Solving the Mystery of Writing

Did you know that when asked, an estimated 75% of people will say that they want to write a book?

But 75% of people aren’t writing books, are they?

There are probably a good number of people who are closet writers that we don’t know about, those who say they want to write, but aren’t able to produce a measurable word count, and those who are actively pursuing their dream.

It’s wonderful to want to write a book, but I’d like to share some advice for those people who REALLY are going to write a book. It’s for those people who aren’t content to just think about writing, they are willing to get down in the depths of that bottomless pit of writing knowledge–that black hole of possibilities in which you can change one word, turn around a sentence, and find the heart of your writing.

If so many people want to write a book….
What stops people from writing?

I could just answer that with—life in general. But to be more specific, I’ll mention a few roadblocks on my path to becoming a published author, as well as some popular roadblocks that have planted themselves in front of others.

Stress
Lack of clear, defined goals
Lack of knowledge/understanding of the mechanics of writing
Television
Lack of motivation
Yardwork
Laundry
Empty bellies that need filled
Dishes
Wiping noses and changing diapers

Okay, okay, serious again… here’s the biggie

Time Management

Now I know there may be another realm of the universe where inhabitants have more than 24 hours in a day, but here on earth, where I reside, we all have 24 hours each and every day.
So why do I hear this phrase from so many people? “I’d love to write a book, but I just don’t have the time.”

*cough* cough* I often wonder what they mean by this—that all serious writers have extra time and that’s how they are able to write books? I don’t live in a time warp–I only get 24 hours each day.

Let me emphasize that I think it’s wonderful to have a desire to write, I’m not looking down on anyone for having that desire and facing difficulties in making the desire an action.
But if you’re serious about writing and you actually are going to do more than just want to write a book–namely you’re going to do whatever it takes to make your dream a reality–here’s my first tip:

Ditch the “I don’t have time” excuse and stay tuned because over the next few months I’ll be sharing 6 Tips for Writing Success interspersed with some great guest posts. I’m not an expert, but I have been studying the craft of writing, attending conferences, classes, and working with critique groups for almost a decade. The #1 thing I’ve learned? I’ll never stop  learning.

6 Tips For Writing Success

1. Find your voice
2. Make writing a priority/write every day
3. Attend Writers Conferences
4. Enter Writing Contests
5. Join a Critique group
6. Set Specific Goals

Today we’re going to focus on–Find your voice
I’m taking some of this from a blog post I wrote in 2009.
Last January, I went to a one-day writing seminar in Provo. I took my 4 month old baby boy with me because it was a small class and I had a moment of *insanity/mommy wants to break her parole from being housebound with a baby and pursue her writing career*
My baby was supposed to be good. Instead my husband ended up having to come and get him halfway through. This was after he’d pooped through his diaper and down my leg and I’d tried to wash out my pants and use the blow dryer in the bathroom. I told you it was insanity!

Anyway, what does all this have to do with voice? I’m a gettin’ there!

We did several writing exercises and one of them was on voice. I don’t remember a lot of fine details about that class, but I do remember the impression made that it was important to find your own unique writing voice.

You can’t imitate someone’s writing style or voice because it will come off sounding phony. Think of your favorite books. What was it about those books that sang to you?
I’m guessing it was the incredibly potent voice of a character–the way the character seemed to be sitting right beside you as you read about their travails. The strength of the voice in a novel can make or break it. In literary novels, voice is usually the number one factor that creates the story.

So how do you find your own voice?
By writing.
Write in first person, third person, present-tense, past-tense. Find your style and find how you can best identify with your character.

When do you find the most joy in your writing?
Have you analyzed your writing? Do all of your characters sound the same? Do any of your characters haunt you while you’re telling their story?
Your voice should be so real that your story leaps from the page and connects with readers.
*Try some free-writing exercises. Write about a girl chasing butterflies. Write a page about a boy climbing onto the roof of a school.
Examine your writing. What do you see? What do you hear? Does your writing speak to you, and if not, why?

After that crazy day, when I returned home from the class and took care of my family and rocked my baby and got ready for bed, something happened.
I was tired. I got in bed and closed my eyes and began to relax and a sentence came into my mind.

Sometimes the wind sings through the trees like it has a soul of its own.

My eyes opened. I jumped out of bed and wrote down the first line. I savored that first line. Where had it come from? Then I wrote the first page.
And I felt it!
I felt like I had found my voice. The words were singing to me and I continued to work on that novel for the rest of the year. The first few chapters won a first place and second place award and I continued to write.

I loved writing that novel. I loved it because I found my voice and my voice flowed onto the pages until the words sang a story that touched my heart. I’ve written four books since then and (shameless plug) my second suspense novel will launch this month on the 13th. Check out my blog for details on my tour and awesome launch giveaway.
I hope that you can find your voice. Practice. Listen. Write. Cultivate your voice. Dig for it. And let it sing.

What do you think?
Do you want to write a book?
What questions do you have about writing and making writing a part of your life?

Feel free to leave your questions and I’ll try my best to address them in an upcoming post.

About Rachelle Christensen

I’m a mom of four cute kids—two girls and two boys. I have an amazing husband, three cats, and five chickens. My first novel was awarded Outstanding Book of the Year from the League of Utah Writers and was also a 2010 Whitney Finalist. My second suspense novel, CALLER ID, was released March 2012. I was born and raised in the rural farmlands of southern Idaho and I like to work over my tiny piece of field AKA garden each year. I love reading, running, singing and playing the piano. After graduating from Utah State University, my husband and I moved our family to Utah County. Visit my blog at www.rachellewrites.blogspot.com to learn more about upcoming books.
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42 Responses to Solving the Mystery of Writing

  1. Melanie Goldmund says:

    I want to write a book. I can also think of some great premises, and even develop them up to a certain point. My problem comes when I want to resolve the problems that my characters face. Sometimes I just can’t! I literally don’t know what comes next. Or, if I do have a solution, I worry that it’s too weak and stupid, because it often is. Do you have any tips for that?

    • Wm says:

      Melanie:

      I have that problem too. The best advice I have received on this issue, which I also have, has come from listening to the Writing Excuses podcast and that is to start with the end first. Start with where you want to end up and then outline backwards from there.

      I’m still partially a discovery writer, but once I learned how to outline — even if it’s very rough and/or I don’t follow that exactly or end up making major changes to it — I got better at plotting.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      You brainstorm. Think about possible ways your story *could* resolve. Ask if there’s a missing dimension to the story. Try to probe around your story mentally to see where the point of pain is — the part that doesn’t feel right. (Another way to think about this: hold the plot in your mind and try jiggling different parts to see what comes loose.) See if you can turn the problem inside out. Interrogate your characters. Explain your plot conflict to someone else whose thinking you respect about what makes people tick. Walk away and then come back. Ask how you want your character(s) to grow by the end of the story. All of these are meant to get you (a) thinking flexibly about your story, and (b) trying out different ideas to see what “clicks.”

    • Scott Parkin says:

      My suggestion is that you just write. You’ll find ideas that come to you as you fill out the characters, conflicts, and settings—but only if you become immersed in the story and put those scenes on paper. Whether you work from outlines or from discovery (front-to-back or back-to-front), the fact of realizing those ideas in scenes and chapters will do more to prime the idea mill than anything else.

      In combination with research and brainstorming, you will tend to find ways to resolve—whether by realizing the characters’ pain, or by relieving it. (Orson Scott Card has suggested conflict based on what will cause the most pain to the characters—which then implies that the resolutions will bring that pain to fruition at some level.)

      For me the outline is a convenience to help drive large plot elements and provide direction for overall structure and initial writing, but the story itself doesn’t really unwind (and the details don’t really come out) until I’m immersed in the writing.

      That happened to me in spades last week as I wrote a 16,500 word short(?) story based on an idea I had a decade ago, research I did a month ago, and details that I created on the fly as I wrote. I literally discovered the end of the story as a direct result of details I never considered before I wrote them, but that ended up presenting themselves as I read my own text.

      The manuscript itself is a powerful resource. Where there is no manuscript, no realized conflict to resolve.

      • I’m totally with Scott on the issue of just writing. Don’t be afraid to write terrible stuff. We all write terrible stuff at least part of the time, but sometimes you have to before you can figure out what the story is supposed to be. Sometimes as you go along you realize what *should* have happened and then you can go back and fix it.

        Also, I like to brainstorm with a friend if I can’t figure out what’s missing in the story. I give her a quick synopsis of who the main players are, the conflicts and where the story is going and she (or sometimes my hubby) will help me explore different possibilities. Sometimes I start to get tunnel vision regarding where the story is supposed to go, so getting feedback from someone else can help breathe life into the story and give me a new perspective. Just remember that it’s your story and not to let someone else take off with it and go places you definitely *don’t* want to go. You’re broadening your horizons, not taking the story to a new planet. =)

    • D. Michael Martindale says:

      Write it anyway, then have competent readers critique it. Learn from that, and rewrite.

    • Melanie Goldmund says:

      Thank you for your answers, everybody! Wm, I like the tip of starting at the end and working your way backwards. I’ll try that next time.

  2. Great post, Rachelle. I agree wholeheartedly on your comments about time management, but I’ll add one other comment that some may find helpful.

    I think the thing that prevents most people from turning their dreams of writing into tangible, written pages is the pressure they put on themselves to produce something truly great. It’s not that tv is really more important to them than realizing their dreams, it’s that tv is more important to them than pouring their heart and soul into some grand failure at achieving their dreams.

    Who wouldn’t want their first book to be awarded Outstanding Book of the Year by the League of Utah Writers, or selected as a Whitney Finalist? Would that kind of success be all kinds of awesome? Absolutely. Would it be likely for every aspiring writer? Probably not.

    I’ve always secretly dreamed of being a writer, but I never once put words on the page until I told myself it could be just for fun, and that it was okay to be less than great. This Jedi mind trick seems to have worked like a charm, and I’m telling original stories for the first time in my life. What will become of it all? Who knows? But I figure that once I’ve amassed a decent pile of my own amateur fiction, I can pick back through it and see if there’s a whiff of greatness anywhere in it.

    This post was timely for me; I actually “came out of the closet” as an amateur fabulist yesterday: Amateur Hour

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that people who don’t write the book they keep saying they want to write and/or finish the book they keep saying they want to finish don’t actually want to write/finish it.

    That’s not a bad thing. It’s just priorities, as you say. I mean, I want to learn how to paint (seriously). But I can think of a gazillion things I HAVE to do before that and then another gazillion things I’d RATHER do before scaring up an art tutor to begin.

    What bemuses me are people whose whole identities are wrapped around being “a writer,” but who agonize over not being able to write/finish anything longer than a short story. They workshop. They hang out with writerly types. They go to grad school for an MFA. They do anything and everything to live a writer’s life but produce…almost nothing. And then get depressed about it. They ask for tips. Or they delve into their psyches for why it’s not happening for them. Or, if they get too enthusiastic about a project and it’s coming “too easily” (what’s that?) they worry about letting their Inner Hack loose and stop that nonsense. And I read the posts and think, “If you really wanted to, you would. Somehow.”

    It’s not easy, even for full-time writers. Heck, I couldn’t be a full-time writer because I don’t do the Stephen King “I write 1500 words a day” or the Nora Roberts “BICHOK 8-5, seven days a week.” (BICHOK = butt in chair, hands on keyboard) I’d really just be maniacally writing for four days out of every month that I can’t predict.

    But it still gets done.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      All of those techniques are tools designed to help you get started. I’ve never had a challenge generating word counts, but I tend to be intimidated by the empty page and the specter of uncertainty about work yet to come. We all need to find our individual goads and overcome our internal heckler to get moving.

      After taking most of a decade off of writing because I was intimidated by the idea of writing a novel, I sat down last week with the goal of writing 1000 words a day, and ended up writing 16,500 new words in six days—700 the first day, 1100 the second, 1900 the third, 1500 the fourth, 2200 the fourth, 5000 the fifth, and 5100 the sixth (not counting rewriting the previous days’s work). Momentum came from the storytelling itself, and word counts became an afterthought.

      It was totally exhilarating for me, not least because I wrote the equivalent of one-eighth to one-sixth of a novel without significant pain. I found out that writing a novel isn’t that much harder than writing a short story—you just do it for longer at a stretch.

      Every author has to find their own way. My challenge is overcoming initial reserve and creating momentum; others struggle with plot complexity; others are like the idea of writing but have no stories they’re burning to tell.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        others like the idea of writing but have no stories they’re burning to tell

        Those are the ones I think struggle the most, whose identities are wrapped up in “I Am A Writer.”

        Ramble Alert:

        I’ll be honest: I’ve been writing so long I wouldn’t know how to begin advising someone else to write. I have significant hard drive space dedicated to story ideas that went nowhere (and won’t ever), to novels I finished long ago that I’m now cannibalizing, to snippets of conversation I’ve overheard.

        I, too, stopped writing for a number of years because I was so discouraged with the submission-and-rejection merry-go-round. I was at six full-length novels totalling two million words, had gone through three agents and two editorial boards and acquired a BA in creative writing (for which my final project was to explain to my advisor how to write a novel) when my mom asked me, “Why do you base your goals on decisions someone else has to make?”

        And that was pretty much the end of my writing career. (So I thought.) And I was okay with that. During that time, I DID actually write some things. I tweaked this or that pet story. I played my “why?” game with some other pet project. But during that time, I did not (COULD NOT) define myself as a writer. I wasn’t writing. I had no intention of WRITING, not like I had done before. And then one day I woke up and I was a writer again.

        I do HEARTILY agree with you that each writer has to find his/her own way and I get impatient with other writers saying, “You must do it X way or you’re not writing correctly.”

        I find the easiest way to get started is to have a sketch of a character in mind (I’ve started out with just an interesting name before) who does X thing, and then ask that character, “Why did you do that?”

        People have all sorts of reasons for why they do stuff. What I hardly ever see is a struggling writer say (at least in public), “You know, I overheard this conversation the other day…” or “You know, I like to watch people…”

        Sometimes I think struggling writers are trying to come from within instead of observing from without.

        Sometimes I think they can’t allow themselves to have fun with the story and the process because Writing Serious Things is Serious Business requiring Seriousness. (Why anybody would write if they don’t find it emotionally fulfilling, I don’t know.)

        Sometimes I think struggling novelists are trained short story writers who don’t know how to transition to book length because they’ve never been taught. (As wonderful as I think it is, Bound on Earth is a collection of short stories strung together.)

        I have all sorts of theories about this, but basically, no matter how flighty an artist is, some of them actually get stuff done.

        • Wm says:

          I’ve realized recently that I have no idea if I’m interested in writing novel length fiction or not. I’m generating story ideas at a faster rate than I ever have in the past, and I’m going to explore the ideas I like best and then see where the length takes me. Perhaps I should be writing a series of connected novellas rather than one novel or a trilogy. I don’t know yet. But the stories come first — then the word count.

          I think too much is bound up in the idea of getting a novel published. Once I got over thinking of that as a meaningful milestone, I realized that my only real goal is to increase my output. Write the stories I want to write. Find a market for them if I can, and if I can’t, decide which ones merit self-publishing.

          That still puts me at a pathetic 4,000 words a month. But I’ve met that goal for three months in a row now. And it’s a goal I can meet even with all the other many demands on my time. And that’s still almost 50,000 words a year. My most productive year so far in my life was maybe 18,000 words (of fiction — obviously my overall word count for writing is huge).

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          Yeah, I agree that as long as you write something and finish it, beginning-middle-end, word count is irrelevant. But what I see is that people talk in terms of full-length novels, as in “I want to write a book someday,” which was Rachelle’s premise.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    Sometimes the time isn’t right. Back when I was in college, I was part of a writer’s group that wound up producing several professional-caliber writers (e.g., Shayne Bell, Dave Wolverton). I also helped edit a student literary magazine and organized and attended events featuring writers talking about their craft. Part of me really *wanted* to be a writer. But I couldn’t find my voice. I didn’t care as much about my own stories as I did about the stories of the other writers whose work I was reviewing in my writing group. Whenever I did try to write, I felt like I was pushing myself to do something I wasn’t ready to do — just because I’d gotten attached to the idea of being a writer, not because I had stories I really wanted to tell or because I felt that I had to write. I couldn’t feel good about it.

    And so I walked away from it and explored other options. I resigned myself to maybe never being a creative writer, which was a bit of a wrench — but more because of what I wanted to tell myself about who I was than because of anything real that I felt I was giving up.

    And then, right about the time I turned 40, suddenly it was like a timer going off in the back of my head saying, “Okay, now it’s time to go back to creative writing.” To tell the truth, I was rather surprised. I floundered around for several years, tinkering with various story ideas and trying to learn the lessons my onetime peers had worked through decades before. Eventually, I hit on a story idea that clicked for me. And I wrote that story. And now I’m working on several other story ideas, and I’m convinced now that I’ll finish them, at least far enough to make a thoughtful and informed decision about whether this is worth doing, for me.

    Long story short: I walked away, and that was the right thing to do. And then when the time was right, I came back.

    I’m not saying that the kinds of barriers Rachelle is talking about don’t exist. Indeed, I think they’re a very real issue, particularly once you reach the point of honestly wanting to *write*, not just be a writer. For me, though, the biggest barrier was fear — fear that I would try something I wanted to be good at, and find out that I wasn’t any good at it, together with the fear that I would lose the respect of people I admired in AML and elsewhere. In order to get past it, I had to accept the possibility that my fears might be well-founded, and move past it (something I talk about here: http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/the-writing-rookie-11-overcoming-fear/). From my current perspective, though, it’s my strong sense that it would have been a bad thing for me personally *and* for my development as a writer if I’d tried to push it way back when.

  5. These are great comments. I appreciate the different viewpoints shared, and I think it’s neat how we can learn so much from each other. I think we learn the most when we’re not afraid to go for it, like has been said, to just write no matter the mistakes we might make.

    Melanie–good advice already from Wm and Jonathan, and I’d emphasize the idea of brainstorming with someone about your plot. Find someone who you can discuss your plot with and bounce questions off each other. After I wrote the first draft of Wrong Number, I had a huge brainstorming session with my brother (who is an aerospace engineer) and his wife (who is equally smart). They asked me tons of questions and when I couldn’t answer them, I discovered another plot hole.
    If outlining works for you, I’d try it, but if the plot isn’t unfolding perfectly in your outline, then give yourself permission to just write anyway. If this is a story that is driving you and it makes you happy to write it, then do. Allow yourself some freedom to write that first draft, knowing that there will definitely be some plot holes, but you might be surprised how some of your characters take the lead and show you where the story is supposed to go.

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    The challenge for some of us is that our natural voice is not particularly lyrical or interesting. I am not a poet, and will likely never be mistaken for one. Once in a rare while I can turn a half-interesting phrase, but beautiful writing is utterly beyond me and only comes out looking silly and overwrought when I try.

    Similarly, my viewpoint is not particularly unique. I’m in the middle of Steven Peck’s _The Scholar of Moab_ and I can say with absolute certainty that I could never come close to either the unique viewpoint or the oddball situations. I don’t think in terms of deep metaphor or literary values, and I can apply only an ordinary intellect and set of life experiences. I’m not trying to revolutionize much of anything, or defend (or create) any particular literary school.

    Yet despite that nearly crippling mandanity, I want to write anyway and hope I can pull it off with fair quality if not unique genius. Ultimately, I can’t not write.

    Like Jonathan, I was in a writing group early on that featured some exceptional talents who are now national and international bestsellers, and/or are publishing regularly in the national market. While it was wonderful to learn from masters, it’s also been a tad demoralizing to see them succeed where I have been unable to follow.

    And I still can’t not write. Which is ultimately all I can offer to anyone—just write, baby. Put the words down and send them around. Write for audiences and attach to any projects you have an inside track on. Take advantage of your connections, discover your voice, hone your research skills, learn to read like a writer and to steal technique without remorse.

    But most importantly, write.

    • Wm says:

      I panic at some point (or many points) in my first draft because the language seems so mundane. It has taken me 10 years (which means most of my thirties — I sure wish I had start writing fiction in my twenties, but I didn’t) to come to grips with the idea of writing bad first drafts. But it’s true. Or at least it is for me. I can do a lyrical prose polish. I can cut/expand/fix scenes. In fact, the editing is the fun part. It’s just a matter of getting that first draft done. And in order to do so you have to tune out all those inner voices, especially the inner editor one.

      So while I have always resented the phrase “just write”, it’s true. And one of the problems is that there is no sure fire trick to get your mind to just plow through. You have to try things until you find what works for you. And that’s why I love it when writers share their process: it gives me tools to experiment with.

      • I agree with Scott and identify with your panic, Wm. :) “Just write” is easy to say, but difficult to do. Something important that Scott mentioned is to write for the love of writing–write because you can’t not write. I think that’s how so many of my favorite books were written, because the author wrote something they loved. When you’re writing because you love writing, the fear of writing a crappy first draft is not so overwhelming–you can begin to enjoy the process. And anyone who says their first draft isn’t crappy–that they wrote the book perfect in one draft, doesn’t know the definition of a “first draft.”

        • Scott Parkin says:

          I know one novelist who writes the entire first draft as a means of discovering what story he really wants to tell, then essentially starts over again and writes it afresh with that discovered story events in mind. Word count is obviously not his challenge.

          I have another friend who obsesses over every word on the first draft because once the story is told he loses interest—he hates rewriting. Another friend refuses to talk about a story before he writes because even telling the bones of the story idea saps his fire to tell it again.

          I tend to be nearly the opposite—I gain energy and ideas from discussing the story in advance of writing it, and (like William) find rewriting to be at least as fun as initial drafting, because that’s where I get to refine the story and the language. I’m not an artist; I’m a craftsman—the only question is whether there’s an audience for the stories I like to tell.

          Different approaches work for different people. I’ve written from strict outline, from sudden inspiration, from both targeted and random research, from assigned seeds, from experience, from exercise, as response, and more—and generated successful stories with each approach.

          At the risk of raising William’s ire, the only way to discover your own tendencies is to write, then write some more. The only way to get around your roadblocks is to write enough to run into them. The only guaranteed failure of story is the story untold.

        • Wm says:

          No ire. The think with the “just write” is that while true, often when it is delivered, it can come across as facile and smug to those of us who have a hard time figuring out what “just write” means for us. When it is delivered with the acknowledgement that what that means and how one arrives at it varies and especially when one shares how one came to figure it out, it is much more useful and easier to take.

          The “just” in “just write” sidesteps the very thing that writers who struggle struggle with. You can’t just write, if you’re problem is that you keep succumbing to all the resistances that are piling up on top of the just — instead you have to somehow get to a place where you can actually do so. Saying “just write” isn’t helpful. Saying you need to “just write” and here are the things that motivate me, or help me find time, or trick my interior editor into turning off for awhile, or help me structure my writing plans so I can actually produce words, or help me get excited about my current story, etc., well, all that is helpful. We all have to cobble together our own solutions, but it’s a lot easier to do so when we have a toolbox of techniques to go to and rummage around in.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          Wm, when I see the thing “just write,” I infer that the it means you’re supposed to get a pen and a piece of paper and simply start putting words down. (Aside: That’s how “Allow Me To Introduce Myself” started.)

          It’s a very simple answer because the act itself is simple. Don’t overthink it.

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    Amen to Scott’s “different approaches for different people” comment.

    I’m still in the process of discovering what works for me, since each new writing project seems to involve a new set of answers. Case in point: When I tried the “write quickly, write crap, revise later” approach with No Going Back, it backfired horribly. For me, the solution was to take a little *more* time, write as well as I could during the initial drafting, and take a break whenever it felt like I’d lost the thread and was writing crap. And plan to revise later on, of course.

    My point is that what works for one person — or even for yourself at some points in the process — may not work for you, or at other times. Feel free to keep experimenting and throw out anything that doesn’t work for you, no matter how many other people swear by that method.

    • I love that idea! I remember when I first started getting “serious” about writing and was devouring all kinds of writing books and advice. One successful writer advised that we shouldn’t write unless we had a 2 hour block of time to work in to allow us to get into the story and the right frame of mind.
      I tried that for probably six months and didn’t write hardly anything before realizing–Hey, that might work for him, but it will NEVER work for me. At the time I had a new baby, and what a relief it was when I gave myself permission to find my own method of writing. If I could write for five minutes, I did, and I still do. The other day I got an idea, so I jotted down notes while playing trucks with my kids.
      So, I agree we have to find what works for us, not what works for someone else, and I’d like to repeat that we must find joy in doing it.

  8. Wm says:

    Apparently there are only so many layers deep one can reply (which makes sense — the columns were getting rather narrow).

    Moriah wrote:

    “It’s a very simple answer because the act itself is simple. Don’t overthink it.”

    But that’s only useful for writers once they can get to the point where the act is simple and they can turn off the overthinking.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      But what are you thinking over, when you’re overthinking?

      Personally, I like to think (and talk) over lunch. Anyone besides William and me in the Twin Cities area who’d like to get together sometime?

      (apologies for shameless hijacking of the thread…)

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      No. My point is you just start writing words. They don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to be going anywhere.

      There’s a term for it: free writing. It’s a basic comp 101 technique. It works.

      • Wm says:

        It works for you. I find free writing irritating and tedious.

        Which isn’t to say there aren’t other pre-writing techniques that I can effectively employ. This is my entire point: what works for some doesn’t work for others. And certain truisms (like “just write”) only work for certain personalities and/or writers who have figured out what works for them.

        Which is why I like it when writers share their particular habits because it helps me cobble together my own techniques.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          I apologize then. I thought you were asking for a definition of “just write.”

        • Wm says:

          To be honest I never equated the “just write” advice with the concept of free writing, which I did indeed encounter in creative writing 101 (the only creative writing course I’ve ever taken). If it had been presented in that way in more of the places I had run across it over the years, I would have a more favorable view of the use of the phrase even though it’s not a technique that works for me personally.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          And oddly enough, I find the total silence on free writing on every writer’s blog I’ve visited lo these past five years to be pronounced and, well, LOUD.

          I’m sorry if I insulted you, but I felt the need to link to it because I have NEVER seen one mention of it anywhere. Quite frankly, I didn’t know anybody knew what it was anymore.

  9. Scott Parkin says:

    [[Apologies for hijacking this thread, but I love to write about the writing process and discuss it with others.]]

    It is annoying when an author says “just write” as if all problems can be solved with a single injunction. That little “just” can seem belittling or demeaning; I intend it as a generic imperative—don’t stop thinking, but do start writing as well. I believe all writing advice should be prefaced with “this worked for me,” and I read all writing advice as if that phrase was there even if the author intends it as a universal prescriptive.

    I argue the need to write as the first prerequisite only because I’ve heard from so many writers who’ve never actually written. They’ve studied, they’ve read, they’ve considered, they’ve researched, and some have even outlined—but an awful lot haven’t written much of anything. They consider themselves writers by intent, but the practice doesn’t back up the claim.

    To me the act of putting words on paper is a craft quite distinct from generating story ideas, structuring plot, researching facts, imagining characters, embedding metaphor, etc. Rewriting is a very different practice than writing, just as critical reading is different from exploratory reading. All are distinct disciplines and seem to demand distinct practice time.

    In that sense I’m a pragmatic writer. In the absence of art, genius, or unique perspective I have to hope that basic competence can suffice for many readers. I can’t cause myself to think artistically, but I can pragmatically practice at using more vivid descriptive terms (not thesaurus-spamming per se, but deciding as a matter of craft to spend an extra phrase here or an extra sentence there to add physical richness to a scene). I hope that’s enough to sell, though I understand it may not be enough to sell well.

    For some the challenge is to prime the expressive pump. Sometimes blog posts, personal essays (or journal entries), or generically descriptive writing is enough to get the words flowing (they tend to be distractions for me; the things I do instead of working on a project). I tend to have three or four different projects in play at the same time so that I can switch to something that better fits my mind and mood on any given day (or at any given hour).

    For others the challenge is to come up with a story to tell. That’s a harder problem because it dovetails with other problems. Since word count is not my challenge, I can afford to work a simple story under the hope that it will inspire more complex stories (which it often does). I operate under the theory that with sufficient mass I will eventually come up with something useful.

    For those who struggle to generate words, that method is inherently ineffective. If you feel that there are only a small set of stories that you must tell, and that those stories must be told well, that can act as a significant barrier. The story is not worth writing until its conceptual construction is complete; it must be worthy, else it’s a waste of my limited time. Sadly, I have no suggestions there since that’s not the challenge I face; where words are easy, I can afford to waste a lot of them on exploratory exercises and false starts. I have no conscience about a story’s worthiness, only whether I think it would be interesting to write (which may be why I haven’t sold consistently on the national market…).

    While I’m a fan of free association and the idea of random seeding, I’m not a big fan of free writing. To me all text is written to a purpose. Maybe that’s my poetry is a mystery to me; words are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. But this is where having multiple active projects is useful—when I’m stuck on one I can switch to another.

    Right now I should be working on a novel, but the scene I’m writing requires some detail on assignment protocol for a US Marshal. I could skip over it, but I tend to think linearly and want that detail clean and accurate before I move on (because those details will directly inform all subsequent events). So as I wait for my appointment to interview a local marshal and find those details, I’m working on a series of short-shorts (flash, whatever) on assorted sf topics. If I had only one active project, this would all be down time.

    Some authors don’t switch well from story to story—again, not a problem I have. I do find that there’s a certain momentum that can motivate one to power through some of those research issues more quickly (what happened to me last week with the 16k short story). It costs me time and focus from other tasks, but that’s a price I’m generally willing to pay. The hard part is getting that momentum in the first place; and thus my most recent prescription to just write as a way of building it.

    Speaking of which…I’ve generated far too much momentum on this topic and will continue until the end of time unless I choose to stop. So I will.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      To me all text is written to a purpose.

      That presumes that free-written text has no purpose.

      • Wm says:

        Exactly. Even though it doesn’t work for me, I totally can see it as a valid way to a) get in the mood and b) generate ideas, moods, images, etc. that can turn into stories.

        Again: what works for some won’t work for others. If you are stuck, find out what other writers do and experiment.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        It presumes no such thing. At worst I’m guilty of inartful phrasing and should have said “To me all text is written as part of a project.”

        But since I had already written more than 500 words explicitly oriented around the idea that different techniques have value in different ways for different writers, I assumed it was obvious that I was speaking of its usefulness for me as an individual writer.

        Apparently not. William says free writing is irritating and tedious and gets a pass. I say it’s not my thing because I think and create differently and I’m accused of maligning a perfectly valid technique that is of limited utility *to me* because it doesn’t address either my creative process or individual challenges.

        Message received. I’ll leave the rest of the conversation to you.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          And again I’m accused of saying, “Do it this way” when I’m trying to clarify what “just write” means to me. You said you weren’t a fan and dismissed its usefulness. How else was I supposed to take it?

          I’ll get back to my own project now since all this yammering about writing techniques and how to get started doesn’t, in fact, get any actual writing done.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          I’m a compulsive helper. Every time this topic comes up, I ask questions to try to determine the OP’s sticking point or give advice based on what I suspect is the OP’s sticking point. Considering I do have a bit of experience in this, my only goal is to pinpoint the problem and help fix it, but it always turns out badly.

        • Wm says:

          I’d rather people challenge each other and seek for clarification than not because that way I learn something (even if it’s only that I need to be better about defining what I mean or more careful about cherrypicking quotes and reacting to them w/out their original context).

          One danger in talking about the writing process is that is such a personal thing, and while there are strategies that can be helpful, they aren’t always universal.

  10. Jonathan Langford says:

    Speaking as the moderator here: Obviously this is a topic many of us care passionately about. I welcome that passion.

    It seems to me that everyone’s comments here have been intended in a spirit of “this is what works for me.” I encourage all of us to take each other’s comments in that spirit and assume goodwill rather than an intent to offend.

  11. My offering (as in suggestions for people who would like some things they can try):

    1–You don’t have to write the story in the order in which it will be read (linearly, as Scott has indicated he usually needs to), if there is a part in the middle of the story or near the end that you are more excited about. Write the parts that excite you WHEN they excite you–it may help create excitement in the reader, for one thing. Once those parts are done, write what excites you next. Go ahead and have pieces of the story all over the place (they don’t film movies in the order in which they will be viewed either, and that works). You can put it all together in the rewrite(s).

    2–If you’re trying to figure out how to organize scenes in a story that involves several plotlines (and several point-of-view characters)–which is one of many approaches to writing a novel, but only one–you can write out a rough draft of each of the plotlines and then create a kind of “storyboard” on which you put sticky notes representing the various scenes (with a different color for each plotline, perhaps?) and with which you can rearrange the scenes more easily than trying to do it with cutting-and-pasting of text. This can help you determine which, if any, scenes are crucial, which are merely important, and which may be completely unnecessary, depending on the order in which they various plotlines take their turns.

    3–For those who have trouble figuring out how to end their stories, I would recommend getting a copy of Orson Scott Card’s HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY and focus on part two in chapter three, his discussion of story construction (though, I think what he has to say in the whole book can be useful, whether you are writing science fiction and fantasy or not). This is the “Where Does the Story Begin and End?” section in which he discussions four kinds of stories, how they can begin, and how they can end to help create a satisfactory experience for readers. When you know which of the four kinds of story you may be writing, it helps to figure out how to get to your ending.

    4–It is possible to write a complete short story in one day while standing in lines at an amusement park (using a pencil and a little notebook), but I would not recommend doing so on a regular basis. I would recommend trying to write during any and every little snippet of time you may happen on, except while driving.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      …except while driving.

      Spoilsport.

      If this is the way you write, it’s very similar to my process. Except instead of the storyboard, I rewrite and reform constantly as new twists come into my head. A friend of mine said I had a more baroque mind than she did. Let the puns begin…

      I do, however, use the index-card-on-storyboard method to write screenplays.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      One successful novelist I know actually dictates scenes into a digital recorder and pays an intern to transcribe them, then he edits them later. This allows him to address scenes in any order that they come to mind, and preserves the ideas as they spring to mind.

  12. Scott Parkin says:

    Talking about the writing process is great, but when you ask for personal opinions then condemn because those opinions are not universal dicta and/or vary from your own experience, that leaves me confused as to how to respond.

    I honestly don’t understand how “I find free writing irritating and tedious” is a constructive and acceptable expression of opinion, but “I’m not a fan of free writing. To me…” is an example (“Exactly.”) of failing to allow for other peoples’ experience. To me they are logically equivalent, and I used far less aggressive or dismissive language in the expression.

    Since I can’t understand why mine is bad and the other is good I really can’t offer anything useful to the conversation. Chat among yourselves; I’ll just listen.

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