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Archive for October, 2012

Prime Cut

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So this guy, Michael Erard, wrote a column for the series Draft in the New York Times. What worries me is, I’m pretty sure Erard burrowed into my mind and stole my thoughts. He then used them to write a terrific article on the problem of structural priming. Structural Priming is the theory that you’ll tend to reproduce patterns you’ve most recently experienced — so as a writer, you’ll reproduce the pattern of sentences you’ve most recently read, because you’re primed to do it; a pretty serious problem for anyone trying to break into writing while holding down a day job that involves words (ask any Hollywood script reader when was the last time they tried to write anything of their own and you’ll generally elicit a gag reflex at the thought of dealing with more words). The Evidence of Erard’s thought-stealing is clear: he says he’s written short stories, news articles, essays, reviews and a couple of nonfiction books, whereas I’ve written screenplays, stage plays, software reviews and a children’s book. See? All he did was change everything except the part where I was worried about my own poor sentence structure, and then put it into a really well crafted article. But now I’m afraid to say anything bad about this guy because he’s got a grip on my brainstem like one of those L. Ron Hubbard engram-thetan-brain-control critters and he might do something evil like put the squeeze on my corpus callosum and turn me into a streaker or a flat-earther or a Red Sox fan.

Anyway, Mr. Erard’s got my writing problems nailed down like scrap of cheap carpet in a doghouse. Alan’s day, thy name is fracture: Programming, texting, posting, wiki-writing, blogging, more programming and more programming. And then, somewhere in the late night hours, some actual writing. Most of the time I’m at the keyboard; little of the time I’m at my manuscript. This is a sure formula for writing a novel that sounds like an extended warranty disclaimer for a bottom-of-the-line toaster oven. Wiki description of record class exceptions leech into my story of young love, thwarted by condition code 7: invalid input to third parm.


Erard suggests a few solutions: work in a different location for your night writing than the one that might prime you for your day writing; don’t let the web or email intrude on creative writing time; re-prime yourself by typing out some sentences from a writer you admire. Good ideas all.

The thing that works for me, which he doesn’t mention, is getting out there and getting your heart pumping. I do this by walking the dog in the morning, then going for a mid-day run or a bike ride. But my routine is beginning to strike me as a little tame, and un-priming, so I’ve been looking into what other writers do to break up the day and send some blood to the frontal lobes. Other writers have gone further than I have in their aerobic approaches to clearing their heads and un-priming their sentence structure. Hemingway never said they were writing techniques, but he favored deep-sea fishing, running with the bulls, chasing women and shooting machine guns — good choices if you have a big boat, live in Pamplona, can handle rejection and know how to aim. Lord Byron reduced this to just skirt-chasing, but maintained an apparently energetic enough level that his writing was never in danger of sounding like it had been primed by all the threatening letters he got from cuckolded husbands. Hunter S. Thompson likes guns, but added hallucinogenic drugs in combination with rum, which can get the heart racing at epic levels while minimizing the danger of skin cancer by keeping you safely under your furniture.

Some writers go further, running marathons or doing yoga in steam baths. But at some level you’re moving away from un-priming exercises and getting into serious work-avoidance. The diminishing returns of having your un-priming exercise take up more of your day than your writing might be a good indicator that you’re actually meant to be runner, a professional dog walker or an experimental heart surgery patient.

There are heaps of other great articles in the Draft series, including one on how Miles Davis’ mid-century playing inspired the writer to simplify his own style. Check it out at the NY Times.

Go Sox!

Written by Alan

October 17th, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Writing

This is The End

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Typed The End last night. Such a great, apocalyptic feeling that I have to cue up the late, lamented Jim Moorison and listen to the black helicopter thwacking of my PTSD dreams:

(For the record, I have never been in a war: My PTSD stems from an overly-aggressive hall monitor at Churchill High School, in Livonia, Michigan, who wore freakish amounts of eye shadow, color-coded to the marker she was using that day to check hall pass validity.)

I have, on occasion, in the middle of an uncooperative manuscript, just typed, The End. “Take that, manuscript; I’ve ended you. Now, do you want to come back to life and get some fresh adjectives? Well, do you?” This hasn’t generally gotten me much beyond that look my daughter gives me when I talk out loud to my laptop. Still, it feels good. Feels like victory. Charlie don’t web surf.

My Facebook friend Claire Lambe posted a reference this morning to a book review on “Structured Procrastination”, which is the technique I’ve always used to get things done, but didn’t know somebody had beat me to naming it (I’ve always called it The Alan Method, and I encourage you to do the same). Boiling the theory down to its essence, you lie to yourself about what you need to do and what you’re going to do, and you make a long list of crap that you claim is really important, and then you do something lower down your list because you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that merely finishing a book is so much easier than all the other stuff at the top of the list, like learning Finnish, cross-breeding a better roasting duck or sweeping all the highways in the state of New York.

My preference is to avoid writing by doing other writing, so if I get stuck on a screenplay I turn to a novel. If I’m stuck on the novel I turn to a play. If I’m stuck on the play, that’s what the blog is for. While writing this YA novel — and this is serious — I finished a screenplay, three one-act plays, and am 140 pages into converting an old Sci-Fi screenplay into a novel. That’s some pretty industrial-quality work-avoidance, with the slight down-side that stories written for one media tend to leak into others in a Cowboys & Aliens sort of way.

Like every other writer I just claim the reader is detecting the subtle, over-arching themes of my fiction — my broody and writerly concerns. Minor writers have tics and fall back on tedious patterns of over-used tropes. Big, important writers have themes and overarching concerns. I know which of these categories I’m heading toward, which is why you’ll see echos of of my early symbolism (the Frogs in my 1999 treatise on individual freedom and counting from 1 to 12), illustrated by Steven Kellogg, even in the edgy and transformative genre literature flowing from my pen today.


Written by Alan

October 1st, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Writing