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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Get Beta Readers, then Ignore Them

Sidestepping the flippancy of the headline, I invite you to follow me on a brief rant of why you absolutely should get beta readers for your work, and then you absolutely should learn how to ignore them.  If you happen to be a beta reader of my work, don’t worry I still want to be friends. This post comes after I provided feedback to someone, and it inadvertently disrupted their vision.

Beta readers

People have different names for the different stages of critiquers. I’m talking about the first round of readers… the alpha readers, the workshoppers. The ones who are probably writers themselves. Since alpha reader doesn’t seem to be a commonly used term, for this rant I’ll just call them beta readers.

There are tons of reasons you should get beta readers. I’m not going to spend too much time on this point, because I think it is well understood. The bullets are as follows:

  • Outside opinions are indispensable for calibrating mystery plots
  • Outside opinions are essential for gauging foreshadowing and plot twists
  • Beta readers will catch tons of obvious mistakes to which you were totally blind
  • They will help you see pacing and arc issues from a fresh perspective

The list really speaks for itself. No matter how much creative distance you give yourself, there is no way to approach your own work the way a reader would, and the feedback a good beta reader can provide will help turn your story from good to great.

Protect your head

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Here’s the rub: mixed in with all that great feedback will be — inevitably — a lot of things that should just be ignored. Things that appear to reflect on the quality of your story, but don’t really. Your job is to keep those things from getting into your head.

First of all, no book you write will be a perfect genre match for someone else’s tastes, it just can’t ever be. The reason is simple. No matter how brilliant the story is, a book’s prose are only half of the equation that forms the “experience” of a book. The other half is the repertoire of beliefs and experiences brought by the reader. When these two combine, each reader has a unique experience of a given story mixed with their emotions and imagination. An experience surely guided by the author, but unique nonetheless. There is no one-size-fits-all, so there is just no way to write a story that works for everyone in all ways. This does not imply a problem with your story.

Then there are the high level preferences that are unlikely to be a perfect match for all readers. Your style of descriptions and prose, your use of voice, the length of your chapters, the characterization of whoever, the way you pace and plot… in that enormous list of “things you do in your book,” at least one won’t perfectly match a given reader’s preferences. This does not imply a problem with your story.

Both of those compatibility issues are normal and expected. Not a problem. A casual reader will love a book even if it wasn’t a 100% perfect genre match to their taste. They probably won’t even notice if this or that stylistically wasn’t perfectly their ideal. These things are overlooked by the casual reader, who just remembers how much they loved your book. These things probably won’t be ignored by your beta readers!

Finally, exceptionally few people will really know what you are going for until they’ve finished your book. Because beta readers often give feedback along the way, they will — thoughtfully and with the best of intentions — identify places where they perceive the story is veering off course. Off what course? Well, the one they anticipate. Probably the one they themselves would write, or at least the one they expect you to be writing. Whatever the case, they are almost certainly wrong, and their nudging doesn’t serve to steady the ship so much as confuse its vector.

In all of these cases, the related feedback actually has nothing to do with your story, it is merely a reflection of subtle mismatches between your story and your chosen readers. Recognizing when feedback is bubbling up from these sources is crucial, so you can safely dispose of it. We’ll return to this observation shortly.

Seek, and you will find

New writers often become new critters as part of the initiation into the world of writing. If you have workshopped other people’s writing, let me ask you something: has it changed the way you consume published fiction at all?

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In other words, have you ever slipped on your workshopping hat while reading a published book, perhaps and old favorite, and been surprised to see that you could make a list of issues if asked? I recently had this experience with Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss as well as The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Don’t get me wrong: those are both fantastic books, and well worth a look by any serious fantasy writer. Nonetheless, I could find issues… things that didn’t move as well as they could have, unbelievable character statements or feelings, etc.

Of course I could, but so what?

All this should demonstrate is that the goal of the author is not to construct a story that is immune to feedback, it is just to construct a great story! The two are not mutually exclusive.

I think, at its heart, it is an issue of “academic” issues vs “actual” issues. In workshop-mode, all the rules and guidelines and best-practices are swimming about in our heads, and when we see something that deviates, we notice. We point it out, because that is our job as a critiquer. Yet many of these academic things do not imply storytelling problems, not necessarily anyway. It might just be that you want a chapter to meander a bit to set the tone. You want a character to overlook something for reasons revealed later. You want tension interrupted by flowery metaphors. It is not bad that beta readers will point many of these things out, it is bad when the author decides they need to “fix” all of these observations categorically.

Ignoring beta readers

Which brings me to the thesis of the rant. If we reduce all this to an actionable summary, it would be this: just as important as workshopping is learning how to filter feedback.

I’ve heard Steven King quoted to say he takes one in three comments. For newer writers with less experienced writing groups, I’d say forget Steven King, and be even more stingy.

Look for trends, ignore the rest.

Watch out for feedback that stems from simple incompatibilities between your readers and your book. These are all the things we talked about above: stylistic or genre mismatches, big-picture nudges, and anything else that threatens to veer you off the course you intended to walk. These are rarely real issues with your story, and are unlikely to be repeated by other readers.

Furthermore, remember that a lot of feedback will be pedantic in nature. This is nothing against the beta readers — their role is to make sure you notice these things! But all you need to do is look for patterns, not specifics. If there are no worrying patterns overall, go ahead and stick to your stylistic choices, and disregard the feedback saying otherwise.

Finally, remember that your story is done when it feels right to you. You might still have a pile of “unfixed” feedback, but that does not mean the manuscript on your screen isn’t fantastic and publishable.

Note

I hope none of this is construed as an excuse not to reflect on the feedback you receive, or to otherwise make a less than stellar book. I merely hope to impress upon you that it is all measured to your standards; you the author, the creative force. It is to your judgement this book must yield, nobody else’s. Consider what they say, be aware of the types of feedback that are unlikely to help your story, then decide for yourself and discard the rest.

TL;DR:

Don’t lose track of your vision, and make sure your beta readers don’t inadvertently steer you the wrong direction. They are an invaluable resource in many ways, but never the final word, and never the golden standard against which your writing must measure.

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Scrivener on iOS

One week ago, Scrivener launched an iPhone app and updated their desktop application to support syncing projects between devices through DropBox. I tried it out and figured I’d help you do the same.

Getting Setup

In order to work on your existing projects on-the-go, you will need a few things. First you will need a free DropBox account. If you are new to cloud storage, here is the cliff-note version: DropBox is easy to use, they’ve been around a long time, and they keep your files safe and encrypted. Signup for a free account then mosey on over to their download page and get the desktop version of the application. Once installed, this will create a new folder on your computer (Mac in my case):

/Users/YourName/Dropbox/

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Only the stuff you put in this folder gets synced up with the cloud, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally uploading all those nude selfies you keep on your desktop. Oh, that’s just me who does that?

Well in any case, once installed, grab your iPhone and give this link a nice press. The Scrivener iOS app costs $19 (here in the USA at the time of this post), but well worth the money if–like me–ideas hit you at random times and demand attention.

Once the app is installed, fire it up and hit the sync icon in the upper left, next to the plus icon:

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Choose to sync from Dropbox, login to your account, and let the app do its thing. When it finishes, you will notice a brand new folder appeared on your computer in the DropBox folder called:

/Users/YourName/Dropbox/Apps/Scrivener/

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Nothing else happened on the iPhone, but that is okay.

Syncing your first project

On the computer, go ahead an open Scrivener to your work in progress. Then choose File->Save As… and navigate your way into the Dropbox/Apps/Scrivener folder, and save your project there.

You could just move the project file manually, but I am of the school of thought that having extra backups is never a bad thing. Just remember your working copy (and your synced copy) is now in the Dropbox folder, and the old one is just your backup.

Close down Scrivener and wait until you see the little green check in your Dropbox folder, like in the image above. This indicates everything is synced up to the cloud.

Now switch over to your iPhone and open the Scrivener mobile app. Hit that sync icon one more time, and you are done! From here on out, everything syncs automatically, or at the push of a single button.

The Scrivener mobile app

The app is absurdly easy to use. Once you pick a project, you basically start with a mobile view of the left-hand menu from the desktop app, and you are free to drill down to look at your characters, locations, notes, everything.

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If you drill into Manuscript, you can access your chapters and start working away. They keyboard has a cool left/right sliding toolbar that gives you quick access to some of the advanced style features you would expect on a computer:

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Congratulations, you are ready to go!

Once you have made changes on the mobile app, just tap the sync button and modified files will make their way back up to dropbox, and then down to your computer again, all in a matter of seconds. The next time you open your Scrivener project file (the one in the Dropbox/Apps/Scrivener folder), you will see the changes ready to go.

Note:

As with all multi-device syncing, it is a good idea not to edit things in multiple places at once, as this has a tendency to confuse even the best synchronizing software. The safest use case is to have your Scrivener project open in only one place at a time. Leaving your computer? Save and quit. Made a change on your phone? Exit back out before you sit in front of your computer. This way you only ever have your project open in one place.

If you do happen to leave Scrivener open on your desktop then make changes on your phone, be sure to press they manual sync button (the one on the right) before you carry one with further changes on the Desktop:

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Likewise, if you have Scrivener open on your phone but made changes on your computer, you should make your way back to the app start screen and hit the sync button.

Pro tip

If you are like me, about half of your ideas strike you while you are lying in bed, lights out, sleeping wife beside you. I am a big fan of the accessibility feature on the phone that lets you invert the screen colors, and I’ve linked it up to the triple-click on the home button (Settings->General->Accessibility->Accessibility Shortcut). When an idea strikes in the dead of night, a quick triple-click later and I have a great nightvision-preserving non-wife-awakening editor:

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Lastly, if you have one of the new iPhones (6, 6S, or later) that supports the “3d touch,” make ample use of this trick. Force touch anywhere on the keyboard, and suddenly you get a mouse-like cursor that you can steer around with your thumb, helping you jump around with ease.

Sanderson 2016 Lectures

Brandon Sanderson has started posting his 2016 lecture series on YouTube. As he described in a blog post on his website, the original lectures from 2012-14 were mainly to help a student on a small nothing project, and yet they have inadvertently become a major part of his web presence.

This time around, he brought in some semi-professional videographers and decided to make the “canonical” version of his BYU lecture for the inter-webs.

I’ve started the process of mirroring these lectures, hopefully enhancing them as I go. As always, I am not monetizing or advertising on these videos… I’ve retained the link to camerapanda.com (the videographer) in the video notes with an encouragement to viewers to support the site.  In addition to mirroring, I’ve color-corrected the originals (they needed it… but unfortunately the camera cuts made this QUITE a project), I overlay a transcription of the white board to help translate Brandon’s notorious handwriting, and I’ve collected some timestamped notes in the video to help people follow along.

Hope this is useful to people. Check the playlist or subscribe to my channel for updates. The first video is available, which puts me about two weeks behind with the originals, so I’ll try to keep up with one per week.

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.

Kindle Oasis

I just got my first Kindle last Thursday: the new Kindle Oasis. In the past I’ve used the Kindle app on my iPad or iPhone, but it’s just not the same. I am in Costa Rica a lot and reading on the beach is one of my “ways to unplug.”  Unfortunately, with an iPad it’s a great formula for instant blindness. When I saw this new model had literal MONTHS of battery life and was small enough to throw in my back pocket, I decided to give it a shot.

Here is the little guy:

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Really feels good in the hand, light as anything, and comfortable to hold.  You can turn the whole device upside down to switch hands and the screen flips (and the page controls, to stay consistent). I even tried it lying down in bed and it doesn’t get confused when I am sideways, which is good.

The back-light is great. It can be very subtle, or brighter than I would ever need, and I see very little dent in the battery after some hours use with the backlight.

It was quick to sync up to my Amazon account.  In fact, I am not even sure how it did it.  While I was configuring it, I started to enter my login info, but the moment it had my email it logged me in without a password.  The damn thing must know I just ordered one, and when it saw the same email it took a shortcut. I’m actually a little disconcerted by that, but I have reasonable confidence in the software engineers at Amazon to know what they are doing with that stuff.

It fits in the palm of my hand, though not comfortably for reading, but as a measure of size:

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The reading screen is the about the same width as a standard mass-market paperback, and maybe two-thirds as tall.

Not much else to add! I recommend the Oasis strongly to anyone with older Kindle products looking for an upgrade.