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How to Write Even When You’re Not Writing

July 5, 2012 by Kiersi


The word “writer” is sometimes frustrating because writing a book involves so much more than the simple act of immortalizing letters in an organized fashion. There’s a huge measure of planning, strategy, and eraser-chewing that goes into it, too. Imagine many thousands of tiny, broken-off pieces of that hard rubber that seems to leave more of a black smear on the page than actually erase anything–and that’s a fraction of what later becomes a novel. Life experiences; character observations; setting and style and dialogue research. Sometimes you just have to turn something over and over enough times in your head that you eventually stumble across the solution. It takes talking over with a friend, and occasionally just a good night’s sleep.

I sit down at the keyboard and pound on them like an angry chimp maybe, hmm, three hours out of every day. But how many hours do I actually spend working each day?

Sitting in a car with some friends, I quizzed them about superhero tropes. “What does every superhero have in common?” I’ve been playing with different possible origin stories for a superhero character that sidesteps boring clichés. I want to give him a history that’s both creative and caricatured, so it feels familiar, but pointedly sarcastic and funny. I really liked that about Soon I Will Be Invincible, a novel that’s both clever and original in its method of poking fun at Marvel and DC.

When I think of a real alpha-male superhero, wealthy, brilliant playboys like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark come to mind. Naturally, I was surprised when my friend answered my question about origin stories with, “They’re all average joes that just have something extraordinary happen to them. Radioactive spiders. Radioactive exposure in general.”

I guess I’d just been so tied up in the origin story I’d unintentionally written for my superhero character that I hadn’t thought he could be an average joe. I suppose because arrogance has already become an essential flaw in his character–and to be an arrogant superhero, he needed to start out as an arrogant man. And what kind of man is more arrogant than a rich man?

A new layer was added to the set of possible origin stories and with it, possible solutions to other plot problems or voids.

Have you ever been right on the edge of sleep when that idea you’ve been examining from every side finally becomes clear? I don’t even realize I’m doing it–every moment my brain isn’t working on a task like “play videogame” or “make food,” I’m working on concepts or brainstorming possibilities. Of course the best thinking is done when the world is dark and quiet and so much less distracting, and I find myself snatching my phone off the bedside table and quietly keying in a note on the memo pad (that will, in the morning at a set time, be emailed to me automatically so I can follow up on it).

So when someone asks, “How many hours a day do you actually work?” (as if a little skeptical that I actually do work, that “writer” is somehow a euphemism for “unemployed”) I wonder how to answer. It’s really not three hours a day, or even ten when I’m working off a solid outline–but all the time, even in the midst of eating, or traveling, or sleeping. Sometimes a dream can give me a story and characters in full flesh and detail that would otherwise take days to imagine and construct. Other times, going out with a friend during a slump can reveal a setting or experience that makes it into the eventual novel.

That’s probably the thing I love the most about this job: how being a writer takes over your life, always lingering at the edge of your thoughts, casually observing. Even on vacations I get to feel productive.

Who else gets to say that besides, like, politicians?


8 Comments »

  1. I couldn’t agree more. My writer brain is always working. Everything is potential material for a story. I love that. I think I have the best job there is, and I consider myself fortunate because not many people love their jobs.

  2. Brenda says:

    I am with Kelly on this one, my mind is always in that zone, and everything and everyone is potential fodder for a story or a poem. I would love not to have a day job and write more than I do, but for the time being I am a multi-tasker. My family (and I owe them much) never complains that I take my MAC on holidays. Even if i am not posting or working on the WIP, I’m writing something for sometime. Good post, I like the way your mind works.

    • Kiersi says:

      Yep, same here. I took my laptop BACKPACKING with me once.. my boyfriend had to carry a bunch of extra heavy stuff so I could fit it into my bag. Every night I’d pull it out and use just a little of the battery to write down what I’d been thinking about during the day’s hike.

      We writers are a strange breed, huh Brenda?

  3. Steve says:

    I feel so used…

  4. Jim Snell says:

    I think you’re missing part of it. The sub-conscious part. Because, like some sub-routine always running in the background on a computer, if I’m working on a story there’s always something going on there in the sub-conscious part of the brain. That’s why it pops up just when you’re on the edge of sleep … just when you finally drop the wall between the conscious and sub-conscious. (Or, for me, at other weird times like when I’m running or when I’m in the shower – usually at times when there’s no way I can write anything down.)

    One of my writing mentors mostly did long magazine articles (although he wrote a number of non-fiction books too). When he wrote them, he would write for 2 hours and sleep for 2 hours – just to keep close to his sub-conscious, because he thought that’s where he got his best ideas and it helped keep his writing fresh.

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