Exercise routines

When I was teaching, I got a lot more exercise. I used to walk to work nearly everyday, as well as to and from my kids’ school. Now I work from home and wave goodbye to my children from my front door. I sit at my desk typing for hours, occasionally going downstairs to make tea or coffee. According to my phone, my daily step count dropped to an average of 3000 from 10 000.

After a few months of this new sedentary lifestyle, and a whole lot of complaining about my aches and pains from hunching over my laptop everyday, I realized I had to make some changes.

I started with my desk: I ordered a stand for my laptop and an external keyboard so my posture would be a little less terrible.

Next, I rejoined the local Y, which is only two blocks from my house. I learned how to use the elliptical machine and took advantage of the free training session to set up a strength-training routine. At first, I resented losing an hour from my day to go to the gym, but sweat-induced endorphins have helped to turn me around.

A few weeks ago, I attended a QWF workshop about the reciprocal relationship between walking and writing; you can read Alice Zorn’s description of the workshop on her blog. This was a good reminder that writing doesn’t just happen at the desk; walking allows you to process thoughts and ideas in new and wonderful ways.

Then, a few days ago, I made the biggest lifestyle change so far: we adopted a puppy! Samson (pictured above) is a 9-week-old black labrador retriever. My husband has been wanting a dog for years, but I’d been resistant. Now, I’m embracing the opportunity to spend more time outside and counteract my desk-bound writer lifestyle.

Bottleneck

Remember all the great progress I made last week?

This week, I started a new scene and ran into difficulties almost instantly. Not only did I fall short of my word count goal for the week; I never even managed to finish this one scene! I kept having to stop and restart, change and delete.

Obviously, this was frustrating. I was irritated with myself, at my loss of momentum and my lack of progress.

Then I took a step back and asked myself why this scene was so difficult to write. I reviewed the last few scenes for each of my main characters, and suddenly it all made sense: This isn’t just a move-the-plot-forward kind of scene. This needs to be a pivotal moment in both characters’ stories.

This particular scene represents a crossroads for my characters, both individually and for their friendship. Not only does this scene represent the culmination of one part of the narrative, it sets up major crises and plot points for the next part. In order to write this section, I need to keep a ton of information in mind for both characters, then tell the story from only one character’s point of view.

No wonder this has been difficult!

Once I realized what was happening, I stopped beating myself up. I made some notes, collected my thoughts and let myself slow down. I’m going to take my time to get this scene right.

Structural support

I’m a little stunned by my productivity this week.

I wrote more than 7500 words, propelling my total word count past 95 000. There are still a few chapters to go before this draft is finished, but I’m definitely on track to finish in June.

I’m sure it helps that I took that “break” to work on short stories last week, but the biggest factor of my success is the structure I’ve got in place for this book. My scene-by-scene outline lets me alternate smoothly between my two main characters, always moving their individual stories forward, juggling various narrative arcs and subplots.

This doesn’t mean writing the book feels like paint-by-numbers, since I still have to work out the setting and action when I sit down to write each scene: the how and the where and sometimes the when. But the outline is providing the who and the why and the what next; it’s functioning as a scaffold for the whole book, stabilizing the overall structure and giving me the confidence that my story actually holds together.

The other major structural element that’s holding me steady is time management. My daily word-count goal and writing routine might seem constrictive, but they are habits that compel me to productivity. Sitting down at my desk at the same time every single morning keeps the book moving forward, day after day.

 

Short Story Week

This week I went rogue: no novel writing! I didn’t even open up the file in Scrivener.

Increasingly, over the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with motivation (not enough) and procrastination (too much), so I thought I’d change my focus for a few days and work on something different.

Instead of adding another 5000 words to my novel, I declared this ‘Short Story Week’ and gave myself five working days to work on shorter pieces. I revised a story I’d written a few months ago, changing details that didn’t fit and creating a whole new ending. I also started writing a new story, building up scenes and working out timelines and relationships for these new characters.

It was all very loose, freewheeling creative work compared to the structured writing I’ve been doing this year. I didn’t finish a polished draft of either story, but I made good progress and it was definitely satisfying to take a break from the novel for a few days.

To cap off the week, I gave a reading at the Atwater Library. I got to stand up and read my short story “Foreign Bodies” to a room full of attentive listeners. Pretty dreamy, especially being in the company of award-winning writers Laura Legge, Lesley Trites and Anna Leventhal.

Next week, I’ll be back to my regular routine: just me, typing away at my laptop, following my outline until I finish this draft.

 

Peer support

About once a month, I meet up with a writer friend to talk about our works-in-progess.

Carly and I met at a short story workshop run by the Quebec Writer’s Federation. She is younger than me but has already published a number of pieces, both fiction and CNF (creative non-fiction). She just completed her MFA and is now working on a full second draft of her novel.

In short, we have a lot in common.

Every few weeks, Carly and I get together at a cafe to talk shop. Over coffee, we commiserate about the difficulties of the writing life and cheer each other on when one of us feels daunted or overwhelmed. We talk about technical issues like narrative structure and point of view, and we share news of local writing events. We celebrate each other’s achievements and hold each other accountable for the goals we set.

Writing a novel is a long, laborious, lonely venture. I have lots of support from family and friends, but I am lucky to have found a colleague and friend who really gets it, who is wrestling with all the same challenges and pursuing the same dreams as me.

We got together today, and as always, it was both cathartic and encouraging. Every time we meet it boosts my spirits and gets me through the next few weeks of solitary writing work. Thanks, Carly!

 

Tracking numbers

I’ve been sitting down every day with the same writing goal: 1000 words.

This has worked out pretty well, as you can see from this glimpse of my calendar. I record my actual word count at the end of every writing session, and you can see where I struggled and where I faltered, but also where I succeeded or surpassed my goal. It’s immensely motivating to look back and see the steady progress I’ve been making since December, but this week I decided to step things up and set a new goal:

1200 words a day.

Today I was done by lunchtime. Yesterday it was nearly 2pm before I’d finished, but I got it done. There’s a funny thing about increasing my word count goal: it makes me write faster, plunging ahead and tackling scenes that I’ve been anticipating with anxiety. My number one priority is getting the pages written, not getting hung up on perfection.

Knowing that I’m moving faster towards the end of this draft is also helping me to increase the momentum of my scenes; I’m spending less time on description and dialogue and focusing more on action. This is shortening my scenes but also propelling me forward, along with the story.

All good news, right? Hopefully I can sustain (or even increase!) this new pace over the remaining weeks it’ll take to finish this draft of the book.

 

Losing the plot

 

Things are getting tricky.

There’s no denying I’ve reached the dreaded “saggy middle” of this novel. This is the section that seems to meander aimlessly, sapping the energy out of the whole story.

I’ve been here before, in previous drafts of this project. It’s always so exciting to start writing, so much fun to create characters and plots, to wind them up and set them spinning. At a certain point, though, the action slows down. Logistics get complicated, confusing. After 50 or 100 pages, the writer runs out of steam: this is the “saggy middle.”

So here I am. I had really, truly hoped that following my meticulously-plotted, scene-by-scene outline was going to prevent this problem. I thought all my cunning little subplots were going to keep the momentum going in this manuscript, that I’d skip happily along my well-marked narrative trail, from rising action all the way to the climax.

And you know, without my outline I might be giving up at this point.

But not this time; I’m too stubborn. I planned this thing and I’m going to see it through. I may be gritting my teeth and racing through some of these scenes, but I’m not skipping anything. Yes, it’s painful to write a scene while my inner critic is yammering away, insisting that these pages will be the first to be cut when I get to my next draft.

But there can’t be a next draft until this one’s done. So I persevere.

Looking professional

Being a writer isn’t always about writing. It’s not enough to be an artist; you also need to present yourself in a professional way.

With this in mind, I signed up for a free online workshop called “Love Your Author Photo.” It was put together by writer/editor Rachel Thompson and photographer/activist Vivienne McMaster, and it was all about choosing and/or creating a professional author headshot.

Why should I worry about this now, long before my book is finished, let alone on its way to publication?

Well, when my short story won the Malahat prize, they asked for my headshot… and I didn’t have one! Luckily, I was visiting my brother, who’s a talented amateur photographer. We went out to his apartment’s parking lot, where he took about 30 pictures of me with my phone. I ended up picking one of these for the magazine, which you can see here along with my interview. I look happy and relaxed but a little rumpled. It’s a nice picture, but does it work as a professional headshot?

During yesterday’s webinar, both Rachel and Vivienne provided tons of supportive, positive suggestions for taking better pictures and becoming more comfortable in front of the camera. They addressed the vulnerability that comes with putting a photo of yourself out into the world and gave strategies for circumventing the inner critic.

The idea that really stood out for me was that my professional headshot needs to represent me as a writer, not just me as a person. As a human being, of course I want to look friendly, attractive and likable in pictures. But are those the most important qualities in my writing? I should really be using a photo that hints at the style, energy and authenticity of my work.

Thanks to this webinar, I’m resolving to take more selfies and to be braver about sharing these with the world. You can already check out my Instagram feed for some of the pictures I took yesterday during the workshop. One day, I’ll hire an expert photographer to take a more professional portrait of me. In the meantime, though, I’ll experiment with ways to represent myself and my work visually as well as through the written word.

 

Crisis of confidence

This has been a tough writing week.

I’ve reached the midpoint of the story for one of my main characters, and I’ve been looking forward to writing these scenes. This part of the book is set at Hillside, an outdoor music festival held every summer in my hometown of Guelph. It’s a great setting and I want these scenes to be vivid, exciting and dramatic.

Instead, they feel flat. Uninspired. Cliché, even. I type a few lines, then erase them. I’ve gone back to previous versions of the scene and mined these for usable material, but I’m struggling to fit it all together in a way that moves the story forward.

It gets worse: my difficulty with these scenes is making me question the big picture. Maybe I’m having a hard time because this character isn’t plausible. Maybe none of the plot is working and I’m just realizing that now. Maybe this whole book is an awful mistake.

These are not helpful thoughts.

This whole project requires that I sustain confidence in my ideas, my plot and my characters, as well as in my ability to write this story. When my confidence gets shaky, the whole venture starts to seem insane. Who am I to think I can write a novel? I’ve never done this before!

I’m not about to give up on this draft just yet; I keep reminding myself that many of these scenes are just shitty first drafts which I can revise and rework or even delete if necessary if they aren’t working. “How bad can this be?” I ask myself.

I guess we’ll find out!

I’ve made a deal with myself: don’t look back. Move forward. Follow the outline; write as well as you can, but try to maintain the momentum even when it feels like it’s not going well. Once this draft is done, I can be critical. For now, it’s full steam ahead.

Recycling

I wrote more than 7000 words this week!

Well, ok, that’s not quite true. My draft grew by more than 7000 words, but I recycled several scenes from previous versions of this book. I don’t mean copy-and-paste; I did some light editing and a fair amount of revision to make my old scenes fit into this new draft. Still, there are whole paragraphs that survived the transition nearly intact.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, if I’d already written and polished a scene in a previous iteration of this book, isn’t it logical to reuse it instead of rewriting a nearly-identical scene from scratch?

On the other hand, the whole point of the draft I’m currently writing is that my old versions of the book didn’t work. I went off on a lot of tangents and was lacking a tightly-strutured plot. It seems easier now, but maybe reusing old scenes is just putting a bunch of extra, unnecessary words into this draft, which I’ll just end up cutting later. I’m already at 65 000 words and I’m only half-way through the story, so I certainly don’t want any scenes to be longer than necessary!

When I started working on this draft of my novel, I intended to write the whole thing over from the beginning. I knew I’d be keeping some of the same events and scenes, but they were often positioned earlier or later within the narrative, and I planned to change some key details. By starting from scratch, I figured I could maintain momentum and help ensure that the whole novel held together, as a whole.

I tried. Really, I did. But I couldn’t resist going back and looking at previous versions of scenes, and sometimes those earlier versions were pretty good! At this point, I’ve adopted a fairly pragmatic attitude about recycling images and scenes from my old work. This draft is a palimpsest, the new scenes mingled with the old. Hopefully I’m succeeding at fusing them all into a coherent whole.