Zen Writing

Okay, before I start, sorry this is so late.  It was one of those days I felt like just staying in bed.  Probably just trying to kick the auto-immune attack, which has gotten better, gotten worse, gotten better and now is worse again.  I wish my body would find something more interesting to do than fighting itself, really.

Next, next week I’ll get to to the character that suits the tale, but right now, from talking to a bunch of you off facebook, there’s something else I must talk about.  Most of you have finished nano.  I didn’t even start because NNWM seems to bring on the “November disaster.”  Actually this might not be true, since we got the November mess (not a disaster at least) in the form of doing the last things needed to sell the house, and then the autoimmune attack, which is probably a result of the stress by closing on the house sale.  At least that’s what older son — who-is-not-yet-a-doctor and not-practicing-without-a-license, but who has lived with me for over 20 years and knows more of health than I do — says. So I didn’t NANO or even WRIMO.  November might be one of those months I sit around reading a lot of depressing mysteries, or something.

However for those of you who did and who are contemplating the results of your efforts in some dismay or, worse, who are betting mobbed by people who know nothing of writing and who tell you a novel written in a month can’t be good — there is no set time to write a novel in.  A novel is either good or isn’t good on its own merits, not on the time and effort you put into it.  I have very little use for the Marxist theory that labor equals value, and I have even less when it applies to writing.  An experienced writer can, if pushed, write a novel in a week that is considerably better than what most inexperienced writers could do in a year.

There is something else about writing, too: you learn by doing.  It’s a weird thing, and one I don’t particularly like.  Like most people who came through a rigorous academic training, I hate the idea that there’s stuff I can’t learn just by reading about it, memorizing, comparing, analyzing.

When I first took the Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshop and they told me that I should trust the process my mental (I’m not stupid enough to say these things out loud, actually) answer was that I’d never met Mr. Process, and why should I trust him.

But writing is a craft, as well as knowledge, and if you’ve ever done any craft at all, you know it’s practice more than anything else that allows you to get those even stitches, or those precise brush strokes.

It’s deceptive because the craft of writing is mostly mental, but it is still a learned and practiced skill.

So, practice is good for writing, but what does that have to do with NANO, other than the obvious fact that getting a novel written in a month allows you fast practice?

Lately I’ve been playing Mah Jong on my tablet to fall asleep.  I’ve noticed that if I consciously look for the pieces, it takes me forever and I totally blow the game.  However, if I’m playing half-dozing, and just sort of blindly press on pieces that I don’t even remember seeing, I get a game done in an amazingly short time, and without having to reshuffle.

In the same way I’ve said that some of my best work to date has been done when extremely ill, extremely tired, or just for whatever reason not fully me.  For instance, my first published short was written while high as a kite on morphine (legally — I’d given birth and was recovering from a uterine infection.) My best paying (in royalties) work was written in three days, and after a concussion, which means I have no memory of writing it.  (None.  I had to read the novels when I got it, to see what was in it.  For the curious, Plain Jane under the house name Laurien Gardner.) My award-winning novel, Darkship Thieves, was — yes — a NANO work.

So, what does that prove?  That you should do morphine?

Please don’t, unless you’re in it for some other reason.  Though I understand the temptation of writers who get addicted to substances to shut down the critical voice.

But occasional experiments in writing very fast might not be bad for you.  (Or me, though I think the only reason I was able — emotionally — to do Plain Jane that fast is because it wasn’t under my name or even my pen name, but a name the house used for several people.  I need to get over that, I do.  Clearly it was a good work.)

Because writing is craft.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t read on how to do it, but when you’re actually writing, you should shut down your critical voice, and just write.  You can always fix it in post if you really need it.

I know there’s no way to verify this, though I could post before and after stories, but when I went through my drawer of published and unpublished work, in order, to figure out which could be salvaged to do in e format, I found a huge difference between the stories before I undertook to write a short story a week for a year (while writing novels.)

Before, even with all the time I gave them, were tentative and clumsy.  After, even with writing them in three or four hours, they were authoritative and fluent.  The difference is almost unbelievable.

So — NANOWRIMO is over but writing isn’t.

Stop reading this and go write.

25 Comments

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25 responses to “Zen Writing

  1. Have you ever been tested for Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis? Because your symptoms are absolutely consistent with it.

    • No? Getting my doctor to test me for anything is a problem.

      • I know the feeling. I have Hashimoto’s myself but I was told for 25 years “You’re not overweight, so it can’t be your thyroid.” BEEP wrong… Don’t take no for an answer, if necessary find a “naturopath” who can order the complete test suite, which costs about $160 if you do ’em all at once.

        And don’t let ’em put you off with just the TSH test — TSH is at best a wild guess and at worst completely misleading. Antibody tests are definitive for Hashi, and T4 and especially T3 tests tell you if all your tissues are getting what they need. TSH only indicates if the pituitary gland is happy.

        Psorisis (usually mistaken for eczema, but can be distinguished because a cut heals very fast) with arthritis, asthma-like symptoms, and extreme fatigue where one day of activity requires three days to recover — that’s basically the same symptom set I had. Also got cardiac symptoms, pounding heart and palpitations (50% of heart attack patients can be demonstrated to have low thyroid; when it gets to the fatal stage it’s called flabby heart syndrome) and inability to take a deep breath (this is due to the diaphram becoming weak). Fibromyalgia and incontinence are also typical.

        This list isn’t even complete — thyroid affects *everything*:
        http://hypothyroidmom.com/300-hypothyroidism-symptoms-yes-really/
        Basically, about half of chronic conditions and perhaps 90% of what we think of as the “symptoms of aging” are in fact due to low thyroid. 80% of people over age 50 have some degree of hypothyroidism. It may be a natural part of aging, but it’s not necessary to suffer with it.

        Also read Dr.Lindner’s documents:
        http://hormonerestoration.com/files/TSHWrongtree.pdf
        and a bunch of stuff linked from here:
        http://hormonerestoration.com/Thyroid.html

        Thyroid is typically not well understood by GPs — I’ve had to take up reading the Journal of Endocrinology in sheer self-defense. I’m also one of those patients who only does well on natural thyroid (not synthetic). Anyway, I’d bet the house this is the root of your problem. Getting treated made me feel 20 years younger and made a whole raft of symptoms vanish, some literally overnight.

        If you can’t guess, I can rant about this all day!

  2. Uncle Lar

    BS in Industrial and Systems Engineering, MS in Operations Research, so I’m all about process. Thing is though, there’s efficiency of process and then there’s inspiration of creation. True art requires inspiration, and make no mistake craft is art of the most fundamental sort.
    If you’re cranking out potboiler formula fiction for the pulps at five cents a word efficiency matters. If you’re trying to create an appealing story the most efficient process is whatever inspires your muse to move those delicious tidbits from the deepest recesses of your hind brain to the forefront where you can capture them and mold them into a coherent whole. If writing on parchment with a quill pen is the process that allows that to happen then so be it. Fingers to keyboard in a modern day word processor is of course better if it doesn’t get in the way of inspired creation, but the key point is that it’s not the process driving things it’s the final product.

  3. Reality Observer

    Um. I think I’ll skip the concussion method, too…

    For my “method,” I am beginning to agree that “faster is better.” I cranked out nearly 3K words in the last two days, which is good for me with all the other things I have to get done around here. I actually have the first draft of the first short story finished! (I did write that last 1K before coming over here today, so I was being good, Sarah.) It’ll be set aside to cool for a couple of weeks after a light editing later today.

    Looking at it – I’m getting the feeling that the work from these two days is not going to need the machete-edit that I fear much of the rest will. (Although I do have things to fix in today’s edit – spelling, consistent capitalization of “Milady,” and I completely fouled up on keeping the same place with the same name!)

    I am way too new to have any idea of my “cycle” yet. But it looks like maybe December is the month for me (or, more specifically, from Black Friday through Christmas Eve). I’ll have to see…

  4. Even if you manage to stifle the critical voice, there is always the hesitation of new muscles, like a toddler working out this whole “I have to lift a leg to move it? Unfair!” thing. When you *know* you have balance and coordination you don’t even have to think about walking. (And now that I consider the matter, pantsers are like the parkour of writing 😀 )

    Some of this confidence can be enhanced by reading good writers. It gives you a mental map. (Toddler sees big sister doing this walking thing, thinks it might be fun.) Then there is the practice part. You are allowed to wail when you fall down or are unable to keep up with dog/big sister/etc, as long as you keep trying. And then… once you have the walking thing down you can get to the cookie jar before Mom notices!

  5. At the risk of being sent to the corner, I work in fanfiction for practice.

    Before someone jumps in and says that I’m playing in someone else’s sandbox – for the one I use most of the time I tore the series down to it’s components, added back in some elements from the original (Japanese) series and rebuilt the whole thing. 😉 So yeah, it’s someone else’s sandbox, but I dumped out half the sand, pushed the walls back, and added my own sand and that jungle-gym in the corner.

  6. Martin L. Shoemaker

    I had an idea for a story one day last summer. I dictated it in under an hour and transcribed it in under three. After first reader feedback, I spent another half hour rewriting the last three paragraphs.

    That story sold at the second market I sent it to. It will be reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction next year. It will also be reprinted in two other markets (one international) that I’m not at liberty to name yet.

    Less than four hours of work. Adding up the payments so far leads to hourly rate that’s more than double what I make as a programmer. I don’t know how I did that, but if I did, I would do a lot more of it.

    Sometimes just writing works.

  7. I don’t mind the work. I LIKE the work. I think I’m too old to write fast, and have been all my life. Process is nicely solid now, at least until the next two novels in the trilogy are written; I think they WILL go faster, just because I’ve learned how to write so many different kinds of scenes – scenes with only one person in it for a very long time, scenes with groups interacting (eight people is a lot to manage), scenes where the spine is travel, scenes in a movie or a book.

    I know the characters so much better than when I started the revision, when I knew what but not why, and barely how.

    But fast? Ain’t gonna happen. Just maybe fastER.

    I would think that by now you would have a well supplied toolbox and know exactly how to do most of the things you want to be able to do. So you can just let the characters act and breathe and move almost on their own.

  8. Chris Nelson

    I got the high score on a handful of quarter eaters while coming down with the flu while at college a few decades ago. And I’m normally a average player at those games. Must be something that affects the brain to put it in the state of “flow”. Similar things have happen when writing code or documentation. Also nearly aced the ACT while coming down with the measles. (Sucked as a senior in high school, 105 degree fever is nothing to laugh at…)

    • Laura M

      There’s thinking that goes on below the conscious level. Years ago I read about a study on people being asked to guess which card would come next. There were a whole lot of different cards, and the cards did show up in a pattern, but the patter was way too elaborate and large for the conscious mind to recognize given the speed and duration of the test. However, after a few go arounds, the participants started knowing what card would come next because of the invisible thinking that was at work. Some part of them had recognized the patterns, and knew that after 3 reds, two face cards and a spade (or whatever) there’d always be a club. The back brain is amazing.

      I have to go for a run to get my back brain to share some days. It doesn’t do me any good at all when I’m sick.

      Got my 50k in NaNo. Had to take a break just now from the Big Scene at the end. It was giving me palpitations.

  9. I’ve had some good luck churning out words under the influence of a bottle of Tully. Unfortunately (or not) I’m not really a big drinker. (I brew my own beer and a batch will last me over a year – and that’s not because it’s bad.)