Tuesday, May 10, 2005

guerilla writing

A topic I touched on during my recent speech at the iBlog Summit was one of my personal techniques for writing. I’ve been requested to post a bit more about it (here’s your shout-out, vonjobi), but before I do that, my little caveat: I do not believe that there is any surefire methodology towards writing effectively. What we writers have is a toolbox which we fill up with tools that prove helpful to our craft. Not every tool is useful to every writer, so it is a matter of determining if something works for you, on a case-per-case basis. This tool works for me.

Every writer needs to write. However, the need to pay rent and provide for the welfare of my family demands time from me – I need to run my two businesses. I solved this dilemma by creating two kinds of time for writing.

The first is the disciplined writing in the evenings. I allocate anywhere from thirty minutes or more, depending on my mood and the heat, to writing. I work on my plays or my fiction or just mess around with words. When I need to write super-seriously (to produce, say, a new short story for submission for publication), I take a day off from work.

During the daytime, when work takes precedence over my desire to write, I engage in guerilla writing. And since I maintain a blog, I use it as my empty page instead of writing it longhand – if I am at my desk. If I am not, then I write in the pages of the notebook I carry around.

If you want to try it out, these will help you think like a guerilla (with the given assumption that you want to create good content*):

1. Write when you can. You are not working or studying or are otherwise impossibly busy all the time. Once in a while, there is a lull during the day. Take advantage of it. It could be 10 minutes or your lunch hour, but take it. Instead of surfing aimlessly, start up your word processor and get down to business. You need to learn to shut out distractions for this brief duration and focus on the task at hand.

2. Have small goals. You do not have the time to whip up a short story or a novel or a deep scathing multi-page essay indicting the government. Choose something small, something that you can reasonable complete before your sequestered time runs out. Focus on a single idea and write a blog entry. Challenge yourself with an exercise in point-of-view and write a vignette. Toying around with dialogue? Write a short scene or a sketch with two voices. Read an interesting book last night? Take one of the points that interested you and talk about just that. If you like Flash Fiction, use the writing parameters of 55 words and construct mood. Do not try to shoot the moon. Time is against you and it’s running out fast.

3. Write without editing. You need to think fast and write quickly. Ignore the occasional misspellings. Block out the agonizing subject-verb disagreement. Dispense with the ten dollar words unless they come naturally to you. There will be time to edit later. Consider this your initial draft and keep in mind that if anyone tells you that they get everything right in their first draft they’re lying. The danger here is in being bogged down by glaring flaws. But let me tell you, as you grow proficient in this technique, your automatic self-editing skills will improve as well, and it becomes easier to just move on, to get the next word down, to complete the phrase, then the sentence, then the paragraph. There will be time for an editing pass later on.

4. Stop when you must. You may not have complete control over the time you allocated. Often, in fact, something will come up that demands your attention. At this point, save your work (as a draft if you’re typing directly into your blog) and terminate the exercise. Do not bargain for time. Do not attempt to finish things if they are unfinished. You can always come back later to complete or fix things up when you have time.

5. Spit and polish. When time permits, retrieve the fruits of your guerilla activities. This is when you let your inner editor take charge. Strip, correct, delete, rewrite – but do it quickly. This is a very short piece we are talking about, not your masterwork. Learn to do this phase fast. Then post it. Or otherwise save it.

The benefits of this technique are manifold: you learn to make time to write, you indulge your need to write, you learn to focus, you learn to write quickly, and you learn to conduct quality assurance on your writing efficiently.

Note that these points apply on to guerilla writing – things are different during the times you partition vast amounts of time for writing, like when you have an entire evening to write an essay or a short story.

I hope you find guerilla writing useful.

*A word on good content. Some people believe that if you let other people determine if your writing is good or not, then you’re somehow diminished. I respectfully disagree in the context of literary writing of which I have some experience.

On the surface, it makes sense, but only up to a certain point. In a previous post, I wrote that I believe that a creative writer writes for one of three audiences: for himself/herself, for a select audience, or to change the world.

Only in the first case of the masturbatory writer is the act of self-determining if your content is good, true. In this specific instance, your only obligation is to yourself. You could write something atrocious and love it and consider it fantastic. But it very well could be claptrap. You write in a void and do not want anyone with any critical faculties to read your work. This is fine for some. This is valid. But I do not subscribe to it at all (although, it must be said, it is possible that you are an unsung literary genius capable of best-selling masturbatory drivel – it has happened).

If this is the case, then I suggest that you do not write. You’re not ready for the anguish that is part of writing – the necessity of cutting, editing, rewriting or completely discarding what is not good. You cannot stand the thought of anyone disagreeing with your incredible faith in your literary abilities. And if you intend to get published somewhere apart from vanity press, you'd better accept that your editor will have an opinion on your manuscript.

Do not get me wrong. We all need to develop our personal critical faculties to determine if what we write is good or not. We all need to be able to determine if what we’re in the process of writing or developing has worth – a writer unable to do this is crippled. But if we expect others to read our work, then we need to take our writing to the next level. If we are not ready for an audience and the accompanying responsibility that writing for an audience entails, then it is best not to do so.

We need to learn to balance positive writerly arrogance (the need to believe in our writing ability) with the humility that everyone who seeks to win an audience over should cultivate.

Who then, apart from the author, determines worth? The audience does, with their privileged readings. Remember that you cannot possibly sit next to everyone who reads your work, to explain verbally what you meant when you wrote what you wrote. When you pick up a book and then decide not to finish it, you are exercising your ability as a member of the book’s audience.

Is this selling out? Is this somehow being less pure? Does this somehow diminish your writerly self? Of course not.

I suspect that it’s the same for blogs as it is for fiction or playwriting. Readers who do not like your content, who judge it to be crap, are simply not going to read it – even if you believe with all your heart and insist that everything you wrote, that everything you’ve ever written, is gold.

If that’s your choice, your only dubious comfort is that at least one person in the world completely understands and appreciates you – you.

(PS - "Writerly" does not exist as a word - but it should.)


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