Tools of the trade: hybrids

I think it’s a fairly common lament these days: I like writing by hand, but. But then I have to type it up. But then I forget it or lose it. But it’s just not feasible to share.

Personally I like writing by hand. I know it makes me think differently, and using different pens and colors helps me sort through my thoughts and get organizes. I also use two different tools that merge the handwritten and the digital. (I’m not sponsored by either of them. Yet. I just like good tools that make the writing process easier.)

First, there’s Livescribe. It’s a pen-and-paper system that pairs with an app via Bluetooth to digitize your handwritten notes and also to transcribe them. Let’s break it down a little.

  • The pen: the one I have is older, so it’s got a thicker barrel than most pens. You replace the ink cartridge when it runs out – I’ve used both black and blue. This is what syncs with your phone, so you don’t want to misplace it. It feels like writing with a normal pen because it basically¬†is a normal pen, at least where the ink meets the paper.
  • The paper: you need to use Livescribe dot paper with the pen, or else it doesn’t work. There are all kinds of notebooks and sticky notes, so you can find the style that works best for you. The paper isn’t blinding white – it can take a little bit to get used to the gray – but it feels like normal paper. You have to activate each notebook before you use it, and archive the old ones, so the pen doesn’t get confused and try to put your writing from page 1 in the new notebook on top of page 1 from the old one.
  • Pros and cons: Livescribe will transcribe your handwriting into text at the flick of a finger, and it’s fairly accurate. It’s at least faster for me to transcribe, copy into a document, and fix a few things than to have to type up my entire pages of notes. The ink only comes through as black, though, no matter which cartridge you use. This isn’t for you if you want your notes in color or if you need to routinely sketch or doodle for your notes. You will also fill up the notebooks and need to get more, but it took me over a year to complete my big spiral-bound one – and, for once, I did actually use every page.

My other go-to is Rocketbook. There’s a wider selection of pens (markers, and highlighters), but the “paper” doesn’t actually feel like paper. It uses your phone’s camera to digitize what you put on the page.

  • The pens: Rocketbook needs to be used with any Frixion-brand products. There’s a wide variety writing implements in this case, and colors? Use all the colors. As long as it’s Frixion, you can use it, from extra fine line pens to nice thick markers.
  • The paper: Rocketbook notebooks are reusable, so they don’t have nearly as many pages as Livescribe notebooks. My current favorite – the flip, with the binding at the top – has 16 sheets. Each sheet is lined on one side and has a dot grid on the other. The paper is thicker, and shinier, which is why you can erase what you’ve written after you’ve scanned it in. The newer versions erase with water. Some older notebooks, with more paper-like paper, erased using heat (you’d stick it in the microwave) so double-check which kind you have and don’t microwave other notebooks.
  • Pros and cons: Rocketbook turns your page into an image or a PDF. There’s no transcription, but it shows you exactly what you wrote or drew, in the proper colors. You can also set up the symbols at the bottom of the page to automatically upload your files into specific places – I’ve got mine going to different files on my Google drive, depending on what project it’s for. You can scan multiple pages into a single document, or jump around from page to page, depending on inspiration.

Both of these systems mean I can pull up digitized versions of notes in my phone in case I’m out somewhere and need to look something up. Livescribe means I have the paper cop on hand in case I ever need it, but Rocketbook means being able to erase and reuse without having to buy more notebooks. Livescribe means just buying ink refills, but Rocketbook can mean either buying pen refills or another set of pens. Livescribe transcribes, but Rocketbook saves your ideas in full color. I use each of them for different purposes, depending on what part of the process I’m in.

Have you used either Livescribe or Rocketbook? Which one’s your favorite? Is there another brand you think I should try?

“You write so fast!”

It’s something I’ve heard time and time again, most recently just yesterday: “Wow, Rebecca, you write so fast!” I’m never really sure how to respond to it. Depending on the situation – say, a word sprint, where a group of people write for 15 minutes and then share their word count at the end – nothing seems necessary. But, even then, I want to say more than a shrug and a nod.

First, I’m not always sure how people judge it. Yes, there are times in word sprints I write more than the other people. But that’s just one burst of a lot of words in 15 minutes. It’s not sustainable. You can’t multiply that word count by eight hours and say I’m going to finish a book in three work days, for example. In yesterday’s specific case, I was at a scene in a novel where I knew what was happening. I’d built up to it, and I had all the details and information right there, within reach.

But I’ve also had people say “Wow, you write fast!” when I mention how much I did over the course of an entire year. So is that “Wow, you wrote a lot in a year”? Or “Wow, you’ve been able to schedule things so you had a lot of time to write that year”?

I lean toward the second. It’s easier to write more when you have more time to write. Refresh yourself on my writing schedule. The most important thing is that I have one. I block out that time. Whether it means 15 minutes of amazing word counts, or a long slog, I have and make that time. And it adds up. Even 15 minutes at a time, stolen throughout the day, adds up, when it’s specifically dedicated to writing.

There’s also the fact that the actual typing of words is only a small part of writing. There’s reading, and research, and outlining, and all of this prep work that happens before and then during the weeks I block out for the actual typing of a manuscript. Sometimes what you don’t see is the abandoned draft from a while ago that’s helped me get to the point of writing it now. All the steps that take place to help set me up for sitting down at my laptop and getting the words out.

I could tell you how many days it took me to turn out a draft of a book, from typing the first word to finishing the conclusion, but that’s not a very accurate picture of things. Take Surviving Stephen King – the initial draft went very quickly. I was writing it last spring, though, which means I’d been reading about Stephen King as an academic and not just a fan for six years. I’d had years of presenting at conferences and not just reading other scholars’ work, but engaging with them in conversation. I didn’t just sit down one day last April and idly think “Let’s write about Stephen King.”

I had more than one notebook with ideas. I had notes already typed up and organized so I could easily search them. I’d made not just an outline, but an outline expanded to include quotes from all my readings. Readings I’d done over the course of years and then gathered, typed up, and organized over a span of dedicated weeks. I knew what each chapter had to address and the overall point I was trying to make.

That’s when the fast writing happens: when I’ve done all the groundwork to pave the way and all the signposts are in place. When I don’t have to stop and wonder about what comes next. When I’ve got my poster board with the color-coded sticky notes and the outline so I don’t have to go searching for something because it’s all right there, laid out neatly.

When I’ve already put in so much work that’s part of writing, but maybe doesn’t look like writing, so that the actual “typing the words into the document” process can happen apparently at speed.

Plus, come on … you have no idea how long it took me to write this. How many breaks I took. You just see something I’ve written, and maybe read all the way to the end of it, and possibly find some enlightenment. So maybe take a moment to remind yourself that there’s no time – however long it takes you, the important thing (the scary thing) is to get something written, and to get it out there to be read.

Let’s not oversimplify this

The other day I saw a conversation about revising and editing where someone responded with “It’s like a garden – you have to prune.” I’m not a gardener, so I wouldn’t have come up with that metaphor on my own, but revision should be a lot more than pruning. Sure, maybe you have to get something under a specific word count, but I’m pretty sure gardeners have more tools than shears.

I try to let anything I’ve drafted sit for a while before I come back to it so I can read it, as much as possible, as a reader instead of as the writer. I know what I meant to say, and I did my best on the first pass, but revision is where I take a step back and see if I actually said it.

And also whether I said it in a way that flows and makes sense.

If you recall my editing stamps, only one of them is “delete.” There are seven more. Plus I keep a pen at hand because, as much as I use the stamps, they don’t quite cover it all.

One of the very first things I look for when I pick a draft back up is whether it makes sense. Is my main argument there, and is it clear? Do the points actually flow from one to the next? Have I actually come out and made my point or do I leave it to be interpreted?

A lot of this is adding words instead of deleting them. Making sure my actual ideas are on the page and don’t get lost in the transition from my nebulous thoughts to concrete words. This can mean slowing down and expanding ideas, as well as adding in transitions or swapping parts of the writing around and then adding transitions.

Even during this first pass, I don’t worry so much about the word count. I’m still trying to make sure that the skeletal structure is solid. Am I making all the necessary points to support my argument? Did I forget an example? Do I need to make sure that, after giving one, I come back and connect it to the main point again?

The important thing at this point centers around reading it as a stranger, at least as much as I can. If I don’t have access to my own innermost thoughts, my past publications, and my internal logic, does it still make sense? Do I provide enough information so that readers can at least see where I’m coming from, if not agree completely?

In a rush, during one of the bad writing days, did I happen to forget to actually mention my point?

Once I’ve gone through, concentrating on organization and flow, I try to let it sit again. There isn’t always time – deadlines loom – but distance is good. Fresh eyes also help you come back to it without thinking that all of it sucks. (You definitely want to be able to see any part that might, in fact, suck, so you can make it better before anyone else sees it, but chances are there are good things, and you want to be sure you don’t accidentally mess them up in the name of revision.)

After I’ve got the solid framework, with everything in order and explained, the pruning can begin. Did I add in too many examples? Are there phrases like “the way in which” that can be axed for a simpler “how”? Do my favorite words crop up too many times?

All of these, though, are more surface-level changes, and that’s why they need to wait. There’s no point in making a paragraph pretty until it’s in the right spot and the proper connections can be made – or until I know it’s staying because yes, it supports the overall argument. Line edits happen after the final chops have been administered, but a lot of work comes before the decision to cut.

I also find it easier to delete after I’ve put in enough work that I don’t want to leave something that doesn’t fit just because I think it sounds cool. It also helps to have a printed copy of the initial draft, both for ease of reading and because, even if I delete it on my screen, it still exists somewhere in case I decide to use it again. On a page covered in red, sure, but it’s there.

If I were a gardener, I’d probably say that revision and editing means filling in the thin spaces in the hedge, and balancing the density of flowers, and making sure the colors coordinate in ways that are pleasing to the eye. There’s probably something to be said about fertilizing and knowing which plants need what kind of care, and how doing something for this one flower would actually kill that one over there. Knowing growing seasons and how to tell a dead branch from a resting one.

I’m not a gardener, but I do know there’s more to it – and more to revising and editing – than pruning.

Too many things left on this to-do list

When I get close to completing one of the tasks on my writing/editing to-do list, I tend to slow down. (Procrastination by blog post writing, anyone?) I can focus on one task at a time just fine, but when it gets closer to checking one off, my eyes drop down and I see everything else I have to do.

Yikes.

It doesn’t seem to matter how big or small each task is. If it’s an item on the list, it looms large. And there are always so many left to do. Even when a deadline is months away, the number of lines can make it seem like I don’t have enough time.

So … what’s the solution? Aside from stopping five pages short of this round of editing to write a blog post, that is. Which probably tells you that I don’t really have a solution.

I’m a fan of having notes in front of me to remind me what to focus on. Some of them are on a bulletin board. Others are on a dry erase board. Still more are on sticky notes. (I have a lot of notes.) They get moved around depending on how important they are, with the most urgent peering at me from around my laptop screen.

The full to-do list hides in a drawer, thanks. I don’t need to stare at all of those lines and tasks every day.

I’m going to try limiting my sightline tasks to just two: the one I’m about to finish, and the next one in line. That’s it. Just two tasks. If you can travel miles in the dark by your headlights, you can write a book two tasks at a time.

It’s important to know that you have (so much) more to do, but it’s just as important to keep track of the fact that you are, actually, making progress. Items are being ticked off the list. You’re not at the last item (or the deadline) just yet, but you’re getting closer. Sure, there’s a long way to go, but look at how far you’ve come.

I’ve got my two tasks right there, staring at me, so we’ll see how this works. I’ve got five pages left to edit on this round, and it should be quick, if I can manage to focus on them and not the five pages left of my to-do list.

Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, and blinders on. Let’s do this.

On good days, write. On bad days, write.

I’m not sure who originally said it or where I first saw it – Joanne Harris tweeted it in 2017 – but it’s been on my mind this week. And it seems to sound at least a little better than “You’re going to be writing for the rest of your life.” That’s more like a prison sentence.

I’ve been thinking about it based more on how much of a process writing is and how long the timeline stretches. For a single piece, you’re conceptualizing, drafting, rewriting, submitting, revising and resubmitting, getting rejected, getting to the next step for more revising and resubmitting, and – eventually, if you’re lucky – proofing something and seeing it in print. It takes a long time to get something from inside your head to in front of other people’s eyeballs.

When I was in grad school, they cautioned us about it in another way: if you’re tenure track, go for many articles instead of one book. If the book falls through (and they do, for all kinds of reasons, during different steps of the process), then you have nothing. If a single article stalls out, at least you have others.

It’s one of the reasons to always have multiple projects in process, all at different stages. Some of those stages are a bunch of waiting. Others are quick, possibly frenzied, work. You can’t always control when you’ll hit each step – when you get the proofs back and when they’re due, for example – so you need to be flexible. When you’re juggling, know which balls are rubber and which are glass, so you know which ones can be dropped without shattering.

But it’s also because, when you get a rejection, you didn’t put all your eggs (or breakable glass balls) in one basket. There’s something else to fall back on for the days when you can’t bring yourself to wade through reviewers’ comments, and a way to boost yourself up again to get to the point where you can.

(Disclaimer: yes, okay, having multiple projects going on at once also increases your chances of getting multiple rejections at once. Say, two in one day, even. But you can handle rejection, and the way you think about rejection, and you won’t ever get to acceptance, even with minor revisions, if you don’t keep submitting.)

But here’s the other thing: after you get good news, you keep writing. Even then.

Part of it is the previously-mentioned precarious nature of publishing. Until your writing is actually in print, there are still a bunch of hurdles and stumbling blocks. You don’t get to permanently hang up your writer’s hat once you get that acceptance email. There’s always more work to do prior to publication, for one. And you probably want to get published again, too.

So on bad days – rejection days – you write. And on good days 0\- acceptance days – you write, too. Maybe not on the project that got the rejection or the acceptance, but … you write. Having multiple projects means you can make sure it’s useful writing, especially when you don’t want to deal with reviewers’ comments or confront why, exactly, your piece got rejected. And on good days, you can take that energy and channel it into another project because you’re not done yet.

Writers write, period.

On good days, write. On bad days, write.

Whether you drink vodka or champagne instead of coffee as you do is up to you.

What’s your writing schedule look like?

It’s a common question, especially when other people are trying to figure out how to plan for a project: Rebecca, what’s your writing schedule look like? How do you do it?

It’s a complicated answer, one of those that starts with “It depends.” It doesn’t even just depend on who you are as an author and how you work best. For me it also depends on the project, the time of year, what else is going on in my life, and things I probably haven’t even identified yet. So piece of advice #1 is: you have to be willing to adapt.

I’ve had projects where I write at least x number of words every single day until the book is done. Every. Single. Day. It’s not something I’d really recommend, because that’s a quick trip to burnout, but if the project itself is on fire, I don’t stop myself. Some days I wake up seriously wanting to write, and if there’s time in my schedule for it, I’m not going to stop myself.

There are too many days when I wake up not feeling like I want to write.

My current schedule has me at my laptop three days a week, with “writing” as my main task for two hours at a time. Let’s break that down.

Why two hours? Concentration. It takes a while to get into the zone (if today happens to be a “zone” day), so the time slot can’t be too short, but I definitely feel myself fading before two hours is up. If I specifically say “two hours,” then I can quit without feeling like giving up. If I’m still writing at speed when the timer dings, I can finish off the thought and feel good about it.

This doesn’t mean that I spend the entire two hours typing words. If you have a longer writing session like that, you can break it up using the Pomodoro Technique, or you can treat it more like stray thoughts during meditation: notice you’ve gone off somewhere and bring yourself back to the task at hand. No judgment.

I don’t usually turn off the internet or anything like that during these sessions. There are times when I’ll write and highlight something to look up later, and other times I’ll go ahead and google the tidbit I need. (This is frequently where the wandering happens, but again, I’ll remind myself I’m supposed to be writing and bring myself back to Word.) It’s an option, though, if you still find yourself too distracted, and there are all sorts of apps and things you can use to help.

Three days a week is a good balance for me because it still allows me to take weekends off while also forcing me to sit here in front of the screen. (Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, as one of my grad school professors likes to say.) Having Tuesdays and Thursday mornings as “not-writing” times also gives me the flexibility to do the things you need to do if you’re writing that aren’t actually typing words.

Reading. Resting. Engaging in a hobby so my thoughts can keep on ticking over behind the scenes. Maybe re-reading something I’ve written. Or just daydreaming.

Having some structured work mornings, some unstructured work mornings, and some non-work weekend mornings is a good approach for me right now. I’m currently on top of my writing projects, so I don’t need to force myself to write more or work faster.

The breaks are necessary to allow me to keep up my energy and enthusiasm, and the strict three days ensure I keep up my momentum. I’ve even taken a whole week off in the middle of my current project, and here’s the important thing about breaks if “resting” gives you anxiety: name the expiration date. “I’m taking today off, but I’ll be back at it tomorrow.” Or “I’m taking this week off, but Monday morning I’ll be at my desk again.”

If you schedule your breaks like you schedule your writing, you can take the same approach: when your attention wanders and you start doing something that isn’t currently your priority, bring yourself back. No, you don’t need to be thinking about your article right now. If you get a massive brainwave, write down a note so you don’t forget it, and let it go for now. You need time to rest and recuperate and take a step back so those connections can be made.

So right now the short answer to “How do you do it?” is “Two hours at a time, one word after another.”

How do you write?

The garbage will do

The other day someone took to twitter to ask writers what their first drafts look like. Are they tight and polished? How much work do you have to do once you get things drafted? Is it all clean and basically perfect?

I’ve got more space to answer here, so I’ll start with this: no one sees my first drafts. Just me. I’m not even going to take a photograph of one of the pages to give you an example of what it looks like after I’ve read it through and marked it up. So that’s comforting, at least: nobody ever has to see your first draft.

I did respond with this photograph of my personalized editing stamps, and I want to talk a bit more about them. Starting with a question to you: how many times would you have to anticipate writing something before you bought a self-inking stamp to use instead?

Yeah.

Not only are my first drafts far from perfect, but I know what issues I should be looking for. I’m predictable.

Why not just correct those issues while I’m drafting, then? You try it. Writing’s hard. It’s enough of a struggle to get the words on the page without also adding the idea of perfection on top of it. Have you ever found yourself staring at a blank cursor because you don’t want to make a mistake? That’s no way to get things written.

So, while I won’t show you an ink-covered draft page, I will at least go through my stamps with you.

cite! – the meaning behind this one should be clear enough, but having this stamp also means accepting a particular practice: that I don’t have to always stop and look something up when I’m writing. If it’s going to interrupt the flow, I’ll just dump something in that’s close to what it should be and then go back and look it up later, during editing.

delete – not everything I write will make the final cut. It’s sad, but sometimes darlings have to be killed. Or at least moved into a different document.

transition – ah, yes. I am fond of using headings to jump from one topic to another without adding in a transition. Part of it is how I need to write the next section before I fully understand what I’m transitioning to. Another part is being able to jump from section to section when I’m writing without forcing myself to follow the outline point by point.

SO? – the big one. I’m rather fond of knowing exactly why I’m talking about something and how it connects back to my main point, but not actually coming out and saying it. And again, that’s fine, because (again again) nobody reads my first drafts. It’s something that can easily be picked up and worked in on a second pass.

unpack – yeah, it’s a buzzword, but these stamps are tiny and you can only fit so many letters on them. Basically this fits in with SO?: there’s something going on here, but I haven’t actually slowed down enough to say it. I’m trying to get through all of these ideas without fully laying them out and explaining and making connections. The ideas are all there, which is the most important part, and I can add in the support while I revise.

wut – everyone’s favorite. Look, there are times when I just have no idea what I was saying. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Maybe it’ll get changed to delete.

awk – sometimes I’m an awkward duck and it shows in my writing. Revising makes me look less awkward. Did I mention I never show anyone my first draft?

LONG – I like long sentences. I think they make me look more academic. But, when I go back and read them, I really see that they make me look difficult to follow. It’s another easy fix.

I have stamps of these things because I know that I do them. I anticipate that I’ll keep on doing them.

I give myself permission to keep on doing them.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. (Thanks, Terry Pratchett.) No one else has to see it. No one has to judge it – not even you. Get the words on the page first so you can shift to concentrating on having them make sense before you show them to someone else.

I, personally, recommend the personalized stamps. They add a little bit more fun to the process. And maybe a little bit more self-acceptance, too.

How do you care about a project for months?

Books take a long time to write. It’s exciting at first, getting the initial idea, working up the proposal, and hoping you get accepted, but then … you live with the idea for months, writing and revising, and other ideas pop up and seem more interesting. How do you hang in there long enough to finish when staring at a page of the manuscript makes you want to tear your hair out?

The advice totally comes from the James and the Giant Peach movie: try looking at it another way. (Imagine a giant stop-motion earthworm saying it with an English accent. Unless that makes it more scary than helpful.)

Last week I forced myself to tackle the conclusion of the book I’m currently working on. When you start a book, you pick one way of organizing your ideas. You have to – otherwise it’s nonsense. And you pick something that you thing readers will be able to follow easily, while still getting your point. But, when you pick one organization, it means rejecting all the others.

I like to write up all my chapters and read them through before going for the conclusion. The time between reading and starting to write can vary, but it’s at least long enough for me to read what I’ve actually written (as opposed to what I thought I’d write) and highlight the main points. Then I like to type up all my notes, print them off, and cut then apart so I can rearrange them.

For me, the actual act of cutting and arranging is more useful than manipulating everything digitally. I start sorting my little strips of paper into piles based on very general section ideas. Last week I put a bunch of sticky notes on the floor with proposed categories and dealt out the strips of paper into each one. This can mean adding another sticky note if there are too many strips that don’t seem to fit, or combining a couple if their piles are smaller and the ideas too similar.

Sorting my ideas this new way made me remember why I’d liked it in the first place. I’ve been working with them in one order – the chapter order, the book proposal order – for months, but putting all the main ideas together in a single pile helps me see how the chapters are connected to each other instead of being isolated ideas.

It also helps remind me of the “so what?” that can get forgotten when focusing on each individual chapter instead of the whole book.

And I kept hearing Earthworm in my head: try looking at it another way. Taking a step back to look at the forest and organizing it in a way other than just by type of tree. Putting down the individual puzzle pieces and looking at the picture on the front of the box again.

It can be a lot harder when the deadline suddenly seems closer and you realize you have to finish something that you might not think is any good anymore. There’s the temptation to keep banging away the same way you always have, just trying to get it done, instead of taking a breath and trying something else. But keeping your nose to the grind isn’t always the best way to get things done.

Sometimes you need to let things drop, take a deep breath, and look at them a different way so you can help remind yourself about why this idea was worth all the effort in the first place.

Reframing rejection

The other day I was updating my spreadsheet of proposals and queries. It’s kind of a depressing process, because it means checking my emails again for dates of rejections, but it also reminds me of what I’ve sent out, what’s been decided, and what’s still hanging. As far as guessing when I’ll hear back, well, that’s another question for another time, but it got me thinking about rejections.

The thing is, there’s no secret language in a rejection that actually means “You suck.” Even those form rejections – they don’t actually mean your work is terrible or that you’ve somehow failed as a person. It’s not the greatest feeling in the world to receive them, no, but “I’m sorry, this isn’t a fit” honestly, truly doesn’t mean your ideas are worthless or your writing is garbage.

Imagine you’re decorating a wall. Maybe you’ve just moved, or rearranged the furniture, or put up new wallpaper. You’ve got this space, and you have a lot of lovely artwork. Of course it’s lovely – you’ve bought it all, and you’ve got a good eye. But you’re working with a few limitations.

The first is simply space. If you have more art than you have wall space, something has to be cut. As hard as you try, you just can’t squeeze it all in there.

So next you look at composition: what goes with what? Can you make a nice arrangement of these five pieces, but the other three don’t really fit? Maybe they don’t work with the color scheme or the overall theme. The other three might go together, but they aren’t going to work here. If you tried to cram one in, it would just stand out and throw everything off.

And when you do get the five arranged, does the light hit them properly? Are they too crowded, after all? Do you need to switch something around, or buy a new frame, or even wait until an order arrives so you have enough hardware to hang things?

You’re not passing on something because it isn’t good. It just doesn’t fit here, among all the other pieces. Pieces, of course, that you personally can see, but the artists can’t. Van Gough wasn’t pondering how he might paint something that would look good between this Monet and that Picasso. He was just … painting. Producing his best work. Not sure which pieces would become popular enough to be dorm room posters and which would become obscure.

When you’re the writer submitting your work, you don’t really get to see the wall or the other pieces. You’re offering your idea up and hoping that it makes the final cut – that it looks good in the space and fits with the other authors around you.

And that’s something you have no control over. When you get the “Thank you for sharing, but this doesn’t fit” email, that’s all it means: I’ve got a wall and a wide selection of artwork, and yours didn’t end up fitting the overall tableau.

There are certainly ways to get an idea of the wall – reading multiple issues of a journal before you submit to it, for example – but unless you’re an editor selecting articles for your own collection, there’s no guarantee of getting in. Which means a list of rejections, and the need to be resilient and seek out the next possible wall on which to display it.

How long is your list of rejections?

Breaking down the writing process

I was talking with my writing buddy last week a little bit about my process. He’s working on his dissertation proposal, I’m working on a book manuscript, and we Zoom together three days a week for two hours at a time. We chat, catch up, and then mute ourselves and get to work. It’s accountability in that I block out the time but, at the end, we can shrug at each other and say “Nope, today was awful, didn’t get it done,” and it’s fine. No consequences.

When we start, we ask each other what our goal is for that session. Mine’s usually not very specific – “I’m working on Chapter 8” – but on Friday I finished proofreading the main body of my manuscript. I rewarded myself with a gold star in my planner and, when we regrouped, the question came up: so, what’s next?

Let’s look at the gold star first: it says “editing done” because “editing done for the intro through Chapter 9 on the first pass of the draft” wouldn’t fit. But it still deserves a star because it’s necessary, and it’s finished. There are a lot – a lot – of little steps on the way to publishing a book, and if you don’t celebrate all of them, no one will.

The star also helps me visualize how I’m breaking things down into those steps. Right now I have two more on my immediate to-do list: move all the edits from the hard copy to the Word document, and write the conclusion. These can be done at the same time, jumping back and forth when one gets to be too annoying. (Usually making all the little changes, adding in the missing transitions, searching for quotes or citations, etc.)

But the point my writing partner took away from it is that not all of the steps can – or have to be – done at the same time.

Yes, reading and writing will overlap, but I don’t sit down at my computer thinking about the next seven steps. (This is something I’ve personally been working on because, if you know me, you know I’m always worried about the next seven steps.) When we Zoom for our sessions, my goal is specifically writing the next part of a given chapter.

Not researching it during those two hours. Not pausing to look something up and getting sucked down a black hole. Not even footnoting properly. Just … writing the next part.

Giving myself permission to write it imperfectly and come back to fix all that later.

I wasn’t thinking about the conclusion while I wrote each chapter. The chapter intros and conclusions come last during that step and, when I was proofreading, I was highlighting the points I need to include in my conclusion. And I haven’t even gotten around to formatting everything properly yet – I want it all there first before I worry whether my citation style is up to snuff or if my headings look right.

It’s okay – even necessary – to put blinders on while you’re focusing on a task. Setting a clear and manageable goal for your writing session (and a reasonable length for that session) is necessary and incredibly helpful. For one thing, it gives you the focus necessary to build up all the pieces you need to complete a big project. For another, it allows you to feel like you’ve accomplished things at different points along the way.

It’s not just gold stars for “They offered me a book contract!” and “I delivered the manuscript!” Those two moments are months apart, and you have to figure out a way to keep going to meet your deadline. A way to feel like you’re making progress.

I choose gold stars and a recognition of my accomplishments. How about you?