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What’s a writing process, anyway? Bonus: killing writer’s block.

Some of you may have noticed I’ve been a little quiet lately, blogging-wise. Also Twitter-wise and website-update-wise. Some of you may be grateful for that! ‘Cause, really, sometimes I should just shut up. Right?

Others may want stories, or want me to finish one or more of the novels I’ve been working on, or maybe you just think I should just answer your damn email already. (Sorry about that last, by the way–I’ll try to catch up later today.)

What it is, is: I’ve been trying to figure some things out. I really enjoyed doing the Weekly Challenge thing, and would have liked to continue–but after a while it simply wasn’t getting me any new readers. I don’t like disappointing those of you who’ve stuck with me, but on the other hand I really do need to figure out how to get my stuff in front of more eyeballs. Oh, and keep working on improving its quality! ‘Cause there’s always room for improvement.

I’ve decided to focus on novels for a while. And another thing the WC did? It seriously interrupted novel-writing, and often. On the other hand I really liked the semi-instant gratification from writing short stories and getting them out where people could read them. So that made me wonder…should I do a Monthly Challenge? Or even a Bimonthly Challenge? But…c’mon. Sometimes writing a novel takes a while (“Really?” you ask, oh so sarcastically)  and I might not actually hit those targets. Plus…if I have a goal set for 60 days from now, in what way does that stop me from saying “screw it” and surfing the net today?

Hint: it doesn’t. Sue me; I’m like that.

So…maybe, thought I, I should approach the problem from the other end. Maybe I need to forget entirely about deadlines, and instead focus on meeting a sort of “Daily Challenge” instead.

Easier said than done, that. Back when I wrote software, though…wait. PSA: If you don’t want to read anything about what I think software development processes have taught me about writing fiction (and who would blame you?), please feel free to skip the next three paragraphs.

Okay. Even when I was trying to create a fairly big project I had built-in short-term motivation aplenty. What I did probably sounds weird to people not “in the biz” but…I would write an automated test of some sort. And it would fail, because the software to pass it didn’t exist yet. So I would write just enough code to pass the test. Then I’d write another test that failed, and write more code so it’d pass. This is called Test-Driven Development (though actually I’m more in the Behavior-Driven Development camp).

This was cool, because I had an ever-increasing list of passing tests. I even set them up to run automatically whenever I wrote new code, so if something I did broke something that used to work I generally found out about it right away. Of course it’s still easy to screw up a software development process like this–there’s a built-in temptation to keep fiddling till the cows come home, to never “ship” a product to paying customers. After all, a software product is never “finished”…there’s always something else it should do. Which is roughly akin to a novelist’s temptation to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, ad infinitum.  To fix this and related human-type screwups (at least in the software world), Lean Startup and the notion of a “Minimum Viable Product” (aka MVP) come in. The idea there is to do as little “product development” work as possible–which may mean none at all–and move immediately to selling it. If you can’t sell the idea for actual money? Don’t develop the product. Or find a different customer, and that opens a whole Customer Development can of worms, which is actually where Lean Startup got…er…started. Also, Wikipedia could seriously use a better article on that. But never mind.

Thing is, I don’t know how to do an actually useful MVP (meaning one where I get enough critical feedback to make decisions) for fiction. So in fact I screwed this up while writing my first novel: I wrote twelve separate drafts of it. Which included going back to the beginning and retyping it all–four times. On the other hand, this was back before self-publishing seemed a reasonable choice and I didn’t see the point of writing a second novel if I couldn’t sell the first (actually it took me over a year to get anyone to read the first one), and…anyway, I’ve learned a few things along the way that I wish I’d known years ago.

Back with me? Okay. I decided I needed some sort of daily goal. The obvious choice is “word count”–but I threw it out. Because…well, I couldn’t control it. Boy, have I tried! But some days I could write 5000 words or more, and other days I wrote nothing at all (which generally involved a lot of pacing and cursing), and…I might as well say my goal is to “sell 1000 copies of my next novel in its first month without advertising”…that’s more of a dream than a goal.

Enter Pomodoro. It’s this (apparently) silly notion that you set a timer and work for 25 minutes. Then take a five-minute break. Then repeat, and after the fourth 25-minute session you take a longer break. I’ve always looked at this sort of thing a bit askance: who needs it? Not me!

Ahem. Well, “not me” when I have something else that works for me, maybe. But…I just can’t directly control the word count I produce. Some days I get ideas I love and my fingers fly…other days I second-guess myself, or think the story “needs something more” no matter how many times I’ve discovered that “more” happens more often as I type than any other way.

You know what I can control? Whether my butt’s in my chair. (Or chairlike object. I used to have a treadmill desk, and may build another sometime. Right now I’m sitting on a big rubbery ball. Bounce. Bounce. But you know what I mean.)

So here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • At night I get a few sentences or summaries ready and print them out so I’ll know what I need to do in the morning
  • I set up my desk the night before, and looking at the morning’s assignment is one of the last things I do before sleeping
  • I am doing “one Pomodoro” (meaning 4×25 with breaks of 5 between) before going online. Actually before breakfast, so far.
  • If  I realize I’m screwing up, I write the word “blah” with a quick explanation, hit return, and move on.
  • I do the same if I think I need to do research, or don’t remember a minor character’s name or hair color or whatever.
  • For now I’m doing all this on my AlphaSmart Neo, which has no internet access.
  • Just because I’m weird, I’m using a custom “Klingon” font–which I can’t read at all. So I have to keep going forward. How would I edit?
  • Incidentally, I’m using an actual kitchen timer for this (so I don’t have to turn on anything with internet access) and it has an additional benefit: my cats hate it. So they don’t come lie on my keyboard or paw my leg for petting. Cool.

That’s it. My new challenge: keep this up for 30 days. Yeah, that’ll include Christmas. Yeah, it includes weekends. Thing is…I thought it’d be cool if I could write 1500 words a day, because that’s most of a novel every month. Then I speculated on 2000 words a day, and thought that was cool. Because after all it’s not as if I do nothing else all day. I keep working. There’s stuff to fix and flesh out–all those blahs. Put it all together, and what do you get? A first draft of a new novel, in a month. And not a 50K NaNoWriMo “novel,” either. Something heftier. (Though I do like NaNoWriMo.)

But things are not going quite according to plan: I’m actually averaging a little over 2500 words a day. So far.

I’ve never believed in “writer’s block”…at least, I don’t think it’s a real thing. To me, saying “I’ve been blocked” sounds a lot like saying “I’ve been lazy or decided to do something else instead of writing”–but it’s clearly true that it’s possible to pace for three hours straight and never believe you have a sentence worth writing. ‘Cause I’ve done that up to three or four times a day myself. Knowing it’s stupid doesn’t get my brain out of a trapspin.

Well, what if you can’t read your damn sentences anyway? What if your daily assignment, the one thing you have to do to consider it a successful writing day, is….type for twenty-five minutes. Take a break. Repeat if time allows.

Now, I’ve got no reason to believe the 25-minute thing is the ideal length for me or anybody else. Nor do I know that the 5-minute breaks are the right length. Nor do I know that breaking up work in this manner is at all useful for improving productivity in general–I’ve certainly never felt the need for it when doing anything else.

But it gives me a goal: 30 days. Somewhere in there I may start trying a second (or even third) 4×25/5 session. I may form a firm opinion about the number of minutes, the length of “break” intervals, or…well, anything else. I don’t care.

This is a goal, and it’s within my control. Word counts will do what they do. I may or may not finish one or more novels. I am doing my damnedest not to care about that either. My focus is on what I can control: my butt, in the chair. (Sort of a chair.)

Your mileage may vary, of course. This is what makes sense to me today. Will I agree with myself in a month? Who knows?

Guess what, though? This post is done. And my hands hurt a little from all the typing today. How sweet is that?

Bonus thoughts:

  • So…2500 words, if I keep it up, is 25 words per minute. At typingweb.com I found out I can normally do about 60wpm. What happens if I do speed drills and improve my typing speed? Come to think of it, do speed drills improve typing speed? I have no idea.
  • Kevin J. Anderson swears by dictation instead of typing. He hires a transcriber…sounds somewhat expensive and also un-fun to me (too much of a hassle factor). How about speech recognition software, though? Is any of it worth using? Again I have no idea. It’s okay if it produces mostly garbage, though, if I can tell what I meant it to say. ‘Cause I could easily spend four hours cleaning up the text I “wrote” in two, and still produce a lot of fiction. Hmm.

 

Have fun out there!

7 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Hi David! I enjoyed this post! I find your humor so uuhmm funny! Just wanted to say that I will buy whatever you’re selling in whatever time it becomes available. I love your writing!


    1. // Reply

      Thanks! Glad you liked it. Sometimes I’m laughing over here and it seems like nobody notices. Of course it’s barely possible that I’m not always as funny as I think I am. {8’>



  2. // Reply

    [Warning for others, I’m assuming some familiarity with software development methodology terms. Some of the words may not mean what you think they mean.]

    Let’s recast this as a story production process. I think that helps us with the definition of done. A story is done when it is publishable. I would argue that this means that you shouldn’t focus on word count, but rather publishable word count (PWC). You won’t know (at least in the beginning) what the PWC for a particular Pomodoro is and that’s fine. You would initially likely track PWC as a monthly metric. The only thing that is important about it is the direction of the change. Your goal should be to increase your PWC/month.

    When I think about it this way, I think it is obvious that everyone is doing it wrong with respect to editing. People think the primary (sole?) goal of editing is to improve the story being edited. The primary goal of editing should be to improve your writing, i.e. help you learn to avoid the mistakes identified. Feedback from an editor should trigger a retrospective where you develop a plan for eliminating the cause of the identified error(s).

    Therefore, don’t worry about increasing your typing speed until you can consistently create 60 PWPM (publishable words per minute). Otherwise you are just increasing your risk of repetitive stress injury.

    Are you familiar with John Boyd’s OODA loop? You should be trying to shorten the loop for your writing. The easiest way to do that is to have a process that minimizes the decisions you need to make while you are producing a story. You want to line up any external resources and make sure they are committed to your goals before you start writing.

    Each time a story is done, take the opportunity to reexamine your process and think of ways to improve it. Figure out what your impediments are and prioritize them on a “most bang for the buck” scale, i.e. the ones with the most return for the effort invested.


    1. // Reply

      An interesting point of view–I know you hang out on some cool blogs, and I’ve noticed you write well, and I’ve wondered whether you had a semi-secret identity as a writer of fiction too. Which would be cool, because generally those of us who so create create the least-secret identity we can manage in the hope that someone, somewhere, will care. But I’m guessing at this point that you probably don’t indulge. (Though I’d be happy to read the results if I’m wrong, or if you change your mind!)

      I agree with a lot of what you wrote, but the thing is…my goal was to find a way to write new fiction on a consistent basis, and secondarily to write a lot of it quickly. Since I already failed spectacularly and often at using “word count” as a goal, PWC is most likely not useful in that particular context.

      That said, I really like your point about the purpose of editing. I even think I agree with it, though I’d never reached that level of clarity beforehand.

      FWIW, consider this: editing, and whipping a story into shape, are relatively easy work when compared to getting a first draft out. I’m not saying they don’t require skill, knowledge, concentration, and effort–I’m saying I can do them in a crowded room while intermittently participating in a conversation and halfway watching a movie. I figure this is likely the result of decades of business/technical/ad-copy writing and editing.

      Whereas the first-draft thing requires me (so far) to be by myself, and typing. Momentum is hard to get going, and is far too easily interrupted. Which probably means I’m stretching my brain to be able to write fiction at all, and I hope to achieve a greater degree of competence and a lesser degree of dependence on my physical/emotional surroundings and distractions–but I ain’t there yet, so…this post was about something I’m trying to increase my ability to generate first drafts.

      More on this in a post to follow. {8’>


  3. // Reply

    Hi there, buddy. Well, I haven’t “missed” your posts, per se, because if they’re not around, I fail to remember they are supposed to show up…sorryyy. Anyway, your idea of the Klingon font is brilliant. Didn’t read the other comments, but hopefully someone else said that too! Also–I sit on a ball as well!!! Made by Gaiam.com; I can only use it about 2 hours a day, though, or my hip flexors get all stretched out and messed up and I feel like an injury is coming on. Weird, but a good back straightener/balancer for a couple of hours, no doubt!

    I could get all philosophical and go on about the idiocy of thinking one has so much control over bloody Anything, like thinking that consistency of effort is a linear event such that all segments are equally distributed. Painful BS. Reading some of the un-named writing gurus who propound the getting over of Resistance, always written as a capped term, annnnnd what YOU can do about it…makes me want to puke. Being on a set schedule is an oxymoron for creativity. Inspiration–of course, this is merely my opinion and my reality–is the only fitting bedfellow of creativity. And we all hate that, of course, because it is Freaking Not in One’s Control, whether one LIKES IT OR NOT. Yes, I’m yelling. Today is not a great day, as in, I’m (obviously) in a bad mood. But I’d say it again. And again. It’s a lie and a misconception. And it makes otherwise healthy, creative individuals insane.

    And there you have it. How many words was that?

    I love your intelligence, David, and I enjoy reading your comments. And the parts about software you add on are totally appreciated because of your ability to synthesize ideas. Not especially common, I don’t find.

    So, thanks. Happy holidays.


    1. // Reply

      Happy holidays to you too! I keep wondering when I’m going to run into your relatives here in town, and whether I should say anything if I do.

      Thank you again for all the kind words. I’m a little torn, ’cause yeah: control’s mostly an illusion. That said, though, I think we can learn to do certain things better than we currently do. In fact I’m convinced of it. The question is whether it’s useful to try to get better at producing fiction on…dare I say it…a schedule? I say yes. Though I do value inspiration, I note that waiting for it to appear and ring a bell is a dangerous practice–and also that I seem to get better access to inspiration whilst my fingers are a-typing.

      I’ve had days where I went on long walks, or even long pacing sessions, or runs, or…well, leg motion is the thing. Moving my legs (and feet, come to think of it, and thus the rest of me) certainly helps with big-picture thinking. But as far as designing/building/writing scenes goes, so far I get better results as I move my upper digits. I come up with all sorts of stuff. Occasionally a big-picture notion surfaces from the fingerfroth, and I’m trying to simply write “blah” and add a note about it, then keep going. Folding it all together is for later.

      I can’t swear it’ll work in the long run. So far it’s been really interesting, though…

      -D

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