Micro Goals

Writing a novel is hard work. No doubt about it. Even when the words come out in a massive rush of inspiration, you still have to edit and polish and do all that stuff that makes a book actually good. What was it Michael Creighton said? “Great books aren’t written. They’re re-written” … or something like that.

Another thing you’ll hear a lot is that writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to juggle so many things in your head to keep them all present in the story and then chug along with that word count to, you know, actually write the novel.

I’ve always tried to hit a thousand words a day with any project I’m working on. That fluctuates with things like NaNoWriMo or if I’m “in the zone” or want to be extra diligent or whatever. But I’ve started something new to help make hitting that daily word count interesting.

I’ve started posting pictures of my word count on Instagram. Sure they’re not the most visually appealing images, but I’m celebrating my micro goals here.

It’s often hard to gauge success. When do you get to be happy? When the book is started? When it’s finished? When you’re querying? When you’re agented? When it’s sold? When it’s published? All of the above?

It’s also easy to keep pushing the goalposts back too. The anticipation for the thing is usually better than the actual thing, so once you’ve gotten what you wanted or you’re close, there’s never really this big ding, ding, ding that goes off cueing instant satisfaction. It’s easy to keep moving the goal line and keep looking towards the horizon.

Don’t.

Be happy with everything you’ve accomplished. Whether it’s writing ten word today, or a thousand, or ten thousand, you’re doing something awesome. Acknowledge your success and celebrate them. If you don’t, who will?

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Maybe Your Darlings Aren’t Dead

There comes a point with every manuscript I’ve done where I feel like I’ve reached as far as I can go with it. Basically, it’s as good as it’s gonna get. I see it as both an acknowledgement of limitations on my part and my acceptance to move forward. I’ve done a dozen drafts, I’ve queried agents, I’ve done everything under the sun and there’s still no forward momentum on the thing. I come up against the wall and make a choice: Keep working on it or take everything I’ve learned and invest it in a new project. Thanks to the law of Diminishing returns, I always choose the latter.

This brings me to my next point.

There are these aha moments in every writer’s career where something just clicks. It’s like an audible ding when suddenly something just makes so much sense it’s insane how you didn’t see it before.

To put this in context, I’ve been working on how to crack the short story structure lately. I won’t say I’m anywhere good at short stories yet. There’s a lot about them mechanics-wise that I just don’t know. I tend to write long form. So I’ve made more of an effort to see the differences in approach.

My main takeaway so far – which might seem obvious to your short story writers out there – is that the central conflict in short stories tends to be an internal one rather than an external one.

On top of that, I was recently watching a film critique on Disney’s Hercules. I know. Topical, right? But the reviewer was talking about the differences between what a hero wants versus what a hero needs in order to make a story work. I’ve seen this method a few times now, but maybe it was because I was finally looking inward, but something just clicked.

I suddenly knew what was wrong with my main protagonist in my previous novel, The Red Door. I love that book and I’ve been on the fence a while now if I want to self-publish it or just rewrite it one day so it’s on my mind from time to time, but this perfect storm of study gave me the answer to a fundamental flaw with the work that I wasn’t sure I even noticed the first time around.

My effort to go back to correct it requires a complete reread. It stems from a character motivation thing so there’s lots of little details that need massaging. Anyway, I figure I’ll also trim it down some more while I’m at it if possible. It clocked in at a hefty 134K words when I was querying and then I fought tooth and nail to get it down to 130K to meet an open novel submission. Keep in mind that I thought it was a lean as it could possibly get.

Imagine my surprise that not only am I fixing this subtle, yet colossal problem, but I’m trimming this baby down with a hedge trimmer. I’ve cut an easy 1400 words out of the first two chapters alone and the word count just keeps on dropping.

I’m astonished but it also made me realize something. I really had taken the novel as far as I could have at the time. Pass number 151 wouldn’t have been much different than pass number 37. There was only so much I could do with it at my current experience level. I needed to grow and evolve, and level up as a writer. I thought the last draft was as good as it was going to get, but I’ve never been happier to have been more wrong. I like this version so much better. I’ve made a bet with myself to see how much of it I can trim off by the end. I’m hoping for at least another 10K words – words that I thought were so indispensable before – to really get to the meat of the story.

Sometimes we get bogged down with worldbuilding or our own prose or even just or own limitations. Some works may live in the trunk forever as killed darlings, but maybe, just maybe some of them are worth resuscitating every now and again.

Worldbuilding at Work

I’ve recently come back to my idea about a mystery beneath the sea. The main reason I abandoned the concept is that the more I untangled the knot I’d given myself, the less I liked the answers. I was interested in the deep. The mystery. An alien environment. The claustrophobic dark.

But I ended up with a spaceship and UFO conspiracy theories. Don’t get me wrong. Both of those things are awesome, they’re just not what I wanted to write about.

So, I’ve come back.

The problem before is that I had to invent technology to make it work. So the further I got in explaining things, the deeper into science fiction it ended up. I like Sci-Fi. I wanted to write Sci-Fi. But there was a reason why I wanted my story to take place on our planet.

The more stuff I had to make up to explain what I wanted to tell, the further I got from the kind of realism I wanted to tell. If it got too techy, then the deep, dark ocean lost some of its charm. I wanted it to remain this alien landscape of its own. Yes, I know what I said above about being on OUR planet, but you know what I mean. These were some of the original drawing points.

Rather than invent a future, I looked the past.

I started with the image of a brass-helmeted deep sea diver. What is that world like? When were those in use?

A little investigating gave me a date range. I then set a date post WWI. This limits my technology but not the sense of wonder.

It’s like have you ever seen the movie The Shape of Water? So minor, minor spoiler, but the only explanation for the fishman is that he was found during some guy’s trip in the Amazon. Okay, similar time period to WWI and for some reason that explanation totally works in that context. The viewer knows no such creature existed in the Amazon then or now, but we allow it. There’s room for wonder and imagination. Now if a movie today tried to pull that off, we’d all be like “yeah right!” That’s because we know so much more of the world now.

In my head I call this “Indiana Jonesing” it. You make the story a little more dated and you can pretty much claim whatever you want. Artifact? Secret society? Fishman? Sure. Roll with it. We romanticize the past anyway, let’s fantasize it too.

Back to my point: Using the WWI backdrop gives me what I want. My diving imagery, technological limitations, and wiggle room to include some fantastic elements.

I don’t have a plot yet, but I’ve come up with a couple of characters. Someone’s got to do that diving. Maybe a grizzled frogman suffering PTSD from the war? How about a trauma surgeon too? Who knows? There’s so much material now to mine for content. It’s exciting to be working on it again.

I still don’t have a plot or many of the details, but it doesn’t matter. Those ideas will come.

The point is, this is an exercise anyone can do for story generation. All it takes is a single image or feeling. Start unpacking that image. Explore it. Mine it.

It can get overwhelming trying to come up with characters, a setting, and relevant plot details all at the same time. Oh, and it’s also probably impossible too. So don’t bother!

Find something you love and follow the threads once you start unravelling it. You’ll soon see that it’s not a sweater at all, but more of a spider web. Okay, I’m losing the metaphor here, but I think you see where I’m going with this.

The beauty of writing is that yes we put words on a page, but we need to tell stories to do that. Coming up with a new story is half the fun. I’ve got this one cooking now next to half a dozen others. Something will hatch and let me know when it’s finished (more mixed metaphors).

If not, I’ll just keep following those threads to a new one.

Honorifics

I’m writing an eastern inspired fantasy novel right now and I’ve run head first into a lack of honorifics. I don’t want to use the typical Lord and Lady stuff. I want it unique to my world. But what I’ve come up with on the fly is getting muddled. So, here’s some of that public “workshopping” in action I talked about oh so long ago and a peek inside my head.

The magic system in this book is based on tattoos made from the blood of spirits that grant the bearer special abilities. Out of context that sounds kind of bonkers, but roll with me here, people.

There’s also a clan system which I am calling “houses.” Although, the more I think about that, the less I like it. But that’s its own thing …

Anyway, we have houses made up of what would be the royal families. I’m calling them the Kin. The next sphere out, so these are the people who marry in, retainers, etc. are called the Kith. Now I need something for servants/helpers/etc.

I ALSO need honorifics/ something for the way the serving class refers to the higher class:

“Your Kinship?”

“Lady-Kin?”

See, that just sounds weird?

I suppose that if the royals have the most and best tattoos then that could be the modifier. Since this all comes back to blood, I immediately vetoed referring to the more powerful people in the kingdom as the “Blooded ones”. It sounds cool at first, but Lady of the Blood kind of evokes menstruation, right? Nothing wrong with that, but my book isn’t about it and I don’t want to mix metaphors and end up muddling things further.

So, maybe art is the way to go.

“Yes, Painted One.”

“It shall be so, Marked One.”

“As you command, Illustratedness.”

I think art is working here. I still don’t really know what to call the servants other than servants. I think “Painted One” has a nice ring to it. Now all I have to do is find a way to make “Illustratedness” less of a mouthful.