Baby Steps to Completing Your Story

I've never understood spring cleaners. The sun is out longer, the air is sweet with wildflowers, why in the world would you want to be inside cleaning? I'm a fall cleaner. The way I see it, I'm about to be stuck inside for a very long time, hiding away from short days filled with rain and long, cold nights. There's no better time to get the house organized if you ask me.  

With my wife heading back to school and our son now able to entertain himself, this stay at home dad finally has time to clean and organize. But oh my what a daunting task. It's overwhelming the amount of work that needs to be done just to get it to the point of being maintainable. Then a lesson from Your Own Worst Enemy sprang to mind.

In the book the author talks about how we often don't start projects because they appear too large to tackle. He suggests that you work preemptively and put things away as you go. One of the core lessons is, “never put off for tomorrow what can be done today.” But let's say it's too late for preventative measures. What then?

That's when you break things up. Take the house, for example. I started in the kitchen on my wife's first day back to work. We had a sink piled high with dishes, with even more dishes left around the house. They'd built up over the last few days because we were trying to conserve hot water because the propane tank was almost empty and we were waiting for the gas man to come fill it back up. Well, he came and went, and with him went my excuses.

So rather than looking at the whole house when considering my house cleaning project, I decided to look at just the kitchen. Beyond that, I looked at just the kitchen sink. Once those dishes were done and drying, I turned my attention to a counter. Then I moved to another counter. Each time thinking to myself, “Well, I'll just do this one spot, even if I do just this one spot the whole rest of the kitchen will look a lot better for it.”

After the counters were cleared, scrubbed, and reorganized I looked at the floor. Oh how it needed to be scrubbed. But there was so much of it. “What if I just do this section right here? I can always do more tomorrow.” And so I did just that section. Today I scrubbed all the rest of the floor and worked on another counter. Just a few small things, a little extra work each day, and I'm starting to catch up.

When I sat down to write tonight I thought about all the things that I had to do, the blog, Spark, revising my flash piece, revising another short, the novel, so much to do. But I took the lesson of the kitchen and applied it to writing. “What can I work on that doesn't require a huge time commitment?”

My crit partner (see adjacent photo) had shot me back a crit on my flash fiction piece. I'd been putting off looking at it because I was dreading rewriting things and didn't think that I could find the right words. So I started out by saying, “Alright, I'll just look at the line edits. I won't worry about rewriting anything or coming up with new prose, I'll simply go through it and clean up the comments, errors, and anything else that is small and requires little thought.” 

What resulted was very satisfying. Essentially, I moved from one counter to the next and then to a third, made my way to the floors . . . by the end of my the time that I thought was too short to work on anything I'd finished my revision.

It's often difficult to look at writing in this way, especially when it comes to novels. They can seem so oppressive. But what if we break our writing down? We take the novel and split it into three acts, then split those acts into chapters, the chapters into scenes, the scenes into character exchanges. Suddenly we don't have this oppressive novel looming over us, we have how Silas looks at Jan the first time he meets her. That leads us to consider how Jan reacts to his look? So on and so forth until a scene is completed, then a chapter, and so on.

It's just a subtle change in the way we look at things, but it's one that can make all the difference in the world when it comes to getting things done and staying caught up.

Here's your assignment for today (since I don't do writing prompts): Take whatever you've been avoiding working on and break it down. Say it's submitting. Figure out all the steps that need to occur before you can submit your story and then pick the easiest one and do it. Let's say it's finding a single publication to send off to. Once you've done that you might as well open a document and type the header for a cover letter. Come to think of it, you've pretty much got the experience section already figured out, might as well do that too. See if that doesn't snowball. Who knows, you might get through this little exercise and find that tomorrow's small task is going to be getting to the post office to mail a query.


Anonymous said...

Awww, thanks for the nod, partner. :)

It's funny, because we are surprisingly opposite in this regard. For me, revisions are easy-peazy in comparison to the dreaded first draft-suck.

I'm slowly overcoming the fear of sucking though, by, well ... allowing myself to suck with the reminder that I can always go back and fix it later. Can't fix a blank page, after all.

David Noceti said...

Not to mention that I heard you have this totally awesome crit partner who rides your ass and feeds you inspiration whenever he can. And trust me, you don't suck nearly as much as you think you do. Your last short was proof enough of that. :)

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