Insecure Writer’s Support Group

If you’re looking for today’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group post, click here to go to my other blog, Planet Pailly.  I’ll be doing IWSG posts as well as posts for Indie Life there from now on.

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Insecure Writer’s Support Group: Thank You

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Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh.  Click here to see a full list of participating blogs.

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A have a lot of writing to catch up on today, so I have to keep this brief.  2013 has been rough on me.  Since mid-January, I have been living in my own personal hell.  As a result, I have fallen way behind schedule with the Tomorrow News Network project.

But all that is about to change.  I recently got some good news.  I’m not quite ready to share it with you yet, but trust me… it’s good news.

I want to thank all my fellow writers and also all my loyal readers for helping me to keep going.  You are awesome.

IWSG: Know Your Limits

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a bloghop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh.  It’s an opportunity for writer’s to celebrate their successes, commiserate over their troubles, and share tips and ideas.  Click here to visit other participating blogs.

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I like to keep track of how many words I write per day.  It’s a good way to keep myself writing, and I have records of my daily writing totals that go back for almost a decade.  The most words I ever wrote in a single day was approximately 7,200, but a few days ago I went way beyond that.  I wrote 9,600 words.  Before you congratulate me, I want to tell you a little about how this happened and why I don’t want to ever do this again.

Here’s a rundown of the events of that magical and traumatic day of writing.

The day before: I managed to write roughly 2,000 words before I got writer’s block.  I spent the rest of the day struggling to write just one more sentence, but I couldn’t get it done.  I had a deadline fast approaching, so this was extra frustrating.  I went to bed around midnight.

6AM: I wake up after a fitful night of sleep.  I had some bad dreams, which, of course, I can’t tell you about because within five minutes I completely forgot them, but they were really bad dreams, whatever they were.  The good news is my writer’s block is gone, and I quickly set to work on the next two scenes of my story.

10AM: I’ve accomplished a lot already, and I decide to take a ninety minute nap.  The lack of sleep is starting to get to me.  Incidentally, ninety minutes is the amount of time scientists say it takes to complete a normal, REM sleep cycle.  I’ve found that sleeping in ninety minute increments (ninety minutes, three hours, four and a half hours, etc) leaves me more refreshed.  Click here for a YouTube video on the science behind this sleep cycle.

Noon: I’m awake again and ready for more writing, but I’m also starting to realize that I’m further behind schedule than I thought.  To make matters worse, I’m going to have to go back and completely rewrite an earlier scene for the sake of continuity.

5PM: I’ve written roughly 6,000 words, and I feel slightly ill.  My head feels warm, but it is a hot day out and I don’t have my air conditioning set up yet, so I don’t worry about it.

6PM: I reach approximately 6,800 words.  I feel exhilarated, but also very, very hungry.  I can’t remember if I ate lunch or not (I would later determine that yes, I did).  A friend and I go out to the nearest diner for a quick meal, after which I take another nap.

11PM: My nap took longer than I planned, and I don’t feel 100% refreshed, but I’m still exhilarated by the amount of writing I’ve already done, and I’m determined to beat my old writing record.  In fact, I give serious thought to trying to write a total of 10,000 words.  It seems like an achievable goal.

Midnight: I’ve written another 800 words, and my head feels unnaturally warm.  Who knew your brain could literally overheat from too much writing?  I quickly drink several glasses of cold water.  I then take my shirt off and position a fan to blow cool air on my back (blowing air directly on my head or neck would give me a headache).  This seems to work.  The water and the cool air lower my body temperature, and my head no longer feels so warm.  I continue writing.  The story is coming together really well, and I don’t want to stop.  I still feel like I can make it to 10,000 words.

3AM: I am once again really hungry, and my head feels unnaturally warm.  Although I haven’t been doing any strenuous physical activity, I feel like I have.  In fact, I feel weak and a little sick.  I doggedly keep going and manage to write another paragraph or two, but I soon realize that all this writing might put my health at risk.  I stop at 9,600 words.

Conclusions: Within a 24 hour period (21 hours, to be precise) I wrote 9,600 words (9,615, again to be precise).  I’m not sure what emotion best describes how I feel.  I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I also feel physically and emotionally drained.

I believe that napping is what made this possible.  It helped break the day into smaller chunks.  It tricked my brain into thinking I wasn’t doing so much in just one day.  It also gave my brain an opportunity to relax and recuperate before the next onslaught of writing.

As for the unnatural warmth in my head that I experienced, I have a theory.  The brain is a kind of machine, and the more a machine works, the more heat it produces.  This could also explain the intense hunger and weariness I felt.  Even though I spent the whole day sitting in my office doing nothing more strenuous than type, my brain was consuming enormous amounts of energy.

I do not recommend pushing yourself this hard, and I do not intend to ever do this to myself again.  The brain may be like a machine, but it’s also living tissue, and causing living tissue–especially brain tissue–to overheat sounds like a bad idea.  As writers, we have to know our limits.  After this experience, I certainly know mine.  I now believe that anything beyond 6,000 to 7,000 words per day is hazardous to my health.

So, my fellow insecure writers, what are your writing goals and do you know your writing limits?

Abandoning a Story

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Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh.  Click here to see a full list of participating blogs.

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Back in February, I started writing a story for Tomorrow News Network called “A Pound of Flesh.”  In it, a telepath would attempt to communicate with a species of intelligent bacteria native to the planet Mars.  But much like a bacterial infection, the story kept growing.  It got complicated.  It was about telepaths, intelligent bacteria, prisons, war, religious cults, and the food industry.  It had some political commentary as well.  The story became so complicated that I had to stop.

I’m more of an intuitive writer.  I like to feel my way through a story rather than plan the whole thing out in advance, but in this case, with a story giving me this much trouble, I had to do things differently.  I wrote an outline and discovered that the story had at least nine different plot threads.  Nine!  All of them essential to the story I wanted to tell.  It would be difficult to deal with nine plot threads in a novel.  In a short story, it’s almost impossible.

So after a few days of soul searching and some time away from my writing, I made the decision to abandon the story.  I’ve already done eleven short stories for this series, so I took some comfort in knowing that I got so far without encountering a problem like this.

The bad news is that I’m now two months behind schedule, and most of the work I did for “A Pound of Flesh” is unusable.  The good news is that the new story, entitled “Mother Mars,” is turning out really well.  I’m excited about writing it, and I’m even more excited for you to read it when it comes out sometime in the next two weeks.  It has only two main plot threads: one about the human colonization of Mars a few centuries from now and another about the ancient Martians living several millennia in the past.

But abandoning a story was a hard decision.  I liked “A Pound of Flesh.”  The scenes with the intelligent bacteria were extremely creepy and fun to write.  But as a writer, I have to be prepared to give up on a concept that isn’t working.

So how about you?  Have you ever had to give up on a writing project (or other kind of project) even though you really liked it?

Waiting for Tinker Bell

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Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh.  Click here to see a full list of participating blogs.

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When I’m writing, it is as though the people in my head actually come alive and start talking to me.  Some of them don’t wait until I’m writing.  They bother me at work or in the grocery store or late at night when I need to get some sleep.  I also have a muse, an imaginary friend who gives me the basic ideas for my stories, who encourages me as I’m writing, and who chastises me when I get lazy.  Having so many voices in my head, you might think I suffer from a mental illness.  Maybe I do, but I happen to know many other writers have it too.

A person commenting on another blog complained that some writers think of their muses as Tinker Bell sprinkling fairy dust on their stories.  These writers seem unable to get any writing done until that magical moment of inspiration comes.  I’ve heard other writers describe their stories and their characters as children, and they feel a strong need to protect their children from the harsh criticism of readers and editors.  While I certainly believe there is something magical about muses and while my characters do behave like children at times, it’s important to not let this get out of hand.

I’ve worked in the television and film business for several years now, and before that I was heavily involved in theatre.  As a writer, I’ve chosen to visualize myself as a director and my characters as actors.  A good director gives his actors the freedom to perform their roles as they see fit, but within certain guidelines.  A good director also knows how to coax a strong performance out of an actor even when that actor isn’t really in the mood for it.  I’m not sure what job my muse has in this scenario.  Assistant director?  Casting director?  Playwright?  Maybe she’s all of those things.

The point is I try to interact with my characters and my muse in a professional environment.  We aren’t children on an imaginary playground, and there’s no fairy dust.  We have a job to do.  It will require a lot of hard work, and we might get criticized for it, but we’re grownups and we can handle that.  And whether we’re producing a play, filming a movie, or just writing another short story, there will be something magical about it if we all do our jobs right.

So how do you interact with your characters and your muse?

My Harshest Critic

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First of all, let me make this clear: I love my mother.  She raised me well, pushed me in my education, and supported me through those dark, teenage years despite the nasty things I may have said to her at the time.  I would not be the man I am today if not for my mother.  But on this one thing, on my writing, we’ve never quite seen eye to eye.

For a long time, I just assumed her tastes didn’t match mine.  I watched Star Trek and Babylon 5.  She watched operas on PBS.  I read Dune.  She read The Da Vinci Code.  I played video games like Star Fox and Final Fantasy.  She played Solitaire.  Why should I expect her to show any interest in science fiction stories, even the ones I wrote?

I particularly remember one incident, while she drove me home from a friend’s house, when she told me I was too young to know anything about the real world, and it showed in my writing.  Of course this was true.  I was fifteen.  Still, it stung to hear her say it.  But I kept showing her my stories anyway, well into adulthood, despite all her negative comments.

She sometimes said she was only giving me her honest opinion, that she didn’t think I needed a sugar coated version of the truth.  Unfortunately for me, the truth (according to her) was that my writing sucked.  I wrote several short stories and screenplays, all science fiction.  She hated them.  I wrote a book about robots, a book about time travel, and a book about parallel universes.  She hated them too.  Eventually I learned to laugh her criticism off.  I had to or I wouldn’t be able to keep writing.

Then I wrote a short story called “The Tomorrow News Network” (which I later re-titled “The Medusa Effect”).  It introduced Talie Tappler and Mr. Cognis, a pair of time traveling journalists who arrive at newsworthy disasters before they happen.  My mom read it.  Grudgingly, she admitted she liked it and asked when I’d write the next one.

Let me emphasize this point.  She not only said she liked it; she wanted to know when I’d write more.  A few weeks later, she started hassling me about when she could see the next “Talie story.”  You cannot imagine the shock I felt!  I knew “Tomorrow News Network” was a few steps above anything I’d written before, but still… my mom liked it!

For most writers, having your mother’s endorsement is next to meaningless.  She’s your mother.  She’s supposed to love your writing, no matter how terrible it might be.  But for me, being able to say, “My Mom likes my writing,” is a huge accomplishment.  And it occurs to me now as I finish this post that my Mom was right all along.  She gave me her honest opinion, no matter how much I didn’t want to hear it, and maybe that pushed me to try harder and become a better writer.  At the very least, her unprecedented enthusiasm helped keep me going through the ten (soon to be eleven) subsequent Tomorrow News Network stories.

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Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh.  Click here to see a full list of participating blogs.

That One Stupid Sentence

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Sometimes it takes hours to write one sentence.  Those are the most agonizing hours of a writer’s life.  You start off sitting at your computer, your hands hovering over the keyboard ready to type some brilliant prose, but nothing happens. You pace back and forth for a while or doodle on some scrap paper or play several dozen levels of Angry Birds.  Finally, you find yourself lying on the floor thinking, “Why do I have to be a writer?  Why can’t I be like normal people?  Why can’t I go sit in front of the TV and eat nachos and forget all about this story I’m writing?”

Of course the right thing to do is move on to another sentence.  Maybe skip to the next scene and save this problem for another day.  That’s what successful, responsible writers like J.K. Rowling and Steven King probably do.  But you can’t because your brain is stuck on this one sentence.  You’re obsessing over it, and you’ll keep obsessing over it no matter how hard you try not to.  Your frustration increases until you stop and say to yourself, “Seriously, why am I doing this?”

I suppose each writer has a different answer to that question.  Some of us have multiple answers.  Sometimes I tell myself I’m doing it because I love my characters.  Sometimes it’s because I love my readers.  Other times it’s because I want a new career with a more flexible work schedule or because I think I can do better than some of the trash that gets published these days or because I believe God chose this path for my life and I must follow it.  This can get very deep and philosophical.  Sometimes I think about the purpose of literature and art in a functional society.  Sometimes I wonder about mythical archetypes and the collective unconscious.  Or maybe I consider the possibility that I’m the fictional character and my story is real and that the reason I can’t figure out what to write for this one sentence is because out in the “real” world that part hasn’t happened yet.

So why do I do this?  I don’t have an answer, but at some point after contemplating my existence and determining that the meaning of life must involve ice cream, I suddenly realize I know what that one sentence should be!  Why didn’t I think of it sooner?  Back to writing!

So how do you get through those days when you can’t write a single sentence?

P.S.: Click here to check out more blogs participating in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.