Monday, September 17, 2007

Thinking Days

One of the hardest things for me as a writer was learning to accept thinking days. I was raised in North Dakota and Minnesota both of which have a strong ethic of "never complain" and "if it's fun it's not work" and "if you're not accomplishing something at this very moment" you're lazy. Garrison Keilor's takes on the subject are deadly funny if you were raised as I was.

A writer has a lot of jobs that look and feel like work, and a couple that don't. The writing itself is easy to see as work. If I'm writing I'm working. Likewise sending stuff out to my agent or publishers, dealing with same either via phone or email, revising, editing, reading galleys, etc. There is obvious work happening in all of those situations. Research is a little bit less clear. If I'm looking up a detail of Greek mythology that's relevant to the story right now, that's certainly work. If I'm reading mythology looking for stuff for the next book, that's still pretty obvious, but it's treading dangerously close to fun. Reading widely because that's how I find new ideas-can I really call that work? I can and I do, but my inner Minnesotan does more than a little hmphing at the idea. Self-promotion? Ooh, that's a hard one, mostly because I don't actually believe that most of it works (see not accomplishing things above). However, since it's an expected part of the industry, I can squeak some out without guilt.

All of that is nothing, nothing at all compared to thinking days. Tuesday was a thinking day. I did a lot of stuff around the house. I wandered around the internet and wrote on blogs. Every twenty minutes or so I'd stop back at my working plot document and put another bullet point into the "stuff what has to happen" section. I got maybe 300 words down. If this was a writing day a 300 word count would be a catastrophe. I can do 300 words standing on my head in a bucket. A normal day when I'm fully into a project is 2,000+ and I've gone as high as 4,400. However 300 is pretty good for a thinking day. Sometimes no words actually make it into a document on thinking days.

I just wander around and think and don't actually write at all. And despite the very grim look my inner Minnesotan is giving me about this, it's still working. In fact, it's critical. The reason I had thinking day Tuesday is that I haven't done a scene-by-scene outline for this book yet–in part because there are several significant decisions that need to be made and I'm still not sure which way I'll go on them. Making the wrong decision and writing it into the book can be quite costly to fix (in terms of time). A day spent thinking about story and structure now can save me ten later on. It's still frustrating.

How about you? Are thinking days something you feel guilty about? Delight in? Other?

10 comments:

Erik Buchanan said...

Thinking days frustrate me for the same reasons they do you. They're absolutely necessary, they drive forward whatever you're working on, and it feels like you're not accomplishing anything.

There's a large part of my prairie raised brain (Saskatchewan) that says, "You aren't doing anything! Get to work!" just like yours does.

My biggest worry, though is that thinking days can very easily slip over into goofing off days if I'm not careful. I've lost a lot of good writing time to things I shouldn't have been doing when I should be thinking.

Douglas Hulick said...

I just spent the last week-plus doing research and basic foundation building for my next book. This meant a lot of googling, wikipedia reading, web skimming, and so on. While it was useful, and I was constantly scribbling down notes, I had to keep reminding myself that, yes, this is work. Since I wasn't putting prose on paper, I kept feeling like I wasn't actually accomplishing anything, that I wasn't moving forward on the story.

This is all bunk, of course, since that kind of thing can be vital to producing a better book. However, as you say, it can be hard to convince your Proletariat Brain of that sometimes.

One thing that seems to have helped me this time around is that I set a deadline for when I would start writing (today). I know I will still need to do more research and story work in the near future, but this way I can emotionally tie it back to what I am already writing. I don't doubt there will still be Thinking Days, but I'm hoping they won't be quite so frustrating since I am also tangibly producing copy, albeit not at that exact moment.

Now, House Cleaning Days -- those are the ones that beat me up in terms of guilt. ("Oh, I'm not getting anything useful accomplished anyhow - I might as well clean the kitchen/mow the lawn/grout the tub/shingle the garage....")

Sean M. Murphy said...

I find that keeping a little list of when ideas come, and what I was doing as a lead-up to those periods, greatly mitigates the guilt factor. Sure, I feel guilty when I'm not writing, but when I'm reading for research, it feels like I'm learning toward a specific goal, and I'm enough of a life-long student to always feel that's worthwhile. Besides, I aoften find that when I'm taking a break, doing something that has nothing at all to do with writing, something repetitive and vaguely meditative (say, doing the dishes, which for me is apparently like ringing the summons for the muse), ideas are much more ruminant and spring forth more easily. Therefore, I know from experience that this is a useful activity if I am going to go on with work. Worrying, or staring at the screen or wall threateningly, on the other hand, produce bad results too often to be worthwhile. I try to avoid those.

Lynne said...

Thinking days happen for us academics, too. I had an awful lot of moments when I was working on papers/article fodder for my last degree where I stared at my computer. A lot.

And sometimes, one idea would come. One connection. My outlines are sometimes no more than 3-6 points long for a 20-page article. But if I don't have the outline, the actual writing process takes a LOT longer...

Some of my best ideas come in the shower. I'm *very* clean on thinking days... :-)

Lynne Thomas

Kelly McCullough said...

Lynne, Doesn't that make it hard to take notes? :)

GhostFolk.com said...

Terrific idea for an invention, Lynne and Kelly: a shower note pad.

And maybe a soap pencil?

Kelly McCullough said...

Hey Ghostfolk (Greenminute?), thanks for stopping by. I think that's a lovely thought.

Lynne said...

The key is to keep repeating ideas until you finish your shower and run to write them down. Or you buy those "soap crayons" that they sell for kids to use as bath toys, and jot it down until you can copy it to your notebook...

Douglas Hulick said...

Or get a voice activated digital recorder and set it on the sink basin. :)

Stephanie Zvan said...

You mean you can forget an idea that strikes that little bell in your head? Hell, that's half the reason I write. It gets pretty crowded in here otherwise.

I like my thinking time. I like it more because it was already thinking time before I started writing, and using it to think about writing instead of whatever petty problem is bothering me now has made me a much less anxious person. If I'm going to stay up with my brain racing, it might as well produce something useful.

Reading good books--that's the time I feel guilty about, even though it does me so much good.