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.

Seattle

I’ve spent the last week up in Seattle for a conference. It’s not my first time in the Pacific Northwest (I’ve been to Portland once or thrice) but it is my first time in the Emerald City.

Overall, I’ve had a good time, but there’s been some…bumps…along the way.

First Impressions

Things got off to a rocky start.

A young woman demanded I gave up my seat on the commuter rail in from the airport, not by asking, but by standing in the aisle, glaring at me, and then saying “Well?!”

Later, when I tried to get in an elevator that was about half full, the guy blocking the doorway just stared at me, and refused to let me by, even after I asked him if I could get in.

And I’ll not mention the number of cars that tried to run me over as I was crossing the street (at a crosswalk, with the light green).

This was all the first day. People I met later on (at the conference, when eating out, etc) were cool and friendly, but that first impression…lingers.

Architecture

I’m not sure what I was expecting Seattle buildings to look like, but I definitely wasn’t expecting this thing, which looks like it’s going to fall over any second now:

Or this, which looks like someone framed out half a building and decided “eh, it’s good enough”:

I mean, I like ’em, they’ve got a cool sci-fi vibe to them. But damned if I can explain ’em.

Hills

Ye gods, Seattle is hilly. San Francisco, eat your heart out.

You can see why I never had any trouble meeting my Apple Watch’s Move demands each day.

Weather

I’ve discovered December is the wrong time to visit Seattle.

Not when I throw open the curtains in my hotel room, hoping for some morning sun, to find this:

I think I’ve seen the sun once all week. Suddenly I understand how grunge music came from this place.

MoPop

I can forgive everything, though, for the Museum of Pop Culture.

Housed in another building that looks like it just dropped in from a sci-fi movie lot, this place is amazing. I spent three hours there on Wednesday night, and it still wasn’t enough.

How could it be, when they’ve got original models used in filming Aliens:

And Gimli’s helmet:

And Shuri’s gloves:

They even did up the hall where the Doctor Strange props and costumes are exhibited in mirrors and glass, so it looks like you’ve stepped into the mirror dimension:

Wow.

Conclusions

I definitely want to come back. There’s a technical bookstore I want to browse, a bunch of machines at the Living Computers museum I want to play with, and too many breweries I want to patronize.

But I’ll wait for the late spring, maybe summer, when I can actually, you know, see things.

Rebooting My Writing Brain

When I finished the first draft of the latest novel two weeks ago, I told myself I could take the rest of the year off. Maybe do some editing of a few short stories, but no real work till the first of the year, when I planned to dive into editing the novel.

So, of course, I’m already outlining my next book.

It surprised me. For a good week there it felt weird to not be writing, but also rather good. I had more time to exercise, to study French, to simply read again.

But then I read Cicero, followed by Legion vs Phalanx, and that connected up with an idea for a YA novel I’ve had bouncing around in my head, and suddenly I’m writing down characters and plot points and trying to work this story into shape.

It’s like a damned addiction, this writing thing.

I’m not keeping score, though; not yet. I want time to think things over, to brainstorm and throw ideas away, before committing to daily, serious work.

For now, it’s time to play.

Writers Coffeehouse: December 2018

Another great coffeehouse! Since it’s December, we had a bit of a holiday pot-luck: people brought EggNog (spiked and not-spiked), cookies, candy canes, and wine. They also collected Toys for Tots, and even lit the first two candles of a menorah in honor of the first night (upcoming) of Hanukkah.

Lots of people had just wrapped up NaNoWriMo, so there was a lot of good news to go around. Biggest news was probably Henry Herz getting published in Highlights for Children, which is (apparently) a wickedly hard market to crack.

My notes are below. Congrats to Henry and all the NaNoWriMo winners! And, as always, many thanks to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting us, and Jonathan Maberry for running the Coffeehouse!

  • the one golden rule: no writer bashing; like or dislike the twilight books or da vinci code, but they opened doors for thousands of other writers and injected billions into the books industry
  • san diego writer’s festival: april 13th, central library, similar folks to the festival of books
  • option prices have dropped a lot since the recession; standard is now $5K, but can include lots of extras, like five-star treatment to get to set, executive producer credit (paycheck per episode), royalties per tv episode, etc
  • remember that your agent is a business partner; don’t be afraid to contact them, but don’t think they’re your best friends, they work for you, and you can learn a lot from them; agents love writers that are business savvy
  • nov and dec used to be a bad time for agents, but since it’s the slow season, it’s a good time to submit to them; ditto pitches to editors of magazines for articles to write
  • “we’re looking for original stories, not original submission practices”
  • when selling anthology to publisher, need a few big names on there so they feel that it’ll definitely sell
  • maberry: budgets 10 min out of every hour for social media; has a lot of pages and has to manage them, and manage his time on them
  • henry herz: got article accepted into highlights magazine! very hard market to crack
  • january coffeehouse will be about pitching; will also do sample panel
  • on a panel: they’re looking for a celebrity, need people to be a little larger-than-life; sometimes audience will ask questions they know the answers to, just to hear a celebrity say it
  • being a panelist is a skill; you need to be a slightly different version of yourself that the public will accept as “writer”
  • neil gaiman is naturally very awkward; had to hire an acting coach to script out appearances so people will get to see the “neil gaiman” they come to see
  • pitching, being on a panel, these are all skills you need to practice, but they *are* skills you can develop and improve, even if you’re a complete introvert
  • exercise: pick your favorite novel (or movie), and pitch it as if you wrote it; something you know well enough to do without notes
  • need to be good at it and comfortable with friends so that when in front of agents you aren’t so scared and vulnerable
  • people are more comfortable with peers than with people that put them on a pedestal
  • recommends using donald maas’ workbook on writing the breakout novel; the way it’s intended is after a first draft is done, makes you drill deeper into the book
  • also: don’t revise until after you’ve waited a month and then also read the whole thing through again
  • finally: do revising in waves; handle one change at a time, to make them manageable
  • unsure whether to make book a mystery or fantasy? write the book you’d have the most fun writing; if unsure of audience, pick the one you’d have fun writing for and go all in

On The Origins of Totalitarianism

Recently finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

It’s hard for me to talk about, because the book is filled with such piercing, clear-eyed insight, that if I tried to summarize it properly, I’d end up reproducing it.

I could say that I think the book should be required reading for any citizen of any country, in any age, because I do. And not because of any simplistic need to show that “Nazis are bad,” which (while true) doesn’t need an entire book to demonstrate. The testimony of even one concentration camp survivor should be enough for that.

I think everyone should read The Origins of Totalitarianism because it shows how the logic of totalitarian governments grows out of capitalism itself. Not that capitalism must always lead to totalitarianism, but that it always can. Just as racism and nationalism don’t always lead to a Final Solution, but without racism and nationalism, without some ideology claiming to override our humanity, a Final Solution is not even conceivable.

And yes, I think there are passages of the book, describing the methods of the Nazis and the communists (for Stalin’s government was also a totalitarian one) that are too close to our current administration for my comfort. I can’t read about the Nazis contempt for reality, or the way people in totalitarian movements will both believe the lies told by their leaders and praise them for their cleverness when the lies are revealed, without thinking of how right-wing nationalists in my own country treat the current President. But even if these things were not happening in the United States, it would be a book worth reading.

It is, in short, rightly called a classic. A long one, and a hard one, if we take its insights to heart as readers (passages calling out the middle classes for abandoning their civic duties for isolated home life strike close to home for me; I feel I’ve worked hard for what I have, and want to cling to it, but how many others am I leaving behind, by doing so?).

And yet it is that wondrous thing: a book hailed as a classic work, that is worth all the time and study we can give it. If you haven’t read it, please do.

We’re counting on you.