97% Of The Time: Works Every Time

It’s been a while. Been busy, and while I’m assured that normal people manage this stuff, I’m becoming more and more certain that most of the time they just get used to the new normal. Wee-er Than Wee Dave Dave, aka Wiggles aka Moxie (she’s got attitude to spare, already) joined us on Groundhog Day (no, didn’t see her shadow, no, Mommy wouldn’t have taken her back even if she had. The appropriate jokes were made at the appropriate time) and I’ve been running since. The good news is that it turns out labor is an excellent time for me to plot novels. The bad news is that juggling a newborn, a toddler, and a recovering wife doesn’t leave one with much time to write. And it leaves my arms rather tired.

The other good news is that I’m writing again, though in fits and starts. And thinking about writing. I’m sure that’s in one of those pie-chart quasi-meme-fographics that flickered past my consciousness sometime recently. And I’m learning (re-learning?) that one of the things that’s key to me putting words on paper (or electrons on … other electrons) is getting out of the way of the story.

I am … prone to thinking. Partly this comes of being as extremely introverted as I am. Part of this comes of the way I was raised, and further training. It can be amazingly useful when it comes, say, to maintaining a relationship with someone. It can also be incredibly UNuseful when it comes to, say, not bollixing up a story by thinking too hard about it while you’re writing it. “Well, maybe he should turn right instead of left; maybe that’ll punch up the emotional impact.” (No, it won’t. Stop. Just write the story.) “He’s a scribe’s apprentice in an early industrial revolution where moveable type is a new but going thing. He needs to run afoul of the press gang. How did it work? Wait, did that even happen? *hours and hours later*” (Stop the research when you’ve got enough to write the next sentence. No, stop it. Just write the story.) And so forth.

Overthinking is a problem, and one my father will happily assure has always been with me. This post is not about overthinking, per se. It’s really about perspective. I firmly believe writers all to one degree or another suffer from this particular ailment. It might even be possible to judge a writer’s career based upon how they deal with it (somebody get on that, hmm?). Much like impostor syndrome, I’ve heard of perhaps one or two creative types who *don’t* deal with overthinking (and both of them, and one other will no doubt show up in the comments. Bring it!). Thinking about a thing is a comfortable place to be, as opposed to doing that thing, which is always hard work (I’m allergic, but I hear there are pills for that now) and often a distinctly uncomfortable place to be.

Sarah mentioned a notion at According To Hoyt yesterday that crystallizes what I’m after, here: Dance in the stream of chaos. For writers – certainly discovery writers, though I wager outliners deal with it to some degree, as well – this is bread and butter for doing art. It’s uncomfortable to be in the middle of the story with little-t0-no clue of what’s going to happen next. That’s a given.

Think of it like this: you have an ability to effect effects. Everyone does. Of the 100% of your ability, one percent is gone to the vagaries of the universe. Call it entropy, call it fate, karma, or kismet, one percent goes to reflect you doing everything right and still failing to make the effect you want. Of the remaining 99%, you’re going to be able to manage more or less depending on the myriad of circumstances at any given time. Some days will be more, some less. Days when you’ve gotten your eight hours the night previous, downed your Death Wish (naked plea for corporate sponsorship), knocked out your to-do list, and still plowed on to plot a novel, finish a short, and rock half a dozen new chapters in your WIP. A good day, no doubt. You were rocking that 99%.

Then there are other days. The days when you were up several times with the baby (I’m staring adoring daggers at you, Moxie), the coffee just barely drags you past death-warmed-over, and you haven’t even started your list. The days when the thought of writing actually makes your eyes glaze. The days when you’re barely topping 50%. There’s a thing you can do to regain some of your emotional distance; your perspective, and return your energy to a point where you can get things done, get words written.

When you hit the points where you start to – f0r lack of a better phrase and because this is just how I roll – freak out, you need to stop it (or I’ll bury you alive in a box, natch) short of directing that at anything external, and use it as a motive force. Have your moment of fight-flight-freeze reaction, but train yourself to step back from the brink before blasting that idiot on BaceFook or the dying leftward-spiral of Twitter, or yelling at your characters for making decisions you didn’t want them to make (unless that actually helps your process: seriously, do what works for you), and ask yourself if this is genuinely a priority for your energy. Is this whatever a real thing to deal with, or is this something you can actually use to further your real goals. Become a miser of your time and energy, and don’t spend them on anything that isn’t going to further your goals.

In my case, I could get bent out of shape over Wee Dave demanding ALL DADDY’S ATTENTION when I’m in the midst of preparing dinner so he, Mrs. Dave, and I can eat something besides a handful of nuts and maybe a twig or two tonight. In which case I’d be wasting a bunch of energy (and time), and I’d end up exhausted at dinner time, and have nothing left with which to write. Now, I can always then stagger down to the office and slaughter horrible monsters of one kind or another, but that doesn’t get words written. Or, I could mentally step back, recognize that I’m on the cusp of one of those moments, and choose to act more constructively. Then I don’t waste the energy I need for creative pursuits. In fact I experience a boost from redirecting that energy into something much more healthy than yelling in frustration, scaring my son, and making my wife wonder if, indeed, she has married a raving lunatic (she has; sorry, Babe). Then I can get the Boy-creature cleansed of his child-stench, the wife fed so she can get the Girl fed, and then I can finally escape downstairs (Dobby is free!) to write.

It’s that perspective that’s so vital. In the moment, it’s mighty difficult to step back and take the mental breath necessary to act better. Especially on the 50% days. I speak from no little experience. Without the training (and it does take training) you’re going to simply react, and end up exhausted, all the time. How do I train myself, Dave? I’m glad you asked! It begins with an act of will. You choose to take that breath, just like you chose to pick up the pen or lay hands to keyboard the first time. For me, I’m still in process (SWIDT? Oh, look: a lampshade! Where’d that come from?) and figuring out the other parts. I’m using visualization and analysis. What are the situations most likely to push my buttons? And then I run through scenarios in my head wherein my son spills something oily on the couch while Mrs. Dave is in the shower and Moxie is shrieking for a dry diaper. And I choose to act without freaking out (even in my head) and figure out some way to manage the situation to my advantage. Do that kind of thing.

The other piece of perspective is that you already have most of that 100% locked up. You got up, showered, adulted, and probably even did something constructive before you hit a cusp point. Recognize that. You’ve already got most of this. I repeat: you’ve already got most of this. Most of the writers I know keenly feel the chaos of existence, and this includes me. The part I most often miss in the moment is that I’m actually doing quite well, all told. It’s that last two or three percent that wants to elude me. I’m not going to let it. Are you?

8 thoughts on “97% Of The Time: Works Every Time

    1. Thank you. She’s adorable (it says so on her onesy), and she’s judgy. She looks upon the world with an expression of hardened skepticism. Mrs. Dave is recovering quite well, though Baby Girl seems to be enjoying some reflux in the witching hour every night, and she’s taking that shift while Daddy sleeps, so Daddy can wrangle the Boy-creature during the morning. It’s complicated, but it seems to be working. For now. We’ll see what happens next week.

  1. The way that I was always told to think of dealing with these events is to be a duck. Be all calm on the outside and thinking furiously on the inside (paddling underwater). Admittedly I have the issue with being overlogical normally but working in emergency services has done a lot to help me be able to break that habit (I am engineer by training and full time work which is helped by that overthinking tendency), so I’d also say stretching that side of your brain is also a good technique for dealing with chaos of life.

  2. Chaos, personal chaos, yes. When around small people, I learned the knack of holding onto the thread of a story while dealing with interruptions. This can be done, but it takes up a lot of the paying-attention-to-language areas of the brain. One tends to not comprehend those noises coming in from outside. Absentmindedly dealing with spills, hungry children, broken glass, without speaking . . . then going back and picking up the writing right where I was.

    I’m not at all certain I wasn’t functionally insane in those days. Weird, certainly.

  3. Posted on Nick Cole’s Facebook wall:
    Nick, it’s been two weeks since I contacted HarperCollins, and asked if they would care to make a comment to be included in my review of your excellent book. On February 16 They acknowledged receipt of my e-mail and stated that it would be forwarded to the Editorial Department. I’ve received no further communication from them.

    I conclude that they do not wish to dispute your version of the events, and that they wish this would go away quietly. This may be a good example of why traditional publishing itself may go away quietly.

    I am repeating this information and every venue in which my review was referenced.

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