The Five Modes of A Writer’s Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So I was sitting around the other day with a bout of procrastination when I had a thought (I writertry to have at least one thought per day). I find, as a writer, I am usually in one of five modes: Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro. I thought of adding another one for residents of New York and New Jersey – Yo! – but decided five was enough

Flow

Flow is a state of hyper focus, of total immersion in one’s creative work. In this mode you experience a mix of forgetfulness, play, joy, and “time quickening.” An hour feels like five minutes. Difficult tasks seem to melt before you. You are “in the zone.”

Jack London wrote a lot about flow, in all parts of life, but especially in the life of the writer. In The Call of the Wild he compares it to the elemental ecstasy of the animal in full beast mode:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

There you go, writer. Hunt that book!

So how do you get into the zone when you write? I’ve found it more or less sneaks up on you, that you can’t force it. But there is a way to make it more recurrent: Know your craft!

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I’ll help you out. It’s pronounced MEE-high Chick-SENT-mee-high), in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, stressed that flow most often occurs when the challenge of a task is met with an equal or greater skill level. When you know what you’re doing, and how to pull something off, you are more likely to experience flow. I love the speech in The Hustler with Paul Newman, where he describes to his girl what it’s like to play great pool:

EDDIE: Like, you know, anything can be great. Brick laying can be great, if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.

When I’m goin’, I mean when I’m really goin’, I feel like a jockey must feel. He’s sitting on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him, he’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him, and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him – timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a really great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right.

It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me … You feel the roll of those balls and you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

SARAH: You’re not a loser, Eddie, you’re a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.

Study your craft and write with abandon and you will experience those times when you just know. It’s the greatest mode of the writing life.

Go

The next best thing to being lost in flow is being able to write at a good pace anyway. Get the words down. Turn off the inner editor and just go.

One way to do that is the writing sprint. You set yourself a goal of, say, 250 words. You make a little plan for what you’re going to write. It might be some action, some description, some dialogue, whatever. You think about it, then write without stopping.

You can set a timer for this, or use something like Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die.

When you get to the end of your sprint you might very well find that you’re in flow. So keep going.

Otherwise, take a short break and then do another sprint.

Slow

We all know there are times when writing is a slog. There are many reasons this may be. It could be physical—you’re just tired. Or it could be a part of your manuscript you’re unclear or unexcited about.

If it’s physical, take a power nap. I recommend them! Every day, sometime between one and three o’clock, I try to nod off for fifteen or twenty minutes. You can train your body to do that. I can put my feet up on my desk and lean back in my chair, or hit the sofa, and I’m off to dreamland in a minute or two.

Another idea when it’s slow going is to take a brisk walk in the sunshine. If you live in Buffalo and it’s December, do some jumping jacks in the living room … and then don’t live in Buffalo in December anymore.

If slowness is caused by being unclear or unexcited about your WIP, try this:

Skip ahead from wherever you are and write a fresh new scene. Before you start, let the scene play in your mind and tell your imagination to come up with one surprising thing. Out of the blue. Wild. Your character could do something you never thought he would. Or another character might pop in (Chandler’s famous “guy with a gun” perhaps?). Or create some crazy lines of dialogue.

At the very least, this exercise will produce new plot possibilities and more layers of character life. And it’s fun.

No

And then there are some days when you simply do not want to write, when it almost feels like you can’t type. Your fingers rest on the keys but refuse to move.

There may be several reasons for this.

It could be that familiarity has bred contempt. You just can’t stand looking at your project anymore. Perhaps you’ve hit a wall in your story and don’t know whether to jump over, tunnel under, blow it up, or go back the way you came.

Or it could be completely unrelated to your writing, such as a life crisis that saps your mental energy.

So the first thing to do is figure out why your brain is saying No. Journaling about it helps. Write to yourself in a free-form way, asking questions, letting your thoughts pour out on the page.

But don’t beat yourself up if you have to take a break. I am all for busting through barriers, but there have been times when I’ve given myself permission to just say No. I even build a day into my week for a “writing Sabbath.” I try not to write anything on Sunday. This lets my mind rest and usually results in new ideas and fresh energy on Monday.

Pro

The pro writer writes to a quota.

Now, I know some writers think a quota stifles creativity by putting “pressure” on delicate artist sensibilities. I say hooey. It’s the exact opposite. Having a quota actually pulls you forward so flow and ideas and productivity can happen.

My standard advice: find the number of words you can comfortably produce in a normal week. Then up that by10%. Make that your weekly goal and divide it up among your days and according to your schedule. Keep track of how you do each day.

A pro also keeps up on what’s happening in the publishing world – both traditional and indie – in order to make wise career choices. Keep abreast of what’s being offered in publishing contracts (Kris Rusch is currently running a great series on this subject. Start here.) Subscribe to industry blogs like Jane Friedman and follow observers like @Porter_Anderson. Put together your own list of go-to resources … and then go to them.

And then there’s marketing, which these days falls mainly on the author’s shoulders, even in traditional publishing. So we all have to give it attention, but here’s my thing: follow the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your writing life should be devoted to the writing itself, the craft, the production. Twenty percent to the business and marketing side. Why? Because I’ve seen some fabulous marketers zigging and zagging all over the place, but with stinky books. That doesn’t build repeat business.

And repeat business is the name of this game for a pro. You get that when you write great books. So make that your primary focus.

For if you can deftly handle Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro, you will greatly increase your chances of making something else – Dough.

Y’know?

So …

…what mode have you been in lately?

 

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When Did You Decide to Become a Writer?

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell

Can you identify the moment in your life when you made the decision I am going to be a writer?
What did it feel like? 


Perhaps the best novel about a writer, Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden, captures this singular passion. Early in the novel young Martin is at sea, returning to San Francisco, when the idea takes hold:
And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write–everything–poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth. The men of literature were the world’s giants . . . Once the idea had germinated, it mastered him, and the return voyage to San Francisco was like a dream. He was drunken with unguessed power and felt that he could do anything . . . To write! The thought was fire in him. He would begin as soon as he got back . . . There were twenty-four hours in each day. He was invincible. He knew how to work, and the citadels would go down before him.
Back on land, Martin sets out with zeal, up to 18 hours a day of it, to realize his writing dream:
He was profoundly happy. Life was pitched high. He was in a fever that never broke. The joy of creation that is supposed to belong to the gods was his. All the life about him–the odors of stale vegetables and soapsuds, the slatternly form of his sister, and the jeering face of Mr. Higginbotham–was a dream. The real world was in his mind, and the stories he wrote were so many pieces of reality out of his mind.
I can pinpoint the day I took the big dive into writing. It was in 1988 and I went with my wife to see a double feature. The movie I really wanted to see was Wall Street. The movie it was playing with I didn’t know that much about, except that it starred Cher.
That movie was Moonstruck, and it knocked me out. 
I was a practicing lawyer at the time and had been told writers were born, not made. I had believed that for ten years.
But Moonstruck was so good I knew I had to try to learn to write, even if I failed. I was determined to use the study disciplines I’d picked up in law school to find out how to write fiction. In my journal I wrote: Today I have decided to become a writer.
And I was soon lost in the joy of creating, like Martin Eden. I still remember those early years of writing and discovering as primarily joyous.
So when did you decide to become a writer? Was it a specific moment? A particular influence? And what did it feel like when you started on your quest? 
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Is There Such Thing as Bad Sex?

Most authors are happy to be recognized for their work, but how honored would you be if your book got picked as numero uno for the annual literary award – Bad Sex in Fiction?

A London magazine founded in 1979, Literary Review, has recognized “Bad Sex in Fiction” every year since the prize was initiated in 1993. While there are countless examples of great sex in fiction, especially in some of the best adult films found on sites like full tube xxx, literature seems to have more of a hit and miss relationship with sex. And the “winner” in 2010 was Author Rowan Somerville for the use of disturbing insect imagery in his novel “The Shape of Her.” Judges for the annual prize noted many animal references throughout the book, but they were especially impressed by his passage “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he ****** himself into her.”
Somerville, who was born in Britain but now lives in Ireland, took his victory in good humor, saying, “there is nothing more English than bad sex.” And he was honored to be shortlisted alongside American writer, Jonathan Franzen, who was nominated for passages within the best-selling book – “Freedom.” Prior winners include many literary heavyweights, such as Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and the late John Updike, who was awarded a lifetime achievement for Bad Sex prize in 2008. Maybe these authors should have researched more by using the services of a london escort, where there really is no such thing as bad sex.
(What’s worse than winning the annual prize for Bad Sex? Try the lifetime achievement award.)

And in case you’re curious, last year’s winner, American author Jonathan Littell in his book “The Kindly Ones,” described a sex act as “a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg.” If you and your partner incorporated products from sites like Babestation Play sex toys I don’t think you or your partner would be feeling like your heads are being scraped out like a soft-boiled egg.

So reading about this award, I had to ask myself. Are the judges selected for their literary expertise or are they an authority on bad sex? (And if they have earned both distinctions, maybe they should quit reading during sex.)

And if, as an author, you’re no good at writing bad sex, should you be upset? Being rejected for a prize like this, isn’t that a good thing? This award could shed a whole new light on the time-honored author phrase – a good rejection.

Keeping in mind that this is a public forum, please use your own good judgment in replying, but I’d love to hear from you. Do recognitions like this make you want to buy the book to see what all the fuss is about? Or have you ever written a sexy passage that didn’t make your own edit process because even YOU were disgusted?

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Handling Rejection

James Scott Bell

There’s an old Peanuts cartoon, where Snoopy is reading a rejection letter which says Please don’t send us any more. Please, please!
With a wry smile, Snoopy thinks, “I love to hear an editor beg.”
That’s one way to handle rejection.
There are others. We all know rejection is part of this crazy business. Whether it’s agent or editor, the default setting is to say No. Which means you have to find a way to handle the inevitable.
The best way is by continuing to write and submit. Here are a couple of quotes I like on the subject:
Let rejection hurt for a half hour, no more.  Then get back to your word processor. –Jacqueline Briskin
Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose. — Ron Goulart
No matter how many rejections you’ve received, it’s probably not as many as Jack London, who apparently had a whole trunk full. Or Stephen King, who put his on a spike on the wall until the papers were falling off. They persevered to publication.
You can also look through the legions of rejections famous writers have received. The little book Rotten Rejections (Andre Bernard, ed.) has some gems.
A rejection of Tony Hillerman’s first Navajo detective novel: “If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
Or this, for George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the United States.”
Maybe the most famous rejection was penned by Samuel Johnson: “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”
So there you go. It’s universal. It happens. The key is how you handle it.
How do you? Does rejection follow you around like a bad smell, or are you able to get past it and back to the keyboard?

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The Home Stretch


So I’m entering the last month on my WIP. First drafting, deadline wire up ahead. I find this horserace to be a time of great exhilaration, desperation, excitement, consternation and frequent trips to Starbucks.
Even though I’ve done this dozens of times, it never feels like, “Hey, I’ve got this so nailed. No problem!”
I’m looking at all the story threads, balls in the air, knowing the ending I’m heading for but wondering how I’ll get there. In my head, I know I will, because I always do, somehow.
But in the heat of battle, writing each day, I feel like a Spartan trying to hold off Xerxes at Thermopylae.  And I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way (especially if I was ripped like Gerard Butler).
Here’s why I wouldn’t: to be in this battle is to be alive. As Jack London once said, “I’d rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. 
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom 
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. 
The function of man is to live, not to exist.”
Writing well is about being alive, about being out on the wire over Niagara Falls, about jumping on the back of Bucephalus and grabbing some mane. Ray Bradbury once described his writing day as getting up each morning and exploding, then spending the rest of the day putting the pieces together.
It’s about running a race ahead of a mob of angry, torch bearing townsfolk. It’s about skiing down a mountain ahead of an avalanche.
It’s about being open to all the fantastic things you can’t control, then finding ways to form a pleasing shape out of them.
Being alive, truly alive, means a degree of uncertainty. It means risk. If there’s no risk, there’s not going to be any lasting reward. If your reach does not exceed your grasp, you’ll just keep grabbing the same old leaves.
This is nowhere more pronounced than when I’m heading home on a novel. Now is that time. I’m shouting like Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove.
When I am at the keys and moving the fingers, I am kicking all doubts into the pit. “This is Sparta!”
What about you? How do you usually feel on the home stretch of a novel?

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