It Piles Up

I had this desk in my room when I was a kid, and it became a junk heap. I would never, ever clean it up, just precariously balance more stuff on top. At the time, I didn’t see what the point of all the work required to go through it would be; any other thing I could possibly do seemed more rewarding, totally aside from the fact that the job seemed enormous and impossible.

I’ve got a desk right now, as a nominal adult. It’s not nearly the pile my childhood desk was, but… there’s a dozen things on there that don’t need to be there.

Even worse… my computer becomes that pile. Which is ridiculous, right? Because the windows and apps and tabs don’t take up any actual room, but what happens is when I think about using my computer, it’s this big pile of uncertainty. Instead of knowing exactly what I want to do there are twenty things I could do, so… it’s easier to just not think about it. So I never do any of them, so I have Safari tabs that stay open for six months.

Even my writing app gets like this. I’m using Ulysses as my One True App and putting everything in there, so I have a heap of sheets in my Inbox group… what friction does that impose on me every time I sit down to write?

You can’t spend your time just cleaning this stuff up, because now you’re a janitor instead of a creator. But it is worth some amount of time to periodically say, look, all else aside, the very most important thing I can do with the next half an hour is make this pile smaller.

In fact, I’ve been dawdling on my writing today; I’m going to schedule this post and go do some of that cleanup right now.

Scattered

It never ceases to amaze me: like clockwork, when I think I’m battening the hatches down on one project—I’ve outlined stuff, I have lots of ideas, I’m ready to finally sit down and write the goddamned thing…

I was so committed, I had in my mind this whole picture about how it was going to go, how I was finally going to get something substantial finished…

Every time, no sooner do I start the actual act of writing a corpus of words, suddenly some other project is the one I should be doing.

It. Never. Fails. My attention scatters. I don’t know really quite how to fight my way through this. I’ve been doing alright with my current idea. I had a fantasy novel in mind, and had gone pretty far with planning and characters and scenes… but I sat down and wrote one scene and hated it. Then I had this elaborate idea for, I guess it’s like urban paranormal fantasy, and it’s consumed me entirely. And I’ve actually banged out about 7-8000 words. But even now, these thoughts flicker into being: it doesn’t make sense, and no one’s gonna like it, and why don’t I just write this science fiction idea I have instead?

Like I said. It never fails.

Far as I can tell, it’s the difference between the ideation, which is easy, and the writing, which is not. The writing is a struggle against what Chris Fox has called the Creative Gap, the difference between the awesome ideas you have in your head and the tepid stream of words you drizzle out onto the page. But I do know those words are necessary, you have to produce a lot of shit before you can shape it into manure for your garden, or… some better metaphor.

Speaking of gardens and Chris Fox, he wrote a book called Plot Gardening, in which he conjures up this image of planter boxes for each of your projects, and you just toss some soil into each as you get ideas, and see what starts growing… there’s more to it but it’s meant to be a balance between the necessary structure of plotting, and so-called pantsing, where you just write like the wind and see what happens.

I like the idea, but haven’t figured out how to reconcile it with the problem of being scattered: I do like the optionality of being able to toss some soil into boxes, but nonetheless at some point I have to pick one and finish it. Or wrestle it to the ground until I’m sure it’s the wrong project.

In the Tyranny of Tools post, I was talking about Rabbit Holes and Blind Alleys in terms of playing with tools instead of doing your work, but the same seems to apply to the work itself. While the alleys and holes of tools are to be avoided, falling into them during projects seems inevitable: you have to play with a lot of different things and maybe even finish them before you’ll ever know if they work or not.

This is not a totally thrilling prospect. Who wants to spend the time only to find out the thing sucks?

For now, I’m quite convinced the only thing really fixed in stone is you need to sit down every day and put some words to the page… but here’s the thing: I’ve been doing my writing sprints every day for the past week, but I’ve only been working on this blog… not the novel. The habit I’m tracking this month has been doing at least a five-minute sprint every day, no matter what comes out, because you need to start somewhere.

Next month I will track two habits: a sprint in general, and a sprint specifically on the novel.

We’ll see how it goes. Training myself to write every day is going well so far, we’ll see if I’m more successful than I was in late 2017… and early 2017… and, well, etc.

The Tyranny of Tools

There are lots of things you could do to ignore your writing instead of doing it, one of the biggest for me is playing with the tools. If you’re a writer these days it’s probably about apps; even if you have a vintage-looking typewriter on your desk, you hipster, you, I’m gonna guess you don’t crank out novels with it, not all of them, anyway, and if you do you probably aren’t reading this blog. So, for the rest of us, let’s just admit it: I play with tools.

I bought Scrivener a long time ago, and it’s a great app, but it’s also complicated which means there’s a lot to play with. If I spend time playing with it, on the one hand, it should return dividends because it helps me be a more productive writer… hypothetically. But on the other hand, every minute I spend in a writing app during which I’m not writing is not taking me any closer to my goals. So there’s something to be said for using the simplest tool possible.

Okay, but TextEdit doesn’t give you any kind of organization, you have to organize everything you write yourself in your filesystem. And Macs introduced filesystem-wide tagging a little while ago, which now syncs across devices with iCloud, so you could set up an elaborate series of folders and tags and apply them to all the little files you produce. Since everything would be plain text you could copy that filesystem anywhere (though the tags may or may not come along for the ride).

But in everything I just said, you didn’t see writing anywhere, did you?

Okay. So lately I started using Ulysses, which is the kind of app I like: you can use it in a simple way, but as you get more complex (goals, keywords, publishing formats) it scales up and up with you… which is useful and fun, but, again, beware how much time you spend tending your tools.

Whether a tool is simple or complex, you’re going to spend time feeding and watering it, which necessarily detracts from your writing. Yet the feeding and watering should also enhance your productivity. There doesn’t seem to be an escape from this conundrum, and I love alliteration, so I’m calling this the tyranny of tools.

I’ll be honest: I do love my tools, and love finding new ones, and will probably write about them here. And I’ll be even more honest, that’s an attractive type of content. People like reading about tools, it makes you feel productive… but that feeling, when it doesn’t translate into production, is inherently dangerous.

So my goal here is to establish The Great Caveat: if you’re reading this post, or any future post about tools, you should probably go do some writing instead. I won’t feel bad if you do, okay? Let’s just have a gentlemanly handshake and agree it’s what’s best for us both.

Rabbit Holes and Blind Alleys

There are three big areas where I reach for tools:

  1. Creating: the actual writing bit
  2. Organizing: the keeping track of what I create
  3. Publishing: ultimately the whole bloody point of this enterprise, without which, the foregoing two steps are of limited utility in the world

And I swing back and forth between two philosophies:

Having one extremely simple tool to do one extremely defined task, where each of those tools can talk to each other in a standard way, so you can find the right tool for each job, and then link them together to accomplish the Superjob. This is creatively satisfying if you’re a technology geek like me, and is also aesthetically satisfying in a way, probably for the same reasons.

But it’s fiddly. Even after you’ve found all the pieces, you still need to make the glue to bind them together, and, once again: this is not the real work you need to be doing as a writer.

The other philosophy is to find One Tool To Rule Them All, something in which you can write, organize, and publish all right there in the app. I believe the incomprehensible colloquialism is ‘soup to nuts’.1 I mentioned Scrivener and Ulysses (and will probably mention them again) and there are even more tools than those in this category. But OTTRTA isn’t a perfect solution, either, because you have to learn how this big, complex tool works well enough to use it.

Either way you go, you risk rabbit holes and blind alleys. That is, you risk spending way more time than you expected on something (the rabbit hole was deeper than it looked), and you risk trying out a tool only to discover it doesn’t quite fit your needs or wants (you went down a blind alley). Both are frustrating and expensive.

How do we avoid tumbling endlessly down a rabbit hole, which will not result in a finished novel? After all, how many rabbit authors do you know, exactly? Hint: Watership Down was actually written by a person. How do we avoid putting a bunch of time and energy and possibly money into a tool only to realize the magic was inside of us all along (or in another text editor all along)?

The same way we distracted, disorganized meat sacks accomplish anything in this vale of tears: we make a system.

Make it a System: Tool Time

I first got this idea from Curtis McHale: you set aside specific times where you just look at tools. Maybe an hour every couple of weeks, or a day out of the month, you let yourself spend all that time playing with new things, even if you’re happy with the things you already have. Now, to give us any hope of doing this efficiently, just like sitting down to write, you need to be prepared.

First, know what you’d like to check out. The way I do this is to have a running list. Whenever someone tells you about some cool tool, or you come across it on the web, or on someone’s screen when you’re spying on them at a coffee shop instead of writing, don’t go look at the tool right away. Just add it to the list. Since you know you will eventually get around to checking it out, you don’t have to keep it in the back of your mind.

When your tool time comes ‘round at last, you’re going to pick from the list, and I suggest picking / organizing the list in terms of pain; what aspect of the job are you having the most trouble or annoyance with right now, and what tools will help? If you’d like to find your favourite place to make words come out, look at the writing apps / text editors themselves. If organizing eludes you, focus on apps with a good organization experience. If you’re struggling to put words out into the world, look at publishing tools, etc.

Now, pick an app and go look it up. Maybe it’s on a website or an App Store. Before you get your hands on the thing yourself, go to their site and/or YouTube and look up reviews or videos of people using it. Watch a couple of these. If it still looks appealing, consider how it’s distributed and what it costs: does it run locally on your computer / tablet / smartphone, or is it a web application? Does it cost anything? Do you pay one time, or does it have a subscription? If it’s not free, does it have a trial? How does that work, and what happens when the trial is up? (If you put some writing in there, and don’t decide to keep the tool, what happens to the work you’ve done?)

Once you’ve answered these questions and decided you want to give the tool a try, decide exactly how. You might have a specific series of steps you try with every tool so you can easily compare them. Simple example: whenever I’m trying out a writing app, the first thing I do is put the cursor on the place where the words go and type,

I am the very model of a modern major general, I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral.

Aside from being amusing, this lets me immediately see what the typing experience “feels” like, what it looks like, what kind of auto-correction features it does or doesn’t have, is there formatting, how does it work, etc.

For something more complicated, like an organizing or publishing tool, you may want to have a small set of pieces you’ve already written ready to load into each new tool to see how you can organize them. Perhaps even have a ‘staging’ site where you can publish things privately just to see how a new publishing tool behaves. That’s advanced-level stuff, but if you set this all up beforehand, you reduce the depths of the rabbit holes and the lengths of blind alleys.

If a tool isn’t an immediate bust, you may want to keep using it outside of your established tool time. If so, and if it’s replacing another tool, you’ll want to have a plan. You’ll want to already know:

  • If this is a trial, how will I handle the trial running out if I choose to (a) proceed or (b) stop using it?
  • If I have a bunch of writing elsewhere, do I need to import it into this new tool? If so, how and when will I do that, how much of a pain in the ass will it be? If not, how will I keep things organized between this tool and the others?
  • If this is for publishing, how will I get it set up with all the places I want to publish? If I already have a ‘publishing workflow’, how does this fit in?

If this all sounds too prescriptive, well… like anything else I prescribe, I’m first prescribing it to myself. I try to do the above with tools, but still fall into plenty of rabbit holes and blind alleys. I’m going to continue building a system like the above, and I’m going to link back to this post—with its Great Caveat—whenever I talk about tools here. And if you have tools or a system for trying them… let’s be honest, I wouldn’t mind taking a break from the writing to hear about it. As long as I don’t stay away too long…

  1. I have no idea what this means, and I’m not sure I want to find out.

Getting Unreasonable

I want to publish 100 novels and 1000 short stories in the next thirty years.

What?!

Well, words are easy and actions are something else altogether. But there’s this idea in the entrepreneurship circles in which I circle, Chris Fox talks about this: 10x Thinking; the idea being that, if you have a goal, things change in your mindset in a big way if you imagine ten times your goal.

So, you want to write a book? Okay. Then you’ll do certain things in order to achieve that goal. But what if you decide you want to write ten books? And in less than ten times the time? You’ve got to do different things to reach that goal, and they will by necessity be more powerful things. You have to learn to plan, to write faster, to not spend all your time noodling around with the thousand words you wrote over the past six weeks. You have to open the valve on your own artistic production which is, it appears to me, the only way to ever get better at this craft.

A big part of the shift I’m trying to make is committing to publishing things, not just writing them, because “writing” is an activity that can go on forever, but publishing, like sex, has a definite endpoint (and makes a mess of your sheets).

Amirite?

This may all seem like semantics, but when wrestling with our own brains semantics are really all we’ve got. The difference between saying you’re gonna write and saying you’re gonna publish is the difference between masturbation and sex, and, with that simile out of my system, the difference between “I’m gonna write a book” and “I’m gonna write ten books”: it forces you into a different mindset, and mindsets are the antecedent of action, and action, of course, is the only thing that actually produces books.

Okay. So, if I say I want to publish an output more like Isaac Asimov’s than Thomas Harris’s1, now I can think my way backwards from that: what actions will I need to take in the next decade to get me there? Okay, what about in the next five years? Okay, next two years. Okay, next year, okay, etc., what do I have to do tomorrow?

And from that big vague goal up top, my immediate next action becomes vibrantly clear: you need to write today, you sumbitch!

Well, ~500 words down, 10,000,000 more to go.

  1. Due respect to Mr. Harris, I love his books. But he became conspicuous to me via Stephen King’s On Writing, wherein King points out that Harris writes these awesome novels, but only one every seven years, and isn’t that kind of a shame?