Bad meditator

I’m a bad meditator. While writing this piece, I was briefly tempted to claim to be the world’s worst meditator, but I’m sure that’s not actually true. At least, it’s not true if you include the people who don’t meditate at all—they’re worse than me. Even among the people who have a regular meditation practice there are certainly people who are worse at it than I am. Well, almost certainly. But probably not very many. I’m really a very bad meditator.

For one thing, I haven’t taken my meditation practice seriously. For a long time, I just went through the motions, not even really trying to meditate. In my taiji class, the teacher included a period for meditation, so I “meditated.”

Even just going through the motions of meditating, I quickly found some physical benefits to standing meditation, but the more subtle benefits—the insights into my mind that meditation is supposed to provide—eluded me. This was not a surprise; I did not expect much benefit from a practice that was as slipshod as my own.

(As an aside, I should mention that there are also physical benefits to sitting meditation. They were not as obvious to me, mostly because of my own foolishness in viewing standing meditation as a successor to sitting meditation, rather than a complementary practice. This kept me from giving my sitting even the rather feeble effort I gave my standing. Even so, I eventually perceived the physical benefits of sitting meditation as well.)

Only after three or four years did I begin to find the other benefits of a meditation practice. In particular, I felt like I began to acquire insights into the mechanisms of attention. (At around that same time, I read an article about Steve Jobs that talked about his meditation practice, saying that, “Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.”)

One thing that made a difference for me was attending a free meditation workshop by Mary Wolters, a local yoga instructor. Her guided meditation sessions were excellent—sitting rather than standing, 30 minutes rather than the usually 10 minutes or less that we did in taiji class, and (probably most important) separated from the effort of (both learning and doing) taiji—I found that I actually was meditating.

Having begun to perceive the benefits of meditation, I find myself wanting to do it more, but have not yet found a way to add it to my daily routine, except as part of my taiji practice, which is good, but not enough. (And I hesitate to spend more class time on meditation, on the theory that the class should take advantage of there being a taiji instructor present to focus on the movements, whereas we could all meditate successfully on our own.)

Still, even if I haven’t added time to my meditation practice beyond what I do in taiji, I have at least added meditation to my meditation practice. It’s a start.

Noveling along

I’m making steady progress on my novel rewrite. Since getting back to work on it back on the solstice, I’ve put in a nice block of time nearly every day. (Besides Christmas Day, which I took as a holiday, I think I’ve missed two other days.)

The first third had already been rewritten back in the summer. I spent the first couple of days reading through that part and making minor edits. Happily, the edits were in fact minor. I fixed typos and minor sentence-level errors like poor word choice. I fixed the sort of scene-level errors that can only be spotted on a close re-read, such as saying something that I’d just said in the previous scene.

Once I got through that first third, progress slowed down quite a bit. The middle third of the novel had some serious structural problems. It had too many locations where too little happened. I’d already figured out that I needed to collapse that into two locations, and I’d taken a first pass at identifying which things happen in location A and which in location B, but now I had to make all that work.

That turned into kind of an odd mix. Sometimes I could just fix the name of the location and otherwise leave the scene alone. Other times the scene needed to be completely rewritten, because the action was only appropriate for a location that the characters no longer visited. (The latter was more work, but the former was worrisome in its own way—if the exact same thing could happen in the exact same way, perhaps my characters and locations were overly generic.)

Just yesterday and today I’ve been working on a bit that had (in an earlier draft) been written to be chapter one, to be followed with the story running along in two alternating threads, one present and one a flashback. I was pretty pleased with the chapter as a first chapter, but here in the middle, it’s all wrong. In particular, it has several bits written to establish the characters and their relationships. Those bits need to go, which is hard because they’re pretty good bits. Worse, they really ought to be replaced with references to stuff that happened earlier in the book—except that some of the bits they reference never got written.

So, that’s my task for tomorrow—spot those references, then go back and make sure that there’s actual text that establishes that aspect of the character’s relationship. Then decide which of the references should be edited to refer explicitly to those events and which should just be plucked out.

Writing this pass is weirdly different than writing a first draft. I spent a lot of mental effort trying (and often failing) to resist the urge to go back and edit as I went along. Now that I’m in the edit phase, my problem is just the reverse: each time I come upon something hard like this, my urge is to say, “Oh, I’ll leave that for the next pass.” Except that there is no next pass, at least not until my first readers come back with comments.

Still, steady progress is good. I’m about half-way through the middle third.

The final third, where the text draws heavily from the previously existing short story, will no doubt be yet another different experience. I’ve already gone through that part fixing stuff in the sequence of events and adjusting for how the characters had evolved in the writing of the novel-length work. At this point I really have no idea if I got most of that right, and that (having already been rewritten once) it will be like the first third, or if it will be like this middle third, needing major work. I know there’s be some significant new writing that needs to be done—I have a list of scenes that I’ve realized are missing—but beyond that I really have no clue how much work is sitting there needing to be done.

I’m can say that I’m happy with the draft up through this point. If I’m as happy with the second half, I’ll have no hesitation about sharing it with my first readers.

Hey! I wrote a novel!

It kind of snuck up on me. I hadn’t realized how close I was to being done with an entire draft.

After a couple of awkward starts, things had been going along pretty well until about spring. That’s when I started drawing more directly from the text of the short story that had been the basis of the novel, pulling the scenes from the short story and slotting them into the right spot in the climax of the novel. Except that process went very badly. They didn’t fit well. The tone was wrong. The characters had drifted. I kept finding small off-hand remarks to set up some thing or another, and realizing that in a novel there should instead be a whole earlier chapter to set that thing up. I kept finding that once I’d written those scenes, there was nothing left of this scene. It was such a struggle, I became discouraged. Progress ground almost to a halt.

A couple of times I got back to it, grabbed a scene, and reworked it—deleted the one-line remark and added the earlier chapter, reworked the interactions so that the characters were true to how they’d developed in the novel up to there, added full-blown scenes where the short story version had just had a brief reference that the hero had done something. But I found all that work hard and not much fun, so I kept not doing it.

Since moving to the summer place, I’ve been trying to reestablish a habit of daily writing, figuring that it should be as easy right now as it will ever be.

Today is my birthday, which I took advantage of by choosing to set my schedule exactly as I wanted—I got up, did a little social media stuff, had breakfast, read a little, then sat down to do some writing. I spent a good long while on one scene, because it had a lot of compressed action that needed to be more fully worked out in a novel-length work. Then the next scene went very quickly, because it was short, and then the next scene went quickly, because it was just about right in terms of tone and character. And then I realized that it was the last scene! I had finished my novel!

There’s a whole lot left to do, of course.

Although I tried to get the set-up stuff inserted as I went along, a lot of it is missing, or only present in vestigial form. I have to fix all that.

Probably a bigger deal, there were many little clever bits that might have set up something neat, but didn’t, and many short turns down side roads that seemed cool, but that didn’t end up leading anywhere. I need to locate each of those and think about whether it does lead somewhere—and then make sure that the “somewhere” it leads to is actually in the text and not just in my imagination. The others, of course, need to be ruthless pared away.

Most important, in the writing of the book I’ve finally figured out what it’s about. That too needs to end up in the text, and not just in my head. In particular, there’s a lot of economic and political stuff that kept showing up in my brain to be stuffed in the book, but didn’t all show up at the right points, so ended up getting stuffed willy-nilly into whatever corner happened to have a bit of space in it at the moment. Those bits need to be pulled out and carefully tucked into the right corner, now that I can see the whole thing and can figure out where they really go.

So, a lot of work to do—but it will be a lot of work on a novel! A novel that exists! A novel that I have written!

Harder than I’d expected

I’d thought this was going to be the easy part—writing the part of the novel where the action parallels the action of the existing short story. In fact, it’s turning out to be really hard.

It’s not surprising, now that I think about it. Probably the biggest thing is that I’ve already mined this material for all the good stuff—the best bits got pulled out and used to set up the later action in the novel just the way they had set up the later action in the short story.

The work of taking the material out is minimal. Even the work of replacing it with a quick reminder to the reader that it happened isn’t a big deal.

The big deal is that what’s left behind is a terrible, pointless scene. All the significant action is gone—all the plot development, all the character development—leaving behind little more than transitions. The characters make their way from point A to point B. It’s excruciating to read.

I’ve given up on copying the text and editing it. At the moment I’m doing what one might have done in the days before computers—looking at the old manuscript while typing a fresh draft. Even that isn’t working very well. Probably better would be to just write a fresh outline that covers the necessary plot points and tuck the old text away until I’ve got a new draft. Then I can look over the old draft for any gems that got left out.

I’ll try that tomorrow.

Home stretch of the zeroth draft

Progress on the novel continues apace.

In particular, I’ve reached the point where the action in the novel lines up with action in the failed short story that the novel draws from.

The short story failed because I simply couldn’t cram in all the setup needed, a problem easily solved in novel form—the setup occurs naturally in the body of the novel. As I wrote, I kept in mind the various bits that I needed to set up, and have been making sure to cover them as I went along.

With that done, I’d imagined I’d just about be able to copy whole scenes from the short story into the novel manuscript. Except, that turns out not to work. I tried it this morning, growing my story by about 1600 words, only a couple hundred of which were newly written prose.

Part of what’s in these scenes are the failed attempts to provide the setup. Since that setup is now provided (in full scenes of their own, earlier in the manuscript), I need to remove those attempts from these later scenes.

That turns out to be harder than I’d expected. The text I’m working on is near-final draft stuff. I had previously polished every paragraph, every sentence. Everything is all hooked together as smoothly as I could mange. Some things can be removed by just deleting a paragraph, but other things require a complete re-writing. Plus, a lot of things shouldn’t be removed entirely. Rather, the failed attempts to set something up should be replaced with a little call-back to the setup—a little memory-jogger that reminds the reader of what happened many pages ago, so that when it becomes significant, they say, “Oh, yeah. I remember that.”

The upshot is that I have another six thousand words or so ready to go in—but I now see that adding those words will be as hard as writing them would have been. Maybe harder.

After adding three scenes by copying and editing, I’m now thinking that it might be better to just write fresh scenes. (In fact, thinking about the amount of editing that remains to be done on the scenes I added this morning, that’s really starting to seem like a good idea. I’ll try it that way tomorrow.)

As I’ve been writing, Jackie has been working in her media—spinning and weaving mostly. She wove two silk scarves in the past weeks, and spend much of the past couple of days winding a warp for her next weaving project.

Here’s Jackie with the warp, chained up for storage or transportation, but ready to be threaded onto the loom:

jackie wound a warp

Monomaniacal multitasking

I’ve long struggled to balance the need to be somewhat monomaniacal (in order to complete a large project) and the need to perform at least the bare minimum necessary tasks of everyday living. This struggle is made all the harder by the realization that multitasking is a terrible strategy for getting things done.

So, I was interested in the recent post by J.D. Roth, Moderators and Abstainers: Two Approaches to Balance and Temptation, which argues that there are two kinds of people: Those who can achieve a moderate balance versus those who lurch from excess to excess unless they go for a zero option with regard to the things they’re prone to overdo. Of course, it immediately made me think of my recent conversation with my doctor about how addiction was the right model for thinking about diet and weight loss.

More than that, though, it made me feel pretty good about how things are going for me right now. It’s still early days, but I’m feeling like I’ve found a pretty good balance between productivity and fitness. I’m getting my writing done, and I’m getting my exercise in. Rather than finding myself doomed to lurch from regular exercise (and no writing) to lots of writing (but no exercise), I’m having pretty good success with a schedule that includes both.

I’ve been working my way toward this for a long time. As far back as 2008 I wrote Being Routinely Creative, where I argue that rather than constraining your creativity, having a firm schedule protects the time you need for creative pursuits. It took me a while to find that post, because I had been conflating it with the even earlier 2007 post Scheduling Time versus Scheduling Tasks, where I make a related point praising the value of blocking out chunks a time (as opposed to the then-recent time management fad where you instead organize your work around lists of “next actions”).

One key for me has been the realization (really, the re-realization, because I’ve known this for a long time too), that the writing has to come early in the day. Once I’ve started writing—once I’ve gotten my brain in the story space—I can take a break for exercise (or whatever), and then return to writing later in the day. Starting with exercise is much less effective. After exercise, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, which blunts my urge to be productive. I’m also often tired. And, if I’ve had to go out to exercise (such as to the Fitness Center or the Savoy Rec Center), it seems only reasonable to run an errand or two on the way home, which has the effect of postponing the start of writing even further. The result, far too often, is no writing at all.

One concern I have is that the block of time that I’m protecting for my writing falls right in the middle of the early morning hours when it’s cool enough to exercise outdoors during the hot days of summer. But I can’t work up much worry. At this point in the winter, I positively yearn for a long afternoon too hot for vigorous exercise.

Oh—and this post would not be complete without a shout-out to Jackie, who performs so many of the necessary tasks of everyday living for both of us, freeing me up to do far more of my creative work than would otherwise be possible. (And who somehow does it while also doing her own creative work.)

A novelish midpoint

When I was first starting on my novel, I estimated the final length at about 80,000 words.

It was a minimally informed estimate. I had a vague sense of how much stuff needed to happen over the course of the story. I looked at a few other novels that had about that much stuff in them and counted how many words they had, and 80,000 words was a typical length. I also looked at other first novels that had been published recently, and saw that 80,000 words was not unusual. The size of the “story” is a much more important determinant of manuscript length than what seems to have been marketable a few years ago, but if I’m going to have a target, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that it’s not wildly out of the norm.

I’m not sure that having a length estimate is even useful for a first novel, but I thought it might be, for two reasons.

The first is a holdover from a book I read, back when I did software, on software process. It modeled a process where you’d make a length estimate up front, use it to produce an effort estimate, and then track daily progress. At the end of the project you’d compare your estimates to what actually happened, and use the result to improve your estimates for the next project. The claim was that, after a few projects, you could produce quite excellent estimates, and could make accurate predictions for when you’d be done.

I don’t know if that’s true or not. I sure hope my start-and-stop progress on this novel doesn’t predict a similar profile on future novel efforts.

A second reason I came up with a length estimate was to give me a sense of whether I was on track.

Some years ago, I went to a workshop on screenwriting. The guy teaching the workshop pointed out that a considerable amount of knowledge about pacing flows directly from the fixed form of a screenplay. A feature-length movie is going to have a script something under 120 pages.  If, for example, you’re writing a movie about a road trip from New York to California, then along about page 60 you’re going to be in the middle of the country. Maybe you’re in St. Louis, maybe you’re in Kansas City—but if you’re in Philadelphia, you’re doing something wrong. Thinking along those lines has been helpful already.

Today I passed 40,000 words, so I’m at the midpoint of my estimated length.

In writing 40,000 words, I’ve learned a lot about this novel. (I’d hesitate to claim that I’d learned much about writing novels, but I’ve learned a lot about this novel.)

Happily, I think I’m past the stage of going back and fixing first-draft stuff to conform to my evolving ideas of the structure of this novel. That’s a combination time-waster and procrastination technique that many people warn against, but that I was unable to resist while working on the first third of the novel. (And it did waste a lot of time; I now see that a lot of stuff that I labored over isn’t going to make it into the second draft.) Worse, reworking those bits got me out of the habit of writing new stuff. Only just lately have I been writing entirely new prose—which is, for me, one of the fun bits. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, until I finally got back to it.

Hopefully, the second half goes along more smoothly than the first.

Not yet tracking wordcount (novel update)

After several abortive efforts to track daily wordcounts on my current novel project (dating back almost two years), I’ve not resumed doing so over the three or four weeks I’ve been back to work. However, I have been checking the current wordcount almost daily, and recently passed 30,000 words. (It had been slightly under 20,000 words when I got back to work in late December.)

My best guess is that this novel will come in at around 80,000 words, so I’m now solidly in the middle. I have a pretty good idea how the ending goes, so things are moving along pretty briskly now. I have three or four key things I need to set up. The rest of what I’m up to is pure fun and games—my heroes playing around with cool stuff, getting into and out of trouble. (Of course at this point, they’re getting into trouble faster than they’re getting out of it.)

I’m of three minds about tracking wordcount as a productivity measure.

First of all, I think it’s at least theoretically useful data to have for planning purposes. If I know how fast I write, I’m in a much better position to estimate how long something will take me.

Second, I find it somewhat useful for motivation. Many’s the time I’ve sat down for a short writing session late in the day to get at least a few dozen words written, so I don’t have to enter a zero in my spreadsheet.

However, third, I find that it’s sometimes demotivating. When I’ve missed several days, I find it so depressing to enter those zeros, that just doing so is an extra hurdle that’s hard to get over, even when I’d otherwise be ready to get back to writing.

The main reason that I’ve not yet gotten back to tracking is point three above. Secondarily, I’ve held off because the wordcounts would have been misleading: I’ve slotted back in some text that I’d earlier pulled out because it was in the wrong place, or to accord with shifting visions of the novel.

Still, something over 10,000 words in something under a month comes to around 400 words a day. That’s not very fast writing—and yet: 10,000 words a month is plenty fast enough to write a novel-length text in less than a year.

Essentially all the pre-written text is back in now, so at this point it would not be misleading to start tracking words again, if I’m confident that any little productivity glitches won’t become self-reinforcing downward spirals. I was still doubtful when I started this post, but now that I’ve finished it, I think I’m ready to get back to tracking. (In fact, I have just now resurrected my old tracking spreadsheet. Let’s hope doing so doesn’t cause a bunch of demotivating thoughts.)

On doing what comes easily to other people

Here’s Marissa Lingen with one of those ideas that ought to be obvious, and yet is so very much not-obvious in practice that I’m very glad she wrote about it.

When her critiquers suggested that her books needed more setting, she made a plan for including more setting:

Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like.

A great idea for adding description, but also a great idea for adding anything that you tend to under-write—because it is so much harder to add this sort of thing in later, when you’ve already got carefully crafted paragraphs, each one leading to the next, beginning with a great opening image and ending with a nice little cliffhanger.

And however great this idea is, much greater is her insight that people who are naturally good at something usually have no idea how someone who is not naturally good at it can get better.

I learned that fairly early, with my difficulties learning how to spell. Teachers tried putting me next to people who were good at spelling, in the hopes that their spelling skills would somehow rub off on me. This did not work at all, because people who are naturally good at spelling have no idea how to get better at spelling. (People who are naturally good at spelling tend to be people who see words in their head and then can just read off the letters and write them down. Since I can’t do that, I had to come up with a completely different way to get (barely adequately) good at spelling.)

I’m always on the lookout for people who do well things they aren’t naturally good at. They’re often hard to spot. (Spend thousands of hours honing your craft, and you too can look like someone who’s naturally good at something.) But there are clues—such as earlier works where the author or artist wasn’t as good, and works where some aspects are crafted like a masterpiece, while other aspects show merely a journeyman’s skill. Those are the people who might have some insight into how they got better.

With this sort of thing, it’s always useful to put it in terms of KA Ericsson’s model for the acquisition of expert performance. Just practice isn’t enough to get better at something—you also need to monitor your performance and evaluate your success—with help, such as a critique group, when possible. Then you need to figure out how to do it better—which Marissa’s post is a perfect worked example of.

Novel update

I’m having pretty good success with my new daily routine.

Things haven’t gone perfectly. One day last week I was coming down with a virus and took a sick day—no fiction writing got done. Yesterday’s bitter cold kept me from getting out to exercise—no walking, no lifting, and no taiji.

Today, things went pretty much according to plan. I had breakfast at 6:30, got to work at 7:00, and wrote until 8:30. Then I bundled up (still pretty darned cold) and walked to the Fitness Center, where I did my usual lifting and stretching, followed by about 25 minutes of qigong and taiji. I deviated from my schedule a bit, having an early lunch before getting back to fiction writing, but I did do two 90-minute sessions, which were both reasonably productive.

The novel’s word count has actually been soaring, because I’ve been slotting back in bits and pieces that I’d pulled out in a previous restructuring effort, now that I’ve got a better idea where they go. I’ve just about finished that phase, and it is almost time to settle in for the next major phase of writing new prose. (Which I’m all excited about, because that’s the fun part.)