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On Six Months as a “Real Writer”

Since my last teaching job ended at the end of March, I’ve been self-identifying as “a full-time writer.” In practice, for me, this has meant two things. The first is that I permit myself to consider my novel “work.” The second is that I set myself a goal for a number of hours worked each week, and I track those hours. Since I’m about to reach the six-month mark, I figured it was about time to sit down and reflect on my experiences so far – and to share them, because people always seem to find other people’s writing-process accounts fascinating.

I have definitely noticed a change since I’ve made these changes in practice, not only in my writing process but in my mindset. In fact, although I’ve been writing semi-consistently for most of my life, and almost every day for most of the last nine years, the last six months have seen some revisions to aspects of my routine that have been there for years.

First and foremost, I find that allowing myself to have designated consistent writing time is a godsend. I’ve talked before on this blog about how I typically block off one weekday as “writing time” – no contractor appointments, coffee dates, or house-cleaning obligations, just me and the laptop. In general, I also try to avoid making appointments before 1 PM so that I can have my mornings to work. I’m still not as good about staying out of email and social media distractions as I’d like to be, but I have started setting my phone to do-not-disturb mode for a few hours. It’s not an absolute system – there are certain people, designated as “priority,” whose calls will still get through in case of emergencies – but it’s a bit of ritual that works for me, a “physical” acknowledgment that I am now enclosing myself in the sphere of my book for a limited time. The world will be there when I’m done.

As for the other factor, the hours-per-week – well, it’s had a few effects. The first is psychological. I’ve told myself that I will aim to do twenty hours of work on the book each week: this was also what I aimed for when I was writing my dissertation in 2012 and 2013. That means that when I’m evaluating my admittedly-unstructured week, I find myself making calculations about how to spend my free time. Do I have a busy weekend planned? Then maybe I won’t take that friend up on her Wednesday afternoon coffee date, because I know that I won’t have time to fit in my last few hours at the end of the week. I also find that tracking hours is better for my morale than tracking word count (which I know a lot of people do, including Stephen King) because it allows me to “count” things like going for a walk to untangle a sticky plot knot, or spending a morning outlining a new chapter. I know that sometimes the words will take a while to come, but if I’m ready and waiting for them, I can count the time as writing.

That’s the other thing I’ve found as an effect of my twenty-hour work week – I get less anxious about sticky plot than I used to. Even a few months ago, when a chapter jammed up, I would fret and pace and let it get under my skin, ranting to Husband that “this is clearly the most difficult chapter! It’s just not working! I can’t figure out where it’s supposed to go, I’m not working on it anymore!” Those rants have dramatically decreased in number since I’ve started this new process. I think part of that is that I’m just gaining more experience – putting in more time on the book within a more condensed time frame means that I’m getting accustomed to the ebb and flow of drafting, the fact that almost every chapter will have its sticking points and that after a week or two of frustrating fumbling suddenly the pieces will fit together and I’ll know how to move forward. But I think the other is just having some measure of accountability. Whether the writing is going well or badly, I still expect myself to show up; I still have that record of my time that I log at the end of the week, encouraging me to apply butt to chair (or, at least, brain to problem) and wait for my subconscious to work its magic.

I recognize that I’m privileged to have a schedule that accommodates this level of immersion in a creative project every week, and I also acknowledge that a lot of my tricks are the same ones I used to get myself through the later stages of graduate school. But all the same, my experience has made me a convert to a few tricks of the trade that seem like they’ll work no matter how much time you have to devote to your storytelling:

  1. Take your writing seriously. Allow yourself to make and keep appointments to work on it, just the way you would with work for which you’re accountable to someone else.
  2. Set attainable goals for yourself. Say that you’ll engage with your story for 30 minutes a day, or that you’ll try to get in 2 2-hour sessions over the course of a week.
  3. Don’t get obsessed with word count. I know that NaNoWriMo and other writing contests encourage writers to spew out words and not worry too much about content, and that’s a strategy that works well for many people – but if it doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t always work, find another way to give yourself a sense of forward momentum.
  4. Figure out what times work best for you to write, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of those times.

Maybe most importantly of all, as I’ve noted on this blog before, keep at it. Whatever lets you make progress on your creative goals, if you’re working at them, you’re doing it right.

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For the Writer’s Toolkit: Scrivener

Note: If you’re interested in taking a look at the writing program Scrivener for yourself, it’s available here.

When I started taking writing classes at the San Francisco Writing Salon several years ago, one of my instructors suggested that her students try out a program called Scrivener. She praised its flexibility and multiple editing modes, and promised that it was reasonably priced and easy to learn, but I was still skeptical, for much the same reason I’m skeptical of any new writing tool. I’ve been writing since I was five years old; for most of that time, I used nothing but a basic word processor or pen and paper. I thought the bells and whistles of a writing-focused program would just be a distraction.

But the program kept skittering across my writer radar, and so just before New Year’s 2013, I took the bait and went to the website for a look. And I’ve never looked back.

At the most basic level, Scrivener functions like a giant virtual binder, giving you the capacity to reference all the parts of your project in one place through folders, subfolders and files. You can import text documents that you’ve composed in other programs; you can also compose directly in Scrivener itself.

What you might see when you opened your Scrivener project, if you were Frances Hodgson Burnett.

What you might see when you opened your Scrivener project, if you were Frances Hodgson Burnett writing A Little Princess.

This is probably a good place to note that because I don’t consider my current project ready for prime time, to illustrate aspects of the program I’m including screen shots from a different text: for those who don’t recognize it straightaway, it’s Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, which I obtained through Project Gutenberg.

In integrating my massive book into Scrivener, I’ve opted to parse things so that each scene is a unique file, grouped together in folders by chapter; but I’ve also sorted my chapters into larger folders encompassing Draft 1 and Draft 2. Within the same document, I also have folders for Book 2 and 3 of my trilogy, with subfolders to break them down by chapter and scene. In practice, this means that when I get a brainstorm about something that won’t happen for 2½ books, I can go to the appropriate place, scrawl it down, and be confident that it’ll sit there until I’m ready to write the relevant scene. And because of the program’s flexibility, I can shift with a click from viewing a single scene to viewing a whole chapter or even the whole book. This, to me, still seems a little bit like magic.

Other aspects of this program that have made it well worth my initial investment:

  • Notes. In essence, the ability to paperclip scribbles to the back of a file. I most often use this to record answers to questions like “what’s the actual plan for this heist before everything goes wrong” or “what’s going on in this  conversation that my character can’t understand a word of.”
Scrivener's Notes feature.

Scrivener’s Notes feature.

  • Snapshots. What my programmer husband would call versioning software. When I’m finished with a scene for the day, I push a button and Scrivener saves a copy of it; the next time I sit down, I can joyfully tear the whole thing out by the roots if I’m so inclined, because anything I might want to retrieve from the dustbin will be sitting quietly in the Snapshot folder waiting to be resurrected.
Scrivener's Snapshot feature

Scrivener’s Snapshot feature

  • Outline Mode. Probably the feature that’s been most useful to me in my efforts to plot this giant series, this option allows me to view chapters and scenes in a clean, bullet-pointed mode. I can fill in a one- or two-sentence synopsis of each scene and chapter. And if I decide I want to change the plot, or shuffle chapters or scenes, all I have to do is click and drag and the associated notes and prose will move to the new location right along with the title.
Scrivener's Outline Mode; also demonstrating Split Screen

Scrivener’s Outline Mode; also demonstrating Split Screen

  • Split Screen Capabilities. Many programs (including MS Word) allow you to have multiple versions of the same document open at once; Scrivener also lets you have two files open simultaneously, so you can cross-reference between scenes or (as I did for two months) have your timeline open on the side while you’re composing the grand history of your setting.
  • Word Count, Project & Session Targets. The word count for the file you’ve selected (whether it’s a scene or the whole book) appears as a default in the footer of the program. You can also set targets for each writing session and for the project overall, and bring both of those up on screen with one keystroke.
  • Manuscript Formatting. When you’re done with your draft (or want to send something to a writing group), select which parts of your document you want to export and the format you want them in, and Scrivener will take care of the rest.

There also are a pile of other small friendly things that make it clear this is a program designed by writers for writers, like the capacity to take your work in progress full-screen with a single keystroke, or to open a long document at the start of your writing day and find yourself in the same paragraph where you left off (in the old days, I would mark my stopping place with “Stopped here” so I could search for that keyword instead of scrolling through 40+ pages).

 Scrivener bills itself as a program for getting the first draft done, but my first draft is in the bag at this point, and I’m still using it. So if you’re a writer of big books looking for a compact, affordable toolkit to streamline your writing process, you might want to check this one out.