Monday, November 7, 2011

How to Handle Interruptions

The above is a pastel challenge painting for the November "Pastel Spotlight" at I've been participating in the Spotlight Challenge every month for a long time now. It's got nothing to do with Nanowrimo or my fiction writing, except that I'll occasionally do an illustration or get a good idea from a Spotlight painting for a plot point or a setting.

I'm seven days in on my 2011 Nanovel, "Trouble in the City." I also had to go out to get my city tax registration done, my state tax registration done, get a doctor's appointment to approve a rollator because my cane is not enough (the gadget is something like a walker with wheels that has a fold-down seat.) In between I had some other outing that was necessary. Three days in a row of going out when my residential hotel's elevator is broken.

If I didn't mention it in previous posts, I have some serious mobility problems. I am that guy who can walk but not too far. I really need a power chair, but can't get one till I move. So while going out for most people is a minor interruption they face every day, for me it's massive exertion resulting in major pain and exhaustion.

I got all three of those "outing" days taken care of. The day after the third necessary outing, my body quit. I was planning to work on a pastel cat commission and then work on my novel. Bang. I wound up so groggy I started to pass out as soon as the maximum dose of pain medication knocked the pain out far enough that I could sleep. That was Thursday after the excursion. No writing. Friday, I slept like my cat, about 20 hours. Still no writing.

Uh oh.

48 hours of gap between novel writing sessions is too long to stay immersed, especially when other immersive activities happen in between. I have Art Mode and Writing Mode. When I'm thinking about painting, my mind becomes wordless and visual. I play with color. I see everything in pastel impressionism. Of course I did a good job on the pumpkin. I don't even remember which night I did it. Only that it was the last concentrated activity I did before I completely crashed on exhaustion.

Painting and writing are both sit still, mental energy activities. Especially at that size of painting. It's only 5" x 7" so it was a good reason to sit still and not go running around the room like mad in an excess of adrenaline. But it was an attractive distraction when it came to working on my novel.

For you it could be something else. A kid getting sick or needing homework help. Something happens at work, a crisis that demands total concentration. A marital or relationship fight in which your well-being and even a good chunk of your identity rests on sorting out whatever it is that bugged your partner or that your partner is doing to bug you. Like interfering with your novel.

You wind up spending a lot of concentrated time and effort on that important something else and then when it's time to work on your book, it's a blank. You can't remember who the characters are or why you care about them. You're stuck. Nothing about the book makes sense. All momentum is gone, it's like starting over. But worse, because you'd have to chuck so much good rough draft that you've already written.

I developed a system to handle it. This is easier the closer to the beginning of the month it happens.

Read through your novel again from page one.

That is the only cure I know of for a Total Break in momentum. When I just can't remember anything about what I wrote, I've got to reread what I wrote. Sometimes later in the book or if it's a minor interruption, just reading back one chapter or a scene is enough to remember what it's about, what's going on and what needs to come next. But if it's a bad one, like over 48 hours without working on it or thinking about it, I usually have to go back all the way to the beginning.

That can take time, especially in a long novel toward the end. Sometimes I'll read and skim, just glancing over pages, skipping chunks, picking up enough to get the drift and remind myself why I love it. But do at least skim the whole book if the interruption was bad enough that you can't remember what it's about or why you wanted to write it.

The lesser version - read back a few pages - that's good for the start of a writing session. If you're stuck at the top of the day's writing, just read back a little to remember where you are and keep going when you get to the part that's not written. It's not just good for major interruptions but for minor ones.

If your dog barked and did the potty dance in the middle of your writing time, read back a few paragraphs when you get its walkies done and come back in. Keep going when you get to the part there's no more story.

If you come to a grinding halt because you're pantsing and don't know what comes next, it's one of the ways to steer past that kind of break too. Reading again from the beginning or skimming can give back your full momentum. It can also reveal little casual details you threw in for fun early on that you can hang later conflicts on.

Oh wow. Brian hasn't told Gina, his new heart-throb, that he is not a Believer in anything. He's a total materialist skeptic. But she's the girl of his dreams. But she seems to be a True Believer in anything and everything, it wouldn't surprise me if the gal also got into cryptozoology and aliens. Yes! I see some trouble ahead for the happy couple. Load that conflict into my plans for the rest of the book and pull it when it'd most inconvenience them both.

My villain is gloating over that one, it's a way he can steer past this new flame to go back to abusing and bullying the girl. He's a garden variety occultist jerk that I loaded with some real power within the novel's universe. Scary yet nightmarishly realistic - anyone who's ever gone to a psychic get together has met someone like this guy and tried to edge away, or been taken in and given him way too much money, emotion and attention.

Whatever you're writing, even in this rough stage, your story has a power of its own. It has momentum. It's going somewhere. You may not always be able to tell where - but it's like picking up a half-read book if you let it sit for too long and forgot what it was about. Just go back a bit and you'll get your balance again.

That's this week's Nanowrimo tip.

The other big point of today's story about my 2011 experience is this important one.

Do not let setbacks stop you.

This is why I put in more time on the first few days to try to get ahead. I gained three "Virtual Days" before I had to use two of them because my body quit on me. That strong start meant I didn't even fall behind. I still had one Virtual Day to go before I was dead even with the Nanowrimo pace.

If you do fall behind, don't sweat it. Schedule in some more hours. Take the time to read back and get back into the story, then write forward for a longer session. If you don't manage that but do get some words in, count that as progress. Always pat yourself on the back for any progress.

Don't bother beating yourself up for setbacks. It does no good and won't motivate you. What works best to deal with setbacks is to just accept them and then do some more, push hard and get ahead again. It's much easier to keep going when you get ahead. If you haven't bought yourself a "Cushion" yet by writing a bit more than the day's words, try it today.

Just double your writing session. Stick with it while it's fun and exciting, follow your characters on their tangents and don't let the surprises throw you for a loop. I was not expecting my characters both to get Love At First Sight and know it. Usually romantic subplots involve unconscious attraction and plenty of reasons on both sides for the lovers to deny it and pretend it's not happening or not that serious.

Instead, Gina took matters into her hands and delivered a passionate first kiss within twenty minutes of meeting the man of her dreams. Wow. He was stunned and swept off his feet and they went from zero to tango within a scene, so fast that even the villain's interruption didn't shatter that lovestruck moment. I love that crazy roller coaster of a chapter. Bang, heroine, best friend and villain all showed up at the same time and slammed right into the first romantic conflict as the villain unsuccessfully tried to tell the lovers that he was Gina's boyfriend, not just her stalker. It doesn't get better than that.

From here it can only get more tangled. Love at first sight has an inherent flaw - you really do not know that person at all. You love them without understanding anything about them or their past or their habits or their beliefs. You could be a night owl hooked up with an early bird who will not let you sleep a full day again in your life. You could be a neat freak meeting a woman who qualifies for a "Hoarders" episode and yet that powerful emotion leads you to just smile and clean up after her despite her objections.

There's plenty of conflict in Love At First Sight.

So when the characters blind side you, play it as it lays. Drop previous plans and look for the conflicts inherent in what just happened. They're there, no matter what it is. The highs are always followed by the swoops in the plotline roller coaster!

Have fun with your book. No matter what happens to interrupt it, when you skim back over what you have you'll know you're still on track for a November win and a great read. After all, you're doing this your way and it's exactly your flavor of story. Like cooking for yourself, you can't go wrong if you get it to taste good to you! Lots of other readers share your tastes, more than you'd believe.

So enjoy it and keep on going! Write on!

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