I’m learning about my writing process, and improving it, as I progress on DaNoFiWriMo, my project to draft a 50,000 word non-fiction book in a month.
The most surprising thing I’m learning is that my only real writing challenge is managing my energy. As I decide what to write next, if I pick an idea that I have a lot of energy for, I can quickly write 500 or 1000 words. If I pick a low energy idea, I slowly write 80 words, then discover that the towels in the linen closet desperately need to be rearranged. Unfortunately, rearranging the towels doesn’t add to my word count, so I’ve been working on ways to keep my energy up.
Two factors seem to drive my energy: Keeping a short list of high energy topics, and receiving support from my friends.
Since 1993 I’ve been keeping notes about any topics that interest me. I’ve jotted notes on index cards, note pads, scraps of paper, and paper tablecloths from restaurants. Nowadays I use a small Moleskine notebook that I carry everywhere I go. I highlight the books I read. In the car I take notes and even “highlight” audiobooks using an Olympus DM-10 digital recorder. And I have two dozen hour-long microcassettes full of notes that I recorded before I bought the DM-10. I’ve transcribed most of those recorded notes into text files on my computer.
Naturally, these notes have been invaluable as I draft my book. When I’m stuck on a topic, I open X1, type a few keywords, and scan the notes I’ve made about the topic. It’s likely that I’ve already thought about it (repeatedly), and made notes of my thoughts.
To track my ideas for the book, I’m using EverNote, a wonderful, simple program for writing, storing, categorizing, and searching notes. As I think of ideas, and as I gather notes from my files, I copy each into EverNote and categorize it according to the topics that the note is about.
I also tag each note with a status, such as To Do or Drafted. For the first few days of DaNoFiWriMo, whenever I finished writing about a topic I would scan my To Do notes for another. As my EverNote file grew—it now has 194 distinct ideas to write about—I had a harder time choosing the next topic. I found myself reading and re-reading topics that I didn’t have the energy for right now.
That gave me an idea. I added a new tag called High Energy. Whenever I make a note that I have High Energy for, I tag it. Then when I’m looking for the next topic to write, I look first at the High Energy topics. One of them usually grabs my attention, and I dive in and write about it.
Sometimes as I’m adding a note to a particular topic, the new note combines with existing ones so that the topic reaches critical mass and I suddenly have more energy for it. When that happens, I tag some of that topic’s old notes as High Energy.
One of the keys to energy seems to be keeping my High Energy list short. The list now has 18 items, which is a little larger than I can scan quickly. I may have to drop some items and keep the list to a dozen items or so.
My energy for each topic comes and goes. Just because I marked a topic as High Energy yesterday, or this morning, or twenty minutes ago, that doesn’t mean I’ll have energy for it now. Sometimes I scan through my High Energy topics and don’t feel like writing about any of them. Now what do I write about?
I created a “Jiggler File” to help with that The Jiggler File is a file of ideas for remembering or creating ideas. Whenever my I can’t find anything I want to write about in my EverNote file, I open up my Jiggler File and give myself a jiggle.
Here’s my current Jiggler File:
- 60000 words about resistance. (This is a file I started in 1997 with a goal to write 60,000 words about resistance. I wrote about 15,000 words before fizzling out.)
- Quick takes on resistance. (A list of about 70 principles I've learned or invented for responding to resistance.)
- Recorded notes. (Notes I've taken on every topic under the sun, and on every writing medium under the sun, since 1993.)
- Highlighted passages. (Passages that I highlighted as I read books.)
- Flip book. (My "flip book" is a spiral-bound book of index cards, and on each card I've described a model of some aspect of being human and relating to other people. If I'm stuck for ideas on a given topic—resistance, for example—I can open my flip book to any page, and ask "How does this relate to resistance?" This always gives me fresh ideas.)
- Mind map. (Fire up MindManager and spew a mind map of whatever connections pop into my head.)
- Reasons to; reasons not to; examples of resistance. (A list of examples of resistance, and lists of reasons people have given for doing or not doing something that someone else has requested. I've collected hundreds of each during my resistance presentations and workshops over the past 10 years.)
- Presentations. (PowerPoint slides from my presentations about resistance.)
- Make up a story. (If I have a principle but can't remember the story the led to it, make up a story. This will get me writing, and I can find a real story later.)
So far I haven’t used the last three jigglers. And I haven’t exhausted the ideas from the other jigglers. I’m in no danger of running out of things to write about.
One condition I’ve placed on DaNoFiWriMo is not to use ideas I’ve already written about. In addition to writing directly about “Resistance as a Resource”, I’ve also written popular articles about the closely related topics of communication and change. And I’ve written dozens of blog articles about resistance, communicating, relating, power, and related topics. My choice not to use any of what I’ve written in those articles has been marvelously motivating. It means that when I’m done writing 50,000 words this month, I also have tens of thousands of words of additional material that I can add to the book.
In addition to tagging my notes with topics and status, I also tag it with an indication of… I don’t know what to call this… some sort of rhetorical category. What kind of idea is this? Some ideas are stories. Others are principles. Some are models. Others are definitions, quotations, or procedures.
Somewhere around day 4 I noticed something horrifying. Though the large majority of my notes are principles (110 of my 194 notes), I have very little energy for writing about a principle unless I have a story to go with it. When I remember a story about some aspect of resistance, the words flow easily. And once I’ve written the story, I can describe the principle easily and clearly. But when I start with a principle and try to write about it, I suddenly feel constricted.
The notes I’ve taken over the years are largely notes about principles. When something interesting happens, I tend to summarize it into a principle, and then forget the details of the story. I’ve noticed this when I do classes. People ask me to give examples of the ideas I’m talking about, and often I can’t remember an example. I can see that I’m going to have to change the way I take notes. In addition to writing down the lessons I’m learning from some experience, in the future I will want to write the story of the experience.
Another big lesson (though not a new one for me) is that the support of my friends means a great deal to me. My first sign of support was from a very bright friend who, 12 minutes after I announced DaNoFiWriMo, wrote to tell me that he too would write a book in October, a book he’d been thinking of writing for a long time. He sends me (and other writer friends) daily progress reports, and seeing his progress always gives me a boost of energy. Thank you, as-yet-unnamed author friend!
Second, several people responded to my request for questions about resistance, and several others have talked to me in private about some of their puzzles about resistance. I always have more energy to write when I know that real people care about what Im writing about. Thank you, Richard, Doris, and Elisabeth!
Third, when I complained to a fiction-writing friend that I don’t remember the stories that led to some of the ideas I’m writing about, she said, “Why not make up a story?” Aha! That would get me writing, and I could find a “true” story later. Thank you, Melinda!
Fourth, a number of colleagues I admire, and who have recently published books of their own, wrote to cheer me on. Thank you, Johanna and Dwayne!
And last but not least: That fracking public commitment I made keeps me going when I want to bail out after writing 900 words each day. Thank you, younger Dale!
Perhaps the biggest lesson of DaNoFiWriMo is that I’m learning how to manage my energy, and that in itself is energizing me.