Writer | Translator | Poet
An Irregular Blog
September 27, 2018
A credo is a statement of one's guiding principles and comes from the Latin for "I believe." While most often used in a religious or political sense, there's no reason why a writer can't have a credo about the craft and business of writing. Here's mine:
A Writer's Credo
- I realize I am not entirely in charge of my fate. No one is required to publish what I write. I must earn the privilege of publication by producing the best work I am capable of writing and then submitting that work.
- I will focus on what I can control. Epictetus wrote that men should only concern themselves with what is within their power to change. I will do this in relation to my writing, focusing on what I can control: the quality of the writing and the number of submissions. Each piece I write will be the best I'm currently capable of producing, from word choice all the way up to the overall organization of the work. Even the best writing, however, adds nothing to the world if it remains unseen. Therefore, having produced a piece of work, I will submit it to the appropriate markets.
- I will never stop learning about my craft. I will read books on writing and attend such conventions and classes as my life and funds allow. Most important of all, I will write daily, because as Jacques Barzun has said, all good writing is ultimately self-taught. I take the sixteenth-century printer Christophe Plantin's motto as my own: Labore et Constantia (Through Work and Perseverance).
- I will be professional in all I do. The process of publication is an interaction between an editor and a writer in which both parties share an equal dignity. I will read the magazine's or website's guidelines before I submit to see if my work is appropriate and if it is currently open to submissions. I will format my manuscript in accordance with the guidelines, or in the absence of guidelines, use standard manuscript format. If rejected, I will remind myself that rejections are the dues paid by every writer; if accepted, I will work with, rather than against, the editor to improve the piece and make it fit the magazine's or website's voice and style. In my communications with an editor, I will always be polite, professional, and prompt.
These are my beliefs. So may they be until the day I permanently lay down my pen.
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History--Another Idea Generator
September 20, 2018
In the past few weeks, I've shifted from reading business books to reading history--Sherman's Civil War memoirs, a Chinese book called Guwen Guanzhi--and that's got me thinking about how useful history can be for a writer. The potential uses I see include:
Pre-packaged Plots. Human history is filled with events, both great and small, that can be used to form the nucleus and plot of a story, including science fiction and fantasy stories. Marriages, alliances, wars, travels, explorations--all are potential source material useful for creating a plot. Whether you're looking for a single event or a long sweep of centuries, a potential plot line can be found in just about any history.
Ready-made Characters. Along similar lines, many earlier histories, especially Greek and Roman ones, tended to focus on how a single person dealt with the important events going on around them. These history-biography hybrids provide descriptions of their subjects' characters, down to their habits and quirks, their likes and dislikes. (In the case of Herodotus, he sometimes did this with entire peoples.) Change the name and gender as necessary, and you have a ready-made character to drop into your plot. Another possibility, good for both a plot and a character, would be to take someone who was only a minor player in some historical event and make them the main character in a story about that event.
Other benefits are harder to describe in two-word phrases. If you intend to set a story in a particular historical setting, reading histories written during and immediately after your selected period will give you background knowledge about the setting. That, in turn, will give your writing extra depth--even if what you've learned never makes it onto the page. (Though to be honest, just about any time a writer knows more than what they put on the page, the writing has extra depth.)
Finally, while you don't want to consciously imitate the writing style of a bygone era, reading history written in and around your selected time period may also give your prose just an echo of the sound and flavor of the writing of that time--especially the dialog.
So if you're stuck for ideas or want to improve a work in progress, pulling a history book from the shelf and leafing through it might be just the thing to do.
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September 6, 2018
The world makes it hard to be a productive writer. There are so many things that vie for a writer's time: the siren song of email and internet "research;" the desire to get up and make a cup of coffee rather than face a half-written page that seems to be going nowhere; the mundane tasks of cleaning and laundry and shopping.
And writers are their own bosses in a field where there's no control over whether or not they'll be paid for the work they've already done. The only thing we, as writers, can do is set goals for ourselves and stick to them. How then to make sure we keep on track towards our writing goals?
One possible way is with a "success indicator." I mentioned a couple of posts back that I'd been reading W. Clement Stone's "The Success System That Never Fails." Stone owned an insurance company and before that was himself an insurance salesman. Because a salesman's success, like a writer's, can be measured in sales, I realized that some of Stone's advice also applied to writers. Towards the end of the book, he recommends creating a "success indicator," a concrete, measurable standard by which to judge whether you're moving towards or away from your goal (whatever that may be). For insurance salesmen, it was the number of calls and interviews made each day. I decided that as a writer, the best success indicators are time spent on writing-related tasks and number of submissions. My logic was simple: write more and submit more, and you'll be a more successful writer.
So I printed up a couple of index cards with boxes for me to check off each half-hour actually spent writing/editing/researching, an area to comment on why I didn't make my goal for the day, and spaces at the bottom to total the hours worked and number of submissions for the week. My goal is to have all the boxes checked--meaning I've achieved my writing goal--and to hit my target number of submissions by the end of each Friday.
If nothing else, I figure using the success indicator method will enable me to see if I'm moving towards my goals or away from them (and in the case of the latter, why). So whatever your goals--be they writing or otherwise--coming up with your own measurable success indicator and then keeping track of it seems like a good way to help you achieve those goals, and worthy of a trial. Good luck.
Update: After a month of logging my internet usage, I discovered I averaged 48 minutes a day, exclusive of answering email. Even allowing for a decent fudge factor and accounting errors, I'd charitably say I was just at or under an hour per day. The hydra may not be slain, but it's at least staggering a little.
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On Bumper Stickers and Beliefs
August 23, 2018
A few posts back, I mentioned that I had a philosophical disagreement with Google over the forced use of https. Several more revelations about the company's practices since then have caused me to sever my last (and only) tie to them by changing my email provider. I wrote a long, multi-page draft of a post enumerating in detail my reasons for leaving gmail behind.
This is not that post. After reading what I'd written, I decided not to use it. But not using the post got me thinking about writers and their beliefs--specifically, how private should a writer be about their political or religious beliefs?
As with any group of people, there's a broad spectrum. Some are very vocal online about their beliefs. Many other writers comment on current political or social controversies, and so reveal their beliefs over time. Some (and I'm one of them) try to keep their personal and writing lives separate, and rarely if ever comment on events of the day.
Do I have political and/or religious beliefs? Of course I do, and I'm sure that they come out subtly through the themes of the stories I write. My friends and family know what they are. But as a writer, I don't discuss them.
But then again, I don't put bumper stickers on my car, which might be a good metaphor and guide for a writer when deciding what/how much to say publicly about their beliefs. Some people's cars are decoupaged with bumper stickers that go back for decades, showing not only how they feel about issues but who they voted for three elections back. Other people have only one or two bumper stickers, indicating their deep belief in select issues. And a few people have no bumper stickers at all.
Internet posts are similar to bumper stickers in that they can be well-nigh impossible to remove, and can be seen by a large number of people. So if you, as a writer, are looking for a way to decide whether or not to weigh in on some current controversy, ask yourself if you'd be willing to put your position on a bumper sticker and slap it on your car, where it will remain for the next ten years. If the answer is yes, then post away. If not, you may want to let the post sit overnight, and re-visit the question of posting in the cold light of morning.
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Keeping On Schedule
August 3, 2018
My best friend keeps a daily schedule in which he breaks down each 24-hour period into thirty-minute chunks. He even blocks out sections for "sleep" and "work." I remember being a bit amused the first time he pulled his schedule out, and saying something like, "Wow, that's tightly packed." I also remember him replying that he'd never get anything done without it. At the time, though, I thought that half-hour blocks was cutting life a little too fine.
But now I'm beginning to wonder. For one, my friend is incredibly productive, able to manage multiple, simultaneous irons in the fire. And I recently began re-reading W. Clement Stone's "The Success System That Never Fails." In it, Stone mentions Frank Bettger, a salesman whose productivity skyrocketed after he started keeping meticulous records on how he spent his time. This allowed him to see where (and when) he was wasting his time, and to cut those activities out.
Like a lot of people, I sit down every Sunday evening and schedule the coming week out in a "Monday--clean, Tuesday--laundry, Wednesday--shopping," sort of way. But I've never gone beyond that level, since any task outside of writing has to be done in the afternoon. But as I mentioned in my last post, I'd been having problems spending too much time on the internet and planned to limit myself to a single hour per day.
Such a defined limit, mixed with what I'd read in Stone's book and my friend's meticulous schedules, has moved me to try a daily scedule for myself. So far, it's been ad-hoc: an index card each day to keep track of half-hour blocks between 9am and 6pm. And right now, I'm merely noting down what I'm doing, rather than scheduling in advance, because I don't yet know how I'm actually using my time--something I feel I should know before I begin making changes. (I'm also hoping that, as it did with my eating habits, the act of observation will naturally cause me to improve my behavior.)
So I'm going to roll this new experiment into the already ongoing attempt to limit my internet use. I'll report on the combined results in a month.
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Slaying the Hydra
July 19, 2018
I shall from now on shape my life around writing instead of squeezing writing into my life whenever I can. -- Ted Hughes, in a 1956 letter to his sister
Let me begin by acknowledging that I know I'm lucky to be able to be a freelance writer. Many of my struggles are different from someone who's trying to write while holding down a job, or who has family or other responsibilities that require them to fit in writing where- and when-ever they can.
However, one struggle I think I share with many writers is that hydra called the internet. I've had to go to great lengths to prevent myself from wasting too much time randomly surfing. This, even though I agree with Cal Newport that the internet should be used for information rather than entertainment, and so try hard to only go online for research purposes.
But it's in research where I now appear to be falling down. As I've mentioned before, I don't use the internet before noon so I can do my writing in the morning; instead, I note down what I need to research and keep going. My writing now rolls along until twelve p.m. And then I often quickly plow through my email and find the answers to my writing-related questions in a very short time. But recently, I've found myself spending hours afterward doing more "research" on topics such as "best fountain pen inks for left-handed writers" or "text-only browsers."
While many of these searches are technically work-related (or I can justify them to myself as such) because they have bearing on my writing and how I do it, I also have to admit that some of these searches have been "info-tainment" on my part. And the time I've wasted on this sort of "research" has occasionally rippled through the rest of my day, leading to workouts started later than I'd planned or chores that had to be pushed off to another time.
It looks like if I want to get my productivity back to where it had been, I'll need to cauterize yet another head of the hydra. I'm going to have to put limits on not only when, but for how long I use the internet each day. So as of this posting, I'm limiting myself to one post-noon hour per day of internet time.
I'll let you know how well this self-imposed internet diet worked (or didn't) in a month. In the meantime, wish me luck.
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What We Leave Behind II
June 15, 2018
One of the interesting side-effects of returning to longhand writing after many years away is that I can now see all the "extra" work that goes into writing--the crossed out words, the arrows and inserted sentences, the paragraphs that died on the vine and will never make it into the next draft. When I used to write everything on my laptop, all that work was more or less invisible. I could go back and change a word, leaving no trace of my earlier choice. A flex or two of my fingers put new words exactly where I thought they should go; the same for paragraphs, which could be cut or repositioned with equal ease.
But being able to actually see the amount of work I put into a draft has had an interesting effect on my writing. As I mentioned back in February, the act of observing something (ex. calories eaten, sodium intake) often causes the decline in the amount of that which is observed. The same has been true, in a sense, with my writing. My first drafts are getting tighter, my word choices more exact. I've become a much more concise, and hopefully precise, writer.
Returning to longhand writing has had both benefits and costs. I've found I get more actual writing done with pen and paper. In the past, I scribbled notes to type up later. Now I can get first-draft words on paper, saving time and skipping an intermediate step. It's also been good for getting in "stolen writing" while waiting in doctor's offices or in odd moments. But I've also had to spend time improving my previous near-illegible handwriting, and the speed and volume of my writing has decreased (temporarily, I hope) as I adapt to a new way of doing things.
Writing is a highly personal act and as writers, we all have a favorite method of composition. As I've found, though, giving up the "usual" way of doing things and changing a writing process that I'd used for over a decade has been beneficial to my writing. I've been pleasantly surprised by the results, and can offer this bit of advice: whatever your writing process, it may be good to break with your current routine and try something new.
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May 29, 2018
The early 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun created short essays that he called Random Thoughts, which were similar to the suibi that had been written in China for centuries. In honor of both Lu Xun and suibi here are a collection of short thoughts on various topics:
I recently stumbled upon a talk that Neil Gaiman gave at Microsoft back in 2005. While the entire talk is interesting, I was particularly attracted to his discussion of his plotting and writing methods. Here's a link to that section of the talk. I started writing well before home computers were common and I've recently become a re-convert to writing first drafts in longhand, so Gaiman's comments on his pen-and-notebook method resonated with me.
Google will soon be marking all non-https websites as "Not Secure." As Dave Winer points out in this blog post, there are several downsides to Google wanting to make the web "safer." I, for one, don't plan on purchasing a https certificate just to win the approval of some corporation. As Winer notes in his post, "Google is a guest on the web, as we all are. Guests don't make the rules."
Pliny the Elder said "There is no book so bad that some good cannot be got out of it." There are also good books in which a single sentence, passage or paragraph makes the entire book worth the purchase and reading of it. I recently read Cal Newport's "Deep Work," and for me the single passage that struck me most forcefully came on page 161: "Schedule in advance when you'll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times." I'm most productive in the morning, so even before I read "Deep Work," I'd quit checking my email before noon so that I could write. But often in the process of writing, I'd stop to do a bit of online research and discover, an hour later, that researching had become recreation. So now I don't use the Internet before noon, either. If there's something I want to research, I make a note on on a pad of paper on my desk, then "batch" my research during the afternoon. This also helps me to follow the advice contained in a single section heading on page 209: "Don't Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself." Two sentences out of an entire book, and yet my writing productivity has soared because of them.
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May 16, 2018
A few weeks ago, I came home from a trip to the bookstore with an armload of new books. I laid them out on the carpet to enjoy the sight and feel of them, and the three across in the top row were a volume about invisible inks, one about the Italian Futurists, and a collection of Edmund Morris' essays. I picked up the one about invisible inks first and flipped through it. Then I did the same with the one about the Futurists. As I was setting the second book down, I wondered idly what the Futurists would have done with invisible inks. Poetry with hidden words? Clothing that changed color based on temperature or when splashed with the proper reagent? No matter what they did, they probably would have had all sorts of absurd fun with the concept. Picking up the third book, I wondered what sort of essay Edmund Morris might have written about the Italian Futurists and their crazy, color-changing clothes.
It was only later that I realized I'd stumbled upon an idea generator of sorts; that the juxtaposition of these disparate volumes had caused my mind to look create unexpected and un-looked-for links and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.
I haven't yet tried the exercise a second time. However, if you feel you're stuck for ideas for a story, you're welcome to try pulling three random books off your bookshelf and to dip in and out of each one until the ideas begin to flow.
To change topics entirely -- Well, that was embarrassing. In a fit of end-of-grad-school fatigue, I mis-dated my last two April posts as belonging to March. The dates have been corrected.
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How to Steal a Story
April 30, 2018
Unlike plagiarism, which is a literary crime, stealing an entire story -- if done correctly -- is an ancient and honorable tradition among writers. Stories get stolen all the time and some writers will even admit to the theft.
Now, let me begin by explaining the proper way to steal a story. First, you have to find a story to covet. It should be one that moved you when you read it; the kind of story that sticks with you, lingering in your mind long after you've shut the book. That's the best kind of story to steal.
The problem is that a nakedly stolen story is easy to spot and is bound to get you caught. If the story moved you as a reader, no doubt it also moved someone else, and many people will recognize it. So there's no sense in trying to copy the stolen story directly. You might as well try to walk off with the Declaration of Independence and hope that nobody notices.
So having stolen a story, you have to disguise it, give it a new coat of paint and file the serial numbers off. You do this by changing everything you can about the story. Switch the protagonist from male to female, move the setting from Europe to Mars. Add another character (or two) and change the critical, climactic event that overwhelms the protagonist. If you do a good job of disguising the object of your theft, the story you end up with will bear no resemblance whatsoever to the orignal story you stole.
In fact, a perfectly stolen story does nothing more than evoke the spirit of the original in your mind, and spurs you to create something so new, so different that the resulting story is totally unlike the one that caused it to be written. Inspiration, rather than plagiarism. That's the only way to steal a story.
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And So It Ends
April 30, 2018
I'd been nose-to-the-grindstone for two months, editing my thesis drafts, discussing ideas and changes with my advisor. Then in a single week, everything changed. My final draft went before the committee on Monday; Thursday I got their comments back. I made a couple of minor changes that evening, got my thesis printed and bound on Friday. Saturday, I turned it in to the program director at the student reading. And just like that, I was pretty much done with graduate school. Now that the semester is over, I'm just waiting for them to mail me my diploma. Five years, two masters degrees, and now I'm suddenly no longer in school. I gave myself a week to relax and celebrate, but as of today, it's back to real life and real work.
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April 06, 2018
Stephen King says it's important for a writer to also be a reader, and is famous for reading wherever and whenever he gets a chance, such as while waiting in lines and before a movie starts. I agree with King, but feel it's equally important to develop the habit of writing wherever and whenever one gets an opportunity. The practice of stealing moments to jot down a couple of sentences builds the writing equivalent of quick-twitch muscle fibers, forcing the writer to clearly marshal thoughts and get them on paper. Used as a stimulant, time pressure can be used to improve prose style.
But the words written down in stolen moments can't simply be left on the paper. To be useful, this practice writing has to be examined to see where it's weak or where an unclear thought or imprecise word has crept in. These paragraphs, written while waiting for my car's oil change to finish, were covered in cross-outs that have been removed in editing. I hope that as I improve in the practice of stolen writing, the number of cross-outs will decrease.
Learning to write exact first drafts also helps also in the editing. The closer the words in the rough draft are to their intended meaning, the fewer changes needed in revision. As with target shooting, the stolen-writing writer's first-draft slogan should be "Aim small, miss small."
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Keeping a Daybook
March 20, 2018
Merchants sometimes keep a daybook--a book in which they record transactions as they happen, so they can be transferred to the formal account books later. For almost a year now, I've been keeping the literary equivalent. Each day, I note the weather, important events, and even mundane items such as whether I worked out that day. It's been a rewarding practice in many ways. For example, I can tell you that on December 22, 2017, it was cloudy and unusually warm (in the mid 50s), that I walked for 45 minutes on the treadmill at the gym, and that in the evening I went down to DC to have dinner with my wife.
But my daybook is more than a simple diary, because I also use it to record ideas for stories and articles and essays, to capture snippets of conversations overheard, and to ask myself questions about plot points and characters. Philosophical thoughts are written down. Habits are built through keeping track of my daily progress toward my goals. It's single place where I can capture information on many different topics on the fly as the day goes on. Some people use apps on their phone, I use a black, hardbound notebook.
I can't say whether one method--digital or analog--is better than the other. But I can say that the act of keeping a daybook has been beneficial. It might be something to consider in your own writing life.
The end of graduate school is rapidly approaching, and I hope to be soon re-vamping this website. As the new pages go up, please let me know what you think of them.
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February 15, 2018
The Chinese call essays suibi, which can be literally translated as "wandering brush" or "following the brush." In classical Chinese literature, suibi are often collections of short, miscellaneous articles--the report of a particularly enjoyable party, a description of a recent antique purchase, an analysis of the literary allusions of a two-hundred-year-old poem. This time around, I'm going to embrace that miscellaneous quality to give a collection of random thoughts this time around:
I've been a big fan of commonplace books for a long time. In fact, the first article in my Digital Renaissance Man series was about keeping a commonplace book. Besides their use as a source of quotations and inspiration, commonplace books can reveal a lot about your personal interests and priorities. Examining the topics you've created inside your book, as well as how many entries you have in which category, shows where your interests lie and how deep those interests are. For example, I naturally have quite a few entries about writing and poetry, but it turns out I also have quite a bit of material related to government and motivation/taking action. So I'm apparently quite interested in these topics but wasn't aware of this until I cast an eye over my commonplace book, looking at it on the level of a whole work and not just a collection of thoughts and quotes. If you keep a commonplace book, it might be worth it do do the same and see what unexpected insights it might give into your old mind.
To control something, you have to be aware of it in the first place. For example, when I decided I wanted to lose weight, I started counting how many calories I was eating each day. At first, I just noted the numbers down. But after finding out from the doctor how many calories I needed to eat per day to reach and maintain my target weight, I continued counting calories, stopping when I hit my goal for the day. I lost 20 pounds over the course of six months. And at the beginning of the year, the doctor said I should reduce the amount of sodium I was eating. So I added sodium counts to my daily calories count. And sure enough, the amount of sodium I was putting into my body went down once I saw how much I'd been eating. So as I continue to try to get rid of bad habits and replace them with better onces, it seems that keeping track of my successes and failures will be an important part of the process.
The days are definitely getting longer. And even though it's still as cold as it was in the dead of winter, that extra bit of light is a fore-taste--a promise perhaps--of the spring to come.
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What We Leave Behind
January 8, 2018
The wallpaper on my computer is currently a picture of the tomb relief of a nameless member of the d'Aluye family of France who died sometime in the mid-1200s. He lays there, hands clasped in prayer over his chest, his chain-mail gauntlets and coif turned down. Probably a crusader, the first thing my wife and I noticed was that the sword on his hip had a Chinese hilt. According to the Met's Cloisters gallery in New York City, he may have bought/acquired the sword in the Holy Land. While his name is gone, I was able to take his picture in the Cloisters seven-hundred years later. Looking at the image got me thinking, though, about what we leave behind in the world.
As a writer, I realized the only things that might linger on in history after my death are the words I've written. So I sat down and wrote out my bibliography as of January 2018. Looking at it (it's posted up top with the other permanent links), my bibliography is both bigger and smaller than I thought it would be. Smaller, in that it's really not that long for someone who's been writing as long as I have. Bigger, in that it covers more genres of writing than I assumed I'd written in.
It seems to me that as writers, there are two ways to have an impact on the world through our writing: quality and quantity. Quantity--the number of times we're published--isn't entirely within our own power. It relies on things such as chance and editorial preference. Quality, on the other hand, is something we can control. Isaac Asimov wrote that authors should have integrity and always produce the best work they can. I agree. In the end, I may not leave behind a large body of work. But I'll do my utmost to make each and every piece in it as well-written as I can.
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© 2018 Andrew Gudgel
andrew (at sign) andrewgudgel.com
This page last updated on 20181015.