Ben Parzybok

will forget your name, and feel very badly about it

October 14, 2011
by Benjamin Parzybok

A few tips on writing sprints, in advance of National Novel Writing Month

Felix Schlater wrote to tell me he’s heading into the month of torture and mania that is National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never done NaNoWrMo, though it’s always sounded like fun.  He wanted to know if I had any advice on book writing.

When you’re getting started or blocked the whole process can feel like some kind of dark secret. A black magic that requires just the right set of spells. When I go to author readings, inevitably there’s someone in the audience that asks how so-and-so does it. Use a typewriter or a computer? At night or in the morning? There’s no one right way to write, obviously, and everybody has got their own style. I’m co-writing a book with my friend David Naimon, and just last night we compared our radically different approaches to writing — but we’re both producing at an equal rate.

Differences aside, I feel like I’ve got a pretty useful bag of tricks for flat-out composing. Here they are, I hope Felix (or you) finds them useful:

Write first thing in the morning. I used to hate this advice — early bird gets the worm, blah blah blah. But I kept seeing writer interviews in which the writer talked about writing in the dark every morning. Finally, a couple of years ago I forced myself to become a morning person, and now I can’t speak for it highly enough. I try to get up every morning at 5:30. Make your pot of coffee at night and set it up on a timer. If you have a pet, your pet will quickly acclimate to the schedule and help you keep it (my cat starts nagging me if I don’t get up now). It’ll be dark, everyone will be sleeping, and you own the world. I can usually get in 250 to 1000 words before 7am, when the house wakes up. The rest of the day feels like a free ride after that. You’re going to need to be writing closer to 1700 words a day to make your 50k goal in November, if you’re doing NaNoWrMo, so you might have this as your first shift.

Edit the previous day’s work first. It’s hard as hell to sit in front of a blank piece of paper and start from scratch. Going over your previous day’s work gives you sort of a running start. Imagine it as the run along the diving board before you dive into the deep end. It gets you up to speed on where the narrative is going, and allows you to tighten as you go.

Write on paper or use a typewriter. Computers are demons of distraction, and worse, they allow you to edit as you compose. Forget about editing — when you’re composing, sprint forward. If you use a pen and paper it’s much harder to worry about what you’ve written and there are no other distractions.

Write only the good stuff. The worst thing in the world is to be faced with a scene you can’t figure out how to start, or one that seems too daunting to write. After being blocked, many times I’ve found the scene I was struggling with doesn’t belong in the book. If it feels really hard, or you feel like you’ve got something that you feel obligated to write in order to make something else happen, then alas, it’s probably junk. Write the stuff that seems fun. I don’t mean funny, just work that you’re not fighting against. In my experience, nine times out of ten work that I’ve fought with bitterly gets thrown out.

Write out of order. I usually have a sense of future scenes in a book. If you get stuck on the scene you’re on, write something that happens way down the road. Write the ending! You’ll probably need to edit those scenes later on – but the writing of them can also inform scenes earlier in the book.

Keep a tally of your word count. Post it up on the wall and mark each day down. After a while it’ll begin to feel less like marking your prison-stay off on the the cell wall and more like money in the bank. As a bonus, add a note on how that day went — that way you might spot trends. (How *did* I write 5000 words in one day?)

Take long walks with a voice recorder. You can get a decent digital recorder for about $30-$40 (or use your phone if it has the capability, though you have to guard against distraction there). I’ve found that just setting out with the book in mind and spending 45 minutes on the road can allow you to create quite a lot of work over time. Sometimes it’s just ideas, sometimes it’s actual writing. Also, you feel like a bit of a detective walking about and taking notes to yourself. Record everything, commentary about passers-by, rants, speak the character’s voices, build the world you’re writing in — just like the composing sprint, you want as much material as you can.

Transcribe. If you’ve used a voice recorder or used pen & pencil you’ve got bonus material. This always feels like free money. Start off your writing schedule by simply typing in what you’ve previously done. It allows for a quick edit as you put it in, and will also give you that vital ramp into the mindset of the story (the diving board again).

Edit ruthlessly. I hate to be adding this in, since you’re mostly concerned with getting it on paper. This comes later. If you’re doing a sprint, like NaNoWrMo requires, then you’re going to be adding in a ton of cruft. If you really like it, but it doesn’t fit, set it aside for another book. I just finished a novel of 145k words, and dumped at least 50k words from it. Before it’s over, I’ll probably be chopping out more. There are an endless supply of words in the world, the trick is using the right ones.

Good luck at NaNoWrMo everybody – let me know how it goes.


October 10, 2011
by Benjamin Parzybok


My good friends Heidi Anderson and Gary Perkins (Gary was my boss when I was a ghostwriter for the governor of Washington State — he died in his 40s) had Crohn’s disease. As did Kurt Cobain.

Because of the first two people, I might know *slightly* more than the average Joe about Crohn’s disease — mostly I remember it being incredibly painful for those who had it. It seems a disease in which one feels compelled to try most any solution, requiring constant self-experimentation, because the symptoms overwhelm one’s ability to do much else besides focus on the disease.

I was touched by this story about Crohn’s, and hope that by posting it here someone else might find an experiment/diet that works.



September 29, 2011
by Benjamin Parzybok

Where do you find really great & strange fiction online for free?

Strange Horizons!  And right now they’re having a fundraiser.

Strange Horizons is a professional market that pays its writers well. My experience editing my story Birds with Karen Meisner, one of their editors, was really top-notch. She was fully engaged with piece, and made sure the story shined. And Strange Horizons is widely read, too (how do I know? Among other places, Birds turned up in Chinese, was debated in Sweden and reviewed by Locus Magazine)

As I mentioned, they’re having a fund drive, which means you get to directly support a well-curated list of writers producing excellent work. Also, their fund drive includes a number of prizes — donated works from their writers (including, incidentally, a signed copy of Couch).

Strange Horizons Fund Drive

September 12, 2011
by Benjamin Parzybok

Street Books Kickstarter

Jim goes for James Joyce

Street Books has had a fantastic Summer. In fact, I think the project went so much better than Laura expected that she and her and her co-conspirators (Sue Zalokar, among others) have decided to turn it into a year round project.

One of the things I’m most excited about in the long-term project is converting existing patrons into paid librarians. Totally awesome.

In order to get a start with funding, they’ve started a Kickstarter project:

Check it out!

Also: if you’re in Portland, tonight’s the reception.

September 6, 2011
by Benjamin Parzybok

New story on the theme of ‘Launch’

Reading Local asked a few other writers to contribute a piece for their re-launching this Summer.

My piece on the theme is now out. It’s a strange little cubicle-landia, ad-agency piece, entitled “Launch Night at Dante’s Ad Agency“, and in the spirit of James Frey, that pretty much happened to me exactly.

My fellow writing-group member Karen Munro had her piece on the same theme (though a different sort of launch) come out last week. It’s called ‘Flight Suit‘, and it’s a great piece. Check it out.