Tips & Tricks

On Stuckness

I’m really excited about my next novel, The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher. It’s my best work to date—very funny, very deep, very me—and friends who have heard bits are figuratively hounding me for more. The draft is probably 85% complete. Problem is, I’ve got no idea what words to write next.

It’s a complex and multi-layered problem, made worse in some ways by the fact that I don’t really put much stock in writer’s block. I’ve always been of the mindset that plumbers plumb, coders code, and writers write, and if you’re so precious about your writing that you’re willing to let a little thing like not knowing what words to write next stop you, you’re at best an amateur, at worst a self-indulgent dilettante.1

So I guess I’m an amateur or, as the case may be, a dilettante, because I’ve been largely putting this problem off for months now, busying myself with other jobs that are definitely very important and not an excuse to avoid Frobisher.

Some of the reasons I’m stuck include:

  • I wrote all the fun easy parts first, which means all I’ve got left are the tricky complicated bits
  • Most of what remains is the brilliant climax where everything comes together, all the threads get resolved, and the clever twists and solutions occur, and that’s all really tricky to figure out
  • In my absorption with the aforementioned fun easy bits, I never really exactly figured out who the villains are or what they did when or why. Turns out this is a useful thing to know as you wrap up a story.
  • Existing draft is very complex—lots of scenes in various states of incompleteness, of which an as-yet-undetermined subset won’t be in the final draft—so it’s often tricky to figure out quite concretely which bits to start putting more words onto

Here are some things I’ve been doing to start getting unstuck:

  • Actually sit and think about it.
    • Turns out I overestimate the value of vaguely letting my subconsciously allegedly brood on an issue. You could say I’m mentally leaving the dishes to soak for four months. Focused thought and effort move things forward way more quickly. (Surprise!)
  • The kitchen timer method, in which you do nothing but write your work-in-progress or write in your journal for a set time. I wrote more about it here.
    • So far I’ve spent almost all of the time in my journal, and it’s starting to lead to productive breakthroughs. I think it’s useful to give myself permission to spend writing time on productive journaling instead of just adding manuscript word count.
  • Asking “What’s the next question I need answered?”
    • For example, in the final climactic showdown, I knew Hastily Dobbs and his people would thwart the Society for Entrepreneurial Insurgency using some sort of genius inter-planar cleverness. But I wasn’t sure what the cleverness was.
    • On further digging, though, I realized I wasn’t even sure what they were thwarting.
    • That led me to ask what the SEI is actually doing in this scene.
    • That led me to ask why they’re doing…whatever they’re doing. What’s their overarching goal? Once I answered that question, the knot began to unravel.

In summary: Trying to intuit my way through four layers of ignorance at once is ineffective. Not even trying is even more ineffective. Put differently, work works.

As it happens, this neatly resolves my impending dilettantism. The key to not being an uncommitted amateur is to commit and do the work, even if, in a periodic tight spot, the work consists of figuring out what words to write instead of writing more words.


1 From the German Dillentante, or “pickle-aunt,” an insult common among the 18th century pickle barons of the Weimar, implying that the insultee’s pickle-making was of a caliber comparable to a doddering aunt who, having canned some gherkins for pickling, quickly forgot which jars had been put up in what years, resulting in pickles of highly inconsistent quality and, in many cases, unacceptable mushiness.

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My experimental new rules of blogging

1. Post most days.
2. Don’t spend more than half an hour on a post.
3. Don’t go meta and write about how you’re going to blog or what you’re going to say or what new blogging approach you’re about to try. Just do it.*
4. Pick a title after you write the post.
5. Don’t make a dumb clickbaity title.
6. For the love of God, don’t post about yet another system you’re trying until you’ve actually stuck with it for a couple weeks at the very least.
7. You can break any rule about 10% of the time.

 


Note from past Ben, circa 2/20/17:

Rule 6 also says this post should never have existed.

The best I could do to get around my compulsive need to share this dumb new thing–which my smart brain objectively knows to be a dumb new thing that has a 7% chance of lasting more than two days, but my dumb brain absolutely has to share with the world right now omgz–was to schedule the post to go up two weeks in the future.

The issue with this workaround is that if, as I fear and partly expect, I have merrily forgotten all about this Glorious New System by Thursday, you’ll all still see this ill-conceived nonsense in two weeks. If, on the other hand, I’m still touching my blog most days two weeks from now, I may at that point actually remember to take down this post which, however, will at that point have a much more legitimate reason to exist.

Sigh. Brains. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em.


 

* Regarding this post, see Rule 7.

My instant kombucha recipe for non-health-nut non-hipsters

(Skip to the recipe.)

Ok, so I’m once again in the throes of my pseudennial kombucha cravings, but I have a major problem, which is my brain. I have the kind of brain that latches onto something as the-omg-best-thing-evar-maybe-the-only-thing-I’ll-ever-want-again-omg-omg! for, say, three days, and then forgets about it.

img_4064

Worst. Shepherds. Ever.

I’m also frugal enough, if not wanting to pay three to four dollars per bottle for multiple bottles a day counts as frugal, to–well, not want to pay $3-4/bottle for…you get it. It adds up.

So I decide (again) to start brewing my own kombucha. Luckily I have some infrastructure (in the form of seventy dozen bajillion Mason jars) from previous episodes. But the issue is that from the moment I brew a huge jar of sweet tea and dump a disgusting object into it, it’s going to be two weeks or so before I get that first sip of sweet, sweet (by which I mean sour, fizzy, wretched, yet curiously compelling) kombucha. I expect you’ve spotted the problem. Two weeks, in brain years, is several lifetimes. In two weeks I will momentarily look up from my new all-consuming obsession with, say, fold-expressions in Vim, and wonder why my basement lair is swamped in jars full of floaty things.

So I’m holding out hope (because I always do) that this time the desire will still be with me in two weeks, and I’m taking specific steps to establish a more sustainable kombucha-production pipeline, which will help, but in the meantime I have discovered a hack that gets me the kombuchonic goodness I want without making me wait. It is, in that sense, a sour and slightly gingery version of the American Dream.

This hack is only for people who actually just like kombucha and want to drink a lot of it. I have no idea what health benefits (or detriments) it may entail, and it will give you the opposite of purist/hipster cred. But it hits the spot while you’re waiting out your two weeks for the real stuff.

Instant (Mock?) Kombucha Recipe

  1. Brew black tea.
  2. Add sugar in a roughly 1:8 ratio (sugar:tea, not vice versa).
  3. Add kombucha SCOBY and a splash of kombucha from the starter batch.
  4. Whenever you want, pour yourself a glass of the partially-brewed results.
  5. To that glass, add a splash of apple cider vinegar.
  6. Add a few drops of lime juice.
  7. Add crushed ginger to taste.
  8. Optionally add sweetener, depending on how sour the original stuff was. And how sweet you like it, if any. (I happen to have some elderflower syrup at the moment, which I used because it’s fancy.)
  9. Drink.

Strictly speaking, steps 2-3 are probably optional. It seems weak tea with apple cider vinegar and whatever other flavors you feel like makes a decent flavoral substitute for kombucha, though I imagine you get better results by enhancing incomplete kombucha than by merely faking it altogether.

Experiment with other flavors. Let me know what you find. Please direct any hate mail to ben@bazinga.biz.

Parallel parking schematic

Now there is some science, my friends. This is what I’ve been waiting for someone to show me my whole life.

Of course, in Baltimore we sometimes have to parallel park on the other side of the road, too, which puts a new spin on your quark, so to speak. But still. A solid grasp of the fundamentals is key.

Trying the Don Roos Kitchen Timer system

This week I’m trying out a new system of setting and tracking writing goals. More of a philosophy, in a way.

I think it’s called the kitchen timer system, as espoused and/or created by Don Roos, which I learned about because my wife was reading Lauren Graham’s book, which lays it out, and she showed it to me.

The basic idea is that each day you set a time goal for the next day, and you spend that much time with only two things in front of you: your journal and your work-in-progress (hereinafter WIP).

Turn off your Wi-Fi, turn your phone face-down and ignore it, don’t watch or listen to anything except music without words, and start to write.

You have two options. You can either work on your WIP, or, whenever you want and without recrimination, you can write about anything at all in your journal. When you get bored of journaling, you can go back to your WIP. When you get stuck on your WIP, you can go back to your journal. You can even sit and stare at your journal and/or WIP without writing if you want, as long as you don’t switch to anything else.

If you put in the time goal you set for yourself, you win. Simple as that.

Even more canny, if you don’t hit your time goal–and this is critical–you just move on. Take it as a sign that your goal wasn’t very realistic and set a shorter one for tomorrow. DO NOT set an even bigger goal to “make up for it” tomorrow.

It’s kind of genius.

In my experience, it’s almost impossible to journal or freewrite for a very long time at all without getting down to the roots of whatever emotional/intellectual/creative issues have me stuck or preoccupied. It’s also very hard, having gotten down to said issues, to journal or freewrite about them for very long without some sort of useful resolution or reframe emerging. And once my issues are resolved, I generally find the WIP writing easy and fun, even addictive.

This system is also great because it defuses the psychological risk inherent in high-stakes and/or high-intensity creative writing goals, especially those framed in functionally less actionable terms. If my goal is to write 1,000 words on my WIP, I’ll finish that in somewhere between half an hour and never, especially because the implicit goal is to write 1,000 good words, preferably 1,000 brilliant words.

Usually, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll sit and think harder. More realistically, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll play a dumb game on my phone or turn on a sitcom. Or both. (I’m a terrible person.) This method invites me, when I can’t find brilliant words, to just write whatever words, which I can always do.

That keeps me writing, trends toward resolution (and, eventually, a return to brilliance), and gives me a controllable win. All I have to do is stay there and not open any other things until my time’s up. Unlike being brilliant, that’s something I can simply decide to do, and my brain gets a lot more excited when I make the win about a concrete decision, not an unpredictable flash of insight (much less a thousand of them in a row).

AutoHotkey Hacks for Lazy Nerds Who Like Webcomics

I am beginning to seriously groove on AutoHotkey. It’s a free open-source program that lets you automate things on your computer. A pretty common application appears to be making up your own keyboard shortcuts and/or autoreplace rules.

I initially found it early in my vim kick–a kick which, for the record, is gamely stumbling on as I continue to insist to myself that one day I will learn enough to make vim so magically, brilliantly super-efficient that it will…well, make up for the dozens to hundreds of hours I will have spent learning stuff about vim, I guess.

Anyway, I was getting all excited about vim and learned that many power users remap their keyboards so that CapsLock becomes Esc and vice versa, because vim involves hitting Esc a lot and the CapsLock key is closer and easier, and so I charged ahead and found a little program (the aforementioned AHK) that would let me remap the keys in a fairly straightforward, untechnical way, and I did, and I thought little more of it except for putting in a mental pin to remind me to look more into AHK’s capabilities at some point.

That point was a couple days ago, and boy are my arms tired! Wait, different joke.

Anyway, I started reading up on AutoHotkey a little more and it’s amazing what it can do! It’s really a full-blown scripting…thing. (Application? Tool? Sorry, The Giver. No precision of language here.)

I once jokingly told a colleague that I wasn’t satisfied with the fact that I’d semi-automated a report to where I could run one query, paste the results into one spot in Excel, hit refresh, and send it out. I wanted a single button that would run the query, paste the results, and send the report for me. And then I wanted a machine that would push that button for me every day.

It appears that AutoHotkey is that button. And maybe also that machine. Time will tell.

For now one of my favorite uses I’ve put it to is creating keyboard shortcuts that pull up ‘dashboards’ of all the websites and/or files and/or folders I need to monitor or work on a particular project, task, or topic. It cuts out the friction that slows me down from getting to work (on, say, writing) because I’d have to open the story and the planning document and my music and my tracker and whatever. Or whatever.

I’m sure there will be more on this later, but just as an appetizer, install AutoHotkey and run a script containing the following code, then hit Ctrl-Shift-A. You’re welcome.

;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
;Fun Dashboard Ctrl-Shift-A
;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
^+A::
navOpenInNewTab := 0x800
navOpenInBackgroundTab := 0x1000

sites:=”www.reddit.com|www.xkcd.com|

http://www.smbc-comics.com|www.penny-

arcade.com/comic”

ie := comobjcreate

(“InternetExplorer.Application”)
ie.visible := true

Loop, Parse, sites, |
if A_Index = 1
ie.navigate(A_LoopField)
else
ie.navigate(A_LoopField,

navOpenInNewTab)

return

Writing Mission Generator: My Latest Motivation Tool

This isn’t very polished, but it’s fun and it nearly doubled my writing speed on the spot and I wanted to share it with any authors out there who get into this kind of thing. It’s a writing mission generator. You give it an amount of time, and it will give you a word count target, and you see if you can beat the target.

The clever bit is that it will slowly nudge you faster and faster while adjusting to your actual performance. The target words per minute (WPM) it picks is a random number between 80% and 130% of your average WPM so far. So sometimes you get a break and sometimes it really pushes you, but on average it’s making your target pace 5% faster than last round.

Here’s the Microsoft Excel file: Writing Mission Generator

Writing Mission Generator

It’s simple to use, though, as I warned above, I made it in about 4 minutes and it’s not very polished. I didn’t put in any protections, so I recommend storing a blank backup copy just in case you write over the wrong cell accidentally.

The blue cells are the only ones you should enter values in. Enter the amount of time for your next writing burst under Min and Seconds – I usually use the length of the next song on my playlist. It will generate a target WPM, and you’ll need to enter the same number in the same cell so that it doesn’t keep regenerating new numbers and screw up your stats. This also gives you a chance to manually tweak your target if you want to. So if it puts a 22 under target WPM, go to the cell that says 22 and type 22. (Like I said, not polished. Sorry.)

Then get writing! Write as quickly as you can, and when your time is up enter your total word count under Actual Total. Note that this is a cumulative total, not the number of words you wrote in the latest burst. (If you find it easier to think in single-burst word counts, you can use the Target Session and Actual Session columns.) Day Start is just for reference, so I can see my starting word count for the day.

Once you enter your new total, it will show your session stats, your actual WPM for that session, and how far above or below target WPM you were. Then move down a line and repeat. Since I use songs, I do this in 3-5 minute increments and it really gets rather addictive. Here’s the workflow I’ve settled on as my favorite – Spotify at the bottom so I can immediately see how much time I have left and how much to enter for each session, Excel at the far right–I duplicated the Actual Total column at the far right for easy reference–and Scrivener front and center. (Forgot to include it in the screenshot, but I’ll also hit Ctrl-Comma in Scrivener to show my project stats, including overall word count.)

Writing Mission Generator - Sample Workflow

At the end of the session I flip to Excel (Alt-Tab), enter my new total word count, go to the next line and enter the length of the next song and confirm the WPM target, and flip back to Scrivener to keep writing. It takes me about three seconds so I don’t lose much momentum, and it’s one of the most reliable ways I’ve discovered yet of getting into the groove.

Final note: I’ve found I actually don’t do much stat-tracking with this. I just use it as an ephemeral tool. I don’t save it, and I just open a fresh copy each day. If you want to use it to actually track your writing stats over time it will probably need some modifications to optimize it.

If there’s enough interest I’m definitely up for making a tidier or otherwise improved version of this. Just let me know how it works for you and what would make it better.

Cheers!

—Ben