Fantasy Writers Week and handling stress

We are already three months into the new year. The weeks seem to pass at break-neck speed. And while some might argue that is a good thing, I’m not quite sure about that myself. Especially when I feel my weeks mostly consist of work for a living and recuperating from said work. To be honest I have not been putting the hours into my book I intended to. The last couple of weeks have been quite exhausting at work, which limited the time I spent working on a computer screen off work. As you can imagine this is a real issue when trying to work towards a finished book. An issue I realized I needed to address.

How to handle stress

When under stress I tend to procrastinate even more than usual, sleep longer hours and don’t feel like doing anything. Though I am aware of the steps I can take to alleviate that stress I am not fully consistent in taking all of them. The things that I tend to do consistently are taking walks and keeping up with my chores at home. The thing I am not doing consistently is writing. And I’m quite sure I mentioned in a different blog that if it is one thing which counters that feeling of stress is writing, because it gives me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

Fantasy writers week

How fortunate it was I enrolled myself in Fantasy Writers Week. A lovely way to increase my knowledge in the craft and invigorate my writing. Unfortunately due to the time difference I wasn’t able to catch any of the talks live but I watched all the replays, even those I did not intend to watch in the first place. And it helped to get some new ideas flowing and gain new knowledge and insight. As expected not all talks were as useful to me, but I made quite a few notes, even on the talks that were less usefull overall. I found that the Worldbuilding Write-in was the most fun. The live viewers could participate in three writing sprints and then share via chat what they wrote. Especially the last sprint was eye-opening to me. For 10 minutes we had to “Describe the opening scene of your novel. Take the described history (created in the previous sprints) and use the five senses.” 

Just because I already have a draft of a novel didn’t mean I had to set it in that world and rewrite my existing opening scene. No, I chose to go with a different story concept I’m working on. Note that I wrote it on paper so there are a lot less words than when I would type. And while the result is not where it eventually will be, it surely does not disappoint. It showed me (again) that I can create something interesting for others to read, and that I can create it basically from scratch in a short amount of time. Especially since this world is not really fleshed out yet. This was completely new.

Taking action

Before I leave you with the words I wrote in ten minutes, I would like to talk about the actions I am taking now to get me going. Put me further on the part to complete my current book before the year ends. First, I bought a laptop so I am not as stuck behind my desk at home as I am at work.

Second, I started posting writing updates on Youtube. It will be biweekly video where I show what progress I’ve made. This serves two purposes: First to keep you informed on the book should you be interested. I also gives me the oppertunity to blog about other subjects here. Second it is a way to remind myself I need to continue working so I can finish within the earlier mentioned deadline. Doing this indirectly leads me to constantly blow off steam so I don’t feel that I do not procrastinate after my work hours while I could do something very, very cool like creating stories for other people to read.

I will see you next month.

The 10 minute opening scene

Jack pinched his nose while he waded through the crowd of bums and dressed up office workers. He did not understand why people would want to stay and watch them investigating a murder, especially in the pouring rain. He sighed and tried to catch a sniff of fresh air, but the closer he got to the crime scene the more overwhelming the scent of the dead shadowrunner became. When he stepped onto the crime scene he stopped in his tracks. He understood. This one wasn’t killed, he was mangled, broken and probably thrown off the nearby apartment complex. The remains of the once human lay all around, and the blood on the alley walls already told him this would not be an easy case. 

First drafting progress: Finishing and looking forward

This year has been a strange and difficult year for all of us. The world is going through a period where we are spending more time alone than ever before. I know that for some people it has been more difficult to adapt to this new norm than for others. But when I think back to this year, I can safely say that I am quite happy with the progress I’ve made. I can say that because of Covid I made a lot of progress writing my book. And though it has not been easy, I have found a rhythm in this situation that I quite like.

So the big question now is: Did I finish my first draft? The simple answer is No, not yet. The expanded answer is that I am still working on the last chapter. The closing part of the chapter as it were. It is outlined but there are still a couple of hours that I need to spend to complete it. It is a slow process, yet I am confident I can finish it in the last weeks of the year. Confidence stemming from my progress over the last weeks and looking back at my progress of the entire year.

Edit December 20th: Finished!

Looking back

When looking back on the process it has been educational as well as interesting. Writing a first draft of one’s first book is equally exciting and terrifying. From the satisfaction of finishing the first chapter or rearranging the entire book into a solid structure. It all ads up to create an experience I will not forget. 

Thinking about the current draft I can already point out a couple of things that I am not happy with. The prose, point of view and the worldbuilding. They show the inexperience of my current self. For now I accept that these elements are not done and will be developed and iterated upon in the months to follow. 

The application of structure was the greatest improvement in the process. It allowed for a solid framework so I could make meaningful and creative decisions which added to the narrative.

But the most important thing I learned is having fun while doing it. Feeling the satisfaction of finishing a scene or a chapter. Counting the words to see the physical process as well as noticing the mental improvements by the desire to work on the story multiple evenings a week and during the weekends. 

Though I realize this has also been the consequence of my singular goal to finish the first draft this year. Yet I cannot deny that I created the time and (mental) space for it to be important in my life. As will I continue to do next year.

Looking forward

When l think about the next year I am not quite sure how the situation will unfold. I’m writing this on December 14th, the day the Dutch Prime Minister declared the hard lockdown for the next couple of weeks. And as disappointing as it might be for many people, I hold my stance that the situation with Covid continues to give us opportunity to look at our lives in a new perspective. And I encourage you to do so. I learned so much this year and made progress towards my goal of doing something professionally with writing. In the end, all these small steps add up so I can reach my goal.

January will give a fresh perspective and the option to make new decisions for the year to come.*  For example I know I will continue with my book, though the text will be put aside for at least a month while I fix some worldbuilding and think about the next steps. As mentioned I already have an indication of what can be improved, and need to decide how to best educate myself on the mentioned subjects. 

For now I would like to thank you for reading my First Drafting blog series. I hope it gave you an insight of what I was going through while working on this project, as well as the time and energy that is neccesary to finish it. I sincerely hope that this series also gave you the perspective that though it isn’t always an easy process, it is a fun and fulfilling thing to do. As I mentioned above, I learned a lot and it has given me the confidence to continue on this path. 

I wish you happy holidays and stay safe.

* Though you can made those decisions every month of the year, I find January particularly nice since its the start of a new year.

First drafting progress: Prose (& Procrastination)

Prose: the crafting of sentences that seem spoken by a real person. It is what writers do to make the reader think they are watching a conversation take place in front of them. But: “prose is hard”, said probably every writer ever. And while some authors still intentionally go with a more flowery prose, I think it is off-putting for the general public who want to read something which reflects our modern use of language.* I am (currently) one of them.

Should you bother?

There are many aspects to the writing process that are difficult, especially when first drafting a first book. So should you bother with prose when you’re at this stage of writing? 

Probably not, but this is easier said than done. Especially if you’re somewhat like me and have experienced words flowing from your fingers. It is hinting at something greater, and it can very be frustrating when you don’t reach that level.

What I’ve learned from people talking about prose that it is something you learn over time. When you have written more and integrated the more basic parts of the writing process into your system, other aspects will receive more attention in the earlier drafts. This is part of the learning curve, were patience and experience will become visible over time. You cannot pay attention to all the details at once, but it will get easier over time.

It is frustrating when the sentences look more like a summary of events then an actual story, while simultaneously your characters are having difficult and jarring conversations. How can you not look at the parts that seem to shine because they were created in a flash of creativity, a moment of flow state that is mostly desired but often not achieved.

Expert tip

I really liked this interview with author Joe Abercrombie who mentions (around 28:55) that he really spent a lot of time on improving the first chapters of his book just to get it up to a satisfactory level before continuing on with later chapters. A very good tip, though not something I am aiming to do now. It is still my goal to finish the first draft this year. I want the experience of finishing a first draft. However I also realise that my last month has been one of procrastination and limited time and energy spent on writing. The realisation that my prose wasn’t very good really did a number on my determination. Combined with the increasing stress of ‘normal’ life picking up I just didn’t feel like writing. It was a slog just to get through the one scene I was working on with the knowledge that the next scene had even less content prepared… I just couldn’t push myself to it and spent my time the worst way: Not writing!

How I (mentally) fixed it

I did some reflecting on the situation and came to the realisation I was thinking and judging my work too seriously. It took some time but I’ve dealt with it and feel mentally refreshed. It is clear what I must do: finish the first draft. And not worry too much about the prose and the other, more advanced stuff. While I already find myself correcting written sentences, it is not a necessary thing to do right now. There is so much to take into account when writing that it can be overwhelming. The proven path is to take one (baby) step at a time and trust the process. So that’s what I’m going to do.

I am still very much in learning mode and I want to further dig in on the theory when time allows, but I’m realizing that it will take a lot of time before I integrate a lot of the more challenging aspects I’m dealing with right now. I’m hoping that next year, things will become more clear when I can work my way through a finished draft. 

With that goal set, please excuse me while I start writing again. For November, please enjoy this song which lyrics talk about that spot on the horizon. And yes, it is also a teaser for its subject.

*I understand the applicability with races or characters in a specific setting. But in my opinion it can decrease the reading experience if not done correctly.

First drafting progress: Focus

Last month, in the conflict blog I hinted at the conflict working on this book has on my personal situation. This mainly has to do with focus. An important question for me this year is: “how do I keep focus on this project while working full-time and doing other things.”

While I just could count the amount of hours that would remain in a week after I detract work, travel, sleep etc. and allocate them to writing the answer is not that simple. There are other factors at play which I will try to cover a bit here.

But before I continue you should know that I view the current pandemic as a blessing as it is a restriction on my freedom. Whilst we all have been (mostly) stuck inside I had the time I normally spend on playing volleyball and volunteering for the local beachvolleybal event extra during the months March-July. Which is a lot of free time I’ve had to spend on my book. This is one of the main causes I’ve progressed this far because less distractions equals more focus. 

Baby steps

But there is another side to this as well. I don’t want to overdo things. When you watch or listen to the inspirators of the world they often tell you in one way or another to lose ALL distractions while you are working towards your goal. And my advice to you, dear reader with a similar huge project on your hand is: don’t overdo it!

Be kind to yourself. Spend time relaxing and doing things that distract you from your project. For me this is so very important, because there is that 40 hour workweek and I need to spend time each week on listening to music and podcasts, watching Netflix or playing a video game, just as a sanity check. Because delving into Sci-Fi fantasy worlds is as much part of me as it inspires me to keep working on my project. The last thing you want is to burn out because you’ve pushed too hard. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Progress with baby steps is also progress, so even if I only read what I’ve written for a half hour during the workweek or jot down some quick notes on paper there is progress. But still it might be tough at times to continue, so there are instances where I’ve taken breaks for a couple of days to catch that focus again. Know that for me this is a project of the heart, and I will keep working on it until it’s finished.

Big Five

Another aspect is being aware of my to do list. If I would make a pile of all the books in my posession I still want to read I’m sure it would reach the ceiling. But reading is a thing that currently is a bit left behind in my schedule until I finish writing this book. Partly because I don’t want to get caught in an epic story and forget about my own for two or three weeks. And partly because I feel like writing is the single most important thing for me to do now.

But sometimes there are exceptions when something triggers me. For example I was listening to a Dutch podcast interview with John Strelecky (interview is in English) and realised I own one of his books: Life Safari. So I read that one (it is not that big) and made some notes about my Big Five for Life. I found that one of my Big Five for Life is this story, this book I am writing. It is such a big project that I cannot oversee it or know where it will take me next. But it is a heartfelt wish I’ve had for a long time and I am happy to dedicate the time towards it.

To conclude

The TLDR might be less distractions equals more focus. And I do feel quite focussed on the project. But while it might seem to the outside reader I have killed all other distractions, this is not entirely true. Though the project is never truly out of my mind and each day I try to spend some time on it. I know I could free up much more time working on it each day. And by doing that progress would be much faster. But there is the matter of being kind to myself and enjoying the process. Though sometimes I am not doing that at all, I know there will be that sense of accomplishment once it is done. And to know how it feels, the focus of working towards such an achievement, is a blessing in itself.