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.)

Another attempt at a daily schedule

One reason I haven’t been more productive these past two years is that I’ve let my fitness activities consume the morning hours that are my prime writing time. I know that, and I want to free that time up for writing, but I’m loath to give up my taiji, because of the way it has been almost miraculous in changing my body for the better.

Five years ago I was starting to feel old. I could still do all the ordinary stuff I needed to do every day, but my spare capacity was shrinking. My balance and flexibility and strength and endurance were all less than they had been—and only just barely good enough. Any unusual stress, such as carrying something heavy up or down stairs, or moving across rough or shifting terrain, seemed dangerous. I had trouble getting a full night’s sleep, because my back would ache after lying still for a few hours.

Taiji (together with lifting) turned that completely around. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I really don’t want to give that up.

The problem is, I’ve been devoting a huge chunk of each morning to the lifting and the taiji class, and morning is by far my most productive time to write.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out a way to deal with that. The key—and I’ve known this for a long time—is to start my writing first. Once I’ve had a solid writing session, taking a break for some exercise is perfect. After that, I can get back to writing. (Whereas I’ve found it very hard to start writing after a long morning of exercise.)

The way we’d been doing it, we’d do our lifting before taiji. We briefly experimented with doing the lifting after taiji, but I found that hurt my knees. (My theory is that the taiji tired out the small muscles that stabilize my knees, making them just a little too wobbly for heavy lifting.) This has been great for actually doing the lifting, but has meant an awfully early start to the day—too early to fit in writing first.

So, during the last week of December and the first two weeks of January, while the taiji class is on break, I’m experimenting with a new daily routine. I’m still tweaking it, but as currently sketched out, it looks like this:

  • At 7:00, right after breakfast, I sit down to write fiction, and work for 90 minutes.
  • At 8:30 I take a break and spend the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 engaging in some fitness activity: lifting or taiji. (Once the class resumes, I’ll do the class on days that it meets, and lift on the other days.)
  • Back home by 10:30, I write fiction for another 90 minutes, then break for lunch at noon.
  • After lunch I get back outside and walk again. Lately I’ve been using this time to play Ingress, but in the summer I may just walk, go for a run, or whatever.
  • In the mid-to-late afternoon, I may do a bit more work on some writing-related activity: Writing non-fiction (such as a Wise Bread post), revising stories, submitting stuff to editors, critiquing work for the Incognitos, etc.

I’m trying to be a bit more careful about social media, because of how easy it is to fritter away a whole morning reading stuff my friends have found interesting, without abandoning it. Right now I’m checking social media briefly before breakfast, then staying away from it until after lunch, then pretty much allowing unlimited checking in the afternoons.

I’ve been doing this for more than a week now (with the modification that on Saturday and Sunday I just do one fiction-writing session, rather than two). It’s going great so far—I’ve gotten several thousand words written on my novel.

I’ll keep you posted.

[The core of this post was originally written as part of my year-end summary of my writing. However, not being about my writing in 2013, it didn’t belong there, so I’ve pulled it out and made it a post of its own.]

Decluttering: More than a dream

workspace-2013Jackie and I have been working on decluttering the study. We’ve been at it for 3 days now, off and on, and we’re making great progress.

My own focus in the initial phase has been on my workspace. I’m pretty pleased with where I am just now.

I almost didn’t post this picture, as it looks little different from other recent pictures of my workspace, but (on the theory of “pics or it didn’t happen”) I felt like documenting the fact that I’ve actually restored my workspace to its desired uncluttered state.

The area behind me is still not up to being documented. Anyone who had seen it any time before three days ago would be impressed by how much progress we’ve made, but there’s still stacks of boxes, a stack of books, and other clutter.

I think the clutter had been weighing on me, looming up behind me, making it harder to write. Hopefully, this will help.

Again with the writing daily

I think the first advice I ever got from a writer about writing was that I should write every day. It’s also probably the best advice. It’s certainly the most common. In any case, it’s advice that I accept.

Writing daily is good for many reasons.

First of all, it means that you’re making progress. That’s all it takes to eventually get to the end. If you write just one page—250 words—each day, then in less than a year you can write an 80,000 word novel.

Second, you’re making it a habit. I find it a habit that’s easy to keep, if I just do it. Even on the busiest days I can squeeze in a few minutes of writing. But once I decide that it’s okay to skip a day to handle some other major task or allow for some schedule conflict, I find that writing “almost” every day is a much easier habit to let go by the wayside.

Third (and this seems especially the case for writing a novel in particular), you’re inhabiting the world you’re writing about. As long as I’m writing every day, the characters remain fresh, their world remains alive, their situations remain immediate. If I wrote yesterday, I’m vastly more productive today than if there’s been an interruption.

I wrote a while back about the difference between writing every day and exercising every day, because I think they’re very different. Exercise is about stress followed by recovery. You can exercise every day, if you’re smart about making sure that each day’s exercise activities allow for recovery from the previous day’s exertions. In running, alternate long runs with short runs. In lifting, alternate upper-body with lower-body.

It may be that reason number 2 (making it a habit) is a good enough reason to create an exercise schedule that allows for daily exercise, but I don’t think it’s important for creating a successful fitness regimen. It’s perfectly possible to get fit exercising just three or four days a week.

But I think reason number 2 is the least important reason why writing every day is important. Reason number 1 (making progress) is more important. It scarcely applies to fitness. (It’s not like you’re ever going to be done with fitness the way you can be done writing a novel.) And reason number 3 (inhabiting the world of your story) doesn’t even really have an analog in fitness.

This post was prompted by the recent post by my Clarion classmate Beth Adele Long, who has started a public effort to write a novel by writing daily.

But I’d already gotten myself back to daily writing some days ago: since January 21st, I’ve worked on my novel every day. Early on there was day that I only managed to get 41 words written, but I got those words and hundreds more each day since then. All together, I’ve written almost 8000 new words since getting back to daily writing—a tenth of a novel right there.

I’d written the first quarter of a novel some months ago (writing daily most of that time) and then stalled out when I discovered that the middle of the novel was terribly dull. I’ve spent the months since then figuring out where I’d gone wrong, and I don’t think I’m going to have to throw away much of what I wrote. I’ve got most of the already-written part whipped into shape and (I think) I’m ready to jump in on the next part and write the middle of an interesting novel.

So, one question is, if I hadn’t let the fact that I was writing a dull middle of a novel stop me a few months ago, would I be ahead now? After all, I could have written 165,000 words of dull middle in that much time—and very possibly I could have figured out where I’d gone awry sooner than I ended up figuring it out.

On the other hand, in that time I finished two short stories and got them out to markets.

So, I don’t have an answer there. But I am back at work on my novel, and I’m once again writing daily.

Finished the demon story

For the first time in far too long I finished a draft of a story and sent it out to the Incognitos and a couple other first readers.

The working title of this story is “the demon story” and it is special in that it is by far the oldest story still in my “active” folder. It has its roots in the very first story that I started working on when I started seriously trying to write fiction for the pro markets, back in the 1990s. I have versions of this story dating back to 1995.

It’s also unusual in that it’s the only story that I’ve finished a draft of and then neither submitted nor abandoned.

The usual advice—almost universal advice—is that you not endlessly rewrite the same story. You’re almost always ahead of the game to simply write the best story you can, finish it, start submitting it, and then go on to something new. At some point, if you can’t produce a submittable draft, your time is almost certainly better spent working on a story that you can finish.

For this story, I’ve made an exception. I like it too much to submit a version that doesn’t work.

However, I’m done with it for now. Hopefully, the critiques will tell me that it’s nearly working, and give me a few tips for improving it. If so, it’ll go out to editors very soon.