Keeping Score: June 14, 2019

1,285 words written this week.

The new “just get something done every day” rules are really helping me. I’ve actually spent more time outlining and plotting this week than anything else. That’s allowed me to see the shape of the remaining story better, and that has let me take pieces of my previous draft and slot them in, then edit them into shape, letting me make good progress.

I’ve also been able to see which scenes were missing from my previous outline, and start keeping notes on those.

Which means I’ve also abandoned linearity this week. Instead of working through each scene in order, I’m jumping around, adding a few words here, then editing a chapter from a previous draft to fit the new storyline, then jotting down some notes on a post-climax scene.

I didn’t think I could work this way, but the proof is in the word count: I can. It’s gotten me out of the slump I felt I was falling into, staring at the same scene every day, unable to make progress.

There’s a part of me that’s starting to whisper “you could finish by the end of June after all,” but I’m shushing that part as much as possible. I need to make progress, and I’ll not go pell-mell just to hit a self-imposed deadline (and likely make myself sick again in the process).

What about you? When editing, do you find it easier to go scene-by-scene through the book, or do you hop around?

Keeping Score: June 7, 2019

980 words written so far this week. If I can steal an extra hour or so for writing this weekend, I’m on track to hit 1,500 words, which I’ve decided to keep as my weekly goal, for the novel at least.

Why? Two things: First, I’ve been sick for…it feels like a month now. And I’m still not well. Without going into details, I’ve developed this wonderful case of burning, stinging pain everytime I move my head. But I’ve got to keep making progress on this book, or I’ll never finish it. Sick or not.

Second, this piece by Chuck Wendig made me re-think my approach to my writing goal. I recommend reading the whole thing, but for me it boiled down to this passage:

It is a kindness to yourself. Don’t expect to run a mile out of the gate. Don’t demand you write the next bestseller. See the increments. Break it up. Find safe, sane, kind limits for yourself — and then you will find it increasingly easy to exceed them. To embrace a little and relish the success instead of always trying to conquer the whole damn lot — and falling short every damn time.

In other words, it’s ok to set your goal at the bare minimum. When you meet it, you feel good because you made progress. When you exceed it, you feel great.

Given everything else that’s going on, I definitely don’t want to make my writing into a chore. I don’t want to set my word count goal so high that I’m going to feel like a failure every day.

But I do want to make progress. So here’s the deal I’m making with myself: 300 words of progress on the novel, every week-day, adding up to 1,500 words a week total. If I go past that, great! But if I just hit it, that’s ok too.

And once I’ve hit my goal for the day, or the week, I’m free to work on other things: outline a new novel, edit a short story, etc. My thinking is this will make me feel less trapped in the current book, like I can’t work on anything else until it’s done.

We’ll see if that turns out to be the case. Wish me luck.

Keeping Score: May 31, 2019

This week has been a total bust, writing-wise.

I started getting sick Sunday evening. By Monday, I had a fever and chills, coupled with an incredible rate of snot generation. That’s morphed into a lovely cough with a bonus sinus headache.

So instead of using Memorial Day to sprint through my word count for the week, I spent it trying not to move from underneath the covers. And every day since, I’ve spent what little energy I have at the day job, leaving me nothing for the novel.

And I’m still not well. Dammit.

I’m angry and I’m frustrated. I feel like a week of work has been stolen from me.

But I’m trying not to be angry at myself. I tell myself that illness is going to happen. And I can either rail at myself for taking it easy, or accept that there are times when I’m not going to be able to do everything.

It feels like an excuse, to be honest. But I also know that after a day of coughing and sneezing and headaches and working to keep the roof over my head, my brain is mush.

So I have to give it time. For now.

Keeping Score: May 24, 2019

So I messed up.

I’ve been hitting my 1,500 word goal each week, like clockwork. But it’s not enough.

Based on where I am now, I’d need to write (or edit) something like 8,000 words a week in order to hit my self-imposed deadline of the end of June.

That kind of pace is…unlikely, to say the least. Possible, sure, but unlikely, given my schedule.

Earlier this week, I thought about going for it. Staying up later, getting up earlier, pushing to finish on time.

But the more I thought about it, the more stressed I became. It was harder to get started writing in the morning, because I knew I’d need to write four times my usual word count just to keep up.

I actually thought about quitting the novel altogether. Just dropping it and going back to working on some short story ideas. I’ve got plenty of them; I could keep busy with shorter fiction for the rest of the year.

Instead, I’ve decided to get rid of the source of my stress and doubts: I’m scrapping the deadline.

I’m definitely going to up my weekly word count, though, starting next week. 1,500 words is just not cutting it, in terms of finishing in a timely fashion. I don’t want to be still working on this draft next year. And I do have short stories I want to work on, stories that will take time to get right. Time I’ll have to earn by finishing this novel draft.

Wish me luck.

Keeping Score: May 3, 2019

Only 1,147 words so far this week.

I seem to be perpetually hovering around 1/3 of the final word count of the novel, between 15,000 and 18,000 words. My total word count will start to climb, as I add new scenes, but then plunge when I delete old ones that no longer fit.

And I’ve still got that deadline of the end of June to hit.

I shouldn’t be worried, I suppose. If I finish another third this month, and then the final third in June, I’ll hit my target.

But what if I’m only halfway through by the end of May? What am I going to give up in order to get back on track?

Because I need to hit my June deadline. I’m already looking at writing conferences in the fall, ones where you can get pitch sessions with agents and editors. Spending all that money to go will be a waste if I don’t have a finished book to pitch.

So I need to finish this editing pass by the end of June, so I can send it off to beta readers for feedback, and have time to do some polishing passes before October.

October. Damn, I don’t want to still be working on this book by then.

I’d better get back to writing.

Keeping Score: April 26, 2019

1,594 words written this week.

Those words have been pulled out of me, letter by letter. I have to open Scrivener and start reading the previous days’ work as soon as I sit down to breakfast. If I wait till after I’ve finished, and let myself sink into Twitter or reading blog posts or magazines, I never get started.

Even once I’ve started, I keep checking my word count. “Am I done yet? No? How about now? Now? This time?”

I both can’t wait to be done with this rewrite, so I can move onto to the next project, and I don’t want to do the work necessary to finish it. It’s grinding, boring work, and — because I know even this draft is going to be imperfect — terrifying at the same time.

Why am I doing this, again?

Oh, yeah: because this story can’t be told without me. If I don’t write it, no one will know about Marcus, or Julia, or Franklin. No one will feel their pain, their fear, as I have. No one will rejoice at their triumphs.

I owe it to them to finish. So that’s what I’ll do.

Keeping Score: April 19, 2019

1,086 words this week, all for the novel edit, this time.

Though I suppose calling what I’m doing a second draft would be more accurate. I’m not just reading through chapters, tweaking phrases and dialog. I’m rewriting some chapters wholesale, others I’m stitching together from bits and pieces of the previous draft like a linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster.

It’s hard to ignore that previous draft, sometimes, even when I know it’s wrong. Not just bad — though the writing certainly deserves the name vomit draft — but wrong. Wrong for the story, wrong for the characters, wrong for the book. And yet, the fact that its words are done, written there on the page, makes it tempting to use them. Even when I know I shouldn’t.

So it’s easier to delete them, get them out of the way. Of course, then I’m staring at a blank page, that intimidating spotless thing. Who am I to rubbish it up, especially when I know this won’t be the last draft? These revisions will need revisions, and those will need tweaks, and those will need a polish.

I resort to tricks, at that point. Lie to myself. “Just 50 words,” I’ll say, “and then you can go back to Twitter.” Or: “Just describe what this character feels right now. You’ll cut it later, but get it done now, just in case some of it’s good.”

And once I’m going, it’s hard to stop. Even when the clock reminds me that it’s time to close up shop and head to the day job, to earn the money I use to keep my hobby — my art — going.

Every day a new trick. A new lie. But every day the word count grows. The work takes shape. The story comes alive.

Keeping Score: April 5, 2019

Written 1,014 words so far this week. That’s a little short of my 1,500-word goal, but given I ended up with 3,805 words for last week, I’m going to give myself a bit of a break.

I hit that awesome word count last week because of WorldCon. Partly because it was so inspiring. Partly because I had more time alone in which to write.

But it was more than that. WonderCon made me feel like a writer.

For maybe the first time, my imposter syndrome was flipped. I started seeing myself the way one of the panelists said we should see ourselves: that like superheroes, the day job is our secret identity, but in truth we’re writers.

And I finally felt that way. Not only did I feel like a writer, I felt like myself. That it isn’t shameful to not be published yet, because everyone starts out unpublished. That it isn’t bad or a barrier to have a day job, because everyone needs a way to pay the bills.

I even got to share this feeling. In the last panel, on “Writing the First Draft,” Jonathan Butler gave us all homework: to turn to the person sitting next to us, introduce ourselves, and build our support network of fellow writers.

But when I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said “So, you’re a writer?”, she looked down and said, “What makes someone a writer?”

I told her what Jonathan Maberry has told us at every Writers Coffeehouse, something I’m not sure I really believed until that moment: “Writers write. If you write, you’re a writer.”

She smiled, and started telling me about the screenplay she’s working on.

I might never see her again, but for that moment, I felt like we were friends, peers, fellow writers making our way along the path.

It was an incredible moment, and for that feeling alone, that feeling of being at the same time an authentic writer and my real self, it was worth it to go to WonderCon.

What about you? What moments have inspired you as a writer, or made you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer?

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?