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4 posts from May 2012

How I Write a NovelMay 23, 2012

"How do you write a whole book?" I get asked this a lot, and I thought I'd take a moment to answer it specifically rather than with my usual generic answer, "A little bit at a time." While this answer is true, I don't think it's very helpful. It certainly wouldn't have been for the younger me, the one who only wanted to write but could never actually seem to get her butt in the chair to do it, and when she did finally get seated at the desk, usually just ended up playing Solitaire. 

But dude! I just finished my sixth book. SIXTH! So I've changed. It can be done. 

This is my process. It works for me. Your process will be different, but if any of these tips help, I'm glad to share them with you. (And in the comments, let us know what techniques work for you!) 

1. Don't Wait For the Muse. 

As Nora Roberts says, "Sister Mary Responsibility kicks the muse's ass every time." The muse is a fickle beast, and she usually only strikes me in the middle of the night. I'm a GENIUS at three in the morning. However, since I never write down what she says (because I know I'll remember it later), I don't get that much from our relationship. 

In my mind, the best way to write would be to find a whole day or better yet, a whack of days, during which I could lock myself in a hotel room overlooking the ocean and write the better part of a book. 

That doesn't work. The time never comes. I spent, oh, ten years trying to find the perfect block of time, convinced it was always coming up in the next few weeks. 

Instead, the only thing that works for me is to just work every day. Every day. I work from 1 to 8 hours, usually more on the 2-3 hour side. (This gets me two books done a year while still working 60 hours a week at the day job. But I've got no kids and I don't have cable. Your mileage will vary.)

On the days when I go to the day job, I work on my breaks, only as much as I can fit in. I don't stress too much about those days. 

But on every day off, I get up and go to the cafe. Getting out of the house is key for me -- if I'm home I'll find something to clean or organize or DO. At the cafe, they frown when I start to organize the paper cups.

Of course, I could always lose myself in the internet at the cafe, which is A Bad Thing, which leads me to...

2. Freedom

I've written about this a million times, but it bears repeating. This is a $10 program (with a free trial) for the Mac and PC that kicks you physically off the internet. You tell it how long to go offline, hit your password, and you're locked out. The only way to get back in is to actually shut down your entire computer and reboot (which, let's face it -- we've all done it once or twice). 

So I get to the cafe, grab my coffee, and allow myself to check email while I eat my carrot muffin. Then WITHOUT THINKING or arguing with myself, I hit Freedom, enter 45 minutes, and enter my password before I can talk myself out of it. Bam. I have nothing else to do but work. And if, while I'm working, I think of something that I must know from the internet, I jot it down, thus clearing it from my brain. 

After 45 minutes, the computer bonks and DING DING DING, twitter and email messages fall from the skies like confetti. Then I give myself 15 minutes to screw around.

Then I do it all over again. 

3. Write or Die

Also ten bucks (or free if you use the online version), this is THE ONLY WAY I write a first draft. It's simple. Write or Die is like a sweet little cattle prod to the imagination. It makes you keep writing. I like the intermediate level, where your screen turns red and then it makes a terrible noise if you stop writing. (I do NOT use the level in which it erases your words if you don't keep writing, but it amuses me to know that it exists.) 

See, I just lose track if I'm not using it. I open a document and start writing. An hour later, after taking long sips of coffee and absentmindedly staring at people with weird hair in the cafe, I will have 500 new words on the page. And I'd swear to you that I was doing the best I could, writing as fast as possible. 

Then I turn on Write or Die (for first drafts, I usually dive into Freedom and Write or Die at the same time, for 45 minutes) and three quarters of an hour later, I have 1500 words or so. 

Yep, some of these are crap words that I won't end up using, but I would have written those anyway. And it's astonishing -- your voice is your voice is your voice, whether it's a "good" writing day or a "bad" one. You end up using a lot of those words. Some of them are exactly what you needed and never would have come up with while staring out the window. There's something about the pressure of having to keep the cursor moving to the right that makes you figure out solutions to the problems on the page in ways you wouldn't normally think of. 

(I just finished writing a novel, and the first draft was so difficult for me at one point, I had to go into Write or Die for 15 minutes at a time. Just 15 minutes. I always got more words that I thought I would, and I got through that slump. You do what you have to do.)

It's that idea of Flow, right? Getting into the state where time disappears and everything disappears except the work in front of you. I have the best chance of doing this when I'm forced to work fast, which disables my inner editor (oh, I hate that cranky bitch). Another thing that helps me is: 

4. Music

For me, every book has a soundtrack. I listen to music on my iPhone since my computer is offline while I work. But whatever media player you use, the key is this: use the music as a way to drop right back into the writing. Don't end up procrastinating (I see you over there!) by making the perfect playlist. Drop three or five albums that you think might work into a list, hit shuffle, and start writing. When a song doesn't work? Hit skip, and later, when you're done writing, throw it out of the list. Later, when you hear a song on the radio that would be perfect for the list, add it then. Your playlist grows organically that way, and when the book is close to being done, the list will be pretty much perfect.

5. Do the Math

I just finished my sixth book, and I know that it takes me about six months per book (three months for a horrible first draft, two-three months in revision). You know how I know that? Math. I know my novels are around 95,000 words. Writing 2000 words a day (approximately eight pages), it'll take 48 writing days to complete, which even gives me days off in my goal of first draft in three months. 

But what about revision, you say! No one can strap a time frame around revision! Well, it might be a little bit more slippery than its friend, the first draft, but you sure as heck can.

I try to do a full (major) revision in a month (because I write really crappy first drafts -- I know people who revise as they go, and end up with very clean first drafts -- that is not me). I also try to do this because I know, from my process, that I might have to do this two or three times, and I'd better get crackin'. (My revision method is outlined here. Gawd, I love revisions.) 

So I look at the calendar. Suppose I have 15 days off in a month. That means I pretty much have to revise 6000 words a day. Yep, that's a lot. But I can get that done in four hours if I'm working hard, more if I'm brain-dull that day. It's doable, for me. These are my numbers, and yours will be different, but again, it comes down to math. I know, we English majors don't like that, do we? But it works, I promise. 

Now, if your goal is to write a book in a year? OH MY GOD! You're going to have so much fun! Aim for six months to a first draft -- that's only 527 words a day! Then you'll have another six months to revise! That sounds delicious, right? You know it does. The key is not to let it be some nebulous, undefined "year." Make it a year from today. Starting now.

6. Just Do It

Again, writers write. I completely, totally understand wanting with all your heart to write and not writing, because I did that for (too) many years. It's such a frustrating feeling. But the only way to get that urge out of your system and feel satisfied (finally!) is to do the work. Even when it's shitty work (and it will be, at first. All first drafts will be shitty. It's the law). Just sit your arse down and do it. A little at a time. It's like knitting -- the words add up, just like stitches do, and eventually you have something to show for them. 

*Pro tip: If you say I can't write this way because I have to make everything perfect before I move on, that's fine by me ONLY IF this method works for you. In other words, if you are completing what you set out to complete, then yay! But if you want to write books but are stymied because of the whole "perfection" thing, then barrel through a really horrible first draft. Your method isn't working. Try a new one, friend. 

So. What's your process? 

Staying Still and ReadingMay 15, 2012

Staying still is so hard for me. I mean, damn. I was diagnosed as hyperactive as a child (and today I do think that I'm ADHD, but I'm one of those people for whom it works -- I harness that energy, and I've learned how to make it work for me. Even if it means I never, ever, ever sit still). 

So this recovery game? Is so freaking hard. 

Yesterday, I took a shower (this is not the punchline -- I take showers all the time, I promise). To me, a shower is a get-in, get-clean exercise in timing. Four minutes, including shampoo, all the bits clean, and I'm out. I simply do not understand how or why people like showers -- they've always felt like something to be borne. Shower, brush teeth, eyeliner, mascara, deodorant, DONE. I can be out of the house without feeling rushed twenty minutes after the alarm goes off. 

But yesterday, I decided to try that whole slow shower thing (plus I've had no choice lately. I just can't move quickly). I stood under the water, letting it warm me. I thought about how it felt, standing there. It didn't suck. Actually, after about ten minutes, I was kind of enjoying it. I zoned out. It really was relaxing. I wasn't hurrying. No wonder lots of people say they get their best ideas in the shower (I've always wondered when this happened -- between the shampoo and the conditioner? Before or after leg shaving?). I wasn't thinking about the next item on the To Do list. I was just kind of hanging out. Being.

That's not to say it's going to turn into a lifestyle thing. I do like a wham-bam shower. But after exhausting myself a couple of times this week (who knew just sitting UP could be so difficult?), I've learned my lesson. Now is the resting time. 

Luckily, it's also the reading time! 

I'm telling you about this now even though I'm only a quarter of the way into it, because it's been a long time since I fell so hard for a book. The River Witch, by Kimberly Brock. Within the first few pages I was googling Sacred Harp singing because by the way she was writing about it, I knew it would be something real and something peculiar. Which it is (see video below). And her language! Unique, rich, devastating. Just download the sample -- chances are you'll fall in love as I did. And this, by the way, is a little intro to the Sacred Harp singing (also known as "shape note singing"): 



I just finished A.J. Jacob's Drop Dead Healthy, which is my favorite of all his books. I can't imagine living with the man (his wife needs a raise), but I love the way his mind works. Once he wrote a book about the year he spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. For another book, he tried living Biblically for a year. Literally. For this new book, he spends two years becoming "the healthiest man in America." He tries every diet and every health regime touted by anyone, anywhere. He does cleanses, yoga, meditation, barefoot running, and a triathlon. He does veganism and Paleo. He spends two years not eating his kids' birthday cupcakes. And his humor is so funny and affecting that I'm reconsidering the treadmill desk again. 

Ali in Wonderland, Ali Wentworth: a memoir, this one caught me from the first essay. Sometimes it made me shake with laughter (my belly hurt too much to howl). I don't regret reading it -- she's smart and her sense of humor is wickedly, devastatingly funny. However, I think she would have benefited from a firmer editing hand. Some of the essays are so good...and then kaput. They clatter to the floor like a dropped spoon. But overall, worthwhile. 

Um. I've read others, but nothing you have to read, so I'll leave it at this reiteration: this whole post was prompted by my belief that you should absolutely check out The River Witch. I'm beyond impressed so far. The woman can write.

Wow. May 11, 2012

Thanks to all of you for being so patient. The randomly drawn winner of California Revival Knits is: Stephanie Ivy! (You've been emailed.) 

Edible Arrangements - how does it stay so fresh for so longggg?

I had my surgery. This is the way I thought it would go: Surgery last Thursday. I'd be groggy but adorable upon waking up after a short hour's nap. Lala would take me home and I'd eat jello and broth and sleep a little more. Then Friday I'd rest and be sore, and I'd be writing in bed by Saturday (I have a book due in three weeks to Australia). Then I'd recover gracefully, tapering to ibuprofen within a day, writing and receiving visitors, napping when I felt like it, watching the flowers grow in the planter boxes outside. 

This is how it went: Five hour surgery. Reaction to anaesthesia. Did very poorly in the recovery room. Tried not to vomit for, oh, twenty-four hours. Tried to taper to ibuprofen within a day, was yelled at by everyone who loves me. Went back on the Vicodin which I HATE. Then I spent the next six days staring stunned out the window at the flowers growing in the planter boxes outside. There was no writing. There wasn't even Twitter or email. Nothing existed except stunned silence. And tears. LOTS OF TEARS. 

At one point I figured out I wanted a smoothie while Lala was at work. I dragged myself from bed and started making it, not noticing that the blender we haven't used in years had broken at some point, and the milk was running out of it all over the counter, into the drawers, and on the floor. I sobbed. I cried harder than I have since Mom died. I was literally CRYING OVER SPILT MILK. I blamed the hormones (which scared me -- I'm very into the hormones working at this point). Then, a couple of days ago, I went off the hated Vicodin and suddenly stopped crying. I hate that drug SO much (but I'm allergic to codeine). 

I'm feeling so much better now. Still can't sit up for very long, but I can manage the pain with the prescription ibuprofen, and I actually put on clothes today. Real clothes! I can pick up tissues off the floor all by myself. Last night I figured out how to lie on my stomach (a real accomplishment -- I haven't been sleeping well because I'm a tummy sleeper). My emotions are steady. 


Digit (and our new, perfectly-timed bedroom windows) helped with speedy healing.

I'm going to manage an outing tomorrow if I'm feeling up for it (a good, writerly outing which includes a bed I can borrow, the best kind of outing). 

And while I was having a bed picnic with two beloved friends, the UPS man brought me my favorite recovery tool: 


New "barefoot" running shoes (like Vibram Five-Fingers but without those crazy toes that I can't get myself to wear) from Merrell, Pace Gloves. I can't WAIT to wear these, first to walk, then to get back into running. It was a challenge even to get them on to get that shot. But they fit perfectly, and I leave them at the foot of the bed as inspiration. 

Delayed!May 7, 2012

I'm sorry I haven't yet drawn a winner for the California Revival book! I will, very soon, within the next couple of days. I had the surgery (five hours long -- the doc had a lot to do), and I can't quite face my laptop just yet, and only handling things I can do from my cell phone, like this post. Recovering well but so tired. Napping again now. Xoxo

Sent a-go-go from my iPhone