There’s an old joke about a tourist in New York who asks a native, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall.”
They say to lead off with a joke, right? Well, I’ll lead off with half of a joke that’s older than many of the Writers in the Storm readers. (And notice I did not say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”)
When I was in junior high my parents wanted to encourage me to do arty things. After all, Maggie Preston, one of my aunts on my father’s side, was a well-known painter. Well, I’m not. There was a brief spate of clarinet lessons and after a lot of work I got it to make a noise like a duck. Nobody was sorry when I switched to piano. Which leads me to an anecdote about a concert pianist who said, “If I miss a day of practice I can tell. If I miss two days my coach can tell, and if I miss three my audience can tell.”
I recently launched two novellas called Crashpad and Buzzkill. (Insert high-priced commercial here.) I talked about them at some length at a signing at a great independent bookstore in Orange, California called Book Carnival. I talked a bit, read an excerpt and answered a lot of questions, some of which were about the background (they are period pieces set in the 1960’s on a college campus), and a few questions were on how to do it because, as with any audience, some of the listeners wanted to write.
Well, I’ve studied, of course. But mostly I’ve written. Words on paper. You’d think that was obvious, right? Maybe not so much. The point is that all of those folks who tell you to write every day are right. However . . . Not even Stephen King gets up every morning and knows exactly where the next scene is going. At least, I don’t think he does. But he writes every day, oh, yes, he’s there at the typewriter or the word processor or with a notepad putting one word after another, because that’s what writers do. They write.
Is all of it deathless prose that jumps from his page to the New York Times list? Of course not. Ray Bradbury says he wrote every day for sixty-nine years. Writing every day does not have to mean a new chapter in your novel, though that would be nice.
I had a writing teacher and reviewer named Paul Bishop. Paul is a now-retired LAPD officer and talented writer. Look for books like Citadel Run and Tequila Sunrise. He told me a story about a writing class he taught and a woman who came up to him afterward, thanked him, and said, “Now I’m almost ready to start, just as soon as I know exactly what the entrance to the FBI building in Washington DC looks like.” My guess is she’s still waiting.
So, you think, “Write every day,” and you get up one morning and Urk! no ideas, the old brain is thinking about breakfast or does the car need gas. So what? That concert pianist does not play Bela Bartok every morning first thing. No, she runs scales. (During my piano lessons I got to where I could do that and I’ll bet if I sat down today with only a little fumbling around I could do it again. Muscle memory. Your writing muscle is like that.)
Here are some ways to write every day even when your muse is off shopping.
Much of the following is based on writing prompts developed for the State of California by, among others, my wife Nancy and Fae Rowen (yes, the Fae Rowen who is one of the founders of the blog you are reading now).
Write a letter from your main character to you. Mine might go like this: “Hey, James, this is Jane. How’s it going? I got all my classes for once and didn’t have to stand in line very long to register. I’m taking Psych 101, and . . .”
Write a paragraph about your character’s life before the event that started the story. Alternatively write a paragraph in which one of your characters describes their life before this initiating event. My hero is a man named T. R. Macdonald, a guy who was a very successful broker/analyst in New York until, well, here’s what he would say about his life “before”: Mostly I’m a technical analyst, or I guess I should say I was. Anyway, I was at my station on the trading floor watching three screens and talking in the phone when Bernice, my boss’s Executive Assistant pushed her way through the crowd and pointed urgently at the blinking light on my phone. Until then I’d been a winner: Trader of the Year, fat bonus, Porsche Carrera (provided by a grateful company), stuff like that and it seemed to matter, you know. All it once it changed like a dip in a candlestick chart when somebody unloads a big block. Bernice told me my wife, who I’d left behind in California, had been hospitalized with a drug o.d. You know, I looked at the screens and I couldn’t remember the names of the equities or the client.
Whoa, when I wrote that I learned something about how Mac felt. Ok, it’s not deathless prose, but I got in touch with him in a new way.
Write — from a character’s viewpoint — what happened after that event. For me, this might be the reaction of Walter Dalrymple to Macdonald’s return to California. (Side Note: Walter takes center stage in the novella Crashpad.)
Will these exercises find their way into a final draft? Probably not, but so what? I doubt there are recordings of Jascha Heifetz tuning his violin. It flexes the writing muscle.
So you sit down and your mind is as blank as the page. Write, “I can’t think of anything to say. Why is that?”
“Shaquille O’Neal accepted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2000, he quoted Aristotle: 'Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do.' Classicists might quibble with Shaq’s translation of The Nicomachean Ethics, but in our view he was right on the money.” (Excerpt from What the Numbers Say by Derrick Niederman & David Boyum)
There are many ways to practice. I have listed only a few.
Share some of yours. If you have none, take a stab at one of these and tell us about it.
Writing that blog response is, after all, practice.
So the other half of the joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”