Revisiting Old Friends, or, Finally Finishing that Damn Book

You may or may not recall that I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I didn’t make any this year, either, but there was something about the New Year that gave me the kick I needed to pull my book out of the proverbial drawer and make a go at finishing it.

So, it’s happening. After some time away I got to surprise myself again with the fact that the thing, two years in the making, is 70,000 words. 70,000 unproofed, unedited words, but 70,000 more words than I had two years ago, and in better shape than they were a year ago, and closer to being a finished thing that I start sending to agents than it’s ever been before.

There’s still some work to do and some scenes to finish, but I can see that little glow of the sunrise on the horizon, that hint of the end. Not the end of the process, but the end of this part of the process, which, with all my books and all my writing, I’ve never actually reached before.

Here it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

John Scalzi’s 2-Book-a-Year Writing Plan

John Scalzi has a great blog, if you’re not reading it. His books are pretty darn good too. I recommend Old Man’s War. Lock In was also great.

The man also signed various contracts that over the next ten years will have him churning out books, and for the year 2016, that means two books.

Without knowing the details of how that writing is happening, I like his approach: from 8am (when he gets up) until he finishes 2,000 words for the day, no internet.

I love you, internet, but you do get in the way.

Walls and Metrics

As my self-imposed deadline for when I will be done with book edits is pushed eternally back (it was, once upon a time, December 2014) I begin to see that the patterns and habits I had that let me write the book aren’t the same ones that will help me edit, refine, and finish it.

Writing a page a day was a great habit to develop for writing a book from beginning to end. I never would have written more than 80,000 words without sitting down to write that at-least-one-page each day.

But, as has taken me an embarrassingly long time to either notice or admit, sitting down with the mindset of “I’m going to write one page today” isn’t helpful when looking at a fully written work and trying to make it better. Yes, at the beginning of the process I did go through the book and said this arc has to change, or that bit has to be cut, or this plot is going to play out differently, so there were parts I had to write from scratch. But the hodgepodge filling in of gaps, of grabbing bits and pieces from later chapters and sewing them onto earlier, of deleting huge swaths of the story and replacing them with others, doesn’t look very pretty if I just fill and cut and sew. There’s some skill, and maybe it’s a skill I don’t have yet, of smoothing all those disparate pieces out so you don’t see the Frankensteined version of old and new drafts but instead a completed work that, for all anybody but me knows, came into the world perfect and formed exactly as it is.

That’s why it was a nice kick in the pants to see the “Pursue Metrics that Matter” post over at Study Hacks, where Cal Newport kindly chose the example of a would-be writer to illustrate the point. Reading the post, I saw I’d hit a wall because I measured my success by the wrong metric: I was writing a page a day, but the page a day scheme wasn’t what I needed any more to move toward my end goal.

Now of course comes the question of what concrete, day-to-day process I do need. We’ll see how that goes.

Places I Steal Time From

This week, I have:

  1. Written 984 words during a lull at work.
  2. Written for 20 minutes, though to be fair nodding off now and then, curled up under the covers at 6am after taking the dog out for a walk.
  3. Decided to write instead of watching another episode of Steven Universe. (After writing 825 words, I then watched another episode of Steven Universe.)
  4. Sat down to write, browsed Tumblr for 45 minutes, berated myself for browsing Tumblr for 45 minutes, browsed for another 5 minutes, and finally mentally kicked myself until I wrote 756 words.
  5. Kept saying “I’ll have all day to write tomorrow” and then used very little of tomorrow to write, but, ultimately, managed to use some of it.
  6. Sat down when I said I was going to sit down and written when I said I was going to write. Twice!

At no point did I not have enough time to write. Twenty sleepy minutes is enough. Hell, ten minutes is enough. And the truth is I could steal more time because there is time to steal. I like many humans am not really “so busy.” I am busy because I have pockets of time that don’t neatly align into large chunks of it, minutes here and half hours there that add up but not all side by side. I am busy because when I get up in the morning I say “later” and lounge around; I am busy because I get home and say I’ll relax for “just a minute” and it is never just. There are places to steal time from, places that time doesn’t need to be, like sleeping in, like falling down the internet rabbit hole, like all the TV I don’t even like that much but watch because human brains are silly.

If you want to write a book, you have time. Go do that instead of reading this.

On Delaying Dreams

I was supposed to be done with edits for my novel in December.

They aren’t done.

It’s March.

I can tell myself “I’ll do that later,” but not only do I not know if I will, I have no control in the grand scheme of the universe whether or not I can.

What I do have some control over, sitting in front of a computer, typing letters, is doing it now.

The Hardest Part is Starting

My particular brand of procrastination is putting off starting a task. Once I get going, the thing gets done–the hard part is over. But if I can put off the start of something, it’s pretty much guaranteed to never happen. I need to write today, but I’ll do it later. I ought to go for a run, but I’m tired so I’ll do it in the afternoon. I should get my lunch ready for tomorrow, but I can do it in the morning. Etcetera, etcetera. You’d think after so many instances of not writing later, of not running in the afternoon, of not putting my lunch together in the morning, I’d know better. And sometimes I do! I’m certainly cognizant of it right now, as I write this post, but me awake and fed and accomplished is a very different me than when I’m groggy or hungry or in the throes of an extended period of procrastination.

So sometimes I play tricks on myself:

1. I use Pomodoro off and on to trick myself into thinking “I just have to do this for a few minutes.” Then it always ends up being more than a few minutes.

2. I motivate myself with streaks. I’ve been getting ready for work the night before for the past two nights in a row, so if I do it again tonight it’ll be three, then the next night four, then five… Don’t break the chain! HabitRPG is my general habit streak tracker, while 750words is my writing streak tracker.

3. Once I’ve started one thing, I use that as momentum to start everything else. Today I got up and went for a run. I got back and started the laundry. I got out of the shower and chopped up salad for lunch. I got all that done and started this blog post that I’d been procrastinating on. Once I overcame the hurdle of getting my ass out of bed and beginning one thing, beginning everything else got easier.

Once I’ve started that productivity, even just for a minute, the next minute is easier, and the next minute after that.

29 Tips to Not Go Mad Writing

World of Wanderlust had an excellent list of 29 Tips to Increase Your Productivity as a Blogger that I find apply almost 100% to maintaining your productivity and wits as a fiction writer. In particular:

2. Do the most important things first thing in the morning

4. Work in bulk

12. Turn off all other distractions

18. Celebrate both small and big achievements

20. If nothing goes right, go left

and perhaps most importantly,

24. Don’t be concerned with what everyone else is doing

Go take a look at the full list.

Reading for Writers

When I see the same handful of books getting recommended again and again, I figure there must be something to it. Despite going to a nationally recognized creative writing program, I didn’t actually get a lot of the foundational education in story structure, style, composition – you know, the kind of important stuff. What I write now straddles somewhere between instinctual (“This sounds good.”) and piecemeal self-taught (free 7-point plot structure templates yeaaaah). I could stand to pick up some more of these books and be more systematic about it.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

On Writing by Stephen King is the one I own. I got it so many years ago it’s printed on actual paper. I still remember his ear infection story.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Philosophy of Composition by Edgar Allan Poe

Elements of Style by Strunk & White

See Succeeding in Writing as a Way to Write More Things

I read Entrepreneur for various day job related reasons, and recently gave their 8 Slow, Difficult Steps to Become a Millionaire a read. Though I haven’t succeeded (YET) at the whole making a living off fiction business, their steps seemed pretty spot on for how I think about writing.

1. Stop obsessing about getting published.

Write good stories that you believe in. Then write some more. Then keep doing that. Trying to write to trends or craft what you imagine the market wants are recipes for disaster.

2. Get out of your hidey hole and interact with other people in a helpful, supportive way.

There’s this weird paranoia that some unpublished writers seem to have about being plagiarized or having their ideas stolen that causes them to go into full isolation mode. Sorry, but your ideas were never original to begin with (nobody’s are!) and so what if someone steals them? If you’re a better writer, you’ll write them better. If you’re not, well, keep working on that.

Also there’s a lot to be said for what you can learn by being cool and helpful to other people.

3. Stop thinking about being wildly successful and imagine the people who are excited they read your book.

Writing “for” other people is another fool’s errand, but thinking hey, I’m writing this cool thing that I bet people would enjoy is pretty motivating.

4. See making it as a writer as a chance to write more.

Writing as my full time job. It sets my heart a-flutter just thinking about it.

5. Do your thing better.

Whatever your thing is, get better at it. Write fluffy schmoopy romances? Hone your fluff and schmoop. Write detective stories? Practice those plot twists. Write epic adventure stories? Refine each and every sentence for maximum tension. You’ve got a thing. Focus on that and do it better.

6. Study people who are good at the thing you want to be good at.

They figured it out. Try to figure it out from them. This doesn’t mean copying, it just means watching and learning then doing it your way.

7. Have a way to know how far you’ve come.

I know it’s painful, but save old drafts of stuff with dates. Maybe do a year review where you look at what you wrote last year and what you just wrote. Is it different? Is it better? If you have a problem just sitting down and writing already, use 750words.com or a similar site to track how much you write, how often. Make sure that number gets better over time.

8. Create habits that make writing happen

The most important thing you need to do to be a writer isn’t introduce yourself at parties as a writer, isn’t to talk about that novel you’ve got in your head on Twitter, and isn’t to drink out of novelty writing-related coffee mugs. It’s to write. However you can make yourself do that, whether it’s with the aforementioned 750words.com, with betting friends, with setting 7pm-8pm as your absolutely must write time, whatever, do it.

Then, if nothing else, you’ll be writing. Hell, you might even like it sometimes. Whether or not the publishing, wild success thing works out, there are worse ways to spend your time than doing something you like.

Reading Writing About Writing Books from Phil Athans

I only own one book about writing or to inform writing, Stephen King’s On Writing. Phil Athans has a way longer list of some good stuff, some random stuff, and some clever stuff (birthday wishlist: The Law Enforcement Handbook).

Loads of information is available on the web now, but I think there’s something to be said for a nice, contained, theoretically vetted volume on your topic of choice. If Wikipedia is all you reference your info’s bound to be wrong, or boring, or both.