Don’t Call It a Comeback

I ain’t been here for years… but someday, I will have been. Straight up: here’s how many words I’ve thrown at my draft in the last sixty-seven days:

67 Days of Word Count

Not many. Why not? It’s not like I broke my arm skiing and I haven’t been able to type. The habit just… slips away, and next thing you know winter’s over and, if you’re lucky, it isn’t six years hence.

I gotta admit the truth: I might have dropped this novel like I’ve dropped most other projects except this time I’ve got a secret weapon: someone else, whose word on writing novels I trust.

I’ve got a coach. We have a one-hour call every two weeks. Doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a difference.

It makes a big difference to know, for real, that it’s not just me, that it’s not, “maybe I’m just not cut out for this writing thing”. Here’s a guy who’s published dozens of novels, telling me how he goes through the same slumps I do. And the trick is to make it a slump, not a capitulation. I’ve tried ways of doing that… they weren’t working.

So here’s what has been working, for the last five days: My coach said, look, every day by 8 PM we have to send each other at least 100 words of the project we’re working on. So far, that level of accountability is working for me where lesser forms failed. Knowing I would need to send Joe an email at 8 owning up to not writing even a mere 100 words today keeps me from spending the rest of the evening playing Stardew Valley, or cooking, or taking a nice walk before the sun sets. I can still do all those things, but I’ve gotta do some writing first.

My brain provides all the standard objections, among them: but I’ll never get the novel done 100 words at a time!

No. You’ll never get the novel done if you keep talking yourself out of ever writing it. If you write 100 words a day it might take a year or two to finish your novel but you’ll finish it. This is the trick: to let that impatience drive you to actually do stuff, instead of drive you away from doing stuff.

Like everything else I talk about here, I can describe that trick but I’m still trying to learn it. Maybe you are, too. Got something else that works to break the slump? I want to hear it. Easiest way right now is, shoot me a DM on Instagram: @djjacobsonauthor – I’ll read whatever I get, and respond whenever I can.

A Week is Not a Lot of Time

A blink and it’s Monday night again, and you’re supposed to have published a post on your blog. In fact, by now we were supposed to have a queue of content so we don’t have to decide at 10 p.m. on Monday, do I post to my blog or do I go to sleep? Right? But you lower your head and the week flies by. A week is not a lot of time.

When you start getting impatient with yourself, that’s worth remembering.

It sucks to let a whole year go by without working on your novel. But if a week goes by, if six weeks go by and you haven’t thrown any words at the draft, it doesn’t mean you’re dead in the water. Doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes to create the work that you love. A week is not a lot of time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to seize that week. To do everything you can to be as productive as possible. I’m saying that if a week goes by and you don’t get anything done, here’s a radical suggestion:

The right thing to do is not to whip yourself.

It’s not to curse yourself. Especially not at that low-volume, almost subconscious level where you say, “Goddammit, I thought you were better than this by now.” Don’t do that. I’m done doing that.

When I catch my inner monologue going to that place, I’m going to reel him back in, and not with my hands around his throat. I’m going to maybe give him a gentle hug and, with my arm around his shoulder, say, “Come this way. Let’s go back to a happier place. This isn’t, after all, such a big fucking deal.

I go back and I read my journal sometimes, the entries I made a couple of years ago, and I’m such a ball of angst. I mean there were times when I was going through things that were legitimately stressful, but those aside my overall attitude towards my desire to write and lack of action was so negative.

That journal sure contains a lot of the exhausting mental activity of beating myself up. Treating myself like there’s the good part of me and the bad part, and the good part is at war with the bad. Maybe that sort of militaristic fantasy works for some people, but I tried it for a long time and I’ll level with you: It did not result in the production of a great deal of work.

Instead, it resulted in the production of a great deal of stress and feeling bad and probably acting like a fucking nutjobtortured artist towards the people close to me a lot of the time.

It didn’t help. And I’m done being mad at that guy; past me, and present, who’s sitting here right now weeks into a slump of not writing his novel. I’m done kicking my own ass. I know I’m going to go back and write it. I’m working on ways to bring myself back. (I’m just going to tell you as a sidebar that having a coach to encourage you certainly helps.) But the big change for me is my own attitude towards myself—my own mindset.

Listen: you are too precious to yourself to mentally punch yourself in the face over and over again. Your life is too precious to treat yourself like shit. And I’m going to just take a wild guess that treating yourself that way is not getting your novel written. It might not be hip to talk about loving yourself. Or to use the word “hip”, for that matter, sorry, Millennials1. But you only get this one life and maybe you’ll create your art and maybe you won’t (but I think you probably will). Just don’t beat yourself and curse yourself like you’d never do to anyone else you cared about while you’re making it. No art is worth that.

And I am more and more inclined to think that operating from a position of loving yourself is the only thing that’s really going to get that art made in the first place.

  1. Come to think of it, it’s probably hipper to talk about loving yourself now than it was when “hip” was a hip word. The future is confusing. ↩︎

When the Levee Breaks

Look, I’m gonna be straight with you: it’s been a bad couple weeks for writing the novel.

The lack of numbers speak for themselves. We could spend a thousand words right here delving into the reasons why I’m not writing right now, and I daresay that’d be ironic—spilling ink on analysis instead of on writing. Not today. Today I’m just setting this assertion down:

I’m still here.

You know what? I’ve still written more novel in the last couple months than in the last seven years. And the thing is, this time? I know I’ll be back. Two weeks, three weeks? That ain’t nothing looking back on the dozen novels that’ll pop up on my shelf over the next couple years.

I never had the attitude to say that with confidence before. Now I do. I might write some novel tomorrow, I hope so, and it’s possible that I won’t. But I’ll be back, see? I’m cut out for this thing, and I know that in a way I never used to. Maybe it’s just that my writing coach told me so—in fact, that’s probably a big part of it—but that’s fine. I’ll take the mindset where I can beg, borrow, or steal it.

Because if I’ve learned anything over the past year or two? Since I decided to take this writing thing for serious again?

It’s all a head game. All of it. Always.

That’s about all I have to say tonight. Not much of a blog post, but a necessary one; at the very least, necessary for me, right now.

And I know it’ll be necessary for the Dan of six months or two years or two decades from now that needs reassurance that stumbling off the path isn’t a header over the edge of a cliff; it’s just a stumble.

And if there’s a version of Dan with another name that comes across this at just the right time? That’s even better.

You stepped off the path? I feel you. It’s fine. Just step back on.

Next time perhaps I’ll share what I have been doing to coax my uncooperative self back into line. But one thing at a time.

Terrible Lure Continued: Time-Blocking

Put writing on the calendar. Multiple people have said this to me, and it doesn’t work at all. That is to say, it hasn’t worked at all so far. I want it to work because I want writing to be my job, but here’s what’s really happened:

  1. One day, put an appointment on my calendar that says “Write” from 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM, for example
  2. 10 o’clock comes around and I’m in the middle of doing something else… so I keep doing it
  3. 5:30 comes around and I never did go and write
  4. Well, that didn’t work
  5. Don’t try it again for a few months

Writing out the above list quickly unearths some problems. First, there’s the problem of giving up on something when it doesn’t work the first time, a corollary or reflection of the pursuit of novelty, where I’m more likely to try some new thing (or, let’s be honest, try nothing) when I don’t see immediate success. But I’ve been building a writing habit for the last month or so quite successfully: writing every day, at least a little, usually empowered by getting up early and writing before I do anything else.

There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to show up somewhere at a specific time and do specific things; after all, I remained gainfully employed for about fifteen years before deciding to strike out on my own.

Some ideas for making the time-blocking approach more successful:

  • Block out a whole week at a time (that is, a block at the same time every day)
  • If you miss one block or don’t start at quite the right time, don’t worry: just try again the next day
  • I bet you’ll sit down at the given time at least one day out of that week
  • Have a preparation ritual (h/t Atomic Habits, again); if you know you are going to sit down at 10 AM, don’t wait until 10 AM to stop whatever you were previously doing. Realize you have to stop at, say 9:50 or 9:45
    • Wrap up whatever it is you’re doing as best you can, maybe that’s just putting the iPad down or hitting the pause button
    • Do whatever preparations you need to do to start writing at 10
      • So, if you want something on your desk to drink, get it now
      • Go to the bathroom, damn you
      • Even if you don’t want either of the above things, do something consistent to signal to yourself that you’re shifting into writing mode
        • Even if it seems goofy
        • So making a cup of tea or some favourite beverage isn’t a bad idea; associate the anticipation of mmm a cup of coffee with sitting down to write
          • I’d argue part of my problem right now with writing before breakfast is, my anticipation centres on ceasing to write so I can make coffee…
        • I’m 100% in on the idea of having, like, a writing hat or writing sweater, or something you change about your environment (lighting) that you put on or do to say it’s writing time
    • Now when your calendar appointment rolls around, you’re ready to start immediately
      • And, as experience shows me over and over again, starting is the toughest part. Sometimes continuing is tough, sure, but even if you have to switch away from the thing you want to work on and just free-write1, it’s worth it to have spent the time making the words come out
    • Come to think of it this is the same way you treat any calendar appointment with an external party
      • If you have a meeting in the conference room, you gather your notebook and lock your desktop and maybe get another coffee with minutes to spare: you don’t start doing that at the meeting time, because then you’ll be late
      • If you have a date across town you backtrack and think, ok, I want to be there a few minutes early, the travel time is about forty minutes, so I want to leave the house no later than 5:00, so I need to start getting ready at 4:00…
    • So another big part of this is the fact that, sadly, tragically, it’s much easier to break a commitment to ourselves than it is to break a commitment to others
      • There are things you can do here, like ‘accountability partners’ where you tell someone else you’ll do a thing at a certain time, but admittedly this isn’t something I’ve tried a lot, it’s another thing I kind of bailed on when it didn’t work great right away…

I hope something in that brain-dump is helpful! To me, as much as to you… 😉

  1. which is basically what I’m doing right now by the way

The Terrible Lure of the Next Thing

I’m on too many mailing lists. This happens every few months. I remember before I got an iPhone, circa 2007, I remember talking to a workmate about how whenever we had a situation where people are away from their computers and disagree about a piece of information, how you could just take your phone out and look it up, get the facts.

And wouldn’t that be marvelous!

And it’s come to pass, sort of, not that we don’t engage in wild conjecture even though Wikipedia is right there. But the other thing that happened is that there’s so much information available all the time that seeking it out has become a default activity.

For me, anyway. Some people spend all their free time playing Candy Crush or looking at their social network of choice. I don’t tend to do those things, not that I think it makes me a better person than those who do1.

But I have my own default activity, and that has become the consumption of information: in my case, information about writing and business. And this has two three problems:

  1. I end up in sales funnels for online courses and sometimes spend hundreds of dollars on them but don’t necessarily do the work to get my money’s worth back out
  2. Seeking the information eats up a lot of time
  3. And, related, it’s easy to feel like that time was productive, and not spend a similar amount of time producing instead of consuming.

I’ve been thinking about why information is so… addictive. And the phrase that came to mind was “the terrible lure of the next thing.

As humans we seem programmed for novelty: we don’t just want a given thing— information, a relationship, food—we want the next, new thing, and there’s probably some mechanistic evolutionary explanation for this but for once I don’t feel like exploring it. I just want to talk about the problem of novelty in a life where most of the best things come out of consistency.

It’s so much easier to seek out the next course or blog post instead of, say, re-reading the one you already have and taking notes and studying the notes and applying the lessons.

Sigh. Everything I just said sounds so boring, doesn’t it? I’m already reaching for my phone so I can check Twitter.

The terrible lure of the next thing keeps us from the boring work that we nonetheless need to do, not just to keep a roof over our heads but to fulfill whatever drive it is that makes us want to type out words and send them off into the world to link our brains up with other brains.

That magical act of telepathy. Isn’t that more important than the next morsel? And yet.

I don’t think the solution is to cut off all sources of input yet, although some days I’m headed in that direction2—and look, we know as storytellers we need an ongoing stream of input to keep our idea factories hot and humming—but somehow, somehow, we have to manage our own pursuit of novelty.

And it’s easy, especially if you were born in the 1980s like me, to reflexively think “Just say no!” because you saw those War On Drugs ads on every arcade game you ever played.

But, like, haven’t you picked up a smartphone before, bro? We have built a machine whose whole job is to demand our attention. We have filled it with supernormal stimuli3, and we can scoff at each other for being weak and enslaved by our little pocket gizmos, but the very same we, that is, humans, all of us, we built these machines to have this effect!

Why are we surprised that it worked?

Humans are good at this stuff, at understanding the little levers that make us run around in circles and then producing things that exploit the levers.

What we’re not particularly good at is using that knowledge to overcome our short-term desires.

Next time, I’ll share what I’m trying… and how well it’s working.

  1. Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure it does make me a better person. Don’t tell anyone.
  2. I call these “that’s it, I’m going to go live in the woods” days.
  3. Oh, there’s plenty more to say about this ten-dollar phrase

History in Fiction: What You Don’t Need

Last time we were talking about asking questions to come up with cool made-up history for your made-up world.

Now let’s talk about one of the first and foremost problems we run into when injecting that history into our tales.

You may have heard the phrase “info dump” before. Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? In short, an info dump is when you spend narrative time informing the reader about the world rather than telling them a story. Here’s the thing: unless you’re actually marketing a fantasy encyclopedia, they signed up for the latter.

The examples go like this:

“Bertram stood and looked at the walls of Castle Skullraven. They were thick stone, quarried from the mountains north of here by King Ravenskull IV, whose father had first settled these lands over two-hundred-fifty years ago. The quarry was difficult to access from the lowlands and the king’s artisan builders had solved the problem by constructing a series of massive ramps and earthworks that could still be seen looming beyond the town like the hulks of an analogy I’m not going to bother developing because this is just an example. Bertram remembered his father telling him stories of the great battle that had raged among those earthworks when the labourers had revolted against the harsh taskmasters of the next king, Ravenskull III, who had ascended the throne amidst whispers that he had poisoned his own father. The court artificers had suspected that the poison had been brought in from the Swamp of Dark Nectar, hundreds of miles to the east, by a travelling caravan of the Oboroë Nomads, whose descendants still lived in the village to this day, and whose blood gave the skin of the villagers its peculiar violet colour.”

There are lots of enticing details in that much-too-long paragraph, and I will toot my own horn by saying I made them all up off the top of my head. But the problem is, here’s how much story is told in those 191 words:

“Bertram stood and looked.”

Hmm. That’s an info dump: the storytelling slams to a halt so you can tell us a bunch of things which I will grant add flavour to your world and might even be interesting… but they kill the pace and they bore the reader. And, to paraphrase my writing coach,

Boring the reader is the greatest sin.

Again: they came to hear a story, not read the history of a made-up world. So how do you communicate all that awesome history that you went to all the trouble of making up?

The advice I’ve come across all takes the form of “sprinkle it throughout the story”. Bertram can notice the earthworks at the edge of town, sure, but the quarry-miners’ revolt can stay safely in your head until it serves the story to reveal it. And maybe that never happens. Or maybe Bertram hires a one-legged man to sneak him into the castle at night, and the man reveals he lost his leg in that quarry.

You can also give details in dialogue, but it’s easy to do this wrong. I’ve heard this referred to1 as “As You Know,” the prototypical example coming from the stage:

A butler and a maid enter the scene.

MAID: As you know, Jeeves, the master is currently in the forest hunting with his business partner from the city.

BUTLER: I do indeed! And, as you are no doubt aware, Hortense, the lady of the house is sequestered in the North Tower, as she has been lo these many weeks, ever since that strange fever overcame her at the Colonel’s ball.

No human beings talk to each other this way, ever. If you want the reader to know the whereabouts of the master, the disposition of his wife, and why those things are taking place… you’re gonna have to do it with more subtlety than this.

For example…

BUTLER: Hortense, you delectable thing! Put that hamper down and accompany me to the root cellar before the master returns from his excursion!

MAID: Oh, Jeeves! Let me just run these linens up to the lady’s sickroom… do you think there’ll be time?

That communicates most of the same information, but it also moves the story, at least the part of the story where the help are fooling around behind their employers’ backs.

Bonus: it creates tension, by imposing time constraints and implied consequences.

The story is your cake. As much as you lovingly craft your world-building, it is merely the icing. Or, if cake isn’t your thing, the story is your taco. The world-building is merely the few drops of chipotle hot sauce you put on there to add the perfect amount of spicy, smoky goodness.

What were we talking about?

Oh, right, world-building. A little goes a long way, and the story has to keep moving. Now, seriously, let’s go eat.

(Next time, something I call Just-In-Time World-building.)

  1. I think by Brandon Sanderson, whose lectures on this topic are on YouTube and you should avail yourself of them at once

In Which I Hit Snooze A Bunch of Times

Now if uh, six, turned out to be nine

Oh I don’t mind, I don’t mind

I was reminded of that Jimi Hendrix lyric thinking about my mornings lately. I tend to wake up automatically between, say, five-thirty and six-thirty… but I haven’t been setting an alarm and haven’t been getting out of bed.

I know, I know: I quit my day job, lucky me, shut up. This is the struggle I’ve chosen, do you want to learn from it or not?

Anyway, I tend to fall back to sleep and then when I finally wake up and rise for the day it’s like 9:45. I don’t like this, as luxurious as it sounds. It puts the whole rest of the day behind the eight ball. Let me illustrate.

By the time I have breakfast and dawdle around and shower and look at the internet and read some, it’s noon and I should go outside and get a walk in, and the next thing I know it’s three in the afternoon and I’m in a coffee shop somewhere and then it’s dinner time and I haven’t done anything all day but it’s like 8:30, so… do I go to bed, or stay up late?

And the cycle repeats.

Again, if this sounds like heaven to you, well, fine. I’m not complaining like I have to dig ditches for fifteen hours a day. But I’m trying to be self-employed over here and they don’t tell you that structure is a challenge when you’ve had it forced onto you for your entire life by parents, school, more school, work.

The solution seems to be to form new habits, and they seem so simple it’s insulting: whaddya mean I have to learn to wake up at the same time every morning?

But it’s true.

As easy as it is to think, well, I don’t really need an alarm because no one’s gonna get mad if I’m not wearing a collared shirt in a fluorescent-lit building downtown in ninety minutes… life starts to suck when you have no structure for more than a couple of weeks.

Really. It does. I promise.

So this morning I set my alarm for seven. I use an app called Sleep Cycle, which tries to wake you up inside a half-hour window so you won’t feel groggy. When I set the alarm for seven it actually goes off between 6:30 and 7:00. You can snooze it, but every time it snoozes for fewer minutes until finally at 7:00 it won’t snooze anymore at all.

This is a pretty good way to get your ass out of bed even if you like to snooze… unless you just turn the alarm off and fall back to sleep. Which I have done, I’ll admit.

But not today.

Today I actually got up. Here are things I’ve found make the difference for me.

Put the phone across the room.

Alas! The way my bedroom is set up I can reach from the foot of my bed to the phone on my desk without really “getting up” but it’s better than having the phone lying next to my head, which is how I used to use Sleep Cycle. I’ve thought about going even further and putting the phone in the bathroom with the alarm volume at max, but I might not hear it when I shut my bedroom door.

And I’d lose the benefit of sleep tracking. Yeah. That’s the reason.

Me, I wear glasses.

Putting my glasses on right away makes it a little harder to just drop back onto the pillow.

Get your feet on the goddamn floor.

Even better, stand up. Even better, leave the room—go to the bathroom. If you develop the habit of splashing some water in your face first thing, that’ll probably get your day started.

Open the blinds.

Once there’s too much light in the room, it gets difficult to stay in bed, which is probably why I eventually get up between 9-10 when the sunlight gets intense1.

Look: it feels ridiculous to write those things down, like people haven’t known about these dark secrets for centuries, but we’re in rarefied air, here: nothing will die if I don’t get out of bed on time… nothing except my dreams, anyway. So I’m trying to swallow my pride and start doing this stuff, to see what’s effective.

Do you hop right out of bed every morning and start writing? If so, tell me your dark secrets.

  1. I should note that I made a lot of these notes back in the summer; this whole game gets even harder in the winter when it’s still dark at 6-7 in the morning, and the room is cold, and your bed is so warm and comfy…