On Writing in November

It’s that time of year again.  The time of changing leaves, of chilly mornings and crisp afternoon.  The sunlight, though less, feels nevertheless sharpened, until in winter it will cut like blades.  I look for leaves like smoldering fires.  I go outside just to smell the changing air.

I also know that, at this moment, all around the world, writers are huddling over their keyboards and churning out stories as fast as they can type.

The yearly writing sprint that is National Novel Writing Month tends to inspire very strong opinions.  I’m a fan myself.  I’ve done it many years (though not this year—too many  conflicting obligations on my time), and I find it both fun and productive.  It is intended to do one thing—to get people to the keyboard—and it does that one job very well.

And in years when I have a bunch of half-finished projects sitting by and don’t need another novel draft, I nevertheless turn November into a personal challenge month:  I set goals of hours spent editing, short stories edited or submitted, query letters written.  Whatever I need at that moment in time.  Being caught up in the general heady rush of NaNoWriMo keeps me going.  It’s so much easier to run that race when you’ve got friends running alongside.

There’s just something special about a bunch of friends & strangers coming together to cheer each other on during this weird, gray, chilly month.  The camaraderie has been, in my experience, one of the best parts of the experience.  So if you’re doing NaNoWriMo, GO GO GO!  Get yourself a cup of mulled apple cider, wrap yourself in something cozy, and keep writing!  Dig deep into yourselves:  each of us contains galaxies, we just need to tap into them.

Distraction at the Gate

Today I’m going to talk about one of the most pernicious foes a writer faces:  Distraction.

But first, look over here!  A brief, shiny aside:

When I was young, a shelf of beloved fantasy novels sat just above the desk where I did my homework.  Whenever I spent time there, I liked taking down books and perusing them, re-reading favorite passages, spending time with the characters, letting the words and worlds fill me.

Naturally, this made it hard to finish my homework.

So one day, I came up with a solution.  I blocked off the books with a length of bright orange yarn and a stern admonition written to myself on an index card.  Now, a loosely-hung piece of yarn wouldn’t have thwarted anyone who really wanted to get at those books.  But it was enough to mentally check me and get me back on task.

Distraction has always been my nemesis.  It’s always guarding the door to the Land of Getting Stuff Done.  Ambitious magpie-brain that I am, I have to find ways to get past it.  This usually involves noticing my weak points and blocking them off.  As I got older and the Internet became a Thing, I started pulling network cables or shutting down my computer’s wireless when I needed to write.  I keep track of weekly writing goals and monthly to-do lists to help me stay on track.  I don’t always succeed–life happens when you’re busy making other plans, etc. etc.–but these techniques help me.

But Distraction can be a tricky beast.  For example, my main writing tool is an AlphaSmart Neo2.  It’s essentially an external keyboard with a tiny screen that shows 4 lines of text at a time. It only holds 8 text files.  There’s no internet connection, no lengthy boot-up time to allow my mind to wander, no other shiny bits or special features I can get lost in.  It’s been my latest tool for distraction-free writing.

(I swear I’m not being paid to say this.  Heck, the company doesn’t even make them anymore!  I had to find mine on eBay.)

But then it started to have a different and unexpected effect on my writing.  My rough first drafts started to get, well–rougher than usual.  More playful.  Characters made unexpected choices or revealed surprising aspects of themselves more often.  If I got stuck, they would break into bizarre slang (“Great Googly-Moogly!”) or sum up the scene with a sudden shattering of the 4th Wall, and I’d move on.

And I realized that limiting myself to a window of only 4 lines of text meant I wasn’t constantly backtracking to fiddle with earlier paragraphs or to shuffle things around or to make sure the current paragraph flows smoothly from the previous one.  My inner editor was shutting up, and I was letting myself play.

All this time, Distraction had been tag-teaming with Perfectionism!  Even when I was writing, the two of them had been detouring me off the path and into the weeds, where I’d be too busy picking at old words to write new ones.  They were the Heel Team from Writer Hell.  Here I thought that Perfectionism was a foe I always had to deal with later, a hurdle for later drafts.  But Perfectionism was standing at the front gates the whole time.

So, what is a person to make of all this?  Are writers supposed to avoid editing as they go?  Does everyone with an ambition have to cordon off their hobbies with yarn and stern index cards?  Turn off their Internet, buy some distraction-free retro tech and hike out to the middle of nowhere?

Well…you do what is right for you.  We all have our hurdles, our monsters standing at the gate between us and our goals, whether they be writing that novel or starting that podcast or trying out that new and super-complicated recipe you’ve been eyeing.  Even if money and time and health aren’t issues (and that’s a big if), we are endlessly creative when it comes to sabotaging ourselves.  There’s no magic bullet cure.  Just you learning to know yourself, finding your sticking points, and trying different ways to get around them, till you get where you want to go.

Buried Treasure

My guest room is a mess.  Every surface is covered with piles of papers, notebooks, magazines, and miscellaneous odds & ends.  That wasn’t the plan:  the plan was for me to take my house reorganizing and culling in small, bite-sized portions.  I was really only planning to sort through one, maybe two boxes this month.

But the next thing I knew, I’d pulled out several storage bins and boxes, some of which I had never unpacked from our move five (!) years ago.  If I was going to tackle papers, my thought process went, I was going to tackle them all at once.

So now I’ve spent a couple of evenings picking through high school report cards, preschool workbooks my parents had kept and passed along to me, college notebooks, sketchbooks…and old writing notebooks.

old notebooks
Magic Eye, Lisa Frank, and shiny chrome robot unicorns…I am definitely dating myself.

It’s a general rule of thumb that writers shouldn’t toss their old writings.  You never know when you’ll stumble on some useful nugget or old idea that could spark something new.  Everything gets tossed into the bubbling stew pot that is a writer’s imagination, so we can let it simmer for a bit and then pick up our ladles and go fishing for that perfect morsel.

So far, the sentimental poetry, awkward sentences, and poorly-constructed worlds of my teen years are inspiring more embarrassment than fresh new ideas.  Still, it’s a fun walk down Memory Lane, watching myself try to figure out this whole Writing Thing.  And there are moments when the light shines through.

There’s an old writer’s adage (usually attributed to Ray Bradbury) that goes “The first million words don’t count.”  It’s a helpful reminder when I think of all the time and effort I’ve put into stories that I tossed in the trunk and never touched again.  There’s a lot of writing that never sees the light of day but is still us learning and practicing our craft, slowly getting better until we finally start writing things that aren’t half bad.

I don’t know when I reached a literal million words, but I do know that the writings in these notebooks were me keeping at it, slowly getting better:  sometimes stumbling, sometimes sitting for a long time but getting up anyway and trying again.  I’d forgotten about a lot of these early poems and barely-started teenage novels, but they’re there, all bricks in the road getting me to where I am now.

I guess this is just me saying that I’m glad for the journey, and glad that my younger self persisted.