How to keep focus and motivation while writing a novel

Well, I sure wish I knew the answer to this one too.  Greenelephantperson asked me this question earlier, and I thought I’d respond to her request.

The first thing I thought of was how I write.  Almost immediately I realized that “what works for me may not work for you.”  I can describe how I write, but that does not answer the question.  My real answer is, “I don’t know.  I haven’t done it yet.”

Let me tell you a little about the journey The First Novel has taken.  Maybe my own experiences will do the best job of explaining.

The First Novel began about four years ago as a simple story that I wanted to tell to a friend.  It described a man and a woman taking a trip together.  Because I was (and still am) fascinated with old aircraft, and because I had just learned all about Transcontinental Air Transport, I framed the trip as a journey on TAT.  There was no ending to the story at the time, and I had no thought of making it into a full length novel.

Then, as such things tend to do in my mind, the story began to grow.  Sometimes I chewed on it consciously, and at other times it must have been subconsciously because a thought about a particular scene or a piece of the plot would pop into my head.  I kept writing, although it hasn’t been a smooth progress.  There were blank periods that lasted months.

That explains my initial motivation and how the novel got started.  More to the point, however, is what has kept me going.  The simple answer is other people.

I shared my story with my sister because, being a Big Sister, she can be expected to pat me on the head and tell me what a wonderful guy I am.  But also because she is my sister, she can also be expected to tell me when my fly is open, or when I’m being an intolerant douchebag.  I have always been able to accept her criticism easily, and she’s good at it.  So she would kick me in the butt from time to time and keep me going.

Next is Chainsaw, my writing buddy.  (I haven’t formally proposed to him yet, but we’re writing buddies in action if not in title).  Chainsaw has already finished a couple of novels, and that drives me crazy.  I know he just looks down his nose at me constantly and thinks I’m inferior because the world is just full of unpublished wanna-be authors who are working on a novel but haven’t finished one yet.  So, partly because it is a male competitive thing, I’m pushing to get my first draft done so that I can at least say I have completed a novel.  (And besides which he has only uploaded some text to Amazon and set a price for it.  I could poop all over some paper (figuratively) and sell that on Amazon too.  Take that Chainsaw.  *MY* novel will be on the NYT bestseller lists for years.  But don’t worry, you can come visit me on my yacht.)

So that’s Person Two who keeps me motivated.  Person Three is you, dear readers.  You and everyone else to whom I have been bold enough to announce, “I am writing a novel.”  Because many of you will encourage me, like my sister, and many of you will look down your noses at me, like Chainsaw, because I haven’t finished a novel.  So I’m motivated to keep going because I’m going to both earn your praise and shove your noses in my finished novel when I make a down payment on my Maserati.

That answers the motivation part of the question, at least for me.  Focus is another struggle, and the mechanisms for achieving that are as varied as writers are.  My main enemy is distraction.  I have a tendency to “research” as I write (how many horsepower did a single Mayback V-12 on a zeppelin produce?) and that often leads me down a rabbit hole into the wonderland of the Interwebs where I have a tendency to get lost.  Next thing I know, I’m “researching” the two types of V-16 engines that Cadillac produced in the 1930’s and I realize I’ve got to get up and go to work in six hours.

Personally, I like to slap the headphones on and listen to the Blues while I write.  It does tend to minimize certain other distractions for me, although some writers need graveyard quiet.

Bottom line is, whatever works works.  You’ve got to figure out how to get into the zone and write – focus – and you’ve got to find a way to push yourself into that zone day after day – motivation.

Someday, if I follow my own advice, I’ll be able to say, “I wrote a novel.”

What is wrong with you people?

Why are you not flocking to my blog, re-blogging all my fantastic posts, and flooding me with comments and requests for more of the First Novel?  I am the Next Great Novelist!

Well, maybe it’s not entirely your fault.  Maybe I’m not all that interesting. . . yet.  Or maybe I just totally suck.  Okay, well I pretty much suck most of the time, I guess.  But every time I post I get better, right?  Right?  (listens for the sound of nodding heads)

I actually have something worthwhile to discuss rather than just complaining (which is still complaining even though I do it tongue-in-cheek).  First, I have finished Chapter 11 of the First Novel (with a Zeppelin!), and have begun on Chapter 12, wherein the female protagonist lands her first Hollywood role.  Which will lead to. . . oh no you don’t.  No spoilers yet.  It will lead to the end of the story!  So there’s that.

And, I’ve also done some work on the Second Novel.  I’ve realized that while the First Novel is great, the greatest greatness of the Next Great Novelist will be in subsequent novels.  So I worked on my new protagonist and actually put in some effort on creating the character first rather than just banging away at the keys in some naive hope that the story will magically coalesce out of the vast ether of unexpressed ideas into a brilliant, coherent, and marketable story.

I’ve also been working on improving my craft by reading what those who are much farther along the path of authorship than I have to say about it.  Today I came across a post by Karen Lamb titled “The Bookpocalypse” which rather bluntly explains why the First Novel is likely to be childish scribbling compared to the inspired masterpiece which the Second Novel will surely become and how the First Novel may be destined to become nothing more than tiny bits of ash once I finally realize that explosives are a more fitting end for it than the humiliation of publication.

Before I break out the dynamite, however, I’m going to at least finish the first draft of the First Novel and solicit some feedback from a few beta readers.  Then I’ll put some strong effort into a rewrite.  Once in a while, to give myself a little break, I will plunk away on the work for the Second Novel, for which I only have the vaguest notion of a plot so far.  It will be GREAT though!

Angry and Sad

Earlier today I learned – in probably the worst way – that a friend of mine passed away.

They slip away from us so easily sometimes, when we’re not paying attention.  “I’ll call you soon,” we say, “we’ll have a cup of coffee.  Talk about the old days.”  And we mean to, but then there’s this thing or that and a few days turns into a few weeks, then a few months.  And one day, you wonder why good old so-and-so hasn’t called and it turns out they haven’t called because they fucking died.

Poof.  And that good intention of having a nice chat soon about the good old days will sit down in the pit of your stomach and have a nice long gnaw at your soul.

I met David when we were about 12 and we spent a lot of time together over the next 8 or so years.  Good times, bad times.  Got in all kinds of trouble, had so much fun we laughed until we cried, had so much misery we cried until we laughed. 

Around 20 or so, I thought I was getting my shit together.  I was getting married and I was getting over all that teenage bullshit… drugs and partying and mayhem.  And David was starting a descent into a pit of alcoholic hell that would take him 30 years to climb back out of.  I don’t really remember the last time I saw him, but he remembered.  He was crashing at one of our drugged out loser acquaintances places, unwashed, spread out with all the other garbage on the apartment floor.  I left him there like a piece of trash and I didn’t talk to him for another 30 years.

In the meantime I wrestled my own demons.  Failed marriages, addictions of my own.  And one day, with the internet at my disposal, I sought David out and found him.  We emailed, we talked on the phone, we promised to get together soon.  He was in rehab.  He’d spent the whole 30 years building a life and destroying it with alcohol.  But when we found each other again, he was sober.  Not only had he gotten sober, but he’d decided to become a counselor himself.

We talked less and less frequently and then faded apart.  Again.

#

Not long ago, the idea for The Second Novel came to me.  The First Novel, like all first novels, is never going to be my finest work.  It’s just the story that has gotten me ramped up and is preparing me to be The Next Great Novelist with my second and subsequent works.  And my new protagonist is a character that David would love – and identify with.  He’s a tortured soul, fighting his personal demons, conquering them slowly, and maintaining an amazing sense of humor throughout.  And he helps other people find peace.

I knew David would love this guy, because we’d created some great characters together before and told some inspired stories about them.  It was usually just to amuse ourselves, but we both had the same spark, and the new guy was poured out of the old mold.  So I decided I’d seek David out again, share a laugh, get his counsel, collaborate a bit.  This time, we’d have that cup of coffee.  And today I found out he had a fucking heart attack last May and fucking died.  So I can’t share my new character with him, have a chuckle over a joke only he and I would understand, or anything else because he’s gone.

And worse… so much worse… because this is the second time this has happened to me.  The second old friend I called and said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll get together soon,” and then blew off.  The second friend I looked up on the internet and found out he was dead.

So maybe David, may his soul rest in peace, reached out to me and gave me my new character.  Or maybe I just want to think he did.  Looking at the new character now, I see he is David, at least in part.  So… I can’t go have that cup of coffee anymore… but I can make the new character live.  I can share the anguish in his/my soul.  I can show an indomitable spirit, a crazy sense of humor, a love of life, a realization of what matters.  And nobody else who meets my new character will know that, but maybe, because of who he is and how he lives, he can touch somebody. 

I don’t what else to do for David or for me, but it’s something.

Arrgghhh!

Writer’s block of a different form.  I sort of started this blog as a way to help me grind through the rough patches on The First Novel, maybe work out a few anger issues with The Grumpy Curmudgeon, and last yet certainly not least, build a fanbase of loyal readers.  Can’t be the Next Great Novelist if nobody reads my stuff.

I’ve actually been plugging right along on Chapter 11, which is great.  I’m maybe about two-thirds of the way done and. . . it has a Zeppelin in it!graf-zeppelin-los-angele004a  That’s right!  How many stories do you get to read with a Zeppelin, eh?  Pretty cool.  And no, it doesn’t explode.

But what I haven’t been writing is this blog and I feel like I owe y’all something.  Problem is, I don’t really have anything good to write about.  So it’s the writer’s block thing sort of.  I figure, however, if I write about what I have been writing, and write about why I haven’t been writing about what I haven’t been writing, and put in a picture of a Zeppelin… then we’re good.  For now.  Yes?

One Step Closer

I thought I’d take a crack at the Weekly Writing Challenge this week.  Here is my story:

On this particular day I was flying back from a trip to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.  The nearest sizeable airport is Kansas City, which despite its clever name, is really located in Missouri.  Oh sure, there is in fact a Kansas City in Kansas, but when you sing about how you’re “going to Kansas City… Kansas City here I come,” you’re talking about the one in Missouri.

Earlier in the year, I’d done quite a bit of flying on business and had racked up a fair amount of frequent flyer miles and some other perks.  One of the perks was a handful of 500-mile certificates.  Having discovered that I could use the certificates to upgrade from Cattle-Car-Coach to Actual-Customer-Service-Business-Class, I decided to upgrade my flight from Kansas City to Denver, and then the connecting flight from Denver to Palm Springs.

I’m not really a huge fan of flying as transportation.  I don’t think anybody is.  One jackhole decides to try putting a bomb in his shoe and now the rest of humanity is doomed for all eternity to walk through security in our stocking feet.  Given the option, I’d much rather take the train.  But business is business and when you’ve got to travel quickly, you fly.  When I can make it a little more comfortable, and get a genuine smile from a Flight Attendant instead of the airline’s equivalent of shoving a tray of food under my cell door, I upgrade.

It was wintertime, and Denver was a mess.  My outgoing flight from Denver was delayed about an hour.  The plane was a Boeing 737 which is not huge and so it doesn’t have Business Class.  It does, however, have a First Class cabin so my upgrade got me all the way up to where royalty and movie stars get to ride.  Nice.  As one of the privileges of flying First Class, you get to use the “red carpet” to board the airplane, and don’t have to go up the regular cattle chute.  You also don’t have to wait for your zone to be called.  You can just get on whenever you want.

Most people prefer to board early.  It doesn’t matter all that much to me either way because we’re not going anywhere until we’re all on board, but getting on sooner allows you to stow your gear and sit in a nice comfy seat.  Plus, they usually serve a drink while you are waiting, which is not only nice but it sets you apart from the lowing slabs of meat who’re being herded into their stalls behind you.

Some people are in a dreadfully urgent hurry to get onto the plane first.  I don’t really understand this compulsion.  Maybe they like to sit and wait longer than anyone else.  These are the same people who will jump lanes in front of you in traffic so they can be the first to arrive at the next red light one block away.

So when the announcement came that we’d be boarding in a few minutes, several of the First Class passengers began to move up to the red carpet.  I stood and gathered my things too, but I didn’t feel a great sense of urgency.  We weren’t boarding just yet.  I moved into the group of people who were waiting in front of the red carpet.  We were in that sort of undefined mass of people that eventually coalesces into an organized queue.  I didn’t feel a need to get personal with anyone just yet, so I stood back a few paces and waited.  We could all see that the agent at the gate wasn’t quite ready.  She was dealing with a couple of people up at the front of the red carpet and hadn’t actually begun the process of checking boarding passes and letting people through.  There did seem to be a general air of expectancy among the passengers.  We’d all been waiting for an extra hour and we were anxious to get going.  Seeing that the line wasn’t yet moving, though, I felt no need to collapse anyone’s bubble of personal space and move right up to where I could smell his after shave (or lack thereof).

As I’m standing there waiting for the small logjam on the red carpet to break loose, a man taps me on the shoulder and says, “Are you going to move forward?”  I do a slow double take.  I look at him, look at the line which clearly isn’t moving yet, and look back at him.  I smile.  It was supposed to be a friendly and conspiratorial smile, but it was probably half sneer out of derision for his stupid question and half grimace because I was tired of waiting.

“Eventually,” I say.

“But not right now,” he blusters and proceeds to shove his way past me in order to stand one step closer to the spot from which no one was yet progressing.

Less than a minute later another fellow politely asks me, “Are you in line?”  That is a much better question so I simply say, “Yes.”  I say so loud enough so that Rudely Shoves Forward can hear me.  The polite fellow says, “Oh.  I couldn’t tell where the line was.”  He is making a gentlemanly reference to the fact that I hadn’t moved to within impregnation distance of the person in front of me and thus boldly established my place within the pack.  I nod towards Rudely Shoves Forward.

“Apparently it forms behind this gentleman here.”  He hears me, because I have passively-aggressively made sure he could, and shoots me a look.  I pay him back with a smirk.  I am not intimidated, but I am still nonchalant about crowding forward in order to wait one step closer.  Had I been in a darker and bolder mood, which I sometimes am, I would have fought for my place in line and refused to allow anyone to punk me.  I’m not in that sort of mood today.  I’m on my way home, this is my last leg, and I’m patiently waiting to enjoy my luxurious seat and friendly service.

The line begins to move.  Rudely Shoves Forward now feels the need to establish that he isn’t a total dick, so he steps back and gestures that I should precede him.  I protest with mocking politeness, but he insists.  He now wants to win this contest too.  I briefly consider accepting this challenge, and doing a version of the old Alphonse and Gaston routine:  “After you,”  “Oh no, after you,” “Oh no, please I insist, after you,” but there are other people waiting and I have no desire to hold up a few innocent bystanders just to prove that I can out-dick the dick.  I proceed to board the airplane.  As I walk down the ramp, I wonder what motivates somebody to be such a colossal ass.

I find my big plush armchair and stash my carry-on in the roomy compartment provided for upper crust travelers such as myself.  I adjust my position and relax with a smug sigh.  In the aisle seat across from me, Rudely Shoves Forward assumes his position.  The herd of weary mortals now begins the slow march past us, wearing their Death March faces and gazing longingly at we privileged few sitting upon our thrones.

A fellow with an amazingly large bag slung over his shoulder makes his way along the aisle.  The line comes to one of its frequent halts.  Behind him, a woman with whom he is obviously traveling says something that clearly requires a response.  He spins around quickly.  I watch an old fashioned slapstick comedy as the heavy bag whips around and smacks dead full into the face of Rudely Shoves Forward.  To this day I still see in my mind’s eye a slow motion shot of his distorted features, like a close-up of the knockout blow at a boxing match.

It was a very pleasant flight all the way home.

Just WRITE, damn it!

So, I’ve got the summer off between classes and I set myself the goal of finishing the first draft of The First Great Novel.

Yeah, right.

I figured two pages a day, five days a week is a decent goal.  I know that when I’m on a roll, I can crank out a half a dozen pages without even breaking a sweat.  The problem is to get rolling.

I’ve even got a day off, with nothing in particular that I have to do.  I went through the usual morning routine of avoidances.  I spent an hour or two running around the internet wasting time this morning.  Then I had toast and coffee with Mrs. Novelist (usually a pleasant way to spend time).  Then I watched an entire movie on TCM (a great old Navy flick).  I browsed around here in WordPress for awhile, reading a few blogs I follow and wandering through a few random posts in topics that sounded interesting at the time.  I’m also about to finish tipping all my neighbors in Restaurant Story.  That pretty much runs the gamut of allowable diversions.

I’ve also completed the checklist of preparations.  I had a couple cups of coffee and I’ve got a cold iced tea sitting here.  I’ve got the headphones on and my favorite Blues station is jamming.  So everything is ready. . . and instead I’m sitting here writing another blog post because I’m telling myself that my loyal blog followers expect to see something every couple of days. . . or else their loyalty will be short lived.  And that’s important right?  Because that’s the basis of my huge fan following that will be hanging on every word I can possibly write, just waiting to throw money at me for each succeeding Great Novel.  That villa in Spain isn’t just going to buy itself, after all.

Except that none of that is going to happen until I can finish writing The First Novel.  Hey, I did make some progress over the last couple days. . .  we got to see a polo match. . .  I got a character named after Chainsaw worked into the story as payback for him putting one into his named after me. . . I put a few more forgotten landmarks into the story. . . and now here are Protaginator and Protaginatrix (and her brother) about to sit down and have dinner at one of the most famous restaurants in Hollywood and. . .

Nothing.  Like when you’re getting ready to go somewhere and you open the car door and you notice the light doesn’t come on.  You pretend to ignore it, even though that nagging little voice that won’t fucking shut up says, “Dead battery, dead battery, neener neener neener.”  You get in and stow your gear and slip the key in and. . . nothing.

::sigh::

Alright, damn it.  My brain is like my old 1957 VW bus.  I’ll just turn the key on, give it a mighty shove, leap into the seat, slam it into 2nd gear and pop the clutch.  Oh yeah, there it goes. . . ::cough, sputter, bang, BANG, purrrrrrrrrrrrrr::