where the writers are
8.11.11

 

Lot's done today. With the inspiring view off the deck, coupled with a brief windy rainstorm, focus wasn't hard. I edited the first 177 pages of the book, added over 2300 words, and stopped for the day only because the power went out, and the battery died on my laptop. E così va.

Rachel asked:

When you set those writing goals and force yourself to get a set amount of pages/words done a day how do you keep yourself from feeling like you got a bunch of worthless words on the page with only a few that are actually good? That's the main issue I deal with when I force myself to sit at a computer and type, feeling like I wrote a lot but only a small portion of that is any good. Recently I went back and took a look at something I hated when I wrote it and now that some time had passed my inner critic actually thought it wasn't that bad. Is there any trick you know of to tamp that feeling down without letting too much time go by? I'm trying to get serious about my writing and cut down on the time it takes me to crank things out.

This is a fabulous question, and I'll tell you why. I think all writers have this very conversation with themselves. I know I did (do?) especially when I was just starting out. 9 years ago, halfway through my first manuscript, I was stuck. I had 50,000 words, and I didn't know what to do next. I was trying to make every word absolutely perfect, and spinning my wheels. I mentioned this to my dad, himself a big reader - and also an engineer. He gave me some of the best advice I ever received. He told me to get the story down, and worry about the rest later.

It was very powerful advice. You can polish that first 50,000 words so many times that you neglect to push forward and get the second 50,000. Whether you're laying pipe or building a novel, each piece builds on the piece before. It's more important to finish the book than worry about whether you're writing Pulitzer-quality prose. That's what revision is for. So I remind myself of that.

If you think in terms of getting to the end of the story, instead of how good the words are, you will be able to move forward and get the novel finished. Then you can make it all pretty.

In order to do that, I do set daily writing goals. I shoot for 1,000 a day. That's about 5 manuscript pages. It's not a lot in the grand scheme of a 100,000 word novel. But.... if you write 1,000 words a day for 90 days, you'll have a full-length novel in three months. THREE MONTHS. Don't think it's possible? Trust me, it is. But not if you belabor each word. You have to write the story. You can belabor the words when it's done. When it sit down to the computer, I spend the first part of the writing session re-reading what I wrote the day before, editing it as I go. Then I launch into my new 1,000 words. Some days, it feels like six steps backward for each step forward. But no matter what, there are steps forward. Each 1,000 words brings me closer to the end. Forward progress is essential.

Each writer has their own path up the mountain. You have to find the daily rhythm that works best for you. We have a saying, "Don't mess with your process." If it's working, and you're finishing books, stick with it.

And... and this is going to frustrate the hell out of you... you get better at it the more you do it. Writing is a mental exercise. If you exercise every day, you get stronger, tighter, and more focused. Simple as that.

Now, as it happens, I read something this morning so perfectly timed I had to wonder about how the universe really works. It's from Slate Magazine, by Michael Agger, called How To Write Faster. I kid you not. In it, he searches for the secrets of quickness in composition. It's a brilliant, fascinating article, and one of my favorite parts follows:

[Ronald] Kellogg, a psychologist at Saint Louis University, tours the research in the field, where many of the landmarks are his own. Some writers are "Beethovians" who disdain outlines and notes and instead "compose rough drafts immediately to discover what they have to say." Others are "Mozartians"—cough, cough—who have been known to "delay drafting for lengthy periods of time in order to allow for extensive reflection and planning." According to Kellogg, perfect-first-drafters and full-steam-aheaders report the same amount of productivity. Methinks someone is lying. And feel free to quote this line the next time an editor is nudging you for copy: "Although prewriting can be brief, experts approaching a serious writing assignment may spend hours, days, or weeks thinking about the task before initiating the draft."

"Although prewriting can be brief, experts approaching a serious writing assignment may spend hours, days, or weeks thinking about the task before initiating the draft."

That's the secret, really. If you do a bit of pre-thought before you sit down, you will find the end quicker and easier. My stories percolate for a very long time before they get onto the page. That helps me write faster and cleaner.

Heretofore, I am changing the oft-referred to terms "pantser" and "outliner" to the much more elegant and appropriate "Beethovian" or "Mozartian". I am a Beethovian writer. I like it.

More tomorrow. Playing golf with the men. Wish me luck.

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