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.

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

What difference does mindset make, anyway?

I did it again: I signed up for a ‘free indie author summit’, so I guess I’m on a bunch more authors’ mailing lists, and I have a bunch more videos to watch and take notes on.

This all seems great until you realize it’s just another form of procrastination. But let’s dutifully try to extract some value. The first three videos, by Joanna Penn, Adam Cross, and Jennifer Blanchard, are about “mindset”.

I’ve already been convinced mindset is important. The last few years of paying attention to people I admire, authors and entrepreneurs, makes a pretty compelling case. Among other things I’ve adopted the idea of doing daily affirmations: you get up in the morning, and you look in the mirror, and you tell yourself about the person you want to be.

I’ll admit it: I’m doing this every morning. I have a repeating reminder in my phone. I look in the mirror and I say out loud, “I am a successful author,” and then I describe what that looks like for me.

Does it help? Remains to be seen. The idea is, you put yourself in a mental state where you start to do the things that will make the visualization a reality.

I know, it sounds like airy-fairy nonsense to me, too.

Let’s put it this way, though: If you look in the mirror every day, literally or not, and tell yourself, “I’m a failure, I’ll never finish a whole novel, I’m no good at this, I’ll never be as good as whoever,” do you reckon your chances of success will,

a) improve,

b) plummet, or

c) stay the same?

I know you want to say it’ll have no effect whatsoever because we love to cling to the fantasy that we’re beings of pure reason, and surely nothing as stupid and unscientific as talking to ourselves could make any difference in our behaviour.

But you know what? There seems to be science that suggests it does, and it doesn’t take much introspection to realize your self-talk can really mess up your mood. So why wouldn’t that work in reverse?

And if there’s a chance this will yield an advantage and the only downside is I feel a little silly I don’t need to read twenty peer-reviewed articles to give it a shot.

I did get a good piece of clarifying advice from Jennifer’s video, though. She talked about shaping the mindset practice, that thing you do every day, to the place you are in your journey. Because ultimately the point of mindset is to guide your actions—if you don’t take action, your mindset is totally irrelevant. So if you’re just starting out, like I am, to build the habit of writing, structure your language around that. I’ve been saying things to myself like, “I’m a successfull author, I write books and have an audience of people that can’t wait to read them. I work on what I want, when I want, how I want, I live the lifestyle I want…” well, that’s a nice visualization of my desired identity, but it’s taking a long view.

Instead, Jennifer suggests something like this, based on the actions I need to perform:

“I really enjoy writing”

“It’s easy to sit down every day and write my words”

“I have a habit of writing every day”

“I’m excited to make a little more progress on the story I’m telling”

I like this because I like positive feedback loops. People think of the phrase “positive feedback loop” like the “positive” means “good”, but it doesn’t; it means “increasing in magnitude”, and we must focus on that. You set up your mindset to do certain things, then you do them and find out the mindset is slightly more aligned with reality (hey, I DID enjoy writing my words and making a little more progress), which strengthens your mindset, which makes it a little easier to live the things you’re telling yourself are true…

Repeat a thousand times and call me in a year.

I’m going to give this a shot in the coming days and weeks and see if my consistency improves. If you try it, let me know how that goes for you, too.