Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Essay: Getting the Job Done

Consider the average 6th grader. She has spent most of her life writing on a tablet using a pen or pencil. By the time she graduates from her twelve years of school she will have used computers for writing projects in six or seven classes. Few teachers, especially in poorer areas of the country, require students to type more than one or two papers per quarter-- and usually only then after the prewriting and revision process is complete. Typically, rough drafts are done by hand on notebook paper, and finals are typed and printed.

Our student is used to an analog method of communication. We have trained her to do this so well that when she is constrained by a computer she has invented her own writing technique and abbreviations: "R U gng 2 meet me @ hm?" She may doodle in the margins of her test papers and brainstorm with a bubble cloud.

This sort of creative thinking is very difficult on a computer, if for no other reason than because we are largely constrained by the limits of our software. I can't, for example, easily attach a simple stick figure to the side of this blog to illustrate a point. I could draw it, scan it, and attach the picture by adding a bunch of extra steps-- but on notebook paper I could just jot it down.

This limits the creativity of writing on the computer. Outside of specialized software, you can't develop a map for your fantasy fiction world, and it's difficult to brainstorm unless you use specific methods of doing so, such as stream of consciousness or word association methods.

I'm not discounting the usefulness of the computer to writers. You're here because you did some kind of search on the web for "writing" or "fiction" or something of the kind, and whether that search brought you directly here or by roundabout path you arrived, you're now reading this. (And thanks for visiting, by the way.) However, it is much harder than most people realize to engage in a creative process while sitting at the computer. Writing is not mere typing. Creative thinking is, as the word implies, the action of creating something where there is nothing. This is not easy to do.

Take non-fiction authoring, for contrast. Non-fiction is essentially nothing more than synthesizing information you've taken in from a myriad of sources and producing a synopsis or a rebuttal. While the actual writing may require some creativity in how you turn a phrase and how you present your argument, the facts rarely need to be reupholstered unless you're writing speeches for Obama and Pelosi, in which case you can pretty much write any "fact" you like with the understanding that they'll ignore it as soon as it becomes convenient to do so. (This makes twice that the "most transparent administration in history" has passed health care legislation against the wishes of 66% of the American people at midnight on a Saturday without having read the bill. Now do you understand why I am conservative?)

This is why I am going to advocate doing something unusual here. Periodically, even the best and most prolific authors get writer's block. Continuous creation is not easy. However, I'd like to remind you what you used to do, twenty, thirty, or forty years ago.

Get a spiral notebook and a pen. I'm partial to the graph-paper composition books, which allow for easy doodling. The second link provides an interesting style of book for those of you working on illustrated books or doing storyboarding; it's a sheet with graph paper on the top, and college ruled note paper on the bottom.

For pens I prefer the pilot precise V5. Although I detest sharpening pencils, I don't like to write with mechanical pencils very much, so I use the pentech triangular pencils, which are much more comfortable than round or octagonal pencils for extended use. If I am going to use a mechanical pencil, it must be .5mm or smaller and have a twist out eraser, since revision is going to chew hell out of it. The pentel twist-erase QE415 is a good one for the money.

Now go find someplace you can write. Notice that I didn't say "someplace without distractions" or "someplace quiet." I specifically look for distractions when I'm writing, particularly by hand. I don't drink coffee, but I'll happily sit in a Starbucks for two hours watching life wander by. Most of Crossed Swords was written while sitting in a Shari's restaurant from 3am to 8am after working second shift. My notebooks are full of doodles and quick notes about passers-by who came in... like this description:

"Black man with a broken walk. Deerstalker cap pulled low over gray eyebrows. Dirty pants hanging from coat hanger hips. Flannel flaps from wire shoulders. Exhaustion echoes from his sighs, and his cough hurts me too."

There is nothing wrong with sitting at your computer and typing madly away, and if that's working for you then get down with your bad self. However, I think it's important to note that the best stories are about life and how we live it. If you're not somewhere that life is visible, then how can you write about it?

And if you're having trouble getting started, maybe all you need is to change your work space and try something a little different. Trust me, at 3am, the Waffle House is worth visiting for the entertainment value alone.

Write on!


Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. All true stuff. I write out history stuff of the worlds for the Choices series on paper because my host enjoys the tactile sensation.
    (for the SG1 fans in the house)

    From Sandy Lender
    "Some days, you just want the dragon to win."

  2. Oh! But I have to say that I can't write with a pencil. Pencils...something about them irks me. Probably the grit of lead. Even soft lead is just a bit "dirty" to me. I gotta have a pen. The smoother, the better.

    From Sandy Lender
    "Some days, you just want the dragon to win."

  3. I keep a binder filled with loose leaf paper next to my bed ... it's my dream journal - a good many story ideas come from my most vivid ones. I also have a small notepad in my purse, one in my car and a dozen or so others spread out around the house.
    Being an art major first, I have a need to SEE things and doodles abound in my notes, including maps, character expressions and clothing designs etc. Oh and I DO like mechanical pencils but I prefer 5mm as well.

  4. Oh and I detest quiet - it's soooo distracting. I like to listen to music - the genre depends on my mood and what I'm writing ;)

  5. I find that listening to music that is similar to what I want to write helps a great deal. Battle scenes: Steve Jablonski. Exposition: Hans Zimmer.

  6. no one beats Hans Zimmer - do you have Beyond Rangoon?!? what about White Squall?
    James Newton Howard has some good ones too and
    it's to be expected but I also love Last of the Mohicans by Trevor Jones - that's got some get your heart pumping music ... course then the SVT sets in ;)

  7. Actually, the only Zimmer I have is the Pirates soundtracks. I'll have to look for the other stuff. "He's a Pirate" has been played over 600 times on my iTunes.