Monday, January 23, 2012

A Writer’s Guide to Surviving the Internet

Though I don't know him overly well personally, I could tell you a lot of things about Scott Fitzgerald Gray, such as his work with Wizards of the Coast and other interesting details, but what is important to me is Scott is a damn good writer. Really. I'm not just saying that because he and I are members of the Monumental Works Group. I've only read a handful of Scott's fantasy writing, but honestly, it is some of the best new literature I've read in the last few years.

Recently Scott and I were passing messages back and forth online, and he showed interest in my blog series on 100 Sites for Fiction Writers, hinting that he would like to add a little to the series. What follows is just that, Scott's "A Writer's Guide to Surviving the Internet." Every writer, especially fiction writers, need to read this.

A Writer’s Guide to Surviving the Internet

I got my first high-speed internet access when I upgraded from dial-up (ask your parents) back in about 1994. And while I’d love to be able to say that I immediately noticed a huge upturn in my productivity as a result of instant access to resources, references, and current events, the reality is that I wasn’t keeping track of my productivity because I was spending every waking hour on Yahoo (ask your parents), deoxy.org, and the Internet Movie Database.

The World Wide Web is both a blessing and a curse for the working writer. It offers up a wealth of resources for research, inspiration, and communication — but at the same time, the critical mass of those resources constantly eclipses the number of free hours in which we can take advantage of them. In years gone by, you’d have to be a specifically serious type of academic wonk to do so much writing research that you never had time to actually do any writing. These days, you can accidentally click on a link to tvtropes.org or start checking out the comments at the Passive Voice blog, and the next thing you know, your family hasn’t seen you in so long that they’ve had you declared legally dead.

Presented here are a few tips that have served me well at the times when I’ve felt my internet habit getting the upper hand on my writing habit. Some are technical, sort of; some are philosophical. All reflect the fact that for better or worse, the internet has changed the way we function as writers, and that understanding the best and worst parts of those changes is the only way to make sure our writing doesn’t suffer as a result.

Steal This WiFI

I’m a big believer in the idea that changing up one’s work environment can be a huge boon to creativity and productivity. In a general sense, if you usually work on computer and find yourself getting jammed up on a particular piece of story, switch the computer off and try writing longhand for twenty minutes. If you normally write straight through in a methodical line of ideas and words, try jumping around to write the next bit of the story before you write the previous bit. There are lots of obvious examples of this kind of approach.

With regards to using the internet effectively, my first rule is not to be afraid to shut it off once in a while.

Putting up a clear line between your writing time and your internet time saves you from the time-sink of gear-shift multitasking, wherein switching from one mode to another, then back, ad infinitum destroys whatever momentum you manage to build up in either stream.

The Beneficence of Brackets

One of the most pernicious distractions that any writer can face while working is the sudden urge for research. No matter what you’re working on, no matter how well it’s going, there comes a point in the story or the article when whatever you’re writing suddenly locks all four wheels up and turns into a sudden, unassailable need to go and look something up. The correct synonym for that word you just typed that you’re suddenly not happy with. The capital of Ecuador. The latest reviews on the book you read last month that the bit you were just working suddenly reminded you of for some reason. Whatever happened to that writer you read in high school and loved but had totally forgotten about until right now?

Research in and of itself is a good thing. However, when the urge to look stuff up interrupts the writing, it does so to the writing’s peril and detriment. My solution is brackets — [ and ], dropped into the text to highlight and flag something you’re not going to worry about now because you know you can look it up later. No matter what it is, no matter how important it seems, don’t let the urge to check something sidetrack the writing. I occasionally put entire plot twists and whole monologues into brackets with epistolary exercises like “[At some point, check what kind of ammunition my Glaswegian fishmonger protagonist would be using as he pulls the gun on his podiatrist, then figure out the most appropriate native-language insult as he does.]” (I haven’t personally visited the website that would answer both those questions, but I’m sure it’s out there.)

Downsize

Switching from a desktop machine to a laptop or tablet is another effective curb to casual web-surfing cutting into your creative time. The smaller the screen, the less chance you have to fill it with so much internet that you don’t know where to start reading first. My desktop setup features twin slabs of 21.5-inch LCD goodness, which are a glorious boon for writing and editing. However, their bright and shiny expanses of open window space can incite dangerous levels of distraction in my internet, as the number of Safari tabs opened and waiting with links-that-I’ll-get-to-just-as-soon-as-I’ve-looked-at-this-other-thing-first pushes toward triple digits.

Much of the time these days, my preferred mode for reading blogs and news is my iPad or my iPod Touch. Using the more limited OS forces me to focus on reading one thing at a time, like we all used to do with books (ask your parents). You can open multiple windows in most tablet and PDA/smartphone browsers. However, doing so is a pain in the ass, and writers are nothing if not extremely sensitive to negative reinforcement.

Get Connected

The explosion of writers’ personal websites and blogs over the last few years is a seismic event in the world of writing. Like all seismic events, it promises to forever change the very foundations of what it means to be a writer. This is because writing is, by its most essential nature, a solitary discipline. Whether you’re the serious artiste type staring forlornly out the window of your garret bedroom all hours of the day, or the writing-in-your-spare-moments type stealing creative time in small doses between the needs of kids, spouse, and the need to earn real income, our moments of writing are typically about shutting out the real world. Once upon a time, this process of self-imposed isolation meant that being able to talk to anyone else about writing required specialized equipment such as “writers’ conferences,” “book clubs,” or “seedy bars.” But these days, your ability to pull up a chair and listen to the discourse of any number of others like you is one Google search and a half-dozen clicks away.

Get Personal

As you engage in the virtual world of other writers and their lives as they share them online, don’t just be a passive observer of those lives and the insights they inspire. Being able to sit at your leisure at the virtual feet of other writers and partake of their experience and insight is a paradigm shift of the highest order. Being able to then respond to or comment on those other writers’ thoughts and philosophies is the paradigm shift folded in on itself, like some kind of Möbius-strip origami.

Commenting is all but ubiquitous on blogs, so take advantage of the opportunity to tell an established writer “Thanks for taking the time to share with me.” Tell a struggling writer “I know where you’re at right now because I’ve been there as well.” On blogs that invite it, feel free to debate and discuss positions counter to the opinions presented. However, be wary of letting any discussion get overly strained, tangential, or fueled by the despair so often inherent in our chosen profession (cf. “seedy bars,” above).

Listen To Yourself

Once you start getting comfortable becoming part of the larger professional and creative discourse that the world of writers’ sites and blogs represents, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of commenting just for the sake of commenting. In a conversation with actual people, we retain the resonance of what we say. However, the internet is a hundred different conversations all running at once, so work to maximize your retention of what’s being said at your end.

When you post comments to a blog or forum, keep a copy of those comments. Set up a kitchen-sink Word doc into which all your quick thoughts and responses, your reasoned treatises and deft analyses are cut-and-pasted as you write them, no matter how seemingly mundane. Don’t worry about where they were posted. Don’t copy the original information you’re responding to. Don’t even make notes about the context of what’s been said. Just keep a growing record of what you say so that every once in a while, you can read back through it.

Sometimes the most offhand comment can become fodder for a blog post of your own when you give it a quick once-over with fresh eyes. Sometimes you’ll see trends in a succession of posts that tell you things about where you are in your writing — things you’re worried about; things you’re hoping to achieve. Breaking the conversation out as our interaction with the blogosphere does, we sometimes need reminders of what we were thinking.

Get Both Sides of the Story

Tacked up on the wall of my office, I have a quote that speaks to me on many levels as a struggling creative type:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” — Goethe

I think that’s an amazing statement on the art and craft of writing, which so often gets tripped up by the fear of beginnings that we never let ourselves get around to the middles and endings. It’s a homily that I’ve taken to heart for almost a decade now, and which I’ve passed on regularly to people who I think might also be inspired by it.

Only one problem — it’s not by Goethe. In fact, it’s not really a quotation at all, insofar as it appears to have originated as a second-hand misquotation that became a quotation that left both its originators behind (details here if you’re interested: http://german.about.com/library/blgermyth12.htm). But for many years, I thought it was Goethe and I quoted it back because the internet told me it was so. I tripped across that quote on the web circa 2001. I have no idea where it was found or why I was there, but a quick Google search tonight shows it out there on the web a total of 248,000 times, all of them wrong.

The moral? On the internet, never take anybody’s word for anything.

If you’re a self-publishing indie writer, you absolutely should be reading the blogs of new-world-of-publishing proponents like Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, Joe Konrath, and the like. However, you should also be reading the blogs of people like John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig, who see advantages and pitfalls for the writer’s life on both sides of the self-/traditional-publishing divide. You should be reading the blogs and forums of the traditional publishing companies active in your chosen genres. You should be checking out Publisher’s Weekly and other hardcore pro-industry, anti-indie sites. You should be reading the most hardcore, virulent, death-to-indie/publishers-and-agents-are-gods bloggers you can find, their ink-stained fingers posting to WordPress straight from an IBM Selectric in some mysterious way. Because as a self-publishing writer, you’re committed to staying abreast of and understanding what people are saying on all sides of the turbulent and fast-changing industry that all writers are a part of.

If a blogger you like says something inspiring, that’s great — but read the comments on that blog and actively seek out people whose opinions run a hundred and eighty degrees opposite. Read those opinions. Listen to them. Disagree with them in order to put your own beliefs into sharper focus. Because the problem with only reading people you agree with is that you lose the ability to think critically, to weigh measured points pro and con, and to argue effectively about what you believe in. As writers, none of us should be afraid of digging beneath the surface of easy belief.

2 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Good advice. I try to live up to these things and mostly succeed. On ocassion...not. I use the bracket concept a lot in my own writing, although I ususlly just put in 3 question marks so I can easily search for them later.

Lyn Perry said...

Thanks for sharing these tips.