An Active Imagination
A story is a living, active world you invent. Imagination is essential.
In some ways a story is like a chess game in that you have to be able to think half-a-dozen to a dozen steps ahead for all of your pieces (characters) while at the same time considering what the other guy might be doing (the limitations of your plot; the point of view chosen to present the story, etc.). You have to pick the successful moves and the correct strategic direction given a very large number of variables. But you are also limited by the personality of the characters you’ve invented—they have to act within the ‘character’ you have given them, much like each chess piece is capable of only a certain type of move. It’s your imagination that allows you to thread the proper path. And in most cases, there are numerous “all right” paths, but one stands out above the others as the “best” path and finding the “best” one is critical.
Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer. I’d like to say a little bit more about the mind for two reasons: one is that it is the primary tool you use when writing. Second, to write good characters, you need to understand the mind because it’s the driving force behind your characters’ actions.
As a “machine” the brain is very inefficient. Physiological psychologists estimate that we use less than ten percent of our brain’s capabilities (watch the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life and see how he uses this in his story). In many ways, that is what makes writing fiction so hard and draining: you are trying to expand the portion of your mind that you normally use and tap into your subconscious. A little bit of understanding of that other 90 or so percent is useful. It is commonly called the subconscious or the unconscious and plays a very large role in determining our character (key buzz word). Whether you agree with people such as Freud and Jung, it is useful to know a little bit about their theories. A fully rounded character has a complete brain and while they may only consciously be using ten percent, that other ninety percent affects their actions.
As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters. That’s your mind working even when you consciously aren’t. You will also run into writer’s block, which I believe, when real, is your subconscious telling you to hold until you realize in your conscious mind something important with regard to the story. This is where the “write what you feel” school of creative writing comes in. I believe what they are focusing on is this very thing: the power of the subconscious (90% vs. 10%). It is more than feeling though; it is a large part of your brain and the better you can get in touch with it and use it, the better your writing will be.
There are many experiences a writer should have in order to understand both their own mind and the minds of other people. You have to remember that you are not the template for the rest of humanity. Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are differences between people.
I’ve sometimes said the best thing about a writers’ group is not necessarily the critiquing or networking, but rather watching the different ‘characters’ in the group and trying to figure out what is motivating them to act the way they do.
If you don’t understand yourself both mentally and emotionally, you might have a hard time understanding others. Therapy can be a very useful tool to help a writer dig into their own mind to figure out where they are coming from. Later, where I discuss what to write about, a critical question I think a writer should know the answer to is: Why are you writing this novel?
After listening to many authors speak of their creative processes I realize they are talking on two levels. There’s what they are saying and there is what they are meaning. The saying part often varies, but they almost always mean the same thing. For example, there is the issue of outlining. I know writers who swear by outlining and others who say they don’t outline at all, they just write. However, I’ve also found those who don’t outline tend to do a lot of rewriting, thus the first draft of their manuscript might be considered a very detailed outline. Those writers who do a lot of outlining tend to not want to do much rewriting. But in the final analysis, although the two methods seem very different, they are actually the same in creative essence.
Patience And Self-Discipline
It takes a long time to write a novel. No matter how fast you are, it takes a while. In fact, while some things like NANOWRIMO has people writing at a furious pace for a month and is a good way to get the writing down, it is also negative in that quantity is not necessarily quality.
The amount of time I spend writing a novel has actually increased the more I learn about the craft. Rather than making it easier, more knowledge makes it more difficult to write, as I try to make the book the best possible product I can.
Writers are often asked what their daily schedule is. I think it’s important to have the discipline to have a daily schedule and/or goal. It’s too easy to let the writing go and take care of everything else if you don’t force yourself to face that daily goal.
It’s different for many writers but here are some from writers I know:
5 pages a day; 2,000 words a day; 10 pages a day; six hours a day.
I think an external goal that can be measured is the best to go for. It’s a tangible goal and you know when you’ve accomplished it.
Beyond that tangible writing goal, I work seven days a week, anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day. It’s hard for me to say how many hours a day I work because I am almost always ‘working’. If I’m not sitting in front of my computer, I’m researching or watching the news for interesting facts or simply thinking about my story, playing it out in my mind, watching my characters come alive. I have many of my best plot ideas while driving or riding my bike. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, which is why I have my iPhone with recorder next to my bed ready for instant use.
My cable bill is very high, with every channel, on-demand, and DVR. There are writers who say ‘kill your television’ but I disagree with that. There’s some very good writing in that medium. I watch movies and shows the same way I read books: analytically to see what the writers did and also what were the possibilities that weren’t explored. The #1 thing a writer must do other than write is read and watch movies and shows. It is work. It will take away some of your enjoyment of things as you can get good at predicting what will happen next under Chekhov’s rule of ‘don’t have a gun in act one unless you use it by act 3’. But note that I say ‘use it’ not ‘fire it’. That’s the key to great writing. To take what is expected and do the unexpected.
Writing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. If you write only when excited or motivated you’ll never finish. You have to write even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Just put something down. You can always edit it later or throw it out (you’ll do a lot of throwing out and it hurts but it’s the sign of a mature writer; also, it’s one reason you don’t edit yourself to death on the first draft). I eventually average 500 to 550 pages of manuscript to produce 400 good pages in a final draft. A recent manuscript was 126,000 words long and then I cut it back to 90,000 words. To sweat over that many pages and then “lose” them hurts but not as much as getting the manuscript rejected or not sell if self-published. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve become a fan of rewriting and editing. I’m also a fan of outlining and doing a lot of work before I write the first sentence of my manuscript, including doing extensive character development.
Overall, I’ve developed an inner “writing clock” that works in terms of weeks and months that lets me know how much I have to produce and how quickly. It varies its pace depending on the project at hand and it took years of experience to develop this inner clock. I force myself to put the time and effort in, even when I don’t feel like it. However, as I discuss in Write It Forward, almost every writer tends to underestimate the time it takes to complete a manuscript.
Experiment and find something that works for you in day-to-day writing. Maybe it will only be for one hour every morning before everyone else gets up—keep doing it. You’ll be amazed how much you can get done if you stick with it. One rule that’s hard for people is to TURN OFF THE INTERNET while writing.
All the thinking, talking, going to writer’s conferences, classes, etc. are not going to do you any good if you don’t do one basic thing: WRITE.
When I taught martial arts, I always found that the majority of the new students quit right after the first month. They came in and wanted to become Bruce Lee rolled into Chuck Norris all within a couple of weeks. When they realized it would take years of boring, repetitive, very hard work, the majority gave up. It doesn’t take any special skill to become a black belt; just a lot of time and effort to develop the special skills. The same is true of writing. If you are willing to do the work, you will put yourself ahead of the pack. You must have a long-term perspective on it. Under Write It Forward, your strategic plan, in essence, is where do you want to be in five years as a writer?
I think a hard part of being a writer is also knowing what exactly ‘work’ is. For me it was hard to accept that kicking back and reading a novel was work and I wasn’t being a slacker. Sitting in a coffee shop and talking with someone is work. Living is work for a writer in that you can only write what you know, so therefore experience is a key part of the creative process.
Ultimately, though, as the late Bryce Courtney said, you need a large dose of bum glue. Gluing yourself to that seat and writing.
The Ability To Organize
As those pages pile up, you’ll find yourself weeks, months, maybe years away from having written that opening chapter. That’s where your organizing skills come in. We’ll cover outlining later on, but in essence, the way you organize your life, is the way you will initially organize your book. So if your life is all over the place, you might have some problems. Yes, there are those natural talents who can just ‘stream’ a book, but they are few and far between. Most of us cannot keep an entire book in our head.
You have to keep track of your characters, your locales, and the action, to make sure it all fits. I’ve used many different tools to write a novel, but one thing I’ve done with every single manuscript is use what I call a story grid. This is an Excel spreadsheet where I can put the entire book on one page, scene by scene (for a really big book it might go to two pages). This spreadsheet is not an outline, but rather something I fill in with a pen each day as I write, to help me keep track of what has been done. Every day I then update the spreadsheet and print it out. It sits to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed). It helps when you need to go back and look up a specific part or change something.
I also keep numerous indexed binders with all my research material handy. I spend a considerable amount of time organizing my research material so I can find what I’m looking for. Details drive a story, and the more details you have accessible in terms of research, the more options you have in your plot. Right now I have two four-inch thick binders: one for people; one for events.
Some writers use programs like Scrivener or Onenote to keep track of their research, but I’m still old-fashioned and use Word and Excel and binders.
These practical tools are part of my process as a writer.
What practical tools are part of your process?
Write a lot
Before writing a lot, be a voracious reader
I also am a big fan of watching a lot of movies and TV specials and series. There are writers who dismiss the television, but there are great writers putting out excellent product in that medium. And we all can learn from any artistic medium. Studying a different medium can also allow you to see new ways of looking at your writing
Learn the proper way to do business things in the world of publishing such as having a strategic plan for your career, which is covered under my Write It Forward program and book
Why should you read this rather than one of the many others books and blogs and articles about writing? I suggest that you read this in addition to those other works. However, the advantage of this is that I began writing this shortly after my first novel was accepted for publication in 1990 and have been adding to and modifying it ever since as we move past the midway point of the second decade of the 21st Century. Thus this book presents a spectrum of my experience, not just my current experience.
In here you will find me writing in present tense about things that in real time happened years ago, but I’ve kept many of those passages because they offer insight from varying levels of my writing experience and thus give other writers at various levels more opportunities to connect their experiences with mine. I’ve learned more about writing in the past couple of years than in my first two decades because I’ve been more open to change.
If I wanted to be an architect I should not be satisfied that I only had grand visions of what the design for my buildings should be. Nor would anyone be impressed with my visions if I couldn’t put them into the proper format. Nor would anyone be interested if my design was so impractical that it couldn’t be built. I would have to learn the craft of design and also the business of building and then apply my vision to that. I would also need to understand how the people who actually construct the building operate, and interact with them in a professional and knowledgeable manner. And, perhaps most importantly and most often forgotten, I would not have any success if no one wanted to buy my designs.
Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual. You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music. The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different. But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper. You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs. Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way. It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.
A story comes alive in the reader’s mind. You use the sole medium of the word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s. It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing. Every story started with just an idea in someone’s head. Isn’t that a fantastic concept?
In essence, writing is no different from any other profession. It’s a simple rule, but one that every one wants to ignore: the more you write, the better you will become. Practically every author I’ve ever talked to, or listened to, or read about in an interview, says the same thing. I saw Stephen King on C-Span and he said the most important thing to do to become an author is to write a lot. One writing professor said you needed to write a million words before expecting to get published. I’m currently around word ten million and still learning so much.
Let’s look at the positive side: The odds are strongly against getting traditionally published or succeeding immediately with indie publishing. But simply by taking the time and the effort to learn from these words, you are increasing your odds. By continuing to write beyond your first manuscript, you vastly increase your odds. Many writers gush over the amount of money John Grisham made for The Firm but they forget that A Time To Kill was published previously to lackluster sales and failed. What is important to note about that was that Grisham realized he hadn’t done something right and worked hard to change. Note that Grisham did not bemoan what his agent/editor/publisher etc. didn’t do to help the novel. He didn’t complain that the reading public didn’t understand his brilliance. He worked on the one person he knew he could change: himself (a tenet of Write It Forward).
From talking with other published writers, I have found it is common that somewhere between manuscript numbers three and six, comes the breakthrough. How many people are willing to do that much work? Not many, which is why not many succeed. But it is how you can vastly increases your chances of beating the odds. Publishers do not want to make a one-time investment in a writer; nor do readers. When a publisher puts out a book, they are backing that writer’s name and normally want to have more than one book in the pipeline. Multiple book contracts are very common; with their inherent advantages and disadvantages. As soon as you type THE END on your first manuscript (and I mean THE END after numerous rewrites), the first thing you must do is begin writing your second.
Publishing has changed drastically and there are new opportunities for writers to get their novels into the hands of their readers. Traditional publishing isn’t the only viable option for the 21st century author. Self-publishing is quickly becoming the new medium for mid-list authors, and new authors. Amanda Hocking self-published her way into a two-million dollar contract with St. Martins Press. Myself, Connie Brockway, Barry Eisler, LJ Sellers and JA Konrath have all either written ourselves out of NY contracts or turned down a NY contract and ventured out on our own and have been successful.
The key to our success is two-fold.
- Write the better book; then the next and the next and the next
- Become part of Write It Forward
I discuss what I would do regarding self-publishing for a new writer in Write It Forward, but suffice it to say, I believe you should have at least three manuscripts under your belt before venturing out there; not much different than getting traditionally published.
As someone who wants to be in the entertainment business, you have to study those who have succeeded and failed in that business. Read interviews with people in the arts and entertainment industries and you will find a common theme: a lot of years of sweat equity put in before the big “break” came. I’ve read of and heard actors and comedians talk about spending decades working in the trenches before they became famous. Musicians who sang backup for years before becoming lead. Painters who toiled in squalor (and often died) before their work was recognized.
Study the lives of writers. Read interviews with authors and see what they say. Go to conferences and talk to them. Listen to them talk about several things: how they became authors, how they live, how they feel about writing, how they write. Many worked very strange jobs before getting published. Almost all struggled and spent many years of suffering before they succeeded. I say suffering in terms of financial or career terms, not in terms of the writing itself. Most writers enjoy writing.
People seem to think that writers are different and, while in some highly publicized cases they are, most published writers have spent many years slugging away before their first novel was published.
Simple perseverance counts for a lot. I think many people with talent lack the drive and fall out of the picture and people with maybe not as much talent but more drive take their place. It’s the difference between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People with talent often believe they know all they ever need to know, therefore their mind is fixed. Those who believe there is always something more to learn, have a growth mindset.
Let’s get back to where I talked about people in other professions doing a work practicum. Besides writing novels and reading, the other advice I would give would be to attend conferences and workshops. It is a worthwhile investment of your time and money to go to workshops and conferences. Not just to learn, but also to network. Because of that, the first Write It Forward book my publishing company released is How To Get The Most Out Of Your Time And Money At A Writer’s Conference.
A college student once interviewed me and she asked me what she could do to become a better writer. I replied with my usual “Write a lot,” then thought for a second, looking at this nineteen year old woman. Then I said: “Live a lot. Experience life, because that is what you are eventually going to be writing about.”
Think about the lifestyle of an author, the lifestyle you are hoping to achieve. Most people want the end result: a published novel in the bookstore or online, but they don’t pay much attention to the life that produces that end result. A writer’s life is one of paradoxes. You have to be interested in people, yet you work in one of the loneliest jobs there is and you are probably an introvert (extroverts rarely can sit alone long enough to produce 100,000 words). You need inspiration and passion, yet also possess the self-discipline to trudge through writing 400 pages of a manuscript. In other words you have to have a split personality and be slightly nuts. So you will need therapy and lots of it.
Are you willing to persevere?
It’s not normal to sit alone and write 100,000 words. So let’s get that out of the way. You aren’t normal. You aren’t in the bell curve and you aren’t necessarily on the good side of the curve. You’re cursed. You write because you have to. You will have to go to therapy. Sorry. That’s the reality of being a writer.
If you desire to write a novel because you want to have a bestseller and make a bundle of money, my advice is to play the lottery; it will take much less time and your odds will be about the same, if not better, and I can guarantee that the work involved will be much less. The publishing business makes little sense and it’s changing faster than ever before; the “gold rush” of the self-published eBook is long past. However, I do believe that the more you know, the greater your chances of success. The vast majority of writers are flailing away at the craft and the business blindly. Armed with knowledge, you greatly increase your ability to rise above the rest.
This book is focused on the craft of writing. I cover how to be a successful author, selling your book and the business of writing in my companion book Write It Forward. I believe it’s important to have two separate books, because too often writers put the cart before the horse: business before craft. The first thing you must do as a writer is create a great book.
You write for you. You write because you have a story in you that has to come out. This is the core of the art of writing. Pearl Buck said:
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out his creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating.”
I believe that passion which fuels long-term perseverance to be the single most important factor. I also believe that too much discussion on the topic of creativity can actually stifle the drive in some people. They start thinking that they have to do and think exactly like everyone else in order to succeed and that is not true. That is why I say that there are no absolutes, no hard and fast rules in writing. Follow your path.
I have listened to many writers speak, read many books on writing, and while much of what they say is the same, there is often something that is very different. Usually that different thing is part of their creative expression, the way they approach their writing. However, on a core level, I think most creative people operate in a similar manner.
I see people who do something like #nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where they try to write a certain number of words each day, every day and I have two views of that: it’s good they are getting words down. But are they the type of writer who works that way? I know writers who don’t write every day, but work in creative bursts. They might not write for a week, then knock out 20,000 words in three days. #nanowrimo doesn’t work for them. Stephen King says he writes 10 pages a day. That’s great for him. Does it work for you?
Additionally, that is what he says. Does he actually do it? Probably, but maybe not. He’s the only one who knows the truth. Most writers feel a subliminal degree of guilt over getting paid to sit at home and create stories. So sometimes we says things to make it more apparent that we ‘work’. Because it’s hard to explain how hard it is to simply be sitting still, doing nothing, while we develop blinding headaches trying to work our way through our plot while remaining true to our characters. So we use things like word count and page count instead, even if they aren’t true.
When I discuss how to write a novel, I talk a lot about the craft of novel writing. The art is woven into the craft with deeper insights and when you take craft and twist it by breaking rules. But the first rule of rule breaking is to know the rule. Thus we must learn craft before we look to art.
Craft is the intellectual aspect of writing. The art is the emotional aspect. A great writer engages both the reader’s thoughts and emotions, thus being both a good craftsmen and a good artist.
One of the paradoxes of writing, and something to keep in mind when going through this: I am going to present techniques, ideas and formats that are the accepted way of doing things; yet the accepted way makes you the same as everyone else who can read a writing book and follow instructions, and your work has to stand out from everyone else’s. So how do you do that? How do you do things the right way yet be different?
Everything mentioned is a template; do not allow anything to stifle your creativity. Remember the paradox. The best analogy I can come up with is that if you were a painter I am telling you about the paint and the canvas and lighting and perspective, but ultimately you are the one who has to decide what you are going to paint and how to paint it.
Another thing is to understand the techniques and methods, and then use your brilliance to figure out a way to change the technique or method to overcome problems and roadblocks. To be original—an artist—with something that’s already been done. Also to mix techniques and methods in innovative ways.
I call my book on writing a Writers’ Toolkit because if you pick up a hammer when you need a saw, that doesn’t invalidate the hammer as a tool. It means you made a mistake as a craftsman.
What “tools” do you rely on for your process as a writer?