Tag Archives: productivity

Stocking the Shelves

A while back, I started the second draft of a novel I’ve been working on for some time . . . close to a year by the time I opened version 2.o in Word.

I’d made it through the beginning, trudged through the sticky middle, and was well on my way to the climax when I realized some of the characters weren’t where they were supposed to be, both geographically and emotionally.

I’d strayed from my original outline–I’m more Gardener than Architect, though I do try to outline key events in my stories–and realized some changes were in order. It wasn’t until around the 160k word mark of my first draft that I finally understood some of my characters and realized there were things I needed to change in the beginning in order to get them where they needed to be by the end.

So I started over. I got about 20k words in and was really digging the revisions. My villain was more clearly defined in a shorter amount of time. The conflicts seemed more urgent. The setting was even coming to life in ways it hadn’t until much further on in my first pass.

Then, because writers aren’t immune to outside forces, Life reared its ugly head and gave me a smack in the face, bashing my inspiration into the mud and stomping it into an unrecognizable pulp. Pulling words from my head became about as difficult as pulling an entrenched boot from quicksand.

It’s no surprise we talk so often on this blog about what keeps us writing. Sometimes, nothing seems to work. There is no magical can of Inspiration we can use to grease the creative wheels, no verbal laxative to unplug our plugged minds. If there were, I’d put it in a can and stock an entire pantry. I wouldn’t sell it, I’d want it all for myself! Well, I might sell it for an exorbitant price so I could quit my day job and write full time like when I was unemployed. Oh those were the days!

So what do you do when the words won’t come? Last time I posted, I wrote about my return to reading. Indeed, it worked in the short term, coaxing a few thousand more words of my own onto the screen when I wasn’t working or reading. But the effect didn’t last long.

So I ask again, what do we do when an unfinished project turns stale? Many authors will push on, throwing down words they know they’ll delete at a later date until the levee breaks and good words start flowing again. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of writer that can do that. I’d rather write 50 great words than 1000 bad ones. I’m a little too much of a perfectionist for my own good at times.

The answer, at least in my case, is simple: Write something else.

I’m not giving up on the novel I’ve worked on for over a year–far from it–I’m simply taking a break to write something else. Something I can finish, because nothing is as therapeutic to an author as writing “The End”. I started working on a short story, and, lo and behold, the words began moving again. It just so happens it’s a short story I’d actually like to turn into a short, animated film . . . or perhaps an illustrated, not-quite-for-children, children’s book a la Pat Rothfuss’s The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed.

What we write isn’t always as important as actually writing. And the more we write, the better we get. Guaranteed. So, when your darling of a story isn’t behaving like a darling, write the ugly step-child of a story instead. Get the words flowing again, and soon you’ll have your inspiration back. Do that enough times, and you’ll have a virtual shelf–or perhaps a folder on your computer hard drive–filled with ever improving stories.

It can’t be said often enough, the only way to grow as a writer is to write.

Starting Over: A Most Exquisite Agony

Just about everyone who has ever used a computer knows the gut-wrenching pain of having to cope with lost data. Ever had your computer crash in the final stretch of writing an essay, and then discover that the file is unrecoverable? Ever spend hours on a piece of work and forget to save it before disaster strikes?

Of course you have.

But this post isn’t about data recovery, a subject on which I know very little (frankly, I would be well-advised to learn more). No, today’s post is about the exquisite agony of starting over.

Over the course of the last few years, fantasy wunderkind Brandon Sanderson has released chapters on his blog from his early unpublished manuscripts. On the one hand, this is an encouraging development, since it demonstrates so well the gradual accumulation of skill as time wears on. I find myself able to identify with Sanderson’s early writings. Hopefully, given more time, I, too, can become a writer of his caliber.

But the most interesting thing to me is the way that Sanderson openly talks about rewriting, and even re-rewriting, some of his manuscripts. In other words, he wrote it once-it wasn’t good enough. So he waited a while, then wrote it again-it still wasn’t good enough. He waited some more… then wrote it again! Finally, it was ready to see the light of day.

This kind of persistence is remarkable. As far as I can tell, it’s a necessary quality if one is to become a best-selling author.

In my editing career, I frequently come into contact with books that just aren’t good enough. It’s not that they’re outright bad (well, sometimes they are), but rather that editing alone isn’t enough to elevate them to “ready” status. The unfortunate reality is that the writer probably just doesn’t have chops to pull off the story-yet. My suggestion might be to give it some time, work on other projects, then come back a few years down the road and attempt the unthinkable: a page-one rewrite.

In other words, write the entire novel over again. From scratch.

If you’ve ever spent months-honestly, probably years-on your pet project, then the notion of starting over is truly daunting. Exhausting.

In my case, I have a 175,000-word novel sitting on my shelf. I wrote it the first time back when I was in high school-well, I wrote the first half before giving up. At the tender age of sixteen, I knew I wasn’t up to the challenge.

A few years later, I resurrected the project and tried turning it into a series of teleplays (television scripts). I wrote more than ten of them! But this format was impractical in the long run, so the project fizzled out. And almost stayed fizzled.

Then, after a long break, I jumped back into the fray last year and wrote the complete novel, which took nine months. In the spring, I trimmed it down some, bringing me to that polished 175,000-word version.

Except it’s not polished. Not really.

I’ve grown tremendously over the last few years. I was able to accomplish things in my most recent draft that my high school self would never have believed possible. But after receiving a lot of honest and well-intentioned feedback, I was forced to come to an uncomfortable conclusion: it’s still not ready. And in fact, like those editing clients I mentioned, editing still isn’t enough to get it where it needs to be to really come alive.

Indeed, I’ll have to start over. One more time.

But there’s no point in attempting another rewrite so quickly. Brandon Sanderson turned some of his flawed early works into best-selling gems, but they had to percolate for years.

So, just how long will I need to wait? Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule, but I do know one thing: I will accumulate more skills and grow faster as a writer if I keep producing new work.

And there’s the rub. It’s not about waiting at all… it’s about pressing on.

Maximise Your Potential

Through most of last year, I kept a spreadsheet of my writing progress (yeah, I know – you’re surprised, right?). I tracked the dates I wrote and my word count and I’ve discovered some interesting facts about myself.

I have a full time day job and work the usual Monday to Friday with weekends off. My spreadsheets shows:

* I tend to write for four days in a row and then take a day or two off.

* Sunday is always my most productive day.

* Surprisingly, Monday is my most productive evening. (Who ever expects productivity on a Monday?)

* Tuesdays and Fridays are my least productive days.

* On work days, I am more productive if I get up early (5am) to write, rather than trying to write in the evening.

Now that I’m more aware of these habits, I have been taking note of how I feel – mentally and physically – on different days. And, unsurprisingly, my energy levels correlate with my writing habits:

* Mondays I feel fresh and enthusiastic.

* By Tuesday, I am somewhat tired and less enthusiastic. The weekend is a fading memory and Friday’s not yet in sight.

* On Wednesday, energy and optimism is on the rise again.

* By Friday, I am tired and looking forward to the weekend.

* Saturday is often filled with running errands, catching up on neglected housework, and doing all the things I had intended to do during the week.

* Sunday is my last chance to get in some quality writing time before the work week starts again. I push myself to finish the writing I had intended for that week before it’s time to set goals for the next week.

So now that I’m aware of this, how can I make best use of my time? In looking at my writing habits through last year, there is no point pushing myself to write on a Tuesday. I rarely achieve more than 150 words per hour on Tuesday so let’s leave that as an evening to refresh. Clearly, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday are my best options for writing productivity so I should ensure my schedule includes some solid writing time on those days. I should schedule all the other things that need to happen during the week, like housework, walking the dogs and going to the gym, on my non-writing days, thus maximising both my writing time and my energy levels. And obviously I should make more effort to be out of bed at 5am on a work day. Now that the nights are warmer and the sun is rising earlier, this should be easier than it was a few weeks ago.

Take a look at your own writing habits. What do you notice? Is there a particular day or time when you are at your most productive?