I do maybe 30% of my writing on a laptop from various locations: in front of the window, standing at the counter, on the porch with a cigar. The remainder I do in the second bedroom we've rigged as a den. The split system works for me; mobility shakes me up when necessary, but generally, what I need is a room with a door that closes and a window that looks out onto a brick wall.
As a fringe benefit, this means that most of my writing is done facing a proper desktop monitor. And like any proper monitor, I’ve covered it with scraps of paper.
I started this back when I was freelancing as a copywriter. Sometimes the work is about headlines and campaigns, but more often, especially when freelancing, the work is body copy, which is essentially the text inside the brochure. It’s considered less glamorous, but—no surprise—I always liked it, because done well, that’s the part that is really going to sell someone.
I don’t remember the specific project I was working on, but it was something lengthy and detailed, with lots of information that needed to be conveyed without boring the reader. And so I found I kept repeating one of my writing mantras to myself. It’s a line I go to all the time when trying to trying to craft an argument, formulate a tricky sentence, or organize my thoughts:
What are you trying to say?
Simplistic, I know, but it’s one of the all-time great clarifiers.
Find yourself bound up? What are you trying to say?
Can’t figure out which information you need to include? What are you trying to say?
Wondering how to structure an essay? Well, what are you…you get the point.
Anyway, I was repeating it aloud so much that I printed it out and taped it to my monitor, front and center, so that every time my eyes and attention drifted, I was reminded of a first principle.
As you can see, one thing led to another.
The quotes framing my monitor have been collected over years, and each had to grab me, shake me, and, most important, help me. Real estate is at a premium, so it's a zero-sum game; for a new ont to go up, an old one has to come down. Some are my ideas; some are from other people. But even after staring at them for years, I still find them helpful, so I thought I’d share them. If you're a writer, these are gold:
“The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build. My idea of hell is a blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to think of a single thing worth saying, a single character that people could believe in, a single story that hasn’t been told before.”
“There is a wall that I hit during the writing of every book. It’s usually around the halfway stage. I start to doubt the plot, the characters, the ideas underpinning it, my own writing, in fact every element involved in the process. Progress slows.
There is always the fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea here isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere, I’ve taken a wrong turn.”
“If you don’t feel that you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”
“There are very few mistakes in life that can’t be corrected if you got the guts.”
“I half commit myself to some distant future date. But most of the intervening period disappears in a kind of anxious state of walking about. You cannot start until you know what you want to do, and you do not know what you want to do until you start. Panic breaks that cycle. Finally a certain force in the accumulated material begins to form a pattern.”
“Get the story launched at full gallop. Introduce characters who are, if not completely likable, at least people with a core sense of integrity. Keep the plot complex enough so that there’s always a twist coming. Pay attention to your character’s emotional lives. Learn to introduce conflict in every chapter.”
“The best must never be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius, there is always craftsmanship.”
I've got three lines of my own up there, reminders of my own personal foibles:
“What are you trying to say?”
“You are hereby released from writing the perfect novel.”
“Terror is better than ennui.”
Oh, and there's also a cartoon of a naked woman drawn by my wife. That doesn’t really help with the writing, but does make me smile.
So what about you? Anything you’ve read or heard that helps with your own creative process? Anything taped to your monitor?