A Balanced Diet

You can consume or create, but you can’t do both.

I think Kevin Smith is fond of saying that. I’m sure I could look it up, but it doesn’t make the statement any less true.

I’ve found that I get in rhythms where the work comes easy – well, easy enough sometimes, but it’s still work – and then I fall off the wagon where it’s pulling teeth every time. And for me, that’s usually due to outside distractions.

For instance, right now I’m waiting for some feedback and while I wait, I’ve become almost paralyzed. I don’t want to do any writing because I’m too excited and too eager to deal with the work I sent off for scrutiny.

Now, should I be working? YES! Is anything someone says about the other work going to affect my current work? NO!

And yet, I’ve become both incredibly distracted and self-indulgent. I’ve given myself permission more to put off writing like “I deserve this” and “it’s okay.” Everyone deserves a break and a reward, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve come to recognize that’s not what this is. It’s stalling. What I really want is to work on the stuff I sent out.

Every time I decided to put off writing for some video game time or a movie or whatever, I’m not actually doing myself any favors. I’m not recharging the batteries, I’m killing time in the hopes that today will be the day I get that email. But you know what? It hasn’t been that day yet, so why would it be today? It’ll get here when it gets here.

Focus. It’s kind of important.

That’s why I’ve been writing more about my big push to really dive deep into my latest project. I mean it, but it’s also a way to trick myself back into work.

While I’m consuming, I’m not creating. For me, consuming media is like eating candy. It’s delicious and tastes good at the time, but eat too much and I feel icky. Creating media is much more substantial. That’s my well-balanced meal with all the fixings and flavor.

Taking a break is fine, but be honest with yourself.

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Flat Stanley

While working on the outline for “Of the Blood” (working title for my new fantasy book), I ran into a character problem. I had this POV character that I needed. Well, I wanted her to exist too. I realized I’d been counting on her more for what she represented to the story and not actually for who she was. She had all the warning signs of being a flat character, but it was worse because I realized I knew nothing about her. She wasn’t even an actual character yet.

This gave me pause. There are plenty more detailed outliners that myself, but I can’t write anything without knowing where I’m going. Or in this case, who I’m writing about. So, I needed to find a way to make her more than a character serving the plot.

How to do it?

Talk to a hundred writers and you’ll get a hundred answers. For me, I first looked at her world. Who is she in relation to her family? Her hierarchy in the clan?

This book has a pseudo matriarchal society at its core so mothers and their daughters are pretty important. Well, my character was the fifth daughter, so how important is she really? Close to power, but not really holding any. I can run with that.

Then it was asking myself what does she want? I couldn’t answer the grander question of what is her purpose in relation to overcoming personal flaw and all that, but how about on a smaller scale. Okay, she’s the fifth daughter of a royal house, what does somebody do with that?

Respect. I’m running with the theme of her wanting the respect of those around her. She feels like she has to live up to this shadow and is going out of her way to do it.

It’s a little cliché, but the fun part about being a writer is recognizing that. She wants respect, but me, Writer Dan, knows she needs something else. I’m not entirely sure what that is yet, but I know it’ll tie into her purpose. It’s the thing that’ll make her feel whole.

So the beginning of her arc will be chasing artificial situations and trying too hard to win the respect of others. That’s also something I can work with. It gives me a nice foundation for her character to build from. As the story progresses, I’ll start massaging that into better growth.

Coming up with that was about an afternoon’s worth of thoughtful reflection. Just writing down some questions and answers and seeing what made sense. I wasn’t focusing on the plot or anything else to do with the book. I was just trying to figure out who was this person I was creating in a realistic fashion. Doing it that way is a much more organic approach to the eventual conflicts.

There’s still a long road to go, but for now, though, it’s a heck of a lot better than a character whose only function is serving plot POV.

Passion

As any good writer knows, you can’t wait for inspiration to write. Not if you want to write for a living. It’s a muscle that needs to be trained. You can write without the muse and can still end up writing good material. There are better posts than this one all about art versus the craft of writing, but I can condense it all down for you. Spoiler alert, it usually boils down to discipline.

No. For today, I want to talk about Inspiration’s sister, passion.

Yes, it’s possible to write without passion, but your readers will feel it. Passion for what you’re working on infuses every word on the page. It’s what keeps that excitement and energy going through the marathon slog from that first blank page to writing “The End” thousands upon thousands of words later.

I’m not a full time writer. I have a day job I need to balance with my (hopefully) burgeoning writing career. So that means, I can only really work on one project at a time. I’m trying to be better about that, though. The best I can do right now is while I wait for edits on one book, I’m doing the research, brainstorming, and worldbuilding for the next one so by the time I’m completely finished Book A, I’m all set for Book B.

I had the kernel of an idea: scientists discover a beacon from the deep and go down to investigate. I worked and worked on it until it became this story about a crashed spaceship and extraterrestrial cover ups. Hence, my last post about the research I was doing. But then something happened. The story became more about the government conspiracy than what originally got me excited about the project in the first place: exploring the deep, dark ocean.

Ideas change. Concepts evolve as you work on them. Your end result rarely looks like what you originally thought it would be. These things tend to happen. But somewhere along the way, I’d completely lost the passion I once held for the project. It started feeling like something I had to do and not something I wanted to do. I’m not going to lie, I actually got pretty depressed about it.

Here I’d spent all this time working on an outline and characters and concept for something that was going to make me miserable to work on it. Or I could throw it all away and start fresh, wasting all of that development time making me miserable for squandering resources.

It was a hard decision, but ultimately, I decided to start something new. Well, new-ish. I’ve been cooking up a fantasy setting for quite some time and while I was waiting for reader feedback from my last novel, I wrote a “practice” short story in that world to test the worldbuilding waters so to speak. Turns out I love it. So much so, that I’m working on selling that piece and I now want write an entire novel in that setting.

I wanted someone to tell me it was okay to abandon the other work and switch to something else. Once I made that decision for myself, though, I knew it was the right one. I’m not one to give up or chase flights of fancy. I like to think I have pretty good work ethic – hence why I was feeling bad about the situation. But this has already proven to be the right decision.

I have passion for this new story. My initial concept for it morphed and changed and grew from that tiny kernel just the like the other one did, but I didn’t lose the spark this time. I’m excited to get started. Excited to work on these characters. Excited to see this world. It’s my most ambitious novel yet and I should be quaking in my boots. Honestly, the spaceship one might be easier. But go big or go home, right?

That’s not to say that all the research and work I’ve done on the other story is totally wasted. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to it one day and resurrect it in some form or another. Or maybe I’ll pick at its corpse for the stuff I still like. I really do plan on writing a novel about a discovery at the bottom of the ocean. But for right now, it looks like I’ll be writing something else.

So while you can’t wait for inspiration to strike, you can at least lean into the work you enjoy doing. Your enthusiasm will help carry you through. If you’re not excited about the book, why would your readers be?

Vignettes

Inspiration is real. Waiting for inspiration is BS. By slogging through the trenches, I’m back on board the Altered Egos train and genuinely look forward to working on it again every day. There are two metaphors in that sentence.

I’ve worn a tie so much at work these days that my son says, “Daddy, no tie,” on a near daily basis. It’s not that he doesn’t like ties, he knows that I’ve been against them lately and he’s super supportive.

My daughter has developed a second joke. Her first one was telling me, “poopy diaper,” when she definitely didn’t have a poopy diaper. Now, she’ll sit on this plastic fish while in the bathtub, look me dead in the eye and say, “fish on the butt!” and then devolve into a giggling fit. I’m psyched that she’s telling jokes. She didn’t get the toilet humor from me, though. It’s all high brow over here.

I keep querying agents hoping for a bite. I try and pitch maybe two or three every couple of weeks. Way I see it, if my query is bad, then instead of cutting all my chances at the same time, I’m doling it out piece by piece. Granted, that means its taking a while. But I’m not ready to put The Red Door to bed yet anyway.

While I’d rather work with an editor and a publisher, Plan B is to self publish. I’ve written five novels by now – two of which are what I consider to be publishable – but I’m waiting until I have three before I hit the self publish button. I figure that three novels of three different styles will be a good starting point and I’ll go from there. Spaghetti on the wall, that’s my approach. Throw enough and something’ll stick.

I’ve been working D&D back into my life, playing with a group about once a month or so. I’m DMing, but I’d much rather play. But since I’m the one making it work the most, I’ll take DMing as a small price to just be rolling D20s again. I’ve looking into joining an online group that meets more frequently and while that sounds great in theory, the twins don’t allow me much free time. The only reason I’m even playing D&D now is because I’ve somehow convinced my wife to play too. She either really loves me or feels really sorry for me. A bit of both?

Right now, we’re watching the days go by, more or less. We were coming to terms with our current family dynamic and thought that was going to be it. But life, uh, finds a way. That cat’s out of the bag, internet. Come March, the kids will be outnumbering the adults at our house.

Hurry Up and Wait

I feel like I need to learn how to write short stories. I don’t quite have their structure down yet. I don’t write them very often. My last one, I’m still working on it off and on figuring out story beats for almost a year now. And the one before that became my novel, The Red Door.

Sure its nice to create more content and I can always put them up on the site or try and sell them, but really, I like short stories for the following two reasons:

1.) When I was killing myself with NaNoWriMo last year and cranking out words, there were definitely days it went beyond pulling teeth to drilling down into the gums. I wasn’t starting a project from scratch, but instead dove into TRD and tried to hit 50k words that month in the process. Even working from an outline, things got tiring some days, so I ended up writing a short story Chi Town Swing in E Flat — That’s the one I’m still figuring out.

Anyway, I’d write TRD in the mornings and work on Swing in the afternoons. It served as a nice palette cleanser and kept me motivated. I know that sounds odd as someone who admitted to not liking to split his focus, but it worked for this occasion. Because the second project was so small, maybe?

So with Altered Egos not even halfway finished, I think I like the idea of a secondary distraction to keep those writing juices flowing.

2.) I’m getting an onslaught of new ideas lately. I’m writing them all down and slowing cooking those kernel, but I can easily see some of them turning into a short story and I don’t want to ignore them or lose my passion for the premise.

We combine points 1 and 2 and we’ve got a pretty solid desire to write short stories.

I know you’re thinking, so just do it already, Dan. And I probably will. I think what you’re seeing here is the result of an early (definitely not mid)-life-writing crisis. I made peace with the fact that Fairfax Cleaners wasn’t picked up by an agent or editor. It doesn’t mean its dead, it’s just resting. That was probably because I liked The Red Door so much. Well, now The Red Door is making the rounds and I’m just waiting. I don’t like waiting and I don’t like things hanging over my head.

Burying myself in projects sounds like a good distraction but also has some tangible payoff. Even diving deep into Altered Egos isn’t cutting it because I’m still only halfway finished. Working so hard on TRD only to his a wall like this has infused me with a restlessness that I just don’t like.

Look, I write for me. End of the day, I’m my biggest fan and I’m telling stories that I enjoy. That said, it wouldn’t be so bad for someone else to tell me they enjoy those stories too, right?

Just Like the Dentist

Short and sweet today. I need to get some stuff finished so I can run home and mow the grass before the rain comes.

After being off writing for about a week, I’ve had to get back into the saddle before I can ramp up the word count. My little inspiration critters were skittish early on, but they’re coming back. Not yesterday though. Oh man. Yesterday, I had to fight for every single sentence. I know you can’t always pick the time to write. You don’t have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike, but yesterday was just torture. I made myself get at least 600 words down so I felt like I’d accomplished something, but I had to throw in the towel.

I think it was a problem of direction. I wasn’t exactly sure where I wanted to go next and I hadn’t done the proper prewriting for it, so I just ended up floundering. Solved that today though, so I’m back on track and the world is good. Although, I ran into another interesting issue.

I have a secondary character (one who I hope will one day spawn his own spinoff series) who’s a magic-usin’ Scotsman. I used to live in Aberdeen when I studied ethnology and folklore for my master’s degree, so I like to think that I know a thing or two about the Scots. I’ve always wanted to write a Scottish character and I do a pretty mean accent, but for whatever reason, this guy is coming off as Irish.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t confuse the two cultures. Not one bit. I absolutely know the difference. I like them both, but I had a target in my mind that this guy was Scottish. His backstory confirms it. But when I hear his voice in my head, it’s totally Irish. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing on my part and that’s how I’ve actually always envisioned him, but this is the first time where I can absolutely say that my character has a mind of his own. When authors talk about characters doing what they want, I usually smile and nod and say “Sure.” But I get it now.

Try as I may, I might just give in. What the hell? I can rework the backstory to make him Irish, sure. Plenty to draw on. Maybe this just wasn’t the time and place for my Scotsman protagonist.

Has something like this happened to any of you out there? Characters going differently than how you thought they’d be?