Saturday, 20 September 2014

How Chasing The Muse Can Sometimes Scare Him Away

In my previous post I talked about how my word count for Redemption had plummeted in the last few weeks or so. You may remember that one of the reasons I put forward for this happening was that I'd got too deeply into Editor Mode, which wasn't the right one to be in considering I was still doing a lot of restructuring of the plot. I still feel that's the problem, but I decided to go deeper and try to work out what made me free-wheel down that particular one-way street in the first place. And, after a great deal of thinking (and the odd portion of medicinal chocolate) I've uncovered some interesting evidence.

I'm still excited about this story. It still feels like the one I'm meant to write before I try and write anything else, so it's not that the fire's burned out and I'm subconsciously hankering to do something else instead. I know the story I want to tell now, inside-out and backwards - heck, I've even abandoned my pantsing tendencies and outlined the thing - so I can't use the old 'I don't know where I'm supposed to go from here' chestnut either. For the first half of Draft Two I was chugging along nicely, so whatever's dragged me down to a snail's pace has happened only in the last couple of months. Hmmm.... what have I changed about my writing routine in that time?

And that's when it hit me. Quite a few things, actually.

When you want to write the best book you possibly can, you look for ways to help you do that. Ways to help you first find your Muse, and then chase him down and hold him like a hostage to your writerly bosom. You want his mojo raining down on you whenever it's Writing Time. And so, if you discover suggestions for helping you do that, you grab them and give 'em a whirl. I grabbed a few in the last couple of months, courtesy of a myriad of Writer's How-To books. I lurve those books. I gobble them up and swallow them down like a big blue whale hoovering krill. And some of the advice I read in these books - and have tried to follow - will probably work tremendously well. For some people. But I've now come to realise they didn't - and don't - work for me. I'm sharing them here so that, if it turns out they're as unsuitable for you as they are for me, you can avoid making the same mistakes as I did (I kick sand in my own face so you don't have to, as it were.) So here they are - the Things I Must Now Stop Doing Because They're Totally Not Helping:

1 - I must stop reading so many writing how-to books!
Did I mention I lurve those books? There are a million, squillion of them out there - and the lion's share of Kindle versions of them are ludicrously cheap as well. I'm talking less than the price of a cup of coffee. And loads of them are pretty good too - brilliant even. I've learned a ton of genuinely useful and insightful things from them. So I got into a habit of reading them regularly - a little, bite-sized chunk of one in a ten-to-fifteen-minute feast every morning, just before I begun my writing session. And boy oh boy, was that inspiring! I would put the book down, infused with the heady cocktail of Successful Writers' Secrets and absolutely panting to get to my computer and immediately put them into practice. In terms of giving me a massive kick up the motivation it was like an intravenous double espresso - if I hadn't felt in the mood to sit down and write before each reading session, I sure as heck was afterwards...

Until I actually started tapping out words onto the page, that is.

Suddenly everything I was typing didn't look good enough anymore. Was it showing not telling in the clever way described in that book I'd just read? Is putting that bit in a terrible cliche like that other book warned against? In fact, does this whole scene follow the arc structure recommended in that other book that was so great...? I'd studied the texts, and now my poor old brain was thinking I had to pass the exam to prove I'd learned it all properly. Not the way to write freely and creatively.

I still stand by my original statement; there are some fantastic books out there on the writing craft that I would thoroughly recommend because I do believe they can help people become better writers. But, like the yummier versions of stuff we put in our mouths to feed ourselves each day, too much too often is not good for your writing health. So I'm putting myself on a How-To-Book Diet - I can still have them, but only as an occasional treat, not a daily snack before writing sessions. I may well get cranky and headachey for a week or so, but in the long run I think it will do me good.

2 - I must stop obsessing about my productivity!
One of the pieces of advice I read in one of the aforementioned how-to books talked about pinning down your most productive time to write. Some people are at their creative peak early in the morning, it stated, while others find they work better late afternoon or even late at night. The key to ensuring you're always working at maximum capacity, therefore, is to discover when you are at your most creative and strive to set that time aside in your schedule for writing. The process advised for doing that was to devise a spreadsheet to track not just the hours you spent writing each day, but the precise times you began and ended those writing sessions and the resulting word count for each of those sessions. Within two or three months, it was assured, a definite pattern should emerge as to which hours of the day produced the highest word counts.

Well, as an ex-software techie and ever-so-slightly-OCD person, I was definitely up for that! I already had an Excel spreadsheet for tracking my hours devoted to writing projects (to make sure I kept up my targeted at-least-ten-hours-a-week schedule) so it was just a matter of tweaking that to record the extra layer of detail. Soon the secrets of my productivity peak would be revealed to me... what could possibly go wrong?

Well... turns out that, in a situation like this, being ever-so-slightly-OCD is something of a hindrance to the process.

Well I spent two hours writing that page there, but in that time I deleted large chunks and rewrote them three times, so is the total wordcount Microsoft Word's giving me an accurate assessment of how many words I actually wrote in those two hours or isn't it? And if I stop for lunch now, do I stop my 'session' and resume it once I've finished - even if that means I've only been writing for half an hour - because I can't write while I'm eating so if I included the time spent eating lunch in my session that wouldn't be a true reflection of my word count either?  What about toilet breaks - they probably distort the accuracy of my word counts too, surely? And since I've got this column that calculates how many words-per-hour I'm writing in each session... Excel can only handle time in decimal format, so if I don't want to give it (or, more accurately, myself) a migraine I'll have to make sure I only write in chunks of time I can divide decimally. And I can't record any times of less than an hour, because the formula I'm using to calculate words-per-hour multiplies any value of less than one (no, I don't know why either but it does - hey, I became a software technician to tell computers to do maths on my behalf, okay?) And that'll distort my word count even further...

And I'm supposed to concentrate on writing my novel when I've got all that swimming around in my brain?

But the most ironic thing of all? The results I did collect told me... nothing at all. Actually no, that's not entirely true. They told me that I always seemed to write roughly about the same time of day every day, give or take an hour. Well, yeah - there's a reason for that. That part of the day every day is the only time I get to fit in my writing sessions - at all other times of the day I'm busy doing the things I have to do to run a house and raise a kid and all that other stuff. And in the two months of tracking, my word count for those times every day was so varied the only 'pattern' emerging was that there wasn't one. Chocolate consumption probably had more of an effect. Or possibly... the brain-screwing stress of tracking my every writing moment to the nth degree..!

So I've reverted to a simpler, less scary spreadsheet. I track the total hours spent on a project each day, and the word count for that. I then have weekly totals for hours and word counts. And that's it. If I was the Mel Gibson version of William Wallace I would be painting my face blue and screaming "Frreeedommmm!" right now.

3 - I must stop treating the prep for my writing sessions like Sacred Rituals!
Lots of writers have their little 'things' they like to do to get themselves 'in the zone' for a writing session. Some like to have a pot of coffee brewing, so they can imbibe as they write. Others have specific snacks within grabbing distance. My main two are my Writing Soundtrack - a specific collection of instrumental pieces of music that reflect the mood of whatever I'm working on, playing low in the background as I write - and burning scented candles (the latter is particularly helpful if I'm also banning myself from eating chocolate that day.)

As I said, little things like these are great for getting yourself in the right frame of mind for writing. But if you get into a mindset where you believe you can't write as effectively without them... that's when they can start working against you. Sometimes I buy a different brand of scented candle than my usual, preferred one - and when I use it at home it doesn't actually have any scent at all, because it's just a cheap rip-off of a scented candle. Or my husband finishes his appointments early to work from home, and I can't have my music on because he needs to be able to make work-related phone calls without 'background distractions.' Just recently - well, round about the same time as I started getting snared by the above activities, actually - if either of those things happened it felt like someone had slammed the brakes on my writing session. How could I possibly bury myself in my writing and produce anything decent without the scent of Vanilla Honey wafting around, and tunes like Still Alive tinkling away in the background? No wonder my word-count-per-hour was so low today! And no wonder I was failing to make proper use of Setting to show not tell in this scene, like it said in that book I read earlier..!

They say a bad workman blames his tools - and that was me, blaming a lack of access to tools that - in all honestly - weren't essential to getting the job done. Nice to have, yeah - like a massage is a nice thing to have at the end of a stressful day (so I'm told.) But does not having said massage render you incapable of functioning? No. You just carry on without it. My writing rituals are not magic spells that enable me to channel my Mystic Writing Spirit Guide - they're just Stuff I Tend To Do while I'm writing.

So there we go. I tried to chase my Muse - but he thought I was hunting him down and ran the hell away. Guess that's what happens when you go after him with an arsenal of equipment and a slightly deranged look in your eye. Next time I shall just remember the wise words of Stephen King - just  show up at the page regularly and eventually he'll hang around of his own accord.

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