This blog post is written to support a piece of my Year of the Author Platform workshop that’s running for Queensland Writers Centre today, breaking down the anatomy of an individual blog post for the participants. However, since I’m a waste-not, want-not kind of guy, I’m sharing it here in case anyone else gets some use out of it.
Since my readership consists of folks who are enormously smart about this sort of thing, I’m also going to use this as an opportunity to grab some feedback. Is there anything I should be telling these folks that I didn’t? Any resources you’d recommend? We’ve got a team of hungry aspiring writers who are eager to siphon your brainjuices, folks, so feel free to throw your two cents in once we hit the comments.
Alright, here we go. Strap yourselves in folks, ’cause we’re going to get meta.
Things to Pay Attention To Above This Text
There’s a handful of things to pay attention to above the first paragraph of this post. The title is the obvious one, but it’s also worth paying attention to the category that appears just above the title, “Blatant Self Promotion.” Categories are a way of sorting web content on an individual site and tend to be very broad – I’ve used this one ’cause I’m also being a bit cheeky and using one Platform building activity (running a workshop) to direct people towards another platform building activity (checking out my website).
Category may not appear above the post in your individual site – its a function of the site design I picked for Petermball.com – but it’s definitely an option on most wordpress builds and it’s a surprisingly powerful tool (which, admittedly, I’ve mishandled on this site for the most part).
2) BY AUTHOR
Another thing that’s worth checking is the “By Author” section. This is a little thing, but its worth checking that you’ve created an account that syncs with your author name, rather than using the default names that blogging platforms tend to create. There’s nothing weirder than going to an author site and seeing everything being posted by “admin.”
Of course, if you’re reading this after the weekend of the 25-26th, the above paragraph will make less sense as I tend to keep “by Author turned off on my website. This is because I’m usually the only person whose writing and posting things to this blog.
3) WEB ADDRESS
This will only work if you’ve logged directly into the post, so if you’re reading this from my home page, click on the title of the post and come on over to the permalink.Once you’ve done that, note that the web address attached to the post uses the title as part of the direct link: http://www.petermball.com/2013/05/25/the-anatomy-of-a-blog-post
Wordpress doesn’t do this as a default, it’s an option you have to set. If you don’t, then your blog posts tend to be identified by a number, which is far less sexy. This is one of those little things its worth double-checking, just like the Author, because it makes your site look a little cleaner.
4) POST TIME
All going well, this has gone live at 11:45 on Saturday morning, the 25th of May. I haven’t gone near the computer in order to make this happen, since we’ve been discussing blogging styles for the last two hours, which I’m calling out here ’cause I really want to highlight the power of scheduling posts in advance.
Things to Pay Attention To in the Body of the Post
5) THE HEADERS
See how I’ve broken things down with sub-headings through the post? These are a function of using the Heading HTML Code, which tells a computer that certain things should be be displayed differently (for the human readers) and read differently (if you’re a robot scanning the web for content). Header’s become your key words and phrases when it comes to telling places like Google what your post is about. This is a really nice breakdown of how it works.
You’ll need to figure out how to set up headers on your blogging software of choice, but it’s generally in the dropdown options under “Paragraph” when you’re drafting.
6) THE LINKS
I tend to throw a whole bunch of links into a post, pretty much any time there’s something relevant or worth following up on. There’s a bunch of reasons this is a good idea, based on the discussions we’ve had about in the workshop about blogging authority and being a useful internet citizen.
7) THE REQUEST
Scroll back to the second paragraph of this post and you’ll notice that I’ve put a request for comments in there. This is because I like comments, ’cause comments have the potential to be useful as an added resource in a blog post like this, and because it gives people an incentive to keep reading.
8) THE SUMMARY
So one of the second-last things that’ll occur at the end of this post is a summary of what people have just read, reminding them why this sort of thing is useful.
Things to Pay Attention To at the End of the Post
9) THE REQUEST, REDUX
So that request I made for comments at the top of this blog post? I’m going to reiterate it down in the bottom, just to make it clear that I’m really, really happy to hear people’s feedback on this topic.
10) SOCIAL MEDIA TOOLS
There’s a whole range of options for linking this post, quick and easy. I’m favouring facebook, twitter, and email, but the other options are there in the Share This section of the link salad at the end.
These aren’t a standard for every blog yet, but dear god, they totally should be. Part of my day-job for the Australian Writer’s Marketplace involves curating a bunch of writing and publishing links for our twitter stream, which gets a fair amount of click through. It’s a job that needs to be done fast, which means that posts I’m on the fence about including get dropped off if they don’t have the easy social media links to work with.
11) USING THE ARCHIVE
It’s a pretty basic thing, but when you hit the bottom of this post it’ll give you a link to the post that occurred before it and the one that’ll come after it. Basically, it’s there to encourage the reader to keep exploring and to make it easy for them to do so.
The young sibling of Categories. Basically a chance to really break down some of the key components/ideas in your post and make it easier to see. I tend to have a bit of fun with my tags, but if you click on What I Did With My Weekend you’ll see how it works.
The Thing You Can’t See
And finally, there’s the invisible part of this blog post: meta-data and SEO, which stands for Search Engine Optimization. Your site generates a fair amount of this automatically for you these days, but it’s worth being aware that they exist and have the potential to impact on the way search engines find data.
And that’s it….the anatomy of a blog post
One of the key things I’m stressing in today’s workshop is that blogging is both a publishing tool and an unfamiliar form for most writers, and when you’re setting out to learn how to write blog posts it’s rather like learning the form of a short story or a poem. You learn how to write these things by learning how to read them – looking at the way people have utilized narrative and form.
Blogging is just like that. Certain traits have built up over time because they work, but they also become invisible once you’ve learned them. This is an attempt to highlight some of the thing we don’t always think about, so the YoAPpers (as they’re known around the office) have a list of things to start paying attention to when they find blogs they like. It’s a checklist for figuring out why things that work may be working, or why the posts that don’t work are failing.
It’s not the whole story, but it’s a baseline. If I’ve missed anything, let me know.
More importantly, if you’ve got some hard-won advice you’d like to pass on to new bloggers, add it into the commentary and I’ll pass it along.
This week has been a lesson in the ways of the internet. I put a handful of links to a brilliant Ira Glass video on creativity and taste in the middle of my post about On Writing and only 3% of you fuckers went and watched it, despite the fact that I talk the damn thing up ’cause it really is that useful and awesome.
I put one link in a post about Robot Jox where I mention that the writer is shitting on his own project, and all of you motherfuckers go traipsing off to snicker to look at Joe Haldeman being all “yeah, this film is a dog, man. What were we thinking.”
You people, you people worry me. And I know the excuses that people will throw my way. I hear you sitting up the back, being all, “”No, Pete, it’s not like that, we swear.”
To that I say: “bullshit, motherfucker. I’ve got goddamn metrics. Three fucking percent.”
“But it’s hard,” you say, “we don’t want to follow a link just to see people being brilliant. We want to laugh at peoples misery and failure.”
And really, I should leave you to your foolishness.
But I won’t. ‘Cause the Ira Glass video really is that damn good and it really is a useful thing to have heard, at least once, if you’re engaging in any kind of creative endeavor. And ’cause I care.
So here you go. No linking required. JUST PRESS GODDAMNED PLAY ALREADY. Think of it like eating your vegetables before you move onto a delicious schadenfreude pudding.
Ira Glass is a goddamn legend. And now you know it.
And I really hope that video works, otherwise this post is going to look really goddamn stupid.
Robot Jox is a fucking awful movie. It’s got an average review rating of 4.9 on IMDB, which is actually pretty good for something we watch as part of the Trashy Tuesday Movie series (and if you’re interested in seeing my immediate reactions to the film, the twitter stream is archived over on the TTM wiki), but it doesn’t change the basic problem. This film is a mess. A glorious, glorious mess.
Personally I think people on IMDB are rating the film too high. Of course, I personally don’t really think Robot Jox deserves to be called a film, since it utterly fails to achieve all but the most basic requirements. I mean, it is filmed, and I suppose we could call what’s happening on the screen acting if we’re being generous, but that’s really about it.
And yet, I’m going to suggest you go find a copy of this absolute dogs breakfast of a movie if you’ve got an interest in writing, ’cause it’s failures have some pretty important lessons in terms of figuring out how stories work. One of the reasons I adore some terrible movies is the opportunity they afford me to hone my writing chops, figuring out what mistakes to avoid and how things could be done better.
So if you’re up for the challenge, I’m going to help you. Track down a copy of the movie, make a tub of popcorn, grab yourself a notebook and let Stuart Gorden’s 1989 masterpiece school you on the following.
1) MOTIVATION, MOTHERFUCKERS, YOU NEED IT
The biggest failing of Robot Jox isn’t the out-of-date effects whenever two giant robots go to war. Instead, it’s the utter failure to establish anything resembling a character motivation for anyone who isn’t the villain. People have reasons for doing things, but they’re largely at the service of the plot.
When you watch this film, try and lock down what every character wants and why they can’t have it. It’ll drive you ten kinds of batty, ’cause it seems to change on a whim. Sometimes Achilles, our protagonist, wants to stop piloting giant robots ’cause it’s kinda pants as a career. Sometimes he’s really like sexy-times with one of the trainee pilots, who is also a clone.
Sometimes he’s kidded himself that his desire for sexy-times is actually the beginning of true love, despite the fact that the trainee pilot basically spends the film being all “I want to be the best damn giant fighting robot pilot in the world” and shows no real interest in Achilles at all.
Getting motivation is actually pretty easy: your character should want something they can’t have. Films are actually built around a central spine where the protagonist, whose wants we empathise with, is finally forced to confront their demons and go after that thing they really want. It doesn’t matter what it is: world peace; a Twinkie; dumping the one ring into Mount Doom so you can go back and live a simple life in the Shire. So long as they want, and there are obstacles, you’re golden. All the other sub-plots will hang off that.
What lets this film down isn’t the lack of motivation, but the lack of consistent motivation.
2) INTERTEXT IS AWESOME, ON THE NOSE IS NOT
I’m a big fan of films that make veiled intertextual references to other narratives. There is a delight, in these moments, where you get more meaning out of a scene or a plot point because you can see it’s echo. The key to these things is subtlety, making sure it’s there for the people who want to see, and gone for the people who don’t.
There is nothing charming when your main character is named Achilles and he pilots his giant robot into space purely so his enemy can shoot him in the foot. It’s making the reference ’cause the reference is there to be made and it serves no narrative purpose outside of that.
3) WORK WITH PEOPLE WHO GET YOU
Robot Jox is written by Joe Haldeman, whose actually an SF writer with some pretty serious chops and the ability to write an engaging narrative. Unfortunately he’s been hired by a director/producer who doesn’t have much interest in that, which results in the very uneven film you’re currently watching. Joe isn’t exactly happy about that. Go look at the Wikipedia entry for this film and check out his comments, ’cause they’re pretty damning.
Believe it or not, this is a lesson for writers. Even the ones who aren’t interested in writing movies.
‘Cause fiction isn’t quite as collaborative as film-making is, but there are still a hell of a lot of people involved in the production and distribution of a book. Writers like to bitch about writing being a solitary profession, but you’re actually working with a team of editors, publishers, agents, etc over the course of your career.
Making sure you’re on the same wavelength and capable of working together is important.
4) YOUR CLIMAX SHOULD BE A MORAL CHOICE, BUT IT’S NOT AN AUTOMATIC KNOCKOUT
If you’re anything like me, you’ll hit the end of Robot Jox and start screaming obscenities at the film. Probably ’cause you demand an ending to a film that’s actually an ending, rather than a half-baked feel good moment that’s the narrative equivalent of hitting the ejector seat.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the climax of the film isn’t about the action, it’s about the choice that’s made by one of the major characters. In Star Wars Luke Skywalker’s decision to trust the force is the real climax of the film, a moral decision to trust instinct over technology that provides the context for the action (and exploding Death Star) that follows.
Robot Jox does end on a moral choice at its climax. It’s right there in the exchange between Achilles and Alexander, and their decision not to kill each other. If you try real hard, you can actually see a connection to some of the stuff they try to set up way back in the early stages of the film.
And it fails horribly, ’cause by this point you’ve been distracted by so many other things that you’re no longer really following what’s going on.
This point goes back to point 1 – the conflict you’re setting up is going to be made meaningful by this decision. Get it right and the audience will lift off, literally rising out of their seat as they hit that moment where they scream hell, yeah, about time.
5) “YOU MAKE MY DRINK TASTE LIKE BLOOD”
There’s a good line of dialogue in Robot Jox - I stole it for the title of this section – but it’s not really a film that’s known for it’s subtlety in character or speach. Take a close look at our opening scene, just after the voice over: desolate landscape in the Siberia battleground, a pilot lying in the ruins of a giant robot who calls for a ruling, the referee’s declaring the match over…and the evil protagonist, Alexander, crushing his opponent beneath a giant robot foot despite the fact that the other pilot’s back is broken.
This is a real brute-force moment for the film, hitting you over the head with the fact that Alexander is evil, but it’s also slightly confusing for us. We haven’t been given any context to the narrative yet, beyond the voice over. We know there’s factions, we know there was a nuclear war, and we know the one-on-one giant mecha battles have replaced war. This is all background; it’s got nothing to do with the story we’re about to be told, and the real conflict we’re hoping to see play out on the screen.
With that one sequence – the referees declaring the match over and Alexander choosing to kill his opponent anyway, the injured pilot screaming I yield, I yield – we’re left with the inescapable impression that Alexander is a psychotic asshole.
What’s missing in the scene is this: a sign that Alexander isn’t our protagonist.
Believe it or not, this is something of a problem. We’re trained, as audience members, to seize upon the first major character we see and invest in them as the people who are going to carry the film. We do a similar kind of thing in books, but novels have the advantage that prologues are generally marked as such. There very word ‘prologue’ is like a warning sign that we shouldn’t invest, that none of the characters we’re being introduced to are going to be around for long (This is one of the reasons that prologues kinda suck; people check out, narratively speaking, until the real action starts).
So Robot Jox essentially starts off with a moment of cognitive dissonance, introducing us to a character we can’t invest in because he’s got screaming-bloody-lunatic written all over him in permanent marker. Quite possibly in Russian.
You don’t really invest in Alexander as a bad guy, ’cause he’s so obviously bad. He’s like a parody of evil, when he should be a dark mirror for the films real protagonist, an example of what happens when robot jox machismo is taken to its logical extreme.
6) “YOU’RE MAKING MY BEER CURDLE.”
The film suffers another moment of cognitive dissonance when we meet out protagonist: Achilles is watching the opening sequence on a monitor, and he looks…scared. Or constipated. I’m not really sure which emotion is being portrayed here, and while I’d ordinarily say this was the fault of the actor, Gary Graham, the lack of actual directing chops on offer here suggests that it’s not entirely his fault.
In any case, Achilles is a man whose been targeted by our Russian psychopath who is probably not our protagonist. He doesn’t actually say anything or do anything meaningful in this scene, he just sits there while his trainer talks and does a whole bunch of…well, seeding subplots, really. Which is fine, except this film is lacking a main plot, and all you’ve got is the subplots to hold things together. And they don’t.
So Achilles’ manager starts talking, setting up a Jox against the establishment dynamic, but Achilles is focused on the fact that he’s the last of a ten-man team who represented the stand-in for the USA. His…well, there’s no evidence of this on screen, but we’ll the pilot who just died a friend, just died before his eyes. He’s sweating the upcoming fight.
There is something about Alaska and a possible spy, but honestly I don’t much care by this point. Alexander is so fricken’ eeeeevil he should have a twirly mustache or a hockey mask to wear, and I’m not being given a reason to give a damn about Achilles going up against him. Achilles is frightened. He’s ignoring the political reasons the fight is important, which everyone else is talking about, and he’s ignoring the fact that Tex is basically setting up the Robot Jox in the way that warriors are set up in every film – faux knight-errands, with their own code of honour. When the government man talks about needing to keep Alaska ’cause the territory is important, Tex points out the stupidity: “Dirt is just dirt.”
If it wasn’t for the fact that Tex is a bagillion years older than everyone else in the scene, out of shape, and lacking Achilles cool facial scar, he would be setting himself up as a hero I could invest in. He believes in things, man. He has a code.
Achilles, near as I can tell, doesn’t particularly want to die. I can respect that. I’d be much the same in his situation. But it doesn’t make him someone I empathise with in a film about Giant Robot Death Matches. Near as I can tell, he’s doing this ’cause he signed a contract. He’s got some chops as a pilot, ’cause he’s lived this long and he’s got the cool facial scars that tell me he’s probably competent-ish, but being the guy who is reluctant to do the job you’re hired to do ’cause its going to be a bad day of the office isn’t enough to inspire me. Presumably, psychotics like Alexander were around when he signed up. He knew what he was getting into.
Achilles, in short, isn’t being sufficiently heroic to make up for the fact that I’m already wondering who the protagonist is going to be. He would be better off if he was a prisoner of some kind, being made to fight in order to win his freedom. At least then we’d understand his reluctance and the tension is established: is it better to die free or live in a cage? He needs to find an answer.
But that doesn’t happen. Achilles is a guy whose been hired to do a job.
Worse, he’s teamed with Tex Conway as his mentor figure/trainer, and Tex Conway is kind of an asshole. In fact, one scene later, he’s a particularly misogynistic asshole. Not in a subtle, we’re-characters-in-an-action-movie-w
This makes sense later in the film, when you discover that mentor figure Tex Conway is also a villain, but in those early scenes where Tex and Achilles get on screen and you’re desperate for a protagonist, they’re presenting a united front against every other character, which means Achilles gets dragged along into asshole land simply due to the fact that they’re a closed circle in terms of social groups.
Setting up two guys against a system, particularly a government system that’s trying to replace them with cloned pilots, is a brilliant short-hand for hero. Pity its when the two characters are at their lest empathetic. Back in 1989, when this film was made and feminism was moving into the public consciousness, being a misogynist prick was also a big signifier for hey, I’m a bad guy.
Worse, Achilles involvement in these scenes is never really redeemed; there’s no moment in the scene where you get a strong feel for the fact that he’s a different kind of man than his mentor, which is problematic to say the least, nor that he’s learned his lesson about the role of women in the arena of the giant robot death match. He just…falls in love? I think? It’s not terrible well handled in the film.
That we accept Achilles as a vaguely empathetic protagonist (really, go with me here) is largely a result of that opening scene; Alexander is so obviously a bad guy that Achilles is empathetic in contrast, simply ’cause he’s the victim of the Russian’s psychotic taunting. You don’t want to root for Achilles, but you do, ’cause the other option has been painted so broadly that you’ll cling to him like a life-raft.
Thing is, you’re not exactly happy about it. Neither of these guys is endearing, and neither of them is interesting yet, ’cause they’re so easy to read. Alexander is psychotic; Achilles best trait, thus far, is that he’s not Alexander and he’s showing signs of vague competence in poorly choreographed sparring sessions with trainees.
This entire films hangs on you giving a damn about Achilles and his non-struggle against a system you don’t really understand. This is why it fails.
7) YOU MUST FIRE THE ILLITERATE GUN ON THE MANTLE
There are two points in Robot Jox where characters make mention of the fact that Achilles is illiterate. One of the weird aspect so writing is that anything you mention twice is pretty much seized upon by the viewer/reader and expected to appear a third time, particularly if it’s been important enough to mention.
This goes back to the moderately famous Chekhov quote, where the gun that appears on the mantle on the first act must go off in the third. If you include an element and make the audience pay attention to it, it must pay off.
It also goes back to the rule of threes: we’re so used to seeing Chekhov’s metaphorical guns in narratives that something that get mentioned twice feels like it should be coming back in the final act as a plot element/recurring motif. If you don’t put it in, readers will notice. Put it in a third time and there will be this pleasing sense of balance.
8) AMBITION MATTERS
Robot Jox may be a failure, but it’s the kind of failure that’s fucking glorious when seen from a certain perspective. This movie killed an entire studio, sucking down ten million dollars of funds that don’t seem to have been spent on anything that actually appears in the film. It fails on every level: the acting is wooden, the direction uninspired, the script vaguely nonsensical.
But HOLY JESUS FUCK does it want to be better than it is. You have to look real close to see it sometimes, but the evidence is there. It strives for bigger metaphors than it’s capable of, writes in literary allusions that are far to on-the-nose to be truly delightful as meta-textual elements, and generally aims to be the most SF movie you’ve ever seen when a rogue clone climbs into a giant battle robot and the action heads off into space.
It’s not a movie that’s playing it safe. It’s failing on its own terms, however misguided they may be, and that’s probably one of the reasons why people respect it enough to rate it just below the point of failure rather than the 2.3 it deserves.
Your average viewer probably doesn’t give a damn about ambition, but as someone who’s consumed a lot of narrative written by aspiring writers, I can tell you how much it appeals to me over the stories that are both not-terribly-good-yet and not-particularly-ambitious. You may not be able to sell something on ambition alone, but it’s more likely to earn you further interest from the types of jaded readers (IE submission editors) who are seeing the same themes and topics and stories day in and day out.
9) FAILURE IS AN OPTION
One of the things that I think it’s really important to note about this film: despite my rhetoric, it didn’t really kill anyone’s career. Joe Haldeman continued to make a living as a writer. Gary Graham, who played Achilles, has over 90 acting gigs on his IMDB profile, most of which took place after this movie. Stuart Gordon made a whole bunch of films afterwards.
And yet there’s no way you can look at this film as anything but a collassal fuck-up. It lost huge amounts of money. It killed a studio. It is sure as hell not a film that got a new lease of life in DVD. If there’s a way to tank a film, this film pretty much did it.
People still found work.
Failure is totally an option. Some days it’s worth embracing that.
So here’s my challenge: how would you improve this movie after watching it? What tweaks to the plot and characterization would you look at making in order to give it a satisfying arc? Despite its various flaws, I truly believe it wouldn’t take much to overhaul this film and make it truly enjoyable rather than a nostalgic/guilty pleasure, and I’m interested in hearing people’s takes.
Context: Solid writing sessions this morning, charging towards the end of a specific scene. Stuck now, ’cause there’s a multiplicity of things that could come next, and they all seem to be leading me off into an expansive approach to the narrative that’ll lead me into writing a novel.
I am not writing a novel.
Which is why I spent 51 minutes messing around with the opening part of the next scene and wrote pretty much nothing; I’m about to engage the Kress protocol and go back into the previous scene to chance something and see how if affects the narrative. I need to be bounced off into a new direction.
Session 22.1 (7:56 AM – 8:24 AM)
Word Count: 610
Session 22.2 (8:36 AM – 8:50 AM)
Word Count: 385
Session 22.3 (8:03 PM – 8:54 PM)
Word Count: 191
Total Daily Writing Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Daily Word Count Total: 1,186
Total Manuscript Writing Time: 22 hours, 4 minutes
Total Manuscript Word Count: 17,458
So my boss caught up on the Novella Dairy yesterday and commented on the fact that I was crapping on Stephen King in my post asking for feedback about the future of the project.
“I crapped on Stephen King?” I said. “I don’t remember doing that.”
“Sure you do,” she said. “You basically quote him and then talk about all the ways he’s wrong. You’re all It’s all very well for Stephen King to write about sitting in the chair until he hits 2K a day, but some of us have day jobs…”
I’ll admit, at this point, that my record of this conversation probably isn’t 100% accurate, but it captures the gist. It refers back to an ongoing conversation we’ve had at work, where I’ve brought up the fact that I think On Writing has the potential to be a dangerous resource for some new writers and it bothers me that it’s so…omnipresent, I guess, as a source of advice.
So I figured I’d take a moment to unpack the reasons I used King as an example, particularly when it comes to the particular passage I quoted in yesterday’s post.
First Up: Stephen King Gets A Lot Right
Lest we get off on the wrong foot here, I’m going to state right at the outset that On Writing is actually a pretty useful book. It gets a lot of information right and it offers a pretty solid foundation for people who are getting into writing for the first time.
Better yet, his metaphor of the writer’s toolbox? Fucking brilliant. Simple, effective, well-explained. All the things that it needs to be. That it’s immediately followed by a point of contention for me (King and I disagree on the merits of plain style and not reaching for new language) is kinda beside the point, ’cause I don’t necessarily consider work with the language you’ve got bad advice in isolation.
Basically, while I think it has the potential to be problematic, I’m not really leveling the criticism at Stephen King’s advice so much as writing advice in general. On Writing is serving as a stand-in for a whole lot of conventional wisdom when it comes to writing, mostly because that conventional wisdom is presented very clearly in King’s book.
The overall gist of the advice? Write regularly? Submit your work to magazines. Embrace persistence, especially in the face of rejection. Build up your tools as a writer and make sure you’ve got them down.
It’s good stuff. I endorse it in principle, based on seeing it work for hundreds of writing students over the years. Advice goes, it’s useful.
Right up until it’s not.
No Writing Advice Survives Contact with the Enemy
The best writing advice is like a little explosion in your head. You read it, you put two-and-two together, and you suddenly realise why it’s taken you so damn long to realise how they come together to make four. You sit there thinking, wow, that’s so damn easy, how did I miss it.
The worst writing advice sits in your head like a stone, weighting you down and keeping you from moving forward. You sit there, looking it over, and thinking, wow, holy hell, why am I not doing this? It’s so damn obvious.
The weird part is that the good writing advice and the bad writing advice can be exactly the same; you’ve just heard it a different point in your career, or it works really well for you but not the next writer down the queue. I keep writing this in various places, but writing advice is not one size fits all.
The advice that helps you out isn’t even consistent year-to-year in your writing career. The things you need to hear when you’re starting out are rarely the same things that’ll help you five years in.
I Don’t Beleive in Monolithic Entities
Church. State. Grand narratives about life and existence. They’ve all collapsed in the face of modern world, embracing a kind of pluralism that’s only just starting to seep into writing advice.
Stephen King’s career is a kind of monolith in some respects. It’s too successful, too big to ignore, and it’s built on the strengths of a very particular kind of writer. The career advice outlined in On Writing reflects that in a lot of ways; it’s the kind of big, monolithic conventional wisdom that is all too common in writing.
The simple core of Kings guide – write a lot, submit a lot, keep repeating and don’t give up - syncs directly with my own experience with regards to what works when you’re starting out. The details of getting there, though, that isn’t the same at all. I had very different experiences as a formative writer. I work in very different ways. Approaching the process of writing 2,500 words a day the same way King does will frustrate me at the best of times and depress me at the worst.
I know, because I tried just a few months ago. I set a daily word count throughout January and February. I set my routine and went for it, forcing myself to sit there until I hit my word count.
It worked for a short stretch, but by halfway through the month real life intervened. I’d aim for two thousand words and get to fifteen hundred. Staying at the computer wasn’t a choice, ’cause I either had to head off to work or I had to get some sleep before heading to work the following morning.
I am, after all, thirty-six. My brain doesn’t work well on five hours sleep anymore.
Victory Conditions and Sacrifice
Here is my least-favourite sentence in the how to write section of On Writing, when he talks about your daily practice and target word count:
As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this low at first, to avoid disappointment. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with. (King, On Writing)
I mean, really? Magnanimous? I’m resisting the urge to be snotty here, especially since it comes with the implication that one day you’ll level-up as a writer and be above such things.
Writers are fond of setting victory conditions. I do it myself – the novella dairy is predicated on the 1k a day goal – but the problem with setting a victory condition like you will write 2,500 or 1,000 words a day is the counter-point that not reaching that word-count means that you’ve failed. Nothing wrong with that if you’re strong enough to shake things off and get back on the horse, but that isn’t always a given. Some days you don’t have the energy to give yourself that kind of pep talk.
The rhetoric offered to aspiring writers is all about sacrifice and martyrdom. If you can do anything but write, don’t write. If you want to make it, you’ll plant yourself in front of the computer and work until you hit your word count. If you want to be a writer, you’ll sacrifice and sacrifice…and if you aren’t able to sacrifice, you obviously didn’t want it enough.
Some days I wonder if that’s a bad thing.
How many writers have we lost because planting themselves in a chair and writing two thousands words in a single sitting was impossible? How many have we lost to the belief that you need to block out hours to give to writing? Or even a single consecutive hour, where you lock the door away?
I know why the advice is offered and I understand its place, but presenting it as a monolithic given is a mistake. The process of writing is individual and idiosyncratic; writers themselves, imminently adaptable. Some days it’s okay to chill the fuck out. Sometimes you can admit that maybe, somewhere along the line, you’d like to be a writer and have a goddamn weekend to yourself.
But beginners never hear that. You can put out the argument that perhaps they haven’t earned it yet – they need to hear the monolithic lectures about sacrifice and forcing yourself to write because otherwise they’ll never figure out their process or get to the end of the story. It’s like beginners need to be bullied into doing things, ’cause otherwise they’ll surely fail.
Lets be Honest: Writing is Hard
It’s not hard like brick-laying is hard or running a conference is hard, but it’s got its own difficulties.
It’s hard when you start writing because you suck and, as Ira Glass mentions in his brilliant video about creative success, you know that you suck. There’s good odds that you’ve embraced the creative side of yourself because you’ve got exceptional taste, and it’s frustrating to enter into that period where your skills aren’t yet in synch with your ambition.
It’s hard when you’ve had some success as a writer because you’re invested in your career. You know you can achieve and you want to achieve more, only now you’ve got to make sure that every new thing is better than the work that came before it and you’ll occasionally be visited by the specter of you’re done, it’s all been a mistake, and you’ll never be published again.
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that it’s even hard for guys like Stephen King, who have an audience with huge expectations and a million demands on their time. Things that are, technically, work, without actually being writing.
You know what all that misses?
Being a writer is fucking awesome.
Make no mistake, it’s a career path that’s got it’s ups and downs. There are days when I wish that I’d chosen something else to do with my life. Overall, though? Best fucking job in the world, whether I’m getting paid for it or not.
It just got a lot better, for me, when I stopped forcing myself to be the square peg squeezing into a round hole.
Here’s What You Need to Remember About On Writing
It’s a how-to-write book that reflects the way Stephen King set about building a writing career. The advice offered within worked really well for Stephen King, both in the general and the specific sense. It’s worked well for a whole bunch of other writers too.
But it doesn’t work for everyone. It presuppose a pace that you want to finish things, and in turn that’s predicated upon some very specific career goals. It assumes you want to be a novelist. It assumes you want to be writing full time. It assumes all sorts of things that may not be true for your particular path into writing, but unless you realise that, it’s easy to buy in ’cause you haven’t actually considered what you really want.
And, yeah, I got a personal beef.
There was a period of my life where sitting at the computer until I’d written 2,500 words a day nearly killed me. I was unemployed and desperate and really struggling to stay positive, and every time I failed to hit that goal it was like a mallet thumping against my already fragile self-confidence.
It never occurred to me that I was doing the wrong thing. That Stephen King’s approach probably wasn’t for me. That my attention span, short and fragmentary as it is, is better served by walking away and coming back a few minutes later. And it wasn’t like I was new to writing. I’d been doing this for years, had a whole bunch of stories published. I worked under the illusion that I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t.
Here’s the important bit.
Writing is one of those places where we don’t really examine our habits and processes. We fall into habits. We believe the things that are repeated, loudly and repetitively, rather than figuring out what works best for us. When I’m talking about the kind of advice offered in On Writing in something approaching a negative light, it’s usually because it’s a stand in for a whole bunch of conventional writing wisdom that I find enormously frustrating.
It would be easier if we could transform that baseline into something more sensible. Figure out how you write. Figure out how you finish your projects. Figure out what your career is going to look like.
The problem, of course, is that stuff is all easier to see in hindsight. When you’re eager and just starting out, wanting to run as fast as you can even though you haven’t figured out how, the kind of advice your offered is all about getting you to the next phase of your career: finishing things, sending them off, getting paid for your work.
To go back to the Ira Glass video I mentioned above, the only way you can get your work up to the level of your ambition is producing a body of work. That’s more or less the gist of King’s book as well, although it doesn’t explain it quite so explicitly and it’s approach to doing so is prescriptive That’s part of its charm and appeal; writing is presented like a magic trick you can master, after which its all book contracts and puppies.
You need to read the first half, the biography, and read for the subtext to learn that sometimes it’s not. That there are things that derail even Stephen King (although, mad respect, it appears that it took a life-threatening injury to keep him from writing). So read On Writing. Try it’s approach on for size. And if it doesn’t work – keep bloody looking for models. There are so many ways people approach this writing gig that there’s bound to be some advice that works best for you. Right now, I’m deep into the twenty-minute writing groove. It may change, it may not, but I’m going to test it and keep testing it to see how it’s working.
The smartest thing you can do is figure out what your approach looks like and keep making sure it’s right for you, your life, and your goals.
Novella Diary, Claw, Day Twenty-One
So last night I stayed up late, writing a moderately detail plan for the scene I wanted to get done this morning. It was a pretty good plan. Laid out a lot of stuff.
This morning I woke up and wrote a completely difference scene. Potentially invalidating all the stuff I’d planned.
This is why I’m not, by inclination or any real practical process, a plotter.
Session 21.1 (7:18: AM -7:28 AM)
Word Count: 107
Session 21.2 (8:03 AM -8:23 AM)
Word Count: 470
Session 21.3 (8:35 AM – 8:57 AM)
Word Count: 542
Total Daily Writing Time: 52 minutes
Daily Word Count Total: 1,119
Total Manuscript Writing Time: 20 hours, 31 minutes
Total Manuscript Word Count: 16,283