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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
Do your own work. 
19th-Jan-2007 09:31 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
So there's this sort of anxiety wandering around the sffh writers' corner of the blogosphere (and possibly other kinds of writers, too, but the sffh writers are the people I know) wringing its hands about how fast to write and how much to write and how fast other writers write and what the writing advice books say ...

And here's the thing.

This is not a race.

It's not a science fair competition.

Or even a performance art.

As John very sensibly points out, you can't tell from the product how long the process took. You may think you can tell, but that's based on false correlations between perceived quality and unproven assumptions about time translating to care.

As with most things, I blame the Romantics.

You write as fast as you write. No, don't look at the person sitting next to you. It doesn't matter how fast she writes. She's not you. No, don't look at the guy on the other side, either. He's not you, either, and comparing yourself to him is a zero-sum game. Because if at the end of the day, you look at what he's written, you will find that he has either written more than you or better than you or--fatally--both.

And maybe he has. (Maybe he hasn't, also. Most writers I know have this problem with their egos.)

But it still doesn't matter.

We're not being graded on a curve here, people.

I do think it's good to set goals for yourself, whether that goal is writing for four hours a day or producing a certain number of words. I personally find word-count goals more helpful than time goals, because I can stare at a word-processor window for four hours and get nothing, but--on the other hand--if I give myself a quota, I almost always hit it, even if it takes me all damn day. It depends on what works for the individual writer.

You should be sensing a theme.

And the same theme applies to books of writing advice. What you have to remember is, no matter how authoritarian the book is in its presentation (and, yes, I am looking directly at Strunk and White, thank you), it's still just one person's opinion about how this writing nonsense works.

And that person's opinion is almost certainly different from your own.

Most writing advice books, for example, assume that mimeticism is the name of the game, that everyone wants, and should want, to write books about their (thinly-disguised) childhood. I thought for years that I was doomed to be a bad writer because I am not observant. I don't notice things about the world around me (as mirrorthaw and heresluck, who have lived with me, can attest). And every book of writing advice I found told me that I had to observe, that I had to learn to write from life. And I tried, but it was unnatural and painful and made me write badly.

You will notice that I didn't stop writing. And that I maybe turned out to be a decent writer after all.

All writing advice is like this. (And I've read a lot of it.) It's only good advice if it works for you. If it doesn't work for you, that doesn't mean you're wrong or broken or bad. It means that creativity is subjective, and we're all doing the best we can here.

One man's meat is another man's poison. Or, what nourishes one writer will poison the next.

So comparing your self, your process, your output, to that of the writer sitting next to you is worse than useless. It is not only not productive, it is actually enabling self-sabotage.

Cut it out, people. Eyes on your own work. Listen to the drummer playing for you.
Comments 
19th-Jan-2007 04:17 pm (UTC)
Very sensible and well-put!

As with most things, I blame the Romantics.

Sing it, sister.
19th-Jan-2007 04:19 pm (UTC)
For fiction and some kinds of nonfiction, yes. I'd be leery of a journalist or any one writing any sort of instructions or teaching material who blithely decided to ignore Strunk and White. But I don't think those are what you're addressing here.
19th-Jan-2007 04:32 pm (UTC)
No--as usual when I post about writing, I'm talking about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I'm also not saying to IGNORE Strunk & White. I'm saying, be leery of their monumentally authoritarian presentation. (I posted about that a while back.)
19th-Jan-2007 04:46 pm (UTC)
Hmm... raises all kinds of interesting hypothetical questions about whether there are other genres of fiction that can / cannot ignore S&W. My guess is that it's perfectly possible for all of them but that I personally would hate a romance or mystery that tried it. Or at least that ignored substantial amounts of their prescriptions. That's not to say it couldn't be good: I thought Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was good back when it was inflicted on me in high school, but I didn't finish it then and don't expect to ever do so voluntarily.
19th-Jan-2007 04:34 pm (UTC)
"This is not a race.

It's not a science fair competition.

Or even a performance art."

On the gut, artist level, I heartily agree with you. However, my income constitutes part of our family budget, and when I don't hit my mark, the money runs thin. On one hand, I'm lucky I make enough to contribute, doing the only thing I seem to be suited to do. On the other, it puts a lot of pressure on my, and that's not always good for creativity.

For the past few projects, I've gotten more comfortable doing the math. I know how long I want the book to be, and I have a pretty good idea of what a reasonable number of words per day are for me. So I divide the total by the daily count, figuring in weekends and holidays, and set up an Excell spreadsheet to keep track of progress. I also know that there will be days I won't write, for a variety of reason, so I try to build in some slack. Processes like that used to scare me to death, but I'm slowly learning to take comfort in such visual proof of progress.

". . . comparing your self, your process, your output, to that of the writer sitting next to you is worse than useless. It is not only not productive, it is actually enabling self-sabotage."

Too true!
It's really destructive to compare ourselves to other writers. I know people who can pound out 10,000 words per day, or write a full length novel in a few months, or even weeks! I can't do that. I just can't. As you say, I have to know my habits and plan accordingly.

"Cut it out, people. Eyes on your own work. Listen to the drummer playing for you."

Heh! Overall, amen.
19th-Jan-2007 04:39 pm (UTC)
You're still not in competition with anyone else to finish faster, which was my point. Not that there aren't reasons an individual writer may NEED to write fast. Because of course there are.
19th-Jan-2007 04:55 pm (UTC)
"You're still not in competition with anyone else to finish faster,"

In a way, you are. Writers who can crank out a book a year and keep their name on the shelves and in the news often benefit from it financially, for many reasons. Many readers devour our books like popcorn (As much as I appreciate the sentiment when someone tells me they read the book it took me two years to write in an EVENING, it's always followed up by a demand for more. My long suffering husband calls it the "Feed me, Seymore" syndrome." Some of these popcorn readers drift away if the next fix doesn't come soon enough. (Yesterday) And then there are those readers who proudly declare that they will wait until a whole say, trilogy, is complete before they'll buy any of the books, so they can burn through them in, say, an EVENING. I sometimes point out gently that if everyone did that, books two and three would never appear because the publisher would drop the non selling series and the author would die of starvation and despair. But I digress.

Editors are more likely to back a project they perceive as more lucrative for them, which can translate into better promotion, artwork, etc.

I've been in the game since '96, and have watched the number of houses dwindle, and the bean counters upstairs weild an increasing amount of control over editors, via the purse strings. Sad but true. The result is often either authors being dropped by some houses, or cranking out poor quality books to meet deadlines. So far I've survived, slow as I am, but my editor is supportive. But It's been made clear to me even by those who love me that it is in my best interest to speed up production.

Writing fantasy is a pretty dumb way to make a living on some levels, but I still love it. :-)
19th-Jan-2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
Huh. I'm one of those that can burn through a book in hours. And I always want more. But that just means I'm waiting on pins and needles while the author writes the Next Book. And then I buy it as soon as I can. And devour it. And then spend as many years as are needed waiting for the new Next Book.
19th-Jan-2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
:Huh. I'm one of those that can burn through a book in hours. And I always want more. But that just means I'm waiting on pins and needles while the author writes the Next Book. And then I buy it as soon as I can. And devour it. And then spend as many years as are needed waiting for the new Next Book."

My favorite kind of Reader! :-)
19th-Jan-2007 04:35 pm (UTC)
As with most things, I blame the Romantics.

You could just as easily blame the Neoclassicists. Bunch of uptight so-and-sos.

What can I say? I like the Romantics. (Well, most of them. The others I want to beat about the head and neck.)
19th-Jan-2007 04:59 pm (UTC)
I blame the Postmodernists. For everything. ;-)
19th-Jan-2007 05:45 pm (UTC)
An excellent point. They deserve everything they get. :)
19th-Jan-2007 04:52 pm (UTC)
Well said! I think I should print this out and post it over my computer.
19th-Jan-2007 04:53 pm (UTC)
Very well said.

"Eyes on your own work. Listen to the drummer playing for you."

That's it exactly. At one point I had to stop listening to a friend's word count progress because it was messing with my head (she writes much larger chunks than I do).
I also know how I learn and I did need to read how to books. I looked at the nuts and bolts of story and structure rather than the inspirational stuff. It was what worked for me and what I needed. I'm listening to my own drummer and it's working splendidly (until the next time the drummer changes the beat). ;-)
19th-Jan-2007 04:57 pm (UTC) - Thank you thank you thank you!
Most writing advice books, for example, assume that mimeticism is the name of the game, that everyone wants, and should want, to write books about their (thinly-disguised) childhood. I thought for years that I was doomed to be a bad writer because I am not observant. I don't notice things about the world around me (as mirrorthaw and heresluck, who have lived with me, can attest). And every book of writing advice I found told me that I had to observe, that I had to learn to write from life. And I tried, but it was unnatural and painful and made me write badly.

I don't WANT to remember my childhood -- I mean, I lived inside books even then because they were way better than the Real Thing (tm). And I don't observe well either -- and that's one thing that has always stuck in my craw about writing advice, because I just don't see well enough to observe other people. It's good to know that I'm not the only weird person in the bunch.
19th-Jan-2007 05:05 pm (UTC) - Write what you know?
"Most writing advice books, for example, assume that mimeticism is the name of the game, that everyone wants, and should want, to write books about their (thinly-disguised) childhood"

And what a lot of boring books that would engender! "Advice" like that makes me want to scream "Fiction is an art!" Novelists have the gift of creating something out of nothing, something new and wild, drawn from who knows where.

As for being observant, you're probably more so than you give yourself credit for. Otherwise your subconscious wouldn't be well-stoked enough to write fiction at all. I call it the "Great Subconscious Compost Heap."


Good thread!

19th-Jan-2007 05:49 pm (UTC)
::applause::

I like Fowler as a writing guide, because he is so obviously a toffee-nosed crank that I feel free to ignore him when I have a better idea.
19th-Jan-2007 05:51 pm (UTC)
*hugs you*

I thought for years that I was doomed to be a bad writer because I am not observant. I don't notice things about the world around me ...

...comparing your self, your process, your output, to that of the writer sitting next to you is worse than useless. It is not only not productive, it is actually enabling self-sabotage.

*Heart swells and tears nearly flow*
Wow. You may have just pulled me out of a hole I didn't realize I'd fallen into -- and then refused to climb out of -- until I read that. Thank you.
20th-Jan-2007 02:19 am (UTC)
I thought for years that I was doomed to be a bad writer because I am not observant. I don't notice things about the world around me...

Well -- it's true that you sometimes miss things around you, but I tend to ascribe that as much to your various vision complications as to a lack of keen observiness. *g*

More to the point: I think you *are* keenly observant... of what's going on in your head, and particularly of the stories-under-construction that you've got banging around in there. Which is not the same as writing from life -- although, as we all should know by now, "realism" is not the same as "exactly like real life," anyway, so whatever -- but doesn't mean you're unobservant.
21st-Jan-2007 07:42 am (UTC) - I love you.
It is so reassuring to hear that. Intellectually I know this, but it's particularly hard to remember this in the fanfic world, where anything under 5,000 words is considered short, and people are writing stories from the episodes during the commercials, and posting within hours. Compared to them I feel like a tortoise indeed, and my output so paltry after all that time.

I was definitely harmed by that "write what you know" b/s - I remember when I was young wanting to write things I had never experienced, but being afraid to because somehow people would find out I had no cred. As someone above said, it's fiction! You're allowed to make it up!

About observation - I think it probably comes from someone trying to respond to a complaint of not having any ideas. So what was possibly a perfectly good recommendation in that particular situation got turned into a mantra that was supposed to apply to everyone.

And I really do think everyone notices things in his or her own way. You may not be able to see as well as most, or describe the small details of everything around you, but that doesn't mean you don't absorb data about your environment on some level, that goes into the big compost heap of the subconscious to get turned into fodder for your writing.
25th-Jan-2007 10:37 pm (UTC)
We're all individuals. One size certainly doesn't fit all. Sometimes I think that creative writing classes are only valuable if they ensure the book we are all supposed to have inside us stays there.

I'm finding this novel in 90 discipline very, very useful. But that's just me. Frightening, because I haven't (yet) written the outline I usually need to work from, so I'm writing it much more like a play. Interesting, because the characters surprise me, which that outline sometimes prevents. Fun. Oh yes, definitely fun.

Off to have more fun.
28th-Jan-2007 10:21 pm (UTC)
Truepenny, thank you for this kind of advice. Any beginner would be very happy reading the above, and that certainly rings true for me.
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