Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Rules for the Leap

Don't know how many South Park fans are reading this, but if you're out there, do you remember the Underpants Gnomes? Of course you do. For the uninitiated, they were these little magical critters that stole underpants. Later Stan and Kyle et al discovered the gnomes' secret underwear stash, along with their plan to leverage this life of crime into untold riches. The plan was this:

1. Collect underpants
2. ?
3. Profit

They were a little fuzzy on the details of that second step.

I bring this up because my own second step could use a little work. It's very, very easy to talk about writing, about ideas for characters, about how much I plan to get done tomorrow. But it's also remarkably easy to talk about all this without actually getting any writing done. Do a Google search for writing advice, and sooner or later you'll run across the acronym BICFOK. It stands for 'Butt in chair, fingers on keys'. It is shocking how difficult it can be to put yourself in that physical position, but it's pretty damn crucial to make a habit of it. You know, to actually write.

But isn't writing a glorious labour of love? Isn't it a passion? Isn't it fun? Well, yes and no. For me, it's actually pretty agonising. Just agonising in a good way. I know some fantastic writers who seem to overflow onto the page, who can barely hold back the stories pouring out of them, and for whom editing is a matter of pruning it all back to manageable form. I'm not one of those writers. Mine tends to work more like knitting, stitch after careful stitch. It takes a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness, a sort of zoning in and focusing on tiny details like a hippie on acid. And I get very, very easily distracted.

My biggest problem is a very 21st-century one. My husband and I call it 'internet hypnosis', and we're both highly susceptible. All I have to do is type the first letter or two of a favourite blog into the address bar and suddenly I'm swept down the rabbit hole. Especially if there are links. I'll suddenly find myself desperate to read, say, a list of the top 20 robot henchmen in geekdom. Or a slideshow of the world's most luxurious rooftop swimming pools. Or (ahem) a Sesame Street version of True Blood. But my biggest addiction is feminist blogs -- Shakesville, Tiger Beatdown -- where I can get utterly lost in the details of, say, the Stupak amendment or (irresistibly combining loves) a feminist take on Doctor Who.

There's just too much noise in my head.

So I'm going to lay down some ground rules, right here, publicly and in black and white (or the blog-design version of that). I need to slow down my internal rhythm, and that's going to take some drastic steps. So:

1. No web surfing. That includes following links, watching ANY YouTube video (even Cat Yodeling or Sesame Street), or so much as opening a browser without a clear idea of what website I plan to visit.
2. If I have spare time that cannot be filled by writing, I will read books instead of blogs.
3. I will only respond to notifications I get via e-mail, rather than seeking them out. My e-mail is very nice. It tells me if somebody's commented on my blog or left me a message on Facebook. It even lets me read the messages and comments, right there in the e-mail. I will only go to those sites if I intend to write a post or a reply, not just to browse.
4. Feminist blogs are a treat for when I've put in a good solid writing session. But the above rules still apply -- no following links.
5. No geek sites, including Topless Robot, Cracked, or Den of Geek. Unless my husband is reading them out loud to me.
6. If I find myself resorting to anything else to feed the distraction monkey, I'll add it to the list.
7. All of these rules still apply when breaking them would not involve writerly procrastination. This isn't just about the actual time involved; it's about curing myself of this self-induced, artificial, web-based ADHD. It's about giving myself the brain of a writer, instead of the brain of an over-caffeinated 12-year-old.
8. I'm still allowed to blog. But not if it starts to qualify for Number 6.

Yeah, think that about covers it. So from now on, if you see me posting YouTube links on Facebook, please don't encourage me. Give me a stern virtual look and point me to this post. Or just ignore me altogether.

And if your underwear goes missing, just know that it's going to a good cause.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Big Leap

I handed in my 30-day notice at work yesterday. For two years, I've worked for a cultural charity in the heart of Edinburgh in a position that a lot of people would kill for. The money is decent, the work is important and ever-changing, and I've been allowed to treat a book shop as my own personal playground. I'm quitting so I can work as a run-of-the-mill office temp, taking a potential pay cut of thousands per year.

My reasons for quitting other jobs, while many, were usually a bit more convincingly dramatic than this one. Because I'm going into full-time volunteer work, say, or because I'm moving to Scotland. Because I'm going back for a higher degree, or because I've found a more challenging job with better pay. But this?

Still pretty dramatic, actually. I want an easy job with predictable hours so I can focus on the writing. Okay, that doesn't sound very dramatic after all. But it feels dramatic, mostly because it calls bullshit on me, and on pretty much my entire life. The truth is, this is literally the best chance I'll ever have to actively and seriously pursue writing as anything more than a hobby, creative writing Master's notwithstanding. Think it'll get any easier once I lock into some other, demanding career? Once we get a bigger flat and need to keep up with the mortgage? Once we have a baby? This is IT.

So I'm leaving my job, and fortunately I have the World's Most Understanding and Supportive Husband, who is also understandably a bit nervous, as he really would like a bigger flat and a baby and all that (so would I). In other words, the pressure's on. Before, if I didn't write for a long time, nobody really noticed. Now, everyone will.

So you wanna do this, or what? Okay, then. Let's do this.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


I won't lie -- today was a bit of a slog. I had high hopes for a gangbusting kind of day, a 5000-worder, but I've managed exactly 1,956. But I did manage that, and I'm still kind of shocked.

I've got some sort of writerly brain defect that consistently forgets exactly how I've managed this in the past. And by 'this', I mean any writing, at all. Somehow, every time I approach a project, every single time, I get the notion that I should know what I'm doing. I believe very firmly that I can't put a single word down until I know my characters, my plot, where I'm going with this thing. But the truth is, that has never, ever happened. Every story I've ever written, long or short, has started with little more than a single image, or a line of dialogue. And somehow, magically, every time, once I've written that one thing, another thing comes after that. It's not something I would have come up with in a million years of planning, and I probably would have come up with something completely different if I'd waited a day to write it. But the person who I was at that particular time did come up with it. And the same thing happens all over again with the next sentence, the next scene.

So today was about wrestling with my faith. Because that's what it is -- absolute faith in the person I will be when I sit down at the keyboard. Faith in the process, and in my typing fingers. I've been surprised several times today at the way this kind of faith paid off. My character would feel something powerful that I hadn't known about thirty seconds ahead of time, or do something that came entirely out of the blue, but was absolutely true. And I made it through nearly 2000 words that way, one surprise after another.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Knife-wielding maniacs and man-eating spiders

That's what I dreamed about last night. Seriously. Got no idea where it came from (well, there was a minor spider incident...). When I sat down in front of the keyboard this morning, I had some pretty hefty cobwebs to clear out (ahem, so to speak).

In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner talks about writing being a continuous dream. I get that. I have a theory about dreams, that they're a way for our subconscious to trick out emotions from us. Not just the usual ones, the happies and sads and mads -- that's too easy. J.M. Barrie wrote about fairies being so small that they could only ever experience one emotion at the same time, but we big people can fit in a lot more than one. So our dreams do backflips to come up with a rationale for that nagging sense of disappointment twinged with shame, or that overall contentment mixed with a new fear of loss, or the hope that we're vaguely embarrassed to admit to. Not sure exactly where my subconscious picked up on a slasher-movie villain in a rubber mask, but I do know that I woke up wanting to cuddle up to my husband, glad that no baddie had gotten to him. Hmmm, says Mr. Freud.

Writing, for me, is that process in reverse. I'll have the worst time eking out a scene if all I know is what's supposed to happen in it. But if I can grab hold of one of these little nuggets of emotion (there's that staring-at-wall technique again), it feels like a trance when I move my fingers to the keys. Sometimes I'm barely seeing the screen in front of me; my attention is soft-focused on what I can see and feel, what the characters are seeing and feeling. What comes out is like reverse-engineering that little glowing ember of feeling.

It's very much a meditation. A friend of mine who went on a Buddhist retreat came back with a great little mantra to tell yourself if you're having trouble staying in the moment: I am here, it is now. Try saying it a few times; it's immensely comforting. And in a very real sense, that's where I need to be in order to get anything meaningful on the page -- right there, in the scene, in the moment with my characters. Forget plans for the plot (at least for now), forget the fact that I haven't really set up the backstory of that one character. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird (last reference, I promise), said she has a one-inch picture frame stuck to her computer monitor. It's there to remind her that she doesn't have to write A Novel right now. All she has to do is write what she can see through a one-inch picture frame. Just that one moment.

Monday, 4 October 2010

How to write a writing blog

Okay, that title's a bit presumptuous. It really deserves a question mark at the end, as I'm very open to suggestions at this point. Still, for what it's worth, I aim to write a writing blog here, an occasional chronicle of my attempt to earn the name 'writer', which also feels like a pretty presumptuous title.

I've picked a strategic day to start this off, since I've given myself an entire week off work, purely to devote myself to writing. It feels like a sort of test, or at least a preview -- this is The Life I Want, where writing is the thing I'm supposed to be doing, and not the thing I'm sneaking in between everything else. I didn't get any housework done today. Didn't have time. Had writing to do.

It's a strange position, being an unpublished writer. There's not much to put on your CV, so it makes for some awkward explanations if you go and mention it to someone. The most you can come up with is, 'I, um, write', but lots of people do that. You're certainly not expected to go prioritising it over anything else, any more than somebody who likes to knit is liable to turn down an invitation to the pub -- or, say, take a week off work -- because she has knitting to do. I tend to assume that published authors don't have that problem, but I could be wrong. People have funny ideas about how writing works, and they don't often realise how much staring into space is involved.

So this week, I get to stare into space as much as I want, without having to explain it to anybody (except, apparently, the three friends and my mother who are likely to read this blog). Today I wrote over 2500 words, which for me is, well, lots. I sat there in the moment with my characters, in my pyjamas, with dirty dishes in the sink, and I found out what they wanted to do next. This is going to be the best week ever.