How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair

bum

How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair

Often, what keeps us from writing is not a lack of things to say or stories to tell, or the skill to tell them, or even the courage. It is sometimes as easy as keeping your bum in your chair. To keep writing even if you have the irresistible urge to throw in a load of laundry, play with the cat, or re-organize your cupboards.

So this post are some fairly simple-minded but I have found, effective, ways to keep going when these other siren calls intrude.

Keep your bum in chair with mantras

This isn’t at all new age. I don’t know why it works, but even if nothing is coming to you and the urge to check your Twitter account sweeps over you, just keep typing. Doesn’t have to further the story. Doesn’t have even to make sense. But the act of keeping your fingers typing seems to eventually force your brain back in gear.

I do have some mantras which I type when I’m just trying to keep my fingers moving.

Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to

Sometimes, I’m straining for the next idea, the next scene, the next sentence. By writing this phrase, over and over, it reminds me to have faith in myself. That it will come if I am patient. Perhaps not today but it will come. Just let it come on its own timetable.

Process not product

I can inadvertently get into a production mode. This has to get done. I need to finish this story. I focus on the end product and forget that the magic of writing is in trusting the process. You let yourself be immersed by that special cloud that comes to you when writing and allow its flow to direct you. Rather than trying to push it to the finish line. Process not product.

Fierce and bold

I won’t bore you with the story but suffice it to say that I have a rubber duckie with a pirate scarf and a machete under his little wing which reminds me that I need to be fierce and bold in my writing. No matter how weak or dull my writing machete feels right now, I can swing it with ferocity and bravery.

So, not rocket science but it works for me. Here’s what I wrote one time when I was being tempted off the chair.

Just do it but don’t reach for it. Impossible state. Magic state? Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to. Process not product. Fierce and bold. Fierce and bold. Keep the fingers moving. Keep the fingers moving. Don’t reach for it. Just let it come. Don’t try to shape it as it comes. Let it come. Let it be what it’s going to be.

Start your engines please

At other times, an almost opposite approach works. Sometimes it might feel right to put yourself under some pressure.

Then, I literally write: Start your engines, please, gentlemen (sic). It’s 10:32. I will write until 11:02. No stopping. No on-line.

Doesn’t have to be half an hour. Can be five. But set a timer and stick with it. This is the time to stop communing with your inner angst and get something on the page.

I use both approaches, mantra and engines, choosing the one which fits my mood at the time. Doesn’t matter what you use as long as it keeps your bum in the chair.

Going For Broke

brokeGoing For Broke

I think every writer, consciously or not, decides how much of themselves, or their history, or their great ideas they want to reveal in a particular piece of work. That is, we don’t often go for broke.

This is what I wrote in my journal when I was starting a new project.

What if I put everything in one basket and went for it? All out, everything I’ve got on one story—rather than eking out the thoughts, rationing the imagination so it will last for the rainy day when the magic is a sodden as the clouds. What if I thought it was a river not a reservoir? What if I trusted myself? God, there’s a concept. Go get the laundry.

I don’t know if the passage makes as much sense now as it did then, but I felt that I was holding back, tiptoeing in rather than jumping into the deep end of the novel. By which I mean, allowing any semi-deep insight or crazy idea or scary revelation to just flow onto the page. To open the dam and see what comes out.

Why was I holding back?

Well, I think it comes down to trusting yourself, or at least it did for me. If I threw everything I cared about, everything I feared or hungered for or dreamed on a silly night, what would I have left? Nothing, I feared. I’d pour my whole self into this one novel and then I’d have no more to give. I’d be emptying myself, at least the writing self.

Yes, and of course, there were the ancillary concerns that I don’t technically know how to do what I want to produce, or that doing it will reveal too much of me, that I will offend, that people will think I’m crazy/callous/sentimental/boring.

But fundamentally, it came down to: was I going for broke or not?

So I took a deep breath and jumped in. Frankly, it was scary. However, when I finished, I was pleased with the result. The no-holds-barred seemed to produce a piece that had more life and depth.

Good result but didn’t address the concern—was I going to be able to write anything else?

Well, of course I was. I might feel empty after finishing a piece but the hopper got refilled shortly thereafter. With that comfort, I try always to go for broke when I write. Doesn’t always work, sometimes I chicken out or get distracted. But I have adopted it as my mindset.

What if it gets broke?

You may feel differently—that you tried it and you were emptied. I admit that sometimes it feels as if it has happened.

But I would say, pretty emphatically, it doesn’t really. You haven’t stopped thinking, have you? Or living? Or changing, for ill or good. There will always be ideas and thoughts and insights which can be turned into story.

Still disagree? I firmly believe what you are experiencing is due to other circumstances. Like writer’s block or self-censoring  or fear of appearing naked on the page, or being stuck .

My advice—go take a nap, reread the novel that made you want to write, walk away for a bit (a bit, not forever), get on with real life. From which river, you can catch your next insight, event, or feeling. Which you write about.

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

orwell

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

So you know George Orwell’s famous novels like Animal Farm and 1984. In addition, he set down Six Rules for Writing which are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

All good advice but I want to focus on two of them: #2 in this post and #3 in the next.  The action called for is self-evident but writers don’t always seem to understand the logic behind them. And because the reasoning isn’t obvious, it may not be clear why they embody such wisdom and are so worth following.

Rule 2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why it matters. Long words abound. Politicians can use them to cloud the issue. I would never obfuscate on such a monumentally portentous issue.  But medical people can use them for precision. It involves the integumentary system. Sports use terms particular to their activity. Wow, that guy just got posterized.

But generally, although long words might delight the writer’s instinct for the new and different, most readers are not fascinated with the words themselves but more focused on the unfolding story.

Here’s an example and an alternative.

Example—meandered

She meandered through the forest, her ambulatory exercise freeing her mind to address the shattering decisions preying on her psyche.

Applying rule 2 to the example

Walking through the forest freed her mind up to think about the decisions worrying her.

Discussion

I know the first sentence is over the top but it’s possible that the second sentence might feel as if it lacks drama or even interest. You might be right. However, if you look carefully, the drama in the first example, such as it is, comes from the writer telling you how to feel about the heroine’s issues (shattering, preying).

In the revamp we know the heroine is worried, but we’re not directed by the writer on how to feel about it. Presumably, he’ll show us what’s worrying her and we can decide ourselves how shattering and predatory the issues are.

So, you don’t need to, nor should you, have one sentence do all the work or all the reader’s thinking. Plain, short words present the action in a clear and understandable way. It’s up to you to build them into a compelling story.

Situations where Orwell’s rule 2 might not apply

Sometimes, the longer word is preferable because of its precision. Take the word disingenuous. Other, shorter, words—like dishonest—might be similar but ‘disingenuous’ has the particular implication of being deceitful knowingly. It is built into the word. A person might be dishonest without realizing it—from lack of knowledge, etc. Using ‘disingenuous’ removes that possibility.

So, use a longer word to capture accuracy. However, and especially if it’s an esoteric long word, don’t pack it closely together with others of the same ilk.

In short, long words if needed but not as a way to show off how learned you are (which I know you are).

Next post: Rule Three: Cutting out words.

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From the General to the Specific

specific

From the General to the Specific

Let’s talk specific rather than general. It’s very common for writers to pen something like:

Jen was very bossy. She was always telling her co-workers what to do. Even with her family, nothing got done unless she okayed it.

Not the end of the world as writing goes, either good or bad. But weak, I think. First of all, it has the air of telling the reader what to think about the character (which is bossy in and of itself) and no, following it up with corroborative examples from the office and home don’t make it less tell.

Now, if Jen is a very minor character, then I’d let it go. You presumably want Jen for some limited purpose which, once achieved, she will drop off the literary cliff into oblivion. If that’s the case, the example paragraph might work.

But if she is more major, then starting off with this sort of general descriptor doesn’t work as well.

Specific first

Let’s do the scene again.

“No, not there.” Jen moved the vase to the edge of the table.

“But it might tip over,” Clark objected.

“Nonsense. It balances things much better.”

“But I want Lilly to see them as soon as she comes in.”

“She can see them fine from here,” Jen held the vase firmly in place.

So, here we see Jen do something specific. The word ‘bossy’ doesn’t get mentioned but we get the message. And in a way which is more vivid and therefore more likely to stick in the readers’ mind.

This specific approach has other advantages. It allows the reader to come to his own conclusion about Jen’s personality and the act of doing so involves and commits him more to your story. You allow him to make an emotional investment in the character.

This applies in many places

This specific first approach works in many venues. Here are a couple of examples.

General Specific
The mountains were beautiful One peak, the tallest, had caught the sun on its tip and was holding it there, balanced, as if a daily trophy.
The man was old His hands. Not claws exactly. But not not. He shuffled over to pick up the glass.

Again, don’t need to do this for absolutely everything. But if there are points which you’d like the reader to remember, go with a specific example from which the reader can generalize to the conclusion you’re aiming for.

Do I hear, “Doesn’t this take longer?”

Yes, the old bugaboo. It does take longer to write and takes more work. But is your aim to write the fastest and easiest piece of literature known to man (sic)? Of course not. That’s writing jingles. Instead, you want to use every trick you can to engage the reader so that no matter how long you take, he is with you all the way.

Don’t Talk about Writing in Progress

progressDon’t Talk about Writing in Progress

During the progress of a writing retreat, one of the members mentioned that a friend was in Africa doing clown ministry work.

This was a new concept to me.

“So, what do they do—dress up as clowns?”

“Yes—to make the children want to listen to them.”

“And do they juggle, and make balloon animals, and do slapstick?”

“Yes, and they incorporate the Christian message in the performance.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation except that we laughed and laughed about it. For whatever reason, it struck our collective funny bones.

What I do remember is rushing back home to try to capture the idea. It was completely flat. Almost as if I had used up all my humor and had nothing left for the story.

Since then, I have often found that the more I talk about what I intend to write, the less I seem to be able to get anything down on paper. It is such a familiar problem that I really don’t discuss my writing at all unless pressed and only in the vaguest terms (see suggestion at the end of the post).

Why talking impedes progress

I realize that this might seem odd—why would talking about a work in progress make it harder to write? Seems as if there are two different phenomena operating.

But I think there is more of a cross-over than you might expect.

Takes the juice out of the idea

Talking about the work in progress seems to dissipate the energy associated with your idea. In fact, the extent to which you are pumped when talking about it seems to be inversely related to how effectively you can get it down in words.

Fixes the intent

Usually, when I’m writing I have a vague idea of where I am going. Clear enough for me to continue but without pinning it down irrevocably. But talking about it, or even trying to pin down the intent in my own thoughts, makes it too concrete, too defined. It discourages indulging in pleasant, abstract, amorphous thought from which any number of interesting scenes or characters might arise.

Avoids embarrassing incidents with friends

Finally, if your readers don’t know where you’re taking a piece, on reading the finished piece, you won’t get: “Yeah, it was nice but I thought you were going to write about a genie.” Much as you fix the idea in your head when you talk about it, you do the same for your readers. The end product will violate their expectations. So even if you turn out a better piece than you spoke about, you may not get the praise it deserves.

Write first; talk later

So when friends ask you what you’re writing, don’t give them soup to nuts. Try a short description like “it’s set in the Second World War,” or the technique you’re using—“I’ve created an unreliable narrator.” Then you can talk about the interesting period or technique and not about the story itself.

Write first; talk later.