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.

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?

Blood, Sweat, and Then What?

There used to be a billboard in my old neighbourhood, I don’t even remember what it was for, but the slogan on it, in big blocky black type on bright yellow, always grabbed me. It said

BLOOD, SWEAT… AND TEN YEARS

Let’s talk goals. There’s the nebulous desire to “be a writer”, yeah, but imagine what that looks like: not just a big pile of words on your hard drive, but a big pile of words out somewhere where everyone can see, whether it’s on a blog or Barnes and Noble. What could you do with blood, sweat, and ten years?

Yeah. Me too.

But the problem is ten years is too far away, it’s a fantasy, and, honestly, even this Christmas is just a fantasy, too. Sure, I’ll have written a novel by then, sure. I’ll probably start tomorrow.

Pretty sure I said that in October 2017. And, look, let’s be honest with each other: I’m pretty sure I said it in October 2007, too. But here we are. Well, here I am. How about you?

I spent the last few years working with people who have among their hobbies the desire to run really far; did you know there’s a thing called an ultramarathon? The funny thing about it is, it’s considered any distance run of 50 kilometres or more, which means if you run 50 or 150, it’s an ultramarathon both ways. Do you think the person who runs 150 feels kind of ripped off? Maybe not.

Imagine how it feels to wake up the next morning, hopefully not in hospital, and realize, “I ran a hundred fifty kilometres, for fucksake!” Imagine! It takes deliberation to even drive that far. Here’s the thing, though: your car is probably up for grinding out a quick 150 any old time, if there’s some gas in the tank and it’s not a total wreck. But a human being can’t just get up from the desk you and I are sitting at right now and run 150 klicks… or fifteen…

Even five will be a struggle, until you practice.

And that’s the crazy thing: I can maybe run five K, maybe, if wolves are after me and my loved ones. But I can’t run 10 K without stopping, let alone a marathon, and yet… there’s no physical reason why I can’t run a marathon if I trained for it.

See, novels are like that. Only took me twenty years to absorb that analogy. You figure, I love LotR and R.A. Salvatore’s stuff, and people are always telling me how imaginative I am, I’d love to write a novel! And then you try and don’t get anywhere, over and over again, and you feel bad about yourself and give up. Who knows why we think writing a hundred thousand words of coherent, structured, exciting narrative is the kind of thing a person should just be able to do with no training when even a goddamned toaster oven comes with instructions, but if you think of a novel as a marathon a lot falls into place.

I reckon you can train for a novel the same way you train for a marathon. A marathon requires a whole bunch of running, packed into a small time frame. You run and run and run and run, a lot, before you get to recover. Same deal with a novel, if you have any intention of cranking out more than one a decade.

And be honest: if you think you want to spend a decade carefully crafting your novel, but you’ve written pretty much nothing in the previous decade, especially at length… well, you’re probably fooling yourself. You’re saying you want to do the following with no training: thinking about what should happen next and what happens after that and after that and after that and after that in the form of a three- or four-act structure that may or may not dovetail with the Hero’s Journey but definitely needs a satisfying denouement that wasn’t telegraphed at the beginning but nonetheless follows inevitably from everything that came before…

I’m exhausted just describing that, let alone doing it in ten thousand words, let alone a hundred thousand.

See, I’m out of shape.

So, we gotta train.

The same way you can’t run a marathon in a single step, you can’t just sit down and write a novel in one sitting and if you throw at me that spin-off of National Novel Writing Month where people crank out a first draft in a weekend, or tell me anything about Kerouac and Benzedrine, you and I are through, ok? Corner cases are like lottery tickets: fun to fantasize about but let’s not peg our retirement plans on one.

You can only run a marathon by putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over, and you can only write a novel by sitting down to write in the same iteration. If you’re anything like me, and God knows how you got through eight hundred words of this if you’re not, the place you fall off is not sitting down. Not every day, right? And not for very long. And the mind wanders. And the web browser is right there.

I decided at some point that I don’t want to run a marathon, but 10 K seems like a reasonable goal for a relatively healthy human being: I want to be able to run ten kilometres without stopping. So I looked up a plan, and the one I found basically goes like this:

  • The first day you get your shoes on and you walk for four minutes, and then run for one minute
  • Then you walk for four, then run for one, again
  • Repeat until you’ve done that four times, i.e. you were “running” for twenty minutes and you only spent four of them actually running. Because you need to condition your body.
  • You do what I just described three days in the first week.

The next week, you walk for three minutes and then run for two, repeat. And the next week, you walk for two and run for three… and on, and on, until you’re running for, say, eight minutes with two minutes of walking in between, for a total of forty minutes, until, after thirteen weeks, you are running for one hour without walking and without stopping.

Thirteen weeks is a long time, but it’s also not that long. Just like any slice of life. You might think, ugh, “can I wait thirteen weeks?” or “do I want to spend thirteen weeks?”, but the real question is, do you want to become someone who runs or remain someone who does not?

The thirteen weeks, the ten years, they pass regardless.

Replace runs with writes, and here we are.

I’ll tell you where I’m at, specifically, right now when I’m drafting this post (August 27th, 2018): I’m still not writing every single day, but I’m working on it. I’ve got a habit tracker taped to my wall, and the goal? The ultimate goal might be to become a novelist, but the right now goal is to tick the box today. And tomorrow the goal will be to tick the box. And the day after. And maybe it takes thirteen weeks or a hundred and thirty, but the same way you might realize you’ve put a hundred kilometres of pavement behind you in the past few months, and that’s a hundred more than you ran in the preceding decade, maybe you look back and there’s a pile of words behind you, and once you’re sitting on that pile… stacking up another pile of words in the form of a novel seems not just possible, but inevitable.

Not Writing is Nobody’s Fault But Ours

There was a time when I blamed my partner, the time I was spending with them, for keeping me away from the work. But the fact is, I wasn’t doing the work and thank God for my ego I had the excuse.

Today was tough, because I have gotten in the habit of spending weekends with my current partner, and so it would be easy not to write. And I didn’t go near it this morning, we were busy. But instead of not writing and then retroactively blaming them, while we were relaxing after our afternoon and planning our evening I said, before we go out, I need 20 minutes to do some writing, because I’m trying to build the habit of writing every day. And she thought that was a wonderful idea, and encouraged me to do it. Even brought me a glass of water.

So it’s good to be with someone supportive, if you’re gonna be with anyone. But the critical point is to be honest with yourself. If you want to write, and you’re not doing it, are you chained up in a cage without a way to even scratch in the dirt? No? Then no one else is keeping you from writing but you. It’s taken me a lifetime to even begin to acknowledge that and act within “I don’t feel like writing / I don’t know what to write / I’m afraid / know for certain that it won’t be good enough”, and instead of using those feelings as excuses… to give them a curt nod and then sit down and move my fingers anyway.

I’m not good at it yet, I’m bad at it. But at least I’m doing it at all, and that’s something. Stephen Pressfield talks about the decades—decades—it took for him to even begin to conquer what he calls the Resistance. If he can plunge himself into the shadows again and again and eventually find a way to win, well, so can we.

It’s easy to look at your life in your mid-thirties, let alone your forties and say, well, that’s it: I had my shot, and I fucked it up. Guess it’s all downhill from here. This is something Gary Vaynerchuk talks about a lot lately, and he’s right: God willing and the creek don’t rise, if you’re thirty-five you could easily live for another HALF A CENTURY, same if you’re forty. Giving in any time is a mistake, in my book; giving in now is downright insane.

It’s not insane, though. It’s that Resistance. The death wish. The little voice that’s always been there, since Junior High, anyway. Telling you: No. You’re bad. Lie down. Stop breathing.

How many years have you spent secretly believing that liar? It doesn’t help that our culture has mobilized an ever-growing engine, a Lovecraftian tentacled horror, dedicated to grooming and caring for those voices. Maybe your twenties and your thirties are nothing more than an exercise in learning to live with them, like a barking dog in the next yard you somehow learn to ignore, or move house. But you can’t move away from this, you can only medicate it with drugs and bad relationships (or even good relationships?) and beer and social media and hipster restaurants and posting what you eat there on Instagram, and thank God some day you’ll be dead. And then the voice will stop, sure.

But so will you. And where will be all the art you could have made?

It’s not, “don’t listen to the voice”. I spent years “not listening”, it just made me crazy. It just made me wonder, if I’m living life the way you’re sposeda, why am I sort of miserable all the time? No. The voice is there and you can’t shut it up. But there is something you can do, not about it, but in spite of it: you can learn to act anyway.

And find someone supportive. Someone who doesn’t say, come down here and watch Netflix with me instead of sitting at your computer doing whatever. That’s not their fault, you picked that relationship. Ask yourself, why? Maybe hold out for someone who’ll kiss you on the mouth and say, I’ll see you after you’re done your writing, babe. Good luck. ❤

Being a Writer

Imagine we’re all sat in a circle, and the question is asked: “Do you want to be a writer?” And you raise your hand, and you see I’ve got my hand raised, too, and the follow-up: “How long have you wanted to be a writer?”

I don’t know what you’ll answer, but when it’s my turn I’ll say, “almost twenty years.”

I was in high school. I liked writing stories and I loved reading stories, but it never really occurred to me that, you know those authors you love to read? You could be one of them, until my English teacher told me, “you should be a writer.”

Like, the thought just hadn’t occurred to me. Obviously some people are writers, else I’d have nothing to read… but I could be one of them?

So then I got a degree in Computer Science and worked as a software developer for fifteen years, because that’s just how the story goes.

And now I’m thirty-five (well, almost thirty-six) and I still find myself wanting to be a writer, so… this is what I’m doing. I find myself thinking about someone who’s a teenager now, just imagining this for the first time. I don’t think, “well, it’s too late for me, but maybe…” No. It’s not too late for me, and if your answer to the question was “fifty years”, or your answer was “five years, but I’m already seventy”, it’s not too late for you, either.

But it doesn’t seem there’s anywhere you can look and see just what it takes to make all these writers we love into writers. If you ask them, it’s usually, oh, I’ve been writing since I was five, something something rejection letters and now I’ve published six novels. Okay, but… in between being five and writing five million words… you must have done something, right?

Well, I’m going to show you what happened. Starting with this: I’ve been dreaming about being a writer for twenty years. I don’t write regularly. For the last year or so I’ve been trying to build the habit of writing every day… and I haven’t done it yet.

If this turns out to be the only post on this blog, I guess you’ll know I failed or got eaten by carnivorous beetles. Otherwise, here’s how it works. Worked. Is working.

Join me.