Writing and ritual: the candle.

The key to being a writer, as they say, is writing. Seems easy enough, except I’m a human.

Getting my butt in a chair in front of a computer is not the hard part; it’s getting me to open up Scrivener and type and not to open up Firefox and plumb the depths of some blog I found or watch every SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch from 1996 to the present. Because going down Internet rabbit holes is easier and less scary than writing what I know will be an awful first draft.

I’m really good at coming up with excuses to not write. I’m not in the right mood, I tell myself after a depressing news tangent. Now I just feel like an Internet glutton; I need to detox from the computer for a while, after a YouTube tangent. I’m thinking about [some media franchise I’m a fan of] too much to write, after a Netflix binge or video game play session. Or how about this one: I can’t write now—I feel like all the people in that awful comments thread I just masochistically read through are watching and judging me. And then, finally, after a full day of this stuff, It’s too late at night. I need to go to bed.

And that is how novels don’t get written.

I’m still working on avoiding temptation and practicing self-control. Something tells me this is going to be a lifetime struggle. But I’ve found a cheap little thing that’s helped me quite a bit. “One Weird Trick,” if you will.

It involves three very inexpensive things:

  1. A 50-cent glass candle holder from Goodwill
  2. A 75-cent votive candle from the Yankee Candle discount basket
  3. A $3 barbecue lighter

And it is a simple 4-step process:

  1. Declare candle the WRITING candle.
  2. Place WRITING candle in candle holder.
  3. Light WRITING candle with barbecue lighter.
  4. WRITE.

Why is this so effective for me? It plays into a lot of my quirks—my desire to squeeze every penny out of that 75-cent candle, for example. If you’re familiar with those little 2-inch votive candles, you know that they never burn perfectly symmetrically; the wick always curves in one direction, pushing the flame out from the center of the candle and melting more wax on one side. Eventually (after about an hour, in my experience) the outer edge of the candle on that side collapses and all the wax drains into the candle holder, dramatically shortening the life of the candle and making you have to chip the wax off the glass after it cools. Worse, the wax now covers an area bigger than the opening, so it’s impossible to get it out in one piece.* To prevent this from happening, you have to extinguish the candle before the wax melts, around the 60-minute mark.

And since that is my WRITING candle, I do not want to spend my one hour of WRITING time on dumb Internet tangents.

The trick is to light it before that nonsense even begins.

candle
This is literally what pushed me to finish Draft 2 of UNBoaTCfAFHV last October and November.

Sure, while I’m writing I get writer’s block now and again, but the candle gives me something mildly interesting to stare at while I wait for more ideas to come. (Once I leaned in too close and singed my own hair a little bit. Don’t do that.)

By the time it’s time to blow out the WRITING candle, I’m often on such a roll that I just keep going. If I need inspiration, I just smell the candle. (I don’t know if that actually works or not. It’s just something to do.)

Just—y’know, be safe about it. Don’t leave burning candles unattended; don’t put flammable things near or above the candle; make sure the candle is on a stable, heat resistant surface; keep pets and kids away, etc. Don’t make dumb decisions. Don’t singe your own hair.

Anyway. There you go. Maybe it’ll help someone else, too.

*The trick to getting wax out easily is freezing the candle holder after the wax is completely cooled. (Freezing it before the wax has completely cooled is a good way to crack the glass.) The wax will shrink and pull back from the glass. The you can just snap the wax into a few pieces and take them out one by one.

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Not much to report this week.

This past week I didn’t get a whole lot done on that sequel, for a few reasons, including homework and errands… but also a bit of an emotional shake-up with an important decision. Can’t go into detail, but I’m all right now, I think.

In other news, I got another commented-upon draft from a third friend, who is exceptionally talented at worldbuilding and has given me lots of good tips in that regard. He also included some meme images that made me spit water on my keyboard. (Just a little bit, though.)

Lessons from writing a sequel.

Last week I got 2,000 words into a sequel to the Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (UNBoaTCfAFHV for short). UNBoaTCfAFHV isn’t close to polished/finished yet, but I figured after nine months of dedicated work on it (after four years of almost no work on it) it could benefit from being shelved for a while.

This is only the second serious first draft I’ve started, and it’s been almost seven years since the last one. I don’t like dealing with the messy, inevitable crappiness of first drafts, so I rarely start them. But the ideas I have are so strong and I can’t stop thinking about them—even if I don’t know where they’ll lead.

When I first started writing it, the ideas and the words flowed relatively easily, which made me think that perhaps the rest of the draft would be just like that: 1,500 words, rough but workable, in only a couple of hours. Maybe I could do that every day and have a complete first draft in a couple months! I thought.

Yeah…. no.

I tried again a few days later, and squeezed out 500 words of choppy prose, one-dimensional characters, robotic dialog, and melodramatic events. How could something be so beautiful in my head and then turn out so poorly when I try to wrap words around it? It’s like that Ecce Homo painting in Spain that was ruined by a well-intentioned amateur artist back in 2012.

But I have to remind myself that the same thing happened when I finished the first draft of the original. It was “103,680 words of plot holes, inconsistent characterization, telling (not showing), awkward dialog, and just plain bad writing,” I wrote after finishing it at 4:00 in the morning. I wondered if I’d ever be able to wade through it.

And it took four years, but I did, and was surprised at how pleased I was with the result.

Rewriting is a huge task; don’t get me wrong. But the nice thing about rewriting (at least, in my experience) is that the more you do it, the clearer your story’s direction becomes. I allow myself to become overwhelmed with the task as a whole: rewriting ENTIRE CHAPTERS? But writing them the first time through was hard enough already! etc. But taking it little by little, allowing the story to show itself, made the task manageable. And, hey, sometimes rewriting flows easily, too.

In other news, just in the last hour an email showed up in my inbox from my friend (a different one this time), with my UNBoaTCfAFHV Draft 3 and her comments attached. Huzzah, supportive writer friends! I look forward to reading her perspective.

A little help from my friends.

I spent much of last week visiting my friends from college, one of whom was the one who gave me those helpful comments on my draft back in January. We had a ton of fun, caught up on the last six years of each other’s lives, made good food, played board games and card games and a D&D one-shot (I was a human rogue), watched one of my friends start playing Breath of the Wild (the local Target had seven Switches in stock. Seven!), and talked a lot about writing and reading. Book recommendations flew. I brought (the finished!) Draft 3 on a flash drive to be passed around. I’m a little nervous about the revisions this time around because I let myself be just a wee bit more vulnerable. They say vulnerability makes one’s writing better, but it’s also terrifying. I await critiques.

In the meantime, a few ideas for a sequel have been bouncing around my head (which is kind of a surprise, but a nice one), so perhaps while I take a break from Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” I can get started on that. Maybe it won’t take six years to get to a presentable draft this time.

A side note: I’m currently reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik at my friend’s recommendation. I’m only a few chapters in (maybe 11 or 12) but I’m totally hooked on the story and setting. I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding. It’s also one of my greatest weaknesses.

Quick update on progress.

I accomplished a lot in the past week but I’m kind of in a rush, so just a few quick things:

  • I went back to the Celtic music session yesterday with my accordion and did a lot better (though still not amazing; but hey, practice really works!).
  • I may have a lead on a harp teacher, or a harp community, at least!
  • I have a passable third draft! Just need to find time to get down to the copy shop and have it printed and spiral-bound.

Facing my suckiness.

I took a leap today and brought my accordion to a local Celtic music session that welcomes beginners, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

Everyone was friendly, but as soon as the music started I found myself staring at the most eighth notes I’ve ever seen in my life (this group seems to like very fast jigs and reels). I ended up not playing most of the songs, and leading one very awkward rendition of “The Ash Grove” that I kept forgetting was in G, not C. My sight-reading is crap—and let’s face it, my accordion technique has gotten SUPER rusty.

I spent most of the session with alternating feelings of determination and immense shame that I’m not as good at my instrument (instruments, actually—I’m not particularly good at any of them) as I want to be. I tried to avoid wallowing in the fear that I’m destined for mediocrity. (That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.) At any rate, I was pretty embarrassed at how much I couldn’t do.

And yet, at the end, people came up to me and expressed hope that I’d return, and that they’d be able to hear me play more. Bless them. Now I have an accordion case full of sheet music to practice before the next session in two weeks.

And then I’ll call the accordion repair guy, promise! I just need the accordion for another month or so. Hopefully it won’t deteriorate any further till then… but it did last forty years in a garage before it came into my hands.

Meanwhile I need to tend to my novel. I depart to visit my friends in less than a month, and those rewrites ain’t gonna… rewrite… themselves.

Stepping out.

I finally did it—I attended an SCBWI event. And it was totally worth it.

A neighboring regional chapter hosted a workshop on revision techniques yesterday, led by a local professional (bestselling) author. It was truly fantastic, and completely worth the 45-minute drive.

I’m still in that gap between Draft 2 and 3 on the novel I started in 2010. There are a few parts that I know need to be rewritten that I’ve been avoiding. After yesterday’s workshop I realize I’ve been avoiding rewriting it because it’s actually boring. I’ve got my work cut out for me—and a lot of different tacks I can take.

Another memorable takeaway from the workshop was an exercise in determining a story’s theme. “It’s 10 years after the events of your story. Imagine that you’re at a bar or a coffee shop and your main character sits down next to you. You get to talking, and the character recounts his or her experiences. Then you ask, ‘So what did you learn from all of that?’ What does your character reply?”

That’s one I’m going to be chewing on for a bit.

Onward.

My West African percussion class continues, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. We have a performance of sorts for a local event coming up in a couple of weeks so there are rehearsals in addition to regular class (which has turned into rehearsal time, as well). The things we’re rehearsing are a good bit more difficult than what we’d been doing in previous sessions, and I’m enjoying the challenge.

I also got in some good time for Draft 3 revisions on that novel I wrote. I’ve bought tickets to see friends in the Midwest this summer, including the friend that gave me all those helpful notes on Draft 2, so my new goal is to finish Draft 3 by the time I depart.

On the ukulele front, I’ve gotten pretty good at the first (and last) part of “Giant Woman” from Steven Universe, but I should probably expand my chord repertoire a bit more than F, Cmaj7, G7, and E7. Or at least learn that middle part.

After two weeks of spare time.

I think I did well these past two weeks. I didn’t spend any egregious amounts of time on the Internet, though I did watch more TV than I probably should have. But on the whole, I made time to do things like:

  • write the solid beginnings of a song
  • practice ukulele (a lot; that thing is addictive!)
  • write the beginning of a short story
  • work on Draft 3 of my untitled novel

I also cooked a lot. I guess I never thought of that as a creative endeavor, but as my good friend pointed out, it kind of is. It’s a particularly satisfying one, too: not only do you get to see the results; you also get to eat them!

I can’t say I “look forward” to starting work again tomorrow, but I think a bit of imposed structure will be good for me. You can’t binge too much when you have a full-time job. Plus, I find I do some of my best work when working it in around other commitments. Not sure why.

Frustrations.

Missed my self-imposed deadline for a post again. Maybe I’ll make the week start on Monday. I was sick for a couple days and had to miss work, which has gotten somewhat intense.

No harp practice to speak of, though I picked at my novel a little bit. Annoyed at myself but determined not to wallow. I have two weeks off from work starting next week, but having large swaths of free time is always a minefield for me. Too many choices leads to agonizing indecision leads to dumb YouTube tangents and other numbing activities.

Still no Switch, probably for the best. I’ve sworn off actively looking for stuff about it on the Internet; this should curb the distraction somewhat. Trying to hold out till the holidays, or at least summer.