Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Quantum Writing Part I

If you've ever played chess, you know that it's a game of simple strategy: Capture the king. You do this by eliminating the pieces guarding the king and opening up avenues to get to him, hopefully before your opponent does the same to your king. Easy. Only it's not easy because you have to plan your moves while guessing what your opponent's moves are going to be.

Okay, now imagine that writing a novel is playing a game of chess. One playing field, one set of chess pieces, and a whole lot of moves to make. It's enough to keep anyone busy. But what if you could play three games of chess at the same time?

With the right amount of planning and prep work, there is actually very little difference between working on one project and working on two or three simultaneously. It does take more time to finish multiple projects (no writer trick in the world can eliminate the actual work involved) but there are many potential benefits, from eradicating boredom and writer's block from your life to becoming a more efficient and productive writer.

If you're a one-story-at-a-time writer and would like to try this, I have a few preliminary suggestions:

Be conservative. Start off with two projects first (once you get in some practice, then you can try juggling three or more.)

Know your projects. This is not a technique you want to try with a vague idea or a glimmer of story; you want solid, strong, well-thought-out ideas that excite you on the creative level.

Have faith in yourself. If your main writing obstacle is fear, waffling, self-loathing or something along those lines, doing this is probably going to double it. The only way I know how to combat this is to give yourself permission to try this no matter how it turns out. Do it the first time just for fun.

Organize your life. Clear out your writing space, stock up on the office supplies you need, and communicate your plans to your family and loved ones. Eliminate all unnecessary distractions, and make a vow to avoid things that will lure you away from the work.

Once you're in a good place and feel ready to start, write up a working title and a one-page outline for each project (this is also the way to check and see if your idea is clear, strong, and appeals to you.) If you've never done a one-page outline, try my ten point novel template or Alicia Rasley's thirty minute novel outline technique. At this point you want to use broad strokes for outlining to avoid getting mired down in a lot of endless details (you will have time to get more into the details once you start working.)

Set up project files, fiction folders, novel notebooks, or whatever you use to keep your story paperwork organized while you're working on it. Once you have that ready, set up a drawer, box or other contained space where you can put reference materials related to the project (for each project I'm working on I dedicate a shelf in a bookcase near my writing space.) The idea is to have everything you need for the project in one place so you don't have to look around for things while you're writing.

The final prep step is to divide up your dedicated writing time between the projects, and this is where you tailor your time to suit your process. If you prefer to work on one project per day, designate days of the week (i.e. Monday - Project A, Tuesday - Project B, Wednesday - Project A, Thursday - Project B, etc.) If you're like me and you feel comfortable working on different projects during the same session, divide your writing time into hours (i.e. Monday - Project A 9-11 am, Project B 1-3pm; Tuesday - Project C 9-11 am, Project A 1-3 pm, etc.) If you've never tried this and don't know which will work for you, try a test run of each method for a week and find out which one makes you more productive.

A side note on dedicating the writing time: I know it's difficult for those of you with day jobs and/or busy home lives to find the time. If you don't have the time now to write, you'll have to pass on this. Or you might make the time, which means giving up something. Waking up an hour earlier is the simplest way to do it; if you get up before everyone else does that gives you an hour to write in peace and quiet. If you're spending an hour or two a day texting people, tell your friends you're going to take some time to write and turn off the phone. You can also sacrifice watching your favorite television shows to make time to write (if you're worried about missing something, record the shows while you're working, and hold onto the copies as a reward for yourself when you finish the manuscript.)

Tomorrow we'll talk about how to handle the work of quantum writing, how to get into the create-as-you-go zone (and stay there), and some ways to troubleshoot and self-correct common problems. Until then, any questions?

Image credit: © Tino Mager | Dreamstime.com

11 comments:

  1. I am currently working on 4 stories at once and I find my writing styles vary wildly between the stories...The Povs. I'm working on two series that have two books each. With one book everything is overwritten...too much narration, too much information. With another the description and pacing flows beautifully, needing very little work in that area, but I keep running into blocks along the way. For another it sounds like an essay or a report, there's no tension, emotion or reaction time. It's simply this happened, this happened... this happened....etc.

    Have you had this problem before? Or something similar... and are there any tricks on how to keep the books writing/reading well. Combining all the elements into each individual book....information, emotion, dialogue, tension... instead of splitting them off in different sections? Hopefully that question makes sense... If not, please let me know... I'll try explaining better.

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  2. I've tried doing this before and noticed that parts of each book were sounding the same, even though the characters and stories were very different. How do you avoid that happening?

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  3. Robin wrote: With one book everything is overwritten...too much narration, too much information.

    We'll call this one Project A.

    With another the description and pacing flows beautifully, needing very little work in that area, but I keep running into blocks along the way.

    And this one Project B.

    For another it sounds like an essay or a report, there's no tension, emotion or reaction time. It's simply this happened, this happened... this happened....etc.

    This one we'll call Project C.

    Have you had this problem before?

    Stuff like this happened to me when I first worked with an editor who tried to tell me how to write (even suggested titles I read so I could imitate the author's style.) I didn't realize the harm of letting someone else meddle with my process until it all started to go very, very wrong. Then I just chasd her out of my head and went back to what I'd been doing, and the problems resolved themselves.

    For your situation, I'm going to guess that Project A is one you don't feel especially confident about, and you may be overwriting it because you feel anxious and want to make sure the reader can follow the story (that's generally the cause of overwriting, too much narrative, etc.) The other cause could be that you don't know the story all that well, and you're trying to explain it/work it out on the page. Either way, you are aware you're overwriting it, which is half the battle. The other half is to find the cause and address it (I'm just guessing at the possible causes; you'll know for sure.)

    Project B sounds like it's going so beautifully that you're afraid you're going to mess it up, and that can be why you're blocked. Or the story is one that just has to be written slowly (I know that sounds nuts, but some of them do need/take more time.)

    Project C sounds like you're writing a more detailed outline versus a story, which could mean that you're not emotionally invested in it at all. I find that if a story doesn't stir my imagination or engage me the prose comes out sounding like a grocery list.

    As I said, I can only guess at the causes, and you're the only one who can know for sure. Take a hard look at all three projects, and also how you feel when you're working on them. I'd try shifting your focus for a week -- for example, you might put aside Project B for seven days, and focus solely on A and C and give them 100% of your creative attention.

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  4. Jordan wrote: I've tried doing this before and noticed that parts of each book were sounding the same, even though the characters and stories were very different. How do you avoid that happening?

    I think this might be because you consciously or subconsciously carry the focus you have on one story over to another. When you quantum write, you also have to quantum compartmentalize the stories (and I'll get more into how I do that tomorrow.)

    Another cause is working on projects that are very similar to each other, which gives them a tendency to merge on you, especially if they're all following similar plot lines. You can combat this by working on them in different stages of story (one day's work might be writing Project A's first chapter, Project B's fifth chapter, and Project C's last chapter.)

    The siren song of the familiar is also something we always have to combat, too, or we become cookie cutter novelists, and that could be another possibility. Once you've written enough books you know what works and what doesn't, and you'll always gravitate toward what works. The only way I know how to dodge this is to challenge myself creatively to write stories I've never attempted (versus cloning my successes.) It doesn't allow me a lot of comfort zones, but if you do this often enough you'll soon get confidence in writing in directions you've never taken. This is where I think we all do our best work, because it is a challenge versus producing the same-old same-old.

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  5. I'm notorious for multitasking. Not only for doing multiple things at once, but also working on multiple stories at once. I'm so used to jumping around between activities and stories I seem to have developed a short "writing attention span". I find it difficult to sit down for long stretches to work on something. I find that if I'm not under pressure minute by minute to get something done, I go off on tangents. That isn't a problem during world building, but when it comes to planning and actually writing, it is. I've cut away unnecessary contact and I don't watch tv anyway, but now that I actually find myself with a bit of time...I struggle to match my productivity from before I had time. It's weird...I have more time, but I get less done. How does one overcome this?

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  6. I have two projects that I'd like to work on at the same time.

    Project 1 is an old story that I am determined to finish if it kills me, and some days with those characters, it feels like it might. *rolls eyes at self* But seriously, I love this story so much and I'm terrified I'm going to ruin it because I'm not a good enough writer. I worry that every time I add words to the page that I'm making things worse. It makes me tense, so I was thinking if I wrote it every other day I might keep up momentum without burning out. As it is, I can only face it every so often and that means I haven't been writing as often as I should be. Um.

    Project 2 is an idea I've had for a long time and it's so much fun and I so want to get it written--it's also the project that I think fits a market that is accepting proposals and I really want to leap on this chance. I haven't started it yet, but I want to finish it before submissions close in two months. Even though it's fun, I'm less emotionally attached to this one.

    I'm not sure if working on two at the same time is a good idea or not, because I'm worried that the difficulty of Project 1 will bleed over. At the same time, I am determined to finally finish that sucker. Any suggestions?

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  7. Keita wrote: I've cut away unnecessary contact and I don't watch tv anyway, but now that I actually find myself with a bit of time...I struggle to match my productivity from before I had time. It's weird...I have more time, but I get less done. How does one overcome this?

    Some writers are more productive under pressure (I'm one of them, too) so setting our own goals and deadlines and sticking to them is particular important to avoid procrastination and being distracted during our writing time. You need to decide what you're going to do during your writing time before you begin a session, sit down, and stick to that plan. If you find you're getting derailed or distracted, take a focus break by walking away from the computer and doing something else until you feel ready to write. When I take a focus break I fold laundry, which I hate, and which always makes me eager to get back to work.

    Another thing to look at is the length of time you devote to one writing session -- if you've set aside two hours at night and you're not getting a lot done, try splitting it up to one hour at night and one hour in the morning. You might find having only an hour to write motivates you more.

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  8. I think it's a combo of working on stories that are too similar and the siren song of the familiar.

    It's funny that you're talking about writing outside of your comfort zone. Charli, Sasha, and I have been having that very conversation over the past few weeks. We all decided to write what scares us most. :)

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  9. Vom wrote: I'm not sure if working on two at the same time is a good idea or not, because I'm worried that the difficulty of Project 1 will bleed over. At the same time, I am determined to finally finish that sucker. Any suggestions?

    Project 1 is obviously a labor of love/demon from hell type of story. There isn't a writer in existence who has faced one of those and thought, "Oh, yeah, piece of cake." It's amazing, it's horrendous, it could be the best or worst thing you've ever written. You just don't know if you can do it, and you're probably going to feel that way for the entire manuscript. It's fiction nitro, ready to blow up in your face at any moment.

    With projects like this one, I always recommend following your instincts. If it were me I'd embrace all those feelings and battle it out on the page, scene by scene, until the story was finished. I do this because I know difficult/scary stories have the most chance to compel me to produce the best work.

    This is also a project that can rip your heart right out of your chest, so you have to be sure you want to risk it. I guess what I'd do is ask myself, "Is it worth all the pain it could cause if I fail?" and go from there. The other thing I'd do is give yourself permission to fail. Write it and if it doesn't work out, you learn from it and move on to the next story.

    I don't think there's a conflict here, though, because Project 2 may be the pressure relief valve you need to help you cope with Project 1. If it's fun, and you have a good time with it, and it doesn't turn into another pressure cooker, it can be your ballast and your balance. When things start to wear you down with Project 1, you can retreat for a time to Project 2. This is one of the benefits of quantum writing, in that you're never stuck in one single story -- you've always got options to work something else. My thought would be to try working on both for a week and see how it goes.

    One more thought on Project 1 -- there are books we have to write because we just have to write them. I don't know why. It's almost like learning to write all over again, and you need that. However it turns out, whether we succeed or fail with the story (I've done both) I think we need to be challenged regularly, or eventually we stagnate and/or lose interest in writing altogether.

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  10. Jordan wrote: It's funny that you're talking about writing outside of your comfort zone. Charli, Sasha, and I have been having that very conversation over the past few weeks. We all decided to write what scares us most. :)

    Good for you guys. You definitely learn more in unknown territory. :)

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  11. Hi Lynn, thank you for this post! It's inspired me to give it a go, and so far it's working well for me. I've always been a one-thing-at-a-time writer, so I wasn't sure, but I've found that writing new words on one project in the morning and revising another after lunch does the trick. I guess because they're different skill sets.

    It also helps that the kids have just gone back to school and my husband's away, so the house is nice and quiet, but still! I'm thrilled to be making progress on two fronts at once -- so thanks again.

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