My Take

I am using this page to collect my thoughts as I continue on the path of a writer.  This is only what I’ve learned and believe so far.  At some point, I’ll probably delete some of these bullets and certainly add others.  I’ll keep the ones I delete though, might as well get a sense of the evolution there.  Anyway, take a grain of salt and read on. (and please offer feedback in the comments)

General Thoughts

There are no rules in writing.  Don’t let anyone, as published as they may be, tell you otherwise.  Writing facilitates communication.  Communication facilitates thought.  Thought facilitates interest.  As long as you’re communicating, you’re writing just fine.  But be sure that you are…

Writing is…

…A solitary act.  Even on a bench in Penn Station, you write alone.

…A solitary act.  Two people have never written anything.  They’ve only shuffled their sentences and words.

…A solitary act.

…A form of psychosis.  History could have played out where all good fiction writers were committed for multiple personality disorders.

…A form of psychosis.  If you don’t laugh and cry during your scenes, and love and hate your characters, neither will your reader.

…A matter of opinion.  Figure out whose opinion matter to you.  The word “mine” should be first on a thoughtful and concise list.

Parent your vocabulary.  You will always love and be proud of it.  You will never put it in harmful situations.  You will always push its creativity and the limits of its abilities.  You will never substitute anything for it.  And above all, you will always see that it grows and becomes a more interesting person.

Know grammar.  Know it good.

When in the throes of creating a story, outside reading is done for rhythm not content.  Be VERY careful – like tiptoeing-through-a-dark-room-of-cobras careful – reading authors who own a stylistic market, like McCarthy or Wolff.  The temptation to copy will be unbearable, as will your work if you acquiesce even a smidge.

Embrace the little victories like you’ve won the war.  This is your fuel.  If a reader tells you something moved them, or an editor/gatekeeper gives you a bump in the right direction, whatever, love the hell out of it.  Relish.  Close your eyes and remember that’s why you’re doing what you’re doing.  You wrote for the reader and the reader wrote back.  Play it cool, but, on the inside, pump your fist.  Hard.  Then get back to work.

Never delete anything you’ve written. Build graveyards.  Unless you’re writing a manifesto on inefficiency, you should be working on a computer.  Have graveyard files of extricated ideas and texts.  These graveyards should have uninteresting names like “Good but didn’t fit,” “fits but isn’t good,” “random” and “crap.”  Reread each as appropriate or at least once a year.

Learn your “reset” button.  Have many.  Allow them to change.  Whatever you settle on, the blood should be moving.  Take a long walk or an unnecessary shower.  Do carpentry, yoga or cook.  Climb a tree.  Ride the subway and buses in funny patterns around the city.  Play piano.  Bang out a hundred one-handed pushups.  The brain is an organ and will tire.  But unlike the single-function bicep, your brain tires by subject, not use.  The brain always wants use.  It does.  Do something else and let the writing part reset.  Just keep the blood moving.  And carry a notebook.

If the words are coming and you feel like you have The Hot Hand.  Don’t stop.  A coach never takes out a guy who’s making his shots.  You shouldn’t either.  Don’t get up.  Don’t move.  Humans can live up to six days without water and thirty without food.  Unless you get creative with your chair, sprint to and from the bathroom.  You’re friends will still be your friends.  Write.  Write until your hand cools.  Write until It’s all out.  Write until you’re exhausted.  Then treat yourself to a cold glass of something, a hot plate of something else and call your friends.  (But don’t apologize)

If you’ve written your manuscript from start to finish, congratulations you’re almost half way there.

Write your manuscript in one document.  Do not divide chapters into documents or you will find yourself in a place called Formatting Hell and having trouble building full continuity to the story.

No matter what you do, you will always be in Formatting Purgatory.

Listen to music all the time.  And as loud as you possibly can.  Except while you write.

Be social.  Communication facilitates thought.

Think immersed in stimulus.  Write immersed in silence.

The harder it is to sleep, the more you should be writing.  The easier it is to sleep, the more you should be reading.

My progression to clear a Block.

1)      Reset button.

2)      Reread.  Reread sections you haven’t touched in a while.  Take notes.

3)      Write the next visible place in the story and continue from there.  The filler will come.  You may scrap that next visible place later.  You may realize that you can scrap the filler.

4)      Reread with the red pen or Control-X.  Be merciless.

5)      Write something else.  Write another story.  Write a long email to someone you’ve lost touch with.  Write about the reset buttons.  Write about why you think the writing isn’t coming.  Write about the craft writing. (Where do you think this piece came from?)

6)      Read a graveyard.

7)      Repeat under the influence of something and omit step 4. If content comes, proceed with step 4 once sober.

The moment of clarity behind a solid Block usually appears without warning and often in a torrent.  It will not wait for you to be near a computer.  Always carry a notebook.

The quotes I (try to) write by.

Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

(If I may be so bold as to add to Billy boy: “…and wit is the spirit of good writing.”)

Old Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I will forget.  Show me and I will remember.  Involve me and I will understand.”

The Explosives:

Careless handling will result in ugly disaster.  Thoughtful handling will result in a powerful reshaping of the literary landscape.

(Ordered by volatility, a Snap n’ Pop to a stick of dynamite)

–          Any form of “is.”  Is is an equals sign.  Math is wonderful but usually a lame read.

–          Blurry words like “this”, “it” and “thing.”  They are variables.  Math is wonderful but usually a lame read.

–          Words with debatable value to the sentence.  You know them.  “Just,” “clearly,” “all,” “really,” “now” and “basically” have their places. They can put a nice crimp in a clause or help turn a phrase.  But be sure they’re needed.  (I chose not to say, “Now just be sure they’re all really needed.”)  Read the sentence aloud if you’re unsure.

–          Telling the reader something outright about a character.  They should be able to see or feel it.

–          Back story.  It had better add and explain murky aspect of the plot and be impossible to explain naturally through dialog and actions.  (work around: make it it’s own short, extemporal chapter)

–          Adverbs.  They methodically, violently and singlehandedly break rhythm and meaning.

–          Adverbs.  They murder rhythm and meaning.

–          Exclamation points.  A well disguised adverb.

–          All caps.  SEE PREVIOULY STATED BULLET!

–          Research.  We have a natural eye for spotting the unnatural.

–          The second person.  You are hoping you do it well.

–          Laughter.  Be sure your characters find you as clever as your reader will.  Nothing alienates like standing in a room, not getting what’s so funny.  (Oddly, the same is not as true with sorrow.  We gravitate towards that.)

–          Repetition of facts.  Assume that smart people read. “Okay, I get it” is a mortal wound to a reader’s attention.

The Never:

Reading an author who writes on similar subjects in search of inspiration.  Admit that you’re looking for an idea.  And it’s called copycatting.

Soliciting feedback on work you haven’t given the label of “Finished (X) Draft.”  Get all your thoughts out first.

Eating and writing.  You will not be focused.  Learn biology if you really want to understand why.

Viewing your story as painful work.  Do something else.

Worrying about word count.  Tell your story.

The Always:

When working, turn off your phone, the TV and the internet. And people.

Carry a notebook.  Writers are reporters, not elephants.

Read your work aloud.  Yup.

Assume that smart people read.

Remember where people’s feedback comes from.

Be answering the question “why.”  Always.

The Rarely, The Sometimes, The Oftentimes and The Usually:

Up to you.


[Begin Notes to be put into better words later]

—And if you are trying to write, that means you don’t have any money.  Here are a few things to remember/use to save cash.

Mailing books: USPS Media Mail.  They don’t make it obvious on their site but the Postal Service has a way to send books/CD’s for pretty cheap (2-3 bucks) if you are above the weight limit for standard mail, which most books will be.

PDF Creation: Most self-publishing sites will only accept and most editors can only read PDFs created by Adobe.  They have you by the shorts, sorry.  And they are expensive.  If you want to dig around online or with friends to find a spare activation code, that is your most dependable course of action, if successful.  If not, after your free trial runs out, has decent PDF conversion software free when you use their online interface.  It’s slower and your functionality/customization is fairly low, but it’s something and free.  Also, if you download Acrobat X, they strangely still give you some functionality with Acrobat 9, if you can stand all the pop-ups asking for your hard earned cash.

—If you are publishing online, you have to learn to walk away.  The first time your work goes live, you’ll want to sit and count views, and shares, and Tweets, and be sure no one has commented anything disparaging.  Do something else.  It’ll eat up two hours of your day before you know it.  Publish, move on, do some good work and reward yourself at the end of the day with a check in.  I can tell you that it’s way more gratifying to re-open the page and see all the stats, rather than count them one by one with each refresh of the page.  It’s hard, but you’ll sabotage large portions of your hopefully-productive day if you don’t.

Remember that self-publishing sites are business, not friends trying to help you get your book out there. They’ll send friendly newsletters with all the “tricks” and “strategies of the trade” and many of them will actually be quite helpful, but just be aware of how they’ll steer you towards their products. Vet those products and compare against others. They want your business so be a discerning customer. Companies pretending to be your friend to sell something is not a new trick, but just be a little more aware since self-publishing a book for the first time will put you in a slightly more “agreeable” mindset, because you just want to get it out there and have help doing so.

Make a habit of rubbing, massaging and excercising your hands while you reread and proof your work. I keep a tennis ball handy to bounce, toss against the wall or just squeeze. Typing is brutal on your digits. Give ’em a stretch as much as possible.

When you’re finally ready to edit–you are DONE writing–give it one edit all the way through. Because you weren’t done writing. You did some writing on that edit. But, when you’re done with that, and ready to really edit: change the format of the document. Adjust the font, the size by a point, the paragraph justification, even the color. Your eyes have become used to reading that typeset for so long that if you try to edit, you’ll fill in words, gloss over typos and miss REALLY obvious mistakes. Don’t try to just read slowly. It won’t work, though it’ll help. You have to “see” the piece differently. Change it up.

There is a massive difference in how you can ask people to “read” your manuscript: for content/story or for errors. Think hard about which you want because you cannot–unless they are a true editor–read for both. They are mutually exclusive. If they read slow enough to catch typos, they’ll miss the flow of the story; if they read fast enough to feel the flow, they’ll miss typos. One or the other. My recommendation is on the first draft of the manuscript, read for story. Probably again on the second. If you still have a favor left with a few eagle eyes, then hit them up for the copyedit.


2 Responses to My Take

  1. lea horn says:

    Hi, Caleb–Just want you to know that I bought your Kindle short story of the Pond. I really liked that story a lot–had many hidden currents in it! (pun intended!) Keep up the good work.
    Summer is going to be brief up here in the Northwest. All the heat has bypassed us for the East!
    Love, Auntie Lea

  2. brett says:

    = is an =. true! hadn’t realized…better ways to go about it.

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