06 May 2013

Effulgent

If you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way through and loved Spike as much as me, chances are you'll remember "effulgent."

I'm pleased to report that I have spotted "effulgent" in the wild, in John Metcalfe's 1925 story "The Smoking Leg," along with a nearly identical word of similar meaning, "refulgent." Best purple prose I've read in a long while. "The Smoking Leg" is secretly hilarious, deliciously critical of the European colonial project and its ultimately self-destructive tendencies. Plus: effulgent.

04 May 2013

Pantser, Plotter, Plodder, Slumper

The results of my recent scientific investigation - i.e., a foray into the thoughtful comments a bunch of you left on my last post - suggests that there is more than one way of working at writing. I'm not talking about the well-trodden pantser / plotter continuum. I'm talking about how you structure your work time, where and how you derive the energy to write, how you perform. I've had an insight or two into my own style recently which is helping me to avoid a certain habitual self-esteem nosedive, so I thought I'd share.

My friend Chris is a good example of a plodder. Or, let's call him something a little more impressive sounding and aligned with the reality: a consistent, steady producer. In response to my post about pulling out of a slump, he wrote:
I'm not sure if I can think of a time when I pushed into overdrive and turned the creative corner like that; most of my recent creative victories have been the result of lots of prior planning and pep talks, and setting a steady pace from the outset.
I can tell you, Chris gets a lot done that way. A. Lot. Often I think I should just buck up and follow his example: slow and steady work done on a regular basis.

However, I'm a lot more like mood, who commented:
I have to crawl through the slumps and then try to ride the wave when it comes, which it always does (eventually).
I'm a slumper. Or, to call it something a wee bit more positive, a peak performer. I've done a lot of performance-based things, and continue to do them. Whether it is playing music, acting, teaching at the university, or my current occupation, which is teaching tai chi and qigong, I do my best when I have to be "on." I've noticed that I really groove on situations where I have to gear up. During a class or event I burn all that fuel, then go home and collapse. There's something almost lethargic about my "off" state. Even just before a performance situation, I often feel very mellow and low. Once I'm in front of a class or audience, though, the focus kicks in, my awareness hypes up, and I am fully present. I use everything I've got without even feeling it. When it's done, I often end up with a rather mixed feeling: I'm tired and wired, overstimulated and drained.

Basically, I experience the act of writing as a type of performance. It works best for me when I spend a bit of time thinking about what I'm going to write, building up the key parts of a scene or story in my mind, attaching emotional content to it, and overall getting really excited about it. When I write, I go fast. If I can burn through a whole story or an entire scene, it is so much better than when I write it a smidgen at a time. That focus is really important to me. If I do it right, I feel much like I do under other performance circumstances.

It's not the audience. It's the need for a concentrated burst of effort. During these efforts, I'll skimp on sleep, eat minimally, yet generally have more energy and be able to do more even outside of the central act of writing. My laundry gets done, my house gets vacuumed, amazing things get baked and cooked, and my classes move into a higher, more challenging gear.

The up side is, I can get a heck of a lot done in a short period of time. I wrote 15k words in the last four days of April. Good, coherent words. (I know some people are capable of much more...for me it was a lot.) The down side is, I need to rest in between the peaks. Really rest. I don't mean get a solid eight hours each night. During a peak, especially if I'm working on a novel-length piece, I find sleeping well or consistently is not only impossible, it's unnecessary. A few hours will do. I am talking about finishing an act of a longer piece or completing a story, letting everything fall to the floor, spending a couple of days stepping down my excitement and allowing the adrenaline to drain, then going into a coma / stupor that lasts for days or longer. (I am in an adrenaline-drain phase now. What's left over from my recent push is what I'm using to write this post.)

It is an elaborate process, and fine so long as I honour each part of it.

Here's the rub: when I'm in a peak, I tend to start thinking in an almost greedy fashion, like, "ooh, if I can write 4k today, I can do it every day and finish this manuscript if I only spend nine more days doing it after these fourteen days of pushing really hard." Great idea, but it only works if that kind of effort is sustainable in the long run. It's not. Not for me, anyway. A month is about my absolute maximum. After that, things get dodgy and I start feeling very unwell if I don't come down.

The key is, if you're a peak performer / slumper, don't expect that you'll do every day what you do during the big push. (I am sure for steady performers / plodders there are downsides too, like wishing you had the steam to push through the night and greet the sunrise with a shiny new 6 or 8k on your hard drive.) As with the pantser / plotter binary, it is easy to think the grass is greener on the other side. It isn't. It's all just grass.

I know from experience that after a month like April, I'm in serious danger of a crash. I am still pushing forward on the novel draft, but at a much mellower pace while I recover from what I just did. I'll bide my time until I hit the next big plot push (probably the climax). It will have to be at a time when I'm more rested. I'm also spending more time on things that I can do piecemeal, like polishing almost-finished short pieces, and just reading.

As my friend Wendy likes to say, it's good to think of rest as an activity: something you have to do and which is as important as anything else you also have to do.

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01 May 2013

Everything Stinks Til It's Finished

That's right. I'm dropping Dr. Seuss quotes on you. Truth bombs!

So April was an up and down month. I know many of you were doing A to Z. (Jocelyn Rish, I'm looking at you and your contronyms. And your dogs, who modeled for you again this year. Wow. Just Wow.)  Still pissed at myself for not really seeming to be able to get going on buckling down to write or submit stories or be a smiley smiley cheery participant in This Creative Venture We Call Being a Writer, I decided the thing to do would be to up the stakes. I took on Camp NaNoWriMo, and decided I would meet the 50k challenge at a minimum.

For a while, I've been wanting to write a longer manuscript exploring the world I wrote about in one of my short stories, "The Last Nephew" (originally published in Issue One of One Buck Horror, available for slightly less than one buck). Weird shit happened to me in March that allowed me to finally figure out a cool way to tackle the story. Bombs away!

A few days into the month, I had to go on a rather strong antibiotic for reasons. Antibiotics kick the crap out of me. There was some kind of flu thing that followed. Words dribbled but did not flow. As of a week ago, I was a little over halfway to my goal. Then a couple of things happened that were lucky and serendipitous and helped me start to feel much more like the writer I want to be.

Physically, I started to feel normal again, which was key and helped clear my head. My story started to surprise me while still following the very loose outline I'd set up at the beginning of the month, which for me is a win/win. Then my good friend and writing comrade Chris Kelworth got into Odyssey, a fact that he sneaks into that blog post very stealthily. (If you're not familiar with Odyssey, check it out. This is a big deal.) I was super chuffed for him, so the mood of the month shifted from uggghhh to yay!

The super big shift happened when a bunch of writers from Hamilton got together and Chris shared a bit about the Odyssey schedule. It puts the "intense" in "intensive." I ended up thinking a lot about how much time I typically spend on writing, how much time I could squeeze into my schedule, and had a talk with myself about whether I really want this. (I do want it.) Somehow, all of that added up to a much better sense of focus than I've been able to muster for a while. Sometimes it's all about the remembering, you know?

Anyway, now that the first 50k is written I figure I've got another 30k to go on this book, and I'm hoping to thrash that out fairly fast, to keep the momentum I've got going now, and before my brains start dribbling out my ears.

What about you guys? Have any of you ever managed to flip the creative switch when you were in a slump?

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