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Entries in Bird by Bird (5)


Reflections on Week Ten

[Read the completed story here!]

This one was shockingly not at all difficult for me. Is it that Microfiction Week detonated all my blocks and barriers, or did Dean Wesley Smith's advice inspire me to better discipline, or both? Whatever the case, I seem to have a much easier time with nonfiction than I do with fiction. Writing Week Five's story (once I knew what to write) was also a great experience. 

I drafted this a bit differently than the others: probably for the first time ever, I put no pressure on myself for this thing to make sense. In my half-hour each morning I would just try to capture a few moments or feelings I remember having during my year as an adjunct college professor. These little scenes were in no order whatsoever, and I didn't have any idea how each of them (or any) would fit into a larger narrative. (In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises trying to describe only what you could see in a one-inch by one-inch picture frame. Without realizing this at the time, it's pretty much what I was doing here.)

Once I had over 2,000 words, I printed it off and cut each vignette into a separate strip of paper. Then I launched a hostile takeover of the kitchen table, as can be seen below:

[Yesthose scissors are pink.]

I know I've read a few times that this is a great way to revise a story, but of course I've always been too much of a procrastinating perfectionist control freak to actually give it a try. I'm glad I didI was pretty easily able to group the slips by chronological sequence and emotional throughline. Several of them didn't fit anywhere, and that too was quickly apparent. And some others were created in revision to bridge gaps. 

I'm pretty happy with the end result, but kind of sad that I had to stop. I didn't touch at all on all the plagiarism (unintentionial and the other kind) I encountered, or the challenge of teaching non-native English speakers something I barely understood myself. At some point down the road, once I have some distance, I'll probably revisit this piece and expand it, maybe even submit it somewhere. 

Anyway, give it a read and tell me what you think!


New year, new approach

Let me wish you all a (slightly belated) new year! 

My resolution is to write at least 5 hours a week (half an hour Monday through Friday, and two and a half hours on Sunday... Saturday's for doing nothing), and during that time, to push for 1,000 words an hour. It sounds kind of impossible, but it actually feeds into something else I've been avoiding: allowing myself to write shitty first drafts.

Per Dean Wesley Smith, whose blog I am stealing this approach from:

How to set production goals

FIRST STEP… even if you are writing pretty well already, take an inventory of all the time you spend every day for three or four sample days. Doing everything.

Every minute in fifteen minute chunks. Do a log. And be honest. And also record your mental state during the time frame. For example, up at 6:30 but too tired to think until 8:30 and two cups of coffee.

After you have the log, figure out how much writing time you have.

Add in reading time, research time, and so on.

CAUTION!!!  Writing time is only writing time, creating new words only. Rewriting, researching, reading, taking a workshop is not writing time. Be clear on that because if you start to blur those lines, you will discover your new word production has decreased.


SECOND STEP… Keep time over a number of writing sessions how many NEW words you get done in an hour. Round that to a general number per hour. For example, I write slower at the starts of stories and faster at the ends. So the general number I use for myself is around 1,000 words per hour. I tend to be comfortable with that and many professional writers I know are in that range.

Find your own range and be clear on it and don’t tell us. This is for you to figure out for yourself.

THIRD STEP… Look at all your writing time from step one and your word count per hour from step two and figure out how much you could write in A PERFECT WEEK.

Divide that in half and that is your writing goal of new words per week.

Example: So say with your day job and kids, you can carve out ten hours per week of actual writing time. Divide that in half and if you write about 1,000 words per hour of new words, you will be producing 5,000 new words per week. (5 hours x 1,000 words = 5,000 words per week.)

Take two weeks off and you get 50 weeks x 5,000 words or 250,000 new words per year.

That’s just five hours per week.  That’s how you write a lot of words.

If you can manage to actually write ten hours per week of original fiction, just over one hour per day, you would produce a half million words of fiction in one year. (And you would be called one of the fastest writers in publishing if you worked that one-plus-hour per day for a few years. Not kidding.)

Read the rest here! (And be sure to read the other three parts in this series. Go aheadsome great Friday inspiration for the writerly soul. Dean knows his stuff.)

So I'm not setting my goal exactly as outlined (I haven't, for instance, sat down to figure out where every spare block of time is hiding in my day), but what's been working for me for the past week or so is to get up just a half-hour early every day and use that time to see if I can plop down 500 words.

That's it. Half an hour. 500 words.

The big revelation, you have probably already guessed, is that when I do this I'm finally, finally doing what you're supposed to do with a first draft: Get it down and fix it later. I've known since I first read Bird by Bird (probably 10 years ago now) that you can't let yourself worry about perfection when the creative brain is engaged, and yet I've continued to do precisely thatI'm forever tweaking what I write as I write it. 

BUT! With this approach, this speed challenge if you will, I really have no choice but to push past imperfection. The critical half of my thinky thing just doesn't have time to engage. Naturally, I'm still worried that what I'm writing is irredeemable crap, but this fear is steadily abating, to be replaced by wonder at the sheer number of words this seemingly endless story has now amassed: as I write this, 5566 words. And I'm guessing another 1000 before the first draft is actually done.

Is it good? Not the point. Maybe it will be great. Maybe it'll be... um... a learning experience. The point is that I actually have no idea whatsoever if this story is any good.

Not a clue. 

And that's pretty liberating.


Freewriting: An endorsement

I've always been a hungry consumer of advice about how to write but a reluctant practicioner of the same. Reading other writers' accounts of how they write was like writing except much, much easier. Those books are like candy to me: sweet, easy, and kind of addictive. (Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing remain my favorites, but I recently read a Kindle Single by Ann Patchett called The Getaway Car that was very good as wellI must have highlighed 60% of it.)

Anyway, most writers recommend freewriting as a way to get into your story, but until Week Five's challenge I had never done it. The thought of writing without a plan as to what I'm writing is terrifying for some reason, even though everyone and their third cousin agrees that it's so very productive.

Well, I thought Week Five turned out really well, so I finally strong-armed myself into trying this again for Week Six:

A journey into the psyche...

Could be a few things. Literal journey: kids' book or YA novel?

Or an exploratory essay/story about some aspect of the mind as it impacts one's life over the years: fear of the basement.

Could combine the two: child is terrified of basement, confronts colorful fears, finally embraces imagination. 

Translation: For Week Six I had been considering two different approaches—an actual journey where the threats/rewards of the tangled psyche are literal (at least to the character), or a more real life exploration of how a certain fear/predjudice carries forward through the years.

And then I realized, not ten minutes into this exercise, that these ideas could be one: a children's book where the character must, metaphorically and literally, confront his or her fear of the basement. 

(Though it is interesting that my "freewriting" is still, basically, planning. It takes time to unclench, okay?)

So this is the plan. I hope to have it finished by Sunday if not sooner!


Rejected, blocked, published

[...A writing-centric prequel to Eat, Pray, Love?]

From a fantastic blog post about rejection and writer's block by Kamala Nair—author of the lyrical debut novel The Girl in the Garden (and a friend of mine):

“But I don’t want to ruin the magic of the childhood story,” I said.

“Forget about the magic,” she shot back. “Who do you want Rakhee to be as an adult?”

“I want her to be a strong woman who overcame adversity but is still struggling with her pain.”

“So put that in there,” my friend advised. “Just write ‘I am strong and struggling with pain.’ Meaning for the first few drafts just free-associate and write all the things that you want her to be in a very direct way…just accept that the first ten drafts will be shitty.”

Receiving that permission to write a stack of shitty drafts was freeing. I took my friend’s advice and within a matter of days, everything became perfectly clear, and I was able to write, the words gushing forth, without getting in my own way.

“I think you’ve got it this time,” my agent said when I sent her the final product. She was right. Within a few days, she found a loving home for my novel, and I was on my way.

Read more here.

As big an advocate I am of Anne Lamott and her inspirational yet addictive (I've read it probably five times) Bird by Bird, I still have a really hard time putting pen to paper and telling my critical mind to go screw. But clearly it works, and Kamala's eventual triumph is proof.


Reflections on Week One

[Read the finished play here!]

That was the first work of creative fiction I've started and finished since December 2009 (a little over two years).

Leaving myself to my own devices clearly wasn't working. I think I needed a create a public challenge like this for myself so that I would feel accountable and make writing a priority. 

I've read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird probably 5-6 times, and though I've believed with all my heart that the only way to get the work done is to give yourself permission to (in her words) "write shitty first drafts," I have actually never allowed myself to do that. Stephen King (in his memoir/how-to book On Writing) also recommends writing to see where the story goes. He doesn't outline first -- he just writes and writes. I like to think of myself as a fairly easygoing guy, but the thought of writing without any thought as to what I'm writing makes my left eyelid twitch uncontrollably. 

(Whatever my writerly output these past years, the discerning reader will have no doubt noticed that I've spent lots and lots of time at least reading about the act of writing...)

In any case, probably because I assigned myself a lot of work and a near-impossible amount of time in which to do it, for Week One's challenge I was able to suppress the inner critic and just write to see what would happen next. I didn't really intend to write a play, but that's what came out. And by the way, whenever I read that an author was completely surprised by the form their story took, I would always cry bullshit. I mean, really. You had no control? Who's driving here? But I am here to tell you that it's real. It could even happen to you.

Lastly, how the play was written is also significant. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was starting to write it longhand in a small notebook during my commute to my second job. Saturday afternoon I carved out for myself a few hours to finish the story, which involved first transcribing everything I had written longhand into a blank Word document. This sounds rote and uncreative, but I found myself tweaking small things as I typed them out. I think it woke up the creative brain enough that, once everything I'd already written was in place, I had no trouble continuing where I had left off. 

What writer has not experienced the terror of the blank Word document? Here, my friends, is a possible cure: start your story longhand, give yourself small assignments in short amounts of time, and don't take it to your computer until you've built up some steam.

And then immediately start your next story.