Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bad Good Habits


I’m bad with goals. On January 8th I started writing my next novel with the goal of a minimum of a thousand words per day, but with my attention on writing scenes, chapters and arcs – of getting the text right. I write much more when I focus like that, which became the problem, because on the first day I wrote about 2,900 words. On the second day, I wrote about 2,900 more. On the third, I wrote 2,300, and felt exhilarated, having never started a novel so quickly, but also like I’d cheated and profoundly failed.

Do you recognize the problem? Do you have it, too?

Last week I managed to drag my chubby butt to 2.54 miles on the elliptical machine. It was the farthest I’d ever gone, and was so hard on my body that I was trembling for the next hour and felt exhausted the next morning. When I climbed on the next day and didn’t match that all-time record, my heart sunk. I was sweaty, and spent, and my neuromuscular syndrome flared up so badly I couldn’t bend my knees, and I felt like I hadn’t done enough.

I've habituated expanding my goals to a cancerous degree. We often talk about failure in terms of not reaching goals. Figuring out what you can achieve and what’s reasonable to push is vital. You have to learn to make a routine, and then to push. I fail in these ways all the time – it is, allegedly, mortal. But there are other ways to fail. Victory can defeat you.

It's a good line. ... Shut up.
Goals can’t remain static. It’s ridiculous to teach a baby to take her first steps and then never expect her to perform more than that. In writing, you want to push you productivity up if you can. If you can write 500 words in a weekend for months, then it’s healthy to try for 1,000. If you can bench fifty, try sixty. Sure.

But figuring out the limits above those goals is essential, and it’s something I’m terrible at. You can psychoanalyze me as the boy who learned to walk again, who didn’t readjust into school well enough and was brutalized for it, who wound up with nerds who all pulled better grades, and thusly craved to exceed his performance. I don’t think the mind is that simple, or that one reason is ever trustworthy for a whole personality. But I knew within seconds of seeing “2.56 miles” on the elliptical’s panel that I was going to guilt myself over not hitting that again tomorrow. And I knew I shouldn’t, and that it wasn’t healthy, and that I couldn’t stop it.

This is part of why I hate critics who backbite at authors for having a slow pace. It took Harper Lee a lifetime to make To Kill a Mockingbird, and then she was done. Truman Capote, of significantly faster work and greater output, supported and championed Lee. They weren’t competitors, and one wasn’t failing for not having the process of the other.

Goading people into rushing risks breaking them. Screw breaking their work – and yes, dashing towards word count like #NaNoWriMo ruins plenty of decent novels – it can damage their development.

No one browbeat me into writing 33,700 words in my first two weeks on this novel. That I am now significantly ahead of schedule and feel the dread of being behind is a doom of my own making.  It’s hardly fast composition – I have friends who are self-publishing books like they shed manuscripts. But today, after writing two emotionally demanding chapters in separate time lines, and having difficulty even sitting up in the chair afterward, I didn’t feel accomplished. I felt sicker and I felt like I’d failed.

Don’t do this. And if you’re like me, let’s talk it out.

Consequences.
There are authors I respect who advise to lock everything up, to be cold, and be as productive as possible. As someone who won’t fall asleep tonight because the mere strain of writing has jacked up his health problems such that he may not fall asleep tonight, please take my advice: ignore those authors. Mind yourself. Mind your goals and your limits.

And if somehow I become the Capote to your Lee, trust me that I will be overjoyed to share your one book with the world.

16 comments:

  1. Small steps are always better. Go just a little bit farther.
    Sorry you about killed yourself off with the exercise.

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  2. Your insights, as always, are spot on.

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    1. Thank you, Beth. How are things coming for you?

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  3. Hey John. This makes a lot of sense to me. Like you I sometimes find myself trying to write more than my targets. If I succeed they then become new targets which I ultimately try and beat. Not only does it often lead to burnout days (sadly I'm not talking about the game) but also that the quality of the writing suffers as I become obsessed with wordcount rather than quality.

    At the moment I'm strictly writing less and the result has been I take my time more with scenes and tend to enjoy it more.

    The same is true of running now I think about it.

    Anyhow, I hope your insights lead to healthier things. And I probably shouldn't say this but 33700 words in two weeks is amazing!

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    1. Ha, well I'll take a little praise for my work, even if I will discourage fetishizing output. Thank you, Pete. Are you find you do better work when you enjoy it? That's the case for some kinds of fiction I do. Mood is enormous to my process.

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    2. I don't know about mood. In fact the sessions where I have a crazy good time are quite often the ones that need the most editing. But writing less does seem to up the quality for me.

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  4. I'm pretty slow when it comes to writing novels. I tell myself that the end result is worth the wait. That might even be true. My overall goal, though, is to maintain a balance of writing with everything else that will let me keep ALL the plates spinning.

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  5. Learning how to read yourself well enough to know the signs of shouldn't-push-more is a tricky thing, particularly because breaking through certain barriers requires not the question "Can I?" but "How do I?" Good to be thinking about, though, and I'm glad your writing is going well.

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  6. Oh I have the same problem as you. My resolution this year was to pace myself better so I wouldn't burn out, but my body had different ideas. I failed! My slow was still too fast, and I ended up in a bad RSI flare up that makes it difficult to type right now. Lesson learned (again). Sometimes slower is healthier. Curse you impatience!

    You can do it. Please be kinder to yourself.

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    1. Oh no, how severe is the injury? I'm so sorry, Theresa.

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    2. It's getting better now, but I'm scarce online because of it. Novel has to take a back seat for a little while longer. I'm more worried about you, sir!

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  7. I understand. My goal for the novella is 500 a day, and on the days I actually manage 500, it's feels easy enough to write the next day. But sometimes I am a lot under, sometimes I am lot over and than the next day I hardly do anything. I think it's because other word counts put me off my stride.

    But today, the 22 day of January, I am almost on target - minus 500 words or so. (I am not counting the first couple days of the year)

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  8. Don't beat yourself up, dude. A lot of Iron Man athletes have started to go easy on training and races before the big one to rest and then rock that one race. We can sprint now and then as needed, but life isn't meant to be run at a breakneck pace. Writing either. I find myself kind of going crazy with wordcounts in November and then slack for months afterwards. It's all about pacing yourself.

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  9. I attended a workshop on Tuesday on productivity for writers. The speaker had this process that I think she said she had gotten from a book, but I don't remember which one. She prints up a year calendar and sets goals of how many pages she will write each day. She does not allow herself to go past the amount, but she must reach it. Even if she must stop in the middle of a sentence, she stops at the goal. And she raises it by half a page each week or two weeks. She schedules in big holidays and events, so there's no guilt in missing out on writing, and she schedules in emergency days that she can borrow for any time she needs, which also helps not feel guilt. I'm trying to fit a 90 minute presentation into one blog comment, but it resounded with me for the same reasons you're posting about. I think she started with 3 pages written (so about 750 words) for the first two weeks. She went up to 3.5 for two weeks, then 4, and she ended at 5. She automatically backed up the pages after the holidays, so eased back down by .5 to 1 page for a week and built back up. By having it on the calendar she didn't feel bad, because it was all scheduled in and ready to go, so she couldn't beat herself up. Sorry to babble, but maybe something like that would work for you? Same with the exercise. You could set mileage and take it up by x amount every two weeks, build in vacation/holiday/event relief, and go from there.

    The Warrior Muse

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  10. You are still making strides to meet your "big picture" goals even if you don't meet your quantifiable daily goals. You might still feel the rewards of a hard day's work, but without the unnecessary pressure that you're putting on yourself, if you don't look at the numbers at all for a few days.

    Good luck, and I hope you go easy on yourself!

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  11. Thank you. I really needed to hear that today. I don't have health problems like you, but I do have two young children who take up most of my time and energy, and I often feel guilty for not getting as much writing done as "so and so"... and then, of course, I feel guilty for feeling guilty, like somehow just feeling guilty about not writing is making me a bad mother somehow - and then I feel like I'm failing in both my personal life and my author life, and then I just can't bring myself to write anything for a day or two. Which tends to start the cycle all over again.

    So, thank you for the reminder that every author has their own pace and their own life with all its extra bits that need attending to. I needed the reminder.

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