Writing, Reading, Watching

I stumbled into this idea by accident, but nonetheless I think it’s been helpful to me as a writer.

For most Americans, the primary way we access and process stories is through movies and TV shows. I know that’s stating the obvious, but walk with me for a moment.

For most writers, the thing we’re writing is a novel. Again, I’m stating the obvious, but novels are very different than screenplays, scripts, or (especially), finished tv shows.

We’ll start with the most obvious difference: length. Even a relatively short novel is usually twice the length of a movie’s screenplay (110-120 pages, according to the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet), and four times as long as a one-hour drama’s script (50-60 pages, according to MovieOutline.com). Now, granted, prose often takes more space to get the same amount of action in than a script does, but the actual amount of story is radically different.

But let’s look at some more subtle differences. First, for a TV show, you have an episodic structure, with short individual stories, one long story broken up into one-hour blocks (a long story that would itself be MUCH longer than a novel, even for a 12-episode short series), or a Burn Notice-style combination of the two, wherein a few major episodes form a major arc, and are referenced or mentioned within the bulk of the (otherwise self-contained) episode in the season. This is obviously a very different story structure than even a series of novels.

Secondly, the nature of the presentation is different. TV and movies are very visual media, and visual things are very impressive in that media (stunts, sets, etc.). However, prose descriptions of impressive visual things usually aren’t that impressive. They’re out of sync with the nature of prose, which engages less forcefully, but can pull the reader deeply in through engaging all five senses as well as through the prose style itself.

I’ve had to stop watching much TV in order to make time to write. It wasn’t a choice I made to improve my writing style, but a choice I made to allow myself the time I needed to write consistently. I still shoehorn in some documentaries and YouTube videos (more of the latter than I should), but watching actual TV shows has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

And I’ve become a better writer for it. I was too distracted by the neat things I’d seen in visual media to think about how they don’t apply to writing novels. And, this has shifted the balance of how I mostly get my stories. Now, I mostly get my stories through reading novels, and so my brain thinks more in prose. It’s been a real improvement.

I think the key isn’t so much that watching TV and movies inherently distracts from writing prose, but rather, that having my primary method of absorbing story be audiovisual distracted from writing prose. I still watch movies, and I still watch TV with my daughter (I’m particularly fond of Sarah and Duck, My Little Pony, and The Deep), but the proportions have shifted, and that’s made a real difference.

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My 2017 Project: Become a Writer

In 2016, I earned my Ph.D., went vegan, and got my cholesterol under control. I was on a roll.

But I hadn’t successfully finished a piece of fiction (except one short story that I didn’t and still don’t like) since January 2014, when I finished the novel I’d begun the one time I legitimately won NaNoWriMo.

I realized I was never going to be a writer at this rate. So my 2017 project was learning how to write. Not how to get published or how to indie publish, but how to write fiction.

I wanted to break writing down into step by step aspects I could address directly. Writing is a HUGE “thing,” and I honestly didn’t know where to start. But I trusted that if I DID start, eventually I’d get traction.

For the first several months I studied Kishotenketsu, which was a fun warm-up to my serious studies.

Then Dannie, an awesome horror writer and long-time friend, told me about Holly Lisles’ online courses and Brandon Sanderson’s course lectures on YouTube.

The first thing I did was take Holly Lisles’ free flash fiction course. It honestly changed my life. I learned so much about structure and felt so much thrill of success planning and writing story after story.

I learned, proved to myself, that writing IS a repeatable phenomenon. It’s not magic we can’t explain, or lightning that doesn’t strike twice, or a wind that goes where it wants.

I started her novel writing and character courses, but she’s a serious outliner, and I’m much closerto a discovery writer, and that mismatch made them less useful to me. I still learn a lot by reading her blog. I’ll write a whole post about her later.

Then I started watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, and I learned so much about novels, including how to approach things from a discovery writer perspective. He’ll get his own post, too.

Brandon Sanderson recommended Dan Wells’s presentation on plotting, and I watched that. I also read Rachel Aaron’s article on planning a novel.

At that point, around July 1, I realized I was ready to start planning my own novel.

And so I did. But that’s going to get its own post, too.

NaNoWriMo Final Report: Victory!

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_winner

I actually crossed the finish line two days early, late Monday night. Woohoo!

Things I learned, in no particular order:

  • For me, the most important part of writing is making decisions. Writer’s block is often just the fear of making decisions. Be Bold!
  • I have a bit of a depressive personality, which I mostly manage through self-care. Writing dark, morally ambiguous, cynical stories is not good self-care
  • Writing can and should feel good. If it doesn’t, maybe I’m writing  the wrong story. That’s not to say that it will always be easy, or always flow freely, but it will be feel right and good.
  • I need to simplify characters, starting with a couple of broad roles (this time, I used the four classic temperaments and role within the classic “five man band”), so I can differentiate them early. Complexity will come from the interaction of roles and their interactions with other characters
  • “Surviving in nature” shows are good inspiration for nonviolent action and peril scenes (Dual Survival, Remote Survival, River Monsters, etc.)
  • I still need help with plotting. The Hero’s Journey (especially Christopher Vogler’s simplication of it ) and Kenn Adams’s Story Spine (aka “The Pixar Story Spine”) are good guides to keep me on track.
  • Back to characters, to keep myself from making the same characters over and over and muddying them up, I made cards, shuffled them, and randomly drew for role, temperament, etc. I didn’t bind myself to the results, but I used them to get myself flowing.
  • The key is making decisions, being bold, and not being afraid to try something new, to go against the mold … especially the “white male antihero solves problems by beating up the right bad guys” mold. 🙂
  • Nightwish makes some great writing music

NaNoWriMo 2016 Preparations


I’m planning to do NaNoWriMo this year,  and like my Disney trip,  I’m starting to prepare for it ahead of time. Here are a few of my preparations: 

Going to bed earlier (by 11). I have such limited time and energy after work and after we’ve had family time and put the little one to bed, I know I’ll have to do a lot of my writing before work. I’m not a morning person by nature,  but I will be by necessity. 

Reading novels to help get my mind ready to write, and to surround myself with positive writing influences of the type of writing I’ll be doing. Good movies may help the general narrative sense, but only novels are novels. 

Writing scenes as exercises to get myself used to writing fiction again. 

Reading a few books on writing craft, so my results will hopefully be better. 

Watching nature documentaries, because I get inspired by cool landscapes and wildlife. River Monsters with Jeremy Wade is my favorite. 

I’m also trying to get ahead on my blog posts so I can focus more on fiction during November. 

A Tale of Three Pens

Like most of the American population, I’ve become more of a visual learner in the last few years. 

I like taking notes in multiple colors, using different pens for different categories or to separate different thoughts. I like having multiple highlighters for review. 

And, of course, I like to use pens that write well.

I know, I know: first world problems. But who doesnt like a smooth pen, especially when you have a lot to write?

So I keep a number of gel pens and quality ball points in my bag. But I often don’t have that with me,  and there’s no good way to carry a half-dozen pens in my pockets. 

So I started carrying one of those four in one ball point pens (The one at the top). They’re not expensive,  and they’re a compact solution,  but they are horrible pens. 

The colors are so dark and still I have to faint to tell the green from the black once it’s on paper. The points scratch and drag across the paper, allowing my writing down considerably.  And that’s when they write I  the first go,  and I don’t have to spend time trying to get them primed to write at all. 

Great concept, rubbish execution. 

So, after conversation with a co-worker who really knows pens, I decided to buy the red pen in the picture above, a Uniball Jetstream.

It was $9, a manageable amount for a pen, it comes with four colors and a mechanical pencil,  and it feels great the hand. I think it looks pretty good, too.

It is world better than it’s predecessor, both in writing experience and in ink color, and definitely worth the extra cost. It’s even refillable. 

It does not write like a gel pen. But the more I write with it, the more I like it. I really don’t need another multi-pen…

…But that doesn’t mean I won’t buy one anyway. Right now I’m looking at the Sarasa Zebra multi-pen, a well-reviewed gel multi, and the Pilot Coleto Multi, a hyper-custonizable gel multi that comes in 2,3,4, or 5 color barrels, and allows you to choose your own colors (or pencils or styluses).

I’ll let you know how it goes. 

A Long Journey, with Much Pain, and No Guarantee of Arrival


I realized something today about all the things I want to change about myself: 

Every one well be painful and long.  None will be accomplished overnight. They will require me to hurt for a fairly long time. 

Muscles will ache. My mind will wrack  with ideas and extended effort, long after inspiration has passed. 

And not a single one of them comes with a guarantee of success. 

There are smarter ways to work, tactics to prevent injury and burnout, and tips to lighten the load, but there will be no more easy victories. Becoming vegan was the only one of those I’m likely to get. 

The sooner I accept this,  the sooner I can really get started. 

Heh. Does this mean I’m finally growing up?