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

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Mailbox: A Trio of Sillies

How do I keep track of characters? What do I do when distractions team up on me? How do I balance social life? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer 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. I also can do multiples. Oh yes.]    

All of today's questions come from Terra who hoped they weren't too silly to be included. In fact, with my mom in town this week, some low-key questions are probably all I have time for. To tell you the truth, if my mom doesn't stop talking to me while I'm writing, and telling me "We should deep clean your house" I may not even get this meager offering finished.

Terra asks: 

1) Assuming you write works that are more than 10,000 words long, how do you keep track of your characters? Do you make them all up ahead of time, or do you just add a new one in when needed and write their name down on a napkin somewhere?

I've done both of those things at one time or another. Somewhere under the dusty strata of writing stuff that came with me after my divorce, I have these extensive character trees with all kinds of notes about each of the characters in this massive fantasy saga I used to daydream about in high school.

I've also done my fair share of flipping back through old pages thinking, "Wait, what the hell was this guy's name?"

I can tell you what works the best for me is deciding one or two (or a handful) of focalizer characters to follow and I attempt to stay in their heads. Generally, what I find is that if I am introducing characters at a reasonable rate, I know exactly who everybody is. If there is an overwhelming sea of characters that show up all at once (like the first day of school or something), the focalizer is a bit overwhelmed too and I will name those characters when they become important to my focalizer. But I'm one of those writers who has a notebook next to the writing desk at all times, so sometimes I use that to keep track.

I'm probably going to have to pare down these notes.
I also find that a strong ethic of revision tends to make certain logistics like this obsolete. If you are going to go back through your work multiple times, you will come to know even your minor characters intimately, and if you forget a name in the first draft, it's almost no big deal.

Here's my only warning to young writers: don't let some extensive list of all the characters you write out ahead of time be the way you DON'T ACTUALLY WRITE. Starting writers are diabolical with all the ways they have at their disposal to do things that are "writing," but not really writing. It's very easy to fall into a trap of notes and outlines and character sketches and relationship flow charts and never really get around to the writing itself.

Because starting writers pull that kind of shit all the time and call it writing, but then never manage to get anything actually written. So imagine I'm shaking my left hand as I walk away and saying "Bewaaaaaaare the exteeeeeeeensive chaaaaaracter noooooooootes."

2) What do you do, or say, to get back to writing when Unsupportive Girlfriend and Netflix team up against you?

My reply: 

Man, is that really the only kind of "teaming up" I have to look forward to around here??

Well there are two times of times when this dastardly duo might attempt to pull me away from writing. One is when I'm firmly committed to getting some work done, and then they have no power over me. Right now that time is the first few hours of my day. I get up, I grab something with caffeine in it, and I get to work.

Did you know that "Netflix" is an anagram for
"You'll never write again"?
True story.
Labelled as Wikimedia commons.
Three or four hours if the flow is a deluge and my fingers can barely keep up. Five or six hours if it's a steady flow. Seven or eight hours if it's a trickle. And lately with the dribble I've been getting, I wrap up sometimes ten or twelve hours after I first sit down.

The second type of time, when she and Netflix would get a lot more traction is when I'm not really working. Either I've done a good day and I'm riding a wave of increasingly small returns, I've had a rough day of pulling teeth and I'm basically fooling myself that I'm going to do any more good work, or I blew my creative wad all over some article or chapter and I'm tapped and happy and I'm really not going to be able to do any more good work. Those are the times when Netflix and Unsupportive Girlfriend can gain some purchase.

So usually what these bastages mess up is my housekeeping schedule or my reading time rather than my writing time, so I'm apt to feel unaccomplished and vaguely guilty if there's an Orange is the New Black or House of Cards binge, but rarely does it interrupt my days writing. I keep that on an outrageously high priority.

Which actually segues nicely into my answer to the next question...

3) How do you balance having a social life with writing and work? I ask this as an introvert, myself; recently I’ve gone to some (required) social events in the evenings after work and upon coming home found I was too tired/it was too late to write. What do you do when that happens?

My reply: 

I will be posting the seventh and final part of my series You Really Don't Have to Write. Really soon, and in it, I'm going to be addressing this obliquely.

The thing is, and there's really no way of getting around it, I don't have balance.

There IS no balance.

I barely have a social life at all. I get to a couple of conventions a year. I see some friends fewer than once every two or three months. When my mom comes to visit me, I feel like I'm barely writing at all, and she complains that she never sees me. Neither of us is happy. If I go out on a Friday night to play games--a rarity of its own--I'm done for the weekend. My social life is a pathetic joke.

I have basically had to give up on dating people because they wanted to be chased and wooed and I just didn't have the time to invest in something with a much higher time and energy commitment than friends with occasional benefits. Sure, I want love and affection and sexyfuntimes, but I just don't have the bandwidth for someone who's looking for things to be emotionally intense and brain consumey.

Some people think I'm an antisocial snob. Some people think I don't like them and kind of stop being friends with me if I can't be counted on to be at X number of events. (Which leads to a self selection process that a LOT of my long term friends are artists. Funny that.) They say things like "If you wanted me in your life, you'd make an effort," under the impression that there are some other people who are treated better.

There aren't.

Look at Rowling or King or Asimov or Christie or any household name, and the stories all have an eerie continuity of obsession. Writing is an addiction, and they are the junkies. Eight hours is a slow day.  Twelve is more like it. Rowling talks about sixteen hour days. King does ten pages a day, and says sometimes that takes only four hours (though sometimes it takes him more like eight or ten), but then admits he goes back to his office at night to revise and edit. Murakami writes ten hours a day for months when he's working on a novel. Even light weight writers who may have achieved some renown but were never able to live off their writing, you quickly find push six to eight hours a day.

Occasionally you run across a writer who works in pulses, but then you find that during their obsessive "on" phases, they write pretty much all their waking hours. In their off phases, they often diddle with stuff.

Any writer you've ever heard of (who wasn't already in some extended circle of friends or something) probably writes obsessively. This is not a healthy bunch of people who have worked out how to fit writing into some holistic life of equal measures.

And....it's worth mentioning that very few of these writers explicitly mention the time they spend reading when they talk about their writing routines--hours of which (daily) is absolutely fundamental to a writer. (This is what the "pulse" writers do when they're not writing 16+ hours a day; they read everything ever like a starving person at the Bellagio Buffet.)

A second side?
I can fit even MORE writing over there!!!
Balance? What's that?

Some writers can't give up their social life, but they give up something else. They don't have a family, or perhaps they never have kids. They live with their parents so they don't have to work (or don't have to work much) and never have a career. They never get out of the house, pounding away on their keys with every extra sedentary second their lives provide. Most writers have a very acute sense of their own priorities and where anything that might cut into writing time will fall on a scale.

But let me tell you the horrible, awful, no good, dirty, rotten punch line:

I have never--not once in all my travels--met a writer of any success who didn't give up something. I have met writers who gave up on writing more than as a hobby. I have met writers who gave up the idea of publishing more than just one or two books to see their name in print. I have met writers who gave up on being working authors. On careers, on family, on any free time at all.... But never who just casually wrote as a hobby while the rest of their lives went on as normal and then became successful working writers who never put in more than an eight hour day.

It just isn't a story I've ever heard.

And frankly, one of the reasons many writers with great talent and a (floridly) professed love of writing never publish or become the novelists of their dreams is because they never set writing as the priority of their lives and never learn to say no to the other things. Their spoken obsession never matches their day to day choices.

And maybe that is because they tried too hard to be balanced.


  1. (Terra here) Thank you!

    I'm just adding characters as I need to. I have a MS Word document called "characters" and I write down their names and anything I need to keep track of (like hair color or birthdate) and leave it at that. I have about 1 page of characters. It works for me. Previously I bought Scrivener (the software) but it's so complex and such a time sink that I was never able to actually *write* anything in it due to all the futzing around. Now I just use one file for the story, one file for the characters, and one file for each country the book is set in (for things like "when is the rainy season??") and leave it at that. Paring down on the nonessentials has helped devote the majority of my time to actually WRITING the story. Yay! But I like to hear what other people do.

    I have been fending off Unsupportive Boyfriend and Netflix by watching TV with the laptop on my lap. It's not the best solution, but I did get about 20 pages written that way. But I think Unsupportive Boyfriend (who is really awesome, actually, and isn't actually used to Terra-as-writer yet) is figuring it out. He doesn't mind if I write all the time or talk incessantly about what I'm writing. (I hope.)

    I was interested by what you wrote about obsession, addiction, and junkies. I actually stopped writing for a long time because I prefer to write 8-12 hours a day, and I couldn't fit college and work and stuff into that schedule. Right now I'm teaching myself how to write in 1-3 hour chunks, so I can get back to writing and actually develop some skill in it. But I'm discovering that, since I started writing, when I'm not writing I feel the urge to write. It's seriously like jonesing for a cigarette. I think about my book when I wake up and before I go to bed. I think about it when I'm watching my kids do work. It's actually interfering with my day job (teaching middle school), which isn't good for the kids. And on top of that, I try to read at least an hour every day, because my writing actually suffers if I don't.

    I spent a lot of time in my 20s talking myself into not writing. I said I didn't have the time. I said it was pointless to write anything at all if I didn't intend to publish it. Etc. But I'm finding that I actually DO have a lot of time if I can be satisfied with writing in smaller chunks and that ANY writing is good, whether or not it's intended for publication (though that remains the goal). I wish I hadn't talked myself out of being a writer way back when.

    Thanks for responding to my questions.

    1. You're quite welcome!

      A lot of very famous writers got their break from some kind of part time situation. They may have gone on to be obsessive junkies, but they started writing on the subway or weekends or something while they paid the bills with something else.

    2. One minor character (who is becoming steadily less minor, but hey...) kept changing between being Mike or Martin. I'd write one scene with one name, and then have him appearing in another with the other name.

      Eventually I just did a search & replace throughout to bring them all into line! I did try keeping notes of characters on files, but I realised it was becoming too much of a distraction, so now I've got a few half-finished lists lying around my dropbox that have completely different names, but tend to scroll back through the story to find out what I called people (if I need to).

      I think that I'm not going to be anything more than "having fun at it" until the kids are older - I have 1 teenager, 2 under-fives and work full-time. I'm beginning to accept that I just need to enjoy the writing I'm doing just now, and not allow being stressed about "not doing enough" to prevent me from doing any at all.