“Simple is good.”
- Jim Henson
I am not a Zen monk. I am not posting this blog from a monastery perched atop a remote, cloud-shrouded mountain. But I recently read an article that shared “12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk” and I thought that these rules translated well to the writing life.
Barefoot and breathing and listening to the sound of one hand clapping, I give you…
12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen
1. Write one project at a time. Find your main project and focus on it. It is easy to collect new ideas, to become infatuated with the potential new story. However, a dozen started projects is easily a dozen unfinished projects. For every project you are simultaneously working on, you are slowing down every other project you are trying to juggle. And not only that, each of these other projects takes creative energy and focus that could be better spent fueling your novel-in-progress. Write them down. Record those ideas. File them away and come back to them...but stay focused on one primary project. If you need a creative break, allow yourself a small side project, but keep it as that; a side project.
2. Write it with determination and deliberation. Write like a shark. Keep moving forward. Be determined to finish that draft. Be deliberate in your actions, letting every word, every sentence, serve your story. Know your characters, believe in yourself, shrug off doubt, duct tape your internal editor and write your way to your goals.
3. Write it completely. DO NOT edit along the way. A well polished first 50 pages is just that...50 pages, not a book. Write through (not necessarily in linear fashion) to the end. Complete the draft, and then ride into the magic of revision on the backs of rainbow unicorns. And while you're writing your way through the entire draft, be completely IN each scene. Be in that moment...don't worry about the entire forest. Focus on that one tree you are hugging...and then move on to the next and do the same. Be IN that scene, be on THAT page and eventually you'll string together a story, page by page, scene by scene. Otherwise it gets pretty darn scary.
4. Do less. That's right. Say "No" to things. What's that? Nope, can't mow the lawn. Novel to write. Sister's wedding? No. Cricket tournament. No. Call of Duty 17 for the Xbox? Nope. Ok, occasionally you are allowed to take a break and get to do something with other humans...but stop watching television every night, or tricking yourself into feeling obligated to attend every social event. But it's National Canned Peaches Day next Wednesday and everyone is getting together at Sven Jorgenstein's to make Peach Syrup Margaritas!! Um.....no. Write your novel.
5. Put space between things. Make time to step away from your story. I believe that we have creative batteries and that they are rechargeable. But they need time to recharge. So maybe step away and take a nice walk (while talking to your character in your head. See multitasking?). Or throw a Frisbee with the kids. Or lie on the grass and watch the clouds. Or read a book. But hey! You just said no breaks! No, I said "Don't go to Sven Jorgenstein's for Peach Syrup Margaritas." At least these breaks recharge your creative batteries and don't end with you suffering a severe fructose syrup hangover.
6. Develop writing rituals. Establish routine. Are you a night writer? A morning writer? A coffee shop writer? Do you need to write barefoot or on a unicycle or on a typewriter or with Scandinavian Yodel Quartet music blasting? Find what works for you and make these your rituals. Own your process.
7. Designate time for distractions. Facebook, Twitter, checking emails, etc., etc....all those wonderful little interwebs distractions right at our fingertips. Don't tell yourself "no," tell yourself "not yet." Write for 50 minutes and then take 10 for social media. Wash, rinse and repeat. Use them as rewards.
8. Devote time to sitting. That's right: BIC (Butt In Chair). MAKE the time to write. Nobody is going to do it for you. Sure, it'd be easy to just plop down on the couch and make origami penguins. And yes, you're tired from sitting through classes or a day at work. Sure, there's laundry and the living room needs to be vacuumed. But you know what? Making origami penguins is hard...and those other things can wait. Maybe until tomorrow. Maybe for an hour. Excuses collect entirely too easily and the next thing you know a week, a month, a year has passed. And you're no further along in your novel.
9. Smile and serve your characters. This means knowing your characters. Follow them through the story. Listen to them. Trust them. Ask them what they want, all of them, from the protagonist to the secondary character in chapter eleven who surprises the heck out of you and reveals a side of your antagonist you never knew existed! What!? Yep. Serve your characters and they'll serve you.
10. Make research and revision become meditation. When it is time to embrace these processes, be mindful of where you are and what you are doing. Do not be afraid to make the tough cuts. Know your purpose in research and what your research goals are, lest you fall into the trap of becoming lost or encumbered. Be mindful and embrace these roles. They are vital pieces of the Zen writing process.
11. Think about what is necessary. Does everything in your story serve a purpose? Put nothing in your story for its own sake; not for shock, not as a gimmick, not because it's cool. It all must move the story forward, it all must have a purpose. If not, it is your job to remove it. Be strong.
12. Write simply. Don't overcomplicate your story. Rita Williams-Garcia, author of P.S. Be Eleven, One Crazy Summer, et. al, once told me that I had "too many things in the lifeboat. Start throwing some of them overboard." It's easy to start adding in all kinds of ingredients to the soup, but then you get some kind of convoluted inedible jumbo. No. Keep it simple. Simple, straightforward...a story that your readers can follow. No, that they are eager and anxious to follow. Be a storyteller. Just like Jim Henson said up there at the beginning of this post: "Simple is good."
While I cannot promise you enlightenment, or the path to publication, I can offer you this:
"Listening is the first step and the last step." - Cantus Fraggle