Category Archives: Writing process

Cool Things to Write About™

My favorite writing exercise of all time is from Ray Bradbury, in Zen in the Art of Writing. It’s very simple: you generate a list of nouns, conjured from your life experiences, as if they were titles. Bradbury always did this exercise in all-caps, and so do I; it makes the results feel more title-like, therefore conjuring sensations rather than simply specific images. How ominous does THE BLACKENED TRUCK sound? How mysterious is THE GEM SHOP?

If this sounds intriguing, I highly recommend reading the entirety of Zen for yourself!

Despite all of the genius ideas locked away in those childhood nouns, I was recently very, very stuck. To call it writer’s block would be putting it mildly; it was more like writer’s constipation, a time of deep drought. I was sure I’d never come up with another good, heartfelt idea ever again.

So one day, I threw up my hands and put a twist on Bradbury’s exercise. And it worked. It got me past my mental block.

I call it Cool Things to Write About™.

It’s a self-explanatory exercise: You sit down with a piece of paper. You write “Cool Things to Write About™” at the top of the page. Underneath, you list cool things to write about.

Not cool as in people around the world love reading about these things cool. Cool to you. Cool because little you, the still-excited nerd child inside you, thinks they’re wicked cool. Thinks they’ll always be cool. Guess what? They are. To you. That’s all that matters. If you think it’s cool, I promise, there’s a way to sell it.

Don’t hold back. Write everything down that comes to mind as you stare at the title. When you’re done, the list of Cool Things to Write About™ should start to stir up your inspiration. Consider them in pairs. Contemplate the connections between them, the potential energy they bring to one another.

Dinosaurs and telepathy? Charmed objects and sailing into the unknown? Alien planets and practical magic?

Can’t you feel the possibilities already?

Writerguilt

writerguilt, n. the intense feeling of failure and existential doubt that occurs when words are not being applied to pages

Writerguilt is the nagging feeling that the world is waiting for your words. Writerguilt is also self-indulgent. Breaking news: The only person waiting for you to write is you.

But someone’s waiting on me! I hear you insisting. Fine, sure. Deadlines are real things. But editors, agents, and publishing companies work with writers who produce. Readers want to read, well, books that actually exist. Spend your time despairing, and you’ll have nothing to show for it except a steaming pile of intangible angst.

As it turns out, writerguilt is very, very easy. It’s certainly easier than slogging through a thick research book, or crafting yet another post about how you’ve been absent from blogging but “oh this time I’m back, with a vengeance!” Or any of the thousands of other ways you might practice the craft of writing.

My theory is that we writers revel in writerguilt because feeling guilty about not writing is an activity mutually exclusive to writing. And if there’s one thing writers can agree on about writing, it’s the sincere and professional practice of avoiding it.

When I indulge, my own writerguilt takes on the form of a question wrought with existential agony: how can I possibly know which project is right to focus on next? As I’ve gotten older, the sharp edges of this quandary have been honed by the acquisition of knowledge. These days, I know all too well the myriad ways I might make the wrong decision.

At age 10, I had a very particular way of dealing with my writerguilt. I kept an inventory of works in progress, and I coded a random generator so I could select my stories one at a time and dedicate a tiny block of time to each.

Those five-minute writing sprints added a few sentences or mere words to each document. But I was making progress. On everything. Decisions be damned.

Trick thyself into creativity is my creator’s motto these days. It’s a nod to the irritating ingenuity I displayed 18 years ago: By deciding not to decide, I made a decision anyway—the decision to write. To produce. To put something down, even if it was just a single line.

At least that’s one more line than I’d had five minutes earlier. And eventually it adds up to a book.

I know the writers reading this are also afflicted by writerguilt. It comes and goes, and contrary to expectation, not in the inverse of inspiration. When guilt and ideas hit at the same time, the storm of despair can be monumental. You can really spin your wheels trying to decide which project will be a bigger hit with your audience, or bring in more passive income, or…whatever your Big Project Questions may be.

If you’re wrestling with writerguilt, do something for me, right now. Pick something you’re working on (randomly, if you have to). Open it up. Set a five-minute timer. Write at least one word. It’ll be one more word than you had before. Maybe it’ll alleviate your writerguilt, just a smidgeon.

The only way off this hamster wheel is to make a decision and write.

Cooking and writing

I’m extremely lucky to be married to a former chef who catered for sitting presidents. Yes, I certainly get all of the consumption benefits of having a chef under my roof — but more importantly, I get a world-class firsthand education in how to food.

I haven’t just learned “how to make a dish that tastes good.” That’s actually pretty simple: Follow a good recipe. What I’ve really learned is how food behaves. What the system of food is like. The science of food, the art and craft of choosing proportions for desired results. I’ve always known what good food tastes like, but now I know why.

This systematic knowledge took me from following recipes step by careful step in 2013 to freestyling it with substitutions and eliminations as the whim seizes me today. It’s also allowed me to develop a distinct style — I’ve come to love certain combinations of ingredients, and increased my ability to experiment within those flavor profiles.

I’ve gone through a similar transformation in my writing, too, though inversely. I used to freestyle too much; I’d sit down with a first line or a vague notion and punch out a few pages of something unstructured and full of interesting frayed ends.

Ultimately, those weren’t stories that held up under much scrutiny. I’d bore of them and wonder why I couldn’t finish anything.

In the last few years, in addition to the “writing about writing” books I’ve always read, I started scrutinizing good stories in all forms of media, and studying writers’ systems of crafting plots and characters. This has given me the vocabulary for my instinctual sense of how to story.

Now I can flip through a draft I wrote a few months before and not only spot the holes, but name them, and understand how to find fixes for them. I’m no master of fiction, but I’m a much more confident writer than I used to be.

The ingredients, the proportions of a good story — these are things I know when I meet because I’ve been a voracious reader for so long. But now I understand them and have the toolbox at my disposal to fix them in my own works.

Such is the magic of learning how to cook.

The Parentheses Process

I love details. They’re sort of the hallmark of my style, especially in my short stories — I choose very specific but arbitrary details, putting down broad strokes about a world I hardly know yet. I’ll describe how the clay coins of the realm feel in one’s hand, for example. Or the name and earthy smell of the new-fangled liquor everyone in the land is addicted to.

But sometimes, instead of getting caught up in exactly what I should call the god-leader figurehead role of a nomadic ice planet society, I need to crank out the skeleton of a scene. I can’t always afford to stop and get lost in random generator land. So instead of agonizing over a detail and allowing it to slow my roll, I use what my producer/hub calls “the Parentheses Process.”

In reality, I don’t use parentheses, I use curly braces. {These ones.} They make it easy for me to use Ctrl+F (the Find function) and track down all the places I left blanks without running into false positives, since I sometimes actually use parentheses. But whatever. Parentheses Process is catchy-ish.

I used the heck out of this method while I was working on my novel Daugment. I didn’t know much about Daugment when I started the book, other than the main character being a human-turned-dog, so I ended up leaving a lot of world-building details unspecified as I went along. Or, I would specify them, later remember that I’d made a decision but not what that decision had been, and then just put the general idea in brackets so I could come back to it later and cross-reference to my heart’s content, once I was wearing my editor’s hat.

The Parentheses Process is especially useful for NaNoWriMo and other speed-writing scenarios. If you’re trying to crank out an essay, wrap up your manuscript in a couple of weeks, or complete the first draft of a novel in a single month, stepping away from the details is a must. Plus, this method strengthens your stories and your world-building skills by letting the details percolate in your mind as your world and plot unfold in a more structured way.

Yes, even “pantsers” who don’t outline will benefit from leaving some things until the end. The brain naturally tends to make loose ends click into a neat package, if you let it sit idle on the problem long enough. Thanks to the fact that brains like patterns, yours will passively work to sort things out and make connections where you may not have seen them at first brush.

The basic premise of the Parentheses Process is, if you can’t come up with it nearly immediately, put it in brackets and move on.

Your goal should always be to get through the first draft as fast as you can. Even if the first draft is really a “zero draft,” just a few sentences that sketches out what you’re going for, you benefit from having something to work with rather than nothing at all.

It’s how you eliminate the fear of the blank page. Know that this is something I spent fifteen years of denying, despite reading all of those trusty books about writing, wherein every author ever coaxed me to get the first draft down quickly…

But I digress. Here are some examples of the Parentheses Process in action.

“{Something inspirational and foreshadowy!}” Leyla cried, one edge of her blade gleaming in the low-slung sun.

Dialogue isn’t easy. If you can’t hear it in your head yet, you may just not know your character well enough. That’s totally reasonable! Put it in brackets and move on.

He picked up the gleaming {swordthingname}.

Well, crap, you know you named that sword-thing in an earlier paragraph, but it’s at least four pages back, and you’re kind of on a roll… Put it in brackets and move on.

Their eyes met over the candle. Hers gleamed, and his answered with a mischievous twinkle.

{Cute thing that becomes an inside joke}

They were full of wine and sleepy, and even the promise of more kisses couldn’t keep them awake. They fell asleep with their arms around one another, their clothes disheveled in an innocent, sleepy way.

Sometimes you have a general idea of what needs to happen in order to make a plot point down the road feasible… But you don’t have any experience with that kind of scene and you’d like to read or watch a bit of research material. Put it in brackets and move on.

Fair game in the Parentheses Process:

  • World-building details you already selected*
  • Lines of dialogue
  • Names you haven’t chosen yet
  • Physical characteristics
  • Emotional content
  • Portions of scenes
  • Entire chapters
  • Literally anything

*Pay special attention to those details you feel the need to look up over and over — such as names of places, people and things; character continuity details; and timelines. If you need to reference stuff regularly, you may want to develop a system for yourself so you can easily reference it again.

If you’re anything like me as a writer, you want to make sure you get worldbuilding details absolutely straight. Especially if you know you wrote something down already, whether it was in your meticulous notes or your messy draft, you shouldn’t stop your writing flow to hunt it down! Getting out your first draft should always be more important than the details. That’s what editors are for. You should know this. Consider this a gentle love-whap. First drafts first.

The Parentheses Process is all about ensuring you stay in your flow when you find it. The most important rule is: Give yourself just enough to know what you meant later, and move on quickly to maintain your momentum.

(Another rule: Be consistent. If you use {curly braces,} stick with ’em. If you use [square brackets,] stick with those. Otherwise you’ll find your Ctrl+F process is much harder than it needs to be.)

The Parentheses Process eliminates a huge excuse that many writers rely on to keep from actually producing — research. Yes, research is absolutely key to a successful project. Yes, you can and should have research phases in your writing process…just not in the middle of your writing time. Random generators and web searches are just an excuse not to write, most of the time.

The biggest secret to my success is that I know now, the writing portion of the process should be satisfying. I try to exploit this fact by using the Parentheses Process to jump to the stuff I’m interested in writing right now.

If there’s something you’re excited to write about or want to get out of your head, jump to it. Jot down any notes or thoughts you don’t want to forget in brackets {like these}. Then get to where you want to be!

That’s it. That’s the whole Parentheses Process. It’s how you get through drafts, and fast. It’s how you plow through all those little distractions that add up to writer’s block. It’s how you identify details about your characters and world that are important to write down somewhere else for future reference. (Planning on turning your stand-alone novel into a series? Better hope you’ve kept track of the stuff that’ll matter for the next book and beyond!)

The Parentheses Process is not the same as “not knowing what happens” — i.e. not plotting your story or series. This method shouldn’t be used in place of outlines. At the very least, even if you’re a true “pantser,” you should have some vague notion of what your character’s motivation and goals are.

However, used in tandem with an outline, loose or otherwise, the Parentheses Process lets your brain work its magic. It will find patterns if you tell it, “Look, brain, I know what needs to happen, just not how it happens.” It’s likely that your story world already has a way for that plot point to not only be feasible, but probable. You may just not have unearthed it yet.

Put it in brackets and move on.

The Scribblers’ Club

As part of my creative philosophy, I try to participate every year in at least one big generative project, at the end of which I have something to shop around or develop. (I’m also a masochistic writer.) A lot of years, that project is NaNoWriMo. In 2012 and 2013, my good friend Jill Corddry and I teamed up to crank out short stories on a regular basis (almost weekly, in 2012, and monthly in 2013).

We took a couple of years off – she had twins and I got a heck of a job (same thing, right?!) – but our hiatus is over, and this year, we lassoed two of our other friends and dragged them with us. We call the project The Scribblers’ Club, and we’ve each promised to write one short story per month for the next twelve months, with a few appearances scattered throughout by guest writers. We’ve already done it at least once each, which is miraculous in and of itself. Eleven more stories to go (for me). No big deal. (If you like sad paranormal stories, my first one is called “Wanting”.)

The Scribblers exist because of our motto: “Trick thyself into creativity.” We made deadlines that feel a little bit like those school assignments we used to have. We found people to send us clever notes and evil writer quotes. We found that those same people hold us to our promises through guilt and sickly-sweet encouragement. We force ourselves into artificial boxes to see how our creativity shoves its way out of them. Most of all, we keep in mind that quantity produces quality.

More than any other tactic, this cooperative-but-not-collaborative approach to writing groups has really worked for me. I do love actually collaborating on writing, but even in a hyper-connected age, it can be hard when writers with very different ways of writing books try to write a book together. Having others set standards of success in the same little arena we’ve drawn out together is encouraging, inspiring, and makes me feel bad if I don’t turn in my story on time.

So. Back to tricking myself I go!