How To Write Less Every Day

Nom nom writers.

I can feel the weird look you’re giving the title of this post.*

It’s okay. In your place, I’d look at it like a three-headed chicken crawling out of my Eggs Benedict and demanding that I take it to my leader, too. It’s not what I’m supposed to write about, here on a goddamn writing blog. It’s supposed to be me breathing fire and roaring “MOAR WORDS” like a literary version of Smaug.**

But here’s the thing: just as you can write too little—too little to finish, too little to keep the spark of the story going, too little to force yourself to invest in these godforsaken characters like they’re your own children—you can also write too much. You can exhaust yourself. You can write yourself into a corner that you see no way out of, and give up in frustration.

Both writing too little and writing too much are different symptoms of the same disease, which is lack of confidence. You write too little because you’re unsure; you write too much because you no longer care about being sure (good) but also stop caring about putting in the proper work (bad). Consider it the writer’s version of doing a shit job so that you can prove you’re no good. Setting yourself up for failure.

This is the problem with zero drafts, for some writers: you spill all those words out, never giving a good goddamn about how they fit together, and tell yourself you’ll fix it later. But sometimes you find that you can’t fix it later. Or you think you can’t, anyway, and you give up.

As you lot well know, I’m a big fan of the zero draft. But I always go into it knowing that whatever I produce will need so much work to be readable it’s going to be a completely different book. The zero draft is a way for me to think on the fly. Half of what I think up will be bullshit, and half of the rest will be mediocre. But I’m perfectly well prepared to dig through a ton of shit to find a single diamond. If you’re not, then the WRITE ALL THE WORDS NOW approach may not turn your crank.

So, though I completed the zero draft of the Big-Ass Novel in a mad sprint, I’m rewriting at a much slower pace. 1,000 words a day. That’s it. I’m trying really, really fucking hard not to go over***, because I’m trying to think ahead now, trying to fit everything together, and it’s a bit like solving a Rubick’s Cube in five-dimensional space. I move this, but it changes that, and now I have to fix this, but that makes this other thing slide out of alignment, so I tweak that bit over there…

You get the idea.

A caveat here: the ideas of ‘too little’ and ‘too much’ are so subjective I shouldn’t even be allowed to write them out using only two words, as if those two words could possibly convey the inherent complexity. It’s like the world’s worst short hand. Only you know what is too little or too much for your daily word count; it’s going to be different for everyone. And—here’s another qualifier—you’re probably only going to figure out your limits with time. By fucking up a few dozen times. By not finishing stuff, and by writing other stuff until it looks like a tangled mess of intestines spilled out on your desk.

Isn’t writing fun?

*I’m pretty used to weird looks, so believe me when I say I know how they feel.
**”I am fire! I am death! I am the end of the dangling preposition!”
***Unless I’m on fire that day. Obviously.

5 Low Down Dirty Tricks For Days When You’d Rather Swallow A Pinecone Than Write

This: It’s what’s for dinner.

No matter how much you love writing, no matter how much it tickles your fancy*—whatever that fancy is—there are days when doing it sucks balls. Giant, unpleasantly hairy, sentient alien balls that, apres sucking, are planning to raze the planet to the bedrock.

Unless that is what happens to tickle your fancy. In which case, disregard previous statement. And, you know, ew.**

Anyway, my point is that sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes because of the material, sometimes because of your own brain. Yesterday, I started off the day with a rejection letter, which didn’t do much for my motivation. Some days it just doesn’t want to get done.

Which is when you have to cheat.

I might have a few methods I use. Might.

If you’re looking for ways to get ‘er done on the crappiest of days…*slides you this list under the table*… you might find this of interest.

Steph Snow’s Low-Down Dirty Tricks For Crappy Writing Days

1. Bribery. Hey, it works for toddlers, it works for me. Sometimes you just need that carrot. For example, yesterday I promised myself that I could have an extra comic from the local comic store if I ground out the word count. Yes, I am essentially a 12-year-old in some ways.

2. Enlisting Friends. Meatspace friends, online friends, whatever. Ask someone for a motivation boost. Just, you know, don’t do it like a whiny little brat.
Yesterday, my friend Kat came over in the morning to make cookies and talk writing. Between the chat and the copious amounts of refined sugar, I had the needed boost to finish off ALL THE THINGS in the afternoon.

3. Public Shaming. Ah, social media. You’re so good at this. It’s the flip side of the ‘enlist friends’ scenario. Announcing that you will do something in public invokes the good ol’ social pressure. You have to do it then, or other people will know. And judge you with their smug, judge-y faces. Those jerks.

4. Get To The Good Bits. Note that this only works if what you have to do isn’t a specific project that’s on a deadline. Deadlines trump all. But sometimes, on a longer project, you can get around the bullshit roadblocks by switching to a different part. Write the bit you really want to: the fight scene, the part with the robot butlers, the time warp orgy. Whatever.

5. Just Grind It Out. All right, not so much a trick this one. But I will say that there have been days, really awful shitty days, when all I thought I was managing to do was smear half-dead ideas on the page until closing time. I hated what I’d done and thought it wasn’t worth a syphillitic monkey’s fart.
Until I read it over the next day. Then it realized that it wasn’t bad. It might not have been perfect—though there have been moments when the shittiest, hardest pages ended up being the ones I liked best—but it was far from the word abortion I thought. So, if all else fails, keep in mmd that you could be dead fucking wrong about the quality of the work you’ll produce. It might give you the juice you need to hit that word count.

Got your cheat sheet? Good. Then get out of here and write some words, you little badgers. It’s okay to use these tricks on the DL. I won’t tell anyone.

*Fancy Tickling is illegal in two provinces and nine states.
**Not that I’m judging you. But, seriously, man, where do you even get a fetish like that?

The Parts Readers Skip: Cutting The Boring Shit

Fuck this, I’m out of here.

I was trundling along though my daily word count* yesterday when I reached it: the boring part.

Fuck, I don’t want to write this, I thought as I reached for my monkey skull full of bourbon and souls.** The main character’s just staring and thinking, I know it goes here, and after the Great Plotline Disaster of ’08, I’ve committed to writing mostly in order, but this part is boring.

And then it occurred to me: if it’s that fucking boring, why write it at all?

Because it has backstory, and you need to set up That Big Thing, nagged the Internal Keeper of the Outline/Spreadsheet. And because it’s right there on the plan. Look.

So, I looked, and I thought, and then I cut that scene. The Spreadsheet Keeper whined about it, but I stuffed her into a steamer trunk somewhere and broke the lock. I can still hear her thumping at the lid and screaming obscenities at me***, but you get used to it. Also, I’m having a heavy metal morning, so it blends into the music.

I wrote about Elmore Leonard back when he got shelved****, and it’s another piece of his writing advice that comes back to me now: “Try to leave out the parts that readers skip”. If readers are going to skip it—or worse, get bored by it and drop the book entirely—why bother to write it? Everything that I was going to do in that scene—setting up That Big Thing, exploring the family, maybe hinting at a murder—can be folded into other scenes with more finesse. And far less of the protagonist staring off into space and remembering the Not So Good Ol’ Days.

I’m still not entirely sure about this decision. I might reconsider later, when I’m trying to dribble backstory in between stabbings. But for now it seems right. Cut the boring parts, because if I want to skip it, you can be goddamn sure the reader will.
*Yes, I have a daily word count. It keeps me on track and makes sure I don’t have too many ‘ah, fuck it’ days. I even have a list where I track how well I’m keeping up.
**Relax, it’s a ceramic monkey skull. The bourbon’s real, though. And the souls.
***Yes, even my spreadsheet Keeper is a potty mouth.
****I’ve got some of his books next on my re-reading list and I can’t wait. *Pours out some bourbon and souls for Leonard*

Sir, You’ve Had Enough: Knowing When You’re Done

whiskers bindle

Later, bitches. (Photo credit: chatblanc1)

1. You’ve Run Out Of Things. You’ve reached the end of the story. Typed ‘The End’ and everything. Of course, this only works if you’re the type to write chronologically. If you’ve been jumping around the storyline like a coked-out pole vaulter, then you might have to go back and take a look at what you’ve done. Did you miss the entirety of Act Two? Did your main character’s mother fall into a plot hole halfway through and never reappear? Are there enough ninjas?
But if you’ve managed to hack your bloody way to the end of the plot, then you’re done. At least, you’re one form of done. You’ve got a draft which will need the tender razor blade of editing eventually. But, still, done. Take a lap and hit the showers.

2. The Deadline Has Arrived. It’s called a deadline for a reason. Whether you’re writing for an anthology that has a cut-off date or working NaNoWriMo, there comes a time when the decision about doneness is out of your hands. Sometimes there are real world reasons to stick a fork in it.
That being said, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to stop. Every single one of my NaNo projects ran more than 50,000 words. I just kept going after I crossed that imaginary finish line. Often it took me until January to finish up a first draft. If your novel isn’t finished—if you haven’t met number one up there—then, while you may be ‘done’, you shouldn’t stop. Keep going until you get a complete draft.

3. You Just Keep Picking At It. More for complete stories than partials, this is the disease where you just can’t stop second-guessing yourself. It’ll never be over if you keep picking at it. Just one more edit. One more pass. Maybe you should change ‘table’ to ‘horizontal food platform’ throughout. And that guy’s name. And that one scene could use 300% more robots.
This is a slippery slope. Yes, you need to make changes. Yes, you’ll probably do more than one edit. But there comes a time when you’re not adding anything of value. At that time, say ‘fuck it’ and let it go. Incidentally, this is a great time to look at submitting it somewhere. Hard to keep picking at it when it’s out in the world, bindle over its shoulder, hunting its fellow stories for sport. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

4. You Hate The Sight Of It. Much like certain people, too much time with your story can breed contempt. No, not contempt, the other thing…oh, yes, bowel-knotting hate. That.
You can burn out on your own stories. If you feel like this—consistently, I mean; the occasional day where you want to set it on fire is fine—then it’s a good sign you’ve been bashing your head against that particular brick wall for too long. Take a break. Work on something else. Come back to it when you can look at it more objectively. Or at least without wanting to spit acid at your computer screen.*

*I wish I could do this. Though not just at computer screens. I’d never have to hack the ice off my front walk again.

Monday Challenge: The Home Stretch

Sumo Wrestler Asashōryū fighting against Kotos...

Come at me, bro. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is it: the last week of NaNoWriMo. Participants, how’s your sanity holding together? Spectators, how’s the rubber necking? I’ve seen some truly nuclear meltdowns online so far, though not in real life. I’ve learned to keep my distance from NaNo-nauts when I’m not taking part.* I’m always afraid they’re going to think I have story ideas I’m not using and try to gnaw them from my brain. And I like my brain whole and ungnawed upon.

Whether you’re doing NaNo or not, this is the home stretch for the year as well. Time is sliding downhill with the speed and majestic unstoppability of a greased-up sumo wrestler on a bobsled track. We cannot avoid it; best we can do is hop on and enjoy the ride.

And maybe finish some stuff up.

This bitingly cold Monday morning, for your writing challenge, I want to hear about something that is winding down. Will it coast to a controlled finish, or will it spend everything in one last wild burst of energy before careening into a wall? Will it reach the finish line, or will it fall short? No do-overs, no time to go back. Whatever this is, it is. It’s nearly over.

And when the curtain goes down, what comes next?

*Though I did have one guy follow me around at the gym so he could explain the intricacies of his tragic science fiction story.** Short version: everybody dies. In space.
**Don’t be that guy.

Popcorn and Rubber-Necking: NaNoWriMo Survival Guide For Spectators

Buckley and Eddie.

Dude, we should totally order a pizza and watch writers flip out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As promised, part two of my Survival Guide to NaNoWriMo. Part One, for Participants, is over here. This time, pull up a sideline chair and get the popcorn. Here’s how to make it through the month when it seems like everyone around you is obsessed with plot bunnies and word counts.

1) Breathe. Don’t get caught up in the hype/panic. That shit is contagious. Hang around enough stressed out people and you’ll feel stressed even if you’re not doing anything. Avoid this bullshit—since stress is probably half the goddamn reason you’re not doing NaNo to begin with—and remember to take a deep breath. Or get a drink. Both help.

2) Do Other Shit. Not doing NaNo? This looks like a great time to reorganize your office. Or get a head start on your holiday shopping. Or finally make some headway on the ninja-training-for-dogs program. Bonus points: you get to brag about the stuff you’re getting done to your word-count-obsessed friends.

3) But Don’t Neglect Your Writing. You don’t have to write a novel, but that doesn’t mean you get a free pass. My favourite: using November to really nail down the outline for my next big project. Or catching up on my submissions. Continue to work on something, just to keep your hand in. Besides, it builds good habits for when the Great Time Suck, also known as the holiday season, strikes.

4) Enjoy the Show. Make some popcorn and crack open a cold one, because shit is about to go down. The autumn-chilled streets will be filled with wandering packs of word-herders, all looking for inspiration and extra words and ninja plot spackle techniques. Avoid the mobs, but enjoy the spectacle of creative madness. For extra rubber-necking points, go to the NaNo forums and eavesdrop on the freak outs.* You can even help with some, if you’ve done NaNo in the past and have the benefit of wisdom and experience. Or at least what passes for them on the internet.

5) Be Kind. Your friends are not themselves right now. It’s their Time Of The Month, if you take my meaning. They will return to the fun-loving rock-and-rollers you know and love soon, but until then, remember that they’re bat shit crazy and should only be approached with caution. And a stick. Don’t forget your Writer Poking Stick.
If you have forgotten your stick, then remember to be kind. They’re stressed and deep in the horrifying child birthing process that is required to bring a story into this world, screaming and covered in goo. Cut them a little fucking slack.
And pray for December.

*This may strike some people as voyeuristic. Sure it is. But if you don’t want to get gawked at, have your freak out somewhere that’s not a public forum.

Uppers and The Death of Your Social Life: NaNoWriMo Survival Guide For Participants

Fuck you cards.

Send these out to the haters. (Photo credit: m.k.)

(Stay tuned on Wednesday for Part Two, which is for everyone surrounded by the insanity this month, but not taking part. I have not forgotten you, brothers and sisters, because I am one of you. Coming soon, the NaNoWriMo Survivial Guide: Spectators Edition!)

1) Find a Roadmap. You should have some idea of what you’re going to write, even if it’s only the word ‘fuck’ 50,000 times in a row.* Do you have a type of story? A character? A scene? A genre? All of these are foundations upon which a proper story may be built. Get yourself a pen and paper and get cracking.

2) Get Caffeinated. Or indulge in some other upper of choice. I’m not here to judge until you actively start foaming at the mouth. In which case it will be my duty to put you down like the rabid word-hound that you are.
Until that happy day, though, you’re going to need some quick-fire energy. I recommend espresso, each one spaced about two hours from the last so that your heart doesn’t explode, but choose your own indulgence. Chocolate, candy, tea, smoothies…the possibilities are endless. Just, you know, partake responsibly.

3) Make Space. Notify family, friends, spouses, children, pets, coworkers, and any other living entity that might wish a moment of your time for the next thirty days that you will be, if not unavailable, then at least very fucking hard to reach. Change your email auto-response. Adjust your answering machine. Switch your Skype icon to ‘unavailable’. Fake your death. Whatever you have to do in order to carve out a chunk of writing time.

4) Manage Your Pace. This will mean different things for different people. For example:
If you get ahead: cherish these moments but don’t slack off. Maintain the momentum that got you there. If you take a break for a couple of days, you might not regain your pace.
If you get behind: Don’t panic. Catch up when you can. Scribble a few words whenever you get a chance. And remember that this is supposed to be fun, not an exercise in hand-wringing and paranoia.
If you’re on track: Then stay there. What the fuck else were you expecting?

5) Onwards To Adventure! This will be a unique project for you. Even if you’ve done NaNo before, nothing will be like this. So enjoy the ride. Experiment! Write freely and with passion. Editing is for December.

*Though I will say that plan is unambitious at best.

30 Days Of Madness: Making The NaNoWriMo Decision

 

Project No One Leaves volunteers canvassing an...

Have you thought about letting a 50,000 word race into your life? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s that time of year again. The time when the evangelists start knocking on my door and asking personal questions about the state of my soul.*

Wait, no. Not that. The other thing. NaNoWriMo. It’s that time of year: the time when hordes of aspiring writers start wandering dead-eyed around the streets in search of adverbs and caffeine. Be wary, regular humans. It’s scary out there when the word-herders get loose all at once.

You may be trying to decide if you’re going to try slaying the 50,000 word dragon. I’ve done it five of the last six years, and always finished. I did it last year and turned out the zero draft of what I think is going to be a pretty good project, once I finish rewriting it. Several of the projects I’ve worked on during NaNo have become finished manuscripts which are being sent out on submission. And some of those projects might not have gotten finished otherwise, and certainly wouldn’t have gotten finished so quickly.

But this year I’m out of the race. Mostly just because of timing. I want to devote my energy to the rewrite of the novel I finished last November, and rewrites are fucking slow. They don’t lend themselves to the pace of NaNoWriMo. At least mine don’t. Yours might. Also, I’m going to be on vacation for about two weeks in November, seeing family and old friends. The probability is high that I will be far too drunk to write.*** At least on some days.

I realize I’m not making the decision easier, and I’m not trying to. Ultimately, you have to decide if NaNoWriMo is the right fit for you. In case you missed it last year, here are the two posts I wrote about NaNo: Four Reasons To Do It and Four Reasons To Skip It. Peruse. If you’re on the fence, they might help you decide. Or they might reinforce the decision you’ve already made.

So tell me, fellow workers of brain and caffeine: are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?

*Actually, full disclosure: after talking to a couple of the ladies a few years ago**, they no longer come to the door. I think I’m on some kind of list now.
**Politely, I might add. Don’t be a jerk: good rule for life.
***The ghost of Ernest Hemmingway just appeared to smack me in the head for typing that.

 

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Spreadsheet

Max the Accountant Cat

You’re spending far too much time looking at cats on the Internet. Shape up. (Photo credit: Found Animals)

Spreadsheets: soulless, restrictive, dead-eyed little bastards, aren’t they? The anti-thesis of the creative impulse. All those little boxes, marching in their ordered rows and columns. Following rules, like suckers. I know some writers who won’t even go near one for fear it will steal their creativity like cameras used to steal souls.

Well, confession time: I use one. For writing. Actually, I use several, because each project has its own spreadsheet when it’s in the rewrite phase, but I use an everyday one. For all my writing.

For a creative person, that somehow feels like confessing to downloading Roomba porn.*

But I am very fond of my spreadsheet, and I’m not ashamed. All it does is this: keeps track of projects, due dates, total word count, projected word count, and how much I wrote in a particular day. And organize them in a neat, easy to read format. With colour-coding and stuff.

So why have I crossed over to the dark side** and started using something perfected by accountants? I could go on about organizing and chaos from order and all that, but it really comes down to one thing:

It makes me accountable.

With one glance, I can see how I did this week, this month, this quarter. Did I slack off? Did I knock it out of the park? Did I have a run of bad days that I later made up for? And how are those deadlines working out? Am I making them with time to spare, or is everything a last-minute rush? Can I do better? Can I take on another project without going mad?*** Have I been working, or have I just been going through the motions?

The spreadsheet is a way to cut through the excuses. If I look at it and see a bunch of yellow squares—the code for a missed day of writing—then I know I need to fix something. Maybe I need to work harder, or maybe I need to set that project aside until it’s ready. But something is amiss.

Besides, nothing is more irritating than having to go into that spreadsheet at the end of the day and mark something yellow. I use yellow for the missed day because it’s the colour of cowardice. And making that little click to shift the colour…it’s like admitting defeat. There’s a lot of stuff I’d rather do. Write, for one.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m behind in my word count for the day. And I am not getting a fucking yellow square this week.

*At this point, I just assume that there’s porn of everything on the internet. Rule 34, yo.
**In creativity, I mean. Let’s face it, if the Force was a real thing, I’d end up a Sith. I wouldn’t try it, but it would happen. No little green hermit is going to convince me not to get pissed off.
***Madder. Which is also a paint pigment.

Dr. O’Cyborg’s Prescription for Writing: Leave It Undone

Cyborg Hunter

Dr. O’Cyborg’s people have endured much persecution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Feeling sick today. I blame the change in the weather. We had five days of summery temperatures in a row, and then last night, an hour before I started coaching my beginning runner’s group, it started to rain.* And now it feels like the air pressure is going to squeeze my brain out my nose.

Human barometer: worst super power ever.

Anyway, before I take copious amounts of migraine medication and retire to hallucinate about sentient balloon animals for the rest of the day**, I’d like to pass on one of my writing tricks. Well, I call it mine, but I’ve heard it in so many different places over the years that, like a ret-conned superhero, I just can’t trace its origin anymore.

I have a minimum daily word count: 500. On average, I write about 2,000 words per day. Most times in one go, but other days by picking at it for five or ten minutes here and there.*** Either way, I usually get to that point somehow. And one of the ways I get there is by stopping the previous day’s writing before I’m done.

I know, sounds stupid, right? Leaving the act unfulfilled? Constant writing blue balls. Blue ovaries. Whatever. But I always end the day before I’ve come to the end of the ideas. And then I make a little note of what happens next somewhere, and close the program. I go do my other life stuff.

Then when I come back the next day, I have an idea of what comes next. Which means I do much less staring at the cursor, waiting for an idea to turn up. I waste less time. And, by the time I finish whatever was left over from the previous day, I usually have new ideas waiting for me. My hindbrain works on them while I’m finishing up yesterday’s work.

Of course I always reach the end of the writing day before I reach the end of the new ideas. So I repeat. And very rarely do I completely stall out. My days are vastly more productive because of this little trick.

Just like the old show business saying: leave ‘em wanting more.

*Which I wouldn’t mind so much, but every Thursday night for the last five weeks, the weather has been shit for the weekly group run. I don’t know what I did to offend the weather gods, but it must have been fucking dire.
**Just kidding. I’m not really going to do this. Because that would be crazy, right? RIGHT?
***Today feels like the latter. Sentences interspersed with conversations with Dr. Seamus O’Cyborg, my imaginary half-Irish, half-robot medication provider.