Friday, June 1, 2012

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

by Scott Rhoades

I'm nearing the end of my two-week vacation. This year, I did something I've never done before. I scheduled a vacation solely for writing. Two weeks, including three weekends. 16 days of writing. See, I had a few problems. I had a story that had stalled, and I was having trouble getting it going again. Also, I have a day job as a Tech Writer. That means, I spend my days writing, and usually, the last thing I want to do after work is write some more. That contributed to the stall. Add a case of writer's block, and my story was in serious trouble. I also have a heavy workload at work, and I was tired. I needed a break. I rarely take a vacation because my work piles up and the stress is only worse when I get back. But this time, it was either rest or go insane.

You might think taking a vacation from a writing job seems counter-intuitive. Believe me, that crossed my mind too. But writing my own stuff is a great escape for me. Burying my brain in my own story, in my own dreams, might not be relaxing, really, but it's an affordable way to escape from my daily life. So I decided to try it.

So far, it's worked.

Even though there are still a couple of days left, I thought I'd share what I've learned. Maybe it will be useful, especially for those of you who have your own writing marathons in November.

There are a few things that are required before you start:

Time. You need to set aside time. Make it a vacation, a week, a day, whatever. It has to be a block of time that you can spend writing.

Family Support. Most of us, if we have a "staycation," it means we have a long list of things to take care of around the house. Those chores, little and big, that get neglected while you're busy with your life. Those can't be allowed to interfere with your writing vacation. I'm lucky. I have a wonderful wife who is supportive of my writing and respectful of my writing time. Also, because I often work at home one or two days a week, my family is used to me shutting myself in my den (my "Schreibwinkel," as I call it), and mostly leaving me alone when I'm working. If you're not similarly lucky, you might need to find a place where people will leave me alone.

A goal. It's easy to drift through those days without doing what you want if you don't set up specific goals. Even though I tend to be a slow writer, I decided I was going to shoot for 25,000 words for my two weeks. To me, that seemed almost over-ambitious, but it was something to reach for. That comes to just over 1500 words a day. So I set 1500 words as my goal. I knew I'd have trouble spending all of Memorial Day weekend in my Schreibwinkel, and that it might be hard to write 1500 words on Sunday, especially since my wife's work schedule left her free two of those Sundays, and I like hanging out with her. So I told myself it was OK to write less over that weekend and on Sundays, as long as I wrote something. I lowered my goal to 1000 words for those days, and bumped the rest of my days up a little. I also let me family know that I would be available to help with stuff around the house every day, and to get some much-needed rest, but not until I met my goal. And I've stuck with it. My writing has come first every day.

So, with all that in mind. I got started. I jumped in my first day and enthusiastically knocked out almost 2900 words. I knew I couldn't do that much every day, but it showed me that I could do quite a bit in a day if I set my mind to it. I'm now nearing the end of my vacation, and my goal is within fairly easy reach. But on my way to this point, I've learned quite a bit about myself and how I write.

  • That goal is critical. So many times, I've wanted to stop early. The writing doesn't always come easily, and some days I'm tired or I have other things I'd rather do. It would be easy to stop early. But I look at my count for the day, and force myself to keep going.

  • Chart it. I've kept a spreadsheet to track my daily word count and my progress toward that goal of 25,000 words. The spreadsheet shows my daily writing target, as well as how much I actually wrote. It also subtracts my progress so far from my goal, showing how far I am from 25,000 words (or eventually, how close I am). This has been invaluable. I don't think I'd be as close to my goal as I am without it.

  • Report it. Every day, I tell my wife how many words I've written. I also send a little report to my writing group, giving them my word count, and telling them how the day went. Their encouragement has kept me going. They remind me after frustrating days that first drafts are supposed to be bad, and that it's OK if I have gaping holes in my plot or if I'm not doing a good job with my characters. That's all stuff I can fix later.

  • Getting started is hard. So is restarting. Even though I wake up most mornings thinking about what I need to write, and looking forward to doing it, I find so many things to keep me from getting started. Facebook. Research. A big breakfast. Hanging out with my wife or my grandson. Those are just some of the things I use to procrastinate. Until I put down the fourth or fifth sentence, my self-doubts are strong, and my natural laziness is even stronger. I thought that would get easier with time, but as I write this, I still have three days and getting started hasn't gotten easier. Also, as soon as I stop for more than a couple minutes, all of those getting started problems pop up all over again. So I have to avoid interruptions. I just have to work. It helps to stop in a place where I know what comes next, and to leave off where I'll be excited to start in again. But it doesn't help as much as I'd like. It's still hard to start. But I do it.

  • Move forward. To meet my goal, I had to plug away and keep moving forward. I can't look back. I can skip a scene if the one I'm on isn't working, or I can skip ahead in the story, but the one thing I cannot do, under any circumstance, is go back and revise. I knew I needed an all-new first chapter, so I went ahead and wrote that, but I left everything else alone. As I write, if I realize what I'm writing means something earlier needs to change or be added, I insert a comment in my document telling myself what needs to be done. When I revise, I'll go through those comments, but right now, that's as close as I get to looking back. My goal is pretty aggressive for the way I write, and the only way to make it is to keep dumping in new words, whether they're any good or not. It's hard not to go back and fix stuff, but I had to give myself permission to suck. And believe me, I have. I dread having to go back and fix some of the garbage I've written over the last couple weeks. But at least I've written it, and that has led me to scenes that aren't so bad, or at least give me some hope that they'll eventually be good.

The result of all of this is that I feel more like a writer than I have in a long time. My story is always fresh in my mind. The writer's block is gone, and my story has been kick-started.

Many of the things I've learned apply whether I'm on a writing binge like I am now, or I'm just trying to work out a regular writing schedule. I'm hoping to be able to take this momentum and turn it into a more disciplined writing life, so I can finish this thing.I'm too far in now to let it die.

As I write this on Thursday (after my Thursday writing session, of course), I have three days left. I've written 23,307 words, which means I should blow away my goal, maybe as soon as tomorrow. But I'll keep going until my "vacation" is over.

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