writing tips

Make it new (and not)

According to an article in the Atlantic, the industrial designer Raymond Loewy had a theory about what makes new products desirable.

He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—MAYA.

The theory applies equally to art.

Could Loewy’s MAYA theory double as cultural criticism? A common complaint about modern pop culture is that it has devolved into an orgy of familiarity. In her 2013 memoir cum cultural critique, Sleepless in Hollywood, the producer Lynda Obst mourned what she saw as cult worship of “pre-awareness” in the film and television industry. As the number of movies and television shows being produced each year has grown, risk-averse producers have relied heavily on films with characters and plots that audiences already know. Indeed, in 15 of the past 16 years, the highest-grossing movie in America has been a sequel of a previously successful movie (for example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or an adaptation of a previously successful book (The Grinch). The hit-making formula in Hollywood today seems to be built on infinitely recurring, self-sustaining loops of familiarity, like the Marvel comic universe, which thrives by interweaving movie franchises and TV spin-offs.

But perhaps the most maya-esque entertainment strategy can be found on award-winning cable television. In the past decade, the cable network FX has arguably produced the deepest lineup of prestige dramas and critically acclaimed comedies on television, including American Horror Story, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, and Archer. The ideal FX show is a character-driven journey in which old stories wear new costumes, says Nicole Clemens, the executive vice president for series development at the network. In Sons of Anarchy, the popular drama about an outlaw motorcycle club, “you think it’s this super-über-macho motorcycle show, but it’s also a soap with handsome guys, and the plot is basically Hamlet,” she told me. In The Americans, a series about Soviet agents posing as a married couple in the United States, “the spy genre has been subverted to tell a classic story about marriage.” These are not Marvel’s infinity loops of sequels, which forge new installments of old stories. They are more like narrative Trojan horses, in which new characters are vessels containing classic themes—surprise serving as a doorway to the feeling of familiarity, an aesthetic aha.

I have always believed in studying older stories, even using them explicitly as templates or models, so Loewy’s theory comes as no surprise to me.

In fact, there is a sub-genre of how-to books for the analytically-minded looking to write a bestseller. These guides dissect popular novels for common elements — a recipe for success. The latest, called The Bestseller Code, sics a computer algorithm on the data and concludes that my Defending Jacob is #10 on its list of “100 novels our computer thinks you should read.” So it turns out my blazingly original work is actually hopelessly derivative, which, if Loewy is right, might explain a few things.

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How (and when and where) to write

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

Ronald T. Kellogg, The Psychology of Writing. Read more at Brain Pickings.

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The Artist in the Arena

Brené Brown on dealing with critics real and imagined. Helpful advice for creatives of all kinds, writers included. Of course, the Teddy Roosevelt quote that was so meaningful to Brown, about “the man in the arena,” is one that every writer should keep close by, for those low moments.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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Ira Glass: The gap

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Leonardo, procrastinator

I was heartened (relieved, really) to find this wonderful essay describing Leonardo da Vinci as “a hopeless procrastinator.”

Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications — at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but — for some reason — could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years. His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the “Mona Lisa,” were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.

Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes but relatively little to put in his portfolio.

What makes the essay so interesting is the suggestion that Leonardo’s epic procrastination, far from being a character flaw or an impediment, was the very key to his creativity. So many of the things for which we celebrate Leonardo are the product of his procrastination, especially the notebooks which overflow with ideas and visions, daydreams about helicopters and double-hulled ships and so on. Leonardo’s notebooks are the primary reason we think of him as a genius, the archetypal polymath Renaissance man, rather than “just” a brilliant artist. And he was paid for none of that creative work. It is what he did when he ought to have been doing something else.

Would he have achieved more if his focus had been narrower and more rigorously professional? Perhaps he might have completed more statues and altarpieces. He might have made more money. His contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, would have had fewer grounds for mocking him as an impractical eccentric. But we might not remember him now any more than we normally recall the more punctual work of dozens of other Florentine artists of his generation.

I don’t want to get carried away. The lesson of Leonardo’s life is not to abandon yourself to procrastination. Procrastination has to be controlled. There is work to do, bills to pay. I get that.

At the same time, it is useful — for artists, especially — to think of procrastination not as a vice or a personal weakness, but as a signal, an alarm bell. It is the clearest possible indication that your current project is not inspiring to you. After all, you don’t put off something you enjoy doing. Your mind does not wander if it is engaged in something interesting.

The usual advice to procrastinators who yearn to be “cured” is to exert ever more discipline and hard work. Manage the problem. Put systems in place to help you complete a project that bores you to tears. Those are useful strategies, sometimes. Boring work simply has to get done, sometimes. But maybe, sometimes at least, we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the problem is not the worker, but the work. Remember, it is the writer’s job never to be boring, and if a project is boring to the writer himself…

Every writer knows the self-lacerating guilt that accompanies unproductive days. Lately, I have been grinding away on a stalled, lifeless book. I have spent weeks on technical problems: trying to piece together the story or engineer characters to fill various plot functions. Or simply struggling to find new ideas worth writing about. It is an inefficient, unproductive, maddening part of the process. And of course I have bashed myself endlessly for procrastinating, for all the lost hours.

But maybe I ought to be asking not what’s wrong with me, but what’s wrong with this novel? Why doesn’t it inspire me? Or, more usefully, how can I turn it into the sort of novel that will inspire me? Every writer, every artist, of even moderate ambition wants to work with passion, on projects that fill him with a sense of mission. If the project before you does not do that, then change it till it does.

For a lot of writers, I admit, that is terrible advice. Certainly it contradicts the received wisdom. When wise old writers pontificate about How To Write, one chestnut they always toss off is “Don’t wait for inspiration.” And it is true that there are plenty of writers out there who work whether they are inspired or not. They churn out a book a year, steady, workmanlike, professional, unsurprising, consistent, well-crafted books. I admire them. I envy them, honestly. You should emulate them if you can.

But I don’t want to work that way and I don’t want to write books like that. I want every book to be the best fucking thing I’ve ever done. I want every book to be electric — a mission, not just a paycheck. I want to work at the absolute outer limit of my talent, always. That sounds naive and grandiose, I know, but there it is.

We writers always complain about modern readers. “They have lost their ability to focus deeply. The web has ruined them. They read like rabbits, skittish, hopping here and there. They don’t have the necessary attention span for novels. Novels are dying because of them.” We ought to remember that when we procrastinate, when we feel uninspired, our own mood — distracted, disengaged, dull, sniffing about for something interesting — is very much like the resting state of our audience. It is our job to make novels so intensely interesting that rabbity modern readers will feel they have to read them. They will close their laptops, turn off their ginormous high-def TVs, and pick up a book instead. The surest way to do that is to choose projects that are so intensely interesting to ourselves that we feel the same sort of compulsion to close our web browsers and get to work.

Procrastination is not always bad. It may be a signal. If you consistently feel you’d rather be doing something else, then your project is obviously lacking something. Don’t ignore that signal. Use it.

(Now go read that essay on Leonardo.)

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Think Quantity

As I read about how creativity works, an idea keeps recurring:

Groundbreaking innovators generate and execute far more ideas. Research has shown that the single strongest correlation to innovative success — any category, anywhere, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, musicians — is the number of ideas they came up with and tried to make happen.… The reason why we see this relationship is because of a fundamental flaw in humans when it comes to creative and innovative ideas, which is: we are not particularly good at predicting what’s going to work or not work.

I stumbled across that quote in a talk by Frans Johansson (at around 5:45 of the video). It echoed a similar striking quote from Robert Sutton, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Renowned geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, and physicist Richard Feynman didn’t succeed at a higher rate than their peers. They simply produced more, which meant that they had far more successes and failures than their unheralded colleagues. In every occupation … from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

I was so struck by this idea, I decided to quickly check out the evidence.

  • Artworks Picasso produced in his lifetime: 20,542*
  • Inventions patented by Thomas Alva Edison: 1,093
  • Major works written by Charles Dickens: 50**
  • Compositions by J.S. Bach: over 1,000
  • Scientific papers published by Einstein: over 300***

Those are outlandish numbers, obviously, from a cherry-picked list of the famously prolific. What happens when we ignore the obvious, certified geniuses? What if we look at a few of the modern novelists I admire most? Well, they are all prolific, too.

  • Philip Roth: 27 novels, plus a half dozen other books of memoir and criticism
  • Updike: 21 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 collections of poetry, 4 children’s books, 12 collections of non-fiction, plus an ocean of criticism that has never been collected in book form
  • Bellow: 14 novels plus a half dozen or so short story collections and nonfiction
  • Ian McEwan: 11 novels, 11 screenplays, 3 short story collections
  • Graham Greene: 28 novels, 8 plays, 10 screenplays, 4 short story collections, plus memoirs, travel books, film criticism, etc.

No, it’s not the most scientific study. And there is some selection bias there: one of the reasons I admire these writers in the first place is that they have been so productive for so long. But it is hard to dispute Sutton’s conclusion: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

Lesson #1: Churn it out. Writers like Harper Lee — the one- or two-book writers who achieve great things — are a tiny minority. The surest way to create great work is to create a lot of work. Do not wait for the Big Idea; even if you had it, you would not recognize it. Execute a lot of ideas, even the imperfect ones. Trust that somewhere in that body of work will be the one or two transcendent achievements you are hoping for.

Lesson #2: Embrace failure. It is part of the creative process. You cannot succeed without failing — and failing a lot. No matter. As Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For a procrastinator and perfectionist like me, those are two vital points to remember.

* 20,542 is just the number of Picasso’s works that have been confirmed and cataloged thus far. Estimates of all work produced range as high as 50,000.

** Famously prolific, Dickens’ total output is hard to quantify. Some line-drawing is necessary. I’ve counted as “major works” the 20 novels, 4 short story collections, 17 Christmas numbers of the magazines Dickens edited and contributed to, and 9 collections of nonfiction, poetry, and plays. (The list I used is here.) It is a rough but conservative estimate since it omits the deluge of shorter pieces he wrote for periodicals, not to mention his myriad other activities.

*** Einstein also published about 150 non-scientific papers, mostly on humanitarian or political subjects.

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What Creativity Means

Everything Is a Remix

Creativity is not about making something out of nothing. It is about making something new out of old things. When we say that an artist creates, what we mean is that he refines, reshapes, remixes. He synthesizes. I am not creative, in the sense that I have no ability to manufacture novels out of thin air. I am an exceptional remixer.

Lately, desperate to get my new novel started, I have been suffering from a wrongheaded dread of influence, formula, and topicality, when in truth these are the very things I should be looking to. I have been suffering from a lack of input, starving the creative machine of fuel — ideas — then wondering why the engine will not start.

Wannabe writers ask, “Is there a book in me?,” then lose themselves in introspection, like a dog chasing its own tail. It is the wrong question. Look outward.

Image: Kirby Ferguson – “Everything Is a Remix.”

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The Five Commandments

The last couple of weeks I’ve been cleaning up a few final details for my last novel and trying — futilely — to get the next one started. How, exactly, do you start writing a novel? Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve been spending my days writing and unwriting the same few sentences, kneading the same few barren ideas in the hope they will yield something new — a character, a scene. So far, nothing.

Of course, the initial stages of a new project are always hard. There is nothing to work with, just a few very vague concepts and reams and reams of blank pages. Big deal, right? I’ve been here before. I know how the process works. I know this period is going to suck. I expect it to suck. The trouble is, well, it has sucked.

It is an intractable fact of the writing life: a writer who stops writing for any reason is vulnerable to all sorts of infection. Laziness. Time-wasting. Loss of confidence. Now a new peril: impostor syndrome, as the rave reviews for my just-completed novel increasingly diverge from the endless fail-loop of my workdays, and the disconnect between hype and reality becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Enough is enough. Herewith, a reminder to myself of some basic rules. They aren’t really commandments; in fact, they may not work for other writers at all. And there aren’t even ten. But they’re important enough to me to recite them here, again. (If you’ve been reading this blog awhile, you’ve probably run across these ideas in bits and pieces.) These are the things I tend to forget when I fall into an unproductive rut in the beginning stages of a novel, as I have now.

Continue reading →

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Creating Billy Bathgate

“He was born in that first sentence, in the rhythm of it, in the syntax. You could even hear his breath just by reading that sentence out loud to yourself.”

— E. L. Doctorow on the creation of Billy Bathgate, a character who arose not from Doctorow’s research or his own childhood memories — not, that is, from a concept — but organically in the moment of writing, from words on the page. In another interview Doctorow has said of the 131-word sentence that opens the novel,

“I found Billy in the syntax of that sentence. What you see, if you care to look, is all there in the breathing. It was the only thing I was sure of when I began — that the story came from that first sentence. It carried his rhapsodic intelligence and was capable of sustaining his keenness and emotional response and fear. His voice sustains or finds its form in a long roving sentence. It’s part and parcel of Billy. In all my books I’ve stumbled upon a voice in which to tell the story. It’s not my voice — it’s the character’s.”

The lesson (if there is one): Don’t wait too long to start writing. Don’t waste time perfecting your ideas. Trust that inchoate notions will coalesce into concrete things as you write them into existence. (Of course, an alternative lesson you could draw from all this is “Be E. L. Doctorow.” Now there’s a demoralizing a thought.)

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Drawing Circles

The other day I blogged about the story of Giotto’s O: A messenger from the Pope arrived in Giotto’s studio in Florence one morning. He asked for a drawing to prove the artist’s skill to the Pope, who was seeking a painter for some frescoes in St. Peter’s. As Vasari tells the story, Giotto “immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it.” Of course, Giotto got the job.

I had never heard the story until I ran across it online recently. It stuck in my mind, a romantic parable of what artistic mastery means. To paint an angel, first you must learn to paint a perfect circle — something like that.

Curious, I wandered around the web looking for more information about Giotto and his circle, and, in the hopscotch way of the web, I found an interesting blog post that linked Giotto’s O to a different sort of circle, the ensō, the asymmetric circle of Japanese Zen calligraphy.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. [Wikipedia]

The imperfection of the circle — the asymmetry, the visible brush trails, the blobs of ink — is the point. In its very “flaws,” ensō embodies a traditional Japanese aesthetic, fukinsei (不均整), asymmetry or irregularity. Garr Reynolds (one of my favorite bloggers) explains,

The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso … is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.

So these two famous circles, Giotto’s O and the ensō, embody very different aesthetic ideals.

Giotto’s circle is precise mechanical perfection, “a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see.” Even his technique is machinelike: he pins his elbow to his side, turning his arm into a virtual compass.

Vasari adds another detail, as well. In the versions of the story that I initially read, Giotto loads his brush with red paint and paints the circle with a single sweep of his arm. But in Vasari’s telling, Giotto scratches out his circle with a pen (a quill, presumably) rather than a brush. He wants to eliminate even the wavering edge of a brush stroke, the little quivers of the bent bristles.

In writing, that sort of perfectionism is fatal. The very idea of creating “perfect” sentences or stories is paralyzing. No one can write perfectly. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I am a perfectionist by nature. It is no wonder the Giotto story appealed to me. But there are no Giottos in writing. You have to embrace imperfection, you have to accept the little oddities and surprises that emerge in the moment of creation, in the immersive “flow” state that characterizes the best writing sessions. I don’t know the first thing about Zen, but to me the go-with-it philosophy of the ensō feels much truer to the actual experience of writing well. It is not a feeling of abandon; like ensō painting, good writing is never careless or out of control. At the same time, every writer has to accept the little wobbles of his brush, the little traces of his bristles, the funny pear-shape of his ensō. Not because these flaws are unavoidable (though they are) but because they are beautiful.

To a writer like me — who tends to self-edit too much, who sometimes imagines he can write perfectly — the story of Giotto’s O teaches the wrong lesson. I will think of the ensō instead.

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It’s All Been Done

For a crime-novel writer of any quality or ambition — for a serious writer working in any genre, I imagine — there is always the little voice whispering, “It’s all been done.” How can you possibly produce, say, a courtroom drama that is original, fresh, unpredictable when there have been ten thousand courtroom dramas already written? (And that doesn’t count the endless loop of “Law & Order” reruns on basic cable.) The ten-thousand-and-first, no matter how clever or well crafted, will inevitably feel derivative, formulaic, small.

On the other hand, writers choose to work in a genre for good reasons. I write crime stories because, first, the situations are dramatic and emotionally resonant (“bad men do what good men dream”). Storytellers need drama; crime stories have it in spades. But I also like writing crime stories because they come with a ready-made shape. A murder mystery will proceed, one way or another, from the crime to the unmasking of the criminal; a courtroom drama from indictment to trial to verdict; a heist from the planning to the robbery to the escape (or failure to escape). You can play around with these formulas as much as you like, but the formulas are there and that is no small thing when you are staring at a blank computer screen. (There is another, more obvious advantage to writing genre novels, of course: people actually read them. But we’re talking about an artistic problem here, not a commercial one.)

So that is the bargain. And the little voice whispering “It’s all been done” generally doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I find the conventions of the genre stimulating. Twice now, I’ve had a fine time playing with the tropes of police procedurals, subverting them in my first novel (“no unreliable narrators!”) and taking them out for a spin in a strange new neighborhood (Boston in the Strangler era) in my second. All been done? Well, let’s do it again, in a new way.

In fact, I try quite consciously to find a “precursor text” for all my books, that is, a book or film (usually several) that will give shape to the story I am trying to tell, particularly in the early stages of writing when the story is still unformed.* You don’t have to dig too deeply in The Strangler, for example, to see the influence of L.A. Confidential. All writers do this, with varying degrees of awareness. How could any writer not be influenced by the books he has read and loved? Even using the term “precursor text” to describe the practice is something I borrowed from one of my betters, novelist David Lodge, who always identifies a precursor for his novels.

But with book three, for some reason I listened to that little voice too much. I let the genre novelist’s insecurity get to me. The book is, in the end, a courtroom drama. It is narrated by a man whose teenage son is accused of killing a classmate, and the centerpiece of the novel is the boy’s trial. The trouble was, when it came to writing the critical courtroom section of the book, I was too determined to avoid cliché, to write a courtroom drama utterly unlike any of the ten thousand that have come before — a fool’s errand, but then it’s easy to make a fool of yourself in this business. So out went the usual pre-trial strategy talks. Out went the tried and true good-cop-bad-cop interrogation of the defendant. Out went the dramatic parade into the courtroom for the arraignment. Any scene that felt remotely secondhand was cut or truncated.

Monday I heard from my editor that this section of the manuscript needs a rewrite to restore at least some of these conventional scenes. After I had ruthlessly excised every scene that had ever appeared in a legal novel, she suggested, there just wasn’t enough drama or mystery left. The storytelling was fresh and innovative, yes. It just wasn’t very compelling.

It ought to have been devastating news. This is the third or fourth major rewrite of the manuscript (I’ve lost count). And of course I was disappointed. The trial sequence ought to have been the most sure-footed part of the book. As a former trial lawyer, it’s what I know best. Worse, I had resisted making these very changes in previous rewrites.

But I see now, after taking a day or two to wrap my brain around the problem, that my editor was right. The formulas work. Subvert them, twist them, depart from them by all means. Be daring and original. But remember that story comes first. It is a mistake to sacrifice good storytelling to some abstract conception of immaculate originality. It has all been done, it’s true. The trick, so late in the life of the genre, is to innovate just enough — make it new, but keep what works.

Another rewrite. So it goes.

* Note to the book-nerds out there: Yes, yes, I know, the term “precursor text” is borrowed from Harold Bloom and I’m not using it properly. Obviously I am talking about a purposeful, self-aware sort of borrowing, which is not the “anxiety of influence” that Bloom means. The term is a useful descriptor, though, and I’ve been using it this way for years in plotting my books. No emails, please, about what a boob I am to have misappropriated it. Emails calling me a boob for other reasons are of course always welcome.

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Writing Is Play

“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” says Dr. Stuart Brown in this TED presentation on the importance of play. (The quote seems to originate with Brian Sutton-Smith.) I ran across this epigram yesterday in a blog post by Garr Reynolds called “The Secret to Great Work Is Great Play,” and a light bulb flashed on in my head.

I have been in an unproductive loop lately. About six weeks ago I submitted the manuscript for my third book. My editor loved the pages (the book will be released as a Random House “lead fiction” title, whatever that means) but, as always, she requested changes. I agreed with all her recommendations and was determined to finish the rewrites as quickly as possible. But the process has dragged on.

Why? Maybe I have been staring at the same project too long. I’m bored, ready to move on to a new book. Or maybe it’s the usual completion anxiety — the apprehensiveness that comes with releasing a manuscript out into the world, where its many flaws will surely be exposed.

Whatever the reason, a familiar vicious cycle has set in: the harder it is to write, the more I dread writing; the more I dread it, the harder it is to do. Mule that I am, I have responded to this dilemma the only way I know how — by working harder and harder and harder. But pulling the rope only makes the knot tighter.

So it was useful to be reminded that fiction-writing is a form of play — imaginative play. Which is not to say it is easy. Obviously it is not. But many kinds of play are not easy (weightlifting, crossword puzzles, classical piano). I have been writing for pleasure a lot longer than I have been doing it for money, but somehow the last few weeks I allowed my life’s passion to become drudgework. You cannot create that way. You have to relax. You have to bring a sense of play to your work. You have to enjoy the story you are creating even as you create it, because if it feels like drudgework to the writer, imagine how it will feel to the reader.

Image: My son Henry shows me how it’s done.

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The Anxiety of Finishing

It may be difficult for non-writers to understand why, as my last post suggested, writers become anxious as the end of a project approaches. You would think, after staring at a manuscript for months, even years, any sane writer would be relieved finally to be done with it.

David Remnick described the anxiety of finishing in a 1997 review of Big Trouble (link requires subscription), the last book by J. Anthony Lukas. In June 1997, Lukas killed himself while the manuscript was in final edits.

There are few writers of value who do not approach the end of a long project with at least some sense of dread, a self-lacerating concession that the book is not so much finished as abandoned and that positively everyone will see all the holes that are surely there, all the illogic, the shortcuts, the tape, the glue. Finishing is more about terror than about exhilaration. In a way, it is like beginning.

Lukas’s tragedy involved more than the angst of a perfectionist writer, of course. He had been fighting a long battle with depression, and there had been several suicides in his family, including his own mother.

But Remnick is right: every writer of quality knows the anxious feeling of publishing a manuscript that he knows is flawed. Artworks are imperfect by nature. Creative decisions do not have correct answers. A long manuscript is the sum of a thousand subjective choices, compromises, trade-offs, improvisations. You close one hole, another opens. No one is more aware of this than the writer himself.

The solution, in Seth Godin’s word, is to ship. Yes, you will fail. You will fall short of perfection, even of your own expectations. “No matter,” Samuel Beckett said. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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The Importance of Shipping

Seth Godin advises writers and other artists (at around 7:45 of this video), “What you do for a living is not be creative. Everyone is creative. What you do for a living is ship. … That is the discipline of what a creative artist does.” Even allowing for a little hyperbole (obviously artists have to be creative and ship), it is a useful reminder.

I ran across this clip the other day, just as I have been laboring to finish my third novel. And “laboring” is just the word for it: after a December that was by far my most productive month ever, I have been useless in January. I have not been writing well enough. Much, much worse, I haven’t been writing enough, period. I have rationalized my January slump as exhaustion and “part of the creative process” and all the usual horseshit, but listening to Godin I wonder if it isn’t the lizard brain after all — fear of finishing, of showing your work, being judged. Yes, even now, with two books under my belt.

I have sometimes been jealous of my writer-friends who were trained to write on deadline. Advertising copywriters do not learn to write truthfully, and journalists do not learn to write beautifully. But they do learn to finish. Or call the damn thing finished, whatever imperfections remain, and move on to the next assignment. In the long run, that may be the most valuable skill of all.

Finish. Ship. Next project. That is the unpoetic reality of being a writer. All writers know this, yet all writers need to hear it again and again. Myself included.

Source: Seth Godin: “Quieting the Lizard Brain” on Vimeo. Read Godin’s blog on the same subject here.

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A Thousand Words a Day

I have a new work routine. Mornings, I go into the city to write in the main reading room of the Boston Public Library, where I churn out a thousand words a day on my new novel. The BPL has wireless internet access, so I don’t bring a laptop. Too much distraction. Instead I type on a little portable keyboard, a gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo, which I’ve written about here before. In the afternoons, my thousand words complete, I work on other things: research, editing, email, this blog, etc.

Ordinarily I do not like routinized, quota-based writing schedules like this. It does not fit my personality very well. I prefer to work in intense bursts of three or four or even five hours at a time in which I start and complete an entire scene in a single heroic effort. These marathon sessions leave me exhausted, so one exhilirating hyper-productive day is usually followed by two desolate fallow ones. I would prefer to smooth this out, of course, and maintain a more professional, clockwork writing schedule. But my brain does not seem to work that way. My natural method is sprint-and-recover, sprint-and-recover.

I don’t recommend this method to other writers. Novel-writing is harrowing enough without putting yourself through the wringer this way. More important, the net result is fewer words produced. The hare may write better than the tortoise, but he will write less. And publishers value “more” over “better” — regular producers, however mediocre, are in demand; erratic producers, however brilliant, less so. Particularly at this point in my career, I simply can’t afford another missed deadline or long silence between books.

So, after an unproductive week last week, I’ve resolved to become a thousand-word-a-day tortoise for as long as I can stand it. Why 1,000? As you can tell from this (still new) blog, I am obsessed with other writers’ work habits, their daily routines, their work spaces. It is a natural curiosity for anyone in a solitary profession, I suppose. You want to ask, “Am I doing this right?,” but there is no one to put the question to. So you study other writers to see what works for them, and you experiment to see what works for you. Unfortunately there are as many writing routines as there are writers. On the low end, there is Graham Greene and his famous 500 words a day. Many writers talk about 1,000 words a day, including one recently quoted here, J.G. Ballard. The most common writer’s routine I’ve heard is “five pages a day.” (A thousand words comes out to only three or four manuscript pages. You’ve read about 450 words so far.) So I’ve chosen the middle way, neither especially ambitious or lax.

And it seems to be working. Why it is working I have no idea. Maybe it helps to get on the train and commute into town every morning like a banker. Maybe it is because the soaring, barrel-vaulted reading room at the BPL is a beautiful, inspiring space. Maybe it is just refreshing to dump a work routine that has ceased to be productive. Who knows? These writing routines tend to work for awhile, then, for mysterious reasons, they don’t. That is just the way it is in a creative endeavor.

So I’ll stick with it while it’s working. I’m not naturally a thousand-words-a-day kind of writer. I want to be great, and I worry that you cannot be great if you aspire merely to be consistent. But for now this is what I have to do. My book is due January 1.

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Remembering Updike the Father

John Updike’s son David, also a writer, has a lovely piece in the Times’ Paper Cuts blog. It is a eulogy for his father which he delivered at a tribute in March at the New York Public Library. I found this passage particularly touching:

But for someone who was getting famous, my father didn’t seem to work overly hard: he was still asleep when we went to school, and was often home already when we got back. When we appeared unannounced, in his office — on the second floor of a building he shared with a dentist, accountants and the Dolphin Restaurant — he always seemed happy and amused to see us, stopped typing to talk and dole out some money for movies. But as soon as we were out the door, we could hear the typing resume, clattering with us down the stairs.

My own sons, now five and eight, perceive me the same way, I think. To kids (and others), a writer at work does not seem to be doing much. They can’t understand that I am hard at it whether I am typing like mad or staring blankly out the window. Maybe this is true of all desk-work. Well, at least I have this one thing in common with Updike.

I admit, I feel a strange, vaguely filial attachment to writers of my father’s generation, especially Roth, Updike and Doctorow, whose books I grew up reading. Anyway, read the whole Updike eulogy. You won’t be sorry.

In the meantime, for all my fellow unmentored writers out there, here is Updike in 2004 with some fatherly advice for young writers.

The rest of the interview is here.

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Crime novels and entertainments

I was interested to read on Sarah’s blog about the fuss John Banville raised recently. Banville said, undiplomatically, that he writes more quickly and easily as crime writer “Benjamin Black” than he does writing literary novels under his own name. There were hurt feelings, suggestions that Banville was “slumming,” and the author felt compelled to issue a foot-shuffling clarification. “The distinction between good writing and bad,” he said, “is the only one worth making.”

That is so obviously untrue — lots of distinctions beyond good/bad are worth making — that Banville must have held his nose while typing it. The whole thing reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s definition of a Washington gaffe: when a politician inadvertently tells the truth in public.

Does anyone really doubt that an author would find it easier to write freely when he is working in a genre with established conventions? There are plenty of challenges to genre writing, of course. The writer can stick to the conventions, subvert them in various ways, update them, etc. But the rules do exist. The relative difficulty in writing “literary” novels is not that there aren’t models to follow; non-genre writers mimic older stories all the time. The difficulty — at least the one Banville meant — is that storytelling conventions are less clear and less important. The writer is at sea. That is why literary writers like Banville, Richard Price, and E.L. Doctorow (Billy Bathgate) feel relieved when they come to crime writing. Finally, there is a roadmap, a method to plotting the story. As a crime writer, I am thankful for that roadmap every day.

It is also obvious that genre novels place a higher priority on entertaining the reader. This is the umpteenth rehash of Graham Greene’s old distinction between novels and entertainments, and the only remaining mystery is why on earth we continue to worry about it. Listen to Greene (see below) as he briefly discusses the subject. It turns out, the novels/entertainments distinction didn’t hold up very well even for the man who invented it. “Most of my novels have an element of melodrama,” Greene concedes, even the literary ones. All novels need drama, even the melo- kind.

So let’s not be so touchy, crime fans. Entertainments — yes, crime novels included — are indeed easier to write, just as Banville says. They are also generally easier to read, precisely because they take seriously the writer’s duty to entertain. Why apologize for it?

By the way, I always find it a little disconcerting to hear or see an author whose books I love. The authorial voice is one the reader creates in her own head. Greene’s actual, reedy voice is not the one I’d imagined for him. (Click below to hear him.) Yet another example of the internet revealing too much.

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Makers vs. Managers

I’ve written before about the need for writers and other artists to have long stretches of quiet, uninterrupted time to submerge completely in their work. A post is making the rounds today by the programmer and entrepreneur Paul Graham that places the artist’s workstyle in a wider context.

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it. …

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

I quote the piece at length here because Graham gets it exactly right, but you really have to read the whole thing. I read it with a little shiver of recognition.

Of course all writers are both makers and managers at different times. The trick is to keep the two roles separate, to wall off your “maker” times, those long periods during the day when you are trying to create. It does not matter if you retreat to a dedicated workspace like Philip Roth or just a crowded coffee shop, so long as you segregate your creative-work time from ordinary, “managerial” work time. A writer’s workplace is to some extent a state of mind, a “maker” state of mind: isolated, entranced, submerged.

To non-writers, no doubt this all seems a little fussy and precious. That is because most people, not just powerful people, live in the managerial mode, shifting constantly from task to task. I am lucky my family understands that Daddy needs to go off and be alone for long periods to do his work, and they indulge me. My kids don’t know any different. To them, this is all just part of Daddy’s job and his personality. They understand, too, that I am often “distracted and cranky” when I am writing, as Stephen Dubner describes his own maker times. All part of the writing life, I suppose. Still, as a writer it helps to have myself explained to myself, as Paul Graham has done today.

Update: Daniel Drezner, a professor at Fletcher, adds an important thought about the particularly high cost of interruptions in the early stages of a creative project:

I think the problem might even be worse than Graham suggests. Speaking personally, the hardest part of any research project is at the beginning stages. I’m trying to figure out my precise argument, and the ways in which I can prove/falsify it empirically. While I’m sure there are people who can do that part of the job with a snap of their fingers, it takes me friggin’ forever.  And any interruption — not actual meetings, but even responding to e-mail about setting up a meeting — usually derails my train of thought.

The early stages of a novel — or any creative project, I imagine — are equally tentative and fragile.

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Capote and Ellison: Blocked or just procrastinating?

“Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block — or were they just chronic procrastinators?” This interesting article from Slate, by Jessica Winter, considers whether there is a difference between writer’s block and procrastination to begin with.

Famously, both Capote and Ellison went silent after producing great books. Capote’s silence lasted nineteen years, from the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965 until his death in 1984. Ellison struggled for nearly forty years to produce a followup to his 1952 debut, Invisible Man. He never did.

Their struggles were not alike, though. Capote seems to have produced very little in all that time. Ellison, when he died in 1994, left behind thousands of pages. One was paralyzed, the other flailed. But both seem to have had the same inner problems: perfectionism, crippling anxiety about meeting heightened expectations after an early success, low self-esteem, excuse-making.

As a writer and lifelong procrastinator, the stories of Capote and Ellison scare the hell out of me. The lesson: the ultimate failure for a writer is not producing a bad book; it is producing no book at all.

(And yes, I realize I am procrastinating by writing this!)

chronic procrastinators?Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block—or were they just chronic procrastinators?

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Things I Love: The AlphaSmart Neo

What writers need more than anything else is quiet. Not physical silence, but a quiet mind. I can work happily in a crowded coffee shop or rattling along on the Acela from New York to Boston. When I am writing well, I work in a sort of trance. What is around me does not matter. I’m hardly aware of it.

Of course, the human brain resists that sort of deep focus. It wants to wander. We are rigged to notice, to investigate, to root around in the bushes for something good. It is in our nature to skip from one thing to the next. Hey, what’s over there? Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing: a few million years of living in dangerous wild places has taught us to be alert always.

And the web is perfectly designed to exploit this instinct to sniff about. The dope in front of his computer at midnight, his mind fogged, clicking link after link on Facebook or Google Reader, bored and demoralized but still clicking away — let’s not judge him too harshly, the poor monkeyman.

So what is a writer to do? His job is to type, but his keyboard is connected to the noisiest distraction machine ever, the internet (and, to a lesser degree, the computer itself — great toy, the computer). The answer, of course, is simply to look away, to direct his attention elsewhere. To disconnect from the whole ringing, rattling, honking mess.

The best way to do this, short of writing everything with pen and paper, is a little gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo.

The Neo is a sorry thing in technological terms. It looks like a glorified calculator, with a QWERTY keyboard instead of number keys below a small LCD screen. It is not smart enough to be called a computer, nor dumb enough to be a typewriter. It is somewhere in between, a simple, stripped-down computer that can only be used for one thing: typing plain text.

I have been shamelessly pimping this thing to my writer friends since the day I got mine. No more waiting for the computer to boot up or shut down; just turn it on and it’s ready, turn it off and it’s off. No more worrying about battery life or finding a plug for your laptop at Starbucks; it runs on plain double-A batteries which last at least a year. (The company claims a battery life of 700 hours. I’ve had my Neo for eighteen months and have never replaced the batteries, though I don’t use it every day.) No more lugging around a heavy laptop and adapter; the Neo is much lighter that most laptops and, because it has so few moving parts, tougher too. There is no Save button; your document is automatically saved after every key stroke, a process that is completely unnoticeable. The full-size keyboard has a nice, solid feel comparable to a good laptop keyboard. Best of all, there is no internet, no operating system, not even a word processor to distract you. Just a perfectly clean, quiet work space. I know — sit down, the idea of it can make you a little lightheaded.

The Neo was originally designed for use in schools, to teach kids “keyboarding skills,” which I think means typing. Last week, my niece and nephew were delighted to discover me using the same machine that they use in school. (They are in grades 3 and 6.) But the Neo has been taken up by writers of all kinds. It has a devoted online following. There is even a group on Flickr where people post pictures of their beloved Neos, some tricked out in different colors or displayed in exotic locations.

The Neo is not perfect. Porting your files from the Neo to your computer is a hassle. Files can be transferred using a cable or an infrared connection, though I doubt many people are using the infrared link since computers capable of receiving infrared are now few and far between. The cable works well but is unnecessary. The whole process would be much easier if the Neo simply had a USB port that could accept a thumb drive. Another quibble: the LCD screen is not illuminated, so it is hard to read in dim environments. But, to be fair, the low power consumption of that screen is, in part, what enables the Neo’s miraculous battery life — a smart tradeoff.

The Neo is one of a class of machines sometimes called “portable keyboards,” which include QuickPad and the Neo’s slightly more complex older sibling, called Dana, plus a few more aimed more squarely at the school market. But the best, because the simplest, is the Neo.

If you are a writer — and I use the term broadly, to include anyone whose work involves a substantial amount of writing — you must try this machine. It is the silver bullet you’ve been looking for.

(One last thing. To preempt a few questions: Yes, this was written on my Neo. No, I have no affiliation with the people who make the Neo, and I have nothing at all to gain by recommending it to you. And yes, the monkeyman described above is me, though I’m not proud of it.)

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