Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Routines are Made to Be Broken

Like many people, I am a creature of habit. I like things just so at just the right time. Otherwise, I tend to get cranky. And that can negatively impact my work.

I like routines, and I’m a firm believer in making writing time a priority on a regular basis. Quite frankly, there’s too much work involved for me not to. And the more you write, the better you get, the more likely you are to finish what you start, and hopefully, eventually, get faster at writing. Muscle memory and all that.

All this is well and good and has worked for me. But real life is messy, and sometimes routine suffers. Unexpected errands, surprise visits, emergencies…entropy is all around us and doesn’t really care that you planned to draft a new chapter or edit that short story today.

When routines are upended by life, what do you do? There will always be things that happen that you can’t work around. But for everything else, usually there’s some wiggle room to stay productive, even if it’s doing something you didn’t plan on doing.

For example, let’s say I planned to spend the afternoon writing at the coffee shop, but instead I must take my dog to the vet. I still want to stay productive, so maybe instead of writing (which requires a lot of focus), I’ll read something related to my project, like a comparison title or a nonfiction book to help me research a key component, while I’m hanging out in the waiting room. That way I’ll still be moving forward even if I’m not in my ideal work environment.

Usually when my routine is disrupted, it’s a matter of whether there’s time to implement a contingency plan. Sometimes there isn’t and that's ok. But if there’s a window where I can shift gears, then I try to tailor my writing activities to the new environment I’m required to be in. This is often a function of how much mental headspace I’ll have.

For me, I need a lot of headspace to draft something new. Slightly less to edit something. Less still to read fiction. Even less to read narrative non-fiction. So if I know I’m going to be going from a place with lots of headspace to one with hardly any, I’ll change up my work plans accordingly.

Time is also an important component. Some books are harder to get into than others, and therefore require larger chunks of time to read and absorb. Same with writing and the need to warm up before committing words to a page. Some people swear by 10-minute bursts a day, but I’m just grateful I don’t have to be one of them even if I don’t have an ideal writing schedule everyday.

So when life throw’s you a curve ball, disrupting your orderly life, remember to:

Forgive yourself – It’s ok to take a break every now and again and focus on another aspect of your life. Your writing project will be waiting for you and even benefit from the time you spent away from it.

Change it up – Don’t be afraid to change up your routine and try something new. Not only are you staying productive, but also your brain just might like the new stimuli.

Recharge your routine – Relish routine when you can, but don’t forget to incorporate new discoveries into your ensemble. Especially if it works.

Routines are wonderful, but make sure they are flexible enough to evolve as you do over the course of your writing journey. You never want to get to a point where you can't write because ideal conditions aren't met.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Different Stages, Different Questions

It’s funny how the questions you face as a writer shift and change at different stages.

Just starting out, I was preoccupied with things like:

How do I find story ideas?
How will I make time to write?
What even constitutes a story?

These are issues dealing with PROCESS – where I was still trying to figure out what to do. I’m to the point now where I’ve created a life around my writing (and I know how lucky I am to have the ability to do this). By making writing a priority, by owning it, these types of process questions have started to fade. Ideas come because I’m writing.

Then, for a very long time, different kinds of questions took over. Things like:

How do I show, not tell?
How do I layer description into story action?
How do I manage pacing?

And so on. These are questions of TECHNIQUE, as I’ve learned my craft in fits and starts. I’ve encountered different aspects of craft in each writing project I’ve attempted. Not every project will encompass every skill or technique we need to have in our bag of tricks. That’s why we’re told to write a little bit of everything—not only to see what we like, but also to expose ourselves to different aspects of craft and learn by doing.

Personally, I’ve found the gap narrowing between what I do and don’t know technique-wise. Doesn’t mean I’m awesome. But I’ve tried enough different kinds of writing that I’m much more comfortable when a trusted reader points something out that isn’t working than I was when I first started out. Because now I know things to try to fix it, where before it was more often than not a stab in the dark.

Doesn’t mean I’m right every time, but I have enough skills in my arsenal to get the job done. Eventually. I think ;)

But this iterative process can take a long time. At some point you start wondering why you didn’t come up with a sound story idea to being with, instead of one that needs so much fixing to get right. A different set of questions then:

What makes a compelling character?
What makes an exciting plot?
What makes a good story?

These questions about STORY are deceptively simplistic. After all, I’ve been writing a long time (it seems) and one of the questions I started out with is: “What constitutes a story?” In some ways that was the wrong question to ask. I eventually learned to write a story, but that didn’t automatically make it good. But until I got to where I am now, I didn’t realize how big a deal that was.

The difference between a story and a good story is the difference between unpublished and published, between newbie and pro. And that’s a huge difference.

And I’m still figuring that part out.

Have you found a similar pattern in how you approach your writing?
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