Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Knowing when to stop

Sitting down to start writing each day is tough. And so is knowing when to stop. If the two events are usually within fifteen minutes of each other pick another profession. But if you’re really putting in the hours, and there’s no foreman telling you when quitting time is, when is quitting time?

Some screenwriters go by number of pages. Others set a time limit. One I know eats chocolate covered coffee beans all day and when his hand starts to shake that’s the time to wrap it up. There’s no right answer, except maybe the last one.

A lot of writers will hang in there until they finish a scene. They like that sense of closure. There is something to be said for that peace of mind. Especially if you’re neurotic and from what I hear, one or two writers are.

On the other hand, I like to stop when I get stuck. It’s usually in the middle of a scene. (Ernest Hemingway used to stop in the middle of a sentence. I always wondered if he wrote a suicide note that read: “I’m sorry, I just can’t go…”)

Instead of gutting it out, I will walk away from the computer and just let my subconscious mind work on solving the problem. I know that sounds very “Yanni” but for me, a relaxed state is when I do my best thinking. I’ll keep a notepad by the bed and in the morning just lie there like a slug and let my mind run free. Very often the answer will come. Similarly, the shower is a good place to problem solve, and one of the few shower activities you can admit to.

The added benefit of allowing yourself the night and morning to break through your problem is that when you sit down to start writing again you’ll already have a head start. You won’t have to face the “tyranny of the blank page.”

Writing is rewarding but never easy. We resist starting and constantly fight the temptation to stop. Kurt Vonnegut talked of the difficulty. He said whenever he’s in a room with writers they’ll all be bitching about how hard the process is. All except one. He’ll say it’s a breeze. Every day it just flows. Invariably HE’S the worst writer in the room.

20 comments:

Ken Rasak said...

I love that detail about Hemingway. Why not stop in the middle of a sentence? Heck, why not stop mid-punctuation? "Is that a comma or a semi-colon?" "I'm not sure yet. I'll get back to you."

david o'hara said...

Usually when it is real tough, it's because I've got tunnel vision and need to let it go so I can again see the forest and not just the trees.

Some writer friends of mine think that they can get over a hump by just pushing, pushing, pushing. It becomes a matter of perseverance. They finally pound the square peg into the round hole...and it reads like that.

I believe writing is a matter of feel. I know it's gotta make some sense, but devoid of feel - you ain't got much.

The Master said...

Invariably, if I stop in the midst of a sentence, when I return to it, I can not for the life of me remember where I was going with that sentence. I like to finish a chapter and then stop, even if it's stopped coming out funny. I can always go back and fix the funny later. Conversely, I will often finish a chapter, and then say, "Oh good. I can stop for today." when actually I'd be good for 3 more hours, but now I have an excuse to stop. But when I find I'm so tired, I'm punchy, I have to stop whether I'm at the end of a chapter or not.
Actually, I'm writing this on a break between chapters. I finished one forty minutes ago, and now I'm farting around the Internet for a break, and I need to go back and write another one tonight, because this damn book is due at my publishers next week, and I have three more chapters and an epilogue still to finish, plus shaving a few thousand more words off the whole schmeer all by Monday afternoon. (I'm writing and unwriting at this point.)
Who was it who said "No one enjoys writing. One enjoys having written."?

Beth Ciotta said...

*looks over shoulder* Are you talking to me? :) Normally, I tend to push on longer than I should. But recently, I've been stopping while I still have something to say. That's a boost the next day when I open the file and, as you said, I'm not facing a blank page.

Also, I do some of my very best thinking and problem-solving in the shower. Although that means I'm distracted and have more than once washed my face with shampoo or my hair with face scrub. Anyway, kind of nice to know I'm not the only one who does the shower/brain-storming thing. I thought I was maybe, you know, strange. ;)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I stop when I feel the keyboard smack my forehead. Important safety tip - when your eyelids are heavy, make sure you save more frequently.

dave williams said...

When I get stumped or just sick of my own "voice" I walk the dog. She's been complaining about too much exercise lately. I also find that yardwork frees my brain to work things out while I concentrate on mowing in a straight line. Since both of these activities involve moderate physical exercise they make my desk chair a sweet alternative and I'm in a hurry to get back to it.

Joshua James said...

For some reason, I solve a lot of story and / or plot problems whenever I'm in the shower, so if I get stuck, I take a shower.

The bad news is, it's hard to take notes in the shower.

I believe Ben Franklen wrote while in a bathtub, but I don't like baths myself. I like showers.

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

Suddenly Joshua James got a whole lot sexier!

Emily Blake said...

I used to set page counts but I never stuck to them. Then I set time limits but I never stuck to them. I felt too pressured to meet them, so I gave up when I couldn't. Now I set a loose page coutn for myself for the week and whenever I get a chance I write.

Usually I open up Movie Magic to fix one line of dialogue and two hours and five pages later I run out of steam. That's when I stop.

JP said...

All this showering. Makes me feel dirty.

If I hit a writing block I go for a walk or run. If an idea hasn't come within a km or so its not going to.

Mary Stella said...

Especially if you’re neurotic and from what I hear, one or two writers are.

No, really? Who says we writers are neurotic? *twitch twitch*

Shower solutions are great. Somebody claims water ions boost creativity. People could claim its dust mites that solve the problems and I wouldn't care as long as I got the answer I needed and could move on.

Herbie Popsfarter said...

Jinkies, it's a mystery, Scoob!What is it about the shower? I've heard that before, and I've had a few breakthroughs myself while squeezing Prell on my empty noggin.

Sometimes even involving shower-related issues.

And walking away from your work, then coming back to it, is also a good way to expose the "suck" of something you've written.

Seymour said...

I get my best ideas during sex. Of course, I can't use any of them, but they're great ideas.

Alaskaray said...

I must be the only non-writer who reads this blog. I have little doubt that my wife (and even my cat) would prefer I take up writing and think about it in the shower, instead of my normal activity... singing.

Jell Sanchez said...

Other ways to spot the bad writers:
1-Talking to them cheers you up (I-can't-possibly-suck-as-much-as-him syndrome)
2-"Have you seen some of the crap out there? Anybody could do that."
3-They're better looking than you.
4-They've been writing the perfect screenplay for 10 years.
5-Half their page count: posting comments on writing blogs.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I believe that quote The Master cited came from Dorothy Parker.

Malachy Walsh said...

I write in the morning. I usually stop when I get to a beat change or I'm hungry and the coffee's gone bad.

That means 10.30 or so.

I come back to later in the day if there's a deadline and I have no choice. Or the freakin' thing demands it and I have no choice.

For some reason ideas happen in the shower. Who the hell knows why. I'm just glad they do.

The Master said...

Thanks Cap'n Bob.

Julie O. said...

If I'm not forced to stop writing for some bullshit reason like feeding the children or doing my day job, I'll write into the wee hours, stopping only when I can no longer see the monitor... because I'm sleep-typing.

Luckily, my sleep-typist is pretty clever. More so than I. It's always fun to shuffle to the computer in the morning and see what she wrote.

Mustang Bobby said...

I usually stop when I notice I can't see the keyboard and the only light in the room is from the computer screen. Gee, where did the day go? Then I get a glass of water, take a stroll around the living room or the Florida room, and get back to work. The characters are usually (but not always) patient enough to wait for me to come back to the office, but not always.