Writing/Life Balance

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I probably shouldn’t be here in Spare Oom and staring at this screen all day long. Most days I’m good with this; I’ll do some local errands or take the day off to go shopping somewhere. Other days I’ll just sit here and crank out the words all day long (and almost forgetting to get up and stretch). I’ll get frustrated when I take days off from writing, of course, because no one else is going to tell these particular stories and I’d rather not waste more time keeping them hidden.

The balance, I suppose, is allowing myself to get up leave the PC for a length of time. I don’t have to get these words out specifically before noon, yeah? I mean, it’s a good deadline but it’s not set in stone. Today I spent most of the morning doing some non-writing work and then doing our taxes. I’ll give myself a pass in this instance, considering one of them is time-sensitive. That’s why this post is late. Later this week A will have a few days off, which we’ll be spending at the zoo and at one of the local museums. My Writer Brain of course is twitchy because it’s time spent away from the PC, but Reality Brain is already calming WB down (You can always write AFTER we come home, you know.), so I’m not overly concerned.

I’ll get there eventually. It all balances out, really. I have slow days as well as extremely productive days. And if that’s true, I can also have PC days and I can have Real Life Outside days too, yeah?

Getting those words down

Image courtesy of Cowboy Bebop

Sometimes a writing session contains more than just writing or typing things. Sometimes it’s staring into space as I work the scene out in my head first. Sometimes it’s looking up a word or two in the dictionary or online. Sometimes it’s thinking ahead a scene or chapter ahead so I can work my way there. (And sometimes, I admit, it’s looking to see what’s going on in the Twitterverse or what song is currently playing. But we won’t count those.)

I tend to start off a little slow with each session. I’m rereading the last few paragraphs of what I’d previously written, just to refresh my memory. I’m having a snack or sipping my coffee. I’m putting on an album to listen to. Getting into the groove can take time now and again, especially if it’s a tough passage that I’m trying to crack. But once I get going, I can usually get up to a decent speed and power my way through.

That “getting myself going” can be tough sometimes, though. Whether it’s a can’t get my sh*t together day (I have at least one a week) or just that my brain just does NOT want to work on this sort of thing today, all I can do is either power through or chalk it up as a day off. I of course get frustrated when I have those days, but thankfully I don’t have too many.

More often than not, once I’m in the groove, I stay there. It’s a bit like a runner’s high, I suppose. I just manage to reach a moment where I’m coasting through the words and they’re coming fast and easy, and I’ll just ride it until it wanes or until I have to stop for other reasons. I don’t get this as often as I used to back in the Belfry days, but I know when they’re there and I treasure them when I can.

I try not to overthink what I’m writing, especially when I’m in that zone, but sometimes it happens. It often happens when I’m searching for a certain word — not a perfect one, just the right one that fits the meaning of the passage — and that will trip me up momentarily. I give myself a minute or so to either find the right word or just use a close one and move on.

Getting started be a bear. Sometimes I’m just too distracted — that’s when I need to close all my browsers and maybe even not put on any music — and just DO the damn thing. Other days I’ll come in prepared and hit the right pace immediately. Either way, once I’m where I need to be, that’s when I focus on just getting all the words out that I can.

Cutting it out

On the plus side, I’ve finally nailed down the main theme of Project B. I know exactly what the entire story should revolve around. And now that I know that, I can move forward at a much smoother and more consistent pace. I had an idea that this one particular section I’d written a few years ago might work as the true opening to the novel, and much to my surprise, it works perfectly in that position.

On the downside, I’ve cut two full chapters that didn’t relate to it all that much. One chapter I knew I was going to throw in the Outtakes bin because I was just writing something for the sake of writing and getting into the mood of the story. The other chapter was an older bit from a few years ago that I can actually still use later on in the story. So all in all, it evens out.

Still, I’m not too bothered by writing scenes that I won’t use. It’s all part of the writing process. I have tons of outtakes from different projects over the years hiding in folders and notebooks in Spare Oom. And like most writers, I might sometimes dig them back out to use elsewhere. Meet the Lidwells, for example, has quite a few scenes that were originally for a trunked idea of mine called Two Thousand, which worked quite nicely. And there are a LOT of Mendaihu Universe outtakes just waiting to be used elsewhere.

Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating when I do that, but I don’t feel too guilty about it, to be honest. I’m not being lazy, far from it. I’m recycling and reusing something that works much better elsewhere. Sometimes it’s a scene that I think is a fantastic idea, and I may have even written a rough version during a Daily Words session, just waiting for a forever home. But really, the most important part is when I place it where it’s supposed to go, and the entire project suddenly comes into clear focus and makes so much more sense.

That’s when I feel most proud of my work — when it all falls into place like I want it to!

Adventures in Time Blocking

Image courtesy of ‘Your Name’

Sometimes it’s not the lack of productivity that dogs me…it’s the forgetting to work on something that day.

I’ve found over the years that I work best when my day has a bit of a schedule to it. Nothing immovable and set in stone, mind you…just a bit of repetition of a daily habit that gets me up and running. For instance, I’ll have a day where I want to write a blog entry, work on Writing Projects A and B, do some daily exercise, and follow up on a few non-writing errands. And for the most part, I’ll hit every single one with time to spare.

Some days, however, they turn into Best Laid Plans that go awry. Part of it is due to distraction, but it’s also due to that old classic excuse, Out of Sight, Out of Mind. For example, as much as I’ve been wanting to make sure I stretch and exercise more often, that’s usually the first thing to fall by the wayside, usually because I just don’t think about it until it’s too late. And sometimes it’s not enough to have a list of to-do items on the whiteboard calendar, because sometimes I’m too busy working on something else that I completely forget to look at the thing until late in the day. [It’s in my peripheral vision while I look at this screen, it just ends up as visual static that I don’t always pay attention to.]

So what to do…?

I realized it was time for me to try something I’d attempted in the past: time blocking. I know this is something some office workers do; setting up a full schedule of Things One Must Do Today. It’s mostly so that they won’t overfocus on one specific task to the detriment of every other task due that day. I did it during my school years to some degree, and I did it for almost the entirety of my Belfry years. A scheduled habit turns into productivity for me.

I say this because I’ve created one this past week that’s been working quite well; I literally drew up a spreadsheet of times and tasks: 7am check emails and read morning comics, 8am catch up with small projects and job searches, 9:30am write in personal journal (a leftover from my Former Day Job days), 10am morning stretches…and so on. I printed it out and have it hanging on my clipboard next to my screen. I started this with the idea that this isn’t a rigid schedule and is one that can be changed up if necessary. As long as I hit every task within the half hour, is the main goal.

The end result this past week has been a consistent word count for both projects, blogs going out on time, and most importantly, I’ve been exercising and stretching twice a day again! I’ve missed maybe one or two items along the way, but I’m not beating myself up about it because I know sometimes that’ll happen. I may have to go out and do some errands in the neighborhood, or I might want to finish up something important and time sensitive.

The point isn’t to give every single item a checkmark on a daily basis…the point is to give myself a bit of stability and direction, that’s all. And that’s all I really need right now.

First Chapter Flailing

Image courtesy of Cowboy Bebop.

What I want to do is write a perfect opening when I start a new project. A great powerhouse opening that reels you in, or alternately, a poetic entrance that captures your interest. Opening scenes that get stuck in your memory.

More often than not, however, what I get instead is rambling and flailing crap. And each time, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to write a terrible opening. Or no opening at all.

In My Blue World, I think, is the only novel I’ve written where the original opening is the one you see in the end result, but that’s because I knew exactly how to open up that story as soon as I started it. I knew that Zuzannah had to enter the world of the Meeks sisters very unconventionally, literally ripping the fabric of space and time in front of their eyes. It’s been revised of course, but for the most part it remained very close to the original attempt.

Meet the Lidwells, on the other hand, started out as a series of Q&A sessions between the band and the unnamed interviewer, whom I later completely edited out, leaving their voice only as section headers and side notes. A Division of Souls had three completely different and unrelated opening attempts before I returned to the original idea of Nehal√©’s awakening ritual. The other two Bridgetown books also started off slightly differently. And nearly all of my trunked stories had alternate openings.

With my two latest projects, I’ve had to remind myself, again, that the only way I can really start these novels is to just WRITE THE DAMN THINGS and not worry too much about how the first chapter sounds. I’m sure I’ll be rewriting or at least revising them in the future, once I have a stronger grasp on what they’re about and what the story needs.

Which is why I call it First Chapter Flailing. I’m still trying to discover all the important parts of the story. What kind of tone do I want to set for the rest of the novel? Who is involved in the first scene, and why? What kind of setting am I looking at? How is this going to tie in with the novel as a whole? The problem is not that I don’t know how to write it, it’s that I’m trying to stick the landing the first time out, and I almost always fail in the process. I either start it too early or too late in the story’s timeline. And then I get frustrated and want to start over. I don’t mind wasting a bit of time trying to write a good story, but I hate wasting words and scenes I won’t use. I know it sounds weird, but it happens.

So how to combat this? Well, like I said: just write the damn thing. Don’t be perfect about it. Just have a vague idea of where this particular first scene is going and what I want it to achieve, and run with it. Have a mental short list of points I want to hit right away. Don’t worry about giant infodumps. And by all means, go ahead and give those characters a somewhat mundane conversation, because that’s the perfect place to drop hints on what will come later on.

There are a lot of moving parts in a novel, especially at the beginning, where it sets everything else in motion. Of course the first draft is going to be messy as hell. It’s always going to be crap. Maybe you’ll luck out and nail it first try, but more often than not you’ll be doing a lot of revision and rewriting in a month or two once you have a much better handle on the story.

And that’s okay! It’s all part of the job of writing. You can always forgive yourself afterwards for all that First Chapter Flailing.

Updates and Processes

I took an extra week off from blogging, as you may have noticed, as I felt the need to give my creative processes another rethink. Long story short, I’ll be updating this blog once a week until further notice, and will be posting them on Mondays only. [As for Walk in Silence, those will appear on Thursdays only.] I’ve decided I need to give a lot more focus on the two novels I’m working on.

Yes, I’m doing the dual-project thing again. Not on the 750Words site, mind you — I’m actually putting that on pause as well — but straight into Word. It seems to be working out well so far, even despite the usual First Chapter Flailings I often have to contend with when starting a new work. The trick, I often have to remind myself, is to just keep writing, regardless of any concern that I’m getting nowhere or writing crap that won’t survive the final draft. There are a few reasons for this:

One, this is a good way for me to get to know the characters a bit more. This is where I’m still feeling my way, so I’m giving them a bit of free rein to move around a bit to let them figure out who they are, and in the process give me an idea how the story will revolve around them. I did this with In My Blue World when I gave each of the Meeks sisters specific personalities (the concerned Diana, the curious Katie and the rambunctious Allie) right from the beginning, which in turn created their own plot arcs and character evolutions.

Two, this keeps me from overthinking it. Seriously, I have a terrible habit of overthinking my stories when I start them out. Overthinking creates too many boundaries that keep me from expanding on anything. I figure if I’m going to overwrite any part of these works, it may as well be the beginning. I can edit them out and reinsert the basic points of reference later on. I did this a ton in the Bridgetown Trilogy.

And finally, it creates an output flow that, after a while, can (and often does) become habit. After a few chapters I can usually nail that day’s work in less time and with higher word count because I’m used to reaching for that flow now, and I can easily pick up where I left off. This worked beautifully for the tandem-written In My Blue World and Diwa & Kaffi.

And in order to do all this, I need to give myself a bit more room to maneuver. Writing five blog entries a week (two here, two at WIS and one at Dreamwidth) plus Daily Words just isn’t working for me this time out, so something’s got to go on hiatus, or at least get cut down. I’ll still be practicing my music and my art, since that’s something I can do a half hour a day without providing too much brain power at this point. And besides, they’re great mini-distractions that are fun and relaxing.

I’m not entirely sure how long this change will last or if it will be permanent, but we shall see in a month or three, once I’ve been immersed in it a while. Thanks for your understanding!

Back to Reading Genre Fiction

I spent the last few months of 2020 speeding through the backlog of music biographies I had in Spare Oom, and before that I’d been catching up on a few comics (which I also did at the end of the year and start of this one, reading the entire Giant Days run by John Allison), so it’s been an absurdly long time since I last read genre fiction.

I’m trying to put a bit more thought into what I read this year. I’ve said earlier that I want to read more self-published and indie work — you know, to give my fellow writers a boost and all that. I also want to keep up with the pace I’ve been reading at as well. I’ve been finishing most smaller books in a few days, and the bigger ones usually take about a week. [Noted: I’m currently reading Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn and it’s a long one, but it’s quite a fun and excellent read so I’m zipping through at a reasonably good clip.] My current GoodReads challenge is at 80 books this year.

Thankfully I don’t have any current writing projects that need Yet Another Revision Read any time soon, so I can get ahead on clearing my To Be Read pile and not have new titles kicking around for months on end. I mean, I might reread the Bridgetown Trilogy at some point, just so I can get some inspiration and ideas for MU4, but other than that, I’ve got all the books to read and, finally, the time to read them!

Distraction (again) and Avoiding It

Well, I’m sure I could say I have a legitimate reason for being somewhat distracted, given this week’s news, but…

I really need to start closing the browsers more often. I mean, it’s not as if I get into an hours-long doomscroll…it’s more the serotonin rush of being plugged in, I think, added with a lack of focus. And I need to stop it. Again.

I mean, I know when distraction sets in, because it’s so reliably predictable. I could be scooting along at top speed on whatever I’m working on, and as soon as I slow down to grasp at a word or phrase that isn’t coming to me just yet, my brain says oh hey, let’s go on Twitter and see what’s going on! and next thing I know, it’s twenty minutes later. That’s been the top culprit for a while now.

[In a way, I’m glad it’s no longer my delaying any work at all by poring over my music library for a half hour, trying to decide what to listen to. I was terrible at that during the Belfry days.]

Whatever’s going on in the world really shouldn’t be a distraction, at least not unless it’s literally outside my window. It’s okay to be late to the party now and again. I didn’t even know about the events at the Capitol building until almost a full hour later because I’d closed everything to finish up some long-delayed revision work. It took me a bit of time to unreel myself from all that after lunchtime when I had more work to do, but I was able to do it eventually.

I seem to hit Heavily Distracted levels maybe every five days or so. I don’t know if it’s a brain thing an emotional one, but it’s something I have to deal with in one way or another. Sometimes it’s easy, closing those browsers, putting on an album, and immersing myself in work. Other times it’s not so easy, and those are when I don’t have a clear plan. Either way, I work through it somehow, eventually. Sometimes I’ll back away and do something off the PC, like a bit of art or music practice. Or maybe even a word search! [Those are surprisingly calming for me, I find.]

Anyway — life finds a way, as they say. I know I get distracted, and it’s up to me to find ways to avoid that when I can.

Numbers

I’ve always tried not to focus too much on hitting a specific word count, though it doesn’t always work out that way.

Back in my Belfry days, I’d assigned myself a daily word count of 500, if only to ensure that I wasn’t just turning on the computer, typing a paragraph, and spending the rest of the time playing FreeCell and faffing about with my music library. Once I got into the groove, however, the daily word count goal shifted to 1000. This was around the time I was writing The Persistence of Memories and I knew that with the schedule I had, I could hit it easily.

The downside to that run, which lasted until 2004 while writing The Balance of Light, was that hitting word count started becoming a sport. I’d been so excited by that incessant creative drive that I was pushing 1200 on a daily basis, even weekends. So when the Day Job was getting to me mentally and physically (not to mention a budding long-distance relationship that would soon change my life significantly), I was burning out. And that caused my productivity to suffer.

Nowadays I keep tabs on my word count, but I no longer see it as a sport. I see it more a series of small achievements, like the KonMari cleaning system: a little at a time adds up to quality work as a whole. I keep tabs on the numbers in a little calendar notebook, purely for reference and curiosity. Between the 750 Words site, revision work, and new words for new projects over the course of a day, it adds up. I could hit a few thousand pretty easily on any given day, but I rarely think about it.

For a while I used to take these numbers and crunch them on a spreadsheet, but I soon realized that the actual numbers didn’t interest me in that format. While it was interesting to see how productive I could get during various parts of the year, I’d also get frustrated because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hit the same numbers during a heavy fourth quarter. Besides, I’d completely forget to update the spreadsheet for months on end, so I figured…maybe recording metrics is not what’s needed here.

I just want to write, and enjoy the process. I love having a busy and extremely productive day, especially when I finish off a chapter or a major scene. Adding metrics to my productivity only causes me to think maybe I’m not doing enough. [The Former Day Job may also have something to do with that.] It’s not how my brain works, because numbers don’t mean all that much to me in that context. I’m more focused on schedules anyway. It’s why I have my whiteboard, why I have those ‘assignments’ I hit every day. It all adds up to the same productivity goal I want to hit.

I don’t focus on the solid numbers; I just focus on getting it done.