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Writing Differently: Picking Up the Scary Tools

Writing

In creating Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Joss Whedon picks up some scary tools of his own

If all has gone well with your writing so far, by now you may have some favorite practices: maybe you always outline your pieces, or have a moment in mind you want to go to, or you scribble a bunch of scenes on index cards and then try to figure out their proper order. You may have a sense of some special strengths and weaknesses: maybe people tell you you have an ear for dialog, or you have trouble with action scenes, or your settings come out convincing and vivid, or you couldn’t write romance if Jane Austen were sitting on your lap.

So, good: you have some favorite techniques to use. This now gives you an opportunity to do something very productive–specifically, to violate them.

Why, you might sensibly ask, would I throw away exactly the things that work for me best? Why put aside the comfortable tools for the scary tools that I’m not even sure I can operate correctly?

First, I’m only suggesting this as an exercise, or a series of exercises. There’s nothing to say that if you’re an outline writer now that you can’t stay an outline writer forever … but if you want to improve both the quality of your prose and your facility in getting the words on paper, you’ll want to up your game, and upping your game generally means not just trying harder, but trying differently. Good writing habits are valuable, and consistency creates them, but variation creates learning opportunities that consistency can’t offer.

Here are some of the advantages of trying differently:

  • You get insights into your process, into what advantages your current approach has and/or why you should start considering other avenues.
  • You may unexpectedly find a new favorite method of doing something. If you’re used to writing one way, you may have avoided another approach because you don’t have the practice at it and feel unsure of yourself. Experimenting with those other ways gives you the chance to try them on for size.
  • You’ll get a better sense of what your available tools and options are. For instance, if you generally write very little dialog and as an exercise trying writing an all-dialog story, you may find yourself working out dialog techniques that you had never considered before. These become new tools on your utility belt, ones that might come in handy if you hit a wall with your usual tools some time in the future.
  • Challenging yourself while writing is a good way to stimulate your brain and improve your chops. We get better at tasks through “deliberate practice,” which is to say challenging work plus feedback. If we fall back on our accustomed writing practices, we’re not challenged and therefore aren’t likely to improve much.

I’ll throw in the example of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which Joss Whedon (and friends) created for the Web during the writers’ strike a few years back. I find it hugely entertaining, although I know some fun and tasteful people who don’t. Regardless, Whedon took a chance not only in what he wrote but in how he brought it out. He had time-tested ways to get his work in front of people; he didn’t have to do something like Dr. Horrible, but he did, and it was brilliant. (By the way, fans, this just in: the sequel tentatively goes into production this summer.)

Those are some of the whys of writing differently; following are some of the hows.

The next time you’re bored with what you’re working on, or need to get warmed up, or have time for a side project, look at one or more of these areas and choose an approach completely different from your usual. Alternatively, get together with several writer friends and take turns choosing approaches from any of the categories below. (Examples: “Outline a short story by writing down a bunch of scenes and then finding an order to put them in”; “Write a very short story longhand based on a tense opening situation”) Mojitos are optional.

While of course it’s always possible that you’ll write something that works magnificently with one of these exercises, I’d recommend caring more about what you learn from the process than about how the final version comes out. Worrying too much about the story not coming out perfectly or being saleable while trying out a new technique can make it a lot harder to really throw yourself into the experiment. As Ken Robinson says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Building your story
Some of us just start writing; others outline; others write scenes on index cards; others gradually develop sets of ideas into a coherent structure using a tool like Scrivener. Consider trying whichever method is least like the one you use now.

The kernel of your story
You may tend to start stories with an idea for an important scene, with a character, with a setting, with a plot idea, or with an initial situation. What methods have you rarely or never used to start a story?

The physical act of writing
Do you always write on a computer? Then what happens if you write longhand, or dictate into an audio recorder or voice recognition system, or try telling the story to a friend (or to yourself in the car) before writing it down? Does your style change? Is the process easier, harder, faster, slower, deeper, more unusual? Are there any unexpected advantages?

Story form
If you usually write novels, you might try a short story or two. If you write short stories, try flash, or even poetry, or just outlining a novel to see what that structure would look like. Consider writing a short stage play, radio play, or screenplay, even if it’s not in proper format, to focus more on dialog (stage), dialog and sound (radio/podcast), or sight and sound (screen).

Genre
If you always write science fiction or fantasy, try a non-speculative romance or a mainstream piece. If your stories are always full of clever talk, try writing a piece that’s mainly action. What kinds of muscles do you need to flex in these unaccustomed kinds of stories that don’t usually get much exercise?

Editing habits
If you tend to write freely and edit later, try writing something in which you concentrate on getting everything right the first time–not because this will necessarily work, but because of the different kind of focus it will create. If you always try to get everything right in the first draft, try writing more freely to see if it offers you better opportunities.

Asking “what else”?
Most importantly of all, consider more options. Many of us have a tendency, when we come to a place where we have a writing decision, to work on that decision only long enough to come up with a solution that works–one solution. Instead of settling for one, try to brainstorm five, say, even if a couple of them are a little loopy. Statistically, what’s the chance that your first idea for a character, plot turn, way of expressing something, etc. is going to be the best one you could possibly come up with? Tell yourself “Sure, that would be one good solution. And what’s a completely different one?”

My intentions here aren’t to derail your writing practices permanently, but to offer some approaches you can take to push the envelope and to develop and expand your skills. As writers, we’ll be tempted by any success to think that we need to keep doing things the way we’re already doing them. Certainly it’s sometimes possible to build a career by doing the same thing over and over, but constantly trying new angles will continue to build a writer’s skills in ways that eventually leaves stagnant writers eating our dust.

This piece is reprinted from my column at Futurismic.

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News Fasting: Is There Too Much News in Your Life?

States of mind

Years ago I read a book that advised going on a “news fast”–that is, not watching, listening to, or reading the news for at least a week.  The idea seemed strange to me: I was listening to the news in my car every day on the way into work and back. If I didn’t keep up with the news, wouldn’t I be uninformed? Wouldn’t I miss important things?

Well, maybe. I mean, if I were an investment counselor, I’d need to keep up with financial news. Almost everyone can use weather reports–though we can get that online without going near any other kinds of news. I certainly need to know something about what’s been going on in politics sooner or later if I’m going to vote responsibly. On a day-to-day basis, though, is news actually doing me any good?

News and stress
I could phrase this question another way: is what I get from keeping up with the news worth the stress it causes me?

Because it’s definitely stressful. I listened to NPR while in the car this morning and ended up turning it off after 20 minutes, because it had already managed to offer me stress-producing material about 1) biased journalism, 2) world overpopulation, 3) declining birth rates (notice how this is in direct conflict with #2 and yet each offers things to worry about), 4) drug shortages, and 5) invasive plant species.

I’m not advocating not knowing about these things. The dangers of overpopulation should (if you ask me) figure into any family planning discussion. There are practices I can avoid, like bringing unchecked fill onto my property, that can help limit the spread of invasive species. Having a sense of how responsible my sources of information are helps me take their statements in a more well-considered light.

What’s the news for, anyway?
Yet on the whole, the news tends to be filled with things to worry about, very few of which we can do much about directly unless we choose to make it a key personal mission. There are some positive stories, but they’re rare. You’ve probably heard the saying “If it bleeds, it leads”: people pay more attention to the news–watch more, listen more, and read more–if something bad is happening. Imagine a newspaper with a huge front page headline: “Everything is fine; not much to worry about!” It might have novelty value, but if it began to happen regularly, people might well stop buying newspapers.

When we listen to something negative on the news, we have three choices: we can do something about it right away, we can ignore it completely, or we can keep it in mind. Since we can rarely do anything about corruption in Afghanistan or declining salmon populations right away, and since ignoring is difficult and seems counter-intuitive when we’ve gone out of our way to get the news in the first place, we do a lot of just keeping things in mind. Does this make us better people? Does it help us make better decisions?

For that matter, are we even necessarily better informed? The news often emphasizes the unusual, the shocking, or the disturbing, making the world seem more extreme and upsetting than it actually is. “Two people fall in love, have minimal relationship problems, and live happily together into old age” isn’t usually news, but knowing that things like that happen is crucial in terms of how we experience our lives. News tends to skew the way we view the world. It’s depressing. It’s stressful.

Less news is good news
So what am I advocating here? Just that if you’re in the habit of listening to, watching, or reading the news every day, you might want to try taking a vacation for a while. Also, when you come back from that vacation, you might consider the possibility of limiting your news consumption on a regular basis.

I’d suggest two weeks. One week probably isn’t long enough to completely feel the effects, and anything longer runs the risk of making a person feel so out of touch the whole thing might backfire.

But old habits are hard to shake off, so I also recommend substitute behaviors.

If you read your news, whether on paper or online, consider introducing more enjoyable fiction and blogs, magazines, or books on topics you care about into your literary diet.

If you tend to listen on the radio, substitute music (which can be a highly effective mood changer), audiobooks, or just thinking about your life, the things that are important to you, and what makes you happy (see Getting Past Our Own Uncomfortable Silences). If you own a Kindle, you can have it read some books aloud to you (depending on the publisher’s settings) by pressing Shift+Sym and using space bar to pause/play. I plug my Kindle into my car’s stereo system and “read” articles, blog posts, and books this way. If you enjoy singing, doing more of that–with or without the radio–is another way to boost mood.

If your news mainly comes from the television, consider watching less television and spending the time instead with family or friends, reading or listening to music, or engaging in projects that leave you with a sense of satisfaction and meaning.

I’m not sure there is a perfect balance of taking in the news and staying clear of it. Even though news is often stressful, it’s occasionally enlightening or uplifting, and even when it’s stressful, sometimes that stress has a purpose (see The Benefits of Feeling Bad). Still, getting large amounts of news on a regular basis seems as though it would enough to increase anyone’s stress levels. If you’re a daily news consumer, what’s it doing to yours?

Photo by matsimpsk

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Great Expectations Alone Won’t Cut It

Handling negative emotions

I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”

And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”

At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.

These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:

  1. Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
  3. Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
  4. Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
  5. Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.

Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.

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One Year and 193 Posts Later …

About the site

A year ago yesterday I made my first Willpower Engine post, writing about the riddle my sister posed years ago when she seemed to develop formidable willpower out of nowhere. I think that was my first real clue that willpower was not something that a person just had or didn’t have, but rather something that could strengthened, grown, built on, activated, or energized. It wasn’t until the last few years, though, that I started doing book research and really began to understand how willpower actually works.

I started this blog thinking that there should be enough to post about for at least a few months, but what I’ve found is that the number of things a person can usefully know about willpower, self-motivation, habit-building, habit-breaking, goals, and organization–all of which I would suggest are different ways of looking at the same thing–is enormous. This seems kind of depressing at first, because you think to yourself “Are you kidding? I’ve got to get all this down before I get my willpower working?” Fortunately, it’s more like every different facet of willpower is a different kind of opportunity to seize, and any single one can make a real difference in our lives. We don’t have to learn every single tool that can possibly affect willpower (well, I’ve been doing my best to keep up with all of it, but that’s just because I’m trying to write about all of those tools): we just have to find a good set of tools that work for us personally.

The site and the posts have changed since the beginning: for a while there I was trying to make each post almost like a chapter of a book, with full and in-depth coverage of one specific thing. Over time I’ve learned to say less at once, to try to come in and make one specific point that might be able to stick with a person throughout the day instead of trying to cover every angle. I’ve also gone from posting a few times a week, whenever I thought of something to write about, to within a month posting on a regular schedule, first three days a week and more recently five. Sometimes I have a few posts ready in advance, while sometimes I finish the next day’s post just the night before. After a year, thinking and writing about habit has become a habit itself for me, and is almost always interesting and fun.

I’m very grateful to everyone who has come by to read The Willpower Engine so far, especially to those who have commented or gotten in touch, as well as to friends, family members, and visitors who have helped me refine and improve the site. I hope you’re getting at least a small part of the enormous pleasure and benefit from reading the site that I get from writing it for you.

You can find a complete list of Willpower Engine posts to date on the Complete Post Listing page at http://www.lucreid.com/?page_id=802.

Photo by benefit of hindsight

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