Four Things I Wish I had Known Before I Started Writing

You Don’t Need a Compass

When I was in fifth grade I sat at my sister’s Smith Corona typewriter and started punching out a story. It started with an accident during a Gemini spacecraft training exercise. There had been a news story about how they were training and it caught my imagination. I recognized the kernel of a story. And then I stopped. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

I left the page in the typewriter and went off to do whatever a fifth grader does. My older brother happened by the short piece and read it. At dinner he said, “When are you going to finish that story. I want to know what happens.”

I shrugged. That is as far as the story went. Compost in some landfill in Pennsylvania.

compass

I give you permission to start writing without knowing where you are going.  Actually, I encourage it. Let the characters tell you where they want to go and what they think. If you let them drive the story, you’ll get a much better end result than if you start to think about how it will end. That doesn’t mean you can’t outline and plan. It means you need to listen to what is going on. Don’t force and ending or a plot shift.

In my first published book I had included some technology that I thought was cool.  It was like a Siri who did real time editing.  The book is in first person, so I thought it’d be fun to have him getting frustrated trying to get technology to work. Since it was a techno-thriller, wouldn’t the contrast be perfect?

Wrong. My first real beta reader said that whole little process sucked and diverted from the story. That was a great lesson. I had found something I wanted to include but it was not something my characters wanted or needed.  When I got rid of it, it was like moving from 720p to 1080p. The story became high def.

Jump in. Start putting words on paper and introduce yourself to the characters in your head. I virtually hang around with a lot of writers and the successful ones always talk about their characters demanding them to do certain things or surprising them with plot twists they hadn’t considered. It’s true. As a writer you need to open yourself up to the characters in your head and let them run.

Pen and Ink, Keys and Ribbons

Which brings me to input. I was lucky that my first attempt at writing was on a keyboard of a manual typewriter. I wasn’t a great typist and that keyboard forced me to think of each word, misspelled often, as the key hit the paper. That is what I know in retrospect.

Decades later I decided to give writing a novel a try. Since I liked sci-fi and was a technologist by occupation, I envisioned a space opera (I didn’t know that term at the time). On my computer with MSWord I set off crafting a story that I still love. Trouble lurked in the software. Word allows you to find many reasons not to actually write. You can delete, rearrange, format, reformat, change font, change font, change font, insert section breaks, insert page breaks, create a table of contents. You get it. I was trying to craft a final, physical version of my book in the WYSIWYG capabilities of a word processor and losing the story.

My daughter, who, as editor, had led her high school newspaper to a national award, made a comment to me one day that “using a manual typewriter is a great way to overcome writer’s block.” I didn’t have writer’s block. I had writer’s interference. But I thought I’d give it a try.

Fast forward to my post e-Bay purchases and I transitioned to a manual typewriter. I haven’t looked back.  I also use pen and paper and always have a small notebook with me. But the best rhythm I strike is when I am at the keyboard of my trusty Olympia SM9 – the ultimate in manual typing.

My Oly SM9

My Oly SM9

The beauty of hand crafting your first draft is that you can’t get diverted from the writing. Sure, you can cross out and backspace, but that it a laborious process and it is much easier to move forward. Plus, on a manual keyboard you can only type so fast. Which forces you to think of each word, and gives you just the right amount of latency to have time to think about the next sentence clicking in your mind.

pen and clairfontaine

It is your first draft. It is the draft just for you. It is strewn with crap and vile writing, but don’t worry about it. Under the covers of your lousy prose is the story that wants to come out. That story will become crystal clear and beautiful once that raw diamond is polished by the jeweler.

50 Shades of Editing

Great writing can be crippled by poor editing. Here’s a 3-star review I got for my book. It is one of the best reviews I have ever received.

This is a SIX star story. The quality of the writing easily rates FIVE stars. However, the edition I read had apparently not been copy-edited nor proof-read. This diminished the pleasure in the reading. Imagine “puisant” in place of “pissant” and “passed” for “past.” As one doesn’t love the child dressed and polished for a party any less for turning up scratched, smuged and muddy, I still look forward to more works from this master storyteller – wordsmith.

I confess. I self-edited my book and published it on my own. I did have a very expert proofreader go through it twice, but some things slipped through anyway.

editing generic

Working with a good editor is like getting involved in a BDSM relationship. There’s even a contract involved, but it isn’t like the one in 50 Shades.  It is painful, but necessary. A good editor will understand your voice and force you to make it clear. They don’t rewrite your work. They find where you need to rewrite it and help you fix it. My editor (and I do take that with a lot of personal ownership) is dSavannah George. What struck me when she and I first talked about working together was her approach. It resonated with me and has proven exactly the kind of editing I need.

So, Sav is editing my content and when she is done I am going to enlist a copy editor to proofread everything. I don’t want to have a “puisant” insert itself when I really want a “pissant.” (For that I’ll blame autocorrect.)

There is a side to self-publishing that is reflected in my multiple 5 and 4 star reviews. All of those seasoned readers looked passed the editing mistakes and loved the story. I call it the cell phone effect of indie publishing.

In the days before cell phones, our calls were exceptional. You picked up the phone connected to a land line and you got dial tone. If there was any scratchiness, you called the phone company and they fixed it. Solid quality. Cell phones taught us to accept less than exceptional quality because we got great convenience.

Traditional publishing subjected books to many edits before they hit the brick and mortar store. To find a typo was like finding a four-leaf clover (1 in 162,000). Now, I think we have grown to accept formatting and spelling issues along the way. If they stay below a certain level of obnoxiousness, then we ignore them and read on. After all, we have a queue lined up in our e-readers.

Write Where You Live

In my thirties I had this great idea I got from one of the women I dated. Her mother read a lot of romance novels and bought hundreds of them a year. That seemed like easy money to me, so I started to pen a romance novel.

Go back to the top of this post and you’ll know why it didn’t go anywhere. But there was more. I had no clue what I was writing about even though my friend gave my a typical synopsis of a successful story. I had never read a romance novel and I made no effort to understand that genre. It wasn’t in my blood.

When I took to writing in earnest, I chose areas that I felt comfortable in – sci-fi and techno fiction. That doesn’t mean I won’t extend myself into other genres or create my own – I am working on a sci-fi erotica right now. But wherever I go will be because it is something I want to write about. Something that makes me explore areas of interest and characters that are compelling.  Hell, my sci-fi might turn into a romance if that is where the characters want to take it, but I’ll put my own twist on it.

Don’t write about something because you think it is what will make you money or what will be popular or what someone else suggests you do. Write because you are compelled to tell a story.

For that matter, don’t classify you story to a genre until you are forced to in the publication and promotional phase. Just let it rip, then rip it up and make it better. What I am really asking you to do is not judge yourself before you even put pen to paper. Don’t think of your story as being in a class of stories. Think of it as a story that needs telling and you are the best person in the world to tell it.

Because you are. One word at a time,

As always, I would love to hear from you and get your comments.

Remember. Run free. Run easy.

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The Body of Writing

You won’t find blogs from me with the “N things you need to do to be a successful writer.” Frankly, there are a lot of people out there giving advise on how best to succeed as a writer so my voice would just be lost in the din. The best  advise I ever got was from Stephen King in his book “On Writing.” In that tome he dispelled some misbeliefs I had held and which had kept me from writing for decades.

Up until then I thought you had to have a fully formed plot in your head to be able to start a book. As I read other books I’d often wonder how authors thought of all the plot twists before they started to write.  I tried outlining and found that I was not built to construct that way. After each little attempt I would put it aside and let the idea simmer on a back burner.

At one point I decided to try writing the kind of literature people were buying. Romance novels! I had a friend who was an avid romance novel reader and she told me what made a good romance.  I attempted a few starts because at least I had a plot strategy. (Sorry, I can’t remember what it was. That notebook is decomposing in a dump in Arizona.) I did learn that I was not up to writing that style of book. I couldn’t even get out of the starting gate. I hadn’t read any romance novels, so it was not territory I could navigate. Reading is the foundation for writing. I didn’t really understand that, but have always been an avid reader.

Years later, when I read the King semi-biographical tutorial, everything changed. He recommended a very simple mantra. “Just fucking write.” Stephen freed me from the deception I had. He explained that he seldom knew where his books would go, he would just come up with the premise, start the story and let things get mixed together and develop as he went. It was as much a surprise to him as it would be to his readers.

So I decided to make my start and reinforced the effort by buying a fountain pen and a nice notebook. That was just something I wanted to do. Little did I know that creative first draft writing is all about using a pen or typewriter. A manual, tactile connection to each word.

Words on the page

Words on the page

Computers are fantastic. I love my MAC. But my first drafts are almost entirely written in ink or typed on a page.  I learned the difference between a first draft and an edited draft from King, too. That was the second liberating idea. Kind of a corollary to the first.  “Just fucking write and don’t look back.”  Get all the rambling thoughts and ideas out on paper first and don’t stop the stream of thought by trying to fix things that will obviously need to be fixed. There is no delete key on my fountain pen. Yes I do cross things out and make little notes, but I move forward with each touch of the nib to the paper or the key to the ribbon.

My #1 Olympia SM9

My #1 Olympia SM9

It might be that I am just a physical person, but this works for me. My sister, who is an expert typist and has immaculate penmanship, thinks I am funny. She was a professional secretary and she types faster than a manual typewriter can sustain. That little delay in putting the words to the paper makes me have to think of the word I am committing to. It makes me have to phrase the sentence and feel the rhythm of the writing. Good typing is all about keeping a smooth rhythm.

I got rhythm and off I went. At first by hand and later by keystroke, six-hundred pages later I had created my first novel.  It is entitled “A Bend in Space” and is still nicely tucked in my filing space awaiting my deft hand in reforming it into something that people would like to read. I like the concept and the plot but it needs work. I have learned a lot since then and need to go back and apply that learning. The beauty of it is that I have all my original writing to reference. Every moment of brilliance that leaked from my pen and every WTF-did-I-mean sentence that seemed necessary at the time. Nothing deleted.

By the time I started my second book, SYN-FIN, I was no longer afraid to just start attacking with words. In a nice bar in Santa Clara after a Cisco Users Group meeting I had a beer and began writing this image that started to form in my mind. For me writing is about how I describe the movie that is unfolding in my mind. Here’s the image:

Hungover, face down on the crushed granite of the Arizona desert, the early morning sun warmed the skin on the back of my neck.

frontcover

I loved the start. It still makes me smile, and that is all any writer can ask. Write what you like and about what is interesting to you and it will come off in the words you choose and the phrasing you make.

I guess I did come up with a list. You see what happens when you just start and let the words take you along?  This is what happened just now:

  1. Read.  Read a lot. Read often. Read good and bad and every genre you can stand.
  2. Just fucking write. It will get better.
  3. Don’t look back. Save editing and self doubt for the second draft.
  4. Don’t write to an audience. Write what you like. The audience will find you.
  5. Write anywhere and everywhere at any time.

Photo Nov 07, 5 15 18 PM

Sometimes, if I stop for a refreshment while waiting for a train, I’ll start putting words on paper. At home I have a writing area. Here’s my desk. I show it because it means you can pretty much write anywhere. I need to clean it up a bit, but it represents the history of writing because there is pen and paper, a manual typewriter (actually, several) and two laptop computers (MAC and Windows). And coffee. Coffee is important.

Photo Nov 18, 8 59 04 AM (1)

This is where I go word surfing. I like that term. Does that mean I have to wear a bathing suit when I write? Hmmm.

Want to be a writer? It’s all up to you. There really aren’t any rules. Go and discover your own and then publish a blog with a list of what you found. Feel free to use any of mine.

Run Free

A Cascade of Fear

A good friend of mine, Savannah George (www.dsavannah.com), posted a great piece on fear today.  She is a wonderful writer and a world class editor.  I suggest you click the link and read her post. It’s about getting rid of fear and the stifling effects it has on us.  The concept came to her after she had spent some time online with a friend who said he wasn’t afraid of anything.  From him, to her, to me.  Kind of a fire brigade with the topic of fear in the bucket. Hey!  It’s 5AM and metaphors have never been my strong point in writing.

Although I agree with Savannah’s concept and that fear can have devastating effects, I’m not sure I want to rid my life of fear.  In some ways I’ve turned fear into motivation.  Just after I read her post a fellow writer posted a comment in a writer’s forum about being afraid that her words were eloquent enough and her plot had already been written.  I remembered those same feelings from when I started writing my first book.

I sat there in front of my typewriter – the one at the top of this page – and stopped writing.  Fear had tied my hands.  Fear that I was not good enough to write a book. For a long time I just sat and stared at the mechanical beast, lost in self-ctitical thoughts. I wasn’t coming up with anything unique.  The plot I had was about a young adult and his father and friends.  It was just another YA novel. A clone of thousands of other novels already on the shelves.  Why go on?

Fear is like water. It finds its way in, no matter what. The fear that started to rise in my head was the fear of not living up to what I had said I could do. Wasn’t it better to write a shitty book than to have not written one at all? A fear of failure started me thinking.

I thought of the millions of songs and books that men and women have written. Isn’t that amazing. Relatively speaking we have no new words or notes, yet we keep throwing them together and coming up with something new. In retrospect, it was fear as motivator that made me put my fingers back on the keyboard and type.  Soon I became more afraid that I would let the ideas I had in my mind evaporate than I was of righting a bad book.  Three hundred thousand words later I had completed my first novel.

It is still unpublished.  It kind of sucks.  But it has a glowing premise and some great characters. If I hadn’t spent the months writing that first book, I wouldn’t have attempted SYN:FIN.  And SYN:FIN is a good book even if I say so myself.

What I’m getting at is that fear has two sides.  It can make you freeze at the presence of a threat or it can motivate you to run long and hard to find escape.  Fear was one of the reasons we started to run and kept running. From our response to fear, we developed one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal – the ability to run long distance.  That ability is arguably the reason we are what we are today – all full of imagination and melody.

I’m OK with fear because I have a greater fear of standing still than I have of moving forward.  Hmm?  I wonder if that is the definition of ADD?

Thoughts?  Don’t be afraid to post your comments.  I don’t bite. Much.

The Confidence of Women

“Here’s how I do that.”

The woman’s voice was well modulated, confident and upbeat. It totally eased past any defensive response I would have had to a woman stepping in at that time.+

Let me give you some context.

I was standing in my cubicle with a disemboweled 8086 grade personal computer on my desk. Yes, it was several years ago when RAM was measured in kilobytes, not gigabytes. It was the RAM on this machine that was the source of my consternation.  I needed to upgrade the memory by 256K. The new chip was in my hand, but I had no tool to remove the old memory chip.

Kim Komando to the rescue.  Yep.  The Kim Komando you know from the infomercials, radio shows and multimedia.  I worked with Kim for a short period of time at ATT.  She was an Account Executive and I was a Technical Consultant specializing in voice and data communications.

Kim knew PC’s and she had seen my struggle.  With grace and confidence, she showed me how to use the cap from a Pilot pen to extract the old chip. We joked a bit about the advanced toolset and then went on about our work.  Over the next year or so we worked together on a couple of accounts and then I changed jobs and lost touch.

Fast-forward a few years.  I was flipping through early morning TV looking for something to accompany me while I worked out.  And there she was.  Kim Komando talking about how to be at ease with personal computers.  She was exactly how I remembered her from that day in my cube – bright, upbeat, non-threatening to a male ego and knowing of her shit.

Kim had found her niche.  It was clear, in retrospect, just how much passion she had for PC technology and she had found a venue to share that passion with other people.  She still shares that passion and I will tell you if you need to understand anything about the digital beast under your fingertips, you can’t go wrong looking to Kim for help.

What got me thinking about Kim?   It was seeing another woman with similar characteristics who is starting to find her way to a niche in a man’s world.

In the same way that computers back in the days of 8086 machines were the domain of men, so is rock guitar today.  Just look at YouTube and you’ll see most guitar vids are of the male side of the species strutting their audio feathers.

I was in YouTube looking for a decent demo of a guitar effect I was thinking of buying.  That’s when I discovered Fuzz Box Girl.  Amidst all of the chest thumping, speed noodling, testosterone driven demos was this very different approach from a young woman.  Her guitar effect of choice is an organic device called a fuzz box that blends soul and technology into an outrageous sound.  For those not familiar, a fuzz box was used by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones when they recorded the main guitar for “Satisfaction”.

Look at one of FBG’s demos (FBG Blog)and you will see how she has used her unassuming personality and her understanding of her audience to create an identifiable brand.  The demos aren’t too long.  They focus on the equipment, not the flash of her playing, and they start you off with a light and funny intro while she pans the effect, her guitar and amp and a special cocktail to match the demo.  She understands that her target audience is primarily male, gregarious (they play loud rock guitar), interested in sex and very dedicated to their avocation.  These guys work hard at their craft, practicing for hours at a time, and have no patience for posers.  FBG is the real deal.  Not because she is the best player out there, but because her passion for what she is doing is clear and evident.  It shows because she, like Kim, has the confidence to just be herself while stepping onto a male playground.

When I started to follow FBG, I was taken by what she had in common with Kim.  They are two different people, but have both shown success in traditionally male markets.  Both of them also maintained their feminine quality while establishing themselves as experts.  They have gained loyal followings because they are doing what they are passionate about and they have respect for their audience.  Each understands that they are a brand that needs to be managed and nurtured.

I admit it.  I am attracted to women. Always have been. Looks might get my initial notice, but it is the depth and clarity of personality that keeps me attracted.  When I wrote my novel, SYN:FIN, I didn’t intend to have smart, competent women take play major roles, they just happened naturally because that is what I expect women to be.  The women who I hold close in my life are cut from that same cloth – smart, aware, confident, giving.  It doesn’t intimidate me to be around competent women.  If anything, I find it to be an absolute rush.  We men aren’t better or worse, just very different.  Sometimes, we let our egos get in the way of admiring competent women.  It must be a relic of the hunter gene.  If we can get passed that, then the differences are worth celebrating!

I am sure you have met women who strike you with their confidence and passion for their work or avocation.  I’d love to hear about them from you.  Add a comment or send me an email at jlg@jlgentry.com

Thanks for reading.

Links of interest:

SYN:FIN

Kim Komando

Fuzz Box Girl