Mixing up Writing Sessions

Hi, everyone. I have been having fun with another writing-exercise analogy.

Getting back into the exercise after the usual excesses of the Christmas and New Year break, I found myself musing on the best ways to develop body strength. For years I would just attack workouts, pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. That’s great for stamina (and weight loss), but if you really want to increase your strength the key is actually taking your time. The secret to increasing strength is the strategic use of repetitions interspersed with breaks long enough to allow the muscles to recover. The best programs seem to mix things up. Some days there will be 8-9 sets of low reps, other days perhaps a lower number of sets where you push closer to ultimate exhaustion (and take longer breaks). Yet the key is always adequate recovery time between the sets.

Chewing through all of this while I was in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens getting blood to my brain and watching the Ibis’s walk around made me realise I never do this with my writing.

There seems to be a real cultural push toward a static work program. Write so many pages, so may thousands of words. Then get up tomorrow and do it all again, and again. Check back in ten years for result.

But this flies in the face of what I was considering. To use the same analogy, you really should give yourself adequate recovery time between the workouts. And if you really want to improve, you need to mix up the program.

I guess the mechanics of muscle development are a pretty much the same for everyone, whereas there are as many approaches to developing a finished story as there are writers, but still. . .

So how would it translate? Many shorter writing sessions across a day, broken up with deliberate intake of inspiring material? I’m going to contradict myself and say that would probably drive me nuts. It usually takes me 15-20min to break the ice, and I’d be doing it each time. Maybe varying the goal?

Or is writing more like meditation, where consistency of place and time is the key?

Anyone got any ideas?

14 comments

  1. In my opinion, the difference between the two types of workouts has nothing to do with time or repetition, and everything to do with intensity and applying yourself to the task. I can do HIIT (high intensity interval training), and have done so – and when I do a thirty-minute workout and give myself twenty-three hours to recover, the key to progress is to focus on making every single rep count, and every single movement be driving toward my purpose and goal. This has direct correlation to creative work, as follows:

    A good friend, who is a photographer by trade, can take fifty pictures of a product, choose the five best, retouch as necessary, and upload to a manufacturer in two hours. Or he can take three days at it, and spend hours talking about how stressed he is because he has so much to get done, on facebook and email “checking for client responses”, scheduling other photo shoots, doing other stuff, and just barely getting the photos in two hours before the deadline.

    I think the former is what emphasis on butt in chair, hands on keyboard, with an output quota is supposed to accomplish: to make you focus on your work, and focus on improving your work (with the mix in sets being the writing vs. editing days.)

    1. Hi, Dorothy. Reading your comment made me realise it’s probably as simple as a good focus on the task in hand. That is definately something the two types of workout have in common.

      Talking about doing more than one thing, I have always admired people who can work on a number of projects or phases of project at once, but this never seems to work for me. I seem to have to progress through each phase as a key area of application. If I try to combine editing with first drafting everything tends to tumble down.

      1. I’ve never had a problem working on a number of projects at once, in fact my problem is usually working on too many projects at once. I never get most of them finished.

  2. Dorothy, good point.

    Also, there are different parts to writing. Starting with an idea and getting that down. Then doing the research. Or if you’re not inspired, research and exploring a variety of things to help the ideas along. Museums, zoos, a trip to the library and sitting down with a selection of magazines of sorts you are unfamiliar with, fly a kite, go to the beach, take a class . . .

    But at some point you’ve got to get off facebook, stop checking your email once an hour, and start writing.

    Then you edit. Send it to beta readers, edit again. Then send it to your agent, your publisher, or if you’re Indie, various editors you pay, covers, conversions, publishing in five venues . . .

    If you’re serious about writing, you’ve probably got stuff in all stages of the process. Dealing with that can become Dorothy’s complaining, checking, scheduling . . . both the “business” part of the writing business and often segueing into a waste of time.

    Planning it all out, like interval training, and switching it around at need, might enable us to keep the business part from taking over, minimize the procrastinating and wasted time, and let us keep the focus on writing. And still take breaks to walk on the beach or double check that warthogs really are so ugly they’re cute.

    1. Hi, Pam. I’m starting to think that if I tried to really break up my writing time I think I would be basically giving in to avoidance:) Maybe that is really what is driving my though process. I guess after a break, I simply forgot writing is hard. Still, there is something to be said for staying inspired. Warthogs are kind of funny aren’t they? Mind you I would not want to run into one out in the bush:)

      1. We all have to figure out what works for our own selves, and how to deal with our weaknesses. Mine is definitely wasting time on line. Or designing covers when I ought to be finishing the book that will go inside. Unfortunately, avoidence, in my case, has not encompassed either house cleaning or exercise.

        Maybe I can use the threat of cleaning to get myself writing. “Hey you! Yeah, you in the mirror. A thousand words this morning or it’s time to clean the bathrooms!”

    2. Pam,

      Very good points. To further examine the metaphor, planning out your day for dealing with everything from errands to editing the last work to the block of time for the current work would be like having an exercise plan with goals and measurements instead of “spend an hour in the gym three times a week.” Because you have hard numbers and goals, you not only have a sense of urgency to get one things accomplished, but also a way to measure progress. (For example, write 1K words on Book 5 today; edit two chapters of Book 4 today. Contact cover artist.)

      When the aforementioned photographer first started freelance, he had so few clients that it was easy to get them all dealt with as he felt like, and still have plenty of time to hold conversations with the cat or go look for new work. As he grew wildly successful, he became overbooked for his working structure, and a lot of stress and floundering resulted. He learned to schedule himself fairly rigorously, and then to start saying “no” to potential clients when his schedule was full. (That was the hardest part.)

      Chris, if it takes you twenty minutes to get into the writing groove, the application to interval training isn’t to break it up: it’s to plan a block where you focus on writing at least X many words, no distractions, and then perhaps another block where you focus on cover design with a goal of making 3 templates by the end of the block, etc. Then at the end of the week, to review how you did to your goals, where you easily succeeded, where you consistently fell short, and analyze why, then adjust your plan to remain challenging but reachable on all areas.

  3. I think that to a great extent, it’s going to depend on the individual. Some people work better at such tasks by going and plodding through them, as in the words per day goal. Other people do better in bursts, with recovery time in between. I would say that both should be practiced, because there are probably going to be times where one or the other is appropriate to the immediate circumstances, and if you’re stuck on one form, you may not recognize that on that day, following that method is not the best solution.

    Once in a while, also (whether it’s once a day, week, or month, again, is going to depend on the individual), one should sit back and have free association time, just writing down whatever crosses your mind, with no particular goal in sight. This will do two things: 1) It allows for letting off the pressure of unexpressed lines of thought, which are not directly related to your current work, and 2) it produces fodder for further works, or even allows new ideas that can be applicable to the WIP to come out when they didn’t appear so until expressed on the page.

    1. Hi, Wayne. Deinately – it’s going to be an individual thing. Looking at the anology was a thought exercise for me, but digesting it and the useful replies I think there is no useful correlation for me. I work best in blocks – I just need to grit my teeth and do it!

      I do tend to forget to just write for fun though. I must try a bit of that free-association writing you mentioned:)

  4. Back when I was running programming teams, one of the common problems that I counseled a lot of programmers about was focused on something similar. Basically, they knew they could churn out so many lines of code in so many hours, and thought that working on a project, they should simply be sitting down and doing this for longer periods of time. The intrusion of things like design, review meetings, project meetings, and so forth was seen as “not real work” and they would complain bitterly that I should just let them write for weeks at a stretch. Or they would have discovered that they couldn’t write for weeks at a stretch, and would be despondent because they were failures.

    Either way, I usually tried to help them understand that their work was more than just sitting down crunching out code. Design, reviews, even talking to me and other programmers was real work too! And in most cases, frankly, grinding out code only made sense in the framework of the larger work.

    It seems to me that something similar applies to writing. Yes, if you are just trying to build up speed at producing words, then free writing sprints, marathon sessions at the keyboard, and similar training efforts may work best. But there are also other skills that need training, such as research, outlining, log lines and other marketing. Even the ability to switch off and do something else such as editing takes practice, and setting up a training program where you mix it up might be the best way to build that skill.

    I guess I’m saying it depends on what you are trying to teach yourself. If it’s the discipline of regular writing, well, set your time and sit down and do it. If it’s the breadth and complexity of writing skills, that might indeed take a more complex drill.

    And just think, it’s all “real writing!”

      1. Although… my wife keeps telling me I shouldn’t need to learn to relax. But I don’t sit still very well. Maybe y’a do need to teach yourself to sit on the beach and soak up sunshine? Get those chloroplasts working! (Is that the little gidgets inside the cells that do something with sunshine? Vitamin D? Oh, oh, I feel a google search coming on… does this beach have wifi? 🙂

        1. I think chloroplasts are the little geen things in plant cells. If Chris has taken to photosynthesis . . . well I’ve always heard those Aussies were a bit strange . . .

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