Betsy Whitt

I read. I write. I think. I live.

Category: On Writing (page 1 of 3)

Finding the Flow–Redux

In the last week or so, life has alternated between being so full (of non-writing activities, of course) that I don’t have time to write blog entries and being so frustratingly free of progress that I’ve held to Thumper’s mother’s age-old advice that if you can’t say something good, you shouldn’t say anything at all. This morning, though, I seem to have a little more steam, and I was looking for the link to a blogger I found several years ago (three, it turns out) who had some really helpful ideas about organizing work time.

And, as it turns out, the entry I wrote about it three years ago (click for original post) is strikingly appropriate for today, so I’m reposting it.

Here you go:

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks lately, with many distractions from my writing. I find that distractions tend to accumulate, causing inertia on so many levels it’s hard to comprehend, but one of the measurable ones is the drop in my daily word count – or daily editing progress. Usually it’s my husband who finally confines me to my chair and tells me to stop whining and get back to work, but even then it can be very daunting to get started.

Tobias Buckell posted this link in his blog a few weeks ago, and it struck a chord with me. Yes, it’s aimed at computer/software programmers, but the concentration difficulties are very similar. I’ve tried the “work for X amount of time, take a designated break, get back to work” method before, but it almost always falls apart after a few cycles because as I’m taking a break, I get distracted by something (ooh, shiny!) and it ends up being two hours before I remember I ought to have been working. What can I say? I’m blond, and not afraid to admit it.

The difference here, to me, is that John Richardson recommends setting a timer for work time and break time. And not just any time – 48 minutes of work, and 12 minutes of break. I’d argue that other combinations would work, but the point of this is specificity.

It’s easy to say “I’ll take a ten minute break” and let it turn into 15 or 20 minutes… or two hours. If I’m taking a 12 minute break, I’m taking a 12 minute break. I know I won’t look at the clock at the right time, so I set my kitchen timer, clip it to my pocket so I can hear it even if I wander over to the mailboxes, and it calls me back to work at the right time. I get 12 minute intervals throughout the day to do things like tidy up the living room or rotate the laundry, so even the thoughts about the non-writing tasks I need to complete don’t intrude on my working time. 12 minutes is enough time to do two small chores AND brew myself the next cup of tea. It’s a long time, really, and sometimes I find myself ready to get back to work before my break is done. Then I feel like I’m getting luxury time to just sit and do nothing, without shirking any of my various home or working duties.

Also, when the writing’s not going well, all I really have to commit to is 48 minutes of typing. I can handle that. I’d probably waste that time watching morning talk shows anyway, and not doing anything productive, so I might as well waste the time pretending to work. If, by the end of that time, I only have 200 words – or 20 words – and I’m still struggling, then so be it. I’ve written, and I can go on about my day guilt-free knowing it would have been horrible to punish myself by sitting at the desk trying to put together words that just wouldn’t cooperate. But usually by the time my timer beeps that first time, I’ve found my groove again and can’t wait to get back from my 12 minute break to keep working.

It’s funny how that works – how your brain can forget why you were so excited about a project, and needs to be reminded.

On the days when I’ve used the timer method (and I’ll admit it hasn’t been every day – I’m still getting used to it) I find that I get more done in general, not just more writing, and that’s a fantastic payoff no matter which angle you come at it from.


A Conversation about Depression and Writers

Aussie writer Colin Rowsell has posted an excellent entry in his blog about depression and its effects on writers. There’s already a great conversation happening in the comments of the entry, but many people are spreading the word on their own blogs as well. I thought, since I’ve dealt with depression quite a bit and talked about it a few times here, that it was a great opportunity.

I’d recommend reading the original post to get the full context, but you can just go ahead to my answers to the questions he posed if you prefer.


* Read the questions below.
* Choose some (by no means necessarily all) that you’d like to answer.
* Either write into the comments section, or email Colin privately on (if you email, I will respect your privacy to any extent you want, the default is complete anonymity)
* If you like, add a tiny bit about yourself – eg ‘I’m a 22 yr old female aspiring writer’, ‘I’m 46 years old, used to be an emu farmer, and have 3 books in print’, etc. Also add any further advice that isn’t covered under the questions.
Finally, tell anyone you know who might be interested in being part of the conversation – the further we can retweet and link this, the better it’ll get.

For anyone who’s not acquainted with me, I’m a 26 year old female, pursuing publication. I’ve got a husband, a dog, and a cactus, and I have a bachelor’s in Music (voice) and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction from Eastern and Seton Hill Universities, respectively. There’s a history of depression in both sides of my family.


1. What is depression?
It’s walking around in circles through hip-deep, sucking mud, just to figure out what to have for lunch.

2. How is it different from just having a bad day?
There’s no reason for it–there might be a trigger event, but there’s nothing solid to point to like, “My boss has been hounding me unfairly all month.” It’s just there.

3. What does it feel like on the inside?
For me? All my thoughts get tangled and move in circles. I’ve got a lot of things to accomplish, but I don’t have everything I need to start the first one and the second one will take a long time and I probably won’t get anything done and really I’m incapable of finishing ANYTHING so I might as well lie on the couch and watch the same movie over and over all day. I can’t process conversations, I can’t even follow printed directions. I tend to forget to eat, and if I do remember, it’s often not worth the trouble of making all those decisions about what to have and how to fix it.

4. What can it look like from the outside, i.e. from the perspective of friends/acquaintances?
I think sometimes it looks like I need more sleep, but I learned very early on how to have a “normal person” mask in public, so I doubt many people even notice. My husband is very familiar with my warning signs, though, and so is my mom, and they are both good about stepping in.

Personal Experience

5. In what way is depression a part of your life?
It’s like my hair. It’s a part of me, it sprouts back even if I were to try to shave it off. Some days are great, and it cooperates. Other days, it’s a miracle to pull things together enough to go out in public without drawing stares. If I take care of it, it does better, but there are still good days and bad days.

6. If you live with depression, how/when did you first realise it? Was there a formal diagnosis at some point?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect I can identify my first major depressive episode nine years ago, during my freshman year of college. Since then, I’ve been at a fairly constant low level of chronic depression with several other severe episodes scattered about. I self-diagnosed six years ago, after the second major episode (four months), and with my husband’s help self-treated until a year ago, when I went to a doctor, got officially diagnosed, and got meds for it.

7. What were some early experiences with depression that had an impact?
Isolation, forgetting to eat (I look at photos from that time and realize how very, very thin I was), ruining relationships (family, friends, boyfriend). Once I identified the initial symptoms of a downward spiral, I set up methods to pull myself back from the edge.

8. If you write, how does it affect your writing?
Well, when I can’t accomplish anything or put together thoughts that run in anything but circles, that’s not a great thing for writing. I’ve learned to allow myself down time as a natural part of my productivity, and to find other things to occupy my time instead of retreating to thinking about how little I’m ever going to get done and how useless it would even be to try.

9. What have you found useful for coping? What’s NOT useful?
Finding activities in which I get tangible evidence of progress–quilting is great, because at the end of each step, I have stacks of Things I Got Done staring me in the face. A long walk outside, preferably in the sun, also definitely helps. Allowing my husband to make plans with good friends and then dragging me along can help turn around my mindset by the end of the evening. My medication has done wonders for my chronic depression–but it took thinking about it as a medical condition, like diabetes, that has to be treated regularly and seriously before I caved and went to the doctor. But there are still greater fluctuations that I have to be aware of even when I’m consistent with remembering my meds. Adjusting my expectations so that I work with my depression instead of against it is important, too. NOT useful for me? Watching TV or movies, talking to someone who is being super-productive, “just cheer up, everything will be fine”. Reading is neutral… it does have the advantage of being able to see my progress, but there’s usually a bit of guilt because I feel I *should* have been writing.


10. What advice would you give to a young person, interested in writing, who’s beginning to realise that depression will be part of their life?
Well I’m not sure that being a writer necessitates having depression, but for the young or new writer who deals with depression, I’d give the same advice as I would to anyone with depression. Know your treatment options, use whatever support networks you have access to (I have one friend whose coworkers are closer than her family in many ways), and make the best informed decisions you can for your own situation. Don’t let depression be an excuse for not doing what you dream of, but don’t kid yourself that it won’t be an obstacle; and know that it might be more of an obstacle for some than for others.



Literary Agent Extraordinaire Nathan Bransford is blogging today about prologues, and as usual has some very good things to say. There’s a lot of debate out there (especially, may I say, in the fantasy writing world) about whether prologues are or aren’t necessary or cliched or any number of other things, but Nathan does a great job summing things up and letting us know what to do about submitting prologues with partial requests.

So here you go, starting with my favorite quote:

What is a prologue? Typically it is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.


Open Letter To My Brain

Dear Brain,

Please stop coming up with more ideas for material from Kerris’s POV. We agreed a long time ago that it was important to balance our time in Kerris’s head with time in Devlin’s head, which means that for every three thousand words you add to Kerris’s story, you must also provide 3k more for Devlin. More to the point, it must be relevant and appropriate to tell at this point in the story. I know Kerris is having a very fun adventure while Devlin is still rather gloomy right now, but you need to move past that and give me some good material. When in doubt, add ninjas! Or pirates! Oh, don’t talk to me about not having ninjas and pirates. We have desert raiders–they’re like pirates, only with camels instead of ships! Work with me, here! Maybe if you could manage to spice up Devlin’s exterior conflict a bit nobody would notice that he’s Mister Gloomy-Pants right now.

Right, now that we have that cleared up, back to the creative emitting of ideas. Go, Brain, go!

Love and snuggles,


A Quote

Abraham Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, in an address to Congress, 1959:

Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on Earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.

It intrigues me as much because of its truth in Lincoln’s case as because such a character, whether male or female, would be a worthwhile challenge to create.


Tolkien on Willing Suspension of Disbelief

This does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside, what he relates is “true” : it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

Right on. That’s from J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy-Stories.


Why Fantasy Heroes Rock

One of my favorite chunks of The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today: Connections in Medieval Romance, Modern Fantasy, and Science Fiction, by Flo Keyes:

Action, not introspection, dominates. The reader is not told how to act; he or she is shown. The hero is not proposing a plan for the future; he is carrying it out. If a science fiction writer had a man wake up to discover he had been turned into a giant cockroach, as Kafka has Gregor Samsa do, the story would not focus on the cockroach’s loss of humanity, his sense of alienation from his family, the resurgence of gumption in the previously passive family members, and a wasting away into death to get himself out of the way. Instead, the reader might expect to hear the human/cockroach thinking something like, “Wow! I’m a cockroach. No insecticide known to man can kill me, maybe not even nuclear radiation can kill me. I can get into all kinds of places humans don’t want me to be, and I can walk on ceilings.” Then the cockroach would tumble out of bed, squeeze through one of those impossibly small spaces no one can believe a cockroach can fit through, and set off to save humanity from itself (and maybe make the world a better place for cockroaches of all sizes, too).

I don’t think there’s anything else to say, really. But in the end, I think that’s a pretty succinct summary of why I didn’t like METAMORPHOSIS at all. Wimpy Gregor just laid down and died. What’s that about??



Do you ever put something off because you think it’s going to be harder than you want to deal with right now? Do you ever feel ridiculous because you know it’s not going to get easier the longer you put it off? Are you a master of procrastination and the inevitable guilt that follows because you didn’t get anything done?

I do, I do, and I am.

And really, I just need to remember that it’s never That Bad. The scene I’ve been avoiding working on for the past four days? Done. Yeah, it took longer than I might have liked, but it took a lot less than three days’ worth of work, which is what I turned it into. I must be certifiable to do that. Good thing I’m on meds. ;)

What tonight’s message boils down to is this: it’s not that hard to find the creative groove again once you feel you’ve lost it. Chances are, it’s not far off, it’s just hidden in the underbrush of Life’s Other Stuff That Creeps In. Soon as you start looking, there it will be. Right where you left it.

And, since I can give you tangible stats tonight, 35% of the manuscript is done. I’ve got to add one scene tomorrow (can adapt it from a ‘deleted scene’ I wrote early in the process) and make major fixes to another, then line edits on two more scenes and I’ll have the first twelve chapters finished. Cool, eh? I think so.


Just the Right Words

Do you ever sit down for a day at work and wish with everything in you that you could be doing something else? Do you ever feel like you’ve hit a long, slow uphill and even though you know you need to get to the top, you’re starting to wonder if the hill ever ends?

One of my writer friends was talking the other day about some of the ways being a writer is different from being a rock star. You know, rock stars pretty much always get private jets and enough money to buy a house or seven, and people stop them in public and ask for autographs. All of that is pretty much not a part of the writer’s life–unless you’re someone like J. K. Rowling, and let’s face it: when you’ve got more money than Britain’s royal family, it’s like being named an honorary rock star.

But one of the biggest differences is that rock stars get instant feedback on their work. Fantastic guitar solo? The crowd goes wild! Opening bars of a fan favorite song? Crazy screaming and whistling! I’ve gotta tell you, nobody over at my local coffee haunts has ever jumped up and cheered when I typed the period on a particularly fine bit of timeless prose.

And sometimes that lack really screws with my mind. Not that I want crowds of cheering people following me around, per se, but it’s amazing how a little bit of encouragement fuels my desire to jump back in and keep moving up this hill.

I woke up this morning knowing full well that I needed to write. Really, it would be ideal if I could punch out 25 pages today. And here it is, 11:30, and I’m only just now about to get started on that. And I’ve gotta say, I’m about 50 times more excited about the coming afternoon now than I was 45 minutes ago. Want to know why? Because I got an email this morning from my mentor, and in it he said this about my novel:

There have been, in fact, too many times that I’ve gotten so caught up in the story that I forget I’m supposed to be critiquing it. :)

Ha! Whee! Imagine me clapping my hands and bouncing up and down in my chair like a five-year-old who just got her very own pony. One sentence, and it changes my whole outlook on what I’m doing. All of a sudden I’m looking forward to jumping back in and laying down more of this story that has my mentor forgetting his job.

And isn’t that just the best mental place to be when you sit down to work?


Just for Variety…

Since I wrote last Saturday about how the creative muse drops off the face of my brain by 2pm (hah! I don’t even know how many mixed metaphors I got in there), I find it necessary to explain that there is a significant exception to that rule, and that is that on Wednesday evenings when I tag along with Matt to the church building while he helps run youth group, when I can hole myself up in the youth min office, I’ve had some of the more productive writing sessions of my writing career.

Given, most of the time I don’t write earlier in the day on Wednesdays, for one reason or another, but it is exceedingly odd.

Also, the car alarm has taken up its old hobby of going off for no discernible reason.  Excitement, excitement.  Actually, so far it’s been related to the almost dying in Kansas incident a year ago, but we thought we’d taken care of the last bit of problem back in June.  *sigh*

In other big news, our house is for sale.

No, we don’t own a house.

But we take lots of walks through nearby neighborhoods, and we have a few favorites, and the one we always walk past and say “yeah, if that one actually had a yard, we’d really really like it” is officially for sale.  And since we’re curious little buggers, we took a flyer from their box and it turns out there is actually a decent back yard.  Better than we thought there was, anyway, and all enclosed, which is nice in its own way.  Of course, we promptly looked it up on ReMax (I think this link should take you there) and found out that we have incredible taste.  It’s a bargain at only $910,000!  Hahaha.  Ah, but it’s fun to window shop.  I haven’t got a clue what I’d do with a house like that.  If I’m gonna have that much space, I want a real, old-fashioned farm house.

Anyway, still 300 words left to meet my daily word count goal (300? A trifle!) so it’s off to write, off to write…

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