Tetris and the Process of Writing

I was taking a break from writing the other day, and I happened to run into my neighbors who were out walking their dog Fergus.

“How’s the writing going?” “What page are you on?” they asked.

I said I’d written about thirty-four pages since the last time we spoke. I was quick to add, “But page count isn’t very meaningful. It’s not like I’m reading a book and am on page 34.” Most people read from beginning to end, but almost no one writes that way.  Even a seat-of-the-pants writer still pens a rough draft, a second draft, etc. to produce a finished piece.

I told my neighbors that, for me, writing was more like watching a .gif downloading.

For those of us old enough to remember the early days of the Internet, bandwidth was limited and it used to take forever to download an image. But the.gif compression algorithm did something extremely clever. Instead of plotting one pixel at a time, which would have been boring, it gave you the whole image all at once, but in very coarse resolution.  then, is the download continued, the image sharpened into something crisp and well-defined.

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  Downloading a.gif  (portrait of Richard III)

The  early, highly pixelated image is like an outline or a general idea of where the story is going. The recognizable but  blurry image  in the middle is like a rough draft, and  the  high resolution image on the left is like a finished piece of writing.

But a few minutes after we’d  parted company, I realized I should have said that writing is like a game of Tetris.

In Tetris, brightly colored squares fall from the top of the screen  to the bottom. Colored squares descend from the top of the screen and fall toward the bottom,  from any random point on the upper margin.

If a story is linear and stretches across the screen from left to right, with the beginning on the left and the end on the right,  then in this model, scenes that are little more than ideas are the colored squares near the top of the screen, and finished scenes fall near the bottom.

As a writer, I tend to bop around a lot.  I write the scenes or vignettes I’m in the mood to write. At any given moment, I have a collection of scenes in varying degrees of completion.   The Midpoint might be a few bullets,  the Inciting Incident a paragraph  of synopsis,  and the Climax something that’s been three times and painstakingly polished.

How close a scene is to finished has nothing to do with its place in the story. So “What page are you on?” or even “What’s your word count?” ( Rough draft words?  Fluently polished words? Developmentally edited words? )  isn’t something I can answer with confidence.

Tetris-T-Spin Screenshot of Tetris game

Maybe “How many hours have you put into it?” would be easier to answer. I don’t necessarily know, but it’s a metric I understand.

Writing for Beginner Beginners

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 photo – skater Paolo Bacchini of Italy, European Figure Skating Championships in Sheffield, 2016

There are people who long to be writers, although they haven’t yet begun to write. (see “I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Writer, but I’ve never written anything”) I started thinking, suppose such a person landed on my doorstep? What would I do to help them?

There’s as much to know about writing is there is to know about engineering. People go to graduate school to study writing, and long after they leave school, they’re still honing their craft.

But what if you’re picking up a pen for the first time. What’s the least you need to know?

What Is A Story?  A story is a series of events (or insights, decisions, epiphanies) that result from a goal, a motivation to reach that goal, and obstacles that get in the way. In the end, the goal is reached (or not).

Where Do I Get Ideas?  All ideas come from somewhere. They don’t originate inside your  head. They pass through your head, but they come from somewhere else.  There’s a book called Fieldstones which tells you to build up the raw material you’ll need for your writing. Notice landscapes, pay attention to clouds and the ocean, eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, have interesting life experiences. It’s all grist for the writing mill.

Nor is there anything wrong with re-using an existing plot.  There are only so many plots out there, twenty according to one count ( boy meets girl, coming-of-age, escape, revenge, etc.) that it would be impossible not to repeat plots. Don’t even worry about it.

And characters? Most novels begin with the disclaimer, “This is a worth of fiction, the characters do not resemble any person living or dead.” As an author I can tell you, that is totally BS.

Finally, if you ever had worries that you’d use up all your good ideas in your first book and not have any left for the next one, most writers find that  the well doesn’t dry up, it starts to overflow.

Start Small  As a new writer, your first stories will probably be short, a couple of pages at most. That’s completely normal, the length of the story is closely associated with how long the writer has been writing.

Give Yourself Permission To Write Badly  As a new writer, your first stories will almost certainly be awkward or clumsy. Think of the first time you ever went ice skating. Pretty lame, right? But if you want to learn to skate, you have to fall, get up, fall again, and get up again. You wouldn’t go out on the ice for the very first time and expect to be good at it. Writing is the same. And unlike ice-skating, no one will see your first attempts unless you let them.

The way to become a good writer is to start out as a bad writer. There’s no other way, we’ve all been there. Writing is mostly skill, it gets better with practice.

Exercise Your Writing Muscle  If you write every day, writing gets easier and the quality of your writing gets better. There are two reasons for this.

First, if you do something regularly, it doesn’t take as long to get started. You know where your materials are, and your workspace hasn’t disappeared beneath ordinary household clutter. Also, when you write a lot, you think about it more when you’re not writing, and you get more ideas.

Second, there’s an inhibition about putting your private thoughts and feelings down on paper. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. When it’s done well, writing exposes your innermost self. Emotionally speaking, it’s like walking around naked. But if you do it all the time, you get used to it.

Writing is Hard Work   You may see books or articles that promise, “The secret of …” or “Writing made easy”, but even Hemingway said, “Sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

You can read a page in about a minute, but it might have taken a hundred times that long to write. (I recently got fan mail, “I really liked your book, I read it in just one day,” which I loved hearing, but I also thought, One day? Do you have any idea how long it took me to write it? Over a year!)

I find the experience of writing similar to the experience of reading, but slower and more intimate.  It’s like the difference between driving along a scenic route and walking. It takes longer and it’s more work, but you feel it more deeply.

Write What You Like  Stephen King said, “Write what you like to write about, even if it’s Teenage Zombies Ate My Brain.” His point was, when you’re writing about something you really enjoy, you’re doing your best work. I like to write fanfiction. My writing friends say, “You are such a good writer, you don’t need to be writing this schlock,” to which I say (middle finger extended). When I’m writing about ringwraiths, I’m having a seriously good time.

Keep Writing  If it seems like you’ve hit a rough patch, keep writing. If you think you aren’t any good, keep writing. If someone important to you says they hate your story and you should be prevented from ever writing anything again, keep writing. The only way to learn to write is by writing, and the only way to become good is to write a lot.

I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Writer (but I’ve never written anything)

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Why do people want to be writers, when they’ve never written anything?

A friend attended a writing workshop at the local library recently . The room was packed. The speaker asked, “Who here is writing?” Six or eight hands went up. “Who here has never written?”  A hundred hands went up.

It’s said that eighty percent of all adults want to be writers, which is sort of  surprising. You never hear people say, “I’ve always wanted to be an accountant” or “I’ve always wanted to trade bonds”  (unless that’s what they’re currently doing.)

I run a writing group, and I noticed this same pattern. Most people who apply to the group  have never written anything.

“I want to begin a book… possibly.”

“I have a great story idea and I’m seeking a co-author to write it.”

“My goal is to just start writing.”

“I want to finish the book I’ve barely started.”

“I would like to start a blog and eventually write a novel.”

“I want to create concrete plots and characters, and actually put ideas on paper.”

“I need to stop procrastinating and start writing something.”

I’m not unsympathetic, but why would someone want to be a writer if they don’t write? I wouldn’t want to be a computer programmer if I didn’t code, and you never hear people saying, “I’ve always wanted to be an accountant” or “I’ve always wanted to trade bonds” (unless that’s what they’re already doing.)

I expect it’s not about money. While aspiring authors will say, “I want to write a bestseller and make a million dollars”, writing is one of the worst paid professions out there. In the words of a seller on the eBay message boards, “I’m making less than minimum wage. If I wanted to make real money, I’d go to Honduras and pick fruit.”

My daughter Rachel nailed it – The desire to write is about immortality. It’s not about the million dollars, it’s about writing a bestseller and having other people care about what you had to say.

There are few ways to live on after we’re gone, other than by having children. Our best shot at immortality through things we make lies in the creative professions: artist, photographer, writer, poet, inventor, scientist.

Writing is different from inventions  or scientific discoveries  or photography in that much of the writer’s thoughts and personality becomes a part of writing. Even art, which is highly personal, doesn’t capture the artist’s thoughts to the same degree that writing does.

Whether we’re writers or not, we want to write because it can make us immortal.

 

 

Anglo Saxon vs. Latin Words

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To write simply, choose words of Anglo-Saxon origin over words with Latin or Greek roots. Anglo-Saxon words are usually shorter, and they tend to be specific and body-centered, where Latin and Greek words, as we use them, tend to be abstract and mind-centered.

As a writer, this helps you achieve two things. First, your prose will be easier to read because the words are shorter and more widely used. Second, the specific, body-related words reach your reader’s emotions more directly. It’s like a form of Deep POV based on word usage itself.

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There are more Latin and Greek words in our language than Anglo-Saxon words, so again, you might have to look harder for a simple word than a long one.

Do You Have Stories In Your Head?

If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”  Lord Byron

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Writers are more similar than different, no matter what their type. One thing we all seem to have in common is that all of us have stories in our heads.

Example – Downton Abbey

The day after Downton Abbey aired the episode in which Mr. Green assaulted Anna, the lady’s maid, I got a note from my sister, “Write a fanfic about Downton Abbey.”

“That’s not my fandom,” I wrote back, but then it occurred to me, I could just jot down the story that had been in my head when I woke up that morning. I penned a short scene, about three pages in length, and sent it to her. (published as “A Police Matter” on www.fanfiction.net.)

“You have stories in your head?” She sounded surprised.

“You don’t?” I asked, equally surprised.

I could remember being about two years old, standing in my crib and composing stories about animals.

“Don’t you ever give a movie a different ending or fill in the gaps for a TV show?” No, she didn’t.

I asked my other sister. She also said no. That wasn’t what I expect to hear. Both sisters are creative. One had gone to art school, and the other took creative writing classes. I asked my dad if he had stories in his head, and he said yes. That made sense, when we were small, he told fantastical stories about our future selves having fabulous adventures in an imaginary jungle. There was one in which we escaped from a gigantic python by feeding it the rotten food from our backpacks. All three of my children,  elementary school students, have stories in their heads. My young daughter writes hers in a composition notebook. I was so proud! Until I read her stories and realized she’s killed more people than Cecil B. DeMille. 

I asked people at work if they had stories in their heads. It didn’t have to be anything sophisticated, just a daydream about a character in a book or how a show should have ended differently. Some did and some didn’t, in equal numbers. But when I asked people in my writing group, like Eleanor’s shark teeth, they all had stories in their heads.