Tag Archives: writingprocess

procrastinating mind

Dear Procrastination, (Part 2)

Dear Procrastination,

I’ve written to you before, but you didn’t reply. You look at me the way my grandmother used to when I asked a stupid question. I get it, you are necessary, and if I spend too much time with you, well, that’s my fault, isn’t it?
You are necessary. You are where the sketch before the painting happens, the outline before the outline. I know I said I would write and now I’m walking the dogs, stringing a beaded necklace, knitting a hat, cleaning the gutters, alphabetizing my books, dusting the cobwebs from the corners. Can you believe these things are part of the process too? Not always, but sometimes, when I’m meditating on story.
I’m sorry I came off adversarial before. I was trying to gather my courage to write. I did not trust you. I lashed out. I get it. I get it, you are part of the process. Can I possibly welcome you? Even find joy in you? Trust myself to know when to close the door on you and get to work, when to open the door again and go out to play?
I will try, dear friend, I will try.

 

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making of harry potter common room

Staring is necessary.

My IB students are reading The Things They Carried now and just finished The Great Gatsby. The order in which you teach books brings to light different aspects of them. I don’t believe I’ve ever juxtaposed these two titles before. So, as we read each vignette of The Things They Carried, the burden of being an observer in war is the thread I keep being drawn to. Both Nick and O’Brien seem to exist as a lens through which to view the story, take little part in the action, only rarely turn that lens on themselves. They are both writers. Go figure, I’m drawn to this persona, the observer. I know just what I’d do if I ever stumbled upon an invisibility cloak as Harry Potter did.
“Stare hard, retard,” people used to say when they caught me staring. And sometimes on my walks to work, I get so caught up in the physical details of the world around us that I just want to keep walking right past work, spend the day collecting images. I did this when I was in high school quite a lot. I’d walk to school, reach the building, decide to keep walking. I grew up in sister cities and I’d walk to the edges of them both, walk between them.
This is at least a part of why I prefer to walk to school even though Chris drives and works at the same place. This is why I prefer spring and summer days, because I can walk and walk without the extra weight of an umbrella or the inconvenience of getting cold or wet. I used to at least try to keep a journal collecting some of my impressions from the day. It’s been difficult to find time lately, but I’d like to try to get back to that practice, just a little writing before bed. *moves journal to night stand
I’ve sometimes felt ashamed of my observer personality (“Stare hard, retard”), but reading O’Brien I’m embracing that part of myself, feeling part of a tribe of storytellers. So, dear writer peeps, if this sounds like you, I have a challenge for you this week:

Spend 10-20 minutes sitting in public just observing everything you can.
Observe and record a conversation between two people you eavesdrop on.
Stare at an object. Stare again. Keep staring until you’ve written a two paragraph description of the thing.

 

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cell phone that says "my phone is my castle" on the screen

It is called a mobile, after all.

We had an unexpected dumping of snow in Olympia that afforded me a Monday snow day yesterday. This allowed me to easily and leisurely meet my word count for the day and also to reflect on the week, writing, the sheer size of the flakes floating down out the window. And that’s not even the whole of the day. I also read some of The Circle, which is turning out to be a page-turner and two chapters of A Moveable Feast which Chris and I are reading out loud to each other in preparation for the Book-It performance in March. It felt decadent to have the day, since the weekend had been so satisfying, and that, or at least the reason for the satisfaction is what I want to write about here.
As I’ve mentioned in past posts, weekends are the hardest times for me to get my word count in. This is counter-intuitive since I teach high school Monday through Friday and have weekends off. Shouldn’t I have more time on weekends and therefore write more? One would think so, but the opposite is true. I write less on weekends.
What made the difference this weekend? I turned off my cell Friday before bed and didn’t turn it on again until Sunday at noon. Lo and behold, I wrote double my goal and broke through two barriers in my story.
How can I explain this?
On weekdays I do my writing early in the morning while the house is still asleep, before picking up my phone or checking my email. It’s this sweet little pocket of solitude and leisure before I am standing in front of a classroom of sometimes reluctant always skeptical students. Always skeptical because they are high school age and they should be. (It’s the unskeptical ones I worry about. What innocence shaking novel should I slip them to shake them up and get them on track? Back to the point–) The weekend; however, is an unstructured free-for-all time wise and it’s easier to passively gawk on social media than struggle with creating fiction. So, I cave to my impulse to check in with the world of digital interactions and eye candy my phone has to offer off and on all weekend which makes it difficult to focus and relax, two things we need to write.

What will I do with this new-found self-knowledge?
It is called a mobile, after all, and I’d like to start treating it like one. A great device to connect outside of home. At home, I want to keep it turned off more often. Like from Friday nights to Sundays at noon, except when I’m out on the town. Also weekday mornings before eight and as soon as I get home on weekday evenings. This not only feels like a good tweak to my writing life, but a tweak that is consistent with how I’ve been feeling for a long while about how we come home and sink into our social media threads when we should be interacting with our families, cooking a good meal, reading a book, or just sitting and letting the day sink in. Resonates with how I feel about how we bring our phones to bed, to the table, to the easy chair. This feels like a right tweak, like an I should have thought of this long ago tweak, and I’m excited to see the effects.
I know that after a day and a half break, my shoulders were more relaxed. I was breathing more freely. I wrote with more ease and without distraction.

What habits are working for you to keep you focused?
What are your writing goals for the week? the month? the year?

Sneak peak: Next month I’m kicking off the daily writing warm-ups a little early. You know we’ve got poetry in April and scenes in May, so what’s in store for March?
In March, we will travel to a new place each day with a prompt to describe a place in 200 words or less. Stay tuned!

 

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yoga frog

Don’t push it. That’s my advice this week. Happy writing!

Much better this week. Not perfect, but better. I wrote six of seven days. Slowly, but that’s my pace right now. I mostly got to bed by nine on the weekdays, save one or two restless nights. I hope do the same or better this week, but I’m not attached to that result. It doesn’t equal success or failure. Those are long-term, future-focused words that when you break down get pretty muddy in their true meaning. I gave this advice to another writer in my weekly critique group last Monday. I asked her what her goal was for her work and she said to finish it and get published.
Seems like the obvious goal, right?
In my experience, that goal will leave you hamstrung and miserable.
I choose joy.
Each day I sit down to write for all the time I have to offer the work. I am working on a first draft of a second novel in a trilogy of books that take place in Olympia and all feature a central character who is struggling to find his/her path. Around that main character is a cast of quirky characters who sometimes recur between books.
Of course, I want to finish them and publish them.
But I’ve learned not to think of that when I am drafting and revising. I try to take each chunk of writing time as it comes. I try not to set deadlines for when I should be done, because what I’ve found is that I will reach those deadlines. Even when I shouldn’t. Even when the work isn’t ready to be done, I will finish on time. And then after a couple of weeks away, of maybe sending the work out to the world, I’ll read it and see what I didn’t see before, face the truth. And sometimes my forcing the work to completion will have created more problems to fix than before.
I’m learning to trust the work to tell me when it’s done, to not push it with imposed deadlines. I am working on a first draft of a second book, trying to write every day, getting feedback on the first book in my critique group, and when I finish this first draft, I’ll set it aside and start in on draft two of the first book. Then I’ll write the first draft of the third book. I have no idea when any of this will be done.

Happy writing week to you, my friends. May your words flow freely and your heart be light.

 

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first draft editing

Yep. It’s a first draft, all right.

This week, I finished up another draft of a manuscript that is in nearing the publishing phase of the editing process, then finished a read-through of a first draft of a novel I’ll spend the summer revising. A pretty productive week! I had this moment after reading that first draft where I let loose an enormous, heavy sigh. That sigh was me letting go of all the delusions of grandeur I’d let mount over the months I’d spent writing. In fact, in spite of my highest of hopes, it was a true first draft, lacking so much of what I’d intended to be there, including some things I had intended, but that now seem like a pretty bad idea. I’m okay, though, I have a plan.
First, I’ll go through the book again, charting some notes on key scenes, details, conflicts, and motifs chapter by chapter. Then, I’ll write more before diving in and making changes to that first draft. I’ll write new scenes first before going in to delete and change what I already have. Then, I’ll begin weaving it all together into a second draft, hopefully, better than the first. This is how we do it. It’s not magic. It’s first inspiration, then persistence, discipline, and planning.
Tomorrow; however, is Friday, and with all this editing in my life right now, I’m aching for that first draft feeling where it’s all vision and flowing words, and damn, you’re good! So I’ve declared that as for my writing process, my Fridays are going to be something akin to casual Fridays and I will write new words, first drafts.

 

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stepping stones

One true sentence? Considering Hemingway.

My seniors are reading Hemingway, so, of course, I am rereading him too. And thinking about him and his oft-quoted advice to writers. Just one true sentence? The truest sentence you know?

When I first read Hemingway with a writer’s eye (in college), I became enamored with his concision and tried to mimic it. The result was stories that were puzzling. All that human emotion and thought left unsaid, unthought, left for the reader to pluck from the tone of a line of dialogue, the selection of a particular noun or verb. What resulted were stories that were good in parts, but that didn’t satisfy my own sense of what I needed to convey in writing. They weren’t in my voice. Plus, I’m always a little suspect of a narrator who hides entirely, offers nothing to the conversation.

I’ve learned I’m  no Hemingway, don’t desire to be. But I do take his one true sentence advice for a particular use. That moment when you are stuck as to how to get from A to B, one moment to the next. Your girl is standing outside the door about to knock. You are trying to get her inside. The scene that matters is beyond the door. Now is the time to invoke one true sentence. Write a string of true sentences to get you where you want to go.

 

Becca knocked hard, shoved shivering hands in jeans pockets, waited. The neighbor’s mastiff came sniffing into the year, off leash again.

 

Becca stood, moved to knock, paused. A car sped by. She reread the notes she’d written on the back of a napkin. She put on a smile, shook out the nerves, pushed the doorbell.

Any time you are stuck, really. One clean, objective sentence of description. Then another and another. A true sentence? Hold on there, Hemingway. Truth is a funny word that holds power only until you start to probe it. One real sentence? Yes. That works. Write one clean, objective sentence located in the reality of your story. These sentences, for me, act as stepping stones. stepping stones

 

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nanowrimo novel writing

Reflections on Nanowrimo at the midpoint, plus the not-so-sexy-after-all struggle

Yesterday morning I made it to 25,800 words on my Nanowrimo novel. My writing morning went as usual, with one significant difference. My alarm blared Bryan Adams “I’m Gonna Run To You” (Jack FM) at 4 AM and I slammed down the snooze button. Twenty minutes later “Come On Feel The Noize” and I slammed down the snooze button again. I got dressed, made coffee while the dogs ate fresh heaps of kibble, then donned my faux fur lined jacket for a walk which only a few months ago I took wearing shorts and flip-flops. Now it’s dark and cold and even the dogs want to just get down to business.

I pour two cups of coffee with cream, placed a plate over the top of one to keep it warm, because although Chris’s alarm will go off any  minute, he’ll also want some snooze time. I sit at my writing desk, set my electric blanket across my lap (thank you, Carrie), then I start a session of freedom.

What’s freedom, you ask? It’s an internet blocking service I’ve known about for a while, but didn’t use. I choose a sixty minute session. This is my fourth day of freedom and I have seen the light. True, I can’t fact-check as I go, can’t look up synonyms to get the wording just right, can’t check my email “real quick”, can’t find the perfect pop culture reference for the time or browse books published the year my story takes place.

I have no choice to keep writing forward.

I’ve known for a long time that this was a good way to write a first draft, but for me struggle is the sexy dark horse. Meaning, it would be too easy to take that good advice I’ve come up against again and again. I am that person who when the yoga instructor says to pay attention to how it feels in your body, I think it’s a “good stretch” when there is a dull throbbing pain up and down my leg. Because I tend to stubbornly persist through whatever quagmire I find myself in. Because I am a person who works hard and perseveres and is resilient. Why would I take an easier way out? Plus, I can be a bit of perfectionist with my sentences, reading them aloud until they’re just so.

Why has it taken me so long to understand two thing that I teach high school students all the time?

 

  1. Have a process.

 

As I teen I was fascinated by ritual, terrified by the idea of falling into too many patterns, imprisoning myself. I was obsessed with trying to force spontaneity. The paradox I’ve discovered in writing (and perhaps it applies to life too) is that the more ritual I have, the more spontaneous my writing can become. There is a freedom in the space of writing when the creative mind is familiar with that territory, has been there before, when the process is clear. Also, patterns will emerge, with or without your input. Don’t you want to have input? Don’t you know better than your fear? Your laziness? Your self-loathing?

 

Be as specific about your process as you can. Borrow from others. Don’t worry about whether it’s perfect for you. Pick something and try it for a while. Your process can and will change, but you’ve got to have one.

What times and days will you write?

What are the rules for writing your first draft?

What will you look for in your first revision?

At what point will you invite other people into your work? For what purpose?

 

Keep a logbook and/or spreadsheet of each time you write or edit to track your work over time. Include in your logbook notes about struggles that emerge for you in your work.

 

  1. Time, place, manner.

 

Have a process and trust it. Draw boundaries for the steps of your process. What parts of your writer self will you invite in with the first draft? Will you kick the editor out? What will it take for you to do that? What will you focus on for the second draft? The third?

My process for the past 20+ years has been to sit down and write, then go back and revise. It was a miracle when I sat down to write at all, and when I did, it was often a battle with aspects of myself, particularly the one who wants to write the story and the one who wants to pick it apart along the way. While I’m writing the first draft of the novel I’m working on now, I’m making a list of revision consideration for the second draft. Writing them on that list is my way of setting them aside for now. I am learning to hold myself to the idea of a first draft. I’ve heard this advice over and over again. The struggle was too sexy. I couldn’t resist. But I’m getting it now. I no longer think cool boys in leather jackets are enticingly mysterious and I get that writing can be more or less difficult. More difficult if you don’t follow a plan, including to show up every day. There is a time to pick apart your sentences. It isn’t in the first draft. Just like there is a time to talk about your grade in my class. it’s not in front of the whole class, in the middle of explaining a new present moment assignment. Oh, and put your phone away. You should have checked your grades before you came to class.

 

What’s your process? How do you make it happen?

 

 

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The importance of place.

I’m four pages in to chapter two of my new book, a book I’ve outlined, made character sketches for, and even bought markers and big pieces of white paper to make visual maps of motifs and character relationships. I feel so ready to write this book!
Until, I don’t.
I’m on my second week of getting up at four in the morning to write, and I’m in the thick of chapter two. This morning I was writing a scene in a kitchen with two teens and their Dad, a primary setting in this story. As I visualized the scene in my head, moved the characters in space, rendered their words, thoughts, and actions, I realized a piece I had forgotten to plan.
I hadn’t planned the layout of the house my characters lived in, or the individual rooms. The story takes place in Olympia, but I hadn’t even planned what part of town, let alone the details of the house. For that matter, there’s a chunk of it that takes place at a school. What does it look like? In 2005?
Without an intentional plan, in order to write forward, I picked a house I used to rent as a model for my story. The point here is, though, that I did this without any awareness. Once I realized what I had done, I had to decide whether the choice was a good one or merely a familiar default. Should the story be in a different place? Where?
It is in this way that we continue to plan our stories, add to our outlines as we get deeper and deeper into the writing. The key is to recognize when to pin down the details. I noticed where I had placed my story because I was struggling with some of the details. You see, I hadn’t committed to that old house, that particular setting. I just used it to keep writing.
I have committed to it now, but I could just as easily have moved the story to a different house, across town. Two understandings emerged for me in this moment of attention. The first is that when you are writing about people in a place, you should know that place in as much specificity as possible. What color are the curtains? Does a faucet leak? Whether it’s a real place or imagined—set your story down somewhere with walls of a certain color and doors that creak, with smudges of dirt on the light switches. Draw it or pick a place you know, or both. The second thing?
Welcome these moments that demand that you add to your outline as a critical part of the process. There is such an urge to write, let nothing get in the way, because writing is hard enough. But I think I’ve caused myself more trouble than necessary writing this way.
When I print out first drafts of chapters to edit, I highlight all the specific details that emerge, mostly as a tool to keep them in the visual landscape I move through in my mind as I put words to page. Shouldn’t we welcome these breaks to draw, list, and diagram as part of creating a place for your story that seems real?

 

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house

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Wake before the sun? Are you kidding me?

At the moment, I am flying high and nothing is wrong in the universe.
Why?
Because it’s 5:30 in the morning, I haven’t even started my work day yet, and I’ve already written 700 words on my novel.
Now, I know this feeling is temporary, but humor me. Can we just relish in how I got there for a bit?
In the past ten years, I have made hundreds of writing schedules, all of them avoiding the wee hours in the morning when I prefer to be sleeping. Then, last week I had a particularly scattered, brain-tired struggle of a writing session in the evening and I panicked, realizing that I cannot end the school year thinking that fall comes I’m going to go back to the same evening writing sessions and find success. I that moment of panic, I hit upon the idea that perhaps the trouble is that I’ve been trying to fit my creative time in at the end of the day when my mind is taxed and my energy low. How does that make sense? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write first when the mind is slow in a good way and fresh?
Yikes, though. That would mean—I calculated that I’d have to get up at 4 to make coffee and walk the dogs to be writing by 4:30. I’d also have to give up walking to school in the mornings. I like walking to school. I like the slow pace and the solitude. But I could walk home from school, right? And as far as getting the exercise, my evenings would be free to stroll all I wanted because I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk beating myself up to write three sentences. Or procrastinating sitting at my desk to write three sentences by sending Carrie pins or doing the dishes.
Then, I thought: What are you willing to change to prioritize writing?
Well, I’m on day two of rising at 4 am to write and I haven’t written like this in weeks. Today I wrote 695 new words on my novel and now I’m writing this blog. I took notes on how the writing went and made a road map for tomorrow. The quiet and solitude of the morning coupled with the stillness of my rested mind is the perfect place for writing.
I never thought I’d say this…
After all, I am a morning person.

 

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zen accident

Zen Accident

I began writing poetry at fourteen or fifteen, some terrible lost and vulnerable age. I wrote reams of poems about how profoundly I didn’t understand anything, using juxtaposed words like vomit truth and playground nightmare. It seems I’d always been a gawker, but I started to write little snippets of what I saw in my notebooks: man at bus stop shaving his feet, woman screaming fuck you fuck fuck on her way to the library, or an orange is a globe of light. I also started to write down the sentences from what I read that sent a charge of delight up my spine. If I could write like that!

I’ve identified as a writer from a young age and over the years I have continued to write, record my observations, and collect sentences with inconsistent commitment. This blog is dedicated to the commitment I’ve made to make time for writing in spite of the real and imagined demands on my writing time. I’ve been distracted by so many projects during my adult life including running a marathon and earning a Masters degree, both of which took far less effort and commitment than writing a book does. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have done these things, not at all. One can’t write every single moment of every single day. When you are not writing, though, everything else is a potential distraction.

Over this past winter break I had a moment of epiphany regarding my sometimes absurd cycle of professing I need time to write, then getting that time and struggling to write three sentences, then drowning my sorrows in a glass or two of red which of course completely kills my impulse to write and clouds my thinking. Of course there are other times where the writing flows and I finish my writing time absolutely buzzed by the feeling that I’ve created something dangerously close to what I want to say and with some tweaking, by God, it just might do. I’ve strategized ways to induce this kind of creative flow. I’ve turned corners of rooms into writing nooks, made signs for doors warning: Writer At Work, snuck away to cafes, bought noise-canceling headphones, and on and on.

We’ve just moved to a new house and by winter break we’d been there nearly a month and I hadn’t even once sat in the writing nook I fashioned in one corner of our bedroom. I’d written, but never there. And that’s when a new way of looking at the whole situation struck me dumb. Over the next few days I sat to write at our family computer that is literally wide-open in the middle of the house in the family room, the most unprivate spot one could possibly occupy.

What happened? Yes, children interrupted me. Dogs too with their endless need for ear-scratches and lap time. I’m pretty sure Chris also asked me where I had put the coffee filters, which were right in front of his face where they always are, just tucked a little toward the back. As all these disruptions happened, I didn’t react resentfully to them. Each disruption happened, then I returned to the writing. This is how I finished the novella I’ve been working on for six years.

Happy accident? Result of a recently revived meditation practice?

I don’t know, but I’ll take it.

 

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