Archive for January, 2014

Thinking about Thinking I: Is Writing Important?

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

meThis is a post that really belongs in two categories, Consciousness and Writing.

Sometimes you might ask, why do we need writers? Why can’t they all stop writing about life and just start living it? Of course they are living; dead writers generally stop writing. But the question still seems meaningful, because it often appears that writers are getting paid to do what everybody is already doing.  They just get more attention because people think they talk about it better. Or just use bigger words to say it.

But there’s more to it than that. People in many occupations are paid to think. You wouldn’t want a surgeon or a dentist or an attorney who works for you thoughtlessly. The difference is, while everybody thinks, some more than others, their thoughts are usually one-offs that are used and then discarded. Gone. Never experienced again.

But that’s not the case with writers. Writers also think, but they write their thoughts down, so that they don’t disappear.  We probably all know good cooks and mechanics, but the ones that take time to write down how they do something well make it possible for others to learn how to do that thing in much less time.

This is why writing and books are important. We usually date the start of a civilization from the time it invents a form of writing. From that point on, knowledge can accumulate, can grow, instead of being merely maintained by verbal transmission from teacher to student. The great civilizations of the past were founded on remembering what works and what doesn’t discovered and preserved in writing.

There are some people who never read how-to books, and other who never read novels. The how-to people may tell you that books that teach you how to do things are useful and good, whereas novels are “merely” stories that entertain. They would thus make a distinction between scientists and engineers and craftsmen, who teach us things to make life better, and “mere” novelists who are storytellers that help us kill time between work and sleep.

I’ve been both kinds of person. In college and graduate school, I concentrated on physics and math because they seemed productive fields of endeavor. I still watched movies and read novels, but in my heart I considered them play rather than work. Mere recreation. I pursued a technical career in computer programming, now called software development. And I believed I was contributing to the greater good.

Now I am writing, and while I love it I am surprised at how much work it can be. You may think or reading as play time, but writing is not, I assure you. And it is important work, even if you’re “merely” writing a story. I still believe I am contributing to the greater good.

Why? Because I am trying to come up with thoughts that are meaningful and worth keeping. If a novel is just “a bunch of stuff that happened” it might not be worth much. But in any serious effort at writing, the characters in the story will have thoughts. The difference between a trivial work and a good one is that these thoughts will be non-trivial. Reading the story, watching the film or play will make you think, too. You will see something in a way you hadn’t considered, or be reminded of an important insight you had and then forgot. You will be reminded just how precious life is, just how much of a difference one person can make, or how life-changing choices can be. In other words, you will have experiences you would not have had if you had spent the time playing Angry Birds.

Writing is important. It’s not the most important thing, maybe, or the only important thing in our lives. But it is important.


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Method To My Madness

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

meThere is a rhythm to writing, it often seems. It’s probably different for every writer, but I thought today I’d pontificate about my own craziness. And it is crazy, if you think about it too much. What kind of person spends most of their time having imaginary conversations with people they’ve invented? What kind of lunatic devotes hundreds or thousands of hours to describing the troubles and doings of their imaginary playmates? A writer or a crazy person. Sometimes, especially before you get thart big break and sell the first book, you find yourself wondering if there is any difference between the two. I know I do. A lot.

I wake up each morning around 5:30. Not because I want to. Ask any lunatic writer.  They’ll tell you: they write not because they want to, but because they need to. Because they have to.

It takes me only a few minutes to prepare breakfast. I can’t write on an empty stomach. It’s too distracting. I hate distractions. Getting into the right zone to do creative writing is something that usually takes at least a few minutes to do. All you have to do to keep the writer in your family from accomplishing anything is to interrupt them every ten minutes or so. Be prepared for some angry words if you try this. They need to write.

After I eat and gobble some supplements, multivitamins(feed your brain!), CoQ10 to keep my mitochondria humming, PQQ to help me make more mitochondria to replace the ones going defunct in my aging cells, and krill oil to get the tocotrienols left out of multivitamins, I check my email so I won’t be tempted to stop and do it while I’m writing. After that I might do a little World of Warcraft to get my fantasy muscles loosened up. Then it’s time to write.

I often try to plan ahead. My chapters tend to be short, but I try to do a little outlining. Not much, because I often find my characters do things I didn’t expect, the rascals. I usually stick to a a chapter number, title and a one or two sentence summary of what I think will happen in that chapter. Then I do the next one. I try to be a few chapters ahead in this planning.

I know some authors outline their entire books in advance to have a detailed plan to follow. I’ve found that if I want the writing to surprise the reader, I usually have to let it surprise me. My stories are character driven, and often it feels as if these imaginary people are writing the book, not me. Creepy, but it works for me.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep a favorite character from taking over the book. I try to prevent that by writing from multiple viewpoints, one per chapter. Sometimes this makes it hard to decide whose viewpoint to use when two or more of them are interacting in a chapter, because I’m making an effort to avoid head-hopping, the error of showing how every person in a scene is thinking. That can annoy readers, because unless the viewpoints are really easy to tell apart, a reader can get confused as to which head they are in. So for each chapter, only one character can let you into their head and hear their thoughts. All of the others have to show you their reactions with lifted eyebrows, angry body language, sighs, and so on. Only the main character for that chapter can show you their interior dialogue. The first book I ever wrote had a lot of head-hopping, too much omniscient viewpoint shifting, and a kind agent let me know that sort of thing doesn’t fly and gets you rejected really fast. So now I avoid it.

As often as I can, I read entire chapters out loud to my brother James. I do this for two reasons. The first is because he often has excellent suggestions for plot twists or potential scenes. The second reason is because we all automatically correct our mistakes in our heads when we read our own written words silently. For some reason, this happens a lot less when you read out loud, so I do it to find those typos, wrong tenses, doubled words and the like that have slipped in when I was spewing my thoughts onto the computer screen.

Long after a chapter is written, I go back to it for the “tightening-up”.  I tend to be a verbose person, and a lifetime of explaining myself to people has given me the habit of overstating things. I find I can usually spot paragraphs with an extra sentence or two in them when I re-read a chapter a while after it is written. You have to wait a while first, because often when your composition is fresh it still might seem perfect when of course it is not. Nothing is perfect in this imperfect world, and you can usually find a more succinct way to phrase a thought.


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