On Balance (Again)

I’m tempted to clear off my writing desk, sort through the receipts, the bills, and scraps of paper before I start writing. But I know enough about myself to realize that if I do this, the moment will pass. Making a perfect space will substitute for the writing itself. Another Sunday will slip by. I’ll be silent for another week, another month.

Right now, I don’t know where I will go next in my writing—or even in my life. I believe that the single greatest challenge that I face is finding balance. I write about this a lot because no matter what part of my life I focus on, I inevitably lose track of other people, passions, and outlets that need my attention—that I need, in order to be whole person, instead of pile of shards and fragments.

If I focus on work, or on my friends, or on my love life, then my kids fall by the wayside, my writing dries up, I stop playing guitar. If I fall deeply into a writing project then nothing else seems to matter. No matter how hard I try, I can’t find a way to contain everything that I’m supposed to be. So I spend a lot of time avoiding the problem. I move around restlessly, unsatisfied; a kind of anxiety builds up. Next thing I know, I find myself feeling terrified of being alone in a quiet apartment. I find errands and chores to tackle. I drive from here to there. I wander up and down the aisles of used bookstores, slipping paperbacks from the shelves and then replacing them, because it’s not a book that I’m looking for. And yet, I really want a simple answer, some slim paper volume that I can hold in my hands or dip into at bedtime, or slip into my messenger bag to take with me when I go to work.

I feel most alive when I’m standing in a crowd at a concert, a few feet from the stage. The music washes over me. I lose myself again. Or maybe I find myself. And that rhythm fills me so completely, that the anxiety and the restlessness don’t have a home anymore.

Sometimes the music is still with me when I leave a club. I think that what I need most is to find this kind of harmony no matter where I am or what the day brings.

I don’t want to feel like a pile of glass waiting to be swept up. I want to be a mosaic, gleaming in the sun.

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Warmups First

Always begin with a warmup. How many times have I said this? I repeat this because sometimes I forget to take a few minutes to stretch and limber up before hitting the work in progress. Then when I set the timer for the day’s session, I end up typing a few words and then deleting them again. When I give myself 5 minutes to write anything at all, then I get things primed. I have fewer false starts. (And yes, sometimes these warmups become blog posts.)

The warmup is about acceleration and momentum. The warmup is a reminder that it’s all about moving forward without censoring yourself. I never let myself edit when I’m composing first draft copy. Don’t delete, don’t fix spelling. If it comes out clumsy, I just keep going. When you’re only concerned with taking the next step, then you train yourself to accept whatever comes up. This is the way to crack open your mind and see the opportunities and discoveries as they arise.

Here’s the funny thing. This morning, I told myself that my plan for the day was to reread the entire manuscript and get my bearings again. I made lots of notes in my spiral notebook, part pep talk and part plan of attack, including some goals for this backtracking session. Then I reread some of the more relevant sections of Chuck Wendig’s book, The Kick-Ass Writer, to light a fire under myself so I could approach the day’s work with enthusiasm and passion. Even if it was Chuck Wendig’s enthusiasm and passion, rather than my own.

After about an hour of this prep work, I looked up and realized that I felt like writing; I wanted to add words to the story right now, pick up with that scene I left hanging yesterday and explore the next few beats and moments of the book. How did this happen? What gives? Now the enthusiasm is my own. The passion is mine, too.

So I would be a fool not to say, screw the plan. It is always more important to put in time on the manuscript. Incidentally, do you know what Chuck Wendig’s first piece of advice for the blocked writer is?

“Write your way through it.”

Let the act of writing take you past the block and back into your story. This is exactly what I’m going to do right now.

P.S. I’m back on track. At least for the day. And tomorrow should be fine, too, if I remember to do a warmup first.

Be a Productive Hack

I have decided that it is more important for me to reestablish my daily writing habit, even if I don’t know what the hell I’m doing than to waste away feeling sorry for myself and calling myself an untalented hack. In other words, I’d rather be a productive hack than a would-be hack who never quite gets around to writing anymore.

Today I’m only on the hook for 250 words of the novel. I don’t know where I’m going anymore. I don’t know how to fix what’s broken in my book. I do know that I need to take some time to reread everything: my notes and prep work as well as the whole 600 page monster.

In my darkest moments, I blame Chuck Wendig for saying, “Finish your shit, finish your shit.” Some nights, I play this track over and over in my mind. Man, it’s echoey in there.

Here’s the thing. My time laid up with this knee injury may be the universe’s way of telling me to chill and figure it all out instead of running around town on useless errands to HEB. But then again, I totally need to pick up a pound of coffee or the migraine I get tomorrow will kill my productivity again. Nope, nice try, Dave. Put down the car keys and give me those 250 words.

See how you have to be your own drill sergeant in this line of work?

In fact, this is a public service announcement containing the following productivity tip for those who say, “One day, I’ll write something.” 250 words every day will get you a hell of a lot farther along than a thousand words some Sunday a month from now or late next spring when you finally free up a little time in your busy schedule.

If you need proof, check out the world’s best productivity tool: the Magic Spreadsheet, a free public Google doc created by some writers from the Stone Coast MFA program. Hundreds of writers, amateur and pro, are publicly logging their word counts and earning magical little brownie points every day. See the Live Leader Board? That could be you up there. Or me, for that matter.

Catch you later.

If I hit my word count today, my chain score gets higher. Don’t want to break the chain. That would be letting myself down. There’s nothing like turning a corner and seeing yourself in the mirror tapping your foot and saying, “I’m not angry with you. But I’m very disappointed.”

Shudder.

Finding Balance as a Writer

I just stumbled on this piece I wrote about 6 months ago and never published. Still applies. It’s one of those moments when Dave in the past wrote something I need to hear right about now…

Finding Balance

I’m going to write a little bit about balance. Anyone on the outside, anyone looking at my writing output over the last month, might say, man, Dave really dropped the ball in May. He finally lost his momentum. He didn’t make it to the finish line after all. But this isn’t what really happened. I never stopped thinking about this project, and I never lost my commitment to writing.

I did, however, learn quite suddenly that I needed to look for balance in my life.

You see, I tend to go at things full force. When something catches my eye, when I have a passion, I put everything into it. When I came back to the writing desk last September and made a commitment to really give an honest shot to this craft, I made writing the only thing I thought about. All of those days at work in the library when I was going through the motions, clicking the mouse, answering questions, even doing some really creative work and instructional design, a part of my mind was always mulling over the novel I was writing, or thinking about the craft, or wanting to soak up as much inspiration and advice as I could from people more experienced than I was. Writing was my entire focus, and I kept this commitment every single day without fail. I sat down, I rolled up my sleeves, and I let the words flow.

I keep coming back to the idea of balance, though, because just as suddenly as the writing took over my life eight or nine months ago, a new awareness dawned on me. In my commitment to writing, I had lost track of every other area of my life. Don’t get me wrong. I was always present when I was with my kids. And I’m good at what I do at work during the day.

But I guess I looked around and realized I was all alone. I don’t talk about this very much. It almost never comes up at work because I tend not to bring my personal life to the office. I have been separated for about a year now. I live in an apartment fifteen minutes away from the house my ex and I bought together, so that I’m close to my kids, and they can live with me in their fantastic new second bedroom two nights a week and every other weekend.

It’s true what happens, though. When a couple breaks up, sometimes one partner looks up and realizes most of the friends in his life were people who were more in his spouse’s orbit than in his.

I looked up from my writing desk, and even though I had filled up hundreds of pages with voices and visions and adventures, conversations and conflicts that I didn’t even know I had in me, I saw that I was sitting at my desk in a dark room after sundown, with the blinds drawn.

And where were the other things that mattered to me?

The passion for cinema, the desire to fill my house, my car, my eardrums with music, the need to laugh over a drink with a few friends, or spend a night on the town with someone special just talking and laughing and connecting.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been working on a hell of a lot more than a novel over the past two or three months. My word count may have dropped precipitously, but a few months ago, I wouldn’t have spent the evening the way I did tonight, cooking a healthy meal, singing along to a song or two I love, awkwardly strumming chords with my hipster guitar teacher down in South Austin, and then just walking for an hour at dusk, listening to music and taking in the trees, the clouds, the wildflowers.

One of the most important habits of a writer is to take the time to look around, absorb the world, talk to people who think differently than you do, exercise your body as well as your mind, and to give yourself over to new experiences.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not all that worried about my writing. I love writing, and I’m getting better every day. I’ve met goals I didn’t know I could achieve. There are so many more places to go.

Right now, balance is what I want most of all. The writing will always be with me. It’s the way I experience the world. But I can see now that I need so much more, and that there’s no reason to walk through the world alone.

Camp NaNoWriMo and Beyond

I’ve been very quiet over here, for the most part because I’ve boosted my daily quota a little to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, Camp NaNoWriMo is the kinder, fuzzier version of NaNoWriMo. A lot of the rules and shoulds evaporate. You can work on any writing project you want, and you can set your own word count goal. No more of the 1,667 word death march.

I set my goal to 30,000 words just to make another big push on a section of my novel I was avoiding. I love the discoveries that slightly unattainable goals can inspire. Sometimes when there’s a dog trying to snap at your heels, you make it a little farther down the road than you would otherwise. Right?

With April almost down, and another NaNoWriMo coming to an end, I thought I’d look back at three of the most important things I’ve learned by participating in NaNoWriMo over the years.

Some of you have probably learned completely different things, so I just want to clarify, these are my lessons. Not the way it is or should be for anyone else. Any writing is good writing, and the most important lessons are the ones you learn and earn for yourself.

1. I can finish NaNoWriMo

I’ve run the NaNoWriMo race about six times, I think. I’ve hit 50,000 words twice: once in 2010 and once just last November in 2013. I set an impossible goal and I made it. I changed my daily habits. I developed new routines and rituals. I wrote in large chunks and small snippets, learned to live and die by timers and stopwatches, and I wrote in places–cars, beds, cafeteria tables, at my kids’ cramped Ikea desk–that I probably never would have chosen if I hadn’t been under the gun.

But I picked up some discipline and some flexibility doing this. I learned that it was hard–but not that hard–to write 50K in a month. How exhilarating! I wasn’t talking about writing or wishing I was writing. I was finally doing it.

But…

2. I can’t write a novel in 30 days.

I never finished the 2010 NaNo novel. I stuck with it for about a month and then I think I crashed and burned around the holidays. The writing became a trickle again. Gradually, NaNoWrimo began to feel like that thing I did once. The writing stopped again.

Last November, I finished my 50K, but the manuscript kept growing. I always knew it would. But what made the difference in 2013? Why didn’t I quit in December this time?

For starters, I hit the ground running a month or two before November. Call it the perfect combination of tools, advice, and inspiration. I discovered writing podcasts like I Should Be Writing and Writing Excuses. I started logging word counts on the fabled Google doc, The Magic Spreadsheet. (Have I not mentioned this before? I can’t remember.) The Magic Spreadsheet is a shared Google doc that a couple writers in the Stone Coast MFA program created to gamify writing. Consistency is the name of the game. Log your word count every day and your earn points. Earn more by never missing a day. You level up, your word quotas rise, and in time, you see yourself climbing up the Live Leaderboard (Yeah, there’s Leaderboard. I’m serious.)

Dude, this thing worked for me. I have the Magic Spreadsheet open right now. I can see that I have an unbroken chain of writing that I started last year. I’m on Day 247. Not my one-year anniversary yet, but I’m getting close and I can taste it. I’ve written something like 202,000 words. (Not all on this novel, mind you. I ain’t Brandon Sanderson).

3. Writing is an everyday habit, not an once or twice a year sprint.

My point is that I started NaNoWriMo in November and Camp NaNoWriMo on April 1, knowing that I had already established a daily habit that I’d stick with once the 30-day sprint was over. In 2013, I knew going into NaNo that I wasn’t going to finish a novel in 30 days. My story would be twice as long. Maybe somewhere in the 90-100K range. Plus I’m a discovery writer rather than a plotter and a planner, so yes, I’m well beyond that 100K now, and still adding words and pages to the monster.

You see, I get to fix that monster in the rewrite. I don’t have to get it right the first time.

I suppose I started writing this post by way of explaining to myself why I wasn’t going to finish my 30K in 30 days this month. Trust me. I’ve got 7,000 words to go.

But this doesn’t bother me so much this time around. I know that I’ll be writing on May 1 for another 30 days, and then another 30 days after that. NaNoWriMo is powerful because it encourages you to turn on the faucet. But you don’t have to turn off the faucet when it’s over.

This is the long haul school of writing. I don’t forget to brush my teeth. I don’t forget to write my words.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write Every Day

Sometimes I mourn for all the writing that I lost. The stories that I daydreamed about but never committed to paper. I told myself the circumstances weren’t right. The environment wasn’t perfect. There were too many other distractions and responsibilities competing for my attention.

I remember that March when I buckled down, gritted my teeth, and wrote a story that I’d been carrying around for years. I wrote and revised, and sent it off to a dozen markets. In the months that followed, the rejection letters started coming. But I also got handwritten notes from some editor or intern going through the slush pile at The New Yorker. Not quite, she said, but there’s something good here. Keep writing. Then real life happened. My wife and I had two beautiful girls. I went back to grad school and started a new job—something I promised myself would only be a day job. That was the plan. Find something stable to support my family and the writing I wanted to do.

But the writing stopped and the job became a career.

It hurts to admit this—but that was ten years ago. March of 2004. In a way, this is sort of an anniversary letter. A note I wish I could send through a little fissure back in time. I’m telling you this now because I don’t want you to make the same mistake. If you want to do something, make time for it now.

Hey, I’m still not a published writer. And that ten-year old story still hasn’t found a home. One thing changed, though. I made a commitment to myself that I would do this and I would try. Try as if writing was the day job and my life depended on it. My life does depend on it. I’m in it for the long haul, and I’ve done enough homework now to know that the first book I write—the one I’m working on right now—may not be good enough to see the light of day. But maybe the next one will, or the one after that.

I have two jobs now—two lives. Two careers. I get my words down every day. I keep my project and my dream alive.

It turns out that it wasn’t all that hard to commit to writing every day. If I had to pass along one secret, I would say that your attitude matters most of all. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Don’t wait for that perfect, undisturbed weekend. Or the quiet hour when your family or your roommates are out of the house. Take earbuds wherever you go. Write on a laptop, write on a notepad, write on a phone. Do it at your desk, do it in the car, do it on your lunch break. Five minutes a day is enough to get started. Fifteen minutes may even be a little better.

Another way to put this: steal time for writing, don’t make it the centerpiece of your day. This is a practical matter at first. If you’re like me, you can’t afford to write full-time. But one of the wonderful things I’ve learned about my own process in the last six months or so is that the writing I dash off in a hurry at 5:30 in the morning before getting ready for work comes easier than the pages I write on a Sunday when I have the whole day staring me down. Binge writing doesn’t work for me. Consistency does. Count words or count minutes. But find a quota of some kind that you can meet comfortably every day.

My absolute minimum is 250 words a day. More often I write 500-600 words a day. If I’m on a roll, I’ll keep going and hit 1200. But honestly, unless I’m in the middle of NaNoWriMo, I’m not aiming for the stratosphere. But think about those 250 words adding up every day. Adding up to more work and more experience than the 3000-4000 word binge you once did on a Thursday night 2 months ago.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share some practical tools and strategies that have served me well. Even if you’re a closet writer and you’re not ready to share your dream with the people around you, there are so many wonderful authors, and bloggers, and podcasters out there who are committed to boosting the next generation up the ladder. This seems especially true in speculative fiction, so if you lean at all towards SF/F or Horror, you’re in luck. I’m constantly struck by the kindness of those writers and gurus who just started publishing in the last 3 to 5 years. People like Chuck Wendig and Mur Lafferty. Find your virtual mentors. They’re out there.

Late Night Reminders

Late last night, I wanted to leave myself a few reminders so that I could get started more easily this morning. I’m on vacation for a few days, and I’ve always found it easier to steal time for writing during the work week than to make it the centerpiece of the day. Funny how the mind works.

Anyway, in hopes that this might help someone else, here are some highlights from my list of reminders.

1. Define one small goal for the day’s session. Set an intention.

Sometimes you have a vague idea that you need to sit down, work on the book, solve every problem, answer every question, be a rock star. Who can live up to this pressure? Not me. I do much better with a simple goal. Take five minutes before working on your manuscript to set your intention for the session. The more specific, the better. Keep it small and doable.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about keeping a one-inch picture frame on her desk because it reminds her to think of the larger project as a series of short assignments. Just tackle one little image, one moment, one scene—essentially, just the amount of your novel that you can see in a one-inch square snapshot. Might be the moment two characters meet. Could be your progagonist crossing the threshold and entering that tenement hotel for the first time. Start small. If there is one little corner of the story you could work on right now, what would it be?

2. Act as if you are someone who can do this. 

I don’t know who said this for the first time, but it helps. Whether you’re walking into a crowded social gathering or stepping in front of a podium to give a presentation, it helps to just play the part. In writing, you can strive to be the kind of writer who sits down and puts in your time every day. Roll up your sleeves and write pages. You don’t have to be in the mood to make progress. If this is what you want to do, do it. Pretend you’re not afraid. Do it anyway. Act with confidence and treat this like your job. Your attitude matters.

3. If you are afraid of something, write it down. Don’t let it control you. 

When you do feel stuck or you feel the doubts about your project welling up, just put them down. Open a blank document. Give yourself a few minutes to let them come out. I make lots of lists. Really, Dave? I had no idea. I find that just giving myself five minutes to release the doubts and acknowledge the questions keeps them from having power over me. I’ll often schedule another five minutes to respond in writing to each issue I’ve identified. Believe me, this is not just some kind of goofy, new age exercise in navel-gazing. It will actually uncover foggy areas in your stories, identify areas that aren’t clear enough yet, character motivations you don’t understand, logical inconsistencies. What you’re doing is listening to your gut. Then you can come up with a plan of attack.

Is there something about your story you’re afraid to write? What is it? What’s freaking you out? It’s okay to let the questions brew in your subconscious until fully cooked. But at least know when they’re in the room, trying to get your attention.

4. Shake things up. If your usual routine and tricks aren’t working, break something.

Today I’m writing at my desk with the blinds open and the sunlight streaming in. Tomorrow I might write in bed at 6 in the morning before the kids get up. I have a favorite red Ikea chair in my living room that I’ll actually slide across the room so it’s next to my dining room table. I don’t know why, but this chair in this little nook on the perimeter of the room, is magic. But only sometimes.

The idea is to be flexible, because let’s face it, if you make your writing routine dependent on a single location or a perfect set of circumstances, then you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Point two is that sometimes intentionally screwing with your usual routine shakes up your thinking, stimulates you, makes you see things you might not have seen otherwise. I can’t write while listening to music. Or so I’ve been telling myself for years. Then I made a Spotify playlist with some moody soundtrack music, strings and cellos from Steve McQueen’s film, Shame, and I wrote while pumping this through my earbuds for a week or two. It was good while it lasted. Now I’ve moved on again.

5. Pay yourself one compliment about your writing. Recognize the good in what you do.

Writers at all levels deal with a lot of negative self-talk. Pretend you’re a good friend who wants to be a writer. Would you slam that friend with criticism and second-guessing? Or would you say, yes, my friend, keep going.

Let me model this. Here’s one I need to hear from time to time:

You have great patience and tenacity to come back day after day to work on this book even on those days when you feel it’s all a lost cause. Hats off to you, sir. Rest well tonight. Think about how much experience you’ve already gained in the past six months, how many good habits you’ve developed by becoming a daily writer.

Thanks, Dave. Now get back to work.