Writing Method Experiment

20180507_093600The day before my husband and oldest son went on a caribou hunt, I bought a vacuum sealer from a second hand store. It did not work. Annoyed, I returned it, and my annoyance was compounded by the fact that I could only return it for in store credit, and that credit had to be used immediately. (This was after being told at the time of purchase that yes, of course I could return the item, and nothing more was said. I feel like something more should have been said.)

In the midst of my discontented wanderings through the store, I came across a most beautiful thing- a vintage turquoise Smith-Corona portable typewriter. Of course, it was irrevocably broken, as all things in this shop seem to be. But still, it was fun to plink away on and I’m sorry I didn’t buy it. It would have been just lovely on my book case and I could have spent many happy hours tinkering with it in the vague hope that I could resurrect it and name it Lazarus, but my husband would have caught me trying to sneak it in the house and given me that look and really, I don’t have any room on the book cases anyway. Alas. (In other news, I need more book cases. And a bigger house.)

But just touching that typewriter made me feel suddenly more creative, and I hustled home (with a bunch of new books I’m not sure where to put and some curtains I’ll never use, curse you, vacuum sealer) and knocked out another chapter in the Copper book I posted a chapter from last month (read here!).

The typewriter got me thinking. Some writing methods work better for me than others. And some that work for me might not work for as well for other writers. So I thought it might be fun to spend some time writing using several different recording methods and see if any patterns emerged. I came up with several styles of writing that I wanted to try, and went forth, hoping that a victor would emerge in each of these categories: best for brainstorming; best for drafting; best for editing. Each of the following writing methods was ranked according to these categories. Read on for my own personal results!

Method: Longhand, cursive

I know so many people who draft in longhand. (Sadly, I don’t know anybody who still uses shorthand to write anything more than short notes, and I was too lazy to learn stenography for this.) I don’t normally draft in longhand so it was fun to give it a try.

Pros: very good for inspiring creativity; excellent for working out outlines of books and individual scenes; very accessible;

Cons: difficult for later editing; in nearly all cases, must be transcribed to a digital format for sharing;

Method: Longhand, print

Everyone I know who uses longhand for writing does it exclusively in cursive. So I though, ‘Huh! What’s wrong with print?’ And once I start asking questions, I gotta find answers. All in the name of science. Sort of.

Pros: actually somewhat better WPM than cursive (Ms. Hardman lied to me); accessible;

Cons: doesn’t feel quite as inspiring as cursive; same cons as cursive;

Method: Typing, computer

This is my workhorse. A solid ninety percent, maybe more, of my writing uses this method.

Pros: very quick WPM; easy to keep files together and organized; easy to share materials with others;

Cons: computer isn’t always accessible; I am so very, very bad at technology; screens make my eyeballs sad; inspirationally meh;

Method: Typing, mechanical typewriter

Wow it took me half of forever to scrounge one up to type on. I’d never used one this old before and I was a little afraid to touch it, haha. It didn’t type very well, but honestly, the thing is like a hundred years old and I’m really impressed it worked at all.

Pros: mega super fun; creatively inspiring; that little ding at the end of the line; general coolness; that typing sound- something about the clickety-clack of a typewriter just feels all inspired and literary;

Cons: SO HARD TO FIND; keys jammed when typing too fast; had to push the keys really deep to get the typebars up to the page; machine was old and I didn’t know how to change the ribbon (let alone where to get one); difficult to edit;

Method: Typing, electronic typewriter

I actually managed to scrounge up not one, but two of these- each of them in dusty storage rooms of increasingly underfunded libraries. Go figure.

Pros: halfway between an old typewriter and a computer for coolness and inspiration; able to keep up with my typing speed;

Cons: relatively obscure- difficult to procure, and doubtless difficult to keep in repair; difficult to edit;

Method: Audio Recording

This method started out at a steep disadvantage, largely because I hate the sound of my voice. Not enough that I’d consider ever shutting up, but still. (It really didn’t help that I’ve been sick and sniffly for the entire duration of this experiment.)

Pros: can be done relatively hands free once you hit record; thoughts can be recorded quickly; very accessible if you have a phone that takes recordings; assuming recording was on a phone, sharing is very easy;

Cons: Very self-conscious of doing character voices; self-conscious of my just normal human voice; how does editing even happen like this; must be transcribed into another format for editing and sharing; while it worked well for taking notes, it was TERRIBLE for doing actual prose or, even worse, dialog;

Results

There are many, many ways to record stories out there. And while I was tempted to bust out some clay tablets or carve on some tree bark, I by no means exhausted the possibilities. These are just the methods that I thought a decent percent of people might actually regularly use. (Maybe not the typewriters these days. That was more for fun.)

But anyway, here is some data because data is delicious.

  Words/2 min WPM Accessible Editing Sharing Inspiring
Longhand, cursive 48; 54 25.5 Easy Medium Difficult ****
Longhand, print 51; 57 27 Easy Medium Difficult ***
Typing, digital 142; 150 73 Easy Easy Easy ***
Typing, electronic typewriter 82; 83; 79; 77; 77; 78.8 Difficult Medium Difficult ****
Typing, mechanical typewriter Didn’t record Slooow WHYYY Medium Difficult *****
Audio recording 373 in 4 min 93.25 Easy Difficult Easy *

So the results are in and I think we have our winners! For brainstorming, I definitely did best with longhand cursive.  For drafting, digital typing (on my laptop) was hands down the winner, as it was for editing. Typing on a computer isn’t the most inspiring way for me to write, but it is the quickest and the easiest, and it’s way easier to edit and share than its counterparts.

But that’s just me! Seriously guys, this was great fun running this experiment. You should consider doing it yourselves. Just spend a few hours working away using each method and see if any patterns emerge. You never know when you might stumble across your next big breakthrough on putting out your best work.

Until next week, happy writing!

(PS- Warning: in a couple more weeks, I’ll be skipping the country again and I’ve slated about a month of not putting up blog posts, depending on how quickly I recover, etc. But I promise I’ll bring you back some cool pictures and new sample settings. More details to come.)

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Pants, Plans, and In Between

pantsLong time readers may have noticed this about me, but I like to experiment from time to time with my writing strategies. Sometimes I try a bunch of creativity inducing activities to see which ones I like best. Sometimes I try out several writing programs to see if there’s a better system out there. I know what’s working for me now, but I don’t always know what will work better.

To that end, I’ve been experimenting this last year with various degrees of plotting preparation. When I first started out this writing gig, I was pretty deep in Pants territory, writing whatever the heck I wanted as the whimsy took me. I planned absolutely nothing. In recent years, I’ve been taking an increasingly structured stance for starting out new projects. I even sometimes use wonky little character sheets that might have details about their dietary preferences in childhood and how their first pet died. Real who-cares sorts of details, but it helps me get into the characters’ lives a little more.

The last three books I’ve written, current project inclusive, I’ve taken pains to plan them to different degrees. In the first book, I did no planning whatsoever; I went into it with a very brief premise idea, and just wrote whatever little rabbit trails came to mind. For the second book, I did just a little bit less than my usual degree of preparation, falling about midway between no plan and front-to-finish omniplan. And for my current project, I planned and planned until I felt like I had everything down and if I did any more planning, I would puke.

Here are my thoughts!

The Plans-Are-For-Sissies Approach: This one was a little painful. The words seemed to come alright, and I never really lacked for inspiration, but story wandered quite a bit before I found the track I wanted to take, and this poor baby will require gobs of editing to clean up all the foreshadowing that never went anywhere, the events that came out of nowhere, the sudden and significant eye color change of the secondary main character midway through the book, et cetera ad infinitum. (Heck, I never even nailed down which title I want to use.) Not only was the story all over the place, but writing the thing out took kind of forever. I never really lacked for things to write, but not having a plan meant moving forward at a snail’s pace. It took nearly six months to write this meandering draft, while first drafts of a similar size usually take me about two or three. I like the story, and I enjoyed the totally-free-to-explore feeling of writing, but it came at a huge time cost.

The Moderate’s Approach: This one was even more painful, but for different reasons that are probably not the method’s fault at all. I planned out the story just a smidgeon past the midway point in moderate detail, leaving myself a bit of wiggle room for exactly how things would take place, and a whole lot of wiggle room for how things would wrap up. The story progressed pretty easily at first, following my nice little plan. But the closer I got to the end, the more I realized I was in deep water. As things came onto the paper, all the little gaps and giant holes became painfully apparent. When I got past the outline’s reaches, I was swimming blind but, unlike the Plans-Are-For-Sissies story, nothing was coming. I tried to force it and things just got more and more lame, until finally I quit a couple chapters before the anticlimactic final battle. Blehhhhh… But as I said, this is probably more due to the story idea’s weakness than the method’s invalidity. The Moderate’s Approach is probably closer to my regular degree of plannedness (which is totally a word, shhh) than either of the others. I think I just picked a bum story idea for the experiment. 😦

The Doomsday-Prepper Approach: I can’t totally write this experiment off as done, since I’m still working my way through the book, but I have been so far most comfortable with this one. This story- and the historical timeline, the magic system, and each character and location- was planned out in detail, start to finish, before I even created the new Scrivener file. Honestly, the planning stage is usually the most fun part of the whole process for me, and I was a little worried I would use up all the funness (also a word, sh) before I got to the drafting phase. But I’ve been working on it for about a month now and things are still fun! I will say, though, progress is being made, but the words aren’t flying onto the page the way I assume they would with the way ahead so clear from the start. But this could also be a product of my writing habits; when doing the meandering no plan book, I got into the habit of just sort of picking at it- about five hundred words a day- and that habit has so far stuck. But as I write this, I am resolving anew to pick up the pace. Ask me how I’m doing in another month!

So this little experiment is inconclusive. Turns out each story (like each pregnancy?) is different. Go figure. But still, I had fun playing around with the degree to which I plan a story, and I now have a firmer awareness of exactly what my most comfortable planning style is. Not quite a pantser, and not quite a full on planner, but a plans-oriented plantser, which is kind of what I had figured I was before. Turns out I found the spot just by wandering there all on my own over the last twenty years of writing.

How about you readers? What’s your planning style? Why do you like it that way? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

Writing on the Road

RoadIn my naïve notes that I wrote up for this blog post before starting off on an insanely long road trip, I wrote “Writing on the Road- About all the tricks and stuff I used to help myself write while traveling”.  Ha.  So cute.

As mentioned in earlier posts, I didn’t get much writing done.  Really, it was all I could do to keep up with blog posts, since I burned through the buffer before the first month was out, and even then I failed on the home stretch when I somehow improperly scheduled a post and it- shocking- didn’t post.  (I’m calling this another technofail.  They never end.)

Despite the startling lack of bonanza write-a-thons, I don’t feel like the summer was a total waste, as far as writing goes or otherwise.  True, there was very little drafting, and very little editing, and not even all that much outlining or active brainstorming.  But there was a lot of experiencing going on, and experience is the foundation on which believable fiction rests.

Write what you know is one of the sacred commandments of writing, and there’s good reason for it.  Obviously nobody writing today really knows what riding a dragon feels like, or living on a colony embedded deep in an asteroid, or working as an astrologer in the court of Tutankhamen.  We make a lot of inferences about the details in our fiction.  Riding a dragon probably feels kind of like a cross between riding a horse and a hang glider.  Living on an asteroidal colony probably feels similar to living in the Princess Elizabeth Research Station, or the International Space Station, or a fancy underground bunker from the Cold War.  As writers, we get as close as we can, and then we make an educated guess.

But there are some things that can’t be fudged.  These are the things that will bother a reader like an itch they can’t quite reach.  A child whose voice isn’t quite what it should be.  A victim shouldering his abuse in a way that feels off somehow.  An emotional outburst that’s somehow wrong.  These things are much harder to quantify and, in many ways, much harder to peg.  But they’re things that, once we’ve experienced them, we can smell a fake from a mile away.  And nothing snaps a reader out of a story faster than a fake.

(And then there are the mistakes that just drive the experts crazy, like having your Western hero shoot a Peacemaker three years before the thing was developed.  But just because the demographic is small does not mean it’s quiet.  Don’t irritate your experts.)

Experiences keep us from making those mistakes.  Experience helps us to know precisely what places ache after nine hours in the saddle.  But more importantly, experience helps us to transcend the particular setting and to find the truths that are just as relevant to a thirty-year-old woman writing in a closet as they are to a twelve-year-old boy in the second century staving off starvation, or a forty-year-old xenologist encountering their first alien, or a dwarf girl who wants to be a florist when she grows up.  And when we have the experiences that give us that insight into human nature, and then we couple it with a mind open to tangents, we give ourselves a powerful recipe for creativity.

When it became clear that I wouldn’t be penning my opus magnus on the road, I instead tried to focus on keeping this recipe for creativity stewing as much as possible.  Although I don’t have the write-no-matter-what pearls of wisdom that I hoped to have, I did get some sense of the sorts of things that fostered a creative mindset (and kept me open to new experiences), and the things that killed it.  Maybe better people than I can build on merely thinking creatively and actually create creatively.

What hampered creativity

High expectations– Being disappointed in myself was the quickest way to squash my ability to think clearly, let alone creatively.  Just like your body needs time to rest after a program of intense dieting or exercise, your brain needs a break too.  All my attempts to power through and keep up on my home routine were total failures.

Stress–  I know, I know, stress can be hard to avoid when you’re hurdling down the highway for hours upon hours at a time, day after day, and the kids are so over this.  But avoid it when you can.  If you’re stressing about missing deadlines or flubbing wordcount goals or whatever, your focus is on the failures instead of the opportunities.

An excessive I-got-this attitude– I learned this at the birth of my first child- ask for help.  Trying to do everything myself- the cooking, the childcare, the everything all the time- absolutely depleted me, mind and body, leaving no energy for creativity or adventures.

What promoted creativity

Taking care of myself– When I was sick or tired or hungry or desperately iron deprived, creativity did not happen.  Mostly tears and anger and hiding under blankets happened instead.  Things were just better for the world in general when I made sure the basic needs were met first.

Time for reflection– As weird as it sounds, time was kind of a hot commodity during this vacation.  But I found it was very important for my brains to just have sit-and-chill time.  I didn’t go into it with the active intent to brainstorm, but it happened naturally, and those are always the best of storms.

Paper at the ready– I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but always, always keep something handy on which to jot notes.  There’s just something about having blank paper begging to be filled that gets the juices flowing.  This is especially needful when you have other things going on (like funerals, reunions, weddings, and a million visits).  My little pocket notebook has tons of little ideas and snippets that I would have forgotten completely if I hadn’t written them down.  The paper helps you think creatively, and then it helps you hang on to the things you do come up with.

I had some great ideas while on the road, ideas that I can hardly wait to flesh out and write up.  So maybe I only had the time and presence of mind to jot down some don’t-forget-this sort of notes.  I’ll count the fact that I was having ideas at all- despite the oppressive heat and despite living out of a car and despite months of nausea- as a victory.

Inspiring Vacation Photos

Ah, I’m finally home!  *hugs house*  Seriously, I never want to leave Fairbanks again.

Not that we didn’t have a great time.  We did.  We saw tons of friends and family, had many an adventure, and I was able to get lots of notes taken, even if I didn’t quite get around to much actual fiction writing.  (More on that next week.)  Another thing I was able to get a lot of: vacation photos.

A picture says a thousand words, or so goes the famous adage.  But without a translator on hand, exactly what words are being said isn’t always totally clear.  For example, what would you say is happening in this picture?

IMG_0040

Copilot, can you check our altitude?

It kind of looks like two kids are flying an airplane and are calmly about to crash into a tree.  Or maybe you see a dystopian future wherein child soldiers are sent on bombing raids.  Or maybe even fully grown space aliens who just happen to look like human children who are about to land on Earth on a mission to prepare the planet for hostile takeover.  (It’s actually my kids at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, dangling over the rhinoceros pen.  Go figure.)

This has been the longest vacation of my life.  I have lots of pictures, and lots of stories.  But if I weren’t around to tell you why there is a chipmunk on this man’s face…

IMG_0342

Tiny claws! In my eyes!

… you could probably have a really fun time making up your own version.  And your version would probably be even better than the truth, at least from a storytelling standpoint.

Vacation photos can make wonderful writing prompts.  They’re often of people outside their element, at interesting places, doing unusual things.  In a single snapshot, you typically have a setting, a character, and a basic scenario.  You can write about the photo at any point in time: write either how the photo came about, what’s happening in the photo at the moment, or the aftermath of the photo’s events.  Or you can simply grab a single element of the photo- say, an interesting person in the background, or Cousin Judy’s red sweater- and write up a spinoff that otherwise has nothing to do with the picture at all.

When using these visual prompts, it’s probably best not to use your own photos.  When you already know the real story attached to the image, it can be hard to set that one aside and start fresh.  I know what this is all about-

IMG_3803

Hey, honey! Babies are on sale!

-but you don’t.  So I would have a harder time coming up with something that isn’t just a retelling of the events than you would.  But if I were to look at someone else’s pictures, I wouldn’t have that limitation.  Fortunately, hats off to the internet, there’s no shortage of vacation photos floating around to inspire you.

Have a few more!

Remember that inspiration is all around you.  If you find yourself stuck on your writing, maybe spending a little time nosing around through Uncle Terry’s vacation photos just might be the thing to get you thinking again.

Happy writing!