The problem of collaboration

On the Fourth of July, I wrote a blog post celebrating the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Most of what I was writing about was how collaboration is good for the writing process. Today’s post is about how collaboration is bad for the writing process.

Collaboration is a huge buzzword in the field of business management. The Harvard Business Review says that the time business leaders have devoted to collaborative activities has increased by 50% over the last two decades. And over that time, the collaborative process has taken its toll on overall productivity. As the focus shifted, only a few key players were involved and every project would have to wait for them to weigh in, creating a bottleneck. As well, these players soon became overtaxed as they were unable to do their specific duties because of time spent on other projects.

Now, what does that mean for a writer? How would a writer find themselves in a situation where they’re focusing too much on outside input?

How do writers collaborate?

First, writing is a mostly solitary task. While that “second set of eyes” is critical to the revision process, it’s not always needed in the initial stages. While many TV shows involve teams of writers even in the breaking of a story, that’s not necessary for the novelist or screenwriter. TV shows have to use large teams because they had to produce 24 hours of content every season, you do not.

As well, many episodic shows don’t rely on teams for breaking stories because they don’t need to, each episode stands alone. Even with exams, at some point, one writer has to sit down and write the whole thing out, without relying on anyone else. They would then bring their finished script for other people to go over. That’s the best way to look at collaboration.

When coming up with a new idea, keep it to yourself as much as possible. Let our conscious and subconscious mind think about it for a while and then start trying to break it. Get as far as you can before you go online or ask for help, at least on your first attempt. If you’re struggling it’s okay to ask for help, but not too quickly. The answer will usually appear if you’re patient. Asking for too much input is one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make. When you’re first creating your story, if you spend all of your time and energy looking for outside help, it hurts you in two ways.

When to not collaborate

First, it’s your story. It’s your idea and you need the be true to that. Asking for help in the nascent stages will distract you from the one thought you had in your head to begin with. And the best stories are all focused around a single idea. It’s really hard to keep true to that idea if you’re asking for input from every Tom, Dick, and Harry in your writer’s group. I’ve said before that writers groups are amazing things and will make you better, but they’re not needed for every step in the process.

Second, breaking stories is really hard and you’ll never get better at it if you don’t exercise that part of your mind. Sometimes you’ll be writing an outline and you’ll know the first second and fourth moments but have no idea about the third. You’ll know where you’re starting, where you’re ending and the first big moment, but you’re not quite sure how the MC is going to figure everything out. You’ll really struggle with this and may even begin writing before you’ve figured it out.

That’s okay.

While you’re writing you’ll usually figure out. And if you don’t, if you’ve tried everything and can’t figure it out… still no. Go ahead and write everything, even the ending. Write every damn scene and leave that one part out. Then try three or four different ways. Then you’re allowed to take your story to an outside source for help. But not before.

The other problem with collaboration too early is creative paralysis. This is not the same thing as writer’s block because you think you’re just planning. Young fantasy writers are notoriously guilty of this crime. They spent their time building worlds and creating races, and inventing languages, but never get around to the story. Then, they bring it to their friends and they all talk about it and everyone gives their input and then they’re creating more crap to solve problems others see or others offer solutions to problems that may not even be real. And then you’ve spent two years creating a masterful universe and are nowhere close to writing the damn story.

Honestly, creative paralysis can be just as much of a problem for solo writers, so I won’t put too much on the collaborative process, but it is a problem that can be compounded by early collaboration.

The last problem with collaboration is the most difficult one to deal with: what do you when a beta reader tells you to change something you are convinced doesn’t need to change.

When do I get to be right?

First, if multiple beta readers tell you to change something, they’re right and you’re wrong. I’ve said it before: if you’re at an office party and three people tell you to sit down, you’re drunk. Give your project to people that you trust and then trust their judgment. It’s also a good way to weed out beat readers. If one reader is constantly giving you bad advice, ignore them altogether. And if someone nails it every time, they’re your go-to reader.

Second, if it’s something that you feel strongly about and your beta readers are on the fence, go with your gut. It won’t always be right, but it’s still your work and you need to be loyal to yourself above all.

And don’t be afraid to bring your beta readers into your process. Before they read something, tell them what you’re having problems with. Also, tell them what you feel is strong. Be open with them about what you think the central idea is so that they can help you and not push you in the wrong direction.

The collaborative process is just one tool in the writer’s toolbox. Don’t ignore it, but don’t rely on it too much either. Find a way to use it to your advantage.

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Why You Should Not Do NaNoWriMo

Okay, this blog title is misleading, because the truth is there’s only one reason not to do NaNoWriMo and I’ll get to it later. This blog is about common complaints people have about NaNoWriMo, mostly one article written on Salon.com in 2010. The author, Laura Miller, says that the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to produce crap. She says, “Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision.”

She’s right and she’s not. It’s not about producing a bad first draft it’s about producing anything. And if you’re biggest complaint is that people don’t follow all of the advice to revise before submitting, that’s a pretty small complaint. My feeling is that every single person on the planet should participate in NaNoWriMo. And there are no qualifications for that statement. Everyone should do it.

Let’s look at the facts. Writing 50,000 words in a month is really hard. Most NaNoWriMo contestants fail. And to Miller, that is part of the problem: people realize it’s a waste of time and give up. Screw that. If it was easy we’d all be novelists. The hard part is the great part.

And then Miller says something that really pisses me off: “The last thing the world needs is more bad books.” This woman is a professional writer which means that she understands that words mean things. She doesn’t say “the world doesn’t need more bad books.” I would disagree with that sentiment but it’s a harder argument. No, what she is that it is the last thing the world needs. That means it is literally the worst thing in the world. Worse than war, worse than racism, worse even than the planned reunion tour of the Spice Girls. Please try to make a reasonable argument that bad books are the worst thing in the world

I’m waiting.

I’d argue that I’d rather have bad books than bad movies or TV shows or music. A bad book is just a manuscript sitting in someone’s desk. A bad movie, TV show, or CD was produced and cost money, manpower, and someone’s dignity. That doesn’t compare to Joe Schmo writing his Star Trek fan fiction about Kirk and Uhura that has way too many sex scenes.

The article than diverges to a truly disturbing place, and one I don’t recognize. Miller says, “NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary.” Writers write, Miller opines. It’s what they do. They don’t need help. What they need is to read more and spend money on other people’s writing, thereby making the commerce of literature more successful. Again, this woman is saying that it’s a waste of time to create a bunch of crap as if one should only go into a project knowing that you’re going to create a masterpiece.

That’s not how writing works.

Writing works by putting your butt in the chair and pounding on the typewriter, no matter what. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike, you need to go after it with a club and beat it into submission. If that means most of what you produce isn’t great, that’s fine. To think that writers don’t struggle to write has to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read. It’s what writers struggle with most. We’re not lacking in ideas were lacking in motivation and confidence. NaNoWriMo gives us both of those.

The motivation is simple. You have a goal and a deadline: 50,000 words in 30 days. Because you’re motivated to produce 1,667 words every day, you’ll push yourself to find ways to reach that goal. That’s a gift beyond measure because most writers meander and struggle to keep going toward a goal. This gives you focus and keeps you moving.

The confidence is a little harder, but it’s the biggest thing NaNoWriMo can give you. It tells you to turn off your “inner editor.” Your inner editor is the part of you that quibbles over spelling errors, but the part of you that tells you you’re writing crap and you need to quit. It tells you that you’ll never be good enough and you’re a fool to consider yourself a writer. Miller is telling you to listen to this inner editor, turn off your computer and go back to your day job. This is why Miller is so wrong and NaNoWriMo is so necessary. You absolutely have to try NaNoWriMo for one all-important reason: you may just love it.

And that’s why I say there is no reason not to try NaNoWriMo and only one reason not to do it. One thing is been consistent on in my blog is that you have to try everything to find out what’s right for you. The worst thing that happens is that you waste a month and find out it doesn’t work for you. My mother is a writer and that’s what she discovered. All three of my kids have tried it and that’s what they learned. But I still am glad they tried it.

It’s a technique that may help you produce a ton of words in a short time. As someone who has been writing his entire life, I can assure you that’s nothing to take for granted. So why shouldn’t you do NaNoWriMo? There’s only one good reason: you tried it and don’t want to try to again.

What Is NaNoWriMo? And Why You Should Do It!

November is National Novel Writing Month, colloquially known as NaNoWriMo. The “contest” challenges writers to produce a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. On the surface, it sounds impossible. As well, the notion of writing 1,667 words a day seems more geared to pantsers than plotters. Actually, however, either type can do very well by using NaNoWriMo, as long as you understand it’s true purpose.

I was first introduced to NaNoWriMo in 2008 by my boss, who knew that I enjoyed writing. He asked us to give operating goals for the period (sales, food cost %, overtime), but then he asked us to produce a personal goal for the year. Something that had nothing to do with work. I said that I wanted to write, edit, submit for publication, a short story. He told me that his daughter loved writing and was doing a contest called NaNoWriMo. I’d never heard of it, and it was right before Thanksgiving, so I didn’t attempt it that year. But, in December, I checked out the website and thought it looked pretty interesting.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get writers writing. You sign up for it before November and then begin planning. You join a “region,” typically based on where you live, and talk to other writers on message boards and such. The rules are simple. You cannot start writing until November 1 at 12:00 am, and you have to verify that you’ve written 50,000 words by November 30 at 11:59. When I started in 2009, the rules were a little stricter. You had to be writing a novel, (they had something called Script Frenzy in April for screenwriters) it couldn’t be a project you’d already started and decide to add 50,000 words to, and you had to be writing solo.

The rules are much slacker now. Now it’s all about the 50,000 words. I know someone who is writing an erotic cookbook this year instead of a novel. You can also work with a partner or even write 50,000 additional words for a project you’ve already started. It’s really about getting butts in seats and words produced.

So, I tried it and won. It was insanely hard and the story I wrote was complete crap, but I did it. My laptop died three days in and I had to start completely over. I hadn’t planned anything so I took an idea for a short story and just kept going once I reached the “end.” And it ended up being a 35,000-word short story with a 15,000-word—epilogue, for lack of a better word—that had no real value. But is felt proud of writing that much. I’d never in my life written that many words in that short a time. Emboldened by my success I attempted Script Frenzy in April of the following year and wrote two pretty good one-hour teleplays.

But I felt like I wasn’t getting the most out of all this writing. So I looked around and found a program called yWriter that helps writers organized. I think it’s the perfect program for three reasons. First, it’s designed by a software engineer who is also a writer. Second, it’s incredibly easy to use. Three, it has a free version that has almost everything you need.

My idea was to take my old NaNoWriMo story and organize it using the yWriter program. When I did I saw how unstructured the story was. There were huge sections where nothing happened, major characters disappeared, and the direction that I should’ve taken after the “end” suddenly became apparent. For NaNoWriMo 2010, I decided I was going to take my “scripts” and adapt them to novels. Because I already had a simple introduction, I felt I could hit the ground running.

And I did. I spent all October outlining and planning, coming up with whole new characters, and a simple plot line. But, and this is the critical part, it was still really rough on November 1st. I knew what the trigger was going to be (the MC’s father was going to die), but I had no ending. But that didn’t stop me from writing scene by scene and easily reach my goal of 50,000 words. Undaunted, I continued writing, after a brief December hiatus, and ultimately figure out the ending. There’s truly no way I would’ve ever done that. And I’m not even talking about finishing. I hadn’t finished the novel yet. I’m talking about sticking with one project until I’d figured it all out. And this wasn’t a case of sunk cost effect where you keep going with something because you’ve already invested so much into it. I knew there was something here and I just couldn’t see it. Normally I would’ve just completely given up, but because of NaNoWriMo, I kept going.

And to me, that is the ultimate value of NaNoWriMo. Most writers peter out because a story loses steam and they throw in a drawer and move on. But, NaNoWriMo pushes you to invest in a project for one month. After that month, you can see if you have something. If you don’t, move on to another project. If you do, figure out a way to finish it off.

This story ultimately became my self-published novel that I’m pretty proud of. It hasn’t made it on any bestseller lists, but I like the way the story came full circle and resolved itself in a way that confirms the beginning. That’s really hard for me to do. I still remember the moment I figured out the ending and how excited I was. It was a fun moment. And I’ve been chasing it ever since.

I’ve only won NaNoWriMo a few times (3 out 8), but I still try every year. Sometimes I plan a lot sometimes a little. Sometimes I take something I’ve been working on and add more sometimes I try something brand new. The last two years I was in a school so I never had much of a chance but I tried anyway. This year I’ve started and had only some success but I’m still going. Hopefully, I’ll get a last-minute burst of creativity and reach the finish line. And if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve written over 300,000 words in 7 Novembers. That’s not bad. It’s an average of 42,857 words per attempt. That’s 1,428 words a day. That’s a lot of words and well above the Stephen King admonition of 1,000 words a day. How can that be a bad thing?

So, give NaNoWriMo a shot. Even if you just try it for the last week of November to see what it gets you. You may find something that works and you may not. But you’ll have found something out about your writing process and, no matter what, that’s valuable. If NaNoWriMo can turn a dedicated pantser into a committed plotter that it can help anybody. Even if it only helps you to realize that it isn’t your process.

Since 2006, over four hundred novels begin during NaNoWriMo have been published through traditional publishers, and much more have been self-published. Some have even been bestsellers and adapted into movies. None of these authors had polished manuscripts on December 1st, but they started the process just like everyone else and, by committing to it, it took them someplace very special.

Rewriting a Bad Story

Just about the hardest thing a writer can do is bringing a bad story back from the dead. It’s difficult on a number of levels. First, if we think we’ve done everything right, i.e. we came up with an idea, outlined, and then we actually wrote it, and it still doesn’t work then we question our whole process. Second, sometimes we don’t even see the problems until we read it a month later and wonder what the hell we were thinking altogether.

None of that matters.

The truth is most first drafts are pretty horrible. Then can be horrible for a number of reasons. We could’ve strayed too far from our original idea and have an ending that doesn’t connect to the beginning. We could’ve stayed to loyal to the original idea and not followed logical plot lines when they were made available. This can be particularly painful if we didn’t make notes while we were writing and have no idea where we were supposed to have gone.

You could have unlikeable characters, or unrealistic characters. You could have serious characters that are supposed to be funny or funny characters that are supposed to be serious. There could be bad scenes or unnecessary scenes. And there could be massive plot holes staring you in the face, making you question what kind of an idiot would allow that.

And there’s going to be bad writing. There’s going to be things that make you absolutely cringe. You will look at the writing and realize that Hemingway never dealt with this. You will convince yourself that every Stephen King novel went directly from Kong’s typewriter to the publisher, untouched.

None of that is true.

Every professional writer will tell you that great writing comes in the revision process. And they’ll tell you that it’s about giving your writing over to that process.

The first thing you have to do is give your writing to someone else to read. Someone else will find plenty of mistakes for you and they’ll almost always tell you where it’s good, which is what you really need at this point. You need an affirmation.

And then you deal with the kick in the nuts that follows. Not only will this reader find all the crap you found, they’ll find about a dozen more pieces of crap you didn’t. At first you’ll disagree with them. Fight this urge. Listen to them. You’re not building mausoleums, you’re writing books. And books are meant to be read. If enough readers tell you that what you’re writing is crap, then they’re probably right.

The rule of the office party

Here’s the rule of the Office Party: If three people tell you that you need to sit down, then you’re probably drunk. If someone tells you that you’re acting like an asshole, you don’t just say “no I’m not” and expect that to be the end of it.

The other thing you have to have is freedom. Freedom to do anything that you like. That’s what’s great about rough drafts, or writing in general, for that matter. You’re in complete control of this creation. You can make the characters do whatever you want. You can make the environment do whatever you want. You have to give yourself the freedom to do stupid crazy stuff. And then you bring things to reality in the rewrite

Here are some good rules to follow when rewriting

Make things bad for your protagonist

You’ve probably been to easy on your protagonist. In your eagerness to finish the story, you didn’t really put him through the wringer. This can be difficult to fix. In some cases it may take a complete rewrite. At the very least, you’re going to need to make major changes to key scenes. And then probably go back and adjust other items to make sure you don’t have continuity problems. In the future, you can solve this by being more patient and trusting that the rough draft process can be long. Take your time to figure things out when you get stuck.

I like to write about the problem itself while I’m writing. On my current WIP, I was trying to figure out how to end a scene between three characters that seemed to be going off the rails. So I stopped and wrote out a note and asked myself what I wanted to write about. In three sentences, I found out what I needed to say and what I would save for later. And then I jumped right back in to the story and finished the scene exactly the way I wanted to.

Then make them even worse

Make sure coincidences work against your protagonist. Coincidences are almost never a good idea, but that’s because we use them to get our heroes out of trouble. But when you use them to make things worse, then you’ve got something. Paint yourself into an absolute corner so that there’s no way to get out. Then, take a week and figure out how to get get out of the corner.

Omit unnecessary words

This is a bromide for a reason: because it works. Taking words out almost always make sentences better. Don’t believe me? Take the preceding sentence.

Taking words out make sentences better.

I took two words out and made the sentence stronger. Adverbs equivocate, get rid of them. Look for strong verbs rather than using adverbs to modify weak verbs. Get specific. It’s okay to add things when you’re trying to make sense of a problem or make things tough on your protagonist. But you need to trust the mantra: “Omit unnecessary words.”

Are the stakes high enough?

One of the biggest mistakes we writers make is we think we’ve told a compelling story, but we don’t make the stakes high enough. Is there a point in your story where it truly feels like all hope is lost and there’s no way for the protagonist to win? Is what the protagonist is fighting for really worth fighting for? Is the antagonist doing this for himself or is it truly something he wants?

If the protagonist is not in peril of losing the battle, the readers going to stop turning the page. The ebbs and flows that you go through have to take the reader on an emotional journey. If you’re telling a story where the protagonist wins in the end, then there has to be a point when it feels like they can’t possibly win. In Breaking Bad, it’s the opposite. At the end of season 5, part 1, it seems as though Walt has finally won when everything begins to crash down around him.

Is what the protagonist wants something someone would realistically fight for? Sure, it may seem like something you would want, but is the ultimate goal something a reasonable person would put value in? You have to find a universal element that people would want to have. This can be love or fame, or it can be as simple as not wanting things to change. But you have to make it feel real. It Sons of Anarchy, all Jax wants is to not be his father, to break the cycle, something all readers can understand.

Is the antagonist’s desire to win a real desire or are you just making it something for the protagonist to fight against? This is where you need to develop three dimensional characters. Your antagonist has to have skin in the game and not want to just win so that the protagonist loses. In the great western, Unforgiven, we understand that Little Bill is not just a bad guy who wants to be tough, but he’s trying to make his town safe in what he sees as a world full of lawlessness.

Other elements that may help

• Take some time away from your story.

• Read the story out loud.

• Make an outline (if you haven’t already made one).

I have used all of these in the past, and they’ve helped to varying degrees. Even g you don’t believe in outlining in the front end, making one up after the fact can help find deficiencies in your plot and pacing. Reading out loud really helps find when a sentence is unwieldy. And you should always through the first draft into a desk drawer for a few weeks or months to give yourself some objectivity.

What about you? What techniques do you use that help you when revising?

How I write dialogue

Striving for perfection

One of the few things I really try to perfect (not merely do well, but get exactly right) in my writing is dialogue. I'll go over it again and again, trying to get it everything to sound right. The editing process is so hard, it seems like it's never going to be right. But what about the first part? What's the best way to write a scene that is mostly dialogue? I've recently come up with a technique that is work pretty well for me and I thought I'd share it with my follower.

When I come to a scene that is going to have a lot of dialogue, it's usually because it's a pretty important scene. Dialogue is used for some many different purposes. It reveals character traits, pushes the story in different directions, defines relationships, and many other things. Usually, I have a clear idea in my head of where I want to go and have to get it on the page as quickly as possible. This can be difficult when adding dialogue attribution, action clues, and emotional responses. So I don't.

A new way to write dialogue

I write the scene out like I'm writing a play. There's a great template you can create on MS Word that allows you to automatically jump between fields without having to change it manually. When you are typing a CHARACTER and press enter, it goes to DIALOGUE. When you press enter at the end of DIALOGUE it switches back to character. This helps me write out the scene as fast as I can type (which still isn't fast enough).

If you're anything like me, when you get to a dialogue-heavy scene, it really feels like the characters are talking to you. If you've done a good job of developing three-dimensional characters with unique voices, they'll do most of the work for you.

Again, I do this by rewriting over and over again. For instance, I've been writing a scene that explains the backstory of the main antagonist of one of my current WIPs. I kept jumping to a scene where he's talking to a high school track coach, and every time it sounded phony. After the third attempt, I realized that I didn't know the coach at all. I didn't know his voice, but this was a critical scene that explained why the antagonist was the way he was, so rewrote it three times before even getting a rough draft that I liked. And I abandoned the dialogue altogether. It just wasn't working.

But when you know the scene is coming and has to be carried by dialogue, that's not an option. You have to find that sweet spot, and that's not always easy. I find that the best thing I can do when writing these scenes that I know are critical, is to know when it's not working. And when it's not, I stop and start over. And then I do it again. I feel like Thomas Edison, in a way, when asked about the invention of the light bulb. "I have not failed," Edison said. "I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Is it the best, most efficient way for me to work? Probably not. I'd probably be better off if I sat and talked it over with five or ten other writers until we "broke" the story. But I don't had five or ten other writers. So I have to be five or ten different writers. And when I write, I try to come at it from completely different directions. And I usually find it in the third or fourth try.

Then, when I find that sweet spot, it really is impossible to keep up with my mind. I can hear the characters talking back and forth and it's more like I'm only an audience to the conversation, not as though I'm creating it. It's a wonderful place to be, even if nearly impossible to find. Writing isn't something writers do because it's fun. Writers write because they have to.

The worst part of writing is the fleeting inspiration. You know what you want to say, you had it worded perfectly just a moment ago, and then it disappears. I'm it sure if there's a way avoid it 100%, but I know it's damn hard for a moment to disappear if I'm writing about it right then. The fleeting moments come when you wake up from a dream and can't grasp what it was you just saw. And then come for me when I'm driving home and I have to decide whether to run every stop sign before I forget or pull off into someone's drive way and write down my idea on a napkin from Taco Bell.

But I hope that as I do this more and more often, those moments of inspiration will become more frequent or easier to hold on to. I doubt it's true though. I fear that those moments will always be the most difficult. Stephen King said that it is the moment staring at the blank page right before beginning that is the scariest. I'm not sure if I agree. I don't really struggle with starting a new story. That's usually pretty easy. But that moment when I'm stuck between two points in a story and I know what has to happen but I can't get there. I hate that moment.

But again, I hope that that moment gets less scary and less frequent the more I write. But I don't think that will ever be true either.