The Writing Session (2)

November 16th, 2007

In the first of these posts, I talked about two points: the importance of regular writing sessions, and how to reduce resistance to actually doing them. This section is about making those sessions productive.

3. THE PRODUCTIVE SESSION

I developed the following techniques in self-defense. I write 330-345 days a year whether I want to or not, whether I’m happy with the way the book is going or not, whether I’m tired or not. That means that a lot of the time I sit down at the keyboard with some resistance. Here are some of the ways I attempt to deal with it.

Think about the scene before you begin. Whether you’re driving to wherever you write, or climbing the stairs, or walking down the hall, or setting up the desk or brewing coffee or waiting for the computer to boot, visualize the scene you’re working on and just let it sit there in your mind. You don’t have to try to work on it mentally — just keep it there. If other thoughts shove their way in, release them and come back to the scene. Maybe you’ll have an idea or two, but even if you don’t you’ll have a head start on the session.

Relax and center. When you sit down, take a couple of deep breaths. Take four or five, if you like. Clear away all the day’s mental trash and just focus on what you’re about to write. Take it easy, don’t force yourself. You might think of the book as a world you’re about to enter, and the scene as your entry point. Lighten your heart, literally — just imagine that your heart feels lighter. This is a place you want to go.

Start by revising. This is one of the most valuable suggestions I can make. Postpone your encounter with the blank page by going back and revising everything you wrote over the last three or four days. This has much to recommend it. It gives you a chance to do some rewrite; it gets you back into the rhythm and emotional climate of the book; it eases you back into the world of your story; and it gets you writing even before you get to the blank page. Nine times out of ten, when you hit the white screen you’ll keep right on going. This will be especially true if you stopped the last session at a point at which you knew where you were going.

Turn the world off. Switch off your cell phone. Close the door. Tell people to leave you alone. Turn off your modem — you do not want to be able to go online the first time you feel a little stuck. (Got something you need to Google? Write it in that extra window described in the blog below and look it up when you’ve finished writing.) You cannot let the demands of your non-writing life intrude, because the first time things get tough, you’ll go do something else. I stopped writing at home because I had too much to distract me there — when the writing wasn’t going well, I cleaned even if the place was spotless. I organized books. I swept the porch. I read the ingredients in scouring powder. I didn’t write. I didn’t solve the problem. And the next time I sat down for a session, there was the problem.

Be nice to yourself. Don’t let those demons beat you up. Tell them, very politely, to f**k off. Don’t get angry at yourself if you don’t like the way the page is coming out. Just keep writing it. If you suddenly see how to make it better, go ahead and do it. But keep at it, even if you don’t know how to fix it. Here are two things you might remember. First, as I’ve already said, a bad page is progress — it shows you one way not to write the scene, and it gives you something to improve. Second, you actually have no idea whether you’re writing well or badly. I’ve had days when I hated every word I wrote, when I gritted my teeth and just kept slamming the keys, compulsively checking the word count to see whether I could quit yet. The next day, when I went back to it, it looked okay. A week later, it looked pretty damn good. I once wrote almost an entire novel that way, and today it’s one of my favorites.

Remember, it’s only a book. This is not a bad chest x-ray. It’s not a concussion. It’s not a tractor-trailer coming at you on your side of the road at the top of a hill. It’s a bunch of words. If you’re writing on a computer, they’re not even on paper yet. You’re wiggling your fingers. You can’t even put your back out that way. Words can be infinitely improved. Just put all those negative thoughts on hold, keep the fingers moving, and make your word count. Then get up and pat yourself on the back, which is actually the most dangerous part of the session. You can hurt yourself if you stretch too far.

In the the next (and, I promise) final installment, I’ll talk about how regular sessions can open you to the material the world offers you every day — material that can enrich and expand your book.

8 Responses to “The Writing Session (2)”

  1. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Thinking about the scene FIRST? Before I sit down to write? What a concept! I love the centering idea, too.

    I’ve been using the blank window idea, too. But I use it in a different way. When I am typing in my ‘book’ file, I sometimes find myself tightening up and locking in on a path. Since I’ve been opening a blank window, I’ve been using it to experiment with an idea or a conversation or a description, and then if I like it, I paste it into my “real” book file. If not, I can keep in in the alternate window and save it for possible use in a different location, or not at all — if appropriate.

    Sometimes the most simple advice is the best. Thanks again, Tim.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Great way to use the window. Another good thing you can do with it is post reminders to yourself — let’s say you’re not happy with 3-4 lines of dialog but you don’t want to stop forever and fiddle with them. Make a note to clean it up. Odds are, you’ll clean it up in a later pass anyway, but at the end of the book you can review all your notes to yourself, and you might realize you let something get by you.

  3. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I just want to thank you for these posts and for the Writers’ Resources. I am guilty of engaging in every possible distraction and wondering if I’m capable of finishing ever. You’ve really convinced me that I can finish and helped me to give myself permission to write whatever happens to come out.

  4. Dana King Says:

    You’ve made my day twice this week. I am trying several of your ideas on the current WIP, most of which I thought of on my own, but it put my mind at ease to see them appear here. (Extra window, revise before starting to write, go over the scene in advance). I’m not incorporating the “rhubarb” suggestion, though I’m using ??? as my key word. All are working great. Excellent advice.

  5. Ben Badgley Says:

    Thank you for the Writer’s Resources section of your site, and these posts. Each has read akin to Sheldon. Love reading his works because I ‘hear’ him in the background, “So you want to make scene do this, here’s how you got to set it up”, and so on. He truly is a master of the craft, you can also ignore the background conversation and be treated to a damn good story. And I see that same spark within the posts and the resources section here. It’s much appreciated, has given much needed pause for reconsideration about writing. Now, I genuinely feel like I may be able to get it done. Presently, germinating a story about a guy who needs to choose a good profesional job or love. And before, I couldn’t have written that much about a story to anyone. I’m a plotter, but you’re opening my eyes to the vitalness of characters. Which truly does help out, possibly in ways that must be written in the pages of a novel. 🙂 At any given, thank you. I’ll be establishing a schedule and applying the keys soon, and this time forget quiting.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, all I can say is thanks to all of you. Putting these posts online is a little like writing them on napkins and dropping them out of an airplane somewhere over Iowa. I never have any idea whether they’re being read, or whether they’re doing anybody any good. Glad to hear that some of these ideas work for you, Dana — have you posted anything from your WIP on CrimeSpace? (I’m always reluctant to expose the baby prematurely, but some people are braver than I am.) And Lisa, I’m very happy you linked to this site from yours. (Lisa’s extremely interesting site is at http://eudaemoniaforall.blogspot.com/) and I hope you’ll keep me posted on how things go with your book. And Ben, even though you’re (eeeek) a plotter, it’s good to know that you listen to your characters, too. I actually think most writers do some of both. And you’re right about Sheldon (I assume you mean Sidney): you can always hear his voice. To me, that means that he’s got a reader in mind and he’s telling his story as directly and entertainingly as he can, which I think is good advice for most of us.

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  7. Dana King Says:

    Nope, nothing posted to Crimespace. I show the daily pages to my Spousal Equivalent, and test drive chapters to my local writers group, but I lack the onions to show a work early in gestation to the world.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Actually, I think that’s due not to a lack of onions but a surfeit of common sense. Like you, I have a few trusted souls to whom I’ll reveal the bones before the flesh is on them, but only after I’ve gone over every word half a dozen times. And even then, just the prospect of showing it or reading it to someone usually gets me marking it up. And, of course, we want it to read like we just tossed it off while we were waiting for the champagne to chill.

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