What’s Up, Abe?

For this weeks post, I thought I’d share some of the changes I’ve made in my process, as well as just generally muse about what I’ve learned as a writer in the past month.

Since August 12th–when I started tracking my word count and progress–I’ve written at least 5 minutes every day. For those who’re keeping track, that means I’ve maintained the Five Minute Rule for over a month. What’s more, as you can see on my Word Count page, my progress stands at 26,591 words. That’s a lot of expression!

Since becoming aware of the Five Minute Rule, and practicing it myself, I’ve discovered that many other writers credit the rule with getting them writing and completing their novels (etc.). Based on my success applying it so far, I’m certain I’ll be yet another writer who will credit my success to the rule. The thing is, if you haven’t read about it elsewhere, the most beautiful thing about the rule is–as one other writer said–“everyone has five minutes a day.” You may realistically not have a half-hour or an hour, but EVERYONE can find five minutes a day–even if it’s just the time you spend sitting on the toilet. Yes, I went there. And, as another writer I read (in Immediate Fiction, I think) described, you can actually write a novel in five minutes a day. It’ll take longer than if you were able to write ten minutes a day, but it will get done, and far faster than you imagine. Seriously, if you haven’t given the Five Minute Rule a go yet, try it out. I think you’ll find yourself writing for more than five minutes, and being far more productive than you would be not following the rule. For me the rule is helpful because five minutes doesn’t seem that intimidating. When I think about it, I think, “Sure, I can write for five minutes. It might suck and be difficult and messy and gross and irritating, but I can do it.” Back when I was trying to make time to write for a half-hour or a couple hours, I didn’t get much done and I felt muy bad about myself as a failed writer. There were two things going on then: finding two hours is muy dificile (very difficult), and the idea of writing for two hours is muy intimidante (very intimidating). On the other hand, finding and writing for five minutes is menos dificile (less difficult) and muchas menos intimidante (much less intimidating). Also, I personally found that often when I’d sit down to write for five minutes, I’d accidentally write for ten minutes of more–sometimes a half-hour even. Just getting started seems to be half the battle, and thinking of it as five minutes only, gets my butt in the chair and my fingers typing.

Also in the last month: initially when I began writing I used Yarny (Yarny.me). It’s a fantastic web app for writing. It’s appealing to look at, very intuitive to use, and just generally a delight. However, since it is a web app you access through your browser, you must have internet access to use it. This turned out to be a problem since some of the times I was able to write were at work, where internet access doesn’t access for my laptop itself, and where my phone gets poor data signal which makes tethering to it a no-go. If the laptop were able to directly connect to the internet through a cellular data connection (not via a tethered connection which has to run through the phone before going to the internet), the connection there at work might’ve been sufficient. But over the tethered connection it just didn’t work. I contacted the creators of Yarny to ask about features they had indicated months ago (maybe even last year) that they were/are working on. Specifically, I asked about offline support–since this was the primary feature I needed to be able to use Yarny anywhere. I received a nice reply back thanking me for using Yarny and reassuring me that they had some “exciting features in the pipeline” but were currently busy preparing for Nanowrimo. I appreciate the nice response, but I can’t build my personal writing plans on hopes and dreams (all that hopey changy stuff). I have to deal in what is, or what will soon be. And since they couldn’t/didn’t indicate that anything regarding offline support would be changing any time soon, I went in search of other options.

Luckily, about this time, school started again, and I was able to be awarded financial aid for the purchase of a computer for my Master’s degree. It’s got to last me for the next four years, but I am now the proud owner of a Macbook Air 11.6″ 2012 (MBA). It’s fully-loaded, BTO (built-to-order), with the i7 Ivy Bridge processor, 8 GB ram, 512 GB SSD hard drive. It’s screaming fast. And the extremely pricey, but very roomy SSD hard drive means that I have tons of room for media, program installation (which is good since I’ll be installing lots of Windows programs on the MBA via Parallels), and file storage. So far I adore this little machine. Oh yes, type on it is small, and that might bother some, but for me I love that I have a tiny, incredibly powerful/capable computer which can do anything and everything I need, wherever I happen to need to do it. At a drop of a hat I can do some writing, or programming (I use NetBeans), or whatever. The keyboard and trackpad are exceptional, the screen is fantastically clear, crisp, sharp, and bright; and the machine itself is extraordinarily well-made and very svelte looking. Yes, I still loathe Apple’s business practices. But they do make one hell of a machine. Oh, and their buying process is one of the most satisfactory I’ve ever encountered: When I ordered I was told that my MBA would ship nearly a week later. I ordered on a Thursday and was told it would ship sometime between Wednesday and Friday of the next week. To my surprise, my MBA shipped out of Shanghai, China, on Monday and arrived Tuesday. This is an exceptional example of “under promise, over deliver.” The set my expectations, and then exceeded them–making me one startled and happy customer in the process. Also, one last note on the MBA: I actually prefer Windows machines (especially Windows 7). I find that OS to be far more efficient for multitasking than the OS X for one primary reason: the Windows taskbar. Being able to mouse over a stack of Window icons in the taskbar and see thumbnails of all running instances of a program (say, various open Word documents) is remarkably useful. You mouse over the stack, they fan out into thumbnails and you chose the specific window you want and it takes you right to it. On OSX it’s a much more tedious process of finding your way to the exact Window you want. I’m sure I’ll get faster at using it, however, as I continue. So, OSX aside, I looked long and hard for a Windows machine which remotely approximated the quality and specs of the MBA 2012 line of products. And yes, for the record, I did look at the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon, the Asus Zenbook Prime, and the Dell XPS 13. The Carbon wasn’t truly available yet even though it had some excellent specs, fantastic build quality, and awesome design (it seemed to have some massive problems with shipping delays leading to a lot of uncertainty as to when a new buyer would actually receive their new Carbon). The Zenbook Prime was reviewed well by the “experts,” but featured many bad user reviews on Amazon, NewEgg and so on. Many users of the Zenbook Prime told about how they had ordered a Prime, received it, found it to have problems, ship it back, get another one, find it to also have problems, ship it back, get another one, find it had problems, ship it back…Basically, on Amazon, whereas the MBA had predominantly 4 and 5 star reviews, the Zenbook Prime had reviews distributed equally from 1-5 stars. Not a good sign. As reviewers said, Asus seems to have some real issues with their quality control. That put me off the Prime. The Dell XPS 13 was reputed to be Dell’s best laptop ever. It’s said to be extremely well-designed and constructed, with reasonably good performance. On the negatives side though, it doesn’t feature the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, or even the current generation i7 Ivy Bridge CPU, and it also comes with a maximum of 4 GB of memory (this is another reason I wasn’t interested in the Zenbook Prime UX31A: it too only came equipped with 4 GB and could not be upgraded to more). Also, the XPS 13 was said to have only an “okay” screen. All in all, in my shopping and comparing, only the MBA could be ordered in the small footprint (11.6″) with a great screen (not IPS by any means, but an exceptionally good LCD panel), light weight, and all the modern specs that I desired. I paid $2200 with the educational discount and received a $100 gift card for apps, music, and movies/tv on the iTunes or App store. It astounds me that at no price was there a competing PC offering. Even the Lenovo Thinkpad Carbon X1 was available only initially in an i5 Ivy Bridge CPU coupled with 8 GB of ram. Supposedly they will be releasing the option to get the i7 Ivy Bridge with 8 GB of ram in October. Still, how is it that Apple is the only one offering such incredibly mobile computers with awesome specifications? Whereas Windows OEMs are fighting over the commodity space. I’m surprised that at least one Windows OEM doesn’t pull an Apple and try to make themselves the purveyor of high-end Windows PCs and laptops: very fashionable and well-made machines that exhibit astounding performance and portability at prices which compete with Apple. But no, instead everyone seems afraid to compete with Apple–as if they have a monopoly on Awesome.

Anyway, so the MBA is a fantastic piece of hardware and I will get used to OSX eventually. It’s not bad, and the multitouch gestures on the trackpad really do help with getting around in a very magical and effective way. It’s kind of cool.

Having a Mac opened the door to Scrivener 2.3.1…which is significantly more advanced than its Windows or Linux counterpart. On Mac it’s a mature, stable, and fully-featured platform. On Windows and Linux (I bought it for Windows a year or so ago), it’s not as refined, not as fully-featured, and not remotely as stable. Especially on Linux it’s just a pain to use and unstable to boot. But on Mac it’s a joy. Since Yarny wasn’t going to be bringing out offline support any time soon, I copied and pasted all the writing I’d done in Yarny into a Scrivener project and started doing all my writing there.

Let me tell you: I love the combination of Scrivener and the MBA. I’ve written several thousand words so far in Scrivener on Mac, and it’s been a blast. I’m looking forward to continuing developing as a writer on the MBA using Scrivener.

The last thing I wanted to talk about was about how the process of writing continues to surprise me. I guess I came at writing with some pretty specific pre-conceived notions which haven’t served me well in the past. One of the main notions I had was that writers simply start writing their books. Only recently have I become aware that many professional writers outline extensively before they start “writing.” I’ve only recently become aware that my notion is actually referred to as “pantsing” in writerly circles, and that it’s a controversial topic because some writers swear by it, and others swear by outlining. After I read an excellent book on outlining by K.M. Weiland, I realized that what was holding me back was not knowing what to write before sitting down to write. For me the missing piece was learning about some outlining methods which fit my personality. I guess I’d known about outlining previously but had had a very specific notion that outlining was rigid, bullet-points, and dry. What K.M. laid out was a free-flowing, organic process for discovering and developing your story in a nuanced way–through outlining. I loved her description of the Sketch Outline: basically where you just pour out all your thoughts on the story in a free-flowing manner without editing, without criticizing, without second-guessing. You spit it out and muse on what you’ve spit out. And you spit out some more, and muse on it. And more, and so on. You ask lots of questions and run off on tangents and do whatever basically feels natural in exploring your story, world, and characters. At some point you have such a nuanced and detailed idea of your characters, world, and story that you’re able to start constructing a scene by scene breakdown of the events in the story. This is like putting up the structure of a house–which will later be filled in with walls, paint, windows, carpeting, wood floors, and then people, pets, furniture, etc.

Using this technique has freed me: both from worrying that I wasn’t doing “writing” right if I didn’t just start writing my story right away; and from the worry that if I didn’t start out immediately bullet-pointing and planning my book scene-by-scene, I was doing outlining wrong. As a writer, I’ve discovered that it’s enough, at this stage, to simply exercise my creative muscle and tap into my creativity regarding my WIP every day for five minutes or more. As I do it, it gets easier. And as I pour out my thoughts on the story, I discover ideas and nuances I would never have conceived of. My story and the characters and world it is set in are becoming more interesting and dynamic by the day.

So please, if you’re like I was–not writing because I couldn’t find the time, or because you’re worried about having to actually start writing either the story right away or a bullet-pointed outline–give yourself a break. Either using Yarny or Scrivener or a word processor, just create a document entitled something like, “Rough Outline.” I call mine the “Free Flowing Outline.” Then, every day, date your entry and start musing over some portion of the story which interests you. Never allow the part of yourself that thinks, “this is stupid,” to interrupt the process. Forge onward, gently stilling the voices of doubt and judgement in the back of your mind. Just write, and take great joy from following little strands connecting various characters, and various locations, and various ideas. Don’t sweat your grammar or spelling too much. Feel free to take off on tangents, ask yourself questions, ask your characters questions, have your characters talk to each other, peer into your characters heads and thoughts, and basically run wild. This stage, as I see it more and more, is the “run wild” stage. The real fun, play phase, where you’re letting your story be everything it can be including everything it can’t be. As I’m discovering, 26,591 words in, this “Rough Outline” can be easily as long as the book which will be created from it. And actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if my Rough Outline weren’t, say, twice as long as the book I’m shooting to write (85-90,000 words). And that’s okay.

The Point

…Is to keep writing.

I’ll admit: having started school (a Master’s in Computer Science; My Bachelor’s is in Economics), continued working part-time, and attempting to be a decent husband and father (to a seven-month old precious little girl), I’ve had a very difficult time keeping up with my writerly responsibilities. It’s difficult to find the motivation, energy, and interest in writing my weekly blog posts (I’ve decided doing two a week simply isn’t feasible. I’m going to start doing one a week whenever possible), do my weekly Critters Workshop review, and do my nightly writing for at least 5 minutes.

I frequently feel quite guilty because I’m not doing as well at the above as I’d like. But everything I have going on really makes me feel torn in multiple directions simultaneously. There have been more nights when it took me until the wee morning hours to finally bring myself to pull up Yarny, start the timer, and crank out a few hundred words. And there have been nights when I just had nutt’in. I put my fingers on the keyboard, think of my WIP, The Unchosen, and come up dry.

On those nights, whenever they happen, I’ve given myself permission. Number 1, I’ve given myself permission to suck. Number 2, I encourage myself to simply–at this stage–pour out any and all ideas that come to me and explore them (it’s like drilling an oil well: don’t stop until the damn thing runs dry). Number 3, I’ve given myself permission to write nothing which has anything to do with the story. Sometimes Number 3 results in 5 minutes of me complaining about how much I just want to be in bed, or how tired I am, or how guilty I feel about not being a better husband, father, employee, writer, student, etc. Sometimes I ramble about how excited I am about something I read in the news. And recently, more than one night I wrote a couple hundred words about my attempts to identify the best laptop for my needs as a computer scientist and writer. Aside: I prefer Windows, but after much ado, I discovered that no sufficiently powerful, capable, portable, quality machine existed in the Windows camp. Consider the Dell XPS 13. It has a great form factor, excellent construction, and a reputably good keyboard and trackpad. However, by comparison to the Macbook Air the screen was said to be “not as good,” and the top-end XPS 13 only came with a last-generation intel processor, last generation of integrated graphics (Intel HD 3000), and only 4GB ram. Likewise, the Asus Zenbook Prime was well-reviewed by the “experts” but very poorly reviewed by actually users (on Amazon.com). Also, the 11.6″ Zenbook Prime with the 1080p screen has apparently never, somehow, been released in the U.S. Basically, there was not a Windows computer available at any price which was the equal of the Macbook Air 11.6″. The upcoming release of new Windows 8 machines may change that–but if history tells us anything it is that Windows hardware makers just DON’T GET IT. They seem unable to create products that approximate Apple’s laptops in quality, style, and price. Let’s be honest. I spent $2200 on a maxed out 11.6 Macbook Air, but I doubt any Windows laptop maker would be able to provide the same specs for that price: current-generation i7 Intel CPU, Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, 8GB ram, 512GB SSD hard drive, and a fantastic keyboard, trackpad, and screen. My new Macbook Air 11.6″ should arrive by Wednesday morning! My only hesitation is that, while I’ve never crashed the operating system, in past usage of a Mac, I successfully crashed multiple applications on it every single day. Not very impressive. Solid OS, crappy applications? Or does the nature of the OS make it difficult to create resilient applications? Anyway, I’ll install Windows 8 via Parallels on it so I can run whatever Windows programs I deem necessary.

ANYWAY. Yes. When all else fails, I simply tell myself I MUST write for at least 5 minutes. Something. Anything. And I have for the past month. If you’re keeping score, via My Word Count page, you’ll note that the last month has seen me produce 21,177 words! That’s a lot of written expression! And, while it’s not structured since I’m in the unstructured, sketch-outline phase of brainstorming my book, a lot of it is pretty good. At this rate the sketch-outline/brainstorm of the book will almost be as long as the actual book itself when finished! Crazy. But, it needs to be recognized, that I am in my infancy as a writer. I’m still learning a lot about which methods and techniques work for me, and which don’t. So far I think the free-form outline process as been a great success. It allows me to simply open the doors to my creativity and let whatever my subconscious has come up with come out. But as a “newbie” at this, it will take some time before I discover my own unique efficient way of crafting engaging entertaining novels. What I’m doing now is a great way to start. I highly recommend it.

What has worked for you? Please comment below…

Writing is Acting

In really entertaining fiction, the writer gives the reader a vivid picture of events as they occur through what his characters see, feel, and think. Creating this vivid fictional experience is exceptionally difficult–so difficult in fact that many commercially successful novels succeed in spite of lacking this riveting “deep perspective” experience to the reader. I’m talking about the difference between:

Adam felt enraged. Blake hadn’t won but he thought he had.

And…

His pulse pounded in his veins. His face and chest clenched into a vise. I’ll get that prick, oh yes I will. Look at that smirk on Blake’s face. He actually thinks he’s won.

See the difference? In the first we’re told what happened with all kinds of narrative distance. In the second we experience the event (whatever it may be, I just winged this one) as it feels to Adam, and hear some of his thoughts. It gives us a lot more of an immediate experience and reveals a lot more character.

The beauty of this approach is that stories gain nuance when we only observe from one characters POV at a time. If we only have access to what they know/see/feel/hear/think in that moment it leaves a lot out… And all that which is unobserved, not considered, not thought of, could bite them in the butt in the end. It creates a tension and presents opportunities for characters to misunderstand each other, misread situations, and so on.

I doubt there are many writers who would argue with the above. Mostly, I imagine, writers struggle with tapping into their characters and delivering that deep immersion experience.

Creating an immersive experience of your characters and story world is done by acting. In other words, you put yourself in your characters shoes.

Try this. Pick a character and think about everything you know about them. Good. Now, close your eyes and focus all your attention on that character: their likes, dislikes, fears, features, ticks, possessions, goals, etc. Imagine yourself slowly becoming that character. If they have a dog, so do you; If they have coffee at the artsy place on the corner of 3rd and Thomas every Thursday morning to hobknob with the hippies, so do you; If their nose is crooked from a fight they got into with their sister when they were you, seen it on your face. Become them. Now, imagine their bedroom, and them asleep in their bed (or cot, or bed roll, whatever). Dive into them as a spirit fills the husk of a body. Then animate them. As your physical eyes remain closed, open the eyes of your character in your head. Lay there in that place and look at the ceiling. Listen to the sounds around you. Do any thoughts come to you? Rise from the bed and look around your characters room. How is it adorned? Walk from the room and explore the world you (the character) live in.

This is a basic exercise which can be applied in any scene or setting and with any character. If your character is in battle, dive into his body and observe the conflict through him. When you return to yourself, write what you discovered.

In my reviews of other writer’s work, the greatest challenge a talented writer faces is really crafting scenes and interactions through the actual experience of the characters involved. This is probably because sometimes we writers focus on what needs to happen (plot) more than we address how it happens. In many ways that sort of writing is just mannequins going through the motions prescribed by the author.

You know you’re falling prey to the clinical detached form of writing in you encounter in your writing the words felt, feel, thought; Or, if you find yourself narrating events, rather than describing them intimately from within your characters.

What other techniques do you use to make your writing visceral and immediate? I’d love to hear about them! Comment below!