I spent a lot of time recently looking at note taking apps. I read all about “building a second brain” and created a whole load of processes to support doing that. I had this idea that I could use those same processes to support writing fiction. It was all setup and working and I stuck with it for about two days before I threw it all in the bin.
The thing is, and this is a truth that I’ve been fighting against for probably five or more years, note taking isn’t naturally how I work. Sure, I can do it but I’m fighting against my inclination.
Digital tools work in a specific way and if you use them that’s the way you have to work. As I found, just having the app creates a requirement to do a process. I had a note taking app, so I needed to take notes.
Before I started down the digital note taking route, I was keeping a paper notebook in my pocket, but I didn’t use it very often and I thought that was proof that paper notebooks didn’t work for me. But the truth is, I used it the amount that I naturally take notes without being prompted. When I switched to a digital system it created an artificial use requirement.
It took me a long time to realise that I don’t need to constantly be taking notes and that I shouldn’t feel guilty when days go by with nothing new being added. I have never had trouble coming up with ideas for stories so there is no need to build this system.
I’m in the final act of a new novel. When I was writing first drafts on a computer this stage always felt like a race. Both because I wanted to be done with the story and because I have never felt very comfortable writing endings. The result usually felt very rushed and always took a lot of work in edits to improve it. The ending was where I would add the most words.
I have been writing first drafts longhand for a while now, but this is the first novel. The process of writing longhand means that I am forced to go more slowly and think about what I’m writing. I’m hoping it means that the end result is better.
But that’s not the main benefit I’m finding by writing longhand. As far as I’m concerned the best part of doing it this way is how much more I’m enjoying it. I feel more connected to the story and I think that’s going to mean the story is better.
I didn’t expect everything to change this weekend. Least of all did I expect it to happen while I was watching Jay & Silent Bob Reboot but that’s kind of what happened.
I would never have described myself as a Kevin Smith fanboy. I mean I liked his films and, back when I was at college planning to become a film maker, I was inspired by his career which at the time had gone from making Clerks for next to no money to making Dogma which I absolutely loved and was one of the things (along with His Dark Materials) that showed me you could use religion in stories and not worry about who you offended.
I was at college when Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back was released and maybe that had something to do with it because there’s no better way to realise how much time has passed than by seeing a fully grown adult playing one of the main characters who was playing a baby in the first film.
But that’s not the revelation I had. That’s more like a description of the comfortable nostalgia I felt while I was watching the film.
And the film was a catalyst for change rather than a revelation itself, the final straw in something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. It seems a lot more obvious now that I’m writing these words, but I think that for a long time I was blind to it. It might seem like a dumb thing to say, but it was important to me, so I am going to give it its own line. I realised that:
I have been putting much more effort into trying to convince myself that I am a writer, than to actually writing.
It was all the other shit that I was doing that seemed like the kind of thing a writer would do but wasn’t actually “the work”. It was stuff that I know other writers do (and probably get a lot of value out of, but we’re not all the same) and knowing that I did it as well made me feel like I was a writer as well. All the while ignoring the simple fact that the ONLY thing that makes someone a writer is doing the actual writing!
So things have changed in my head now. After watching Jay & Silent Bob Reboot on Saturday night I read all of Kevin Smith’s Tough Shit on Sunday and, apart from some now very awkward references to Harvey Weinstein, that book really solidified things for me. The way I think about all of this has changed and inevitably that means that the stuff I do is going to change. More writing, less of the stuff that only made me feel like a writer.
My oldest son, Jude, is six years old and has global development delays. He doesn’t speak. Which I only mention because it’s relevant to some of what follows.
Jude is very quick to pick up routines and habits. If I wear the same top a couple of days in a row it becomes something he expects to see me wearing. If I’m not wearing it but have left it somewhere he can reach then he will quite often pick it up and bring it over to me. He also likes routines and habits because they make him feel secure and that he knows what’s going to happen.
We try to use this to our mutual advantage. So, for example, there are specific songs that I sing him while he’s having his teeth brushed, when he’s having his pajamas put on, when he’s having his hair washed, etc. It took me a long time to figure this out because the actual song doesn’t matter, it just needs to be the same one every time. I am now consciously using this technique to make things better for both of us.
Which brings me to my next thought and something that I am putting into practice: using the same technique on myself.
I’m not singing songs to myself but I have used Apple Music to create some playlists for specific activities like writing and working. I already had one for running, but for some reason it had never occurred to me to do the same for other activities. Partly that was because I usually prefer to write in silence, but in a house full of noise that’s not really possible, so a soundtrack of music without vocals is possibly the next best thing.
It’s still early days for this, but I know it works for running and I know that it works for Jude, so I’m hoping for similar results in the other areas of my life where I’m trying it.
On Sunday I was out running. I set myself the goal of doing 10K, which, after a couple of months of only running 5K’s, I was worried about. I set out, not sure that I could manage it and in the end I did. What helped immensely was that I stopped thinking about running the whole distance. I looked at the road ahead of me and focused on getting about ten metres ahead. And it occurred to me that there’s a lesson to be learned there.
When I run a 5K I can hold the whole thing in my head: I can think about the complete distance and still get through it, but I don’t seem able to do the same with a 10K. Which isn’t to say that I’m not capable of running a longer distance, physically I am capable but not mentally. So is the same true in other areas of life? I think so.
I can sit down and write every day, that much I can visualise, but I can’t conceptually publish a book when I’m staring at a blank page.
It’s a difficult balancing act I think. With running I had to hold the aim of running a 10K somewhere in my mind, in the same way that when I’m writing I hold the aim of publishing a story, but that wasn’t actually what I was doing. When I was running I was focused on putting one foot in front of the other. When I’m writing I focus on putting the next sentence down.
And I think that focus is the key here. What we chose to focus on can make a big difference. If you choose to focus on the biggest thing your mind can conceptualise then you could look at all the small achievements that go towards that as nothing. And at the same time you might find that it limits what you actually achieve. If the biggest thing I could view in one go was a 5K then maybe I would never run a 10K. It’s not a limiting belief in the same way as thinking ‘I can’t do X‘ but it might have the same impact.
Which is why habits are so important. I have the habit of writing every day, that’s all I need to think about when I’m sitting down.
There is too much going on right now. It was my intention not to write about the Coronavirus here but how can I do anything else. Even if I don’t mention it directly, it is safe to say that it is in the background of everything I think about at the moment. How could it not be? Going out of my way to not refer to a major current event that’s affecting the whole world would be extremely obtuse.
Having said that…
At the moment everything feels like a struggle. My natural inclination seems to be to scour the internet news sites and social media as if doing that will keep me and my family safe. What I should really be doing is writing and reading but, however much I enjoy those activities, they offer medium/long term rewards whereas surfing the latest breaking news is instant gratification (albeit with a heavy dose of medium/long term anxiety).
Which is why I am doing my best to make it easy to read and to write. The two fiction books I have on the go at the moment are short story collections and the non-fiction book is about writing. I am also reading them in digital formats (which is uncommon for me lately, but certainly the most convenient format) so they are available on my phone as well as my Kobo reader. I am setting myself limits for when I can check the news and trying my hardest to stick to them. I don’t succeed as often as I would like.
This situation is hard but I am determined not to fall apart and go back to my bad old habits. If I can’t make the progress I originally wanted, I can at least not make it any worse. I am doing my best to make it easy to make the right choices.
When I spend too much time online (reading news, Reddit, blogs, etc.) it isn’t immediately obvious how much of an impact it has. In my day to day life I can usually manage to function and continue doing all the things that I need to do. It would be easy to convince myself that it doesn’t really have an impact beyond the time I spend doing it, but I also know that isn’t true.
Every morning I get up and write in my journal. It’s free-thought stuff kind of like Morning Pages but I keep it like a journal so that if I ever want to go back and look at them I can. If I have a good day then the following morning my journal is focused and tends to follow one line of thought from beginning to end. If I have a bad day then it affects me like a hangover. When I sit down to write my journal I can’t keep to a single line of thought for more than a paragraph, my mind skips all over the place and I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything done. It feels awkward and stilted.
And I know that this is just a visible symptom of the problem. That same distracted style of thought is present everywhere and in everything I do and it can take a couple of days to get over it.
A lot has changed since I was blogging last year and frankly I have gone back and forth between different methods of writing for the last year or so now, but I am now reasonably settled in the way I write.
When I first started writing and publishing I did everything on a computer. I used an app on my phone and computer to store notes for ideas and all of my planning was also done on a computer. Likewise I wrote all of my first drafts on a computer and could, on a good day, rattle off 5,000 words, although my average was about 3,000. I also edited on a computer. Doing things this way meant I could publish a short novel a month, and I was building up a backlog of stories that would allow me to take time off without missing any of my planned release dates. I was also “stacking” stories, so I always had one story in planning, one in first draft and one in editing/publishing. I was very “productive”.
My stories don’t touch a computer until there is a complete first draft. I do all of my note taking, planning and first draft writing in a variety of notebooks. I write my first drafts with a fountain pen. I am a lot slower this way. On a good day I probably get 1,000 words written. I am focusing on one story at a time. In a stories published sense I am not very productive.
Why the change
I first tried this out over a year ago and over the next few months I went back and forth because I am a magpie and continually attracted to shiny new apps and tools. But as I said at the start, I think the change is going to stick this time. As to why I did this, well there are a couple of reasons:
- I enjoy the process more. It’s more fun to write in a notebook
- I think it produces a better story. I know there is a lot of debate on this subject, but honestly, I think slowing down a bit means I can write better
I need to do better at the first to second draft part of the process. Currently I have a number of stories that are a complete first draft and I need to get better at typing them up and editing them. And publishing as well. I have one story that is complete and ready to go, but I just haven’t gotten around to putting it on the various sales platforms.
Its been an unsettled month for writing, but as I prepare to enter May, I have a plan and goals going forward for the rest of the year.
Firstly, the fantasy series
I have stopped work on the fantasy story I have mentioned before. The project wasn’t right for me. Although I enjoyed the planning process I just don’t love the genre enough. This became abundantly clear as I started writing the first draft.
I spent two months prepping the story and had planned for it to span three books. However, I don’t really consider that to be wasted time. It was enjoyable and it has taught me something about myself and the type of writing I want to do.
It is now the end of May and I don’t think I will be publishing a new novel in 2019.
Finally, my plans going forward
Starting in July I will be publishing a short story every month through to the end of the year. The first three are already in various stages of production. I am enjoying the work.
Once I have the six shorts for this year finished (or near enough) I will begin working on a new novel for publication in 2020. My plan at the moment is to publish a new novel every year, a short story every month and a blog post every week.
Although this is a lot less than I was publishing at my peak (about a novel a month) I have changed my production process significantly since then, which I believe will result in a much higher quality.
The weekly blogging won’t start immediately. For (at least) the length of May I will continue posting every weekday. My plan, however, is to gradually transition into longer weekly posts. For example, the recent posts about analogue / digital media might have been combined into a single longer essay. Alongside these “essays” I will likely continue publishing monthly updates like this one and, of course, announcements about new story releases.
Why I’m doing this
My number one goal with everything I publish is to make it good. My number two goal is to make the production process enjoyable. These changes are all geared towards these goals.
Yesterday I started editing a short story that I wrote back in January. It doesn’t have a title yet. The idea is kind of Lovecraftian horror. I’m hoping to have it finished and published in May.
Usually I don’t leave such a long gap between writing a first draft and starting the editing. It is interesting to come back to a project after so long and read the words, which I know I wrote, and have them be unfamiliar. It is the closest I can come to reading my work with fresh eyes.
My editing process mostly consists of removing unneeded words and making my meaning clear when it might be confusing. I rarely have to change the structure of the story itself (although it isn’t unknown).
I will go through this edit and then do a proofread to try and catch anything I’ve missed. After that I will check spelling and then move it into the publishing process.
Originally I was going to submit the story to magazines, but I think I will publish it instead. That will mean I need to create a cover, which I do using images from Shutterstock and putting it together in Canva.
I have a word.doc template which I will paste the story into and then use the Draft2Digital tool to properly format for publication.
As I say, the story doesn’t have a title yet. Once I know what it is I will post something here with a link to pre-order or buy if you’re interested.