Tag Archives: The Project

How Not to Backslide


I talk a lot about how hard it is to do the thing, and especially how hard it is to start the thing. There are endless ruminations — here and all over the web — about how difficult it is to start: how scary and intimidating the blank page is, how difficult to even step out the door in the morning, hell, just the challenge of getting out of bed itself, of reaching for your shoes instead of the snooze button.

And there are endless examples of people asking how to start. Looking for the magic bullet, the one piece of advice, the secret techniques to start them on the path. (s if there were just one. Or even a collection that might work, that wouldn’t require retooling and retweaking every time you go to employ them.)

And you know what? That’s fine. Starting is hard, it’s arguably the hardest step in a project, because you have to get past all that built-up doubt and insecurity, you have to give yourself permission to suck, and all that. Starting the Thing is basically like a mental version of the twelve labors of Hercules.

But Starting the Thing is only one piece of the puzzle, and as important as it is — and it is important, super important — it’s actually one of the smallest pieces of the puzzle.

The bigger piece? Probably the biggest piece? Maintaining.

Maybe this is on my mind because so many of us are entering another week of quarantine — be it self-imposed or otherwise — and we’re getting a little squirrelly. Week 1, we panicked and then we locked it down; week 2, we started getting some routines in place, now week 3 … we’re starting to feel the grind. This is when you need to focus on that other piece. When you have to focus on Maintaining.

See, when you Start the Thing, there’s this bait-and-switch that happens. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it seems impossible. Yes, you can’t see the end from where you are — you can’t even see beyond the first turn in the path. But the moment you do Start, there’s this incredible positive feedback loop that kicks into action. It’s immediate. “Oh, man, I wrote a few words on my space zombies fighting dinosaur pirates novel and it turned into two hundred — that feels great!” Or, “Whew, I was dreading starting this run, but I had to take my dog out to pee anyway and it turned into a mile before I knew it.” That happens. It happens often. You do the Thing that you’ve been building up in your mind as SO HARD, then you do it, and you get this great big payoff.

But dopamine is a kind of drug, innit? And like any drug, the more you get, the more you need. The high still hits as you keep Doing the Thing — as you keep adding to your word count, as you keep running the miles, as you keep making that progress — but it’s not like the first time. So you do a little more — you go harder, better, faster, stronger — and that picks up the slack. Sooner or later, though, you hit your limit, whatever that may be. You can only carve out so much time in the day, after all, and the body and mind can only take so much strain … so you can’t just add to the workload ad infinitum. For me, I peaked out at writing for two hours a day, and at four miles per run during the week. That’s what my schedule would allow, and that’s about all I really wanted to do.

That was enough.

So when you’ve reached “enough” — what then?

Then you move to the next phase: Maintain.

And Maintaining is hard. Way hard. Super way harder than starting. Because Starting comes with its own reinforcement. But Maintaining does not.

Gone is that rush of GoodFeel from just showing up, from just getting something done; you know what you’re capable of, so you now have a series of expectations for yourself. You don’t get bonus points for opening your project up, or from just jogging to the end of the street. You’ve got a quota to make. It begins to feel more like work than a new, exciting project.

Worse than that, when you Maintain, you’re by definition doing the things you’ve already been doing. I’ve been stuck in edits on a series of three chapters for the last several work sessions, because there is just so much to be fixed in there. And I’ve run the 5k loop near my house, and all its sundry variations, more times than I can count. These things are no longer new and shiny and exciting. They have become routine.

And to face that every day? To cope with the harsh truth that this thing you wanted to do — this thing you Started full of hope and excitement and a deep sense of purpose — involves, in no small part, drudgery? That’s a harsh truth.

It’s so easy not to maintain the progress, to let slip the work rate. Ahhh, I wrote extra yesterday, I’m gonna let it slide today. Well, I ran long this weekend … I can take it easy during the week. You know, I’ve been plugging away on this project … I’m gonna take a day off. You can be forgiven for thinking that way, and in truth, you’re not wrong to think that way. Accomplishment merits rest. Getting things done should earn you some downtime.

Problem is, you let it slip a little bit, and it becomes easy to let it slip a lot. That rope starts to pull through your fingers and all of a sudden, it’s moving too fast to grab hold of as it whips itself away. The rock rolls past you down the hill, and it’s all you can do to get out of its way as it crashes down toward the bottom.

The only way to Maintain is to return to the work with the same perseverance, the same sense of determination and drive that got you to Start in the first place.

How do you do that?

Simple. You don’t.

Whatever it is that got you to Start the thing carried with it a little spark of magic, a little shock to the system that spurred you to motion where you were once at rest. Like a germ that hits your immune system and forces it to adapt (to use a really troubling though apt metaphor), once it’s struck once, it won’t hit you the same way again.

What you have to do is re-evaluate. Remind yourself why you are doing what you’re doing. Check in on yourself now and then, see if you’re still on the path you want to be on, if you’re still making progress toward that goal you set so long ago, or whether you’re simply coasting along. You stop being driven by the dopamine hits and you start being driven by knowing that it matters.

Turns out all those jerks who told you all your life that hard work is its own reward were right, even if they never explained why (or if they could even articulate it themselves).

There’s no easy way to flick this switch. It comes only from introspection and from a willingness to look yourself in the face and tell yourself the hard truth: that you’re slipping, that you could be doing more, that the work still needs doing and nobody is going to do it for you.

There’s no secret, no magic bullet.

I know, I know. I wrote this whole post out only to reveal that I don’t know a damned thing about how to stick to it, how to keep coming back to it, how to keep your head down and keep pushing forward when it gets hard. Fact is, the only secret that will work is the one that’s buried in your own brain already.

And you’ll either find it, and keep putting in the work … or you won’t.

(I hope that you will.)


The Hideout Needs a Name


I don’t usually do this, but I was editing and adding a much-needed section to my novel-in-progress and enjoyed it so much I just thought I’d post it. (Incidentally, it allows me to update the site and prove that I’m not just wasting time over here. Well… not all the time, anyway.)

It may not make the cut in the final version, but it was fun to write, and, you know, sometimes that matters.

This passage inspired by the replies to a question I asked on Twitter.

“This place really needs a name,” Dina says.
Linc peeks out around the potted ficus he’s managing. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s lame to just go on calling it ‘the hideout’ or ‘the lab’ or whatever you’ve been calling it. You’re a proper villain now. You need a name for your place. You know. Fortress of Solitude, or whatever. But for bad guys.”
“That’s stupid.”
“No, it’s practical.” Tonya sets the couch down in the corner, blinks to the fridge for a soda, and blinks right back onto the couch, kicking her feet up over the armrest. “Besides, I agree. So that’s two to one. We gotta name it.”
Dina shuffles off to the kitchen herself, kicking her shoes off on the way. “Two to one.”
Linc wants to point out to them that this isn’t a democracy, to remind them that this place is his, that Vector is his, that the plan to bring the Academy low is his, but it doesn’t seem worth it. “What do you have in mind, then?”
“You’re a nerd, so it’s gotta be nerdy sounding, you know? Strike fear into the hearts of everybody with an IQ below 150. Something like … The Motherboard.” Dina tosses Linc a soda. He fumbles it before catching it by his knees.
“Why The Motherboard?”
“Because it’s where we keep our chips.” Dina rattles a bag of tortilla chips at him before gashing the bag with her ring and spreading a thick layer of chips on a plate.
“That’s terrible.”
“I kinda like it,” Tonya says. “It’s got some kind of ring to it.”
“Nope. The two of you can vote to name it, that’s fine, but I’m holding out veto power over the name. We’re not calling it The Motherboard.”
Dina has sprinkled cheese over the chips and tosses the plate into the microwave (stolen, along with the 70-inch television, from a Best Buy a few hours away). “That’s okay. I got a bunch of ideas. How about The WreckTangle?”
“The Rectangle?”
“No, the WreckTangle. As in, Wrecked Angle. Get it? Because math, right? Plus, you know. Get wrecked.”
“Nice.” Tonya lifts her soda can in salute.
“I dunno.” Linc leans against the counter, scanning the bank of monitors for news, or updates. Vector’s display shows the robot cheerfully making rounds on the mountainside.
“I got one,” Tonya says. “The Trapezoid.”
“I don’t —”
“Ooh, I like that.” Dina flings the microwave open for her plate of nachos.
“Right? Because it’s a trap. Plus…” Tonya glances around. This sounded cleverer in her mind. “Plus it’s got that z in there. That’s cool.”
“There’s nothing in here that’s even trapezoid-shaped,” Linc points out. “And by the way, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what a trapezoid is.”
“I don’t know that.” Tonya crumples her can in one hand and tosses it at Linc. “Who even needs to know that after high school? Or in it, for that matter?”
“If you’re going to call your hideout The Trapezoid, you should at least know what a Trapezoid is.”
“It’s your hideout, not mine, damn!”
Dina raises her voice around a mouthful of nachos. “Vector, what’s a trapezoid?”
Vector’s screen types out an immediate response.
Trapezoid: a four-sided shape with only one pair of parallel sides.
“That. It’s that,” Dina says, pointing. “You owe me a dollar.”
“That doesn’t count.”

nicolas cage shrug GIF

Passage-in-Progress 3818


I don’t do this enough, but that’s a thing worth fixing: Here’s my favorite passage from the chapters I’m reviewing today:

“Yes, I would have killed him. Is that what you want to hear? If it’s him dead or me in prison, well, sorry, Jack.”
“His name is Eric.”
“I don’t care what his name is. I don’t want to know what his name is. I wish I didn’t know it.”
“Because he’s a person now, right?”
“The hell is that supposed to mean? Of course he’s a person.”
“No, I mean he’s a real person. With a name. Kids. A dog.”
“He could have a whole mansion full of adopted African babies for all I care,” Dina snaps.
Linc considers that, and considers her, resolutely staring out the windshield at the darkened streets. “You’ve killed before.” It’s not a question.
“Aaaand this is the part where you stop psychoanalyzing me. I know you think you’ve had it rough, but I’m a survivor.” The way she says it tells Linc she’s not talking about surviving a boating accident or a bear attack.

Is it wrong that I love my supporting characters more than I love my protagonist?


Wrestling with Character


My current work-in-progress is a superhero story about a guy who hates superheroes and therefore becomes a villain. And I just today wrote the start of a scene that kind of shocked me.

Without spoilerating my own story, this guy has a hostage problem to solve with no easy way out. (Which is exactly the sort of problem a good novel needs, right?) And in flinging myself against this problem, a solution occurred to my protagonist and myself simultaneously. Usually solutions for writers are good things, but this one is a little bit mixed.

It fits the character perfectly. It fits the narrative perfectly. But it makes me uncomfortable, because it’s a little rape-y. Not in the sexual assault way (it’s not that kind of book), but in the willful taking-by-force of a thing from a more or less helpless victim. A victim who was once something like a friend. And this taking … well, it’s pretty much going to color the relationship between these two forever, assuming I leave it in (and I don’t see how I can leave it out, at this point). It’s forceful. It’s traumatic. It has left me feeling a little bit icky after the words came out.

So, it makes me seriously uneasy, but it also really gets me fired up about the story, because it fits so well. And it hit me — this is the sort of thing that’s been missing from this story all along. My protagonist, much as I have been thinking of him as a villain, hasn’t done much that’s outright villainous; so for him to finally break bad like this feels a little shocking. Then again, at the same time, it feels long overdue, coming in the final third of the book.

But now I’m all conflicted. This isn’t the sort of thing I envisioned my protagonist doing, but now that the moment has presented itself, it’s hard for me to imagine him acting any differently. It’s not the act itself that has me vexed, though. The real quandary that’s sticking in my craw is that I don’t know if this guy (or this girl, for that matter) can come back from this. I don’t know if a choice like this can be redeemed, and that could be a problem in future installments of this story.

So many questions. Is this scene right? Is it happening at the right moment in the story, or should it happen sooner (establishing him as a real rotten dude right from the go would clear up some of the waffling he’s done thus far … then again, if this moment comes late, it feels more like a final step on a terrible path)? Can a character come back from something like this? And, for that matter, should he?

On the plus side, the last couple days’ writing has poured out of me like from a ruptured water main, so that, at least, makes me feel like I’m on the right track.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Soldiering On


A short SOCS post today, because I’m totally fried from this murderous week at work.

I’m back in the swing of my novel this week, despite the crazy hours at work. I got probably about 2400 words written — not quite what I aim for, but considering the loss of planning time and how scattered I’ve been, I’ll take it. But I’m not here to kvetch about word count (or lack thereof).

See, a few weeks ago I suffered what I could only, at the time, call a catastrophic setback: the loss of my un-backed-up flash drive, and hence the loss of a good twenty- to twenty-five thousand words on my latest project. That’s about two months worth of words, if you’re counting, AND I CERTAINLY WAS.

And, after the storm and the swearing and the self-abuse subsided, what was there left to do? Either quit the project, accepting the loss as too great to recoup, or soldier on and keep writing on the project anyway. And considering that this novel just happens to be one I’ve wanted to write for about three years, throwing in the towel was not a thing I was willing to swallow (argh, too many cliches).

So I took a day to outline the story I had written so far from memory, and then I started fresh with a blank page.

And man, that first day sucked, because returning to what was an essentially blank page was intimidating as hell (the perfect white expanse of the unblemished page — or, okay, word-processor window — is a thing you can only screw up with your first draft word-vomit). But a few days in, the momentum kicked in again, and all of a sudden I was churning along just like before I shot my foot off.

And the weird thing is? I actually feel really liberated. Losing the old project has allowed me to divorce myself from some of the preconceived notions and lame patterns that had cropped up in the writing. Now I can not only pretend they didn’t exist; they actually, literally don’t exist any more. I’m messing with new POVs, experimenting more with the narrative sequence, and generally having a lot more fun with the project than I had been for a while.

What’s that thing they say about relationships? Sometimes you have to lose something to learn what you really had? Maybe that’s a little too trite for the current situation, but one way or another, the project is moving ahead at a healthy clip again, and that’s damned encouraging.

Tomorrow: a third and final entry to the October horror flash-fiction challenge that’s kicking around over at Terrible Minds. (I hope.)

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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