Leave Me Wanting More: How To Rack Up A Writing Streak

I’ve been stacking up good writing days like moves in a combo lately. And, much like the relentless practice that led to mastering the triple-left-quarter-circle-punch-punch-throw-forward-dash moves from the fighting games of my youth, there is a trick to this as well. No, it’s not sore thumbs.* Unless you type only on your smartphone.** In which case, well done you.

My trick? I stop before I think I should.

If I’m writing, and especially if I’m writing a good bit***, I always end my writing day before I get to the end of that part. I pick a point somewhere near my day’s target word count and just…stop. I’ve even been known to stop in the middle of a sentence, just so I know exactly where to pick up the next day.

I could go on. Get to the end of the scene or the fight or the chapter. Most of the time it would only be another couple hundred words. Maybe a thousand. But then, when I returned the following day, before I started writing, I would have to decide what comes next. And I can waste my whole writing day making that kind of decision.

Or I can pick up in the middle of something that I know goes like this, and by the time I’ve gotten to the end of that I have a good flow going and have a pretty good idea of what comes next without agonizing over it.

And, half the time, it ends up being better than what I would have come up with if I wasted half the morning trying to figure out where to start.

TOO SLOW.

Starting is hard. Continuing, on the other hand, while not always easy, is definitely less hard. And while I may rack up a few less pages per day, I have far fewer days where I stare at the screen and get nothing. On the whole, stopping early puts me ahead of the game. Not to mention gives me time to catch up on the outrage du jour on Twitter.

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. At least for me. You might be able to crap out an entire manuscript over a long weekend, and not have it sound rambling or contrived or amateurish at all. In which case, I salute you, and wish you many happy long weekends.

But I always like to leave myself wanting more.

*I still have a scar on one of my thumbs from an old Playstation blister.

**Which can be done. Peter V. Brett wrote the first volume of his very good series on a Blackberry while he was commuting to and from work. I think of that whenever I complain about finding time to write.

***i.e., the bit where something horrible is happening to someone.

Spin Me Round: Finding–And Losing–Your Writing Groove

Like a record, baby, right round.

A strange thing happened the other day while I was busy ruining a person’s life.*

I’d settled into the morning writing slot with barely a ripple, pausing only to answer the door—package delivery; guess who ordered more damn notebooks—and refill my coffee. As I cruised toward noon, word count goal long since vanished into the rearview mirror, I realized something:

I’d hit my groove.

There is a time in a manuscript’s creation where it suddenly gets easier. No more fighting the plot or the characters. They know what they have to do, and all you have to do is chronicle the steps they take to get there. Like the needle finding the mark on some quality vinyl, the groove awaits, and once there the words shall flow and so will the time. I’ve forgotten lunch once already this week, and only noticed when I ran out of the little mints I keep on my desk. I was hungry, but, damn, my breath was fresh. And there was a new chapter finished and the next one started, like magic.

Here’s one thing about the groove: it doesn’t happen by accident.

This groove occurred because I have been planting my ass in front of this laptop every morning without fail. I wrangled characters, agonized over decisions, and generally slogged my way through the muddy, thorn-filled early paths, forcing my way on with the brain equivalent of a machete and a grimace. I fought. I persevered. I was generally too bloody-minded and contrary to quit.

And now, as a result of all that, I know who the characters are. Therefore, I know what they would do when faced with a given situation. And what the other characters will do with the inevitable fallout of that character’s decision. The tune is all there; all I have to do is sing along.

This will not last. There will come a time when I will slip out of the groove with an angry-cat-scratch, when I’ll lose the feel, when it will all suddenly be hard. Again. I know this will happen, because it has happened before. Many times. As many times as I’ve had writing projects, as a matter of fact, because any time something takes longer than an hour to complete, it has the potential for grooves and therefore the potential for slipping out of them. So I know it will happen. Probably not today; today’s been good already. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe a month from now.

So I’m writing this blog post to remind myself of this groove, and how it was created. And to leave a plan for my future self: here. This is how you get back. This is where the good shit lies.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the groove beckons.

*An imaginary person. I rarely ruin real people’s lives, except possibly by accident.

There Is No Writing Without These Five Things

The muse isn’t this into you.

1. There is no writing without reading. Okay, there is, but it tends to be shitty writing. Read, and read widely. Fill up your brain’s compost bin with ideas and let them sit. Turn occasionally. That’s a thing you do with compost, right? I don’t know, I’m not a fucking gardener.

Anyway, soon, you will have idea compost in which you can plant your own stories. Just don’t be surprised if the fruit they grow is strange. Or radioactive.

2. There is no writing without getting your ass in the chair. You have to work at writing. You have to place your sitting bones in a chair, or otherwise prop them in front of the Magical Writing Box, and get to work. Writing will not do itself while you’re watching YouTube clips of Russian dashcams. It doesn’t turn up if you wait around. The muse can be a shitty date that way. You can dress up nice and wait around for it to pick you up, but it never does. You’d be better off taking yourself out, getting a table, ordering something big and alcoholic, and starting on your own. Get the party started and the muse will show up. Or it won’t. Whatever. Fuck that guy. You don’t need him.

3. There is no writing without coffee. Not for me, anyway. Hey, at least it’s an improvement on the cigarettes.

4. There is no writing without fun. If you hate sitting down to your computer or notebook or stack of engrave-able methane tablets, if you hate having to put all the words in the right order, if you hate the time you spend doing it every single time…then you’re not writing. I’m not sure what you’re doing, but it sounds like you’re engaging in some really boring form of torture. And I bet it makes you bucketloads of fun to be around, champ.

You gotta have fun, or what’s the goddamn point? Though if you want to beat yourself up that bad, there’s probably someone on the internet who will pay to watch.

5. There is no writing without investment. And I don’t mean day-trading. If you’ve got no investment in your story, in your characters, then the writing isn’t going to happen. You don’t always have to like it—the above comments on fun speak to the majority of the time, not the entirety of it—but you should want it. You should want to tell that story. You should want to spend time with those characters, even the ones who make your skin crawl.

Fill in the blank with your must-haves, word nerds: There is no writing without_____________.

You Get A Gold Star: Tracking and Motivation

I would need a matching roll that said FAIL for days I missed.

Tracking writing progress is hard. Not the actual process, because every damn word processor has a word count dealie that you can enable and either watch obsessively as it goes up with every keystroke or check every now and then. But it can be hard, when you’re working toward an uncertain conclusion—Will you finish? Will it get published?—to feel like you’re getting anywhere except deeper into a hole.

So I added stickers.

This isn’t my idea. I came across it on Twitter when someone posted a picture of their month back in December, and Google’d my way around until I found this video. The idea is pretty simple: assign a value to a sticker. A day’s writing, say, or 500 words, or an hour, or three pages. Get a calendar. Every time you hit that goal, put a sticker on that day’s square.

Maybe it’s the undying third grader in me, but I love stickers. I did back then, when I had a sticker album and would trade with friends at recess*, and I do now, when I use them to track my writing progress.

Thirty-two years old, and I’m still collecting stickers. I’m pretty sure that’s on the next season of Intervention.

The whole point of this is to give you a visual cue to show your progress. You could do this with your computer or phone, I guess, but for me that’s not the same. I have to turn those on, for one thing. The calendar—Legend of Zelda, FYI—hangs right next to my desk where I can look at it before I fire up any of the Space Age Devices in the morning. I can see the progress I’ve made, and, just as importantly, I can see where I didn’t make any progress. I can see days I skipped, empty of stickers. Such a tragedy.

I’m using the stickers to track other stuff, too. Red is writing. Blue is sketching. Yellow is bloggery. Pink is reading. Which of course just adds another layer of obsession: I have to get them all.

My point: don’t be afraid to do something downright silly in order to motivate yourself. In fact, don’t be afraid to do something downright silly ever. Life’s too short.

So, how are you guys getting your January motivation on?

*But not the sparkly ones.** Never the sparkly ones. Proof that I was a magpie even then.

**You can have the damn fuzzies, though.

Scaling Back: When Too Little Is Just Enough

I am not nearly this cute when I nap. Though I am often covered in cats.

I recently developed a Health Thing which means that I have to get more rest. Not ‘should’ get more; there’s very little I can do about it when the fatigue strikes except try not to fall asleep at my desk*. I can go from ‘totally fucking awake’ to ‘holy shit, no one has ever been this tired, where’s the cocaine, I have to—Zzzzzz’ in eight seconds flat. Aside from possibly being some kind of record, this means that I’ve had to alter my habits.

Like writing. I can no longer write my standard 2000-2500 words a day because, in addition to writing, I still have other things that have to get done. Like showering. And errands. And doctor’s appointments.

I’ll admit, I tried to bull through at first. I’m not known for my tractability, and as far as I was concerned, this was just another obstacle that had to be overcome, like ‘writer’s block’ and other bullshit. If I worked hard enough, I could get through it.

Which was a lie, of course. When your body isn’t working the way it should, you can’t just power through. And trying leads to frustration, anger, and resentment, both of yourself and the project that you should love but that just seems to eat every waking second of every day.

So I scaled back.

This wasn’t easy for me. ‘Doing less’ has always sounded suspiciously close to ‘giving up’ to me, because I am the Queen Bitch of Overachievers. That’s probably why I spent those first few weeks alternately giving myself pep talks and hating myself for not being able to follow through on them because my body, selfish cunt that it is, demanded sleep above all things.

If I’d had access to meth, I probably would have had a go. Just sayin’.

But, finding myself tired, angry, and meth-less, I had to try something else.

I made the choice to scale back my writing day. My daily word count is now 1000 words instead of 2000. And, lo and behold, it’s given me back my day. Now I can get the other stuff done. And, more importantly, I look forward to those 1000 words again. They’re not a boulder I’m rolling uphill. They get done, and I’m happy with them. You know, most of the time.

Writing is fun again.

So, this is your permission slip from me to your psyche or whatever overworked neurotic part of you can’t let go when it needs to: doing less is better than doing nothing. Sometimes it’s just what you need. And that’s okay.

…I’m gonna go take another nap. Later, word-nerds.

*Converted to a sitting desk instead of my more usual standing desk for the duration. I miss you, standing desk.

Back In The Word Mines: Establishing A Writing Routine

Psst. Hey. Hey. Hey, dragon. Hey. You wanna watch Korra?

You want to write regularly? Get yourself a writing schedule. No, not a fucking day planner. A routine that you follow in order to make sure you get ass in chair and actually write.

But making a routine in tricky. How do you make sure you have enough time? How do you stop people from bothering you? Does this mean you have to give up competitive wombat wrestling? All tricky questions.

Here’s how to get started.

1. Figure out your personal schedule. This has two parts: the times that you naturally work best, and the times you have available.

Me, I’m a morning person, especially for creative work. I like to have the grunt writing work done before noon, pouring out all the novel stuff in a caffeine-fueled rush like a hail of word-bullets. Then I save the afternoon for editing or non-creative projects, like writing copy. My editing brain sleeps in, but the creative brain is an early riser.

You might be a night person. Or a mid-afternoon person. Whatever. The key is: identify when you’re at your best.

Then look at the times you have available. If you’re lucky, the Venn diagram of your optimal time and your available time is a perfect circle. If not, you need to adjust. This might require sacrifice. I started getting up 5:30-6:00 am every morning to take advantage of my best brain time. Does it suck some days? Like a coked-out Hoover. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

2. Guard your time like a dragon with a horde. Other people will not respect your writing time. It’s not a mean thing; most of them just want to spend time with you and don’t understand why you insist on spending time banging on a keyboard when you could be playing Halo with them. You must be firm in your defence of your schedule if you hope to get anything done. Make them understand that this is important to you, and that they should respect that.

Or lock your door, turn off your phone, and invest in a couple of guard monkeys. That works, too.

3. Don’t waste your time. You’ve gone to all the trouble of setting this schedule up only to find yourself obsessively refreshing Twitter instead of writing. #amwriting should be #ampretendingtowrite.

Like you were firm with others, be firm with yourself. Set a word count and meet it. Try the Pomodoro technique (I’ve used it, and it works very well). Or, for the hardcore among you, download Write or Die and set it to Kamikaze Mode, which deletes words if you stop writing for more than thirty seconds or so.

4. Reward yourself. Yeah, yeah, in a perfect world, doing the writing itself would be reward enough. And, for me, most days it is. But others I need the extra spur.

Likewise, when you’re first trying to establish a routine, it pays to make like Pavlov and have the reward coming. Finish 1,000 words, get an episode of Orange Is The New Black. Or an hour of video game time. Finish a chapter, get a new comic book. Eventually you won’t need them, but, especially in the beginning, these little carrots can be hella helpful.

When I finish this novel, I get a robot. You’ve been warned.

So, what do you guys do to establish a routine?

 

Monday Challenge: In Between

No airport I’ll be in will look this cool.

I’m probably in an airport right now. What airport, on what continent, I don’t know yet, since I can never remember the time zone conversions, but if you’re passing through one and you see a woman wearing a giant robot t-shirt sacked out in a departure lounge chair re-reading Harry Potter and the Something of Something for the millionth time, say hi. It might not be me, but she still sounds pretty cool.

Airports are weird places. They’re in between. A place you pass through on your way somewhere else. Which only makes it weirder when you have to spend time there. There’s the distinct impression that you should be moving on.

They’re not the only places like that. Waiting rooms, bus stations, other people’s guest rooms, hotels, highway rest stops…these are places that you inhabit only temporarily. No matter how welcoming, no matter how comfortable, you will leave. That’s the point. Unless you’re that guy from The Terminal.

Monday Challenge: write me an in between place. A place you’re not supposed to stay. What makes it that kind of space? What hints did the builders add in to make it perfectly clear that you have to go? Uncomfortable chairs? Awful paint scheme? Chorus of shrieking demons? And what’s it like when your character has to stay there?

I’m going on the hunt for a power outlet.

 

Monday Challenge: Springy

The worst power up ever.

Maybe it’s because my lawn is finally starting to look like something other than the Devil’s frozen asshole, but I feel…springy*.

I’ve been doing a lot of digital cleaning. Mostly because, when my hard drive took a long walk off a short pier, I had to restore everything from a backup. Which took forever. But, being the sunny natured optimist that I am, I found something good in it: I could now reorganize my hard drive. After all, I had to erase the whole damn thing. Since I have a clean slate, it seems like a good time to think about an organizational structure.

I likened it to renovating after a house fire: yeah, I probably could have lived with things as they were, but now that it’s been burned to the ground, I might as well fix the weirdly shaped kitchen, patch that crack that was always in the floor, and clean out the nest of sentient crab spiders that roosts in the attic and throws parties on Tuesday mornings. It’ll improve things in the long run, and it’s not that much extra work compared to the Herculean effort that was already going on.

The result is a digital workspace that is better, cleaner, and more efficient. So the whole ‘my computer shit itself’ week had at least one good outcome: the laptop feels brand new again. And with a fraction of the cost–though a thousand times the work–of actually buying a new computer.**

Monday Challenge: write about something old made new. Spring springing, phoenixes rising, old ladies stealing the bodies of children to continue their quest for immortality, galactic armadas siphoning the power of a young star system to breathe new life into their war machines.

I’ll be over here, digging through the remains of my hard drive like a renegade archeologist looking for the Holy Grail. Or at least some interesting porn.

*To paraphrase Scrubs, ‘springy’ like the season, not like the inside of a mattress.

**Though I wonder how much longer I’ll get out of this machine. Like a double agent that claims it’s really on my side, I no longer trust it.

 

The Only Two Tools Writers Need

Time to get rid of that special software that promises to write your novel for you.

Let’s talk about writing tools.

There are eleventy billion products out there that will attempt to convince you that you need them to write. Software. Notebooks. Workshops and courses. Special pens that make coffee and are also vibrators.* Some of these things might help some people. But, aside from things to write with and on, there are only two tools you really need when it comes to writing, and both of them are mental.

Are you ready?

Your two tools are: the magic wand and the sledgehammer.

The magic wand** is your creativity and wonder. It has a sign that says Ideas come from right fucking here, asshole.*** This is the thing that shows you all those possibilities. Everything you can possibly create comes from here.

But the magic wand, for all its power, is useless on its own. It’s fun, sure. It always keeps you entertained. But it’s incapable of making anything.

For that you need the sledgehammer.

The sledgehammer doesn’t give a shit about magic. It’s about results. It takes the ideas and makes something out of them. Stories, mostly. Every time you sit down to grind out the word count, that’s the sledgehammer at work.

And, like the magic wand, it is also useless on its own. With no magic, your writing will lack life. Ever read a story that felt like a DVR programming manual? That’s a sledgehammer with no magic wand. The story gets finished, but you’re left wondering why you bothered in the first place.

Here’s another way to break it down:

Magic Wand: Holy shit, check out this dinosaur ninja I just thought up, it has lasers and claws and is also a princess, oh my god, hahahahahah

Sledgehammer: Turn on the computer. Let’s figure out how to make this work. Oh, and you’ve got 1000 words to go today.

Of course, they don’t always work this well together. Sometimes the magic wand gives you samurai unicorns and the sledgehammer thinks that’s stupid. And sometimes the sledgehammer builds something that the magic wand thinks is booooooorrrrrring. They fight. They work at cross purposes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’ll ever get it together. But, like the odd pairing in every buddy cop movie, if you keep throwing them into ridiculous situations, they eventually figure out that they work better together.

So strengthen both. Absorb the weirdness that the magic wand runs on. Hone your practical skills so the sledgehammer is easier to lift. With those two in your toolbox, you’ll be amazed at what you make.

*Could someone invent this real quick?

**Bonus fact: The Husband used to have a magic wand at his place of work, for customers who demanded the impossible. When new regulations required that everything be labelled, he even labelled it ‘magic wand’.

***Magic does not equal nice.

Yet Another Reason Writer’s Block Is Fucking Bullshit.

It was close to this. Good thing digital files don’t burn well.

Last week, I had something I haven’t had for a long time: I had writer’s block.

I didn’t know what it was. I was just staring at the screen like I was staring into Nietzsche’s abyss, except that while it might have been staring back at me, it sure as hell wasn’t saying anything. Everything I tried seemed like shit. Even the stuff I’d written the day or the week before seemed like shit. There was, in fact, a lot of shit around, and it seemed like I was responsible for creating most of it.

I was close to deleting a lot of it. The last chapter, for sure. And I did in fact throw about 10,000 words—about 40 pages, if you prefer to calculate that way—into the wood chipper I call The Purgatory File. It’s where stuff goes right before it gets deleted forever, so I can harvest its organs and tasty bits before digitally mulching the rest. Fuck this, I was thinking. It’s not worth saving.

It was not a good day.*

After I dumped all those words into the wood chipper, I fucked off. Again, unusual; I rarely quit before the word count’s done. But that day I didn’t want to look at it anymore. So I sat down on the couch to read.

But I never got past the first couple of pages, because as soon as I sat down, I fell asleep. For three fucking hours.

When I woke up—disoriented, with a book on my face and two cats pinning down my legs—I felt…better.** And when I read over what I’d written, imagine my shock when I realized that it didn’t suck.***

I didn’t have goddamn writer’s block. I was fucking sleep deprived.

The lessons to be learned here are three-fold:

1) Writers can’t be trusted. We can’t. It’s a fact. We’ve all got a platoon of jabbering, sharp-edged little goblin monkeys caged up inside our heads, and when those little bastards get loose, it’s hell up there. We lose all perspective and turn into whiny little sods. It’s annoying.

2) Your body is more than just a carry case for your brain. What it feels, all of you feels. So crappy sleep habits, bad eating, no exercise…all of that will reap dividends you don’t want. Take care of yourself and the work gets easier.

3) Writer’s block is still bullshit. It’s just a lack of something: confidence, technical skill, passion, or, in my case, sleep. Something. Solve the deficit, and writer’s block goes away.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some words to make up.

 

*I should point out that I have very few writing days like this. Most of mine are more the “rock and roll on the stereo, coffee in the belly, let’s get some words, motherfucker!” type. Which I prefer, but the neighbours probably don’t.
**I’m condensing for the sake of story here; it actually took another eleven hours sleep that night before I felt fully normal again.
***Most of it, anyway. A couple pieces were still garbage.