law firm; even more when I went into private practice.

Later, I started running a small business and really had to get into goals, for they are an essential part of Entrepreneurship 101. Those were good self-study years for me. What I learned back then has served me in good stead ever since. (If you’re interested in the details of those lessons, I put them into a monograph available here.)

When I was just starting out on this writing gig, I got some invaluable advice: set a word quota, not a time quota. Don’t say, “I’m going to write for two hours every day!” because there are too many ways to waste that time. You could stare out the window for an hour and a half and call it creativity.

A word count quota produces pages. A page a day is a book a year. (A page is approximately 250 words. A Ficus tree can write 250 words a day. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree.)

Over the years I’ve been asked about my quota and system for keeping track, so here it is.

My quota, as it has been for most of my career, is 6,000 words a week—312,000 words a year. I try to write six days a week and take Sundays off to rest the noggin. Having a weekly quota helps because if I miss a day for some reason, I can make up the words on another day.

This works for me, though it’s nothing compared to what some of the great old pulp writers used to do. A few of them pounded out one million words or more per year, and on manual typewriters, too!

Sheesh. They must have driven their neighbors crazy.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, was one of the million-plus boys. Sometimes his fingers would bleed. He’d tape them up and keep typing.

Then he discovered the Ditcaphone. At the peak of his productive years Gardner was dictating his books and had a team of secretaries transcribing them. These days there are several options for speaking your words. Google Docs has a pretty fair dictation mode. So does Mac OS. I’ve done some dictating via my phone (into Google Docs) and on the computer, but it never feels quite right to me. With the editing that’s involved after I dictate, I wonder if the actual word count + time equation isn’t just about the same.

Anyway … I wrote 313,508 words in 2018.

I keep track of my words in two ways. When I compose in Scrivener, which I do most of the time, it has a handy-dandy word count tracker for both the overall project and the current session. If I’m writing in Word, I first jot down the word count of the document. I type, and when I finish I simply subtract the old word count from the new.

I tally these words on a spreadsheet, and have been doing so for twenty years. On my spreadsheet I have four categories: novels, non-fiction, short fiction, and writing. That last category is specific to my craft teaching. So I can look at my sheet and see how many words I’ve written in each category per day. I have a daily tally, and a weekly tally. I have a cell next to the weekly tally that keeps track of my cumulative output.

Next to that latter cell I put in a number. The number is a sequential sum of 6000. So at the seven-day mark, I put 6000. At the fourteen-day mark, 12,000. And so on, right up to 312,000. That way I can see if I’m falling too far behind. Here’s a portion of my spreadsheet from 2018 (click to enlarge):

Okay, does all this seem too complicated? It really isn’t. Once you have the spreadsheet figured out you can reproduce it easily each year. And once you’re in the habit of tracking your daily word count, it will become second nature.

What should your quota be? I advise writers to figure out how many words they can comfortably produce in a normal week, then up that by 10% as a stretch goal.

So what is my word count goal for 2019?

312,000.

What’s yours? Do you have a system for keeping track? Or does the thought of goals for your writing make you nervous?

***

FYI, tomorrow is release day for my new Mike Romeo thriller. It’s available for pre-order now at the special launch price of $2.99.

What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Next year will be my 24th as a professional writer.

When my first book hit the shelves nobody used a cell phone (Seinfeld had that big brick handset with the antenna, remember?) O.J. Simpson had been found not guilty and Bill Cosby was still America’s most beloved dad. Microsoft released Windows 95. And a guy named Bezos launched a website that was purportedly going to sell books to consumers right over the internet! Everybody thought he was nuts.

For the seven years previous I’d been studying the craft of screenwriting and fiction, and writing every day. I devoured books on writing and gobbled up each monthly issue of Writer’s Digest. I have several shelves of my beloved writing books (and binders full of WDs), all highlighted and sticky-noted in some form or fashion. Every so often I like to pull one off the shelf to see what I highlighted, and relive some of the excitement of discovering something that worked for me.

The other day took down The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction by Barnaby Conrad, published by Writer’s Digest Books. It’s a collection of articles and interviews from the famous Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which Conrad directed for many years.

There was something tucked inside the book. It was a pamphlet titled 12 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Writing by Ben Bova, the science-fiction writer and editor. I think this came as a freebie with a book ordered from the Writer’s Digest Book Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member. So I had another look at Bova’s lessons and thought I’d reflect on them with you today. The first two are unsurprising:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Read widely.

All serious writing students know this, though I would edit the first one thus: write to a weekly quota. Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, then up that by 10% for your goal.

  1. Write about WHO you know.

Bova stresses the importance of well-rounded characters. Basic, of course, but coming from the sci-fi genre Bova knows it’s a temptation to overemphasize world-building.

  1. Character + Problem = Story.

I would change Problem to Plot, where plot is defined as a life-or-death battle which the character meets by strength of will.

  1. No villains.

This is Bova’s most important tip. The “villain” does not see himself that way. “Every tyrant in history was convinced that he had to do the things he did, for is own good or for the good of the people around him,” Bova writes.

I always counsel writers to know the bad guy’s “closing argument.” If he were on trial, what would he say to defend himself? And mean it?

  1. Start in the middle.

My heart sang. Had Bova anticipated Write Your Novel From the Middle? Ahem. No. He was talking about the opening pages, and he echoes one of my constant refrains: act first, explain later. Bova explains:

[Start] your story in the midst of brisk, exciting action. Start in the middle! Don’t waste time telling us how your protagonist got into the pickle he’s in. Show him struggling to get free. You can always fill in the background details later.

Particularly in a novel, it’s tempting to set the scene, explain the protagonist’s background, describe how she got to where she is. Cut all that out. Or, at least, save it for later. Start in the midst of action. Hook that reader right away or you won’t hook him at all.

  1. The chain of promises.

Don’t present a problem on page one and then solve it. Pile them up. “Each problem you present to the protagonist is a promise to the reader that there will be suspense, excitement, adventure in solving that problem.”

  1. Use all five senses.

Bova rightly notes that writers tend to favor sight and sound. Add touch, taste, and smell.

  1. Point of view.

Bova makes a case for close 3d Person, so you can be intimate with a character in one scene, then cut away to another character, and so on. He does not favor First Person because he finds it too limiting. Hmm. Tell that to Raymond Chandler.

The last three tips come from another world, when hard-copy manuscripts were submitted to agents and editors. Imagine that!

  1. Make your manuscript readable.

“Typed, whether on a typewriter or a computer printer.”

Remember when that was an actual choice?

  1. Study the markets.

“Publishers think in categories. You must too.”

  1. Cover letters.

“And always remember to include the SASE.”

(For you kids out there, SASE stands for “Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.” Ask your parents what that means.)

All this got me thinking: what is something I wish I’d known when I started out? I’ll give you a twofer:

  1. Scene Structure.

I wrote four or five screenplays that didn’t generate any interest. What finally broke me through was an epiphany while reading Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. Specifically, his chapter on scene and sequel. More specifically, understanding the scene beats of Goal, Conflict, Disaster. No more weak or meandering scenes after that. The next script I wrote got me an agent.

  1. The Mind is as Important as the Keyboard

The initial thrill of being published eventually ran into a new set of challenges familiar to all writers who make it inside the gates of the Forbidden City. Stuff like comparison, envy, self-doubt, bad reviews. All of which interfere with the joy of writing. Faith and family were in place for me, but I also studied specific topics like gratitude, contentment, focus, and discipline. So important are these that I wrote a book to help writers prepare for and deal with the mental game of writing.

So, TKZers, if you’ve been around the block, what is something you wish you had known when you were starting out?

And if you are just starting out, what is something you want to know? Ask away, and one of our crack team of bloggers will take a flyer at an answer—for I am in travel mode today and my check-in may be sketchy.

 

Why We Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Those of us who teach as well as write are always glad to hear that something we suggested helped a fellow scribe. I got an email the other day that I have to share. With the kind permission of the sender, here it is:

Dear Mr. Bell

I want to thank you. You helped me find something that I had no idea I had in me.

A few minutes ago, while reading your book “Plot & Structure”, I completed Exercise 1. As per your instruction, I wrote from the gut. [JSB: This is a free-form, just let-er-rip exercise, no judging or stopping, asking yourself what kind of writer you wan to be.]

The result surprised me deeply. I never knew that I could write something like that 15 minutes ago, and I never realized the kind of author I want to be.

As a thank you, I am including in this email the text I wrote. It is exactly the way I first wrote it, and I haven’t even read it myself yet:

“When readers read my novels, I want them to feel that they have just been on a journey to a new world, a different universe. I want them to feel amazed, I want them to feel like they have never read anything like that before in their lives, I want them to feel that if they want to experience this kind of suspense again, they have to read my stories. I want them to think about what they read the next day, the next year, I want the story they read to mean so much to them that they will be planning to show it to their unborn children one day. And most important of all, I want them to keep wanting more at the end.

That’s because, to me, novels are a way for me to share my soul. Novels are the sum of all that is important in life, the sum of all of the things that make us smile, laugh, cry, scream, terrified, look over our shoulders on a dark alley, everything that we hope one day happens to us. They are our hopes, our fears, our dreams and nightmares, what elevates us to heaven one day and crushes us back to the earth with the might of a thousand heavens the next. A good story is a communion, it is something that a billion people who have never met each other share, it is a way for everyone to look up to the sky, or deep inside themselves, and recognize the same truth as any person might one day realize, no matter how far apart in space or time those people might live. It is a timeless truth, it is the very fabric of our souls, it is how we recognize each other and how we recognize ourselves in others. It is what makes us, us.”

It might be terrible in the end, but it meant a lot to me.

***

JSB: That is anything but terrible. It can’t be, for there is no wrong answer so long as it has come from your deepest self. Indeed, this young man got precisely the best result because it surprised him. Self-discovery is a crucial step toward writing unforgettable fiction.

This writer has taken that step.

And so I ask you, TKZers: Why do you write?

Your Writing Sweet Spot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Things were tough at the moment. I hadn’t worked in a studio for a long time. So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week. Only I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is, they didn’t sell.” – Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard

Ah, poor Joe. We can feel his pain (not really, since he’s narrating this as a corpse floating in a swimming pool. But I digress). Still, I love how screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett captured the writer’s dilemma—what should I write that has a decent chance to sell?

For writers still operating in the world of traditional publishing, that question is more important than ever. Publishing companies are being squeezed and must concentrate on big hits to survive. This makes it harder for a newbie to break in or, if they manage to get ushered through the gates of the Forbidden City, to receive what used to be called a “decent advance” and marketing support.

Indie writers must be market conscious, too, as the crush of content and reading choices grow ever larger. If you want to make decent scratch you have to provide products (plural) that a good number of people will want to buy.

The danger, of course, is the temptation to jump on a trend, or try to replicate what’s already been done. But demanding readers don’t want something that feels same-old. They want to be delighted, surprised, swept up. So do acquisitions editors.

They all want originality.

Just not so much that they can’t figure out what ride they’re on.

Which reminds me of the famous quip by Samuel Johnson who had been asked to review a manuscript. He wrote, “Sir, your book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”

Um, ouch.

(As long as we’re on the subject of literary snubs, I can’t help but quote what is reputed to be the shortest book review ever, attributed to Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”)

So how could we have helped Joe Gillis? Where is the sweet spot for the writer who needs to sell in order to get his car out of hock?

As I assert in Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, the sweet spot is where you find the most joy. Way back in 1919, a professor of writing at Columbia University, Clayton Meeker Hamilton, said this:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction.)

I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in the writing, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

“Let her go!” says Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write. “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate!”

You liked to play those things when you were a kid, right?

So play! Here are three ways to do it:

  1. Go to risky places. Bungee jump off the Bridge of Banal. The cord of a solid concept will keep you from crashing into the gorge.
  2. Have fun with minor characters. Make them spicy, not mere walk-ons. Never underestimate the power of comedy relief in a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock did it in almost every film (e.g., Thelma Ritter in Rear Window; Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt).
  3. Make things harder on the main character. You thought that setback was bad? Make it worse. (This form of joy is not veiled sadism; it’s plot happiness! Readers will love you for it.)

So what about you? Where do you find your writing sweet spot?

The Midstream Temptation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently writing a series featuring a character named Mike Romeo. I have three books out in that series. I also have a little over half of the next Romeo completed.

But during my creativity time a couple of months ago, I was playing the first line game. That’s where I just make up first lines, not knowing anything else about what is to follow. I have a file full of firsts that I would love to develop someday. All I need is a 28-hour day and and a perpetual espresso machine.

Anyway, I wrote an opening line and it blasted me. I just had to know what it meant. So I found myself writing an opening chapter. And when I was finished I knew I had the makings of a stand-alone thriller that I wanted to write.

Only I wanted to write it now.

I call this the midstream temptation.

I was faced with a choice. Continue to write this new project, leaving Romeo sitting there waiting for me to get on with his story? Or finish Romeo and come back to the new one? (A third option, writing both at the same time, seems to have worked for Isaac Asimov, but it gets me too confused.)

When I was writing for a publishing company, they had a triple-barreled vaccine for the midstream temptation—a contract, an advance, and a deadline.

But as an indie, I am free to decide what to write, and when.

Now, I know enough about the mental game of writing to realize there’s a danger here all writers face. Sometimes you reach a point in a novel where you hit “the wall.” For me that’s usually around the 30k word mark. It’s a place where you’ve got a whole lot of book to go, but start thinking maybe your concept isn’t as hot as you thought. Or you wonder if you are really the writer you thought—or hoped—you were. Maybe the day of reckoning has come, and they’ll all find out you’re a total fraud!

For me, I just write through the wall. The doubts go away.

But that wasn’t the case with Romeo. I didn’t hit a wall. The book is solid. I know my signpost scenes.

So I had another thought (two thoughts in close proximity!). When I finish a first draft I always set it aside and let it cool for a time before my first read-through and edit. So! Why not let the Romeo cool off now? Use the cooling period to write this new one while it’s hot, and then approach my Romeo manuscript as if it is a first draft (a short one, to be sure)!

Which is what I decided to do.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this. The conditions had to be just right. So let me run through some thoughts on the matter:

  1. When you are tempted to leave a book in midstream for another idea, resist the temptation and keep writing on your WIP.
  2. If the new idea keeps demanding your attention, take one day off and…
  3. Put on your “thinking cap,” as Mrs. Barshay used to tell us Kindergartners. Ask yourself if you’ve merely hit a wall of doubt. I suspect a lot of the time the answer will be yes.
  4. Write some analysis. Talk to yourself about your WIP. Identify issues, and make a list of possible solutions.
  5. Keep at your WIP unless you are at a point where it’s pretty much complete in your mind. That means you have a good bulk of it done and are pretty sure where it’s heading, and how it’s likely to end. (Admittedly, this is more difficult for a panster. And it should be. Because you’re a pantser.)
  6. Take a day to do some freewriting on the new idea. Then take another day to map out where the story might go. Do a preliminary outline, at least of signpost scenes.
  7. Write the opening chapter. Then ask yourself if you, as a reader, would have to read on. Do you have compelling characters? Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)?
  8. If the answers to #6 are affirmative, take one more day to make sure you’re not going to the new project just to avoid facing the task of the WIP.
  9. Make your decision.
  10. Continue to meet your quota. (Don’t have a quota? Get one!)

I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again. My routine for twenty years is to finish a full draft while at the same time developing the next project with notes, index cards, character work and so on. I just got caught up in the excitement this time. The new idea kept tapping on the window, inviting me to come outside and play. And isn’t spontaneous play what we used to love as children?

Okay, so writers are big children. That’s how we roll.

But if we want to be paid for our play, we need more than a little discipline. So when a midstream temptation comes calling, subject it to hard and objective scrutiny. If it passes … go play!

And be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.

Have you ever had a major midstream temptation? What did you do? Do you ever hit a wall in your first draft? How do you handle it? 

The Five Modes of A Writer’s Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So I was sitting around the other day with a bout of procrastination when I had a thought (I writertry to have at least one thought per day). I find, as a writer, I am usually in one of five modes: Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro. I thought of adding another one for residents of New York and New Jersey – Yo! – but decided five was enough

Flow

Flow is a state of hyper focus, of total immersion in one’s creative work. In this mode you experience a mix of forgetfulness, play, joy, and “time quickening.” An hour feels like five minutes. Difficult tasks seem to melt before you. You are “in the zone.”

Jack London wrote a lot about flow, in all parts of life, but especially in the life of the writer. In The Call of the Wild he compares it to the elemental ecstasy of the animal in full beast mode:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

There you go, writer. Hunt that book!

So how do you get into the zone when you write? I’ve found it more or less sneaks up on you, that you can’t force it. But there is a way to make it more recurrent: Know your craft!

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I’ll help you out. It’s pronounced MEE-high Chick-SENT-mee-high), in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, stressed that flow most often occurs when the challenge of a task is met with an equal or greater skill level. When you know what you’re doing, and how to pull something off, you are more likely to experience flow. I love the speech in The Hustler with Paul Newman, where he describes to his girl what it’s like to play great pool:

EDDIE: Like, you know, anything can be great. Brick laying can be great, if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.

When I’m goin’, I mean when I’m really goin’, I feel like a jockey must feel. He’s sitting on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him, he’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him, and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him – timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a really great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right.

It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me … You feel the roll of those balls and you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

SARAH: You’re not a loser, Eddie, you’re a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.

Study your craft and write with abandon and you will experience those times when you just know. It’s the greatest mode of the writing life.

Go

The next best thing to being lost in flow is being able to write at a good pace anyway. Get the words down. Turn off the inner editor and just go.

One way to do that is the writing sprint. You set yourself a goal of, say, 250 words. You make a little plan for what you’re going to write. It might be some action, some description, some dialogue, whatever. You think about it, then write without stopping.

You can set a timer for this, or use something like Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die.

When you get to the end of your sprint you might very well find that you’re in flow. So keep going.

Otherwise, take a short break and then do another sprint.

Slow

We all know there are times when writing is a slog. There are many reasons this may be. It could be physical—you’re just tired. Or it could be a part of your manuscript you’re unclear or unexcited about.

If it’s physical, take a power nap. I recommend them! Every day, sometime between one and three o’clock, I try to nod off for fifteen or twenty minutes. You can train your body to do that. I can put my feet up on my desk and lean back in my chair, or hit the sofa, and I’m off to dreamland in a minute or two.

Another idea when it’s slow going is to take a brisk walk in the sunshine. If you live in Buffalo and it’s December, do some jumping jacks in the living room … and then don’t live in Buffalo in December anymore.

If slowness is caused by being unclear or unexcited about your WIP, try this:

Skip ahead from wherever you are and write a fresh new scene. Before you start, let the scene play in your mind and tell your imagination to come up with one surprising thing. Out of the blue. Wild. Your character could do something you never thought he would. Or another character might pop in (Chandler’s famous “guy with a gun” perhaps?). Or create some crazy lines of dialogue.

At the very least, this exercise will produce new plot possibilities and more layers of character life. And it’s fun.

No

And then there are some days when you simply do not want to write, when it almost feels like you can’t type. Your fingers rest on the keys but refuse to move.

There may be several reasons for this.

It could be that familiarity has bred contempt. You just can’t stand looking at your project anymore. Perhaps you’ve hit a wall in your story and don’t know whether to jump over, tunnel under, blow it up, or go back the way you came.

Or it could be completely unrelated to your writing, such as a life crisis that saps your mental energy.

So the first thing to do is figure out why your brain is saying No. Journaling about it helps. Write to yourself in a free-form way, asking questions, letting your thoughts pour out on the page.

But don’t beat yourself up if you have to take a break. I am all for busting through barriers, but there have been times when I’ve given myself permission to just say No. I even build a day into my week for a “writing Sabbath.” I try not to write anything on Sunday. This lets my mind rest and usually results in new ideas and fresh energy on Monday.

Pro

The pro writer writes to a quota.

Now, I know some writers think a quota stifles creativity by putting “pressure” on delicate artist sensibilities. I say hooey. It’s the exact opposite. Having a quota actually pulls you forward so flow and ideas and productivity can happen.

My standard advice: find the number of words you can comfortably produce in a normal week. Then up that by10%. Make that your weekly goal and divide it up among your days and according to your schedule. Keep track of how you do each day.

A pro also keeps up on what’s happening in the publishing world – both traditional and indie – in order to make wise career choices. Keep abreast of what’s being offered in publishing contracts (Kris Rusch is currently running a great series on this subject. Start here.) Subscribe to industry blogs like Jane Friedman and follow observers like @Porter_Anderson. Put together your own list of go-to resources … and then go to them.

And then there’s marketing, which these days falls mainly on the author’s shoulders, even in traditional publishing. So we all have to give it attention, but here’s my thing: follow the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your writing life should be devoted to the writing itself, the craft, the production. Twenty percent to the business and marketing side. Why? Because I’ve seen some fabulous marketers zigging and zagging all over the place, but with stinky books. That doesn’t build repeat business.

And repeat business is the name of this game for a pro. You get that when you write great books. So make that your primary focus.

For if you can deftly handle Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro, you will greatly increase your chances of making something else – Dough.

Y’know?

So …

…what mode have you been in lately?

 

Farewell

Nancy J. Cohen

Dear Friends,

I regret to announce that I am leaving the Kill Zone. I’ve been blogging on this site for five years, and it’s gotten harder to think of things to say and to cover new ground. I have learned much from my illustrious comrades, and I’m grateful for the time spent in this writing community. To readers and my fellow authors, your feedback and responses have been highly gratifying and much appreciated. I wish you all the best and a Happy New Year. It’s been a blast.

Please note that you can still follow my posts at Nancy’s Notes from Florida. I’ll hope to see some of you there when I’m not popping in at the KZ to leave a comment. Blessings to you all.

Nancy

Mystery Movies

As the holidays approach, we may be looking for gifts that appeal to writers. In my house, movies are always welcome. Besides the classics like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, here are some of my favorites in the mystery genre or movies involving writers. A happy ending is a must for my taste. This list does not include TV series or the Hallmark Channel mystery movie collection.

movies

AMERICAN DREAMER with JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti.
One of my all-time favorites. A romance novelist wins a contest and a trip to Paris. En route to the awards luncheon, she’s in an accident and suffers a head injury. She wakes up believing herself to be the heroine in her favorite books. A spy caper follows that’s all too real, as she teams up with the author’s handsome son who thinks she’s a nutcase. That is, until someone tries to kill them.

DROWNING MONA with Danny DeVito and Bette Midler.
A funny whodunit in a small town with a wacky cast of characters.

GOSFORD PARK with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam.
An English drawing room mystery in the grand fashion that takes place at a country estate. Aristocrats and servants alike have secrets that slowly unravel during a hunting party weekend. Albeit a bit slow-paced, this film requires repeat viewings to catch the nuances.

HER ALIBI with Tom Selleck and Paulina Portzkova.
A hilarious escapade wherein mystery novelist Phillip Blackwood falls for a suspected murderess while searching for inspiration to unlock his writer’s block. Did the mysterious and beautiful foreigner have a hand in the victim’s death? If so, is he foolish to vouch for her alibi and bring her home? And are the accidents that ensue truly accidents, or is he next in line for her lethal highjinks?

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
A Manhattan housewife thinks her next door neighbor is a murderer. She enlists her friends to search for clues. Probably my favorite Woody Allen film out of all of them.

MURDER 101 with Pierce Brosnan.
English professor Charles Lattimore assigns his class to plan the perfect murder as a literary exercise, but when he’s framed for a woman’s death, he has to find the killer before the detective on the case finds him. Will his students help him solve a real murder, or is one of them guilty?

MURDER BY THE BOOK with Robert Hays.
A mystery novelist thinks he’s hallucinating when his hero appears in front of him and talks back. He’s been thinking of changing to a new series and scrapping the sleuth, but now he needs the fellow’s help to solve a real murder.

THE BOY NEXT DOOR with Dina Meyer and Christopher Russell.
A romance writer goes on a retreat to a small town to seek inspiration for her next story. When her next door neighbor is found dead, the chief of police suspects her. Even when her place is ransacked and someone tries to run her off the road, he discounts her theories and refuses to look into the incidents. It’s up to our heroine to prove her innocence and uncover the killer before his next attack turns fatal.

FLOWER GIRL (Hallmark Channel Movie)
This is a classic romance with an element of mystery. The heroine has to choose between two suitors: a staid lawyer approved by her mother, and a writer who answers evasively whenever she asks about his work. Guess who she’ll pick? The revelation at the end is reminiscent of American Dreamer.

What are some of your favorite films involving murder mysteries or writers? Note: I am on a cruise and will not be able to respond, but you can make suggestions and I’ll check back later.