Coffee Shop Coup and My New Writing Rule

When I started writing, I had a very strict rule: I would only write when I felt like it and not force myself to do it. I didn’t want it to feel like work. Like something I had to do. I had one main reason for placing such importance on this rule. I’d just finished law school, where I had to write constantly. Our exams were essays (and we only had one exam all semester–talk about pressure!), the first year we all took legal writing (memo first semester, brief second), the second year I had a thirty page rigorous writing requirement (it was kind of fun at least–I wrote on music and incitement to act), and the third year I clerked for a criminal defense attorney mostly writing legal briefs. Even writing all that bores me. I wrote too much for work, writing a story had to be fun.

It started great. I wrote the first draft in about three months. Edited for another few, and tinkered with it on and off for a couple years. Then a new story idea hit and bam! I attacked it right out of the gates. It still didn’t feel like work. The words flew out of my fingertips. I got more serious about editing that one though, and it gradually turned more tedious. Something I had to get done so I could submit. I started reading more about writing, how the most important rule was to force yourself to write.

Wait, what? I read more blogs, more books, more websites, more advice from other writers. If you were serious about writing, the key, they said, was butt in chair. It threw me for a loop. I’d always been serious about writing. I wanted to get published, but I wanted it to be fun…on second thought, maybe I hadn’t been serious about it. If I wasn’t before, though. I am now. So I developed goals, a chapter done a day. That was great while I edited. Finishing, however, left me floating into an abyss of shiny new ideas, but nothing that shaped into a workable form past one or two chapters.

Then I finally hit on something again. The first twenty thousand words came easily. I submitted the first chapter for critique and got pretty good feedback for a rough draft and kept going. Now I’m in a sticky patch. This story requires more thought and planning. It’s becoming more work. I’m at the point where the old Sarah would apply the old rule and put it down until I felt inspired to write again. New Sarah has a new rule though–butt in chair, words on page. I realized if I want this to be a career, it’s going to be work.

It’s taking some adjusting. Four years of doing things one way is hard to break. Especially when life intervenes. Saturday, Hubby left town to visit his parents for a few days before he switches to a new job. I had just settled in at my favorite coffee shop for a day of unfettered writing, determined to work through the snaggle and get several thousand words down. Then Hubby called. He’d only made it fifteen miles or so out of town when the car started acting up. We’d just dropped some serious dough to fix it the previous Monday, but there we were again. I’d written a grand total of one sentence, and not even a very good one, when I had to pack up and meet Hubby at the dealership.

We borrowed a friend’s truck and Hubby took our other car to see his parents, so I at least had Sunday to write. My favorite coffee shop closes on Sundays, and there are too many distractions (like the dog, the cats, laundry, dishes, tv) at home, so I set up shop at Starbucks and started writing. Except a guy sat right next to me and carried on a conversation with a friend (standing in front of him), and it was impossible to block the talking and the loud music. Thankfully he didn’t stay long, and another patron had a problem with the music and asked the barista to turn it down. I was going to get work done after all!

Except the guy didn’t ask nicely. The barista told him she couldn’t control the volume. He complained again, and she turned the volume up. He complained louder, threatened to get managers involved, riled up other patrons. A full on coffee coup d’etat brewed (pun intended, hehe). The guy yelled, the barista yelled back. The guy threatened to call corporate. The barista told him to go ahead and see how much she cared. The coffee shop split. People on the man’s side stood and shook their pitchforks…I mean coffee straws and fists. Those on the barista’s side grumbled to themselves. Newcomers came in looking confused, ordered their drinks and scurried out. I sank lower in my seat and tried to force the words onto the page. I inserted a placeholder in one scene and moved to the next. The angry man, who was on crutches by the way and deaf in one ear (which he repeatedly stated), stood directly in front of me shouting over the bar.

Finally, the manager turned the music down and I breathed a sigh of relief. I could finally get some writing done. I dove back in. The man sat down and started talking louder than the music had been. He and the lady with him blared music from their laptops and phones, laughing and singing. Now, I understand needing things louder if you’re hard of hearing, but that’s what headphones are for. He was worse than the music had been.

By this point, I had been tossed completely out of the writing zone. The words were in my head, but they were jammed in the pipeline to my fingertips. I think the angry man had scared them. Words are like timid animals at times. They cower and try to disappear. You have to coax them out with a soft voice and tasty treats. Too many loud noises though, too much disruption, and they tuck their tales and retreat to their dens. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince them to venture back out. So I went home and watched “August Rush” on tv instead.

This new rule is going to take some getting used to. Old habits are hard to break, but break them I will. Because I am serious about writing. It’s not some hobby like it started out, where publishing would be nice. It’s a career, a job like any other, and publishing isn’t something that would be cool, it has to happen. Must happen. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to smear grease paint across my face and go to war against those words. I’ve got a daily goal to meet.

ETA: I meant to include this but forgot. My first manuscript was rubbish. I mean, even the edits were bad. I went back recently and tried to revise and was struck with how terrible it was. The idea itself I’m still in love with, but the writing, well, I can’t believe I let anyone read it! The problem with writing whenever I felt like it, was the writing came out disjointed and the same phrases kept repeating, because I’d forgotten I’d used them in the previous chapter. Making myself achieve a daily writing goal keeps the story together and fresh. It makes more sense as I read and I don’t forget what else I’ve done. I can see how my plotting has improved. I get my ideas down before I forget them. Stephen King said real writers write every day. I’m working up to managing it on the weekends, but for now, if I can get in a chapter a day Monday through Friday, I’m pretty pleased with myself.

Motivating and Baby Animals

If you ever read advice on writing, from anyone, they’ll tell you a key is to write every day.  Every. Day.

It sounds really easy.  Set a word goal and just write.  100 words, 500 words, 1000.  That’s really not that many.  There are websites like Written? Kitten! that even help you meet your goal.  Seriously.  Written kitten lets you set a goal, say 100 words, and every time you write 100 words it gives you a different picture of a kitten.  It even saves your work for you (although if you use it I recommend copying and pasting into a word processor and saving it that way).  There are also programs like Freedom and Scrivener that block you from the internet for a time.  You can set the limit and it will disconnect you.

My problem is motivation, and I get easily distracted when not motivated.  When I’m tired, or not feeling well, or bored, or just bleh, I have a hard time writing.  I tried Written? Kitten! once, but found myself writing nonsense just to get to the goal and get a kitten.  Then I just ended up Googling pictures of kittens.  Which led to Googling pictures of other cute baby animals.  Which led to random baby animals.  Like a platypus.  I mean, look at how weirdly cute:

Don’t you just want to hold it? FYI, a baby platypus is called a puggle.  Baby opossums are also much cuter than one would immediately think.

Look at it.  It’s like something from a Disney movie.  (Speaking of which, my brother was a huge fan of “A Goofy Movie” as a kid.  I mean huge.  He watched it repeatedly.  There’s one scene where Goofy and his son Max go to a tourist trap and it’s called the Opossum Palace or something like that.  The emcee comes on the stage and says, “Who’s everyone’s favorite opossum?” and the kids yell, “Lester!”  Ever since then I’ve called opossums Lesters.  Coincidentally, my Evidence professor and trial team coach in law school’s last name was Lester.  He was not a opossum).

See how easy it is to get off topic?  Not to mention, as an animal lover, I could look at baby animals for ages!

I’m also a perfectionist.  I tried writing something, anything, every day.  Meet that word goal!  But then what I wrote was utter crapola.  I mean, bad.  Advice you hear a lot is “just write and edit later” and “don’t self edit in your first draft!”  I can’t do that.  I mean, I can to a certain extent, but if I’m not feeling it, I end up deleting the entire thing.

I think I’ve gotten spoiled.  When an idea takes hold and really takes root, it takes off.  I get in the zone and next thing I know I’m at 10k.  Now, I don’t know how to write when I’m not in the zone.  I start and stop and write and delete and Google baby animals.

How do you stay motivated?  Do you force yourself to write, even if you don’t like what you’re putting out?  Do you take a break and do something else for a while?  I would love to hear what keeps you going!

And, if you like more “normal” baby animals, here are couple of darn cute ones!

The Zone

I’m currently querying a manuscript and praying (fervently) that an agent wants to represent it.  In the meantime, I’ve started working on another book.  Okay, honestly I started working on several other books that didn’t go anywhere (for now).  I’ve mentioned before how Stephen King described writing as uncovering a fossil.  Well, the things I’ve written since finishing the last manuscript haven’t been fossils; they’ve turned out to be plain old rocks.  Maybe one day I’ll go back and look at them again and realize they really are fossils, but for now, they’re rocks.  Anyway, I finally found a fossil and started to dig and uncover it.  It’s the next in the series of the book I’m querying.

I was scared to start writing this one.  What happens if no one wants the first one?  This one flows from the last, can I make it stand on it’s own?  Or will I waste time writing a follow-up?  Finally, I just said “screw it, the story is there and wants to be written so I have to write it.”  I’m not worrying about whether the first one will get picked up or not.  I’m focusing on telling the current story.

Now I find myself back in “the zone.”  The zone is different for different people.  For me, when I finally get sucked into writing something, that’s all I can write.  Before I wrote the first book in the series, I frequently critiqued and wrote on the AW forums. (At the time I was re-editing a different manuscript).  When I got the idea for the first book though, everything else went out the window while I wrote.  I tried to critique different things and write other short stories, etc, but it just didn’t work.  It’s like the story pushed everything else out of the way and took over.

In the interim between the first book and the one I’m currently writing, I was able to critique again, as well as churn out bits of flash fiction and other short stories.  Now that another story has taken hold though, I’ve found that’s all I can write.  It’s like the zone sucks all of my creativity.  I attempted AW’s most recent flash fiction and although I had the idea and could see the characters that I wanted to write, it just didn’t work.  A couple of paragraphs in, I knew it sucked and scrapped it.

I’m not complaining; I like being in the zone.  It’s like drilling for oil.  You drill and drill and drill and come up empty, then you finally hit the vein and all of a sudden you have tons of oil that has to go somewhere (in my head I see words shooting out of the earth instead of oil and I’m trying to catch them all and channel them onto the page).  I love the feeling of finally finding the story, of finding a fossil instead of a rock. I just wish I could do other things as well.  I enjoy reading and critiquing and posting on AW, seeing what chances other writers are taking rooting for them to succeed.

So, fellow writers, do you get into a zone?  When you’re in the middle of a big work, are you able to still write other things?  Or does the writing suck you in too?