Putting Pen To Paper

I come today with a statistic:

You will write a novel 50% faster using a computer, but will be 85% more likely to finish if you write longhand.

Here’s another one:

42% of statistics are invented.

Regardless of the evidence behind a statistic, their real beauty is in making us think. Do I actually write faster with a computer? Should I be considering writing longhand?

It turns out that I am far from the first to have these questions. I found a case study examining how people’s writing environment affects the way they write (via Livia Blackburne).

Participants were asked to write two reports, one on the computer, and one with pen and paper. They were given the same amount of time and preparation for each; all that changed was their writing implements.

The study observed that those writing on a computer took half the time and wrote 20% more. However, their writing style was more fragmented, with frequent pauses mid-sentence. Those writing with pen and paper would only pause between sentences or paragraphs, however their pauses were longer.

More interestingly (for me), revision methods differed between typers and writers: those using a computer made 80% of their revisions in the first draft, whereas the pen-pushers only made 50%.

If you write with pen and paper, you’ll spend less time fussing over the first draft and just get on with it.

Yes, you’ll have to do more revision later on. But coming from someone who’s struggling to get a first draft finished, the old tools of the trade are starting to look oh-so-appealing.

Who knew that the infernal inner editor I’ve mentioned before could be put off so easily? You can’t easily move paragraphs around on a piece of paper, and the inner editor is far too lazy to get involved.

What are you waiting for? Let’s put pen to paper.

How To Start Writing Again

I’ve been thinking about how to rediscover the joy of writing.

How do I recapture that feeling, that nervous excitment as the words flow, that sense of urgency?

The answer escaped me until I sat down to write this post. Because right now, I’ve recaptured that feeling. I’m enjoying writing this post in a way I haven’t enjoyed writing my novel.

So the real question isn’t how to rediscover the joy of writing, but how to rediscover the joy of writing my novel.

What is it about this blog post that makes it so fun to write?

What is it about my novel that makes it so hard?

The other night I had a cathartic rant about my recent burn out, and Steve Green replied with the following:

“[When] you are writing for yourself, for the sheer love of writing, then the payback will be all positive.”

I think back to the days when my productivity was highest and realise it’s when I wrote Above Ground, when each week I posted a chapter online with no further expectations.

Yes, the first draft was appalling. Yes, I rewrote it twice before “properly” publishing it. But a first draft isn’t meant to be perfect; it’s meant to capture the joy of writing that particular story.

This blog post is so fun to write because I don’t expect it to go anywhere other than my website. Because it doesn’t matter whether people love or hate it. Because I am writing just for myself.

Rediscovering the joy of writing only takes one step.

Kill your infernal inner editor — the one heaping expectations on your WIP — and write for yourself. For the sheer love of writing.

Someone get me a gun.

Burn Out

Sometimes it’s hard to admit that the best of us burn out.
- Adama, Battlestar Galactica

It’s only in the last few days that I’ve started writing again.

Sometime over the last few months I burned out. Whether because of day job stress or something else, I’m not sure. But it’s only now, after sobbing my eyes out over a particularly dramatic BSG episode, that I’ve started thinking about it.

The truth is I’m afraid to fail.

I start writing and immediately my mind thinks: let’s set targets, goals, deadlines. Let’s measure our progress.

I write two consecutive #fridayflash? My mind decides I should write one EVERY week. I try to rationalise: how about every other week? How about twice a month overall?

You can cheat the system for a little while, but soon the lack of progress wears thin.

For my current WIP, I decided I’d write 60k in six months. I set up a fancy excel to track my progress and expected completion date. I told my friends, who also began to check in on me.

When the words failed, I started copy pasting large chunks from my scribbled notes into the main document, just to make up the numbers. To trick myself into thinking I was being productive.

I want to be a successful author. So many people know of my ambitions that the pressure of their expectations weighs on me. My friends tell me: “So just write. You can do it.”

Yet I’m not writing.

I look at what I’ve produced over the last few years and think: that’s it? One novel. Some short stories. A series of abandoned ideas and a lack of commitment to anything else.

Eventually I tell the emo voice in my head to get lost and set more goals. It only works for so long.

But maybe now I’m at a turning point.

I haven’t failed if I don’t finish the novel by September. I haven’t failed if I don’t apply to agents by end of next year. I haven’t failed if the next book isn’t as well-written as I want it to be. I haven’t failed if I’m not selling short stories to magazines.

I haven’t failed if I never become a famous author.

What matters is that I love writing. What matters is that I’m writing for me.

Even the best of us burn out.

I’m not afraid anymore.

How To Find The Time To Write

What can you write in ten minutes?

Let’s say you write on average twenty to thirty words per minute. Heck, I’m writing this on my phone on a crowded train and battling with autocorrect, so let’s say I can only write 10 words per minute. In this worst case scenario, ten minutes means at least one hundred words.

One hundred words are not to be sneezed at. Each block of one hundred is one (tiny) step towards the ultimate goal of finishing your novel. And if your ten minutes are not spent crushed on a train typing on a phone that refuses to spell properly, your blocks could be even bigger than mine.

“But I don’t have ten minutes,” you wail in despair.

Yes. You. Do.

Ten Ways To Find Ten Minutes To Write

1. On the train
Ignore that commuter trying to read over your shoulder. Stop playing Candy Crush and/or Temple Run. WRITE.

2. In the morning
If you’re an early bird, set your alarm ten minutes earlier. Have a notepad and pen by your bed so you don’t have to trek far, and WRITE.

3. In the evening
If you’re more like me, go to bed ten minutes later. While everyone else is drifting off to sleep, take those extra few minutes to WRITE.

4. Whilst cooking
While your pizza is cooking or your fish finger grilling… Take your laptop and/or notepad into the kitchen, keep one eye on the nosh and WRITE.

5. At work
Slow day? Pretend to write an important email and jot down story ideas instead. Working through lunch? Who does that! That time is yours. Boring meeting? Flip open your notepad and WRITE.

6. In any queue
The post office, the bank, the bus stop, the doctor’s, the supermarket, a traffic jam… whenever you’re stuck waiting, WRITE.

7. In a restaurant or bar
Out with your other half and/or friend? If they get up to go to the bathroom, whip out your phone and WRITE.

8. Whilst watching TV
If you simply cannot give up ten minutes of TV time, then wait for each ad break and WRITE. The time pressure is a great motivator, too.

9. In the bathroom
Okay, I may be clutching at straws, but some people do read in the bathroom…

10. MAKE the time to write
If you simply cannot find those spare ten minutes to write, then make them. Decide what you’re willing to sacrifice. Those dirty dishes can wait a little while. Block off your calendar, lock the door, and take the time to write.

I wrote half of this post on a crowded train, in danger of being impaled by the doors. Who said writers don’t live on the edge?

Share your ways to find ten minutes to write in the comments!

Writing Transitions In Fiction

Without transitions, your story will not flow smoothly.

Transitions are words and phrases that serve as bridges from one idea to the next, one sentence to the next, or one paragraph to the next. Three minutes later… After five hours… The next day… These phrases keep the reader from having to find his or her own way and possibly getting lost in the reading.

Transitions are the glue that holds your ideas together. They are very important, but too many transitions can cause as much confusion as too few.

You don’t necessarily need a transition between every idea or every sentence, but it is a good idea to use a transition between each paragraph. Transitions usually come near the beginning of a paragraph, however you should use a transition wherever it works best.

The eHow article on How to Write Transitions In Fiction offers some useful advice.

How do you deal with the passing of time in your stories?

(I found this post sitting unloved in my drafts. I can’t remember if I wrote it all, or quoted it from somewhere else. Oops!)

Finding Inspiration Again

The words have gone.

It’s every writer’s secret nightmare: to sit down, brimming with ideas, only to have the words shrivel into dust. The few that end up on the page lie in awkward sentences like jigsaw pieces that don’t quite fit.

They’re dead; there’s no emotion left.

For the last few months I’ve struggled to write — and what’s most frustrating is that I don’t know why.

I’ve tried focusing on one project. I’ve tried flitting between them. I’ve tried outlining and freewriting, skipping ahead and writing in order. Music and silence. Bedroom and living room. Evening and daytime.

Nothing seems to work.

Staying inspired and motivated is no easy matter. With every unproductive writing session I’ve felt gradually more defeated, and it would be so easy to let everything slide, to stop trying so hard, if only to avoid that creeping sense of depression.

Because without words, what am I?

And then I wonder: where can I find inspiration again?

But there is no magic cure, no secret shop of wonders.

The truth is that inspiration is inside of us. We won’t find it anywhere else. And if we lose it, the only thing we can do is to continue to sit down in front of that dreaded empty page — to continue despite every defeat — and WRITE.

Yes, even if all the words are clumsy, mismatched jigsaw pieces.

How To Break Writer’s Block

As I sit here writing this, I’m suffering from the worst head cold I’ve had in years.

My nose is blocked. My ear is blocked. My sinuses are throbbing. A dull, persistent headache thuds beneath my right eyebrow.

So, obviously, my mind has turned to the subject of writer’s block.

A common credence – one I’ve often considered myself – is that writer’s block doesn’t exist. It’s all in your mind. Stress, pressure, fear and anxiety have gotten to you; YOU have blocked yourself.

There might be some truth in that.

But, given my current condition, I’ve begun to consider other possibilities.

What if writer’s block works like a common cold?

Think about it: everyone gets a cold at some point and it affects everyone differently. You cannot immunise yourself against it. There are as many varieties of cold & flu relief medicines as there are methods to overcome writer’s block… and each method’s success rate will change depending on what strain you’ve caught.

Extending this comparison, how then would we cure writer’s block?

The sad news is that — like for the common cold — there is no cure.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do.

How To Cure Writer’s Block

First of all, don’t panic. A cold isn’t the end of the world; neither is writer’s block.

Secondly, resign yourself to letting it run its course. Most blocks resolve themselves; only seek medical attention in the case of prolonged blockage.

Third, just because there is no cure doesn’t mean you can’t treat the symptoms. Go for a jog, drink caffeine, use writing prompts… Whatever method makes you feel less gloomy.

Lastly, eat lots of kiwis. They have the highest Vitamin C content of any fruit, and whether you have writer’s block or the common cold, it’s bound to be good for you.

So is writer’s block all in your head?

Maybe.

But, from the depths of my blocked sinuses, just because something is all in your head doesn’t make it any less real.

The Importance of Words

Wilmer Stone read our stories to us in a monotone as if he were reading from the pages of a phone directory. What we learned with each stab of pain was that the words themselves and not the inflections supplied by the reader had to carry the emotion of the story.
- Solutions For Writers by Sol Stein

I’d like to challenge you.

Take the nearest piece of writing – something you’ve been writing or reading – and read it aloud with no emotion or inflection whatsoever.

How does the story change?

I’ve been on and off reading Sol Stein’s Solutions For Writers, one of the few practical and useful writing handbooks.

Best of all, it makes me think.

The words, and not the inflections, have to carry the emotion of the story.

I have a tendency to overuse italics, forcing a stress onto a particular word to make the sentence have a certain emphasis. When revising, I strip the story of all formatting. The only italics that go back in are the ones I simply can’t avoid – and even those I consider a luxury.

I’m sure others have their own guilty pleasures. A personal pet peeve is exclamation marks; while I don’t subscribe to the drastic rule of having max one exclamation mark every three pages, I’d delete them wherever possible.

Exclamation marks and italics have their place, but if abused they lose their meaning. What’s worse is that they impede you from hearing the true meat of your story.

So be sparing. Strip away all inflections. Listen to what the words alone are saying, and make them precise and clear.

When you’ve finished revising, read your story aloud as if you’re reading from the pages of a phone directory.

You may be surprised by what you find.

Plotting vs Pantsing: Why stick to only one?

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

There are countless blog posts arguing the pros and cons, hundreds of authors who’ve staunchly declared for a side.

Why must it be one or the other?

I freely admit: I pantsed the first draft of Above Ground. I knew where I wanted the story to go, but each week when I sat to write the next chapter, a part of me didn’t know what would happen.

Yes, that’s how I ended up with a (pointless) scene where a werepenguin eats a cheese puff.

That first draft was a badly structured nightmare of inconsistencies and pointless scenes. I had to write an outline from scratch and perform drastic surgery that took as long as writing the draft in the first place. While doing so I vowed: never again.

I vowed that I would be Team Plotter, all the way.

But now that I’m busy hammering out the outline of a second novel, I’ve come to miss the liberty of pantsing. The looseness of spirit. The “I’ll worry about this not making sense later”.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m enjoying outlining. It has saved me from writing (and deleting) pointless scenes. It has made me think about world building, character motivation, and theme – all of which I often neglect.

But writing the outline first is a subtle kind of torture. The closer the outline gets to where I want it to be, the harder it is to resist the temptation to just go for it and write. The only thing holding me back is the knowledge that I haven’t quite figured out the story yet.

But what’s the point in picking sides?

We are writers; we challenge ourselves. We take utterly scary things like zombies and turn them into short stories!

Plotting? Pantsing? I refuse to fit one box, to pick one side.

While I’m plotting Novel #2, I’m going to start pantsing Novel #3, and who knows — maybe I’ll write Novel #4 backwards whilst asleep, hanging upside down from a eucalyptus tree.

What about you?

Writing In First Person

Inevitably, when I get a novel idea, it comes to me in first person.

The climatic moment of self-realisation (which for me generally comes first with a story) simply sounds better in first.

I lie in a daze, following the words, discovering the story… Yet when I sit to write, I write in third.

And if I start writing in first – or try changing a story into first – nine times out of ten, I change it to third.

Why?

Is it because of what I’ve read?
I haven’t come across many good books written in first. Most of the ones I’ve read have been fairly average, so perhaps I’ve subconsciously linked average writing with first person.

Is it because of genre?
A pitfall for writing in first is that it’s easy to get caught up in the protagonist and forget to pan out to the world at large. With a science fantasy like Above Ground, the world is bigger than any one character… and third person allows me to step back and describe the world without the very personal first person point of view distorting it.

Is it aesthetic?
The beauty of third person is the aching distance between reader and protagonist. You feel her pain yet can simultaneously see the bigger picture, which makes the moment all the more exquisite. For me the distance of third person allows for greater immersion and suspension of disbelief; I sink into the character because I want to, not because I’m forced to by the pronoun ‘I’.

Or is it something else?
Perhaps I am making excuses. The more I reread the above list the more doubts I have. The reasons which seemed so solid in my head appear now as flimsy as the screen from which they glow.

Thinking about it, I’ve read many averagely written third person novels – and don’t know why they stick out less in my mind. And a good writer could successfully use first person regardless of genre.

Perhaps it is simply experience. The majority of the books I love are written in third, and that is the sole reason for my unconscious bias.

What about you? Are you biased one way or another?