NaNoWriMo 2017 is just around the corner, and I find myself approaching it with a different process than in previous years. This process is a refinement of writing advice I’ve gathered over the years. I find myself wishing that I’d started using these techniques a long time ago, so that today I’d be better at them. Yes, of course, I had to travel the road I traveled to get to where I am today, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have some guideposts along the way?
Of course we all wish we could go back in time, and share our experience with our younger selves. So, why not? As writers, we get to live inside our imaginations. Let’s imagine that we’re somehow able to go back in time and sit down with ourselves, those young writers brimming with imagination, innocence, and naivete. I’m talking about past versions of ourselves anywhere from a few years ago, back to the first time we sat at a typewriter, or tried to draw a comic book with a crayon on printer paper. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to think up their own advice. Here’s mine:
#1: Carry a Notebook
Specifically, carry a Bullet Journal, but if you are a version of me that exists before Bullet Journaling was a thing, just carry a small, pocket notebook. Trust me, you will not remember that awesome, weird, gonzo idea that you just knew was too amazing to ever forget. You will move on to some newer, more exciting idea. You’ve done it so many times now, that I swear if I could, I would staple a notebook to one of your hands, and a pen to the other. Carry a damn notebook.
Fill your notebook with your daily word count, your current thoughts about your project, random ideas that pop into your head, sketches of random objects in your weird, mutant brain. Whatever. As long as you are keeping a notebook, your writing will stay on track. And if I ever do discover time travel, you better have a notebook on your person, or be warned, I’m going to brain you with a frying pan. Because, if you had done that, past me, present me would currently have years of material to work with. Asshole.
#2: Conjure the Nouns
Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting ‘way up there’, in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that jumps out of your nerves onto the page… your Thing, at the top of your stairs, in your own private night… may well come down.
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
I never received so useful a piece of writing advice as this. It really represents two amazing ideas. The first involves list making as a method of creative thinking. The second is the underlying ethos behind creative writing, that which makes fiction actually work.
Your first step in the process of ideation (outlined later when I talk about buckets) should be to turn to a blank sheet of paper and start writing nouns. Each noun begins with the word “The”, as in “The Bucket”, “The Rope”, “The Beam”, “The Kick”. Keep writing nouns until you fill up the page. As you write, free associate, from one word to the next. Let your ruminations circle around the project you’re about to dive into. Look for new associations that you wouldn’t have come up with before using only the rational parts of your mind. This is digging down into the subconscious, where all raw emotion lives. Mine that stuff up; it’s better than gold.
The second amazing idea is that you can carry over this same technique into your actual writing. Note the verbiage “any old word that jumps out of your nerves onto the page”. The phrase jumps out of your nerves is key here. It has to be something that grabs you by the intestines and twists. Otherwise, you’ll be bored, and guess who else will be bored: the reader. But once you’re writing any old word that grabs you, you’re going to stop analyzing what you’re writing and write creatively, from the subconscious. New connections that you couldn’t have come up with before are going to appear. This truly is the dark art of conjuration at work.
#3: Abandon the Keyboard and Write Longhand
This goes out to past me, sitting at his keyboard, gazing into a screen so white it amounts to staring into a light bulb. First of all, get Google Drive, and install a Night Mode app to protect your damn eyes. Then, take your laptop and throw it in the lake. That lifeless monitor is sucking the soul out of your writing. You’re typing faster than you can think. You’re getting a lot of words, but are they quality? No. You know they aren’t.
Now, go down to the office supply store, find yourself the pens you like the very best (not necessarily the ones that cost the most), reams and reams of plain, college ruled notebook paper, and some three ring binders. It’ll take some trial and error to find the tools you like best, but these things are really all you need to produce quality work.
Writing longhand will slow you down, make you think about what you’re writing, let you immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. Writing is a craft, and it requires the proper tools. There is a feel to good old analog pen and paper. You’re going to love it. Your poor, tired eyes will love it even more.
#4: Revenge of the Keyboard
Now that you’ve got what you think are quality words, take your fishing pole and go to the lake. There, you will find a slightly soggy laptop. Go to Google Drive and type in your “finished” manuscript. Don’t alter a single word of it.
You weren’t able to do it, were you? Each time you transferred one of those gorgeous, messy analog sentences to digital, you just had to rework it, didn’t you? You cut out words, added others. Sometimes the change was so extensive you had to rework the entire surrounding paragraph. Good. Now you’re getting somewhere.
This is a built in feature of the system. You have basically a few buckets you need to fill when ideating, drafting, and editing.
- Ideation: coming up with unique “What If?” premises (you are carrying a notebook, aren’t you?).
- Analog: a first, rough draft created with pen and paper, borne out of the poetry of your subconscious.
- Typing: transfer first draft to digital. Correct the obvious blunders.
- Editing: print the manuscript, double spaced, one chapter at a time. Now, take out your red pen, and read the manuscript aloud.
- Return to step 3 ad nauseam.
#5: Read Your Work Aloud
It sounds great in your head, but your head is a strange, scary place filled with whispered voices and echo chambers. Writing is as much about rhythm as it is conveying information. Grammar counts, but not as much as you think. What is more important is a natural, conversational tone. You can only develop this — and hence, can only develop your own voice — by speaking the words that you write.
As you’re reading your work aloud, you’re going to, finally, hear what those clunky sentences sound like, and every time you encounter an awkward or pretentious, or dishonest bit of phrasing, you’re going to take your red pen and put a single line through it. Then you’re going to make a note above it, maybe try a different phrase on for size. These will be your guideposts when you return to the computer.
#6: Return of the Revenge of the Keyboard
That’s right. Type it up again. Then print it again. Then mark it up red like a slasher movie villain. The cycle repeats until you’re finally disgusted with your current project and need to start something fresh just to cleanse the palate. No writing is ever completed, only abandoned, as they say.
#7: Practice the Dark Art of Necromancy
Of course, this only works if you actually go back and revisit old projects. Your virtual waste bin is full of deleted projects, and there are folders and folders of material that you have saved, but in all honesty will never go back to. Probably, you shouldn’t. Those projects represent a time before you knew what the craft was about. They were inexpert forays into a world you knew nothing about.
But, there is some good material in there, somewhere. If you never take up your shovel and dig it back out, you will never have a finished project that is readable, let alone publishable. It is ten times more exciting to start something new than to finish the old, but novelty is only the initial creative spark. Editing, like murder, is work.
#8: Take the Ray Bradbury Challenge
My writing career didn’t really start until I took up this challenge. Essentially, the idea is to produce 52 short stories in as many weeks. Bradbury says they can’t all be bad, but I’m not sure what Bradbury would say about my writing. Unfortunately, necromancy only works on manuscripts, not on corpses, so I guess we’ll never know.
But the core idea behind this is to write every goddamn day. Analyze your schedule. Find the time in your day when you can devote good, solid hours to your craft. Double down on what you love. If you don’t have the time to write, you do not have the desire, the need, to write. If you can’t love the physical act of writing, you aren’t a writer. Double down, or leave the table. If you find yourself unwilling, or unable to leave the table, you better put something at stake.
If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
And he’s right. A writer’s brain is a witch’s cauldron of everything they’ve experienced, and especially every piece of media they’ve ever consumed. Each story a writer creates is a crystallization of whatever bubbles to the surface from this melting pot, whatever they’re able to capture with whatever worn out, rusty tools they have on hand. You cannot take out more than you put in.
So, take some time. Rest your brain. Go to a movie. Watch a TV series. But most of all read. Audiobooks are wonderful. They help you to cram more reading into a lifetime than people were able to in the years before this format became popularly available. But there is nothing like holding a book in your hand, turning a page, and yes, pausing to read aloud what you see printed. You’ll get a feel for sentence and paragraph structure. You’ll start to beat with the rhythm of the words, almost as though dancing to music. You’ll hear when the author has a tin ear, and lets a clunker slip onto the page. This is the heartbeat of the craft exposed, still beating.