Keeping Score: March 29, 2019

Something V. E. Schwab tweeted earlier this week really struck me:

It’s often hard to start, but wow, I always forget how much BETTER I feel after writing/editing/working. It’s like a pressure valve. My chest feels looser. My head feels quiet.

Could not agree more. Particularly this week, when I put off working on the novel for…well…most of the week, only to finally sit down on Thursday and bang out most of my word count.

And it was like a spring uncoiled inside me. My shoulders relaxed. I realized I hadn’t listened to music all week, either, but after writing I finally felt like listening again. I felt like singing.

I hope I don’t forget that feeling, today, tomorrow, or next week.

Particularly today, when I’ve only got 1,034 words in towards my 1,500-word goal. The number’s a bit of a jumbled mess; I’ve hit the point where I’m leaving most scenes intact, but still need to rewrite whole sections to make it work. So I’m taking the total word count for each scene, dividing it by two, and moving on.

That means I need to go through 1,000 words this weekend in order to hit my goal. Note to self: remember how good it feels to be done writing? Hold onto that.

What about you? Do you find you’re more relaxed after writing? Or is it like taking a bite of your favorite pie, and once you get going you never want to stop?

Breakout Breakdown: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

So I’ve given myself homework.

I decided to take the list of books the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook uses for examples of good writing, whittle them down to the ones whose excerpts intrigued me, and read them all.

I figure I’ll discover some new authors, learn some new techniques, and get exposed to genres I wouldn’t normally read in.

First up: Empire Falls

Motivation

I liked that it wasn’t Russo’s first book, but his fifth, that broke out. It makes me feel like writing is a craft that you can get better at over time, and so long as I keep practicing and working on my technique, I can write a truly good book.

I was also intrigued because it broke out in a big way: it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. So not only did it make it seem possible to eventually write a good book, it means it’s possible to work hard at it, and write a great one.

Breaking it Down

Point of View

Third-person tight, with flashes of omniscience, plus jumps.

In other words, it’s all told in third-person, and mostly sticks close to one character’s thoughts and perspective during a chapter, but will occasionally jump over to someone else for a paragraph, then come back. Oh, and also the author’s voice sometimes comes in, to render a judgement on someone’s personality.

It works, though it breaks all kinds of rules.

Writing Style

Conversational, bordering on rambling. I can’t think of a single page that doesn’t have at least one flashback, possibly two. It’s all relevant material, and it fleshes out the world completely, but it definitely slows things down.

Overall effect is like an AMC show from around 2006: deliberately slow and relaxed pacing. As if there’s no final destination in mind, so there’s no reason to rush off there.

Breakout Techniques

Even though nothing happens for the first 3/4 of the book, the stakes for the characters involved are clear. Nothing happening is exactly the problem, and the reason so many of them are miserable.

And the plot threads are tightly woven. All that backstory has knock-on effects decades later, and Russo manages to pull otherwise random events together and make it all match up.

That said, “tension on every page” is something the book doesn’t have. If anything, there’s a complete lack of tension. It made reading it rather relaxing, oddly enough; hanging out with the sad sacks of Empire Falls after a stressful day at work felt like unwinding.

Re-readability

None.

I appreciate the mastery of technique here; no dispute about the Pulitzer. But the technique is in service of a story that I don’t want to read again.

It makes me think: if I could write that well about something with more action, more movement, how much fun would that be?

Keeping Score: March 22, 2019

Only 751 words written so far this week. Seems I’ll be playing catch-up again this weekend.

I’ve had some trouble writing the new scenes, particularly dialog. I want to be sure to capture each character’s unique way of speaking, along with their thoughts and feelings in the moment, all the while maintaining the right intensity level for the scene.

It leads to doubt, which leads to feeling blocked. Which means no words.

To unblock me, I’m trying something new: let them swing for the fences. As in, instead of internalizing something like:

I wanted to tell him to go to hell. But I knew I shouldn’t, because that might set him off again. Get me in trouble with the Warden.

I go ahead and let the characters say what they want to say:

“Go to hell,” I blurted. “You’ve wanted my job for years, and you’re just looking for an excuse to take it. But I’ll be damned if you’ll get it without a fight.”

…and then, sure, they get in trouble. But it’s more interesting to write, it’s easier to write, actually, and hopefully it’s more interesting to read.

What about you? How do you get over the fear and doubt that come from staring at a blank page?

Tracking the Books

I need to find a replacement for Goodreads, because I hate using it.

Its UI is terrible. It looks like something I would’ve designed back in high school, and I’m a color-blind back-end developer that wouldn’t know a good font choice if there was only one to pick.

The performance of the site is terrible. Searching for books takes too long, and (and!) if you type too much of the book’s title into the search bar, the one you want will go whizzing by, replaced by books that are nothing like the one you’re looking for.

Even when you finally do locate the exact book you want to add to one of your shelves, if you later want to, say, find a list of all the books you’ve read this past year (as I tried to do back in January), you’ll find that Goodreads does not fill in the date every time you mark a book as read. I think somewhere between a quarter and a third of all the books on my “read” shelf have no dates attached to them, so they end up in a jumble at the bottom of the list, no rhyme or reason to them.

But what choice do I have? I have a few hundred books in hard copy in my house. Another two hundred or so scattered across various ebook formats: Kindle (follies of youth), Nook (ditto), Kobo (simply the best), and iBooks (don’t judge me). All of which I need to keep track of, if only to keep myself from buying a book I already own. Goodreads, for all its flaws, at least lets me do that.

I suppose as a developer I’m supposed to build my own solution. And I’ve thought about it; I could write an importer to take the xml junk Goodreads’ api barfs out, clean it up, and then shove it into a text search engine (probably Elasticsearch) for easy retrieval later.

But that’s a fair-sized project, and if I can, I’d rather take advantage of someone else’s work (and pay them for it, gladly).

So: Are there other, better, apps out there for tracking a personal library? If you use one, which one, and why?

Keeping Score: March 15, 2019

Wrote 971 words this week towards the second draft.

That’s short of the 1,500 words I’d like to produce by the end of the week, so I’ll have to do some catch-up work this weekend.

I’m not too worried though. Even though I’m terrified of sucking every time I sit down to write, once I get over my fears and actually do it, everything flows. It’s like I know who these characters are, I know where and when everything is taking place. I finally have a solid grasp of what their story is and where it’s going.

I’m hoping this won’t turn into a complete rewrite. Not that I can’t do it — I feel like I actually could, no question — but I don’t know that I could do it in time to meet my self-imposed June deadline.

I don’t think that’ll have to happen, though. I’m writing new scenes now, but later on I should be able to take scenes I’ve got and just tweak them a bit to make them match the new story beats.

How do you choose which parts to keep and which parts to re-work completely when editing something? Do you lean more towards keeping what’s there, or are you more inclined to tear it up and start over?

Keeping Score: March 8, 2019

Finally getting back to the good part: the writing.

Or rather, the re-writing.

Finished off the sequential outline earlier this week, after going back through the workbook outline and my manuscript to slot in missing scenes.

Then I took all the scenes from the first draft and shoved them into a single folder, marked “Original.” That way I can keep them around for reference, and pull what I need from them, without them being in the way of the scenes I need to completely rewrite.

Starting with the opening sequence.

Early feedback on those scenes said they lacked tension, and they were right. Thankfully, after going through the workbook, I’ve got much better ideas for them. I’m going to introduce some antagonists earlier than before, and tie the bigger conflict arc to their early conflicts with the protagonist.

I will, most likely, eff up these scene drafts, too. But they’ll be better than before. And hopefully, if I get the story beats at least down correctly, I can work more on language and dialog later.

Writers Coffeehouse: March 2019

Henry Herz was kind enough to take on hosting duties this month, giving us more insight into both the children’s book markets and indie (adult) publishing.

My notes from the meeting are below. Thanks again to Mysterious Galaxy for the space, and to Henry for hosting a lively and informative meeting!

Notes:

  • san diego writers and editors guild: around 40 yrs, offers manuscript review service, meets fourth monday each month, next meeting will be from sd zoo publishing house, also has a marketing support group
  • upcoming events:
    • charlotte huck children’s book festival (all the way up to ya): march 9-10, university of redlands
    • henry teaching class about writing picture books, san diego writers ink, march 10 and 17
    • wondercon in anaheim end of march
    • april 13th: san diego writers festival, downtown library
    • san diego writing workshop: may 11th
    • nebula conference in LA later this year
    • san diego comic fest is next weekend
  • tips for being more efficient in using your limited writing time?
    • david morel (writer of rambo) got up at 4:30 every morning and wrote for two hours before work
    • henry uses spreadsheet to track writing pieces and where he’s submitted them to (or queried, etc)
    • using google calendar to set deadlines and reminders
    • managed flitter: lets you schedule social media posts ahead of time
    • 4thewords.com: gamified rpg that you play by writing (250 words in 15 min to fight a monster, for example)
    • another trick: when stopping for the day, stop mid-paragraph so it’s easier to get back into it the next day
  • scbwi (society of childrens book writers and illustrators) has ad-hoc critique groups that form at their monthly meetings
  • indie author found personal appearances took a lot of time but yielded fewer sales than putting same time in to online marketing (10s of books vs 1,000s of books)
  • indie author uses service to do all the formatting for him, makes it easier but he spends $4,000-$5,000 per book to publish it
  • how do you find an editor?
    • san diego professional editors network
    • reedsy: website with professional editors that have struck out on their own
  • agents don’t usually expect exclusivity when querying, check their guidelines, but usually can send out queries to as many agents as you want at a time
  • if you don’t hear anything after three months, ping them, if still don’t hear back, assume it’s dead
  • another short story marketplace site: “entropy: where to submit”; will show contests, etc coming up for the month
  • childrens books: advice is to avoid inanimate objects as characters, because they’re harder for children to empathize with
  • authors guild: join, if you get a contract but no agent you can hire lawyers through them to review it for you
  • henry’s editing process: edits on own, then sends out to four different critique groups for feedback, multiple iterations with each one, polish off the rough edges

Keeping Score: March 1, 2019

Finished the workbook’s version of the outline. Finally.

Now I’ve just got to take that outline, plus my other notes from the workbook, plus the existing novel, and hash it all together into a regular, scene-by-scene, linear outline.

Easy, right?

Maybe it would be, if I didn’t feel so demotivated all of a sudden. Every time I reach for the outline to work on it, I can feel my shoulders sag. I feel like reading, or doing laundry, or scrolling through Twitter, or even working on one of the short stories I’ve got waiting in the queue. Anything but keep working on that outline.

I’m tempted to skip it, and just dive back into writing. No notes, no plan, just go.

But that’ll end up with me making another messy draft, won’t it? I’ll just have to go back through it and do the same exercises, all over again.

So I plod on. Maybe I’ll give myself some time off next week, reduce my writing days to 2 or 3 instead of 5. Allow myself to work on something else, try to recharge the batteries.

Wish me luck.