Thursday, January 31, 2008

Long interruption of work

Except for my two-week road trip last summer, this is the longest interruption in my work, and it will go on a few more days at least. I haven't been working on my book at all since, I think, the Tuesday before last.

The reason is that my freelance writing assignments have gotten out of hand. Organizing my life to allow for writing a novel depends on my protecting my mornings from appointments -- protecting it like a fierce mama duck. But that hasn't been possible. Some days I've been taking appointments that I could never have gotten otherwise and other days I was so busy with appointments in the afternoon that I had to spend the mornings writing my assignments to meet the deadlines. Worked over the weekend too.

My hope is that the assignments just happened to be piled up a little right now and when I knock off a couple I can manage the pace of them a little better so that I just stay busy in the afternoons only.

Back to teaching since last week too.

Well, I'm inclined to guilt about not prioritizing my novel, but I try to think of it this way -- one of the ways I am prioritizing my novel is to seize this opportunity to lock in some clients so that I can depend on that income over the long term.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Time constraints on my writing

Didn't work any over the long weekend and not much this morning. I had intended to write yesterday but I ended up taking a morning meeting that had been rescheduled several times. I try to treat that writing period as sacred, but I can see it getting infringed on a lot as I get busier with my freelance writing business. It was my choice to go ahead the accept that proposed meeting time, but I felt like I wasn't going to be able to juggle things if I postponed it again.

A similar thing this morning. I had only worked about 40 minutes, I was at a natural break in the work and was trying to psyche myself up for another push in a new section, and my phone rang. I ought to have ignored it, but my work involves so much phone tag I couldn't resist the opportunity to finally scratch off my list one of the several people I was waiting on to hear from.

I'm going to have to learn to be hardcore about it or . . . I don't know what. In general I have to figure out how to control the rhythm of mental and emotional energy I put into my freelance writing assignments. I'm not billing for all the time that I'm obsessing about things--just for the time I actually work--so I have to try my mind to compartmentalize a lot better.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Finished Chapter 4

Less than an hour work this morning, but I "finished" Chapter 4 I think. By "finished" I mean I did all the excavation and development work that I can think of and I'm ready to show it to my wife, which has become the routine. With the first two chapters, I still wasn't finished at this point because her feedback sent me to working on those chapters for a couple more days. With Chapter 3 I just took notes on her comments to circle back to in the next rewrite, which is what I hope happens here so I can push on to Chapter 5.

Like I said at the beginning, Chapter 4 is one of the strongest, which is why I got through it relatively quickly. Chapter 5 is also strong, but it is more profoundly affected by the changes in the early chapters, so the material that's there--no matter how strong it is--may not fit so much and I'm in a position of drafting new material. The whole idea of what Chapter 5 is there for--how it serves the story--is up in the air. I think it's going to be more and more like that for the rest of the book as I'm doing this rewrite. So I don't anticipate a lot of speedy work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Suffering for sport, some more

I had one of my least productive mornings ever. About 30 minutes of real concentration. It's all because of basketball. I have to take Tylenol PM to get to sleep and when I get up in the morning it takes hours to clear the fog, not to mention the pain that has me feeling beat down.

I really do hope to finish this chapter tomorrow though. At least to the point where I usually have my wife read it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Easily distracted

Average Tuesday. Worked slightly more than an hour today, including some new drafting--about 700 words maybe. I think I've been doing this long enough to say that my inclination and habit is one hour of work, which is a lot less than I would like. And a lot less than I thought I was capable of. It would take a disciplined effort I haven't felt motivated to develop for me to put the kind of energy in that I did during the drafting stage. Maybe if, like then, I didn't have anything else going on to lure me away.

Also, I think the environment of being at my computer in my office instead of on the porch with a notebook in my lap makes a big difference. For example, twice today when the "connection" was broken and I wasn't living in the moment of the story but was back in the present, I couldn't resist checking my email. It's just a click away. When I was drafting, sitting on the porch, and the connection was broken, I usually stared at the back of my house or at the shrubs next to the porch and daydreamed my way back into the story. There wasn't anything for my hands to do except hold the pen and no screen with links to infinite information for me to look at.

At this rate . . . I'm not going to be done by this summer, and I don't like the thought of that.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Same same

Worked a little less than an hour today, but I hit one of those natural stopping points and it's hard to ramp up again for a new push, and I'm feeling distracted by other work I need to do. I'm not feeling very disciplined lately.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A rut?

Woke up late today, got a late start and didn't do much more than tinker with the chapter for awhile. It ought to be comparatively easy to get this chapter in good shape, but I'm not mustering the energy for it. My mind is easily turned to other things and won't stick to the work in front of me.

Like Jane Smiley says, boredom with the work is really a symptom of something else, usually fear and uncertainty. I guess I'll have to go through this in every chapter.

What not to think about

I’ve gotten this far by trying really hard not to daydream about any kind of success beyond doing the book right. People ask me things like “so you intend to get it published, right?” Or “Remember us when you’re on Oprah.” Or “Have you started looking for an agent yet?” Or “How much money do the film rights go for these days?”

And then I put my ears in my fingers go “Nya! Nya! Nya! Nya! I’m not thinking about that!” No matter how obvious (of course, I want it to be published) I just try to think of nothing except what it will take to get it written.

I’m not trying to climb on a moral high horse about it. I can imagine some writers taking the stance that if one is thinking about publishing that one isn’t really serious about one’s art. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t care. To me it’s about reigning in the OCD. In my previous attempt to write a novel I spent a lot of time fantasizing about the publication and the celebrity that would naturally come, and I could almost convince myself that that kind of daydreaming was almost like planning, which is almost like work which is almost like I was working on my novel, which of course it wasn't. That behavior was one of the reasons I never finished that novel.

As I’ve said several times before, my mantra through this process has been “just add sentences.” If I’m not adding sentences, I’m not doing what’s most important. That goes for thinking in fantastic ways about publication. That goes for thinking in very realistic ways about publication. And it goes for wondering if my writing is serious enough. All of those are distractions that I’m determined not to think about.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Since the butterfly flapped its wings

About an hour of work this morning and I finished my first read through and fussing with Chapter 4 and have notes on what I need to work. It needs some thought about character and motivation and then some development based on that, but not so much I hope as in other chapters so I should get through it fairly quickly if I can devote attention to it. I'm coming to my desk in the morning squeezed on the front end by fatigue and lack of sleep and squeezed on the back end by a sense of urgency about other work and home responsibilities, so I'm not putting my best energy into this right now.

What I'm really struggling with is the pace of plot and character development and how that necessarily changes as a result of how previous chapters have been rewritten. I feel like I've done everything meaningful that Chapter 5 is currently designed to do, so I'm worried Chapter 5 is going to feel repetitive. The obvious solution is to cut it. But something is telling me that's too drastic and I need to make it work in there--that if it weren't there things would be sped up too much.

I guess another way to put it is if you can imagine that a one-pound bucket of stuff needs to be established in a given chapter, since I started my rewrite about 3/4 of a pound of the stuff from Chapter 5 has been established earlier. That still leaves 1/4 pound of important stuff to justify Chapter 5, but it would be a pretty thin chapter and sound largely repetitive.

The real solution I suspect--and it's intimidating to think about--is to adjust my thinking away from "what needs to happen" to "what would happen." In other words, stop trying to make the story serve my plan for getting it done and instead focus on bringing out the fullness of the story that isn't there yet. That might mean keeping the episode in Chapter 5 as platform and rewriting it from scratch based on a new understanding of what the characters have gone through in the meantime. That is a ton of new and intense work. I don't mind doing it--I just regret how long it will take.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Suffering for sport

My regular basketball game was off for several weeks and resumed last night, so once again I'm waking up with a lot of pain and too little sleep on Wednesdays, which makes it hard to get to the writing desk.

Nevertheless, I put in about 1:15. At this rate, I should finish a complete slow read-through and tinkering of Chapter 4 tomorrow. There are some organization problems I have to circle back and straighten out. Those are annoying and time consuming, but they're not really intellectually taxing. I still feel like this Chapter is the strongest so far, so possibly it won't need any real serious thought and development and I can get past it quickly. I still haven't looked at the climax, so that's not definite.

My paying work is starting to accumulate a little more. So instead of feeling guilty that I don't work more than an hour when I have a whole morning available I might get to the point where I'm trying to protect the one hour so I can work that much.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Starting Chapter 4

On Saturday I had my wife read chapter 3, and she did help identify some improvements that need to be made. On the one hand, if I don't take care of them now I risk going dead ends in later chapters on because of things in the story that I've left unresolved. But my instinct is telling me that the better bet is to leave chapter 3 behind me for awhile. I've been on it too long and have felt too discouraged about it for awhile.

Chapter 4 I think has always had the among the strongest imagery and strongest emotional whallops. When I was drafting it and I got to the climactic moment, I started crying. It was a lot like being caught up in a very emotional movie. I often have the experience when I'm drafting of being intensely in the scene, like I'm living it, but that was uniquely powerful.

Anyway, though I don't doubt that Ch. 4 needs a lot of work, I'm hoping that it will at least give me back a lot of confidence to see some strong work already laid out there.

I spent about an hour getting started on it this morning. Less than I wanted, but I have some other freelance work deadlines I need to deal with.

Friday, January 4, 2008

My pile of scrap lumber--a kind of end to Chapter 3

With very little confidence and satisfaction, I wrote an end to Chapter 3 and have it in my head that I'm done working on it for awhile. I haven't yet had my wife look at it like I did previous chapters, so we'll see. Maybe that will inspire me to work on it some more next week.

I started work on the rewrite on Dec. 7, so I'm way off of my goal of doing a chapter a week.

It's 50 pages and 16,113 words. It started out as 17 pages and 5,970 words, so you can't say I haven't been writing. At this rate, after the first rewrite I'll have a manuscript that's about 400,000 words, which is about 300,000 words too long. Chapter 3 itself ought to be closer to its original length of 17 pages, so what I really have at this point isn't a finished chapter so much as a pile of scrap lumber to sort through. It lays out a ton of different themes and minor story lines and doesn't resolve or escalate any of them very powerfully.

(Those figures aren't counting the 10 pages (3,400 words) of material that I save in a kind of dust bin. My typical process as I'm rewriting is if I ever cut out as much as a paragraph or longer, I paste it at the end of the Word doc in a section I call "leftovers" in case I change my mind and want to bring that stuff back. So my Chapter 3 document is actually 60 pages long with the "end chapter" mark coming on page 50.)

I just looked back at my blog for Dec. 5 when I finished Chapter 2. I was feeling pretty doubtful then, and I feel even less satisfied with how Chapter 3 has gone. The sense of not doing good work is starting to wear on me. So I have to remind myself . . .

. . . collecting the pile of scrap lumber is a necessary part of it. The Chapter 3 that I need will emerge from this eventually. I found my working title. I found a unifying metaphor to help keep me focused in this chapter and in the rest. I can describe my overall plot and how character and theme and setting intertwine with that better than I could a month ago.

My plan is to get my wife's feedback over the weekend, maybe make some notes on what to address the next time I come back around to this chapter and move on to Chapter 4 on Monday. We'll see.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

False peak

I wrote an ending to chapter 3 this morning, but I knew immediately that it wasn't right. A cop out ending that avoided the hard work.

That's ok, though. The material I wrote to get up to it is useful. Even the ending itself might be useful--it might still end that way if I do the development work that make it the right ending. It's part of discovering the story.

I spent the rest of the time going through the chapter pretty quickly from the beginning. It's insanely long--about 50 pages, so I'll have some challenges ahead figuring out how to focus it. Mostly I was looking to remind myself of what the conflicts are, what was promised that I need to deliver on at the end of the chapter.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Back to work, slowly

Less than an hour of work this morning. About 600 new words--still in Chapter 3. That brings me right up to the climax of the chapter, which I'll try to do tomorrow.

On the one hand, I ought to press on and get more done today, but my mind is on work deadlines, so I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to get right with the world.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf over the last couple days, and I recommend it. (I finished it after midnight after turning off Dick Clark, so it's the first book on my 2008 list. That's the OCD I was referring to earlier.) It's a very interesting experiment in form that feels like there's nothing unusual about it but adds up in layers to something larger. The whole thing is strongly implied in the title and in the explanation of the title at the beginning and then is made clear by the title of the last chapter.

Resolved for the New Year: Insist on good work

My New Year's resolution list was pretty easy to make. It started and ended with "finish the novel."

In all seriousness, I don't have any doubt that I can finish it this year. In fact, I'll be disappointed if it takes me the whole year. My real goal is to balance being very aggressive about the pace of the work with being very uncompromising in the quality. I know I'm going to be tempted sometimes to say "that's good enough" when my better instincts are telling me that something isn't really complete.

There are two ways I know of that it is likely for me to do that. One way is relying an air of mystery to affect a complexity that isn't there. Another is to insist belligerently that all the material in a section is necessary instead of having the discipline and courage to identify what the section is really about and bringing that out and cutting the rest.

So, I'm confident that I can power through and work every day--I proved that to myself in 2007--and find some kind of path to a complete second draft and third draft or however many drafts are needed. But on top of my good working habits I need to develop the habit of doing good work. The stretch goal for me is holding myself to high standards when I'm tempted by shortcuts.