Posts Tagged ‘bad habits’


Writing seems to be an awful lot of re-learning things I should already know. I don’t know why I forget some of these basics, but I continually find myself saying, “Oh yeah… I knew that,” and wondering why yet again, I went down a road I should have known went nowhere.

My most recently forgotten guideline of writing is that first drafts don’t have to be perfect. This was the very first thing I ever learned about writing a novel, and I didn’t even realize I‘d been caught in that very counter-productive trap until last week. Initially, I was only aware that it seemed to be taking a lot longer than usual for me to get the story moving. It wasn’t till I asked myself what the holdup was that I acknowledged what was happening and began practicing something I already know: write first, edit later.

I’ve read the left-brain/right-brain theories which suggest that creative writing and technical revising require the use of opposite sides of the brain. Allegedly, to try to utilize both sides simultaneously results in a kind of cerebral squabble that ends up clogging the system and cancelling out both endeavors, like some kind of cognitive conflict of interest. Whether or not this is the truth, I don’t know. But I do know that for me, editing as I’m writing doesn’t work.

In order for me to get to the story written, I need to drop my “good writing” pretenses, ignore the sentences that suck along the way, just keep moving, and save the spit-shining for the edits. I know this… yet until a few days ago, I was spending hours on paragraphs where no more than a few minutes were needed, at least in this stage of the game anyway.

I’ve given it some thought and have narrowed down the culprits which have triggered this first draft amnesia. The main offender is the new standard I’ve reflexively set for myself; entirely my fault, no surprise there. I’m working on my third novel, and with the previous two under my belt, my expectations of myself have been raised. I reason that by now, I should have a pretty firm grip on what I’m doing and shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time searching for the right words, or ransacking the corners of my mind trying to remember some grammatical technicality or another. That with enough practice we will eventually get good enough to throw gold on paper with the first flick of our wrists, requiring no second, third, or fourth drafts, unfortunately, is a myth. At least, I don’t think that will ever happen for me. I’m almost as dim-witted now as I was two years ago, and perhaps, even more so. The ordinances of the English language and the guidelines of good storytelling are vast. When you’re constantly learning new things, the new information can bury the previous knowledge, leaving you completely dumbfounded when you should be on the ball. This is perfectly okay. That’s what re-writes are for.

The second contributor to this roadblock is having an audience. It’s not a secret anymore that I’m writing. My prior novels have passed through the hands of many friends, agents, and fellow writers, and I’m all too aware that this same fate awaits my current manuscript. I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. When people are eager to read your next project, it’s a good sign you’re doing something right. Still, the pressure is unnerving and I have to pretend, on some level, that no one will ever see it, and try to go back to the days of hobbyist writing.

The final villain in this particular drama is my mentor. Oh yeah, I said it. She and I meet twice a week to do critique, and though we’ve been doing this for almost two years, things are different now than they were in the early days. For one thing, I’m no longer new enough at this to play the bright-eyed, “God-Bless-Your-Ignorant-Heart” novice I was once able to pull off. I’ve spent two years under her tutorship and in that time, I’ve learned more than I ever thought there was to know about this craft. I don’t have the luxury of being uneducated anymore, and that kind of sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my mentor. And it isn’t her Master’s degree in English that intimidates me. Nor is it her years of teaching, or even her owned published books. The problem is that the book she’s currently writing is really damned good. From premise to execution, from characterization to climax, this story casts its golden shadow down hard and heavy on my own project, making it difficult for me to bring her my weekly progress with any kind of pride. But this is good, and here is why: it’s forcing me to get better. Not that I need to feel that I’m a “better writer” than this guy or that girl, but the stakes are higher now, and for the sake of not embarrassing myself, I need to bring some pretty powerful stuff to the table.

There are no doubt thousands of reasons why we slip into bad habits and backslide into unfavorable territory in writing, but if you look at it from different angles, you’ll see that for each new barricade there’s a proportionate opportunity to improve your craft. I think of these stumbling blocks as Fate’s way of upping the ante and lighting the necessary fire under your ass that will get you back in the game with your head on straight and your determination resuscitated and revitalized.

As for forgetting even the basest principles of writing (such as allowing yourself to write bad first drafts), I say forget these things as often as you can, because each time you come back to the basics, you’ll be able to experience the pleasure of seeing your progress in other ways. Back at the very beginning of things is where we see the headway we’ve made. Also, as you “fail” more and more, your armor gets thicker and your tools sharper, so…

Write on… and revise later. Oh, and remember…


There comes a time in just about every endeavor when enough is enough and you realize it’s time to throw in the towel. I am not especially proud to admit that I recently reached that point a few weeks ago with a book I was working on.

It was over a year ago when I got the idea for this story. At the time, I was right in the middle of Beautiful Monster, a novel I co-wrote with Kim Williams-Justesen, (author of My Brother the Dog, The Hey Ranger! series, and co-author of Love and Loathing ~ in case I haven’t mentioned her before!) and I wasn’t looking to get started on anything new for several months. Like many stories though, this one gnawed and picked at me, demanding precedence over all else, making me anxious to finish Beautiful Monster so I could get right on it. I took down notes about the new storyline as the ideas came to me, saved them in my “writing” file, and assumed that as soon as we wrapped up the current project, I’d sit down and pound the novel out with the speed of a sugar-buzzed Quarter horse and the light-hearted glee of  a Keebler elf on sixty milligrams of Paxil per day.

That isn’t what happened. I started the story, stopped the story, revised the story, re-wrote the story and ultimately, renounced the story. At first, I was proud of my stick-to-it-ive-ness. I figured I’d hit a rough patch and instead of giving up, I’d see it through, and in the end, be able to say it was a great accomplishment. As the months rolled by and I realized I’d never made it past the five chapter mark though, I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t time to move on to something else. After all, in the interim, another storyline (one that I liked much better) was beginning to form. But still I persisted, fearing that by abandoning this story, I might be cultivating the very bad habit of cutting all my projects short and thus becoming one of those authors that I’ve vowed never to become who has drawers full of half-written novels but no complete product.

There were a lot of reasons I had trouble with this novel. First, I ended up hating the town I set the story in, not to mention its entire population. Second, I couldn’t pin down the main character’s voice and I seemed to be at a perpetual loss as to how this kid would react to anything. Third, every time I thought I had the plot down, another layer presented itself, negating the previous concept, and as hard as I tried to stick to main frame of the storyline, I found myself constantly wavering in a different direction. Finally (and perhaps worst of all), I developed a powerful dislike for my main character.  I chalked this up to the notion that my writing voice is not that of a small-town, nineteen year-old kid and I even thought I’d been foolish to believe I could extend my creative writing abilities enough to convincingly portray one. But, while it’s true that my natural voice is older than nineteen, the reality is that I stopped caring about this story.

After attempt number five at chapter one (and seven months of frustration), I suspended the story and began something new. It had been a long while since I’d had that kind of writer’s block, and in my experience, this often indicates a (sometimes unconscious) germinating of a different story that needs to get out before any progress can be made. I am certain that one day I’ll go back to this story, and it’s my hope that by then it will have worked out its issues on its own, and I will be able to write it with my usual, natural flow.

 

I’m still hell-bent on not becoming a writer who half-writes their books. I’m still not willing to give up because the writing isn’t easy. But I have come to understand that sometimes, a story just isn’t ready to be told yet. It’s occurred to me that in the case of this recently abandoned project, I had been approaching it all wrong, and that maybe my efforts to write it in the first person were in error. Whatever the cause or causes, the story just wasn’t working and for now, that’s okay.

I am currently trying to recover from the self-doubt that this insubordinate last novel has inflicted on me, and the best way I know to do that is to keep writing. I’ve gone ahead with the concept which came to life in my mind as I was muddling through the other one, and so far, it’s coming off well. I am passionate about this story. I am excited about the upcoming adventures of my main character, I’m a little bit in love with each of the players, and most of all, I’m doing something I haven’t been able to do for far too long: I am enjoying writing again~ and these things have convinced me that (sometimes) it’s not only okay to give up, but it’s the best thing for you.


    

      There is no time to write. If the past six months of my life have taught me anything, that’s it. Today is the first day in a very long time that I have had all to myself. The plan was very simple: wake up, shower, write. I have no other responsibilities today, so it seemed a perfectly plausible idea. So plausible, in fact, that I put off writing earlier this week because I was so certain I would have all the time I needed to do it today. That was my first mistake.

     No sooner had I lifted my head from the pillow than my phone began ringing, my doorbell chiming, and the unforeseen duties began piling up. I spent the day arguing on the phone, making plans, breaking plans, texting the information back and forth between the concerned parties, changing reservations, making amends, and then turning around and changing everything back to the way it had originally been planned in the first place. All the while, chapter nineteen of the book I am currently working on is sitting still, waiting for me to get around to it.

     I have been on chapter nineteen for about a month now, I think. I just haven’t had time to write. I am in the middle of an out-of-state move. I have a new person living with me temporarily. I will begin babysitting my nephew full-time next week. I’ve been cleaning the house inside and out to keep it in pristine condition for open houses and interested buyers. I am full of shit.

     The reason the writing is not getting done is because I haven’t been making it happen. Life is life and it goes on with or without us. The “I just don’t have the time to write” excuse is a crutch I swore I’d never lean on, and up until now, I have done a pretty good job avoiding it. I avoided that excuse so well, in fact, that I didn’t even realize I was using it until today.  Yes, my life is a mess right now. Everything is up in the air and I am juggling too many things to keep track of. My life is a whole different story from one day to the next right now. Aren’t these pretty good reasons not to write?

     The answer, sadly, is no. In truth, this is the best time to be writing. Writing focuses me, brings me peace of mind and allows me to express myself explicitly without apology. Right now, more than ever, I should be writing. I have taken too many breaks from it and they have lasted too long. My goal was to have this project finished by July 15, 2011. I don’t know if that will happen or not but I am going to keep trying for it. The book I’m working on now is a collaborative effort with Kim Williams-Justesen, author of the Hey Ranger! books, My Brother the Dog, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim has been waiting on me for some time now, as we’re writing alternating chapters and she can not get very far ahead without me. I have been using the world-famous “I don’t have time” excuse for several weeks now and it’s time to put that mindset to a quick death before it gains enough momentum to become a habit.

     There is no time to write, it’s true. There’s also no time to grocery shop, pay bills, raise kids, maintain a full-time job, exercise, eat right, have pets, do dishes, read books, or floss those hard-to-reach teeth that always manage to attract the attention of those wayward, stubborn popcorn kernels.

        When I finished my first book, Kim bought me a very nice silver pocket watch as gift. In that book, there’s a pocket watch that has symbolic meaning to the story, and I know that Kim meant it as a reminder of my accomplishment and about how important my writing is to me. While it will still serve that purpose, I am, as of today, assigning it an additional meaning: I will keep that watch with me to remind me that time can not be created, it can not be destroyed, and it can not be otherwise controlled. But it can be managed.

     Twenty-four hours is all we have. I do not have less or more time than you, and you do not have less or more time than me. I bought into the excuse of just not having any time, and as a result, my self-respect took a hefty blow to the solar plexus. It won’t happen again.