Tidbit (Not Exclusively) for Novelists: Writing Momentum Isn’t Always Brash and Dazzling

It’s so hideously easy to feel like you’re treading water.

I used to think that the distinction in my case was related to a lack of handwritten draft. I do have many pages of early scenes scribbled out, of course, but less than 10% of them proved salvageable years later. Some of my ideas came in such a tangled blur that it became totally impractical for me to handwrite them. I couldn’t pick them apart, which probably led to years of crawling through half-remembered ideas. I used to believe that computers weren’t a suitable medium for random notes, so I only used them for coherent writing moments. Everything else stayed locked up in my head, especially the more outlandish or harsh ideas. To this day, I firmly believe that my mistake was overcensorship, not the nature or length of the story. On the other hand, it was inevitable. I didn’t realize just how vast of a story I was forming at the time – and if I had, everything probably would’ve turned out differently.

Nevertheless, I have immense respect for those who actually take a pen to paper for something other than vague bullet lists. If you scratch entire chapters out by hand or incessantly print your draft, God bless you for a thousand and one years, because you’ve probably given yourself access to an element that many of us blunder past without realizing it. Likewise, those who use typewriters (I know you’re still out there, folks) also have an edge over computer-only writers because they get to immediately see what they’ve written in coherent ink on a physical page.

But it’s not necessarily the digital format to blame. The bigger the project, the easier it is to lose sight of the “you are here” symbol on the map. A large number of our ranks prefer it this way, and it’s often downright necessary. It’s also extremely toxic.

Recently, I was quite ill for two weeks. The chief symptom was, annoyingly, eye strain. I couldn’t type, I couldn’t read anything – digitally or on paper – and I could barely even watch TV. The slightest exertion extended or renewed the pain despite careful food intake and – I jest not – 12 hours of sleep a night. In effect, I couldn’t move.

It should go without saying that when I assessed my progress at the end of that month, I was flabbergasted to realize that I’d somehow done intensive editing on almost 400 pages in a few weeks (post-illness, of course). The law of averages had been on my side, and I hadn’t even noticed it.

We often forget about our dear old friends like the law of averages. We somehow assume that because we happen to have one absurdly good week of writing out of the blue, every week should be that way. We even get mesmerized into thinking that if we didn’t generate (or mutilate) large chunks of draft, it doesn’t count. We’re tricked into saying “to hell with character analysis” or “I don’t need to summarize the next four important points that come in this book.” For those working on an invented world, details like geography considerations or cultural habits suddenly don’t matter – because we didn’t fiddle with the words today, damn it.

Meanwhile, writing is supposedly a methodical and meditative pursuit.

Momentum is a tightrope as thin as a razor. I hesitate to say that you should enjoy writing 24/7/365, but if you’re going to go in with all guns blazing, you might as well be smart about it. Take on what you can and no more. There’s an agonizing art to this, and it takes a lifetime of study before you even begin to grasp it.

 

Meditation for Novelists: On Being In the Moment

The English language is baffling, even to native speakers like yours truly. One phrase in particular has harassed me lately, so here’s the score.

Happily or unhappily, most of us have heard the phrase “being mindful.” Sometimes, it’s used in close proximity to “being in the moment.” But I take severe issue with this pairing. They’re contradictions in terms. To be mindful often means to think on your feet but also to be diplomatic – to think of the long-term consequences or to weigh which decision is more practical or beneficial. To be in the moment is to cede to whatever the majority force seems to be: anger, joy, panic, passion.

I just don’t understand how to make those ideas compatible.

I feel that I’m fairly fluent in mindfulness (even if my mindfulness is different from yours). What I fail to grasp is being in the moment. Some people wield both the phrase and the idea as a coded complaint while others offer it up like some kind of mental euthanasia. It tends to denote fickleness or immaturity, and yet it’s seen as a marvelous thing indeed when a busy businessman married to his phone can manage to keep it switched off for the entirety of his child’s soccer game.

Huh?

Language is a flaming hypocrite sometimes, and that’s bad news for novelists.

Being in the moment is similar to (but not always the same as) being in the zone. Things just occur to you. In the span of three breaths, you’re surrounded by a flurry of ideas or solutions. In even less time, those ideas disappear without warning. Losing ideas can be as much of a mercy as getting them in the first place because sometimes – just sometimes – you cannot, in fact, fix every problem in one afternoon.

And yet we writers are slaves and addicts alike to the mere chance of a good writing streak. Some of us use very methodical means to nudge the odds in our favor – the right food, the right music, the right routine. A few of us, deliberately or otherwise, prefer random variety on the (possibly quite correct) assumption that a lack of habit or predictability will stump and distract our brains in the perfect way to solve a problem when we’re not looking. Still others are as rampantly superstitious as sports fans. I’m not passing judgment on anyone’s procedure because there isn’t a universally good one. The point is much starker: many of us are terrifyingly willing to push the limits, and that never bodes well for the outside world.

On a terrific day, we can smell and see and hear a landscape. We can give an exact tally of the wrinkles in an old curmudgeon’s face or mimic the differences in characters’ accents. We can see every kick, swipe, punch, and stab in a complicated fight scene, not just sketch through the most likely sequence of events. It’s one of the most motivating factors in the writing world. One good day of sleek flight can make up for a week of slow, stuttering, interrupted work.

We obsessive types sometimes have even more trouble letting go of the moment than slipping into it to begin with. For some reason, this only levels more blame at us, as if we’re no better than sociopaths. To the outside world, we play games with people because it amuses us. To them, we’re erratic because we decide to be as different as possible, as if we’re all deliberately extreme modernists.

Well, I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t carry water. I’m odd, but I only rarely try to be odd. I write because ideas won’t simply go away for lack of writing them down. In fact, the more I refuse to put something into words, the more it impedes life in general. I can’t be the only one. I’m an instrument, not an enthusiast. I don’t consciously enjoy writing – it’s just something that occurs to me. It’s something that has enough of its own force that I don’t need to add to it. And I can’t possibly be the only one.

Maybe being in the moment isn’t the problem. Perhaps it’s the world’s definition of what “the moment” actually is. Must a moment be bombastically bold or astonishingly heartfelt? I think not. Moments are moments. For me, the best ones are those in which I can take a quiet step back while simultaneously untangling a deafening question. Such moments are impossible to predict and daunting to universally define. They tend to act like petulant children if you try to duplicate them – or worse, they seek revenge because someone forced their hand.

So if “the moment” comes, take it for what it is: a moment. They come and go by the thousands or millions. A bad one won’t last forever, and neither will a good one. Useless and useful are always pitted against each other. Wars can be bloodless and invisible – and they only need the space of a nerve ending to play out.

Meditation for Novelists (And Some Light Philosophizing): What’s Your Book Really About?

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As much as I loathe admitting that books are personal, there’s one distinction that none of us can totally escape: the true motives behind a book.

I don’t care what genre, subject, or length your book is. If it’s worth any effort at all and even remotely coherent, it probably has underlying points to make. They might be indivisible from the plot or they might be metaphors so subtle that only you and two or three other people on the entire planet would notice them. Maybe you’re a crusader or an avenger. Maybe you can’t afford a therapist. Maybe your mind is just far-reaching for no obvious reason (not to say there isn’t one). On average, you’re probably a little of everything I just mentioned for the simple fact that a good imagination is always multifaceted.

I started touching on this point in a prior post, so I might look like I’m contradicting myself, but bear with me for awhile.

We might not put ourselves in the stories (actually, you’re supremely lucky if you don’t), but our ideas, fears, and fascinations surface one way or another. It might be a dialogue or accent detail, the color of a certain character’s shirt, or a description of body language, but it’s probably there if you know how to look for it. And I have news for you: that’s okay. We writers are masters of incorporation – we must be if we want to be good at what we do.

But one day, you might suddenly yank your hands away from the keyboard or notebook with an exclamation along the lines of “I can’t believe I just said that.” Yet sometimes, you also can’t help but stare at it a few times before you push the delete button or crumple the paper scrap into the trash. I don’t know if we’re really the strictest censors in the world, but we’re certainly in a constant state of asking what should be censored – and that’s almost as bad.

I’m not an enthusiast of rash excess. I dislike shock value for the sake of it as much as I dislike artificially hopeful platitudes. However, there are times when you need one or both. There are times when it entirely clicks with the story you’re attempting. Occasionally, the story is an unmitigated train wreck until you include whatever the sensitive material may be. For me, the question isn’t entirely whether or not to include ideas which you personally consider outlandish, ridiculous, or volatile. The question is about knowing when enough is indeed enough – positive or negative bent is irrelevant.

Unfortunately, this is a principle applicable to most areas of life, not just writing.

The human brain is less than a cubic foot in size, but it contains entire universes of hang-ups, letdowns, and occasionally purely irrational ideas. The system for dealing with these flaws and problems is rudimentary at best. We can never permanently banish a thought (short of actual brain damage). We can never stop one from forming. We can only do damage control once it’s there. Some of us are exceptionally good at this while others are compulsively opposed to or even incapable of it.

Alternatively, some of us – including yours truly – become writers partly because we have such an overflow of “unacceptable” or “unfair” thoughts that we simply need an outlet for lest they take us over entirely. Having those thoughts need not implicate us in a crime (perceived, metaphorical, or actual) or suggest a tendency, failing, or habit. Remember: naïveté is usually the lack of thinking, not the abundance of it.

The infuriating aspect isn’t always the nature of your idea by itself (although I’ve been there plenty of times). The problem is that you might react equally badly to a positive idea. Some of my lowest moments in writing have been the analysis of happy moments, not dark ones. It might be a completely foreign or completely familiar detail, but both ends of the spectrum will shake you up now and then.

Why?

Because that same tremendous, terrifying, intense control that lets us pluck choice words out of an ocean likes to believe that it has utter rule over everything we do, not just what we write. Even if we look like lethargic slobs to casual bystanders, many of us adore compartmentalization (and why not? The biggest open secret in the writing world is that the majority of us are unabashedly, unapologetically neurotic control freaks). Shutting the world out and being someone else is a central pillar of writing. It’s unsettling when we realize that we can never completely separate ourselves from our fears, desires, and memories.

But I’m not so sure we should. Good writing has heart, and you can’t have heart without being involved, committed, or otherwise engaged. It’s noble, but it’s messy. It can be downright filthy, and I don’t necessarily mean the nature of your content. For some of us, the only way we can really confront our failings is in the form of the written word. It doesn’t mean that these things don’t occur to us before we write them down – hell no – but thanks to ever-shifting variables and downright bad situations, many of us don’t know what a valid forum is. We don’t always understand what good timing is, even if we’re observant of and vigilant about a problem. We don’t know when or how to say what we mean or want. Sometimes, there simply isn’t a good way to do that, and sometimes we’re just erratic judges.

The nub and crux of this is that we can’t always control it in writing, either. When a long-buried or partially forgotten annoyance suddenly appears in perfectly articulated words to look at, our initial impulses are always panic and shame. Perhaps you don’t or can’t confess a dream because people will laugh – or, at worst, they will actively use it against you, or even turn it into a form of torture. No one wants to admit that, but we often censor ourselves because we don’t want to get backed into a corner at a later time. We want to protect dreams as much as ourselves – and sometimes even more than that.

Dreams aren’t always about delirious happiness. It can mean ridding yourself of a destructive relationship or a debilitating addiction (including the emotional sort). It can mean wishing for a ceasefire. It can mean freeing yourself or others in some way. It can mean self-improvement or unburdening. Most of all, it can mean lighting others’ fuses. Trading in ideas isn’t always about inflating your own pride – or even pushing one specific opinion. There are times when it’s equally (if not more) fulfilling to merely suggest the idea of creation to people who were formerly in a dull sleep.

Thus writing becomes our best choice – our proving ground, shooting range, practice ring, laboratory, and every other form of facility for experimentation and timid confession. Very often, when the draft is finally complete, I suspect that the only thing someone does is stare down at the pile of paper and say “it was an accident, but it’s alright.” It does indeed feel like a random event, no matter the time and planning you’ve put into it. For some of us, it’s one snapshot in the midst of chaos and collision – but sometimes, it’s still a damn fine image.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bother making a book if you have ulterior motives. Channeling fears, hopes, and other fragile things into the form of a book is the only justice, catharsis, revenge, or freedom some of us will ever get. When written cleverly enough, a book can make a wrongdoer realize a wrong by the vaguest suggestion. It can articulate your deepest terrors or joys – the ones you’re too disturbed by to ever vocalize. It can get you through hard times (even though it also generates its own) or tell the truth in astonishingly abstract yet agonizingly sensible ways. It can grant the most hideous or transformative wishes. In short, it’s power.

But I am saying that if those factors play a role in your plan, you should be able to admit it to yourself. Until you do, you run the risk of it owning you instead of you owning it.

Therefore, my fellow lunatics-in-arms, I only have one request to make of you: know thyself. Accept that a book’s creation process is a glorious, dumbfounding, transcendent, disastrous whirlwind in the best of times. Accept that it makes you a crazy fool, but not foolish. Accept that something will look different on the outside than it felt on the inside. Accept that once your book is sitting in front of you on a table, it will feel both trivial – because it’s just paper and ink – and magnificent…because, just imagine, all you needed to craft a whole world was paper and ink! 

A Meditation for Novelists: Your Characters Might Be You, But You Don’t Have to Be Your Characters

This one’s for my fellow lunatics-in-arms. You’re not the only one and you don’t have a faint heart…

“Hope can drown, lost in thunderous sound…”

Sometimes, I deeply envy biographers and researchers. Nonfiction can be more tedious to compile than fiction (my dignified way of giving props to those in the nonfiction world), but those who try to deal in dry facts have half a chance of leaving their work at the door when they stop at the end of the day. They might uncover ugly truths, but they don’t have to sympathize with their subject matter. They don’t need to know how someone felt in a certain moment or even make it look exciting on paper (although it really helps). Their primary goal – presumably – is to report events and facts, not understand why someone acted how they did. This is a quiet but massive distinction. Fiction writers don’t get off nearly so easily.

Novelists really are emotional cannon fodder. Outsiders – and yes, plenty of insiders, including yours truly – absolutely don’t understand the fascinating but weirdly neurotic skill known as taking on your characters. What’s more, this rather brutalizing activity is self-inflicted. Why would people do that to themselves when a handful of more benign offshoots (research, biography, poetry, essay, literary theory) are waiting to be delved?

Why, you ask? Because there are cathartic moments, too. We can rise to orbital heights or plummet into a deep, abandoned mine. We can be someone with common, unlikely, or near-impossible traits. We can be the worst monsters or the noblest heroes. We can be what we never thought we could be – and that sword has two edges.

I don’t know what you’re writing about any more than you know what I’m writing about, and that’s okay. It’s probably necessary. I don’t know how to tell you to compartmentalize your written characters off from the rest of your life. I’m not sure that there’s one foolproof method. It’s entirely unique and entirely experimental. Only the most heartless, lackluster book-churners can distance themselves more than a few feet from the page.

“Fear can claim what little faith remains…”

I don’t do anything quickly. I know how to be relentless, but relentlessness can be very quiet and very meticulous. When I started dealing with a large project idea, it was amazing. The earliest version of the material wasn’t remarkable by any means, but it was earth-shattering productivity by my standards. I kept up with it, only working when I felt like working.

It was profoundly therapeutic, but something was missing. At some point, after several unhappy life experiences, my writing unsurprisingly took a dark turn – much darker than I realized I was capable of imagining. It seemed to fit the story like a glove and spurred on many important passages and concepts, but I didn’t understand what I was looking at.

For a long, long time, I was terrified to continue work on my own projects because I didn’t understand how I could write some of what I’d written without it being some awful indicator of an inner scumbag lurking within. A few of my characters are abundantly good people, the sort that every single member of mankind needs but doesn’t always get. Some characters are so dark and extreme that, for me, they’re still unspeakable – literally.

“But I carry strength from souls now gone,

They won’t let me give in…”

In some ways, it’s silly to be shy about the people populating your invented world. Tangentially (my fancy word to acknowledge your hard work without crushing your hopes), many things already exist under the sun. Invention is marvelous, but half of our gifts involve crafting, merging, and “translating” what we see into interesting and (hopefully) believable figments. Good fiction spins such an interesting world that you don’t notice the illusion, even if the events within it aren’t grounded in reality.

This all sounds very glum and bleak, but I’m trying to use it as a pass, not a condemnation. Even in the midst of a terrible act, we can take a glimmer – sometimes just a sliver – of a lesson from it. It might not be an encouraging lesson, but we can at least hope that it’ll be a practical one. We can certainly also hope that it’ll be something we understand on the first attempt.

It might not sound like it, but I’ve come to realize that learning how to draw the line for personal guilt and shame is a vital writing skill. No one can start learning it too early and no one ever completely masters it.

The strange thing is that if you’re writing fiction about atrocities, you’re probably closer to the truth than if you try to describe a world exclusively populated by good guys. Heroes, sadly, are always less realistic than villains simply because heroes are much harder to spot in reality. We all know villains. Some are of epic proportions and others are simply miserable people, but everyone gets scratched up a bit in life. Some of us grow up surrounded by villainy, and there’s no shortage of depressing or violent books, movies, and TV shows. Admirable characters tend to get squashed one way or another.

“I will never surrender,

We’ll free the earth and sky

Crush my heart into embers

And I will reignite…”

I have a sneaking suspicion that some among the many scores of people who abandon writing projects don’t do it because of writer’s block or inexperience. What if they did it because they were scared of themselves? What if they do it because they couldn’t bear what they’d wrought?

I often had (and still have) a certain obnoxious, harsh, stark argument with myself when approaching darkness. It goes something like this:

If I write cruelty, does that make me cruel?

You have no idea how many times I scribbled, painted, smeared, whispered, and screamed that question. I’m no closer to an answer. I like to think that no, we aren’t what we write about.

But if I thought about it in the first place, something or someone planted that seed. I let someone plant that seed, and now it took root.

Yes and no. Technically, a human brain doesn’t really invent anything (with the possible exception of fringe sciences such as premonitions). There are millions of variables, statistics, and choices in the average human skull (many of them not mathematical!). Most of us don’t articulately ponder this because a rich enough catalog of possibilities keeps us busy. We’re only using what we can scoop up from a particular pool of likelihoods. The good and bad news is that new drops of water can join the pool at any time – and more often than not, it’s a nasty shock instead of a pleasant surprise.

Invention (or incorporation, if you’re the gloomy sort) is nothing more or less than invention, and yet a hundred thousand factors, chances, and people are all too eager to warp this idea. We invent what we already know – sure. We build on the familiar until it has an intriguing twist. But Stephen King is reputed to be a soft-spoken kitten, not a schizophrenic maniac. Tom Clancy didn’t own a fleet of nuclear submarines. Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth aren’t part of a shadow government (as far as we know).

So take a deep breath and think about this again.

It’s easy to get stuck on a certain character, even if your writing productivity is going swimmingly. It’s easy to obsess on background details or traits. It’s also hard to get out of that place when you’re in so deep.

Let’s be honest: writing about darkness is a blistering, furious whirlwind. There isn’t a shortcut. Darkness is claustrophobic. It gets embedded under your fingernails. It might even start to have its own smell. Eventually, you can only think like a certain character because the only way that a character can exist at all is for you to make that entity seem real. You just can’t do that without stepping into their shoes. It’s a vicious cycle.

Some people – a little cynically, but not outlandishly – claim that characters, by nature of being created by one person’s ideas (usually), are often just distorted versions of the author. For the sake of everyone on the planet since the first days of recorded stories, I really hope that’s not true. But there are definitely times when it’s impossible to distance yourself from your work. It’s easy for traits to leak in – or out.

It might be something small and easily dismissed or it might be something crucial to who you are. It might be a heartbreaking sacrifice, a secret selfishness, or a valuable but unacknowledged detail which could tip the scales on an old humiliation – for better or worse. It might be an intolerable shame – yours or someone else’s. It might be an enduring truth or a sign of keen steadfastness. It might make you laugh, cringe, weep, or crumble. It could be a harmless but irrepressible tic that you’re embarrassed to admit to. If you’re lucky, it’s some kind of beautiful metaphor.

“Just hold the line until the end

‘Cause we will give them hell…”

But a vicious cycle can also be a glorious one. It depends on how you look at it. It can change you from what you were to what you are, or maybe even something better a few miles down the road. It can show you that someone can bend fate or chase away demons, however unlikely it seems at first. It can teach you how to move past your past. It might even save your life.

I don’t think it’s about whether or not you include personal baggage in a story. I daresay that if you could ask every living novelist such a question, most would say that yes, there are bits and pieces of themselves in their stories. I think it’s about owning up to it and deciding whether or not you’re okay with admitting that you included it. You can just as likely learn to think and act like one of your heroes as you can act like a villain – because if you dreamed someone up, you must be able to think that way yourself, right?

And if there’s hope for your hero, there’s hope for you – right?