Sketchbook #38

Photography, Writing

… well, that was a month, wasn’t it?

Leaving aside NaNoWriMo for now (since I’ve been talking about it all month, and I’ll be talking about it even more on Friday; but if you do want a recap: the story has been fighting me, but I made it through), it… wasn’t too bad.

Not great, obviously. I didn’t get to work on a lot of things that I’d hoped to spend time on in November, like the next round of revisions on The Black Sun. Or photography.

But last month, I said that my mission for November was to sit down and think about what I really want to accomplish, in both writing and photography. Everything else aside, if I did that—or if I made significant progress with that—the month would be a good one. If you’ve been reading my reboot updates, you know by now that it hasn’t been easy; I haven’t really been in the mood for the necessary self-reflection, and I’ve been second-guessing myself a lot.

But I’m on the right track.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Winner Header

NaNoWriMo 2018 Diary | Week 5

Writing

I was this close to giving up on NaNo yesterday.

I had just under six thousand words to go. No problem: I had two days, and I’ve been hitting over 3000 words/day for the past week.

… and then the power went out. Just as I was sitting down to start my first (and generally best) writing session of the day. The power company was estimating four p.m. before service was restored. That sort of thing is pretty much par for the course for me this month, but like I said last week: I was going to finish this thing. Connected the keyboard to the iPad, and got to work.

After an hour, I was pretty sure this whole thing was going to be a bust. The story’s been fighting me all month; I’ve spent more time figuring out how to make it work than I have writing, even though I started with a solid outline. All this work has been worth it (when I go back and make the changes I’m already planning, it’s going to be kind of amazing), but ugh. And the app I was using yesterday doesn’t have a word count, so I had no way of knowing how close I was to my target.

(By the way… I’ve asked this before, but since I’m still looking, I’ll put it out there again: if anyone knows of a good Dropbox-compatible text editor for iOS that doesn’t choke on novel-length files, I’d love to hear about it. Bonus points if it’s attractive and pleasant to use.)

Anyway, yeah: I got a solid hour in before I had to admit defeat. The power was out for another three hours, and that was more than enough time for me to start feeling like… this just wasn’t going to work. I didn’t know what was going to be worse: giving up with the finish line in sight, or making myself miserable trying to reach the finish line. (On the bright side: it wasn’t out all day! Or not quite.)

When I finally got everything synced up… it turns out that hour was one of my better ones this month: just shy of two thousand words.

This is all just a long-winded way of saying ugh, this month and this story. And that I’m exhausted, and I need to not think about this story—or writing at all—for a couple days.

And also: I did it.

I’ll be back with a more clear-eyed look at how the month went next Friday, and a full post-mortem of the draft… whenever I actually finish the thing. (Probably February or March.)

NaNoWriMo 2018 Diary | Week 4

Writing

The other day, Terry Rossio tweeted something, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since:

(If you’re on a reader that doesn’t show embedded tweets, here it is for posterity: “The key to writing productivity, maybe, is determine how many words can you do without feeling burned out? Better to do 200 words every day that seem easy, rather than 2000 words and need to recover, because you might not recover.”)

[EDIT: The day I posted this, Rossio went on to say some incredibly offensive and irresponsible things, also on Twitter. So: half-decent writer, but ignore everything else he has to say.]

That is the problem I’m having with NaNo this year, and the reason I’m thinking about maybe not doing it again next year: I’ve been writing at a pace that just isn’t sustainable for me. If I’d been able (or willing) to write every. single. day, I’d be fine, but… I can’t sustain that, either. I seem to be at my best writing around 2 hours or 2000 words a day—whichever comes first—and writing 4-5 days a week. More than that, and I start to risk burnout, and I don’t want to go down that road again.

If circumstances were perfect, 2000 words/5 days a week is enough to survive NaNo. They just haven’t been perfect this year. This is a me thing, rather than a NaNo thing. I’ve committed, so I will do everything in my power to see it through—even if it means pushing myself too hard, even though there are literally no consequences to not hitting 50,000 words.

There’s a week left. Do I take the loss?

I’ll push through. Looking at my previous graphs, I’m almost exactly where I was last year, and I survived that. I’ll try to get some writing done over the weekend—even a few hundred words will ease the pressure next week. And I won’t say for sure that this is my last year doing NaNo, but… it might be. I’ll see how I feel about it next year.

… and you’re probably wondering how the actual story is going, too. Right.

So far, I’m really happy with it. I’ve been trying to make this particular story work since my first (recent) attempt at NaNo in 2016, and for the first time… I think I’m on the right track.

I did hit my first real snag this week: my ensemble cast has to be in the same place at the same time very soon, but I’m having a hard time actually making it happen. I know what the problem is—I didn’t spend enough time building up why they need to go, and some of my cast aren’t well enough developed yet—but right now it just feels like the characters would rather just sit around in their separate groups and talk about how awful everything is.

Anyway! I’m doing what any good NaNo-er would do: making a note in the text to fix it later, and skipping straight to the good part. There will be death and destruction. Probably not an explosion, but I’m tempted to see if I can fit one in. Either way, it’ll be fun to write.

That should be enough to shake me out of this funk and push me through the next week.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Diary | Week 2

Writing

… and I’m back on track!

I mean, I’m still behind the ‘official’ target for NaNo—after that one terrible day last week, I wound up taking the weekend off entirely—but the last five days have been really good. I’ve been meeting my personal goals, and today I closed out the first act.

So far, the story seems to be working. There are a couple of scenes that I already know are going to need a lot of work in revisions (it’s not that they’re bad, they just don’t quite feel like they’ve been earned), and I’m a little worried that my pacing is off, but I’ll deal with that later. (It might not even be an issue. The pacing always feels distorted during the writing process, when it sometimes feels like a scene drags on for days, because that’s how long it’s taken to get it on the page. I won’t know for sure how it reads until it’s done.)

Next week… will probably be ok. Not great. I’m probably not going to be able to get much writing done over the long weekend, which means I definitely won’t be catching up to the targets anytime soon, but I won’t fall much further behind. And, assuming the rest of my writing days go as smoothly as this week (which they should… my outline seems solid enough to carry me through), I’m still hopeful about the rest of the month.

Sketchbook #37

Photography, Writing

It’s been two months since I did a general update on how all my creative projects are going, so I’ve got a lot of ground to cover today. And since this day is already shaping up to be kind of awful (they’re rebuilding the balcony below mine, which means noisy generators and sawing through concrete, I’ve got my first serious cold of the season and so my attention span is pretty much nonexistent, and they’re going to be testing the fire alarms at some point today, and that’s always a joy), I’m going to try to make it quick.

When I did my last update, back in August, I was… going through some stuff. I was trying to figure out how to consistently create work—fiction or photography in particular—and get feedback, and not turn the entire thing into a chore.

I’m still working on that. That’s pretty much the driving force behind my reboot—and that’s going well. Still a process, of course, but I really do feel like I’m moving in the right direction.

One thing that’s come up in that work (and I touched on this the other day, but I think it’s relevant here, too), is that my long-term creative goals aren’t nearly clear enough, and that’s making it difficult for me to move forward. Especially in photography. I have some solid medium-term goals for my writing (querying agents, publishing), but when it comes to photography, I know more about what I don’t want to do than what I do want. And when I try to think long-term—five or ten years—things get really vague. I know that I want to be able to support myself through my writing and photography, but beyond that…?

I guess I’m still going through some stuff.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Diary | Prep Week 4

Writing

There’s a little less than a week left before NaNo officially starts, and I’m feeling really good about my story.

If you’re just tuning in, I’m rebelling this year. I’m still aiming for 50,000 words during November, and I’m not counting the words I write before then (obviously), but this year it was much more important that I strike while the iron was hot and start writing my story as soon as I was ready.

That turned out to be Tuesday.

So far, I’m thrilled with the story. The writing itself is still a bit slow—I’m always a bit slow until I find the rhythm—but I’m just about finished the opening scene. And that scene is completely different from the one I’d originally planned, but it’s also a million times better: it’s darker, more atmospheric, and my main character has an unexpected sassy streak that she didn’t demonstrate in either of my previous attempts to write this story. (I also expect it’ll impact this draft in ways I’m not expecting, which should be fun.)

That said, I haven’t made as much progress with my advance writing as I’d hoped. Working out those details, the ones that improved my opening scene so much, took time, and I haven’t had much opportunity to write this week. But that’s fine—this is bonus time, anyway, and it still means I’m not starting November trying to overcome the inertia of starting a draft. And I know that, if I’d waited until next week, I would have just barrelled through, and written the opening scene as I’d originally outlined, and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as it is now. (And I’m not sure I ever would’ve hit on this particular scene, even in rewrites.)

So. About five days to go.

I still haven’t written my synopsis, and I’d like to get that done before I get too far into the story—I mentioned it last year, but it really is remarkable how much that one little step clarified the story for me. I’ve got vague plans to make some kind of moodboard for the story, just as an experiment (usually I just throw things on a private Pinterest board that I never look at again. I’d like to see if having something that’s both more concentrated and more tangible helps).

And, of course, I want to find the flow of the writing itself. That’s the important bit.

How is your NaNo prep going? Are you ready for next week? (And… have you ever made a moodboard/aesthetic for a story? If you have any advice, I’d love to hear it. I have no idea what I’m doing.)

(Don’t forget: I’m always looking for writing buddies! Feel free to add me, and, if you’d like, say ‘hi!’ via NaNo mail. I’m usually available for motivation or commiseration.)

NaNoWriMo 2018 Diary | Prep Week 2

Writing

(Two updates in one week! Madness! Technically, Monday’s update was for last week. From here out, my NaNo updates will happen on Fridays.)

Over the past few days, “almost definitely” has turned into “definitely”—I’m going to be working on Violet Lane this November. I’m not going to wait until the first of the month to start writing, but I am going to aim for 50,000 words during NaNo itself.

My prepwork is moving along nicely again. I’ve spent this week on character work, figuring out exactly who these people are and why they exist in the story. It’s been incredibly helpful; developing original characters with unique voices has always been a challenge for me, and it’s only something I really started to feel confident about when I was preparing for last year’s NaNo. (Which means, of course, that I had no idea what I was doing the first time I tried writing this particular group of people.)

And it’s especially important in this story. It’s an ensemble piece, with multiple POV characters, one of whom is… let’s call her ‘unreliable,’ to be polite. I need to know who these people are, and I need to know them well.

In retrospect, that’s why the first two attempts at telling this story didn’t quite work. In both cases, I knew the plot, and I knew my main character, but the rest of it—all the other characters, the world—was a mystery. And so, the first time, I wound up with a finished draft that was… ok, but it needed far too much work to turn it into something good. The second time, I barely made it through the first chapter before I realized it wasn’t working.

This time, I know the plot. I know my main character. I know what everyone’s trying to accomplish. Hell, I know the theme, and that’s not something I bother with in a first draft, ever.

I still have a few characters to flesh out (like I said: ensemble), but I’m getting there. If everything goes according to plan, I should be able to start writing by the end of next week.

(Don’t forget: I’m always looking for writing buddies! Feel free to add me, and, if you’d like, say ‘hi!’ via NaNo mail. I’m usually available for motivation or commiseration.)

NaNoWriMo 2018 Writer

NaNoWriMo 2018 Diary | Prep Week 1

Writing

I know we’re only a week in, but it feels like October is halfway over already. In the last few days, I’ve gone from feeling like NaNoWriMo is still an abstract concept, something happening sometime in the future, to freaking out because NaNoWriMo is right around the corner.

I might be freaking out, but the timing is actually really good. I’ve spent the last few months revising and outlining, and I’m getting a bit desperate to get back to writing. I’m feeling motivated, and, with the 2018 reboot, I’m intentionally trying to get my creative life in order. (And I find it so much easier to structure my writing time when I’m sitting down and writing, rather than working on edits or outlines.)

So that’s good.

It just leaves the question of what I’m going to work on.

The 2018 Reboot

Productivity

It’s been a long, hot summer, and in the past few months I have fallen out of every good habit I’d managed to establish in the first half of the year.

I haven’t been taking photos, or at least not many. One of my big photography goals for the year—one that I’d hoped to achieve in June—has stalled.

I haven’t been running as much as I’d like, or even managing my usual workout routines. (When the humidity pushes the temperature near 30°C at six-thirty in the morning, I absolutely refuse.)

I’ve been working on the Violet Lane outline, but in fits and starts. When I actually work on it, it’s going well, but it takes an awful lot of motivation to get started.

I’ve been spending more money than I’m really comfortable with. Everything I’ve been buying has been necessary (or if it’s not strictly necessary, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for long enough that I don’t feel guilty about buying it), but it all takes up space and my plans for decluttering have kind of stalled.

I haven’t been watching many movies. I’ve been reading mediocre books. I’ve been falling into internet black holes. My podcast backlog is growing again. Intellectually, it feels like I’ve been consuming nothing but junk food for three months.

(I’ve also been eating quite a bit of junk food.)

Basically: I’ve been in a rut. (I might’ve mentioned this already?)

But it’s September, and September always feels like a fresh start. The way the air feels, the way the light falls, the sudden urge to buy a new backpack (I do not need another bag) (or another notebook) (really. I mean it)… the back-to-school feeling has never gone away.

This year, I’m going to take advantage of it.

I don’t mean that I’m going to suddenly throw myself into everything I just mentioned, trying to fix them all at once. (Though, let’s be honest: that would be a closer analogue to the whole back-to-school thing.) I know that won’t work, at least not for long. But I’m going to use this energy—and the fact that we’re not really that far away from the end of the year—and spend the next few months figuring out how to keep from falling into this rut again, and building systems that can support the work—creative and otherwise—I want to be doing.

That’s kind of vague. I do have specific goals in mind.

Improve the quality of the art I’m consuming, in order to improve the quality of the art I’m creating.
I’m listing this first because it’s easiest, and it’s something I’ve done before. It’s the only one that I can start doing (almost) immediately, with no preparation.

Find a way to structure my time in order to support my bigger goals (creative and otherwise).
I’ve never been great at this. I’ve actually always been really bad at this, and what little progress I’d made fell apart this summer, both because of the heat (I had to give up some of the routines that kept me on track and my motivation dropped to zero) and because the time-tracking app I’d been using stopped syncing and I haven’t found a good replacement. I honestly feel like this is the thing that holds me back the most, and if I can figure it out, a lot of other things will start to fall into place.

Develop workflows for writing and photography. And blogging.
Basically, I need to figure out how to take a concept from idea to finished product in a consistent way, so I don’t get hung up on trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do next. Ideally, this would also include the idea generation stage of things, since I also have a tendency to drag my heels when it comes to choosing something new to work on. This is more of an issue with photography and blogging than writing fiction (I’ve already started putting together a system for that) but they all need work.

Experiment with productivity and journalling systems, and find something that works for me.
I’ve always been a little bit in love with planners and to-do lists, ever since the day they handed out our spiral-bound handbooks/planners in junior high. I bought my first Day Timer when I was sixteen (I still have it, and I know exactly which box it’s in). I’ve used PDAs and iOS devices for more than fifteen years(!!). I’ve experimented with hipster PDAs and bullet journals and any number of pre-designed planners. And I’m still looking for something that does everything I need or want it to do. I still don’t know what that is, and hopefully I’ll be able to figure it out over the next few months.

Finish the work on the office.
I love this space. Before I got so far off-track, I could see a real improvement in my motivation and energy, just from spending time in this room. But the current stage is… not great. It feels cramped and cluttered. I want to get back to work on the improvements, and I want to be able to give you a tour by the end of the year.

There we have it: my goals for the rest of the year. Not including things like NaNoWriMo or other specific projects. It’s not terrifying at all, seeing it all written down like that. Really.

In my part of the world, the first day of school is either today (for university students) or tomorrow (for everyone else). So today is as good a time as any to start. I’m going to check in here every week. I’m not quite sure what form those check-ins will take, or when exactly I’ll do them, but I will keep you posted.

Ok? Ok. Let’s go.

Sketchbook #36

Photography, Productivity, Writing

Most months, I take this post as an opportunity to reflect on the creative goals I’d set, and decide what I want to try to do in the coming month. Sometimes, taking that time to reflect leads me in a direction that doesn’t really fit into the standard format I’ve established for these ‘sketchbooks.’

Which is a roundabout way of saying this might be long, and it might ramble a bit. I’m trying to figure out some stuff, here, and if this isn’t the best way for me to do it, at least it’s been effective in the past.

Ok? Let’s go.

The way I’ve been managing my creative life—the things I’m working on, my creative energy, my time—isn’t working.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy with the things I’ve been doing lately. I love the stories I’ve been working on and the pictures I’ve been taking. This isn’t the usual feeling of ugh, I hate EVERYTHING that comes over me every so often, or the low point in my usual three-month cycle. Some of it can (probably) be attributed to the heat this summer—I haven’t had the motivation or attention span to do much work. Some of it is a general anxiety, and I know exactly what’s triggering that. (More on that in a minute, because it’s relevant.) But this goes deeper than that. It’s a restlessness and general dissatisfaction with my current processes, rather than with the work.

For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about writing and photography in terms of “projects:” concrete, measurable goals, whether it’s NaNoWriMo or a specific manuscript, or 365 photos. For a while, that was exactly what I needed—something to work toward, with some degree of accountability.

And that’s great.

Until this month, when all of those projects managed to hit stopping points at roughly the same time. I finished the 100 Days of Black & White photography project. I sent The Black Sun to my beta readers. I launched my newsletter.

… and then I wondered what the hell comes next.

There are things I could be working on: the Violet Lane outline. Various updates I want to make to the website. The big photo project that I keep hinting at and that I swore I’d be ready to announce this month (and which, by the way, I am not ready to announce this month). I’m not working on any of them. (Or not much. I have been picking away at the Violet Lane outline, and I’m really starting to like that again, but it’s going slowly.)

And, like I said: part of it comes down to anxiety. As soon as I sent The Black Sun to the last of my beta readers, I was instantly aware of all the flaws in the manuscript. (But I’m being good about that, at least. I know where this uncertainty is coming from, and I know that I can deal with it. I won’t look at the file, let alone make any changes, while it’s in beta. I’ve gotten some initial response, of the don’t worry, it doesn’t suck! variety, so that’s nice.) Plus I’ve been doing that thing I do with Instagram, where I feel guilty about not having anything to post, so I don’t log in at all, and then I feel guilty about that.

On top of that, the progress I’ve been making on the office revamp has been its own source of stress. As much as I love what this space is becoming, it’s a mess right now. The closet is a disaster area, I’ve still got one ugly old bookcase that I can’t throw out until I’ve found places for all the odds and ends that I’m still storing there. The cat has officially claimed my new comfy reading chair, even though she’s got a bed in the room already (which she’d been using happily until two weeks ago). And every so often, the scale of this hits me and sends my not-so-inner minimalist into a tailspin, thinking about the money I’ve spent (nothing excessive, but still more than I’m strictly happy with) and what’s going to happen when I move (which I’m not planning unless something really big changes in the few months before the lease is up for renewal). I joked the other day that, between the office and my bedroom, I’m basically building a fully-functional tiny house, only… it wasn’t a joke. Not really.

So, yeah: I’m dealing with some stress.

But there’s always stress. I’m not going to meet any of my creative goals unless I figure out how to work around that stress. And the way I’ve been working until now isn’t helping me anymore.

The problem with projects is they’re finite. Eventually, they come to an end (or at least a logical and/or necessary pause), and you have to transition to something new. Different projects require different approaches, even different schedules. Every one of them needs some kind of plan, and every one of them starts with a certain amount of resistance. (At least for me.) I need to overcome inertia to start, and when it’s just one project, that’s fine, but when it’s everything, it’s… not fine. It’s really difficult.

I’m also starting to think that maybe this project-based approach doesn’t actually move my work forward as much as I’d like. I mean, yes, the two photo-a-day projects have noticeably improved my photography. But how much of that is the project itself, and how much of it is just taking photos on a regular basis, and sharing them publicly? Feedback is a huge motivator for me as an artist (as much as it freaks me out), and a creative community of some kind is essential (as much as that freaks me out sometimes). The projects themselves are irrelevant.

That said… routine can be a killer, too. I’m not the kind of person who can sit down at the same time every day and churn out 1500 words, regardless of what I’m working on. (I mean… I can. I’ve been that kind of person, and it was a big factor in my burnout. I’m not going down that road again.) And I definitely don’t want to ritualize the creative process too much. If I need certain circumstances in order to be able to make art, whether that’s a certain environment, or a certain schedule, or even a specific scented candle, then everything falls apart when I can’t repeat the ritual. (Again: I’m speaking of my own experience, here. If the ritual is what works for you, then go for it!)

The trick, then, is figuring out how to consistently produce work, whether fiction or photography or something else entirely, and get regular feedback, without turning it into a chore. It’s figuring out how to focus on the process, rather than the outcome, while still keeping my long-term goals (which still haven’t changed, so at least that’s something) in sight. It’s figuring out what really motivates me, and how to tap into that.

I don’t know how to do that.

It would be nice if I could wrap up this blog post with some clear answers, if I could say for sure what I was going to do. It’s taken three days and over a thousand words just to articulate the problem in a way that makes sense to me, and I’m still thinking about what the solution is.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing in September: thinking about my creative process, and my day-to-day routine, and looking at ways that I can improve it. I’m going to try to get back to regular posting on Instagram, though it probably won’t be a specific project. I’m going to work on the Violet Lane outline and continue to try very hard not to worry about The Black Sun.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime… if you’ve gone through this, and come to any conclusions, I’d love to hear what helped you. If you’re still going through something like this, I’d love to hear from you, too—we can puzzle over the dilemma together.