In the Scrivener document sitting open on my computer right now:
– Act 1: First Draft
– Act 1: Original First Draft
– Act 1: Take 2
– Act 1: Hodgepodge
– Act 1 – Junk
– Act 1 – Rough
and finally, in the Incomplete Drafts folder–
– Act 1 Draft
So that’s how it’s going, if you’d like to know. Sometimes my husband asks troubling questions like “How far along are you?” and we’re lucky to evade a domestic incident.
Try, fail, try, fail better. That is the way of it. I think I have solved some of my recent hang-ups (mostly character stuff, which I don’t feel like getting into right now) but only the process will confirm.
Really, I do myself a disservice blogging about this. I would rather you think I didn’t work too hard, so that if the end product of all my striving is a gross disappointment, I can blame it on lack of effort rather than lack of talent. (This is the same reason my working draft is only ever a “first draft,” while preceding drafts drift further and further back into the negatives.)
I would like to hold up my neuroses as proof that I am a true artist, whatever that means. More likely they out me as a procrastinating fraud. Or maybe the only difference between those two is the nerve to stick it out. A curious thought, given that people perceived as “artsy” often run from commitment like it’s their job.
So let’s take it a step further. What if all this practice with sticking–you know, the marriage, the house, the kid–is not an obstacle to my art but rather training for it? Day after day, I wake up ordinary, wiping dreams like scum from the corners of my eyes, feeling my identity slipping, wanting to run, wanting to quit, realizing those are no longer options– And the cold hard efforts of adulthood teach me what my gifted childhood did not: how to dig in my heels.
The Muse is fickle. Therefore the artist cannot be.
Reframe and restructure. That is how you improve a story, or a mind, or a life. Excuse me while I get back to it.
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I have not written, officially, for five days. It is the seventh week since I ascribed to this set of writing goals. Let’s call it a Sabbath.
Instead of writing, I drank cider on the front porch and talked out my story with the husband while we listened to frogs and watched headlights on the road below. I bought some shirts on impulse and drove half an hour one way for store pickup while voice and character simmered in my semi-conscious. I sang to my kid and lay in the sun and counted the smells of springtime and tried to remember that writing is not the most important thing, not even close.
And in the wake of all this not-writing, my head feels clearer. “If you get tired, learn to rest, not quit.” The internet tells me someone called Banksy said that.
Having rested, I am (mostly) confident that my “block” results not from perfectionism but from the recognition of genuine issues within my story. Addressing those issues now makes for an arduous beginning, but I think it will make for a smoother middle and end, and I am no longer tempted to barrel ahead. With these early pages, I take aim. If I aim well now, I will land it later.
(It’s amazing how much time I spend convincing myself to stick to the original plan.)
It occurred to me, too, that six weeks of work on my current schedule equates to just thirty hours of writing time. From what I gather, most professional writers spend at least twenty hours per week at the desk. If I was able to treat writing like a real job (and visions of kindergarten danced in her head!) my progress would amount to just a week or two’s work. Encouraging.
I am itching to get back to it. Today I intend to revisit my plans for the later parts of the book to bring the target into focus in preparation for returning to my daily habit next week. Maybe I’ll get my pens and notecards involved. There is something inspiring about a Sharpie pen, and you can’t deny it.
Thank you, my dear, few readers, for making me feel just the teeniest bit too conspicuous to quit. Onward we go.
A frightening concept: What if I have to draft the whole book to write the first fifty pages?
I don’t know whether I’ve lost my mind or stumbled on the secret. I have little faith in my brains today. There’s no telling whether anything in there is gold or garbage.
A year and a week ago, I had a panic attack that set off a two-month-long mental breakdown. By the grace of God, I showed up on the other side around the end of May. Since then I have been riding out this pandemic with raw knuckles and, most days, a calm resignation which baffles me. But last week I received my first vaccine, and that first ray in the darkness has shattered the patience that was sustaining me. I am clawing to get out. I am starving for life. Exhaustion is running to catch up with me.
Far be it from me to say I cannot write in this state. Nervous energy is not unlike creative energy, which is why I have half a mind to throw a harness on the madness and see where we end up. But my current goals require careful editing and problem-solving–a domesticated mind, if you will.
I have been orbiting this third chapter for, what, three weeks now? And for the first time I am giving my doubts the benefit of themselves and considering the possibility that I might in fact be losing ground with my constant tweaking and circling back. The question now is whether to stay the course, recognizing the desire to deviate as a normal part of the process, or whether to reconsider my tactics.
Do I postpone this “shareable” goal and hash out a sloppy draft of the next three hundred pages? Perhaps writing to the end would reveal to me what isn’t working about the beginning. Then again, maybe the beginning is working just fine, and I am too distracted to see it. Also, I hate sloppy drafts.
There are pros and cons. There are no right answers. I hate that.
As of today, I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do. I wish I had a week of quiet (read: childcare) just to wander and sit and think. My mind is too tangled for these stolen hours. I think I am going to reread everything I have so far and pray for a sign.
Why, yes, I am still knee deep in the bogs of chapter three. Thank you for asking. I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll wander here for forty years and die with my visions of milk and honey.
I took some days last week to set aside the draft and work on restructuring the next few sections. Good news: I think this set of plans will carry me past the fifty page mark. Bad news: I am not at all excited to write the next couple scenes. That’s a red flag.
You might think my ambivalence is a sign of burnout and poor motivation, but I am not so sure. Contrary to what you might gather from my weekly griping, I am gaining confidence in my process. I want this story to have a sense of constant movement–a current, if you will–without feeling jumpy or accelerating too quickly. There should be a sense of inevitability from one scene to the next, repeating layers of cause and effect. When I feel no pull to write a scene, it usually means the current isn’t flowing. And I cannot expect someone else to be eager to read what I am not eager to write.
In past drafts, I have written through many “stuck” scenes. (Too many, frankly.) In this draft, I am ruthlessly throwing them on the fire. I will see if the story can survive without them. If it can’t, I will rework them and add them back later.
So that is today’s plan. Stop trying to redeem obvious filler. Skip to the good stuff. Trash the scraps and move on.
I fear my ability to identify bad writing far exceeds my ability to produce good writing, but so it goes. Writing is an act of faith. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I am all in a tizzy. I must draw on every shred of discipline I have not to print out my twenty-five pages and start rewriting from page one. The more I write, the more vision I have, and the more tempting it becomes to go back and put things in order. I can allow this in small amounts, but only so much as will keep me moving forward. And I know better, for the most part. Last night I was forced to reorganize the furniture and houseplants just to keep myself in check.
I have made a list of my most gnawing concerns, and I want to record them here because they are less intimidating when I see them in writing. I could and probably will elaborate on each point, but later.
1) How do I balance the elegance of classic literature with the movement of popular fiction?
2) How do I write my female lead with honesty and empathy without falling prey to that most egregious trope, the thinly-veiled self-portrait?
3) How do I flesh out a sufficient number of side characters to give a sense of community without adding bulk and overcomplicating the core storyline?
4) What is the timeline of this story, start to finish, and how does it correspond to the place and seasons?
5) How do I converge the paths of my two leads in a way that feels inevitable and not artificial? (Arguably THE problem of problem child chapter three.)
I write this list for my own benefit, but I welcome any feedback except “Don’t worry so much!” (which deserves a post all its own). I am particularly interested in recommendations of books or authors that handle any of these issues well.
Do not misunderstand my angst, friends. It is an exquisite thing to be frustrated on my own terms.
Four weeks of writing goals complete. Cold sun through the window, morning chores behind me,* an open door to the basement and “Bingo was his name-o” drifting up the stairs as my husband takes his turn with our steel-willed genetic miniature, God help him. Real life and writing life push up against one another, and I am squeezed between.
Still, I hold steady. Tuesday I wrote two hundred words. Wednesday, seven hundred. Thursday I wrote three or four hundred and deleted a thousand**–so it goes. Yesterday I stopped watching the numbers and sketched out a piece in sore need of editing.
At the start, I was too overwhelmed to see past the first two chapters, so this week’s work on chapter three represents both a milestone and a roadblock. I long for more time. I can do plenty with an hour when I know where I’m going, but every few days now I lose my way and must backtrack to the last familiar landmark. That is the process, and I don’t mind it, but I need to hover over the problems a bit, get to know them better. When?
I am pleased with my month-long streak, but I am not proud as I was two weeks ago. I can feel my focus shifting, and I grow less concerned with keeping the streak than I am with writing the book. I really must write this book.
Should I be writing now instead of blogging? Yes, of course. But the fact is I can blog with interruptions every paragraph and half my brain tuned to toddler babble. I do not think I can tackle problems of plot and pacing under similar conditions.
Then again, perhaps I should journal out some of these story troubles over the next few days. If I learn nothing in writing them down, at least I will get them out of my head, give the story itself room to breathe. Yes, I think I will try that.
*It was in fact morning when I began writing this post, but it is 4 pm as I prepare to publish it. I rest my case.
**I didn’t really delete them, just moved them out of my working draft and into my “Salvage” document to be revisited later.
I keep coming back with much muttering and sulkery to the following line from Journal of a Novel: “Elaine, my beloved, is taking care of all the outside details to allow me the amount of free time untroubled every day to do my work. I can’t think of anything else necessary to a writer except a story and the will and ability to tell it.”
To be sure, Mr. Steinbeck, it must have been lovely that your second wife kept the kids while your third wife kept the home so that you could pursue your calling.
I can hear my mom now: “Jealousy does not become you.” I know, I know. And I like Steinbeck. I think.
But yesterday, I reheated my tea in the microwave six times. Before I sat down to finish the cup, three hours after I made it, I had to scrape off the film of scalded milk with a spoon. When I tried to squeeze my toddler’s bath into the time dinner cooked in the oven, he resisted with such vigor I’m afraid the memory will surface in therapy as “that time my mom waterboarded me while I screamed.” (Let the record show we don’t even spank in this house.)
I have always preferred long chunks of time to devote to deep focus. I might resist scheduling with friends for weeks (pre-pandemic) because my “quick hangouts” have a propensity to clock in at five hours. I used to set aside dedicated cleaning days. And in my ideal world, I would allow an hour of writing time just to get in the mood.
All that sounds so silly and privileged now. Since having a child, my whole life takes place in blocks of time from five minutes to an hour.
In many ways, this challenge is a gift. I am more efficient and productive than I ever was in the long summer before parenthood. I have learned to savor time like the delicacy that it is. And I am fortunate to have the proverbial village to help raise my son–a treasure in any age, and a rarity in this one.
But I am tired, like everyone, and on days like this, when the story is back in a rut, when I stare down my computer for an hour and mash out a couple hundred words I intend to delete as soon as I can replace them, I fantasize about a nest of private space and empty time. Time to make mistakes, time to master the craft, time and time and time, stretching out before me. And I wish.
Word count: 5,878
Page count: 19+
Around the time I started this journal, while praying on an evening walk, these words came to me: Habit is more important than speed. That line has become a kind of mantra to me this past month.
I am a slow writer, and I have often felt discouraged by this fact. But I have come to realize that inconsistency and sensitivity to change are greater barriers to my work than pacing has ever been. It is habit, not speed, that gives birth to resilience and flexibility. An established habit can survive physical discomforts, emotional upheavals, and shifts in schedule and circumstance.
As for the time required to finish a book at my current pace, I am reminded of a quote I stole from a Post-it on my mom’s fridge: “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway” (Earl Nightingale).
So three weeks ago, in pursuit of habit, I decided to adhere to a daily time goal rather than focusing on word count or deadlines. Three weeks in, with every goal met, I am hooked.
I am no longer quite so scared to show up at my desk. When I see the empty page open before me, I know that I am not required to fill it, only to sit with it. But in a curious twist, I do fill it–and at a rate that averages close to my former word count goals, even while editing. My progress so far is modest, but it includes a full week of rewriting on that cumbersome second chapter. I am content.
In other happy news, I have acquired my copy of Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel to peep on his process while figuring out my own. And while backing up my manuscript, I learned the Ctrl+A command, so I’m feeling all kinds of savvy. Don’t judge.
Until soon, friends.
Hard going this week. Progress has slowed in the second chapter, and I suspect I will have to pull it apart and put it back together again before I can move forward. Curiously, I am not troubled by this. I’m not working under a deadline. I’m just working until it’s finished. And I have met my writing goals eleven of the last twelve days, when I only intended ten, so I’m pleased.
I’m surprised, too, because my brain has not been cooperative. Some weeks are just junk. It feels like a chunk of rusted pipework has broken free in my mind’s plumbing and turned all the water orange–intrusive memories, bad dreams, self-disgust, the works. I didn’t ask for it, but there it is.
The fun thing about being a writer is that you can blame trace amounts of mental illness on “artistic temperament.” If you’re dedicated enough, you might even be able to MacGyver them into something useful.
If I’m being honest–and I am, usually–I think that a large part of my drive to create comes from the desire to justify or redeem these most painful and embarrassing parts of myself, to give purpose to the awkwardness and eccentricity that baffles even therapists. (If that’s not textbook Four, I don’t know what is.) A certain level of dementedness is allowed, even expected, in the Artist, which is frowned upon in bookkeepers and mothers of small children.
That said, I must curb this thinking, because it puts altogether too much pressure on the craft. Writing a book is quite intimidating enough without trying to redeem your entire sense of self in the process.
But even the base act of showing up at my desk once a day seems to have a positive effect on my mental health. Writing days are only ever hard, not bad, not wasted. The growing collection of pages is quantifiable evidence that although my emotions might be stuck, my life is not. So I stay the course.
And it is heartening to know that if I hold to the habit, regardless of motivation, I will leave the doldrums with a thicker manuscript than I had going in.
Word count: 2,955
Page count: 10
Friends, I did it! I met my writing goals Monday through Friday, plus a bonus Saturday, and not one grown-up responsibility fell through the cracks. In fact, in addition to the usual laundry/dinner/diaper extravaganza, I increased my paid work by a smidgen, caught up with a couple friends (digitally, of course) and read a book that has been on my list.
Naturally, my ego has now swollen all out of proportion, and I am encouraging donations of praise, congratulations, and/or general awe and wonder. Thank you for your support.
But in all seriousness, this is a triumph. Not one day was I “in the mood” to write, and I can’t say it ever became easier to sit down at my desk. But it did get easier, day by day, to blackout the outside world and focus on the page until the timer sounded.
There is a meditative quality to this practice, and I think the benefits of that go beyond my progress on the story itself. As an emotionally turbulent Enneagram 4 (hello, hi) with two separate anxiety diagnoses, most of my adult life has been a dedicated struggle against my natural drive to live by feeling. It takes discipline to initiate the manual override on my Feels, and just thinking about it makes me want to crawl under the covers and take a nap (plot twist: I probably can’t) but once the flip is switched, I feel so much lighter.
What can be more empowering than weighing your weakness in both hands, every reason you can’t or won’t or don’t want to–and doing it anyway? It feels like sticking it to entropy or pushing free of gravity, like taking a step to find wings on your feet.
Here’s to another week of the same.