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

Monday, July 9, 2018

Twenty Questions (Process and some Leftover Personals)


1) Amber asks: What environment do you write best in?

I sort of answered this in the last Twenty Questions as a personal question, so now I'm going to answer it as a process question assuming the question is a universal "you:"

(If that's not what you meant, feel free to pop back there.)

Try a lot of places and see what works. Not everyone is going to handle a din of background noise and some people might absolutely hate silence. Some need privacy. Some will like the accountability of a public place. For most writers, there is a pretty powerful need for privacy and quiet. Stephen King calls this "closing the door." And Virginia Woolf calls it "a room of one's own." Of course not everyone can have their own special private room, so you might have to grab a corner of the sewing room or put a desk in your bedroom like I have. Or maybe you use the dining room table after the kids are asleep. My experience is that most writers seem to need a lot of alone time and pop out to libraries and coffee shops to kind of shake things up or because they want a scone.

2) Richard asks: How do you un-clutter the mind when it's full of a thousand nuggets of ideas knocking around, but no way to make it cohere into a *story*?

So this question has a really complicated answer completely unsuited to the quick answers of a 20 Q's. That answer has to do with creativity.

To boil this down to the oversimplified form that will fit into this Pez dispenser wisdom post, sounds like you don't have a story yet. Sounds like those nuggets of ideas are seeds. You need to stick them in the ground and let them germinate. Some will join and combine, but others might shoot runners off and become their own stories.

There are things you can do that are analogous to sun lamps, fertilizer, and playing Brahms at night (things like staring out the window and thinking of your ideas while letting your mind wander...though not TOO far), but you can't really force it, and ideas forced into the containers of stories usually read like they are exactly that. I'd give these nuggets time and work on other things.

3) Alicia asks: Do you have helpful tips for time management and keeping motivated?

You've come to the right place. I am fantastic at time management.

The reason I know this is because I always manage to get things done at the absolute last possible second. If I were bad at time management, I would turn in at least half of my stuff late. Nope. Turns out I procrastinate almost precisely as long as is acceptable and then spring into motion and get it done with exactly zero time to spare.

I hate to sound oracular, but know thyself.

That's my best advice.

If you work well under pressure, enjoy some Stardew Valley and let the deadline encroach. If you hate pressure, make sure you're on that shit right away. If you know you can crank out five good pages in an hour, then you need an hour to do your shit. If you're like me and you write more like a page an hour, you need five hours to do your shit. Know your strengths and your limitations. One of the worst things writers do is assume that they're all going to work roughly the same way, and one of the BEST things they can do is learn their own pulse and rhythm.

I find setting SMART(S) goals is useful for my personal writing whether it's as big as "Get this novel draft done by next October" or as small as a daily blog. Don't leave a project to "whenever." Know what your next step is and when it has to be done. I find I work much better on deadlines––even if they're just my own.

Motivation I'm not so great at. I create it two ways. One is the goals I mentioned above and giving myself deadlines. The other is to cultivate writing as a habit instead of something I feel "motivated" to do. (Kind of like brushing my teeth. I don't really feel motivated to brush my teeth most days, but I just DO it because it's habit.) The payoff is that when I AM feeling motivated, I can go a lot longer, faster, and harder in ways that are not as dirty as that sounds.

4) Kitiara asks: I've been an aspiring epic fantasy writer since I was eight...but i have A.D.D. [attention deficit disorder] and can never seem to write more than scraps. The story is perfectly clear in my mind as much as when I was eight. Its actually more developed now than then...but the problems of putting it on paper are the same. What can I do to keep focused?

I know that not everyone with A.D.D. experiences it in the same way, but I have similar issues and similar issues with my stories. I definitely feel you. Me and ADD couldn't ever get the hang of writing a story. So what I did was I just developed the discipline and habit of writing every day, and when the ADD got the memo that we were going to be sitting there and working, one way or another, and it couldn't get me to go look at the shiny, it started helping me put stories together. However, to. this. DAY. my mind will wander and rebel if I try to just sit down and "write a story," but if I sit down to just write and then kind of nudge it over to the story once the faucet is flowing, that'll work.

  1. Confront how much the story is really perfectly clear in your mind. I find it is very common to have a rough outline, two or three scenes that really POP in my mind, a solid beginning, an ending that is going to kick so much ass, and.....some hand waving in the middle. Does that stuff need to be fleshed out a little more?
  2. Cultivate that discipline. Folks with ADD have to work twice as hard (or more) to make habit, routine, and discipline replace a good executive function. It will feel like breaking a wild stallion at first––your brain will try EVERYTHING to get you up from what feels like work. But if you just sit down (preferably at the same time every day) you should feel it begin to yield eventually.
  3. I spent years doing morning writing and then The Floating Half Hour, and the payoff is that I can just sit down and write almost anywhere and any time. Most writers have a specific time they write. I am more flexible. (Which is good when you nanny for a four year old and have a schedule that changes daily.) 
  4. Psssst. Just between you and me..... I'd rather have the ADD. Everyone goes through this process of getting their muse (if you'll pardon that conceit) to play ball instead of just work when it feels good and inspired. Even neurotypical folks can't avoid it, it just might be a little easier for them. And even though I probably had to work harder to get to the point where sitting and writing was a habit, once I DO, I get the advantages afforded to me by my neurodivergence––hyperfocus and divergent thinking (or creativity). Just the sorts of things you'd want to make up stories for hours and hours.

5-7) Amanda asks: When something isn’t coming together as you want, what other activities do you find helpful to your writing? Do you feel short stories are inherent in themselves, never to be expanded on, or do you find sometimes a shorter version of your overall full length to be helpful? Do you, as I do, just go with wherever the story takes you, without a map (read: outline) or is there some form of literary GPS happening?

5- I like walking/hiking a lot. It clears my head, and is slow enough that I can let my mind wander without thinking a lot about where I'm going. I actually have to perpetually remind myself how cathartic and refreshing a good walk can be. My usual modus operandi is to "pedal faster" on work until I'm practically grinding my gears, and while I usually get the work done, it is often with increasingly limited returns.

6- Generally, I find that fiction should be the length it needs to be to tell the story. If a story can be told in 20 pages, making it into a novel will feel dragged out. And unless you're Robert Jordon on Book 10, you don't want none of that. Similarly if you need a quadrilogy to get your story out, making it into a short story will feel train wreck rushed. (Watch a Joss Whedon show after he finds out he's getting cancelled if you don't understand.)

Which is not to say that you couldn't have short stories that live in the same world as a longer work, make enough cuts of superfluous sub-plots to a longer work that it becomes a tight short story, or find a legitimate expansion of a short story into a larger work, but most of the time this is done, it feels a lot like pouring the wrong amount of water into a container. Either you have a pitcher that is practically empty or a glass that's overflowing.

And if you do successfully change the size and shape of a story, you are essentially telling a different story.

7- This is an interesting question given the last one. Are you using "short versions of a long story" to sort of "MacGyver" an outline?

I find outlines to be intensely personal, but some writers will not let go of the fact that their outline is actually hurting their writing. Some writers swear by outlines. Some eschew them aggressively. It's good for certain genres and kind of disastrous for others. Many have a few notes and let their characters do a lot of the driving.

A lot of young writers (young as in new, not necessarily chronological age) know what outlines are SUPPOSED to do, and how they're SUPPOSED to help, and they really cleave to that. They get pissed at me when I suggest that the magical rainbow bridge is closed for repairs and we have to take the long way through the gully, hacking our way through the jungle overgrowth with a machete. But then I find them still standing in the same spot two or three or five or ten years later still waiting for the rainbow magical fucking unicorn bridge to get repaired. They have brilliant, incredible, well structured outlines that they have spent hundreds of hours on, but still haven't written more than a couple of chapters.

Personally, I fall into the later category of very light plot point mapping and lots of character driving even though I rarely have written notes. (They're in my head.) What I have is a long period of percolating thinking about my story that gives me a sense of the milestones I'd like to pass, but how we get there is usually up to my characters (and sometimes has to be abandoned because they aren't feeling it.)

8) Mark asks:  Is all writing writing in the way that, say, all exercise is exercise? Or is some writing worse than not writing at all the way some food is worse for you than skipping dinner. Ergo should we quit the empty calories of Facebook?

Yes. And no. All writing is writing, but not all writing is The Kind of Writing You Want to be Doing™. I think you're more on track with the exercise metaphor. Engaging your language centers with some written communication probably isn't going to hurt. And even though writing "STFU n00b!" is probably not going to help you with that Nobel prize in literature, you aren't likely to find yourself unable to write a sentence that isn't in l33t speak later on that day.

What it might be (and totally is for me) is a waste of time. I HEMORRHAGE time on Facebook and every month or two I have to get my shit together and redouble my efforts to not blow so much time there. When I'm cannibalizing hours that should be for writing, that doesn't help my writing at all.

Also, this might seem like it should go without saying, but it never really does with writers: we get better at what we practice. So if you're a basketball player who keeps going to football practice, don't be to shocked if your basketball game isn't getting any better. And if you're a novelist who spends hours a day on Facebook, don't be too surprised if your fiction game is stagnating while your "argue in impossibly long threads" game is on point.

9) Kara asks: Is 5 minutes of writing as possible better than 1 hour of dedicated sitting and writing?

Unless you're really wasting that hour, probably not. Your brain is not ACTUALLY a computer, and takes a few minutes just to switch gears from whatever its last task was and really get into the writing. I'd say the shortest session that could still be in that sweet-spot of productivity is probably in the neighborhood of 15-20 minutes. That gives you enough time to really get into the writing flow and dig some good stuff out before you have to stop again.

Though five minutes of writing is probably better than zero minutes of writing.

10) Heather asks: Okay so, I have a pen and a notebook (or four notebooks) and what is coming out is a doodle. There's no words. Does that mean I'm not writing yet?

Yep. Or nope. Or um.....you are correct.

You may be starting to fire up the creativity, but it seems like the language centers haven't fully  engaged the warp drive yet. When you start metabolizing that creativity into words, you'll be writing.

11) Joseph asks: What's your strategy for the days where the inner critic won't give you a moment's reprieve?

Oh so you mean the ones ending in Y?

My inner critic pretty much has its name in the opening credits of The Chris Show, and I don't mean a "Special Guest Star" mention right before we open up on a panoramic shot of Lafayette. I'm talking top billing. Most days I sort of feel like at any moment half my patrons are going to realize I'm a complete sham and pull their patronage.

One thing that helps me is to imagine that voice actually has a face. I don't just let it be disembodied and nebulously conceptualized. I put it into words and imagine every single word as spoken by someone I am desperate to prove wrong––usually one of my abusers from the past.

Another thing is to remember that the "inner critic" is the Black Mirror version of my ego. That might seem counter-intuitive at first, but the inner critic doesn't want you to do anything that you're not already great at. Without effort. Without practice. Without work. Just automatically great at.  And once you realize how actually downright arrogant it is to expect to have something great and worthy to say without a tremendous amount of effort, it becomes much easier to just see writing as work.

It's just work.

It's X amount of effort to get idea from head to page. As you get better, that number gets smaller. That's all there is to it. It's not magic, talent, or worthiness. There might be some ineffable qualities (maybe) but the writing itself is a skill.

It's just like going into the office and knowing how much you have to do by the end of the day. You have to think about it, figure out what you want to say, write it, revise it, make it better, polish it, and the whole thing is just a process that all writers have to go through. All that matters is just the amount of work that it takes to get from here to there. It has nothing to do with your value as a human.

Between those two things, I'm usually able to at least sit down and get some writing done.

12) Justin asks: Any methods for organizing non - fiction would be helpful. I have extreme amounts of information and way too many rabbits I end up chasing.

Nonfiction is a very different beast than my usual advice. You're not working with the same elements and you can start with the core idea you're trying to convey and then work outward. (Rather than writing a story first and teasing out themes later.) The process can be dramatically different.

I would, for example, recommend outlining....a lot, and taking copious notes. And not just sitting down to write unless it's just a free write to throw some spaghetti at the wall.

When I was teaching writing at The Learning Center a lot of students would come in with too much information. I likened it to having a whole box of legos and not being sure what to build. So the first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to build––or in your case, write. Once you know you want to build a spaceship, you can get rid of the wheels and the Batman's Mega-Fortress wall pieces.

That blueprint will help you determine what of the "extreme amounts of information" would be useful to help you support the point, and what is a little too much detail or not relevant. Then, if you have some fact or figure that you're dying to tell, you have the whole structure built so you can see where it will fit the best.

In Western academic tradition, this idea is your thesis, and you're going to need to support it with ideas you then prove through evidence (your information) so you would want to think about how it all fits together in this telescoping relationship of claims and support. However there's no reason that all nonfiction has to follow an academic or Western schema, (today's audiences are EXTREMELY receptive to listicles, for example, that have no stated thesis). The exact form you decide on might depend greatly on the audience and medium. Long, erudite papers don't go over well as blogs unless the blogs are known for being scholarly, and your twitter essay is probably not going to end up in The Atlantic.

13) Melissa asks:  I have been wanting to write my life story but have no idea how to put it together as a story and not just as a list of dates and facts... I have looked at books on this subject but there are so many. Just wondering if, by any chance, you have a book you would recommend as a guide for this sort of endeavor.

You know a meta story that is just a list of dates and facts that ends up telling a narrative could be kind of cool. Like a historical timeline or a history book that is actually a story. (Plenty of nerds love exactly this sort of thing.) But let me get back to your question.

First of all, if anyone ("on the streets") asked me this question, I would immediately ask them how much fiction they'd read. I don't know your situation, but that's where my mind would go first. Consider it rhetorical, but important. What you are describing is deeply into the very basics of storytelling–breathing life into a moment. The most hardy way to figure out how to frame stories is not to read about them, but to read the stories themselves. The masters are there. All you have to do is study their techniques and then practice your own. Study how they take a moment in history (dates and facts) and breathe life into those characters through dialogue, action, and prose.

That said, the book you want is called Plot by Ansen Dibell. For the deep foundation-laying trouble you are articulating simply creating a story, this book has no equal.

I would start small. Vignettes and very short stories. Then try to expand yourself outward.

14) Hi Chris! Here's my question (hopefully it's short enough.) You've finished a novel before, right? How did you do it? Did you write it from beginning to end, or did you write a bunch of random scenes and come back later to stitch them all together? 

The questions can be as long as y'all want. It's my answers that I'm trying to keep short. So you do the heavy lifting and I get credit for a "real" post during these nightmare six weeks of teaching summer school and working 80+ hours.

The only time I've shot out ahead to write a scene was when I needed to skip ahead to something I knew I wanted to write to help get me out of the mud where I was spinning my wheels. As soon as I was writing and had opened up and was generating words, I went right back to where I was in my draft and continued the manuscript in the order it would be read.

The problem with patch-working scenes in fiction is that it very much reads like that is exactly what you were trying to do. There are these super strong scenes that pop and they seem kind of scotch taped together with really weak transitions. Characters make strange choices because you've already established they did THIS thing so now you have to shoehorn their behavior to fit where you know they're going to end up. It feels very much like "and then some shit happened that gets us to THIS NEXT SCENE I CARE ABOUT!"

Consider how off the last scene in Harry Potter felt. Even after multiple revisions Rowling couldn't disguise the fact that she had written it over a decade prior.

15) Jessica asks: First off, apologies for the long-windedness, this is a somewhat complex question that's been on my mind for a while.

Writers often give the advice to "read a lot, write a lot". I have little patience for fiction and books in general these days, but I can (and often feel like I do) spend an entire day reading articles, opinion pieces, social media posts etc. I also like to engage with what I read, which can lead to long response posts and exchanges.

My question is: does this kind of reading and writing "count" as honing your skills, i.e. educating yourself on various issues and perspectives? Or does the phrase "read a lot, write a lot" only refer to more "sophisticated" literary activities?

Well, it totally counts. And that "'sophisticated' literary activities" bullshit is the kind of elitist twaddle that makes me want to jam a fish fork––properly, of course––into the eye of the bourgeoisie and their artificial class barriers.

However, it might count most towards writing you aren't that interested in long term.

I've been super excited lately that my fiction bug has returned. (It's been gone since the 2016 election.) Part of it is, of course, because I simply enjoy reading and it's been difficult for me not to be able to focus on that for the last almost two years. Instead I've been reading thirty to fifty articles a day, mostly about politics or social issues (sounds like we have that in common). But lately I've started reading fiction again, not just in these gutting gulps when I had nothing else to do, but in long, luxurious swallows with time I had set aside to read and deliberately by limiting the number of articles I'll read.

But the other part of it is that very likely my writing is about to experience a similar shift. I'll probably start to yearn to write fiction soon and the jerky, horribly forced pace I've been making on my novel will smooth out to a rapid clip.

The point here is all reading and writing "counts," but you are likely to do the kind of writing you are reading a lot of lately. Reading is vital to a writer. If you are reading hours and hours of twitters, you're probably going to start thinking in 280 character chunks. If you read a lot of newspapers, you probably will find yourself writing in passive voice to sound official. If you read deeply into FB comment sections, you probably have a keen sense of social media discourse and will start to frame writing to anticipate pushback.  If you are slamming back articles about fascism like they are Rockstar energy drinks and you want someone at the other end of the table to know how hardcore you are, you will probably find yourself writing a lot of similar rants and articles. Even when we are deeply comfortable with our own writing voice, we tend to be influenced by what we're reading. (One of the reasons it's so important for writers to break out and read something they wouldn't normally from time to time––it gives them some fresh-to-death ideas for how to express themselves.) This is why journalists sound like journalists when they first start writing fiction and tech writers often sound technical. And it's why people who don't read at all can visualize something wonderful that they want to be on paper, but can't find the language to describe what's in their mind's eye.

Can the wrong kind of writing help you in general? Sure, but probably with limited returns. Facebook comment replies will generally help you with the alchemy of turning thoughts into words, but they are NOT going to help you teasing themes out of your settings or making your character portrayals more poignant. If you're dying to be a novelist, you might want to really carve out the time to read fiction and write stories and limit the articles and replying.

There's a question above that's very similar. It probably won't hurt you, but it might not be the best use of your limited time if you're really wanting to get better at one particular type of writing and your attention is being monopolized by another.

16) Steven asks: What ratio is good for hours spent writing to editing?

There's a writer named Marianne Robinson who says she just sat down and wrote Giliad from cover to cover with almost no need for revision. But she had been thinking about it for over a decade before she started working. There's another famous writer who I have tried and failed to Google who says the real magic only begins on the 13th draft. (I keep getting draft picks for the NFL.) If that doesn't give you a pretty wide spread, I'm not sure what will.

I imagine the flow chart you construct for yourself should ask questions like what kind of writing you're doing, what the medium is, and who your audience will be. A blog post listicle and a New Yorker hopeful piece would have two wildly different answers.

Personally, for blogging it's probably about about a 2:1 ratio in favor of writing, and lord knows I should do a bit more. (I'm usually under deadline and time's up.) For fiction it's more like 1:10 in favor of editing. I also spend a lot more time revising and editing things I have a feeling will go viral.

17) Jessica asks: How do I do the thing [writing]?? 

One word at a time.

And as trite as that might sound, it's the damned truth. The best thing you can do–craft or process–is just put one word after another. The minute a writer stops trying to sit down to write a book or the best thing ever or the most perfect short story or whatever and just sits down to WRITE, some real magic starts to happen. Focus on the sentence in front of you, and write the next word. Then the next. Then the next.

And pretty soon you'll be looking back at all those places you wanted to go when you started. And you got to all of them one word at a time.

Leftover Personal Questions

18) Amber: How many hours a day do you spend reading and writing?

Probably somewhere between 8 and 12 all told and probably split sixty-six/thirty-three in favor of reading. Some days it's more. Some days it's less. Days "off" it's more like one or two hours of writing and how much reading I do depends on how busy I am. Sometimes I spend all day in bed reading entire novels in one long session.

I think the biggest misconception most people who want to be writers have is that they will be the one who beats the odds and makes it without working "day job" hours and they are the exception who doesn't need to read voraciously.

The graveyards of would-be writers are littered with their exceptional bones.

19) Michael asks: I know this is considered a rude question, but I'm trying to figure out how feasible my own dreams are. How much do you make?

I'll PM you an exact amount Michael, but for the blog I'm not going to disclose the specifics. Let's say that it's enough that in most of the United States I would be able to just write if I were very, VERY spartan, but not so much that in the Bay Area I don't need a side gig to keep my phone and car running and keep things from getting to austere.

Keep in mind I'm on year six here. And the first year was like $100. And the second year was like $400. And last year at this time (five years into daily blogging) I was making less than $400 a month.

People tend to get downright fucking belligerent with artists if they're not properly starving and barely making ends meet like a good artist should. I've had folks demand free work because "You're doing just fine!" and want me to essentially turn my Facebook page into their free advertsing because "I make less than you do!" And a couple of people have flat out sent me nast-o-grams that they were not going to be donating money to Paypal because I made quite enough already.

That effect is compounded when folks don't realize the cost of living and the OMFG! cost of housing here in the Bay Area. The fact that I rent a room that is how-the-hell-did-you-swing-that? cheap in a two bedroom apartment (with three of us living here) in Lafayette for about the same price that most of the country, outside a dozen cities or so, would be charged for a one bedroom apartment or a little cottage, doesn't really compute for most.

20) Alisha asks: How do you protect your private life from your public writer life now that you're famous? Would you have done something different when starting out in case you became famous? Like, something you regret not doing to keep your private life private.

Okay, but I'm not "famous." I think there are parts of my life that are sort of starting to bend towards maybe "internet celebrity" a little-ish, but even that is pushing it. 

I heard someone describe writer fame once as depending entirely what room you're standing in. In one room, you may be the person everyone knows and in another not one person would even recognize you if you started telling them what you had done. Most people––the VAST majority––have no clue who I am.

It was a great idea to logistically separate my public and private lives (including things like FB accounts and what I'll blog about openly). I did it at a good time (not too late). If I had to do it again, I would not invite people IN to that private circle so casually.

I have given out my trust too quickly to people who were gushing about how much they liked me or were so friendly to my public persona, but who clearly did not really view me as a person. I don't know if I was on a pedestal or they were just projecting things on me, but when I said or did something they didn't like, they didn't turned quickly, fully, and didn't treat me very kindly. I wouldn't say I regret it necessarily (it was a valuable lesson in being wary of that kind of attention even if it kind of feels good at the time), but it certainly stung a bit coming from people I had come to care about. I'm more careful now with who I let in.


  1. For Question 16: possibly this? http://bennettink.com/the-13th-draft-2/

    1. Looks like someone going for name recognition. That's definitely not what I was thinking of, but the title is exactly the same.