Category Archives: writing advice

Seventeen minutes

Seventeen minutes. That’s what it takes to write something good. The something can always be made better, and it’ll take as much time as a writer is willing to give it, but it takes seventeen minutes at least.

This is not a lot of time. It’s less than the length of one episode of comedic television.

Seventeen minutes is keyboard time though. It’s sitting at the keyboard and typing rather furiously for seventeen minutes. But it’s not seventeen minutes of blathering onto the screen; it’s seventeen minutes of hyperintensity, where your body is almost completely still except for its unconscious twitches and shakes and your mind’s eye is so far inward it’s almost up your asshole, and then, almost like when a fish tries to dart back into the dark waters and you reach out to snatch it by its tail, you discover the phrase, and depending on how fast you are, its yours to catch or release.

It’s the buildup to the keyboard time that can get you. It takes a lot of energy to sit down and write. It’s a lazy man’s game, I know, but there isn’t any laziness to it. Not when it’s done right.

It’s like exercise. You just have to do it. Maybe someday you’ll feel like you’re a real part of “the game,” but for now, it’s just exercise.

I have friends that run in marathons; some are even Ironmen and women. I don’t think one of them has entered a race expecting they would win it. They expect zero accolades for their performance. They wouldn’t mind if they received some, but accolades aren’t for a moment a reason for them to run, or to swim, or to bike.

Before race day, they prepare — some more than others, but all of them prepare.

In writing, though, there is no race day. There is no single day that it’s all leading up to. It’s never “the day.”

When I see my friends at the starting line of their races (which isn’t very often), they often seem serious. Those who can laugh, laugh, but not all of them; some take the time to focus. Sometimes they bounce on their legs to get the energy flowing, or they sway back and forth, trying to stay loose.

There is that in writing too. Some writers are able to roll right out of bed and get going, but I think most of us have to psyche ourselves up a little bit. Some even pop performance enhancing drugs like marijuana or alcohol (Hunter S. Thompson popped a pharmacy). But then, clean or not, feeling the moment, we sit down, place our fingers on the keys, put them in their rested but ready position, and wait, wait…wait…and bang, the phrase hits, and we’re off.

Most people don’t run marathons though. You know what they do? They run 5Ks. A lot of them, sometimes more than once a day.

How long do you think that takes, a 5K?

I don’t know. I’m not a runner. But I think to run a pretty good 5K, seventeen minutes sounds about right to me.

I shit you not. I started this post a little more than twenty minutes ago. I’m sorry it’s taken this long. I’m still a little off my game.

And for the record (just because I finished watching it about twenty minutes ago) tonight’s “Spoils of War” episode has to be in the running not just as the best episode of Game of Thrones, but as possibly the best episode of television ever. It demonstrated the narrative moment that comes just before the apotheosis as well as I’ve ever seen it done. I can’t wait to read George R.R. Martin’s version of it.

And also for the record, it’s taking Mr. Martin longer than seventeen minutes to write A Song of Ice & Fire; in fact, it’s taking him longer than seventeen years.

Name one project you’ve worked on for longer than seventeen years (children don’t count).

Give Mr. Martin a break. He’s creating a true masterpiece.

And for those of you going after David Benioff and D.B. White for their desire to wrangle whatever stories they can out of the notion that the South won the Civil War and slavery still exists the way capitalism still exists, as a bona-fide economic theory — how dare you try to censor an artist before he or she can begin her work?

Game of Thrones has to be ranked as one of the best series of television ever. You can argue the point all you like, but no one would denounce you as crazy for suggesting it at least deserves some kind of honorable mention in the discussion.

The world makes a lot of television. To do it as well as Beniof and White have done it for as long as they’ve done it, and to do it at such a massive scale, with millions of person hours dedicated to its creation, production, and distribution, and done in what seems to be a genuine manner, allowing the dirtiness of Martin’s novels to titillate and shock the viewer while also striving to touch their hearts… Beniof and White have been as successful on screen as Martin has been on the page — differently successful, but successful nonetheless.

Haven’t they shown themselves to be twenty-first century artists of the first stripe, capable of manipulating the capitalist system in such a way as to dedicate millions upon millions of dollars to the creation of quality works of art? You think the Vatican doesn’t benefit from housing such high quality artwork behind its doors?

Yes, there’s money to be made in art. Ask Shakespeare and Michelangelo.

I’m not trying to go out on a limb here. In their official announcement about the series, Benioff and White used the language of art to frame what they’re trying to do, saying, “Our experience on Thrones has convinced us that no one provides a bigger, better storytelling canvas than HBO.” Given any urge to create art, what artist worth her salt would turn down the biggest canvas she could find?

The announced concept behind “Confederacy” is problematic, true, and I applaud those who want to ensure that the artists understand the problems before they try to tackle them, but how dare anyone forbid their attempt of it?

With tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, which, by the way, they wrote before George R.R. Martin was able to write it, they proved themselves due for so much respect as artists that I’m willing to support whatever endeavor they choose next.

Yes, critique their idea. Yes, call into question the real political and cultural issues that arise from their idea, but for the love of all that is sacred in art, don’t denounce their right to attempt it.

Okay. That was about twenty more minutes. Sorry, but that was a great episode of television and I just needed to say all that.

Forty-five minutes of writing. Thirteen minutes of editing. That’s almost an hour-long drama. That’s not much at all.

What’s the Significance?

You’ll often read that observation is a skill you need to become a good writer. I don’t have strong observation skills. Like the stereotypical husband that I can be, I am the world’s worst looker for things, and I often can’t tell you what outfit my wife puts on each morning, even after she’s only just left the room.

But I’ve learned that observation doesn’t just mean observing objects in a room or the precise details of a woman’s dress. It also means observing yourself and your relationship with others, and observing others and their relationship with those around them. It means trying to read verbal, physical, and social cues to understand the underlying dynamic of a given situation, and to then empathize with all of the elements affecting or being affected by that dynamic.

Observation is not looking. It’s probing and pursuing.

The action of looking is too passive. To be a good writer, you need to ask questions and follow wherever those questions lead, at every point asking yourself, “What is the significance of this? Why does it matter?”

It sounds like journalism, and to some extent it is — good journalism being, at bottom, good writing — but good writing posits those questions not only to bodies of power, but also to even the most basic of facts, such as the details of a woman’s dress.

This applies to blogging as well.

After all, what is the significance of this post? Why does it matter?

Blogging is a timely art form. Its impact is limited to the moment. While a blogger could post an article whose value lasts for weeks or months or years, the value of most blog posts are ephemeral, relevant only for a day or two beyond their time stamps.

The art of being a blogger, then, is to seek significance in everyday existence, to probe your entire day until you find something that matters, something that deserves to be talked about beyond its temporal confines.

This week, I had several experiences that could qualify, some of which I’ve already shared, others of which are still in the drafting stage, and still others of which I’ve yet to attempt to memorialize.

Like the fact that my college roommate and his wife are visiting us this weekend. Within that fact lies an entire treatise on the meaning of friendship.

Or the fact that I might have traumatized my daughter this week by letting her watch Coraline at way too young of an age, the result of which was a four-year-old girl who was afraid to go to sleep in her bed. I could connect that story with another where she was genuinely curious about what happens to the skin when a bug bites it: why does it get itchy and why is there a bump? I could then extend the investigation to her recurring fascination with — and existential dread about — the fact that, sometime in the future, the sun will explode. By the time I wrapped it up, it could be a blog post about the challenge of raising a child who is curious about the things that scare her, and the wisdom of that idea.

Or I could write a blog post about two different experiences I had at school this week, and both on the same day, the first of which involved getting an angry and belligerent teenager to stop being angry and literally smell the flowers, the result of which was an outpouring of creative energy whose like I’d yet to experience with this student; and the second of which involved letting an 11-year-old boy smack me in the face for 40 minutes straight because that was the only way I could get him to look me in the eye and talk to me about his life, each smack allowing him to punctuate his sadness and loneliness with peels of tension-releasing laughter.

Or I could write a blog post about buying my wife a Roomba for Mother’s Day, and use it to investigate why the gift was both good and not-good at one and the same time, resulting perhaps in a blog post about the intricacies of marital gift giving, with a tangent about the joys and challenges of being married to an incredibly intelligent feminist and the patriarchal irony of giving such a feminist a Roomba for Mother’s Day.

Regardless of what I chose to blog about, the key would be to find within it something of significance, something that matters beyond my need to “journal,” because blogging shouldn’t be about journaling. Journaling is a private affair, and blogging, due to its medium, is very much a public one. A blog shouldn’t be a place to make a confession. It should be a place where the act of reflection (whether on your experiences or on the news of the day) results in something that is worthy enough to share — worthy enough to be read, even if only once.

I don’t care what the books tell you: observation is not the skill you most need to be a writer; more than observation, you need interrogation — the ability to probe and pursue every fact and every experience until it reveals its significance within the wider moment. Whether that means interrogating a news item, a mother’s day gift, the arrival of a friend, or the details of a woman’s dress, at all points you must ask, “What is the significance? Why does it matter?”

Only then can you say to yourself, I know what to write.

The Poetic Un-Filter

I’m teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing class at Green Mountain College this semester. We just moved into our unit on poetry, and a couple of days ago, during the opening lecture, I was talking to the students about the difference between prose and poetry. I quoted George Santayana, who wrote, “Poetry breaks up the trite concepts designated by current words into the sensuous qualities out of which those conceptions were originally put together.”

This morning, I was reading an article in The Atlantic about Douglas Hofstadter, a thought-leader in the development of artificial intelligence. Hofstadter argues that the core of human intelligence is to “understand the fluid nature of mental categories.”

“Cognition is recognition,” he likes to say. He describes “seeing as” as the essential cognitive act: you see some lines as “an A,” you see a hunk of wood as “a table”…and a young man’s style as “hipsterish” and on and on ceaselessly throughout your day. That’s what it means to understand…“At every moment,” Hofstadter writes, “we are simultaneously faced with an indefinite number of overlapping and intermingling situations.” It is our job, as organisms that want to live, to make sense of that chaos. We do it by having the right concepts come to mind. This happens automatically, all the time.

Now, the question is, how does Santayana’s quote belong with Hofstadter’s theory of cognition?

Both Santayana and Hofstadter agree that the process of cognition is based on recognition. We look at the explosions of colors and lines that are the given world and our mind pairs those sensations with “the right concepts” — that’s how we know a table is a table and not a rhinoceros.

But Santayana is saying that the poet is gifted with the ability to retain the original sensations, the explosions of colors and lines before “the right concepts” (or as Santayana says, the “trite concepts”) force those sensations into a specific category, into a specific box.

It is the the poet who connects us to the unfiltered sensations of the world and uncategorized emotions of the soul. As poets, it is our job to grab hold of those sensations before they can be boxed up into the prepackaged concepts constructed by our cultures, to save them from the inevitable loss that comes from being stuffed into a box.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: I is for Ideal Reader

I don’t know who you are.

I can look at my Google Analytics to get a rough understanding of where you are, where you came from, and how long you stayed on Fluid Imagination, but who you are — your motivation for coming here and the goals you hope to achieve — these I can only imagine.

Ideally, you are a fiction writer, and you’re interested in reading medium-sized chunks of writing advice. Ideally, you’re also a human being, with all the icky bits that come from being human, the same icky bits that make you laugh at poop jokes and cry at funerals and prefer common words over jargon.

As a member of my ideal readership, you’re neither male nor female, black nor white nor yellow nor red nor blue nor indigo or violet. What you are, instead, is someone who gets turned on, turned off, and rubbed both the wrong and right ways.

You enjoy television (good television), movies that make you think and feel, and books that either dare to try something new or succeed in doing the same-old same-old really, really well.

But more than anything, as a member of my ideal readership, you are fiercely curious about the craft of creative writing. You don’t want a magical formula. You want, instead, to work hard and sweat. You want to sit at the keyboard and, as the man said, “open a vein.”

You’re here because you want to write words until you find the phrasing that makes you cry at the truth of it. You want authenticity, earnestness, and syntactic acrobatics.

In short, you’re here on Fluid Imagination because you are my ideal reader. Where else would you be?

A Roundup of My Writing Apps

There’s never been a better time to be an OS X or iOS user than right now. Thanks to Apple’s App Stores, individual developers and smaller shops now have access to a large volume of customers, giving them just as much influence over the future of the platform as Adobe and Microsoft once wielded.

And with that greater democracy comes greater innovation. We’re now seeing ideas on the app front that wouldn’t have made it through the more cost-conscious or committee-driven development processes of larger companies. Shops such as Information Architects and individuals such as Marco Arment have expanded our notion of what we want from our apps.

So, wanting to help some of my favorite developers and wanting to shed light on apps that will be helpful to writers such as yourself, I thought I’d share the OS X, iOS, and Web apps that have made my writing not only easier to manage, but also more enjoyable to produce.

The Indispensable Writing Apps

Scrivener

Scrivener logoThe Big Poppa when it comes my writing life, Scrivener is a novelist’s best friend. Not only does Scrivener offer a fully-customizable, full-screen writing experience, but more importantly, it serves as an all-in-one project-management tool. Scrivener helps you keep track of all the various documents and files that go into developing a long piece of creative writing.

Scrivener is a huge application, with outlining tools, a system-wide scratchpad, file-tracking options, document versioning, character and setting templates, footnotes and comments, export options that run the gamut (including Final Draft, ePub, and Kindle file formats), syncing features that hook up with some of the more popular iPad apps, and more. But don’t let its giant feature-set fool you. If you want, you can just start a new project and start typing. Scrivener is an application that allows itself to be discovered. It has everything you want, but only when you want it.

If you do any writing at all, I can’t recommend Scrivener enough. It will, without a doubt, become the Big Poppa of your writing life.

IA Writer

Writer logoIf Scrivener is my Big Poppa, IA Writer has quickly become the ambitious little brother.

IA Writer belongs to a growing category of “minimalist writing applications,” and like other apps in the category, it promises to get out of your way and just let you write.

But IA Writer takes its idea of minimalism a bit further than its competitors. Simply put: IA Writer won’t let you do much else but write. There are no preferences to tweak, no formatting options to play with, nothing at all to distract you.

Because they take away all your options, IA put a ton of time into making sure that Writer looks and feels perfect right out of the gate. They chose a fantastic font (a customized version of Nitti) in a perfect color (HEX #424242) laid on top of a relaxing background (it’s actually a subtle pattern). IA even spent a considerable amount time developing a non-standard blinking cursor that, frankly, is more amazing than any blinking cursor has the right to be.

IA focus modeOn top of that, the folks at IA added what I’m pretty sure is a unique feature among all writing apps. They call it “focus mode,” and what it does is gray out all of the sentences you’re not working on (click the picture to embiggen). Focus mode helps you to focus all of your attention not on what you’ve already written, but on what you’re writing right now. I love the mode so much that I’ve taken to doing the majority of my writing in IA Writer.

Of course, as a minimalist writing application, IA Writer can’t approach Scrivener for project management, so when I’m done with a particular writing session, I just copy and past into Scrivener to keep track of it all.

I should mention that IA Writer works on both iOS and OS X. I bought the iPad 2 on the day it came out, and I bought IA Writer on the day the iPad got delivered to my door. I’d read so many rave reviews of it by that point that I knew I just had to have it.

As you can see, it lived up to my expectations.

iTunes

Itunes logoI know iTunes isn’t a “writing app” per se, but it’s just as indispensable to my writing life as IA Writer or Scrivener. When I sit down for any writing session, those three icons are the ones I click on.

To clarify though, it’s not iTunes that belongs on this list. It’s a particular playlist within iTunes that does, a playlist I’ve named, simply, “Writing.”

Comprised entirely of bands who produce mostly instrumentals or extended jams, my “Writing” playlist creates an ambience that my muse has learned to trust. When my muse hears the guitar of Jerry Garcia, or the driving rhythms of Do Make Say Think, or the rising crescendos of Explosions in the Sky, or the urgent horn of John Coltrane, she knows that serious writing is about to get done, and thankfully enough, she comes running.

The Specialty Writing Apps

I use IA Writer to compose most any text, Scrivener to manage all the sections and chapters and files that go into my fiction writing, and iTunes to motivate my muse to find me wherever I am.

But these next apps I use for very specific purposes. If you don’t have to achieve certain goals, these apps might not be for you. But then again, they might be.

MarsEdit

Marsedit logoMarsEdit is, hands-down, the best dedicated blog-writing application I’ve ever tried. I’ve been a fan of it for years, using it to post stories to both Fluid Imagination and the online literary-journal I edit, One Forty Fiction.

With customizable preview templates to show you exactly how your story will look when you publish it to your blog and customizable shortcut keys that allow you to format your HTML at the push of a button, the app is designed to work the way you want it.

Originally developed as the writing component of Brent Simmons’ legendary feed-reader, NetNewsWire, MarsEdit was spun off on its own and sold to a new developer, Gus Mueller of Flying Meat. Gus later sold it to its current developer, Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software, and Daniel used to work as a Senior Software Engineer at Apple. ‘Nuf said.

As for how MarsEdit fits into my own process, I write the first draft of my blog posts in IA Writer. When I’m done, I export the text into HTML format, and then copy and paste it into MarsEdit, where I play around with images, proofread using the customizable preview, and revise as necessary. After the post is exactly as I want it, I click the publish button and voila!, it’s sent to them there Internets.

Evernote

Evernote logoI’m not going to lie to you. I’m new to the “note taking app” category. Prior to getting my iPad, I spent the majority of my time sitting at my desk, working on my Mac. I didn’t need a note-taking app because right there on my desk, right where I needed it, was my trusty pad of paper (no bugs! no crashes! works with legacy technologies!).

But the iPad changed all that. Now I find myself in all manners of the house when I am struck by some idea or come across some inspirational article, and sure enough, my trusty pad of paper is nowhere to be found.

Enter Evernote. With an iOS app, a OS X app, and a Web app, all synced together so I never lose anything, I can save a snippet of text from some article or type in a few sentences to capture a thought, and then, when I sit down at my Mac for the evening’s writing session, boom, there it is.

Now, with all that being said, I’m not entirely sold on Evernote. It was popular enough so that I’d heard of it before even thinking about getting a note-taking app, and now that I have entered that particular market, it works well enough to have become a regular part of my writing process. But I still find myself wishing for something…different. Something that makes me say, “Yes!” as quickly and as passionately as I still do for Scrivener and IA Writer.

Until then, I don’t have any problem recommending Evernote to those who might need it.

Microsoft Word 2008

Word logoLet me state for the record that I do not like Microsoft Word. The only reason it still exists on my computer is because, in my day job, I work as a marketing specialist for a company that runs on PCs, and most every file they create comes from Microsoft Office. I’ve tried several workarounds (Pages->Word, Scrivener->Word, TextEdit->Word, etc.), but all of them take several steps and involve some worry about compatibility.

Microsoft Word may not be fun to use, it may take forever to launch, and it may crash more often than any other application I have, but it’s still the most used word-processor in the world, and it’s too much of a pain in the ass for me not to have it.

Some day though. Some day I’ll say goodbye.

The Online Writing Apps

What makes an app an app? Is it the chrome around the window that you’re working in? Is it that you have to install it on your computer? Wikipedia, the genius of the collective, currently says that an app is “computer software designed to help the user to perform singular or multiple related tasks.”

If that’s true, as we all (via Wikipedia) say it is, then here are the web apps that I use to perform certain writing tasks.

Etymonline.com

Etymonline logoEtymonline is an online etymology dictionary. Etymology dictionaries tell you what a word really means. It gives you not only a definition, but also the history of the word, the life of it. It tells you, as best as it can, how and where the word originated and how it transformed over time.

A self-reflexive example? How about the etymology of “etymology?”

late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from O.Fr. et(h)imologie (14c., Mod.Fr. étymologie), from L. etymologia, from Gk. etymologia, properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” from etymon “true sense” (neut. of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true”) + -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy). In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium. As a branch of linguistic science, from 1640s.

How cool is that? Using the etymology of “etymology,” I can know I’m speaking the truth when I say that “An etymology dictionary is where you want to go when want to know what a word really means.” After all, the very word “etymology” stems from the word for “true, real, actual.”

I’m telling ya: Skip the regular dictionary and go to Etymonline.com instead.

OneLook Reverse Dictionary

Onelook logoKnow what’s frustrating? When you have a sense of what you want to say but not the word itself; when the word you want is on the tip of your mind’s tongue.

Enter the OneLook Reverse Dictionary. You type in the basic concept you’re looking for, and OneLook will check through its huge library of dictionaries to match your concept to the definition of a word. It then shows you all the words you might be thinking of.

You can even play around with wildcard searches. If you know the concept you’re looking for has to do with the process of thought, plus you know that whatever word it is, it begins with a “th,” you can run a search for “th*:process of thought.” And sure enough, the first word they’ll return is exactly what you were “thinking.”

The third option on that list of words that relate to “th*:process of thought?” Thermal depolymerization. Why? Because according to its definition, thermal depolymerization “mimics the geological processes thought to be involved in the production of fossil fuels.”

See how that works? A search for “process of thought” returns a word whose definition contains “processes thought.” Pretty cool, huh? Are you telling me you can can’t use that kind of tool to help you write? I didn’t think so.

Behind the Name

Behindthename logoThere are more “baby name” pages on the web than there are babies born in a given day (estimated number of babies born each day: ~360,000; estimated number of pages related to “baby names”: ~52.6 million). And in the pursuit of the perfect character name, I’ve used a good number of those pages.

But the one I went back to time and time again, the one I finally ended up bookmarking in my browser, was Behind The Name. It’s a basic web app that allows you to search not only for a given name, but also for the given meaning of a name.

That last bit is crucial when it comes to character naming. You don’t just want something that sounds good; it also has to mean the right thing. With Behind the Name, you can run a search for a name that means, for example, “warrior.” You can then filter that list for male or female names. Then you can just scan down the list to find the name that sounds best for your character.

It’s quick and easy. And you don’t have to deal with a cutesy, family-friendly design, or have the names compete with ads for diapers or skin cream. There’s just a purple background and text-driven design.

Oh, and did I mention that its tagline is “the etymology and history of first names.” After what I wrote above, is there any way I wouldn’t prefer this site over the crap at BabyNames.com? Didn’t think so.

Writing Apps (I Think) I (Would) Like But Don’t Use

I’m only going to mention two, and they’re both by the same developers, The Soulmen.

The first is Ulysses. Ulysses is similar Scrivener (or going chronologically, Scrivener similar to Ulysses): they’re both full-featured, writing and project-management applications. The major difference is in Ulysses’ design philosophy. As the folks at Scrivener say about their competitor:

The designers [of Ulysses] have a very strong design philosophy—if that philosophy matches the way you work, you will love this software; if not, you might find yourself frustrated at the lack of rich text and hierarchical organisation capabilities. Either way, you owe it to yourself to check out Ulysses.

I used Ulysses before I used Scrivener. And while I thoroughly enjoyed it, what ultimately turned me away was its price, which at the time (if I remember correctly) was about $30-$40 higher than Scrivener’s. Funnily enough (and several years later), Ulysses 2 is now about $15 cheaper than Scrivener 2. Who’da thunk it?

(Updated on July 25, 2011: Since writing the above, I’ve not only used Ulysses 2.0, but I’ve also written a review of it for Mac.AppStorm. You can check it out here: “Managing Your Writing Projects with Ulysses 2.0.“)

The second app on the list is an iOS app I haven’t used yet, but the concept of it deeply intrigues me. Its developer, the Soulmen, describe Daedelus as “the first truly next-generation text editor for iPad,” and they make a bunch of fuss about the app being based on the metaphor of the paper stack (don’t ask; just watch the video).

Of course, I kid about the “fuss” thing. As you can see from the video, it actually looks pretty great.

The only reason I haven’t bought Daedelus yet is because I love, love, love my IA Writer and I don’t want another app on my iPad that competes for the same attention. Maybe if the iOS App Store could offer demos of different apps…but alas, Apple says no.

Final Thoughts

App store logoThe galaxy of writing apps on OS X and iOS is huge. It didn’t used to be. Now that it is, you owe it to yourself and to your chosen platform to explore its furthest reaches.

There are hundreds of developers out there working hard to make magical code. Most of them do it because they’re writers themselves, and they’re trying to make an app that they most want to use. Who knows? Maybe their dream app, the one they’ve put all their effort into developing, shares the same the design and features as the one writing app you’ve been waiting for. You owe it to yourself to find them.

Besides, it beats writing.

Cherry Picked Ideas

Steven Silberman has an interesting post today, entitled “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors.” The authors are responding to Silberman’s prompt, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”

While each author has their own great tips, here are the ones I liked best:

  • Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful. – Carl Zimmer
  • There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. – David Shenk
  • Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend. – Geoff Manaugh
  • Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. – Ben Casnocha
  • Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. – Ben Casnocha
  • This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead – bask in the madness. – Peter Conners
  • Just start working and you keep working til it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery. – Nancy Cooper
  • Take the due date for the first draft EXTREMELY seriously, like everything depends on that day. – Sylvia Boorstein
  • Have the courage to write badly. – Josh Shenk
  • Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it. – Maryn McKenna

You can read all of the tips (and get links to books by all these authors) on Steve’s original post. Find it here.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: F is for First-person, Present-tense

A lot of beginning writers gravitate towards narrating their stories in the first-person, present-tense: “I walk to the store” (as opposed to “He walked to the store”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this particular perspective, but it creates all kinds of challenges that a beginning writer might want to avoid.

The first challenge of the first-person, present-tense (FPPT) is being locked in to your character’s limited perspective. With the FPPT, you can only narrate your story in the “here and now,” which means if your character doesn’t experience it, neither does your reader. You can’t take them into rooms where your character doesn’t go, listen in on conversations your character doesn’t hear, or explain things that your character wouldn’t know.

The second challenge of the FPPT is that your narrative style is limited to your character’s style. You don’t have the freedom to make word choices your character wouldn’t make or attempt syntactic gymnastics that your character can’t land. Your rhythm must conform to your character’s class and background, and the judgements you might want to make as the narrator have to be the same judgements your character would feel in the moment.

It’s that last bit that is particularly challenging for beginning writers: writing in the moment-to-moment prison that is the present-tense. Where past-tense perspectives provide the narrator with the gift of hindsight, the present tense locks you into the shallow world of stimulus and response, where the very narration of your story has to align to your character’s reaction to sensory impressions. In some ways, the difference between writing in the present tense and writing in the past tense is the difference between the rational mind and the stimulated body. With the past tense, you can pick and choose your moments; with the present tense, the moments just keep coming at you like a freight train, and you have no choice but to narrate them.

Which brings us to the third challenge of the FPPT: the need to narrate everything that is occurring to your character. While a past-tense perspective allows your narrator to consciously select the moments and people who are germane to the larger story, the narrator who’s horizon is limited by the FPPT doesn’t even know what the story might be: they just know the moments they’re living in. And who knows?, maybe that conversation with the waiter about what’s on special tonight will have significance later on; but then again, maybe it won’t…and if it doesn’t, the need to narrate that moment has only sidetracked your story into a narration of the mundane.

And really, you don’t have a choice but to narrate moments like this, these mundane moments that matter not at all, because if you’re going to stay true to the first-person, present-tense, you have to stay true to the moment. And truth be told, it can be difficult to sustain narrative tension if you’re forced to explain all the different moments of any given day; hell, even James Bond got bored once in while.

Of course, this is not to say that all writers should avoid the FPPT, but it is to say that beginning writers should avoid it.

Instead of trying to tackle all the challenges inherent in the FPPT, hone your skills by narrating in the tried and true of the third person, past tense (“He walked to the store”). Give yourself the freedom to go wherever you want, to listen in on whatever conversations occur, and to make narrative judgements and write in narrative styles that go beyond the limited perspectives of your characters.

My advice? Save the first-person, present-tense for the stories that absolutely demand it.