Chronicling The Craft: 40,000 Words

Writing Rituals for the Spiritual and the Eccentric

Chapters In Progress: 9

Chapters Completed: 9

January 2014 was a kind of “calm after the storm” month. After a hectic holiday season, the past few weeks have been pleasantly uneventful. I’ve enjoyed the downtime not only because it’s allowed me to breathe and unwind, but also because it’s given me time each weekend to write. Yay!

Maintaing such a positive attitude isn’t easy, though. The past few writing sessions have been a struggle. Even though I had already planned a particular scene, I’ve almost given myself headaches trying to write down what I see in my mind. When that happens, my initial reaction is a twinge of disappointment: wishing I could have written more words, wishing I could have gotten farther along in that scene. But then I remind myself, “A writing session is a writing session. No matter how many words you put down, it’s an accomplishment to dedicate time and energy to this kind of project.” This reassurance works every time; I feel better about myself and my craft, and all the more motivated for the next sit-down.

Which explains why the 40,000-word mark snuck up on me. I thought I still had a couple hundred words more to go, and then I checked my writing stats. 🙂 So, here’s what’s happened since the previous Chronicle:

  • Chapter 12 is complete! This chapter contains not one, but two confrontations between my protagonist and the leader of her travel party. Both confrontations draw from a lack of trust between the two characters that the protagonist is trying to repair. This chapter was a blast to write. Suspicion and anger may not be comfortable emotions to experience, but they can be oh so deviously fun to create as an author. Thinking of gestures and physical reactions as well as back-and-forth dialogue expressing these feelings was one of the most fun challenges I’ve had so far during this latest novel-writing journey.
  • I’ve also worked on the surrounding Chapters 11 and 13. Both are about halfway finished at this point. As stated in past Chronicles, I’m using the “writercopter” method for this book, which means I’m working on whichever scenes I feel inspired to write as opposed to pushing through the story chronologically. Right now, my creativity seems determined to flesh out this section of the novel. So, these chapters will most likely be my main focus for the next couple sit-downs.
  • Finally, I’m still cranking out historical and character background for the novel. I’d rather not clog the novel itself with too much backstory, and typing these details in separate documents has been a huge help. Later on, I can decide what parts are important to include in the story, then copy, paste, and revise as necessary.

Today I thought I’d write more about my writing rituals. I had focused on one particular ritual – listening to music – in my previous Chronicle, but that’s not my only one. Here are the others, as well as reasons why I practice them.

cup-of-tea

Tea: I love drinking tea – at home, at work, on the go. It’s become part of my daily routine over the past 2 years. Maybe that’s a reason not to list tea-drinking on this list of writing rituals. But when I sit down for a novel-writing session, it doesn’t feel right to go without a cup of this healthy, soulful beverage. Its soothing, gentle warmth contrasts with the act of translating the animated frenzy of images from my story into words. It reminds me to force the chaos to slow down so I can observe details and emotions and consider character reactions. Most importantly, tea keeps me hydrated during each writing session. It’s no fun to go thirsty for a few hours!

I enjoy all kinds of tea, but my favorite ones to complement novel-writing so far have been jasmine tea, Teaforte’s African Solstice, and Teavana’s ToLife and Rooibos Tropica.

Midnight Jasmine candle

Midnight Jasmine, from Yankee Candle. One of several candles in my “writing candle” collection.

Candles: For me, lighting a candle signals the start of something special. Such a tiny flame, if handled and watched carefully, can bring a sense of peace to reading, meditating, or whatever you may doing at the time. I stick to candles with cool, calming colors (blues, purples, and whites) and clean or floral scents. (The one exception is Yankee Candle’s Midsummer’s Night – musky and intoxicating, yet pleasantly relaxing!) These kinds of candles have helped me in the same way tea has, by further enhancing the serenity and spiritual act of writing. Plus, they match my decor!

Burning candles seems to be a common ritual for writers, and there may be a psychological / anthropological reason behind it. According to this Smithsonian.com article from December 2012, fire may have had a lasting positive impact on our problem-solving skills, long-term memory, and achieving meditative states. Two of those skills (problem-solving and meditation / focus) are key for novel-writing. Not bad for something that started off as man’s first means of cooking food and providing warmth, huh?

Pier 1 swivel chair sml

Pier 1’s swivel chair, similar to their popular papasan chairs. Mine has an cream-colored cushion instead of the brown pictured here.

Comfortable Place to Sit: If you’re a writer who sits when writing (I’ve read of a few writers who prefer to stand), this is an absolute must. Most of the time I park myself at my desk and tip-tap-type away. The desk is tucked away in a corner of my living room and is home to a few other inspiring objects: a magnetic poetry board (the one I made at last year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival), a shoji table lamp, and an owl figurine (a.k.a. my desk buddy Wesley), among other things. I’ve sat here at my desk so often for all kinds of writing that this place feels like home for my muse. And with its flat surface, it’s an ideal spot to put a tea mug and a lit candle.

But every now and then, my body craves a break from the norm. That’s when I retreat to the swivel chair (see picture above) in my bedroom. I can relax as I recline back, prop my feet up in the matching ottoman, and use the lapdesk for my laptop. Ahhhh… Suddenly my body goes on vacation and my muse takes flight. I’ve actually gotten lost in my writing for hours just by sitting in the swivel chair, leading to some of my most productive writing sessions. Two itty bitty negatives about the swivel chair, though: no “safe place” to put a tea mug or a lit candle. I’ve gotten creative with the mug; I set it on the standing bookshelf next to the chair and try not to spill the tea. As for the candle… well, I go without one, since I don’t want to burn down my home!

Those are the rituals I’ve developed for my writing sessions. Many other writers also practice some kind of routine or tradition before, during, or after they work on their craft. Some rituals are simple or seemingly normal, like drinking (coffee, tea, wine, etc.), reading for inspiration, or walking the dog. Other rituals, like the ones listed below, might surprise you – or raise a few eyebrows:

  • Alice Hoffman (White Horses, The Dovekeeper, Aquamarine) paints her office walls a new color whenever she starts a new book. Her choice is deliberate: The new color reflects the new novel’s themes.
  • Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) forced himself to write in the nude. Famous for his procrastination, he once ordered his valet to remove all his clothing from the house so he would feel obligated to finish his work and meet his deadlines. Apparently he kept up the habit after that.
  • Maya Angelou (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) confines herself to a small hotel room when she writes, and keeps a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards, and a bottle of sherry.
  • Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book) insisted on using the blackest ink available for his writing.
  • Animal lovers, anyone? Famed poet Edgar Allen Poe supposedly wrote with his cat perched on his shoulder, while Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House) kept a pet scorpion on his writing desk. (Eeeek!)

And so this ends the latest Chronicle. I hope to have the next one online sometime in late March or early April. It’s going to depend on how long it takes for the bumpy ride with Chapter 13 to sort itself out. Plus, I’m planning to attend two fun, writing-related events in the coming weeks: WanaCon 2014 on February 21st and 22nd, and another creative writing class at Grub Street. And not only will these events be great learning opportunities in terms of novel-writing, but they might also give me ideas for future Chronicles. 😉

In the meantime, do you practice any rituals when writing or doing other creative tasks or hobbies? Or, do you know of other noteworthy or unusual habits of famous writers? Feel free to share by commenting below. I always appreciate hearing from you!

Next Chronicle: When I reach 45,000 words

Until Then: Great news – Grub Street is going to publish an article I wrote for their blog! The article will go live next week. I’ll share the link with you here as soon as it’s ready. Also, no Mini-Review Monday tomorrow, so expect the next one to come on February 17th!

12 thoughts on “Chronicling The Craft: 40,000 Words

  1. Sounds like things are coming along really well :D. Chapter 12 sounds like an absolute blast to write. I imagine gestures were particularly fun, given that you’re writing in a fantasy setting; how long did it take to work them all out?

    Can’t think of any “rituals” I haven’t mentioned before, really. I drink a lot of tea and I exercise if things start to go badly; other than that, nothing springs to mind.

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    • Thanks! And it was a blast to write. Plus, there are ramifications of this tension and conflict that arise in Chapters 13 and 14. *dun dun DUN!* So, the results of their distrust (or rather, the MC’s failure to win the leader’s trust) lead to terrifying consequences, and quickly.

      How long did it take to work out the gestures? Ummmm… I don’t really know how long it took in total to write the chapter. But I imagined the exchanges between both characters and did my best to capture what I saw in my head. I also used a fantastic reference book called “The Emotion Thesaurus.” It contains all kinds of suggestions for physical / physiological reactions, mental reactions, etc. for various emotions. That’s been immensely helpful in finding gestures and other ticks one can experience with fear, anger, remorse, happiness, etc., so you don’t use the same reactions time and time again.

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  3. Fascinating!
    I’m a big tea-drinker myself – tea to start, tea to keep going, and tea to put my feet up with when I finish. Although I see you put up your feet while you write – such a plushy chair! Mine’s a little more utilitarian, but at least the desk it sits at has room for a teacup (and a teapot, a candle-lamp, and the chess board I’ve plotted out my plot on).

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    • Oh, that comfy chair doesn’t get used all the time for writing. *lol* Most of the time I’m at my desk with a normal wheely chair. But thank you for the compliments on the papasan! 🙂

      You plotted your novel’s plot on a chess board? That’s really interesting! Where did you get the idea for that?

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      • I was reading a book which mentioned making a map of the plot. Cool! thought I. A 3-D map with chess pieces and little symbols! No, it turns out, just a graphy thing. I figured my idea was more fun 🙂

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      • I had to leave out the topography (chess boards being flat, and me not being able to find a suitable ‘river’) but I have my white queen moving about the board with a white knight, beset by dark knights and the dark king. Then there are various peasant pawns (dark and light), three castles and sundry bits of jewellery. Also a single white rose.
        I’m finding it particularly handy for figuring out where everyone is at a given time.

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