You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers…

Because I’m perfectly comfortable being lazy and letting blog-worthy ideas come to me instead of chasing them down, I’m opting to respond to a question posted on my Facebook page in response to last night’s blog post. I’ll apologize in advance for the 24 hours delay in getting back to you, Jess, but I hope the fully formed response makes up for its less than timely delivery.

The question: What tools do you use to keep this list and how often do you go to it? And is that just the blog list? What about ideas for books and such? How do you keep track of everything when there is limited time to address any of it? Inquiring minds want to know.

The answer: Starting from the last part of your question, let me go on the record as saying dealing with limited time is the bane of my existence. I’m going to assume for purposes of discussion that I’m not alone in that sentiment. Between a day job, the blog, a couple of longer-term writing projects, and the other mandatory ephemera of life demanding attention, there is always more to do than there is time to do it. I try to keep this in check by an occasional ruthless culling of priorities. Every few months I physically make a list of everything I do as part of my day-to-day routine, rank order them, and then cut away as may at the bottom of the list as I can get away with eliminating.

This method has the unfortunate side effect of having sliced away most of what you might consider hobbies, unfortunately. It’s also led to a greater than reasonable volume of dog hair residing under furniture and in the photocarpets than I’m entirely comfortable with. Having, as I do, a fairly wide OCD streak, learning to accept that dust is unsightly but probably isn’t going to kill you has been a particularly difficult lesson to digest. I’m sure there are very good writers who find some other way of managing their time and getting it all done, but this is a method that works for me. Mostly. If you’re out there with kids or husbands or wives demanding attention, yeah, I’m not sure how you’ll make all that fit. Mercifully the only living creatures I’m responsible for are basically satisfied sleeping under the kitchen table while I do my thing.

Now when it comes to the meat of keeping track of ideas I try to keep it as simple as possible. I know there are a metric crapload of apps specifically designed for list making, but I tend to rely on something simple and understated – the Notes app that came installed on my phone. I chunk out the big ideas into either blog ideas or book ideas with one extra category left over specifically for issues I want to feature on Thursdays as part of What Annoys Jeff this Week. Since I usually have one or two other works in progress on hand at any given time, those generally have their own “note” as well so I can keep them segregated and avoid having a list so long as to make it functionally useless.

I refer to my lists fairly often, though some see more action than others. I try to add ideas as they come to me during the day or especially at night if I wake up with something that feels particularly important. As an aside, no matter what idea comes to you in the middle of the night, write it down so you can give it another look in the light of day. 3AM is a terrible time to make decisions about the virtue of half formed thoughts. Likewise, whipping out your phone in the middle of a deadly dull meeting to jot down the most unintentionally funny thought of the day is frowned upon. When I find myself in those circumstances, painfully separated from the electronic world, there’s no substitute for ye olde pen and paper (provided you transcribe the important parts over to your electronic filing system before your great ideas are lost to the shredder). I’ve lost more “good ideas” than I can imagine by simply assuring myself that I’m sure I’ll remember it later. The hard truth is there isn’t one chance in a hundred that you’re going to remember anything more than the fact that you had an idea that you neglected to write down.

The best and only advice I can give on any of this is to find a system that works for you and apply it mercilessly all day, every day. If you’re going to write five, six, seven times a week, it’s the only way I’ve come up with to even attempt to keep the pipeline full of new and semi-interesting ideas.

Editorial control…

I enjoy almost everything about the writing process. I like that, for me, it’s a solitary effort. I like that it forces me to live inside my own head. I like that it demands a focus and discipline that I don’t always want to demonstrate in other aspects of my life. Most of all, I like that when the final period is added, I can sit back point at the screen, and have the deeply personal satisfaction that I put all those words on all those pages. Even though I spend most of the day writing at the office, there’s no sense of ownership. A finely crafted email or policy letter just doesn’t have the same feel. Most of that kind of writing is set within strictly proscribed left and right boundaries. You can pretty the words up a bit, but I’ve never finished rewriting a section of policy and thought, “damn that’s good.”

I’ve left my work in progress sit for a little more than a month. It’s a much needed cooling off period, so I can try to read through it with a little bit of objectivity. And therein lies the current problem. I love the creative process of writing. I love it right up to the point it becomes the editorial process of reworking all the bits and pieces into a more cohesive and understandable whole. It’s maybe the most necessary step, but there’s nothing at all in it that I find enjoyable. In fact forcing myself to sit down and do it is far more difficult than expecting myself to sit down every night and create brand new material.

Exerting editorial control is a necessary evil. It’s an evil that I started tackling last night. It’s an evil that I’m going to spend many more nights wrestling with… mostly because it reveals that the story that I thoughtfully crafted over the winter is full of plot holes, grammar and punctuation problems, inconsistencies, characters that go nowhere, and generally shows that all I’ve done so far is finish a first draft. I knew that intellectually, but the intervening days gave me the space to realize it with more than my brain.

It’s time to get back to work… and by “work” of course I mean that activity that takes inordinate amounts of time and shows absolutely no promise of ever paying for itself. Even knowing all that, a bad day editing is better than my best day doing most anything else I’d consider work. So yeah, it’s time to get back to work.

Best efforts…

This was very likely to turn into a long, rambling collection of words that wouldn’t end up saying anything at all. It felt like that kind of night. Actually, it’s felt like that all day, maybe even longer than that. Despite my best intentions, it may yet turn into a bit of a ramble. It certainly feels like it could.

The good news is that the Muse hasn’t left me high and dry. I’m still sitting down every night and making progress on the short story in waiting. I sit down as close to 7PM on the nose as I can manage and don’t get back up until there are at least 300 fresh words sitting in front of me. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes, other times closer to three hours. Admittedly, sometimes the words that end up there just plain suck. More rarely, the ones that appear are actually rather good. Like Gump’s chocolates, when I sit down I never know what I’m going to get.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the quality of the output doesn’t particularly matter. What seems to matter is the routine, the habit of writing consistently day in, day out, when you’re sick, when you’re tired, when there are a dozen other things screaming out for your attention. What matters is sitting down and letting the words flow – or sometimes forcing them to flow against their will. It can feel like that a lot.

What I’m going to end up with 4000-odd words and 14-ish days from now is generously called a first draft. I know that draft is going to suck… and I don’t mean just a little. It’s going to be God awful – full of half formed ideas, words that aren’t really words, and phrases that are repeated on at least every fifth page. That’s fine. Not fine for public consumption fine, but fine by the standards of the first draft. It means finally there’s something there that wasn’t there before. Something that I drug into the world kicking and screaming out of my own head and onto the form of evil that fills me with the most dread – the blank, white page with its solitary flashing cursor.

Even after it’s no longer a first draft – maybe a 3rd or 4th version – after it’s been anointed as “final” I know I won’t be entirely happy with it. I’ll want to change and tweak and craft just a bit more. Right now I know it’s not even in the realm of good enough, but it will be. I think. That’s the theory I’m working under, anyway.

OK, yeah, so maybe this did turn into a long, rambling collection of words despite my best efforts to the contrary. Sorry about that.

Getting my write on…

I’ve toyed with wanting to write a book since I was in high school. Where in most endeavors there’s an overwhelming focus on “the team,” there’s something appealing to me in the thought of writing as an individualized pursuit; of me versus the blank page. That’s an idealized version of course, particularly when you delve into the world of publishing, but when you’re writing without giving a damn if any publisher ever sees it, it’s definitely a one-on-one experience.

If blogging instantly gratifies my narcissistic tendencies, filling page after page of blank “paper” is the ultimate expression of feeling like one against the world. There’s no room for narcissism there, because unless you essentially win the lottery, the only person you’re writing for is yourself. Writing is really heady stuff like that. Starting out with nothing more than a vague idea, struggling with how to even start writing 80,000 words when you can barely scrape together two or three hundred words on any other “good” day, finding the time between work and the other minutia of life, but eventually discovering your voice – It’s some feeling once you’ve found your own rhythm… and then it’s just you and the blank page.

It’s an ongoing project and one that I’ve given more time to in the last month than I have in the last ten years. It’s something I’ve always felt the need to do, even without really knowing why. I don’t have any delusions about writing a great American novel and the chances that I’ll serve up chicken soup for any demographic subgroup is pretty limited. For now, I’m just writing because I feel a need to write. There’s a story too good to be fiction milling around in my head and if I can manage to find the words, I think a few people might just be interested in reading it. All I need to do now is find two or three uninterrupted hours a day to keep up some kind of pace. I’ll keep you posted.