Leave Me Wanting More: How To Rack Up A Writing Streak

I’ve been stacking up good writing days like moves in a combo lately. And, much like the relentless practice that led to mastering the triple-left-quarter-circle-punch-punch-throw-forward-dash moves from the fighting games of my youth, there is a trick to this as well. No, it’s not sore thumbs.* Unless you type only on your smartphone.** In which case, well done you.

My trick? I stop before I think I should.

If I’m writing, and especially if I’m writing a good bit***, I always end my writing day before I get to the end of that part. I pick a point somewhere near my day’s target word count and just…stop. I’ve even been known to stop in the middle of a sentence, just so I know exactly where to pick up the next day.

I could go on. Get to the end of the scene or the fight or the chapter. Most of the time it would only be another couple hundred words. Maybe a thousand. But then, when I returned the following day, before I started writing, I would have to decide what comes next. And I can waste my whole writing day making that kind of decision.

Or I can pick up in the middle of something that I know goes like this, and by the time I’ve gotten to the end of that I have a good flow going and have a pretty good idea of what comes next without agonizing over it.

And, half the time, it ends up being better than what I would have come up with if I wasted half the morning trying to figure out where to start.

TOO SLOW.

Starting is hard. Continuing, on the other hand, while not always easy, is definitely less hard. And while I may rack up a few less pages per day, I have far fewer days where I stare at the screen and get nothing. On the whole, stopping early puts me ahead of the game. Not to mention gives me time to catch up on the outrage du jour on Twitter.

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. At least for me. You might be able to crap out an entire manuscript over a long weekend, and not have it sound rambling or contrived or amateurish at all. In which case, I salute you, and wish you many happy long weekends.

But I always like to leave myself wanting more.

*I still have a scar on one of my thumbs from an old Playstation blister.

**Which can be done. Peter V. Brett wrote the first volume of his very good series on a Blackberry while he was commuting to and from work. I think of that whenever I complain about finding time to write.

***i.e., the bit where something horrible is happening to someone.

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Four Ways To Make Getting Started Suck Less

Wait, what am I doing again?

1. Start at the same time every day. Or around about the same time. Pick a time that works for you—mornings, evenings, on the train to work, on your lunch break, on the weekends in between hunting your fellow man for sport—and stick to it as best you can. Yes, sometimes things get in the way. Just this morning I had to run errands when I normally start writing, because if I wait until the afternoon all the people who drive like rabid weasels seem to come out and make getting around on the ice that much harder. But I finished the errands as quickly as I could—key cutter, dry cleaner, vet’s office, robot death machine maker—and got back to my desk. Result: I still got my main writing done in the morning, albeit with a later start. Habit is a powerful motivator, so make it work for you.

2. Start before your brain fills up with other junk. If you’re a morning writer, no dawdling while you catch up on last night’s Twitter feed. If you do your word bashing in the evenings, sit your ass down right after supper or after the kids are in bed. No watching that one episode. No reading that one chapter. Just plant your keister in front of the computer before you have a chance to talk yourself out of it.

I use this for morning workouts, too: before bed I lay out my running gear and plan my route. Then when the alarm goes off I can operate on automatic pilot and get out the door before I can think better of it. I’m a kilometer in before I even wake up, and by then I might as well finish the damn run.

3. Start with a low goal. I mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating. Set your initial goal low and move on from there. My 500 word goal has me consistently hitting 1500-2000 words, just because once I get in the flow I don’t want to stop. But it also gives me an exit if I have to stop: meetings attended, appointments kept, food hunted down and stuffed in my trunk. I mean my car trunk, not my steamer trunk. The steamer trunk is strictly for bodies.

4. Start knowing it’s the hardest part. Getting started is like trying to yank a tree stump out of the ground with nothing but a chain and a four wheel drive: there can be a lot of wheel spinning and cursing, but it’s not going to happen otherwise. And then when it finally gives, the hard part is past and you can just drive freely. Except maybe you should remove that stump first. Probably not good for your truck to have it bouncing along behind you like a newlywed’s tin cans.

Anyway.

Getting started sucks, because you have to start from zero every time. But once you’re rolling, it’s so much easier. So get started knowing that it will be the hardest part of the whole damn deal.

You Get A Gold Star: Tracking and Motivation

I would need a matching roll that said FAIL for days I missed.

Tracking writing progress is hard. Not the actual process, because every damn word processor has a word count dealie that you can enable and either watch obsessively as it goes up with every keystroke or check every now and then. But it can be hard, when you’re working toward an uncertain conclusion—Will you finish? Will it get published?—to feel like you’re getting anywhere except deeper into a hole.

So I added stickers.

This isn’t my idea. I came across it on Twitter when someone posted a picture of their month back in December, and Google’d my way around until I found this video. The idea is pretty simple: assign a value to a sticker. A day’s writing, say, or 500 words, or an hour, or three pages. Get a calendar. Every time you hit that goal, put a sticker on that day’s square.

Maybe it’s the undying third grader in me, but I love stickers. I did back then, when I had a sticker album and would trade with friends at recess*, and I do now, when I use them to track my writing progress.

Thirty-two years old, and I’m still collecting stickers. I’m pretty sure that’s on the next season of Intervention.

The whole point of this is to give you a visual cue to show your progress. You could do this with your computer or phone, I guess, but for me that’s not the same. I have to turn those on, for one thing. The calendar—Legend of Zelda, FYI—hangs right next to my desk where I can look at it before I fire up any of the Space Age Devices in the morning. I can see the progress I’ve made, and, just as importantly, I can see where I didn’t make any progress. I can see days I skipped, empty of stickers. Such a tragedy.

I’m using the stickers to track other stuff, too. Red is writing. Blue is sketching. Yellow is bloggery. Pink is reading. Which of course just adds another layer of obsession: I have to get them all.

My point: don’t be afraid to do something downright silly in order to motivate yourself. In fact, don’t be afraid to do something downright silly ever. Life’s too short.

So, how are you guys getting your January motivation on?

*But not the sparkly ones.** Never the sparkly ones. Proof that I was a magpie even then.

**You can have the damn fuzzies, though.

In Your Face: How To Stop Ignoring Your Writing

Thank you, Encouraging Picture Frame. Now enjoy your nap on that pile of cushions.

Writing is easy to ignore. Whether it’s because it’s a solitary activity, or there’s no immediate reward for most of it, or just because it’s easier not to do it, so often the projects we start with all that hope end up languishing forgotten in your hard drive, never to be finished.

Stop that. You’ve got to finish what you start. Maybe not all of it, because even the best of us has a crappy idea now and then, but you should be finishing more than you don’t. And that starts with not ignoring your writing.

Personally, I think that writing is easy to ignore because it’s not demanding. Not the way that people and pets and work and other crap is. Even working out can be demanding: don’t do it and you start to get all jiggly/don’t sleep as well/get cranky. But writing…it’s the unobtrusive emo kid of activities. If you don’t get around to it, it’ll just slink away, muttering Morrissey lyrics under its breath. And then it’s gone.

So start paying attention to your writing. Don’t let it slide. Best way to not ignore it? Same as anything else: keep it in front of you. If you want to run regularly, you put your running shoes somewhere where you can see them all the time. Partly it’s guilt, but mostly it’s just so you don’t forget, in the hustle and bustle of your day, what it is you meant to do.

Leave whatever you’re working on in plain sight. The notebook you’re writing in, with a pen, can live comfortably on a coffee table. I think that coffee rings on the covers add a certain authenticity, but I think the same thing about scars, so use your own judgement.

Or, if you write on a computer, like so many of us, try this: set your document to open up automatically when you boot up the computer. A while back I changed my laptop’s default settings from opening up my email and Twitter accounts automatically to opening up Scrivener and Evernote. There they are, right in front of me: the project I’m working on and the giant pile of notes I’ve made for it. Harder to ignore.  Harder to pass over in favour of blearily scrolling through spoilers for Every Single Show On Earth on Twitter.

You can’t ignore what’s in your face 24/7. So put something you want to get done in front of your eyeballs. Pretty soon you’ll find the excuses fading.

And in their place? More writing.

Sweat and Ink: Finding Your Passion In The Armpit Of Summer

Sun: IMMA BE HERE FOREVER.

This is it: the dog days of summer. If you’re anywhere near me, you know that it’s been hotter than the devil’s jockstrap and twice as sweaty.*

What’s the first thing to go in this weather? No, not your clothes. If you’re like me, you’ve been working in a bikini top and daisy dukes since the last week of June, anyway.

The first thing to go is enthusiasm. The muggier it gets, the harder it becomes to give the contents of a roach-infested Hyundai’s ashtray about whatever the hell your characters are doing. Or about anything other than the nearest source of air conditioning, but let’s focus on the writing.

This related to this post on writing in the summer, but if that’s Summer Writer 101, consider this Summer Writer 201. You’ve shown up to write, but your brain is too hot to get it done. To get through the oncoming stickiness with your word/scene/note count intact, we need to dredge your passion for the project out of whatever damp hole it crawled in to die. Here it is: Finding Your Passion, Hot Weather Edition!

1) Change your venue. To an igloo. You might think this is too silly to work, but that’s just the sweat talking. Moving from your stifling living room, where the Crotch-Scorching Firebrick** slow-roasts your junk, to a cooler location can give you the mental energy to write. Your local library might have air conditioning. Or there’s coffee shops. Or malls. Find somewhere to cool down your brain. And your junk.

2 a) Write the good part. There’s probably a part of your story that you’ve been looking forward to writing every since you conceived the idea. Now is the time to write it. Because, god damn it, if you can’t get excited about that right now, it might be time to hang up the pens.

2 b) Read the good part. Maybe you’ve already written the good part. I have. I couldn’t wait. So now is a really good time to go find that part and read it. Remember why you couldn’t wait.

3) Make some inspiration. No, not meth. You don’t want to cook in this weather.

Go make a playlist of music that sounds like your characters, or your settings. Find or make some art: maps, character sketches, artefacts. Put it somewhere you can look at it. Feel the inspiration.

Then make meth.

4) Spread the love. Enlist another person in your project. Find a second reader and send them pages or chapters as they’re finished. They might just get excited, which will make you more excited. And then you can get together and fan-person it up.

5) Strip down. Not like that. Put your shorts back on, slick.

Strip your story down to the most exciting idea. What makes your imagination’s loins quiver with the thought of writing it? What are you trying to say? What does it all mean? Remembering why you got into this might help you get out of it with your sanity intact.

Anyone else? How do you stay motivated to stick with projects when you’re sticking to the chair?

*By Canadian standards, obviously. Those of you from places like Florida and India, keep your weather far south of me and get back to turning into walking sweat glands.

**Also known as your laptop

 

Bring Me Another Goddamn Daiquiri: Writing In The Summer

I think this is supposed to help you see a laptop screen in the sun. Or minimize distractions. Or let you see through time. One of those.

At least half the writers I know do no actual writing in the summer. Too hot, they say. Or too nice outside. Or too many pina coladas to slam down before Labour Day.

If that’s your jam, fine. But if there are any of you out there who–because of looming deadlines, because you’re developing the habit of consistency, because you’re just in the middle of a damn good story–want to write your heart out this summer, come with me. I can show you the way.

The first novel that I’m willing to call by the name* was written in the middle of a scorcher, with 40 degree days and no air conditioning. And I’ve written every summer since. So, with that track record behind me, here are my best tips for putting brain to page during the dog days.

1) Get Up Earlier. The sun’s up. You should be, too. I love getting up at 5:30 in the summer. It’s still cool but the sun’s out, the streets are quiet (a bonus if you run like I do in the morning), and it generally gets things off to a good start. The day unfolds before you, leaving you with so much time to get the words down. Plus your laptop has not yet become a crotch-scorching brick of fire.

2) Trail of Bread Crumbs. Make some notes for yourself the night before to remind you where you have to go the following day. Make at least one of them a really good thing: that scene you really want to write, the character you want to play with, the submission you really want to get away. Something to look forward to. Something that makes you excited, god damn it. If nothing excites you…maybe you need to think long and hard about your project.

3) Learn to make iced coffee. Cold brew, baby. Or pour espresso over ice.

4) Get Out From Under The Laptop. No one likes baked writer junk. No one. I use a standing desk pretty much year round, which keeps the Aluminum Fire Brick off my lap, an especially valuable option when the mercury rises.

Other options: start using a notebook for pre-work, getting on the computer only to do actual writing; stop dicking around online so much so you can finish faster; place the laptop on a block of ice.** Or, best yet, take your work outside. No reason to miss out on the beach because you want to write. Take a notebook and a pen with your sunscreen and you’re good to go.

Go forth and write, my sweltering word badgers. By the fall, you’ll have something interesting, even if it is covered in sweat stains.

*My second finished manuscript. The first is best not spoke of.

**I was going to write DO NOT ATTEMPT, but I think if you do this, you deserve exactly what happens to you.

 

Monday Challenge: Installing Drivers

I don't know

Not acceptable, wall. Now, I’ll ask you again: WHY ARE YOU HERE! (Photo credit: cowbite)

I’ve been thinking a lot about motivations lately.*

Remember last week, when I was talking about all those drafts I did of that one story, none of which were working? Looking back now, with the clarity that comes when you stop working on something, I can see the problem: none of the main characters in those drafts had any real motivation to make the choice I was offering them. At least, no motivation that I can understand.** They were there, the choice was before them…and all they could muster was a shrug.

Not exactly compelling reading.

The new story, the one I actually finished, does not have that problem, and I think that’s why it worked in the end. The main character has very good reasons—if slightly mad ones—for making the choices she does. I can very much understand her motivations, hard and violent as they are. There is something driving her.

No one in fiction should do things ‘just because’. Especially not villains. Nothing makes me want to drive to an author’s house and punch them in the neck faster than a bad guy who is bad ‘just because’. Or because he’s crazy, like that’s an excuse. Madness has a method, though it might not be one that we can fathom. Even pop culture’s Patron Saint of Chaos, the Joker, does things for a reason.

Today’s challenge, then, is as follows: pick a supporting character from one of your pieces. Not the main character, not this time. Other people move your story as well, so let’s give them a little screen time. Considering the role that character plays, the things they do in the story, what is their motivation? And it better not be ‘because they’re a convenient plot device to help/hinder the hero’. Or I will find you.***

Now go forth and write. This is going to be a good week. I can feel it in my bones.

*Not mine. I already know I’m powered by coffee and fantasies of world domination.
**One of them had a reason, but since it’s not one I feel strongly about, I found it kind of boring to write. Funny, isn’t it, how our own experiences have that effect.
***Or I will as soon as I dig out from Sheila’s Brush****.
****It occurs to me that this is probably not a common expression. Where I come from, this is a storm that comes just after Saint Patrick’s Day, and usually marks the last hurrah of winter. This year, I think Sheila traded her brush for a big-ass club. With nails in it.