Writing References

On Friday, October 13, I led a writing workshop for Can-Con in Ottawa. To make life easier for me at the workshop, and also to share a useful list for any writers out there, here are some books that I’ve found useful as references.

(Since the workshop is in Ottawa, all book links are to Amazon Canada. This is simply for my own convenience; if you want to buy a copy of any of these, visit your favorite bookstore or web site.)

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer
A quirky but useful general introduction to writing science fiction and/or fantasy
Into the Woods, by John Yorke
One of my favorite books on story structure and plot
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin
One of the few books that deals with the nitty-gritty of actually telling
stories, down to the word and sentence level. It’s not a beginner book, but it’s a book to read when you’re ready to get serious about prose.
A First Page Checklist by Ray Rhamey (PDF)
Since the workshop I’m doing is specifically on openings, this is a useful set of points to consider, even if you decide to let some slide

As time goes on, I may add more to this list. I’ve just begun working on the start of the third book in the “Dark vs. Spark” series, and as part of the process, I’ve picked up a number of other writing books that have been recommended to me. For the moment, however, the books above are a great place to start.

While I’m at it, let me add that all writers should carry something that they can immediately use to make notes. Your phone doesn’t count if you won’t actually use it, nor does it count if you don’t review those notes within a day of making them and then store them in a searchable format.

For years, I’ve been using normal 3×5 index cards; I put 3 or 4 in the back pocket of my pants where they lie nice and flat but are immediately available for writing. After writing on a card, I leave it by my computer so I can transcribe it ASAP, either into a text file, Evernote, or Scrivener. The nice thing about index cards is that they’re cheap, and if they get crushed, or wet with rain, or whatever, I can just throw them out and grab another handful. It’s like a notepad that never runs out of pages!

Writer’s Block

I’ve recently become (a bit) active on Goodreads, and that means answering a few questions about writing. One of the questions is, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” So let me deal with that by coming at the question sideways.

The English word “meditation” covers a lot of techniques from a lot of different traditions. However, one common type of meditation is (silently) naming what you’re feeling. This can include physical feelings (“My nose is itchy”) as well as mental ones (“I’m restless”).

Specificity is useful. For example, what are the physical qualities of restlessness? (Perhaps tense shoulders, a tendency to bounce your foot, and so on.) Specificity helps you pay attention to what’s going on in your body and mind. Specificity during meditation may help you recognize the same symptoms when you aren’t meditating, so perhaps you’ll be more aware of your feelings and better prepared to deal with them.

What isn’t useful is interpretation: stories to explain why you feel a certain way. “I’m restless because I have so much to do…” etc. Telling yourself this kind of story distracts you from your real feelings. It’s not that the stories are false (although they very often are). It’s that the stories take over your brain. You put your time and energy into the stories, letting them spin and suck you in. The stories replace your actual experience, so that you stop being aware of what you’re really feeling. Even worse, you can cling to stories for a long long time…as opposed to real physical and mental sensations which tend to come and go relatively quickly.

For example, suppose someone cuts you off in traffic. You get a jolt of fear and adrenaline. Then the actual experience is over. You may have a reaction of anger immediately after. Fair enough―you feel what you feel. But if you start making up stories, you can ruin the rest of your day: you feed your anger, you attribute all kinds of horrible qualities to the other driver, you might reinforce unfortunate prejudices (“Any driver who wears that kind of hat is a moron!”), and so on. The stories inflate a momentary experience into something that eats up a chunk of your life.

And for what? The incident only lasts a second. You may never encounter that driver again. Making a big emotional story about the experience does you no good at all. Conceivably, it might be useful to have some clearheaded thoughts about what happened―“At this corner from now on, I should drive extra carefully”―but that’s different from getting carried away with the story.

Now let’s come back to writer’s block. Writer’s block is a story. It’s a phrase that blinds you to whatever you’re actually experiencing. The actual experience may be sleepiness, or restlessness, or (often) some internal monologue about the story, your abilities, or whatever. But just like obsessing over a brief incident, calling an experience “writer’s block” isn’t useful. That’s just feeding an unhelpful story.

So if you’re having trouble putting down one word after another, try stopping for a few minutes in order to become aware of what you’re experiencing. Identify your physical experiences as specifically as you can, but just labeling, not interpreting: “I’m hungry”, “I’m cold”, “My mouth is dry”, “My arms are tense.”

Identify your thoughts too, but be careful. If you’ve got some big internal monologue going on, just identify it as, “Talk” without any further comment. Otherwise, you’re likely to get sucked into the story. If the monologue keeps going, every few seconds identify it as “Talk” again. If you can retain enough detachment to do that, the monologue will usually settle down and dwindle away. A new monologue may spring up again, but you can label that as “Talk” too.

After a few minutes, you’ll have a better idea of where your body and head are at. You can then deal more clearheadedly with your situation. Are you hungry? Have something to eat. Are you cold? Put on a sweater. Are you tense? Do some pushups, go for a walk around the block, or take five minutes to relax in some other way. (Notice the difference between this and procrastination. Procrastination is avoidance, whereas I’m talking about dealing with issues that you’ve observed through direct experience.)

Improving your clearheadedness also helps you with creative issues. You may realize that you’re having trouble because you can visualize a scene, or because you don’t know what happens next. Okay, that’s just a matter of brainstorming: get a piece of paper and scribble down a bunch of different ideas, or make a mind-map, or open a separate file and do some freestyle experimentation. Pull out the tools in your writing tool kit, and see what you can make.

So my point is that “Writer’s Block” is an unhelpful story that masks what you actually experience. If you’re having trouble writing, take five minutes out to pay attention to your body and mind. Identify what you’re feeling, and label your thoughts, but without interpretation. That will help you clear your head and make you aware of actual problems that you should address…as opposed to feeding unproductive narratives that just spin and use up your energy.

In a way, this is like the internet maxim, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Don’t feed unhelpful stories. Stop. Step away. Clear your head. Then do something that will actually be useful, rather than getting trapped in emotional quicksand.

Commitment

When I recently revised my web site, I revisited the Seminar on Writing Prose to put it into WordPress format. This gave me a chance to read stuff I hadn’t looked at in several years. One part that particularly stood out for me was the section on comedy: specifically, the idea of commitment to comedy. This got me thinking about commitment…so let me talk about that.

Comedians have a reputation for being hard to live with. It may not be true for all comedians all the time, but most of the funny people I know are more interested in being funny than being nice. They’ve made a commitment to comedy; if they think of a joke, they’ll tell it, without worrying about hurt feelings or propriety.

I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I do write a lot of comedy and I’ve made my commitment. When I’m writing a joke, there are only two questions I ask: “Is this funny?” and “How can I make it funnier?” Later, when I’m editing, I may ask, “Does this work here?”…and occasionally I decide that a joke is out of place in a particular part of a story. But one thing I never ask: “What will people think of me because of this joke?”

Making a commitment means ignoring, “What will people think of me?” I only care about, “Is this artistically successful?”

The same principle applies to other aspects of writing. Writers often put their characters through hell—good sympathetic people can suffer terribly. But writers can’t allow themselves to flinch. Writers have to commit to the story, no matter how awful or tragic it might become. I’m sure there are readers who want every story to have a happy ending, but some stories simply can’t be like that. A happy ending would betray what the story needs to be.

You have to commit to fulfilling the story, wherever it ought to go. You should never soft-pedal a story’s pain simply because you’re asking, “Am I going too far?”

Commitment applies to a writer’s discipline as well as to story content. A writer must be able to say no to friends and family: “I can’t, I have to write.”

I don’t mean telling your blood-soaked child, “Sorry, I can’t drive you to the hospital until I’ve finished my 1000 words.” But writing takes time—more time than you can find in the gaps of a normal day. You truly can’t have it all; you can’t watch all the good TV, and read all the good books, and have an active social life, while also putting in enough time to produce high quality writing.

Commitment means sometimes saying no. You don’t have to turn down everything—if you do nothing but write, you won’t acquire enough experience of the world to have anything to write about—but you have to carve out enough time to do the work.