This Week On This Writing Life – 11/10/17

You can keep up with my Medium posts on my personal writing thoughts and experiences by following This Writing Life

Measuring Performance Comes Later: I truly believe how well a piece, whether it’s a 300-word blog post or a 40,000-word novel performs is any indicator of the quality of what’s produced or a signal of the value or health of the writer behind the keyboard.

 

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Dr. Formattinglove: …getting over my own stubborn adherence to the old way of doing things and embracing the same best practices I apply for other work is part of putting my best foot forward. It’s not enough to be a talented writer.

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Steadfastly Ignoring Advice: The problem I’ve always had with such advice is that it all seems to be geared toward creating a monoculture. Everyone’s output is basically the same because it all comes from the same foundation of ideas and practices.

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One Long Post or Several Little Posts?: Do what feels good for you and fits into your schedule and balance it with what goes over well with your audience and moves you closer to achieving the goals you have for your content.

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Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Call It. How It Feels Does

It used to be called “the groove” or “the zone.”

Coming from a family full of gearheads and car enthusiasts we used the phrase “running on all eight cylinders.”

They all mean the same thing: That feeling that comes when you just can’t do any wrong. Hours pass in the blink of an eye while you’re working on something you’re deeply passionate about or interested in.

For me, running on all eight cylinders means there’s nothing that can stop me. The words (it’s usually when I’m writing) are flowing like water from a spring as the winter snowpack melts. It’s organic and meaningful. Whatever time I have is too short.

Recently I’ve encountered a number of sources that refer to it as “the flow” or simply “flow.” The key to productivity, to self-actualization, is finding flow. It is our optimal functional state. We’re more efficient and passionate, bringing all our attention and skills to bear on something important.

If you do even a small bit of searching or subscribe to entrepreneurial or productivity news sites for a short while you’ll encounter no end of tips and advice on how to get into the flow or maintain the flow while working. As with most tips and advice, there’s some good stuff in there, but your mileage may vary.

You Do You

If creating an environment of complete silence and tranquility works, great. I work better with Rush or Van Halen or Bob Dylan or Huey Lewis & The News playing at a wholly unhealthy volume.

If turning off the internet connection to minimize distractions works, great. Jumping over to Twitter every now and again actually helps take my mind off something I might be stuck on and free up new ideas.

If scheduled breaks where you turn away completely works, great. I prefer to just keep going and rest when the day is done and I’ve accomplished as much as possible.

You Might Not Know What Works

For years I didn’t know what the right combination of activities, stimuli and other factors was. When I felt it, I felt it. But I couldn’t put my finger on how to recreate it. Eventually it came together when I realized there was no magic formula.

Flow is art, not science in my experience. One day I’m running on all eight when I’ve got The Grateful Dead going and I’m working down a list of writing projects and topics. The next it’s when I’m listening to St. Vincent and organizing files on a hard drive.

It doesn’t matter what you call it. It doesn’t matter how you get there. What matters is that you feel it. Find your groove. Find your flow. Fire up all eight cylinders. Make it happen.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The Vast Beauty of The Blank Page

Yes, there are many terrifying things about the blank page that faces writers every day. It’s humbling to think that it’s your responsibility – to readers, clients and others, even yourself – to fill that void.

I’m occasionally reminded of Donald Sutherland’s line in Backdraft. While needling William Baldwin’s character, who’s looking for answers as to who’s been setting a string of fires, Sutherland’s imprisoned arsonist says “It looked at you, didn’t it?” Fire is a living thing he refers to as “the animal” repeatedly. It’s something to be let loose, a beautiful beast that destroys everything.

The blank page is sometimes that kind of terrible creature, threatening to engulf me.

Other times the stark whiteness of a blank page, either digital or physical, is beautiful. It’s a flat, endless sea of snow and ice, nothing there except for the potential for more. It’s calming and soothing, inviting exploration and adventure that defies description. You can walk for miles and never find the end.

Even in that apparent vacuum, there’s life. If you’re not driven insane by the intimidating emptiness devoid of oases, you step out and are rewarded by encountering the animals who have adapted to life there and delighted by the fauna uniquely suited to survive such harsh conditions.

Those are the days when it all works. When the words come easily and when, given the option, I could write for hours unending and be not only happy but proud of the results. I’m pushed on by the promise of finding more of those hidden treasures.

There’s beauty in unbroken blankness. It’s the writer’s job to discover it and share it with others.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Draft 2

This is what I’ve been working on when I haven’t been doing everything else.

This is Draft 2 of the first novel I’ve attempted to not only start but actually finish. I don’t want to talk too much about the story, but I think it’s an interesting premise and hope it will be something people want to read.

Draft 1 was begun in early 2014 and was written in Google Docs. You know, in a way that’s easily accessible everywhere I go and which takes advantage of the technology available to me. When I finished it over a year later, though, I realized it was terrible. This wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Or at least I knew there were so many issues with the draft that it would take a long while to go in and fix them all. The problem is I quickly found editing the document was frustrating. I felt like I was picking at small problems and not addressing the bigger ones. I was putting up new drapes in a 78-story skyscraper, not paying attention to the reality that I forgot to lay a foundation.

So I resolved to write Draft 2 by longhand and just write. No editing as I went, just get to the end. There were a few times where I crossed something out when I realized I had just started a sentence wrong or something, but other than that it was a sprint. Well…a sprint that took me about five months from beginning to end. The end of August was pegged in my mind as the due date for Draft 2 and I wound up beating that by a month, which feels pretty good.

The reason I chose to write longhand was it felt more like a method to really express myself in an extended way. I’m too used to writing on the computer in a way that encourages (believe it or not) brevity. So I didn’t really feel I was exploring some of the ideas I wanted to get out there. Plus, I decided if I wrote longhand and just got to the finish line then Draft 3 would be me taking what wound up being almost two full legal pads and fixing some of the problems and filling in some of the gaps I knew were in the story as I typed it out. That’s where I am right now, with the goal being to have Draft 3 typed and ready by December 1.

Over the last year or so I’ve been listening to a number of podcasts about writing and have tried to adopt some of the tips and advice the hosts and guests have shared about writing novels. Those tips include:

  • Write every day for a set amount of time: I really set out to do this and even created an action item in ToDoIst for “30 minutes novel writing.” That wasn’t always what happened, though, as I would sometimes go a week without touching it, mostly because I was stuck on a particular story point or just didn’t know where the characters were going next. So I put it aside. Usually at night when I came to bed I would revisit in my head where I had left off and mull what might be next. After a few days of doing so, my subconscious would usually shake something loose and I’d get back on track.
  • Outline the story: Yeah, that didn’t really work for me. That’s mostly because while I knew the end point I was aiming for, I wasn’t sure how I was getting there. Instead, I just let the current carry me along. It sounds cliched and terrible, but I let the characters get me there, evolving as they lived the lives I was giving them. In the end not only was the journey much different than I imagined – and vastly different than it was in Draft 1 – but so was the ending, which wound up being much more emotionally interesting to me than what I first had in mind.

After I finish Draft 3 I’m going to figure out what to do with the book. While I’ve been writing short fiction here and there over the last several months, something that’s been very interesting and gratifying, having even a hand-written draft of a full novel is a whole other sense of accomplishment. What comes next remains to be seen, but no one can take what I’ve done and the experience I’ve gained away from me.