Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Where and When to Write

The next topic I want to address in my "How to Write Fast" class is the issue of setting. Not the setting of your story, the setting of yourself in a time and place that are conducive to productivity.

Let me first get the disclaimer out of the way: There's no wrong time or place to write. If you have the power of focus that allows you to sit in a room with the television on and twitter streaming in a window on your computer while you're listening to the Dresden Dolls at full blast on headphones, well, more power to you. I also recognize that some people go to coffee shops to write in public while sipping expensive beverages and actually manage to crank out work. That's great, but, at the risk of offending those of you who actually do this, I suspect the yearning to write in public is an artifact of beginning authors seeking validation. Since so few people read your work, the temptation is to write in public so that other will witness it and say, "Wow, there's a writer!" At least, I know that was my motivation twenty years ago, when I used to lug my laptop to coffee shops. (And I mean lug. My first laptop weighed thirty pounds. Most of that was due to a battery the size of a shoe box that could power the device for upwards of twenty minutes. State of the art!)

But, my own experience is that I need a certain amount of silence to write. It's not always easy to hear the voices in my head, and a television playing in another room can be enough to pull my thoughts away. I currently write in a home office where I can sit upright at a desk and work on a full sized keyboard on a large, high quality monitor. It's nice that I can close the door and keep the cats out and feel a bit more focused. But, I've only used the office for writing my last book, Witchbreaker. Before this, I wrote mainly sitting in bed with my laptop balanced on books. I still use a pretty large laptop. For me, it's essential that I use close to a full sized key board, since I've got big hands.

I write more during the day than in the evenings, but this hasn't always been the case. I used to be the king of late night sessions, starting writing at 10 at night and going until 4 or 5 in the morning. The key reason I would write during those hours was that anyone else in the house would be asleep. I was also more able to get by on two or three hours of sleep when I was in my thirties. Now, I fade pretty quickly as the witching hour approaches.

These day I have a schedule that gets me home from work almost two hours before my wife gets home. That means that, if I'm disciplined, I can count on a full hour of productivity. My wife can testify that I'm also the king of turning "I'll wrap up in five more minutes" into three more hours of typing. When I'm "hot," and the words are flowing, I'm a big believer in getting as much on the page as possible while I'm inspired.

But, of course, I'm not always inspired. I would go so far as to say that I'm frequently not inspired when I sit down to write. My inspiration always comes when I can't make use of it, like when I'm in the shower or driving to work.

Luckily, there are three phases to writing, thinking, drafting, and rewriting. For drafting and rewriting, I have to have butt in chair. There are no short cuts or gimmicks that eliminate the reality that, if you want to write a lot of words, you have to sit and type a lot of hours.

Of course, you're probably so busy that you're questioning where those lots of hours are going to come from. The answer is that you have to make them. My schedule isn't an accident; I don't like getting up at 5:30 in the morning to get to work so that I can leave work earlier in the day than my wife does, but I negotiated working that schedule specifically to make sure I'd have some time with just me in the house. The other big pool of hours that a lot of people have that they are reluctant to let go of is their entertainment time. You probably wouldn't want to be a writer if you weren't an avid consumer of stories, in books, movies, television, even video games. I used to be an avid collector of comic books. I brought home a stack of about twenty books every Wednesday and spent all evening reading them. I quit cold turkey several years ago and have no regrets. I used to play a lot of video games. I'm kind of a computer geek; I enjoyed the stimulation and immersion you would get from a well designed fantasy role playing computer game. But, these games would eat up hours of time, so they had to go. I got rid of my TV at one point for the better part of a decade, and though I have one now I perversely stay away from shows I'm certain I would enjoy. When Heroes was on the air, friends kept telling me I'd love the show. I'm sure they were right! I'd also enjoy the new Dr. Who, Dexter, and the tv version of This American Life. The safest way of keeping myself from getting hooked and spending the twenty two hours it takes for a series to unfold is just never to watch a single episode. If you watch three hour-long dramas a week, over a season that's 66 hours that you could have been writing. If you can write 1000 words an hour, that's a respectable-sized novel.

Everyone's life is different, but, in my humble opinion, I think that if you're serious about writing, the minimum time you can devote to it in a week would be five hours. I manage to claw and scrape my way to ten hours usually, and when I start my next book in November, my goal is to shoot for fifteen.

Whoever, keep in mind that this is just the "butt in chair" part of writing. For every hour of writing I do, I probably spend at least two or three hours thinking about what I need to write. Luckily, this is what those inspired moments while you're driving or mowing the grass are for. When I drive to work, I normally listen to the radio. But, if I'm working on a new book, I usually drive with my radio off so I can be alone with my thoughts. My mind also is excellent at thinking up new aspects of a story while I'm in the shower. Basically, any activity that has my body doing a routine chore leaves my mind free to wander. Daydreaming is a key component of creativity, and boredom is highly fertile soil for daydreaming.

How do you capture these daydreams and turn them into stories? I've tried a lot of different things with mixed results. For driving, I've tried using voice recorders to make notes, but I find that tinkering with the recorder distracts me and throws me out of my imagination zone. I have used 3x5 notecards in the past to great effect; I would even (foolishly) write notes on a stack of cards I kept on my dashboard as I was driving. I kept notecards in my bathroom, and would lean out of my shower sopping wet to jot down cryptic thoughts like "radioactive Jerusalem," or "cyanide would solve this problem." I sometime stumble across one of these old stacks of cards and wonder what the hell I was possibly thinking at the time.

These days, I have two methods I use for recording my ideas. The first is that I normally travel with a notebook or legal pad. When we're going someplace, my wife usually drives and I often jot down things like a list of scenes I still need to write, or factual details I need to investigate. And then... I almost never read these notes again. By the time I'm back at the computer, I've usually figured my story out enough that I can just start typing and let the story go where it goes. All those hours I spent daydreaming about the story aren't wasted, they just fade in my mind and emerge when needed while I'm working. I feel like there's a Darwinian struggle for survival when I trust my ideas mostly to memory. The weaker ideas gets forgotten, while the stronger ones survive.

Twenty hours of daydreaming to produce ten hours of writing seems like a lot of time to carve out of a hectic life. And, it is! But, the daydreaming can take place while you're doing other stuff. Again, just ask Cheryl how far she's gotten into conversations about, I dunno, groceries before she realized that my brain is in story land. I can't count the number of times when a waitress has practically had to bang the table with her fist just to get me to realize she's asked me if I want more tea. My coworkers know that if I'm not making eye contact and actively acknowledging them, I'm just not listening. Would I like to be a little more engaged with my immediate surroundings? Sure. It's kind of scary when I sometimes realize that I've just driven an hour to my mother's house and have no memories at all of the journey because I've been letting my mind wander. I don't necessarily like that people I don't know might think I'm aloof and/or scatterbrained.

But, there's no way around it. If you want to write fiction, you have to daydream, or you won't have anything to write when you sit down. When and where do you daydream? Everywhere and every moment you can possibly get away with it. If your brain is properly stuffed with daydreams, you escape the trap of needing inspiration to write. Even if you aren't necessarily excited about it, you do have ideas in mind about where the story has to go next, and you can just plug away. The amazing thing is, the sessions when you just sit and slog out sentence after sentence to try to get a scene onto paper so you can move on to a part of the story you're more interested in very frequently turn into your best scenes. And even if what you write while you're not inspired is a dud, don't despair! Writing stuff the wrong way is just the beginning of the journey. Real magic can happen in the rewriting.

Coming up: What to write fast, leading into how to write fast!

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