Saturday, May 5, 2012


In his excellent book on writing, creatively titled On Writing, Stephen King lays out just how to become a writer:

1. Read a lot.
2. Write a lot.

That's it! That's the secret!

King goes on to write several hundred pages more, but everything in his book, and everything else written in every other book on writing, more or less falls into those two categories. They're like the Ten Commandments of writing, summing up the tedious entirety of Mosaic Writing Law.

The second item, write a lot, is probably the one that writers have the most trouble with. Yes, some people were born scribblers, filling page after page of their notebooks with essays, poems, and fiction. But most of the writers I know have to make some sort of effort when it comes to getting words on the page.

What most writers (aspiring or established) don't seem to have a problem with is King's command to read a lot. Writers like to read. So much so that I wonder if we don't do it to our detriment. Or more precisely, I wonder if we don't consume too many words in a day.

In her excellent book on how to become a writer, creatively titled Becoming a Writer, Dorthea Brande talks about the fact that writers are unusually susceptible to taking "busman's holidays." The term refers to the fact that if a bus driver wants to take a vacation he must get to his destination by riding a bus thereby making his vacation very similar to his work. If you're a writer your job is to...say it with me (hint: it's written up above) a lot and write a lot.

Now, raise your hand if you're a writer. Now keep your hand up if you spend your free time reading.

Uh-huh. Pretty much everyone.

What about watching movies or television? Listening to the radio (or your iPod)?

Yep, that's all of you.

"But," you say. "I thought Stephen King said it was good to read a lot. Also, listening to a Kenny Loggins record isn't reading."

Good points. Reading is good. It's one of two things you must do if you want to become a writer. But modern technology has made it so that we are reading almost constantly throughout the day, what with facebook, Google news, and those always-entertaining Cracked lists. Honestly, I probably don't go more than a few hours without reading something.

And yes, listening to Kenny Loggins isn't reading, but it doesn't fall into the category of "consuming words." Unless that is, you're listening to some terrible instrumental version of Kenny Loggins songs. That's also why movies and television count. When you watch them, you're consuming words.

Overall, this is a good thing, I think. Exposing ourselves to writing--whether it be in song, screenplay, or news article form--is good. The wider your scope, the better.

But there is another part to writing that perhaps doesn't fall into the above mentioned categories of reading and writing a lot. And that is thinking. Stories need time to ferment, to grow. This is the part of the process with which modern writers have the most trouble, I think. We're so busy consuming words on our televisions, our computers, our iPhones, even in those old-fashioned things called books. And when we aren't consuming, when we can manage to wrangle our butts into the chair, we're producing. There's not a lot of time for thinking, for turning things over in our minds.

And to be clear, I'm not talking about consciously working a story over. Sitting back from the keyboard and thinking through a plot twist or character arc. I'm talking about unplugging, letting your unconscious mind do the work for you.

Certainly I didn't come up with this idea on my own. It is in fact a goodly portion of what Brande writes about in her book. She writes, "If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways...If you conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage."

Different writers have different ways of doing this. Joyce Carol Oates says she comes up with stories while running. Fredric Brown used to take hours-long bus rides. Stephen King goes for long walks. (Yes, this activity also casued him a bit of trouble, but hey, occupational hazard.) The point is to let your mind unplug from all the reading and writing you're doing (and you should be doing lots).

Honestly, this can be a bit hard. If I find myself unoccupied for even two seconds my first instinct is to get out my phone and check my e-mail or facebook. This has become such a habit that I don't ever have to be bored. Sometimes, just right in the middle of everything I'll feel the urge to read some crap on the internet. (This is a problem, I know. Look at this blog post as a cry for help.)

There is no doubt that having all of this media at our fingertips is, by and large, a good thing. If a book you want to read is out of print, you can probably download a digital copy. If that option isn't available, you can hop on eBay and buy it used. You can expose yourself to great writing on the interent (like this blog, for example). In short, it's never been easier to read a lot.

It's also never been easier to write a lot. Computers aren't exactly new things, but I think it is useful to remember just how cumbersome writing, and especially editing, on a typewriter or by hand really is. Also, need to do research for something you're writing? You don't even have to leave your desk!

All of this is great. But, it has come at a cost. So, the next time you feel like reading for a few hours, or checking your e-mail, or watching a movie, maybe just let yourself be bored for a while; it might just help your writing in the long-run.

Also, if anyone gives you grief about doing nothing for hours a day, you can tell them you have to. You know, for work.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Writers are often asked where they get their ideas.* Different writers give different answers, some more smart-ass than others. (Harlan Ellison was fond of telling people he subscribed to an ideas service that would mail him fresh ideas every week.) But the general consensus of all the writers I've heard tackle this subject is that the person asking the question is focusing on the wrong thing. Ideas, they say, are everywhere; coming up with ideas is the easiest part of the writer's job.

This may not seem like the case to someone suffering writer's block. But, let's be honest, writer's block doesn't actually exist. So-called writer's block is really just a symptom of something else wrong in a writer's writerly life. Often it's tied in to self-esteem issues. You get rejected a bunch (get used to it, pal!), so you think you're no good and that any story you write is going to get rejected. Well, your unconscious mind thinks. I've got a nifty way to avoid rejection: we just won't write anymore! Hence, writer's block. The problem isn't some sort of magical "block" it's that you don't trust yourself to write something worthy. True, you may not write anything worthy, but you'll guarantee that you won't if you don't try.

But the whole self-esteem/writer's block connection has been tackled many times before. (In fact, it just was, in miniature, a few lines up the page.) I'm not too interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of it here. What I've been thinking about a lot is another cause of writer's block: Log Jams. (See photo)

So, ideas aren't the hard part. Once you learn to be receptive to them, you'll find they pop into your head all the time. Some of them are stupid (a short story narrated by a dog, only you don't know that the narrator is a dog until the last line!), some are decent, and some are really excellent. The hard part, the question people ought to be asking is: What do you do with them?

Are you ready? Because I've got the answer. Okay, here it comes:

Write them down as stories! Spend those ideas! Do not just keep them in your head or in a notebook waiting for the right moment to tackle them!

And what happens if you don't use your ideas? Well, some of them will vanish, which may not be a bad thing. If an idea floats away it didn't have much weight to begin with. But others will stick in the back of your mind like peanut butter, or glue, or some other sticky substance.

Think of ideas like logs floating down a river. Upstream, your unconscious mind is chopping down enough trees to send an environmental activist into convulsive fits and floating them down to you on the current. The crappy little logs (lame ideas like the dog-narrator) you let float past. But the big ones you're supposed to turn into lumber (completed drafts of stories). So what if you let one of the big ones float on out to sea? Nothing, you've just missed an opportunity for a good story. Oh well, plenty more where that came from.

Where you get into trouble is when you start pulling logs aside for later use. "Hey, that's a great piece of wood," you say. "But I'm not in the mood to write that particular story. I'll just save it for later."

Doing this a few times isn't a bad thing. You may need to come back to an idea at a later time. But do this enough and you're going to start a log jam. Pretty soon the inside of your head looks like that picture up there. You've still got new ideas coming in, but you can't get to them because all of the old ones are in the way.

This happens to me a lot. I'll get a great idea and think that I should save it until I can really write it well. Then I'll get another one and do the same thing. Then I'll get an idea that I think I could handle, but I'm not really in the mood to write at the moment. Then I'll get a crappy idea, one that I should let float out to sea. Only I can't because all the other ones are blocking the way, so I've got that crappy idea mixed in with all the good ones.

The only solution: Clear that junk out! Start writing! Write the stories you think you can't handle and fail (or surprise yourself and succeed); write the crappy stories that you know no one will ever want to read ("For you see, I am a dog."); and write the ones you just aren't in the mood to write.

Stop saving up ideas like they're a precious commodity! They aren't!

That being said, I do think that sometimes stories need to ferment. You need a bit of time to turn them over in your head, to work them out. If that's why you're saving an idea, go right ahead. But most of the time, at least in my experience, that isn't what I'm doing. I'm avoiding writing perfectly ready stories because I'm too scared/uninterested/whatever. And that's what causes log jams.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got like a hundred old ideas to turn into stories.

* No one has ever actually asked me this, but other reputable sources say it happens a lot.