The “Chapter 6” phenomenon

I’ve touched on the idea of recording your process when you’re writing in “Writing the book–during,” but I want to talk some more about it.

Long, long ago (1984), in a software environment far, far away (DOS 2.0 using Wordstar 3.3), I had just started my first tech writing job. I was documenting accounting software at a company that has been gone for about 20 years. I had gotten this job after being a programmer/analyst writing accounting software and I was rather nervous because I didn’t have any formal training writing software manuals.

And I froze; at least, that’s what it felt like. I couldn’t get words down.

It was frightening: I was worried that I have having impostor syndrome and I’d hit the wall. I kept trying to document something and I couldn’t. I’d poke at things and nothing would happen. I finally said “Well, if I can’t write this, I’ll do things that need doing and see what happens,” so I set up physical files for the chapters, I looked at the software, and did a lot of little things, and eventually, the words started flowing. A lot. I got done with the manual on time and even won an award for it: my first manual and it was an award-winner! Hurrah!!

Next manual comes in, I’m ready to rock and roll and… I froze again. “Okay, we’ll poke at things and set up files and see what happens.” And after a while of poking and playing around with the software, I wrote another award-winning manual. And so it went.

I soon discovered that what I was seeing was not freezing, it was my process. The first thing I’ve found I need to do when writing something big seems to be not write about it. I need to do almost anything but that still gives me exposure to the thing I’m writing about so I can let the ideas percolate in the back of my head. After a certain amount of time (for some varying value of “certain amount” that I can usually gauge based on a variety of esoteric factors such as the size of the project, its technical complexity, and the card you have in your hand there), I usually start writing and everything’s fine. This applies to manuals, to books, to magazine articles… almost everything, really.

Similarly, I discovered by the time I’d done my third book that I suffered from what I called the Chapter 6 phenomenon. The Chapter 6 phenomenon is that I’ve been cruising along nicely, spitting out chapters regularly until I hit Chapter 6 (or thereabouts) and it becomes The Thing That Would Not Die or, perhaps, more accurately, The Chapter That Would Not Live. The chapter goes on and on and on… and on. And on some more; nothing I can do seems to bring it to an end. When I finally get done with the chapter, it becomes apparent why I was having this problem: Chapter 6 is generally two or even three times as long as the preceding chapters, so the fact that it was taking two or three times the time to finish it isn’t surprising. Most of this is structural: Chapter 6 is about where I’m shifting the focus of the book after having laid down the basics, so I’m starting something new and there may be a considerable amount of conceptual pump-priming going on. But in the middle of the chapter, it’s impossible to see that. I have no visible perspective when all I can see is Chapter 6 from horizon to horizon. These days, all I can say to myself is “Oh, yeah, I’m Chapter 6-ing.” (Chapter 6 is kind of like a big cork, too; once I’m past it things go back to being easy again.)

I also mentioned recently in “Prison and Writing” that I had trouble near the end of the project. This is part of my process, too: maybe not as subjective as some of the others, but an important part of my process that I can expect and need to plan for. Buckling down at the last helps me get the book out, when I’d much rather go play.

The thing is, I would not have known about any of these things if I hadn’t been keeping a day log. A day log is a private file (I usually just open a flat file in Word, my word processor of choice) in which I record notes and comments about how I’m feeling, what’s going on, and so on. (Look for more about day logs in an upcoming post.) If I feel like the chapter I’m working on is taking forever, I say so. If it’s going swimmingly, I say that, too. But equally importantly, you probably won’t know what your process is the first time you write a book. Even if you’ve written a bunch of manuals before, your processes when writing a book may be very different.

You also won’t necessarily have the same experiences I do. One of my co-authors observed that she never seems to have Chapter 6 problems, but another has it on most of the books we wrote together. It happens. You may have other personal reactions to various stages of the book that I don’t. The message here is: whenever you’re writing a book, keep a steno pad or a Word file with notes about how you’re feeling a couple times each day. You won’t have enough data to draw conclusions during the first project, but at the end as part of your post mortem, you may be able to match feelings with productivity and even identify some patterns that let you predict what will happen the next time you write a book.

Thoughts on outlining

Question: Should you use a computer for all stages of the writing process or are you actually writing stuff out by hand somewhere along the line?

Answer: Whatever Works For You.

My handwriting is pretty poor. I have had trouble reading my own handwriting an hour after I’ve written a note. I once went crazy over an errand list because I couldn’t figure out what “elim” stood for, only to realize that evening that I’d written “Gym” and it looked so scribbly that I couldn’t read it.

Even if I could read my writing, though, it drives me crazy how slow it is compared to typing. I found out when I was learning Morse code in the early 80s for my ham radio license that people print at ~10-12wpm and write cursive at speeds up to 25wpm. I haven’t been able to write cursive for decades, so I’m stuck with printing when I write by hand. But it’s slooooooow. By comparison, I type at 120-130wpm, so it’s a huge difference in the throughput rates that’s very frustrating.

I’ll use handwriting for some things. For example, when I’m creating my book outlines, I do basic mindmapping (I’ll talk about mindmapping in an article soon) to create the initial outline, but I then start plugging that into the computer and things stay online forevermore. The other place I tend to do things manually is when I hit a snag in outlining: I’ll print the outline in its current form and mark it up. The most recent book required a lot of juggling to get the outline to where I wanted and I went so far as to print the outline and then attack it with scissors and tape to make sense of it. It broke the logjam, but that’s as close as I get to a manual process again.

But whatever works for you, do it. As long as you’re meeting your deadlines and selling stuff, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing everything by on a quad core PC or by hand on yellow tablets.

Writing the current chapter

The computer’s working and I’ve got files copying to backup disks in the background. I’m settling down to writing the current chapter.

Writing is a complex and delicate art, which for me, requires the appropriate background noise. In this case, the appropriate background noise is Disc 1 of 18 of a wonderful Christmas present from the Babe: the 100% Complete Bullwinkle. It’s all 163 episodes of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. This is something that will do wonders for my writing.

It’s always good to have the perfect writing environment.

Clutter and writing

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and you didn’t gain more than a pound or two.

I’m starting work on book #27 at the moment. (There’s not a lot I can say for the moment, as it’s for something not yet announced.) I’m going to be discovering a lot about the self-publishing process and many other things as the months wear merrily on, but I wanted to say a few things about clutter.

Clutter is anything that gets in the way. Clutter is not stuff that’s by definition “bad,” but it is definitely misplaced. Right now, my office is more cluttered than I’m comfortable with, but having racked up my left knee very badly a week ago Thursday, it’s very hard to reach down and pick stuff off the floor or lift a box or much of anything. Clutter has accumulated as a result, much of it in the form of junk mail to be sifted and thrown into the shredding box.

Writing with too much clutter–of any kind–is hard for me and it’s probably hard for you. Clutter sneaks into your field of vision. You see it constantly in the corners of your eyes and it’s distracting. Very, very annoying stuff!

If you’ve got clutter in your office or your life, you need to get rid of it. The best book I’ve ever run into for decluttering is Clutter’s Last Stand by Don Aslett. Don’s a fascinating guy who writes fun, approachable books about cleaning, decluttering, and organizing. His central theme is that if you can’t do the thing you want to do because it’s blocked by clutter, then clutter is robbing you of time, which is your life. Don’s written a number of books since Clutter’s Last Stand on decluttering, but the first on the subject is probably the best.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a few more things off my desk and then get back to work on this section on concepts.

The 6 stages of UI design review

From Bonni Graham:

The 6 stages of UI design review (with apologies to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross)

  1. Fake cheer (“Welcome, everyone!”)
  2. Denial (“I can’t hear your stupid changes. La la la la la.”)
  3. Anger (“What I did is better!”)
  4. Justification (“This is why it’s better. Love me!”)
  5. Grudging acceptance (“OK, maybe it’s not better and your idea’s not totally stupid”)
  6. Adoption (“I love this idea!”)

Or maybe this is just me….

Prison and writing

There are many connections between being in prison and writing for a living. A few of them are good, most of them are not so good, but none of them are the things I’m going to talk about.

A little background for this story: my stepmother Elaine was on the police force for 20 years. She was the first woman to graduate first in class at the Tucson Police Academy and she worked her way up through the ranks to become one of the very few woman police chiefs for a major metro area in this country. I’m enormously proud of her. Okay, with that in place, we’re ready to go….

Some years ago, I was talking to Elaine on the phone. I was near the end of a book at that time and I asked her if, as I suspected, she had noticed a stage in the writing of any book that I just became really grumpy with the project and had a hard time working on it, regardless of how much fun the book was and how much money I expected to make from it.

Elaine said, “Yes, this is the same thing that happens with prisoners who are about to be released.”

I said “Oh, you are required to say more at this point!” And she did. She told me something that I think will be interesting and educational for all of us in this silly business.

Elaine said that the worst point for escapes and attempted escapes is right before prisoners are due to be released. This has been recognized in incarceration for decades, possibly centuries. This is because you’ve been incarcerated for however long and you can see the end in sight but it’s not there yet and it really pisses you off.

What they generally do for prisoners as they get to be short-timers is put them in solitary and lock them up tight so they can’t get out. This isn’t really done out of any sense of charity for the prisoners, who don’t appreciate being put in lockdown at all for some odd reason. No, the jailers’ idea is to prevent escapes because it looks bad on their records. But it’s still the best thing you can do for the prisoners, too, who don’t need to try to escape and get time added to their sentences.

What “short time” is varies from prisoner to prisoner. It can be 6 months before the end of a 20-year sentence, but Elaine said that this can and does happen as close as 2 weeks before release: The prisoners just hit the wall and they say to themselves “I’m due to get out of here and I can’t take it any more!” She says that you can see that the end is in sight and you really resent the last effing bit!

Elaine went on to say that this is much the same with any major project. She went through much the same thing, she says, when she retired from the police force. As she was getting down to the last couple months of her 20, she was having more and more motivational problems with heading to work. However, she had structured it so she had enough vacation time to give her an escape hatch if she just couldn’t deal with it, so she could phone in on vacation for her final 5-6 weeks if she needed to. 🙂

What can we learn from this?

  1. Writers will always feel cranky right near the end of a project.
  2. Possibly the truest and best kindness an editor or a publisher (or even a manager) can do for writers is to tighten the thumbscrews and make sure they don’t leave their desks as the deadline approaches.