Habits

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I’ve just finished “Lifelong Writing Habit” by Chris Fox. Chris has written a number of writing books in addition to his prolific production of fiction, mostly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. This craft book focuses on learning to use habits to become more productive.

As we all know, habits are ingrained behaviors we do without thinking much about them. Mine include getting up when the cats won’t let me sleep any longer, feeding said cats, and putting on the coffee. The biggest decision I have to make in my still-sleepy brain is which can of cat food to feed them. My cats are finicky (is there any other kind?), kind of like two-year-olds in that a favorite food becomes something they don’t like at all without any warning. So I try to make sure to feed them a variety with the hope that they won’t tire of any particular one just when I’ve laid in a two-months supply.

But back to habits.

Up until recently, the next thing I did was turn on my computer, check my sales so far this month, then get sucked into the vortex of Facebook. It’s something to do while I drink that first cup of coffee, and I tell myself that it’s productive because I catch up on the latest advertising techniques and publishing news and all that. Except that I generally also get lost in cat videos and outrage. Several hours later, I’ve run out of new Facebook postings and get up out of my chair. Reading “Lifelong Writing Habit” has convinced me to abandon that habit, no matter how strong the siren call of it is, and start my day differently so I will be writing before I’ve exhausted myself with social media drama.

Because all those angry postings are drama and drama is exhausting. During the World Series, the announcers talked a lot about “stress pitches.” It takes a lot more out of a pitcher to face a batter when the bases are loaded with no one out than when there are two outs and the bases are empty. Similarly, if the score is 10-to-1 in your favor, it’s easy to face the next batter. If it’s 10-to-1 against, there’s more stress. So while in recent years, it’s been all about the pitch count to determine how long a pitcher can stay in the game, the announcers were pointing out that if most of those pitches were stress pitches, keeping a pitcher in for one hundred of them was likely to result in disaster.

I’ll get back to that in a bit.

At the end of “Lifelong Writing Habit,” Chris suggests that you immediately start the next craft book you want to read. It’s one of the ways you become a better writer. I have a ton of those, including ones I read before I was ready for the information they contain that I want to re-read. I have several books by Lawrence Block, many of which are compilations of the monthly columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest. So I opened one of those this morning, “The Liar’s Bible: A Good Book for Fiction Writers.” I think Block put them on sale not too long ago, so I picked up several of them.
I’m not sure whether it was coincidence or serendipity, but when I started reading the next article from that book (I’d started it earlier), I ran across this passage concerning Georges Simenon, a prolific mystery writer of the past:

There, locked in a hotel room, Simenon would work 12 or 14 hours a day until, in 11 or 12 days’ time, his book was finished. After each day’s stint at the typewriter, he would compulsively follow whatever routine he had established on the first day, ambling through town according to precisely the same route, buying his tobacco at the same kiosk, ordering the same meal at the same restaurant, doing all this presumably to eliminate the need to make decisions and to maintain the same turn of mind, insofar as possible, throughout the writing of the novel.

Habits again.

This may sound strange, but the phrase that stood out to me was “ordering the same meal at the same restaurant” because today I’m going to make Simply Filling Cabbage and White Bean Soup in my slow cooker. I started making this on a regular basis even before I joined Weight Watchers because it’s low calorie, high fiber, and easy. I made it even easier by using cole slaw mix instead of slicing up my own cabbage and carrots. I throw the ingredients in my slow cooker in the morning, let them cook all day, and have a delicious and filling soup for dinner. The recipe makes from six to eight portions, so I freeze individual containers to take out over the next couple of weeks for dinner.

I have another favorite slow cooker meal, Salsa Chicken. This one is even easier. You put chicken breasts in the slow cooker, sprinkle with taco seasoning, add a jar of salsa and a can of diced tomatoes and start that cooking.

I’ve felt slightly guilty about the routine of eating the same meals every day. One day cabbage soup, the next day salsa chicken until it’s gone and I make another pot. Seeing that Georges Simenon did something similar got rid of that guilt.

The truth is, making decisions is also tiring. I’ve written a blog post on decision fatigue before. Every decision you make takes a little bit of energy. The more decisions, the more you drain your energy. If you can eliminate some decisions, particularly for simple things, you have more energy left for the big things, like writing. And more time, because you’re not standing at the open refrigerator door inventorying ingredients or paging through recipe books looking for something to cook for dinner.
NaNoWriMo is also about habits. With a deadline and a word count goal for every day in the month of November, it forces you to form the habit of writing, generally before you do anything else. Which is why I have to stop dithering on this blog post and, as Chris Fox says, get back to the writing.

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NaNoWriMo

Friday, November 01, 2019
Woman typing on a laptop

Today it begins!

What’s that you ask? Well, other than the start of the month of November, it is also the start of National Novel Writing Month, fondly known as NaNoWriMo by those who participate. All over the world, thousands of novelists will be attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I’m going to be one of them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done NaNoWriMo. In fact, the first three books of my African Violet Club mystery series started out as NaNo novels. But long before that, in 2004, I did my first NaNoWriMo. For three years, I’d been trying to complete my first novel. Like most new novelists, I was struggling. I’d get so far and then stall out. I didn’t know what to write. My story sucked. I was lost and frustrated and depressed.

Then I heard of this insane (to me) event where a bunch of people committed to writing a novel in a single month. It didn’t have to be a good novel. It just had to be done. You couldn’t write a single word until November 1st, and with any luck, you’d type your fifty-thousandth word on November 30th. Ideally that would be the word “End,” and the word before it would be “The.”

Something incredible happens when your focus is on writing 1667 words every day for thirty days. You don’t have time to worry about whether they’re good words or the right words or, sometimes, whether they make any sense. You have to put your internal editor on vacation. For a perfectionist like me, that’s tough to do. But it was the secret to actually getting to “The End” for me. That first year, I wrote a 50,690 word novel called “A Pearl of Great Price.” It was a mystery, of course.

There are all kinds of tricks to accomplish this. One is going to group write-ins. Local Nano’ers will meet at a specified time and place and work on their novels together for a few hours. The Municipal Liaisons bring swag, little things associated with writing or just for fun. Often there will be writing sprints, where everyone has to type as many words they can in 15 minutes (or some other arbitrary amount of time). At the end, you compare notes.

There are plot bunnies, something everyone tries to include in their story in the next writing sprint. Various people might throw these ideas out. Most of the time, they’ll have nothing to do with the novel you’re writing. But that’s what makes it fun. If you’re writing a cowboy romance and the plot bunny is a medieval knight, you have to come up with a way to include it. Usually, it doesn’t make sense. But your imagination, under pressure, sometimes comes up with something incredible, something that takes your novel in a direction you never thought about.

I first finished a novel on November 30th of that year. I still have it on my hard drive. It’s not something I’d publish. Not in its current form anyway. Some day I’ll have to read through it and see if there’s anything worth salvaging. But that hardly matters. What I learned was not only that I could finish a novel, but how to do it. It’s no big secret. You put your butt in the chair, your hands on the keyboard, and don’t stop (except for breaks every once in a while) until you hit your word count goal for the day. As Nora Roberts says, you can’t edit a blank page.

I rarely do write-ins now. I don’t use plot bunnies to increase my word count. But, if I’m close to starting a new novel toward the end of the year, I’ll usually join NaNo to encourage me to work on it every day. This is one of those years. Let the typing begin!
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