The Trouble with New Chapters and the Power of Routine

Starting a new chapter is always more difficult than I think it's going to be. Despite the fact that I have a good sense of where I'm heading, and even better, particular notes and thoughts and scenes and images in mind for "what happens next," I find when I start a new chapter, the events I thought "happen next" don't in fact "happen until something else happens," and I spent tons of time spinning my wheels trying to figure out what that "something else" is. This could be helped, I suppose, by just WRITING THROUGH THE PROBLEM until things fell into place, but of course, that would be way too easy.

Instead, I dither, re-reading all my notes, shoring up my outlines and research files, adding details to the big picture and moving events around.

And that's on the good days.

Consider this:

I finished Chapter 3 on 4/19. I had every intention to begin actual drafting of Chapter 4 on 4/20 -- and to be fair, I did start writing on 4/20. It wasn't good work, it was aimless casting about, but at least it was words on the page. But on 4/21, I got totally freaked out by the poor quality of 4/20's output, and rather than refocus and start again, I killed enough morning time surfing the internet that by afternoon my head cold was back with a vengeance and I went home to bed and didn't write a word. The following day, I wrote at home, and felt okay with the work -- not because it was good, but because, again, at least there were words on a page.

Then I spent 3 days, literally, cooking for Passover. Finally, I got back to the office on 4/25, but it had been so long since I actually dug deep into my work that instead of writing-writing, by which I mean, producing 500 words-on-a-page that take us forward, I made notes again. At least this time, the notes were somewhat original, new thoughts, which mapped the chapter, suggested the scenes and developments that would take me through--at least, now, I had a spine to hang my story. But actual words? No ma'am. I was still too freaked out to write-write, so I went home.

THIS IS VERY LAME, so I’ve decided to parse the causes of intertia in an effort not to repeat the same mistakes.

1. Partly, of course, there's the fear with each new chapter that I'll discover the story can't support the next step, that it's suddenly soul-less and mind-numbingly dull, not to mention a complete rehash of everything that I’ve written and worse, read, before.
2. And also, of course, there’s laziness. But laziness is not a real issue for me, in generally—as I’ve gotten older/married, I’ve found it harder and harder to sit still/be unproductive. I need to be accomplishing things, all the time.
3. Which makes me think the larger problem is lack of focus—and if that’s true, I need to take a look at my routine.

Routine is huge for me. Routine is how I stay feeling clear-headed and in control of my life. Routine is a free sort of anti-depressant, and believe me, it works.

Here’s a glance at my routine:

6:30 am – I get up early mostly because I have discovered if I don’t get out of bed with a flying start, I’ll spend the entire morning cuddling Husband, who tends to linger beneath the sheets. If I kill the morning, I enter a shame-spiral of “how could you lose so much time?” self-berating, which, of course, makes me just want to kill more time. Now, I would love to say that I get up that early because I wake every morning thinking, “I’m so excited to write today!” The fact is, I do actually wake up thinking that—really, I even say it to myself in this little whisper-voice a few times—but that ain’t enough ammunition when I’m faced with warm Husband in warm bed. What actually gets my feet on the floor is knowing I have an early morning appointment every day: a riding lesson.

7:30 am – I ride dressage every morning at a barn close to my house. I ride my own horse, in the company of my trainer, because even I am not responsible enough to make it to the barn that early in the morning if I’m not paying someone else for the time. But knowing I have to meet my trainer at 7:30 gets me up, and the act of riding itself gets me connected to the day. Plus, it’s me-time. Riding is something I do that Husband doesn’t, so it gets me up, out of the house, connected to my day, but also, connected to me as an independent being, which is halfway to me getting into writer-mind.

8:30 am – I have coffee and yogurt and biscotti at Starbucks (yes I know the coffee sucks at Starbucks and there’s something awful about buying into the chain-mentality, but it’s quick and consistent everywhere in the world, totally invariable, and for me, invariability is a pretty big plus when you’re talking routines). Over coffee, I write my morning pages, ala The Artist’s Way. I’ve been keeping notebooks since I was about seven and first read Ann Frank—thinking about how her words had granted her reprieve from the total erasure suffered by most other people in general and 6 million in particular is a large part of what made me decide to be a writer. But over the course of my life, I’ve had ups and downs in that department, and I recently discovered, to my horror, that the absolute hardest or most important moments of my own life—events that would come in handy for my work, for instance—are, for the most part, entirely unrecorded. Aargh. Clearly something kept me from the page, and that was damn silly. It would never happen today, however, because I have realized a coupla things from going through The Artist’s Way a couple of times (sometimes no matter how much someone’s touchy-feely-approach drives you crazy, they do have some interesting or useful things to say). One thing I learned was, dumping all my personal stuff into my notebook before starting work cleared my head for writer-mind and kept my personal distractions and anxieties on the back burner while I focused on the front. And even better, the more time I spent at the notebook, I realized, the more I wanted to get away from the crap there and REALLY WRITE. Which is how I get from Starbucks to my office.

9:30 am – 2:30 pm (or into the evening if I can steal the time) – I write 500 words minimum and pray for 1000 and more.

I mention all of this only because, once again, today I began a new chapter, and worse, on a Monday, after a weekend away from my desk and my notebook. This, of course, is the perfect recipe for creative stagnation and despair. Sickness and travel and Holy Days threw me off track in April, sure, but I refuse to let that derail me again in May. Today I got up, and got with the program—barn, notebook, office—and the opening for Chapter 5 followed, fitfully, to be sure, but still, I started typing, and the words were there. Good, bad, or ugly—doesn’t matter yet. I just made myself get going, 100 words, then 300, then 500, and then the scene was done. I got 520 words down on paper today, and opened Chapter 5 only 1 work day following the close of Chapter 4, and I thank my routines for that.


Monthly Check-in: April


Write 500 words each day


ANALYSIS: I lost 4 days to a trip to NY to attend a family wedding, despite packing my computer. I always think I’ll write on the airplane, but I never do, and this time was no exception—I spent the hours to NY and back catching up on my New Yorkers and New York Magazines. I also lost 2 days to the world’s worst head cold, though to my credit I did actually go to the office on those days, I just couldn’t bang anything out through the fog. That said, I wrote more than 1000 words for at least 5 of the days I did write, which brings my monthly word count up to cover days lost. HOWEVER, I still count this goal as NOT MET, because honestly, it’s more about the daily pen to paper than the statistical words.


Complete 2 novel chapters + 1 other project = 3 pieces total

PROJECTS COMPLETE: 1.5 chapters of the novel

ANALYSIS: I think this new goal is silly and am going to revert back to original MONTHLY GOAL of 2 PIECES per month. Mostly because I always lost time to the “new chapter start-up” period (the time elapsed between Chapters 3 and Chapters 4, this months projects, was a record-breaking weeklong struggle), so 2 chapters takes more time than I thought. I’d rather have a goal that’s not-easy-but-doable (2 pieces) than one that’s optimistic-but-rather-unlikely (3 pieces), because who are we kidding here, completing two pieces is FABULOUS AND WONDERFUL AND NOTHING TO BEAT MYSELF UP ABOUT—I refuse to lose momentum due to shame-spirals, and am therefore dialing down the aspirations a bit. Slow and steady will eventually win the race. That said, I WOULDN’T HAVE MET THIS MONTH’S GOAL anyway, so there you go. It was a function of days-at-my-desk, clearly, and as you can see above, April suffered serious attrition for days-at-my-desk.

Workshop 1 story / 1 essay each month

Ha. Have also decided this is not the most productive goal, and am going to cut it, mostly because I have decided not to workshop the novel until Draft 1 is behind me, and as long as I’m trucking through Draft 1, it seems silly to divert attention to essays or story for workshop purposes, just so that I’m workshopping. More important, I think, that I be writing, and I’m writing the novel right now, so there.

Submit current stories / essays for publication

Last month I submitted "Dirty Darlene" to Center, Santa Monica Review, Bridge, Crab Creek Review, and Cream City. So far of this bunch, SMR has declined. Still waiting on everybody else.