My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Mailbox: Whatever Works

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  If I don't get back to you right away, it may be just because I'm saving up for a themed Mailbox like this one.]    

Getting a little low on questions here, so if you've been holding back, now's your chance.  The popularity of The Mailbox seems to be growing and the dystopian future where you are weeping bitter tears because Chris was not able to answer your question is horribly close to becoming your dark reality.  Right now, though, I don't need to choose who stays and who goes, I can get to them all (though I may save them for a themed grouping like this one), and so you should ask while the asking's good.

Joe asks:

Is it better to set writing goals by time, pages or by word count?

My reply:

Whatever works.

The only advice I can tell you that comes from multiple writers is that you should set goals--and probably before you sit down for a session (like maybe the night before).  You shouldn't just sit down "to write" because it leads to unproductive sessions or getting up after a paragraph.

Whether that goal is three hours or 500 words or ten pages should be a product of what works for you.  Some people can feel accomplished if they glare at a comma for an hour and decide to remove it, and others need to see that they've written at least two pages.  Some need to know they've knocked out a number of pages, and some will find that word counts are better lest they have huge chunks of dialogue and one word paragraphs filling up their manuscripts from "lazy days."

It should be a hard enough goal that you're not knocking it out after ten minutes and strutting away saying "LIKE A BOSS!" and easy enough that you're not still sitting there after 12 hours, weeping, but only half way done.  Neither of those things will help you.  One of the reasons I don't really like NaNoWriMo is that its daily breakdown (1667 words) is quite a lot for a young writer.  It does your sense of self-esteem no good to set goals so lofty that you are doomed to fail.  You just end up masturbating in a pile of your own feces and saying "I'm no damned good...I'm no damned good...I'm no damned good...."  But goals so small they don't keep you creative for any real length of time are not really any better.  A half an hour should be your bare minimum, and really you want to aim for an hour as your low end if that is at all possible.

Who has two thumbs and just wrote an entire paragraph?
This guy.
Personally, I do different writing by different bellwethers.  I write blog articles by the article.  When I'm done with the article, I'm done.  One of the reasons I've been having trouble getting ahead of myself here so that I can revise and edit articles one last time before hitting "Publish," is that it's very hard to sit back down and do more work after that feeling of "AHHHHhhhhhh DONE!" and I don't have very many days off.  (I also suffer greatly from Parkinson's Law.  No matter how much fucking time I seem to have for writing article, I use it every last second of it.  This always happened in school too.  Whether I had two days or two weeks to write a paper, I always got it in just under the wire--sometimes  literally breathless from the run across campus.)  So even though that's "working" for me, I probably need to address the parts that aren't, and it could be that sitting down for a few days to work for five hours whether I finish an article or not might help me get out of the rut.

With my fiction, I use time to measure how much I should do because it's usually not something I'm going to finish.  I write for an hour or two depending on how much I've given the blog that day.  But sometimes my time-based goals get muddled because I let myself be distracted by Facebook or I just sit there.  Whenever I notice this happening--when time-based goals STOP WORKING--I switch to a word count goal for a while.  That whips me into shape.

Obviously none of this accounts for revision which is an extremely important part of the writing process, and can't really be done by word count.  Be ready to set all new goals during the revision process.

Anonymous asks:

Should I write in the morning or at night?  I've heard both and been warned off of both.

My reply:

Whatever works.

The only advice I can tell you that comes from multiple writers is that you should do your best to write at the same time each day--whatever that time is.

Creativity, it turns out, is very much a habit.  Whether you personify this as your muse knowing when and where to meet for the good juju, or you science up your explanation about how myelin sheaths are built by repetition and can be triggered by circadian rhythm and environment, sitting down to be creative at the same time every day is advice you will not just find amongst writers but pretty much all artists.

And I can't tell you how many writers poo-poo this idea and then bitch about writer's block pretty much 95% of the time.

Strictly speaking writing in the morning is more likely to be your own voice.  Before you sit down and read, and let your style get influenced by what you read, you will write in a voice more uniquely you.  This is one of the reasons Dorothea Brande's absolutely foundational exercise involves sitting to write in the morning before you do any other linguistic interaction.  This also happens after you've been writing a while.  I may "red-shift" towards shorter sentences if I've glutted on Raymond Carver all day long, but my voice is pretty established.

However, after finishing the morning writing exercise, even Brande goes on to say you should write when you feel most comfortable doing so.  I particularly like writing at night.  I find that I am most prolific on first drafts at night because I have a whole day of thoughts feelings and experiences to process.  This helps me drive my creativity.  However, that same factor can make it hard to focus on revision or writing that I might be less enthusiastic about.  I had to give up and get some sleep on a lot of papers over the years, instead waking at insanely-ass-early-o'clock to finish them up.

The biggest factor in when you write is likely to be the logistics of your personal situation.  Is it even feasible to write in the morning?  Are you a morning person?  Do you have free time before you go about your day (work, chores, whatever)?  If not, then why is this even a conversation?  If you are trying to jam square pegs into round holes because you're in search of the One True Way(tm) to write, you are more likely to make yourself miserable than anything.  And that just leads to not wanting to write.  Waking up at four in the morning won't get anything written if you're not a Grape Nuts commercial kind of person.

Do what works for you, and when you find what works, keep doing it.  ...until it doesn't.  Then do something else.

Sam asks:

Should I write for myself or for an audience?

My reply:

Whatever works.

The only advice I can give you that comes from multiple writers is that your first draft is more for you and your revision should be more for the audience. One of the reasons people sit paralyzed in front of their first draft is that they start to second guess themselves about what people want to read instead of realizing that it's not going to be gold--in fact it's going to be shit--no matter what.  (And not like mystical "Gosh I'm glad I'm eating more salads these days" shit either.  I'm talking like post-"Way-too-much"-Taco-Bell caliber shit.)

However, even though you tend toward self-writing for a first draft and audience for revision, it's okay to have someone in mind when you're writing if that works for you.  Stephen King writes for his wife--always thinking of how she's going to like it.  Tolkien wrote for his kids.  Charles Dickens wrote for 19th century mainstream readers.

So whatever you do, don't write for "the market" or "trends" or "what will sell," but if there's a person out there that would motivate you to write, you should write with them in mind.

If the thought that no one will ever read this crap and you're just having fun is what allows you to unplug, relax and do your writing, you should do that.  

If the thought of your high school lover who spurned you reading your bestseller and then calling you up to beg for forgiveness (which you will allow only after unspeakable acts of oral sex threesomes with groupies despite their reluctance) is what fuels your grudge engines to keep you writing onward, then you should do that.  I mean not that that's what I do or anything....



....seriously it's not.

Diane asks:

Should I write longhand or on the computer?  My friend carries journals everywhere but I prefer to type.  She's always telling me that using a laptop makes you write like you're writing an e-mail and good prose comes from longhand.

My reply:

Whatever works.

The only advice I can give you that comes from multiple writers is that you probably will notice a difference in the prose style between longhand and typing.  Longhand takes longer--allowing for a fuller feedback loop of recursive thought and longer time to make word choices.  You may even find yourself making writing choices based on aesthetics (like extending or shortening a paragraph to fit on a page, or picking a different word so that the top of a D doesn't connect with the bottom of a G on the line above it).  You may also find this effect very subtle if you have been writing a long time and have a well established voice.

But different is just that--different.  It may not be better or worse.  Languid prose isn't always appropriate for your narrative voice, and it certainly isn't as popular for modern fiction.  One of the reasons we like crisp, succinct writers these days is because we read a lot of fucking email. You may not necessarily want to cultivate byzantine grammar and vocabulary.

People who like writing in longhand may enjoy the act of writing, the beauty of good handwriting, the special pens and texture of good paper.  There's nothing wrong with this.  If an affectation is what you like about writing, enjoy.  If it gets you writing, that's awesome.  Nothing used to inspire me more than blank sheets of notebook paper.  Every September after my mom bought school supplies, I would look at all the paper and stories would start jumping into my head.  (Now, if you make excuses about how you can't write without such things, and then do not take exceedingly great pains to procure them right away, then you might be fetishizing the excuse rather than the implement.  But that has little to do with which way is better.)  If writing longhand is what does it for you, do it.

Personally I use longhand as little as possible.  I had to go to special handwriting classes in school and used my computer even for my homework as soon as I was permitted to.  I've been known to whip out a pen and paper at a writing group when my laptop was having trouble, though, so it's not like I'm too good for it or anything.

It's worth playing around with just to see how your writing might change and which you prefer, but if either causes you trouble or discomfort, use the other.  And if you prefer one or the other, do it.

When it comes to writing--and art in general--you should be humble enough to accept the advice of the masters, open enough to try something outside your comfort zone, dedicated enough to give the effort that is required for what you want out of it, but also creative enough to figure out how to do all these things while also blazing your own trail.

Whatever works!


  1. For the mailbox: What does a day in the life of you look like in Revision Land? That is, how do you approach it (versus how you want to approach if that's applicable) in terms of mood/muse? Do you enjoy making enormous changes to the way the story unfolds, such as altering the timeline (perhaps switching from linear to flashbacks or whatever), completely changing character motivations, etc.? I ask this latter question because it's my favorite part of revision. It's like using powerful construction equipment to move enormous beams and other building materials. What I have at the end of the day is so different from what I had at the beginning of the day that I feel like my brain has gone on an all-day weight training binge.

    1. Thank you, Amy. I should probably be able to answer this next Friday.

  2. How can i help my significant other who wants to write? what are some of the things i can do to help her write?

    1. What an awesome question!!! How about I make that my next big article. (It'll probably go up Wed or Fri next week).