Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Art of Writing With the Internet

I really enjoy reading my favorite authors’ blogs. Typically, I’m a bad blogger in the sense that I’m usually behind with reading the blogs I love, but when I do get the chance to sit down with a mug of chai tea, I enjoy getting to read the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the people I admire most. Laini Taylor’s blog is one I keep coming back to. She’s the author of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, one of my favorite books. I just started reading Night of Cake and Puppets, savoring every bit of Zuzana’s adventure. I went on Laini’s blog this morning and read her post about how her most recent writing retreat went. She gave some advice as well about how best to be productive during a writing retreat, and it got me thinking.

A writing retreat is exactly how it sounds: you pack your bags, check into a hotel room for x number of days, and write. The hotel functions as a (comfy) desert island where you will fill up your empty word document because the sand is getting hot and the seagulls are not great conversationalists.

If you’re to go on a writing retreat, Laini suggests that you avoid the internet:

“No internet accesss. This is very important. Go to a hotel without free wi fi and do not buy a connection, and do not ask for a password. Just don't ever go down that path. NO. INTERNET.”

I get it. Checking your facebook account and tweeting photos of your hotel room’s carpeting is not what a writing retreat is all about.

The internet in the enemy. Turn off your wi-fi and go it alone.

Except that I don’t think I could do it. In fact, if I didn’t have the internet, I’d probably trudge home from a retreat with only a big fat bill to show for it.

On the bottom shelf next to my bed, I have as series of binders from pre-college, where I’ve stored drawings, stories, and copies from source material before personal computers were a real thing. Sometimes I open up a binder and look at the stories I wrote, torn out of notebooks and hole-punched together, wondering how I ever managed.

Nowadays, I handwrite notes and outlines for my stories–along with snippets of dialogue or description–but the bulk of my writing happens on a computer. And somewhere along the line, I started using search engines to seek the answers to my questions rather than bugging my mom to drive me to the library.

Yes, the days of interrupting my parents to have them rebuild the Roman aqueducts for me and catch criminals in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? is over.   

Is it bad that I never got past the Ancient Rome case? I much preferred the other Carmen Sandiego game where I wasted plane fuel jumping country to country interviewing suspects

Of course, nothing beats physical source material. When I was writing my thesis, I ordered a 1927 reproduction of a Sears catalogue since the novel takes place in a 20s-inspired world. I spent a whole afternoon flipping through the pages, lost in a world long past (and actually, I considered the idea of dumping my wardrobe and replacing it with all 20s outfits, if only I could pick straight from this catalogue).

Research time usually happens before I even start writing. I gather books from the library or order them if I think I may use the information for future projects, and hunker down with some hot vanilla blueberry tea. I type my notes to make sure I can read them later, haha.

When I’m writing, I don’t usually have sessions where I write straight through. More often, I’ll keep writing until I need to know something. What kind of nuts do airlines serve? How does a jet pack work? If you were in a hot air balloon and the pilot fell out of the basket, how would you figure out how to fly it?

Not all questions can be answered through raiding the library alone (especially because my library severely lacks a decent selection. Hello, inter-library loans!). Google is wonderful for this, and usually I can find a picture or website that helps answer the question so I can move forward with my story. Other times, I might have to email or call an expert in the area… which is something I’ve tried to do multiple times with hilarious results. If you meet me in person, ask me to tell you what happened when I contacted a doll-repair business.

I cannot turn off the internet. If I did, I’d probably be stranded in my draft. I’m not the kind of writer who can simply skip over the issue and continue. I don’t leave “BLANKS” throughout my drafts as markers for places in the story to return to and fill. And I can’t say, “I’ll keep going because it’s a first draft. I’ll just let my imagination free!” Honestly, I wish I could, but it’s just not my process.

So I minimize my document, search the internet, and eventually return with an answer. Rinse and repeat.

Laini is always full of great advice; when I read her blog posts, I’m usually nodding my head vigorously and taking mental notes. Her advice about not using the internet is still good. On bad days, it’s the very thing that prevents you from making progress in anything–not just writing. Even though I can’t bring myself to shut off my internet, thinking about what she said made me aware of how I work and how writing makes it from my head to the paper.

Understanding your process as a writer is pretty important–it’s a surefire way of beating writer’s block, at any rate. Perhaps the internet is more helper than hinderer for you too.

It's debatable.


  1. yay! thanks for writing this! it's nice to know that there are other writers who click & type too :D.
    i guess i don't have the writing chops to say i think it's a good idea ... maybe i'm a suckier writer because i am so easily distracted ... but i enjoy writing alongside other writers, and the internet provides the platform for some pretty awesome community.

    1. Yay, I'm glad I'm not alone too! You're right about community. Where on earth would we be if we hadn't met on Figment? :D Hooray for the internet!

  2. Oh man, we are complete opposites.
    I love getting to hear about your writing processes. It's like getting to glimpse inside someone else's head.
    I stay off the web when I write. I get more done. And I can use blanks. I jump all over the place chronologically and then tie it together later. Write transition in all caps, or "action here," XXX for names.... I rarely write in order, and if I'm uncertain about something, I'll bold it, make a note, and look it up later. I also write a bit in notebooks and copy it onto the computer, editing as I go.
    There's so many different ways to approach getting the story on paper... Haha

    1. You're a genius then. Seriously. I just can't do without Google. For the last project I worked on, I tried using the BLANKS, and they worked for... about a few paragraphs until I went back and figured out what to replace them with. I found that when I have to use them, bolding and highlighting them helps a lot more. I can't find them within the text unless I revert to bright and flashy colors!

      I agree! And since each project demands us to change our process, even slightly, it's always good to see how other writers work.

  3. The internet is my biggest distraction because of all the little pieces of is so distracting. I like to cuddle up on the sofa with a massive pile of encyclopedias because my brain needs to focus on one thing in detail. That's why I mostly read blogs and do things on line that are time consuming...but if it comes to browsing the net...I can't focus or write and I get very moody. My writing quirk is that I basically need silence and my first drafts are awful and full of a whole bunch of made up words/words used in the wrong way/parenthesis/sticky notes. I also need to read a lot before I type or write..

    1. Oooh, do you have one of those giant encyclopedia collections, or just the one book? I have a hard time imagining how they decided what would and wouldn't go into the one-volume version.

      Wow! After living in a dorm for four years, I got used to the constant noise. Sounds like it will be a struggle for you to write when your college years arrive - unless you're diligent enough to rent a room in the library. I never got that far - inspiration usually hit while I was sitting on my bed in the dorms. I'd lose it if I lugged my laptop over to the library (and get distracted by taking out books).

  4. First of all: "hot vanilla blueberry tea" Um, yes please, don't mind if I do. It is a special gift you have, Kim, always being one in the know about thee most delicious scents and tastes. I can still vividly recall reading about the lip balm (I believe it was strawberry) one of your characters kept in her purse and the compulsive need to go out and buy some for myself.

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I completely agree: if I didn't have the internet, I would have these huge gaping holes all over the place, and just leaving them? No, I couldn't possible. I feel like a poked-through piece of cheddar. Like yourself, I often wish I could "let it go" and "just write," but I cannot. I need the little discoveries along the way to keep me not only interested but articulate. It's not an easy feat describing something when you haven't the faintest idea of how it works. The distractions happen with or without the internet, I'm afraid. For me, anyway, I will always find them, and I would assume you probably would too. It takes a little more boundary setting, but I think in the long run, having the answers literally at our fingertips is a good thing.

    Hmmm . . . . You've got me very curious about this doll-repair . . . Perhaps sometime we might in the middle and you'll share with me. :-)

    1. Hahaha, thanks for the compliment. I'm a terrible person to be around in a candle store.

      Yes, the infamous lip balm! Oooh Flour House ;_;

      Right-o on the descriptions point. I can't continue without researching whatever it is I need to describe. I want to be accurate, but also creative... I feel that you can't do either if you don't have some knowledge on whatever the subject is.

      Haha, I'll have to hold onto the doll-repair secret. Hopefully we'll be able to see each other soon in the upcoming year - I, for one, would love to take a trip!