Recharging

A couple of months ago I reintroduced myself, after a long sabbatical hiatus vacation holiday break absence.  Since then I’ve been trying to work my way back into some semblance of a writing habit.  Based on the crowd I’m writing to, you all no doubt understand that this is not easy.  That’s OK, I didn’t expect it to be.  I’ve done this before–I’m sure we all have from time to time–so I expect this to be a long-haul kind of life change.

Breaking or creating habits is generally a struggle.  First there’s the struggle just to keep the change in the forefront of your mind.  It’s hard to get in shape if you don’t remember to go to the gym until you’re getting ready for bed.  On this front I’ve been making myself use a bullet journal everyday–even weekends.  And at least 3 times each week (scheduled in my bullet journal) I must do some sort of creative writing.  I make myself do it in a particular journal, even if I intend to use it online.  And this is where the next step has been rearing it’s head.

My creative battery is very nearly dead.

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The occasional companion to Writer’s Block–at least for some of us–is Reader’s Block.  Much of the reason for my writing drought is because I let the rest of life suck up the time I used to set aside for writing.  My reading time was not immune from this same gluttonous beast.  I’m not saying I haven’t been reading over the last few years, but my intake of creative material has nearly dried up. Social media makes it easier than it used to be to keep up with science articles, and I read plenty of programming and technical articles for work, but my busy schedule has proven to be anathema to sitting down with a novel or a decent collection of shorts.

And creating something new is frightfully hard if the creative well is dry.

So while I continue to force myself to write–and so far the only way for me to keep up is to force myself–I’m going to try to focus some energy on recharging my battery.  Decades ago one of the authors that lit the fires of writing and wordplay within me was Terry Pratchett.  And in the last few months I’ve been working to complete my collection of Discworld novels.  So I’ve decided that’s where I’m going to start.

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I’ve recently started rereading The Colour of Magic, and when I finish that I’m moving on to the other 40 novels in the series.  I’m not structuring this too much.  I’ve no plan to read them one immediately after the other–I will mix in other books as my whims dictate.  Nor am I giving myself a deadline.  I’m trying to retrain myself to enjoy and absorb good writing and wild creativity–not hurry through a book that is a chore.

What books recharge your creative batteries?

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Making Habits

I’m mucking out old files. This includes old stories, really bad poems, and sheafs of paper from writing workshops. A little over six years ago I spent my evenings and weekends enmeshed in writing in some form – writing stories, writing reviews of other novice’s stories.

In a short version of things I’ve written before: six years ago I deliberately chose to set creative writing aside to go back to school, but then I also had a baby, making summers just as fraught and exhausting as fall-winter-spring, despite the lack of required reading and academic writing. All and any time to write was sucked up under the heading “Life”. He’s bigger now, not so all-consuming, yet – as you’ve seen – I still struggle to write. In the school semester I’m just too busy. Now, in summer, I still am not writing in the way that I used to. I seem to be out of the habit.

(Not that I’m losing spark or ignoring writing. I have stories and poems developing – eventually I will finish them. I wrote a post about my submissions process. It’s finished; you will never read it. Be grateful.)

Cleaning out my old files leads me, of course, to reviewing all the things I did in the years before my writing time became focused and efficient1. I thought I’d share the ways I’ve approached writing over the years, things that once helped me define and develop my habits. These are by no means all the ways to establish writing habits, simply the ones I’ve done, successfully and not.

Project-based. Some writers work best when they take the project they are interested in and break it down in stages to work on. For a novel, this might be spending week 1 outlining, week 2 writing character interviews/spec sheets, week X-X drafting, etc. Essentially, each writing session begins and ends with a very specific task that relates to the project. I’ve done this, but for me it’s really only effective on academic writing. (And even there I skip outlining.) In creative work I’ve learned I’m a drafter. I can do all the character development pages in the world, but when I sit down to write the story is where I learn who the characters are and what they want.

Spontaneous. The when inspiration hits then write method. It’s fun, exciting, and – to be honest – completely unhelpful with instilling a writing habit. Inspiration sputters out as quick as it ignites. Rather like an inexpertly lit campfire, isn’t it? I’ve tried this method, of course; but find I want to be the expert, the one who keeps the flames going. I don’t tell inspiration to take flaming lessons, but do tell it to have patience.

Timed write. That’s truthfully how this post began.2 The last post I wrote was by the bits-n-pieces method, which started spontaneous then became forced. Again, you will never read that one and you are happier for it.
Timed write goes a couple ways. It can be a short, intense writing session in which you set a timer for 5 minutes and just write. Anything. Everything. Quickly. It’s a wonderful way to cut out the internal editor and loosen up the creative unconscious. Yet I tend to use it more along the in-class essay way. I take myself away from home, pick a topic, set a chunk of time—½ hour or an hour—and write about that topic. Even if the writing’s not terribly focused at first, I have long enough to free-write until I find the heart of the topic. At the end of the chunk of time, I type it into my computer (if I was writing on notebook paper) and edit down to the important points. When it comes to short stories, this method has been doing jack for me

“Morning pages.” I don’t remember which writer advanced this, though one of our editors may remember. Essentially, it’s a first-thing in the writing period technique in which the writer sets down everything and anything that comes to mind for 3 pages. Like timed write, it’s a way to clear out the mental clutter in order to allow the creative subconscious room to stretch. The sweet thing about it is you can do this while a kid is running around the house and jumping on you. It might be a bit less effective that way though.

Writing classes. I work well – really well – with a deadline. I found myself most productive when I took a writing class that required three stories in three months. Of course, I had time to write three of my own and review many other stories from classmates. But also as a class, the time needed to do the work was now psychologically just as important and the time needed to do the dishes / laundry, etc.

What would you add? What have you tried, successfully or not?


 

1meaning that when I sat down to write, I wrote; I made progress on the project I intended to make progress on; I completed drafts. In no way does “focused and efficient” mean one sitting completed a draft, or that a draft was a finished piece.
2It’s been slightly less than one hour since I sat down. Technically, I could keep on writing, but all the didn’t-do’s are creeping back into my brain. Timed writes, I find, push them out for the period of time I declared I get to write. That said, it has a serious flaw in habit-building. It’s impossible to do when you don’t know if you will have ½ hour before the family wakes up. Not to mention, in my house, if I wake up at 5:30 in order to write, my son – if not both son and husband — is up and active 2 minutes after I get my thoughts in order.

The Writers Circle: The Writing Journey

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Think back to when you first started writing because you wanted to write (as opposed to writing for a school assignment). What did you write? Why did you write? How has your writing changed since then? How has it stayed the same?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

The Writers Circle: Good Habits

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Last time we discussed the things we do in our writing which we need to improve upon. Today, let’s focus on something which — for some of us — may be even more difficult to discuss: the things we do well in our writing.

Are there things you do when you write a story which, perhaps, your editors and beta readers always rave about? Do you have a turn of phrase or a particular object or subject which your readers are excited to look for in your stories? Is there something you do which makes you happy with your writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

The Writers Circle: Bad Habits

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We all have areas to improve within our writing, but sometimes it is hard for us to see for ourselves. So let’s take a look inward today and discuss the things we do which are, perhaps, in need of improvement.

Are there things you do when you write a story which, perhaps, your editors and beta readers always strike out? Do you have a tendency to be too wordy or not wordy enough? Do you give too many details, too early in the story or leave too many loose ends too late in the story?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Meditations on Coffee and Writing

I flirt with giving up coffee.  I stock my tea niche with caffeine alternatives: Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, Jasmine Green.  Perhaps, I seem to think, their presence will tempt me, lure me, from the pot to the kettle.  Perhaps it will bewitch me into forgetting coffee.

Which is just ridiculous.  As with most things in life, my problem isn’t one of choice but of habit and association.  Until I traded my full-time day job and night writing schedule for night classes and day mommyhood, coffee was my wake-up partner and tea was my working partner.  I left coffee behind when I left the house at 7am.  Now I have no such distinctions.  One might say my job migrated to my house.  I work when I wake up: jot the beginnings of a blog post, write directions to an assignment, or argue my preschooler into a decent set of clothes.  It all gets done with coffee.

And coffee, which begins with a deep resonance of peaceful mornings, ultimately ends with me fidgety and cranky.  And, later, energy-less and craving sweets.  It’s all a bad recipe for writing, for that unexpected 20 minute window where the child entertains himself or I discover a lunch break in a working day.

There are some wonderful stories out there about writers and their coffee cups.  All I can say is:  How did they stay in their seats long enough to get words on the page?

I swear I will give up coffee.  It will make me a new woman! A better mama! A reborn writer!  I’ll have energy and spunk and energy.   In the morning, though, tea tumbles out of the cabinet like a bad idea.  Overstocked, ignored, and passed over for one cup—I’ll just have one, I tell myself—of the brew that’s something between bitter and bland.   I drink it near black, so I really taste it when I screw up the grounds.   I suppose I should screw it up more often, but I chalk it up to pitying my husband, the wretch who hooked me on coffee in the first place.

Intellectually, I know coffee has nothing to do with writing.  I used to write with tea at hand.  I used to write in the break room at the office, while it was filled with warehouse workers chatting and making the microwave beep and I had nothing at all in front of me.

What does have to do with writing:  a notebook and taking advantage of unexpected time to myself.

It would be nice, though, to have those moments and not feel my shoulders pulling toward my ears or my fingers wanting to scratch the surface of the couch to make sound and friction or my mind wandering every fifth word to the endless other things I need to be doing.   I could just do one of those other things, so it would drift out of my mind.  But what would drift is the story idea, the poem snippet, that sentence I’ve almost formed about writing the perfect beginning.   Do I have any clean clothes?  No.  Crap.  It will wait!  It’s writing time.   I just need to keep my notebook close, and ditch the coffee.

Soon as I finish this cup.

The Guy Who Writes about Coffee and Triskaidekaphobia

I was talking with someone the other day and the subject of writing came up.  “What do you write about?” they asked.

That might be one of the most difficult questions a writer is asked, outside of “Why do you write?”.

“I write about spaceships,” I said, “or aliens. Interstellar wars and great, long-lasting peace. Sometimes I write about vegetables or pre-industrial societies.”

“Oh,” my questioner said, thoughtfully.  “Well, I meant, what’s your writing like?”

“I, um… well, it’s wordy,” I fumbled. “I often include coffee in it.”

Writers, like other artists, have a style all their own.  We have characters with quirks we revisit over and over, much like a painter might paint similar scenes over the years. We have phrasing we fall back on as we write, much like a rock and roll guitarist might have a unique way of playing musical phrases.  We have favorite themes we revisit time and again in different stories, each time visiting a different aspect of the theme.

Let’s think of some examples.
Melting clockIf I mention the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, what do you think of? Chances are, if you know who he was, you think of melting clocks such as this one I bought for my wife for Christmas. Dalí really only occasionally used these clocks, but he became famous for them and now, whenever someone comes into my house and sees the clock melting over the edge of the bookshelf they ask:  “Hey, isn’t that like those paintings that artist made?”

“Yes,” I say, “it is.”

Similarly, if you know who Al Hirschfeld was, you’d think of his daughter, Nina.  Well, my wife tells me you’d think of her.  This is because in all of his drawings, he included her name somewhere in the picture. It became a challenge for people to look at the images to “Count the Ninas” within them.  It became something that drew people back to his work.

More up my alley, I remember a time in February, 1987, when teenaged me was sitting with a buddy listening to the radio. My friend was quickly rolling across the analog dial on the radio when I heard two notes of a song and shouted for him to go back. I didn’t know why exactly, but when he rolled back to 93.7 FM WSTW I heard the song “That Ain’t Love” by REO Speedwagon. It was a new song I’d never heard, but the two notes of guitar work were enough to let me recognize Gary Richrath’s style and draw me in.

My conversation the other day got me to thinking about what my writing is like. It is no secret that I have a gimmick in my writing these days.  Whether you call it “a thing”, “a shtick”, “a gimmick” or… “annoying”, it is something that has come to be an important part of my writing though I didn’t consciously set out to include coffee and the number 13 in each piece. It just kind of happened.  Sometimes these elements have a large role in the story, other times they are just mentioned in passing. But they are always there. I have written pieces where coffee was actually a key plot element (almost even a character). It has gotten to the point where an editor received a story from me and tweeted:

“Reading Rob Diaz’s story. Wonder when the coffee will be introduced.”

Then:

“Yup, there it is.”

And finally:

“And there’s the ‘13’ – I thought he had forgotten it!”.

I’ve had beta readers tell me that the biggest flaw with a story was that I didn’t include enough coffee in it – that they overlooked the one reference and wanted more. Coffee - my friend and heroI don’t plan my writing in advance so each story just flows onto the page as it comes to me. Characters drink coffee. They meet up in coffee shops. They wield decaf as the massively-powerful, evil-thwarting weapon that it is. There have been stories I’ve written where I didn’t even notice putting coffee into the story at all. It just happened naturally.

Now that readers have come to expect it, I do make more of a conscious decision to include these elements somewhere in the story. It may be obvious: “The 13 coffee cups sat in a row on the counter”. It may be more subtle: “Bob stared at the box containing a baker’s dozen bagels and he tapped his foot nervously as his evil plan percolated.” Or it may be something difficult to find – one story I wrote used the same word 13 times (and yes, several readers noticed).

Obviously, forcing the issue and injecting coffee into a story where it has no business would be a bad idea. If I brewed up a story about un-earthly worlds… what is the likelihood that coffee would exist in that universe? Probably none. Though to be honest, it would not be outside the realm of possibility that this thoroughly alien culture could have a ritual that requires the use of an aromatic infusion of ground up seeds in hot water in order to ensure a successful growing season. Of course, it would have to be shared by the thirteen elders of the village in order for the ritual to be a success.

Clearly I am not yet famous in any circles, let alone as an author. But maybe one day, if I’m lucky, I’ll be at a party or sitting in a coffee shop and someone will come up to me and say:

Hey, aren’t you the guy who wrote about, like, thirteen ways to use coffee to win an interstellar war and bring about universal peace?

Yeah, that would be cool.