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Chugging along - The Motive Center
August 10th, 2005
10:43 pm

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Chugging along
Haven't posted in a while, because I've been channelling my Influence motive into writing some fiction for a change!

I'm experimenting with something I don't normally do, which is to write every single day. I'm not setting specific goals, but I do have a sense of how many words is enough to satisfy me. I'm not writing them down here, because that will make it "real" enough that I might write down to that. Instead, I'm hoping that my goals will get higher over time, as they seem to be doing.

I am doing a few specific, practical things, however.
For example: I have more ideas for scenes than I have actually written down. For the past couple of days I've been working on a scene that I knew I needed to write, but apart from a couple of plot points I didn't define it too closely. I'm one of those people who, if he writes out the scene outline in too much detail, he gets bored with the actual writing--it feels like re-writing instead! Having very brief ideas for a section allows me to have fun with the character creation and dialogue.

I had a rush of ideas all at once (including one at bedtime, where I got out of a hotel bed on a short vacation to go jot them down in the bathroom so the light wouldn't bother anyone), and I'm mining them slowly. At the same time, I am getting more ideas as I go, so I am trying for a sort of perpetual motion. I am keeping myself intrigued enough that I want to spend time with the story to figure out where it is going myself!

In this case I know where I'm going pretty clearly--unusual for me. It's a mystery, so I know the murderer, the weapon, and the approximate conclusions, just like Clue! (Cluedo to you British types.)

I try to spend at least a little time during the day thinking about the story--not extensively, but enough to keep myself piqued. I also pull a trick used by a number of writers, which is not to write everything I want to. That way I have a starting place to pull me in--something to write right away. I also don't drain myself of ideas, which will leave a hole I will feel nervous about filling the next night.

So I'm going from idea to idea, and scene to scene. What the heck, it's working. I don't normally aim for writing every day, because it is too high a standard to set. When my travel picks up again, I may have to adjust the goal, or shift the writing to "notes and ideas" rather than blocks of prose. In the meantime, I'm not worrying about it. I'll see about posting progress as I go--not just as a personal reinforcer (though it is), but also to explore some practical techniques in a real-life context.

Current Music: Broadsword

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From:kamenkyote
Date:August 10th, 2005 08:51 pm (UTC)
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Hey, great, Steve! Can't wait to see what you come up with. Also, you can be taking notes on your other motivational book at the same time. You're your own guinea pig!
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From:stevekelner
Date:August 12th, 2005 06:27 pm (UTC)

Taking notes

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You betcha! I'm also introducing motivation to my colleagues at EZI, so I'm getting better and better at being pragmatic instead of academic in explaining them.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 12th, 2005 04:12 pm (UTC)

Slogging it out, sentence by sentence

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Hi Steve --- Lindsey Y. here, emerging briefly from the dark corners of the Internet, responding to your comments about your own fiction-writing efforts.

Concerning your working progression of going from scene to scene, and idea to idea: I usually find myself involved at a much more basic level, going from sentence to sentence, sometimes literally from word to word. My unstated goal (and general criterion for satisfaction) is to make every sentence interesting, elegant, and, as far as possible, meaningful within the context of the prose. It should make me feel good when I read it back. Only then I am motivated to go on. Rather than thinking too far ahead (in terms of plot/action or ideas) I am always asking myself "What should the next sentence be? How can it take me to where I want to go?"

This sort of sentence-wrestling is probably a bit too perfectionist for most people, but I find it's the only way I can write and make any progress (albeit slow) and still feel good about having done so.

Interesting writing ideas occur to me all through the working day --- mostly a word or sentence combination that I haven't thought of the night before. In fact, such ideas are usually generated out of the steam and momentum of the previous night's efforts! Having these ideas in mind when I finally get home for my all-too-brief writing sessions (30 - 90 minutes on weeknights, if I'm lucky) is invaluable in getting me started and keeping me going forward ...

--- Lindsey


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From:stevekelner
Date:August 12th, 2005 06:26 pm (UTC)

Re: Slogging it out, sentence by sentence

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Welcome, Lindsey!

I agree with you that this is too perfectionist for most people, but my guiding principles are: (1) whatever works, and (2) is there anything that might work better?

There's certainly nothing wrong with making every sentence interesting and meaningful, especially if it keeps you going, but I don't know many people who could keep going that way. On the other hand, Samuel R. "Chip" Delany, who is a pretty severe dyslexic, writes about that slowly, and he's done all right. (How he got through Dahlgren, I'll never know!) I quote him in my book as saying once "I just wrote a perfectly wonderful sentence, and it took me only twenty minutes!" At that rate he should have out a book in roughly 284 eight-hour writing days...furthermore, I know a woman who had severe fear of writing who managed to complete a lengthy doctoral dissertation by setting a goal of one sentence a day. I also wonder about John Crowley, who I know labors mightily over every sentence. If you want to get the satisfaction of completion, perhaps you should stick to shorter works, or write REALLY fast in your 30-90 minutes. Let's see, if you type at 60 words per minute, you should be able to write 1800 to 5400 words a night, right? You could write a novel in twenty days! (You may throw something at me now.)

Having read a tiny bit of your past efforts, I think you have a remarkably elegant prose style. If you are enjoying the process that much, I'd be a fool to stop you. Out of curiosity, however, I have to ask: do you ever lose the forest while focusing on the trees? You note that you don't think too far ahead, but how do you drive a sentence "where I want to go" without knowing the plot direction? I realize that varies a good deal by story--Tolkien didn't know where The Lord of the Rings was going, after all--but one reason I can write this work an idea at a time is because in this case it is a sort of mystery, and I know the end and basic direction, which means I can complicate it as much as I like by picking out cool scenes and stories to tell within the framework of the plot.

Unlike writers like Rex Stout (or Toni [my mystery writer wife, for other readers], for that matter), I can't keep a detailed plot in my head, so I keep a simple one, and twist it up as I go. In fact, I have considered writing this story in logical, linear order and then scrambling the pieces later! But I like rewriting, which not everyone does. Obviously you do, but I guess you do it as you write instead of post hoc.

I have written short stories (even published one!), because I could keep that all in my head for long enough, or I wrote the bulk in one fevered session and then tweaked later.

I guess the difference here is what aspect of writing motivates you? Some people like completing a story, some people like playing with characters, some like creating and wandering around a world. You appear to like the process of sentence-crafting itself, which I think is unusual. I know a lot of people who feel satisfaction of having written a good sentence or turn of phrase, but not the way you do. Thanks for sharing!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 15th, 2005 05:26 pm (UTC)

Re: Slogging it out, sentence by sentence

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Hi Steve:

Thanks for your comments. I really find it a bit surprising that more authors don't have as a primary goal the creation of well-structured and elegant sentences, since it seems to me central to the craft of writing. But as you've pointed out, different people have different aims and goals in writing. Admittedly, I have a day job to pay my room and board, and no editors' deadline pressing down on me, so I guess I can afford this type of luxury. I have in the past tried to write first drafts with completion as a goal, but the results were very mixed. I would end up with a finished piece alright, but would usually find the prose so bad afterwards as to make the whole experience unsatisfying. However, if I take the time to get the sentences right in the beginning, more often than not I gain not only the satisfaction of a job well done but also the sense that the heavy lifting in the job has already been accomplished ...as you mentioned, I am essentially doing both composition and editing in the same draft ...

It has been difficult for me to come to terms with this technique as a valid way of writing. I used to feel terribly guilty that I wasn't making much progress, and I would view this sentence-wrestling tendency of mine in a very negative manner, a struggle that I would have to endure to get any writing done at all. In recent times, however, I have pretty much accepted that this is the way I write, and have found (with a bit of effort) that endless sentence-wrestling is in fact not endless. Eventually I do come to a satisfactory version that enables me to proceed to the next line ... and so on. And with practice and more steady exercise, I hope to be able to pick up the pace and compose fewer sentences that require laboring over.

Another major disadvantage in writing this way is that after putting all this work upfront into a first-draft, I am extremely loath to change anything. (I foresee many a fight with some unfortunate editor.) I tend to view my finished prose as an intricate house of cards --- I wish there were a better metaphor! --- in that if one sentence gets pulled out or changed or rearranged, the whole complexion of the paragraph is likely to crack and collapse. Accepting post-draft edits is a skill I definitely need to work on.

I perhaps misspoke about not thinking too far ahead when writing ... I definitely work with an outline in hand, more or less skeletal in nature, that forms the big picture; and when working on a particular section, I always try to have in mind a goal of where I want to go and of what the next paragraph should be (ignoring for the moment the occasional on-the-spot inspiration). What I meant to say last time (I think) was that it is not necessarily the drive of plot/action or the play of ideas that pulls me back to the keyboard every night, but the lure of finding out what the next sentence is going to be ... the statement was one of motivation, not of technique.

You're right, I do get lost in the forest quite a lot by paying too much attention to the flowers ... people have commented on that before. Smelling the flowers can be an opiate ...

Anyway, thanks for the forum. I appreciate the opportunity to pontificate at length and self-analyze my writing technique. The scientist in me always enjoys deconstruction. I'll chime in from time to time down the road.

--- Lindsey



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From:stevekelner
Date:August 15th, 2005 08:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Slogging it out, sentence by sentence

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Feel free to analyze here--it's what I am doing this for!

Never worry about speed of progress if you are making it. Finnegan's Wake took seventeen years, if I remember correctly. I think Joyce shared your approach to writing, too.

Sorry I misunderstood the distinction between how you wrote and what motivated you--it's an important distinction. People do write for different reasons: some to achieve a goal, some to show a scene, some to do the research, etc. Whatever works! (Hey, I'm a scientist, too...)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 16th, 2005 07:13 am (UTC)

Re: Slogging it out, sentence by sentence

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Well, I certainly appreciate the comparison to Joyce ... the Master's meticulousness is legendary. However, it is also true that one reason FINNEGANS WAKE took so long is that Joyce was slowly going blind during these years ... :-)

--- Lindsey
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