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Swirling/writing (2): shugyo

...which is normally translated as austere discipline.

No one pays you for a first novel that doesn't exist yet. Likewise short stories for paying markets. (Being independently wealthy might help, but I'm not even sure about that - it doesn't totally preclude driving ambition, but it surely can't encourage it. In any case, it doesn't apply to most of us.) Therefore you're forced to squeeze it into your normal working day/week, somehow.

Roger Zelazny (back to him) once prefaced advice to new writers with what he called extra-literary considerations before getting to the actual art and practice of writing. He justified the preface by writing: "...if it causes even one beginning writer to think ahead to what it may be like to sell a book first and deliver it by a certain date, to wonder what it will be like to write on days when one doesn't feel like writing... then I am vindicated in prefacing my more general remarks with reference to the non-writing side of writing."

And by extension, forging the self-discipline to write regularly amid other pressures (I really want to say daily, and in expressing that thought I might have just quoted Stephen King verbatim) is a foundation for dealing with the even greater pressures of The Second Book and beyond. You're likely to be writing at least five books before you can contemplate writing full-time, only now you're writing to deadlines.

So, like the grit in the oyster, treasure the toughness of working under pressure, cos it ain't going to go away.

Every year's edition of the Writers and Artists Yearbook begins with a preface by a notable writer. Some years back it was our very own Sir Terry Pratchett, and he wrote about what it takes to become a boxer: training hard every day, going to see good boxers do their stuff in the ring, committing to the long term... and ended with something like: "Writing is just like that, without the boxing."

As a martial artist, I can relate to that metaphor particularly strongly, and embellish it. For example, most people have some idea about a pro boxer's training routine, even if it's based entirely on having seen Rocky. An amateur boxer does the same thing, except that she has to fit it in around her job. And that's tough.

Likewise fitness in general. To get fit make the time and do it every day. Or choose not to. (It's your life.) The point is, no one has spare time, not in our culture. You make time by, for example, foregoing the four hours of TV watching that the average Brit practices daily. (In fact, "get fit" is a poor way to think of it, because it's not a short-term finite process - to attain and maintain the state involves a lifelong daily process, like brushing your teeth and showering.) And so it is with writing.

The less time you have, the more important it is to train yourself to drop into the "writing state" to schedule. Call for Dr Pavlov...

From this viewpoint, the most important thing about your chosen writing method - pen and notebook, laptop etc. - is that you are comfortable with it; and I suggest that you use it only for writing. Clearly that's not mandatory for every writer - diversity is the one consistent theme I've got going here - but something has to have such a strong unconscious association to the writing state that its presence acts as a trigger.

It's no coincidence that writers who use pens or pencils usually have a favourite brand of writing implement and notebook. Listening to a particular type of music works well for most people. (I can write an entire draft listening to the same album over and over, but that's just me.) Write in a coffee shop or in your private study or (because you have to) on the train - wherever works best for the daily discipline. Stephen King wrote his early books in a laundry room, as I recall.

I'm guessing that most people will use their own laptop. Here's some advice: have a virtual writing environment that looks totally different from your "normal" working environment. Try using a different colour scheme.

I'm writing this using Open Office, with menu bars visible at the top of the screen, using black text on a white background. If I were writing code (which is rare these days) I'd use Eclipse or Visual Studio or whatever with normal default settings.

My fiction, I would only write on this laptop if I really, really, really had to. Instead, I use a totally different machine (the oldest I possess), write in Word with full-screen view and not even the "Close full screen" icon visible, with very different colours.

Contrariwise, I know several writers well enough to have seen their computers and where they write. Of my friends and acquaintances, the ones who make no distinction between other work and fiction writing in their setups have this in common: after having several novels published, their ability to write every day became more and more tenuous, and their careers have crashed and burned.

If you're self-employed in your day job, and particularly if your work is not at a client site or other distinct location, this is vital to know.

The acid test is whether you actually do the writing every day. If you can do it year and year out with some kind of internal mental trigger alone - maybe with some ritual that suspends all other modes of thought and tells you it's time to write - clearly that's fine.

Back to the athletic metaphor: some days it's hard for me to drag myself out to train - even though my personal dojo/gym is in the back garden, and these days I work at home. (It was easier when I commuted for 4.5 hours minimum daily - I deeply engrained a fixed route home to take me past a gym - the journey home was via my workout. Or globetrotting: in some anonymous hotel room, my daily training was the "home" I carried with me.)

I visualize myself working out (to the strains of Rocky...). Not raising my hands because I've achieved some goal, but visualizing the process itself, and associating strong positive emotions to it.

If you're read Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds you'll know what I mean. It's about applied psychology backed up by empirical research. One experiment on visualization was conducted on college students preparing for exams: the control group did no visualizing, the others were led through a visualization of having successfully passed their exams.

The result: the visualizing students reported an overwhelming reduction in pre-exam stress. They also screwed up their exams, scoring far worse than the control group. Visualization made a huge difference - just not the one the testers had, er, visualized.

Sports psychologists are subject to Darwinian selection - if their particular techniques don't work, they don't get hired by budget- and result-conscious coaches - so there's a lot of information on how make visualization useful. The visualization content is most usefully focused on active process.

Motivation and triggering the actual writing process on cue are different things, although related.

I might add that if talk of visualization leaves you cold, substitute internal mental dialogue. We all have voices in our heads - and that includes conversations among your characters - so work with the content and manner of yours. An encouraging tone letting you know how well you can do it - as opposed to the nagging, critical voice someone hypnotically installed in your head when you were young. Yeah, that's the one. Turn down the volume on that one, and crank up something more useful.

Whew.

If you're a coder, you can mentally insert a close-curly-brace (curly parenthesis) here, as we return to our outer block (from the previous post) relating to variation in writing methods, which we left as I'd begun to ponder whether writers who use a pen produce books that appeal to different readers than if they'd written differently.

I don't know the answer for sure, and we'd need to send out questionnaires or interview a whole bunch of writers to zero in on the answer. However, there are particular neurological components to writing and reading that make this is a potentially legitimate enquiry. According to Robert Ornstein's The Right Mind, it's no coincidence that written alphabets containing vowels are written left-to-right, whereas alphabets lacking vowels (like Hebrew and Arabic) are written right-to-left, while ideographic languages are written vertically... independently of how closely the languages are related.

One particular aspect is that reading Arabic or Hebrew requires more right-brain processing than left-to-right alphabets (to distinguish otherwise-identical words based on context).

Having posed a question I can't immediately answer, here's something I do know about: the impact of software on editing and rewriting first drafts. A friend of mine was horrified to receive this advice from Chris Priest: "Once you've completed the first draft, print it off and then destroy all electronic copies of the book."

And my friend was totally appalled when I said: "That's terrific advice. Do it."

[Pause to listen for thuds of fainting bodies striking floors.]

More in the next post....

79 Comments

1:

One possible trigger for The Singularity we once discussed in the pub is a drug that makes whatever you are doing really, really interesting. So much so you just can't wait to get started and you get fully absorbed by it with perfect focus. IIRC, Vernor Vince used that as part of a plot in one of his novels.

2:

PODD (Print Once, Destroy Data), is truly shocking.

After some though I can see the advantage. It makes the manuscript an "object" as opposed to a "file", a "book" as opposed to a really long "email". It makes it impossible to turn off or send out to enthusiastic friends and relatives instead of getting to the necessary second draft.

3:

That would be Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky" in which he used the concept of artificially inducing a monomaniacal "focus" in people. Those "focused" actually became slaves, but they didn't care as long as they could fulfill their need to work on their object of focus. Damned good book.

4:

Since a lot of my money is going to chiropractors right now, due to writing two books and a bunch of other stuff at the kitchen table, here's a little bit of advice:

Take care of your damn body, writer! That's EVERY DAY!

Hunching over a computer for a year is a recipe for misery. There's two ways to learn this fact, and naturally, I chose the hard way. All I'm going to say is that learning proper posture is hard. It's somewhat easier to do this when you can't fracking type for a week first, just because pain and fear are coaches that it's impossible not to listen to.

If you're into this self-discipline kick that John's suggesting, I'd suggest starting and ending with taking care your main tools: your hands (carpal tunnel), your shoulders, and your back. Every day. Get back into your body at the end of writing, do something about those aches and pains that doesn't involve dulling the pain, and do it every day. Trust me, it really is easier and cheaper than the alternative path I'm now on.

5:

A while ago I reached the conclusion we're all basically like split brain patients - just because our corpus callosum is intact doesn't mean our left hand really knows what the right is up to, so it makes sense to spread the cues around as many senses as possible so that every node is on the same page.

6:
Once you've completed the first draft, print it off and then destroy all electronic copies of the book."

And my friend was totally appalled when I said: "That's terrific advice. Do it."

It's great advice for ANY work of creativity*.

Coding (the first draft is where you discover how to do it wrong)
Presentation (the first draft is where you learn how not to say it)
Letters (...)

and so on.

I *loves* me my context editing, but back when all I had was a (tele-)type(-writer), I took a lot more care. And back when it was more expensive to edit, I would do many more drafts before committing to computer (strange as that might seem).


* as a "Big 'E'" verbal thinker I often wish I had that ability in real life! thinking on my feet is what I do. thinking out loud can be a problem, sometimes :(

7:

"the ones who make no distinction between other work and fiction writing in their setups have this in common: after having several novels published, their ability to write every day became more and more tenuous, and their careers have crashed and burned.": This is scary, got me thinking: may be I should get rid of all non-work related stuff (like link to this site) from my work machine, and put them into another box (maybe my iPad, but I'll need a keyboard). I don't write novels, but I do write codes; not self-employed, but work at home; and let's just say sometimes I become unfocused.

8:
According to Robert Ornstein's The Right Mind, it's no coincidence that written alphabets containing vowels are written left-to-right, whereas alphabets lacking vowels (like Hebrew and Arabic) are written right-to-left, while ideographic languages are written vertically... independently of how closely the languages are related.

Except… Japanese uses a mix of ideographic and consonant-vowel characters, and was originally written right-to-left or vertically. Today it's mostly left-to-right or vertically, though signs are still occasionally right-to-left — except for numerals or alphabetic characters (phone number or web address for instance), that go left-to-right in the middle of the rest of the text.

So, an interesting, possibly useful generalization. But one with some rather significant exceptions.

9:

It's funny you mention deleting the electronic draft as just earlier today I had decided that, once the first draft of my current novel is finished, I'm going to print it out, hand edit and then retype the second draft, as if it were still the days of typewriters and correction fluid. I want ot get that distance from the first draft that you can't by going back and infinitely fiddling with the processed words on a computer.

I won't be deleting the electronic draft though. It'll be archived.

10:

I'd just like to note that, as with so many other fields of human endeavour, There's More Than One Way To Do It.

I practice the bad habits that John denounces -- including fiddling with electronic drafts interminably, not keeping to a rigid habit of writing fiction every day, and not always differentiating my writing workspace from my other-work workspace. (Although when I'm knee deep in a novel I keep all messaging -- email and IM -- on a different computer from the one I'm writing on. A web browser I can ignore until I'm on the equivalent of a coffee break, but email or phone calls or instant messaging interrupts the flow of my concentration.) My career hasn't crashed and burned yet, despite a decade of full-time writing. It does take self-discipline, though, and I will strongly second the sentiments about making sure you eat properly and exercise while working on a book!

(I tend to neglect the exercise thing while on a death march to the end of a novel, and as I get older I'm finding I pay for it harder each time. So part of the game plan is for future novels, to start each day by going to the gym, swimming or exercising, then writing on the laptop before coming home. If I can make exercise a precondition for writing, then, given that my daily routine is writing rather than exercise, I should be able to make sure I get enough exercise.)

11:

I can think of of too many exceptions for that to sound like a useful generalization.

Ancient Ugaritic was an abjad (an alphabet without vowels) but was written from left to right. Ancient Etruscan included vowels but was written from right to left when it wasn't written boustrophedon (i.e. alternating lines of right to left and left to right). Many early Greek inscriptions were also written boustrophedon. Korean hangul is an alphabet traditionally written vertically. Mayan was written in two block columns in a sort of zig-zag pattern. And then there's Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were written left to right, right to left, or in columns depending on what looked the prettiest

12:

I'm reminded of some of the "magic" seen in animé, which within the rather exaggerated fighting styles, really is magic. But some of the techniques are close to real-world. And it's consistent with the general ideas of visualisation.

Since you do the martial arts stuff, you probably know better than I do if I'm talking though my hat.

13:

I write software for a living but tremendously enjoy reading science fiction. Occasionally i get the idea that i should write science fiction too. High concepts occur to me and i long to experience them in story form.

Sadly it turns out i'm incapable of formulating a narrative. I've tried to learn this by re-writing short stories i enjoy from memory, but don't get much further than a couple of paragraphs.

Even in remembering what i've read, science fiction just occurs to me as an instantaneous situation. A four dimensional space+time sculpture instead of a film.

I wish there were other outlets for the science fictionally inclined mind. If i had some facility with drawing i think i'd enjoy making book covers..

Oh well.. I'm just here to remind you to count your blessings if you find yourself with the facility to write anything resembling a story :)

14:

On that note, has anyone considered or encountered science fiction written in the style of Tolkien's The Silmarillion? The documentary style really works for me as a high-concept addict.

15:

Sports psychologists are subject to Darwinian selection - if their particular techniques don't work, they don't get hired by budget- and result-conscious coaches

If only. Note that I agree that visualisation is useful, and that there's a lot of good work out there, but...

Good sports psychologists will always have work, but unfortunately it's rather difficult to assign success/failure to the performance psychology preparation; in some cases, they wander off to another squad, muttering about how the selection criteria were outside their control, or they didn't have the raw materials to work with, or...

It's like business gurus, or project management gurus. There's always someone who will buy plausible rubbish because it appeals to their prejudices.

I've competed at a reasonably high level in my sport; our first problem was gaining access to any support (Rule 1: In the UK, football is a vampire that sucks up 90% of all funding and media coverage. Rugby, golf and tennis get the rest. If you're a minor sport, tough.) Our second was that our initial psychs were providing panacea solutions that were inappropriate for the sport concerned (e.g. "visualisation" is useful; "trigger words" are useful. Both require the interruption of any flow state) because they were designed for one-off activities such as "run really fast when the gun goes off".

Our psych got his doctorate while proving many of the "accepted" rules about athlete performance to be invalid... while the people making the invalid claims were continually employed at a high level.

16:

I found the Silmarillion unreadable.

17:

I can strongly recommend doing Nanowrimo as an exercise: National Novel Writing Month. You commit to writing a 50000 word novel in the month of November. That's about 1500-2000 words a day.

Note that it's very much about quantity, not quality: it's okay to produce utter dreck, as long as you *produce*. It's training you to sit down for an hour to two hours a day, and *type*, dammit. Once you can keep that up for a month you know that you're capable of producing the requisite number of words, so then it's just a matter of increasing the quality.

I've done it four times; I managed to reach 50000 words each time, but only once managed to finish a complete story (up on my website for the masochistic). I keep meaning to try and finish some of the others... one of these days...

18:

Likewise. After several attempts.

19:

I can't recall precisely what the Silmarillion was like as I read it when I was 12 but "documentary style" sf might apply to the Orion's arm project, an online collaborative worldbuilding endeavour.

20:

This is interesting; I too use Openoffice, but with gray text on a black background, to differentiate it from Word, which I use for business, academic and technical writing, and where it's almost impossible to change the default colours. And, like Charlie, I banish all communications media while I write; although I do keep a browser open for quick searches should I need a name or geographical detail.

On the other hand, I don't use Scrivener or its better PC equivalent, Liquid Story, because I don't work the way they do. Too elaborate, too fussy. I use OpenOffice because I can create a nested structure of parts/chapter/scenes, each as a Section, name each section with the first sentence of that bit, and then use the Navigator to have a complete structural view of the novel open at all times. I can *see* the book as a whole, as I write, which I do find useful.

21:

If this series of posts has taught me anything it's that I'd make a terrible writer, I can barely summon the self discipline to feed myself.

On the other hand, I'm a dedicated reader :)

22:

I can't write using a computer.
I'm using computer for my work: I was a software engineer and now I'm an infosys architect.
The keyboard interface feels too frustrating, too slow to let ideas flow from brain to medium.
So, I use pen and notebook. A small spiraled notebook. Dropping ideas on paper in quick notes, joining them with diagram flows to model the dynamic of the story. Building stories by chunck, usually non linearly, from the frontpages, and building characters from the backpages. Stories add to characters, and characters add to story. I'm organized that way maybe because I mainly write roleplay scenario...
Once everything seems stable, I put it on computer for compilation. Then looking at the result, making small corrections, before to print it and read it from start to end, optimizing the inside gears of the story.

I can't read using a computer.
I need the paper interface, to interact with the book, to hold it, smell it.
That's why I print each draft for review and editing.

The paper "interface" is fully immersive for me. Once I get a book in hands (or my notebook), everything outside just disappear and I'm fully focused to what stand in front of my eyes.

What I lack is the discipline to write everyday. But I have 2hours of commute so I can read :)

23:

I think the actual advantage (of destroying all electronic copies of the first draft) is that when you write the second draft, you aren't shackled by the first draft. It's likely at some point to head off in a totally different direction. If you were just editing a text file, then you would be quite resistant to this as lots of extra work, but if you're going to need to type it in again anyway, that's no longer a consideration.

24:

I too have done Nanowrimo, which taught me a couple of things:
* 1600 words a day is manageable, even with a full time job and other responsibilities
* I have no ear for dialogue, and marvel at how others can do it
* I cheated, by choosing a structure made up out of fragments (my framing narrative was about a group of people doing Nanowrimo, and most of the text was extracts from their respective efforts), and suspect the really hard thing is to write a single sustained narrative of some length.

25:

I should be writing my second book right now.

26:

I am firmly of the opinion that if you write on a word processor and you need to write a second draft, then you have fucked up the novel.

Word processors let us edit and fix problems as we work. When I'm in the swing of a book, I start each day by editing the previous day. If I did something wrong, I truncate that day's work and re-do; if not, I polish the prose then continue, seamlessly, having reminded myself of exactly where I've been. A finished first draft written front-to-end that way is therefore much more polished than one written without editing (for example, longhand or on a typewriter).

In addition to that level of polishing ...

Because I can't always hold an entire novel in my head, and I can't always write for 90 consecutive days, I frequently take a week off, then come back to the manuscript by picking it up and re-reading from the beginning -- editing as I go. This is also the stage at which I keep an eye on the large-scale structure and see whether it's on course or not (and if not, figure out how to fix it and get it pointed back in the right direction).

So by the time I write THE END, the "first draft" has been polished like crazy at the sentence level (except for the last chapter) and any structural anomalies have already been hammered down, hard.

After that, the MS is ready for my test readers, who spot the holes that I missed. I go and fix those holes, then send it to my agent, who spots the holes the regular test readers missed. I go and fix those holes ... and then it's off to my editor. But it doesn't go through a traditional multi-draft re-writing process; what I do is more akin to the waterfall model in software development.

27:

I’ve found useful on the first draft (and this was the troublesome second novel) is to be out of wifi range. So I used an old netbook; took it down the garden, or in the shed. Openoffice, turquoise text against black so ok at night. Nothing worse than sitting before a desktop pc staring at the flickering cursor, thinking about the wasted power consumption. At least outside you’re getting fresh air, which for me took some of the pressure off (not that pressure was imposed by anyone other than myself). And for me also useful – if stuck – to go over correcting previous text, thus getting back into the story.

Here’s what I don’t understand: those career writers who say that start at 7.30am (or even earlier!) and write for six hours every day, at least five days a week. Those people are a breed apart; you can’t teach that kind of commitment. If they produce stuff people want to read they deserve their half-million+ advances whether they’re critically acclaimed or not.

28:

Jeremy @13 - If i had some facility with drawing i think i'd enjoy making book covers.

Try the book _Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain_ by Betty Edwards. She has a workbook and DVD. Look around locally and someone is teaching the class in your area.

Then look at Youtube and search for videos on drawing with the iPad. It will blow your mind. HA!

Do the class, practice for a year with either paper or iPad, then see where you are. Anyone can learn to draw.

Jeremy @14 - On that note, has anyone considered or encountered science fiction written in the style of Tolkien's The Silmarillion? The documentary style really works for me as a high-concept addict.

The Silmarillion is the summaries/synopsis of the history starting from the beginning. Each sequence covers a story arc about size of LOTR, or The Hobbit. Read it again, and you will see what I mean.

In the long ago, and far away, I started reading Perry Rhodan(check the wikipedia entry for the story arcs). Since there were so many issues in the series, I started reading each story, then summarized that story in four hand written pages. Since each story was novella size, about 30k, four pages was the right length. Great practice in seeing the essentials of Story, and in learning to write forward without editing/second guessing yourself. HA!

29:

The Silmarillion is the summaries/synopsis of the history starting from the beginning. Each sequence covers a story arc about size of LOTR, or The Hobbit. Read it again, and you will see what I mean.

I don't think we disagree? What i picture is a synopsis of humanity colonizing the milky way & technological advances over millennia, told without entering the heads of any characters. The major movers would probably be corporations / collectives anyway.

Try the book _Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain_ by Betty Edwards.

I'll look into this - thanks!

30:

I think you want to be looking at Asimov's Foundation books then.

31:

I presume you mean the original trilogy, and not the 30 years later (copyright dates) doorstops there?

32:

If people like the Silmarillion, they might be interested to look up Brian Stableford's The Days of Glory / In the Kingdom of the Beasts / Day of Wrath, an exceedingly weird future/mythological high space opera/parable thing which starts out as a retelling of the Illiad and the Odyssey and then gets weirder.

Possibly a little hard to find these days, but you won't have read anything like it anywhere else...

33:
According to Robert Ornstein's The Right Mind, it's no coincidence that written alphabets containing vowels are written left-to-right, whereas alphabets lacking vowels (like Hebrew and Arabic) are written right-to-left, while ideographic languages are written vertically... independently of how closely the languages are related.

Apologies for ignoring the rest of the post (that needs time to process), but I have to call this out now as utter bullshit.

The only scripts in the world that run right-to-left and top-to-bottom are abjads, which also happen to be the only scripts where vowels are non-obligatory. They are historically related, nothing more.

The most common scripts that are written top-to-bottom and left-to-right are based off Chinese (hanzi, hangeul+hanja, kana+kanji). None of them are ideographic. And they're perfectly comfortable being read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. The only script that I know of that is exclusively top-to-bottom is Mongolian and is, surprise, not ideographic in the least (it's an alphabet).

As far as I know, just about every other writing system, regardless of history or construction, runs left-to-right, top-to-bottom. There is certainly no connection to whether the vowels are marked or not.

34:

For something in a slightly similar vein: the SCP Foundation is a collaborative world-building exercise mainly consisting of a catalogue of the varying supernormal things and entities stored in the Foundation's vaults, and reports on attempts to research/use/destroy them.
It draws quite a lot from horror: the quality of entries is uneven, but the best vary from in-your-face body horror, to unstoppable risks to life on Earth, to subtly horrifying.

35:

Left to right probably has a lot to do with the fact most people are right handed.

36:

Though it's interesting to note that a number of early languages - including Greek - used to go both ways. Every time you got to the end of the line, you turned and started coming back again.

In Greek, it slowly died out.

It may be observed that many older documents are hard to read due to the lack of spaces between words. Part of the evolution of writing in the Western world has been the settling on a single direction for text, the insertion of spaces to make it more obvious where word boundaries are, consistent spelling, more sophisticated punctuation, and the use of both upper and lower case. All of these make it easier to read the result. In a world where the number of readers of a piece of text will often vastly outnumber the writers, it makes sense for the writers to expend a little extra effort because it will be outweighed by the effort saved.

(The stereotypically worst writing known was that of doctors hand writing prescriptions. I would hypothesize that that's because it was expected to be a one-to-one matching of writer and reader per piece of text — doctor to pharmacist — so the doctor left more of the effort to the pharmacist.)

37:

No problem with clay tablets, but a big problem with ink

38:

In whch cs, is txt spk a dvltn of lngg?

(In which case, is text speak a devolution (like evolution only becoming more primative) of language?

39:

Text speak is just the temporary mark of a primitive technology. It might seem kewl now, but in 10 years time people will be sneering at it. Probably using their voice to text input feature.

40:

It *was* a special case - an encoding that packed maximum information into minimum space because of the length restrictions on SMS, with the side benefit of requiring extra effort from outgroups to read (some shortenings that only worked because of the accent of the people using it, for example).
Why do people use it now? I don't know.

41:

#38 and 39 - I know all that, but I've seen ch@vs using it in a car forum I frequent. They usually don't seem to get many answers, and most of the ones they do get tend to be things like "speak English" and "Stop shouting".

42:

I happen to agree.

I'd also point out that this cozy little discussion left out abugidas, syllabic alphabets primarily used in India and South East Asia, up into Tibet.

They are ancient (and include at least one type of cuneiform), and Omniglot lists about 50 of them.

They are also mostly written left-to-right.

As Mcur notes, Abjads are historically related, as are languages based on Chinese. This is simply the history of trading empires encoded in people's languages.

As such, statements saying they reflect brain structure and whatever are about as logical as saying that the QWERTY keyboard is the most efficient design for typing.


43:

"As such, statements saying they reflect brain structure and whatever are about as logical as saying that the QWERTY keyboard is the most efficient design for typing."

But if being right handed is a powerful driver for left to right writing then it does correlate with brain structure.

44:

The book I mentioned actually went into more detail on scripts, including the zig-zag left-right-left as being an intermediary stage as languages evolve different writing.

Still an interesting field that bears research!

45:

I practice the bad habits that John denounces

Which is not to say that we don't bad habits in common...

46:

I am firmly of the opinion that if you write on a word processor and you need to write a second draft, then you have fucked up the novel

Actually I agree with this. The fact that I do a complete rewrite (more in the next post) is borne out of taste more than necessity, plus the fact that I type really fast.

The person who told me this really should have rewritten his first novel, though...

47:

I'd be proactive and do some whole-body exercise, whether it's Pilates or jogging plus push-ups. Decades of strength training and hitting heavy punch bags have prevented me from getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

On the other hand, I've a broken rib in the process of mending, so who am I to talk? :-)

48:

What bothers me are achilles tendon problems

49:

I sit corrected if you've encountered ineffective sports psychologists. I've certainly met therapists I wouldn't trust to... well, fetch bread from the corner shop. Or anything else. (But I have met some good ones.)

And I totally agree that 1) one size doesn't fit all, and the techniques better be appropriate to the context, and 2) being in the flow is hugely important, and interrupting it is the worst thing you can do.

A well-known karate competitor, the late Steve Cattle, once got chatting to a tennis player - I think it was Bjorn Borg. When in deep flow at the height of a match/fight, it turned out, both had experienced out-of-body hallucinations, seeing the confrontation from an external viewpoint.

It's never happened to me...

50:

A well-known karate competitor, the late Steve Cattle, once got chatting to a tennis player - I think it was Bjorn Borg. When in deep flow at the height of a match/fight, it turned out, both had experienced out-of-body hallucinations, seeing the confrontation from an external viewpoint.

This isn't exactly the same thing but seems related. I know or know of several top flight racing drivers (include Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Jackie Stewart, as examples I can remember without researching) who reported having a sense that time slowed down when they were required to really drive to the limit of their abilities.

51:

I was really pleased a few years ago when I got to the stage of "moving without moving". That is, I closed the distance on my opponent and struck without there being any conscious intention or will to move. No premeditation at all.

Also experienced something like it recently, walking upstairs carrying a tray of food in one hand, and observing my body just doing it with no conscious input from "me".

52:

Speaking as someone who's left handed and writes left-to-right, that's really nice. For me, the real pain about learning to write was the amount of ink and graphite I got on my hand, pushing it across the line of text I just wrote.

If you watch someone doing formal Chinese calligraphy, their hand doesn't touch the page, and their right sleeve is kept out of the way. I'd suggest that the reason for left-to-right writing to be the majority option is simply the desire to keep one's hand clean. In Chinese, you write down the page for the same reason.

But this isn't a knock against abjads or calligraphers. The only random (and probably fallacious) cultural assumption with writing right-to-left or down the page is a special reverence for writers in both Arabic and classical Chinese culture. Perhaps it's because writing is physically more demanding when a right-hander writes right-to-left? You've got to hold your hand off the page until the ink dries, after all, and that's more stressful than pulling your hand along the paper. I'd don't place much credence in this idea, but it's at least as plausible as a right-brain, left-brain hypothesis.

53:

One thing I'd add is a note I originally sent to Charlie.

The issue here isn't quite exercise, although you need a healthy body. The issue is relaxing and getting back into your body.

The problem is that writing is a dissociative process. You spend a lot of time in your head, not in your body. This puts stress on your body. If your body is uncomfortable, it's harder to get back into it after writing, especially if the writing is going well, and even more if it's paying the bills.

In my case, I worked at a kitchen table which was too low for me, in a chair that offered little support. This forced me to hunch over the keyboard, stressing my shoulders and neck until they started spasming.
What I'm learning now is how to relax my neck and shoulders, something I've literally forgotten how to do, coupled with exercises to stretch muscles that got too tight in that hunched posture. I'm also training myself on a new set-up with a standing desk. So far, it's better for my shoulders, but I still hunch when I stop thinking about my posture.

This is the key part I've learned: you HAVE to get back into your body every single day. That means feeling the aches, pains, fatigue, whatever and working to relieve them, just like you feed the cats and clean up after them every day, even though that litter-box isn't pleasant (and neither is most cat-food, to be honest).

Exercise is good, but it needs to be coupled with feeling and relaxing the muscles you use to write and hold your sitting posture. It has to be physically mindful exercise, not something mindless like pedaling a stationary bike while watching the telly or surfing the web. For me, qigong seems to work best at the moment, although I'm getting physical therapy as well.

Hope this helps.

54:

Have you tried the classic "Last and First Men" by Olaf Stapledon? The text is available from Project Gutenberg.

55:

So no visions of writer John Meaney taking down the dread beast "Work in Progress" in the Coliseum cheered on by rapturous crowds then?

56:

I use OpenOffice because I can create a nested structure of parts/chapter/scenes, each as a Section, name each section with the first sentence of that bit, and then use the Navigator to have a complete structural view of the novel open at all times. I can *see* the book as a whole, as I write, which I do find useful.

Thats... really useful... thanks for that.

I can see doing something similar with other 100-200 page documents I work with (grant proposals &c) where that level of overview would be really nice.

57:

Try the book _Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain_ by Betty Edwards. She has a workbook and DVD. Look around locally and someone is teaching the class in your area.

I actually took a class from her at the Smithsonian, and she was clearly unhappy about my drawings.

I have the drawings, but haven't put them online. This new computer only likes 64 so I'll have to get something similar to PhotoDeluxe in 64, that isn't too expensive.

58:

Don't forget that LibreOffice/OpenOffice has many more tools than just the word processor.

- For those who like to work on whiteboards to brainstorm, Drawing is perfect as a virtual whiteboard. You can create pages that are any size from 48x36 inches, or long rolls, etc... Don't think in terms of printing them out; keep them virtual. Mix things up by using different sizes depending on a standalone story or series.

- Also use Presentation to focus what you know about characters, scenes, etc..., by making slide shows of critical information. Think also in terms of creating a trailer for your book.

The creative part of the mind needs different tools than just putting words on the page.

59:

They do reflect brain structure. Gabby Giffords is learning to write again from the other side of her brain because her standard writing side of the brain was too damaged.

I had just become partially paralyzed when the doctors wanted me to learn to use that side to write -- I'd been ambidextrous before.

60:

When I took the class a decade ago, I found that my drawings where distorted because my hand was drawing what the eyes actually saw looking through my glasses rather than what my perception of the image was in the mind's eye.

Everything was squashed no matter how careful I was. It freaked me out when I realized that it was the dichotomy of perception vs actual vision. HA!

I had my Mom take the class last year, and her drawings are distorted due to a stroke she had decades ago. Her hand was drawing what her eyes saw, rather than what the mind's eye perceived.

Deeply fun stuff. Keep playing with it.

61:

I hope it's going well, Marilee. My father had a difficult time learning to write with his left hand.

About your comment though...

I think we need to differentiate between the direction of writing (left to right vs. right to left, whatever), and the general right-brainedness or left-brainedness of the people writing that way.

In all cases, characters are written predominantly by right-handed people. That's the whole problem with this theory.

Speaking as a left-handed person, this bugs me. I don't find it any easier to write right-to-left with my left hand. It's not easier to learn Chinese or Hebrew. It's just part of writing.

62:

As a leftie, I figured out writing with the right hand was just a matter of inverting the direction of the strokes. Not the direction of the text though, just the strokes that make up the letters.

63:

Since people are suggesting software to help with writing: Via Stewart Brand, whom I "follow" on Plus, Dipity appears to be a cute timeline generator of some kind.

I haven't tried it, but Stewart has a long history of pointing to clever tools.

64:

And I totally agree that 1) one size doesn't fit all, and the techniques better be appropriate to the context, and 2) being in the flow is hugely important, and interrupting it is the worst thing you can do.

Not...always.

A flow state is easy to achieve, if you're sufficiently practised. The most common example is driving, seeing as it's something where people get their 5,000 repetitions/10,000 hours. Have you ever approached your destination and realised that you can't remember the most recent part of the journey? Or just "gone for" a gap between vehicles and made it, when a conscious effort to control the vehicle would have been far more clumsy? Same thing.

The problem is that flow states are semi-consciousness and automatic. If there's a part of the activity requiring higher-level reasoning (match tactics, say, or a complex piece of navigation in the car) then that doesn't fit so well with flow state, and you want/need to surface to full consciousness.

I took part in a research project in the early 00s that was attempting to capture EEG of flow state - they'd had some interesting results from Archery in Manchester; it's a static sport, so there's less "nose" from major muscle groups, and the suitcase-sized electronics box and PC don't have to travel further than the power cord. Some researchers in Edinburgh wanted to pursue their line in reasoning, and to see whether we could eventually enter flow state on demand. Fortunately, they knew some Olympic-discipline (but unfortunately not Olympic-quality) target shooters who were willing to put up with an evening of rubber hats and contact glue in their hair :)

IIRC, on entering a flow state, there were some changes to brain activity that resembled sleep; the thrust of the research was that consistently successful competitors had characteristically different brain waves during the flow state. In the study somewhere, the wife and I each have a set of EEG results that were almost worth the hassle.

In my case, flow states have given me some handy personal bests - but only when the wind conditions were sufficiently benign and consistent to allow external factors to be ignored (a light breeze will quite happily take you out of the middle of the target, a varying breeze needs to be watched).

The interesting thing is the similarity between perfectly plain concepts (flow state and well-drilled automatic skills) and the "same thing in fancy clothes" from more eastern martial arts (no-mind, moving-without-moving). I think of my sport as the kata of my gun-fu...

PS One useful piece of advice I saw on deliberately entering a flow state is to focus on the visual aspects of the activity, not the auditory. So when training or coding (I'm a software engineer by day), I drown out language through the use of good earplugs or music-without-understandable-lyrics. "Trigger words" are useful for pre-match, not so good during-match.

65:

The confusion is the open ID login you can use, optionally, to post using some established identity of yours confirmed via remote login to the service, but you can just put a name on the field and post.

66:

Oops, meant to post that comment in the previous post's comment thread

67:

Another sinistralian here. Also with memories of an ink-stained hand, etc.

I've got a lot more done (in music, not writing) since I started using an old bronze powerbook running 10.2 solely as a recording device(*). When using other PC's it's always too tempting to do something else.

For the same reason I do most writing with an acoustic in a quiet room rather than with all the electric toys.

(*)I should probably get a few spares on ebay while there's still a few around, I'm very fond of that old laptop.

68:

I am firmly of the opinion that if you write on a word processor and you need to write a second draft, then you have fucked up the novel

--My problem is that if I start the day editing, that's where I end up being stuck--although a swift rereading of previous material does help remind me of where I am. However, the later chapters in a first draft of anything I write do tend to be more polished than the beginning ones, anyway, so most of my editing efforts are spent on the earlier ones. But I have to get past those earlier ones, plus the earlier ones often have to be planted with various landmines to explain the lovely explosions later on. I also have a couple of nice readers who let me know that I have somehow forgot the setting while I hare off to dialogue-space, which is annoying but nice (annoying because I have to do more work, but nice because they spotted it before I send it out).

So I tend to rip all the way through (with occasional splat notes as, 'change this name, it's too close to the hero's' as I go), lie down for a while after, and then become reacquainted with my family and friends. Once I've cleared my palate with editing some other work I've had lying about, I then go back to a quick read-through, wince, make more splat notes, and then begin the Retyping Draft. Once that is done (takes less time than you think, I type _fast_), I clear the palate etc. and then do the Slow Read to Myself Kind Of read-through, and discover just how many times I've overused my exclamation marks, etc. My friends help me with the Quill Mites at about this point (one or two have already told me about how little sense chapter 3 made, and so on). It does seem like a long process when you look at it, especially since I have a day job, but it gets done.

69:

Thanks, that went fine, but the stroke in 2009 has me having trouble with words. That's true -- the brained-ness is not necessarily the direction you write. Plenty of people have been forced to learn to write with their right hand.

70:

About the austere discipline of writing, a webcomic strip that writers may find amusing:
http://www.oglaf.com/blank-page/1/
(warning, apart for the specific strip, generally this webcomic is NSFW)

71:

I totally agree with getting back in touch with your body... That is one of the reasons I detest gyms with TVs which allow (or even force) people to disengage from the their cardio, and the strength machines that allow people to ignore technique: the result is mismatched and uncontrolled tension.

(I hope your post helps other people; for my part, you're talking to the converted. I've trained in martial arts since 1972 and I work out 2 hours a day. My routines are hugely varied, including soft joint rotation/tai-chi-style limbering up, bag work, running, free weights, solo karate, kickboxing and grappling drills and training in the dojo - at age 54 I can drop into full box splits and spar with black belts half my age - but if there's one aspect that's key for me it's the kind of exercises featured here, some of which are the mainstay of traditional Indian wrestlers and more latterly Japanese submission fighters, which work as a kind of hardcore yoga in some ways.)

72:

So no visions of writer John Meaney taking down the dread beast "Work in Progress" in the Coliseum cheered on by rapturous crowds then?

To the theme of Gladiator...

I will bring this mental movie to life every morning from now on, while I'm drinking my coffee!

73:

I might add, if all this talk of year-long processes to create novels seems like too much, pop along to Soon Lee's blog and follow the link from the 6th August post... Write yourself a novel in 3 days!

74:

I have a set routine: I get up around 10-11 am, feed the cats and so forth, walk over to my favorite diner, check my e-mail, have lunch, and write 500 or more words.

Then my wife picks me up, we go to the gym, work out for 3 hours (including 2 hours on the exercycle during which I always read fiction), go to dinner, and then I come home and write another 500 or more words by 2am. Then we go to bed.

I do this 6 days a week. On the off day, I do chores and/or go to a movie and otherwise decompress. I've told many aspiring authors that you may write about adventurous stuff, but you're going to live a fairly routine life.

This pattern is altered only for travel and some important social holidays. Call it 280 or so days a year.

It seems to work for me, and I enjoy it; I used to be a burst writer, and that was much less pleasant and worse for my health.

But then again, I -like- writing. Not all writers do; some like 'having written' much better, but I find the actual process enjoyable. I get anxious and nervous if I go more than three or four days without working.

75:

Re that Oglaf page, yes! That strikes rather close to home for anyone who does a creative activity...

76:

Direct link: http://www.wetasphalt.com/?q=content/how-write-book-three-days-lessons-michael-moorcock

If the carrot was fame, fortune, the approval of one's peers & the adulation of fans, then the stick was clearly bankruptcy & starvation. When it's one's livelihood, one can't afford the luxury of not feeling like writing. Motivation isn't exactly lacking.

77:

Hey, heteromeles, my previous reply was a bit prickly, for which I fully apologize. Particularly since you were reposting something from a different thread, therefore slightly different context.

[Looks contrite. Hat in hand, stares down and shuffles feet.]

On reflection, I've worked out what I really wanted to address. Working on strength endurance and posture/graceful movement prevents the problems you mentioned. (I'd say prophylactic, but that's got such wrong connotations...) However hard and long I write, I don't get stress problems. Although that might be due to minimum-hourly coffee-refill trips to the kitchen...

And one sign that I'm not immortal is that it's more likely to be decaf, or green tea, these days...

78:

Mr Stirling, sir! Forget Stephen King - Stephen M. Stirling is my new writing hero.

And you spend even more time in the gym than I do!

But then again, I -like- writing. Not all writers do; some like 'having written' much better, but I find the actual process enjoyable. I get anxious and nervous if I go more than three or four days without working.

I never even thought about this, and doesn't it apply to the gym work, too? For newbies in the gym, it's not so much about getting them in touch with their bodies as allowing them to enjoy movement.

Robert Heinlein was being sarcastic about writer's biographies when he said something like, "It's only what a writer does in periods when he's not writing that's interesting. A writer's life is boring."

But only from the outside...

P.S. I learned a vast amount from yer collaboratrix, Anne McCaffrey. And I write to the same kind of music, too!

79:

Apology happily accepted. I'm glad you don't have to deal with it.

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This page contains a single entry by John Meaney published on August 9, 2011 1:15 AM.

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