Arbitrary Deadlines

Back in school I learned about this study that some scientists did on motivation. They took two groups of Marines and made them walk twenty miles. The first group was simply told to start walking. The second group was told how far they had to go before they could stop. I’m sure I’m getting the details wrong, but the point is that the first group suffered a lot more. They were tired, cranky and angry. The second group marched the twenty miles without a hitch. They were ready for more – boo ya!

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We all do better when we know what the task ahead of us is, and roughly how long it’s going to take us.

I’ve been working on this novel (actually typing pages) since December of 2008 and I’ve got quite a ways to go yet. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much more time this project will take, it’s important to me to know how far I have to hike, and so to keep sane, I break the whole “write a novel” thing into chunks.

My new goal for a finished second draft is November 30th. Yes, it’s arbitrary. No, I don’t have an editor begging for pages, or a publisher anxiously awaiting my newest work, but it’s important for me to know what’s ahead and when I will get there.

Having a deadline (even an arbitrary one) keeps me moving forward.


I’m writing these words sitting in the Los Angeles Superior Court Jury Assembly room. It’s my first time, and I have to say that I’m actually kind of excited. Ot at least I was when they gave us the orientation about what the day would entail. Today I am an active participant in our judicial system.

Little did I know that being an “active participant” would entail sitting in a large room with a hundred or so slightly smelly individuals, all of us waiting to have our named called. Down time like this makes me anxious.

Today was supposed to be a writing day. Even heading in here this morning I figured I could use any sitting-around time to get some writing done, but I’m finding this environment very distracting.

There’s a guy in the back who keeps singing operas in a strange falsetto voice. Every half hour or so there are announcements from the people running the show. Every person in the room has a newspaper or lap top and the rustling and tapping of keyboards around me seem much louder than they really should be.

I don’t think of myself as easily distracted, but what I’m realizing is that I’m just used to the distractions I deal with regularly. I can handle constant inquires from my daughter without hardly slowing my typing at all. I can suspend the narrative in my head for as long as ten or fifteen minutes should my guy call to say hello. These are the bits of my life that I have managed to integrate into how I write.

The opera singing hipster in the back is not.

So I’m trying hard to focus. I am pushing myself to put in the extra effort. I read and re-read pages and do seem to be making slow progress with minor tweaks here and there. By the end of the day I will know if I am assigned to a case and have to come back tomorrow. I’m hoping not. If so, you better believe that tomorrow I will arrive with ear plugs in my pocket. Even if I only get to write during my lunch break, it’ll be a more productive day than this one.

On My Own

In the seven month history of this blog I’ve never missed a week of posting. Please accept my apologies, dear readers, for leaving you hanging last week.

In my defense it was a big week. I finally graduated! Yes, I am now officially a Master of Professional Writing (so says USC). In addition to being a master, which is fun to say, I am also now totally on my own – which is a lot scarier.

No more professors giving me their wise guidance, no more weekly classes to force me to change out of my pajamas and go somewhere to hold a conversation, and no more blaming my complete lack of income on the fact that I’m a student.


Luckily I have a small group of writers (former classmates) who get together once every other week, but I wonder if this will be enough to keep me sane. As much as I love working alone, I need to interact with people. I am a social creature at heart.

I also tend to over-plan things. I’ve had to crush the urge to start up another five writing groups so I have something to do every night of the week. I do have one other group I’m hoping to get rolling – to fill in the holes on my current group’s off weeks, but I have to stop myself there and see how things develop before I go crazy with more writing circles than I can handle.

It’s exciting and scary being out on my own now. I’ve had my training, now I have to make good on it and keep writing. As always, that’s really all I can do.

Back Story

I learned to tell stories in the film biz. The school of thought that shaped my education was pretty firm that flashbacks are (usually) unnecessary, that everything the viewer needs to know should come out in dialogue between the characters, or in their actions.

Novels are a totally different beast. When I’m reading a story and dialogue is used for exposition (example: “you know I hate sea food”) I cringe. If it happens over and over I’m likely to put the book down and forget to pick it up. Likewise, flashbacks in fiction writing are not at all frowned upon. Most stories are structured around a current through-line, interspersed with scenes from one or more character’s back story/history.

My story has three main sections of backstory, let’s call them A, B and C. A takes place when Talulah is 13, B when she is 15 and C when she is 18. Here’s the questions I’m struggling with – do they need to come in order?

Right now my draft goes like this:
Current day story, C, current day, A, current day, B, current day resolution, end.

I like the way this unfolds, but I wonder if my readers will be irritated that I jump into the back story near the end. Should I tell it chronologically? I just don’t know. I have a bunch of cards up on a cork board, with all the current day scenes in blue and the flashbacks in yellow, and I keep switching them around, over and over, trying to decide. I think, given that this is my first novel, it might make sense to keep it simple and tell the back story in order. I might be biting off more then I can chew by mixing it up.

Should I go the humble route and lay it out real simple-like?
Or be bold and tell it in what ever way seems right to me?

I’ve never been one for simple.