Back on the Horse: Returning to Writing

A purple-blue statue of a rearing horse against tree leaves. Text: Something for Sunday; September 8, 2019; Back on the HorseThere’s an old saying that when you fall off a horse, you need to get right back on. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to overcome that failure, and you may never get back on again. This post is about my experience with falling off a metaphorical horse, and getting back on. (ALSO: there’s a note at the end of this post about the particular horse in the photo.)

There’s a lot of advice around about improving productivity by changing how you define your tasks, by breaking tasks down, or by balancing work and writing. You can even use procrastination to be more productive. This is all great advice, and I recommend you check it out to see if it works for you. There are also those who insist that if you’re going to call yourself a writer, You Must Write Every Day. One thing I firmly believe, however, is that there are no one-size-fits-all rules that all writers must obey (I wrote a whole post about that a while ago). Over the years that I’ve been a writer, I’ve tried a bunch of ideas to see what works for me. Ironically, one that’s been pretty useful is to write every day. (Remember, this is about what works for me, not for anyone else. Your mileage may vary.)

About a year ago, I set myself a goal to at least touch the current work in progress every day. It might just be spending five minutes reading over a paragraph or two and tweak some words. It might be thinking about how to do something and making a few notes. Of course, it might also be really digging in and spending hours churning out words. Anything would count. With this system, if I wasn’t going to do today’s little bit, I had to justify it to myself. Otherwise, I would do something today, and tomorrow something more, and it all worked.

If I’ve missed a few days in a row, though, it got harder and harder to get back to it. The old saying about the horse proved true! I start to think I need a reason to write today, instead of a reason not to write. I haven’t written anything in days, or weeks, so why start now? It feels like starting up again is going to be a massive effort.

Strong man struggling to write with a bar that has many heavy weights on the other end. Text: How it feels to write after a long timeNot too long ago, that was me. My job was winding down to retirement, with a slew of things that had to be done and all my routines thrown off. Then I sunk my creative forces into other outlets: this weekly blog post, for one thing, and a role-playing game I was designing. I’ve got solid black marks in my calendar from June 16 to August 10. I got discouraged, wondering if I would ever finish the book. I wanted to write, so why was I not writing? I experienced looming dread over how hard it was going to be to climb back on that horse. The longer I stayed away the higher the saddle seemed, and the more impossible it felt. A recent blog post from the 10 Minute Novelists blog documents this problem, and describes one useful approach to overcoming it.

Finally, one day, I broke through. I dusted off the daily planner I had been using to keep my work life organized, picked the first day of an upcoming week, and put “Writing” down as an item on my to-do list. When that day came I took a deep breath, opened the document, and got back to it. Of course, it wasn’t as hard I had expected, and after that first day it’s gone swimmingly. I’ve only missed a handful of days in the last month, and expect to keep going with the little-bit-a-day plan for the foreseeable future. I’m still using the planner, and “Writing” is a to-do item on every day of every week.

So this is what works for me. I have no fixed word count or minute count to achieve each day. I just need to touch the work, to keep it warm, so that tomorrow it’s easy to do a little bit, and the next day, and the day after that. As long as I keep moving, I know I’ll eventually get there.

Here’s the bit I promised about the horse. Back in 2001, local artists around Rochester, NY joined in a community project called Horses On Parade, creating lovely and fanciful life-sized fiberglass horses to be placed all around the town. This one is called the Horse of a Different Color. It uses a color-shifting paint that looks different depending on how the light hits it. It stands today outside the Norman Howard School, a local institution dedicated to the education of students whose needs that are not met in traditional school settings. The horse reminds us that people may look different, but in the right light each of us can shine.

What are some techniques that help you stay on track to reach your goals?

The Towel is Thrown

Remember when i said I’d gotten enough planning done so I could try to write a draft of a new novel this month for Camp NaNoWriMo? Well, it turns out I was wrong. I got almost 15,000 words in on a story, but stalled out completely at that point and have abandoned it, at least for now. Yes, I’m throwing in the towel on this one.

I’m not broken up about this, even though I still love the story I was working on and would have loved to have made it through a draft this summer. Sure it’s disappointing, but more important to me is that I learned a couple of useful lessons. Don’t we all love to learn new things, especially about ourselves?

  • I’m a plotter, through and through.
    • As I was gearing up for this project, one of my writer friends said he doesn’t like writing outlines, because then there’d be no surprises and no fun in the writing. In this my friend writes like E.L. Doctorow, who is famous for saying that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
    • This is SO not me. If I’m taking a cross-country trip, I like to have the road map planned ahead of time. I can still take detours into side streets that catch my eye, and will discover the details about the towns and cities and shops I pass through.
    • I’ve always thought of myself as a plotter, but now I know for sure. The 15,000 words I wrote were scenes I’d planned and seen in my head ahead of time, at least in general. Once I stepped over the edge of that plan, I was stuck.
  • When I tried to plan the rest of the book, I realized I couldn’t.
    • The story I’ve finished and which is out for beta critique right now mostly takes place in the real world of cell phones and highways, with a fantastical overlay. The part of this new story I hadn’t fully planned and proved unable to actually write was going to be set in a fairly typical fantasy world.
    • To get myself in the mood for this I pulled up an old favorite, Barbara Hambly’s wonderful, if dated, duology The Silent Tower/The Silicon Mage. In it a woman from our world is pulled into a pre-industrial, magical fantasy world and has to fight evil there. Hambly has a graduate degree in medieval history and made that world come alive, from the cities where small boys earn pennies sweeping dung out of the way so their betters can cross, to the tiny hamlets where a bad harvest means starvation and death.
    • Sure, with enough research I might be able to do the same, but I’m not convinced I could and I’m certain I don’t want to spend the amount of time it would take.
    • To resurrect this story i need to go back to square one and figure out how to tell it here. There’s no way to pull that off this month, so I’ve got to set it aside. For now.

These two lessons apply to me and this project. However, they also reflect a larger message that applies to anyone who is a writer or any kind of creative person:

Find and follow your own process

You don’t need to write or create the way anyone else does. Listen to suggestions from friends and teachers and try them on for size, but don’t hesitate to drop them if they don’t work for you. Learn from work you admire, but if it’s not for you don’t force it. You have your own way of being and doing.

That’s always enough.

Location Danger

Yes, I’m still working on my book. That was actually the original focus of this blog, way back when it started, and it’s still part of what I do here, though I’ve branched out and most of my posts are on other things. Today I get to connect the writing-a-novel thread with the weekly-photo-challenge thread in one image.

About 18 months ago I visited the real-world spot where most of the action in my book takes place, and I wrote at the time about how useful this visit was. For today’s photo challenge I’m sharing one image from the trip, one that shows what the view might be like from my fictional hotel.This is the vista of Lake Ontario from the Devil’s Nose bluff, and the sign warning me to keep away from that edge. It was good advice. The drop to those frigid waves is about 20 feet (around 6 meters for those of you in more scientifically enlightened places), and it would not be easy to climb back up the muddy bank, especially if you’re wet and shivering!

In other ways, though, I don’t want to keep away from the bank. There are times when the whole idea of writing a novel is terrifying. Maybe that’s part of why I’ve taken so long to get from finished first draft to first revision. I blame it on other things (taking on extra responsibilities at work, preparing for my daughter’s wedding in JUST FOUR WEEKS), but we all know that I could carve out more time for this if I really tried. There’s an edge there that’s scary. So now I want to tell that sign to go jump in the lake – I will NOT keep away from bank. I will go to that bank, right up to that edge, and finish that book.

Posted in response to the WordPress photo challenge: Danger!


My Book Path – Ahead to 2017


This may look like your basic woodland path, maintained by the good folks at Hamlin Beach State Park, but it’s actually so much more. This is one of the 200+ photos I took over a year ago at the spot where my novel takes place. In reality there’s nothing there but trees and the shore of Lake Ontario a a biting November wind, but in my mind there’s a hotel and an invasion of fantastical beings from another dimension! I want to turn this “reality” in my head into the physical reality of a published book. That’s what this path represents to me: my commitment to completing the first revision and moving on to the polishing the book will need, so I can start querying. 2017, here I come!

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Path

The Opening: Wednesday Words

This is supposed to be a writer’s blog. I detour into all kinds of other things that interest me, like the photo contest WordPress runs each week and the occasional review or commentary, but at heart I’m a writer. I want to get back to that core. So I’m starting a new regular feature here: Wednesday Words.

Each week I’ll post a line or two from something I’m working on. I might just drop it here and see what people think, or I might say something about its purpose and how I put it together. Sometimes this might lead to a longer post about something relating to writing, or a link with something else I’ve read. We’ll see how it plays out together.

Since this is the first Wednesday Words, I’m starting at the beginning. This is the opening I’m using in the current draft of my WIP.

Worst. Halloween. Ever.

It began with a wedding, which certainly didn’t help. At least I wasn’t a guest, so I didn’t have to wear uncomfortable shoes or make small talk with distant relatives. I was working, wearing the dowdy maid uniform Jana insisted on, longing for my tight jeans and loose sweatshirts. Meanwhile, this cute young couple stood there and promised forever to each other. How does anyone do this? I can barely stay in one place long enough to find the good bagel shops.

There are lots of things to read about openings, including this from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. An opening is supposed to accomplish several goals. Let’s see how I’ve done in these 84 words.

  • Introduce the protagonist. We don’t know her name yet, because it’s written in first person, but I think we can get a sense of whose head we’re in. It’s a woman, someone who has a bit of a snarky attitude about some things, particularly weddings. She’s a drifter who doesn’t stay around long.
  • Introduce the setting/world/environment. We’ve established that this is set in the present day and that we’re at a wedding, but one experienced from the point of view of someone working there (in a dowdy maid uniform). There’s not a lot of romance here.
  • Introduce some kind of conflict or stakes people can care about. This is where the opening I have is the weakest. It opens by saying that it was the Worst. Halloween Ever. This hints that something is about to go wrong, but what? There’s no way of telling. I have to hope that the character’s voice and this hint at what’s to come will be enough to get the reader into the next paragraph, where a problem will be raised.

What do you, my loyal followers think, about these Wednesday Words? I’d love to hear your take on them. Thanks!

MyNoWriMo Step 7: Beginning

Step 7  How do I begin?

Following the plan suggested in Janice Hardy’s blog, I’ve planned out the eight chapters that will be Act 1 of my novel: the novel’s beginning. Her ideas helped me make sure I’m hitting all the marks as I lead up to the big, complicated structure that is the middle part of the story. I had done a lot of this work before when I sketched out chapters and scenes, so it went pretty quickly. So I finished early, which is good – I think the middle is going to take me extra time to get organized. Starting now!

Progress so far:

  • 3/1/15: Set the goal (a full 50,000-word draft, or half a novel?) – On time
  • 3/8/15: Develop my one-sentence pitch line – Early
  • 3/22/15: Establish major set pieces/beats – On time
  • 4/12/15: Develop a rough synopsis – On time
  • 5/3/15: Complete a rough outline or scene sketch – On time
  • 5/17/15: Map out each character’s story line – Late 😦
  • 5/31/15: Plan the beginning of the novel, from opening scene to first major turn – Early
  • 6/14/15: Plan the middle of the novel, including all the twists and complications leading to the ending
  • 6/28/15: Plan the ending of the novel, including the climax and the final resolution
  • 6/30/15: Get all my logistics in place (word-count log, file formats, backups, and so on)

Story Questions

BlackboardQuestion  So many questions!

I’ve opened all the aspects of my story to possible revisions – except for the actual climax, which I see clearly and want to drive the story toward. But I’m re-figuring everything about how to get there. The characters are in flux, and the plot points, and even the basic through line, though that’s not going to change in a major way. I keep erasing and revising. But I’m determined to meet my next goal, which is on Sunday, just 3 days from now. Aaaaah! How am I going to make it?

Part of it is that I want to make sure I can draw a line that goes from Point A to Point C . Point A is the point where my main character is thrown off balance, so that her way of coping with her life challenges just isn’t working any more, so she starts trying to figure out how to hold on the things she’s familiar with. Point C is the climax, where she uses strengths that were barely hinted at in the beginning to overcome weaknesses that she started out clinging to fiercely, saving the day and demonstrating that she has become a new, stronger person. Everything in between needs to follow a logical progression, so that each step leads inevitably (but surprisingly) to the next step, getting her deeper and deeper into trouble the more she tries to solve her problems until she finally commits herself completely to her new reality.

Easy to say. Hard to do! I’m still working on it.

MyNoWriMo Step 2: Pitch Line

Step 2  The One-Sentence Summary

I’m actually early on this, but I figure it’s going to be subject to change as I move forward, and I’m already working on Step 3 while I revise this, so I’m calling it. Here’s the official one-sentence pitch line for my story:

AFTER FOREVER is about a woman whose life was torn apart by the forces of dark magic and has been on the run ever since, but now the magic is invading our reality and she has to face it down to save the world.

So — whaddya think? I think it’s a work in progress and I hope I can make it better, but this is what I’m working from right now. Seriously, I’d love to hear any reactions from any of my readers (a small but mighty group, I’m sure), so comment away.

Now, it’s on to the part that has thrown me so many times before: the major beats.

Progress so far:

  • 3/1/15: Set the goal (a full 50,000-word draft, or half a novel?) – On time
  • 3/8/15: Develop my one-sentence pitch line – Early
  • 3/22/15: Establish major set pieces/beats
  • 4/12/15: Develop a rough synopsis
  • 5/3/15: Complete a rough outline or scene sketch
  • 5/24/15: Complete an “idea bank” with the things I want to include in the novel
  • 5/31/15: Plan the beginning of the novel, from opening scene to first major turn
  • 6/14/15: Plan the middle of the novel, including all the twists and complications leading to the ending
  • 6/28/15: Plan the ending of the novel, including the climax and the final resolution
  • 6/30/15: Get all my logistics in place (word-count log, file formats, backups, and so on)

Snow Day!

SnowTree   The little tree out front – taken from INSIDE my nice warm house. I’m no fool. Today’s snow day gave me some unexpected extra time. Yay! One thing I did was catch up on last week’s writing. I got in five days of work, but didn’t meet my goal until this morning. I’m counting today’s extra writing in with last week, though – so there. With what I did this morning, I count over 1,400 words, and I’m happy about that. Will this make it harder to reach the total this week? Maybe – but I won’t worry about that. Let me quote Ben Franklin: “Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen.” Or Scarlett O’Hara: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.