A Writer’s System

A while back one of the writers I follow on Twitter posted a pic of her calendar on which she tracks daily actions including writing time, exercise, and several other items.

That looks torturous, I thought. Thank god I don’t do dumb things like track productivity.

Let me now add this to the long list of things I judged as silly on first look, and later adopted with glee. Because, here is the thing that I came to understand, viscerally – not in my head, but in my bones – writing a novel is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And I’d been trying to sprint. I’d get to a chapter I was excited to write and I’d drop everything and write like mad for a week. I’d come up for air at the end of it, exhausted, behind in my freelance work (and short of cash a few weeks later), sick of the project, and probably stuck in a place I didn’t know how to resolve. Drop the project for one to three months, have stroke of inspiration, repeat cycle.

It sucked. (I partially blame the November-fuelled hubris that says you can write a novel in a month. NaNoWriMo, I’m looking at you.) After my last writing binge, I took a good, hard look at just how long it was going to take me to write a full and proper book. I’m a pantser and a slow writer besides. I do all the things “they” say you’re not supposed to do, like edit as I go along. I like writing that way. And it doesn’t inhibit me from tossing out whole sections when they aren’t working the way I need them to, so right now, I don’t feel inclined to change. Is it wasted writing? Hell no. It’s good practice – I may not keep it, but no effort to improve craft is wasted effort, I say.

The conclusion I came to is that, yes, it would be more efficient to do a little bit every day. Because you know what? This is about more than writing a novel. This is not about the “things” I want to produce. This is about giving myself space and time to be CREATIVE. To PLAY. To develop skills over the course of years. A lifetime, if need be. So I got out my trusty wall calendar, and I’ve been making red X’s for days when I do some writing, and blue X’s for days when I do some drawing or sketchbook time.

And you know what? IT’S WORKING PRETTY AWESOME.

I don’t have a long string of pretty X’s like some writers I know. I only have a few hours of uninterrupted computer time after the baby goes to bed, and sometimes I need that time to catch up on client work. But I can see on my calendar that I haven’t been able to work on my writing all week, so I don’t beat myself up that I haven’t gotten any farther on the project for a few days. And I’m actually proud of myself when I get an X up on the board – there will be longer strings of X’s in time. I want those little f*ckers. I get a little hit of validation every day, and it’s better than the validation I used to look for from a finished project, because whenever I finish something, it’s inevitably not as good as I hoped it would be. But it doesn’t actually matter any more.

There’s some good thinking backing up this kind of a system. In an article on 99u.com, How the Tiniest of Improvements Can Have the Biggest Impact, Allison Stadd writes:

It’s easy to feel like making tiny tweaks [to your system] has minimal overall impact. That’s because we often feel pressure to achieve something concretely noticeable, in so doing overlooking the value of minor victories.

In his newsletter, James Clear shares the concept of “the aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve every minute thing that relates to a project, goal, or product by just 1 percent, all those small gains add up over time to a massive win:

“Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business or winning the Tour de France as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse.”

In another article, Clear goes on to say that “the system is greater than the goal.” This is a statement I can get behind. He adds, “Goals suggest you can control things you have no control over,” and makes the distinction that, while goals are good for planning where you want to go, systems are the vehicle that will actually get you there.

Clear got the seed idea for his article from a piece by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in the Wall Street Journal. Adams speaks to the psuedo-validation we get from goals that I mentioned above:

“…you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

I’m making an early New Year’s toast: To long strings of X’s in my future.

To be continued…

What I am Learning from my Practice Novel

A couple of years ago, I had an idea for a sweeping epic of a fantasy novel. Not, like, GRRM epic. By any stretch of the imagination. But still, I envisioned it being either somewhere around a 100,000 doorstopper or maybe 150,000 split into a two-part novel. I drafted a lot of scenes. I mapped out a bunch of plot lines. And I realized I was biting off a really ambitious project that might take a long time to get to the light of day, and I might not be happy with how it turned out when it was done.

So I decided to write a practice novel.

It turns out there is (almost) no such thing as a practice novel.

They are ALL practice novels.

This one – HARTHORN – is a lot more, shall we say, bite-sized. I think it will top out somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 words. There is only a single plot line which is fairly straightforward, and it’s geared towards a younger audience. (Not equating YA with simple. But for me, and within the context of fantasy novels, this is a less ambitious book.)

But you know that old saying? It might be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy? This is true, and applicable to novel writing, I am finding. And – full disclosure – something inside me hardens with rejection when people say “BUT (life, writing, raising children, xxx) IS  HAAAARD,” as if acknowledging that I occasionally have moments of wanting to throw in the towel is a virus that will start out annoying and whiny like chicken pox but could eventually consume you like the end-of-the-world-apocalypse-zombie-flu. Because it should be easy, shouldn’t it? When everything clicks, and it flows, and you’re IN THE ZEN ZONE and YEAH MOTHERCHICKENPLUCKERS*!!! You know, the writing high.

*totally not the word I actually use.

At any rate, what I’m trying to say (badly), is that I have at the same time an immensely stubborn iron will to really just *not acknowledge* (and thereby exclude from my reality) anything that seems like it will get in the way of my goals, and at the same time, have dealt with a really crippling fear of failure, aka perfectionism.

So back to the practice novel. I finished a first draft in, um, I’m going to say late in 2013. Then started with the rewrites. I’m about 1/3 of the way through the rewrites, which I almost have to do inch by inch. I mean, I know theoretically I should keep going, but (see above), I get a gut feeling when things aren’t yet where I want them to be and I keep going over the same 1/3 of the book.

So where does this leave me? Pretty much with a panic attack. I think it’s where I want it, but is it good? Does it suck? HOW THE HELL DO I KNOW? I’VE BEEN STARING AT IT FOR BLOODY DAYS NOW.

At any rate, I decided to get some perspective, and it’s been the best thing I could have done. I have engaged the services of one Julie Hutchings (half of the Undead Duo, bonus), editor and writing-coach-slash-cheerleader-with-an-uzi extraordinaire. You may be comfortable finding other types of feedback for your work. But if you’re stuck like I was, find someone who’s opinion you trust, and DO IT.

So, with much preamble and without further ado, here are five things I’ve learned so far on my practice novel:

1. That FEELING? The one that twinges in your little writer gut and says either YES I HAVE FOUND WHAT’S HONEST HERE, or NO, YOU ARE TOTALLY SKATING ON PLOT AND FALLING BACK ON CLICHÉS AND TRYING TO SQUIRM OUT OF THINGS, so, REWRITE. This is still, and always, the prime thing that I need to strive for.

2. It’s a lot less painful to rip out and re-arrange scenes than I imagined it would be.

3. It’s harder to fill in the little connecting bits around the edges after ripping out and re-arranging said scenes than I thought it would be.

4. You are going to lose a little something in the voice that the first draft had, but it’s OK. Hold the voice in your heart and it will shine on even as the novel deepens and grows away from you and takes on a life of its own. The voice will still be there, like five-year-old you watching thirty-five-year-old you watching kids play.

5. There is no such thing as a practice novel.

Aaaand to make it an even half dozen…

6. I will never, ever, ever be a fast writer. GRRM and I have that in common.

A Few Things I’d Like to Share with You

Yes, YOU. Now that summer is over (I know it’s still technically August, but trust me, if you live here, you can *feel* it – summer is over. Sigh.)… ahem. Now that summer is over, folks are headed back to school, back to work, and normal get-things-done time resumes.

I have a few things I’ve been working on over the summer, and I figure it is high time to start sharing! First of all, you may notice a new button over in the sidebar –> It says HARTHORN and it is the title of my current Work In Progress. I’ve dubbed the site “A notebook for a novel-in-progress” as we are in the stage of Serious Edits. It was a bit of a leap of faith for me to actually post some writing… but I love this excerpt I’ve posted and I hope to start gathering some folks who would like to stay updated on the progress of things. So, if you would like to be a Beta Reader, an ARC reviewer, a Cover Revealer or a General Cheerleader, enter your email address here and we will add you to the mailing list! Thank you LOVE YOU LOTS!!

Second, I HAVE NEW ART. Quite a while back, my dear buddy J.C. Lillis posted several awe-inducing photos of random finds in a New Jersey flea market (7 Fantastically Weird and Terrible Things I Saw at an Indoor Flea Market in New Jersey (Part 1)). One of the photos was a bunch of pins, and one of the pins says “all i want is a little more than i’ll ever get,” which, as J.C. comments, “inspired a full seven minutes of soul-searching by the hot-dog stand once I let it sink in.” (Seriously, though, you should check out the rest of the pins. It’s, like, seventies gold mine.)

I loved that saying so much I made art with it. And I have a new digital pen tablet that I’m trying to get the hang of, so it was perfect timing. There are two versions: Primavera (the green one), and Inverno (the grey one).

All I Want - Primavera. Illustration by Christian Frey

All I Want – Primavera.

All I Want - Inverno. Illustration by Christian Frey

All I Want – Inverno.

And the final announcement… I made a Society6 gallery, so these pieces and a few others are available as prints! You can find me on Society6 here. Also up in the gallery is my piece that was a finalist in Neil Gaiman’s Calendar of Tales project (We Apologize of the Inconvenients) and the ever-popular Conversations Overheard in a Coffeeshop on a Tuesday. I am SO looking forward to adding new pieces to the gallery – I seem to work on many different projects at the same time and I currently have a bunch of stuff in the pipeline, so one of these days it’s going to be like, ART HOSE.

YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

The Discoverability Project: An Update

Hi there! *waves*

It’s been pretty quiet here on the blog lately. I blame work. *glares at work*. You may also be able to tell I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter, usually when feeding the baby or rocking him to sleep. One of the best perks of reading on an i-Device is the ability to read in the dark. It’s keeping me happy, at any rate.

Anyhoo, I was over at the Discoverability Project page doing some updates, and thought I’d share some of my initial observations from almost three months in.

  • It pretty much all boils down to “word of mouth recommendations from friends”. Especially if you include Twitter, Goodreads reviews, and book blog reviews as “word of mouth recommendations,” and I do, because the way I find books on all of those platforms is… recommendations from friends. Usually on Twitter. Sometimes I will also check out tweets from publishers that I’m following.
  • If you price your Kindle version at $10.00 or higher, you fall into a price category that puts you in competition with all the current hot-listed trad-pubbed books that I really, really want to read. The ones I will use bookstore gift certificates to purchase in paperback so I can lend them to my friends (sometimes I’ll wait and order a used copy for $5 or less from Amazon). Most trad-pubbed mid-list books fall into this category, which is really too bad, because I’d check more of them out otherwise.
  • Keep in mind I don’t fall into the category of “voracious fiction reader”. I do read a lot, but I tend to read a lot of non-fiction (both online articles and books – currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). This means I’m terribly choosy about the fiction books I do pick up. They either have to be cheap enough that it’s no skin off my back to check them out, or one of those books that EVERYONE is talking about. Or have a really, really good download sample.
  • Which brings me to my last point. Download samples on Amazon are TOO SHORT. (Granted, their easy return feature mitigates this somewhat. But hear me out.) One of the first e-books I ever purchased (in PDF, no less, because I didn’t have the Kindle app on my phone at the time) was Catherine Ryan Howard’s Mousetrapped. I wasn’t looking for a book to read at the time – I was checking out Smashwords, this new publishing platform I’d heard about. I got sucked into the story, and was half-way through the book when the sample ended. Of course, I had to buy it at that point. This has made me an uber-fan of longer samples. Because really, who is going to get halfway through a story and NOT make a purchase so they can finish the rest? If you’ve read that far, you probably want to see how it ends. There’s no downside for authors that I can see.

By the way, if anyone wants to join me in tracking all the ways they’ve discovered books lately (public service to authors I guess? personal curiosity?) you can read more about how it works here.

Into the Woods

Into the Woods is a clever, appealing show — appealing to me, anyway — because it’s not afraid to be completely obvious. “Going into the woods” is the beginning of everyone’s story, and “the woods” are wherever your story begins. While you’re there, you encounter monsters and beautiful maidens and princes. Then you get what you want, and find out it’s nothing like what you imagined. The monsters turn out to be cool, the maidens to be weird losers, the princes to be dicks… You lose everything you have that can be lost, and find out who you are when you have to live without it.

- Emily Gould, “How Much My Novel Cost Me” (excerpted from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach)

We Won’t Feel A Thing

Today we’re taking part in the COVER REVEAL for my author friend J.C. Lillis! I first came across her work when I read her debut novel How to Repair a Mechanical Heart. I loved it so much I sent her an email and we’ve been chatting ever since.

So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to beta read her latest book, We Won’t Feel A Thing – a sweet and quirky romance about the perils of trying to scientifically eliminate some pesky forbidden love.

You’ll have to wait until March 31st to read it, but meanwhile you can add it on Goodreads, read a Q & A about the book, or follow the Pinterest board!

Drumroll please………

We Won't Feel A Thing by JC Lillis

We Won’t Feel A Thing by JC Lillis

Seventeen-year-old best friends Rachel and Riley are in forbidden love.

Their situation’s… complicated. And their timing couldn’t be worse—in just one month, he leaves for California and she starts college in New York. The absolute last thing they need is a reckless secret-love confession mucking up their perfect plans.

There’s only one logical option: scientific intervention.

Desperate for a quick fix, they sign up for WAVES, an experimental self-help program led by mysterious scientist David A. Kerning. He swears his Forbidden Love Module can turn passion back to safe platonic friendship in “six easy steps.”

But when you arm yourself with an untested program, side effects are unpredictable.

And sometimes when you fight love—love fights back.

Tracking “Discoverability”

So, a few days ago, Chuck Wendig wrote this post: Slushy Glug Slog: Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem. Go read it if you want to. I’ll wait here.

While I sympathize and/or empathize with much of what Chuck said, my opinion is that the market will eventually sort itself out. I’m going to pull just one part of Chuck’s post out and address it here.

“The sheer number of releases is an issue all its own. It becomes increasingly hard to stand out merely by publishing a book in either form. It’s like trying to get a droplet of water to stand out in an entire goddamn ocean.”

Personally, I don’t think “discoverability” is a reader’s problem. There’s a sh*t-ton of books out there I’d like to read, and not enough time or pesos to do them justice. Which means I have to be somewhat selective as a reader as to what I pick up.

No, I think “discoverability” is firmly in the author’s camp of problems. And maybe part of all the angst centres around not enough data about how discoverability happens. Authors think that having a ton of self-published books out there diminishes their chances for getting “discovered” by a reader. It seems logical. But is that actually true? We have no way of knowing. Maybe it increases your chances, because self-pubbed authors are readers too, and there’s now a million more people plugged into the network – you just don’t know. (Try listening to some of the Freakonomics podcasts if you want to expand your appreciation of statistics. They’re generally awesome. Maybe they’d do a podcast on this topic.)

Given that word-of-mouth still requires some genesis in discovery, let’s talk about one’s experience when going to browse an online bookseller to discover new work.

Again, is this true? Who knows? Is the genesis (starting point) for word-of-mouth discovery  Amazon or other online booksellers? The most I can say is that it’s not true for me as a reader. I’m sure online booksellers are a point of discoverability for some authors, some of the time, but I think for a lot of indies (and trad-pubbed authors), the genesis of word-of-mouth starts with their network. Again, this is a guess – we just don’t know.

So the question I pose to you is:

How do we limit the noise?

And how do we increase the signal?

Well, here’s my small contribution. For one year, I’m going to track how I “discover” new books to read. There’s a spanky new button in the blog menu, called The Discoverability Project, and you can head over to that page if you want to see how I’m going about it. Or, if you want to JOIN ME (more data = better data), send me a message and I’ll add a link to your Discoverability page as well.

Let the data-gathering begin!

In the Spirit of the New Year

Last year, in a toast to The Bloggess, I declared a practice year. A year to not worry if I was any closer to meeting those elusive long-term goals. You know, the ones that say YOU’VE MADE IT. The book deal, the bestseller, the young whatever’s award, the recognition of your peers, the adoration of fans. MEN WANT HER, WOMEN WANT TO BE HER. *sweeps hair back over coyly exposed and bonily thin bare shoulder.*

(I’m adding, for posterity, that I’m laying it thick on the sarcasm here.)

I blogged a bit about struggles with perfectionism and writer’s block this past year. While perfectionism may not be as debilitating as depression, it deserves its own brand of wary respect. You know. The kind a crocodile deserves.

And I have to say, having begun the process of liberating myself with last year’s practice year, I kind of like this new track we’re (not) on. I don’t write every day, but I do think about the stories. I chew on things. I mull. I ponder. I search out the places where things are weak, where they don’t resonate the way I want them to, and I wait for enlightenment. Sometimes it comes, and when it does, it is always worth waiting for.

Granted, we still need Constant Vigilance against the perfectionism business. The Bureau of Plans & Goals & Stuff is still mostly out to lunch, and I’m totally OK with that. You know when you read something that says, Don’t set goals you have no control over? And the BPGS is like, well DUH, that’s just common sense. Then I read something like this and the BPGS is like, That sounds so cool! Why don’t we do that? And before I know it, my mind is secretly setting goals like “Write debut indie book that turns into runaway best-seller so we can show up on speaker panels at BEA with Hugh Howey.”

SEEMS LEGIT. *shrug*

This is also really hard to put in a blog post. Because it’s SO EASY TO SEE WHEN OTHER PEOPLE DO IT. Which makes it doubly – nay, triply hard – to admit you are doing it as well.

There’s this other thing that happened this year that gave me a great excuse to cut some slack. A tiny human burst forth from my nether-regions and has been demanding inordinate amounts of attention ever since, in return for unparalleled bouts of epic cuteness. And poopy diapers. It is magical and it is mildly exhausting. Not as exhausting as hitting a magazine print deadline, but it lasts longer. Like the next 18 years longer.

(You know what is fun about babies? [Did I ever think I would have a serious answer to that question? No.] They remind you what it looks like to see things for the Very. First. Time. Sounds mundane, but is actually pretty cool.)

2014. Year Off the Rails. We’ll stomp through the weeds with gleeful abandon.

But also: Constant Vigilance. You know. For the crocodiles.

Constant Vigilance - Mad Eye Moody

 

Narrative Climax: Did that seem inevitable?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about narrative arcs and – there’s no getting around this dirty little word – the climax, specifically. How many times have you read a novel that had a great overall story, or at least a great build-up, but the climax – the part where the tension should be ratcheted up to a T – seemed just slightly inevitable?

Mystery stories, because of their very nature, seem somewhat immune to this phenomenon. Unless you can spot the whodunnit a mile away, there’s a large element of surprise in the ending of a successful mystery. It’s what the whole genre hinges on.

Stories in the fantasy genre could learn a few lessons from this. There are a lot of great, well-loved novels which feature a big, complex push to the climax, but the conclusion of the book starts to feel inevitable (in hind sight, at least) because the main character’s only job is to endure, or to be brave, or to not give up, until they’ve accomplished whatever mighty feat it has been decreed that they must accomplish.

I think, in fact, that that’s got to be one of the reasons the Lord of the Rings trilogy is so powerful. At the peak of the story, Frodo is supposed to destroy the ring by throwing it into the pit of doom but he isn’t strong enough to do it. The only reason ‘good’ triumphs after all is because the nasty little head-case that’s been following them around for the whole series sees his chance to make his move, bites off Frodo’s finger, and the momentum from that clash carries Gollum (and the ring) over the edge into the fiery pit of doom.

I guess my main point is this: If all the main character has to do is simply endure the unendurable, or have the bravery to do what, really, any other half-brave or moderately stubborn person in his or her situation would have done, well, I have to ask – as a writer, and as a reader – is that good enough?

Spam of the Day

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A: The correct response is:

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