Keeping Score: January 24, 2020

Only 947 words written so far this week.

I’m not worried though; first because I’ve got the weekend coming, and I should be able to crank out another 600 words, either tonight or tomorrow.

But also because I’ve been working every day, even if that hasn’t produced any words. I’ve been outlining, and drawing up maps, and planning out blocking for scenes that need it.

So I’ve been making progress every day, at least. Keeping the story fresh in my mind, so when it is time to spin out the words, it’s not so intimidating.

What about you? Do you give yourself credit for all the work that happens around the writing, and if so, how?

Learning to Listen About Race

I was raised by racists.

Not cross-burners and Klan members, but racists all the same.

My mother sat my sister and I down when we were in middle-school, telling us not to date anyone outside our race. She posed it as a problem of us being “accepted as a couple,” but the message was clear.

My older cousins would crack one-liners about the noise a chainsaw makes when you start it up being “Run n—–, n—–, run.” They thought it was hilarious.

The joke books my parents bought me when I showed an interest in comedy never mentioned Latinos, only “Mexicans,” and only when they were the butt of the joke, sometimes being thrown from airplanes by virtuous (read “white”) Texans.

When I grew older, I rejected this casual racism, just as I rejected my family’s religion and their politics. I thought I was free of prejudice. I thought my generation would grow up and replace the older racists in charge. That it was only a matter of time before racism was over.

Then Barack Obama was elected President. My wife and I watched the returns come in together, excited to see it happen. A Democrat back in office. And a black man. We’d done it!

Only we hadn’t. My family’s racism went from casual to angry. Their party turned, too, going from dog-whistling Dixie to embracing white nationalists.

Taking a knee at a ball game became an act of utmost disrespect, because a black man did it. A Republican Governor’s plan for decreasing health care costs became “death panels,” because a black man embraced it.

It blindsided me, this vitriol. I wasn’t prepared for it, didn’t know how to handle it.

Of course, minorities had always known it was there. They’d been living it, their whole lives.

So I’ve been trying to listen more. Both in person, and by seeking out books that will teach me.

Here’s three I’ve read recently that have shaken me out of my complacency, and showed me some of the structure of American racism. A structure I hadn’t been able to see before, because it was never meant to hold me in.

Just millions of my fellow citizens.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book that first opened my eyes to the constraints and the artificiality of “white” and “black.” Powerfully, movingly written, it showed me how the American conception of race has been used to divide and oppress.

It also pushed me to question my own whiteness, and to look back to a time when I would not have been considered “white.” My family’s Irish and Blackfoot; for most of American history I would have been excluded from “white” society.

That doesn’t mean I have any special insight into what African-Americans have been through and continue to experience. Rather, it taught me that whiteness or blackness has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with power and hierarchy. It is, fundamentally, about perpetuating injustice.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve written about this one before, and the effect it had on me.

Before reading it, I had no idea just how lucky I was to have gone through life without ending up in jail. That I didn’t, even though I was raised poor, is not a testament to my behavior, but an indicator of my acceptance as “white” by American society.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

A hard book to read, but a necessary one. Breaks down the reasons why even well-meaning “white” people like me get defensive and lash out if their racism is called out.

It’s hard to write that sentence, to own the fact that though I consider all people to be equal, and don’t consiously hold any prejudice, there are things I will do and say that will hurt and offend people. And that while I cannot prevent the fact that I will make mistakes, I must be open to having those mistakes called out, and be willing to be better.

It’s the hardest lesson for me to learn. Because it’s one thing to have your eyes opened to the bad behavior of others. Another to realize that you’re part of the problem, and if you don’t become more aware, and less defensive, it’s not going to get better.

Keeping Score, January 17, 2020

Only 500 words written this week.

The impending move (and sale + purchase) has absorbed most of my available head space. Every day there’s been more paperwork to fill out, more historical information I need to sift through, more obstacles to clear.

I’ve been able to work on a new short story, outlining and sketching out dialog, but that’s all. No progress on the novel, no revisions to other short stories…Nothing.

But today I should, finally, knock out the last few forms until closing day. And for closing, all I have to do is show up 🙂

So I’m hoping to do some catch-up writing this weekend, and have a head clear enough to get back on my regular schedule next week.

What about you? How do you manage to keep your writing going in the middle of a stressful event like a move?

Political Tribes, by Amy Chua

A frustrating and ultimately disappointing book, with some flashes of insight.

Let’s start with the good things.

Chua’s argument that US foreign policy often operates blind to ethnic tensions in other countries, which leads to horrible mistakes, is spot-on. The chapters looking back at past conflicts through that lens are informative; I never realized there was a racial element in the Vietnam war, for example (most of the wealth of the country was controlled by an ethnic-Chinese minority, before the war). And I didn’t realize how much the Taliban are an ethnic group (majority come from one tribe) rather than purely a religious movement.

She also has some good points to make about how tribalism operates in the US, with each group feeling attacked on a daily basis.

But her prescription for fixing things boils down to “talk to each other,” because she’s also missed some fundamental things in her analysis.

Over and over again, she talks about the “historically homogeneous” countries of Europe and East Asia, contrasting them with the “unique” experience of the United States as “the world’s only supergroup.”

Never mind that no country is, or has ever been, ethnically homogeneous. Never mind that ethnicity itself is, like race, an invented concept, something we pulled out of a hat and pretended was real.

And never mind that the US is not unique in being a society made up of immigrants plus an oppressed aboriginal population.

So she can’t say more than “we should talk to each other,” because she has no sense of how every “ethnic state” was created by violence and death. That Germany (!) was not ripe for post-war democracy through some accident of ethnic purity, but was purged of other groups deliberately by the country’s government and people. That even the concept of being “German” or “French” or “Chinese” is an invented thing, something hammered into people by a government that wanted them to stop being Provençal or Bavarians or Hmong.

And that the United States has never been a peaceful supergroup, but a vehicle for a group of people that call themselves “white” to ethnically cleanse and oppress all others. The “good old days” of “group blindness” she pines for in the final chapters never existed.

So she can’t see ethnicity itself as the problem, because she takes it as a given, a fixed construct. A solution where we break down the concepts of “white” and “black” into their components, or ditch them altogether to adopt identities built around our cities and states, can’t even be conceived in her framework.

Which is too bad, because her book is otherwise well-argued. We need her type of analysis, to be sure, but we also need more awareness of history, of how the divisions we take to be absolute today were invented, and can be remade.

Writing Goals for 2020

As we roll into the second week of 2020, I’m taking some time to look at where I am, writing-career-wise, and where I want to be at the end of this year.

2019 in the Rear View

In 2019, I did finally achieve one goal of mine: I got a short story accepted for publication.

Not published, yet, but accepted, at least. And that’s something I couldn’t say before.

I didn’t finish the edits to the current novel, though, like I wanted. My internal deadline slipped from October 31st, to November 31st, to Dec 31st, and still I didn’t make it.

So one win and one miss? Or one win and one delayed victory?

I’m going to work to make it the latter.

To that end, I’m adopting the following three writing goals for this year:

Four Short Stories

Maberry proposed this one at the last Writers Coffeehouse, and I think I’m going to adopt it.

It means one short story every three months, which seems doable. One month to draft, one month to solicit feedback, another to edit it into shape.

To that end, I’ve already started noodling on a new story. It’s an idea I’ve been chewing on for a few months, looking for the right angle. I’ve decided to just go ahead and write it, dammit, because sometimes the best way to know what a story’s about is to write it down.

Finish the Current Novel

And when I say finish, I mean finish. Edited, reviewed by beta readers, edited again, and polished as much as possible.

I want to be realistic, and not pick a date mid-year for finishing, this time. Progress on the book has been slow, so far. I’d rather be finished early, and not have stressed about it, then worry myself about a deadline that’s only in my head.

So I’ll aim to be done by December 1st. I’m again stealing the date from Maberry, whose reasoning is that if you finish by December 1st, you can spend all of December partying (instead of working your way through the holidays). Sounds like a good plan to me 🙂

Post More

Beyond writing fiction, I’d like to post more on this blog and on Twitter. Both to interact more with you, dear readers, and also to work on my essay skills.

Looking ahead a year or two, I’d like to be writing essays at a level I could sell. To get there, I’ll need to practice.

So, more blog posts: movie reviews, book reviews, and the occasional counter-point to articles I come across.

Keeping Score: January 10, 2020

1,774 words written this week. Managed to hit my writing goal most days, and surpass it once or twice.

I’m trying out a new schedule, where I sit down to write for 30 minutes each day, between walking the pups and doing my morning jog. It’s earlier than before, and pre-shower (thinking in the shower being my traditional way of resolving tricky plot problems).

But somehow, doing it before anything else is helping me. Like I can go on my jog and let my mind wander again, instead of trying to force it to think about the novel.

The words come a bit easier too, because I know I’m going to sit for a given block of time, and there’s not going to be any interruptions.

Granted, I’m still using tricks to get things done, like focusing on just one tiny part of the story at a time, or doing scenes piecemeal (first dialog, then blocking and description, then thoughts/reactions). But it seems to be working, for now, at least.

What about you? Have you tried changing when you set aside time to write, to see if different times of the day (or night) make it easier to put words to page?

Four Writing Techniques I Needed in 2019

I read a lot of writing advice. Books, blog posts, twitter feeds, you name it.

I know it won’t all work for me. But how else can I improve my craft, other than trying new things, and seeing how it comes out?

So here’s four techniques I tried out last year (or carried over from 2018) that have stuck with me, and that I’ll be using a lot in 2020.

One-Inch Picture Frame

Source: Anne Lamott

My current go-to technique. When I’m sitting at the keyboard and the words won’t come, and I think this is it, my imagination’s run dry and I’ll never finish another story, I reach for this.

The idea is simple, and powerful in the way few simple ideas are: Instead of worrying about writing the chapter, or writing the scene, I focus on writing only one little piece of the scene. Just describe how she feels after getting caught in a lie. Describe how he looks at his old room differently, now that he’s been away from home for ten years.

Drill down into something very specific, and write just that. Nothing more.

The narrowed focus lets me relax a little. Because I can’t write a chapter anymore, oh no, and I can’t write a scene, that’s for sure, but I can write how it feels to see someone you love after thinking they were dead. I can do that

And once that’s done, once I’ve really described everything in my one-inch picture frame properly, I look up and I’ve already hit my daily word count goal.

Tracking Word Count Score

Source: Scott Sigler

This one’s a carry-over. Sigler first laid out his points system for tracking word counts at a Writers Coffeehouse in 2018. I tried it out then, and it got me back on track to finish the first draft of my current novel.

Since then, I’ve kept using it: 1 point for each first draft word, 1/2 point for each word gone over in the first editing pass, 1/3 for the third, etc.

It’s helped me feel productive in cases where I wouldn’t, like revising a short story I finished months ago, to get it to the point where I can submit it to magazines. And it’s pushed me to keep writing until I hit that daily word count, and relax when I do so, because I know by hitting it, I’m working steadily towards my larger goals.

Showing Emotion and Thoughts Instead of Telling

Source: Chuck Palahniuk

I was really skeptical of this one. He wrote it up in a post for LitReactor, and it’s couched in language that’s self-confident to the point of being arrogant.

But he’s right. Switching from using language like “she was nervous” to “She looked away, and bit her lip. The fingers of her right hand started drumming a quick beat on her thigh, tap-tap-tap,” is a huge improvement. It’s pushed me to think more about how each of my characters expresses themselves in unique ways, and given me the tools to show that uniqueness to the reader.

Scatter and Fill

Source: V.E. Schwab

Schwab’s twitter feed is a fantastic one to follow for writing advice. She’s very honest about the struggles she faces, and how much guilt she feels over being such a slow writer.

But the brilliant results (in her books) speak for themselves!

In one of her posts, she talked about how when writing a novel, she doesn’t write it in any sort of order. She’ll fill in some dialog in one scene, then a set description in another, and then action in a third. She gradually fills in the work, like painting a canvas, where every brush stroke counts and adds up to the final product.

I’ve always felt compelled to write in strict order, start to finish. So reading this technique works for her was very liberating for me. I still usually write in order, but now if I’m finding it hard to get motivated, I’ll skip around. Write down some dialog that comes to me, or an action or two. Sometimes I can hit my daily word goal this way, and sometimes it just primes the pump so I can fill in the rest. Either way, it gets me around my mental block, and lets me make progress.

Writers Coffeehouse, January 2020

First Coffeehouse for the new year! And the last one in Mysterious Galaxy’s current space. They’re moving towards the end of this month, to a rental with (I hear) even more meeting room space.

My notes are below. Thanks again to Jonathan Maberry and Henry Herz for hosting!

Marketing Yourself

  • put your credentials — certified electrician, lawyer, martial arts expert — out there for people to find when doing research or organizing panels at cons; you’d be surprised at what other writers want to know about

Upcoming Events

  • comicfest in march, smaller comic con
  • wondercon in april

Getting Better at Writing Comics

  • read lots of comics, pay attention to the storytelling, read comic scripts (find online, including on maberry’s website
  • booths are comic-con are staffed almost entirely by editors and editorial assistants; talk to them, trade business cards, but don’t bring a script, they don’t want it

Pitching

  • when pitching, and wanting to tell the target audience, don’t say “adults from 35-45”, say “fans of stephen king’s salem’s lot”

State of the Weird West Genre

  • with short stories, you’ve got a shot. novels, you’re almost definitely going small press, and you’re probably going to struggle to earn out

Coming Soon: Writing Workshops

  • once mysterious galaxy moves, will be doing workshops at the new location: fight and action scenes, children’s books, comic books

Character Description Tips

  • old action movie trick: give a bad-ass character something to hold in their hands, like a cup of coffee, so they don’t look dangerous (until they punch someone in the face), the contrast works
  • can get more mileage out of describing what a character wears rather than their specific physical appearance (because the clothes show character, but the hair color, eye color, etc, does not)

Setting Writing Goals for the Year

  • likes 90 days, 6 months, the year, but also 5 and 10 year plans
  • Maberry sets daily writing goal based on a week’s worth of actual writing; finds the average and halves it, then uses that as the daily goal, everything past that is bonus; pays himself for every day he hits his goal, can only use that money for fun
  • allows himself business days off when knows in advance (ex: knee surgery, spending all day in business meetings in LA)
  • build your schedule for mental health and comfort, not pushing yourself to the limit all the time
  • good to have a few projects at once, because writer’s burnout is real; can feel like writer’s block but happens if you’ve been working on the same novel/project for too long (for example, when you don’t bang out a novel in 3-5 months, but years)
  • after daily goals, have project goals, and make them realistic too; maberry’s first novel took him 3.5 years to write and revise
  • first draft and the revision process should not be part of the same plan, because they’re different sides of being a writer; the first draft just needs to get the story out, and be mildly entertaining and coherent, it really only needs to done
  • stephen king’s carrie was a terrible first draft, that he almost threw out, but his wife saved it and made him revise it (6 times) until it was ready to go out
  • the person who revises the book needs to be unemotional about the book; because we can see so much that needs fixing that we come to hate the book or lose faith in the book
  • trick: when writing a book in a year, break up the project into 11 parts (not 12!) and set the goal of having that first draft done by december 1st (so you can spend december partying)
  • careful with the rolling draft (write some and then revise some), because the storytelling mind and the editing mind are not friends! they can barely talk to each other. going back and forth for the same project is hard
  • writing down the bones: good book on writing craft
  • revising requires more writing craft chops than writing; should do some research first, learn how to revise from others then go about revising
  • revision strategy: unique character identities, making sure each character sounds different, moves and acts differently
  • one pass character identity, one pass character voice, one pass character arcs, one pass making sure protagonist is interesting, one pass for story chronology, pass on figurative and descriptive language (reads poetry now before writing any prose, to help his linguistic imagination), one pass on the logic of the story (which can mean checking or redoing his research), optional pass on POV consistency, very last pass is how much he can cut out of it
  • short story goals: write four new stories, revise them, send them out by the end of the year (that’s one drafted and done every three months)
  • if revising a novel this year, decide in advance when you’re going to submit it; don’t plan on sending it from mid-november to early january, because no one is going to read it, they’re all on vacation or at office parties or with family
  • other goals: 3 years from now? want to be published! your novel (maybe not the one you’re working on now) sold to a publishing house
  • 10 year goal: put things on there that are beyond your ken and your skill, then start looking for and doing the things that could get you there

Social Media Tips

  • for social media, two guidelines: don’t be a negative jerk, and post consistently (even if it’s just once a day)
  • the three platforms to be on: facebook, instagram, twitter; set it up so you can cross-post from one to the other
  • will save up links and quotes and youtube videos in a list and post them when he has nothing to say for that day
  • interactive posts: what are you working on? what do you think of this new show? i need a playlist for this book, here are the elements of the plot, what would you suggest?

Keeping Score: January 3, 2020

Happy New Year! I hope you achieved your writing goals in 2019, and work your way to new heights of craft in 2020.

For myself, I feel like there were several highs: getting my first short story accepted for publication, attending my first writers conference, and discovering the score-keeping method I’ve been using to push my writing forward.

But also several lows. In fact, 2019 ended on a low for me, with me dreading each writing session, and my 300-word daily goal frequently out of reach. Writing has felt more like drawing blood, recently, than making art or even normal work. I’ve not been blocked, so much as completely demotivated.

I’m trying to push through, though. Forcing myself to write the 300 words, each day. Even when they feel pointless, when it seems I’ll never finish this novel. I fear I’ll still be working on it next year, grinding away at something that I might not be able to sell, in the end.

Not a heartening way to start the year, maybe. But I wrote 2,148 words this week, step by step. I’m using Anne Lamott’s one-inch-frame technique, to narrow my focus down to the point where I can write something. It’s working, so far. I am, slowly, making progress.

What about you? What are your writing goals for 2020? And when your inspiration is running low, what do you do to fill it back up?