East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

How I spent my Workers’ Day

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Working on a ghostwriting gig is great because it pays the bills, and because it gives me the opportunity to discover, explore and write stuff I would not normally have in my life – business, current affairs, other people’s lives.
It’s a great source of inspiration.
It is also a soul-killing experience, most of the time, because it means working for a boss, and a boss that usually hires a professional to do a certain job, but basically believes they know a lot more about the job at hand that the professional they have hired to do it. The result is, they do not respect the process.
Because they do not know there is a process.
They have this romantic idea of writing, that’s something that comes to you and possesses you like an ancient ghost, and they are quite sure they are the ones possessed … because it’s their book, right?
You are just a hired hand.
It can get tiresome.

But because I was thinking about these things, instead of spending my May Day weekend writing writing writing, I spent some time reading about writing process and writing structure. The fact that I was trying to put some order in my library, tackling the writing shelf, also helped.

So, to sum up: writing is a craft, it is hard physical labor.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s also lots of fun, but you need to be able to survive the hard physical labor side.
For this reason you develop a process.

Indeed, I wish writing courses taught the process – the basics, the way you develop your own (because every writer’s different), how you deal with snags and pitfalls etc.
Instead they seem to focus on the importance of grammar (how surprising), the usual stuff about show-don’t-tell, point of view, first person, third person, using “Said” as a dialogue flag, using anything else as a dialogue flag, the dread “infodump” and how exposition is eeeeevil.
Oh, and how you can’t have a story in the first person that ends with the narrator dead (sorry Lord Dunsany, sorry Billy Wilder, you are not proper writers).
That sort of stuff, and often this thing about there being a one-size-fits-all formula that turns you into a great writer, you just have to stick to the blueprint.

Spoiler: there is no formula, there is only the process, and your knowledge of structure, and both are personal, end developed through experience.

So, all this stuff was boiling in what’s left of my brain, and in the end, I went to the internet, and checked out Youtube, and spent the best part of the weekend listening to writers I like talking about their process. And also writers and screenwriters I never heard about. Long hours of people talking about my job… actually a nice way to spend the Workers’ Day. Because this is how you revive a tired writer’s spirit: by listening to other people that have been there, and have faced the same challenges, and not only they did write the book or the script, but they also worked out their own approach to the process, their own insights in the structure. Fuck POV and infodump.

And of course, while I was relaxing in this way, I also got an idea about a course or two – about process, structure, outlining.
I’ll work on that during May, hopefully.
But we’ll talk about that in another moment.

And because I was putting order on my writing books shelf, I thought I’d round up a Top Five of writing books I actually read and re-read regularly – the ones that are at the forefront of my current shelf arrangement.
Just for fun, no commercial links or anything, in no particular order they are:

  • Jeff Vandermeer – Wonderbook (just in case, get the second edition)
  • Scarlett Thomas – Monkeys with typewriters
  • Madison Smart Bell – Narrative Design
  • Ralph W. Wahlstrom – The Tao of Writing
  • Scott Edelstein – 30 steps to becoming a writer (get The Complete Writer’s Kit, that includes it and more)
  • Nathalie Goldberg – Writing Down the Bones
  • Lawrence Block – Telling lies for fun and profit

And yes, there’s seven books in my top five. So sue me.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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