Thursday 21 July 2011

How to work on your writing when not writing

I came across this post over on Duolit about how to turn your summer reading into summer inspiration, and a lot of it makes sense. Writers sometimes stress about not writing enough - we seem to forget that if we write with the kind of zealous enthusiasm that we think we should, then sooner or later we'll burn out. Contrary to popular belief, you can't write ALL the time. Of course, it's all too easy for the Guilt Demon to start pouring its poison in your ear if you decide to use your spare time to do something other than writing, so here are things I do to help my writing when I'm not actually writing.

Read books about writing
My absolute favourite is still Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (which I reviewed over on Write Anything) but I'm happy to read most books about writing - I just choose to ignore or use the advice as I see fit. I subscribe to Writer's Digest, which I find both interesting and useful, and I'm currently reading Larry Brooks' Story Engineering. Whatever I'm reading, I make notes as I go, and I think about how I can apply this information to my WIP. I'm still in the planning stages for a brand new novel, and I've been doing a lot of the preparatory work using these kinds of books.

Read fiction
 It goes without saying that a writer must read. I hear people coming out with statements like "Oh I don't want to read other novels in case it affects my own work" or "I don't have time to read, I'm too busy writing." BOLLOCKS. Architects can't design buildings without looking at how other architects have approached similar briefs, and surgeons don't tend to operate on patients without keeping up to date with medical advances. You're a writer, not a hermit living in a hermetically sealed bubble. Besides, how will you know if your spectacular idea has ever been done before if you don't read? You'll never get to understand generic convention, or even the process of storytelling, if you don't read. I pretty much read whatever catches my attention, and I do so primarily to unwind, but I also like to know what other people are doing. Hey, I'm nosey.

Read non-fiction
I'd actually venture to say that I read far more non-fiction than fiction. It's not even necessarily for research purposes, although that's often a reason for picking up a particular book. Sometimes I'm just interested in a particular thing. As well as Story Engineering, I'm also reading The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by physicist James Kakalios. I have no intention to write science fiction, I just find quantum theory fascinating. Anything that expands or enhances knowledge can only be a good thing - and it often goes that the spark of a story appears while reading non-fiction. It's a veritable treasure trove of ideas!

Watch films
I've sometimes read blogs about writing in which the blogger chastises would-be writers for watching films. Apparently, to them, the principles of filmmaking and the principles of writing are too far removed from one another. Cinema is "low art", considered to be tawdry mass entertainment, while writing is "high art", literature intended to elevate mankind. (These bloggers have clearly never read Stephanie Meyer) Well I thumb my nose at them because whether it's cinema or writing, it's all still storytelling. Sure, some of the conventions differ, but it's amazing how many principles can be applied to both. Of course, I am biased considering my track record in film studies academia, but it is true that I find it easier to absorb said principles if I'm watching them unfold. Plus it's a good excuse to watch a movie.

I've talked about this before, but I figured I'd mention it again. A lot of writing blogs advocate periods of "meditation" or "contemplation" - basically, sit/stand and think about your WIP while you're doing something else. So you can unravel plot tangles while doing the washing up, or consider characterisation conundrums when you're hoovering. I mull over my WIP while I'm knitting - there's something soothing about the rhythmic nature of the craft that helps me to understand my story in a clearer way. So I get to think about my writing AND I get to make something at the same time.

What about you? What else do you do when you're not writing?


Carrie Clevenger said...

Lately, I've been drawing. On one of my mad days I went off and bought some Bristol paper and an art pencil kit. Haven't stopped drawing since.

Leah Petersen said...

I "write" (think out my WIP or really write in my head the actual words and then just transcribe when I get back to the computer) when I'm driving. Especially if I have to go anywhere that's a fairly long ride. (I live in a rural area so a long ride is usually 1hr @ 60mph on a road with very little traffic.)

Oddly, I don't think much when I knit. I think that's one reason I like it. ;) But I can't "write" while knitting.

John Wiswell said...

The architect example doesn't hold for me. An architect does not necessarily study new buildings in the middle of making one, and certainly can't scrap or change a project she's been hired on to build. The surgeon example makes much more sense, though comparing the long stretch of writing a novel to the single event of a surgery sets up very different periods of time in which one might get abreast of the rest of the field.

Even when composition drains me of literary energy, I still feel the urge (and even the obligation) to read. It's incredibly frustrating to be so mentally tired that I can't make it past a few pages, but 6-10 hour writing days will do that to me. Maybe it means I'm made of weak mental stuff. I do my best to supplement reading in my down time; have a massive book list, with one at the desk, one in my bag and one in the bathroom to catch up at any spare time. All the film and television I consume can help with ideas or progression in storytelling, but the mediums are so different that they can deceive you into thinking prose should operate too similarly. The classic example are amateur authors leaning too much on dialogue because they talk a lot on TV, and TV is popular.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Stupid Blogger commenting!!

John - I hate to argue with you but yes, architects can (and do) change projects as briefs evolve due to cost considerations, problems with planning regulations or even the site being sold between clients. They DO study new buildings when problems make themselves known. Naturally they rarely do it when the building work has started but it's not entirely unknown. I've worked among architects for the last five years and have seen this happen. My point was not to compare the professions of either architects or surgeons with writers, more to highlight the fact that no one can work entirely in isolation for their peers.

As for film and television, I'm not saying that a person should slavishly devote themselves to writing something in the way a film or a TV show is constructed, but you can certainly learn a lot about narrative patterns and structure etc. by watching them. Also, watching something like a Shakespeare play has definite advantages over merely reading one.

snemmy said...

(This may feel a bit disjointed. Writing it between bits at work.)

Having two degrees in Art, I have to say that absorbing what's around you is essential, even passively. It all rolls into your craft, be it art or writing. The learning is important. Ever been around a painter who talks about how it makes him 'feel' rather than talking about how his work fits into the history of impressionism through post-modernism and how it relates to.. you get the idea. He hasn't learned about his work, about his craft. He's a good bullshit artist but not a good painter.

Anything and everything can be that critical trigger of a synapse that gets your brain going in that amazing new direction.

And as a graphic designer and having a friend or two who were in architecture, the project changes at the whimsy of the client.

The essence is that you are a filter (not a sponge!) for everything you see around you. If you don't know about the world, how can you create one? It's all out there for you! Use it to your advantage!

Music and writing tend to be the times my brain figures things out. As Leah said up there, driving works very well. Night time + some industrial/EBM cranked up on the interstate at 75mph works best!

Golden Eagle said...

I find walking or doing something like knitting helps me work on my story and be productive at the same time. Also, if I'm focusing on something else and not thinking about my story, that sometimes helps me look at a problem with a fresh eye.

kathrynjankowski said...

Working in the garden does it best for me. Reading. Can't call yourself a writer and NOT read.

Totally agree with your sentiments about cinema. A successful movie has the same elements a successful novel needs: great dialogue, plausibility, tension, strong setting, well-drawn characters, etc. Smart writers watch and learn. ;-)

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