Overcoming Inertia

Inertia – it’s not just for physics anymore.

I’m having a bit of trouble with inertia. Had a bad week at work, and once I came to a mental stop after all the effort of the week, I found that I couldn’t get going again, not even to do things I liked. I was meant to do some writing this weekend. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Yet.

A mind at rest tends to stay at rest, but just as in physics, one in motion also tends to stay in motion. But the real trick is expending the energy to get back into motion. Mostly to motivate myself I’ve collected a few tidbits I picked up from various sources to apply to getting back on the writing horse.

Lessons from Depression: I need to remember my body is an instrument for writing as much as my pen. I find it too easy to neglect myself. Forget to eat. Take a shower. Brush my hair. But taking care of my body will make it easier to gear up my mental energy for another task. (P.S. Ericka, this also works if you’ve been working too long. You don’t do your best work with an instrument in less-than-optimal condition.)

Lessons from Psychology: I need to find the minimum enjoyable task. Instead of being overwhelmed into inaction, I can pick the smallest amount of work I can stand to do and just do that. Reduce my expectations and it’ll reduce the start-up energy required to overcome my inertia.

Lessons from Agile: Shoot for the minimum viable product. I need to direct my energy toward a task that matters, rather than wasting time on tasks that need to be done, but aren’t directly contributing to completing my work. While it may feel good to complete something, ANYTHING, unimportant organization or background tasks waste energy that could go toward getting the important parts done.

Lessons from Housecleaning: I can’t clean the whole house at once. On the same note, I can’t write the whole book at once. It’s like trying to clean the kitchen, and the living room, and the bathroom simultaneously. Focus on one room and resist the urge “pick up a few things” while I’m moving an item from one room to another.

Maybe the most important is to remember to do the thing I like. Treating my creative work like a chore is the fastest way to turn it into one. Sure, I’ll have the write the parts I don’t like as much eventually, but staring down that boring scene I feel no desire to write isn’t going to get me to write it any faster. Or better. Or give me anything other than a mediocre result.

All right. Back away from the blog post, Ericka. Any more self-pep-talk and you’re just wasting energy that could be going towards writing your novel.





The Myth of the Power Through

Just read an article about a person who “wrote a book that became a bestseller” in 30 days. The headline is misleading at best. The CEO of a corporation took a vacation to Bali, wrote 30,000 words on a non-fiction topic in which he/she is an acknowledged expert in the field, and self-published it on Amazon where it became a best seller in its category. Not to put down the accomplishment, but this is a far cry from what the title tries to sound like. First off, any writer can tell you non-fiction is, if not easier to write, at least is faster. Plus, for a novelist, 30,000 words isn’t a book. It’s a novella. As for self-publishing, this person has neatly leveraged preexisting networking and marketing to bring in sales.

What we have here is not instant success if you just believe in the power of your dreams. This was a person with connections and expertise who took some time to write and publish about the subject. But beyond promoting the myth that anyone can become an instant self-published success, it taps a deeper myth I’ve been struggling with lately – the myth of the power-through. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that tells you if you just power through the hard work in one big marathon session you can accomplish anything.

I fall into this trap all the time. “I have three hours tonight. I’ll just sit down and power through the next three chapters of my book.” I don’t, of course. I’m tired, and hungry, and those stupid chores like cooking and showering take up way more time than I bargained for. It’s not just writing, either. I spent 2.75 days at work with full-on bronchitis because I had work to do. I figured I’d be OK if I just “powered through it.” I discovered how very wrong I was when I had to leave at 3pm, exhausted and barely able to breathe. The result of powering through was a sick day, another day working at half-capacity, and a weekend where I should have been fine spent re-learning how to breathe.

The problem is, when I was young and energetic, it worked. I could survive an all-night cram session fueled by caffeine and force of will. It was easy to drag myself into work with a pesky cold. There weren’t any permanent repercussions, only the temporary discomfort, which passed once I was done powering through it. So I internalized it. I really seem to believe there’s nothing I can’t accomplish with just the application of a few hours of uninterrupted concentration.

Here’s where I have to call shenanigans on myself. Because this fundamental belief just isn’t true. There are a few problems with my hindsight. When I was young, those projects had a tendency to be smaller and less complex. Think about it a minute. Cramming for a test isn’t learning a huge amount of new material all in one night. I’d been absorbing this information all along. Studying cements the data in your brain; it’s not usually laying down new track.

I can’t avoid it anymore, though. Powering through doesn’t work. I’m becoming uncomfortably aware that powering through is a procrastination tactic in disguise. It puts off the hard work until a later time, when I have uninterrupted hours to work on it. Except that never happens anymore. There’s always something waiting to be done. That thing is always more complex than it used to be. There are more of those things demanding my time. I have to accept that when I say I’m going to power through, I’m just procrastinating.

From now on, it’s all about the little things. Because to get through the long haul I have to relate the big tasks to what I do today, right now. A fifteen minute session filling out a character development worksheet may not feel like progress on the novel, but it’s fifteen minutes of work done, which is more than I had before. And a Saturday afternoon watching Netflix isn’t a wasted afternoon – my mind can’t work every waking minute if I expect it to keep working. Balance and incremental progress is how I’m really going to get through life, not this myth of concentrated productivity.

So excuse me while I go disabuse myself of the notion that I’m going to magically use every hour of my writer’s retreat to power through this novel I haven’t finished. I believe there’s a pool and margaritas around here somewhere. Those’ll make the next fifteen minute writing sprint WAY more productive.

I Need Sunshine, Warmth and, Apparently, a Nap

It’s amazing the difference a little sunshine and warmth makes.

We writers think we are creatures of the mind. We believe writing takes place independent of the bodies those minds are attached to. We build up this myth where words come from a diet of caffeine and bad habits, because all we need is what’s inside our head, not the plebeian demands of our neglected bodies.

It ain’t true. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed. I’ve been sick, you see – not a little under the weather sick, but the kind where you aren’t sure if you should be at home or on your way to the hospital. And then you are sure it’s almost over when it comes back. And you think it’s totally pneumonia but nooooooooo, there’s no rattle and it’s just a little congestion but you’re allergic to everything on the shelf at Walgreens. Oh, wait. That’s just me.

But that’s when I noticed. First off, nothing ruins a day playing hookie from work like actually being sick. I knew I had stuff to do. Not just work stuff, not just personal stuff, but writing stuff. And I would have done it, too, if it weren’t for that pesky need to breathe. Made everything take way more effort than it should have been. In other words, it took too much energy to think.

I was forcibly reminded that my mind is part of my body, and maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the parts of me that aren’t responsible for thinking. Really, I’d been treating all those things I do for my body as a chore. They hardly felt worth the effort I spent on them, especially when there were all those other things I needed to do and wasn’t getting done. Now I realize I probably wasn’t doing them because I let myself get run down with stress, bad food, and too much caffeine. Then reached for more bad food, alcohol and binge watching Netflix to make it better. I just needed a little down time, I said to myself.

It wasn’t a little down time I needed. Decent food, yes. Uninterrupted sleep, yes. A shower that lasted more than 2 minutes. Oh, yeah. And some sunshine and warmth.

I hate winter, absolutely hate it. It’s cold, it’s wet, and no matter how many layers I wear the cold seeps in around the edges. Spring comes like a revelation. This spring, now that it’s finally taken instead of just toying with me, brought back my mind with it. A couple of afternoons of sunshine and above 70 degree temperatures and suddenly I have all sorts of energy. Breathing is still a little touchy, though. So I’ve been spending the weekend trying to balance my desire to delve into half-a-dozen projects with the fact that I’m not as over the bronchitis as it feels when I’m basking in the warm afternoon sun.

In fact, I should probably stop trying to write a profound blog post about the value of your body to the creative process. It sounded amazing in my head when I started writing, but now that i’m rambling into my text editor it kind of sounds like I need a nap. So maybe I should come back later, when my body feels good enough to form the though coherently. Time for profound realizations later, after I’ve taken care of the parts of me that don’t write blog posts.

Is the Trunk So Bad?

I was reading submission guidelines recently, and ran across the instruction “don’t send us your trunk stories.”

After a small detour where my brain imagined story ideas about trunks (car trunks, elephant trunks, steamer trunks, swim trunks…the list keeps going, folks) I brought it back around to what the submission guidelines were really saying: don’t send us your old stories that didn’t sell before. Then I thought: what a load of crock.

I think I could classify almost every story I’ve sold as a trunk story. Most of them went through enough rejections to gain that classification; my latest sale sat for a long time before the submission guidelines for a magazine inspired me to dust it off and send it out. The editor for that magazine inspired me further with a request for a rewrite on the end. If anything qualified as a trunk story, that one did.

I’ll admit I struggled with the decision. Heck, my first reaction upon dusting off this particular story was: what a piece of junk. I still loved the idea, but I’d grown enough as a writer to recognize it wasn’t my best work. OK – it wasn’t even on the top 10 list. I put in hours reworking it with my newer, greater writing skill set. It looked, and felt, a LOT better when I was finished.

So why are editors extorting me not to send them trunk stories? I think the key is the rework. When I got the editor comments back and she didn’t like the ending, my first reaction was to come to its defense. Of course my ending was perfect! She simply wasn’t getting the nuances of the five pages of epilogue I’d left in. How could an audience grasp the fine emotional gradations without the subplot about the little boy?

All of which was nonsense. She was perfectly right – the ending was too long, the point buried in a meandering scene with too many characters and not enough action. I rewrote it, too. But I think the aversion to so-called trunk stories stems from that emotional desire to defend our work instead of admitting its faults. It’s not the age of the story that’s the problem, it’s the emotional attachment to our characters, our plot lines, our ridiculous prose that we labored so hard to produce. We just don’t have the heart to transform those labors of love with cold, emotionless logic.

I was right not to leave the story in my metaphorical trunk. Forget about the trunk. What the editors are really saying is get over yourself and send us the good stuff. And I say you can’t truly love your own work if you aren’t willing to tear it apart and rebuild it stronger, faster, better. You don’t get the Bionic Story without cutting into its skin and upgrading the essential organs.

Look out, editors. I’m sending you my trunk stories. (Lee Majors not included.)

A Noveling I Go…

Agile seems to be working so far, even though the new process occasionally melts my brain. Specifically, User Stories.

A user story is Agile’s way of breaking down your work into easy-to-handle bits. There’s a couple of different conventions for how a user story is structured, but they all essentially include a name, a description, and some criteria for when it’s complete. However, with a creative endeavor like a novel, it’s not as easy to quantify these things as it seems at first.

I kind of cheated, since I already use short names to label my scenes/chapters – a word or phrase that feels evocative of the scene. Once I realized that was enough for a user story name, I was good. But the description became a bit more complex. It I felt I’d sucked all the fun out of the writing process as I detailed what plot point I had to hit, which character points should be highlighted. So mechanical.

At first. But here was where I had to hit myself over the head with a clue-by-four. Duh. This is Agile. I don’t have to stick precisely to the listed points, and the format of Agile allows me to change upcoming scenes to adapt to any changes I make along the way. A blend of plotting and pantsing.

OK, I know I wasn’t married to the outline before this, but I got stuck, you know? I’d stop because I was unhappy with the outline, but didn’t really know what I should put in its place. Or I’d obsessively changing the outline to explore a new concept, stopping the writing dead in its tracks. Or any other number of distractions I’d engineer to keep me from moving along. The Agile structure seems to be keeping me writing, while freeing me from the plodding feeling that always plagued me before. No, Ericka, leave Facebook alone and just finish this one thing…

I finished my Act One. All the chapters written, though still in a bit of a rough form, they are at least presentable. I developed the user stories for Act Two and plan on starting those tonight. I’m still struggling with how to properly format my completion criteria. Scenes are as long as they are, after all. But I’ve been assured that it’s all right for me to simply loosely hit my listed points and call that “done” as long as I go and clean up the grammar, spelling and minor continuity issues before putting the draft to bed. That way I’ve created my “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP), a sacred Agile concept that you have something complete to show for your efforts.

I’ve been told MVP is the secret genius of Agile. A series of small accomplishments to motivate you to finish the next user story, and the next, instead of having to wait until the end to get the golden feel-good glow of a job well done. I’ll admit I like the discrete stages I’m working through: a bit of worldbuilding, some character work, story-mapping into scenes until I have a list of scenes to write for the next act. Rinse and repeat for the next iteration. How many acts will it be? I don’t know, and that’s OK.

I’ve had a few people suggest that this isn’t any different than “normal” writing methods and I could do it without all the Agile rigmarole. But I LIKE the Agile rigmarole. It’s organization without the rigidity. Enough stops to reassess my work without drawing me completely out of the flow. Enough accomplishments to make me feel there’s progress, not just more of the same. Enough flexibility that I know what I can decide later, instead of trying to lay it all out before I even know what I’m doing.

In short, it’s a system. I suppose to truly be Agile I’d have to publish Act One soon and get all the lovely joys of “Oh, my God it’s OUT THERE for people to read.” but as my SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) have pointed out, serialization requires a backlog so your readers don’t forget you waiting for the next installment. I’m not George R.R. Martin; I can’t get away with making people wait. So I move on.

It feels good to have something done.

“The Problem With the Apocalypse”published!

I’m so excited to announce that my short story “The Problem with the Apocalypse” has been published in Creepy Campfire Quarterly #5!

Get it on Amazon. You know you want to. Well, I want you to. No, I’m sure you want to, too. Really. I’m positive. I think. That’s not my insecurity talking. Well, not much. OK, I’m completely insecure. PLEASE READ MY STORY. Please?

That devolved quickly.

A Crisis of Management

Agile Novel Management has revealed some…unexpected things.

First, I’m not going this alone. I’d thought I would be and help stepped in from unexpected directions. I have professional help. No, not a therapist – though that may become a writing expense before this is all over. I’ll tell you that part in a minute. No, a friend who is a professional Scrum Master offered to pilot this project with me. He’d been wondering for a while how to apply Agile to normal life and figured my novel would make a fertile test ground. I also found another writer interested in trying out the Agile Way. He’s looking for a way to get his finished as well, and thought this sounded like an interesting method.

SOOOOOOO…the first thing I learned is how little I actually know about Agile. I jumped into this with the cozy cushion of Dunning-Kruger below me, only to notice after I leaped I had NO IDEA what waited for me on the way down. I haven’t even gotten to actual writing work yet. The first steps for Agile involve establishing the parameters for your project. And – I made stunning realization number one.

I never would have thought of myself as indecisive. Yet here I am, wavering on literally every decision that needs to be made. Do I self-publish as a serial? I was set on that, until I talked with some friends who thought I was short-changing myself if I didn’t give traditional publishing a try. Picked the book, until another friend told me she liked one of my other ideas better, and I thought of a couple of more and ….well, you get the picture.

I keep trying to leave my options open. But while Agile is about flexibility, even Agile can’t magically allow me to have it both ways. Perhaps I’ve discovered why I couldn’t get a novel written earlier. I’ve been shying away from commitment. All those of you who know me may gasp appropriately. I know. I couldn’t believe it, either. If there’s one thing I can so, it’s make a decision. Yet here I am, waffling. Why?

Queue stunning realization number two. I’m afraid. Insert another shocked gasp here. Me? I blaze trails for everyone else to follow. And that, I think, is part of my problem. A friend recently reminded me that most people don’t have a passion in life, and don’t know how to relate to someone who does. I write to give expression to my emotions, to share them with other people. I’m afraid that I will pour all my passion into this project and no one will read it.

It’s not an unrealistic fear. Any author will tell you marketing a novel is harder than writing one. I am a published author, and yet very few people I know have ever actually read any of the stories I got published. I find it hard to have conversations with people, because it feels like people avoid talking to me. How am I supposed to succeed marketing my novel when I can barely get people to say good morning after I’ve said it first? I know no one notices me unless I’m standing right in front of them. They look away and poof! forget I exist. I don’t even have family members I can guilt into buying my book. No, really. Don’t tell my relatives I’m writing a book. They might find me, then I’d have to get a restraining order….

Stunning realizations one and two stem from the same deep-seated issue. I’m avoiding committing because I don’t know what will make people like my book. I know, I know, I should write what I want and not care what other people want. But I already know that if I write it, they WON’T come. And what’s the point of writing a novel if no one reads it?

Agile’s forcing me to face my emotions head-on. I must admit, that wasn’t what I was expecting when I started. Most writers would tell you they need therapy, and that’s why they write. Apparently I need therapy to write a business plan.