Dojo Summer Sessions: Writing Inspirations, Good Advice

I’m busy writing a short story that decided it couldn’t wait and trying to pre-load meaty posts for this long winter writing season. So I shall foist you off on other, wiser people who had quite good things to say to writers such as ourselves. This is a small collection of quotes I’ve gathered over some years and meant to turn into a Dojo article someday. They need no help from me: they can stand alone.

“You ask yourself the following question: To what questions in life have I not yet found a satisfactory answer?”

-Holly Lisle, “Finding Your Themes

“An American editor worries his hair gray to see that no typographical mistakes appear on the page of his magazine.  The Chinese editor is wiser than that.  He wants to leave his readers the supreme satisfaction of discovering a few typographical mistakes for themselves.”

-Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

“There is a curious thing that one feels sometimes.  When you are considering a subject, suddenly a whole train of reasoning comes before you like a flash of light.  You see it all, yet it takes you perhaps two hours to put on paper all that has occurred to your mind in an instant.  Every part of the subject, the bearings of all its parts upon each other, and all the consequences are there before you.”

            -Lord Wellington, quoted in John Keegan’s The Mask of Command

“A writer of fiction, a professional liar, is paradoxically obsessed with what is true….. the unit of truth, at least for a fiction writer, is the human animal, belonging to the species Homo sapiens, unchanged for at least 100,000 years.

“Fiction, in its groping way, is drawn to those moments of discomfort when society asks more than its individual members can, or wish to, provide.  Ordinary people experiencing friction on the page is what warms our hands and hearts as we write.”

            -John Updike, quoted in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate

If at least one of those didn’t make your Muse sit up and take notice, then I despair of your Muse.

Dojo Summer Sessions: I Shall Require Topics

Summer’s drawing to a close, and the winter writing season is very nearly upon us. The Muse is back from wherever she spent her summer vacation. It looks like winter will be coming early. There’s a sharp chill in the night air, and a certain gleam in her eye that says I’m in for it. She also appears to have acquired a new whip. Dear, oh dear.

So I’m furiously loading up on posts before summer ends in order to clear the decks for some marathon fiction writing. I’ll need at least 30 Dojo posts fired up and ready to go in advance. I’ve got about half that nearing completion, and I’m running a bit low on ideas.

Topics. I require topics. What haven’t I covered in the Dojo that you’d like to see covered? Pepper me with questions about all things writing, whether fiction or blogging. Tell me what you struggle with. Are there contentious issues in the wordsmithing world you’d like to see me tackle with nothing more than my wits and perhaps a rock hammer? Get them to me. If you don’t want to go public, you can always find dhunterauthor at yahoo. DM me on Twitter. Drop me a line on Google+, only you’d better do that before October, because I’ve plans to abandon it willy-nilly if it continues to be evil. You can even find me on Facebook: although I tend to neglect that place shamefully, they always notify me by email when something gets messaged or posted.

Right, then. Fire away.

Dojo Summer Sessions: The Writer’s Gut

My heart sister says important things about writing. And you may say to yourself, “Well, of course, Dana would think so – Nicole’s the sister she never had.” That’s true. Yes, I am partial. But there’s also another factor: Nicole writes for a living, so when she says things about writing, these important things, it behooves an aspiring author to listen for reasons beyond the fact Dana loves and trusts her.

She had this to say just recently:

I have to trust myself as I write these stories. I have feelings about which stories will work and which should probably be included only in my journal. And I have those feelings for a reason. My writer’s gut is telling me which direction to go. I just have to trust it.

As writers, it’s sometimes easy to trust other people’s opinions more than our own. After all, writers are seeking approval of fellow writers, agents and publishers and, ultimately, readers. We want to know that what we’re doing is going to be read and enjoyed by people.

But only you know the best way to do your characters justice. Only you know how to write your stories. You have to trust yourself.

She’s right. She’s right about all of it. And those last lines, particularly, are ones that are now burned into my writer’s soul and will not let go, because they are true, and I sometimes need to hear them stated that starkly so that I am reminded of the truth.

But what did I get hung up on? The “writer’s gut.” What is that? What is this “writer’s gut”? Why should I trust it?

I’m not one much for talk of instinct and intuition anymore. I used to be. Then I started hanging round with scientists, who subject their “gut instinct” to rigorous testing. They’re so often wrong, these intuitions, these leaps. The writer’s gut, you see, is an instinct. It’s an intuition. Why should we trust it?

Because those instincts and intuitions are hard-won, my friends. They only happen after we’ve worked ourselves bloody, after we’ve been writing for a long time. The writer’s gut is different from that first flush of creativity, that alluring idea, that wild self-confidence you feel before you’ve actually picked up a pen and run up against harsh reality. The writer’s gut is developed only after years, perhaps decades, of hard, lonely work.

It’s your subconscious writer’s mind, the one you acquired after a billion failed drafts and some writing classes and/or workshops and reading countless books on writing and blogs on writing, the one that listened to and absorbed what the experts (i.e., successful authors you worshipped) told you about how to write, watching the story unfold and clearing its throat meaningfully on occasion.

It plugs you in to a high-voltage current and gives you the buzz of your life when you’re on to something, when you’re working with an idea that will lead to a fantastic story. It takes your brain and gives it a good hard wrench when you’ve hared off in the wrong damned direction. It can’t always articulate what’s wrong and what’s right. But if you listen just right, you can tell what it means. And when you’ve learnt to listen to it, it can keep you on a path that everybody says you shouldn’t take but turns out to be the right one in the end. It can steer you round stumbling blocks. It can tell you when you’ve gone badly astray and must backtrack rather than stumble stubbornly ahead.

Is it wrong? I’m sure it sometimes is. But if you’ve honed it, you can trust it most of the time.

I don’t actually think of it as my “writer’s gut.” I think of it as the story. The story knows better than I do. It always does. It knows what it wants and needs. It knows if I’m the right writer for it. I’ve got a hard drive full of story ideas, amazing ideas, wonderful ideas that would make fabulous stories, but I know I can’t write them. My writer’s gut tells me they’re not my stories. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to give them free to a good home. They should have adoption centers for abandoned story ideas. But there are ideas that look up at me with those big, soulful eyes, and wriggle just a little, and I know they’re mine. I know, even if they look ridiculous to other people at first, that I can help them grow into something sleek and beautiful and enchanting. There are stories that are mine to tell, and I recognize them now. They make it easier to regretfully pass the other stories by, leave them for another.

My writer’s gut also knows when I’ve gotten ahead of myself. It knows when a story idea is mine, but I’m not ready for it yet. Then it slows me down to a gentle halt, directs me to do some more work before coming back to that story. I’m manifestly not ready now for some of the ideas I have got. There are plenty of others to work with in the mean time. My writer’s gut tells me that this is fine. All of my stories will be better served in the end by writing the ones I’m prepared for first. There are stories I told ten years ago I couldn’t tell now, and stories I’m telling now I couldn’t have told ten years ago. And eventually, with work and care, they’ll be drawn together into a body of work, whole and complete, and ready to make their own way in the world.

You may wonder why I haven’t tried publishing those stories. My writer’s gut again. It tells me to wait, just now. I write out of order. After long consultation with my writer’s gut, it’s been determined that this is the proper way for me to write, but not to publish. That’s fine. Stories are patient. These stories will be just fine waiting a few more years until their siblings are ready to join them in that grand adventure that is finding an audience.

I can hear the publish-or-perish crowd howling in protest just now, but they shan’t overrule my writer’s gut. Theirs tells them to push their work out in the world, and they are right – for those works. Not these. I used to beat myself up over not being like them. No more. No, I’ve learned to listen to that instinct that’s telling me it’s all right to wait until the stories are ready. Not forever. Not until they’re perfect, because nothing ever is, but until they are as right as they need to be.

The thing about this writer’s gut is, you know your stories better than anyone else possibly can. You live them. They are inside you. And that’s what gives you the instincts you have got. Instinct is just a word for something you know so well you can’t articulate it. But it’s not that silly intuition that’s no better than tossing divining sticks or a pair of gaming dice. It’s that intuition that comes from knowing something very, very well.

So, yes, when you’ve lived with your stories long enough to know them more intimately than you’ve ever known a lover, emblazon these words upon your wall, so that you will never forget them:

But only you know the best way to do your characters justice. Only you know how to write your stories. You have to trust yourself.

And then, write.

Dojo Summer Sessions: The Writer’s Rituals

I think most of us who write, no matter how skeptical or non-superstitious we are, have our little rituals to summon the Muse (not that the wretched entity comes when called). Consider this an invitation to regale us with yours.

I’m not picky when it comes to blogging. I’ve done it in my PJs, but usually sans Cheetos, thus not fully confirming stereotypes. Something arises I wish to pontificate upon, and so pontification occurs. I can blog any time of day or night, in a variety of settings, in various stages of dress or un, with or without prior preparation depending on the subject.

But fiction, that’s a different beast. I’ve successfully written a few times in places outside my home, but that’s a rare thing. Generally speaking, in order to summon the storytelling, I have to be ensconced in my comfy chair in my living room, within sight of my Yoshitaka Amano prints of Morpheus. I must be fully dressed. I’ve never felt comfortable writing fiction in my jammies, although I’ve managed it a few times when the Muse has rousted me out of bed. I must have music playing, and the music must be agreeable to the characters I’m writing. I’ve gotten involved with quite a lot of musical genres I had no use for simply because a particular character required them. Strange, perhaps, but there it is.

Some stories require a clean house. Some require sobriety, some a nice mixed drink. It’s nice to know these things in advance so that writing can commence.

There must be darkness. I have a terrible time writing in daylight, which is why Seattle winters are such a compliment to my writing and its summers make it nearly impossible. That’s fine. A writer needs to get out occasionally, experience life in order to create lifelike worlds, so I just use the summer to accomplish that feat.

I have a special hand soap I use, a very deep floral scent that washes away all traces of the day. I plug in a nice jasmine scented oil. Scent is an important component of emotional states, as science has proved, and those particular scents signal my brain that it’s time to shake off the remains of the day and get on with the real work.

Some stories are helped along by particular shows or movies, even if they aren’t the same genre or atmosphere as what I’m writing. So I might spend an hour or two watching one, before the real work starts. Then, shot full of adrenaline, I have one final preparatory smoke out on the porch, look at the stars (if the Seattle skies have obliged), and sit me down in the chair to invite further forays into the realm of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

It may sound a bit complicated and unnecessary. To non-writers, it probably smacks of madness. But there you are: without at least a handful of those rituals, I sit staring at a blank screen, and words too often refuse to come. I’m sure neuroscience will one day be able to calmly and dispassionately explain all in great detail. It might even come up with ways to persuade the Muse to work even on nights when the rituals have failed, and the brain remains as stubbornly blank as the screen. Until that day, I just stick with what’s worked so far, like a pigeon performing a crazy little dance in the belief that this is what makes the food appear.

Creativity is a weird and wonderful thing, innit it?

Dojo Summer Sessions: Connie Willis on Comedy, Tragedy, and Getting Married via LOTR

Comatose from traveling, I’m afraid. However, I have Connie Willis here to delight, surprise, and teach you. She’s one of the best SF authors in existence. Also, funny and surprising. Watch!

Don’t miss this next one for sheer geeky hilarity. Lord of the Rings has changed a lot of people’s lives, but I don’t think any of us knew quite how powerful it truly is.

Dojo Summer Sessions: The Pleasures of Longhand

I’ve just spent the past two nights taking notes longhand from various books and websites. I’ve got notebooks full of such scribblings, deep black ink on white paper, handwriting that changes according to mood, caffeine levels, and whether or not the cat wanted attention. It’s a dramatically inefficient way to take notes: using a pen takes far longer than typing. I can’t shuffle things about in various folders on the desktop; I can’t do keyword searches. So why, in this digital age, would anyone choose a pen and put it to paper?

I can’t answer for other writers, but I know the answers for myself. It forces me to slow down, pay attention to each word and phrase, rather than skim. When one is struggling to learn alone, to draw disparate bits together and forge them into a coherent whole, make sense of things barely understood, slowing down to that degree is immensely helpful. I’ve read one of the sections I took notes from several times, but it wasn’t until I started copying out the sentences that their meaning became clear. Things began to make sense. What I saw on the page began merging with what I’d seen in the field. And when I add to those notes ones taken from other sources, and can then read them as a unit, matters become even more clear.

I notice things and question things I wouldn’t have paid attention to otherwise. In one of the books I’m mining, the authors keep mentioning radioactive dates. Fine, yes, I know how that works, how ages are determined by the decay of radioactive minerals – but which ones? Was this potassium-argon, uranium-lead, something else? Taking notes longhand, walking the slow road, keeps me from missing such subtle omissions, and alerts me to where the gaps in my knowledge are. Not merely the great gaping chasms, mind, but the little cracks. And that prompts me to pay attention when something comes along to fill those cracks in later readings.

There’s also the aesthetic sense. There’s something sensual about writing longhand. I can feel the words in a way I can’t when I’m typing. Forming each letter is a kind of art. The physicality of it, the inability to erase mistakes without a trace, the gleam of fresh wet ink, brings me as close as I’ll ever get to more visual arts like painting. It satisfies the need to create something more like a drawing. And trust me when I say you’d much prefer I fulfill that desire in this way: my drawing skillz are teh suck.

Copying out longhand also puts me closer to other writers. I’m not just reading what they’ve written, but feeling it. I start to notice little quirks each author has, particular habits of word choice, signature turns of phrase. Even the strictest formal prose has an individual mind behind it. When you’re merely reading, or cutting and pasting blocks of text, or scribbling out a key concept or two, it’s easy to miss those subtleties. Not when you’re copying out each sentence word-for-word by hand. At this point, I can just about write a dissertation on David Alt and Donald Hyndman’s quirks. That kind of thing can be extremely useful to a writer. Getting a feel for how different writers employ language in prose helps you develop a style of your own. It’s another way of learning the good tricks that turn you from apprentice to master wordsmith.

And then there’s the purely practical matter of having all of these various bits and pieces collected in one place, in a form that fits easily on the arm of a chair, where they can be referenced without having to switch screens. And those notes stay collected, easy to refer back to for future missives on similar areas or issues.

Some idle thoughts have tickled my mind while I’ve been doing this. I wonder if kids a few years from now, with their pad devices, will find people like me hopelessly anachronistic. As I form the letters in my own personal mix of cursive and print, I wonder how much longer it would take to write longhand if one had never learned cursive at all, and whether anyone aside from specialists will be able to read cursive letters in the future. I wonder if any pad device with a stylus will ever allow me to do this longhand writing electronically, and convert my scribbles into nice clean lines, and if it would feel as right as this pen gliding across this paper. I wonder if I can ever train a cheap optical character reader to read my handwriting so that the next time I move, my entire collection will fit on a corner of a hard drive rather than taking up several boxes, and so that I can actually organize this crap. I mean, yes, I could scan it, but if I’m going to go that far, I want a program that will turn my notes into things I can search and manipulate, not merely stare at as one monolithic ensemble on the screen. I’d like it turned into neat and clean Times New Roman.

The way technology’s going, there’s probably something already out there, but I haven’t bothered looking for it. I’m enjoying my old-fashioned dead-tree-and-ink methods too much right at the moment. That stack of notebooks beside my chair is a nice physical reminder that yes, I’ve been working me arse off. And the cat likes them. All reasons enough, I should think, to keep on despite the glaring inefficiencies.