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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Getting out of a slump

It’s been about a week since I resumed working on Surreality and it’s been going pretty well. Fingers crossed and I will continue to do so this week. Before this week it had been about a month since I had last worked on it. This was for a variety of reasons, holidays, getting sick, and the normal variances of life. But getting back to work got me to thinking about what it takes to get out of a slump, how to break through the excuses we make not to work, and how we make our work fun again. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:

1) Work somewhere you enjoy – For me writing is as much about place as it is about the work itself. The days where I can keep to my little ritual of waking up early, driving to Starbucks and getting an hour and a half to write and enjoy coffee are some of my best days. Or there’s Crimson Cup and an artisan coffee I’ve never tried before. Or there’s finding a building with a particularly good view, or a comfortable chair. Whatever it is try to make it as fun and different or comfortable for yourself as possible.

2) Read what you’ve done – Reading what you’ve already accomplished can provide solid evidence that it can be done. And it can clear up any doubts you may have. Even where the draft is not perfect, it will get you thinking about things you can fix and this will get you back into the right mind set.

3) Load your sub-conscious – Along the same lines writing, especially novel writing, is not something that you can just cram, you have to really study. While you can always flip through a text, it’s helpful to have an almost unconscious knowledge of your book, what has come before and where you are going. This may involve multiple readings. For myself using the Kindle’s text-to-speech ability allows me to assess narrative flow, see mistakes, and load up my brain without taking up a lot of my time since I can do it while doing other tasks.

4) Don’t make up for lost time – Unless you have a hard release date, which for us self-publishers is a rare thing, allow yourself the month off. Don’t try to double up your work on the back end. It will negatively affect your output, and your mood, and can knock you right back off track. Number of days writing is far better than any one day’s output. Taking a month off just means you weren’t meant to write those sections at that particular moment in your life.

5) Print your book, or eBook format it – Do something to make your book look professional or physical. Feeling the weight of pages in your hand can be tactilely satisfying. For me the eBook is almost the same (and better for the trees). It helps with step 3 and helps me to have my book with me at all times.

6) Work linearly – Some people will disagree with this, but I tend to think you should write a book in order, even if you’re stuck on the particular scene you’re on. A good novel is complex enough that a lot can change between where you are and the scene you’d love to write. Inevitably you’ll have to change something. If you need a break, write something else. Finishing a tough scene is satisfying and can build your confidence more when you tackle it.

7) Use a computer – Writing by hand is special, though my handwriting is atrocious and my speed is slower. Writing on a computer gets you closer to the final product and also frees you up to make changes immediately if something is not working. Writing by hand can discourage crossing out or forgetting what needs forgotten. And it’s slower and inevitably harder on your hands for long periods. If writing by hand is special for you, then go ahead, but at least for me computers eliminate a lot of physical barriers to getting real work done.

What works for you? How do you get out of a slump?

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My (Current) Revision Process

It’s week three of revisions on Surreality, and so far the week has been off to a slow start. I’m planning a “makeup” writing session at 5:30am at Starbucks (and hour in the past by the time you read this) so I’m writing this post while the wife watches Bones.

Fellow revisionist Monsignor Buckley wrote yesterday about his revision process, so I thought today wouldn’t be a bad opportunity to talk (again) about mine.

It’s different with every book.

Heck, it’s different with every draft.

The fractal book followed a similar pattern to the revision process Brian was describing, though never with another blank canvas. This was in part due to the fact I was passing chapters back and forth with the little red haired girl. I’d finish a chapter, cut it out into a separate document, and merge in her changes, while making adjustments between the two drafts.

Much the same way congress drafts bills. *shudder*

Surreality’s official revision number is 3, though a more accurate term would be version. Like software Surreality has been through countless “builds”, not including the ones that created actual eBook files.

Believe it or not revision 1 was done entirely by hand, twice. Once by myself, and then again by my wife. Before the fractal book took me away from revisions of DM I revised about 150 pages of that draft as well, again by hand. I had this idea in my head that revising by hand made me see every word better, but it may have been more true that I was just killing trees.

This draft I have an eBook version of Surreality on both my Kindle and my Nook (so I don’t have to remember which one to use). I’m back to using the netbook fairly exclusively on the road. I’m copying nothing directly, so I’m retyping the entire draft which has roughly the same affect as making changes by hand (except it’s a little faster). Inevitably I make changes along the way, but they tend to be more organic, and hopefully fit the flow of the narrative better than trying to insert those sentences into fully formed existing paragraphs.

For some chapters it’s probably best to say this draft is “inspired by” the original text. Between changes of scenery, adjustments to characters and motivations, and just general patch work this draft will be a very different read from the previous draft. So far I think significantly better. Each writing session I read all or most of the previous day’s writing, fixing mistakes as I find them and often getting 50-100 words of my word count done before I’ve really gotten going (though other days I’ve cut almost as much).

I’ve also done a few test eBook versions of revision 3 as a little reward to myself, though Word 2003 is not as good of a source editor as 2007 so results have been a little inconsistent. I’ll probably have to try the “nuclear option” before final formatting. I’m intrigued by programs like Sigil so even though this book is just text, you may see a couple more formatting guides come out of me yet.

I think the 800-1000 word pace is working, though I expect for some sections I will go faster. Conversely, some of the new material has taken me hours to work on due to research and trying to create the best dialog possible. But I’m trying to keep the little progress bar moving most days, and even that little gold star of getting to update my progress makes me feel good about the day’s work.

I expect things will get even more interesting as the little red haired girl hands me back the first few chapters. That’s when we’ll know if this draft is better or not 🙂

What’s your current revision process? How have you changed it between books or even between weeks?

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The Writer’s Survival Kit

Not everything fits into your duffel or laptop bag, but the items listed below should be able to get you out or through most writing scrapes.

1) Your idea notebook with 2 pens – Mine’s a thick, small lined notepad I picked up from Half Price Books. Carry this with you to jot down any plot idea or scene snippet immediately. Two pens are for if the first one fails.

2) Laptop, tablet or other small computer that can go almost anywhere – For me the netbook is the obvious choice, though my next one might be a Surface. Small in size and light weight is best for carrying to more places, though notepads work just as well if you’re not a tech person. Since publishing will eventually involve typing I start there.

3) An electronic copy of most of what you’ve ever written – Leave out anything particularly painful. Having this material around proves that if you’ve done it before you can do it again, and can also show you the ways in which you’ve improved, or are committing the same mistakes.

4) The current book(s) you are reading – Whether it’s related to your subject matter or not, seeing another writer’s words can inspire, and get you out of your head.

5) 20 hours of music, with an hour or so set as a playlist – I select about 20 hours of albums and random tracks for any new project and listen to that music over and over. It helps me to focus on the work, while drowning out other things. It can be a mood setter, and a way of controlling even the most chaotic of environments.

6) Small headphones that block out most but not all sound.

7) Coffee you can brew yourself and diet caffeinated soda – Caffeine is the creative person’s drug, and for me coffee and soda are the best delivery systems, often both at the same time. Red bull and energy drinks on the other hand get me jittery and out of focus. There’s a pace to caffeine use that is most optimal. Find yours.

8) Beer, whiskey or tea to cool down – A fierce writing session can be exhausting. Relax with your favorite beverage or small snack to reward your work and empty your head.

9) A small pillow for hard coffee shop chairs.

10) A bag with extra room for books you might buy afterward.

11) A writing prompt book – I like The 3AM Epiphany but there are countless others.

12) Writing busywork – Things like Writer’s Markets, cover designs, anything to get writing work that needs to be done out of the way, if the creative part of you is not working at the moment.

13) A pet – Works better than the beer for relaxing.

14) A measurable goal for the evening – Something manageable but substantive. Metric for this is, does it feel like you got something done?

15) A WiFi/3G OFF button.

16) Something that makes you feel like a writer – A favorite jacket, a good pen, a fancy notebook, something you buy for yourself that epitomizes your image of what a writer is. Try not to buy a beret 😉

What else would you put in the kit?

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