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.

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

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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!

Vegas

I am back from Las Vegas. The trip was great, although expensive, and gave me some time to catch up on reading and even do a little writing (about 10K words).

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As always, settling back into the real world can be jarring, but such is the nature of vacations.

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Not much else to say than that… back to reality! And hopefully I’ll be a little more productive with my writing in the upcoming week.

Creativity Fail

Somehow, somewhere, I picked up a writer’s block bug, and I just can’t seem to shake it. As the days became weeks, and now over a month, it has become clear that it won’t pass on its own. Breaking out of this rut will require some deliberation and work.

This hiccup serves as a signpost for me, with two distinct markers mounted upon it.  First, it means I have reached the end of the honeymoon stage in the Lunhina Trilogy. This is not to say the new setting and characters do not still excite me — they do — but it means the easy part is over.  I could write a thousand cool starts to stories.  The start is all about layering intrigue and finding different ways to introduce people.  The questions drive the introduction.  When you exit the “start” of the story then suddenly the plot lines need to go somewhere, and need to follow an interesting path along the way.  I can’t just wing this or throw it off the cuff, and thus the end of the honeymoon.

This also explains the second marker I see clearly before me.  I don’t like free writing, or “gardening” as GRRM calls it.  I was trying it in this book for two reasons: first, it was a reaction to my first story Sapphire Spawn, which had been outlined so tightly, all my characters suffocated before I pulled them through it.  Second, new writers are always encouraged to try different things until they know what really works for them. So I tried it.

It sucks.

That might be little harsh, but it doesn’t mesh with my personality, or my need for momentum. If I don’t know where to go next, I come to a hard stop between each chapter, and that doesn’t work for my style.

I’m in the process of pulling out what hair follicles remain to me as I try to lay down an outline that can carry me towards the endings I have planned.  This is at least productive.  Less productive has been an increase in my own crits with my informal writing groups, and other expenditures of my free time that could otherwise have gone to my story.  No more.  I’m putting myself into a mandatory time-out from all that until I get this sorted.  I hope to pull free in the next few nights and be on my way.

Walking in the dark

I’m continuing to make progress on the Lunhina Trilogy, discovering the plot as I advance. While I am enjoying the process, I find it a lot harder to break into a new chapter. Without a clear plan forward, my confidence holds me back as I second guess the best place to start, the best info to drop, and the best place to end.

I think the reason for this is I know I could write the same chapter a dozen different ways… so how do I pick out the best one? I don’t want to keep rewriting the same chapters with different directions just to see, so I am relying on intuition. I suppose like anything else, this is something that will strengthen as I go. I’ll lean on feedback from my writers group to help me focus.

The other interesting thing I am finding is when I do finally lay out the plan for a chapter, it ends up becoming two or three when written. It seems that I overestimate how much I can get done in just a couple thousand words.  I am curious to see how all this pans out as it goes out for feedback, as it could be a sign I am laying words with a heavy hand, or it might just mean the organic nature of the character’s movement requires more time to complete.