Thoughts on Writing

In November of 2020, I forget which day exactly, but I read a post on HackerNews that talked about reaching your goals. This is pretty plain fare for HackerNews, it seems like every week you’ll find a post about how to better yourself, increase your memory, learn faster, sometimes even type faster. This particular post was talking about how to break out of linear progression to achieve exponential progression. The jist of what it was saying was that you should imagine something you want to do, but don’t stop there. You have to imagine an endpoint that’s so far out that you have no idea how to get there. That, at least to the author of the article, is how you get true exponential progression.

A stray thought, a traitorous little neuron immediately imagined my name on the list of NYT bestsellers. It felt like it came out of nowhere, but really, I’d been hurtling toward this moment for years, the same way Aron Ralston had been hurtling toward his rock all his life. I remember getting into The Sims series of games, and at a certain point I attempted to recreate myself to play, a perfect version of myself. Now, I always lept for the arduous process of attaining infinite life through horticulture, cooking, and fishing, but that’s a personal problem best left tackled for another day. While waiting for those three skills to achieve immortal heights, I went into the author profession. It’s really a wonderful little game, full of tiny little tidbits that’ll make you chuckle. As you finish books, you get to name them, and the pre-generated names are a hoot, things like Game of Thorns. As you write more and more, your books get to be higher and higher quality, raking in more money through royalties, and you build up a nice little backcatalogue that’ll keep you fed and watered for years.

I watched my little digital Alec write flop after flop, then a sleeper hit, then a series of bestsellers, and looking at that binary me, I felt very happy. I’d wanted to write for a long time, but I was always my own worst enemy. The first time I tried writing seriously was during the 2009 NaNoWriMo, where I wrote a quarter of a book about a college student (very familiar) who walks across the country to reunite with his lost love in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. I won’t apologize for loving zombie movies, and I won’t apologize for loving road trips, so I guess there isn’t a whole lot to apologize about this failed attempt, is there? I’m not sure if a copy still exists of this unfinished book, and even though I try to tell myself not to be embarassed, I can’t help but feel like that’s for the best.

A few years passed, I graduated from college, and in 2012, after watching Les Miserables, I wrote a short story about a world in which spontaneous musicals are a regular and televised occurrence, and how even then there are those who slip through society’s safety net. I wrote another story about a man taking a short walk in a post-scarcity Scandanavian utopia, where nothing much happens besides him coming home to a 3d printed pizza. I’m putting that setting away in my little pocket for a mystery novel.

In 2018, after reading part of a particularly scary webnovel called Pact, I came up with the idea for a story set at a small tech company, where people discover that several employees have disappeared, along with all memory of them. But writing eluded me, I just knew I would be no good at it, so I set about to code it up. The experience ended up being a lite recreation of Slack’s chat interface, with hardcoded messages detailing the company’s descent into oblivion. But it got the job done, the job, of course, being to express a minimal amount of storytelling with a maximal amount of other effort in order to trick myself into thinking I wasn’t writing.

Then the Coronavirus pandemic hit, and I got into the hobby of video editing. For a couple months I produced video essays on my favorite movies, which I’m still very proud of. But of course, this was also thinly veiled writing, a couple of days of script work was buried under a week of video editing.

That brings us to November 2020, video editing wasn’t giving me what I was looking for, I didn’t even know what it was that I was looking for, and I read that article and the vision popped up, completely unbidden. Maybe I was half crazy by then with cabin fever, maybe just good old Shia LeBouf’s words were fueling me, but for whatever reason I went and got a certain book.

For years I’d known that Stephen King had written a book about writing, I even tried reading it when I was living in California, but it didn’t hit home then. I don’t think I was ready for it, I still had too much holding me back. But this time I did get it, and I read through the whole thing in a couple of days. Is On Writing a book full of wonderful practical writing advice? Sure, there’s some of that in there, some really good advice, but that isn’t what it’s really about. Half memoir, half reflection of the craft, Stephen King paints a wonderful picture of his life and the career he’s chosen. Most of all, and I quote: the rest of it, and the best of it, is a permission slip. He makes writing feel so possible, so achievable, if you want it, like those walls that had been reduced to so much hanging crepe paper through the years didn’t have to be up at all. His book was the reason I started writing.

So, as per the advice in the book, I sat down and wrote 1000 words one morning. The next day I wrote 1000 words in the afternoon, that was harder. I decided to write in the morning, when my juice was full up and my energy was the highest. For a month I wrote 1000 words a day, and at the end of it I had the novelization of the game Erased, also called Erased.

To be honest, I was scared and stressed out about the length of the book. Clocking in at just over 30,000 words, it was firmly in novella territory, unpublishable by most standards. I spent a lot of time looking up online if it was possible at all to publish the book. I wanted to write it for me, but I also wanted to write it to be read. I suppose I want it to be read so badly that eventually I would hand it out on streetcorners for free if it would get eyes on it. As Neil says in 56 up: It’s not meant to be a sort of masturbation, of which no one knows anything about.

I got to a point that I was considering the possibility, after going through the draft and feedback process, of self-publishing it. I remembered that Andy Weir had published The Martian on his website for free before it got picked up as a book, and then was optioned as a film directed by, gasp, Ridley Scott! One day, if I can, I’d like good old Ewan McGregor to play a main character in a movie adaptation of one of my books.

However, in addition to Andy Weir, I also remembered another author, Hugh Howey. Years ago I’d read the Wool Omnibus, a series of stories about people who lived in giant underground silos, the last remnants of the human race under a toxic miasma. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that he’d self published the Wool series, but it wasn’t until after going to his site and reading his blog that I found out he’s one of the biggest proponents of self publishing over traditional publishing. Not as a nice fallback if you can’t get an agent, he really seems to think that you’d be better served by going it at your own. And after reading his articles, I’m not so sure that’s a bad idea, it certainly provides a way for me to get my more unpublishable projects out there before I’m famous enough to release collections of short stories like King.

After I finished Erased, I set back for the six week wait that King recommends before revisiting for a second draft and started typing out 2000 words a day. It goes like this: wake up two hours earlier than I ever did before, go downstairs with my kitty and make coffee, come back up with said kitty and coffee, close all the windows in the guest bedroom with the desk, put on a rain soundtrack and sit for about an hour and a half until I’ve got at least 2000 new words in whatever document I’m working on at the time.

I call it the train, like the Quad City DJ’s, it’s the list of books that are in various states of progress. When I finish a book’s first draft, it goes on the train, and it doesn’t come off until it gets published. So far, nothing’s been published, the train is still loading up, and there’s no telling how long the train will take to come into the station. But, like a train, once it shows up, it keeps coming on. I estimate, unless I’m mistaken, that I’ll be publishing somewhere along the lines of 1000 words a day once the train comes into the station. Whether that takes the form of 3 100,000 word books, or some other constellation of smaller pieces, I won’t know until they get added to the caboose.

I used to be pretty concerned with how many words I was writing. 2000 a day felt right, but I worried that it wasn’t right. 1000 words a day felt right too until I took King’s advice and upped it to 2000. There’s a lot of advice on the internet for how to up your output to 5000, 10000 words a day, but was that right for me? In other words, did I have enough juice? Now, this juice is a funny point, I used to think what I meant by it was my creative energy, my stamina if you will, and I still think it means that a little bit. I mean, you can’t write anything if you don’t have the energy, right? But now I think it means something else. In On Writing, Stephen King refers to writing a story like digging up a fossil. If you mark out plot points, antagonists, relationship diagrams, that’s like using a backhoe to dig up the fossil. Sure, you’ll get it up, but you’ll destroy as much as you unearth, which I think would have been fine for good old Andrew Carnegie. But it wasn’t fine for Stephen King, and it’s not fine for me either. The act of writing the book, just writing it, one word at a time, is like digging up the fossil with a dental pick. It takes forever, you have no idea what’s coming up, but you’re getting it, by God you’re getting all of it. That way of writing, one word at a time, feels a lot like what the Jungians call automatic writing, just writing what comes up, putting down what you see play out in your mind’s eye. The faster the better, King doesn’t write in longhand because it takes too long to put the words down on paper, the scene has already moved on. If I could get more of the story down a day, wouldn’t that be better?

The problem with looking things up piecemeal online is that you can never remember what quotes are from who, and what they said. At one point, when beating this question with a dead horse, I found a quote by some famous author, but I couldn’t tell you who it is now. The point was this: you only write so much a day because during the rest of the day, your mind is unconsciously preparing for the rest, filling in points that’ll be revealed to you in time. This prep work, accomplished without your knowing, is essential to the cohesive narrative. It’s not conscious planning, which, if you remember, is like using a backhoe, but more like taking a walk around the neighborhood to mull a problem over in your mind. King only writes in the morning, and after he got hit with a car, into the early afternoon. The rest of the day is for correspondence and relaxation, and if I’m right, that’s when the stories really get written, but not yet on paper.

So I don’t write any more than 2000 words a day, I’m afraid of running away with the story too fast, having it fly out from under me like an open throttle crotch rocket, or with my coordination, a skateboard. I write, I do my job, then I live my life, sleep, and repeat the next day. It’s a good life, and I can’t remember ever feeling this fulfilled. In a few months, after a round of critique and further edits, I’m sure my first book will come out. It probably won’t be a NYT bestseller, won’t be on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, but then my next one will come out, and the next one, and I’ll find my writer’s voice and eventually I’m sure I will crack that list. Maybe some would call that optimism, but I call it persistence.