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Emma Walton Hamilton
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, Billy Collins
, Jules Feiffer
, Julie Sheehan
, MFA in Writing and Literature
, Neil Gabler
, Roger Rosenblatt
, Stony Brook Southampton
, writer's block
, writing inspiration
, writing routines
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The summer before last, I became a student in the Southampton MFA in Creative Writing and Literature program where I am also a faculty member. (I know, it’s a little crazy, but it’s actually great.) Since then I’ve had the good fortune to take courses with such gifted writers and teachers and Billy Collins, Jules Feiffer, Julie Sheehan, and Roger Rosenblatt, among others. I have also been challenged by weekly writing assignments, something that I am often hard-pressed to find the time (or the space in my brain) to do.
Another one of our faculty members, the biographer Neil Gabler, refers to what he calls “Gabler’s Law”: First, you just sit there.
I love this, since I can come up with a thousand excuses as to why I can’t yet sit down to write – my favorites being, “I’m not ready,” “I don’t have an idea yet,” and “I’m still stewing.”
Recently I’ve been experimenting with a law of my own: Just start.
Since I’ve incorporated this law, an amazing pattern has begun to emerge with respect to these writing assignments. It generally goes like this:
Day 1 – “OK, I’ve got the assignment for this week. It seems do-able.”
Day 2 – “What was I thinking? This assignment is the hardest yet! Ack. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
Day 3: “I might have an idea. I’ll let it stew a bit.”
Day 4: “It’s a terrible idea. Never mind. Help!”
Day 4: “This is impossible. It’s actually out of the question. I don’t have a single idea!”
Day 5: “This may be the week where I have to call in sick. Is there any valid excuse I can come up with for not doing the assignment this week?
Day 6: “God, class is tomorrow. Just sit there and begin – something, anything!”
Day 7: “What time is class?”
What this has taught me is that I can afford to be patient while all those little gremlins in my head cycle through their strange but apparently necessary routine. But then, if I just sit there and START – just put my fingers to the keyboard and begin, something, anything – stuff begins to happen. It doesn’t matter where I start, just that I do. And of course it’s all about editing – but the miracle is, once I start, I have something to edit, and once I edit, I (usually) have something to present.
It’s my final milestone of Operation 50/50. For the last 50 days, I’ve been trying to tackle a scene a day. The reason? I want to get my work-in-progress in a polished draft form for my critique partners and betas plus make my goal of a finished novel in 2011.
The whole goal was to give myself some type of structure without the added pressure of stressing myself out. As some of you already know, my day job can be sometimes very demanding, so I already knew that some of my days would not be as productive as I wanted them to be.
However, I must say the progress on my novel has really been a great thing and I really do believe that if I hadn’t have done something like this that I would have not gotten the same level of output.
So what’s the final tally?
Wrote draft for scenes 49-50
Total for this milestone: 3211
Total for Operation 50/50: 27,944 words
Total words for current whole novel revision: 65,359 words
Operation 50/50 Statistics:
Revised scenes: 5
Draft scenes: 30
Story-boarding scenes: 15
So during Operation 50/50, I had the opportunity to revise/draft out the last 1/3 of my novel. I’m happy about how the new ending is working out. I still need to go back and work on the story-boarding scenes — the ones where I just jotted down some ideas — but now that I have a full novel draft again, I can figure out how best to approach them.
My next steps will be to complete all remaining scenes and then start another revision round. My goal is to have a final revision complete by the end of the summer — pending any crazy job activities.
The things I learned during Operation 50/50:
- Consistency (no matter how small) pays off.
- Exposure to your novel on a daily basis keeps you in its world.
- Being flexible and realistic lowers stress level and fosters creativity.
- Breaking a novel into smaller chunks keeps you writing in the moment.
So that’s it folks! Operation 50/50 is over and I’m very happy with the progress. Writer friends, what kind of things have you learned when you reach a major milestone in your writing?
I’ve come to my third milestone of Operation 50/50 where I tackle 50 scenes in 50 days. Really? Is this what what I’m doing? Ha.
So last week, I had a great run writing new scenes everyday. Although they were draft it was great getting words on the page.
This week? Well…
Not as many words.
I did a lot of socializing this past weekend. Sunshine and warm weather is a magnet for fun times. Everything went to hell in a hand basket Friday through Sunday where I didn’t get a chance to do ANY writing. NONE.
Then Daylight Stealing Time occurred and I’ve been sleepy ever since!
The good news is that on Monday I got back on track. During my lunch hour this week, I did a little catching up on scenes 15, 16, and 17. These were revision scenes. And although I didn’t get a huge word count out of them, I did get a chance to write down some ideas for further revision.
So how did it go?
Wrote draft for scenes 14, 18, 19, and 20.
Wrote down revision ideas for scenes 15, 16, and 17.
Total for Milestone 3: 2785
Total for Operation 50/50: 9729
The things I learned this week:
Just like life, writing can come in ebbs and flow and interruptions will occur. Since last week was such a productive week, I wrongly assumed that the rest of Operation 50/50 will also be as productive. Well guess what? Productivity is progress in any form so I’ll take the words that I managed to get down during this milestone.
Any of you tackling your own Operation 50/50? What was your progress this week? Other writers, how do you deal with balancing life with writing? Do you have consistent progress or are some days better than others?
I’ve come to my fourth milestone of Operation 50/50 where I tackle 50 scenes in 50 days.
Yeah, baby! Uh-uh.
It’s a little past the half-way mark and this is where things get interesting because most of the remaining scenes revolve around a new ending since my characters decided that they wanted a different one. As if the one I had *already* written for them wasn’t good enough. After being in denial most of January, I decided that they were right and brainstormed a new outline for the last 1/3 of my novel.
This week, my time was a little limited and so I made use of my lunch hour and wrote most of the scenes with my green pen and legal pads. It was actually a good thing because it got me away from my desk (I have a really bad habit of working through my lunch at work).
How did it go?
Ha, I have NO idea since I haven’t gotten a chance to do a type-in of this week’s scenes. The good news is that I did do draft for scenes 21-27, so I’ll just do a legal pad page count and do an “official” update next week.
Wrote longhand draft for scenes 21-27
Total for Milestone 4: 52 pages (word count TBD)
Total for Operation 50/50: TBD until next week
The things I learned this week:
Trusting my characters. I don’t know about you but I have a habit of protecting my characters and so I feel like Auntie Karen must look after them. In order for this ending to do what it needs to do, I need for my main character and her supporting characters to go into the fire and make decisions that I may not necessarily make or even agree with, but I’ve learned that this is what has to be done.
Any of you tackling your own Operation 50/50? What was your progress this week? Other writers, how have you dealt with characters taking over the story? Have you ever revised based on what a character “tells” you?*
*Writers are NOT crazy. Characters actually tell writers what needs to be done. Whether or not we writers actually listen is a different matter.
It’s my fifth milestone of my Operation 50/50. It’s really going by fast! Only two more weeks to go. I’m seeing a sliver of light in my tunnel where I’m still tackling 50 scenes in 50 days.
At least in theory anyway, ha.
This past week? Sigh. Just a little shade of crazy. Worked three 14-hour days in a row trying to get a software project finished and I was working on about 4-5 hours of sleep. So this week’s scenes suffered a bit.
But then I remember this was NOT a stressful writing challenge. My main goal was to “expose” myself to my manuscript on a daily basis.
So I did a little of what I call “set direction” — making notes on what I want to happen in each scene. My writer friend Laura Pauling helped me out with some of her Fabulous Plot Posts. I also got some revision and draft dialogue done.
Hey, it was better than nothing, Dude.
How did it all end?
Wrote dialogue for scenes 28-32.
Revised scenes 32-34.
Got a chance to do my type-in from last week’s longhand so I have two milestone updates:
Total from last week’s Milestone #4: 7822
Total for this week’s Milestone #5: 894
Total for Operation 50/50: 18,445 words
The things I learned this week:
Other than appreciating the priceless gift of sleep, I learned something about my “set direction.” I noticed that there was either too much going on or not enough tension. For the scenes where there was too much “excitement,” I’ve decided that maybe I should break those out into smaller moments/scenes. And then where there was nothing going on, trying to figure out a way to create tension. For me, I think scenes are most effective when they are focused on one particular desire and/or tension point.
Any of you tackling your own Operation 50/50? What was your progress this week? Other writers, do you try to identify a focal point for a scene or chapter while writing draft or do you work on that during revision? How important do you think it is to be able to identify the focus?
It’s my sixth milestone of my Operation 50/50. I’m still working on this 50 scenes in 50 days thing.
Writing scenes are no joke people. Ha.
So for those of you following these shenanigans, you know that I had to rewrite my ending, which means most of the remaining scenes are all new. So although I did have the plot outline of how all this was supposed to go down, I found that it was easier in outline form than in actual scene form.
I had my BIRTHDAY EXTRAVAGANZA this past weekend, so we you can only guess how much uh, scene writing went on. Although I did enjoy the pina coladas (O.M.G it was made with vanilla bean ice cream!!!) and yummy Publix cake (if you haven’t had the pleasure of eating a Publix grocery store cake, then you just haven’t lived a full life).
Anyway, I digress. How did it go this week?
Wrote draft for scenes 35, 39, and 41.
Jotted down some ideas for scenes 36, 37, 38 and 40.
Total for this week’s Milestone #5: 1576
Total for Operation 50/50: 20,201 words
The things I learned this week:
I’m not sure if I actually learned anything much but with these last past weeks just being really crazy, my writing output has not been as great as I wanted it to be. However, I must say that I don’t think I would have 20K worth of words without Operation 50/50 so for that I’m glad. It just proves that a little progress here and there does add up.
I have one more week to go and we’ll see how it goes!
Any of you tackling your own Operation 50/50? What was your progress this week? Other writers, do you give yourself a “word quota?” How do you determine how much you want to accomplish? How do you measure success?
When I first started this novelist journey, I wasn’t consistent with my writing. I would go in spurts and stop literally for months at a time. I learned that for me to finish a novel and get it ready for submission, I would have to get organized.
I learned the value of making writing “to-do” lists. My lists helped me finish my first novel and now I’ve come back to my lists to help me get through the process of my second novel.
These are some of the things I’ve learned that work for me when I create my writing to-do list:
Determine your time frame. Do you like to cross out tasks once a day? Or do you like to review your list once a week and monitor your progress? The answer will help you figure out the best approach to manage your list.
Make your tasks specific. A general to-do task of “work on novel” may not get the same results as a task of “write two pages” or “write 250 words”. When you have specific goal, it’s easier to measure your progress with a clear deliverable.
Try to be realistic. Do you really think you can write 100 pages a day when you have other responsibilities? Make sure the tasks on your list are attainable so that you won’t be discouraged. You want to challenge yourself but you also want to be sure that the tasks on your list can be achieved reasonably.
Celebrate your progress. When you complete your tasks, be sure to celebrate your progress. Writing a novel is hard and every word you create inches you closer to the finish line. Instead of thinking about how much you left have to do, appreciate how far you’ve come and the work you’ve already completed.
Right now, I’m doing daily lists. At night before I go to bed, I think about what tasks I want to accomplish the next day. Sometimes I get a little ambitious and I may put down more than I can accomplish but I don’t stress out about it, I just move it to the next day’s list. I find that concentrating on daily specific tasks keep me from getting overwhelmed.
For my daily celebrations, I usually treat myself to a square of mint chocolate. And I already have my eye on beautiful bracelet as a gift to myself when I finish my novel.
In the midst of my revisions, I’ve been reading a great craft book, A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon.
In the book the author talks about two particular writing methods:
Hot writing. The method of getting the first draft done as quickly as possible. Not stopping a.k.a NaNoWriMo. Overcoming the fear of the blank screen by creating words without revision.
Meticulous writing. Careful writing. Revision-heavy. Several revisions of a page before writing the next page. Polishing every word until it gleams. Slower pace but less revision.
While both have their advantages of getting a novel done, they also have disadvantages.
Hot Wwiting may net a lot of words, but for some writers, the act of polishing and revising a whole novel can be too overwhelming. This is why many NaNoWriMo novels stay under the bed.
Meticulous writing may result in a lack of freshness because of over-writing or over-revising. Plus the quest for perfection can can prolong completing a novel for months or even years.
I’ve tried both and I’ve discovered that I really can’t do hot writing for a whole novel. While I do get a good draft, I usually end up trashing almost two- thirds of it and revising the rest. And with meticulous writing, it sparks my perfectionist bent and I can easily get caught up revising a chapter or a scene. Plus I’ve learned the hard way that until I’ve completed the novel, that polished chapter may still change or get cut out completely.
So for me what’s been working for this novel is a hybrid of the two. Hot write a scene and then revise. For my list of new scenes I’ve identified, I may even hot write several of them and then revise.
It’s still a work in progress.
Which one works best for you to complete a novel? Hot writing or meticulous writing? Or do you do a mixture of the two?
I’m still setting up my office and settling in. But it’s really making a difference in my writing. I’m a firm believer that you should be able to write anywhere, but now that I have this dedicated space, I’ve noticed when I enter this room, I become more focused.
For my last novel, I mostly wrote in the sunroom in my old apartment and it’s almost that same feeling. Almost like it’s a sacred place to open my creativity and enter into my novel’s world. A place for the muse — whenever she feels like showing up. Although I still like to write in the bookstore and other places, I think this will be my main spot for finishing this novel.
I found some really cute bookcases at Target. Requires some muscle and assembly skills but very reasonable in price.
I *still* haven’t gotten my velvet chair yet. It’s on backorder but I can’t wait for it to arrive. Here’s a picture of it (just imagine it’s a nice pretty sage green):
A writer’s space can be anywhere. That’s beauty of being able to pick up your creativity and make it mobile. But a dedicated writer’s space doesn’t hurt either.
I hope everyone has a great weekend! Get some writing done.
Emma Walton Hamilton
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, balancing life and work
, childrens books
, finding time to write
, holiday burnout
, holiday stress
, maintaining focus
, writing for children
, writing routines
, Add a tag
Writing is hard enough. On any given day I wrestle with hundreds of distractions – some real, like my children’s needs or my other professional commitments, some self-imposed, like checking email or needing snacks. But when the holidays roll around, maintaining any level of productivity is a challenge of epic proportions. Between the shopping, wrapping and sending (both personal and corporate), card-making and sending (again, personal and professional), household decorating, cooking, attending holiday events at school, work, and with friends, and the very real and important desire to spend as much time as possible with my family, there’s barely a moment left for writing.
But I can’t afford to stop altogether – that would mean both a loss in income and a loss of ‘muscle.’ Writing is a discipline, like working out, and in order to do it well I have to stay in shape. So I need to be extra creative at this time of year to juggle the extra load and still stay somewhat sane.
Here are some of the ways I maintain focus and momentum with my writing during the holiday season:
- Organize and consolidate the gift-giving – I try every year to come up with a unique and personal gift that will work for most of the people on my list. Last year it was a custom cookbook with all our favorite family recipes. In previous years, we’ve made bulb-planting kits, jeweled book ‘thongs’ (i.e. strappy bookmarks), and made countless yummies with recipes attached. We’ve purchased dozens of copies of one favorite book, or found unusual gifts that are also charitable contributions. This not only limits the amount of time I spend shopping (I still get individualized gifts for my immediate family and a few special friends), but it also makes the holiday budget much more manageable.
- Enlist the family’s support and assistance – I send out over 500 holiday cards, when you factor in both personal and the corporate ones. To simplify this, I print our holiday message inside, thus greatly minimizing how many I need to hand-write in. (Again, I do put personal messages in a few, but not all.) I also print mailing labels, as opposed to hand addressing (I know – but I’m lucky to be getting out holiday cards at all, let alone hand addressing them!) Then I recruit the kids and my husband and anyone else who’s around and game to help for stuffing, labeling, sealing, stamping, mailing etc. I also lean heavily on my family for help decorating the house, tree, etc.
- Stay flexible about my writing time, and space. While I greatly prefer to write in my home office, in the morning or early afternoon, with the door closed and a cup of tea at my side, the reality is that I have learned to write at the kitchen table with chaos going on all around me. I have also learned to write at odd hours, and in other places. For instance, I am writing this post in a waiting room while my daughter is at an appointment…
- Keep lists. I save my holiday gift and card lists on my computer, so I can call them up each year and adjust them accordingly, rather than having to create them again from scratch. I also record the holiday bonuses we give to mail carriers, garbage collectors and other service providers, so I am consistent and don’t forget anyone.
- Remember my priorities. In the end, I know I will not look back and wish I had spent more time working, but I may well look back and wish I had spent more time with my family. December is actually my favorite time of year in our little town, as everything is so beautiful, and everyone is in high spirits… and I love our family’s annual holiday tradit
I’m so NOT a fast writer. This is probably one of the reasons that I’m not a good participant in National Novel Writing Month or sit in amazement at one writer friend who can push out a draft in 30 days — seriously people, she does it.
I know some of you who read the blog consider yourself “slow writers” or may be that’s not the right word for it because it isn’t like we’re writing slow but rather I believe our thinking process is different. Like for me, I really have to have my plot and go through all the loopholes before I get in too deep — or else I develop a case of Writer’s Push and end up writing a bunch of stuff that never sees the light of day.
So I really felt a kindred spirit was speaking to me when I read a fabulous post by author R.L. LaFevers — Thinking, Stewing, Fermenting, and Percolating and the Joys Therein.
Here’s a gem from her post:
“The longer I am involved in this writing gig the more convinced I become that the actual writing—putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard—is sometimes only 20-30% of the writing process. Not because I’m avoiding anything or letting myself be sidetracked, but because good pages don’t just happen. They are thought about and pondered over. They stew and ferment and percolate. This is especially true as my books become longer and more complex. Depth and nuance doesn’t (usually!) just fall from the sky in a burst of inspiration while I happen to be pounding out my 250 words per hour. It can, but it doesn’t always. Most often, you have to go out and hunt depth and layers and subtext and club it over the head, drag it home, and then finesse it into your WIP.”
Yeah, of course lack of progress on your novel project could be procrastination, fear, or just life getting in the way. But sometimes it just may be that you’re the kind of writer that needs to let it “slow cook.”
It’s just a different type of writer process that’s not for everyone. Me? Definitely slow cooker. Steady progress though.
What about you? Are you a slow cooker?
I had been following the financial troubles of Borders bookstore so when they decided to file Chapter 11, I wasn’t surprised. When they announced five stores in Georgia were closing, I was bummed.
Both of the stores by my day job and my house are closing, and I feel really bad for the employees there. I had gotten to know a lot of them over the years. Both of the stores had a fabulous coffee house space where you could read and write. It was really sad when I went by on Monday and the tables and chairs were all cluttered up in a corner and my favorite barista Margaret was absent. The transition had already begun and by April, these stores will be closed.
I have many memories. These were the places where I finished my first novel. Worked on my master’s thesis. Met with one of my critique groups. Discovered some of my favorite books. It was a place where I always felt I could go to when I wanted to immerse myself in my writer’s world. A true writer’s space.
I’m not sure if another bookstore will take up residence in these empty storefronts, but I will say that I will miss having these two places to go when I want to write outside my house.
I hope my friends at these two particular stores can find work somewhere else. With this tough economy, it has to be frustrating to have to look for a job during these times.
Although I do have my office, sometimes it was just good to shower and get out of the house. I’m sure that I’ll find another writer’s space though. It will just take some time.
Have this ever happened to you? Has a writer’s space you loved disappeared? How long did it take you to find another haunt?
The high demands of my day job has always given me a constant struggle of balance with my writing. But it’s also my reality and instead of getting bitter and sad about it, I knew I had to find a compromise to work within the parameters of my current situation.
My goal is to have a polished WIP by spring. I know that the day job will take up a lot of my mental energy so instead of getting overwhelmed and not getting anything done, I’ve decided to tackle my novel with a focused strategy.
Operation 50/50: 50 scenes in 50 days.
I’m a plot chick and outliner and after struggling for awhile, I’ve finally figured out the structure for the last 2/3 of my novel project. This has negated a lot of writing that I’ve already done plus will require writing a totally new ending. But that’s okay. That’s what revision is about — taking draft and making it better or axing it.
Now that I have the structure and a list of scenes, I can revise/rewrite out of order or focus on whatever speaks to me. My average scene is usually 4-8 pages or about 1000 to 2000 words.
I believe breaking it down like this into manageable chunks will work for me to reach my spring milestone.
It will also cause me to think about my priorities and schedule time to focus on my scene of the day. Does this mean that I must revise or crank out 1000-2000 words every day? No, because for me that will cause performance anxiety, overwhelm me, and set myself up for failure. Remember that 2011 is the Year of Spaciousness.
My focus will be on one scene per day — the intention, the characters, the setting, the arc, etc. Focusing on what makes the scene tick and then revising or rewriting it with that focus in mind. Word count and pages are great of course but just the act of making writing a priority in my day and honoring that time will be key for me. Exposure to my novel on a daily basis is my main goal.
Operation 50/50 officially starts Friday, February 25, 2011 and ends on Friday, April 15, 2011 (This is not by accident. I’m an accountant’s daughter and this date has always been sacred to me. Ha.)
Do you have a novel milestone you want to reach? Join me in my war against the distractions and time suckage and make writing a priority. Just think how much we can get done during this 7 week period.
I’ll post weekly milestones on my progress. Wish me luck!
I’ve finished up my first week of my Operation 50/50, where I tackle 50 scenes in 50 days.
You know that saying: Life happens when you make plans? Ha. This is what happened to me this first week of my writing focus. The day job required of lot of mental energy and I worked some very long hours. But I knew this would happen sooner than later during this 50 day period.
One thing I didn’t want to do was stress myself out over this. I knew I had to focus on the day job first before I could focus on my novel project. This is how life can get and I had to deal with the balance.
So how did it go for Week 1?
The things I learned this week:
Don’t be so hard on myself. Time is a finite resource and sometimes I have to do what is necessary and writing may fall last on the list. But the fact I did focus on my novel every day — even if for a few minutes after working 14 hours — made me feel that I accomplished some progress. I could have easily just not done any writing at all. I’m looking forward to tackling the next 7 scenes for Week 2.
Are you trying to reach a milestone? How did you do this week? Did you make time for your writing?
With writing routines, you sort of have to try on different things and see how they work.
I know that I’m a night owl. If I don’t get to sleep by at least 11 pm it can be quite easy for me to get a second wind and stay up until the early morning hours. I’ve always accepted this and my writing has benefited from it as well.
But as a logical person, I’m looking for ways to get my writing routine as consistent as possible. I need to think of ways to make it work.
With the type of day job that I have—especially within the next year—it can easily take over my life. We have an aggressive software deadline that must be met based on government requirements. That means that there will be times when those days get longer and with me writing at night—my opportunities to work on my revision get fewer.
So, this self-professed night owl is going to start writing in the mornings. I’ve done this before with success during my summer challenge so I know it’s possible. I think writing first thing in the morning is going to help me keep my writing as a priority. Sometimes it’s all about sacrifice and I’m willing to try for my novel’s sake.
My goal is to get this first round of revision done by the end of December. I think writing first thing in the mornings will help me keep that goal.
Wish me luck!
One of the things to try when you’re in a writing rut is to change your routine or process. Always be open to try new things.
Most of my days are spent in front of the computer working on geeky software stuff. I type really well and fast—I even tried typing with my eyes closed. That work for awhile, but I was still in a rut.
So I went back to the very basics: Writing with pen and paper.
When I was in 5th grade, I wrote a soap opera screenplay in longhand. In high school, I wrote in longhand cursive. It wasn’t until I took that typing class that I gave up my pen and paper.
Now I’m finding that it has helped me get out of this rut. It’s taking a break from the computer. It’s giving me time to think a little more since my left hand can only keep up so much with my brain. It gives me a change of pace. It also keeps me away from the Internet. And I can take my pen and paper anywhere—no need to scout out great places near outlets.
Plus, I get the perk of when I do transfer the pages into my computer, I can do some more tweaking and think about the scene again.
So I think longhand my be my change to jump start my writing routine.
If you’re stuck in your writing—try something different. It just may be the one thing you may need to get that spark.