Archive for category On Writing

Drafting…

I want to share something that resonated with me today, something that I am only now starting to really get over and come to terms with, and accept, and realize that it’s okay: to have multiple drafts.

I think I’ve made reference to this before… I think I cribbed some advice before from David Hewson’s site that touches on a similar vein, but as we are now in the last third of NaNoWriMo for 2012, I think this is something to bear in mind (besides, you know, “It’s okay to suck” or “It’s okay to have a shitty first draft”)…

This note on drafting comes from Steven Pressfield’s site:

The axiom is: You can’t do everything in one draft.

The corollary: Pick one aim for each draft and do that only.

In NaNo terms, the first draft is throwing everything and anything against the walls to see what sticks. Ninjas? Fire Wombats? Dancing girls? Fire Eaters? Muscle-men? Contortionists? (right, cue “Spectacular, Spectacular” from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack and keep on going)

There was a bit of business advice I was given once, in a mentor-based situation: “Go Out. Get busy. Make a mess.” In business, it was so the mentor could then come in a then use the act of cleaning up said “mess” as a way of teaching how to do the same in the future… in writing, it’s the (shitty) first draft.

Then, as Pressfield suggests, each pass through the document the goal would be to focus on fixing a specific element. Rinse and repeat for however many things you might want (or need) to work on. But this approach assumes you have plowed through to the end with no imminent concern about maintaining 100% coherency, as with NaNo (I mean, really… Can-Can dancing fire wombat ninjas? Really?). 

Contrast this idea with what Hewson had described (an almost cyclical approach) where you spend a day writing. The next day, you go back over the previous day’s pages – getting back into the story, but tweaking some as you go – then press into the new pages for the day. Rinse repeat until the project is complete, then make the passes through as above.

Where I am going with this is that whatever your process, a story will invariably be picked over and through several times in an effort to make it the best thing it can be, to ensure it delivers as the writer intends. That’s okay. It will be worth it when the polished story sings.

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Application Process: Step 1 – Why?

You’ve decided to seek out higher education, something beyond the undergraduate degree. Congratulations! But ask yourself why. Best to ask the question of yourself now, so you can have your answers rehearsed when other people start asking. Odds are, you will have to come up with some kind of “Statement of Purpose” (hereafter referred to as SoP) as part of your application process, and the “why” plays a pretty big role in the emotional content. It can be a hard thing to articulate with eloquence, and could require some soul-searching if you’ve not been planning on this degree since you were five.  Even if you have been, admissions folks will still ask, “why?”

Understand that any examples I give through this series of posts are based on my experiences, and to help with the examples, here’s a little about me: I graduated from high school in the first half of the 90’s, and was hell-bent on a computer science degree. Then I met Calculus. And Linear Algebra. While Theory and I were on pretty good speaking terms, and I would nod and chat with Coding and Debugging at a party, Calculus and Linear Algebra were the bouncers at the bar that only let in the hot girls on a Saturday night. But I also fell into this writing thing, after several years through middle and high school wondering “what if…?”, playing lots of games, reading lots of books, and tossing story ideas around with a friend of mine. Things clicked, and I graduated with a BA in English… (long before there was a catchy song about it!) as well as almost getting a commission into the USAF. (I was three months from my commission, and sidelined due to a brief medical issue – at the time it earned the tag “non-deployable,” which is the nice way of saying, “Thanks for playing.” But I completed all four years of the ROTC program, and some other training besides.)

Then I went to work. In retail doing clerical work. I also lucked into a part-time job teaching basic English/grammar a few nights a week at a local community college. Because, really, what else DO you do with a BA in English? A few months out, I was hating what I was doing at the office job, making not-much-more than minimum wage, and in a organization & position that was pretty much capped. So I went back to school, and earned a BA Hospitality Management. My main reason for the second BA? I didn’t feel I was ready for graduate school.

Skip ahead a few years, and through two management runs in different food service organizations, easily pulling 12-16 hour days (one year, I maybe had a total five days off). I was ready for a change, and kept thinking about writing, a luxury those long hours had not accommodated very well. I opted out of food service into another clerical position – this one with benefits – with the intention of tackling graduate school.

My “why?” To get back into writing, and thinking about writing, and to reconnect with that part of my brain that last acted on crafting stories almost ten years before.

Now, I tell you all of that to tell you this: your “why” will change, or it might not be what you first think. When I started my MA program in 2008, I thought it was to restart my writing – which at the time, it was. But through applying to MFA and PhD programs, where my first response to “why” was: “To teach” and the unofficially universal answer “Focused time to write,” I had to look further… what did I hope to gain? What could a degree program offer that I had to seek it out? For me, it became an issue of having a peer group. A community of (somewhat) like minded people, interested in creating something, and encouraging others to make their something even better. An idealist notion, sure, but that’s what I think is the core of “why” – what I hope to get out of a program. Yes, I would like to teach, something I learned from that community college gig, but it’s living inside a writing community (and, transversely, learning how to encourage and nurture others in that community) that is still the driving seed.

So, why go for the degree? What is it that makes your particular subject speak to you? Why are you passionate about it? What do you hope to get out of seeking higher education?

Take your time to think about it… it took me close to a month before I really understood my position. But knowing is the first step in making the SoP infinitely easier to write.

 

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The Hardest Thing…

About writing, is the act of writing.  The physical act of scratching at paper with a pointy object, or pecking out things on a keyboard, can be a daunting task, something a lot harder than I envisioned it when I was twelve-ish and started thinking about a writing future.  At the time (and even through my Undergraduate experience) I thought it would be something I would do “one day” in the future, but couldn’t really articulate how.  There was always some mystery to the experience, and even now there is still some.

Ideas come, like someone drunk at a New Year’s Eve party, and kiss you passionately for the brief few seconds you’re together before they disappear from the party (or worse, you run home remembering that the car you arrived in will turn back to a lemon).  Ideas can come from channel or internet surfing, or from snippets of conversations and relived experiences.

Ideas are also like matches – hot and bright in a flash, but quickly burning themselves out.  But finding the right idea – the right match – will last long enough to be used with some kindling, then some tinder, and later some logs to build a solid fire.

That’s what I have come to see as the hardest thing, right now, is finding the right match for me, and seeing the fire it might become.

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A few words, about style and process…

I am working on a novel – what I anticipate to be the first of several, but we all have to start somewhere. In the process of finally settling down, focusing on getting the story told (read: putting my butt in a chair to actually, you know, write), I am figuring out a lot about what works for me as a writer. At least, in terms of working on the novel.*

First, scratch the computer. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Macbook, and I do type everything up, but the words just don’t seem to come as easily or freely when I’m staring at a screen, unless I have a very specific item in mind. It’s possible that there’s some psychology to it, that seeing sheets of paper filling up with words begets more words wanting to be captured on paper. It’s also helpful that I can still work on the text, without having to make sure I have a computer with me. So I’ve been hand writing this latest section, the last few thousand words, and anticipate hand scribbling through the rest of the first draft.

Which brings up point number two: Transcribe as I go. Simply put, scratch out the test during my writing time, then spend some down time (usually at work the next day) typing everything up, with possible rewording or expansion as I copy it over. This gives me a chance to do a little editing as I go, but it disconnects enough that it becomes a minor issue. I’m thinking too much about the events of the story, and where things are going, to focus too heavily on some of the details. Besides – that’s what the time between completing draft one and preparing draft two is for.

Which hints at process point number three. There’s debate about where one should end, or stop, during a writing session. Finish the chapter? Finish the scene? Finish the sentence? Stop somewhere in the middle to give a fresh place to jump back into? What I’ve been doing with this project has been: write the scene/moment/exchange that feels natural, and stopping when I feel like stopping, or if I feel things are just not coming of their own accord. But I make some notes about the “next moments” that I can see coming, based on what has been written. Another way to visualize this: “Based on [this moment], I see A, B and C as the next sequences.” It may be a little while before I get to B, C, or even far off D, but this starts things working and thinking…

Which lends itself to the question of outlines. I have found that outlines can be problematic – I either get the feeling that I’m forcing the skeleton of story out of myself, essentially telling the story by bullet points, or I feel that the ideas are too vague to really weigh in as an outline, and I don’t get anything accomplished. I do, sort of, outline the project, but in a very general way. Clear as mud? Right.

Using the current project as an example: I have the idea that I’m running with, and I know I want it to be a thriller/suspense type work with overlapping and nested plot lines, circling around and forced onto one central character, and how he tries to survive it all. I know I am going to have misdirection playing a part. But the specifics (even down to character names) have not been figured out yet. I’m setting the story in Boston, and I knew I wanted to have some kind of reason for the main character to go to Fenway, but I wasn’t quite sure where to work it in. I know moments I want to include, but connecting the dots is the touchy part. I don’t want to feel like I’m trying to put to much into the story without knowing how the events will connect. It feels a bit like I’m rambling, but the point is I am doing a very basic outline, as a guide to key events, but I’m leaving out any explicit details.

My mind is turning fuzzy, so I will close with this. The best part, the most fun that I have had with writing, has actually been over the last couple of weeks, where I have been able (and chosen) to make strides in the mechanical aspects of figuring out how I write. It’s allowed me to be more relaxed, and more productive, when I’ve sat down and put pen to paper. It has felt more like I’m channeling the events instead of “making stuff up.” And that’s one of the best feelings of all…

* Shorter works can also, for now, be handled by other means – like actually composing at a computer. We’ll see how things go the more projects I do.

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On Writing, a Reflection

One of the exercises that we did the first night of the “Teaching” class was a reflection on our “literacy experiences” – what sort of things led us along the path to being interested in words, books, and the teaching of English in general. Along those same lines, I’ve had the image of a wood shed popping up a lot lately, when I have thought about by writing path. Enough so that I figured I would throw this out there

I have had an interest in writing for close to 20 years, if not longer (and if I had paid attention, I wouldn’t have felt the need to try going into Computer Science when I first started college… let’s just say I could get the concepts or write the code – but depending on the language I couldn’t always do them at the same time).

One of the earlier experiences was with another kid who lived down the street from me, a year or two younger, named Charlie. We had some similar interests, and got along well, and he had a wood shed/storage shed in his backyard. This wasn’t one of those you might find in a Home Depot parking lot these days, nor was it a tilt up metal-shed-in-a-box. As I think about it, it had the charm and appearance of an older southern storage building: faded gray wood planks, slat built so threads of light could sneak in through cracks between the boards. I think it had a dirt floor, as well, which added to the rustic feel.

Back in the day, one of the features that came out regularly in the Sunday papers was a feature called “Mini Pages” – a feature like a small newspaper for kids. That triggered an interest to try and develop some kind of product, like a neighborhood newspaper designed for and written by kids. Charlie and I talked a lot about the project, even going through some of the basic design elements (conceptually – this was years before computer design/layout application were both common, and accessible).

The project never really developed – like most things a kid gets interested in, they tend to fizzle out or get overtaken by other pursuits – but it was a fun thing to explore. If we had access to a computer (instead of just a typewriter) or something like PageMaker or similar software, who knows. It may not have gone much further, but it would have still been fun…

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