Basics of Writing, part XI: Keeping It Fresh

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Dog days.  It’s ninety-two degrees.  It’s mid-summer (at least it is for those of us who live in school districts that end the academic year in May and start it back up in August).  You would much rather be doing just about anything else other than working.  The Women’s World Cup is on the tube, your kids are bugging you to go to the local water park (which sounds incredibly inviting), and there is a six-pack of beer in the fridge, not to mention that bottle of Marlborough region Sauvignon Blanc hanging out in the refrigerator door.  Writing or revising a book is pretty much the last thing you want to do. 

Any of this sounding familiar?

It certainly sounds familiar to me.  I think that has been the story of my last seven or ten or fifteen summers.  But this year has been different.  I have been having the most productive summer of mycareer.  I don’t know if anything is going to come of all the work I’m doing, but I am writing anyway, and actually, despite that opening paragraph, I’m having a blast doing it.  Why is this summer so unlike previous ones?

Part of it is that I’ve been more fixated on the butt-in-chair mantra this year than ever before.  I am making myself sit down and work each day, and I’m not getting up until I hit my word counts.  But I try to do that every year.  This year I’m actually doing it.  And I think the reason it’s working is that I have managed to keep my work feeling fresh, new, exciting.  How?

First, I am challenging myself in ways I never have before.  Aside from the Thieftaker books, which are written but not out yet (less than 10 months and counting!!) I don’t have any books under contract right now.  I am not obligated to write anything; or, to put it another way, I can write whatever the hell I want.  That’s a double-edged sword.  Thieftaker was a stretch for me — I had never written historical fantasy before.  And one of the reasons I love the book so much is that I feel that I rose to a challenge.  So I have tried to replicate that experience.  Since finishing the second Thieftaker novel, I have written a middle-reader book — the first I’d ever attempted; and I have also written a contemporary fantasy that draws on Celtic mythology.  I’d never done that before.  I believe that by forcing myself to take chances, by refusing to climb back into my artistic comfort zone (Medieval, alternate world, epic fantasy anyone?) I am making each day of work an adventure.  At times it’s scary, and as I say, it may be that I’ll never sell these books.  Maybe they’re so much of a stretch that they suck.  That’s definitely a possibility.  But I look forward to writing and/or revising every morning.  I can’t wait to get to work.

Second, I am changing up my projects on a regular basis, spending no more than two or three consecutive months on any given book.  Part of this is following A.J.’s example of writing fast.  I don’t like the idea of abandoning a project in the middle.  I want to finish one thing before I move on.  And the only way to do that is to get stuff written quickly.  The book I just finished came in at almost exactly 100,000 words.  I wrote it in less than three months, finishing it two Fridays ago.  The following Monday I was back to the middle reader book working on revisions.  So far this year I have written a short story with Stuart, taken a month to work on the D.B. Jackson web site (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), written the middle reader book, written the  contemporary fantasy, and started revisions on the middle reader book.  I finish one project and immediately move on to the next.  Nothing gets stale, nothing feels routine.  No ruts here.  I am rutless, and happy as can be because of it.

Third, while I have been working my tail off, and taking great care to hit my word counts (or, when revising, to get to a certain page in the manuscript) I am also doing stuff for myself and taking time to do family things.  I have been maintaining my exercise regimin, seeing friends, enjoying the occasional nice day.  I have also managed to maintain some web presence and take care of a few business issues on the side.  I’ve taken a couple of hours to watch the occasional soccer match; I’ve gone to my daughters’ swim meets.  In other words, I have refused to let my work get in the way of my life.  Summer can be a productive time, but it also needs to be a relaxing time.  We’ll be going away a bit later this summer and my current plan is not to bring along any work at all.

It’s a fairly simple formula really, and not one that is all that original:  push yourself to try new stuff, change up the work routine, take time for yourself.  Nothing there that will come as a shock to any of you.  And yet, I’ve been doing this professionally for fifteen years, and year in and year out, that simple approach has escaped me.  Of all the “Back to Basics” that I’ve done thus far, this one might be the most basic.  It also might be the most important.  We often point out that writing is hard.  We work in isolation, often for months or even years at a time, trying to finish that novel we’ve been battling for God-knows-how-long.  And those damn people at Magical Words are always saying “Keep working — you’re not a writer until you finish something” and “Don’t stop in the middle, because writing is all about momentum.”  I can go back and find you all the posts I’ve written in which I’ve said those things.  There are a ton of them.  And I’ve meant these things each time I’ve written them.  But maybe it’s time to revise those bits of advice just a little.

Because sometimes you do need a change of pace.  Sometimes the best thing you can do for your novel is to NOT write it for a day, or a week, or even a couple of weeks.  Change things up a little.  Write a short story.  Outline the next thing you want to write.  Or don’t write at all.  Instead, do something nice for yourself or spend the day with a friend, your kid, your spouse.

Yes, you want to finish the thing.  But you also want to keep it fresh.  Because you don’t want to write a stale novel, and your readers don’t want to read one.

So, how do you keep it fresh?

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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17 comments to Basics of Writing, part XI: Keeping It Fresh

  • Well, I’m glad things are working out for you. Stepping out of the usual and the comfort zone is a great way to keep the daily wordcount from becoming monotonous.

    I stretched my creativity recently by writing some science fiction. Even if it doesn’t sell, a new branch of ideas grew from the experience that I hadn’t considered before.

    I’ve also been looking at high concept more recently, which has also rejuvenated my writing.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • I love this post, David, and not only because I agree! I am also juggling various projects, feeling the lugubrious comforts of the season whispering in my ear, and watching the calendar counting down the precious days till classes resume. I have to be productive over the next six weeks. Have to. But it’s hard. I need to do as you say, grapple fiercely with each thing on my plate (sorry for that alarming mixed metaphor) until it’s done, then move on. Time’s a wastin…

  • NGD, trying a science fiction story is just the sort of thing I’m talking about, and it’s something I need to try, too, since I’ve written precious little SF. Thanks for the idea! Glad to hear that writing the story has gotten you thinking in new directions.

    A.J., thanks — glad you like the post. I feel like I have one eye on the calendar all the time, too. The fall is going to be packed with travel and obligations, all of which is to the good. But right now I’m enjoying the simple pleasure of writing. Hope you are, too.

  • I’ve found myself branching out from Epic Fantasy into Urban Fantasy and oddly Wierd Western which I have found hugely exciting. The words have flowed out of me when I tried these new genres because it was fresh material and fresh topics.

    I’ve read that author, Brandon Sanderson likes to keep one project on submission, one in revision, one in writing, and one in research at all times. In this way, he keeps his mind freshwith something always in process somewhere. He also mentioned that he likes to “clean his pallat” with a short story about whatever he wants in between projects. He rarely ever seeks to publish the shorts, they are just for him and keeping his mind clean.

    I think this works seeing how fast he writes and the quality in which he writes. I think I would like to do something similar if I were to write full-time.

  • I’m a big fan of “project switching”, as it were. In the past I have routinely kept two or three irons in the fire, so to speak, and I would go through spurts of working for weeks on end on one, then switching up to work on another.

    That was a bit of a haphazard approach, though. On the one hand, I was always engaged in what I was doing – it was always fresh and interesting – but on the other hand I wasn’t ever finishing anything.

    I’ve changed my approach now. I work on two projects at a time: a short story and a novel. Switching between them allows me to stay fresh. But short stories can be finished in a much faster time frame than a novel – so I’m still feeling that sense of accomplishment. I keep a small list of potential future projects so that as I finish one (which is usually going to be a short story) I have ideas that already excite me ready to go for the next project. For instance, I’m almost done with one short story now… I’m excited about it, and I can’t wait to finish, in part because I’m also excited about another short story idea I want to work on.

    On the other hand, I’ve barely started on this novel I’m writing, but I’ve already got two or three novel-length project ideas that I’m excited to try my hand at… but those are going to have to wait their turn because I know if I allow myself to fiddle with them too much I’ll lose focus. I’m pretty sure I have the self-control to stay on task, right now.

  • I completely agree, David. Along the same lines, the Writers for Relief project which I’m co-editing is giving me a lot of diversity and changes of pace!

  • David, You sound refreshed and energised and sooo productive. Whoot! I cannot wait to read all you’ve written, and–mostly–hear where it all ends up. When we take (or are forced) into new career paths, and we embrace the change with creativity and zest and joy, *any*thing can happen!

    I am in the middle of revisions of Jane Yellowrock book 4, Raven Cursed, with another (final?) *Gwen* book to revise after that. And a short to write and book 5 to finish by end of September. I am trying to follow your advice and keep it new and fresh and still meet deadlines *and* have time for fun. Creative Balance. That’s what I’m looking for!

    AND! I just heard that several of us will be at Dragon Con! We need to have a MW party!

    Hey — you can party and still have balance!

  • I’m in for the Dragon Con party!

  • David, Great to hear you sounding so energized and enthused. I suspect a lot of this energy comes from the fact that you’re “writing whatever the hell you want” instead of whatever it is your next contract calls for. That kind of freedom has to have some serious perks and I’m very happy you’re making the most of it!

  • Well, since finishing the WIP, I kept it fresh for a bit by giving my brain permission to play with story ideas that I would like to one day write for publication. One is a set of Harlequin romances, one is an urban fantasy. And it felt great!

    Until I mentioned it to my in-person writing group, and they threatened to hurt me if I didn’t get back to working on the WIP (for a final edit before sending it out). And they had a point. Thankfully, it’s been more than six weeks, so the timing worked out.

    But that hasn’t stopped me from thinking, in odd moments, about these other projects. Spending that time recently was very rejuvenating. I would love to get back to them eventually. Just maybe after I finish the WIP and its arc.

  • Razziecat

    Last week I had to take my laptop in for a fan transplant. Not having a computer for several days forced me to actually sit and think about some of the nagging questions that need resolving for my biggest project. Character motivations, the magic system, and a couple of major plot points are now being re-imagined and I’m looking at the story differently. I’m starting to recover the excitement that made me want to write this story in the first place. It’s good to get off the web once in a while (although I really missed MW for those few days!)

  • henderson

    David,

    Good to hear that things are humming along for you. I don’t know if I should be jealous of the warm weather you have, but the temperature has not been above the low 70’s here in Seattle for nearly a week.

    I guess I am also in the minority regarding working on different projects. I have been working on the same project since NaNoWrimo 2009, and I think will have written a half a million words in the next couple of days, which has been broken up into six stories. I have just started the sixth story. I am only interested in working on this project, which is a cross between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. I guess I really enjoying what I am writing, and I have no interested in starting another project.

    In fact, I think once I am done with this project, which I am thinking will be a total of eleven stories. I will edit and revise, and then I would worry about the next step in the process (looking at possible publish options.)

    I think, though, after I am done with this project, I don’t see myself writing anything else. Just want work on this and that is it.

  • Mark, sounds like you’re working on some very cool stuff. That’s great. Keep at it! I met Brandon at JordanCon, and he’s not only a great guy, but also someone who seems to know exactly how to balance his time and writing energy.

    Stephen, I was a little worried about the “focus” issue when I began this year. I knew I’d be jumping around a lot from project to project, and I wondered if I would manage to keep my mind in the project of the moment, as it were. Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried about it all. If anything, I feel more focused. Hope that’s what you find, too.

    Stuart, yes, I’ll bet it is.

    Thanks, Faith. I’ve been trying to make the most of this year, hoping to turn a quiet year in terms of new publications into an opportunity to write. And I benefitted from some very sage advice from a certain friend. So thanks, friend. 🙂

    Yes, to the party!

    Thanks, Edmund. I suspect you’re right. I still like to work on contracted books, since, you know, I get paid for those… But there has been something liberating about this new reality.

    Laura, playing with those new ideas is great, but so is getting back to the bigger project. Most of all, though, it sounds like you’re having fun. And that’s the most important thing.

    Razz, I know just what you mean. I’m looking forward to having time away and not having to get online or work at all if I don’t want to. And I’m hoping to come back re-energized from that trip (which is still a couple of weeks away).

    Henderson, I don’t know. My older daughter just got back today from three weeks in the PNW, most of the time right around Seattle. And she basically wilted as soon as she stepped off the plane. 98 degrees in Nashville today. Thanks for the comment. Things are humming along nicely. And certainly if you’r happy working on the one project, that’s the way to go. But it seems to me that by splitting your work into several different stories, you’re building variety into the project, which is very smart. Best of luck with it.

  • I seem to be hopping from project to project. At the moment, I have a desire to work on some old game material I’d been meaning to play around with. Just for fun. I think it’s because I’m Jonesing for a game (as is my wife). Haven’t run anything for a few years now. It used to be my stress release. Still, once I’m done I need to get back to work. Working on a High Fantasy novel and want to work on a couple other things as well. If only I could duplicate myself temporarily.

  • Young_Writer

    This was helpful. I was in a rut with my previous work, but I finally finished that and I’m outlining my next novel right now.
    P.S I’ve never switched projects in the middle, do you think it helps or hurts?

  • Thanks for the post, David, and thanks to everyone else for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been hard at work since January on my first fiction novel, and I haven’t taken a break to write anything else except the occasional blog post. The story hasn’t gotten stale for me yet, and it looks like I’m on track to finish the first draft by the end of this month.

    I certainly see jumping from project to project between phases, once I have more than one project! If I’m stuck waiting for someone else on one project, it makes sense to move on to another. But when it comes to a first draft, I think I need to just write fast and power through to keep all the plates spinning.