Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing Is Like Going To The Gym

With January fast approaching, I am hearing more and more people talk about New Year Resolutions. If most people are like me, resolutions are declared, started and then quickly forgotten—or better still—purposely ignored. One resolution I make, year after year—I mean, every year I make it. I see gym and fitness ads running on TV throughout December. So, I know I am not alone. My goal is always to get in shape. Always. I know, one of these years I will stand-fast and commit to actually exercising, eating healthier and making a difference in my physique. One of these years.

Of course I have the classic excuses Not To Exercise. My work schedule. My family responsibilities. My sleep schedule. I can argue to death why these three responsibilities alone are reason enough never to step foot in a gym. I’d be lying to you, the way I lie to myself daily. But with myself, I’ve fully convinced me that I am telling a solid truth. That exercise just isn’t possible in my immediate future. That, however, I have plenty of time to get to it, and will be so happy and satisfied once I commit.

Believe it or not, writing is very, creepily similar to working out. Uh-huh. Absolutely true. I thought about the best way to present comparisons. Tried narrative. Seemed okay. But, I believe the readers here will appreciate bullets. Direct correlation between the two. Makes my metaphor more impacting, and visible.

--You Need to First Realize You Want to Get in Shape

This is not a blog about alcoholics. But if you don’t first admit there is a problem, there can be no clear road to improvement. I am out of shape. I need to exercise. I need to turn fat into muscle. It would be awesome to wear a shirt and not feel like I HAVE to tuck it in, or blouse it in order to give the illusion that my gut is actually not gut at all, but excess cotton ballooned at the waistline. Abracadabra!

Anyone I ever talk to tells me they want to write a book. Many want to give me their life story so I can weave it into some unbelievable tale that—they assure me—will be a best seller. My answer is always the same. If you have a story, write it. They don’t know where to begin, how to create characters, dialogue, chapters, etc., etc., etc.

--Get Around To Joining A Gym

One piece of advice I share is to join a writing group. Many bookstores and libraries have them. For free, no less. A gathering of writers sharing tips, full of questions that need answering, offering critiques and guidance. I’ve belonged to one or another since I was fifteen years old. The time spent with other writers has been priceless in my career as a novelist.

The second piece of advice is to read. If you want to write a horror novel, read every horror book you can get your hands on. Study the genre you seek to conquer. Note what you like and hate about the books read, what was done well, and what you would do differently. See how the plots unfold, the characters are developed, the tension is paced.

--Start Out All Gung-Ho

Like anything new—relationships, cars, going to school, joining a gym—we always tend to start out with all pistons firing; it’s all we talk and think about; dream of; try to get others on board with. When I’ve joined (and eventually quit) local gyms and fitness clubs, I spent hours of the first several days working out. I’d get up early and hit the treadmills. After work, I’d make my way through the Nautilus equipment, or free weights. I’d drape a hand towel (from the kitchen) over my shoulders to swipe at the rolling beads of sweat, and carry around a water bottle to hydrate my dehydrated body. I’d even cut back on smoking, because working out and not smoking seemed to go hand in hand!

Writing is the same way. That idea we came up with gets fleshed out in long hand on a pad of legal paper. Characters sketched. Concept plots outlined. Possible settings reviewed. We fall asleep at night with a notebook by the bed, wake up re-reading senseless sentences scribbled out during twilight hours.

At some point we realize we’ve compiled a ton of stuff. There aren’t exactly heads or tails to be made from any of it. But we’ve started. We’re writing. It lacks clear direction, lucidity, flow, but gosh-darn if we haven’t leapt and landed with both feet in the heat of drafting something that might, that could, that if we’re lucky, will be considered a working manuscript-or-something-or-other!

--Unused Muscles Get Sore And Achy

And the reality sets in. Usually it’s not the very next morning. It’s two-days later. Reaching for your coffee cup is an impossible task. You triceps, biceps, wrists, knuckles – refuse to work. The idea of bending over to fit socks over your feet scares you into uncontrollable sobs. You groan and moan and cry, literally shed tears, as you shrug your arms into your coat. Don’t even bother with aspirin. It won’t work. Nothing will. You are certain a painful death is all you have to look forward to!

Writing is no different. If you go from never (or not often) having written anything, to writing up a storm there is bound to be some pain. Maybe in your brain, maybe from straining your imagination. But more than likely it will be evident in the writing itself.

I suggest take a breath. A step back. Set the initial material aside. The thing about writing is, you wrote it. So it will generally look good, or right to you when you re-read it. Nothing wrong with that. Well, there kind of is. Regardless – you need a day or two off, to take a break. Believe it or not, when you go back a few days later, reinvigorated and hopefully well-rested, you will be more objective in sorting through the pages and pages of … stuff … that you’ve written. Going Gung-Ho for days and days is strenuous. Necessary sometimes, and more seasoned (in shape) writers can perform better under different circumstances – the endurance is just at a higher level…it’s where we should all aspire to be, the summit to reach, the (insert cliché here) …

--Then It’s Tough To Go

Once my muscles stopped aching, once aspirin started working—fighting back the swelling in my joints, I was tired. The Gung-Ho mentality wanes. I still dreamed of becoming athletically inclined, beach-body in-shape, but the desire, I’ll admit lost its luster. The pudge is still there. I’ve lost little to no weight. Clothes don’t fit any looser than they did a few days ago. Working out has done nothing up to this point to make me any sexier than I was before. So why bother?

It happens with writing, too. The idea hits you like a brick on the back of the neck. (Am I overdoing the clichés? LOL). You write and write, and write. And when you step back, and then re-read your work, it’s discouraging. Maybe you felt like there should be more quality completed pages. You know at the time you gave it your all. Put sweat and tears and blood (blood?) into every word. You scrutinized sentences, verb tense, POV … Oh, how hard you worked – and of all the pages in front of you, maybe a fraction is good, is usable.

Is it possible that writing just isn’t worth the work?

--Get A Routine Going

The times when I did stick with a gym membership—beyond January 1st—and managed to attend regularly for several months, I found that one thing worked for me.

It was kind of like brushing my teeth. In the morning. After meals. Before bed.

I went to the gym on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule. (This was when I had an office job. A Monday-Friday / 9:00-5:00 routine). So I’d hit the gym before work. Got a work-out schedule to abide by. Cardo each of the days I was there. The treadmill, the stationary bike. And then Mondays and Fridays were upper body exercises, Wednesday were legs. It worked.

Is it any surprise that having a writing schedule and routing is a technique that works best for many, many writers? It shouldn’t be. In fact, by now, I should not need to draw lines connecting the metaphors. I will. For the sake of staying consistent.

I work midnights now. A weird schedule, really. Four days on, two days off. So saying I will write Monday / Wednesday / Friday is not always so simple. I also have three kids, and am divorced. My time with my kids is my priority! I do not write on days when I have my kids.

Factoring in these two variables, I’ve still managed to come up with a writing schedule that works very well for my life. The four days I work, when I don’t have my kids, I get home and write for at least one hour (so from 8 am – 9am). On my days off, again, on days I do not have my kids, I elect to write for up to three hours at the end of the night (usually from midnight until 3 am). I am—because of work—a night owl, and maintain a paranight owl schedule even on days off. It’s just easier. Am I disgusting? Yes, yes I am.

Hopefully the point is clear. I put a lot of thought and planning into creating a writing schedule that works for me. I spend a lot of time, while not writing thinking about what I am going to write. I take notes. I try to figure out what my characters will be up to, and always anticipate what will happen next. This helps me get the most and best writing completed in the designated times I’ve set aside; helps me avoid staring blankly at the computer screen and wonder what it is I’m going to type to capitalize on the limited time available.

--Surprise! You Are Getting In Shape

Nothing guarantees exercise will dish out desired results. A lot gets factored in. Diet is a big one. But if you can manage portion control, and stick to a steady exercise routine, you will see a difference. Have to. It takes time. You don’t see a difference overnight. It generally takes months. Sometimes years. Depends what you were when you started, and where you want to be.

Writing is the same. An idea is awesome. If a disciplined writing schedule is utilized, I believe a writer will be amazed with the final product. It may not be perfect. It will more than likely still require re-writes and editing, but if you stick with it—I firmly believe, at the very least, you can feel satisfied knowing you started something, and finished it, or reached a certain point by a specific deadline. And that, that is a good feeling. Like wearing a t-shirt that you DON’T have to tuck in, if you know what I mean.

Best I can tell, this blog is done. A bit long, I know. But hopefully helpful for writers just getting started, or writers who have plenty to say, but just can’t seem to incorporate a working plan to get it all said.

Take care, and Happy Holidays everyone!

Phillip Tomasso

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