The only thing to do when the sense of dread and low self-esteem tells you that you are not up to this is to wear it down by getting a little work done every day.
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
This week was okay. Just generally middling. Did a good amount of work but didn’t do as much as I had originally wanted to. So much bullshit is happening right now in the world, especially because we’re looking at Nov 6 around the corner. It all feels even more dire and overwhelming and heartbreaking than usual. Putting my head down and getting creative work done is harder than usual. I know this isn’t a unique problem to me — we’re all working through this together. I had dinner with one of my sisters-in-law (she is a painter) on Friday, and we commiserated (over alcohol and delicious seafood).
Three of the flash fiction pieces I worked on this week don’t hold together as well as I’d like. The endings are a bit rushed and the arc isn’t clearly defined. Sometimes I know where I’m starting and know where I’m ending, but then I get lost along the way. I wind up on a convoluted path that doesn’t quite get to point B but maybe gets proximate to it. I think I need to do more explicit planning, really plot out the arc before I get started. Or, at least not get lazy when it comes to figuring out what comes next — just take a beat and think more about it instead of rambling along and hoping that I get there eventually.
On a previous season of Writing Excuses (I think maybe season 10), Brandon Sanderson mentioned that one of the plotting technique he uses is working backwards from the payoff moment. He figures out his big reveal/climax, and then asks what happens right before that, and then before that, and so forth until he gets to where he’s going to start. I’m going to try that this next week. Maybe between planning forwards and planning backwards, I’ll figure out the middle.
NaNoWriMo is coming up pretty soon. That’s the other thing I’ve started thinking about. Instead of starting a brand new project, I’m going to add 50k words to That Fairytale Thing that I’ve been working on. So for this upcoming week, I’m going to start in on an outline.
What are y’all working on this week? Anyone doing NaNoWriMo?
Week one of the flash fiction inktober thing down!
I’ve found this week very productive, despite the tempting distraction that is a brand new copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and an egregiously huge TV. Building in the flash fiction bit to my morning has allowed me to feel more playful and experimental in my writing again, which was something I had been missing during my more recent Large Project slog.
Some days were certainly easier than others, but each day brought with it a new little idea. Most of them I was happy to just visit the once, but there are a couple in there that I want to polish and hoard and maybe expand.
Since each piece is so short, it’s given me an opportunity to look at the finished first drafts and pick out the problems I have a tendency to repeat — it’s much more obvious when you have several drafts to look at than when you are in the midst of the one big one. I’ve gotten some perspective too on what made a couple of my other larger projects not work so well. So now, I can be a little more deliberate in how I piece things together, and I can direct my attention more consciously to my weak points.
All in all, educational so far. I do need to come up with a plan for what I’m going to do with all these first drafts at the end of the month though…
And now, a rant.
For some reason, I’ve seen an excess of articles this past week once again espousing writing “rules” in that particularly prescriptive hard-and-fast tone of voice that I find grating. This week I’ve seen a confluence of attacks, once again, on adverbs. And sometimes even adjectives.
On the one hand, I get it. All things are now STATED with AUTHORITY because qualifiers make you weak. Even though dealing in absolutes obliterates all nuance (that every aspect of everything has). That includes the unnecessarily harsh prohibition against using adverbs. (Use even one, and — egads! — you will become a Bad Writer™!)
And again, I get it. Mostly, when this rule is repetitively bandied about, it’s frequently about annoyingly using adverbs excessively and gratuitously. I get it.
But it’s said in this way, this looking-down-my-nose-at-your-ly-suffix way that makes me want to… I don’t know, glare at a houseplant (Sorry, houseplant. It’s not your fault.).
When it comes down to it, the writers that I most admire and wish to emulate are not afraid of or averse to using adjectives and adverbs. Those things are, as with any of the other aspects of language, merely tools. The writing that I like uses these tools and wields them skillfully and with great intention.
Here is Ursula K. Le Guin’s more moderate perspective on adjectives and adverbs:
Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and nourishing. They add color, life, immediacy. They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused.
I recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
And maybe, this more measured take on it is what people mean. But it’s not what they say.
(Incidentally, if you haven’t read Steering the Craft, I highly recommend it. It is a small, powerful book that can be revisited over and over again.)
This past week was generally better, both in terms of process and writing. Through a combination of reflection and tips from Deep Work, I’ve settled on a new daily framework that seems to work for me. As with everything else, it’ll need to be tested a bit more, but I have found it very helpful in organizing and providing structure to my day.
This week, I roughed out two additional flash fiction pieces — codenames “the hair thing” and “something something chess.” (Literally that is what the Word docs are called. I am bad at coming up with titles. I’ve read many short stories this year with amazing titles. How do?) Both need significant rewriting, but the first drafts exist now where they didn’t before, so that’s something. I also added several thousand words to a fairytale project. This was the thing that started as a short story last week but is quickly becoming something else altogether – I think maybe it wants to be a novel? It doesn’t really like labels…
As I’m working on these shorter pieces, I’m struck by how much better/lighter/happier I’ve been. I don’t know how much of this is leaving behind that other novel project, in which I was finding less and less joy, and how much of this is stumbling upon this new project, which is much more in line with things I read and have always wanted to write. Or, I guess, how much of it is related to process.
I’m a bit antsy and nervous about tomorrow since it’s the first day of Inktober and thus the first day of my Flash Fiction Inktober Mash-up challenge. But that’s okay. I just have to remind myself to focus on the process and not the product.
It was one of my New Year’s resolutions to find more community this year, so I can’t even claim that I didn’t know this was something I needed to do. Still, I dragged and dragged and dragged my feet until this month because the idea of putting myself out there with a bunch of strangers prickles my skin with anxiety. (Why these things give me stomach-clenching nerves while talking to patients and families and running codes when I was doctoring didn’t so much is a whole different thing altogether.)
It’s easy enough to put off doing something you know you’re supposed to do; reassurances of tomorrow or next week can go on forever until you’re dead. But then sometimes it feels like the universe is telling you a thing (I know, I know, confirmation bias), and it just seems wrong not to listen.
When I went to MRK’s author event a few weeks ago, it was after I had spent a good several days mustering up the courage and stolidly ignoring my jerk brain. But the thing that really cemented it was that I went ahead and bought her books through the Left Bank website and indicated that I was going to pick them up at the event. Because then, the etiquette bit of my brain chimes in and is all like “But you said…” and it seems like it would be rude not to complete that social exchange.
So I went. And it was fine. And I did not die of embarrassment. Really, no one much paid attention to me (duh. and thankfully). Except. I ran into an author friend of one of my brothers-in-law. I had met this person twice before, I think — once two years ago and then once again almost exactly a year after that at consecutive birthday events. (Not my birthdays. My bro-in-law’s.) We reintroduced ourselves and got to chatting, and soon enough, he introduced me to a couple of his writerly friends and told me about a writing group they all attend. (Universe: Go find a community already. Sheesh. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING FOR YOU?)
That writing group meets tonight. And I’m going.
I mean, I was feeling waffly up until this past weekend, but I have to now.
The author friend wrote me an email yesterday morning to check in and attached the pieces that are going to be critiqued. He went to the trouble of making sure I knew where it was going to be and where to park. He took the time to write such a nice, thoughtful email. And then etiquette brain was like, “Now you have to go. He went to so much trouble!”
Plus, I have told A, my sibs-in-law, this author friend, and now you that I’m going to attend. So, etiquette brain, who does not like broken promises and does not like people going to any trouble, won’t let me back out even though I still have most of the day to make myself nervous.
Thanks, etiquette brain.
I’ve spent the last few months working on a novel project that has been running me down. It came in stops and starts anyway, and then I crashed into a wall with worldbuilding issues. I stopped, established the rules of the world, rewrote, and then wrote again, but even still. Each word on the page felt like I had to pull teeth.
A lot of it has to do with the running litany of fears that I have going on in the back of my mind. It was a quiet enough susurrus that I thought I could ignore it, move past it. But my jerk brain wouldn’t let up, and the fears worked their way under my skin. Every time I opened my project, the recitation broke over me, and it just became harder and harder to write past it.
I spent the past couple of weeks working on process. I’ve let mine get messy and out of sorts due to travel and side projects and hoping my house will put itself in order. But I know better than that.
Process is deliberate; entropy is the default state of things.
I needed a reset, but I was going back and forth on whether or not I should take a break from the novel. Because you’re supposed to finish things, right? Was I taking a break because I just wanted to avoid doing the thing? Or was I taking a break because I just needed a break? Can you tell the difference? Sometimes I can’t.
Then again, sitting there and agonizing about it while my processes crumbled wasn’t really helping either.
So this week, I forgave myself for setting the novel aside temporarily. I’ve been working on a few flash fiction pieces instead. Little ideas that I scribbled in my notebook for “a later time.” It has been liberating and gratifying, and it’s nice to not start the day with task aversion and self-flagellation. I’ve started implementing a ritual right before I sit down to write, and I’ve been a little less rigid about timing. Thus far, I’ve completed draft one of one flash fiction piece, am mostly done with another, and am about a third of the way into a short story.
Finishing things is important. I know that novel is going to be there when I go back to it. And I know I’m going to finish it. But sometimes it’s easy to forget what victory feels like when you are in the midst of a huge project. I was denying myself the option of working on other little things during the novel slog because I didn’t want to distract myself. I didn’t think about it as a way to recharge instead, to remind myself that I can actually complete a project.
The question now is, how long should this break be? At what point am I just avoiding the novel again? I’m thinking 2-4 weeks will hit the mark for me, but I’ll re-evaluate at the end of next week.
All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation — it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.
– William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style
I finished the first draft of my novel yesterday. It ultimately clocked in at 59,722 words.
My feelings right now are still pretty mixed. While the first draft is done, the novel itself isn’t actually done. So that weight is still there.
On the one hand, like I’ve said, I’m proud of having done this thing. Actually drafting a story like this from beginning to end was something that I had convinced myself was impossible for me to do. I believed that for a long time.
On the other hand, what I have now is a garbage pile of words that I kind of want to set on fire. I’m told this is a normal headspace to be in. I kind of never want to see this project again. Although I’ve told this story from start to finish, it’s missing a lot of things. I know that the first pass revision is going to involve extensively rewriting the whole thing, and it’ll basically feel like writing an entirely new story. Maybe. I mean, I guess I don’t know that, but that’s what it feels like from this myopic emotional distance.
Here’s some of the stuff I do know:
Week three check-in time!
This week has gone by with much more ease than the previous one. Which is not to say that it is easy. It’s still definitely work. But I’ve managed to put some systems into place that have been helpful in making it not feel so much like a struggle.
The main change-up that I did for my workflow is implementing a modified Pomodoro Technique to break down how I was writing. This was something that was suggested under the “Week Three Tips” section of No Plot, No Problem as a way to put in some 6,000 word days to make up for any word deficit that was accumulated by the end of week two. Instead of doing that, I worked the system into my usual writing routine.
Week two check-in, and actually at the two week mark. Week two is the notoriously difficult week. When enthusiasm wanes and you’re left with a bit of a slog. A disastrous half-conceived plot. Characters that once raced to get things done, now going through the motions aimlessly. Disenchantment with the whole thing.
It’s been harder and harder to not listen to the inner editor (aka brain weasels, aka jerkbrain). I kept thinking about how terrible my writing was and how boring it was. I still didn’t know how some key pieces were going to work. I had lost faith in the process. Everything just felt wrong. I found myself glancing at the word count every page and then every paragraph and then every sentence. Did I hit the goal yet? Could I stop for the day? Disheartening to say the least.
In No Plot, No Problem, Chris Baty points out that this is the week to remind yourself, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” But even when I told myself that, I just had a hard time getting words out on the page. It was like pulling teeth, but slower and without anesthesia.
But I still did it.