Art and Science and Adversity

Recently, reading a book on long-range shooting, I ran across the quote “Long-range shooting is an art. Ballistics is physics, especially once the bullet leaves the barrel of a gun.”* The authors went on to note that shooting consistently, with an eye to accuracy in all situations, was critical to ensuring performance in adverse conditions.

Not that different from writing, in some ways, except for the part where we’re not on the two-way range. (I’m a fan of not being on the two-way range. Living on the South Side of Chicago taught me how to determine which direction gunshots were coming from, as opposed to where they sounded like they were coming from after bouncing off brick and concrete buildings. It also taught me to truly despise and fear not the bullet with my name on it, but the one labeled “to whom it may be concerned.” I can’t get that worked up about a one-star, by comparison.)

Creative writing is an art. The tools we use are fairly well established, from grammar and punctuation, to foreshadowing, genre conventions, and plot archetypes. (And if you think the oxford comma debates are fierce, well, trust me, there’s plenty of heated debates on gear and setup in the shooting community, too.)

That said, I was struck by the way the authors consistently train to perform both the art and the science in all conditions. And I wondered if we can apply that to our own endeavours. I’ve known authors who insist they can’t write unless they’re wearing the right thing, have the right drink, have no interruptions, and are in the right mindset. I’ve also known people who won’t go out to the range when it’s raining, too hot, too cold, too windy, or muggy. Or they’re not feeling it.

But I also know writers, and know of writers who are eking out words around kids with learning disabilities, around two jobs, around crippling injuries, around being evacuated for hurricanes and fires… right down to one writer who snuck away to “grab something from the store” and would sit and write for 20 minutes in the parking lot, in blessed stolen snippets where the words she’d been thinking about poured out in the available time, and another whose first draft was on the back of scrap paper written between patients while doing rounds.

And I thought – there are books out there for increasing your writing speed, but have you seen any good advice for training yourself to write in adverse conditions? It’s not a skill set we’re likely to pick up naturally, any more than house-clearing in a stack is a skill you’d pick up naturally. It seems to be a mindset and an interlocking set of coping skills that is as fantastically complex to come to without training as, say, keeping a house clean and organized, or rebuilding an airplane.

This year isn’t likely to get any less crazy before it’s out. So rather than reacting by shutting down under stress… how do you embrace the suck, and thrive?


*Navy Seal Sniper: an intimate look at the sniper of the 21st century, by Glenn Doherty & Brandon Webb

22 thoughts on “Art and Science and Adversity

  1. The science of firearm ballistics is generally separated into three phases: internal, flight, and terminal.
    Each considers the forces acting on a bullet as it travels from the cartridge case to it’s final destination.
    Internal is straightforward. What affects the bullet while still in the firearm: force of the gunpowder propellant as it is ignited and becomes highly pressurized gas, tension of the case neck, friction as the bullet travels down the barrel being spun up by the rifling after passing through the forcing cone.
    Terminal is all about retained velocity, construction of the bullet, and composition of the target.
    Flight is where things get tricky. There are a host of forces acting on the projectile as it travels through the air; gravity is fairly constant, air density can vary along the path, wind is always a factor, and the aerodynamics of bullet shape commonly termed ballistic coefficient determine its flight characteristics including the rate at which it sheds velocity.
    So the skill of a sniper rests primarily in his ability to judge all the variables and compensate for each and every one of them.
    As a writer you are in effect building that bullet, factoring in all of its components, and attempting to judge the impact it will have on your readers.

  2. There’s a lesson I re-learn, if not every few months, every year: if you can’t write the story, write about the story. I’ve started doing a brief, 5-minute session of written notes about the scene I’m going to write. Then I write it, and the drafting goes much more smoothly and quickly.

    I re-learned last week that even when I’m feeling stuck, if I write down why I’m feeling stuck about the story, ask whiny questions of myself in writing about the story, and otherwise rant about the difficulties of where the story has landed, I start figuring out what needs to happen so that I can get to that ending I’ve had in my head since the beginning.

    All the whining has to be about what’s going on in the story, or it doesn’t work. Then, next time I’m in the car or doing something where it’s hard to take notes, everything will become clear.

    TL:DR: even if I don’t feel like writing the story, I can always file written complaints about the story.

    1. > if you can’t write the story, write about the story

      That sounds like a good idea.

      I just read three books, one by a modern, ordinarily-excellent writer, two by a “old masters”, that showed the authors simply lost track of what they were writing. Lots of things going on, but no actual plot. Vignettes that went nowhere, apparently just to increase word count. Rookie problems, from authors who surely knew better, but may have reached the shining level of “no editor would dare touch my manuscript!” Because it’s glaringly apparent either nobody read them or they went to press without any changes.

      Keeping track of where your story is going is important; I’ve read waaay too many books lately that apparently ticked all this year’s “best writing” tickboxes, except for, you know, *story*.

      1. That would be The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi. It’s this year’s rehash of great golden age mysteries. It uses the classic format of stories within a larger story format.

        Does it compare to great golden age mysteries? Dear God, no, but you’d never know it from reading the glowing reviews. Errors in tone, errors in fact, errors in style.

        The writing is literary gold and the characters were paper dolls being put through their paces on a flat paper stage.

    2. Gee, that sounds like rubber-ducking. It’s a technique that’s been around for a long time among programmers.

      You explain the problems you’re having, and where you want to go, and why you’re not getting there, to a rubber duck. Or to a captive audience, like a cat. Forcing your uncooperative consciousness to go through all of those details can shake something loose.

      1. Alas, it works better when it’s to a fellow programmer — thus interrupting HIS work.

        But the duck sometimes works.

        1. The person I talked to who swears by the technique says that you need to be explaining it to someone that you’ll take seriously. Thus, the duck only works if you can convince yourself that the duck is listening and really needs to hear all of the basic details in order to understand. My friend always used her mother, who also had the advantage of asking “stupid questions” that turned out to be key to figuring out the whole thing…

  3. And I thought – there are books out there for increasing your writing speed, but have you seen any good advice for training yourself to write in adverse conditions?

    Start little, and stick to it. Best for addictive personalities. 😀

    Yeah, poking out a paragraph at four words per minute in your chat program on your phone isn’t much, but if you’re the sort for whom “there is no try, you must DO it” works, requiring that you “write something for a story” works.

    Weakness: if you have a day when you really, really, objectively, cannot write something, it breaks the momentum.

    DuoLingo uses this trick, with their “streak count.” Having 180 days of “I have done this every day” kept me going as a matter of habit…until their counter broke, and lost my streak. At which point I looked at what I’d accomplished, and realized that yeah, I am still terrible at languages.
    Contrast with stories, where I took the 2016 NaNoWriMo thing and kept it rolling…until the “I can’t write more” of being in the hospital for the Chief’s arrival happened.
    When I got back from the hospital, I looked at what I had accomplished…and found that I had managed to write multiple scenes that I actually liked, and transitioned acceptably between them, and I had more words written than I had notes. It broke my streak, but I was able to get back into it even with newborn-brain, because I could SEE that it was not wasted, even though there was a lot of room for improvement. I could look back at the notebooks where I struggled to finish a scene beyond “Um, I guess they all kind of walk away, now?” and where a page-long chunk was good.

    That made it easy to start the streak back up again; I couldn’t give myself permission to not do it. Including “read that Techniques of a Selling Writer book Sarah and everybody keep saying is good” as doing something for writing helps, too– especially since that was written so there are things you can mine really fast at the start. It’s show and tell.

    I can see having the mental-hack of “I am doing ___, now I write” kind of like how folks have found they needed to create a pattern to work from home effectively. They could get work done otherwise, but it just doesn’t work right unless they do the ritual.

  4. I’ve started writing out scenes – longhand – between bouts of Day Job work. I also decided to, ahem, bite the bullet and transfer one manuscript onto the not-for-writing computer (smaller, lighter, doesn’t have all my writing things on it) and use lunch time to write what I can. I find that I do plot by hand and details by typing. *shrug* That means transferring files back and forth and dealing with formatting quirks, since Day Job computer doesn’t have Word on it (I’m too cheap – use LibreOffice for that one). Semper Gumbi.

  5. Working on the thriving part. It helps if you can get any chunks of time, any at all, when you know you will have no distractions.

    If you have to be constantly on the alert for a phone call/email about medical/legal/nasty family interaction stuff, sometimes nothing helps.

    In-between, the best piece of advice I have is to learn how to gauge your energy and concentration level for minimal frustration. Sometimes I have energy to write flat out. When I don’t, trying will only end up in beating my head against the wall. But I might have energy to script dialogue, some actions. Below that, “what events still need to get into the story, in what order?” Below that – “Okay, is there something I can go over for edits?”

  6. I thought of “I don’t”, but your question has reminded me of something I will need.

    Around December of 2018, I assumed I had figured out what I needed to design a story, and was ready for a serious effort. I spent months congealing elements to make the thing I’m still planning to fix, outline, and finish. One element was motivated by extrapolating 2016 and 2017 to an extreme, and looking for answers. I found answers, and decided that I needed the distance of another time and place to think them over. I set an over the top and unpleasant mess in that time and place.

    I had forgotten that exploring those answers was a motivation, so 2020 has often been “Why am I trying to do this /now/?” Furthermore, I’m having serious issues tracking details and goals that I have for the plot, and am a little confused in my attempts to outline. One answer in particular feels like it might work as a way to organize my information about my plot choices.

    Beyond that, I’m having RL efforts hampered by stress from 2020 and my own political habits. I get much too invested in following news, and in the outcomes of political events.

    This cycle, I’ve been working to avoid caring much about the outcome of the election; to not favor any particular theory of what the information means, nor to worry about what may or may not happen.

    I already had problems with stress, and with depression narrowing the range of things I get enthusiasm for or joy from. I’m finding I need to use self-knowledge to match my planning to awareness of how I enjoy the tasks. I also need to pay attention to thinking impairments, and ways to change the impact of this or that health condition.

  7. I’ve only been writing for about six years. I had to learn a regular routine with at least fifty words a day. I also had to learn to finish what I start because I’ve got dozens of starts ranging from a few paragraphs to thousands of words.

    I’m getting better but I have to treat writing as a job.
    If I wait around for the muse to appear, I’ll wait a long time.

  8. (And if you think the oxford comma debates are fierce, well, trust me, there’s plenty of heated debates on gear and setup in the shooting community, too.)
    The ergonomics of the AR-15 interfere with snap-fire target aquisition.
    The intrinsic wobble is aestheticly revolting.
    The undeniable benefits of direct impingement are balanced by equally undeniable drawbacks, and individuals may feel differently about the trade-offs.
    A souped up .22 relying on the magic of cavitation is not ideal for many obvious situations.
    All flamebait, of course. 😉 But only the second is opinion.

    1. The AR-15 is an overly complex mechanical nightmare with far too many parts. Only a US Army procurement officer would look at it twice. It is also the second most issued rifle in the world.

      The most issued is the Kalashnikov AK-47, which is an ugly, rattly piece of inaccurate Communist doodoo made by blacksmiths to be issued to illiterate morons.

      The FN-FAL is the third most issued rifle in the world, and is superior to the first two in every way. It fires a -real- cartridge, it has a -real- gas operating system that you can adjust, it is accurate, it is robust, and it is very simple with a low parts count. Naturally, it is out of service in Western nations. Everybody went for Eugene Stoner’s poodle shooter.

      However, the most perfect battle rifle of all time is the Mauser model 98 from 1898. The veritable Prince of all rifles. Some, like the Lee Enfield, come close. None are better.

      [runs away to watch the fireworks]

      1. And one must note that the much beloved 03 Springfield is very much a clone of the K98, so much so that during WWI the US was paying Mauser compensation for patent infringements as directed by the international court.

        1. I have never owned a Springfield myself, but I have been able to shoot them on the range occasionally. They are virtually the same as the Mauser 98, differing only in markings and minor detail. Everything necessary, nothing superfluous.

          Individuals thinking about such things might well consider the long and illustrious history of the Mauser (and the Springfield!) and consider also that one round of 8mm (or 30-06) is generally more than enough for most jobs. You get four more in the magazine in case you blork the first one.

      2. Sorry, Phantom, I’ll have to back Gen Patton for this one:

        “In my opinion, the M1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

        1. We forgive the General, because the FAL was not yet created when he made that statement, and the Mauser was, after all, German. ~:D

          I’ve had the opportunity to shoot the Garand as well, over the years. All things being equal, the clip system takes some getting used to and I was a little skeptical of the grease used for the bolt. It is very hard to keep grease clean in the field. Other than that, it was very nice to shoot.

          Still like the FAL for a semi-auto and the M98 for a bolt gun. Old habits, they don’t go away.

          Although, among the new-fangled wonder guns I must say I quite like the FN P-90. So small, and it points beautifully. Just the thing for some gunfight-in-a-phonebooth action.

  9. “..but have you seen any good advice for training yourself to write in adverse conditions?”

    Most advice assumes good conditions. Good advice assumes there is no such thing as “good conditions”, and everything is always adverse to your progress. You want to write? WRITE. Stolen moments still count.

    The world is a chaotic, tiresome pile of noisome hose shit. That thing you wanted to do? Go do it anyway, because the time will never be right. This is what I have learned about doing things.

  10. I use all kinds of techniques that I learned in grad school and as a scrambling-for-tenure assistant professor. “Write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day”, work for 1/2 an hour, walk around, do another 1/2 an hour…rinse and repeat. I change where I work depending on what I think I want to do. I print out (that’s key for me) and read through what I’ve already written to get myself back into the story. I do the write out scenes thing mentioned above, I plot out the whole thing and then start filling in the details. I read about how to write or read other people’s writing to see what I can pick up.

    Usually I go with whichever of these techniques seems to require the least amount of work at the time. In other words, whining “but I don’t feeeeel like it” when contemplating actual writing, will send me to reading something.

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