Sunday, March 22, 2015

Having Fun with Writing

This is maybe going to come off heretical in a couple places, but I want to say something about finding joy in the process of writing. There's a great book on writing fiction which you should, of course, not even bother thinking about reading called Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Where she differs from many other writing self-help gurus is the idea of focusing on the small moments, one at a time. Don’t think about the big picture so much while you’re writing—you will obsess over those things in the shower or as you’re lying in bed trying to go back to sleep a half-hour before your alarm goes off. When you’re writing, be in the moment. I will go a step further and say not only should you focus on the small picture, but focus, above all, on having fun.

Yeah, I know. It’s a hard sell. And your MFA buddies are totally going to make fun of you for not being miserable (like all true are-testes), but that’s okay. It will be our secret until you actually manage to make a career as a writer and they don’t. So fuck them. Here are the basics to get out of the way: I set a 1000 word quota--I do this with poetry (a poem a day) as well--every day. (Lamott says 500. Stephen King says either 1000 or 2000, I forget. I know a writer who does 250 or 300. Some people do chapter quotas. It doesn't matter. The point isn't writing a million words a day; it's writing a little regularly, keeping in the habit, etc. etc.) The reason I do 1000 is mostly arbitrary (I'm not good with math), but I can get a good scene and a little more out in 1000 words, usually. So, for me, a shape emerges. There you go. There’s your regimen. That’s all you need. You’re like a freaking athlete training for the Olympics, if the Olympics consisted of never making any real money at the thing you work your ass off to do. Hmm. Sorry. Maybe you can get an endorsement deal for pizza and Mountain Dew? Anyway, now to the good stuff.

The most important thing about this is finding some element of the story I really enjoy writing--that discovery is what keeps me going--every time I write. I usually have some starting place in mind, an important detail or scenario that I know will probably lead me somewhere. I give the car a push down the hill and keep my eyes open for something fun. Really, this is my goal when writing—not to impress anyone, not to fit a market, hell, not to even be good, but to find something fun. Something interesting. Because all of that other stuff is happening, anyway. (Granted, I’ve been writing novels for a while, now, so I’m kind of on autopilot at times, in terms of structure.) Maybe that fun thing means a gag, which is great, but how often do we find good gags? Maybe it means I spend a hundred words on a really nice description of…whatever. A pleasing turn of phrase. A surprising plot development. Maybe it’s 50 words, 25 words, 10 words of dialogue where I just nail this character’s accent, attitude, background, whatever. And it’s so good and so real that Goddamn. Goddamn.

Okay. Great. Hell, maybe it’s just some detail that makes me smile (like naming all the murder victims after people in my workshop). Just find that fun thing. Nothing else really matters that much. You will take that fun thing with you the rest of the day. That’s why you’ll come back to the keyboard tomorrow, and the day after, and…well, it’s the weekend after that, but totally, again on Monday…

Once I've found that fun thing, I pretty much stop, if I’ve hit my quota. It probably took me a while to set that thing up—getting the characters into the conflict that led to the great dialogue, getting them to the location where I was able to give the great description, whatever. If I haven’t hit my quota—every so often, the best thing I write is in the first 200 words—then I try to get the hell out of that situation and into something completely different so I can set up the next fun thing. Of course, it depends on the scene, etc. But, usually, it takes me a while to get going, so I’m pretty much at my quota.

Of course, one would hope that everything one writes is brilliant. Good luck with that. I will say, for me, once I get the car pointed towards that fun thing—and much of this is instinctual, sure—the writing is much, much better, and I’m really just riding out the clock until I hit my grand. And when I’m not finding it, the writing is shit. So, I change gears, move to a different section, focus on a different element of the story, whatever.

Also, it should go without saying that I’m not talking about filler. I’m not suggesting just to wax poetic about bearded trees and clouds. I’m saying move forward with your story but always be on the lookout for opportunities to explore joy. Yes, these are sometimes detours, but they are also often the best parts of the story. Maybe they take the story in a new direction. Of course, plot can be fun, right? That can absolutely be your fun thing; though, for me, it’s usually more character-driven. If you're having fun, the reader will have fun. But if you are slogging through mud, so will the reader. But hey, they’ll just quit reading.

I also don't spend all fucking day on this. I'm not going to bash my head into the wall every time I write because Jesus Christ why the fuck would you do that? I would never write again! That’s missing the whole point! But people do... This is the same thinking that makes people quit diets or exercise—they make the thing onerous and then wonder why it sucks so bad. Don’t do that. Focus, instead, on joy, on having fun. Yes, it's work, but it's work you theoretically enjoy--that it where the joy comes from. I usually allocate an hour, even a half-hour if I’m busy, but I've been writing novels for years, so don't cripple yourself with ridiculous expectations. Really, try to get to one fun thing and then quit for the day. That way, you've got that accomplishment to feel good about. Hey, I wrote a really nice description of some character’s beard, and some other stuff. Boom. Done. Go have a drink. Wait for that plane ticket to Stockholm.

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