Eating the Elephant

Eat ElephantIs it better to write a short story all at once or over a period of several days? Since each method has its advocates, the question is worth examining.

Everyone knows the adage about the proper way to eat an elephant—one bite at a time, meaning you should break down any major endeavor into manageable tasks and patiently accomplish the tasks. How does that apply to short stories? Let’s hear from both sides in this furious debate.

 

Mr. One-Sitting Writer:

Forget about elephants. A short story isn’t an elephant. The reasons you must write the first draft of your short story all at once are as follows:

1. You have to capture the mood of the inspiring moment. Enthusiasm is a fleeting thing. When you’re in the mood to write, when you’re consumed by the power of the idea, that’s the time to get it all down. That’s when you’re most likely to get in the zone when the words flow best. Tomorrow you won’t feel the same way. You’ll lose the moment forever.

2. Your readers expect consistency throughout your story. They want a constant tone or mood. The best way to achieve that is to write the first draft all at once. Readers will sense when you haven’t done that and it will lessen their enjoyment of the story and lessen your chance of future sales.

3. There’s a certain romance in staying up late at night and into the morning to type at the computer or scribble on paper. Didn’t all great writers do this? Aren’t all the best stories fueled by nocturnal spirits conjured from the wisps of steaming coffee cups? In that final surge of energy when you type “The End,” compose your e-mail, and hit Send with thirteen seconds to go before the deadline, you know you’re completely spent, and you are channeling the spirits of the best authors of all time.

Ms. Bite-at-a-Time Writer:

I notice Mr. One-Sitting Writer didn’t talk much about how he performed at his day job the next morning. Maybe writing is his day-job and he can afford to sleep late and rest up for his next bout of binge-writing.

Those of us in the real world have lives. We have responsibilities other than writing. We have jobs and families, appointments and duties. We love writing as much as he does, but we have to fit it into the nooks, squeeze it into the crannies of time we can spare.

He made three numbered points; I’ll do the same:

1. I agree it’s best to write a story when you’re wrapped up in the enthusiasm of the idea. If the story is short enough, and if your schedule allows enough time, by all means write the first draft in one sitting to preserve the tone and feel throughout the story.

2. If you can’t do that, then here are a couple of tricks to try:

a. Stop for the night in the middle of a sentence, a sentence for which you know how it should end. You’ll remember that tomorrow and be able to pick right up from there.

b. At the start of your allotted writing time for the day, review the last few pages you wrote. That will help you recapture the mood so you can continue in the same vein.

3. The romance of staying up late to write? Please. I did that a few times in college to finish assignments on time, but it was never my best work. Plus, I’m not as young as I was then.

As for me, Poseidon’s Scribe, I work like Ms. Bite-at-a-Time Writer, but wish I had the time to work like Mr. One-Sitting Writer.   You’ll have to take your pick based on your circumstances and what works for you. That’s today’s discussion on elephant-eating by—

                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

Cure: Writer’s Block

Earlier I blogged about writer’s block, but focused on symptoms and causes.  Today, let’s talk about getting over it.

Writers blockAs before, I’ll limit the discussion to minor writer’s block (minWB), the short-term state of being stuck while in the middle of a writing project.  I’ll blog about Major Writer’s Block (MajWB) another time.

My many fans—both of them, actually, including my Dad—will recall that I stated there are several types of minWB, which I divided as follows:

  • Story-related problems
  • Writing-related problems, but not about the story
  • Personal, but non-writing, problems

I also stated that if you pinpoint which problem you have, that suggests a cure. For story-related problems such as plot, character, setting, or others, here are a few things you can try:  (1) set the story aside awhile and let your subconscious (your muse) work on the problem, (2) try sketching a mind-map of the problem and creatively come up with multiple solutions, then select the best, or (3) ask your critique group or beta reader for help.

The craft-related problems all boil down to matters of attitude leading to negative mental associations, leading to stress.  Since one type of craft-related problem is the pressure of the audience seeming too close, I have to point out what some might consider a contradiction in the advice I, Poseidon’s Scribe, have given out.  In this blog entry I suggested, if you’re feeling the ‘presence’ of the reader too intensely, just forget about that audience and write freely for yourself.

However, just two weeks ago I urged you to keep the reader in mind, always.

Which advice is right—ignore the reader or be ever mindful of the reader?

(Aside:  witness the clever way I get out of this paradox.)

I was right both times.  In general, it is always wise to acknowledge that you’re writing to be read by others.  Therefore, you should write with precision, avoiding ambiguity, so as to be understood.  But if the fear of being criticized or disliked is paralyzing you into inaction, if the anticipation of bad reviews leaves you trembling before your keyboard, then forget about those readers for a while.  Ignore them during your early drafts and focus on getting your story done.

Then in the later drafts, I suggest you visualize yourself as a sort of super-editor, far more critical of your own work than any reader could be, and yet able to fix every problem you find.  In this way, you minimize your fear of the reader and substitute confidence in yourself.

That ‘visualization’ method may work for many of the minWB craft-related problems, by imagining a near-future version of yourself having already overcome the problem and working steadily on the story.  Visualize yourself being in the flow, and once again gripped by the same enthusiasm you had when you first conceived the story idea.  In this way you can change the mental linkages you’ve developed and re-associate writing with fun, success, and confidence rather than stress, fatigue, and inadequacy.

As to the last category of minWB, that of personal problems such as illness, depression, relationship difficulties, or financial woes, you need to confront those problems head-on first.  Until you have a plan for solving them, and start to execute that plan, it will be tough to concentrate on writing.

Do these suggested cures work for you?  Do you know of others I should have recommended?  Unblock yourself and leave a comment for—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

September 21, 2013Permalink

Leave Yourself Wanting More

You’ve heard the show business adage, “Always leave them wanting more,” meaning an entertainer should exit the stage before the audience gets bored.   Helen DunmoreBy the same principle, novelist and poet Helen Dunmore said you should “finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.”

 

Why is that?  There seems to be some important facet of human nature at work here.  To cite another example of this phenomenon, I used to read to my children when they were quite young, but I tried to observe them as I read to look for the early signs of boredom.  In time I found I could stop reading, even in the middle of a book, and tell them that was it for the night.  They’d beg me to go on, but I wouldn’t, because I knew I’d timed it right.

The human brain seems unusually good at pattern recognition and associating things together.  If your brain associates a given entertainer with a feeling of boredom, you’ll be less likely to pay for a ticket next time.  Similarly, if a child associates books with a feeling of interest and yearning for more, the child will likely develop a love of reading.

Let’s say it’s late at night and you’ve been writing for a while.  You are at the point when you usually go to bed.  You know you should call it quits, but you’re so near the end of a section, or chapter, or the whole book.  Moreover, you’re in the flow, and the words are coming out well, better than usual.  If you can just push it a little longer, you’ll achieve the satisfaction of completing something good.

This is the moment of decision, and you’re tempted to push on.  If you do, and your fatigue causes you to get stuck for words, your brain can start associating writing with being stuck and tired.  That leads to writer’s block.

However, if you save your work and turn off the computer now, your brain will associate writing with being in the flow, with feelings of interest and enthusiasm.  Moreover, you’ll get the sleep you need.

It’s a funny thing, but you needn’t worry about forgetting overnight what you were going to write next.  When you come back to your manuscript the next day all the memories flood back in, along with the confidence and fervor of the previous night, and pretty soon you’re in the zone again.

If you wish, before you finish for the night (even in the middle of a sentence!) you could jot down some quick notes of where the prose was headed.  By some mysterious mental mechanism, your brain will be thinking subconsciously during your non-writing interval, working out better phrasing, solving plot problems, etc.  The next day when you resume, you may find you have better ideas than you ended up with the night before.

Has this been your experience?  Do you agree with Helen Dunmore and me, or do you adhere to a different school of thought?  Leave a comment and let me know.  There’s much more I want to say, but I’ll stop here, so you’ll associate feelings of fascination with—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

Is Your First Draft Terrible Enough?

That’s not a typo; I’m questioning whether the first draft of your story is horrible, trashy, and amateurish enough to qualify as a first draft.  I’m not talking about cacography here, I’m talking about tripe, drivel, bunkum.

Yes, I know all writers are different and for some, their first draft is their publishable, final draft.  Isaac Asimov said he didn’t re-write his stories.  But I’m guessing that doesn’t work for most writers, especially beginning writers.

For most of you, here’s my advice:  set out to write a bad first draft.  Why?  I’ll explain.

The first draft is unlike all later ones in that it has no predecessor, just a blank screen (or page) and a writer’s mind buzzing with ideas.  That moment before you write the first word is a daunting one; the task seems mountainous.  Often that story idea in your head seems so perfect, you just know readers will love it.

But when you try writing down that idea, it looks so awful it’s embarrassing.  The text falls far short of the shining, crystalline structure in your mind.  You can get so frustrated you’ll be tempted to abandon the whole stupid idea.  “What was I thinking?  I’m no writer!”

I’m suggesting it’s best to admit up front your first draft will be garbage.  That way you’re establishing reasonable expectations and lessening the frustration.  Trust in your ability to improve the first draft later.  Accept that those later revisions will be easier than writing the first draft; you will get closer to the ideal story in your mind.

How do you write a first draft that qualifies as pure dreck?  Think of your writing mind as having at least four component parts, four people with distinct attributes.  These are your muse, your playful inner child, your squint-eyed editor, and your glad-handing marketer.

I’ve described the muse before.  By the time you’re writing your first draft, her job is done and she’s left town.  Think of your squinty-eyed editor as a scowling old man with an eyeshade and a huge supply of blue pencils.  Send this editor on vacation now.  Trust me, he’ll come back well-rested to help you with your second draft.  As to that ever-smiling, extroverted marketer with the plaid suit, he’s on vacation most of the time and that’s okay for now.

215px-Big_PosterLet’s focus on the one I left out, the playful inner child.  I suggest you picture the character Josh Baskin, played by Tom Hanks in the 1988 movie “Big.”  He was pure drive, energy, and enthusiasm.  He had no inhibitions, no taboos, and no fear of failure.

Channel that character as you write your first draft.  Strive to get in the zone, in the flow.  If you find yourself momentarily stuck, write down what you will need later to get past the sticky part, put that in brackets (or different font or color, whatever), and move on.  For example, knowing how important the opening hook is, let’s say you can’t think of one.  Just write “[come up with hook]” and write on.  Chances are the words you write next might serve as a hook, or a hook will occur to you later.  Don’t stop to do research now, just bracket it, “[Do whales really get hiccups?],” and look it up later.

Even though your first draft is a stinking pile of compost, you’ll feel better about having something written down, something you can now work with.  Further, by writing in burst mode, you can maintain a consistent, integrated work that maintains the same tone and voice throughout.

More great first draft advice is available here, here, and here.  By the way, do you think this blog post is poorly written?  Ha!  You should have seen the first draft typed up by—

                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

Writing in the Flow

You know the feeling.  Maybe you were playing a sport or a musical instrument; maybe you experienced it at work or in church.  I’m talking about that experience of being in the zone, in the moment.  Runners call it the “second wind.”  Everything’s going well and you’re super-productive, almost flawless, and you’ve lost complete track of time.  How cool, how sweet, is that?

When writers experience it, words come out without effort; there’s a lack of awareness of surroundings and the passage of time; and the prose is better. It’s as if writer and muse are one.  If you’re like me and writing is a part-time hobby, then the precious time available for it needs to be maximized somehow.  It’s desirable to spend as much time in the zone as possible.

According to this Wikipedia article, the psychological term is “flow.”  It was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and there are ten associated factors (though not all are required):

  1. Clear goals
  2. Concentrating within a limited field of attention
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness
  4. Distorted sense of time
  5. Direct and immediate feedback
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge
  7. A sense of personal control over the activity
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself

So how can a writer intentionally bring about this state of mind?  For me, preparation is the key.  I find I can make the flow more likely if (1) I’ve prepared a story outline so I know the general direction I’m heading, and (2) I’ve previously thought about the story during “down time.”  Down time is when I’m doing an activity that doesn’t involve intense concentration, an activity such as commuting to or from work, mowing the lawn, and taking a shower.  It’s during these periods when I think about the scenes, characters, dialogue, and plot.  If I’ve done that, my mind is ready to write when I have time available.  I’m much more likely to get in the flow.

You might be different.  Some writers can induce the flow by playing music, by writing in the same spot and at the same time each day, or even by burning incense or setting out potpourri.

Unfortunately, it’s hit-or-miss getting into the flow, and very easy to get kicked out of it.  One way to get kicked out is to decide, as you’re writing, that you need to do some research.  This is a tempting urge, and can be more enjoyable than writing.  Sadly, it is a huge time sink, and there’s really no need to have it spoil your flow.  In my January 30 blog entry, I suggested something I called “bracket research.”  Just take the question you want to investigate and put it in brackets, or highlight the text yellow, or do something to distinguish it. You can stay in the flow and keep going, then do the research later.

Another dangerous practice that will kick you of the flow is to pause and self-edit too much.  You can do that later.  For now, just let words flow.  I don’t know a really good cure for that, but I suspect participating in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is one way to cure yourself of that urge.

I hope you can experience and maximize the flow in all your favorite activities.  Good luck!  I suppose I should know something about flow; after all, I’m–

Poseidon’s Scribe