The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 1 Butt in Chair

The political and social issues just keep coming in hits I can’t seem to process, let alone blog about.  So, I’ve decided to work on that annotated bibliography I promised here.  Hopefully it will give other up-and-coming writers a helping hand, although it’s a steadying hand from the side, not pulling you up from a higher place.  This first installment addresses the issue of getting your butt into the chair and making a start.

Stephen King’s “On Writing” (Pocket Books, New York 2001) is the first book that helped me realize it was ok to write the way I was already writing.  High school taught me the proper way to write, with outlines and stuff, but I spent more than twenty years with little to no actual writing, just outlines and notes. When I turned forty-five some mental block must have released, and I started writing prose every free moment. After a year of writing I realized I should do something with it, and started looking for answers.  Stephen King (by way of a used book store) stepped in.  His own story of writing–ignoring people who said it was trash, learning to streamline it for readability, his lucky break that lead to a prolific career–all gave me hope.  I was late to the game, but so what.  Here is the place I learned to just write.  Write until it’s done. Butt in chair.  Just write. Let it suck.  Just finish.  If you do, you are way ahead of all the writers that want to find the time to write but never do, and there are legions of them.

Terry Brooks’ “Sometimes the Magic Works” (Ballantine Books, New York 2003) was back to the proper way to write, with outlines and plans, but he added a caveat to his advice.  It’s ok to write without a plan, it is STILL writing, and writing is the important bit.  The only bit.  His gentle suggestion to organize, outline, and analyze after the story is finished, so you know where you flubbed and need to revise, was the best advice I ever received.  His story of being the rebound guy after Tolkien, and often maligned for being a copy-cat (despite their ways of telling a story being completely different) was a nice added bonus.  Another author’s story of his lucky break gave me hope to someday be so lucky, but I had to write something first.

If fear of failure is your issue, and it’s keeping your butt out of the chair, give “Art & Fear” (Capra Press, Santa Barbara 1993) by David Bayles & Ted Orland a try.  The advice is general, for artists of every type, but the issues we face are nearly identical.  You have the right to express yourself, and it can be a real job–that you are paid to do–if you work to master your medium. Art is work.  Inspiration leads to the drive for mastery, then mastery frees you to work inspired and unfettered.  Put your butt in the chair and write. Become the wordsmith, dialogue master, builder of worlds, and teller of tales.  Breathe out words like air, until you find your writing voice.

If inspiration is your problem, then “Writing From the Inner Self” (Harper Perennial, New York 1991) by Elaine Farris Hughes is helpful.  This isn’t a problem of mine, being a victim of too many ideas, but while perusing through the book I discovered many ways of approaching a plot hole or dry patch.  It’s worth having a copy on your self for stuck-in-mental-quicksand days.  There are also thousands of places to get daily writing prompts and inspiration programs. I follow a couple on WordPress and Facebook.

If your blocks go deeper, and you have a scientific bent to your thinking, then “The Midnight Disease” (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston 2004) by Alice W. Flaherty digs into the biology, psychology and philosophy of writers and why they write.  She writes as both a neurologist and a person suffering/blessed with hypergraphia.  Some may think she is biased because of her condition, but I think it adds a depth of understanding to the issue of the sometimes fragile/sometimes titanium nature of the writer’s brain.

These are the most helpful of the books that I have read to date on the issue of “Butt in Chair”.  I have “Bird by Bird” on my list, but haven’t managed it yet in the whirlwind of writing, revision, editing, blogging, social branding, and networking I’ve experienced in the last two years.  I’m a big proponent of “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” so I’m keeping my eye out.

I hope you find this list useful.  Next week, unless I get distracted (squirrel!), we will take a look at analyzing your manuscript, tentatively tilted “Monster in My Manuscript.” Until then…

Happy Writing.

Outlines Versus Free Writing: Cage Match!

Every writer and proto-writer has an opinion on this subject, so I guess it’s my turn to add my two cents.

I was taught to outline in my Creative Writing class.  Pick a story, decide on some characters, then pin the idea to an outline, like a butterfly fresh from the killing jar.  (Can you see the drift of this piece already?)  That is how “proper” writers do it.  I managed to create stories in that class, got an A, and thought I knew how to write.  (Ha ha.)

Once out of formal education and into the real world of bills, working, grocery shopping, laundry, and managing relationships, I produced weak ideas, half-assed character bios, and rough outlines.  There was little to no actual writing.  I realized I wasn’t a writer.  Life went on.

Then I had a dream so intense I frantically wrote it down.  It was so in-depth it took nearly a week of scribbling during every free moment, ending up with a weird beast of half outline, half chapter summery, and half micro-scenes.  (Yes, three halves equals weird beast. Picture a chimera.)  I had written down interesting dreams in the past, but dream journaling wasn’t a habit, and certainly nothing of this length.  But still, it pulled at me, seduced me, waking me often at 4am–two hours early– so I kept digging, going deeper into the story, the world, the characters.  Weeks tuned into months as I wrestled with its form, including a graphic novel script.  Eventually, I woke from the intense daze, with a organized daily writing regimen, and staring at the first draft of a novel.

Shit.  I am a writer.

It was crap, but the good kind of crap for a writer.  The kind of crap that said it was getting better as I worked with it, relearning lost skills, and adding completely new ones.  There was a good story under all that crap, like a very hard poo-stone, I just had to remove enough stone, sometimes with a sledgehammer.

My earliest hammer was Stephen King’s “On Writing.”  I was given permission to just write, get it down, then see what it was.  Sometimes “proper” writers do that, and make money, too.  No one had ever told me that!  He became my spirit guide–probably making weird faces behind me–as I continued to write daily, and reading as many “How to write” books as I could get my hands on.  The writing regimen was much better than being woken at 4am by dialogue. (Shut up.  Shut up!  SHUT UP!!)

Another early hammer was Terry Brook’s “Sometimes the Magic Works.”  Here was a “proper” writer, with advice on outlining that was so familiar, and comforting, and completely not something that works for me.  But he told me something my teachers never did.  He freely acknowledged that it wasn’t the only way to write.  Writing was the most important thing. The only thing.  His gentle suggestion that outlining after the rough draft was done, to clarify the story–and especially if there was a road block to finishing–was gratefully received.

Somewhere in the mental cage match of Stephen “The Wild Man” King verses Terry “The Organizer” Brooks, I found a balance point.  The raw story, outlined for revision, gives me a handle on the storytelling.  Do I have good, three-dimensional characters?  Is the story hitting the key points of the journey?  Have I provided enough description?  Is there natural themes and symbolism that can be refined?  Did I start with a hook, and end with satisfaction?  If the answer is yes, proceed to next level, clean up and line-editing.

My two cents for new writers?

Does outlining fulfill a need in your brain?  Start there, but don’t stop there.

Do you prefer to be surprised by the story?  Go on that adventure with your characters, but when you get home, take a hard look at the storytelling.

Just write.  Keep writing, in however way your mind finds satisfaction in the act, because writers are idiots.  We are willingly doing homework as a hobby, at least until we are getting paid for it.

 

 

 

My Prestigeous, But Low-Budget, Writing Program

 

 

 

For those of you keeping track I napped my way out of the post-finished-manuscript funk after about 48 hours.  For someone who has problems bouncing back from depression I consider that fairly good.  I couldn’t let go of that fictional world, so I spent the last week typing up the short stories that occur about the same time as the main story.  They may never see the light of day, or they could be freebies for those future readers interested in my world.

So now, I am tackling the Editing…

<cue dramatic music>

While I was writing this manuscript, I realized my extremely shaky grasp of spelling (due to undiagnosed dyslexia) and a high school level of grammar (from thirty years ago-eek!) was just not going to cut in the fast-paced World of Publishing, independent or traditional.  So, OCD Capricorn that I am, I studied, I organized, and I thought it through.

The books I found in my local used book store, because I’m broke, were my starting points.  I learned from Stephen King that my new method of writing was OK, even though it was the opposite of what I was taught.  Terry Brooks explained how to do it properly, like I was taught, but to just keep going if that didn’t work.  Christopher Vogler took me on the hero’s journey in a way I understood, while Kim Hudson gave the female counterpoint.  John Warner taught me to laugh with the muse.  Alice W. Flaherty explained exactly what was wrong with my brain to make me a writer.  James Frey helped me push the story deeper, with hooks for the reader.  Noah Lukeman, while rolling his eyes, and in a Sahara dry tone, explained how to not be a total idiot, and bore my readers to death.

Currently, Elizabeth Benedict is explaining to me that it is OK for a book to have sex scenes, while not overdoing it… unless that is what the story needs.  Next on the pile is my very own Strunk & White, just brought home from a used book store like it was the Holy Grail.  (I’m not kidding, angelic voices sang as it was brought into the house.)  Below that is a couple of grammar books, written in catchy ways that will hopefully push past my weird memory blocks, and giving me a better working grasp of rules and modern usages.

I’ve learned a ton of things from these writers, and they have pointed me toward even more books; both about writing and great fiction that I have missed.  My ‘To Read’ list is massive, and judging what is next is becoming impossible.  Still, I persevere, hungry for more.  And frankly, all this newfound knowledge should have ripped my manuscript to pieces.

But, it didn’t.

It tweaked, it clarified, and it deepened.  It showed me ways to reach the reader without hitting them over the head with my ideas.  While I was learning to tell a ‘damn good story’ with words, I kept finding my characters and story, hitting the important points these teachers were making, over and over.  I started to think that I may have something, maybe something good enough for someone else to read, maybe even enjoy.

It gave me hope.

I have stories to tell, and I’m going to do that.  I hope you’ll join me, and tell me some in return.

Do you have any favorite books about writing?