Monday, November 10, 2008

The Beginning is a Very Fine Place to Start

Everyone has a process for writing. There are the rituals they perform before sitting down at the pad or keyboard. They may write in certain places because they feel the most productive there. There are mojo tchotchkes they keep around them while they write. There are soundtracks they've created as background. That's just getting ready to write, setting the atmosphere.

Some writers agonize over every word that goes on a page, intent on getting that first draft as near perfect as they can. Some simply vomit stuff onto the page and then edit it ruthlessly. After reading a lot of books about writing it's clear that with time and practice the shitty first draft stage grows progressively less shitty. Certainly not shit free but less shitty. See what I said there? Practice.

In the beginning I think it comes down to an act of bravery, throwing everything onto the paper to see how it blends. With practice you get better at recognizing what looks good and what looks hideous. You learn not to put verbal plaids and paisley's together, unless you're going for deliberate dissonance. If you've never done this before or don't have a lot of experience at it, how do you know if the half-baked idea you think is pretty cool doesn't have a hope in hell of working unless you write it down? How do you know that boring idea that seems so cliche could turn into a clever twist with a bit of help, if you don't write it down? How do you know if anything is any good unless you fearlessly throw it out there and see what happens?

I'm 25k plus into NaNoWriMo. I'm enjoying myself despite the fact I know that first 25k will be gutted ruthlessly in later edits. I know the characters a little better because of that 25k. I have an inkling about the direction the story is taking, thanks to that 25k. That 25k had to be done in order for me to get to the business of moving the characters along in the story. Without that 25k I'd still be sitting there, terrified of the page, with only 1500 words to my credit.

Today, for the first time, I dared to look ahead for the characters and toss some ideas out so I could try them on for size, see if they stuck to the page. Today, for the first time I'm planning ahead by a couple scenes/chapters rather than having no earthly idea where things are going when I sit down at the page. I have some idea of the things I'd like to throw on that canvas, to see if they make harmonious and pleasing patterns.

Craft is for later edits. Right now is for discovery. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed writing like this. I feared I'd lost the pleasure while still having the desire to write.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A little fertilizer is good for the roses

NaNoWriMo started last Saturday. I was at the first minute write-in for the South Bay and got 844 words done. I was at a write in early the next morning in Scotts Valley and got another 2000 words. Other than Tuesday (spent the evening watching election returns on six different websites at one point) and Wednesday (I have no excuse for that), I've been writing steadily. As of last night I have 8600 words written.

Almost every year of NaNo I learn something new about the process of writing. This year is no different. There are two themes this year:
  • Practice, practice practice (How do you get to Carnegie Hall...)
  • Write like it's the very first time you ever put pen to paper.

Practicing is self-explanatory. You can't get good at something if you don't practice. Now, I'm good at taking instructions and following them with quantifiable stuff. When it comes to writing I have a harder time (being a Virgo this is no surprise) but I do all right.

I wrote a book (unpublished but still a book) back in the late 80's and early 90's. It took about three years because I'd work on it a bit and then come back to it later. I remember sinking into the writing and savoring it. I wrote anything that came to mind without worrying whether it advanced the story, whether it was doing more telling than showing. I didn't worry about passive verbs and awkward grammar. I simply wrote.

Looking back at it, some of the writing was the worst, most cliched drivel imaginable but some of it was pretty good. It was stuff I'd match up against the best fantasy writers of the day and not feel shamed by it.

Then I started reading books about writing and editting. I started attending writing panels at BayCon and WorldCon. I realized that I didn't know anything about writing and that I'd done it wrong that first time. Each piece I wrote after that with the intention of shopping it to sci fi and fantasy markets become harder to write. In the last few years I likened it to Carol Burnett's description of child birth - pushing a piano through a transom.

I learned a lot but, being who I am, I thought that I had to know all this stuff when I was writing my first draft, that I had to get tense and tone right, that I had to agonize over very word. I'd forgotten the productive joy of spilling thoughts uncensored onto the page. Writing had become terrifying, editing had become absolute agony.

This time around, I determined I would write and not edit, let the words drop on the page however they wanted, let the characters go where they wanted and if they were stubborn, quiet, recalcitrant, that I would go with the first idea that popped into my head, no matter how cliche, just to keep the words flowing.

Then I read Jonathan Stroud's pep talk for week one. It reminded me of the joy of writing that first book almost two decades ago. It's all right to right crap as long as you enjoy the crap. That's how you get the roses to grow later when you start editting.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Blog Reboot 2.0

"Don't be afraid. That simple; don't let them scare you. There's nothing they can do to you . . . a writer always writes. That's what he's for. And if they won't let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off at the pockets in the market place, then go to another market place. And if they close off all the bazaars then by God go and work with your hands till you can write, because the talent is always there. But the first time you say, "Oh, Christ, they'll kill me!" then you're done. Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore."

-- Harlan Ellison, from his anthology Dangerous Visions

I don't always agree with Ellison. There are times he's quite objectionable both in public and in private (I've seen him at BayCon's past). There are, however, times when he's fucking eloquent about writing and about standing up for your work in the marketplace. He's also a brilliant writer.

A few months ago a friend likened writing to giving birth. "You start in and you might not want to finish, once it starts but you don't have a choice. You have to keep going until it's done."

I also tend to believe that there will be reminders of the things you need when you're ready for them. How do I know this? The unconscious, yet. inescapable theme for the week has been 'you can't learn something well unless you practice'. This is just as accurate for writing as it is for everything else. I haven't been practicing like I should. It's my hope to change that. Hence, cleaning up the old entries and starting fresh.

Also, there have been reminders that not all sci fi/fantasy writers have been publishing since their 'tweens. That some didn't make it big until their forties. Some didn't even start until their forties.

It's not to late for me.