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.

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.

Cicero, by Anthony Everitt

Masterful. Not only did I get a better sense of who Cicero was as a person, and why he was important, I also got a good feel for the politics of the late Roman Republic. More specifically, Everitt lays out the flaws inherent in the Roman system that — coupled with the stubborn refusal to change of most Senators — led to its downfall and the birth of the Empire.

I found this book easier going than Everitt’s biography of Augustus. They’re both good, don’t get me wrong, but I never felt lost in dates and events in Cicero, because Everitt constantly tied things back to the larger movements of the period. It gave me a better perspective, and also let me see how important Cicero really was.

For example, after watching the HBO series Rome (which is fantastic, highly recommend checking it out), I thought of Cicero as little more than a pompous windbag, unable to make up his mind or stand for anything.

On the contrary, while he could be long-winded, and tended to talk up his deeds too much, he was a capable administrator (he was only sent to govern provinces twice, but both times was very popular with the locals for being competent and incorruptible) and a rare thing in the late Republic: a Senator that sided with the wealthy (optimates) but wanted to change things just the same. Not to mention his original claim to fame as a great orator, which he won by ably defending clients in the courts.

He even, apparently, had some skill as an investigator. While on his second tour as a provincial governor, he uncovered a banking scandal that was being run by Marcus Brutus (the Brutus that later was one of Caesar’s assassins!).

In short: Highly recommended if you’re interested in Roman history, or even (like me) just curious to know more about the personalities glimpsed through series like Rome.

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.

Keeping Score: November 21, 2018

At 67,010 words, the novel’s done!

Been writing at a good clip while on vacation this week; almost 7,000 just since last Wednesday (!)

And of course, I already have a list of things I need to go back and fix. Characters that need to be combined. Personalities that need to be made consistent throughout the book. Even events that need to be reworked, because I changed my mind part-way through, so the latter consequences of the event doesn’t match the thing itself anymore.

But those can come later. For now, the first draft is done, and just in time for Turkey Day 🙂

Hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving (in the US), and a successful NaNoWriMo, if you’re participating!

Keeping Score: October 29, 2018

Last week was my first week back to a regular writing schedule, after traveling in Ireland for almost two weeks.

I worried I wouldn’t be able to jump right in to writing at my previous pace, but I hit a writing streak on Friday, and blew past my writing goal: 2,400 words written!

And thank goodness, because next month I’ll have been working on the book for a year. I’m ready to finish it off, and move on to the next project. (Well, until I come back and edit this one).

Very much hoping to be done with it before the end of the year. Would be nice to head into the holidays with the work complete, and have earned a little break from the daily word mines.