Tag Archives: Advice

Getting out of a stall

The last couple of days have not been the most productive. On the one hand I did manage to make some decisions about final changes to Surreality and have even started the formatting for both the eBook and print editions. On the other I haven’t managed to write more than a couple hundreds words a day on the new book.

I’m enjoying the work but I’m used to the more open sky country of 800-1000 words a day (or more). I’d like to blame some of this on my dogs: Murphy who would probably explode if he wasn’t sitting in someone’s lap for more than half an hour, and Riley who seems determined to bark at every perceived threat. But the truth is, I just haven’t gotten a groove going yet. And if anything, my dogs are a restoring force, enforcing calm and simpler thinking when I rile myself up. I tend to frustrate myself by thinking I should be at a certain word count by now, that a chapter isn’t long enough, or that maybe I should wake up early and give my first energies to the project.

These are not the most productive impulses.

So how do you pull yourself out of a situation like this?

Write what you’re thinking about, not what you should be writing – Writing doesn’t have to be a linear activity. My problem usually isn’t a shortage of ideas, it’s making them wait. If your brain wants to go in a certain direction, maybe you should let it.

Remove barriers to entry – Part of my problem is my computer. I’m frustrated with AbiWord in Linux and the problem’s it’s having with formatting and catching up to changes. I chose this method because I wanted to get some use out of my old netbook, and because it’s lighter and less distracting than my other machines. But maybe I just need to go with what works and stick to Word.

Write something – Forward progress is still progress. That can be word count or revision. Making the text better will always help in the long run. The rewards of more words will come soon enough.

Get some sleep – Part of my problem is that I’m tired and a little frustrated. Sleep and taking care of yourself solves most of those problems.

Have a little fun – Give yourself a reward for a hard day’s work. Don’t just write and go to bed. You need something to help you cool down and decompress. Catch up on some reading.

I know these feelings come and go, that writing can be a very week to week activity even for those of us who keep a regular schedule. When you’re in a slump, it can feel like you’ll never write another word again, but those feelings go away. They always do as long as you keep writing.

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Writing Maintenance

As my car and my body struggled to deal with the below zero temperatures yesterday morning, I started to think about how writing is a lot like maintaining a car.

For one thing in cold weather, it’s not a good idea to let your engine sit for more than few days without being run or it’ll complain the next time you try to turn it on. Similarly, writing works best when you’re doing it often in regular sustained bursts. When you “turn the key” so to speak, on your next post or the next chapter of your novel, the words are more likely to flow naturally if it hasn’t been that long since the last time you took your writing out for a spin.

Similarly, you can get a lot of carbon build up in an engine if all you do is city driving. Sometimes you need to take a car out on the highway to get rid of that grime. With writing the equivalent of this is to practice different kinds of writing. If all I did was write blog posts, or sit sequestered in a room working on my novel, eventually my mind would start to get filled with crud. One type of writing can help free up gunk that’s built up in other types.

If it’s been a really long time since you’ve driven a car, like 18 months or more, one of the first things you need to do is put some new gas in the tank, and maybe even drain some of the old gas out. This is kind of how it feels to go back to anything you’ve written more than maybe a year or two ago, especially as you’re developing as a writer. Something that looked tight and provocative to you when you wrote it will look horrible to you a little later. Here’s the only problem, you’re not always right. Sometimes we can over tinker, change the grades of gasoline or try a bunch of additives, when really all we need is a fresh tank.

Every now and again we need to assess how things are going with our writing. Is it worth putting more money or time into this car, or should we get a new one? This doesn’t mean giving up driving, it just might mean going in a different direction. If you’ve been trying your hand at genre fiction for a long time, and it really isn’t getting you anywhere, maybe it’s time to try writing something else. Then again, maybe not. Some people get 300,000 miles or more out of their cars (personally I’d love to hit the moon with mine, but it’s a Ford so that’s unlikely).

We do regular maintenance on cars and we should do regular maintenance on writing as well. Whether it’s writing exercises, or reading good books, there are things that help us to keep running more than just the practice of writing. You wouldn’t drive a car without ever changing the oil, or the brake pads or the tires. Why would you write without reading books? Sure you don’t have time, but eventually something may happen that will cause you to need to make the time.

Lastly, it is possible for an engine to overheat, particularly if it’s been driving at 70 or above for 10 hours or so. Taking breaks is just as important, sometimes more so. We can’t operate at peak speed forever, we need to slow down. I’ve been feeling this a lot with the two week cycle of The Sky Below, and I relish the Thursday and Friday after a chapter is released where I don’t really think about it. I need the recharge before I can keep going.

Keep driving and keep writing. And pray for spring!

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I’m too tired to write

The above statement is what I was telling myself for a lot of November and December of last year, and even this morning starting this post at 5:30 in the morning sitting up in bed I’m very tempted to pull the sheets back and take the extra thirty minutes of sleep rather than writing these words to you.

I try not to be susceptible to writing moods but the truth is my emotions and the way I’m feeling physically does affect my output. Some of this is taking the time to actually get a good night’s sleep and to be prepared for the days work. Saturday in particular I allowed myself a good night’s sleep, woke to a wonderful breakfast in the breakfast nook with the little red haired girl, then worked at Panera for a number of hours on a writing project. I was certainly tired and wired after the session (three large cups of coffee will do that to a person even  sipped over the course of four hours), but I also felt like I’d gotten good work done.

Some time at the beginning of this year I decided I wasn’t going to let the tired excuse stop me from doing the writing projects I wanted to. I wasn’t going to say that I couldn’t take on too many projects, write more blog posts, put more hours into the writing. There have certainly been days where I’ve wanted to renig, to drop some things, to reconsider, but on the whole I think it’s been a great month and I hope to have many more like it in the coming year.

This doesn’t mean I don’t take the headspace or the tired argument seriously. I think some things are obstacles to the creative process. They may be largely created by ourselves, but that just means that the solution has to be created by ourselves as well. Sometimes the solution to not being able to write at 5:30 in the morning is to go to bed a half an hour earlier, and sometimes the solution is to write the night before. Not all emotions can be channelled into useful, productive work, though with practice most of them can.

One of the basic things I’ve found is that I’ve more to say, and more to write on the practice of writing when I’m actually writing. I have more to say about technology when I’m immersed in what’s going on in the world, and when I’m writing code. And I have more to say about books and comic books when I’m actually reading them. Taking more on has given me more to talk about (hopefully some of it interesting to the rest of you).

This is also not an inviation to overwork. There are limits to the amount of work a writer can practically do. I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve created a lot of “output” but after a point only some of it was usable, and the rest needs heavy revision. And there are other comittments in life besides the work we’re trying to finish. It’s just as valuable and refreshing to spend time sitting on the sofa curled up with a loved one and a dog (maybe sometimes a cat though a dog is more acommodating of when you have to go to the bathroom).

The only thing I’m saying is, we usually can do at least a little more than we think we can. And writing every day, or nearly every day, makes writing easier and frankly a hell of a lot more fun.

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What should I look for in a computer?

Buying a computer can be a stressful decision. There are so many factors that it can feel overwhelming. Over the years I’ve helped many people pick out computers for themselves, as well as tried to make the best decisions for myself. In fact, I have to hold myself back when hearing people pondering computer purchases in MicroCenter from butting in and ticking off the Sales Rep.

Rather than annoying the reps down at my primary computer store, let me give a couple of my tips and thoughts here.

What size screen should I buy?

For me the perfect screen size for a mobile laptop is 11.6″. Looks a lot bigger than my old 10.1″ netbook but still light and portable. This by far is the best hybrid size for something between a laptop and a tiny netbook. It will feel small for gaming sometimes, so you might want a 15.6″ if that’s your emphasis. Much bigger and you’ll be carrying around a brick that won’t fit in a lot of bags.

Should I buy a solid state drive?

The speed is nice, and no moving parts means they’re harder to damage, but a conventional 500GB SATA drive will probably serve you just fine. Consider the solid state if you are resting the laptop actually on your lap and you have restless leg syndrome.

Do I need an optical drive (CD/DVD burner)?

Depends. I have a netbook that doesn’t have one as my primary “on the go” computer and I don’t miss it. But at home for backups and the like, it pays to have at least one computer with an optical drive. Externals work but can be fussy about their power settings, and one drew power in such a way that it messed up the power on my USB ports. If you do backups only on flash or hard drives, then maybe you don’t need it, but optical discs are still great long lasting backups. No matter what, in my experience a CD/DVD burner stops working (fails discs) after 3-4 years.

Does Windows 8.1 stink?

Not really, though it may take some time to configure it to what you’ll actually use. I never use the metro screen, and set my computer to boot straight to the desktop. Check out my tips for how to make Windows 8.1 work for you.

Which Brands?

I like ASUS and Toshiba. I have purchased Acer and they can be great for a budget. Avoid Dell and HP.

How much RAM?

4GB will be fine. 3GB is probably okay too. Don’t overspend to get 8GB, you can always buy the chip later.

Dual or Quad core?

My netbook is a dual core and works great, but if the quad core isn’t a whole lot more, it’s probably the way to go. For basic use both are fine.

# of USB ports?

Three or more is best, though you can always buy hubs if you want. Two seems like too few (my old Toshiba laptop only has 2).

How much should I spend?

Laptops last between 3-5 years typically (good ones maybe longer). Unless you are a high end gamer, graphic designer, or video editor, don’t spend more than $400. $300 is probably a good budget though you can get good machines even cheaper.

Warranty?

I heard good advice on Car Talk the other day; if you feel like you’re an unlucky person, buy the warranty. Otherwise be happy. It should have a 1 year manufacturer’s warranty in case the computer is a lemon.

Anything else?

Test the keyboard and pop the CD/DVD tray (if applicable) before buying. If possible see the thing in person rather than buying online. Take someone with you who knows more about computers if you’re unsure. Don’t rely on the sales rep, but be nice and give them the commission for fetching the one you want. Buy a USB wireless or bluetooth (if supported by your laptop) mouse. Maybe buy a sheath\sleeve if you don’t have one but thrift a laptop bag (you can get one for $1-3 instead of $40).

Questions and comments are appreciated.

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