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.

Mixed success at being monomaniacal

I like to joke that I no longer multitask at more than one thing at a time.

Related to that, I recognized years ago that a certain amount of monomaniacal focus was really useful for successfully completing a large project (such as a novel), but that being able to focus on more than just one thing was important to being more broadly successful.

Siam Dragon Peppers
We keep harvesting them, but every time we return to the garden a few more of our Siam Dragon Peppers are ripe.

I like to joke that I no longer multitask at more than one thing at a time.

Related to that, I recognized years ago that a certain amount of monomaniacal focus was really useful for successfully completing a large project (such as a novel), but that being able to focus on more than just one thing was important to being more broadly successful.

This is all the more true if you want to accomplish more than just one thing (if you want to, for example, write a series of Wise Bread posts, write an occasional short story, and become physically fit, in addition to writing a novel). And yet, each one of those things requires focus, if I’m to accomplish it.

Basically, I need to be able to be monomaniacal about three or four things at a time.

Like most people, I find that I get caught up in whatever I’m doing, both on a minute-to-minute basis and a day-to-day basis.

On a minute-to-minute basis, when I’m writing something, and especially when the writing is going well, I want to press on. I feel this way, even though I know from both things others have said and personal experience, that it’s always best to stop in the middle of things—to leave a ragged edge, so that I return to the work with a clear entry point, already knowing how the next bit goes. Convincing myself to do this routinely would really help with being monomaniacal about multiple things: I’d be quicker at ending the first thing so I could switch my focus to the second, and I’d be quicker at resuming the first thing when I came back to it.

Just lately, my day-to-day monomaniacal focus has been on running. I don’t run every single day, but I’ve had to make it the first thing I do on the days that I do it, because otherwise it’s too hot to run. It’s been working very well for building fitness, but doing it first has tended to result in it preempting my writing.

I’m not quite sure why. Partly it’s because a good workout leaves me feeling tired. Partly it’s because a good workout leaves me feeling like I’ve accomplished something (so I’m less driven to accomplish something more). Partly it’s just that I’m only at my best first thing in the day, so whatever I do first always ends up being the main thing I do that day.

Once there’s a break in the heat, I want to get back to writing first of all. If I can put that together with taking a fairly early break (leaving the work paused at a ragged edge) and then running (or walking or bicycling or lifting or doing taiji) and then returning for a second session of writing, I think I’ll be more productive at the writing without any loss of success at the fitness thing.

Exactly on topic for the above is Tobias Buckell’s latest meditations on designing a daily routine that provides both writing time and exercise time, while also allowing him to work on different aspects of his work at whatever time of day he’s most effective at that particular thing. Toby is a great writer, but he’s an absolute genius at measuring his productivity and then using that data to tweak his work habits.

I need to improve my own data collection. I already track my productivity at writing, but I need to get a bit more fine-grained about it and track productivity per work session (rather than per day). I’m sure I’m most productive in the first session of the day, but I don’t have any evidence, and I certainly don’t know how much less productive I am during the later sessions, nor to I know whether my productivity declines less if I work on non-fiction (or editing, or research).

The picture, by the way, has nothing to do with this post. I just thought the blog needed another picture, and I’d brought the camera to the garden today.

Daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna

I’m a student of daily routines. I like to imagine that I’m looking for good models for my own behavior, but that’s only true in an oblique way. By now I understand pretty well the structure of a productive routine; no new routine will be enough better than the routines I’ve already studied to justify the effort of examining them. The value in studying daily routines, for me, is as a reminder to follow my own routine.

For a while there was a great blog called Daily Routines that was very nearly pornography for this inclination of mine to ponder new models. It was there that I found the daily routine for Charles Darwin, which is probably the best model I’ve found so far.

And it is in part because of its similarity to Darwin’s model, that the daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna caught my eye:

At the second hour [after waking] he calls for his shoes and walks three miles, exercising mind as well as body. If he has friends with him the time is passed in conversation on the noblest of themes, otherwise a book is read aloud….

Then he sits down, and there is more reading aloud or more talk for preference; afterwards he enters his carriage [for more private conversation].

After riding seven miles he walks another mile, then he again resumes his seat or betakes himself to his room and his pen. For he composes, both in Latin and Greek, the most scholarly lyrics. They have a wonderful grace, wonderful sweetness, and wonderful humour, and the chastity of the writer enhances its charm.

When he is told that the bathing hour has come—which is the ninth hour in winter and the eighth in summer—he takes a walk naked in the sun, if there is no wind.

Then he plays at ball for a long spell, throwing himself heartily into the game, for it is by means of this kind of active exercise that he battles with old age.

After his bath he lies down and waits a little while before taking food, listening in the meantime to the reading of some light and pleasant book. All this time his friends are at perfect liberty to imitate his example or do anything else they prefer.

Then dinner is served…. The dinner is often relieved by actors of comedy, so that the pleasures of the table may have a seasoning of letters. Even in the summer the meal lasts well into the night, but no one finds it long, for it is kept up with such good humour and charm.

The consequence is that, though he has passed his seventy-seventh year, his hearing and eyesight are as good as ever, his body is still active and alert, and the only symptom of his age is his wisdom.

– (From a public-domain translation of the letters of Pliny the Younger.)

Of course, Spurinna was retired, so one writing session of just an hour or two is probably enough for him. His work when he was younger was as a magistrate and governor, and so probably took place in those conversation sessions that are now just for pleasure.

I think there’s a lot to emulate there. Three walks per day adding up to five miles seems just about right—as long as you include another hour or two of vigorous sport. Of course, he’s in his late seventies. Us younger folk should probably get in a little more than that.

Race and the fictional character

One of my Clarion classmates, Nnedi Okorafor, tweeted today wondering why sometimes authors won’t just say what race a character is. I doubt if she was thinking about me, but I’m one of those writers who is sometimes coy about a character’s race. My answer won’t fit in 140 characters, so I thought I’d write a post.

The most common instance when I do this (just provide physical descriptions, rather than stating a racial identity) is when the viewpoint character doesn’t know the answer.

This is pretty common in real life. There are plenty of people I know whose ethnic heritage is not at all obvious just from their appearance. You’d have to ask.  And these days, I hesitate to ask—some people take offense at the question, and others are simply tired of answering. So, just like in the real world, my characters often don’t know the ethnic heritage of other characters. Sometimes they’ll speculate. Other times they won’t.

The other common instance when I do this is when the whole cultural background thing is complex enough to be a distraction from the story. A character of South Asian heritage might be one whose ancestors had immigrated to Uganda but whose grandparents had been expelled and moved to England. But for story purposes I might decide that all I want to say is that she has straight, dark hair and speaks with an English accent.

Finally, what I’m working on right now is a far-future story where humans have spread to a hundred worlds. Even when they know where on Earth people had a particular skin color, they know no more about the paths their various ancestors took than I know about mine. (I can point to some English, Irish, and Dutch—but there’s reason to believe that one of my male ancestors came from somewhere around the Mediterranean, or maybe Sarmatia.)

I do have one unfinished story where I play around a bit with ethnicity, because the viewpoint character was raised to be interested in it. Due to his background, he’s much better at it than I am, able to look at people and perceive that this one is Celtic, that one Igbo, another Chettiar. It was fun to write those bits, but it got to be a bit much to be just a quirk of the character, without managing to rise to the level of being a powerful driver of the story.

Tracking words

I go back and forth about tracking words as a useful metric when writing fiction.  Currently, I’m back on again.

Over the past few days, I’ve created a spreadsheet along the lines of the one Toby provided in his post on creativity and word tracking.  Mine is simpler than his; I don’t have a deadline, so I don’t need to track progress toward one.

My main input is simply the length of the current draft.  From that I calculate the words written that day.  I’m also tracking a 5-day moving average (although I’m thinking of changing that to a 7-day moving average, to smooth out the impact of weekday issues).  I calculate a “words to go” value (by subtracting words written from an estimated final length) and a “days to go” value (“words to go” divided by the moving average).  Currently I’m using 60,000 words as my estimated final length–a reasonable value for a short novel, I think–but if I come up with a better guess as I proceed I can change my estimate.

I’m currently at 7555 words and my current 5-day moving average is 745 words per day, so my estimated days to completion of a first draft is 70.  We’ll see.

Is this useful?  I’m not sure yet.  But I do know that I wrote 318 words of fiction yesterday, even though I also wrote a new Wise Bread post and was feeling a bit burned out.  The fact that I’d otherwise have had to plug a zero in for words written yesterday was significant motivation for getting me to put in the time to get some fiction written.