CC Issue 41 / Literature / Reflections

Writing It Down

The Set-Up
Last year, I set a goal for myself of writing a short story every day for at least 365 days on my blog, Around Gray Publishes. Last month, I finished my 365th story. It took a little longer than a year, but it was close enough to my target that I consider that goal reached. After I ticked that box, I celebrated a little bit and moved on, continuing my now-habitual practice without pausing. What I didn’t do was to take the time to reflect on my work. I’m doing that now. Hopefully, some of the things I’ve discovered about my process can help somebody else, too.

Credit Where Credit’s Due
I’d like to thank my wife. She’s the one who goes to work every day and earns the money, which pays the bills and allows me to write on a schedule that some would call “nocturnal”. Also, she’s the only person who I know for sure has read all 365. I’ve also been encouraged by a considerable number of friends and family. I’m not sure that I would have made it through the entire year without their support. Sometimes, something as simple as a “like” on my Facebook page is enough to give me the energy to get something written down for that evening or the next, when I’m out of ideas and updating seems pointless.

What Am I?
One thing that I still have trouble with is when people ask me “What do you do?” They mean, “for a job”. Well, since moving to 100 Mile House, I haven’t worked outside of my own writing projects. I find it difficult to say “I’m a writer”, though. It is what I do, but perhaps since I haven’t made any real money at it, I’m hesitant to label myself so. I think my answer should change. If I plan to go further than publishing a blog read by friends and family, I need to start telling people what I do. After all, they can’t read my work if I don’t tell them about it.

Following on from there is another thing that I’d change from the past year. I’m terrible at self-promotion. I’m not sure why. My best guess would be that, on the whole, I’m not sure if my work is “good enough”. Do people really want to read what I’ve written? I suppose that it’s a cyclical scenario. Readership would grow with my promotion, then word-of-mouth would spread, and then I’d be confident enough with my following to promote my work. I think I might be waiting for other people to start that process for me, which probably won’t happen. I need to be the catalyst.

The Perfect Thing
Almost every night, when I sit down to write that day’s story, I worry that whatever I produce that evening has to be perfect. That it’s my one-and-only chance to put something down that will stand the test of time and be loved by all. I’ve found that this is a terrible way to begin. Whether I start with the barest suggestion of an idea, a fully-formed framework of plot, or something as simple as a faint impression or name, I have to try to ignore that little voice in my head that’s telling me that the next 200 words need to be the next “The Hockey Sweater”. Fear doesn’t help writing. At least, it mustn’t prevent me from starting to write.

I keep a notepad on me at all times. I will have brilliant ideas, but sometimes only when I will be guaranteed to forget them. Mine is a three-notebook system, which should really be four. I keep one at my desk, one beside my bed, and one in the backpack that I take everywhere. I should probably also have one beside me on the couch, because sometimes I have an idea, then decide that the computer desk is too far away and I don’t want to get up. Later, when I move, the idea is gone.

Some of my best work has come from inspiration as slim as a two-word phrase, or a single picture in my head. I’ve had to tell myself not to discount these things because they’re “too insignificant” to write down. I also don’t have to tackle an idea immediately. Sometimes it’s best to flip through a notebook and find something that I’ve previously passed over but that has now jumped out at me.
I have also discovered that I am more creative with a pen and paper than a computer screen. Most of the time, I’m fine to sit down and start typing, but if I get really stuck for ideas, I need to sit down and brainstorm the old-fashioned way. I think it’s easier to connect rabbit trails with something in my hand.

Finding the Hours
When I started my master plan, I tried writing in the daytime. “Daytime,” I thought. “That’s when people are supposed to work.” Well, I was wrong. Daytime was not when I worked best. Everything I wrote felt forced, and I would continually find ways to put it off for one more hour.

I know it’s not a luxury that’s available to everyone, but figuring out what times I’m most productive, and working then, was a huge step for me. Most people look at me strangely when I tell them, but I find I’m most creative between midnight and four AM.
Finding that time, and keeping to a schedule, has, I think, developed a habit of writing. If I get away from it, like during a vacation, for example, I have a very difficult time re-establishing myself and the time it takes to come up with a story-idea for the night skyrockets from about an hour to somewhere in the region of three of four.

Sometimes I Have No Idea
I am a terrible judge of what people might like, it would seem. The nature of my writing project meant that sometimes I needed to get something, anything, typed up for that night’s post. I would have to hit “publish” on something that I didn’t really care for but had run out of time to retry. Other times, I would slave over a story, and update with the feeling that this was the proverbial “it”. Yeah. No. The next day I’d turn on the computer to find that people had absolutely loved the post that I’d only barely decided not to label “This one is crap, please skip it”. Then, stories that I loved would debut to overwhelming digital crickets.

So, I shouldn’t run down my own work. If people don’t know I don’t like it, they have a better chance to form their own opinion, and sometimes that is really surprising. Conversely, I try not to get too discouraged when readers don’t shower me with praise for the ones where I think it’s deserved. Or, maybe I just like weird stuff.

On a related note that probably doesn’t need its own heading, I am still suspicious about the lack of explicitly negative feedback I’ve received. I’m sort of waiting for somebody to tell me “That story was your worst one ever”. I’m pretty sure that not all my stuff is good. Maybe I need to join a more critical writer’s group, or something. I think that constructive criticism would probably actually help my confidence a lot, because I wouldn’t feel quite like I’m getting a pity-pat all the time. It’s difficult, though, when the audience is still mostly friends, because who wants to tell somebody that?

Stats Are a Trap
I spend more time than is necessary every day checking my blog-stats. How many pageviews did I get yesterday? Which links got clicked? It’s dangerous.

I try to keep the subjects of my stories pretty varied. I’ll write a sci-fi story, followed by a love-story, followed by talking animals. The danger of stat-watching is that I don’t want to start writing to a type. “Oh, the horror story got X more views than the superhero one. I’d better only do scary and gory from now on.” That would be limiting myself, and would also, eventually, be boring for anyone reading.

I have to be careful, and keep in mind that the stats only show a limited picture. I don’t think that content directly correlates to that kind of feedback. Whenever I start edging down that path, I have to remind myself whatever I post on a Monday never seems to do as well compared to the rest of the week, so it’s probably just Monday.

Time Out
It took me a while to figure out that, for me at least, writing a new story every single day wasn’t going to be possible. Even working on my own terms, I needed a balance between the stories and other things in my life. I had to learn that it was OK to take breaks. This was one downside of having a set time to write. Sometimes other plans would get in the way, and then, because I’ve trained myself to work at night, it would be nearly impossible to get work done earlier in the day.

I tempered my regrets about that by trying, as much as possible, to post ahead of time what days there would be no stories, and when the stories would return. I think I was successful. Not counting sick-days, or summer and Christmas vacations, I missed only about one story per month due to “taking the night off”, and, as near as I can remember, only two days where I had the time but couldn’t come up with anything. The 365 stories were completed in 436 days.

Stay On Target
At the beginning of the year, I was writing both the nightly stories, and spending time on longer projects. However, as I began to focus on the daily stories, my other projects slipped. Moving forward, I need to find a balance between a nightly update, and better progress on longer stories.

Recently, I’ve been less strict with my own rules about the nightly stories. Before, I would make myself write something completely new every time. Now, I have started expanding on the ideas or plots of previous stories. That option is more efficient if I only have a short time to write, or if new ideas aren’t coming. I can use the time and energy I’ve saved to finish the other things.

The two most useful books I’ve read on the topic of writing are “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, and “On Writing” by Stephen King.

I last read them before I started my project, and I should think that a second look would be beneficial, now that I’ve made my way through. Both contain the authors’ tips for writing, as well as an examination of why they write. However, rather than specific techniques or solutions, my primary take-away from the books was a feeling of “I can do this.” I have to credit them both with pushing me over the edge from thinking about writing, to actually following through with it.

In Conclusion
I’m happy that I sat down one day and decided that I wanted to do this. There have been struggles along the way, but I felt pretty accomplished when I typed the last word of number 365. I haven’t consciously set another target number, yet. Right now I’m debating if the next direction I should take should be continuing the short stories, or working on something a little longer. Whatever I choose, though, I’ll be writing every day.

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