I Promise You Won't Learn A Thing From This Blog

The official blog for author Ashley Chappell. Check back every week for a few laughs at my expense or, if you know the love-hate process that is writing, commiseration.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Sit-Down-Shut-Up Method

Shut up smiley
Sit down and shut up.  No, no, I didn’t mean you. I meant me. This is my process, you see.

At least, it was.

I tend to be very easily distracted by just about anything; noises from outside, noises from inside, cats needing cuddles, sparkly motes of dust floating by the window (oh, look at that one!)... This has led to many challenges in finding a writing process that works for me. There have been a few iterations in the past involving everything from blaring Atari Teenage Riot or recorded heartbeats to timed brainstorming and word association games. Not surprisingly, most of these didn’t work. Let’s take a look at a few of my past attempts...

1.       The old Drown-Out-The-World method. It’s safe to call this one my default method with a few variations. This is what I always return to when nothing else I’ve tried has helped my sad level of focus. I’ve used white noise, thunderstorm sounds, loud repetitive rage music, trance music, non-vocal jazz, loud fans + music, and even some of the kooky alpha- wave beats from YouTube. The result? I just end up humming along and not writing. 

2.       The mind-focusing game method. This was one I picked up out of some forum that I thought might have merit. The idea is to start focusing on a problem or a strategy (anything from Free Cell to Risk) and let your brain naturally start weeding out distractions for you before your writing session begins. I’m sure it probably does work for some writers out there, but for me it just led to hours wasted because apparently strategy games are my digital crack.

3.       The cardio method. This one is pretty much exactly what it sounds like and it probably came from the same forum as the above failed method.  Basically I was supposed to do 20-30 minutes of any form of cardio and it was supposed to have a dual effect: Eliminate physical stress allowing me to mentally relax, and flush some unknown toxins (possibly the beer) from my blood stream to let me think more clearly and without distraction.  The problem? If I could make myself do cardio I’d still be in last year’s pants.

4.       The reward method. This was the short-lived method in which I tried rewarding myself with chocolate for a high word count. Although it resulted in a lot of words written, it also meant erasing entire crappy chapters that were hastily written in a desire for chocolately satisfaction. Incidentally, it also coincided with the worst acne break-out since my teens and probably a big part of the reason I still can’t get into last year’s pants.

5.       The punishment method. Even more short-lived, this one was probably the silliest and most desperate I’ve tried. Anytime I found myself getting off-track and distracted whilst writing, I had to hold my breath until I finished a sentence. All I really got out of this was a bunch of very short sentences and a few dizzy spells.

Sad, isn’t it? However, all of the failed attempts at finding my own personal writing process did help lead me to one major discovery: Dealing with the external distraction isn’t my problem. In fact, since I sat down to write this blog I’ve darted off on about 10 other tasks that somehow popped into my mind and are not even tangentially related to this blog. I’ve been checking Facebook, re-checking Facebook, researching a hand-held vacuum cleaner, checking my bank account to see if my utility payment posted, Googling for a picture of a hobo spider, etc. I just plain can’t control myself.

VoicesI always thought that “Sit down and shut up” was the first step to writing, but it turns out that this might be my first obstacle to writing. Sitting down and shutting up is apparently handing the reins over to my brain and giving it carte blanche to start spinning its wheels wherever it wanted to go. Sometimes it trips over a good story element on the way, but usually it’s more like trying to walk 5 dogs on 5 leashes who all want to go a different direction. 

So it was with this in mind that I tried the exact opposite approach when I got to a road block in my writing this time. I stood up, walked around, and talked to myself about the book for about twenty minutes. Loudly (thankfully Steven wasn’t home so his doubts about my sanity still haven’t been confirmed). In this twenty minutes of talking to walls, cats, and houseplants I managed to advance three plot lines, flesh out a character that was giving me trouble, and devise a solution to a complicated plot problem that needed a big finish. By the time I sat back down to write I was ready to do backflips in excitement and I got another 1,500 words out in no time at all.

No more quiet time for me. Apparently there is nothing like the sound of your own voice to drown out your thoughts. Now I’ll talk to myself in the car, when I’m doing the dishes, in the shower, pretty much any time I’m alone. The only thing left that can't seem to drown out is the happy little chirping I keep hearing while I work out solution after solution aloud: “I found my process, yippee! I found my process, yippee! I found my process, yippee!”

Now that you've seen a few of my oddest attempts at methods, what are the strangest you've tried?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tomorrow is Always a Day Away

Today’s blog is about not blogging. And about not writing, not exercising, not dieting, and in general just not doing. The past few months I’ve been juggling so many hats and projects and lately I feel like I’m always on the run, always working on something, or something is always hanging over my head as something else that has to be done in short order. So those precious times when I find myself with an evening or even just a few hours during which I don’t absolutely have to be doing something, I’ve been pushing off the things that, while they have value to me, aren’t on that list of absolute requirements and doing a blissful amount of nothing instead.

For instance...

I really need to start exercising...
I really need to finish writing that chapter of ‘Tilt’...
I really need to finish woodburning the dragonfly clock...
I really need to update my blog...
I really need to organize the stuff from the move...
I really need to de-cat-hair the Catio
I really need to finish the book trailer for ‘Alice Will’...
I really need to cook a healthy casserole for lunches this week...

But I can do all of that tomorrow and enjoy tonight, right?

The Catio
The "Catio." My writing studio, Fortress of
Solitude, and Bat Cave. Oh, and it has cats.
Wrong. I’ve been consciously lying to myself for weeks now by deciding to do something on the morrow -  and YES, it is a lie because I know I’ll probably go through the same song and dance again the next day. And the next day. Tomorrow is the day that never comes and I’m going to have to start making myself do what I know I should be doing today, not tomorrow.

Now that was Part I of confession time today. I’m a slacker hobbyist and I know it. But Part II is that I know I’m not going to change overnight. Or maybe not even overyear. Sure, there are lots of passive incentives for getting these things done (along the lines of “I’ll feel better for having done this”), but there are plenty of those for sitting my lazy ass on the couch and reading a great  book, too. I think my solution might lie in negative incentives for NOT doing them.

I’ll start small... All of those things listed above are things that I could do every night and any night when the chores and whatnot are complete. Maybe I need to pick one totally at random per night and spend at least an hour doing it. The negative incentive? I'll do exactly what Mom did when I was a kid who wouldn't do my homework: I don’t get to read/eat ice cream/watch Battle Star Galactica until I’ve spent that hour in productive mode. I may even have to rope Steven in to be my conscience and keep me honest in this endeavor, although there is the danger that he might enjoy the role of task master a bit too much. Granted, this may end with me spending some nights staring at a blank wall because I can’t motivate myself, but I think maybe I’m on the right track.

And you know what the best part is? I’m going to start tonight. Because tomorrow will always be a day away.