Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Benefits of Keeping a Work Log of Writing Hours

In July I started keeping a daily work log of how many hours I spent either writing or editing a particular piece.  And I ended up proving to myself what many of us have long surmised–the perception of how long it takes to do a piece of work is different from the actual reality.

I’ve now got over a month’s worth of work records, and the insights provided as I flip back through the log are invaluable to me.

–I can now make a good estimate on how many hours a short story or novelette is going to take me from start to finish.

–I can make correlations between productivity and when to schedule my writing time.  Certain times of the day and situations are much MUCH more productive than others for me, and I have begun to take that into account when planning the coming week’s schedule.

–It’s much harder to stay in denial if there’s a problem in productivity, because the work log shows the trend by either lack of hours, or too many hours being spent on a particular project.

–It’s motivating to look back and see the work hours that have already been logged in.

–I can quickly tell if I’m spending too much time on “niggling little stuff” and not enough on the novel or short fiction.

–If one is saying, “writing comes first,” but it’s clear from the log hours that it doesn’t (i.e that it’s coming in last behind everything else), the data is a goad to change that.

A writing log can be anything from a notepad to a daily planner.  To choose mine I went to an office supply store to the planner section, and pulled down planners and calendars until I found something I liked. In my case, I loved the Action Day Planner because it combined a calendar with a project planner organized by week.

Why as a Writer I Envy Painters, Musicians, Stage Actors, and Comedians

There are days as a fiction writer when I envy painters, musicians, comedians, stage actors, and the like.  It’s because I’ve found from experience that the feedback loop for them on whether a creation or technique is on the right track is much less murky.

When I create a painting, when I’m done I can step back and visually absorb my creation as a whole .  And if my ego is strong enough, I can haul it off to a local show of other artists to see how I’m doing skill-wise by visually paying attention to the paintings of the artists around me.  And I can pay attention to how viewers respond when they see my work.

As a comedian or musician, if I go to try out my latest stuff live at a local venue, I’m going to know very quickly if my piece isn’t working because if I’m awful there are going to be boos and maybe even beer cans headed in my direction.

With a fiction manuscript, it’s just a stack of paper with words on it.  I can make copies of it to give out with an evaluation sheet to readers, but the returned results are so much murkier than the instant feedback of clapping or boos.   And round-robin critique sessions (unless very VERY well-run) too often turn into group-think or focus on the wrong things because the manuscript is being evaluated by writers instead readers.

One can read aloud one’s manuscript to an audience, but how a piece of fiction reads aloud versus how it sounds in the mind versus how it looks to the eye are three separate things.  Reading aloud only covers one of the three.

And even when a fiction piece is posted online with a comments section, there’s still a buffer of words between writer and reader.

And as for writing contests, I find them rather weak for getting a full sense of how readers will respond to a work.  Keep in mind that most contests are judged by those in the book industry (writers, editors, critics, agents), not readers.  The criteria by which readers choose what they want to read is different.

Don’t believe me about contests?  Then go stand in the book section of the nearest Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. and watch people as they walk through.  Not a bookstore–that’s a preselected audience of people who are into books.  Talk to people who have absolutely no desire to work in the book industry.  Talk to people who rarely read books at all.

What I’m getting at is that in fiction writing, there’s a lot more “noise” and “distance” to wade through in trying to evaluate the response of readers to one’s work.  The interaction between artist and audience in writing is at a distance, unlike the intimacy of a stage actor and audience.

I can see why fiction writing is often compared to writing a message to shove into bottle that is thrown in the sea.

Perhaps the difficulty (the distance & noise between writer and reader) comes about because, as John Gardner pointed out, the writer is trying to induce a dream-state in the reader.  The action is happening in the reader’s head as they read, not on a movie screen or on a stage, and so reactions are much much harder to pin down.

INCEPTION on the Art of Storytelling

For anyone who writes fiction, makes films, or designs video games, Director Christopher Nolan has a whole hidden layer about the art of storytelling in his new film INCEPTION for you.  And he’s succeeded in putting this conversation underneath the surface story of the film, so it’s there waiting for you while everyone else can enjoy the film without feeling like they’re trapped in a boring lecture on the artistic work involved in creating fictional worlds.

The heart of the story is about Cobb, the “dream architect” whose sabotaging subconscious has made it impossible for him build dreams anymore.  Replace “dream architect” with “filmmaker,” and one soon catches on to Nolan’s hidden conversation.

Dream architects have the same sort of problems filmmakers and writers have, such as:

–Creating believable fictional worlds that the dreamer/viewer/reader can get lost in.

–Getting the details right.

–Finding the right equipment and tools needed to build the dream.

–Putting together a story that the dreamer will get wrapped up in.

–Dealing with hostility in the dreamer.

–Having different genres of stories.

–Encountering dreamers who have abandoned real life for the dreams.

–Giving the dreamer catharsis.

–And most of all, having to deal as a “dream architect” with the subconscious crap in one’s own mind that comes to the surface to sabotage one’s ability to get one’s creative work done.

All of this made INCEPTION a movie where I found myself getting both  a great story to watch and at the same time an enjoyable secret chat about the art of storytelling.

Feeding the Muse by Enjoying the Works of Other Artists

In the past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to see a live performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” by the Santa Fe Opera, as well as paintings by Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh.  Money was tight, so it was a  Youth Night dress rehearsal performance of “The Magic Flute” that I took my family to.  And the paintings were part of a traveling exhibit that had come to our town for the summer–I went on a Sunday when there’s free general admission to the museum so that I only had to pay for the special exhibit.

Even when money is tight, there are ways to get close to art without spending all the grocery money.  Keep an eye on the “Events” section of a community magazine or local paper–often these can be found at coffee shops and city community centers in the racks.

These days it’s hard for me to relax when reading or at “writer events” since I’ve gotten so serious about writing.  But there are many other wonderful art forms to enjoy and admire.   I’ve started paying attention to what exhibits, concerts, plays, and films are happening in town, and making an effort to find ones I can afford.

Making this effort to bring other arts back into my life has provided a source of inspiration and a buffer against despair.   To get close enough to see the brushstrokes of a Monet painting was exhilarating:  so much so I accidentally set off the silent alarm in the museum room by getting a little TOO close.  But I didn’t touch the painting or get close enough to breathe on it, and never would.  I should also point out there were no signs anywhere saying “Don’t get closer than 1 foot from the paintings.”

Oh, and I didn’t get in trouble with the security guards, just a lecture on the proper distance to maintain.

So keep an eye out for concerts, plays, art exhibits, musicals, operas, films, etc. that could be sources of inspiration.  There are times when it’s so enjoyable to just sit back and admire the work of other artists.