the only place left to go is up

So — a 2019 recap is in order. The second week of February isn’t too late for that, right? Right.

I was not active on here. I should have been, but if I’ve learned anything from the last year, beating myself up over not doing something is the best way to ensure I continue to not do it. So there’s that: it is what it is, and we learn, and we move on.

I got a new day job. A step up from the old one, and a step closer to where I want to be.

I picked up some new/old skills. I learned how to fight with a rapier and a dagger in addition to a longsword, and I relearned how to crochet, and I sewed my first big clothing project. (A brocade jacket, which I’m pretty proud of. I should post pictures.)

I lost fifteen pounds. I blame that on rapier class, mostly, which can be blamed on Alexandre Dumas, because I read The Three Musketeers and just had to learn.

I got more active with tabletop rpgs. Even started my first ever campaign as a DM, which has been an amazing experience.

And I wrote.

I didn’t publish anything. Not original fiction, and not fanfiction. My AO3 account has been dusty and silent for over a year now, and, well … you know how my Amazon page has been.

But even if I never published a word of it, I still wrote. I polished off an entire 40k first draft of a novella. And here and there — halfheartedly, but still better than nothing at all — I worked on a partial draft of the fourth Iron Gentry book, adding just under 20,000 words to the draft in 2019. Most of these were written before I got the new day job; and the majority of the novella draft was written in a caffeine-fueled marathon that lasted for three days, clocking a total of 28,617 words in that time.

Not exactly sustainable. Add a day job to the equation, and … yeah. No. Definitely not.

(No, NaNoWriMo did not happen in 2019. Partially because day job, and partially because I got sick twice.)

But 60k words in a year isn’t anything to sneeze at. That’s a novella and a half, and it’s more than I wrote in the year 2018, if I remember correctly.

But in addition to that, I also wrote just under 225k of personal projects with a friend, most of which was based on The Three Musketeers.

Yeah, Dumas is definitely the criminal mastermind here, not me.

Will any of that ever be shared with the public? Probably not. It was damn fun, and I have a good time rereading it, but it wasn’t written with the intention to be consumed by anybody except myself and the friend I wrote it with.

… which I think goes a long way toward explaining just why I was so prolific with that, but not with the original fiction, or even the fanfic I pop on AO3. It’s a hell of a lot less pressure to goof around with a friend where no one else can see than it is to try to make something worth putting out to the public, to say nothing of putting a price tag on it.

The other main explanation is that because it was a personal project, a series of ongoing conversations with a friend about a book (and a movie, or multiple movies) that I love, in the year 2019 we wrote pretty consistently from the middle of March all the way through December 31. We did it in our free time, in stolen minutes during lunch breaks and in the morning before work, after work, long stints on the weekends. I haven’t tracked it on a graph, and I’m sure we had a few dry spells, but if we didn’t average writing 5 days out of 7, I’ll eat my tablet stylus.

It wasn’t a job. It was a hobby: it was fun, and I looked forward to doing it, and I did it whenever I could.

A third, smaller and sillier explanation is that formatting factors into it more than I’d thought. There’s this darn thing called smart quotes, and when I’m plunking along in the message system I use with my friend, smart quotes don’t register and it doesn’t matter what device I’m typing on. Whereas in Google Docs — my go-to for writing original and fan fiction on-the-go — on my laptop, smart quotes populate; but on my mobile devices, neither love nor money could convince those little Android keyboards to give me smart quotes.

Google Docs used to let my tablet do them, but it updated in the middle of last year and now… yeah. Nope.

This is why there’s a saying that goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

(See, I told you it was silly.)

In any case, altogether that’s nearly 300,000 words that I wrote in 2019. The equivalent of four novellas, or three nice-sized books, or one doorstop.

There’s a number of lessons to be learned here.

  • Get past the block of “oh man this has to be perfect on the first try,” so stuff can actually get written. Give myself permission for it to be silly and florid and dramatic, and to goof off with it a bit.
  • Getting excited, looking forward to it, leads to doing it whenever possible. Make it as easy as possible to do.
  • If something else is blocking me, find a way around it. Writing longhand seems like a good solution here, since I don’t have to worry about mobile devices formatting all my quotes the wrong way.
    • Related to the “make it easy” bullet — bring a notebook and pen with me everywhere I go, so I can write wherever I go. Not just my personal journal, but a writing one.
  • Reward my brain for writing, instead of beating it up when I don’t. Joy Demorra over at @thebibliosphere has a writing log that’s part of a rewards system for her daily routine, which is basically tracking the daily word count by putting a shiny sticker in her journal for every X amount of words. Does it have the same basic function as one of those NaNo tracker graphs, or my Writeometer app? Yes. But oooh boy, my crow brain is a lot happier about shiny stickers than it is about graphs.
    • At the same time, don’t fix what ain’t broke. The journal is for tracking total daily word count; Writeometer is best for tracking progress in a specific project. So I’ll probably end up using both.
  • Last but not least: when all of these conditions are being met? When I’m enthusiastic, when I’m giving myself permission to go off the rails, when I’m writing every minute that I can and not worried about formatting? I actually write a hell of a lot.

And that’s pretty reassuring.

So 2019 wasn’t a total bust after all — and hey, it can only get better from here.

writing is like brushing your teeth

or: get ready for an overly-explained metaphor that you’ll have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the post to read.

My new laptop has been up and running again for just over a week now, and in that time I have written nearly 28,000 words — today I’m hoping to cap it off at a neat 35,000. On Goodreads the other week I mentioned that using the Writeometer app is a good way of making writing fun, because the neat little bar graph and line graph show my progress (and the bright green graphics certainly make it nice, and the little inspirational writing quotes on the main app page are super cute).

But what it also does is it keeps me honest in not only how much I write, but how long it takes me to do it. What it comes down to — and I can’t claim that it makes sense, all I know is that that’s how it works — is that if I don’t time myself to write as much as I possibly can within 20 minutes, and do so multiple times a day, then I waffle around a bit and at most I’ll write 5,000 words.

The week before my old laptop died, I clocked almost 12,000 words, none of those using timed sessions.

Between yesterday and the day before, I clocked nearly twice that amount. By timing myself, 20 minutes at a time, for nine hours yesterday and six hours the day before.

Now, that wasn’t all in one go each day. I had to get coffee and eat food and take out the recycling and water the plants and get the mail and sleep. And what I found is that I naturally fell into a rhythm of 4 sessions in a row, then getting up and stretching my legs and running errands as needed, then getting back in the saddle.

And waking up this morning, I knew very well that doing marathons like that isn’t sustainable: because my wrist hurt, and because my eyes felt like they’d been dried with a blow torch. I normally spend my days staring at a computer screen, but not quite in such a concentrated manner, and dang if it doesn’t make a physical difference.

So: writing is like brushing your teeth. If you’re anything like I was as a teenager (and college student), and you forget to brush for days at a time until finally about a week later you realize your teeth are absolutely covered in gross slimy fur, then when you finally do brush your teeth (taking five minutes to excavate and floss and all the rest) your teeth feel so shiny and slick and clean that you wonder why you don’t do this every day.

I do brush my teeth regularly these days. And (knock on wood) I haven’t gotten a cavity yet. But the procrastination to the point of discomfort, and then the mad rush to do a week’s worth of time in a matter of hours, is the exact same whether you’re brushing your teeth or whether you’re writing.

And frankly, it’s healthier to write 3,000 words a day for eight days than it is to write 24,000 words in the space of 48 hours.

The long and the short of it is that by the end of the day today, the rough draft of my first romance novella will be going up for edits — and by the end of next week (given a more reasonable pace rather than a marathon), so will the fourth Iron Gentry novel.

attack the (writer’s) block

The yearly review for the day job is coming up, and I’ve been doing some evaluating of my own. There are some things that I hoped to accomplish this year that I haven’t, but one pretty big thing that I have accomplished is – well, is getting published. If this time last year – or two years ago – someone had told me I’d have published two novellas and be working on the third by December 2017, I’d probably have laughed. Which is silly; it isn’t the easiest thing that I’ve ever done, but it’s not the most difficult, either. Indie publishing is the comfortable-chair epitome of DIY. It’s not making my own furniture, but it’s pretty darn satisfying.

I’ve not finished the draft of Cliff yet, but hoping to get that finished by the end of the week so I can get all the edits (& the finished product) out of the way before the holiday break. I’m slower at cranking out drafts than I had hoped, but this is still my first year at this – and if I keep practicing, I should get faster. I have to keep reminding myself that writer’s block is a state of mind rather than an actual obstacle. Especially when I’m tossing all these other words at these other projects I’m doing with my friends.

So writer’s block isn’t about “I can’t figure out what to do next.” There’s always another idea of what to do next; and when you’ve got the plot mapped out, you know exactly where to go, so the issue is just how to get there. And the issue isn’t necessarily “I can’t figure out how to get from A to B” either, though that can sometimes throw a handy wrench into the scrolling cinema behind your eyes (or my eyes at least). Because even if you don’t know how to get there, if you want to get there then you’ll find a way.

Writer’s block is about wanting to get there. It’s about wanting to tell the story, and the tangible feel of unrolling the story in realtime.

You can’t force yourself to want to do things. You can force yourself to do them, and achieve a result, but I know my editor can tell when I’ve been dragging my feet and when I’m actually enthusiastic. (The difference is whether I have to rewrite the entire chapter or not. This isn’t me complaining about my editor, you understand; this is simply awareness of the way we work through a draft.)

In the spirit of finding a way to make myself want to finish telling the story instead of slogging through an awkward ending, I’ll be conducting an experiment this evening on the commute home. Instead of listening to music, for a solid half hour I’ll be monologuing about the current draft in progress and recording it with my phone. Hopefully the act of talking about it out loud for an uninterrupted half hour will do me some good, and having a record of it will mean that any ideas I come up with will be preserved in their entirety. If it doesn’t work, that half hour wasn’t wasted because I would have been driving home anyway. If it does work, it means I’m on to something I can use with future projects.

creature of habit

I have a callus on the side of my right middle finger. I first got this callus when I was seven or so, I want to say, because that’s when I first started writing by hand extensively. Wooden pencils (or ‘analog’ as I like to call them) give you that callus, and make it a lot thicker than a plastic mechanical pencil or pen will. After I started doing more of my writing on a computer — I want to say it was somewhere in high school that I moved from composition notebooks to a computer permanently — the callus became less pronounced. It’s still there, but these days the handwriting I do is confined to jotting down notes on a Post-It or writing in my little black book. And it’s usually no longer than an hour’s worth of handwriting at a time.

It’s the nature of the beast that writing on a computer is faster than longhand. Sometimes my thoughts go slower than my pen, but sometimes the only thing that can catch up to how fast the ideas come is the keyboard. Thank goodness for all those “Type to Learn” classes they forced us to take in elementary school. (They’re still doing those, right? Hunt and peck is fun but only when you’re not trying to write over 3k at a time. Also, does seeing elementary school kids with tablets and smartboards(tm) make anyone else feel old? No? Just me? Darn.) In any case, while some people prefer the sensory feeling of writing longhand, I prefer the expediency of a keyboard to record my ideas and write my drafts. In the same vein, I prefer using my laptop to writing on my smartphone.

The actual weird thing, though, is that which application I use also seems to make a difference as to my productivity level. I used to do all my typing on Word. Approximately one zillion of all the embarrassing body-swap and clairvoyant and historically inaccurate pirate stories that I wrote on my parents’ clunky old desktop in middle school were written using Word. And every last essay I ever wrote for high school and college was using the Word app. So I should still be okay with using Word for writing my manuscript drafts, right?

Nope. I can’t stand it now. For some reason, Word just isn’t comfortable for me anymore, like too many hours holding an analog pencil.

I’ve been using Scrivener for the last year and a half. I’m sure there are plenty of other writing apps that give you just as many cool doodads (like compiling the draft to pdf/epub, or viewing multiple sections of the same document at the same time), but I’m perfectly content with Scrivener. It does all of the things I need it to do, and after the first hour playing around in the tutorials, it’s fairly intuitive as to usage. But to be completely honest, I’m sticking with Scrivener because A) if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and B) I just seem to write better on Scrivener than on Word, and I’d probably feel the same with any of those other newfangled apps.

It’s the same sort of thing with WordPress. I can type my drafts in the WordPress site. The site offers that ability. But I’d rather transcribe an already written post into the WordPress site, than compose it for the first time in WordPress. I’d so much rather type up the blog post in an email app, save it as a draft, and then copy/paste or retype into WordPress. More effort? Yeah, but not longer than five minutes’ worth, and retyping gives me a chance to edit, anyway.

Call it an idiosyncrasy if you will. But if you ask around enough, you’ll find that everyone who writes has some kind of weird habit. I think I’ll take copy/paste and retyping over only being able to drink Mountain Dew any day.

NaNoWriMo

I am not officially participating in National Novel Writing Month this November. I’m not registering an account on their website, and while I have my own word count app to keep track of my projects (Writeometer, available on Google Play, if you’re curious), I’m not going to be publicly logging that word count every single day. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain … the little green one, over there, holding the mind control device. Ahem. That is to say, I don’t think any of you are interested in hearing me whine about how difficult it was to put fingers to keyboard on a Thursday evening, and mentioning plot points is kind of a spoiler even if it is for a first draft and therefore in flux. And while other people find it helpful to commiserate with a large online community, I’d much prefer to pester a handful of close friends. What else are Skype and Google Hangouts for?

But I am going to be writing a novel this month. And I am aiming for a minimum of 55 thousand words in the first draft. And, because public accountability seems to be the thing that kicks my butt into gear, I’ll be posting my weekly word count on Sundays until I finish the draft. (At which point you can bet there will be much throwing of confetti, even if I don’t do it on my blog where you can see it. As a relative novice I do still get excited every time I finish a manuscript. But that’s a post for another day.)

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) posits that you can sit down for an hour or so and write about 1400 words in a day, every day, for thirty days, to produce fifty thousand words. To longtime veterans, this is half or one third of a novel. (Or one sixth, if you’re George R. R. Martin.) To newbies who’ve never written anything longer than 3k for a college essay, it’s Mount Everest. Perspective is one hell of a drug, as they say. Either way, the program encourages its participants to sit down and write a given amount of words, every day, for the month of November.

It’s an exercise in discipline rather than creativity, and if you’re looking to get into the business of writing, it’s good practice. Because the point of it is that the draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, it’s just supposed to be finished. That’s what a separate editing stage is for. And even if the drat you produce ends up a steaming pile of crap no matter how much you edit, who cares? You still produced something, and that 50k of crap got you 50k closer to something worth reading.

Do what you can, when you can

Sorry for disappearing off the face of the earth, folks. The busy season at work started a couple weeks ago and we’ve been swamped, and we’ll probably stay swamped until Thanksgiving. Wading through ten times the usual amount of phone calls makes getting everything else done a little harder, and then coming home, well, sometimes a body just wants to veg out on the sofa and not think for a while.

A bad habit of mine is that when there’s something big I need to get done, I divide it into the fewest number of steps possible. On the one hand, simplifying things is good. On the other hand, within each big step are a zillion tiny steps, and my brain likes to gloss over the big parts and then obsess over all the tiny things I need to do. They’re all important, I insist. Every single small thing is important and I have to do all of them at once before I can move on to the next step, my God, how am I going to do this, let’s sit and stare at the tv for a while instead because just thinking about it is too stressful.

It’s not exactly the most productive way to go about things.

So I’m trying to get a little more laid back about my personal writing requirements. I don’t have to pound out 1000 words in twenty minutes, but I do have to write something. Because if I get too fixed on the word count to actually write anything, that defeats the purpose. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like hating regular sized tomatoes but loving cherry tomatoes. That’s just how I roll. Sorry.) (Not actually sorry. I’m serious about the tomato thing.)

Do what you can, when you can. You won’t be able to climb the whole mountain today, but you can get started on the foothills, and even if you don’t get halfway up, you’re still farther than you were when you started. Any progress is still progress.

We’re looking at end of September/beginning of October for Book 2. Stay tuned!

Inspiration (2/?)

You know what inspires me? Money.

It sounds mercenary, but there you have it. I’ve mentioned before that when I dreamed of being a writer as a little kid, what I actually dreamed of was being rich without much effort. And yes, I still would like to be rich. Wouldn’t you?

The thing about money is that it’s a means to an end. As the saying goes, it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes-Benz than on a bicycle.

I could have chosen any number of other ways to make money, but writing is what I picked, because I’d be doing it no matter what else I was working on, so I might as well try to make money off it. This is what is known in the business world as “freelancing”, and it can be fun, and it can also be a way for you to slam your head against the wall.

Because, whether you like it or not, whether you dress it up with a bathrobe and coffee mug or not, writing, like any other type of freelancing, is work.

Inspiration? The muse with a fluffy white dress and an enigmatic smile, who floats down from the clouds to play her harp at you? She’s a flaky piece of work that can’t be trusted. And plot bunnies can come from anywhere, but you have to corral them, or they’ll multiply and then you won’t be able to focus on anything.

If you’re going to wring a living from typing words on a screen, there has to be discipline involved. Whether the muse is there or not, you have to write. Whether the plot bunnies are multitudinous or not, you have to write. Whether you feel like slamming your head against the wall or not, you have to write.

Yeah, sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. But people who are trying to make a living, to be quite blunt, don’t have the time to get writer’s block. Because you still have to write.

And honestly, if you don’t feel like writing? If, in that miserable moment, you would rather do anything but write?

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you don’t keep at it.

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you do.

Like I said, money’s a heck of an inspiration.

And the wonderful thing about writing is even though you’re sitting down, it’s still a muscle. If you exercise it enough it gets easier. The one thing I can say NaNoWriMo did for me, is that it gave me the confidence to know that I could write four thousand words in one sitting. Before that I’d had no idea. So practice, and it will get easier.

And then writer’s block, and inspiration, and the rest of it? Might feel a little bit less like slamming your head into the wall.

Mental Music Videos

Another short post, sorry folks. Life likes throwing spanners into the works. In this case, post-surgery siblings.

Apparently one way to create a character is to do like my Method Two, only with songs. Put on the radio, or a playlist on shuffle, and find a song that you like and try to create a character out of it. As usual, your mileage may vary; I prefer my usual two, though you may find a song-created character to be the bomb dot com.

What’s fun also, though not necessarily productive, is going through your day listening to music (for example, the daily commute) and hearing a song and thinking “Ah, Yes, this song matches the relationship between these two characters perfectly.”

Sometimes it is productive, though. If a song comes across as a montage, then you can take the feel and themes of the song and try to transmute that onto the page. Or if a song lays out a series of events — whether those events are exactly the ones described in the song or not — then you can put those events into your plot.

Is that plagiarism? Well, if you take song lyrics and write them down into your story without getting permission from the singer, the writer, the studio, and their great aunt Agatha, then yes, it’s plagiarism. But if you don’t write the lyrics? Look: people have been singing about the same things since the beginning of time when we first discovered we had a voicebox. It’s not the story that you tell, it’s how you tell it that matters.

So yes, go ahead and write your Jukebox Hero.

This is what I’ve got

Bouncing ideas around with other people is really fun when you have a few plot bunnies but not much actually written down. You can take a shred of an idea and then, with the help of someone else, expand it into an entire short story — a novel — maybe even a series. It’s fun to do by yourself, and with someone on the same wavelength as you, it can be even more fun.

I’m learning that it’s a bit awkward when you already have a set idea and have written more than 10,000 words about it. Not because sharing ideas is bad, not because the other person is necessarily wrong, but because at this point it’s impossible to be on the same wavelength.

By the time I’ve put more than 10,000 words into a story, I have a pretty fleshed-out idea of where, plot point by plot point, the story is going to go. It’s the fiddly bits in the actual scenes that gets me stuck — but I know what the main story is. The person I’m bouncing ideas off has no idea of the movie that’s rolling behind my eyes. And unless you make it clear that you only need help with the fiddly bits, people are going to offer their opinions on everything from the foundation up. So while you already have a set story, they’re just creating material out of thin air, with none of the constraints you’ve already made for yourself.

It’s weird to tell someone the backstory for the main plot and then have them come up with something completely different from what you were already writing. Not bad, just weird.

What’s weirder is going away from that idea-bouncing session feeling like you have a resolution for the problem you initially had, but that you now have a bigger problem. Gentle readers, once I wrote an entire 50k words of a story that made no sense whatsoever. (A product of NaNoWriMo, by the way.) I’m certain it was good for me to write all that crap so I could get to the good stuff later, but it still makes me a little uneasy. Frankly, I need to practice my craft all the time, but I don’t want to have to scrap — or rewrite until it looks unrecognizable — another entire book. So looking at what I’ve already written, versus the idea that just popped into someone else’s head, well, hello Doubt my old friend.

Looking at the reasons I wrote what I wrote, and then saying “this is what I’ve got, let’s keep going” — this isn’t me trying to be inflexible. Other people make suggestions, and I can take them or leave them, because I’m the one who’s writing it; I’m the one who knows why the characters do what they do, and how different actions will affect the overall plot. But at this point, with the first draft unfinished, I’m not looking for critiques. That’s what the editing stage is for. If I went and rewrote the first draft while I was still writing it, I’d never finish the darn thing. And that’s the most important bit — that it’s finished.

Sequels

Usually I read things in chronological order. It makes more immediate sense to me to do so. In certain cases this isn’t what the author intended (The Chronicles of Narnia) and in some cases it isn’t what works best (the Star Wars movies). But usually the creators of the works are on the same page, that a linear progression of time is the most logical way to tell a story.

The second installment of a story has to do two things, and this can be tricky: it has to continue the story from where it left off, and it has to catch up the new listeners just tuning in. Some books try to do this with a little author’s note at the beginning — sort of a “previously on” like in tv shows. This might work or it might not, depending on the mood of the overall story; it’ll probably work better if it’s humorous, or maybe that’s just me. Some books try to do it with carefully rationed infodumps parceled throughout the beginning chapters, little “oh by the way”s and such. And other books just allude to the the goings-on of the first part of the story, and only make them plain as they become relevant to the next part of the story. I think I like the third option best, but I’m finding it a little tricky.

There were seven Harry Potter books, and six of them had to catch up new readers at the beginning. JKR did this with neat little infodumps. There were — are? — God knows how many Artemis Fowl books, and again, most of them had some sort of exposition near the beginning, if I remember correctly. Since I’m planning on the Iron Gentry series being kind of a big sprawling series, I should probably reread those books just to study their techniques. But there are two books in particular that I’ve reread that are, I think, probably the best examples of sequel handling I’ve ever come across.

The Oracle Betrayed series by Catherine Fisher consists of three books: The Oracle (formerly The Oracle Betrayed), The Archon (formerly The Sphere of Secrets), and The Scarab (formerly The Day of the Scarab). (I don’t know why the titles changed. The covers did too, but that’s a less mysterious thing.) I first encountered these books in the children’s section of my public library, I think when I was in middle school. But I started with The Archon, instead of The Oracle.

In a nutshell, public libraries: they had a copy of the first book, but someone else was borrowing it. I was too curious to wait — I read the blurb on the back and promptly checked out books two and three. And so I was introduced to the world of the Oracle. It felt seamless. I knew I wasn’t reading the first introduction of these characters, but Fisher’s writing displayed them like old friends getting reacquainted. It helped that time had passed in-universe, so that every reader had catching up to do and not just the newcomers. (A handy trick, and one that I’m using in my own work.) But more than that, it wasn’t a whole bucket of backstory being dumped into my head. It was gradual and subtle and dang, but it made me fall in love with the characters. The Jackal is still one of my favorite antihero/badguy mashups ever. So, a rousing success, and a great example that I’m trying to learn from. I’m off to reread it again.