Writing by Number

Today I calculated I’d blog about daily word counts.  For you writers and would-be writers, do you count your word production and log it?  If you do, are you finding it helps you or not?

Here’s my take.  I used to do that but no longer do so.  I think keeping a daily log of writing progress is very valuable in the beginning to establish the habit of writing.  It may even help you get through a slump period, the so-called “writer’s block.”  Once the writing habit is established, such logging may no longer be necessary.

What I’m talking about is the idea of keeping a log of how many words you write each day.  If you write on a computer with a word processor, it’s pretty easy using the software’s own word count feature.  If you write some other way, you might have to count by hand.  You’ll have to figure out how to count words on the days you’re editing previously written text, as opposed to creating new text.  I tracked those distinct acts separately, since editing previously written text yielded much higher daily word production.  Once you get the log going, you can find out what your daily average is over time and even set goals.

Why would anyone do this?  There’s a sort of magic in measuring your progress with numbers.  You will find yourself feeling guilty on those days when you have to log a zero because you did no writing.  You’ll have excuses for that, of course, but they won’t change the fact that your log still shows a fat zero for that unproductive day.  On days where you’re feeling tired and teetering on the edge about whether you want to try to write a bit or not, the knowledge of your numeric log looming before you may spur you to write when you otherwise wouldn’t.  In some mysterious way the habit of logging progress can actually prod you to into the habit of writing more.

It turns out your attitude toward these sort of personal metrics comes into play.  It’s vitally important that “zero days” not get you depressed.  The point of the log is to promote progress, not incite negative thoughts.  If the very idea of seeing a zero besides a date will cause you to think you’re not cut out for writing or might make you want to give it up, then perhaps the idea of daily word counts would be adding too much stress for you.  This thing only works with those for whom occasional failure is an inspiration to greater achievement next time.

You may be thinking that counting words is stupid because not all words are equal.  Isn’t the point to learn to write well, you ask, not to simply write a lot?  Well, yes and no.  Of course the point is to learn to write well.  The few words of a brilliant short story by a talented author do far outweigh several trashy novels written by a bungling hack, even though the word count is less.  But in the first place quantity has its own kind of quality in writing, in the sense that practice makes perfect.  The practice comes from writing a lot, and that practice can be roughly measured by word counting.  In the second place, it’s very hard to measure the quality of prose.  There is no menu item or icon in your word processor for that.  Yet.  (Software programmers, take note:  the world screams for exactly such a feature!)

I’m counting on you to leave a comment for me about whether you log your word counts daily and whether you find it a helpful exercise or not.  Including the end of this sentence, that’s 627 words written by…

                                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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December 25, 2011Permalink

Book Review — Socrates, A Man for Our Times

I’m introducing a new feature to this blog–reviews of books I’ve read.  This will be an irregular feature since (1) books vary in length, and (2) I may not review every book I read.  I will also continue to blog weekly on topics helpful to beginning writers.

For these book reviews, I’ll use a 5 tier rating system.  Since I am Poseidon’s Scribe, I’ll summon seahorses to help me, as follows:

5 Seahorses – among the best books I’ve ever read.  I plan to re-read this book.  Most strongly recommended.  Although I don’t have a quota, I anticipate using this less than 10% of the time.

4 Seahorses – A really good read.  Maybe a minor deficiency or two.  Definitely recommended.  I anticipate using this at least 35% of the time.

3 Seahorses – A fine book, but it’s got some weaknesses that detracted from my enjoyment.  Recommended, but only if you like the genre or subject, or other books by that author.  I anticipate using this about 30% of the time.

2 Seahorses – A book of rather low quality, with major flaws.  I read to the end, but do not recommend it to others.  I anticipate using this about 20% of the time.

1 Seahorse – A bad book.  The book had such a poor beginning that I couldn’t finish it.  Definitely not recommended.  I anticipate using this about 5% of the time.

This week I finished Socrates:  A Man for Our Times, by Paul Johnson, in the audio book format put out by Recorded Books, as narrated by John Curless.  Johnson apparently used what original sources are available to portray Socrates as the man he was in the city of Athens at the time.  That is, the book gives a good description of what it would be like to be there, walking Athenian streets and conversing with the philosopher.  His message is that Socrates was a man so connected with Athens, who so loved that city-state, it was inconceivable for him to leave it, even to avoid a death sentence.

Johnson gives us a portrait of Socrates with personality traits I’d never read about before.  For example, it’s well known he asked a lot of questions.  I didn’t know how genuinely interested he was in other people’s jobs.  Apparently Socrates learned a lot about many occupations by questioning people.  Further, we all know how annoying persistent question-askers can be.  However, it seems Socrates had a knack for making his constant queries without making others angry.  He had a disarming charm and wit that made him someone others wanted to talk to.

Plato does not escape scorn in this book, as the man from whom we know the most about Socrates, but a man who inserted his own views and blatantly tried passing them off as Socrates’ own.

The book vividly illustrates the background leading up to the trial of Socrates, in a manner that explains how the tolerant city of Athens, of all places, could bring the survival of the greatest philosopher up to a vote at all.  The poignancy of the man’s death itself is well described, including the sorrows of his followers and the nobility of Socrates himself, and the manner in which he rationalizes acceptance of the punishment in a way consistent with his philosophy.

The book is logically laid out and the prose easy to read, which is not always true for books about philosophers.  The narration by John Curless is very well done.

My only criticism is that the title led me to expect a different book.  I anticipated more discussion relating Socrates’ philosophy to our time.  There was some, to be sure, since Socrates explored timeless questions of human nature, but the book did not develop the connections with our modern day as much as I expected.

I give it a rating of 4 seahorses and definitely recommend it.  That’s it–the  first blogged book review by…

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

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December 21, 2011Permalink

Alone With Your Writing

Most writers write alone.  Some collaborate, but for the majority it’s a solitary thing.

Do you like being alone?  Those who tend toward introversion prefer solitude to recharge after the drain of being around other people.  However, even the most introverted person is still a bit of a social animal; we all need company now and then.

Extroverted writers face a more complex dilemma.  Their need to write compels them to work alone to complete it, but solitude exhausts them emotionally until they can recharge by being around others.  There certainly are some extroverted writers, but it must be a struggle.

Being alone, of course, does not necessarily mean being lonely.  Aloneness is a condition, but loneliness is an emotion under your control.  If you enjoy what you’re doing while alone–writing, in this case–then you won’t be lonely.

Most writers would argue they’re not completely alone when they write.  They’re surrounded by groups of “virtual” people.  First are their story’s characters.  For a writer who is “in the zone,” the characters can seem very real and almost present.  Rather than feeling alone, then, a writer is actually transported to a different world, the world of his story, which might be very crowded indeed.

To some extent, writers also feel the presence of their readers.  The writer shares the reader’s eventual emotional reaction to the story as if the reader is looking over his shoulder.

Lastly, while alone, the writer can also be “accompanied” by an editor or critique group member.  Each time he types an adverb or mixes a metaphor or creates an awkward point of view jump, he’ll hear the disapproving voice of that person in his ear.

If you are considering becoming a writer, my advice is not to let the prospect of spending all that time alone deter you.  If you have a story to tell and something inside is driving you to write it down and share it with the world–if the passion is that intense, you’ll welcome the solitude rather than fear it.

One note of caution:  not only is writing a solitary endeavor, it is also a sedentary one.  It’s pretty much the opposite of physical exercise.  It requires hours and hours of sitting.  Here’s my advice on dealing with that:

  • Make yourself as comfortable as possible while writing, so you’re not straining any particular muscles.
  • Take pacing or stretch breaks when you can so you’re not in one position for too long.
  • Don’t eat while you write.  Once you begin mentally associating writing with snacking, that will become your normal mode and undesired weight gain can result.
  • Find time to exercise.  It’s true that both writing and exercising consume time, which is precious for us all.  But think of it this way–your eventual readers will want you healthy enough to keep cranking out more books!  Besides, you might be able to take a small digital voice recorder with you as you exercise (particularly jogging or walking) so you don’t lose the ideas that occur while your mind is otherwise unoccupied.

In summary, sitting alone is what writers do.  If writing is what you love, then you’ll be able to cope with the sitting and the solitude.  On this and in all other matters, you know you can trust…

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 18, 2011Permalink

Give Your Characters Vivid Personalities

Figured out the plot for a story you’re going to write, have you?  Got some rough character ideas in mind?  You say the only problem is, you’re not great at fleshing out the personalities of your characters?  Well, you may have surfed to the right blog post.

I think the first rule of character personalities is–they must fit the story.  Sometimes the plot itself necessitates certain personality types for your major characters.  Of course, from the reader’s point of view, this fitting is the other way around.  Readers learn about the character’s personalities early as they are introduced and relate to each other, and then read about the plot events.  So from your reader’s perspective, it seems fortunate that your characters had just the right personalities, given what eventually happened.

You may have read plot-driven stories in which there’s a lot of action but the characters seem shallow or stereotypical.  These stories get published because the plot action is so riveting, and despite the character portrayals.  There are also character-driven stories where the characters are fully fleshed out, but very little action occurs other than people talking to each other.  These stand a better chance of publication because readers like compelling characters.  However, it’s best to have both a gripping plot and captivating characters.

Let me explain more clearly what I mean about character personalities fitting the plot.  The protagonist in your story will face a conflict consisting of increasing levels of challenges.  That’s what stories are about.  The conflict can be external or internal or both.  In the end, the conflict will be resolved somehow, and the protagonist may undergo an internal change.

So you could pick a personality type for the protagonist that suits her well for the conflict.  In that case the story line is about her dealing with the challenges as they arise, and the actions she takes in accordance with her personality help to resolve the conflict.  Or you could pick a personality type that’s at odds with the conflict.  (For example, the conflict requires bold action, and you’ve got a shy protagonist.)  Now the internal struggle within the protagonist is one more challenge she faces as she deals with the external conflicts.  The actions she takes may actually worsen the conflict initially and trigger the increasing challenges.

In addition to fitting the plot, a character’s personality should fit, and emerge from, his background.  As you figure out where the character was born, his birth order in relation to siblings, what his upbringing was like, and what occupation he chose, those background details might well suggest certain personality traits.  (Alternately, you can determine personality traits first and come up with a suitable background later.)  Keep in mind that people sometimes form personality types in reaction against their upbringing rather than being in harmony with it.

In addition to having a protagonist’s personality fitting both the conflict and the character’s background, you should ensure your major characters have different personality types.  That makes their interactions much more interesting.  As a beginning writer I have found this difficult.  It’s easy to have characters act as I, the writer, would act in their place.  That results in characters with personalities much like mine.  A good writer populates her stories with characters of several personality types that are both revealed by their actions, and determine their actions in a believable way.  Ideally your readers should be unable to determine your personality type from your writing.

There are many sources of information about personality types that can aid you in developing your characters.  Internet searches on any of the following terms will provide plenty of information:

  • One (my favorite) is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which lays out sixteen different personality types.
  • There are four-color personality representation schemes which seem a little less useful to me.
  • Enneagrams provide nine personality types.  I have not used or studied this much, but it looks intriguing.
  • Astrology, either Western or Chinese, provides twelve unique personality types.

I listed these aids last because they are only useful to you in fleshing out a character’s personality type after you’ve already ensured the personality (1) fits the plot, (2) fits the background, and (3) differs from other characters and from the writer’s.

As always, feel free to leave a comment whether your personality clashes or matches with–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 11, 2011Permalink