Tag Archives: Advice

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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Dusting Off Old Stories

Unless everything you write is divinely inspired, breathed onto the page straight from your thoughts, you’ve probably got something sitting in a drawer.

These days that drawer is an old folder on a hard drive, a buried but not forgotten document of a project that once captured your imagination, and which perhaps someday you will bring into the light of day. What day we are waiting for can vary greatly. Sometimes we are waiting for the skill to tell a better story, other times we are waiting for a story’s moment to arrive, and sometimes we’re just exhausted, burned out from years of work with little payoff.

For me stories get put in a drawer not because I don’t love them, but because I only have a fixed amount of time to work, and I need to spend my efforts pretty ruthlessly on the projects I am passionate about, and that I can finish. I have rough drafts from two years ago or more that I realistically won’t be able to work on for at least another eight months. It bothers me, and those stories fill my thoughts often, but as I’ve been turning my attention to one of those works I’ve really come to appreciate the freedom that comes from a little distance.

My current project Surreality was first conceived shortly before my wife and I met, about seven years ago. Its first draft was finished shortly after we were married, and its revisions have been carried on in the midst of a cat running up on my porch on beggars night (and not leaving since), the marriages of several of my friends, and across at least four computers. But since about July 2011, during a summer of furious writing for the first draft of DM, Surreality quietly faded into the background, subsumed entirely by the fractal book, gone but not forgotten.

You can’t just dive back in to an old project. You need to warm up to it, get to know the world again, which in my case meant re-reading the current draft. Reading with an editor’s eye, or as close to an objective one as I can get, I could see the sections that were working, and more importantly those that weren’t.

We fight passionately sometimes about scenes, about characters, about clever lines we’ve written. We don’t like to think that our first idea is not our best idea, because so much of writing relies on instinct. We know where to carry the story forward, we know the next thing we need to say.

At least we do the best we can with the skill we have at the time.

But there’s a danger that we can get locked into the story as it is, without seeing how we can make it better, make it clearer, and still get across the point we were trying to make. Time spent in a drawer makes both writer and story more humble. What’s the worst that can happen if you change a chapter here or there? It can just go back to the drawer, but if the change makes the story better, it might just see the light of day. And you might be pleased to discover how much of the story still holds up.

After finishing reading my draft last week I’m writing an outline to plan my rewrites. I’ve been a guy pretty resistant to outlines, more of a fly by the seat of my pants writer. I know the destination, and a few of the stops along the way, but the rest is a mystery to me until I write it. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a good habit for rough drafts, but for this project anyway an outline seems warranted. It will help me to formalize what I’m keeping, and what I’m replacing, and hopefully serve as a bit of a spur to action.

I’ve taken pages of notes on what to cut, what to keep, and what to tweak. And best of all, I’ve been having new thoughts. I’m seeing the old characters in new lights, learning things I was unwilling or unable to learn years ago.

How have you revived old projects? What’s kept you from looking at a story for years?

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