Writing is a lonely road

For reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve been withdrawing from the world a bit recently. Friends and associates are receding into the background and I’m focusing more and more on my writing. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way things are, and I’m trying to make the best of it. But in the process, I’m discovering something about writing that I don’t think I fully realized in the last 23 years that I’ve been writing seriously. Writing alone is hard.

To a certain extent, we all write alone, of course. It’s the nature of the job. But what I’m finding now, cut off from my former writing partner and having left the critique group I founded long ago, is that I miss the fellowship of other writers, and could really use someone to bounce ideas back and forth with. It’s just not the same asking myself questions and trying to answer them.

Case in point. I’m gearing up for Script Frenzy in April. I’ve got a good idea for a screenplay, something I’ve been kicking around for about a decade that I’ve always known would make either a kick-ass action movie or a good Crichton-esque (before his State of Fear sellout hackitude) technothriller. Perfect fodder for the “100 script pages in a month” white heat of Script Frenzy. But I’ve got second act problems. I know how the movie starts, I have a great, kick ass ending, but how to get from one to the other is a mite fuzzy. And it’s here that I really wish I had someone to banter with, someone who could help me answer some of the questions I have about getting to that crucial plot twist that takes you from the end of act 2 and caroming into act 3.

But I don’t have anyone left that I trust. This is foolish, I know, since there’s realistically no danger in talking openly about my story. Give two writers the same basic story and you end up with “Armageddon” on one side and “Deep Impact” on the other. But old habits die hard, and I’m keeping the details to myself. The story questions I’ve teased out of my outline I’ll have to answer myself. The answers will come, and at least I have second act problems and not the third act problems (good story but no satisfactory ending) more common, and deadly, to screenplays.

I didn’t appreciate the social aspect of writing until it was gone. Like so much in life, I suppose. So I ask my readers, those of you who know the solitude of the written word. How do you deal with the isolation of writing?

Second time around

Now that I’ve started rewrites on my NaNoWriMo ’06 project, I thought this might be a good time to describe my approach to fiction. This is by no means the only way or even the “right” way to write fiction, it’s just what works best for me.

For the first draft, best written for NaNoWriMo with reckless abandon, I take to heart Stephen King’s concept of stories as fossils, found things in the ground. The writer’s job is to dig up the fossil so its shape is visible and recognizable while breaking as little as possible. With that in mind, I start with an idea, a few characters and a vague sense of where I want to end up and start writing. The story twists and turns, tries to buck me off and I wander down a blind alley or three that go nowhere and force me to pretend they didn’t happen and start over at an earlier point in the tale, but I usually end up with a workable first draft this way. It’s not readable by anyone but me, and vast swaths of it even lack punctuation, much less perfect spelling, as those parts were typed literally with my eyes closed as fast I could go. This is what I finished three Novembers ago with Homeworld, my Mars novel.

A few weeks ago, I started reading back through that first draft, reintroducing myself to the story and characters. Two years may seem like a long time to let a story lie fallow, but it took that long for me to get enough distance from it to approach it again with fresh eyes. Rereading the story as a new reader I was by turns impressed and horrified at what I’d written. Some parts were great, others not so much. But the story beneath the telling was just as amazing as I’d remembered.

As I went through the first draft, I jotted down the major scenes, just simple reminders of what each scene was about. Like:

Bev is attacked by a space aardvark. The crew drives it away with Nerf bats.

(no, that’s not a real scene from the book)

This gives me a very loose outline (no Roman numerals here, despite what you were taught in school) for the second draft. Just a beat by beat summary of what happens.

Then, with the characters and their voices firmly in mind, I start the second draft. This is complete draft, taking nothing from the first other than the vague outline. I’m rewriting every word over again. And, as you might expect after a separation of two years, the second draft is different. So far there are things I prefer in the new draft over what I wrote originally, and there are things I think I did better the first time.

When I’m done with this draft, which will also be the first truly complete draft since the first draft got stuck in act 3, I’ll go back over both drafts and compare them scene by scene, and merge the best parts of each into draft number 3. After that, I’ll go back over the third draft for style, continuity, and then finally give the whole thing another polish to reduce word count as much as I possibly can, shooting for 80-85% the length of draft number 3, the combined version.

That’s the plan. For those of you working novelists out there (published or not), how does this compare with your process?

Update: Fittingly (or ironically, depending on your perspective) for an article about second drafts, I forgot to mention a few things on the first run through. Specifically, I told you what I do, but not why. Which is kinda important.

The outline process between drafts one and two is vital. While the first draft is all about creative abandon, the outline process is where I take the key elements of the story, rearrange and otherwise change them as necessary, and then reassemble them into a narrative structure that makes sense. This is where I find and plug plot holes, unconvincing character motivation, etc. When I start on the second draft, I’m secure in the knowledge that the story is solid. This is also where I get to do a lot of foreshadowing, since I know what’s coming up, knowledge I didn’t necessarily have in the first draft. But unlike draft number three, which is about style and craft, draft two is still about story, which is why I start over from scratch. There’s still room for surprises, but over an underlying structure rather than out of nowhere.

10,000 hours

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, he makes an interesting observation. In any relatively complex discipline, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. This 10,000 hour rule seems to apply equally to music composition, software development, writing, sewing, playing hockey, anything. No matter what you do, you don’t do it at a professional level until you’ve spent 10,000 hours at it. There are no shortcuts. Even Mozart didn’t produce what people consider his best work until he’d spent 10,000 hours composing.

Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I figure I’ve spent about 4,000 hours writing in my lifetime. Maybe as much as 5,000 if I’m seriously underestimating my blogging. I’ve probably spent less than 1,000 hours writing fiction. Assuming I can lump fiction and nonfiction together, that means that even if I buckle down and spend 2 hours a day, every day, writing fiction until I get my 10,000, I’ll be ready to start writing quality work at the beginning of 2016, at the age of 44. I’ve factored in a few skipped days here and there, since I know even at my most diligent there will be days where social commitments on top of my day job won’t allow for 2 hours of writing time.

Seven years. Seven years of writing stuff that I know I won’t be able to show anyone, because I’m not good enough yet. The thought fills me with overwhelming dread, for several reasons.

First off, I know that in that amount of time I’m going to burn through every idea I currently have in my development notebook. Every project I’m even marginally excited about must be sacrificed to the monster called “learning the ropes.” By the time I’m ready to write professionally, I’ll have to come up with all new material. That part doesn’t worry me, since I know writing ideas are like buses: another one will be along eventually. But I also know there’s no way I can spend seven years writing about “filler” topics and characters that I don’t care about. So I have to waste the stuff that I’m currently passionate about just to make it work. That’s a pretty depressing thought, moreso than wasting a block of stone or a canvas for practicing other art forms.

Secondly, I’m acutely aware of how much that seven years of daily writing sounds like work. Gladwell also posits that if the work you’re doing is fulfilling, if it’s something that you’re passionate about, you’ll do it anyway and the 10,000 hours will come easily as a side effect of how you choose to spend your time. As much as I feel like I should be, I’m just not jazzed about the idea of writing that much “practice” that is unlikely to ever get published. I write on average 500 words an hour for fiction (1,000 or more for nonfiction), so we’re looking at 2,500,000 words, 2.5 million, before I’m “good enough.” That’s 15-25 average length novels. So far I’ve written 2 and half novels and a novella. Ten times that output before I’m good enough to go public makes me want to crawl under my couch.

And lastly, “good enough” for what? Even if I get my 10,000 hours in, that puts me at the same skill level as professional novelists like King and Grisham. It in no way guarantees the same degree of success. Gladwell also points out that success in any field has as much to do on who you know, how you were raised, when you were born and where you grew up as it does on individual achievement and hard work. So while I might be as good, technically, as my favorite authors, I might have no better results in getting published and onto bookstore shelves than I do right now. Is that much work worth it when there might be no reward?

Oddly, 10,000 hours of blogging feels totally doable, completely unlike fiction. Two hours a day of blogging, pointing out stuff on the net that interests me as well as writing original articles like this one, is definitely more than I’m doing now, but it would be a pleasant and engaging use of my time. It is also just about guaranteed to make more money for me than fiction thanks to Google Adsense, though probably never enough to support me without a day job. But that doesn’t matter. I’m in it for the LOLs, so they say. So maybe the problem here is my insistance on hanging on to fiction when that’s not were my lasting passion lies (I’ll probably always get a “bug up my ass” to tell a story every now and then, but the excitement never lasts long enough to write a book anymore).

What have you spent 10,000 hours doing, and does it sustain you, or do you sustain it?