Keeping Score: February 15, 2019

The novel keeps changing.

I’m trying to pull all the threads from the workbook together, so I know what edits I need to make. I’ve been using the outline template from the workbook, which has been surprisingly helpful.

But as I do so, I keep having more ideas, better ideas, that ripple out and change the book. One of my characters has gone from being a Senator, to a corporate auditor, to a DOJ Investigator. The key scene between my protagonist and one of the secondary characters that makes him switch sides, which was weakly motivated before, now has the solid footing of a quid pro quo exchange (tied to one of the protagonists’ plot layers).

Once again, I’m glad I’m taking the time to do this work. I was skeptical of the workbook’s outline at first, but in going through the process, I’m learning a lot about my story and my characters. Some of its seeing how much I really do know about the world, and some of its seeing those connections that I didn’t before.

So it looks like I’ll be lucky to finish the outline by the end of this month. But it’ll be a damn good outline, once it’s done.

Keeping Score: February 8, 2019

I’ve finished the workbook!

Well, finished as much of it as I can. There’s a few exercises that I’ll need to come back to.

One says to take every scene in the book and choose one detail to heighten, which is something I’ll want to do after I’ve written the new scenes and re-arranged the ones I have.

Another had me write a pitch, and then follow-up by coming back to the pitch in a week and winnowing it down some more. That’ll obviously have to wait.

But I’m done with the bulk of the exercises. Now all I have to do is put them into practice.

So next week I’ll be combing through the workbook, pulling notes and scene ideas out and combining them with the notes I have from own first read-through.

There’s going to be a lot of changes, so I’ll need some way to keep track of them all. I think I’ll start by writing out a new outline, sketching out the scenes (new, changed, and existing) in order. That’ll give me something to compare to the novel as it exists now, a guide to what needs to change.

I might also work up a timeline, just to be sure everything’s in place, and maybe even a map of the setting, to fix everything in my mind.

Hopefully I can get all that done in a week, and then start on the edits the following week.

I have no idea how long those’ll take. This is my first time doing this — editing a novel top-to-bottom using more than just my own gut instincts — and I want to do it well, or at least as well as I’m capable of doing it.

If it takes me all year, that’s fine. So long as keep at it, and finish it.

Writers Coffeehouse: Feb 2019

Another great Coffeehouse this month. Jonathan Maberry was out at a conference, so Peter Clines (NYT Bestselling author!) stepped in for hosting duties.

Clines’ style of running the Coffeehouse (he’s been running the one in LA for 4-5 years now) is a little more freeform than Maberry’s, but even without a strong structure, we had a lively, respectful discussion that covered a lot of ground. I even got a couple of my own questions answered, about some things I’ve been struggling with.

I’ve posted my notes below.

Thanks to Clines for hosting, and to Mysterious Galaxy for letting us use their space!

Notes:

  • peter clines has the Conn; he’s been running the LA coffeehouse for 4-5 years; subbing for jonathan while he’s at writer’s festival
  • his method: 1st half writing craft, 2nd half publishing side
  • thinks it’s better to not have a social media account than to have one that looks abandoned or run by bots
  • whatever you do, if anything, it’s critical that you be honest and authentic, even when crafting a public persona
  • small trick: switching the font for third or fourth draft can make different things pop out at you, help you find errors
  • libby hawker: making it in historical fiction
  • also: read wolf hall and see how hillary mantel does her description and world-building
  • random nugget from shane black: plot is what happens outside the characters, story is what happens inside the characters
  • clines: used to follow writing guidance slavishly, reading writers digest, doing what it says; has become more skeptical over time, especially as he’s figured out what works for him, and how that differs from what works for others
  • pantsers: can be very helpful to have a timeline, even after first draft; one writer found 12-yr gap in her book (!)
  • tip from mystery writer: even if you’re not going to have a big “gather the characters together so sleuth can layout the clues” scene, write it anyway; it’ll solidify everything in your head so you can confidently write the mystery itself (with dropped clues, red herrings, etc)
  • chapter to chapter: have something driving the characters from scene to scene, either internal or external, so the reader has a reason to move forward; even placement of flashbacks needs to be driven by the story
  • prologues are fine, but make sure they have a payoff within a few chapters, or cut them altogether
  • relevance is key: even if your planning a series, make the nuggets you put in the first book relevant to that book
  • “start with action” can be a trap: if you begin with volume at 11, you’ve got nowhere to go but down
  • recall the punches of humanity and comedy in the midst of horror or action: the terrorist grabbing a candy bar while setting up in die hard, etc
  • don’t discount the freedom you get by not being published yet; enjoy the fact that you have no deadlines and no pressure to finish
  • beta readers: seek out at least one or two people who read mostly outside your genre, to make sure you don’t have too much inside baseball
  • the 50% rule: half of all submissions can be rejected on pg 1: wrong format, wrong genre, etc; following the rules and sending a polished manuscript to the right people can put you ahead of 50% of others
  • one step beyond read it out loud: have someone else read it out loud to you, and see where they stumble or hesitate or pause
  • short story tips: damon knight’s book on writing short fiction
  • one bit: if you have a first-person story, write it in a different pov and see if the main character vanishes; if so, you don’t have a character you just have a viewpoint

Keeping Score: February 1, 2019

I’m almost done with the Breakout Novel Workbook. Only seven exercises left to go, which I might be able to knock out by the end of next week, assuming I double-up some days.

Even as I enter the last part of the book, the novel keeps changing. One of the last exercises was on marking changes in how the characters see each other, which pushed me to ask why Character X comes to see Character Y favorably, which led me to alter a scene so those two characters were in it (instead of the original two), which opened up new connections I hadn’t seen before between events very early in the book and the arrival of Character X, which led to…a whole cascade of changes.

All good changes, I think. The workbook emphasizes connections — between characters, between actions, between subplots — and each change is making the parts of the book more connected. With each change, it’s almost like I can feel the various plot threads pulling together, tightening up.

And I need that tautness, that tension. I want this story to be so tight it hums.

I’m even starting to see where the lessons of the workbook can be applied to the short stories I’ve been shopping around. Ways to make their stories more personal, more powerful. Once I finish the workbook, I might practice some of those techniques on the short stories before tackling the novel. None of the stories have sold, so it can’t hurt, right?

Keeping Score: January 25, 2019

I’m almost two-thirds of the way through the Breakout Novel workbook, now.

The exercises seem to be getting easier. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m resisting them less, or because I’m just getting used to the idea of needing to punch up the book. Definitely not because they’re any less work; most of the exercises end with a variation of “all that work you did? great. now repeat it ten times, for other parts of your novel.”

Things are starting to fall together, though. Changes inspired by one exercise are rippling through the others, presenting new opportunities for making the book better.

For example, one exercise had me work through the story from the perspective of my antagonists. Thinking about what would make their lives harder pushed me to change the occupation of one of my protagonists, and that opened up new ways to make her story intersect with the other characters in interesting ways.

I know that each change I contemplate is creating more work for myself down the line, when I start to actually implement these changes in the novel. But I’m excited about the work, actually, not intimidated. I feel these changes really will make my novel better.

I might not succeed in pulling them off, true. But if I don’t push myself, if I don’t try to make them, I’ll never get any better at this. And that would be worse than failing.

Keeping Score: January 18, 2019

Ever had a week where you feel like a failure? When even the things that go right don’t go right enough to balance out the things that go wrong?

That’s what this week was for me.

Not on the writing front, thank goodness. But in my day job, in the work that keeps me fed and clothed and housed. This week it felt like nothing I did there was good enough, for anyone, and it’s had me looking forward to the weekend like nothing else.

Thank goodness for my writing. Even as I work through the Breakout Novel Workbook, finding flaws in my novel, I don’t feel defeated. I feel energized, like I finally have full control over something. There’s no committee going to tell me to leave a scene as-is to meet an arbitrary deadline. No coworker to stomp on my dialog choices because they think things should be phrased differently.

No, this novel is mine, like nothing else is. I can do what I want with it, fix it the way I want to fix it, polish it until it gleams.

It’s a powerful feeling, and a solace during such a hard week. Editing this novel is going to be a lot of work, but it’s work no one can stop me from doing.

Keeping Score: January 11, 2019

Again, no words written this week. Staying focused on editing the novel, and submitting existing short stories.

One of the stories I submitted last week has already been rejected by the market I sent it to; I need to pick another market and send it back out, hopefully by the end of today.

Otherwise, I’m still plowing through the Breakout Novel workbook. I’m still managing to get through about one exercise a day, though some of them are longer (and thus harder) than others.

Each time I feel like skipping one, I push myself to work through it. And I feel like skipping them a lot; this is adding up to a lot of work. But I tell myself I’m in no rush, I’ve got no deadlines. And I’m the only one who can fix my story. If I don’t put in the work to make it better, no one else will.

And the exercises are paying off, so far. Even the frustrating ones end up generating some good ideas. Sometimes it takes a few hours for things to shuffle around in my head and then suddenly click into place, but that’s ok. Those sorts of lightning-strike insights I wouldn’t have otherwise are exactly why I’m doing this.

Keeping Score: January 4, 2019

Absolutely 0 words written this week.

But! I’ve not been idle. I submitted two short stories (to different markets), and I’ve been making progress on editing my most recent novel.

The week of Christmas I was able to do a first read-through, making notes as I went. I ignored things like word choice or sentence structure, and looked for higher-level problems: scenes where the characters’ actions were inconsistent, or the physics of the place didn’t match up, or where the timeline didn’t make sense.

I found a lot of problems that I’ll have to fix. But I was happy to find that I still like the characters, and their story, and want to make it the best version I can.

So this week I cracked open my copy of Writing the Breakout Novel: Workbook, by Donald Maas. Jonathan Maberry recommended it at one of the last Writers’ Coffeehouses; he told us that he buys a new one for each novel he writes, and works through it as part of his editing process. So I’m giving it a shot.

The book is basically a writing workshop in written form. Each chapter describes a writing technique, a way to improve your manuscript, and ends with exercises to push you to use that technique in your own novel.

I’ve gotten through 6 chapters so far, and while I balked at first (“don’t you tell me my protagonist isn’t heroic enough,” my internal rebel snarled), when I forced myself to work through them, the exercises generated a lot of new ideas for the book. Nothing too radical, as yet, but definite ways to make what I’ve got better, to make my characters’ personalities clearer and my scenes more interesting.

So I plan to keep going, working through one chapter a day. That’ll put me on track to have it completed by the end of the month, at which point I can start collating all these ideas and plan out the editing passes I’m going to make on the book.

The goal is to have all the editing passes finished and it ready to submit to agents by the end of the year.

Wish me luck.

2018: By the Numbers

Oof, 2018.

So many times this year, my wife and I looked at each other, reminiscing about something that happened to us, and said “was that really last week?”

I don’t know how a year can both feel like it’s whizzing by at 88 miles per hour, and be cramming in a month’s worth of events in every single week, but this one did.

So, to help me remember the sheer number of things that have happened this year, I’m going to set them all down. Well, as many as I can recall, anyway.

Writing

Since I started my new scoring system in February (which, again, thanks to Scott Sigler for sharing that with us at a Writers Coffeehouse), I’ve written 71,902 words.

Most of those were on the novel that I finished (finally!) in November. I did write one new short story, though, and edited four others.

I submitted just one story to three new markets, all of which rejected it.

Reading

Thanks to Goodreads’ singularly bad UI, I have no idea how many books I read in 2018. It’s something north of 20, but that’s all I know.

Personal

I moved not once, but twice, in 2018. First move was from rental to rental, second was to the house we bought in July.

Neither one was easy, though the second put a bigger dent in our finances, not least because we had to completely redo the upstairs flooring and master bath in order to move in.

Here’s hoping there’s no more moves for me in the near future.

Oh, I also started an exercise routine (walking 3/week, yoga 2/week) and taking French lessons through Babbel. But I’m holding off counting those “for real” until I either drop a pant size or can read an Asterix comic in the original (preferably both).

Travel

I also traveled…a lot. Maybe more than I should have.

February was the JoCo Cruise, March was WonderCon, May was San Francisco (work), June was Downtown LA, July was the move (yeah, I’m counting it twice), October was Ireland (work), November was Boston and DC, December was Seattle (work again).

Tbh, I’m looking forward to January through March, if only because I know I’ll be sleeping in my own bed that whole time.

2019

So what lessons can I draw from these figures?

First, when writing a first draft, I need to be more aggressive with my weekly writing goal. It felt like I wrote a lot more than just 70K words this year, and that’s probably a function of how long I was working on the same piece. If I were to maintain the 2,500 words a week pace I had at the end of the year, I’d double my output next year.

Second, I need to submit more. There’s really no reason to let a story that’s complete and edited sit on the shelf. I need to get back into the habit of sending a story out again as soon as it gets rejected. No more dithering.

Third, I need to stop using Goodreads. There’s just no excuse for an interface that’s that bad. And I’m fortunate enough to know how to build my own replacement, so that’s what I should do.

Finally, I might need to actually travel less. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it interrupts my writing work, and given I’m also working a full-time job that requires a lot of my brain’s meager capacity, I can’t afford to lose that time. Unless I can find a way to keep writing, even while traveling, I need to cut down.

Midlife, by Kieran Setiya

Picked this one up during my last trip through Boston. I’m inching closer and closer to forty, so it seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life (not much, really) and where I might want to go from here.

I’d hoped this book would help with that, or at least with countering any fears or anxieties I experience as I enter middle age.

Unfortunately, it’s a mostly disappointing book.

An Audience of One

Part of that is due to a flaw he admits right up front: it’s a book he wrote for himself. Someone who’s entered middle age as one of the professional classes, with a stable job, a stable home life, and good health. And not just any job, but the job he set out to get in his twenties. So he comes at middle age from the perspective of someone who’s already achieved the things they wanted out of life.

The book suffers for it. For how many of us set out to do one thing in our youth, only to end up somewhere entirely different? Or enter middle age with our bodies broken, or our minds? Do we have nothing to learn from philosophy?

Abandoning Reason

The second flaw follows directly from the first: he discusses arguments for dealing with certain aspects of middle age, such as the fear of death, but dismisses anything that doesn’t feel right for him. Abandoning reason, he moves from philosophy to pop psychology, deciding that what gives him the most comfort must be the best.

Never mind that what might comfort him would be appalling to someone else. Or that comfort might have little to do with the truth.

Paths Not Taken

And so he glosses over the insights embedded in the not-self dogma of Buddhism. Skips right over the most reasonable argument for not fearing death. And misses a gaping hole in the middle of his whole argument.

For embedded in the heart of his book is an assumption: that philosophy is meant to help us be happy.

But what if that isn’t the case? If we take philosophy as being the study of how to live a good life, does it necessarily follow that the good life is a happy one?

I don’t think so. At the very least, I don’t think it’s something we can assume. For while it is a modern trend to conflate happiness with virtue (or perhaps merely a particularly American one), there are plenty of examples from ancient philosophy where that isn’t the case. Consider Stoicism, where virtue can only be shown in the face of adversity.

Final Words

So while Midlife claims to be a mix of philosophy and self-help, it is neither. Not philosophy, because it leaves reason behind in the pursuit of comfortable aphorisms. And not self-help, because it was written to help only one person, the author.

Frustrating at its worst, disappointing at its best, I wouldn’t recommend this book.