Writing fiction two ways: proactive writing and reactive writing

There are two ways for me to write anything: proactively – by just doing it – or reactively – by removing whatever is keeping me from doing it.

The first way is the Western, logical, rational way; the shortest distance between two points.

But what if the frontal assault doesn’t carry the day? What if the battering ram fails to crash through the gate? What if the defenders are all awake and strong and ready?

Then I need stealth. Cunning. Treachery. Misdirection. Bribery and fraud and conniving at the back door. The tunnel under the border. The non-linear solution.

The hard way, but sometimes the only way.

And for this approach I need all the help I can get.

Know thyself

I know myself better than anyone else ever can. When I read a self-improvement book, I instinctively know which techniques have a chance, and which ones will never work for me. At my age, I’ve probably even tried each one already, and have found which ones have a fighting chance. Long-time illness brings in another subset of tried-and-true.

In this mode, reading about a ‘new’ technique is more of a process of reminding myself whether that technique has ever worked for me, and wondering why I’m not using it if it did.

For me, the proactive frontal approach requires timing and luck. First, all the things which make my brain work have to be just right: I need a good night’s sleep. I need just the right amount of food and the right kind of food. I need to move and stretch and flex. I need a certain narrow range of temperatures. I need all the pills to kick in. And I need all these things to come to a peak at the same time. If they do, and I’m paying close attention, and I don’t have the illusion of ‘Oh, I feel so good – this is the way I shall always feel – I have plenty of time!’ so I get right to work, then I have a day which slips by and produces happy output pages without making me feel as if I’m slogging uphill in the rain pushing boulders.

Reacting to the obstacles in my path by removing them is the harder way. I’m just learning to find a working way around the lack of synchronicity in all my good points. Oh, I’m still aiming for that sweet spot every day. I have my little morning ritual, and I adjust it as I think of new ways to make the peak wider. The latest little bit was the realization that 150 calories is not enough to work on for a couple of hours, that the protein shake needed a little supplementation by fat calories in the form of  heavy cream. Why? Because I noticed that I was getting hungrier and hungrier as I tried to write. I won’t tell you how many months this one took to figure out – it’s embarrassing to be that dense, even if it does point out my stern determination over that whole period to stick to the eating plan.

Writing with brain fog

Procrastination is not my real problem – my problem is lack of a clear mind. Well, it has been until now. I’ve aimed for a clear mind, with everything possible in my control, expecting the clear mind to then deal with all the problems. As with all forms of reinforcement, the fact that it worked occasionally, and that all progress to date has been made during those lucid periods, locked it in as ‘THE solution.’

Well, I’m going to have to do better than that. I’m going to have to learn to use the sub-optimal time, because I have a lot more of that.

I have none of the problems many writers have: I have no children left at home, and the times I can help one of them are quite rare. My health – outside of the chronic illness and walking problems I ignore as much as possible – is good (if that makes sense). I have no financial worries: I don’t ever have to sell a word. I have as much of a social life as I can handle, and I make one or two small contributions to society. My husband is about to retire – and isn’t averse, in principle, to assuming some of the duties toward the house, yard, and paperwork that he has been unable to do due to work.

In short, my problems, barring the non-functioning brain, are the kind I probably shouldn’t complain about.

Not waiting for the ‘good times’: procrastinating effectively

They say opportunity and chance favor the prepared. Well, they also favor those who lumber on in less-than-optimal conditions, chipping away at things that need doing whether they feel like it or not.

As when I bulled through my thesis, all those years ago, by dint of determination, not skill, I am going to use a single book as my way to work. Every day, when I set my Freedom timer to block the internet and preserve the peace of that block of hours in the morning I call my writing time, I will allow myself to read to procrastinate all my little self wants – but only in that one little book. My choice? Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, a heavily annotated and underlined book on making good writing great, packed with ideas and examples and writing exercises.

I will essentially join the many writers making the extra effort this November with NaNoWriMo, but doing it my own way, by aiming to satisfy my pressing need for input of the written word by reading FIF until, each day, something sparks, and I find that day’s way to focus.

External obstacles, anyone?

The spousal unit will be retiring right before Thanksgiving; then he will be hanging around all the time. However well or ill that goes for the two of us, this is my last chance to see if I can set up a proper working schedule, before the end of the month, that takes into account my limitations, instead of hoping for magical improvement.

Obstacle #2 – the neighbor with the gas-power industrial-strength leaf blower – has just fired up his weapon of choice on this beautiful Fall Sunday morning which until now was quiet and peaceful. I say a little prayer in thanks for otherwise good neighbors – and a strong family man who carefully maintains the outside of his home on our little cul-de-sac – and reach for my solution of choice: ear plugs and industrial-strength ear protection. I am ready. I have FIF in hand, and have located my reading glasses. I’ll let you know how it goes*.

It should be an interesting month. If today’s effort is in any way predictive—the scene has finally broken and is coming together—this may work.

A final image: to find your path, it may not be necessary for the (brain) fog to lift; it may be possible to keep moving slowly forward if your flashlight can illuminate a little bit in the right direction, enough to avoid falling off cliffs.

How do you deal with your own brain not cooperating?

* Worked like the proverbial charm today – I’ll call it ‘slow-brain writing.’ It was like pulling teeth, but it didn’t actually hurt – and more than 500 words got added to the ‘almost finished’ category for the scene.

I never did get the ‘clear mind’ feeling today – and yet I wrote. Woo-hoo!


15 thoughts on “Writing fiction two ways: proactive writing and reactive writing

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    I’ll answer here – and start a new thread – this is getting silly.

    I don’t have a secret. I have the same compulsion to get things right as you do – balanced by what it costs me in time and life. At some point, the attention to details is too exhausting. Usually, by then, we’re down to a couple of word order choices – and there is no clear winner, not really – so I take the marginally better one, and move on.

    But the items in the checklist – inner and outer turning points, choice of focus, starting and ending lines, beats, Dramatica appreciations and how they’re revealed, and many more things – are done. So the scene accomplishes all its purposes. It’s also been through the editing software many times. It takes me forever. But tiny awkwardnesses can be ascribed to voice – and let go.

    If you don’t read Pride’s Children, all this is just talk. Whether it works is only visible in the reading, and varies with the reader. I have enough of them happy with what I do that I don’t worry.


  2. Catana

    “reading about a ‘new’ technique is more of a process of reminding myself whether that technique has ever worked for me, and wondering why I’m not using it if it did.” That’s often the most useful part of reading a book on writing. There are techniques that I “know” but haven’t internalized sufficiently. I just put The Fire in Fiction on my Amazon wishlist. The negative reviews were, as usual, fascinating. A few detailed rebuttals put them into proper perspective.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thanks, C. I had forgotten I wrote this post – it was interesting to reread, because I have done exactly what I said I would: I use FIF every single day when I’m writing (almost at that point for Book 2) because my list of techniques from that book – the 14 different areas in which a scene must have tension created and developed – is now part of my ‘process.’

      Most days I just use the checklist, but I still keep it at my right hand.

      Between when I wrote this and now, I DID get that first book finished and published. Spouse DID retire – and has taken over all the paperwork, a huge gift to someone like me. I did it all those years, using huge amounts of energy, because he was working and couldn’t.

      And nothing much has changed about my mental speed – I’m just blocking the internet for today, and getting to work so as not to waste ‘the good time.’


    2. Catana

      Check lists! Great idea. Makes me wonder why I never thought of that. Today is not one of my better days (another one), but I finally ran chapter three through PWA. Most of the morning was wasted because my eyes were such a mess. I’m finding that PWA serves best to highlight iffy text so I can make my own best revision. It has a problem with consistency: can’t distinguish between common and proper nouns. “The lieutenant reminded him, ‘I’m Lieutenant Capra, to you.” Wrong, according to the not-so-intelligent AI.


      1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

        I alternate Right and Left brain activities deliberately, via checklist, when I’m writing. When I get stuck or tired in one mode, I find something that needs doing in the other. I’ve written several posts about it; I think they’ll show up with ‘brain’ as a search term.

        Every piece of software has annoying bits in it. You learn that the human is the adaptive part – and deal with it accordingly.

        I think some of the things you’ve mentioned are why I didn’t like PWA, but it’s been so long I’d have to go back and figure it out. I’ll put that somewhere near the bottom of the list.


      2. Catana

        Oh, don’t waste your time doing that. I’ve gotten caught up in “going back to see what it was all about” and it’s never worth it. It didn’t work for you. That’s really all that matters. It’s possible that *if* Autocrit wasn’t so much more expensive, and PWA wasn’t developing the integration with Scrivener, hence making it unnecessary to work online, I might have looked more closely at Autocrit. And I might have liked it better. Who knows?


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          And if PWA 1) has all the functions I need, or some I’m missing, and 2) works with Scrivener, and 3) lets me customize it at all (and just use what I want), I may end up with both – because no matter how much these things cost, a few pages to an editor who charges by the word or page, and you’ve paid for them.

          I never understand why editors don’t charge by the word or page taking into account how bad the writing is. Those of us who work hard to get it right pay the exact same page/word charge as those who need a lot of work.

          Undemocratic somehow.

          So I’ll wait until you feel comfortable enough with PWA to post about it – I’m letting you do all the work, since you’re going to do it anyway. 🙂


        2. Catana

          On my income, I often have to make choices that aren’t strictly about which one is the better program. Given the limitations of AI, I can believe that, in this case, two programs might be better than one. But then I’d *never* be done with editing.


        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Yes, you will. At some point your brain tells the program, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. Never heard of a writer’s STYLE and VOICE. Bug off.”

          And you’re done. However you got there.

          I think I find it easier accepting AC’s lack of suggestions – it COUNTS things I expect it to count for me, when I want them counted. I don’t take suggestions well, much less from a bunch of bits with no education or experience. Ah… AS I was saying, I can handle being told I have 54 ‘that’ and 79 ‘get’ in my text – it just saved me from using more complicated functions in Word or Scrivener to come up with that information, and it flags cliches, too. I check the long sentences – and seriously consider re-punctuating, splitting, or otherwise making something shorter.

          But algorithms pretending to be wise and peering over my shoulder with ‘better’ ways of doing things? Nope.

          I see a little irritation there. Hehe. My, my. There have to be SOME benefits from getting old.


        4. Catana

          This WP theme is rather confusing withe long strings of comments, so I hope you can find this. The thing is, I already have a problem with editing — when to stop. No matter how many times I go over the text, there’s always somethng I need to change, as in “How did I manage to let that clunky sentence or lapse in logic slip by.” Two editing programs would tip me over into insanity.

          PWA does the counting too, and that’s something I pay attention to in some areas. Suggestions? I’m already pretty much ignoring those. I’m also slowly cutting down on the number of reports I ask for. Some of them are anything but helpful.


        5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Just start a new comment at the top if it gets confusing. Sorry – you can’t reply after three deep unless I let it, and the comments get too narrow. So I usually use my admin powers – and do one more.

          Hehe. Abuse of power.

          I have no trouble stopping when something’s done – again, writers differ hugely. I think it’s because I have a vision in my head of what this scene should be and do; when I get mathematically close to that (my mathematics), I’m done.

          There’s no perfect; so being reasonably close, but some mythical .1%, is not better than .05%. I start so far away that it is comforting just to get close. I blame the rest on style and voice.


        6. Catana

          I wish I knew your secret. A lot of my fussing is stuff that no one would notice, like how a sentence is constructed. But little transitions that aren’t as clearly spelled out as I think they should be take a lot of my time. I’m fanatical about getting as close as possible to complete clarity. If you said I’m obsessive, I wouldn’t argue.


  3. clairechase51

    When my brain does not cooperate, I just take away the thinking and move my feet and arms to do what needs to be done. Thinking becomes a block, so I don’t think. I am not sure this technique would work for a writer. 🙂


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thanks – that is actually useful right this minute. ANY step toward doing something useful helps. I’m sitting here opening mail because it’s gotten to the point that it interfered with writing. My brain isn’t on, but how hard is it to open mail?



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