Practice Breaks Plateau

At least I hope it will because I’m currently fighting my way through closing the gap between how I expect my writing to be and how it is in reality. You know how you get this amazing idea for a story and you can see how brilliant it will be written down but then you write it and it’s just crap. I have been for some time (we’re talking many years). Also, I feel like I’m not improving at the moment. I’ve reached this point of not being terrible: I know the basics – avoid adverbs, avoid cliches, show don’t tell, all that stuff – so I can write better than Dan Brown (let’s face it, it isn’t difficult) but I persist in this inability to be good. I’ll get occasional flashes of good – sometimes I’ll even write something really good (and we’re talking words, phrases, maybe sentences on a really good day) although, thinking about it, that hasn’t happened in a long time. Mostly it’s…not terrible. Bordering on OK but not even quite good enough for that.

So as always, when I get stuck, I have turned to google for the magic solution to my problem. And I may have found one. It’s called deliberate practice.

Now this is a new term to me and I’m not sure I’ve fully understood it but my interpretation is that deliberate practice is when you find an area that you need to improve in – something specific so, for example, I’m terrible at narrating events – just getting a character from A to B (I really struggle with this, I tend to over-do it so it gets all clunky) – and deliberately practice that area. I think the actual method is up to you but a suggestion I’ve come across is to read a passage you consider to excel at this area, compare that to what you’ve attempted and pick apart the differences – what makes theirs good and yours bad and how you can make yours better. Repetition is important, too, so keep practicing that particular aspect of writing. And another thing: it’s meant to be hard.

When I first thought about applying deliberate practice to writing I had a strange, dismissive reaction. It was like I almost-consciously thought ‘this doesn’t apply to me’ or maybe ‘this doesn’t apply to writers’. I think I’m embedded with this view that writers are ‘inspired’. They don’t practice – they channel the muse. It’s odd because I don’t really believe in muses and I’m very aware of how much hard work writing is. Yet something about the idea of ‘practicing writing’ rang false to me.

And yet if you think about a different skill – dancing, playing an instrument, sport – you would expect to practice. Why is writing different?

I’m pretty sure this isn’t just me because it’s not the sort of thing I think – this seems very much like a collective subconsciousness thing. A hangover, maybe, from the days when writers were seen as these magical creatures who lolled about waiting for inspiration, scribbled frantically for days on end then collapsed. Myths are hard to shake.

So…is it just me? Or does anyone else find the idea of ‘practicing writing’ a bit…inconsistent without a logical reason.

Also, anyone else having the plateau problem? (That can’t be just me: Ira Glass says everyone goes through it.*)

Well, anyway, I’m gonna give this deliberate practice thing a try. I’ve already identified my strengths and weaknesses and some books to learn from. Just need to get on with it, now.

Wish me luck (and inspiration!)

*I’ve shared this video before but it was hidden away in a ‘click here’ type scenario, and it’s something I keep returning to, so…here’s Ira:

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5 Simple Steps to Write Every Day

Readers of my blog will know I struggle with self-discipline as a writer. A lot. And, while I understood the benefits of writing every day and do think it’s a good idea, I just couldn’t work out how people put it into practice. Just get your bum in the chair and do it, right? Yeah, ’cause it’s that easy.

Well, things have changed.

For just over a month, now, I have written every single day.

For me this is a huge achievement. I don’t think I’ve ever written every single day for this long before.

And I have James Clear to thank for it.

I ‘trialled’ the method he explains in: Transform Your Habits and it actually works. For realsies.

So in case you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s how it works in 5 steps:

Step 1: List stuff you do every single day without fail (e.g. wake up, brush teeth, wee) and stuff that happens to you every single day without fail (e.g. sun rises, sun sets, kettle takes FOREVER to boil).

Step 2: Pick one to latch your new habit onto (i.e. when you do this/when this happens to you, you will write.) Mine is dinner. After dinner, I make a cup of tea (it’s a sort of ritual, I guess) and then I write.

Step 3: Start small – it has to take less than two minutes. You don’t want it to require any willpower whatsoever. For example, on my first day, all I had to do was open the document I’m working on and read some of it. I couldn’t argue with that.

Step 4: When you’ve written (or read) for two minutes, congratulate yourself. Sure, you may have only written two words but it’s two words you probably would not have written, otherwise. Go you! (This is positive affirmation and will help in building the habit. Think of it as your reward. Sometimes I give myself a physical reward, too, such as chocolate. And there’s always tea on hand, so that helps.)

Step 5: Keep at it. If you come across a day when you don’t want to write, go back to that first day mentality – all you have to do is whatever it is that takes two minutes (for me, open and read).

Some days you’ll naturally want to keep going for longer (occasionally I can manage 45 mins – an hour). Others you won’t (sometimes 5 mins is my limit). Don’t force yourself. As long as you do it every day you’re building up the habit and that’s the most important thing. You never want to get to that point when you can talk yourself out of it (e.g. ‘You have to write for 30 mins.’ + ‘But I don’t wanna.’ = Not writing AT ALL.)

There are a couple of problems I’ve come across with this method.

  1. Eating out
  2. Limiting myself to only writing after dinner, which sometimes is quite late so may stop me writing for as long.

The first one I’ve overcome by writing as soon as I get home. Besides, I don’t eat out that often so it should be fine.

The second one worries me a little. I can easily say to myself, ‘don’t write now because then you might not want to write after dinner and you HAVE to write after dinner.’ Maybe this means I’m not writing as much as I could. As long as I am writing every day, though, does that matter? Also, in a way it’s encouraging that my mind is telling me to write after dinner and accepts that as non-negotiable. In fact, there have been a couple of days when I have felt an urge to write on finishing dinner. It’s pretty weird because I know I’ve done that to myself but that’s what I’m aiming for so…good.

Comments?

Don’t Tell me What, Tell me How

Hello, Happy New Year, sorry for not posting in a while and all that.

Something’s bugging me, so I’m going to get right down to business.

It’s business time.

Blogs about writing. I’m not talking about updates on the blogger’s writing, here, but advice. From writers to writers through the medium of a blog.

The problem I consistently have is this:

The blog describes your problem. (Unless it has a misleading title or is poorly tagged or you’re just having a stupid moment and forgot how to read and interpret words. But no, let’s assume the blog is written about the problem which you are currently facing. In my case, this would be discipline/self-motivation – surprise surprise. How’s my New Year’s Resolution to write every day going? *High pitched* Well…)

As you’re reading the description of your problem, you find yourself getting your hopes up. Yes, you think, that is exactly the problem I am having. It’s like this person is reading my mind right now. This is amazing. They are going to cure EVERYTHING.

(You assume that because they understand your problem so completely that they’ll be able to tell you exactly how to overcome it. Perhaps this isn’t reasonable but you’re desperate. You’re done trying to solve it alone. You’ve googled this shit. Maybe you’ve gone a step further and used some kind of writing advice search tool.* Either way, shit has got real.)

You keep reading. The blog moves on to tell you what you need to do to solve this problem. Write every day. Silence your inner critic. Set yourself a deadline. Whatever. It’s the usual crap, you’ve heard it all before. But maybe…maybe there’s one special piece of advice. The golden nugget. The magic key. It will be here. At the end of the blog post. You know it…oh.

It isn’t there.

You re-read. Did you miss it? Was it tucked away somewhere?

No.

Because the problem is they’ve given you a list of things you should try. What you should do. But they haven’t told you how.

How do you write every day?

Er…hmm…no I don’t know. Can’t manage it, myself. Some people seem to just…do it. Could those lucky people please tell me how? Please?

Maybe they do it by silencing their inner critic.

Again – how? Is there a switch somewhere that I’m missing? Behind my ear? No? Sorry – can’t do it either. Except for those rare occasions when it just…happens. If there’s a way of making that happen or at least encouraging it, that’d be good to know. Not much good you telling me to do it, though, unless you tell me how.

Maybe setting yourself a deadline would help you silence your inner critic and write everyday. But, again, how do you set yourself a deadline? OK, this one is actually easy. You write it in your calendar. Stick it on your wall. Set a reminder on your phone. Easy peasy. Right? Thing is, though, who’s making you keep to this deadline? What happens if you miss it?

Nothing.

So why should you care?

You shouldn’t. There is no reason to. It doesn’t matter if you miss your deadline – there will be no consequences. OK, there’ll be the consequence of you not writing everyday and not improving as a writer and not getting one step closer to your goal. But really, is that a noticeable consequence? I don’t think it is. It’s actually very easy to ignore.

The real question is: how do you set yourself a deadline and stick to it? How do you create real consequences when there are none? You can make some stuff up about rewards and punishments but, at the end of the day, who’s dishing those bad boys out? You are. You could reward yourself if you fail or – no idea why you would but it’s theoretically possible – punish yourself when you succeed. No-one’s going to stop you from eating that brownie a little early or catching up on your fav. TV programme when you haven’t written a word. I sat at my desk and opened my laptop! I showed up! That’s totally a step in the right direction – I should reward myself and watch Bob’s Burgers NOW. I can write later. After I’m all inspired.

Yeah. Cause that’s gonna happen.

I don’t have the answers. I’m not pretending to. And yes, I appreciate you trying to help but the thing is…you’re not.

Because I have heard that advice before and it didn’t help me any of those times either and, while, yes I can see that it is theoretically a great idea and would completely work…I just can’t make myself apply it. In, you know, the real world. It just doesn’t happen.

Maybe I should just stop whining about it. Maybe I should accept the fact that every writer is different and what works for you may not work for me and I just have to find my own way of doing it. But then again you’re someone who’s had my problem and has overcome it and all you can tell me is the same old advice I’ve heard over and over again? What about personal experience? How did YOU overcome it? How did YOU make yourself follow this advice?

HOW?

Ahem.

So, in conclusion, my message is this. If you’re writing a blog post about how to overcome some common problem we writers face (and let’s face it – we’re a problematic bunch) don’t just compile a list of what to dos that the person will have already read/absorbed through the ether, explain how to do them. Or, better, yet, explain how YOU did them. In practice. How YOU REALLY overcame the problem. Give it the personal touch.

And, finally, to the people who can do discipline and self-motivation and writing every day, I implore you: tell me how!

*I use Writers’ Knowledge Base but I’m starting to think it’s more a curse than a blessing. My first creative writing tutor said that thesauruses are a curse. Why? Because they send you off on a crazy rabbit hunt in search of the perfect word. That word doesn’t exist. But the thesaurus says otherwise. It makes promises it can’t fulfill. Now, I love thesauruses and therefore cannot agree with him – I guess he hates them because he has a problem with them which I don’t have – but I’m starting to think the¬†Writers’ Knowledge Base (I’m using it as an example because it’s the one I use – I don’t mean it specifically) is my thesaurus. Hummm…

I don’t know why I blog

I don’t know why I blog.

I haven’t worked on the novel since 5th September.

Other than a short story I wrote for a competition which took about four days, I haven’t written since 5th September.

Now I don’t know why I wrote that short story or why I entered that competition. It all seems rather pointless. Obviously if I win, that would be amazing, but it’s not going to happen. The story’s OK. That’s pretty good for me – to say it’s OK – but in reality it probably isn’t. I mean, right now I think it is but I bet if I read it in a year’s time I’ll hate it. Which is good, it means I’ve improved. But it also means the story’s crap.

I also don’t know how I managed it. How I made myself write that story and enter it. Doing something like that now seems impossible.

If everything I write today I’ll hate in a year’s time, what’s the point? But if I write something and still think it’s good in a year’s time, that’ll mean I haven’t improved in a year.

I don’t know which is worse.

Some people say they love writing. I just don’t get that. I used to – when I was in school. I don’t know when I stopped.

I like to think it makes me a better writer – to not like writing – but I probably just tell myself that to feel better about it.

I feel superior to people who say they love writing. Like they’re amateurs and I’m a real writer because I hate it. But who’s the real writer – the person who does it everyday and loves it or the person who avoids it for months? Maybe I’m just jealous.

I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing or where I’m going.

And I don’t know why I blog.

Just a quick one…

…to say I’m still alive and had a breakthrough on my novel today.

No, I hadn’t written since the last time (25th July). Yes, that’s terrible. I’m a terrible writer. So what’s new?

But I’m excited again and that’s the main thing.

Sometimes you need a break, you know? I knew something was wrong. I even knew what was wrong. I just didn’t know how to fix it.

And part of me is thinking: this won’t fix it. You’ll just hit another brick wall. And it’s probably right but you know what? That’s just how writing goes. It’s essentially problem-solving, always with another problem to solve . I wonder, do you ever get to the end? Do you ever reach a point where there are no more problems? I guess not because then it would be perfect. Maybe you just get so worn down by all the problems that you just can’t solve any more and you give up and throw it at an agent to deal with.

And then they point out more problems and this time you have to solve them because a professional pointed them out to you.

That’s how it goes for me at work, actually. I draft and I edit and then I get bored and I go ‘huh. Close enough.’ and pass it on to my boss who reads it and says ‘NO’ and points out all the things he wants changing. And sometimes they’re simple like ‘add a comma here’ but sometimes I have to think of a new word or a way of phrasing a sentence, just so it ‘works’, because even though I knew it didn’t work before I passed it to him, I wouldn’t actually do anything¬† until he underlined it and told me to. And so it gets a little better and then we both give up and that’s that.

Makes you wonder about self-published books. I guess the writers just pay an editor. Or have more staying-power.

Oh right, the breakthrough. Should I tell you? It might jinx it. Nah, it won’t jinx it. What a load of nonsense. It may make me look foolish when it turns out not to be the answer I’m looking for but hey. We’ve covered that. Mistakes aren’t stupid, they’re human and they enable you to learn and grow so nuuuur.

The Breakthrough

What is currently the prologue will be the epilogue. This means I can start with the dream as the prologue and then end the first chapter with Diana’s arrival. Boom! Straight in the story, cutting all the boring crap right out of there with a knife so sharp, it doesn’t even touch it.

Yeah? Yeah?!

I’m tired.

Goodnight.

Thoughts?

Me vs the AntiWrite 7 & 8: 24th and 25th July 2013

I forgot to blog yesterday because I was so busy…WRITING!

Yesterday, I wrote 1,963 words! Pretty good, right?

And so far today I’ve written 1,776. I say so far because I fully intent to churn out another thousand. Maybe do a #1k1hr. (Twitter thing for those not on twitter).

So…yeah, I guess that’s me: 2, AntiWrite: 0.

Suck on that, AntiWrite.

UPDATE: final word count for 25th…2,616. BOOM.