Deep work is phasic.
Put another way, to ape Rushkoff, we’re not computer processors. We can’t be expected to accomplish any job any time we have the available cycles. There are rhythms to our psychology. Certain times of the day, week, month, and even year (e.g., the professor I discussed in my last post) are better suited for deep work than other times.
To respect this reality, you must leave sufficient time in your schedule to handle the intense bursts of such work when they occur. This requires that you constrain the other obligations in your life — perhaps by being reluctant to agree to things or start projects, or by ruthlessly batching and streamlining your regular obligations.
When it’s time to work deeply, this approach leaves you the schedule space necessary to immerse.
When you’ve shifted temporarily out of deep work mode, however, this approach leaves you with down time.
This is why people who do remarkable things can seem remarkably under-committed — it’s a side-effect of the scheduling philosophy necessary to accommodate depth.
People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
— Harlan Ellison
One of the things which puzzles me is how a writer works with another writer on the same book/episode/movie. Is it like a round robin? Does one writer write an entire rough draft and the other suggests changes as they read along?
About collaboration — Everybody winds up devising his or her own method. I don’t know what other writing teams or groups do, but around here, this is how Peter and I manage it:
Assign a project leader. Which of you is better at this particular kind of work? “Better” being a very specific value judgment that varies from project to project. It can mean: Who does this kind of work faster? Who does this with less day to day effort? (Because you have to factor in the wearying effects of long-haul projects.) Who does this work with more insight / nuance / depth ? Which of you has been doing it longer? And sometimes, who has more credential? — though this often holds less weight inside the household than it does outside. One of us may know that the other is better at a particular kind of storytelling even though that one doesn’t have as much formal credential as the other. (Also sometimes affecting this choice: Which of you does the company you’ve contracted with think is the project leader? — and here issues of credential may be involved.)
So here’s where we talk a little about the process of planning and writing the outline for The Six Tasks of Snowman Hank, from the point of view of someone who’s done a fair amount of animation work.
Why did I do it? Partly for the challenge. Even well-established writers ought to be stretching themselves every chance they get: part of the job, as I conceive it, is to try not only things that others have never tried before, but things that you’ve never tried. The more I thought about Snowman Hank and his six tasks, the more this piece of potential storytelling struck me as being like a writer’s version of the very ancient game show “Name That Tune”. “I can name that tune in… three notes!” “I can make an outline for a Christmas special out of… a minute and a half of video and six or seven lines of dialogue!”
Some challenges are just too good to pass up on. But once the challenge is accepted, the real work begins. Having decided to do something like this, it must be done as well as if there was real-world money and a real-world production team involved. What’s the point otherwise?
ETA, 23 November 2011: I’m Tweeting about this post for the last time(s) this year, as I’m about to judge the results at year’s end and decide what to do. Want to take action (assuming you haven’t already) to help me decide? If the Ebooks Direct store is part of your plans, you may want to wait until tomorrow. Read on…)
First thing this morning, as usual, I fumbled around on the bedside table and grabbed for the smartphone to see what interesting things had happened while I was asleep. And there in the shiny new Google+ app (thank you Colm!) what do I see, in reaction to the notification about the upload of the new edition of the Middle Kingdoms omnibus yesterday, but:
“Were there any more books in the series planned? I remember reading these three several years ago and thinking the last one felt a little incomplete.”
“Now that someone else started it (cough)A Door into Starlight please?(cough)”
And on Twitter:
“Speaking of which, is The Door into Starlight still under consttruction or did it get abandoned?”
“The Door Into Starlight is the book I’ve been anticipating most for the longest. Every time you mention Middle Kingdoms I get giddy!”
…And I lay there in bed for a while (assisted by the excellent Cat Goodman, who came to help with my cogitations by lying on my chest and digging his claws in just above my collarbones… I swear, I think sometimes that cat distrusts gravity…) and started composing possible responses, each one of which I immediately virtually tore up on the grounds that I hadn’t yet had any caffeine.
I’ve had the caffeine now (and am also considering some Malt-O-Meal, as it’s a July morning afternoon in Ireland and the local temperature’s about what it would be in the Alps in April). So I’m in a better place to deal with the question. It is, after all, one I get occasionally at US conventions (and in the past, at some of the UK ones). Somebody will corner me in the bar, or after a panel, and say:
“What about The Door into Starlight? It’s been more than twenty years since the series started.”
“Yes indeed, it has. In fact, it’s been more than thirty, but who’s counting?”
“So where is it already?”
“It’s in progress, and I work on it now and then. I have a lot of scattered bits and pieces of it, with a lot of huge empty gaps between them that need to be filled in so that the whole thing works. As I’ve said before: I know how it starts, and I know how it ends – I have done since I finished The Door into Fire. But oy, the middle! …In the meantime, since my family would not appreciate starving for my art, I do other work as well. Other books, the occasional movie. Starlight I’ll get around to again when I have the inclination and the leisure.” And there has been an additional reason for the non-completion lurking in the background, but mostly I don’t introduce that into these conversations.
Most of the time the questioning stops here, and people change the subject and go off to do something else, like abuse George R.R. Martin about A Dance with Dragons. (And here I pause to wave at George, who I’ve known for a long time, and grin. How satisfying this week must be for him [setting aside the way Amazon.de did a whoopsie with the book’s shipment embargo]. Yet at the same time, the fans will be screaming at George for the next one within hours, if not minutes. Such is the writer’s life.)
Yet as regards Starlight, the questions have been getting a little more persistent lately. Could it possibly be because I’ll be turning 60 shortly? 🙂 (And to the person who Tweeted me a month or so back in the wake of the European E. coli outbreak, telling me to please write Starlight before I died, and then hastily erased the message? Whoops, I saw it first! And no, you weren’t just kidding: I know the signs. You think I didn’t have such thoughts about George McDonald Fraser and the specific Flashman books I wished to God he would get on with before he expired? But under no circumstances whatsoever would I ever had said as much to the man. Tsk, tsk! Anyway, I forgive you.)
Let me assure everybody that it is my intention to write The Door into Starlight before I die. Mostly for the good and sufficient reason that I said I would. (An issue I’m more than usually sensitive to while still completing publication work on The Big Meow.) But I’ve been in no particular hurry about it, as there has been a dirty secret in the way, one that’s kept me from making more of an effort to find the time to finish the last book in this series. And it’s this:
These books have never sold all that well, suggesting that not that many people are interested in reading the last one.
If there’s a more painful admission for a professional writer to make, I’m not sure what it would be. Deep down I suspect most of us wish that everything we write could be a vast worldwide hit and that people would climb over one another’s bodies to get at them. But it doesn’t usually work out that way. And although the Middle Kingdoms universe was my first one, and a place I love dearly, the numbers suggest that those who share the love are relatively few.
The series has never done all that well in sales in any of its editions. Fire earned out, but paid royalties (in its various US editions) for only a couple/few years, then went out of print when Dell SF went under. Shadow came into print, earned out and paid maybe a couple of years’ worth of royalties, then went OOP as well. And if I remember correctly, Sunset never earned out on either side of the Atlantic. (All the books came into print at one time in the UK as part of a deal with Transworld/Corgi in the 90’s, but they didn’t fare well there either, and all went OOP in short order.)
…You see how this is going? If this trend was to continue, then if I did write Starlight, I’d probably have to pay people to read it.
🙂 …Okay, maybe that was facetious. But the sales record cannot be ignored. The last publisher to be interested in the series was Meisha Merlin: we did indeed have an agreement to publish Starlight, for a very small advance, and I restarted work on it. But then MM sadly went under. And when I next discussed the question of Starlight with my agent, a year or so after the fact, he told me gently that after inquiries, no other publisher had any interest whatsoever in the fourth book, and I should set it aside and turn my attention to other things.
So the only other way for this book to see the light of day is through self-publication. Yes, certainly the self-pub model has changed very significantly in the last couple years. (And to this I say HURRAY for the new options it offers both the beginning writer and the established one.) But it nonetheless brings with it a new set of unknowns. And though those who contact me about The Door into Starlight without a shadow of a doubt really want to see it, I have to consider the situation with a cold eye, because it’s possible that their message, however heartfelt, nonetheless translates at this end as, “We want you to sit down and spend hundreds of hours of your (theoretically) paying writing time on something that will make us very happy but may never pay you even minimum wage.”
Am I wrong about this?
If I am, give me a sign. Here we are in the heart of the Social Media age, with Facebook all over the place and Twitter a force to be reckoned with and Google+ roaring about the landscape making everybody all excitable and nervous. So use them to convince me.
Facebook folks: Hit the “Like” link or share the message here. Twitterers: Retweet this message, or (if you prefer) Tweet the Bitly link to the message with the hashtag #doorintostarlight : let’s see if there are enough of you interested to get it trending. Google+ people who’re interested in this: use the Share button (public shares, please) to share the message that led you here; and / or use the +1 button on that posting. (ETA: Or the one at the top of this post, now that we’ve got the WordPress plugin that adds one. Also, apologies for not making yesterday’s G+ posting public: the repost linked to above is.) …Ask everyone you know who might possibly care about this issue to do the same. Convince me how many of you are out there who give a damn.
This effort will have a couple of useful side effects:
(a) I’ll get a serious idea of whether more than a very few sweet and persistent enthusiasts care about whether they ever see the book or not.
(b) If nothing in particular comes of this, that result will itself give me something concrete to point at. When someone comes up to me at the next convention and says “So where is it…?!”, I’ll be able to pass them the URL(s) of this message. That way they can see the size of the response for themselves, and understand by direct observation why I either got on with finishing the book, or decided to continue dealing with the project in the leisurely manner of the last couple of decades, in between other projects as opportunity dictates.
Now if the results convince me, I’ll formally lock the book into my second-half-of-2012 work schedule (that being the earliest I could reasonably get to grips with the project, as I have contractual commitments on the table that must be fulfilled first). Please note that even if this happens, under no circumstances will I at any point be setting any kind of completion date. The Big Meow project has taught me to be way more cautious with such commitments. This will also never be a crowdfunded project, for the same reason: crowdfunding is not a good work model for me and I won’t be doing it again. I’ll just get to work on the book, and people can then start nagging me periodically for word counts. (omg what am I saying…)
One last thought. Maybe you’re one of the people vitally interested in seeing the last book, and you want to add some guilt to the equation? Then go over here and buy an ebook. Doesn’t matter which one. (Though try this one if you like: it’s the first book of a new series and I’m very fond of it. Also Audible will be doing it as an audiobook in a while, which is cool.) Spend no more than what you’d spend on a Starbucks latte or a beer. After all, if you spend that much on an ebook, you still have the ebook afterwards. If you spend it on a beer…where’s that beer ten hours later? Even if you hate the ebook, you’ll still be ahead of the game the next day. 🙂 If you decide to do this, use the discount code STARLIGHTGUILT when you check out: it’ll give you a 15% discount on your total purchase and also mark you as someone to be notified should something start happening with Starlight in 2012. ETA, 23 November: since we’re going to be doing a Black Friday promotion in our store over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, you might want to wait until 00:01 (US) EST November 24 to take advantage of the much deeper discount available only between then and November 28th. If you do, use the code STARLIGHTGUILTFRIDAY, which has been set aside for people who want to ID themselves as being part of this decision-making process. This will give you 60% off your entire order. You won’t see it mentioned on the Black Friday page at the store because it’s only for people who’ve read this posting.)
…So let’s see what happens. Meanwhile, I’m going to go off and see about that Malt-O-Meal.
There it is, the oldest and most beat-up copy I own of the book that got me spanked when I was eight.
Having until then been gorging on a SF/fantasy diet mostly split among Andre Norton, Alan Nourse, E. Nesbit and the Mushroom Planet books, suddenly I stumbled across this Heinlein person in the local library. And not through the juveniles, either: they came later. (And for me the dream screenwriting job would be adapting Have Spacesuit, Will Travel… especially now that George Lucas has kindly done all the heavy lifting as regards getting audiences used to star-spanning Empires.)
I read Starship Troopers in one crazed Saturday afternoon and came home with my head spinning from deep immersion in futuristic militaria: then unwisely started babbling to my father (whose birthday, interestingly, also was July 7th) that “all wars were caused by population pressure.” Heaven only knows what he made of such a sentiment coming out of my mouth at that point. What probably concerned him more, though, was that when he said “No they aren’t”, I said, “Yes they are, ” several times — because there was something about Heinlein’s discussion of the topic that seemed right to me at the time: right enough to risk contradicting my father.
It was the first argument about anything that I recall ever having had with anyone. Well, I guess the result was predictable: I got spanked for being disrespectful. The joke — or at least the first irony associated with this incident — is that my Dad went to his grave thinking he’d won that argument simply because I thereafter stopped discussing such things with him. But the circle closed when beyond all possible / reasonable expectation I met Heinlein himself, many years later, and over the course of the numerous conversations that followed I remembered the incident and told him about it. He snorted (don’t know how otherwise to describe the sound. He also did the best imitation of Bill the Cat having a hairball that anyone could imagine), and then burst out laughing. “Kind of a robust critique,” he said.
Dry understatement and humor, coupled with a fondness for amiable teasing and great courtesy of a slightly old-fashioned kind (he was the only human being ever to call me, repeatedly, “honey chile” and get away with it): that was what his conversational style was like whenever we spoke. Some time after The Door into Fire came out and he read it, he wrote me a fan letter (which I take out and look at occasionally when feeling down); and once we’d physically met — courtesy of a truly low-down and evil practical joke on the part of David Gerrold (which I’d frankly brought on myself by a joke I played on him) — Heinlein kindly gave me his home phone number and said to call when I needed writing advice.
This wasn’t a privilege I abused, and usually we wound up talking about anything but writing. This was when the Bill the Cat imitations were likely to occur. Or sometimes advice was needed: I consulted with him, for example, on the exact circumstances in which an officer outside the normal chain of command might be left in command of a Naval vessel, and the results of that discussion were used to stick poor Dr. McCoy into the Enterprise bridge’s center seat in Doctor’s Orders. (“You’ve built this whole damn book around that joke, haven’t you?” he said. Realizing I had no chance whatever of blathering this man into believing some other force than a play on words had been at work, I admitted that this was true. Another snort, more laughter. Heinlein respected Star Trek, and when we were discussing what I was working on, I got the sense that to him what we would now describe as a “tie-in” or licensed work was no less worthy than an original, as long as you did the work as well and honestly as you could. More than once over a number of phone calls he came back to that theme, so that it became a kind of mantra: “Joe’s beer money,” your readers’ disposable income that they hand over to you in exchange for entertainment, is sacred: to provide honest entertainment is no cause for shame — let the lit’rature fall where it may. )
I don’t know if anyone else around the Web does anything in particular about Heinlein’s birthday. God knows there are enough people to discuss his fiction, pro and con, sometimes (on either side) violently so. I’m not going anywhere in that direction except to say that all Heinlein’s work, the juvenile SF and adult SF alike, has been and continues to be a profound influence on me: and it was a pleasure to be able to tell him so. Dairine in the Young Wizards books, in particular, owes a lot to Poddy’s bratty little brother Clark in Podkayne of Mars (and Robert knew it, and was pleased: he liked Dairine. And Ed. “We Navy men don’t like sharks,” he said. “You made me like that shark. That was a dirty trick.” He said it with considerable relish, as if admiring the sleight-of-word that had sneakily corrupted his allegiances. Praise of that kind, from the acknowledged master to the journeyman, is the kind of thing you treasure.)
All a long time ago now, of course. I really miss not being able to call him any more. …But tonight at the local I’ll be raising a glass in his memory. And my Dad’s, of course. It’s kind of a pity they never met. They would have been very polite to each other… but the fireworks would have been fun to watch.
Almost all writers I know have work superstitions, though it’s not something we usually discuss except amongst ourselves. They’re like the superstitions some sportsmen have — the way, for example, that baseball players cross themselves when they’re coming up to bat. (Often provoking the response, Oh, come on now, you didn’t have to cross yourself so many times. And not there. And you’re doing it again. I’m looking away now… )
For writers it can be any one of a number of things, or a combination of them. Which way the desk is oriented. How many cups of coffee you have to have before you can sit down and start work. A certain kind of pencil to scribble notes or doodles with. The right seat in the right cafe. Not starting work before a specific time. Not starting work after a specific time. Some of these habits just seem to begin themselves: some are a behavior or an accessory that may have been sheerly accidental at the time, but which the writer has come to associate with work that just came out right.
This is mine: grid paper. Specifically, this grid paper from the Swiss supermarket/department store chain Migros. (Their online shopping partner LeShop.ch carries it as well.)
I’d have to do a little digging to nail down the exact date when this started, but it goes back at least to the late 1990s — not long before the Transcendent Pig started turning up in the YW books. (I’m pretty sure that the writing episode featuring the Pig that’s described here was conducted on Migros grid paper: “the pad” is mentioned, and before the Pad came along, it would have been just plain white printer paper.) In any case I was in Switzerland a lot during the 90’s — doing research for A Wind from the South, among other things — and since everybody who stays in Switzerland for any length of time winds up in a Migros sooner or later, it was probably a given that I would run across these pads eventually and pick one up.
But they’ve turned out to be really nice to work on. Reasons:
- The neutral gray is easy on the eye.
- The grid spacing is just right for my handwriting (which is small): 4mm boxes.
- The paper is 100% recycled.
- It’s a nice weight: 100g/m2.
- Ink doesn’t bleed through, no matter which side you’re writing on, even when you’re using a fountain pen.
- It feels nice to work on — the surface finish is very pleasant.
But most important of all for me:
- Work done on it comes out right.
Don’t ask me how or why. It just seems that way.
So I don’t use it on just anything: no to-do lists, no shopping lists. (Those go on sticky notes, either real ones or the virtual ones in my Desire. Though sometimes work notes do wind up on these due to accident or necessity, and those get stapled up over the desk so I don’t lose track of them. They are never removed until the line or issue mentioned on the note is dealt with in print. Some of these have been around for a while: see the image to the left.) The grid paper is saved for outlines, serious notes or edits (like the ones above, for the High Wizardry revision), hand-writing chapter excerpts (as detailed in that link above), and other such heavyweight stuff.
When somebody in the household goes over to CH (or these days, to Germany: there are a number of Migros outlets there now too), they’re always enjoined to bring a couple of pads back home with them. These go on the shelf by the desk where I can peel off a few sheets in a hurry if I need some at home, or else pack some in a bag with the red plastic writing clipboard if I’m going offsite.
So now everybody knows.
Whether this “magic” has the slightest chance of ever working for anyone else, I have no idea. These things are so subjective. The definition of superstitious behavior, after all, is that it assumes or attempts to create causal links where none really exist.
But who can tell. If it does someone else some good… cheers.
It’s also called “the Monomyth”. There’s a good breakdown of its basics on Wikipedia. (NB: apparently some of the citations on the Wikipedia article are being checked for accuracy.)
The Monomyth is having something of a “vogue period” at the moment. In screen writing, in particular, you will find people who are desperate to try to shove your screenplay into this model and make it fit, whether it belongs in there or not. (eyeroll)
So I start going through the email and find one waiting for me that has no topic, no salutation, and the very first sentence is as follows:
First off i would like Diane Duane to respond not some hired help.
Then a critique of some timeline issues in the YW books ensues, in a rather brusque and cranky tone. The mail then ends like this:
Respond or I will send an email a week for as long as it takes to get your attention.
And that’s it: signature, but no “thanks for your time” or anything of the kind. (eyeroll) Sorry, [name omitted]. The Lady Mevrian and I are of one mind in this regard: “patience only and courtesy shall get good of me”, especially when somebody’s work day looks like mine.* So [name omitted] gets one of the form letters which my long-suffering part-time assistant composed….