The Weekend I Built a Dream Machine

Way back when we lived in our first apartment, my wife went away for the weekend. My best buddies were all busy, so I debated how to spend this sudden influx of me-time. Eat nothing but pizza? Marx Brothers marathon? Read all of Wikipedia?

I threw on a bootleg Muppet Babies DVD and built a Dream Machine.

Dream Machine animated

Thanks to David Cronenberg and Peter Weller, I’d become a bit obsessed with William S. Burroughs. This led me to a device designed by his friends Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville. Gysin thought the dreamachine would find its way into every home, as ubiquitous as a television set.

The hardest part about building my dreamachine was finding a cheap record player that played at 78 rpm (I have a decent turntable now, but I wouldn’t use it for a dreamachine–it might damage the motor). Most thrift store turntables only play 33 1/3 and 45 rpm, which will work but doesn’t look as cool. My mom was the one to find me an old school record player–“old school” as in 1970s public education–and the rest was just elbow grease.

Everything I used to build my machine:

Basic tools: craft blade, large flat piece of cardboard, electrical tape, large t-square , card stock, screwdriver

1. 78rpm turntable

2. 34″x32″ craft butcher paper

3. Thrift-store lamp

4. Light bulb cord and bulb

dream machine base

My wife supplied me with the black butcher paper. Following plans from the internet (check the links at the bottom), I created a grid with a t-square and used my card stock stencil patterns for the shapes. The most expensive part of the whole project was getting the thing laminated for stability. I met with some resistance on that step–the folks at the Kinko’s worried my paper might get torn up in the machine. If I built another one, I’d use a sturdier material that wouldn’t need lamination.

dream machine bulb

The lamp portion came from a thrift store, and I was able to connect it to the turntable through the tonearm hole (hence the need for a screwdriver to open up the turntable). The bulb hangs from a short light bulb cord, available at any hardware store. At one point the inside of the column was coated with sparkly wrapping paper, but it has long since come unstuck. Electrical tape holds the column together and keeps it on top of an old polka record.

You use the machine by leaning in quite close with your eyes closed. The spinning column causes the light to pulse at the right frequency, which you can adjust by the height you’re looking and the turntable speed adjustment. With your eyes closed, you see fractals and other shapes, much like when your rub your eyes. Worth the effort? I think so. It’s great for getting in the mood to write. And not only is it relaxing and meditative, it makes for a great conversation piece. It’s nice to combine it with headphones and some Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, or Portishead.

Dream Machine and me

My buddy Dustin Taylor took this photo during my author photo session.

(WARNING: Obviously, flashing lights can be dangerous for some people, such as those with epilepsy. Never turn this thing on before checking with everyone.)

Resources for building your own dreamachine:

http://www.noah.org/science/dreamachine/

http://ultraculture.org/blog/2013/11/27/build-dream-machine/

Also of interest:

FlicKer, a full documentary about the Machine available on Youtube and Amazon Prime.

Excerts from The Flicker, a 1965 film by Tony Conrad with a similar effect. This one is viewed with the eyes open.

At the time I built my machine, I couldn’t find the column to purchase at a reasonable price. It looks like now you can get them here (US) and here (UK). I’m unaffiliated with these stores, and have no idea about the quality.

How I Make Time to Write as a Stay-at-Home Parent

I read plenty of articles on establishing a writing routine. Unfortunately, the majority should have a disclaimer: “Irrelevant to parents of young children.”

My last job left me feeling burned out, so when the time came to decide what to do about our first-born, I volunteered to stay home. I reasoned that I would finally have the time and the mental energy to write.

This actually worked for the first few months I stayed at home. I wrote a good chunk of the first draft of Monsters All the Way Down during that time, and I thought I would be able to write and edit one book every year before my children started school. Even with the many long nights and the stress of being a new parent, it was one of the most pleasant autumns of my entire life.

It didn’t last.

I later found out most people thought I was either lying about staying home to write–“He just doesn’t like going to work”–or believed I was crazy to think I’d have any extra time. As soon as my son stopped sleeping most of the day, the time I had to write–and clean, and breathe, and think–disappeared. I’ve met writers who could write with their children running and screaming in the same room with them. Unfortunately, I am not one of those parents.

ear plugs

Free parenting advice: ear plugs take the edge off and add years to your life. You’ll still be able to hear your little angels screaming bloody murder.

I finished the first draft ofΒ  Monsters and revised it over the course of a hundred inefficient late nights. Some nights, after my family went to bed, I would sit down at my desk and cry, because I knew I was too exhausted to write anything.

After giving up on burning the candle on both ends, I tried working during the evenings after my wife got home from work. That wasn’t fair to her, and even though she didn’t say anything, I could tell how frustrating it got for her after even one night of coming home from work and then being totally in charge of the kids all evening while I sat in my office. So I went back to writing at night.

Of course, taking care of the kids all day and sitting at my desk all night was unsustainable. It took me too long to realize I’m not a very good dad when I’m exhausted. I’m grumpy, stressed, and not fun to be around. This also wasn’t fair to anyone, especially to my kids.

My writing came to a standstill as I got my parenting back on track. But this presented a problem, too. Like many people that love to create, I feel lost and–let’s face it–depressed when I’m not making anything. I still needed a routine that let me care for my kids but also gave me creative time to look forward to.

My solution is Sunday is my Writing Day, and I can’t express how much it has helped me. On Sundays, I get a full work day’s worth of writing. It only works because my amazing wife is supportive, and I’d like to think it’s a good way to make the most out of a difficult situation.

If you’re a single parent trying to write, you are my superhero. I can only hope you have a support system of family and friends to help you by watching kids for if you want to try a weekly Writing Day.

Is writing one day a week ideal? Not for me, but it’s better than the other alternatives I’ve tried. If you’re a stay-at-home parent struggling to make time to write, you might want to try staking a claim on one day a week to be your Writing Day. Here are some pointers, most of which I’m still working on myself:

  • Can’t do a full day? Try scheduling two regular evenings a week
  • Remember that your writing priorities are not shared by others. Be understanding, but be selfish with your Writing Day. In return, give your time to your family freely the rest of the week.
  • Take care of business, but remember there will always be something you could be doing other than writing. Things will keep.
  • Sometimes things come up that are more important than your writing day. Be mature about it and remember there will be other days to write.
  • If you have a Writing Day to look forward to, there’s no reason not to handle as many chores as possible the other days of the week. (I really need to work on this one!)
  • When you are having a tough time, remember that you have a Writing Day coming up. This has totally changed my outlook on bad days.
  • Headphones or ear plugs help drown out the sound of noisy children during your Writing Day.
  • If something comes up that makes you miss your usual day, do everything you can to reschedule it to a different day that week.
  • Even if you aren’t an outliner by nature–I’m not–you can make use of smaller outlines to better utilize your writing time. If I have a complicated section or scene coming up, I outline in my spare moments throughout the week so I can make the most out of Sunday.
  • During the week, find writing-related activities you can do with your children around, like reading good books, working on a blog, or building up your Twitter followers.
  • Utilize a mobile supplemental file to keep track of those beautiful ideas you have outside your Writing Day.
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before, so you can get an early start. (This is another big one I need to work on!)
  • Set realistic goals. My last project was somewhat complex, so my goal was 3,000-5,000 words a session. I didn’t always meet it, but I always tried!
  • A to-do list is important for those days you need to accomplish more than writing as much as possible.
  • Any good advice that applies to a daily writing routine applies: eliminate distractions, have a clean work area, be productive, don’t look back.
  • Be the best parent you can be. It might be hard to believe, but your kids are more important than any book.

Setting aside one day a week to write is difficult, and don’t develop any delusions about this being the perfect solution for busy parents. But it has already helped me work toward publishing one book, finish the first draft of another, and finish several short stories. Hopefully it will work until I go back to work or my kids start school.

Watching a book grow by only 3,000 to 5,000 words a week is difficult, but it beats your novel not growing at all. Don’t give up!

I usually tweet about my Sundays with the hashtag #SundayIsMyWritingDay.

What are your methods for finding time to write? Please share below.

One Trick That Helps Me Finish First Drafts

I’ve shared this with other writers before, and I’ve been told it was helpful. For some it might seem obvious, and I’m sure some variant is standard operating procedure for many. Still, this technique is a primary reason I’m able to finish my awful first drafts. I use it for both short stories and novels, and I’m sure you’re clever enough to find more applications.

Years ago, I was newly married and attending graduate school–perfect time to start a novel, right?

I obsessively outlined the entire book. I wrote and rewrote the first chapter a dozen times. When I finally made progress, I went back and rewrote that first chapter again and again.

I’m still married, and eventually I graduated. But I never finished the first draft of that novel.

We could argue it was the wrong time to start a book, or my detailed outlines killed my creativity. After all, I knew how it ended, so where was the fun in getting to the end? But this post isn’t “Outlining vs. Flying by the Seat of your Pants.”

Back at the time, I was obsessed with the story of Orpheus. For the unfamiliar, Orpheus descended into the underworld to rescue his lost love, Eurydice. He’s told she will follow him back to the surface as long as he doesn’t look back. Just before he reaches the surface, he doubts and turns around, only to see Eurydice disappear back into the abyss.

These themes even worked their way into my unfinished book–but I never made the crucial connection. Just like Orpheus, I was doomed because I kept looking back.

I told you to finish the first draft!

If only he had finished his first draft!

To avoid this terrible end, I stopped looking back.

That’s very poetic, Ryan, you’re thinking. It brings a tear to my eye. But it doesn’t tell me anything. Everyone knows you have to press on through your first draft, but how did you do it?

I make a supplemental file for every short story and novel. I use Google Drive, a free service. One Note is another free option, and you may already have it on your computer. Use whatever works for you. I use Drive because it’s simple and allows me to access the file from any computer or my phone. I name my files “(Title of story) – Supplemental.”

The supplemental file is for all the things I want to go back and change, my ideas for scenes I haven’t written yet, and anything else I need to remember but I’m not writing into the novel that instant. You can also delete a section from the story but stick it in the supplemental file if you want to hold onto it.

Brilliant idea while standing in line? Put it in the file. Finishing chapter 10 but realize the perfect way to reorder the first three chapters? Put it in the file. I type it in right away, before I have a chance to forget. Middle of the night, middle of a meal, doesn’t matter. I know better than to believe I’ll remember, and a grand idea once forgotten is an immeasurable loss.

How does the supplemental file change the game? It keeps me from meddling until the first draft is done. I finish the first pass and then work through the supplemental file, making those changes one at a time.

I’ve just started revisions on another novel, and today was a perfect examples of the supplemental file’s power at work.

I realized, fifty pages into the first draft, one male character should be female. In the old days, I would have gone back and changed what had come before to make the draft cohesive. But that way lies only madness. Instead I made a note in my file: “Change childhood friend to a girl.” I named her and kept on writing as if she had been in the book all along.

Today I returned to the completed draft and changed the character in those earlier sections with ease, without losing any of my sweet, sweet momentum. What could have cost valuable writing time instead made these early revisions a treat.

During revisions, I prioritize the changes I still want to make–I usually do the largest changes first. I highlight entries in the file once I’ve implemented them and use strikethroughs to show ideas I’ve discarded. This way I remember what’s taken care of and hold onto discards in case I change my mind a second time.

This process might go against the general advice to trim at least 10% off your first draft. If it helps, consider additions made with the supplemental file to be part of Draft 1.5. After making your supplemental changes, then you can start cutting and tightening everything up.

Using a supplemental file accomplishes at least three things:

  • You plow through the first draft without losing momentum.
  • You don’t forget those beautiful ideas.
  • You don’t waste time going back to cram in terrible ideas.

It’s also good practice to keep a separate character file and, if necessary, a world building file. And don’t forget to back up your supplemental files often; they’re nearly as important as your first draft, and you should back up your first draft after every writing session.

I hope this post has been helpful and encouraging. Do you have any advice for cranking out a first draft? If so, please share in the comments below.

Remember, don’t be like Orpheus. Don’t look back. Keep looking forward to your success.