What I learned in 2013: The one about writing

This January, I am looking at what I learned last year, so I can do better this year.  The first post was about Christmas, but now the festive season is well and truly over.  Epiphany (the feast of) has come and gone, the Christmas decorations have been put away (with the exception of the one that got missed, which will now sit on the windowsill until Michaelmas*) and it’s time to think seriously about what 2013 has taught me about writing and what that means for 2014.

*I don’t know when that is either. But it’s a long time from Christmas and it sounds good!

First, partly because it’s the most recent lesson, and because it encompasses some other things I’ve learned about me and writing this year, I have learned that…

…NaNoWriMo is not for me (don’t all faint at once).

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month.  It’s a joint effort where people around the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in November.  People do it as a way to encourage them to write.  The idea is to give yourself a challenging word count every day for a limited time as a spur to persist, push through and get down some words.

It sounds like a good idea and for several years now, I’ve given it a go.  In none of them, have I got anywhere near writing 50,000 words.  More to the point, I think I would have written more in November if I hadn’t attempted it.  And here’s why:

  • Arbitrary goals set by someone else (or even set by myself) with a ‘win’ or ‘lose’ status attached to them get my back up.  There are a few reasons for this.  One is that I think I’m naturally ornery.  I don’t like being told what to do.  Even when it’s good for me.  Maybe especially when it’s good for me.  But it also stems from my long and disastrous relationship with weight-loss dieting.  I have learned the hard way that diets don’t work.  They set you up by making you obsessed with food, then telling you not to eat.  They divorce you from your natural relationship with hunger, by dictating what, and sometimes when, you will eat, with no reference to individuality or circumstances.  They make you crazy.  (There is a much bigger post – indeed, thesis – in this, but I’m restraining myself because that’s not what THIS one is about.)
    And I worked out this year that NaNoWriMo feels like a ‘diet’ to me.  An arbitrary set of rules, that may or may not mean anything useful, that you ‘win’ if you follow and ‘lose’ if you don’t.  This makes me cross.  It also makes my subconscious run screaming from engaging with it (which is also my response to anything that feels like a ‘diet’).  Which may explain why I get LESS done when attempting NaNo that I would normally.  For people who don’t have my background, the rules and the ‘win/lose’ thing may be a useful spur to action, but for me, they are anathema.  So that’s one reason it doesn’t work for me.
  • November is a really bad month for me to attempt anything out of the ordinary, work-wise.  It is abnormally busy with other priorities.  I realise this may sound like an excuse, but truly, almost any other month would be better.  Calmly continuing my regular work-schedule is a sufficient achievement for November.  Trying to something special is just setting myself for failure.  See previous point about how well that works for me…
  • Another problem is that the nature of the goal gives me the irrits.  It’s right there in the name: Novel Writing Month. Unless you write short romance, or are working on a novella, 50,000 words is not a novel.  It can be the beginning of one, or a really well-fleshed out outline of one, but it’s not complete.  So the way many people talk about it as though they have actually finished something in the month sets my teeth on edge.  Again, I realise this is just me – I do know that many happy participants are perfectly well aware that it isn’t a complete novel, but enjoy it anyway – but that’s another reason for me not to engage.  Why bring my irritatedness into a space where less persnickety people are having a good time?
  • The daily word count doesn’t do it for me either.  This is a problem I have had since I first started engaging with other writers and I know that this too, puts me out of step with many, or indeed most of them.  But word counts as a measure of productivity – especially, word counts as the ONLY, or gold-standard measure of productivity – give me not so much the irrits as a raging, whole-body case of hives.  Writing a novel includes lots of stages and steps and activities and not all of them produce a lot of words on the page.  I understand the need to have some measure, especially when you are encouraging yourself to be consistent with working – I do, really.  And I also understand that it’s easy to kid yourself that you’re ‘working’ when you are really just avoiding putting words on paper.
    If committing to a wordcount works for you, then I am pleased for you – go to it and may the words flow. But it doesn’t for me.  I know when I am being productive and when I am work-avoiding.  And the latter is always accompanied by a lack of focus. For me, committing to an amount of time working – using a timer, if necessary and stopping and starting it, like I used to when I charged by the hour – is a better discipline.  For me , lack of focus is not the fault of the internet, or any distraction.  It happens as a direct result of my subconscious avoiding work it knows will be hard.
    Forcing myself to account for a certain amount of time on the job produces results, while still allowing me the flexibility to stare out the window, or mindmap or edit, or whatever is necessary at that stage of the book, without worrying about ‘failing’ at that day’s target.  The corollary is that, when I put the work in, my word count is frequently more (sometimes MUCH more) than the NaNo average goal anyway!
  • Lastly, as a professional writer, who wants to get more professional, in every sense of the word, I think my productivity efforts should be consistent over the year.  It is no use to me to work my butt off in any month if I then fall in a heap for another three.  I’m already good at deadline ultra-focus.  I’m wired that way naturally.  What I need to work on is being more consistent.  NaNo is probably great for people who need a push to get started, or to get past a lump, but if I need that, I’ll create my own deadlines whenever the need falls.  In the meantime, I’ll work on being more productive all the months of the year.

So, no NaNo for me.  What else have I learned about writing?

  • Blogging less doesn’t necessarily mean writing more.  During this year, during a period when I was really deep in deadline mode, I released myself from my commitment to blog three times a week.  It was taking time I needed to spend writing.  It was the right decision at the time.  But I found what happened was that I was going weeks without posting at all and that I missed it.  And also, after those few, intense deadline weeks were over, I wasn’t spending the saved time particularly wisely, or even on writing.  Not the desired effect.
    But in thinking about it, I also realised that I’m not interested in posting just for the sake of it.  Of course, sometimes I’ll do a post that just shares things I like, but mostly, I like my posts to have some meat to them – and that means they can take quite some time to write.  So I’ve decided I will commit to posting at least once a week.  That’s enough to keep me working (and not fiddlefarting around) and, I hope, enough to serve those stalwarts who are kind enough to take an interest in the blog, without draining the time-tank too much.
  • Social media is a time-sink.  This is not news to anyone, but I need to restate it to myself – possibly daily.  ‘Dropping in’ during break times is theoretically fine, but it can easily lead to hours lost.  It’s not some computer-created black magic that does it.  It’s the lure of company, mostly.  Back in my uni days, I could fall foul of exactly the same sort of time sink, except that I did it in the coffee shop with three-dimensional friends.  It’s just indulging in something that is easier and superficially at least, more fun than the hard work you are avoiding.  It’s also the insidious lure of habit.  But for the same reasons I needed to get my butt out of the coffee shop and back into the library, I need to control it.  This year, I will be setting a timer before I log on and using a blocking program that I can’t change the settings of in the intervening spaces.
  • This year has also taught me, that if I am really trying to avoid work, and I deny myself the internet, I’m quite capable of reading a book for the same amount of time as I would have spent on the ‘net.  So I will be applying a timer to those breaks as well.  Although…
  • I need to give myself permission to read.  For a writer, reading is not wasted time.  I just need to crib the time from housework-time, rather than writing-time. 😉
  • With regard to break-times, I have realised recently that, often, my need for a short break from what I’m working on is not intellectual, but physical.  So, rather than hopping on to Twitter when I lift my head from the work, I am going to try moving around, doing some stretches, or even moving location.  I have many spots inside and outside the house where I can work.  Shifting the laptop is easy, takes less time than getting drawn into reading blogs and actually solves the problem (too long in one position) that probably made me restless in the first place.
  • Lastly, if this year has taught me anything, it is that priorities need to come FIRST.  This may sound obvious, but I don’t mean just on the list, I mean, in terms of each day and what I actually do.  It’s easy to say that ‘I will make writing a priority’, but that means nothing without action.  If it is truly the priority of my working day to spend X amount of time working on my WIP, then I need to do it FIRST.  Immediately after breakfast.  Before checking the email, or checking FB or even emptying the dishwasher.  Then, and only then, will I get to the end of this year happy with how much I got done. (Interestingly, I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion.  The pattern in this post by Catherine, Caffeinated, was horrifyingly recognisable.)
    Also, I have decided that, if it is truly a priority, whatever I need to do to make it happen, I should just do.  If that means starting the day at the coffee shop, because there’s no wifi, so I can’t get suckered off-focus before I’m made a start on the writing, then that’s what I’ll do.  I’ll budget the coffee money!  Whatever works – or whatever helps me work – is my new motto.

So, to sum up, if this year is going to be informed by what I learned, it will be the year of the timer and of focus.  I know what I hope to finish as a result of those things, but it’s the focus that will be the *ahem* focus of my efforts!

Has your year taught you anything about your work practices?

22 thoughts on “What I learned in 2013: The one about writing

    • Glad you liked it, Georgina! Thanks for stopping by. I have invested this year in a program called Freedom (and a sub-program, Anti-Social) to help keep me honest. It’s not that the social media is bad, but it’s so fragmenting and the time just gets away from you! It’s here, if you’re interested: http://macfreedom.com/ and despite the name, it’s not just for macs!

  1. I haven’t don’t NANO either Imelda, for much the same reason – i’m sure it’s not for me. When I knuckle down to write, I get stuff done. I’m good on deadline too. For me my hold up in the year was more of the ‘what’ to write, rather than ‘when’ to write.
    I enjoy my time on social media. I started ‘twitter’ this year which I wasn’t doing 12 months ago. I enjoy that.
    One thing I don’t think you’ve allowed yourself in your stocktake of the year (and social media in some respects) is the amount of work you do voluntarily for RWA. I have spoken with so many RWA members who laud your efforts with spotlights and limelights and competitions and publicity – so thank you for working that into your week.

    Here’s to 2014. May it bring health, happiness, and time in sand bunkers for all of us. (Or at the very least, a good few snorts of single malt scotch).

    • Aw, thanks, Lily! I like social media too – and I’m not going to stop being on it. It helps keep me sane! And as you say, since I’m the RWA social media person, I kind of need to be there… 😉 It’s more about being aware of the time. Like all things, it will take as long as you give it, so I’m planning to be using the timer more, to keep me on track!

      • And of course, while I do have a bit of volunteering to do, I at least have the advantage of some of mine being visible. There are plenty of others beavering away mightily unseen! And still getting books written! I dips me lid to all of them and try to emulate! 🙂

  2. Imelda, I think the world has the problems. Years ago, I decided to put a timer when I am on social sites, so I don’t get sucked in the beautiful photos, postings, reposting, answering and being part of forums with people arguing over minutias. For the first time, last year I took up a year long WP challenge and that’s why I did it. If it was something that would have created anxieties for me, I would have not done it. I also blog once a week, it’s comfortable to me and I can provide some good information, it’s not so good for SEO, but we must do things that bring pleasure and must have time to work, that’s a priority. For the rest of my time, I try to be sociable with real people, cook good food, read a good book and get out to exercise in the park, all the things we used to do before we got stuck behind a computer. During the day I often turn off my IPhone, so I hear no notifications.

    • You are wise, Valentina! Sometimes it takes me a while to get the message. I think we’re just so used to being connected all the time that we feel somehow wrong, or as though we are missing something if we are offline or away from the social spaces. But it will all be there when we get back. And you’re right, we really need other things in our lives as well. One of the things I have missed, but getting too ‘busy’ is catching up with the blogs I like. So I’ve decided to put aside some of my timer-defined slots for checking out my reader. Because I like you and all the other people I’ve met here! It’s a bit mental if mindless time on ‘social’ sites leaves me no time to catch up with other people I like! Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, Valentina. It’s appreciated!

      • Imelda, that’s what I do to read my blog followers a little more: one week I read a group, next week I read another group. I can’t read all the 800 and some followers and commenting too. I would not have any work or business, but if we are writing a blog, we must give the courtesy of some of our time to those who come visit us.

    • Ain’t that the truth, Jonathan! And sometimes our tastes change over time – and that’s good too! Lovely to see you here, Jonathan. I enjoyed catching up with some of your poems last night!

    • Ha, Resa! Yes, that’s always the problem, isn’t it? The fun stuff is always more fun! It’s Oscar season coming up. Maybe you need to get one of your gowns onto one of those ladies, then you could have a whole new career! Although I’m sure that would have its own dramas… One day, I will write a film that stars someone famous and they will win an Oscar and you will design the gown they receive it in and it will rain unicorns and puppies on us both. Until then, I guess it’s back to the salt mines for both of us! 😉

      • I wish I’d meet a business person who is enamored by my Art Gowns!
        In the meantime I’ll settle for designing an Oscar Gown for your yet unwritten character, and one for your newest book.
        The nice thing about Judy is she loves everything I do, and holds her pose forever while I fidget passionately.
        Did a prelim drape w/ ideas today for your new “Art Gown”
        It should take a week or 2.

  3. Nano sounds very punishing – 50,000 words in a month…good grief!? I am recovering from writing my novel – I took a year off teaching to write it – all 85,332 words (I must mention them all 🙂 ) It’s with a publisher at present, having survived the first gruelling stage… but you can’t ever be presumptuous as I writer I’ve discovered…

    I know what you mean about social media, it’s addictive, encroaching.
    Happy new year, Imelda!

    • It certainly can be punishing, Lee-Anne. Although, when I’m on a roll, it’s not impossible. But for me it depends on where I am in the process. And I don’t think I could do it from a standing start – not meaningfully, anyway! And pointless words make me even crosser than being told what to do! Best of luck with your novel!

    • Oh, yes, David, that was definitely on my list too. I learned some pretty hard lessons about that! Still, while I still have the enthusiasm for learning, maybe that’s not such a bad thing! Thanks for dropping in!

  4. Hello Imelda! First, I would like to wish you a Happy New Year 2014 filled with success! I’m just getting back into the blogging world today. My parents were here for a visit and I spent all my time with them.
    I’ve done NaNo twice now and I loved it. I think you are right saying that NaNo is a good way to get started and give a person some self-confidence that it’s possible to write a novel or novella if you really put your mind to it. But, I also agree with you by saying that you can’t possible finish a novel in 50 000 words. Even though you finish it, you still have all the edits to do… Looking forward to follow your blog this year too!

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