Writing In A Box

If I had to guess, I would say I first started writing at about age six. I wrote more than I read. Although I am proud of a few pieces from my youth, it’s safe to say that most of what I wrote before the age of eighteen would probably be in circulation, purely as a form of blackmail. Regardless, I continued the craft and while writing in a box, I started to think I was pretty good.

A box, you ask? It’s what writers often do. They write in a box. They hide it, polish it, rework it, stow it away, and keep it safe from prying eyes. Back then I wrote with the notion that one day those pieces would be so perfect that it wouldn’t matter if someone saw them because an agent will have already found me and will have launched my writing out for the whole world to see. Seldom is this ever the case. You see, in order for anything to get into motion with your writing, you obviously can’t write in a box if you plan on getting it out there for everyone to see.

I would in fact imagine that most writers don’t allow their ideas to get out there for one of two reasons: because writing is satisfying enough in and of itself, or, because they fear failure. We hear of famous writers who published their first book at age twenty, or someone who went from working in real state to writing bestselling thrillers. It happens but if it seems easy, it’s only because you read about their success first. The truth is, most have put themselves out there long before ever becoming established professionals. Chances are that most writers weren’t “discovered” by an agent. Discovery of this type happens to some but so does the lottery, both of which you’ll probably die waiting for if you choose that path. There’s also the posthumously famous route, but as its title implies, you’ll die waiting for that one as well. RIP John Keats. Anyway, let’s dig into some of the ways to get out of this box.

One option is to have someone you know, read your writing. This isn’t a bad first start in getting your feet wet, but I wouldn’t recommend wading too long in this pool. Loved ones and close friend’s feedback is often quite helpful but it will only take you so far.

Find your writing community whatever the case may be. I remember in high school I was in a creative writing course and there were times when we got to read our pieces in front of the whole class. This was instant feedback and it was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time. I also wrote for the school newspaper and although the response wasn’t quite the same, I would hear from people I didn’t necessarily know well, give me feedback that was often positive. At that time as well, I had entered my works into high school writing contests and received advice from judges and sometimes I even placed. These were all small feats but it was this fire, that kept me going.

While attending college, I lost my writing community that was so easy to come by in high school, and while I continued to develop my craft, I found myself going back into the box.  I had multiple projects going on at once, some short stories which I had finished but other bigger pieces, manuscripts, which never saw an end. After finally completing my first manuscript I developed a small group of beta readers comprised of people I knew. Aside from high school, this was the first time other people had read what I wrote. While helpful, I still didn’t get a sense that it was exactly what I needed.

I had one connection in North Carolina with a writer named, Richard M. Coffman. He said something that stuck with me to this day, which was essentially that, you’re never going to think your own shit stinks. While I understood what he meant, I didn’t believe my writing was gold. But what I came to realize was that it wasn’t so much coming to grips with something being bad or not working but more that I was unable to see the faults of my writing through my own lens. He also gave me some of the best advice at that time, which was to join a writing critique group.

Here’s where, as a writer, I was forced out of my box. When you have multiple people reading your stuff on a regular basis, they will catch things you never saw even after a hundred read-throughs. They will interpret things in ways you never imagined. Sometimes the interpretation will be so far off from what you were intending that a total re-write is in store. But I would say that it goes beyond their critique of your work, as you too have to critique their work as well. In turn, you see things that writers don’t see in their own work. While reading their pieces, you hear things in your head, like dialogue, which doesn’t ring true. This process of returning the favor helps you develop your own writing, as it’s sometimes easier to play editor on someone else’s work.

When you have a group of about ten people, you automatically have diversity. Each one, whether the distinction is age, race, sex, education, work, or just simply that they write in a different genre, enriches the experience. Each group member brings to the table a different expertise. I have found that this experience has allowed me to develop what I call the “group conscience”. This “group conscience” pokes at you when your fingers are tickling the keyboard, with such thoughts as, “Is that something so and so would say?” or, “I’m having trouble with choreography here,” or, “How does this drive the story?”

With outside perspective, criticism and feedback, you are able to chip away at your own weaknesses while building skills in other areas. There will be times were your writing critique group will have no trouble telling you that your shit stinks, which will allow you to build a thick skin, something you need as a writer. Their criticisms, while not fun, ground you back to reality and if you’re willing to listen with an open mind, allow you to get stronger.

Writing critique groups not only get you out of your box but also force you to write with a deadline. It’s easy to lapse into not writing which is the worst thing you can do as a writer. A day of not writing turns into a week, then a month, before you know it, you’re so far removed from your project, you forgot what you were writing about. With these writing critique groups, you’re on a schedule were you will need to submit a piece of work, which can mean a chunk of four to five thousand words at a time, and guess what? Deadlines with blood thirsty readers, chomping at the bit to give you feedback, keep you out of the box as well.

Publication is another thing to strive for. I wouldn’t qualify this as the final step as all of these things should just be a part of your regular regimen. Even attempting to publish and being rejected is good. Yes, you read that right, rejection is good. It’s going to happen and maybe even if your shit doesn’t stink. It very well could be that after nine times of being rejected, the tenth time is the charm that gets your work published. You can think smaller too, newspaper publications, short story competitions, or blogging. All of these things help you stay out of that box.

If you find yourself writing in a box, ask yourself why? There are way too many resources out there, to be stuck in this predicament. With the internet, you have the needed resources to connect with people who can critique your work. Social networking can link you with people who can give you tips or who may have connections. The internet is also a great place to find writing critique groups that are around your area. Human to human interaction is of course the clearest way to get feedback as a lot can be lost in translation through online means. Within your hometown or perhaps close by, there are often free workshops with experts that give lectures or conduct writing exercises. You can also enter your work into competitions, which will yet again have a deadline and sometimes, if your work is selected, an open forum where you get to read to a group of unknowns and get that instant feedback.

So go on, be bold, step out of that box.

How about you, what do you do to stay out of your box?

Pounding the Digital Pavement

Research and the Web

Let’s face it, times have changed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to come across as that guy with “old man syndrome”, where I shake my fist in the air and begrudgingly reminisce about what it was like back in my day. But that’s not the intent.

Digital Pavement

When I was growing up, our information superhighway was the library. Instead of Google we had a librarian who could provide you with just about any bit of information you needed. If you so chose, you could go about this mission on your own, by flicking through the card catalog otherwise known as the Dewey Decimal System. In the end, I would always summon the librarian in my quest for information regardless of where I started. She, and yes, it was often a she back then, would magically locate the book in the vast wall of tomes before me, as if casually grabbing her favorite scarf from her closet.

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I remember sitting down at one of many available tables, the quiet busy whisper of pages turning or people padding along on their scavenger hunt for data. The stiff spine of my book would crack, releasing a musky vanilla scent, an exciting precursor of what was to come. The librarian would return with more books. Before I knew it, an overwhelming stack would surround me and force me into telling her that I had had enough.

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At times I would use something called microfiche, which is a device that still exists today and looks similar to an old-school, computer monitor, that requires you to thread film through a magnifying system which projects a news article through a screen in front of you. It does take some work, as you need to know the newspaper, the date, and the specific article you’re looking for, but I find them to be quite useful.

In any event, during those days, the library was where most people went to gather information and do research.

At that time, my dad worked for Bell Labs and had in his home office a rather archaic version of the Internet. At his desk sat a terminal, which connected him to a network of other computers at his work by telephone. You could say that when comparing these terminals to today’s Internet, they were what an abacus was to a scientific calculator. I was aware that Bell Labs was a place where cutting edge science took place, but neither I nor anyone else for that matter, saw the potential of this terminal in his office other than for how it was used.

The first version of the Internet was used by the military but became more main stream to the public in the mid 90’s. Although even then, I don’t think anyone aside from the military saw its utility. Most people used it for “electronic mail” but if one wanted to they could do searches and wait up to thirty minutes for a page to load. The Internet however didn’t take long to grow into today’s popularity.

Now used by just over three billion people, it has created a web that can lead to an answer quicker than a spider can make its kill. It’s easy. It’s fast. The ability to do “research” often requires little to no work. If one wants, they can get all of the information they need, right from their phone, tablet, laptop or desktop. It’s a landscape of endless “electronic wisdom” with an exciting dynamic of open sourced information that is easy to get and often helpful.

But here in lies the cautionary tale of fast at your fingertips information. Whether you’re reading a write-up on Wikipedia, an article in someone’s blog or a news story, the reality is that anyone, including yourself, can be a published author these days. Your average Joe or Josephine represents the Internet’s digital fabric, which means not everything on the web is going to be accurate. And while accredited news sources like: CNN, FOX or C-NBC do a decent job of reporting, I would even enter them with some caution, as today’s fight for “front page” material can often be a sloppy attempt to get “copy and paste job” news stories out there fast and sometimes incorrectly. This is not to say I deem everything online as bunk but from a research standpoint, I do take a much more hard-nosed approach for what I think passes mustard on the Web. This brings me to how I use the Internet.

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I look for “source” and not actual subject matter. A source can be: a hard copy of printed material (or) media, the name of a person, or the name of a location. Those three things allow me to start fact checking.

When I’m looking up source, I think of the Internet less as an information superhighway and more as a tool that can lead me to my source. The search engines are the bloodhounds that bring me to the evidence but not the answer. It is then my responsibility from that point on, to fact check. And here’s the beauty of it, back long before the World Wide Web ever existed, it took a lot more work to find what you were looking for. Furthermore, for historical purposes, the data in your local library could often be rather limited to your area. And even if the library had everything you needed to know, trying to find it could often be a rather large undertaking and could sometimes turn up empty leads.

Now days, Googling for a source first makes the most sense. Search engines can rip through the seemingly infinite pool of data and with the accuracy of a heat seeking missile, narrow your field down greatly. If a webpage has a source, then consider it a hit. If not, move on to the next.

A source can also bring you a “lead”. Written source or media can lead you to a library which may lead you to more books or media on the subject matter you are researching. The name of a person can lead you to an actual human-being that you can call, email, or if possible, meet in person. The name of a location can lead you to a town or a place in close proximity to the area you’re researching, which in turn, can lead you to a library with locally sourced information or better, a town historian you can talk to.

All of these things work in harmony with one another and in turn can grow your research exponentially. A person can lead you to written or media source, which may lead you to more written material. With the written material, you may stumble across a reference to a local historian, an archivist, or a professor, which could lead you to a location, which may lead you to yet another lead. You get the idea. With these three different types of source, you should not only be able to adequately fact check your material but also learn more about your subject matter than you had ever intended.

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Thankfully, the information superhighway hasn’t paved over the fine institution that is the library. If anything, it has made the library a better place.

So yes, times have changed and frankly, unless you’re a Luddite stuck in the 19th-century, these changes should be welcomed.

How about you? How do you conduct your research?

The Discipline of Writing

 

I can sum up what good writers do in three words, writers stay involved. This idea encompasses the main difference between being a good writer and one who struggles to write. Good writers write while struggling ones procrastinate about writing.

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When it comes down to it, writing is a discipline you have to work at every day. With that said, there are so many ways to exercise this good habit.

If you simply make it a goal to stay involved, then that impending white space of doom will quickly turn into a fertile playground of creativity. And while there are probably countless ways to stay involved, I’ll highlight some of the main techniques that I use.

  • Don’t think of your manuscript as a linear piece of work; rather, give yourself the freedom to pick and choose what part of your story you want to focus on. Who says you have to start at the beginning, if you’re stuck, jump to another spot. By putting the stuff you’re struggling with on the back burner, you allow your brain to work through problems that may be contributing to your writer’s block and all without you knowing it.

 

  • Sometimes if I know what the problem is, I’ll write myself a note and demand my brain to figure it out. It sounds ridiculous, but I have yet to come across a situation that my subconscious can’t solve.

 

  • If a particular chapter or a certain part of a chapter is giving you fits, cut and paste it to another word document. You might find this gives you total liberty to make drastic changes and try things you wouldn’t necessarily do if the chapter were still attached to your manuscript. Afterwards, if you’re not satisfied with the changes that you’ve made then you don’t have to implement them. But seldom do I ever find this to be the case. Somehow, working on a totally different white space does wonders and if at the end, I’m not swapping the chapter out, I’m using ideas I may have not thought of if I hadn’t done this exercise in the first place.

 

  • Work on multiple projects. If you’re struggling with one piece, simply shift over to the other canvas. Even a small project will allow your writing mind to stay sharp. And the added benefit of this is that oftentimes this will (once again) allow your subconscious brain to work through “problems”.

 

  • Research is another avenue I love that allows me to stay involved and while technically it’s not writing, it keeps me grounded to my work and often leads to other ideas, which leads me back to my office. If you like research as much as you like writing, then this may help you out as well.

 

  • I also wouldn’t discount finding a place where you can write in peace. For good habits you need a good environment where you can create. This should be your temple. It’s sacred and the people around you need to understand this.

 

  • And finally, have your work critiqued. Critiques point out major or minor flaws you tend to gloss over and they allow you to build that thick skin you need for rejections. Furthermore there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dosing of humble pie; I just had mine this weekend :).

How about you? What do you do to stay involved as a writer?

 

Write What You Don’t Know

I’m sure as a writer you have all heard of the old adage, “write what you  know”. Frankly, this phrase drives me crazy and while I understand the concept, I think it’s wrong.

Tom Clancy wrote his debut novel while working for an insurance company. In 1983 at the age of 38, he published The Hunt for Red October. He obtained his research through books, interviews and papers and had two submarine officers review his finished manuscript. It was his attention to detail that made him a good writer, not necessarily what he knew.

You could also put Michael Crichton into this category however I’ll enter this one with caution. Prior to his breakout novel The Andromeda Strain, he wrote a lot of crime novels under the pen name, John Lange. We can argue all day about what he “knew” but my point is, knowledge isn’t always the antecedent for interest; in fact, it’s usually the other way around. In his professional career, his foundation was the medical field, not: time travel, paleontology, crime or medieval studies.

Dan Brown had an interest in music long before ever becoming a writer. After college he worked as a musician for a few years before teaching Spanish to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. In 1993, six years after he graduated from Amherst, he was inspired to write thrillers after reading The Doomsday Conspiracy, by Sidney Sheldon.

What would we do if Tom Clancy limited himself to writing thrillers about working in the insurance field, or if Michael Crichton wrote medical guides, or if Dan Brown just decided to stick to teaching Spanish to middle schoolers while maybe dabbling in music because what he knew wasn’t interesting enough in his mind to churn out number one best sellers? Don’t get me wrong, they all used their instincts and abilities, whether it was Tom Clancy’s incredible investigative skills, or Michael Crichton’s infusion of science and the medical field along with his imagination, or Dan Brown’s early fascination with puzzles and his creative mathematical mind which allowed him to comprise complex thrillers. Those are all important components to their writing but if they stuck to just what they knew, they would have limited themselves in what they could have written.

Curiosity is often the catalyst for knowledge. It’s what drove us as children to discover, it’s the fuel for philosophy, it’s why Einstein challenged the properties of gravity and came up with the theory of relativity and it’s also how we as a nation were able to go to the moon.

If you want to limit yourself to writing only what you know, then go right ahead. It may work for you but some of our best writers are explorers of what is unknown to them, and choose to immerse themselves in a world of fascination so that in turn, they can deliver that world in the form of riveting novels.

So maybe that old adage “write what you know”, should be changed to, “write what you are interested in”.