Resolute

Hope everyone had some happy holidays! I know I did. I usually get antsy taking too much time off, but I forced myself to slow down this year. A benefit of working at a university is that the place closes around the holidays. We get a few days, but it’s one of those “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” situations, so you’re encouraged to save up vacation time which meant I’ve had the last two weeks off. Got some great family time and sleep – oh, precious sleep! On top of all that, it gave me time to think long and hard about my writing.

I’ve come to a couple of decisions:

I’m going to self-publish a couple books. I’d wanted – and still do – go the traditional route, but I’m seeing more and more how subjective the industry really is. That isn’t to say I’m giving up on finding an agent or editor. Far from it. I want to self-publish some of my novels that I believe are good, worked really hard on, and absolutely love. There are stories I feel are worth telling and I don’t want them to disappear.

So, I’m going to publish them myself. I’m pretty excited about the prospect and we can talk a lot more about this later as I get further along.

Since the holidays – yes, those same holidays – took me away from NaNoWriMo this year, I’ve decided that January is going to be my personal National Novel Writing Month!

What can I say? I’m a masochist. I missed out on that great love/hate of pushing yourself to hit a huge word count. I can be productive otherwise, but I really want to see if I can do 50,000 words in thirty days again. Okay, so January is actually thirty-one days, but if you want to split hairs here, I haven’t had a chance to get started until today so really we’re talking about 50,000 words in twenty-five days. Does that make you feel better?

My cap needs this feather right now. I also need to finish my current manuscript. Oy vey, this one is ballooning up. Hitting that 50K mark is definitely going to make a dent.

The funny thing is that I don’t consider either of these to be New Year’s Resolutions. I had two weeks off and time to think and came up with them independently. The fact that we had a holiday where people make such evaluations of themselves was a happy coincidence. Again, splitting hairs here, but I’m keeping them distinctive because these aren’t “hey this sounds cool and could still fail because it was made on a whim” decisions, these are lifestyle choices. I’m leveling up again as an author and this is what it’s going to take.

And the third thing I decided was to become more active on social media. How does one decide to become more active you ask? It sounds so structured. But really it’s because my wife is super active, as are many of my friends, and I feel like I’m missing out. I used to post a lot more stuff but I kind of just dropped off over the years.

So bear with me as I get the old Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram machines up and running again. That’ll also most likely be the topic(s) of future posts.

There you have it. Hope the rest of you had some quality rest and relaxation. Did I mention I got to sleep? I had time to think about how to become a better me. Hope you all did as well with or without a holiday prompting you to do so.

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Draft 2

This might be a strictly me thing, but there is no aspect I fear so much in all of writing – not even the blank page of a new book – then the beginning of revisions.

Once I finish any manuscript and get to the satisfactory “The End”, I let out an enormous sigh of accomplishment and relief. I did it. The marathon is over. I let myself rest on my laurels for a bit, give myself plenty of pats on the backs, couple more sighs, and allow myself the victory because I know the real work is only just getting started.

As I’m writing, I keep a running list of items that need to be updated, fixed, or changed for the next draft. I so cleverly call this my “THINGS TO FIX” list. It’s in caps so you know it’s important. This list is my new outline of what needs my immediate attention in the early revision stages. Thing is, I can’t even get to that list until I complete what I call Draft 2.

Now all writers have a second draft. Nobody gets it right the first time around. But I’m talking about Draft 2. Capital D. Plenty of writers can just dive back into the guts of his or her story and incorporate the changes outlined in their own THINGS TO FIX list, but not me. I need to go through the whole thing one time, tightening it up along the way, to give the whole book shape in my head. Only then can I go back and put the big changes into Draft 3.

Draft 2 is where all brackets get filled in, word choice is cleaned up, prose isn’t scrubbed so much as shaped. It’s what turns this giant pile of words into a story and it is exhausting. That’s where I confront my failures head on and try and turn them into something worth reading. Let me tell you, it’s a slog. It’s slow going doing all of that fine tuning, but for me it is completely necessary. I need to make the machine before I can go about fixing it.

I always go through the same stages too. The beginning of the manuscript is often the roughest which makes sense since it was the first part of the story written down. I was still finding character and voice and yet to hit my grove. So, naturally, I think my writing is garbage. Cleaning up all the clunky prose doesn’t help my self-esteem. Somewhere in the process, it gets better. Usually, this is when the story is starting to kick into gear. By the end, I’ve settled with the idea that it’s not all that bad. Not great. Maybe not even good. But not as scum-bucket terrible as I thought it was.

But now I have a story and that’s something I can fix. The next pass puts in the big elements. The pass after that cleans it up yet again. Each time I go through the manuscript, I polish it further and further until at some point I’m legitimately happy with it in its entirety. It transforms from a complete mess to something worth reading.

I’m not even close to that stage yet with my current manuscript. I’m maybe three fifths into it. A little slower than expected. I had other projects vying for my attention. But already, judging by what I’m generating day to day and looking at my THINGS TO FIX list, I know this one is going to be a doozy.

At some point I’m going to come out of the fog, blinking like I haven’t see the light of day in years, and be astonished there’s something good – or at least to me it is – in front of me. It takes a while to get there though, and often involves a lot of self-degradation. So celebrate those victories when you have them. But keep going. The light at the end of the tunnel is a finished book to be proud of.

I just have to get through Draft 2 first.

The Finish Line

The holidays ruined my NaNoWriMo.

I’m only half joking.

Due to travel plans around Thanksgiving to see my wife’s half of the family and then my family coming into town the very next week meant I lost quite a few days being a productive member of my family and not a productive writer. Now, I could have squirreled away somewhere to crank out some words, but we were in Disney World for crying out loud and I couldn’t figure out how to sell to a couple of three year olds why Daddy would rather play on his computer than play with them in freaking Disney World.

I’m not going to hit that fifty-thousand word mark and that’s okay. I write year round, not just November. Sure the challenge of hitting a high word count is fun. So’s the camaraderie during that time period, but truth be told, that stuff happens day in, day out throughout the rest of the year too!

Honestly, the most fun I have with NaNo is inputting all that data and watching a bar graph. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the estimated day of completion get earlier and earlier. I don’t need a contest to do that. I can do that with Excel. Okay, so the graph might be an extra step, but I’ll manage.

My only real goal this November was to take a nice sized chunk out of my current manuscript and that’s just what I did. So, mission accomplished.

For those of you who’ve hit that fifty thousand word mark, way to go! I’m proud of you.

Writing isn’t a hobby for me or a contest, it’s a lifestyle, so I’m just going to keep on trucking. I won’t always want to write fifty thousand words a month, but I’d like to give it another shot. Maybe February. Sure, it’s short, but there’s nothing going on in February to pull my focus elsewhere.

I don’t rely on a writing app to track my progress, but for the purposes of the monthly data it’s pretty fun. So, if anyone knows of something similar to the NaNoWriMo input, please let me know in the comments. I’d appreciate it!

NaNoWriMo 2018

It’s November 12th, which means we’re in the thick of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. This is my third time participating? … engaging? … being a part of the event. If you’ve been reading my blog you know that it’s something I’ve both been looking forward to and dreading in equal measure.

For those of you who don’t know, the idea of the event is to write fifty thousand words during the month of November alone. For some, that’s no small feat. Other’s that’s just November. For me, I tend to write about a thousand words per day, so that’s a little up there for my daily word count. Things get especially dicey, thanks to Thanksgiving. I always lose days/words thanks to that bird and the vacation my family inevitably tends to take that week each year.

I’ve been seeing some critics of NaNoWriMo this year. People who question the validity of the challenge. Real writers write and don’t need a contest. That kind of thing. While I completely agree with them that you shouldn’t need an internet “holiday” to write your novel, nor should your novel only be fifty thousand words, but I like NaNo.

I’m sure it’s different things to different people, but to me it’s a challenge. It’s a way to test my writing mettle and see what I’m made of. It lets me feel like a professional writer for a month with deadlines hanging over my head and all the joy and anxiety that brings.

It’s also a community builder. I assume this is the primary reason most people like it too. Writing is a solitary activity. We often write alone, just you and the computer/notepad/whatever. Even co-writing things, you take turns. The most collaboration you can do is talk about the idea before or after, but still it always comes down to your implementation of the words on the blank page. My suspicion is that’s why we see so many people talking about writing. It’s one of the only ways to share your habit — this lovely hobby or profession — with other people in a meaningful way.

I never want to race through a novel in only 30 days or spit out words just to spit out words, but I like knowing that there are others out there in the struggle. Each pep talk, each motivating email, each mention of the event, really, is a nice reminder that I may be alone with my thoughts and my keyboard, but so are so many others. Will the content produced during November fill our shelves with decade’s worth of masterpieces? Hell no.

I’d honestly be shocked if just one thing written during NaNo was publishable, but that’s not the point. You need to write a million bad words before your first good one. Well, here’s a productive use of your time to get fifty thousand of them out of the way.

I’m using this year’s NaNo to carve a nice chunk out of my manuscript’s overall word count. I’ve been dabbling with some flash pieces as a change of pace to keep the ideas coming, but it’s a nice way of making some great headway towards the end of the book. Last year, I finished my manuscript halfway through November and sat around twiddling my thumbs. I don’t think that’ll be a problem this year.

So if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year like I am, don’t fret. Whatever your reasons for doing it, I think you’re awesome. Keep at it. Hit those daily goals. And happy writing!

Rubber band

I just got back from the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to attend, it’s largely a series of in-depth panels carried out over the course of a couple days. I like to think about it as more theory crafting as opposed to word crafting. It’s a great place for authors, fans, editors, and reviewers to all intermingle and talk about books and the industry we love. Oh, and the occasional agent shows up there too from time to time.

Anyway, I always come out fresh with ideas, brain going a mile a minute. In one panel we talked about monsters and another the role of ports in fantasy settings. So, there’s a pretty broad range there.

So many kernels of stories and characters tend to start bouncing around my brain after each one. I’ve actually written a number of short stories based on ideas from these panels and included many elements into manuscripts I’ve been working on at the time. This was my third WFC so I considered myself old guard by now.

As you can imagine in a convention about writing, tropes are often brought up from panel to panel. More importantly, the inversion of tropes and the tropes to avoid at all cost get brought up a lot. So while I’m buzzing with excitement, I’m also shaking with anxiety. For every idea I want to write, I feel like someone somewhere has some warning of what I should avoid if I go down that route. It becomes a balancing act of trying to do what I want, but then try and make it fresh, while also appealing to the publishing industry at large. So it’s like do what I want, but then don’t do what I want. That’s pretty much the crux of the whole industry, right?

Well, what I decided by the end was that I was worrying too much. Why limit myself at the idea stage already? I’m a career coach by day and I often get students coming to me who’ve cut themselves off from options for whatever reason, usually out of fear of failure. I always tell them to just apply and see what happens. Let the universe give you your choices and then figure out the best path. When those choices are limitless, of course its overwhelming. But say you’ve applied to 20 jobs and 3 of them get back to you for interviews, well then you’re potentially choosing between 1 and 3 as opposed to 1 and 20. That’s much more manageable. I really need to take my own advice.

So yes, there are tropes and characteristics I should avoid if I want my work to stand out, but ultimately, I want to write something I’m excited about. Yes, I want others to like it, but I’m my first reader. If I don’t like it, why would someone else?

I’m going to let those kernels percolate for a while. They’re definitely over the fire. I know my next book is in there somewhere. How about I just apply a little elbow grease to all of those ideas to see what works and then go back and figure out how to make it fresh?

Boy that sounds like a great idea. I wonder who thought of that. He sounds like a pretty smart guy.

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.

1 – 1 = 2

“Can’t be too careful these days,” Bridges said, slipping the funds into his coat pocket.

“Can’t be too careful these days.” Bridges slipped the funds into his coat pocket.

See the difference?

Yes, the first one is more immediate. It’s a little more in the present than the second example.

Or is it? Without the “said” in the second example, only the “ed” in “slipped” puts this in the past. So tense-wise, both examples have something present and something past.  Other than flavor, what’s the real difference here?

Well, the second example is exactly one word shorter. How much can one less word really add?

Subtraction is addition, my friends. One less word a hundred times is a hundred less words overall. Do it a thousand times and you’ve trimmed off one percent of a 100,000 word manuscript. Believe me, it matters.

You want the excess fat to just fall away, revealing the meaty bones of your story. I’m seeing stuff like this time and again during my latest revision of an old manuscript. Content I thought was as lean as it could possibly be, with more advanced eyes, is getting hacked off left and right. Sometimes with a butcher’s knife. Sometimes with a scalpel. But in both cases, less is more.

A more focused, more streamlined, and more immersive reading experience.

Sometimes you’ve taken a work as far or as short as it can go. Maybe you really can’t cut anything else out because it’ll fall apart. That’s okay. Or maybe you like the longer phrase. That’s okay too, but be cognizant of what you’re doing.

What kind of book are you writing? Is the reader wanting to spend more time on the flavor of your prose or is it the narrative she’s after?

I used to want to preserve everything, but my new rule of thumb is if its not nailed down – meaning absolutely essential – it’s gone. I’ll throw something away, reread it, and then figure out I guess I needed to keep that sentence after all. Often times, though, if my gut says get rid of it, the story really can survive without it. On the chance that I’ve deprived the reader with some great sentence of exposition, well now I’ve offered her a chance to create something  herself to fill in the gaps which ends up bringing her more into the story anyway.

I’ve taken to labeling my drafts so if I need to come back for anything, thanks to the magic of “Control F” I can find where that spot was in the last version and pull out the bits I chopped away in my hasty housekeeping. That ability and knowledge that the changes aren’t actually permanent are pretty freeing.

Try it out.

Haiku

The other night while bored and lying on the floor while putting my kids to sleep, I kept myself awake by composing a little haiku. This should explain how tired I was …

 

A good first line is:

Eye catching. Thought provoking.

Now do it again.

 

I even composed a runner up …

 

First lines are hard work.

Siren songs of investment.

Better back it up.

 

Sitting there in the dark, I either read on my phone and inevitably work towards a pair of thicker glasses or prewrite for the next day’s manuscript work.

Or create haikus I guess …

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?

First Draft Blues

Maybe the single greatest piece of writing advice I ever received was from an AI I had back in college in a short fiction writing course. Her words have stuck with me all these years even though, for the life of me, I can’t remember her name.

“Just finish it.”

Whatever the problem. Whatever the hold up. Keep writing and don’t look back. As she explained at the time, you need to get it out because once you do, the story’s told. That’s the hard part. After that, you can edit and polish to your heart’s content.

While she may have glossed over the editing part – as many of you know, editing is MUCH harder than writing – but she had a point. Those were the words I needed to hear. Push through for the sense of completion and getting out of your own way, and after that, you’re left with an actual artifact of your progress. You’ve made something. Past tense. Instead of present tense: making/working on …

I bring all of this up because I already know that Altered Egos is going to need some work. Everything from the macro to the micro levels. From the story beats and structure to the language and the voice of the main character. I mean, I’m pretty sure I wrote the whole first chapter in the present tense, but the rest of the book is in the past. I honestly don’t remember. I haven’t looked back yet.

What I do instead is to create a generic document alongside my manuscript that’s oh so cleverly titled something like “THINGS TO FIX” and put it all in there. I make a big list of anything and everything I can think of. Once I’m done with the manuscript and I’m familiar with how its laid out, I reorganize that list chronologically with the book so I can hit it on a later draft.

I typically save that stuff for draft 2.5. I guess you could call it 3. Even things that I know are broken, I can’t fix until I’ve read through the book in its entirety first. So after I finish the manuscript, I take some time off to clear my head and then read through and do some general cleanup with draft 2. That’s usually when it goes from “this is the worst thing I’ve ever written” to “it’s bad but it’s not that bad” in my head.

After the cleanup phase, that’s when I go back and and check everything off the THINGS TO FIX list. Then I comb through it again a third time for further polishing. So theoretically at this point, the book is structurally sound (or sounder) and I’m just cleaning up the prose. After this read through is when I’ve started handing the work off to beta readers. The way I see it, it’s not getting any overhaul without their help and this is usually when I’m comfortable enough with that I’ve written to let others read it.

Then its rinse and repeat. Get feedback, make lists, polish.

The other quote that keeps me sane is from somebody’s name I do remember. Some dude you may have heard of named Michael Crichton. “Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten.”

I figure the guy knows what he’s talking about.