Periscope Depth

rulers make bad lovers

Another look into the writing process:

My writing style tends to imitate whoever I’ve read most recently. This process smooths out over time, and if I read a lot of different styles in rapid succession, such that I’m no longer a total slave. Picture a blank canvas: you start with red strokes, fear the final product will have too much red in it, then add in more colors until the final product looks rich and real. Then you tear it off the easel, hide it in your closet behind the winter coats, and go play Bejeweled instead. Anyhow, take a look at the twenty-one books I’ve read so far this year, then try to guess what my writing sounds like as a result. Bonus points if your answer incorporates needless French expressions (e.g., melange, fait accompli, pret-a-porter, mise-en-scene, and so forth).

A significant portion of my ideas come from the unconscious: random word associations or images that flit into my mind at odd hours. I vividly recall floating in the hypnagogic haze between wakefulness and dozing during a presentation at The Company when the word library planet appeared in my head. Those of you who’ve read “The Archivist” will recognize the result. My current project, which some of you have seen, came to me from the phrase murder kit. What goes into a murder kit, I wondered? And who would come up with that list? And why?

When I start writing and really hit the proverbial “zone,” I find myself in a sort of trance state. I become hyper-conscious of the sensory content of the world I’m writing, as perceived by the narrator or protagonist. Some people write best with music on or in a coffeeshop; I can’t stand the slightest surprising noise. Traffic and birds and crickets, yes; doors opening and people talking, no.

I never offer much in the way of description because I never go much for description in what I read. I frequently glaze over large blocks of text in order to get to dialogue; quote marks act as highlighter for me. Raymond Chandler and writers in his vein have proven the only exception, and you could make the argument that his particular method of description (“… the hole in her face where she unzippered her teeth …”) counts as dialogue anyway.

I never do a lot of research before I start writing, and I never break the trance once I get going. If I find something that I cannot reasonably fake, I’ll leave a note in brackets (“the total came to [[INSERT DOLLAR VALUE HERE]]; I paid in plastic”) and come back later. On occasion this gets me in trouble, as I’ll forget who I named what and pay for it later. That’s why I still need friends; that and the whole human thing.

Laptops work for some folks; not for me. At the end of an hour my lap feels too warm, and if I’m writing on a table I might as well have a desktop. I never write outside of my room (see above re: coffeeshops). I try not to write on my bed; it doesn’t have great lower back support when I’m sitting up and it confuses my body as to bedtime. And I prefer a larger screen and a higher resolution anyway: easier on the eyes.

I worry most about being melodramatic or grotesque, or about the picture in my mind being depicted clearly on the page. I worry least about being boring.

Two thousand words counts as a good night’s work for me, though I’m comfortable with anything over fifteen hundred. I can produce this in about an hour. Two nights of this a week means 3000-4000 words per week. Presuming you miss some nights and, on average, only stick to schedule 75% of the time, that’s still 112,500 words in 50 weeks. I give you two weeks’ vacation and one night in four off and you can still turn out a pretty thick novel in a year.

The best writing teacher I ever had, Dr. Vincent Fitzpatrick, always cautioned us against “writing abstractly about an abstraction.” I’ve just done that for about six hundred and fifty words here. All apologies.

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