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Wednesday
Mar072012

Andy Ihnatko

How did you become a writer? The Sensitive Artiste answer is that I became a writer on some school night in the 6th grade, when I entered a contest in a computer magazine. You were supposed to explain why Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak named their new company "Apple" and I wrote a three-page short story about it. It was, I think, the first time I ever wrote something strictly for fun as opposed to because an authority figure promised dire consequences if I didn't. When I got to the end of the story, I was filled with the as-yet unfamiliar sensations of joy and pride, and I was eager to keep right on chasing that dragon.

Around this same time, I read "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy" for the first time and was introduced to another unfamiliar sensation: reading something for sheer pleasure and enjoying every single page. I sat down and wrote my Magnum Opus: a twelve-page story (my longest to date) that was an utterly shameless ripoff of Douglas Adams' style. It wasn't good writing but it was a great moment. I recognized it was weak sauce but instead of discouraging me, it made me eager to write something better straight away.

The Cold Capitalist answer to the question is that I started writing the monthly meeting report for my local user group's newsletter. I did it for a couple of years, receiving no reward other than a byline. But! When a magazine editor invited me to send him some samples of my writing, I had plenty of stuff to show him. And when he gave me my first paying gig, I already had enough experience to not be intimidated and forge right ahead.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.) Every writer has a thousand unconscious influences. Douglas Adams was my first conscious one. Later, though, I came to realize that I was more strongly influenced by P.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python _via_ Douglas Adams. I'm still in awe of Wodehouse...his ability to hone a sentence to perfection and make all of the segments of an intricate plot just click right together as though there was no other way for this story to develop.

There's a book of Wodehouse's collected correspondence with a friend and fellow novelist. The whole book is about his interest in the cricket and football teams of the school they both went to, AND his philosophies and methods for breaking and developing a story. I bet I re-read "Performing Flea" six times a year...it's packed with practical advice and powerful inspiration. As if the fact that he wrote 100 novels and kept writing nearly until the end of his century on this planet isn't inspiring enough!

It's out of print but it's easy to find from secondhand sellers via Amazon.

From Monty Python, I learned two things: no idea is too wild...but it's the execution of the idea that really matters.

Other than those? Two awesome newspaper columnists: Ernie Pyle and Roger Ebert.

When and where do you write? I chop my entire waking day into three sessions, and I usually work during 1 or 2 of those sessions. My most productive time is usually from after dinnertime until bedtime.

Real writing requires a desk and a chair. I used to be able write like a hobo. Now, for whatever reason, I value a chair and a desk.

That said, I love grabbing my iPad and my bluetooth keyboard and setting off for a different writing environment. I get a little extra energy from being in a crowded space. Plus, being in a library or a coffeeshop gives you a real deadline to work against. They'll kick me out of the Panera at 10 PM, so I need to get SOMEthing done by then or else I feel like a poser.

What are you working on now? I've always got my tech columns but I'm also working on two specific fiction projects that I'll be self-publishing later in the year.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No. There have been times when I haven't been confident about what I was writing; times when I've had no clue about how to continue something; certainly there've been days when I haven't felt like writing and even a few days when I've felt like I'd already written my last thing, ever.

These are all tangible problems with workable solutions. I can deal with tangible problems. If I were to believe in "Writer's Block" I'd be taking a fear that I haven't explored and I'd be amplifying its paralytic power by giving it a name.

No, no, no. You don't have "Writer's Block." You're bored with what you're writing right now. So write something else! You think what you're writing stinks. You're probably right; well, keep working and make it better! You don't know how to continue? This means that you've encountered a problem and the problem won't just resolve itself so you should just keep hammering at it. 

You don't feel like writing? Don't beat yourself up. Read something. Or admit to yourself that there's more to your life than just writing. Take the day off. It'll be fine.

And if you ever find yourself moaning that you feel like you'll never write again...oh, please. Stop being a baby and write something, already.

What’s your advice to new writers? Build your whole workflow around the "vomit draft." When you create a blank document, empty your mind of any expectations or aspirations. Just start typing. Never edit anything. Just get it all out of you and into the document. Type, type, type until you get to the end. The results will be horrible, but the hardest work is done: you'll have taken a nebulous idea out of your head and created something that really exists. Then you fix, fix, fix.

I learned this lesson stupid-late. I became paralyzed when writing fiction. Finally, I used a gimmick: I ditched my word processor and wrote the first draft in longhand. When you're writing with a pen, there's no reverse gear: you have no choice but to forge ahead and fix later. And thus, the novella that I'd been starting and stopping for months spilled out in just a few weeks.

The first draft of anything is going to be horrible. That's okay. Writing is a linear process by which you keep taking pass after pass after pass over the material until you find that miraculously the thing you're reading is somewhere inside the ballpark of what you hoped it'd be.

So don't get hung up on that first draft. Get right to work. You have to finish, or else it doesn't count. If you keep waiting for The Perfect Idea or continually restart the first eight pages of something, you'll never ever finish it. Puke it all out and then work from there. You can always lie to your editor about how effortless the writing process is for you. But only if you're handing in a finished piece.

Second advice: write outlines for anything longer than a few thousand words. If you proceed without a plan, it'll show in the final work...and you'll be making much, much more work for yourself later on.  

Besides, outlines are a wonderful scam. All you need to do is write your story in the form of a paragraph. Then you develop that one idea into a page of ideas, then several pages, expanding and shuffling and trimming as you go. Within a few weeks, you'll have the whole thing mapped out as a series of easily-manageable scenes and you can't wait to get going. And it all started with a few sentences that you tapped up as a note on your iPhone.

Third advice: Progress is your most important product. "Some days, you're just trying to keep moving the cursor to the right." The screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie said that in a podcast interview and it's stuck with me ever since. If all you managed to do today was sit down at the keyboard and push the cursor to the right...you did OK. Writing is a muscle that responds to exercise and atrophies in its absence.

Bio: I've been writing about technology professionally for 20 years, and writing fiction for fun for longer than that.

 

Reader Comments (2)

Enlightening post for sure, I struggle with writing and often become paralyzed with that "Writers Block" feeling. I need to adapt your Puking principle more often and just let it flow and clean it up, clean it up, clean it up!

Thank you for writing, I'm hoping some of your advice sunk in or I'll have to keep taking a run at it.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack Keller

I love your clean explanation of the simple and ugly truths about writing.

I genuinely appreciate the special effort that your technical writing requires.

I've been writing about financial subjects for decades always attempting to make the misunderstood understandable to those affected the most. And I still fight the "rewrite urge" before the first draft is done.

[quick fix] Putting appropriate short stories in your technical writing can eliminate many a logjam.

Thanks for your gems.

Joel Rensink
www.infiniteyield.com

August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoel Rensink

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