Writing And Productivity Tips From Cory Doctorow - InformationWeek

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Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner

Writing And Productivity Tips From Cory Doctorow

This is a little off-topic for us. Last night, I went to a talk by InformationWeek contributor, blogger, and science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow. He was speaking in his capacity as an sf writer last night, reading from and talking about his writing, and I was attending, not as a journalist, but as a friend, fa

This is a little off-topic for us. Last night, I went to a talk by InformationWeek contributor, blogger, and science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow. He was speaking in his capacity as an sf writer last night, reading from and talking about his writing, and I was attending, not as a journalist, but as a friend, fan, and unpublished science ficton writer myself, looking for entertainment and tips. But the talk was so interesting I felt the need to write it up and share it. And, since Cory is a contributor to this publication, and many of our readers are sf fans, I'm posting here.

I got there late, and tried to quietly head to my seat without disturbing everyone. However, the seating was on a temporary platform which rattled and roared when you stepped on it, like a giant killer robot made of scrap metal.

Cory read from an upcoming novel. I'm as ever impressed by his ability to do realistic characterization and description of the details of daily life in a science-fiction context. It's not always easy -- in science fiction (and fantasy, too) the world-spanning stories, speculative science (or magic) and heroic plot often overwhelm the human touch.

Cory gave a piece of advice that I think applies to everyone, not just science-fiction writers. He said you should have goals every day. List them. Make a priority out of getting them done. If you don't have these kinds of goals, you'll go through your days with a vague sense of guilt that, no matter what you're doing, it isn't what you should be doing.

Cory said for much of his career he wrote 250 words a day, every day.

Prior to his 250-words-a-day-routine, Cory said, he was blocked for many years. He was a ritualistic writer. He had to be smoking while he wrote, had to play (and win) a certain computer game (I think it was Minesweeper) before he got started. He said he saw a hypnotherapist who made him see that all this nonsense was in his head. He could write anywhere. Moreoever, the only difference between a good day writing, when things came easy, and a bad day, was in his head. Going back and re-reading he couldn't tell which passages came easily to him and which were difficult.

The hypnotherapist also helped him quit smoking, he said. That was important because, by tying together smoking and writing, he was coupling together one of the things that gave him most joy in the world with something that was killing him.

Writing every day, he said, creates a smooth communication channel to your unconscious, where all the real writing gets done (he didn't use the word "unconscious.") For example, he said, he described how he worked on a novel for several years, only to have to put it aside for a long time because he couldn't think of an ending. One day, he thought of one, wrote it up, and then set out with a heavy heart to do the unpleasant task of rewriting the novel so that the ending would make sense and was properly foreshadowed. But when he re-read the novel, he found that no revision was necessary -- the ending was already foreshadowed; he'd been leading up to that ending all along, without being aware of it.

He suggested you should "park on a hill" -- stop writing each day just before the end of the scene, or, even better, in mid-sentence, so that when you sit down to write the next day, you know how to begin.

He said you should give yourself permission to keep writing when you hit your daily quota. If you feel a head of momentum, and you're enjoying yourself, just keep going.

In response to questions from the audience:

  • If you miss a day writing, don't compound the problem. Just get it done the next day. It's like your job: If you come in late for work one day, that's done, you can't undo it, but you should be on time the next day.

  • He doesn't go in for elaborate outlining or formulas of story construction (like Algis Budrys's seven points). Instead, he writes what he calls "treatments," descriptions of things that should happen in chapters, not necessarily in any order. And his basic formula is to write likeable characters who do intelligent things, but at every turn the situation keeps getting worse through no fault of their own. This is, he said, tricky because it's easy to dig your characters in so deep that they can't ever get out of trouble.

  • Regarding intellectual property and copyright: He said that copying data is never going to get any more difficult, and businesses that rely on copy-protection or limiting copies for their business models are fools. They may be morally right, but they'll be the most morally right pandhandlers in town. The way to prosper in the coming age of the Internet is to figure out a business model that earns you more money the more people copy what you create.

  • He doesn't revise and write on the same day. He thinks it's impossible. After the talk, he and I had a bit of who's-on-first Q&A when I asked him if he wrote anything on revision days. I had difficulty communicating the question -- I knew that he didn't write and revise the same work on the same day, but I wanted to know if he might write a first draft of one work on the same day he was revising a different work. He said he doesn't do that either.

For what it's worth, I've found that to be the case with fiction myself -- I can't write and revise the same day. As a journalist, however, I've never had the luxury of separating writing days from revising days -- sometimes I only have a few hours between starting and finishing a story. But, even there, I separate writing from revising -- I start writing a story at the top, keep writing until I get to the bottom, then go back to the top and do whatever revision needs doing. Come to think of it, that's how I do blog posts (like this one) too.

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