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NaNoMaybeMo

This is the time of year when I’m tempted to do NaNo.

For those unaware, November is National Novel Writer’s Month or NaNoWriMo. The goal for all participants is to write a 50,000 word novel (or at least the first 50K of a novel) within 30 days.

I have done this before. It requires a writing rate of about 1667 words a day. At the moment I’m up to 2500 words a day for my work (and that includes formatting pictures and code), so if anything NaNo would be a step down.

There are some in the writing community who kinda look down on NaNo, seeing it as the kind of thing you do when you’re starting out, but not something that serious writers take on. To me, however, it’s kind of the embodiment of what a professional writer should be able to do, keep a consistent discipline going on creating a rough draft. Write every day. These are good things to be reminded of, and to encourage you to continue in your projects.

But NaNo can be disruptive. Almost always it falls for me when I’m in the middle of projects, and this year is no exception. I’m trying to finish revisions on Surreality while at the same time creating a structure for working on my new non-fiction project. The easy answer might be to use my non-fiction project as the basis for my NaNo, bang out a lot of the text I need, but that would require at least two hours of research prior to each session. I have a very understanding wife when it comes to the writing, but having me writing or working on writing for 3 hours a day for the next month is a bit unreasonable on top of everything else.

I could work on another of the many fiction projects in my head, or do revisions or rewrites on another. But that kind of work tends to shift focus away from other fiction I’m trying to finish. And my last NaNo is still sitting in a drawer. I was very happy I did it, and it kickstarted a rewrite of a novel I’ve been meaning to rewrite for years, but it kinda fizzled in favor of the immediate.

I do like the sense of community, of the “we’re all in this together” of NaNo, since I don’t have a regular writing group, or many writing peers to talk to. Though truthfully, at least in my community, many of the people participating in NaNo have a lot more free time during the day than I do, and can meet for writing sessions in the middle of the day. I work a job five days a week which has me out of the house from about 6am – 5pm, so evening meetings are kind of all I have time for (and not on evenings before I have to walk the dog which means I wake up at 4:30am).

As with many years, this is a nagging temptation that I’ll probably let slip to another year. It was a great feeling of accomplishment to do it once, but the writing life can allow for diverse accomplishments and feelings of success. Right now I’d feel successful if I could manage getting a first article written for my non-fiction book, and getting past the chapter I’m stuck in in Surreality. If I get both those things done by the end of the week… I can write another article and revise another chapter the following week.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but all that writing for work is making me a little tired for writing for myself. That probably explains the little more infrequent blogging, which I will try to get back up to speed this week.

Is NaNoWriMo something that tempts you or is too much going on with your writing life already?

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Out of Commission

Today is really my first day back after a cold that just wouldn’t quit. The worst of it was two weeks ago and lasted from Monday night until the following Sunday, with a follow-up week of reduced energy and a continued cough.

This often seems to happen to me when I start with a new project, or when I’m getting into a groove. This happened to my external projects, and even a bit with my work writing. Ironically, I can program under almost any conditions, but writing seems to require a baseline level of health.

Still, I’m pretty stubborn. I’ll call one day off work maybe, but after that I’m back it, both for the job I’m paid for, and for other work. The only trouble is that I don’t really feel like doing anything but watching TV and/or reading comics books (and maybe some casual gaming if my energy level goes up by a micron).

How do you write when all you want to do is die?

Okay, maybe there are some authors who feel like they’re going to die all the time and that actually serves their work, but as a non-fiction/mystery/sci-fi writer, feeding off lows isn’t really my bag.

As always I fall a little back on the mantra of non-fiction, which is to do something else. If you’re not feeling writing, do something else productive, even if its just organizing files, selecting research materials, or re-reading source material. Production may not be possible, but that doesn’t mean brain storming isn’t. After all, it was mostly my head that was affected, maybe some neurons were knocked around in patterns that would be helpful for the work.

But admittedly it might be just as helpful to surrender for a little while, only to come back swinging when you’re really feeling up to it. Even though I feel like a fairly disciplined author, capable of long swings of constant production, I still have to be attuned to the up and down motions of moods and phases of life. It may be that in the times I’m not writing, I’m doing the most creating.

Okay, that felt pretty hippy-dippy, even for me.

Seriously, being a writer is a constant battle between being honest with how you’re feeling, and what you want to do. And always thinking up ways to make the best of how you’re feeling at the moment, while also constantly evaluating and beating yourself up for the times you haven’t been productive.

Well beating yourself up isn’t exactly helpful per-say, but it’s just part of the DNA.

Maybe that’s enough rambling from now, and I should just get back to work. That said, I am thankful for the little joys even of being sick, the ways in which my wife takes such good care of me (making food and tea and covering me with warm blankets). I enjoy my animals (even the dog who is making some pretty disgusting chewing noises against rubber at the moment). The cat even slept on me when my wife was away (which is a mixed blessing but a very nice gesture). I finished a couple of games I never make any time for, read a crap ton of comic books, some of which I’ll be reviewing later in the week and slept more than I have in months.

What do you do when you’re sick? Do you still try to work, or do you just rest?

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Determine in which direction your head is pointing

Revisions to Surreality are proceeding normally, but since a lot of the material is off with my editor at the moment I find myself looking for other ways to keep my writing mind engaged, to find small projects to work on so I can be productive, but not distracted from the current book either. With me there is a real danger in taking on new projects in that I ignore or put away the old ones (which I assure is not happening with this book, it is too close to finished to not get it done).

I tried working on some fiction short stories for a while, both with writing prompts and my own longer project. Sometimes this went well, but often the writing was making me tired and I didn’t feel as in it as I had when I worked on Surreality. I still love writing fiction, I’m just not quite in the headspace for it right now.

I’ve been doing technical writing for work for the last month and a half and though I am enjoying the novelty of being paid to write, I’m finding it difficult to switch mental gears at night or in the morning. And truthfully I’m putting out more output per day than even I’m used to (8 hour workdays will do that to you), so it can feel tiring just to put any of my own words on the page.

For a while I tried the whole “relaxing” thing, basically playing games, watching TV shows I hadn’t made time for and reading a little more, feeling that the blogging and the technical writing were keeping up the skill. I even took the time earlier this month to reorganize my office (which had become almost impossible to work in). Relaxing is fine, but if any of you have the writing bug like I do, it only works for so long. It starts to bother you that you haven’t created anything for yourself in a while. You feel stressed, you feel tired and antsy at the same time.

For me this cycle was broken just last week when a lucky browse through the Amazon book store found me a book on a topic near and dear to my heart. I devoured it in less than a week, and it inspired me to take another look at one of my passion non-fiction projects that has been in more of the hypothetical part of my brain (no not Fractals Vol. 2 though maybe someday).

I’ve been writing non-fiction all day for work, so my brain is in the perfect gear to write non-fiction at home. Sometimes as a writer you have to not fight against the tide of what your body or mind is telling you. If something feels tiring, if it feels like its not working, then you need to put it aside for a while, and find something that makes better use of how you are at the moment.

Now that I’ve decided to work on this project I feel energized, excited, and feeling more like my old writing self. And the books I get to buy as an excuse for research are kind of cool too. When I’ve got a little more to say about the project, I’ll share, but for now I’m tweaking the format and setting up a writing schedule.

Again, let me assure Surreality will be finished. My wife and I have put a lot of time into it so we’re getting it done. And that work feels good too, knowing that something is coming into its final form. This project complements rather than detracts from my current projects.

It’s hard to be a writing machine. At the end of the day I’m a person with moods and I’m the best writer I can be when I tune into those moods and make writing choices that are not based on stubbornness. If a story is meant to be written, then there will come a time when it is easy to write. The trick is knowing when that time is.

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The Ostentatious Writer

I think all of us who have the writing bug have put on at least one of the affectations of the writer. This can be something as small as always writing in a coffee shop (which admittedly I’ve done twice today), to something as gauche as a beret (though that’s more of a poet than a prose thing).

Here’s a list in no particular order of some of the writer-y things I’ve succumbed to from time to time (and some of the realities afterward):

– Walk out in the middle of the night wearing a trench coat looking to observe the world after dark. Spend evening in Buckeye Donuts only to later regret eating a gyro at 2am.

– Write while drinking whiskey.

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– Write when you’re really tired.

– Try to write all night, end up playing video games instead.

– Buy fancy notebook with a leather binding and a Celtic cross pressed into the leather. Fill maybe 10 pages of this, then keep it on your shelf saying you’ll finish it someday.

– Write naked. Stick to pleather office chair.

– Write out on the porch while it’s raining.

– Get yourself all moody by listening to sad music, then write a depressing scene.

– Write without a censor (punch the keys damnit)!

– Write after drinking yourself jittery with caffeine.

– Keep a writing ideas notebook by your bed. Eventually pile Kindle or comic book on top of it.

– Scribble notes on random scraps of paper. Be unable to decipher notes afterward.

– Grow a beard, or a mustache.

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– Talk to yourself.

– Talk to yourself in a public place.

– Talk to yourself and hold both sides of the conversation.

– Carry around a binder filled with a thick copy of your latest draft. Take out a pen and start marking it up. Frown occasionally, sip coffee purposefully.

– Write outside under a tree.

– Pull out three tablets and be checking your draft on all of them.

– Look up to make sure people wonder what you are doing, even though everyone is typing with laptops.

– Drink more whiskey, it’s been a long day.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying one, or even all of these. In fact the writing life wouldn’t be fun without our little pretensions, the things we do to actually feel like a writer. Part of this is about ego, not just the ego that makes us think anybody will want to read what we have to say, but also that we have the creative temperament, that we stand apart from the crowd.

That said, make sure at the end of the day you’re actually doing some writing, and not just playing at it.

*For the record, writing naked is awkward, not so much because of the naughty bits, but because I have a very hairy chest and it’s kind of distracting.

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Ben talks to book fondlers

I spent the labor day weekend organizing my office. This can at times seem like a Sisyphean task, throwing out, recycling, giving things away to garage sales or Goodwill, and selling books. I actually managed to make some rather stunning progress over the course of three days, but it has led me to inescapable conclusion:

I have too much stuff, especially media.

My Dad did a recent post on the benefits of physical books, quoting Churchill’s advice to hold you books from time to time, even if you’re not going to read them. Dad actually has a pretty even hand, promoting a both/and culture, though still seeming to prefer the tangible qualities of books as keepsakes and memories. And I have to admit, having some of my grandmother’s old Bible’s is pretty cool.

But there are others who practice an almost fanatical devotion to the physical book, regardless of content or context. They speak of the smell of the pages, the bookmarks and other items they hide in-between the covers. They evoke the touch of aged yellowing paper, the satisfaction of physical weight, etc.

As someone who has been surrounded by books all his life I think these sorts of people need a reality check (albeit a playful one).

The physical book is a piece of technology: The printed book is an amazing technological achievement, and has been responsible for the democratization of knowledge and story telling. But at the end of the day it is just one kind of medium with a certain set of properties. Books have permanence, even cheap ones can last decades. They only require energy in their initial creation (as opposed to the battery powered e-Reader). Books can be any size and shape, with variations in quality of paper, typeface and binding.

The modern eReader is light, holds charge for a long time, can hold thousands of books, and is roughly the size of a paperback. If we’re talking the Nook in specific, it is contoured to fit comfortably in your hand, turning pages with a gesture or button press. And it is free from the distractions of tablets and computers (even the Kindle Touch has games and a browser which can be occasionally diverting). Millions of books are available within seconds and you can hold a library in your hand you’d need a whole house to store.

The best books make the best use of their medium. The printed sci-fi paperback, mystery novel, literary genre, romance novel etc. is really no different in one form or the other. Sure the weight of a big book can make it feel like an accomplishment, but the younger generation is already pretty used to the idea of non-physical gratification. The artbook, the colorful textbook, the children’s book (sometimes) are better suited to paper. But well crafted tablet eBooks and apps can offer ways to tell a story books cannot.

Not all books are created equal: As I organize and try to live well in my house, I need to be able to differentiate between the book I’ll read once (if that), and the book I’ll keep coming back to. If it’s a book I love, I’ll get the nicest copy possible (but I’ll probably also keep an electronic copy for everyday use). Almost all technical references are better served on a tablet device (which can hold 1000 pages as easily as 100) and have search capabilities and hyperlinks. These books don’t need the permanence of dead trees, as they’ll be out of date in 5-10 years anyway.

One of the reasons I wrote an electronic Fractal reference was because there were so few affordable and available for the eReader. More than half of my research was done using dead tree books, often the day’s work had to be carefully selected, as my bag could only carry a couple of books at a time. Sure I love having two shelves of fractal books, but it would be equally nice to just carry them on a tablet when I’m working out.

Keep memories: Keep your nice books that have meaning to you. I’m not the kind of guy who writes in books, but reading the marginalia of my other relatives is nice. But just because something is old does not mean it is precious. I have plenty of old books I obtained cheaply from Half Price Books or library sales that have little particular significance to me (even if occasionally the old cover is cool). But bookshelves don’t show cool old covers, but well organized eBook libraries can. Agatha Christie is a good example. I have about two dozen of her books on my eReader, and a number of old paperbacks. She’s one I’ll replace with an eBook copy, then sell the physical.

I guess my message is, it’s okay to have stuff, just don’t have it because you acquired it thoughtlessly. I’ve lived a life where books just piled up, and now I’m having to weed them back just to make my places of writing and working livable again. I like having some physical books (my complete Peanuts collection is a treasure for example), and I certainly have a lot of kids books and Hardy Boys in the wings for my hypothetical child to enjoy. But I also had a lot of junk that kept me from getting the most out of my library. And even a lot of the things I enjoy for entertainment’s sake, are best kept on a device that doesn’t get bigger with each book I add. Interests change over time, and an eReader full of books I no longer want to read at least isn’t keeping my door from opening.

Woo rambling post. Got any thoughts of your own?

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Digital Reminders

Are you one of those people who does Google Calendar? Or keeps a to-do list on your phone? Or sets an alarm to get you to do a regular task, like exercising or writing?

If so, then we have nothing in common. We just don’t know each other like I thought we did 🙂

I do not work well with electronic reminders of my life. I have an outlook calendar at work, which does me very little good since I only turn my e-mail on about four times a day (so I can have longer uninterrupted blocks of time to work on programming or technical writing, y’know working). Often Outlook will claim I’m two hours late to something I just came back from.

And digital reminders for Bible study don’t work that well for me either.

My old netbook was set up to open Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening devotions every time I booted the machine up. After a week or two this just became the way I knew the computer was ready to do some work, and would happily click the red X without a second thought.

My writing has always been very goals oriented, and maybe even regular, but not timed to a calendar. Even blocked off time like Monday’s writing session is in flux, and I need a more opportunistic approach to writing time (making the most of it when I have it).

I tried this one program called Stickies when I bought my new netbook. It lets me keep virtual sticky notes on my desktop with a list of things for me to do. My wife swears by this program, but I used it for about two weeks and now I have the same sticky note sitting in my bottom left corner unchanged and ignored (and eating a little of my RAM).

The only times I’ve been good with details are when I kept a little physical pad and paper of random notes. But this could get messy and a note kept in there too long would lose its meaning. I dropped this habit pretty much after college.

I think I’m a decently ordered person. I write regularly, keep most of my obligations, and what I miss, well… that’s why I got married 🙂

I just resist external attempts to order my world. This has always been true. I didn’t write down homework assignments, keep date books or even have big wall calendars. I just remember what I need to, and what I don’t well… someone will remind me if it was really important.

How do you keep order in your life?

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Writing Tired

Unless you are one of those mythical full time writers, chances are you’re doing a lot of your writing tired. Whether it’s after a long day’s work, or after a short night’s sleep, fitting writing into the workaday life can be tricky. Especially when you find yourself with one of those rare multi-hour blocks of time, but too tired to do work on the project you blocked out the time for.

This is the situation I find myself in at the moment. I’m sitting here in the empty sanctuary of my church with some time blocked out to work on Dust, snippets of which you may remember from a while ago on the blog. But I find myself with enough energy to work on a blog post, but not enough for new fictional composition, at least not without a little warm up.

This got me to thinking about some of the pragmatic choices authors have to make with their time, and how much energy it takes to do all the forms of writing I do in a given week. Here’s my hierarchy from “requires most energy” to “I could do this in my sleep, and have on occassion.”

(Most Energy) – 1st Draft Revision – Whether it’s picking apart sentences word by word, or re-crafting and rearranging entire scenes, revision is harder than creation. You have to keep all of the threads of the book in your head, and think about what a change made to the beginning will do the end of the book. It’s detail oriented, and can’t be done in the short bursts of regular writing, at least mostly. And 1st draft revision is when the book is most in need of retooling (in theory).

(More Energy) – Clean Rough Drafts – I’ve taken both approaches to the first draft of a story. Clean rough drafts are written with the editor in mind. You try to create less mistakes for later on by keeping an eye on bad grammar habits, and re-reading past work to make corrections as you go, and to keep consistent. This is probably more where I’m at right now with fiction composition, which is probably why I feel too tired to do it most of the time. The flurry requires less energy, but requires more clean up which is in itself a high energy task.

(Moderate Energy) – Flurry Rough Drafts – Writing 1000 words in an hour can be taxing, especially if you haven’t built up to it, but momentum tends to carry you forward till you reach your goal. And it’s the kind of writing that makes you feel really good about getting a lot done, until you go back and read it.

(Less Energy) – Blog Posts – I don’t know if it’s repetition, or the fact that I’m often just writing about what’s happened during my day, or what I’ve been thinking about but a good 400 – 600 word blog post is pretty much second nature to me at this point. If I did it every day it might be tiring, but my “Daily Show” schedule works for me, keeping me always in writing practice and in contact with all of you, while not taking too much away from other projects.

(Low Energy) – Technical Writing – Technical writing has very nearly put me to sleep on a few occasions, but since it’s done during the day, no matter what my baseline level of energy, I can always chemically enhance it with a little coffee. At night when I’m working I don’t like to drink coffee, because it’ll affect my sleep and negatively affect my energy for the next day.

(No Energy) – Repetitive Computer Tasks + Programming – I could write code any time of day, and have. The logical part of my brain must be my default setting, because I can write a fractal program till 2 in the morning, but whenever I do creative work that late, it can get really weird (which sometimes is a good thing since being tired can lower inhibitions, but that’s a whole other discussion).

I guess the point of this is that you have to take good care of yourself so you have the energy you want to write. But you also need to know where your energies are best spent. Maybe you only have blog posts in you tonight, but that will free up more energetic time for creative work later.

What’s hard to write when you are tired?

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