Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Lessons Learned

So, a month of writing and I have a “book” of 50,000 words.  Technically, 50,168.  And technically I think a book has to have an ending, which mine lacks, but the challenge isn’t a complete book, it is 50,000 words in thirty days – which I did.  Suffice to say I am damned proud of myself.  I was not sure that I could do it, and in fact, about ten days from the end, I was positive that I had messed up and would not be able to complete it.  At that point, I would have to dash out about three thousand words a day, which is a fair accomplishment for any writer, let alone one hack trying to dash out his deathless (haha, get it, deathless, a zombie book… oh come on, that’s comedy gold!) prose in the hours after his kids and wife go to bed.

An odd thing happened on day twenty three though - one of my very best friends, who shall remain nameless but who can’t measure driveways to save his soul, taunted me, in that way that only really good friends can do.  He laughed when I said that I would not be able to finish the goal, and said, to paraphrase “Another writing project you failed.” I’m sure that was in reference to my thirty day challenge I set for myself last January, which I almost managed to pull off.

He did not mean it in a hurtful way or, if it was meant that way, it was that friendly teasing mean that you only get from your very best friends.  Had I not accomplished the goal, and ended up at forty-five thousand, he would still have said “Damned good job” and he would still be asking to read it.  But for that taunt though, I would never have completed it.  I did not complete it to prove him wrong.  I did not complete it to prove that I could do it.  I completed it because I wanted to, because I had made a commitment to myself, and I wanted to be able to look at myself in my iPad reflection and be sure that I had given it my best shot.

That’s one of the three most important things that this book taught me.  First, when you commit to something - no matter what that thing is, you owe it to yourself and to those who are relying on your commitment, to do your best to follow through.  That is a lesson that I am trying to impress upon my kids, it’s one that I try to carry into my work, and it should apply in my writing just as it does everywhere.  We’re a society that has learned / decided that it is okay to give up.  Sometimes it is appropriate to wave the white flag – there is a difference between determination and foolishness after all.  But we live in a world where marriages end when the going gets tough.  Where people change jobs on a whim and drop projects too quickly.  We live in a world where giving up has been perfected into an art, but where hard work, dedication and perseverance are lost ones.  If the generations before us had the work ethics and personal gumption that we have, we’d never have gotten out of the primordial sea – “Nah, evolving sounds too hard, I’ll just stay a single celled protozoa thank you very much.”  When I see my father-in-law working ‘just to stay busy’ I realize just how lazy many of us are.

Now it’s not all of us, and it’s not even most of us all the time. But I know that I am not alone in my sloth and general laziness, and many of us could do a lot better.  I read a great quote, which Google tells me is by H. Jackson Brown, that says:

Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.

That’s actually kind of humbling when you think about it.  Yes, we are all busy and yes we all have a thousand things that require our attention. But imagine if you could reduce your sloth and laziness by just ten percent.  If you checked Facebook one less time a day, or watched one less reality show a month, or one less needless trip to the mall, just to kill time, imagine how much time you would have for the things you’ve committed to, for your family, your marriage, your career!  If you are one of those people who never miss a deadline, who are on top of every commitment they have ever made, and who haven’t disappointed anyone by being late or failing to complete something you said you would do, then I applaud you and this whole rant was not for you.  But the remaining 99.999999% of the world, let’s all try just a little bit harder and put more effort into the things that are really important.

Secondly, I learned that writing take two things; time and creativity, and the first one is by far the harder one to find. I started my project wondering how in the world I would ever be able to come up with fifty thousand words.  I had an idea, which I had been considering as a short story for a while, though not a word had ever appeared on my monitor.  That idea was a relatively simple one, basically a “what if” sort of thing.  What if the survivors of a global zombiepocalypse, who had been shut in their safe area for ten years and cut off from the outside world, decided it was time to go out and see what was happening.  Yeah, just my kind of story.  The first night I wrote for three hours, and I hit almost three thousand words.  When my wife asked me if I still felt that I would be unable to hit fifty thousand, I laughed and said I have no idea how to get that much, but I was at three thousand and my view point character had just climbed down from his tree to go get his dinner.  The next night she asked the same question and I grimaced “He hasn’t quite made it to the dining hall yet.”  When she asked how much I’d written, I think anticipating that I’d barely come up with anything, I admitted that I’d added another three thousand words.  She laughed then, probably with me, but I didn’t feel like I was laughing along. 

My horror at not being able to find fifty thousand words was slowly being replaced by a growing realization that my ideas were moving faster than my typing fingers, that my brain wouldn’t stop giving me more information about these characters I had made up.  So the ideas were there, the inspiration was there, but the time was the hard part.  I found it though, or in a few cases made it.  Writing on the bus to and from work (thank you Steve Jobs for my iPad, and rest well), on my lunch break, in coffee shops, at home in the wee hours of the night - you name it, I wrote on it or during it.

The third realization was that I hate outlines. I made three, scrapping each one.  I lamented this decision each time, but I found when I tried to stay to my outline, my characters acted in stilted and unnatural ways.  Their conversations became meaningless and their decisions seemed forced.  When I gave them the reins and just started writing what they were doing, they acted like the people they were – which was the oddest damned thing. They did things, said things and found things that I never even thought of.  The words poured out (on a good night) almost faster than I could type them out.  My spelling was really atrocious in the best parts, as I struggled to keep up with the story my characters were telling me.  It was the oddest thing that I have ever experienced.

My hatred of outlines was bothering me lately, and I purchased a new writing tool, Scrivener, which I love!  It helped me create yet another outline, helped me lay out my ideas, and helped with the editing and compiling of the story.  It gives the writer tremendous control, and I strongly recommend it to anyone doing any writing at all, academic, novel writing, script writing, you name it.  But despite it’s amazing organization abilities, and the snazzy (and damned good!) outline I came up with, I still couldn’t seem to follow it (yes, I am still working on the book, editing at this time, but I have at least another hundred thousand words left before I can wrap it up).  I felt guilty and hopeless  - how could I ever produce a real book, something I could send to a publisher, if I can’t make and stick to a damned outline.

Then I got a call from Stephen King.  Okay, okay, he didn’t call, he’s been really busy lately - though we are still great friends.  The kind that have never met and likely never will, but good friends nonetheless.  I picked up a copy of his “On Writing” and he saved my writing career (amateur or professional) by saying that he never uses outlines either, and that his stories grow with a life of their own, taking him on the journey.  What a revelation!  Say what you like about King, he’s a successful writer, in both the financial sense, which is nice, but also in the way that matters – he writes stories that people want to read.  Which is what I hope to do as well.

So I’m committing to my writing, happy in the knowledge that my way works for me, which is all that really matters.  Not committing as much as I do to my sons (who are going to get more from me as well) nor as much as I do to my wife (our marriage is, despite all the things we disagree about, the best thing that ever happened to me), but a lot more than I am now.  I am building a writing area in the basement, my “man cave” if you will.  It’ll be that cold dark place I go to when I need to remain undistracted and focus on my writing.  It’s the place that I’ll figure out what my characters are doing, where I’ll be surprised by the stuff they say and blown away by their ability to get both in to and out of trouble.  I don’t know if they’ll all survive the journey, and I don’t even really know where they are going to end up. But I am dying to know.

1 comment:

  1. Hey! Congrats on the big win :)
    I love Stephen King's "On Writing" as well, and his viewpoint on outlining likely saved my life too. That said, you now have me curious about Scrivener!
    Great post! Keep it up!