Tag Archives: Process

Project promiscuity

Okay, I know I’m inviting a bunch of really bad spam from that title, but it was the most accurate way I could think of to describe my old approach to writing. I’ve been writing all of my adult life, and until the last few years I was a big believer in writing what I felt like writing. Our moods change a lot, and when you are happy you don’t really want to get bogged down in a depressing or dark piece of fiction. So I always used to have a number of projects on the go at once.

I ended up with a lot of novels that only got to chapter 5. I also had a lot of partially written short stories. What I had very few of was finished pieces. I also did almost no editing because the lure of new words always won.

About three years ago I decided I needed to finish stuff, so I tried to focus on just one project at a time. It didn’t work, as soon as I got to a difficult bit in my story I’d set it aside and start thinking about another story. Thinking turned into writing, and next thing I knew I had another novel that only made it to chapter 5.

Not many people know this, but a few years ago I spent a week believing I had a brain tumor. My doctor prepped me for it with too much conviction, and due to a whole manner of mishaps it took a week between the doctor’s diagnosis, my CT scan and getting the results that the doctor was wrong. I had a bunch of really bad symptoms that gave incredible verisimilitude to my incorrect diagnosis, so needless to say I did a LOT of thinking about the future, and more specifically, how short that future might be.

Above everything else I wanted to finish my novel. Despite my symptoms and stress, every night after work I came home and wrote like a machine. I’d hit a tough bit and I would slog through it to get to the next part where I felt more comfortable about what was happening. I didn’t let any other projects distract me.

By the time I discovered my brain was clear (and disappointingly showed no signs of secret microchips implanted by alien abductors), I had realised that I could force myself to focus. That novel was EveryWere, my pantser novel, and I finished writing it in just over 3 months.

That was a game changer for me. Since then I have picked just the one project at a time and regardless of mood, inspiration, or haunting writing daemons, I work on only that project. I have finished another novel, two novellas and five short stories since then. Probably more completed words than in my entire writing career before that time.

A lot of people enjoy project promiscuity, and they can make it work for them. But if you are like I was, and you aren’t finishing anything, then don’t wait for a terminal diagnosis to get yourself focussed. Try being faithful to just one project. You might go through some tough times together, but you may also find yourself in a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your writing than you have ever had before.

Happy writing.

Adult pantser novel

I loved the process of creating my YA pantser* novel. I loved the abundant writing of it. I loved the wild unknown and the surprises it threw at me. It also terrified me. I had no idea how it was going to end, and at times I thought it wouldn’t.

As great as the full pantsing experience was, I was relieved when it was over. Since that novel I’ve written a novel and a several short stories that had elements of pantsing about them, but I knew how they all ended before I started them.

Another pantser novel has just started haunting me. I can see the opening. Every time my mind goes blank I see the opening. I’m living it, breathing it, feeling it, dreaming it. But I have no idea where it goes after the opening. It scares me.

Not only that, but I’m starting to see it everywhere. It’s like those moments when you spot the cute guy from the bus in the supermarket, or at the coffee shop when you don’t expect it, and you get that little flutter of excitement. Except the pantser novel doesn’t have the disappointing likelihood of actually having a wife and three kids at home. No, the pantser novel is all mine. For better or for worse.

I thought that if I ignored it that it might go away and find a bit more direction before coming back to me. But it refuses to leave. It is my last thought when I go to sleep and the first thought in the morning. I’m carrying it like a weight around my neck, and I know there is only one way I’ll be free of it.

I have to write it.

There are equal measures of dread and excitement about this prospect, but if I’m honest, the excitement is winning. I am so ready to throw myself completely into a new novel, and I think this one might be the one… for now. Wish me luck.

*Pantsing = writing by the seat of your pants without a plan, you only find out where the story is going when you write it.

Top 10 writer things to do – learn to touch type

I have a lot of friends who write by hand and I know, for some people, that is how they connect with their ‘muse’. There is something enticing about going out to buy a new notebook and knowing that you will fill it with your next story. If that is your thing and you need or enjoy it, that’s fine.

For many others of us, handwriting means cramp in our hand after two pages, never being able to find the right angle to write comfortably, and finding our hand cannot keep up with our brain. If that’s not bad enough we can go back to edit what we clearly remember as being spectacular writing, and we can’t make sense of our messy scribble.

I clearly fall into this latter camp.

I learned to touch type when I was 21. I remember the experience distinctly because my flatmates were paying to do a course that I was too tight to join them in. So from the moment they walked out the door to when they came home, I jumped on the computer and played a touch-typing game. Those few weeks took me from having no idea to a typing speed of about 70 wpm (or 90 if I don’t mind making a few typos).

I can type at a far greater speed than I can manually write. When typing, I never find myself having to slow down my thoughts to get it all down. Even better, I don’t need to look at the keys, or even the screen, so I can blur my eyes and actually watch everything happening in my imagination. And when it comes to editing, nothing compares to having a file you can cut and paste, compared to several notebooks of illegible writing (as is the case if I try handwriting).

In the previous two years I have written two novels within a three-month period. I would never have been able to do that if I couldn’t touch type. Also it is one of the most transferrable skills I’ve got. I’ve been able to use typing through all my many and varied careers. I use it every day and often think how grateful I am to my two more cashed-up flatmates for doing the course all those years ago.

I don’t know why everyone doesn’t learn to touch type, but especially authors. Even if you write by hand, eventually you have to transfer it to a digital format. Yes, you may be able to get quite a good speed up with your three-finger method, but if you are that quick with three fingers, I can almost guarantee you will be even faster if you use all your fingers (and don’t need to watch where they go).

Wrong recipient

This week I had the strangest story idea experience. I was reading a light-hearted book, and (as often happens) a single sentence sparked off a totally unrelated idea for a story. This idea was dark. Not just creepy dark, but blackest-pits-of-the-soul dark. It scared me.

I stopped and ran the idea over in my head again, feeling revolted by it. I was simultaneously pushing it away while trying to delve deeper. I could see the sliver of good in it, but the good skirted so finely on the edge that it would be hard to see. It would be easy to read the story the wrong way, to get the wrong idea of what I was trying to say, but if read in the right way it could be amazing.

I don’t think the story was intended for me. I must have had my story rod raised and it caught a bolt intended for someone else. I’ve often said that I think stories come from the collective unconscious and we just catch them and write them down. The way tales come so completely formed, it seems like there could be no other way.

The weird thing about this experience is that now I can remember barely a thing about it. I have shadows of the story, but they are like the memory of a dream; you know you had the full plot, but you can only get tiny parts now. And I guess that makes sense, if it was meant for someone else, it can’t live in my brain at the same time.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if one day I come across the story and remember it? I’ll track the author down and ask them when they got the idea. I suspect it will be this week. I hope someone with the right skills does write it. I still keenly remember the incredible feeling of the idea, I just wasn’t ready to climb down into that pit.

To break or not to break?

In the middle of October I started writing a novella and I finished the heavy edit on January 11th. What do I do now? I was spending at least 20 hours a week on this thing in December and January. Should I give myself some time off now?

With both the novels that I finished recently I think I may have burned myself out a bit, and I took a month off after each, but at less than 40,000 words the novella doesn’t feel like it has taxed me to the same degree. If anything I feel like it has revved me up! Not to mention that I’m working part time now, so that’s 16 hours of “work” time I’m not wasting at work each week.

I think jumping into another novel right now would be a mistake, and even a short story so hot on the heels of so much work might be pushing it… But I do know of a flash fiction call for subs which is closing in February. Maybe it is what I need to slow me down just enough to get ready to start the next big project?

I would like to find a way to sustain my writing throughout the year instead of doing several months of intense work and then a whole month of nothing. I might try this pacing thing out and see if it works.

Croquet writing

I’m in the middle of my next novel, and after the success of my last attempt at pantsing, I was tempted to try that again. This time, however, I’m on a very strict timeline, so I can’t run the risk of running totally off track. If I do that I might not be able to finish it before I’m forced to go back to work.

So in an effort to capture the speed and agility of pantsing, but have the dependability of planning, I’ve come up with a marriage between the two which I’m calling croquet writing. I’ve set some target events that have to happen, but how I get between those is anyone’s guess. So like the hoops on a croquet lawn, I know what I’m aiming for at any point in the story.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I haven’t invented anything, it is just planning but with a bit less plan, but it might be exactly what I need. So far it is working, I have the same feeling of having no idea what I’m going to write when I sit down at the keyboard that I had when I was pantsing, but unlike pantsing, I can clomp through a rough patch to get onto the next plot point and then run from there.

I suspect there will be a lot of editing required for the rough patches, but maybe not as much as for the pantser where I had to cut out whole chunks of stuff that went off on a tangent that was never realised, or where I had to go back and insert foreshadowing for stuff I didn’t know was going to happen.

I’m at the half-way point now, which is past my usual fall-over spot in a novel, so with any luck I’ll be writing those magic words soon; The End.

Goals and reality

Yet again there is talk of redundancies going around work, and to be honest it has become the norm over the past 12 months. This got me thinking about what I would do if I got a redundancy, and I’ve decided it is time for another mini-retirement.

As a great lover of goals and spreadsheets, I set out my writing plan for the 6-12 months I would take off. I did take time off work to write once before, the problem was it only lasted a little over a month before it got taken over with packing, moving and setting up home in a new state. There is no risk of that happening this time.

But it means I only have a very small experience to draw upon of what writing would be like if I wasn’t working. So I’ve done the Stephen King thing of setting a goal of three months to get a first draft out, but I can’t help but look back at my experience last year where I got a first draft out in four months while working full time. Should I try to pop a short story or two into that mix as well?

Something I do remember strikingly well from my month off before was how little I managed to get done with so much more time. In fairness I was trying the online presence thing back then, and that was my allocated morning job, but it was like I was on go-slow when I had all the time in the world. Would I have the discipline to work as hard at my writing as I do at work?

On most Monday mornings at work, around 10am, I stare out the window and think about how desperately I don’t want to do any work. I usually have a meeting coming up, or a form to deliver and my boss sits next to me, so this little vague-out only lasts for a few minutes. If I was at home with no boss, no deliverables and no meetings, could that vague-out turn into half an hour, then a walk, then getting lunch prepared?

Perhaps along with my spreadsheets and goals I should investigate tools to keep me motivated and working? The last thing I want to do is damage my career with a sabbatical and not come out at the end with three finished first-draft novels and a script (that’s the 12 month goal). But gosh it is exciting to think about. That vague-out tomorrow morning might last a little longer than a couple of minutes this week 🙂

Is thinking writing?

There is no doubt that the most important part of writing a story is coming up with the idea, but does that process of thinking about the story count as writing? I guess first we have to define what ‘counting’ means. For me, anything I can use to offset my guilt from not writing any words for the week is an activity that ‘counts’.

This week I’ve had this chat with three other writers, all more productive than me when it comes to weekly word count, and the split was 2:1 against. The argument against was that thinking is just daydreaming, whereas writing was words on a page that could be read by others. I know how easy it is to lose an hour to daydreaming, the idea that this could be writing was like being told you will now get paid for your commute to work as well as the hours in the office.

I will admit, I was firmly in the against camp, but as luck would have it, immediately after this chat I got lumbered with a 40 minute wait at the bus stop while my bus crawled through Fringe road-closure traffic. Can you guess what I did with that time?

By the time the bus rolled up I had ironed out the bumps in a new story idea that was kicking around in my head. The key here was ‘in my head’ –I haven’t written a word for this story, but I know it is a story, and now I know what happens in it.

So I guess there are cases when thinking is writing, so long as that thinking is not just fantasies about aliens landing so you don’t have to go to work, or coming up with a string of good come-backs you should have used on the person who said that really mean thing to you. Provided you don’t replace all your word-smithing time with daydreaming I think it is vital to give your mind space and time to do some work without a keyboard.

Planning

I know I seem a little hung up on the idea of to plan or not to plan. I write a list of 20 things I want to achieve each week in my day to day life, so planning is clearly something that appeals to me.

I’ve just been reading the approach of another writer who does not like to plan. He thinks it limits his creativity and runs the risk of forcing his characters into places they don’t want to go. I feel very strongly that I don’t push my characters into decisions or actions that don’t feel natural for them, they have freedom of choice, and yet I plan, so what is the difference?

I think it might be semantics.

I wonder if what I am calling a plan others might call a first draft, albeit an extremely short fist draft. The person I was reading about who doesn’t like to plot simply writes the scenes as he sees them, eventually writing enough to find the whole story, at which point he pulls it together and gets to work on writing the joining bits, what he calls his second draft.

Until I have a beginning, middle-ish and an end-ish in mind, I generally don’t commit an idea to paper, but when I do, I go through the discovery of those ideas in much the same way as I feel I did when I wrote my pantser novel, I just go through the process much faster when writing a plan.

Then, when I sit down to write the novel I have the plan in mind, but if things change I let them. So is that pantsing? Is that planning? Who knows, I think writing any story is magic at work, no matter how you get there.

 

Document management

My day job is all about electronic document management. That’s why it is so embarrassing to discover how bad I am at paper document management.

Before I got started on the next writing project I thought I’d pull together all the work I’ve done on it so far. It is not that there is a lot, but it is everywhere!!!!! Just when I think I’ve got it all, I find a notebook with a few random pages of scribbles.

What I wonder is how did I ever expect to use all these notes when I seemed to be doing my best to hide them so well? I know how it happens, I get an idea and I don’t want to lose it, so I write it down in whichever notebook I have close at hand. But that is the best way to lose ideas, not record them.

My recently finished project was started and finished in a short period of time, which might account for my extremely helpful decision to make all my notes in the one book. Everything I had ever thought about the story was in one place.

So I think I’m going to invest in an expanding file and rip out all the ‘novel notes’ from my different pads and put all the related story ideas together. Yes, it does sound like another excuse for some heavy duty procrastination, but I think it is necessary!

Now if I could just work out how to apply metadata to paper…