Lunhina: Status Report

I reached a milestone today that I felt warranted a quick post. After reworking my story early last year, I emerged with an outline for a 5-part story, with parts 1-3 roughly correlating to my earlier outlined material, and parts 4&5 rendering a proper conclusion, which was lacking in the early drafts.

Today, I finished the draft of part 2, bringing the manuscript total up to 132,385 words. In the final draft, I’d hope to get that down to 90k. Somehow.

This is also the furthest I’ve gone, words-wise, into any previous revision of Lunhina (and this is draft 5 if we’re counting strictly). I like where this one is heading, I like how the world building is coming together, and I really like how some of the twists are getting staged. I am very excited to get the rest of this draft hammered down. Most critically, I don’t see any barriers between here and there, which was not the case in any previous outline.

I set some goals for myself this year, and if I can stick to them, I might, just might, have this thing “finished” by the end of the year. My work is somewhat seasonal, giving me a relatively quiet spring and summer, and the kids are getting a little older, hopefully promising full-night’s rest sometime soon. With these factors converging, I have high hopes.

Part 2 was not without its hurdles. In fact, just yesterday I paged back to reference a description from part 1 and was dismayed to find I’d written an entire reveal scene several months ago, then apparently shuffled it in the outline, forgotten, then re-wrote it just a few days past without realizing. It took some work to figure out what was supposed to go where and revise one of the two versions to work. I got there in the end.

Tomorrow I set out on part 3. The latter half of this section is particularly well outlined and should be a breeeze. The first half requires a bit more set work. With any luck, I’ll have a similar status report in a couple months.

2019 New Year’s Resolutions

Last year I made a similar post. Before I set down my goals for 2019, let’s see how I did:

  • [2018] In April, my wife is expecting our second son. I hope to make sense of life with two kids running around.
  • [2018] I’d like to get back to the gym, or at least, feel guilty about not getting back to the gym.
  • [2018] I’d like to finish the current draft of my NiP by mid summer, and send it for beta feedback to my inner circle of critters.
  • [2018] I’d like to complete any rewrites, as well as a polish pass before year’s end, allowing me to begin either 1) submitting to traditional houses, or 2) sourcing covers and editors for self-publication.

The first one I accomplished, and it was no easy feat. I’m a straight-up family dad now, I guess, with my time and energy generally monopolized by two wild boys. I also succeeded in the second task: I definitely felt guilty about not getting back to the gym. Excellent, 2 for 2.

I set myself up for failure a bit, since goal #4 was contingent on the completion of goal #3… and I whiffed goal 3 by an embarrassing margin. At the end of 2017, my word count on Lunhina was ~68.5K out of a projected 170K. Today, I am sitting on ~115K out of a projected 350K.

You might be thinking, “350K!? What the hell is wrong with you?”

Yes.

In any event, I added 46K words to the novel (not including some rewrites), which averages 3,800/month, or 136/day. At that rate, to reach the word count I have outlined, it will take me a further 5.1 years. So obviously this ship has gone well off course.

Informed by this data, here are my goals for 2019:

  • Start working out at least 3 times a week.
  • Get my shit together with Lunhina and finishing SOMETHING, either a self-contained “part 1” for the larger story, or the full story re-outlined to normal novel length.
  • Write at least 2000 words per week (a.k.a., double my current pathetic counts).

That is all. I’m keeping it simple, and focusing on two things I really want to accomplish: something for my physical health, and something for my mental health. Both of these things tend to take a back seat to — what I judge to be — more important things, such as my family, my work and finances, and some of my personal relationships. I don’t have any specific goals in those areas since I tend to give them most of my waking attention already. Here, I’m shooting for the things I should be able to keep in balance with everything else, but in practice don’t.

What are your goals for the year?

A Day in the Life

A day in the life of a writer, a.k.a., me!

Let me present my completely fool-proof plan to accomplish all of your writing goals. It has worked wonders for me. Yes, a big steaming pile of oddly shaped wonders.

1. Situate

Work can’t get done if you aren’t in your work area. To start my day, I sit at my computer. I am pumped, focused, and eager to write.

2. Mentally Prepare

Before I start anything, I browse all my writing forums and other daily websites to “get them out of the way.” You know, so I don’t get distracted later when I’m writing.

3. Logistically Prepare

Now I open up my Scrivener document and re-read what I did yesterday. Sometimes, I also pull up my outline and character notes just to make sure everything I did yesterday is consistent, and so all my marvelous ideas are fresh in my head for today’s upcoming feat of written words.

4. Set Goals

Nothing is accomplished without goals. I look at where I am in the chapter or scene, and consider my goals for today. What do I want to accomplish? What problem do I need to solve?

5. Intellectually Prepare

It’s great to know what your goals are, but knowing how to accomplish them is even better. At this point, I visit various writing websites, watch various youtube videos, and review various podcasts, seeking tips and advice on how to accomplish my specific goals for today.

6. Physically Prepare

Break for lunch. Nothing gets done on an empty stomach.

7. Back to Work

It’s been a few hours, I’ve covered a lot of ground, and I just took a break. This is when distractions will try to strike. The key to success is to be able to mentally re-focus after changing gears. I find it helpful, at this stage, to redo step 2, so I don’t get distracted anymore. Sometimes, instead, I’ll go write a blog post to really harden my grasp of the new lessons picked up in step #5.

8. Writing is a Business

Here’s the thing: writing is a business. It needs to be treated like one, which includes making good decisions about allocating time and resources, learning the needed skill set, and keeping an eye on the big picture. Often, by now, I realize I’m kind of tired. With all the tricks and tips I learned in step #5, I have a lot of new information to reflect upon. Being hasty is bad for business, and truth be told, a nap now will probably do more good for my story in the long run than a few hundred words I’ll need to redo tomorrow. This is a business decision.

9. Smell the Roses

All this work can be intoxicating, but it is important to remember to stop and smell the roses. Life keeps moving, so take a little time to enjoy it, between all the other stuff. To accomplish this, I tend to stay up very (unreasonably) late handling “life.”

10. Stay Positive

When I get into bed, exhausted though I am, I always take a moment to think of the potential ahead of me. I quickly get pumped about how much I’ll accomplish tomorrow and how many words I’ll crank out. Sometimes I do a little math. I’ll easily get 5K words down tomorrow, and if I do that every day, my novel will be done in no time! What’s more, I can just feel how EASY it’s going to be to write tomorrow, now that I’m ready and soon-to-be rested.

11. Keep the Momentum

The next day, I wake up, shower, and begin again from step 1. It is all about sticking to the routine.

 

Good luck, and happy writing!

Just Keep Swimming

Time for a(nother) quick writer’s block rant.

There is a fair amount of wisdom in Finding Nemo, believe it or not. As a new father confronting the world of hyper-protective parenting and we-don’t-keep-score-at-games-so-nobody-ever-has-to-lose mentality, etc, I’ve given a little thought to Dory:

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.

Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.

Marlin: What?

Dory: Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

Right indeed.

But this is not a parenting blog entry. I’ve been back and forth through a strange fog of writer’s block the last few weeks, partially due to an overloaded schedule, and partially due to an inability to break into new chapters. A creative chasm I can’t seem to leap. I frequent a number of writing blogs and hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t voice a similar issue. The creativity just isn’t there, or it’s an off week, or they just can’t find the best way to come at their scene or chapter. I posted a similar thread myself on one forum a little over a year ago, and yet here I am again.

Well, there is another bit of wisdom in Finding Nemo that I’ve found quite useful, and so long as I remember to keep it in mind, I can push through. Most recently when I reminded myself of the magic formula, I managed to break out a 10K+ word charge!

The magic formula? Here it is:

Dory had it right.

Howard Taylor and his crew over on Writing Excuses refer to this as BIC HOK: Butt in chair, Hands on keyboard.

The instruction is simple enough, and the concept, but I am more interested in the mindset.

Why the stumble?

For me, there is a lot of inertia when beginning a new chapter. Some of this comes down to how I outline. I have a huge piece of paper that lists all of the arcs unfolding in my story and the key scenes that take them from start to finish. Each character might have two or three lines down this chart, non-character movement might get a line, a mystery plot or discovery plot will be there. Together, the chart represents all the strands of DNA that will eventually form the living, breathing story. Once I have that worked out, I start organizing these key scenes into chapters and identify where I need additional scenes to bridge two points on this map. I’ll try to combine things in ways that make sense and hammer out the order. When it is all said and done I have a list of chapters for my story along with bullet points of what each arc looks like going into each chapter, and what each arc looks like going out of each chapter.

That sounds just delightful I’m sure, but there is one little problem: Nowhere have I figured out how I’m supposed to get from the input to the output. This is where my discovery writer wakes up and helps keep my story organic.

Or at least, he’s supposed to wake up. Turns out he’s more the wildly indecisive procrastinating type.

As I stare at the blank Scrivener document–the bullets noted over on the right–I start trying to find the best way to get from A to B. The problem is, there are a million ways to get from A to B. How do I find the right one? How do I find the one that will serve my story best? The one that also brings in world building and tension? The one whose setting most captivates the reader? The one that hits every beat just right?

I know what you are thinking: “But you are such a brilliant writer, you probably find the best solution on your first shot!”

Oh, you weren’t thinking that? How rude.

In any case, moving right along to…

How to write your scene perfectly.

You can’t. Quit writing and get another hobby.

How to write your scene.

This is the tough bit, the part that stops people from making headway. The story in your head feels like the perfect story. It feels like you just need to find the right words to get it out. It feels like the wrong words won’t do the story justice.

None of that is true, I’m sorry to say. There might be concepts in your head, movie-like scenes even, a sense of the characters… but until you write something down, there is no story, in your head or otherwise.

 

The story is only what you can get on the page. So what happens when the version you write doesn’t seem to fulfill your conceptual expectations?

Just keep swimming.

That comes back to the crux of the issue. In order to write your scene, you have to be okay with writing a crappy version of it first. Give yourself permission to have a little literary indigestion, and don’t worry about it. The way forward–the ONLY way forward–is to accept that much of your first draft will stink. The ideas will be overdone, off the mark, the characters will act inconsistently, you’ll leave out things you meant to include, you’ll include things you meant to leave out, you’ll pick crappy settings, your tension will be off the mark, etc.

That doesn’t mean you’ve sabotaged your story. It doesn’t mean much of anything, except that you are a little closer to your goal.

This cannot be understated. The key to writing your scene is to just write it and don’t give a damn if the thing you end up with stinks like yesterday’s garbage.

I know I went with the Finding Nemo thing, but let’s switch quickly to golf.

Think of your first draft as your driver. You’ll cover more yards with that first swing than any subsequent hit, but there is no expectation that you’ll land in the hole. That is no excuse not to swing. You take the shot, you see where it lands, then you start from there and figure out how to get closer. It might take a few hits, each with a slightly different tool, each employing a slightly different technique. Each hit will also take you closer and closer until you end up right where you want to be.

So what does it matter, really, if you botch the drive? Who really cares if you accidentally send the damn thing for a swim fifty yards off the course? When it’s time for the next shot you’ll just pull out your nine-iron and hit it again, in the right direction this time. Maybe there are a few scenes you’ll have to hit pretty hard in that second draft, but so what? On this course, there is no par. Play until you run out of bird-names to grade the strokes. Doesn’t matter at all.

Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Accept the fact that your second draft will be way better. Your third, better than that. No matter how you feel or how impenetrable a new chapter might seem… Just. Keep. Swimming.

A page stuffed with crappy, amateur words, in a big stinking messy pile, is nothing at all to worry about. It is closer to the goal than you were before, and that’s what you want.

… Even if you are writing in Whale.

Finding Time to Write

So this is a new challenge for me. My wife works nights, I work days (I work nights too, often, and we both work weekends), but there was always a reliable half-dozen hours a week where I was home alone on a given evening, and bored out of my mind. From this idle time hatched my love of writing. Soon all these regular hours helped me to generate the 200K words in novels I’ve so far written, and nearly a million words in revision, some great crit circles, and a growing involvement on a few writing forums. Some nights I banged out 3K or 5K words, some weeks 15K. My craft was improving, my intuition slowing growing… all was well and moving forward.

Check out this chart from my progress tracker for Lunhina:

As you can see I had a nice strong take off, a little writers-block lull in April, and a beautiful recovery (if I do say so myself) right up until about….. August 18th. Since then my pace has tanked and my progress has stagnated.

That’s because on August 18th this happened, which has been absolutely fantastic, but it has dramatically altered the profile of my free time. For the first time in my life I am facing the challenge many of my like-minded peers have faced all along: how the hell do you find time to write with a job and a life?

Moving to Mobile

I remember an episode of Writing Excuses where Brandon mentioned a fellow writer he crossed paths with while on tour (I think? I don’t remember her name) and she was constantly writing on her phone whenever something else wasn’t going on. This is not how I’ve worked in the past. I like to sit down, clear my head (have a drink) and spend a few hours. How can you do 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there?

Well, it turns out you can, if that is all you’ve got to work with. The first major breakthrough was coughing up for Scrivener for iOS. It turns out if you put your manuscript in your hand (or your pocket, as it were), you’ll find yourself adding to it all throughout the day. My mind tends to wander into my fantasy worlds while I’m doing trivial or repetitive tasks anyway, but now those random wanderings translated into actual words in the MS.

Making Tradeoffs

We all need to prioritize the tasks that bid for our time, and often when you are tired or overworked, it can be easy to choose iPhone games, TV, or sleep. While at least one of those might be healthy for you [citation needed], I’ve decided to cut into them all. My lunch breaks are no longer purely for lunching, my nighttimes are no longer purely for sleeping, and I’ve diverted as much entertainment time as I can manage towards one goal: writing some damn words!

This definitely gets exhausting, and at times, fighting to schedule writing in this way almost feels like work. But I suppose, that is how all personal commitments feel.  Going to the gym wasn’t always fun, but sometimes you just make yourself go because it’s good for you. Side note: I’m no longer going to the gym either.

Tech Compensation

I’ve had the good fortune of some modest success in my business ventures recently, and so I decided to splurge a little (woohoo cyber Monday!) by grabbing an iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil. Now that I am in the swing of Scrivener on the phone, I figured the iPad might give me a little more power. Mobile enough to pull out and jump in, fast and easy to pack up, quite unlike a laptop. Then I’ve always liked freehand writing over typing. On a computer I can type faster than I can scribble, no doubt, but not the case for a phone or iPad with a virtual keyboard. Thus I used the Apple Pencil with this app to let me truly write my stories, right into Scrivener! Each of these additions has increased my word count, letting me cram the most productivity I can from the spare moments I run into.

All that together has helped to keep me moving, but there is no doubt things are much different in terms of my productivity and my pace. There might be no way around that, but I continue to look for tricks or habits that can make sure this hobby doesn’t fall by the wayside. If nothing else, I can at least now stand in solidarity with so many other novice writers who have to fight for the time of day for each and every word.

Friends, I feel you.

Pantsing a different kind of story

I’ve just started working on a brand new story of a rather different sort: fatherhood. I’d prefer to outline this particular story, of course, but I’m told it doesn’t work quite like that…. so pantsing it is!

This has been quite a remarkable experience, all told. From seeing my wife transform, to seeing the amazing abilities of modern medical science, to watching my son enter the world, to feeling the bond already building between myself and him. You really have to live it to believe it.

The little man (9 pounds and 13.6 oz, if we can call that little) and is as healthy and happy as I could have wanted (as is his mom). He has a full head of hair, shows a propensity to quiet inquisitive staring over screaming (let’s see if this lasts!), and has already mastered sucking his thumb.

IMG_4586

Looking forward to a new adventure with this little guy and the start of my family. Evan, welcome to the world!

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 21.01.22

Course Correction

I think I just changed my ending. Quite unexpectedly, and in a big way.

I was thinking about one of the decisive conflicts in the story and I started writing it down, just to get the ideas on the page so I didn’t forget them. When I got to the essential moment of choice….. I chose the wrong thing.

Not sure why. Looking back on it now, I can impose some order on the deviation. There are a few small ways this might make the ending feel better for the reader, and in terms of character moments it is probably an equal impact but in different ways. I didn’t have these justifications in the moment, though, I just went the other way.

Such a strange thing, writing.

This won’t have much of an impact on the book itself, considering it only alters the very ending. Unfortunately it does break the larger trilogy arc in a bad way.

I guess when I get there for real, I’ll have to see which way it goes, but right now I have to admit the new one feels better for reasons I can’t really explain.

Diagnosis vs Creation

I’ve just passed the one-year mark of my maiden voyage into the world of creative writing, and my perspective on the process has changed dramatically. A huge part of that evolution, obviously, is because I’ve cranked out about 160K words since then (and another ~250K in rewrites/revising). That is only part of what I’ve undertaken in the last year, however. I’ve also been an avid student of writing books, blogs and YouTube lectures almost every day for that year. A year’s worth of guerrilla education counts for something!

Some of the books covered good fundamentals, but for the most part every one of those resources sought to arm me with “tools” of the craft, to help me improve. Some were about pacing, some characterization and voice, others about conflict, or tension, or any of a hundred other things. I built up quite an arsenal over all those months.

And I’ve been using all these tools almost entirely wrong the whole time.

As a new writers, I fell into the trap of taking some of this advice too literally… or at least I put it to use too mechanically, the engineer within me shining through. For instance, consider Swain’s mantra of “scene-sequel.” This is held by many writers to be an absolutely fundamental means of forming paragraphs for optimal effect.

So when I sat down to write, I actually mapped out my chapters as a sequence of alternating scenes and sequels in advance. I stressed about the places where there were two scenes back to back, or when a chapter ended on a scene instead of a sequel, etc.

Another writing tool in my box is to vary sentence length in order to set the pacing of the story, speeding it and slowing it as necessary. Once again, I outlined the places where my pacing needed to change and set to work with a knife to shorten every sentence in those sections. Then I sprinkled in extra words in the slow section to further the contrast.

I’m sure you are starting to see the problem. I’ll just use one more example.

Somewhere else I learned that you should employ all five senses in your description, so in every chapter I made sure to include at least two non-visual senses in my descriptions, wherever I could find an opening.

…and with all that in tow, writing became a mechanical chore.

Not only that, but the output still didn’t feel right. So what is the solution? Throw out all the rulebooks and trail-blaze? Apply the rules in some moderation? Suck it up because this is how real writing works?

I think I have the answer, and it is none of the above.  It turns out most of these rules and guidelines are really excellent tools for diagnosing issues in a scene, rather than creating the scene itself. I’ve come to think of them as the features of my debugger, rather than my compiler.

What do I mean by that?

What troubled me so much before was that I was thinking about all these guidelines and rules as if they would help me to generate a brand new story. I was trying to lay down words only after thinking through all the relevant rules that applied to the situation I was crafting. All these restrictions and signposts did not make the writing better. In fact, I am far more effective when I don’t worry about any of that and just rely on instinct.  Granted my instinct is informed by the learning I have done, but the rules are implicit there — they aren’t considered specifically while crafting. I’ve come to understand that this is how it should be.

When it is time to write, use your instincts, and ditch the bag of tools at the door.

The right time to grab the rulebook is AFTER the first round of writing is complete. When I am going back and re-reading something, I may well find it isn’t working, and that is when I can open up my bag of tools and start looking for discrepancies.

If an exciting scene feels awkward, I can start framing it in terms of the guidelines to help me spot what might be wrong. Maybe I am missing a sequel-paragraph, which is making it awkward. And why wasn’t this character moment powerful? Well, the build up doesn’t invoke the character’s voice enough to stage the right emotions.

In this way, all these tools help in debugging the writing, where they failed in creating it.

 

Alpha Readers

It took me a couple of months of spinning my wheels and not really making any progress, but I have finally broken free from my writers block and pushed myself to a good place.  I have about 25K words down on the page, and a pretty solid outline (minus a few specific-specifics) up to the ~75% mark in my story, then again from 90% until the end.

Now that the hair-pulling and self-pitying is safely behind me, I can spot a couple patterns in the debris field when I look over my shoulder. As the dozens of spiders / bots following this blog know, I’m in the early writing stage of my second-ever novel. This means I am still basically new to the whole process, and every slight variation I attempt becomes my first ever experiment with that variation. Some of these experiments work to my benefit, others to my detriment, but until I blunder ahead I don’t know the one from the other.

My first story came into being from within a bubble.

I was well past the 80% mark (with a clear outline of the finish) before I broke that isolation and shared a single word with alpha readers over on FWO. This wasn’t by grand design… I don’t know any writers in my personal life, and my wife does’t “get” fantasy, so that is just how it happened. In the course of workshopping that manuscript, I developed a great group of peers, and my writing capabilities certainly improved. I got all the way to the end of the manuscript with one particular partner, the mid point with another, and a couple others worked with me through the first third of the novel. By the time I got that much input, I’d learned so much that I was no longer excited by the story. It was a fun first attempt with some elements done well, many lacking, but it didn’t have the fundamentals woven in to make it a really great story. Fine, no big deal. On to book number 2!

Eager to keep a good thing going, I wasted no time connecting with some old faces, and some new, over at FWO, and I began posting my new words almost as soon as they hit my Scrivener document. I sprinted ahead, full of momentum, and the feedback started rolling in.

Then two bad things happened at the same time.

First, I discovered that the “gardener” method of writing wasn’t really for me… I need an outline. So I sat down and started outlining. It wasn’t hard — I love planning out the story and world-building the features, then finding clever ways for things to intersect. In any case, it is another crucial part of storytelling I need to keep practicing to get good.

This change of gears slowed my momentum, and as I was etching out character arcs, feedback continued to roll in. I was a couple chapters ahead of my alpha readers, so I continued to post while I worked in the background. Then the second bad thing happened.

Already weak on momentum, I was hit with the realization that my story was not manifesting the way I wanted it to. I had things planned later in the book, but the seeds weren’t planting, the character quirks weren’t coming through, too many things weren’t working for too many people! WHAT TO DO!?

Well I did what any semi-panicked novice writer would, and immediately began rewriting what I already had, trying to “fix” things so that the story was setting up the grand impact I wanted it to have.  I couldn’t allow my alpha readers go read through the whole thing and be left scratching their heads and telling me, in the end, the story didn’t really have any punch to it!  Could I?

This began a very negative feedback loop, the escape from which took over two months.

Now that I am out, I’ve learned three very important things about myself.

Momentum is essential. I’ve heard this said by other authors as well, particularly Brandon Sanderson, so I had a hunch the same might be true for me. Well it is. Each time I had to second guess where I was going, or change gears for something technical/secondary, it became harder and harder to keep going forward.

Workshopping too early is bad. I made a concerted effort to file away my feedback into a folder, expecting to dive into it in earnest only when I finished the first draft. I read everything as it came in, of course, so I could make notes of things I should adjust on the fly. Something about a character wasn’t working? I can pivot as I went. A motivation didn’t come through? I better find a way to mention it again.

This turned out to be poison, and I just don’t have the personality to ignore what people are saying and what they think. I just have to start fixing things once I know there is an issue… which stops my forward movement, but leads me to bad solutions (e.g., why add another scene about motivation when I could just fix it in the first scene later during my revision?).

My writing is still novice, but that’s okay. This is a big one for me, and the one that will take the most self control to internalize. When I re-read my own writing, before sharing it with others, I generally hate it. I might like how it flows or what happens, but the prose itself… the descriptions, the sometimes clunky or confusing way I move around… it just irks me!  I CAN DO BETTER!

… well maybe I can, but the key is not to worry about doing it now. This ties back into #2, because I have a deep issue with sharing something that I am not proud of, which means before I can post anything for review I just have to give it a once- or twice- or three-time over before I can let it out into the wild. That energy drains directly away from my momentum, and it is poorly spent. I might bang out 10K words in a week, but 9K of them were rewrites to old material just so I could post it! And furthermore, when I still don’t land on prose that I really love, it just gets me down.

So back to the bubble I must go, at least for now.

This really upsets me. I enjoy the community I have at FWO, and I don’t want to lose connections with some of the people that I’ve been working with, but I have no choice. I need to be well ahead of the material I am posting so that I can be insulated from the feedback.  If I am just a chapter ahead (or less, as it was sometimes) the feedback has too direct a channel to influence my vector, to break my stride, or to otherwise get in my head. My plan now is to get to 60K words, and THEN start posting back on FWO.  I’ll do my best in the meantime to continue providing feedback to others, with the hope they will avail themselves to me when I am ready to try this again.

Well, with that — onward!