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October 19, 2006

Writing Deliberately, Writing Well

Filed under: Uncategorized — rswarren @ 6:46 am

I know I ranted a bit the other day about Natalie Goldberg’s books. I felt you probably deserved a bit more explanation.

My writing life has a certain perpetual frustration to it. On one hand, I’m actually a pretty decent copywriter, competent enough to engage at it freelance on a full time basis. On the other hand, the moment I try to sit down and write fiction, I immediately revert to some weird ninth-grade-level mentality where everything I turn out is garbage, and with no hope of making it any better. I always end those writing sessions ready to drag my typewriter through the street, tied to my car’s rear bumper.

That’s been driving me crazy for a long time now, and this year has been the worst. Been spending a lot of my time in a depressed funk this year.. and as much as may blame it on slow business, or PITA clients, or any other number of things, I know the truth. The truth is that I can’t write fiction worth a damn, and so part of me deep down sees that to mean that I’m not a “real” writer.

A lot of the issue stems from spending too many years taking creative-writing gurus like Goldberg seriously. I’ve no doubt she and her kind mean very well. But the whole freewriting-zen-mystic-unleashing-the-artist-within school of writing has probably mucked up my ability to write more than any other factor, and these days I really feel it. Dammit, the artist in me thinks that I should be able to sit at the typewriter and Zen my way into a masterpiece, even though the copywriter in me knows that good writing is the result of microsurgery and careful revision. As a result, I fail and fail with my fiction work, which gives me a good depression on everything else.

So tonight I give it another shot (“abusing the typewriter”, I call it), and sure enough, I’m producing drivel. Lots of character self-reflection that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Not badly written, per se, just pointless. So again I get pissed off, grab a cup of coffee and hit the Web. Surely, someone out there knows what I’m dealing with here and has found a solution. I Google for “i hate my writing” and “i can’t write”, and start reading what comes up.

Most of them seem to describe the same frustration at mystic fallacy.. as the Good Doctor once put it, the “desperate assumption that somebody, or at least some force, is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.” That if we just throw up words on the page and not think about it, they’ll take care of themselves. Thank neohippies like Goldberg for popularizing that notion.

Anyway, in my reading tonight I stumbled across this wonderful essay on deliberate writing. It hits the mark beautifully, pointing out that the real problem isn’t one of soulless grammar worship versus mystic self-indulgent drivel. The process should never be a war between knowledge and intuition. Instead, the problem is the idea that not thinking – either because you’ve memorized the rulebook, or you’ve thrown it out altogether – will ever turn out good work. Both popular schools of creative writing thought are dead wrong.

Again, great piece. Very similar to the positions taken by William Zinsser, my great guru of all things nonfiction. What’s even more interesting is that the same basic principle applies not just to writing, but to life in general. It all goes back to Thoreau’s admonishment to live deliberately: creativity, innovation, and joy aren’t bound by thought, but by the absence of thought. By the expectation that we’re better off without thought. When we set forth to be deliberate in all that we do, the spirit lifts and the mystic darkness abates. Thought sets us free.

I feel tonight like I’m turning a real corner here. More later.

October 16, 2006

NaNo and the Lurking First

Filed under: Uncategorized — rswarren @ 4:19 am

For about the third year now, I’m seriously considering joining up with NaNoWriMo this November. This time I may actually do it.

In case you’ve never heard of Nano before, it refers to the National Novel Writing Month. A bunch of people get together online and commit to each cranking out, by hook, crook or rusty coathanger, a mass of 50,000 words (one novel-length story manuscript) in 30 days. No one is looking for polished quality here, but only for sheer wordage. Get that first draft out, no matter how awful it is, and do it in four weeks.

If you’ve done much writing yourself, you know how lethal the first draft is. A dedicated rewriter myself, I’ve never written a first draft of anything that didn’t fill me with self-loathing despair for lack of talent. I hock up something on the page, and then smash it down like a deranged ape until I can’t tell if I’m improving it or not; then I let it sit out in the sun to ferment into a stinky pile of moist compost. Only then do I know if it was worth the effort.

If you haven’t gathered already, I loathe first drafts, unavoidable as they are. (Stuck behind a hard deadline on a copywriting job, facing a blank page and desperate to get something written, I’ll often just cut loose and write a first draft composed entirely of the most filth-ridden obscenities I can imagine. I’ll then go back and say the same thing again in clean, polite English. I keep expecting, one of these days, to accidentally send one of those rough drafts to a client.)

That’s what makes NaNo such a cool little exercise. It’s hard enough to first draft a 400-word page of website content, but a 50,000-word (or longer) novel? Knowing full well that no revisions will be worth a damn until you’re all the way through it at least once? That’s what NaNo is all about: providing a Boston Marathon for aspiring novelists stuck on the first draft dilemma. Crank out the words, get through it, no matter what.

It appeals to me mainly because I’ve spent most of this year in a schizo funk. On one hand, my copywriting business is growing and doing well, finding better clients and better projects, making money. On the other, I’ve made virtually no progress as a fiction writer, and what’s stopping me is that first draft.  It’s highly weird, being a working pro and a wannabe at the same time.

I’m working through it, though. Wrote about 1500 words of a story that seems to want to be at least a novella, perhaps a novel. We’ll see. Six pages (and planning to write at least another two tonight) of fiction is an achievement for me, so I’m pretty happy about it.

Hell, it’s almost readable!

October 11, 2006

Word up to Technorati

Filed under: Uncategorized — rswarren @ 2:48 am

Technorati Profile

To Dream The Impossible Dream

Filed under: Uncategorized — rswarren @ 2:42 am

It’s been an interesting year for me as a writer.  In a lot of ways, I’ve come full circle.  Now I’m struggling not to stay there.

As a writer, I think I probably got started the way most wannabes do: I went to the bookstore and emassed a collection of “how to write” books over a period of about fifteen years or so.  A few were good, a few were downright awful.  The rest?  Occasionally helpful but not nearly worth the hundreds (or is it thousands?) I paid for them over the years.

The worst of the mediocre ones all seem to pitch the same basic idea: that the writing “problem” is basically one of self-esteem, that the only thing separating Stephen King from you is that you just don’t like yourself.  Can’t express yourself.  Are deathly afraid to express yourself.  If you can just come to terms with whatever inner demon keeps you from vomiting a bestseller onto the page in 21 days or less, you too can get on the gravy train.  These books don’t get into craft, or the business, or anything else that you really need to know.  What do they teach?  Mainly, how to freewrite drivel onto a page, pretend it’s poetry, and to reassure yourself that all writers struggle with their muse.

(And that’s fine if you’re one of those types who just wants to keep a private journal while patting yourself on the back for being a “writer”.  I’m certainly no judge – if that’s what gets you through the day, more power to you.

If you’re reading this because your dream is to be a writer, great.  Wonderful.  Fantastic.  Start by taking all those Natalie Goldberg self-help therapy guides and throwing them out, because in the end they’ll do more harm than good.  Instead, get out into the world and get your words in front of people, no matter how you have to do it.  That’s the only way you’ll get there.. that, a lot of sleepless nights and probably more than a few broken relationships.  It’s just how it goes.)

I first started in the writing world as a corporate technical writer, writing documentation and training materials for computer systems.  It got old after a few years; I’d not-so-secretly harbored the dream of being a writer since about my junior year in high school, sitting on a beach somewhere working on my latest bestseller while my agent worked diligently to get the best movie deal possible on the last one.  I knew that technical writing wasn’t going to get me there, so I finally struck out on my own, determined to Become A Writer Or Die Trying.

I quickly learned that my fiction skills were a long way from publishable.  My nonfiction work was farther along, but I had no portfolio to speak of.  The local city newspapers politely informed me that a million other yutzes like me call them every day to become stringers.  Dozens of magazine queries disappeared into the mail system, lost to time and man.  Family and friends tried their damnedest to talk sense into me, to get me back to my corporate job.  I spent my days and nights struggling to find any outlet to get that almighty First Clip – the piece that said I was Published, and therefore would make me A Writer.

Four months into the quest, I began doing volunteer work for the American Red Cross as a media liaison, writing newsletter stories and press releases.  About a month after that, a pet magazine responded to a piece I wrote and paid me my first working wage as a freelance writer: $25, along with compliments (“You have no idea the kind of junk we get in here from freelancers.”) and an opportunity to pitch a full article.  They bought the article and made it a cover feature, paying me about $300.

Now I had the almighty Clips.. which, I soon learned, meant close to nothing in practical terms.  Every new sale is as hard as the first was.  The difference is that people other than friends and family were reading my work and commenting on it.  It wasn’t just in my head anymore.  Not just in my journal, not bound by the niceties of polite friends who don’t want to be discouraging.  It was being judged by real editors who deal with freelance work every day.  And, at least in the eyes of some, I’d passed the test.

These days, years later, I’m still a full-time freelance writer.  Most of the work I do is corporate communications; I write brochures, whitepapers, website copy, that sort of thing.  Make decent money at it.  On occasion, when the wind’s blowing in the right direction, I do a magazine article.  Now – one damned long time since my high school years – I’m sitting down to write fiction again and fully realizing the difference that experience makes.  I’m not writing stories for myself anymore; I’m writing for the reader.

The tough part now for me is getting back to the dreamstuff now that I’ve gotten somewhere with the paying work.  It takes a serious shift of gears, and I’m finding that how I wrote fiction way-back-when doesn’t mean a damned thing now, because I’m not who I was then.  I’m not the writer wannabe I was then.  I’m more experienced, a bit more cynical, plenty more jaded, and I’m better read enough to realize that no matter how original I am, someone got there first.

Will I ever catch the dream of the million-dollar bestseller?  I don’t know.  I’m taking it one day at a time, just like you are.  (However, I do get out to the beach from time to time.  It’s a lot of fun calling friends at work at 3pm with a weather and surf report – they just love it when you do that.)

October 5, 2006

The First And The Worst..

Filed under: Uncategorized — rswarren @ 8:14 pm

God, I hate the first week of the month.

The highlight usually is getting invoices out.  Invoices are wonderful things.  They represent imaginary money that should be arriving in another four weeks, and so getting those things out the door feels like good, solid work.  About the closest thing to work a guy sees in the first week of the month, anyway.  First week, no one returns calls or emails.  First week, everything is on hold.  First week, the silence is deafening and maddening.

So I’m doing the usual – watching movies and abusing the typewriter, working on personal projects until the friendly neighborhood copywriter becomes a priority again.. the 10th of October, maybe.

Movies.  Been watching a bunch of good ones lately.  “The Quiet Earth” was excellent, with one of the most unsettling ending scenes I’ve ever seen in a sci-fi film.  Finally got around to watching “La Jetee”, the French short film that Terry Gilliam based “12 Monkeys” on.  “The War Within”, a film that takes a harsh and realistic look at the dynamics at play in Islamic radicalism, was another wise use of two hours.

Another good one was “Home”, an hourlong BBC short film about a food industry manager who, after a nasty car accident and a legal separation, decides that he can no longer bear to leave the house.  He vows to never set foot outside the door again, to cut off the outside world completely and survive purely on what “the house provides”.  The story stretches over the four months of his experiment, long after the food (and the neighborhood pets) are gone, and he’s utterly convinced that the house itself intersects in some strange space-time way in an effort to communicate with him.  Overall, “Home” is a very amusing look at the reality of the limited resource dilemma.

Meanwhile, I’ve been dragging ass back out to the living room, where Typewriter Camp is established – my little manual Olympia, a stack of 20-pound, manila folders, and a cat who hates typewriters.  For some reason I’ve never been able to write fiction in the office.  It has to be at the living room coffeetable.

The latest piece is “Genius Loci”, inspired by a friend’s suggestion that I should try my hand at apocalyptic fiction.  I’m a handful of pages into the early rough, still deeply in the “this sucks hard but I’m going to have faith that it’ll get better on rewrite later” stage.

Anyway, it’s Thursday, the week’s almost over, and it’s a beautiful warm day here in Central Florida.  It may be the first week of October, but at least it’s October and not June.

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