Producing as Much as We Consume

Been thinking of putting up a page here with book recommendations, and/or links to the things I mention all the time (Chris Fox, Pressfield, etc.)

But it also occurred to me: it’s dangerous to spend more time reading than writing. Or reading at the expense of writing. What if we agree to write a certain fixed amount as the “price” of making a recommendation? What if you wrote a page for every page of a book you recommended?

Pretty soon you’d be recommending your own books. Well, if politeness allowed such a thing.

The Learning Trap

I’ve bought a lot of “infoproducts” over the last few years. And some are excellent. Many feel oily, though: they teach you how to make money, quit your job, live the life of your dreams by…. creating infoproducts. This sort of self-referential loop, we’ve all been warned, will leave us with hair growing out of our palms.

But I want those outcomes so much, and you know what? I always think because I’ve spent my heard-earned money on a course, now I’m invested and now surely I’ll have the motivation to work!

Well, no.

Not for me, anyway. It turns out if I spend a couple hundred bucks on something it doesn’t really make me get out of bed in the morning to do that thing. That isn’t me being fancy, like a couple hundred bucks isn’t a lot of money, it’s just apparently not how my brain works. Okay.

You can consume information forever which would be fine except it feels like you’re doing work, and you’re not. I could teach you a couple things because I’ve read and watched videos for hours on end about writing… but it doesn’t mean I can sit down and grind out a half-decent novel1.

At some point you have to elevate implementation over information, and a mentor of mine suggested declaring the coming period an Implementation Season, where you pay less attention to incoming information and just create output.

Sounds great! But this is not easy, because information is

  1. Seductive, and
  2. Everywhere

I don’t really want to shut off the input entirely, you know? Because, well… let’s be honest, because the reason you sign up for a course after reading the hypnotic sales page or you buy the book after reading the Amazon reviews is there’s a little nagging part of you full of hope, thinking, oh, this one will be what makes everything finally slide into place.

Oops.

For Example

An offer emerged from my inbox for one of these joint-venture deals, where two dozen people throw their books and courses and videos about writing into a hat, and instead of the two grand it’d cost you to go buy each one individually2, you pay fifty bucks for the lot.

It’s so tempting, it might as well come slathered in maple syrup. 🍁

And I bought it! Because if you read ten books and nine of them aren’t great but one changes your life, you’re out maybe a hundred bucks and a few hours, which is a lot less than the cost of, oh, I don’t know, a university degree.

Right??

The problem isn’t really the money, it’s I could easily spend the next 300 hours poring over all this material instead of writing, which isn’t really going to help me be a writer.

What I really need to do is close my web browser and get to cranking, get to staring my inadequacies in the face long enough to actually produce these words.

A Modest Proposal

So I made myself the deal I suggested up top, and I recommend this to anyone who has to choose between consuming and producing (i.e. all of us): if you’re going to recommend a book, you’ve got to write, say, a thousand words first.

If you want to recommend another book, you’ve got to write another thousand.

As long as I bought all this material, I’ll be here to share whatever I learn. But the point is to keep writing even while I’m learning, instead of being the most-learned learner with no books to his name.

Let’s you and I adopt this rule: between every chapter of the latest book that will finally turn you into a writer, between every module of the course you’re still a little shell-shocked you spent so much money on, commit to writing those words.

At the end of all the courses and all the books that were supposed to turn us into writers, surprise! We’ll have done a bunch of writing. So we’ll end up writers after all.

  1. Though I’m trying.
  2. Not that you even knew they existed, which is the point of the joint venture…

Delilah Dawson on Finding the Time to Write

I’ve been loving the “Ten Things” bursts of writing advice Delilah S. Dawson posts on Twitter. This one, on Finding the Time to Write, grabbed me by the lapels and shook, so let’s talk about it. All quotations below are her words, from the linked thread1.

  1. My best tip first: DON’T LET YOUR WRITING PROCESS GET PRECIOUS. By which I mean that you don’t want to get too caught up in a ritual– at this time, drinking this coffee, in this chair. Make it so that you can write anywhere, laptop or pad. Keep your process nimble, not rigid.

Like all writing advice, the ritual thing is mutually exclusive: some folks say, have a ritual, always write in the same place or at the same time or using the same device… but doesn’t the above directly contradict that?

So which one is RIGHT?

Well, there is no right. All that matters is you get the words in, I’m pretty sure that’s Delilah’s point. Note she doesn’t say “don’t have a ritual, throw out your lucky t-shirt”, she says don’t get too caught up in your ritual.

It’s one thing to have a lucky t-shirt, but if you can’t work on your novel because it’s in the wash, you’re screwed.

I suspect that when authors talk about their rituals they’re not to be taken too literally: yes, when all the pieces are in place, Stephen Pressfield does all the stuff he describes in the The War of Art, but I would guess he probably types a couple hundred words into his phone now and again.

And whether he does or not, look: I want to embrace both worldviews. I am happy to have a ritual, it works well for me2. But after reading this thread, you know what? I was sitting in a pub waiting for my friends to show up, and instead of scrolling Twitter I opened Ulysses and just started writing.

Fast and messy. And there’s an extra 150 words by the time my mate showed up. That felt great.

Which brings us to,

  1. Stop thinking you need 4 hours to get anything done. Start thinking in doable chunks. Let’s say you aim for 1000 words a day, about an hour of writing. Do a page in the morning, a page at lunch, two pages at night. BOOM. Totally doable. Those little bits add up!

I’m not good at acting like writing books is my job. I don’t sit at my desk for hours at a time; I get up early, write for 20-40 minutes, and then go have breakfast.

After that, most of the day runs away with itself. I’ve had a hard time putting the writing at the forefront: that is, fitting the rest of the day in around writing as opposed to slipping a little writing into my day.

It’s frustrating. But this tip reminds me I am still getting somewhere: I’m 12,000 words into the draft in about two weeks; I wish it was even more, but that’s still much, much, much better than I’ve ever done except that one time I did NaNoWriMo: and the output of that frenzied month never went anywhere.

This time it feels more sustainable: if I have to go get a job again in a few months, so be it, as long as I’m up at 6 and writing before breakfast, this book will get done.

  1. Make writing A PRIORITY. When you’re just starting out, it can be hard to treat writing like a job– like it’s important. I was insecure about it, too. Telling family you need time and they need to respect it for what feels like a hobby is hard. THIS IS ART. ART IS IMPORTANT.

This. Fundamentally, this is what I grapple with the most.

It’s one of those cases of “I know I want to do this… so why aren’t I?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve hit a lot of such roadblocks over the years. Here’s a thing I want to do… but somehow I spent the whole day doing other stuff instead.

What’s going on here? One part is, just wanting to do stuff doesn’t seem sufficient if

  1. Doing something else is easier, or
  2. You have the habit of doing something else (a special case of 1.), and
  3. It’s not totally clear what to do next, or
  4. Something about the thing you want to do threatens your identity

That last one, which Delilah touches on in the quoted tweet above, is at the heart of it. It’s subtle, cryptic, it’s this thing we know is there but it disappears when we turn to look, it slips thorugh our fingers when we grasp for it.

It’s that thing Stephen Pressfield called The Resistance: The part of you that doesn’t want to change.

Is this just me? It’s hard to give myself over to my obsession with writing, with storytelling—it’s hard to take it as seriously as I want to take it. I want to be like a monk at this stuff: I really do want writing to be the axis the rest of my life orbits around. But it’s like this: I had a job, and tried to fit pleasant things around the job. Writing was one of them. Right now, I don’t have a job, bless me, so I just do pleasant things and try to fit writing around them.

But writing must become the job. It isn’t easy to flip that switch just because those words are capitalized in a tweet, even if I know they’re true, which I do. Maybe the secret is in that word priority. Delilah says “treat writing as a priority”, and the correct way to think about “priority”3 is that you can’t have A priority, you can only have THE priority: the priority is the one thing that can’t be allowed to die.

The core of it is focus. You focus on your priority. Once you’ve done that, you focus on whatever thing is the next priority. If you want to write but you have pick your kid up from school, picking your kid up is the priority. But once you’ve done so, then writing is your priority, and you shut the office door. Or put your headphones in, or whatever it takes.

So far the most effective way to make writing the prioriity for me is to do it first. But I want to go beyond that: I don’t want the production I can do in a day to be constrained to how long I can wait before breakfast, I don’t want to lose a day of writing just because I slept in until 8.

I want to reach the point where I spend a nice 3-hour block of time in a day working on the book; I’m sure I won’t be typing the whole time, god forbid, but I’ll be focused on the work like it’s a job.

When I was a software developer I was rarely focused on writing code for more than maybe 20-40 minutes at a time. Your mind wanders, you need to pee, you want a coffee, you want to chat. That’s fine as long as you come back and find some more time to be focused.

Bless the writer: frankly it’s a bit harder to get back into the headspace of a complex piece of software and working on it requires more complicated tools: I never got any coding done on the train or in the bar. We have it a little easier in that regard, that’s something to rejoice about.

I’ll keep working towards the point where I treat bookwritin’ like a full-time job so that it can be my full-time job. I’m not sure how to get there, yet, but Delilah’s tips took me a step further along the path.

  1. I haven’t used the cute little twitter-embed widget, because frankly I don’t trust Twitter not to fuck it up; either to not exist anymore in five years, or to, I don’t know, decide they need to start injecting ads into other people’s websites via that mechanism. For that matter, I assume it already carries tracking functionality… forget it. So I’ve just quoted and attributed the words themselves, which are the important bit.
  2. I hope it does eventually, anyway, it’s a work in progress.
  3. Chris fox just did a video about this topic

Smart Paste in Ulysses

I just found a new Ulysses feature by accident: Cmd+V pastes, of course, but Shift+Cmd+V pastes with a quick-format menu: you can pick from the following

  1. Paste – this is what you normally get when you hit Cmd+V. The paste behaviour depends on what Ulysses detects on the clipboard. For the example below, if it’s a hyperlink it will by default give it link markup
  2. Text – this pastes the clipboard contents as plain text, naturally, with no markup
  3. Code – this pastes the content in a code block, i.e. so you can get automatic syntax highlighting, it exports to HTML <code> tags, etc.
  4. Source – this pastes the content as “raw source” which, to the best of my understanding, is Ulysses markup for “export this exactly as it appears without trying to interpret its contents as markup” 🤔

This feature is called “Smart Paste”, and it’s documented here: https://ulysses.app/tutorials/smart-copy-paste

Here’s what it looks like when you paste a hyperlink in each format:

You can see that the default paste inferred the link’s display text from the page name! That’s interesting.

You can either select your format with the arrow keys and press ENTER, or hit the associated number key and it will paste in the associated format.

Do I Have to Write Every Day, Though?

I’m pretty sure I do, yeah. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t magically happen for free.

My current status is I’ve got a novel outlined and for the last week I’ve begun the drafting of the thing. I’ve given myself an ambitous goal: get it drafted in twelve weeks. I want to get it done so the editing cycles can begin, because I know it’s going to be rough. Assuming the draft is around one hundred thousand words (it’s epic fantasy, after all), that’s about 1300 words a day, starting on 31 December 2018. Depending where your head’s at and what level of experience you have with writing, 1300 words every day may sound like crazy talk, or child’s play.

It doesn’t sound like very much to me: I’ve been writing at least a thousand words a day with reasonable consistency for the past few weeks… but they haven’t been novel words. Here’s my word counts on the book from the past week:

  • Monday: 1006 (77%)
  • Tuesday: 379 (29%)
  • Wednesday: 0 (0%)
  • Thursday: 765 (59%)
  • Friday: 669 (51%)
  • Saturday: 0 (0%)
  • Sunday: 0 (0%)

Hmm. Two observations: I did write every day last week, but like I said the writing wasn’t for the novel. I wrote reflections, I wrote things that could become blog posts like this one, but I only threw keystrokes at scenes for the book on four of the seven days.

And, when I did, it was harder than I imagined it would be. It was hard to get into that flow state where the words just pour out. I have a list of scenes and I know where the story is going in each phase, so it’s not like I’m constantly asking “what happens next?”

Except locally, in each scene, I am. I have a pretty visual brain, so I tend to see pictures of the scene in my head; here’s the guy standing by the deck rail on the ship’s forecastle, looking out to sea and day-dreaming about adventure.

The thing that makes it hardest to keep cranking those scenes is sheer self-doubt: the constant observation what’s coming out of my fingers is not nearly as good as I want it to be. The description is lame, the dialogue is stilted, the action is too fast or too slow…

“This’ll never be a book”, whispers the voice, “you’re wasting your time.”

Oof. No wonder most people—like me, over and over again—give up on this. If you’re gonna sit there and type for, say, an hour or two each day it’s got to be some kind of fun otherwise you won’t do it. I’m quite convinced you don’t accomplish hard things that take a long time unless you either are under the lash or you figure out the version of the task that is fun for you.

You might be able to force your way through a 2000-word short story, but you’re not squeezing an entire novel through clenched fingers.

I’m thinking back to when I did NaNoWriMo in 2012: I did indeed write 50,000 words in a month, which is sixteen-hundred-and-something a day. If only I were doing that now, I’d hit my goal!

So what was different?

I remember just focusing on hitting that number, maybe that’s what’s missing. I’m looking at something like 8000-9000 words a week, a goal I could just put my head down and type frantically towards. Measure it every day.

Getting to the end of this week, I think it was Saturday, and realizing I’d only done 2819 didn’t feel great (and it didn’t translate into novel-writing on the weekend, either).

In terms of eliminating the self-doubt, I keep reminding myself that everything can be fixed in the future. Writing a first draft is just producing a pile of raw materials you can shape, the way you need to cut down a bunch of trees before you can make the logs that you’ll heave into place to build your log cabin1. If you’re worried about getting every stroke of the axe just right, you’ll freeze to death on the cold, cold ground: it’s the wrong place in the process to pour your time and attention.

Just take another breath and swing the axe as best you can.

Hey, there’s some magic of writing for you: I didn’t have that metaphor when I sat down this morning, but I’m quite pleased with it. 🙂

And I have to believe that’s what happens in the muck and horror of drafting the book, too. I know where the story has to go, I know a bunch of the things that happen in vague terms, the sitting down every day is where I find out the specifics, and that’s a kind of fun in itself.

The other way I’m trying to keep it fun, and the impetus for doing the planning up front, is an idea from my writing coach and elsewhere: you don’t need to write the book from the beginning to the end.

I have a stack of index cards, each one an idea for a scene, like “Introduce the expedition at sea”, and before (either the night before or right before) I sit down to draft, I can just pick the one that excites me the most.

Again, this is all in the service of producing raw materials, not “getting it right the first time”; so even if I write a scene in the middle of the novel and then the things I find out while writing the earlier bits necessitate changing or eliminating that scene… well, that’s fine. It’s a couple extra keystrokes. And they come later, in the future; the future I’ll never reach but by sitting down and typing.

I hope this little exploration is helpful to someone else, that’s why I’m putting it on the internet. You might also be sitting there staring at a blank page or lamenting the lack of words you’ve produced for that big, beautiful dream you’ve had for years if you could only somehow force yourself to actually do it.

As for me, writing this makes me want to throw some keystrokes at the book, so here I go.

And there it is: when all else fails, write about how you’re having trouble writing.

  1. Isn’t that a pleasantly old-fashioned, rustic workmanlike image of artisanal craftsmanship? Pardon me while I don a flannel shirt and wait for my beard to grow.