Soccer Practice

Coming at “this whole writing thing” with a more professional attitude means that I have more on my plate than ever. I’m working on the rough draft of Partners in Crime, I have edits yet to do on Land of Sky and Blood, and the brainstorming/prewriting/outlining phase for Altered Egos (Tentatively titled Basalt City Series) book 3. That’s a lot of back and forth. And while the idea of working on so many projects just gets me all twitterpated, its exhausting.

I was listening to a Creative Penn podcast a while ago — I don’t remember who the guest was, I know, what a great start to a story — but they were talking about juggling tasks. The guest had this great metaphor about how to handle that work load in your head. Think of everything you have to do like soccer balls. You ultimately want to get them in the goal. Yeah, you can give little taps to each of them but you’re not going to make a lot of progress any time soon. You can’t kick all of them either, there just isn’t the time. So with five soccer balls, say, you get only two kicks. Which ones are you going to kick? How are you going to spend your energy?

I want to work on more, but I find myself coming back to this analogy. Never one to give in and a stickler who’ll do anything for spite, I’m going to kick three soccer balls, darn it! But just like writing, I need to build up my multitasking muscles.

There isn’t a lot of time either. NaNoWriMo is a week and a half away. Already? I feel like I was just talking about using NaNo as an excuse to take a chunk out of Land of Sky and Blood. A year has passed already? But I can feel like lurking out there. Waiting. Ready to gobble me up like a hungry dragon.

Whenever I participate, I don’t ever write filler just for the sake of word count. I follow an outline with every book I write so I always know what comes next. Writing for NaNoWriMo just gives me an excuse to go hog wild for a month and crank out fifty thousand words at a go. I wouldn’t even say I write any faster either. At least I haven’t noticed a quality dip during those portions of the book. Instead, I just adjust my usual markers a couple thousand words higher up and when I feel like I’ve done enough for the day, remind myself to keep going.

I still hope to tackle edits and brainstorming for the other books, but man I’m gonna kick the crap out of Partners in Crime. I’m gonna drill it from my own half straight into the opposing net. Soccer metaphor! At least, that’s the plan. I’m hitting fifty thousand words regardless and I refuse to let the other books suffer in the mean time. I’m either going to get better at this or go crazy trying. Let’s find out.

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Avoiding Writing is Making Me More Productive

I’m a firm believer that writer’s block isn’t necessarily someone’s inability to write, it’s more about an extenuating circumstance. For me, when I find that I just can’t move forward, it’s usually a sign that there’s something wrong with my story. My subconscious picks up that something is wrong (usually a worldbuilding or plot element), and only once the issue is ironed out, can I then proceed as normal.

The only other time I get blocked is if faced with a mental distraction that impedes my ability to focus. Good news or bad news. Stress. Whatever. But even so, I’m usually really good at just powering through. Even when I’m sick as a dog, I can usually suck it up enough to at least write a couple hundred words. Even if that’s the only work I do all day, I can then my reward myself by being taking the rest of the day off.

But then you get a day like to day …

I was up a lot last night with another sick kid and I just can’t do it. I’m exhausted and can barely focus on anything. What makes matters worse is that I’m currently writing a scene where my protagonist is exiting a storm drain, but I can’t picture what a a pump station looks like. The only two things that can hold me up are working in tandem and doing a heck of a job. During my drive to work this morning, I went through all of my usual prewriting steps but all I ended up doing was staring blankly at the road.

All morning I kept thinking I’d come back to writing. First I’ll just answer some emails or do some work on a project. Lunch has now rolled around and I’m no closer to starting. For every time I could sit down and start writing, I instead wind up working on something else. I may not be doing a lot of writing today, but I’m sure getting a lot of work done. Just like my subconscious brain knows when something is wrong with a story, it also knows that if I fill my day with useless stuff then I have no excuse not to write. But if I’m busy doing actual things of importance, well then I’m just busy.

Yeah, it’s a flimsy blanket, but it’s keep me warm all right?

In fact, I’m going to wrap up this post and then go edit a manuscript. Oh not the one I’m writing right now, a completely different one. Who knows? After that, maybe I’ll look up what a pumping station looks like.

Reading as an Author

For the most part, being an author has only enhanced my ability to enjoy a good book. It also lets me know pretty quickly when I won’t enjoy a story either. I can usually tell how far I am into a book based on what’s happening, guessing what the hook, plot points, midpoint, and climax are as they happen. Sometimes I get so held up on understanding the narrative structure that when the book diverts from that path, it really bothers me. I get too focused on what the story is doing “wrong”, I no longer see what it’s doing right.

I used to review movies back in college. My internal critic got to be so powerful that I eventually had to willingly turn it off. I made the conscious choice before a film that I was just going to sit back and relax. I try and do the same with my reading as well, I mean if you’re into stage magic and you’re at another magician’s show, can you still enjoy it if you know all the tricks?

The answer, apparently, is yes!

I’ve been reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and I’m just continuously blown away both as a fan and an author.

As a fan, I find the story fascinating. I’m intrigued with the plights of the primary protagonists and it’s scratching the itch Shogun left behind that so far no other book has been able to salve and believe me, I’ve tried a lot!

As an author, I think I appreciate it more!

The descriptions are sparse, but exact while the dialogue is rich and verbose. It’s like reading a play at times. So much worldbuilding comes out through the dialogue its insane. There could be five or six individual references in someone’s speech — so it reads accurate to the time period the novel takes place in (this is historical fiction after all) — but each of those references is easily its own area of research. I haven’t dug into the behind the scenes stuff yet because I don’t want to spoil the ending of the novel for myself by accident, but I’m interested in Mitchell’s research process. I’m surprised something was written at all and he’s not stuck down what has to be many, many rabbit holes.

This play-like style is further reinforced by the narration. The characters speak for themselves, but the exposition is very straightforward for the most part. My favorite, I think was when a nervous Jacob was going to talk to someone about the woman he’s infatuated with. It reads something like:

“Jacob lost his nerve. Jacob regained his nerve.”

Just like that. Back to back. It pulled a chuckle from me as I understand what Mitchell is conveying. In anyone else’s hands, that would have been some internal strife as Jacob came back around to the idea. But it works here in two sentences that definitely tell and don’t show.

Another interesting point is that while the novel is divided into parts, it doesn’t follow a typical seven point structure. That would normally bother me, but Mitchell’s words are enchanting. He presents this world so thoroughly that while my fan-brain is just wide-eyed in wonder at what’s going to happen, my author-brain is taking notes. Except instead of “oh I see how he did that,” it’s  more like “I can’t believe he got away with that!” And he does. Every time.

I’m only halfway through and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is wonderful. Even if it stays on the same emotional plateau and doesn’t escalate in any way, he’s got me to the end.

So I suppose my big takeaways are this: Sometimes you just need to shut it off and let yourself be entertained. Other times, the artist in you is looking for new experiences like a jazz musician soloing with notes that are more difficult than aurally pleasing. And if you find a work that combines the two, then well, you’ve got something special indeed!