Now to business-
I spent my January planning, researching, and outlining an idea for a story. Odds are it will end up as a trunk novel, a shameful secret that many writers keep buried next to the skeletons in the murder pits beneath their wine cellars. I don’t have a murder pit of my own, yet. I barely have much of a closet. Nevertheless, it will likely end up in the deepest, darkest hole I can find, next to my high school yearbook photos.
I finished my initial outline at the end of January, and my daily tango with a self-imposed word count quota began with February. Each morning I wake up before dawn, at the unholy hour when paid programming is amid its final death throes, and I repeat a mantra, passed down by the Socratic Chuck Wendig, to ward off the evil spirits of paralyzing self-doubt:
Writing is when we make the words.
Editing is when we make the words NOT SHITTY.”
I conclude the chant by imbibing a magical, caffeinated elixir to wash away any of the sandman’s fairy dust stuck in my throat. Then I start pounding away on my keyboard.
It’s only been ten days, but I’m making progress. I’ve finished about 10% of the first draft, which means (if elementary arithmetic still works) I’m averaging a gain of about 1% per day. Not bad considering I take at least one day, if not both, off from writing on the weekends.
So far the process has been like sculpting a snowman – notice I didn’t say ‘building’ a snowman.
To sculpt a snowman, you first have to shovel and pack all the snow you can find into a specified area, like throwing words into an outline.
Eventually you’ll have an amorphous mound of icy dust that only resembles a snowman in the way it tapers towards the top. This is your first draft.
Once the snow has had a chance to freeze into a compact block of solid ice, you’re ready to carve that frosty son of a bitch into an Olaf-shaming version of Michelangelo’s David. That’s editing.
At the moment I’m still shoveling snow into a pile like a two-year old driving a snowplow. I pour some gas in my tank, hit some buttons, and hopefully my mound of snow is bigger than when I started. So far it’s working, but I have about the same methodological dexterity as a cat wearing a cone.
In hopes of attacking my next project with a bit more feline grace, here’s a list of what I’ve learned so far.
#1 – Write early
I’ve never been as a morning person. I’ve been a self-declared night owl ever since I was old enough to bypass an obligatory bedtime. Hell, even when I had a bedtime I would sneak out of my room at watch whatever my parents were watching from the dark recesses of the hallway.
While the dead middle of the night used to be prime time for my literary creativity, I’ve reached the age where I can’t stay up until 4am and skip class to sleep in. Coincidentally, my age also brings with it the inability to sleep straight through the night, so it’s a bit easier to wake up without fifty alarms.
Now writing first thing in the morning works best for me. I find it easier to focus on one thing without all the distractions that daylight brings. That’s also when my brain, after marinating in creative juices all night, produces the best insights (at least outside of the shower, but living in drought-wrought California doesn’t allow me the luxury of a shower desk).
#2 – Block out time
I need a solid block of three to four hours of writing time each day to hit my word count. I spend the first hour warming up (and waking up), maybe managing to squeeze out a few hundred words. By the end of the second hour I’ve hit my stride, and by the end of the third I usually reach the maximum speed of my wordsmithing abilities. I spend the last hour winding down and tying up the loose ends of the passage I’m working on.
If I can only get in two hours of writing before I’m forced to take a break, I’ll need at least another three to finish once I come back to writing, sometimes longer.
#3 – Momentum is key
I’m only ten days in, and I know razor-toothed hurtles lurk ahead, but I feel my writing – and my excitement about the story – picking up speed. Some days are better than others, but overall I find it easier to hit my word count. I’ll have a completed first draft in a few months if I can only maintain my discipline.
#4 – Silence is golden
MY silence I mean (I can’t write without music). I haven’t discussed my project with anyone, except for the occasional aside about writing something, and it’s really helped me maintain my enthusiasm. I experience less self-doubt because I don’t get any subdued reactions about my incomplete ideas.
That’s not to say the self-doubt isn’t there, but it’s a kind of private shame, like picking your nose when feel a giant, solid booger poking the side of your nostril, or smelling your own farts. No one knows about it, so they don’t have to pretend the noxious fumes emanating from your work aren’t a weaponized gas.
#5 – Game Over
Lastly, my recent abstinence from video games has been crucial to my success.
I love video games. I have ever since my parents brought home an NES for my brother and me a quarter of a century ago, but I am not a master of self-control. My compulsion seek escape in digital realms isn’t so bad that I neglect basic bodily necessities like some tragic cases, but they’ve resulted in the death of more than a few of my ambitions.
If you came here looking for technical advice about snowman construction, my apologies. You probably feel cheated out of time from your life that you’ll never get back, but at least you now have an Achilles heal of mine to exploit. (Feel free to send me all the free video games you want.)
More than anything this blog is a forum for Present me to yell at Future me, so Future Present me can see how smart (or painfully stupid) Past Present me (Imperfect me? Aorist me?) is right now.
I know, that’s confusing.
And now my head hurts.
I’m gonna go shovel some more snow.
(Feature image from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson)