Not setting yourself up for failure

You know, a lot of us have a goal to write at least once a day. Some of us even have wordage targets. But sometimes you have to have a reality check:

I did not write today at lunch. Instead, I drafted a cover letter for the complete novel and got it reviewed by a writing buddy. Crossed all the t’s, dotted all the i’s. But, to me, this counts as “writing” — it’s all part of the same thing: getting the work published.

I used to feel guilty in situations like this. In fact, that sense of guilt might even make me stop writing a for a few days as I stewed over my failure and wondered what went wrong.

But now I have come to realize there are only so many words in me per day, and work takes most of them, and blogging takes more. Until my writing muscles, build, it’s more important to not get discouraged. And besides… So what if I didn’t move forward on the current work? I did something critical for the overall goal.

I count today as a win.

Building up wordage

I recently had a bit of an insight about writing productivity/wordage…

So as part of the rehab for my knee, I’ve been riding stationary bikes at the gym 3 times a week, and I’ve started going to Tai Chi again — and simultaneously I’ve been writing again.

The thing with the bike and the Tai Chi is that I used to do them a lot, I used to be good at them and be able to just go and go, but now I’ve been injured for a while and out of the game, I have to build back up. Endurance and power are earned through hard and deliberate work.

And writing is the same way. I know this is the cliche of the decade, but your brain is a muscle — just like your quads and calves and abs — and writing novels is like running a marathon. If you want to do it, it takes a lot of hard work and A LOT of dedication.

Keep at it and the muscles and endurance will build up. Keep at it and you will cross the finish line.

Just don’t sprain anything or give up before you get there.

On Writing #15: Adjectives, Adverbs, and The Quest for the Perfect Word

This came up today when I was on the phone with a friend — when to use adjectives and “-ly” adverbs and when not to. Since I’ve spent many years writing both fiction and technical/process/procedure documentation, I’ve run into this issue over and over.

In brief, the best solution is to cut the adjective or adverb *if you can*. If the meaning doesn’t change, the emotional content doesn’t change, then you don’t need the adjective/adverb.

Example: Pick up the silver spoon with your right hand and the plastic fork with your left.

If there is only one spoon and one fork, the adjectives mean little. If there are several forks and spoons of different types, then the information is critical. In addition, if you are writing a story that is about wealth (silver spoon) vs poverty (plastic fork), the information may also provide an emotional shading to the story that justifies keeping it.

I feel the same way about “-ly” adverbs (unusually, whitely, etc etc.) For many years I violently hated them, and I believed they were lazy and a “short cut”. As with many writers, I thought anything you were trying to say with the -ly adverb, you could say it better and more precisely by describing it.

But now age and time and KAVALIER AND KLAY have seasoned me. Sometimes — rarely — -ly adjectives are the perfect tool. When? Think in terms of rhythm, rhyme, emotional timing and pacing inside of scenes, and the risk of pulling a short story off track and focusing too much on something. In those instances, and several others, that oft-cursed, oft-derided “-ly” adverb may be your best friends.

That said, it doesn’t happen often. As I would say to a farmboy in Mos Eisly, “Best watch yourself.”

The Way Plots Work for Me

1 ) Write some good stuff
2 ) Write some more good stuff
3 ) Fall in love, but realize it needs some work
4 ) Put everything in order
5 ) Try to write some more, fail, repeat, fail, repeat. A lot of it is good, but where is it going?
6 ) Sit down and do a plot — either with index cards or a chapter-by-chapter or some other method
7 ) Begin writing again with confidence, finish one or two scenes.
8 ) Plot begins to change
9 ) Try to project forward
10 ) Plot continues to change, get more and more nervous, go to step 9, until…
11 ) I get lost. Backtrack a little bit, turn left at Albuquerque, proceed.
12 ) Repeat 9&10, perhaps 11, until…
13 ) First draft done

Then edit the hell out of it.

See, that’s all there is to it. Easy as pie 🙂

[Greatest Hits] On Writing #8: Drafting Cover Letter Blurbs and Synopses, Or How to Realize You Can’t Really Write

Ever wondered why writers complain endlessly about writing that novel blurb on the cover letter, or writing the synopsis that every agent says are standard for the industry, but every agent also says must be a different length? (C’mon guys! Are they supposed to be 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 or 8 or 10 pages, anyway?)

Well, since I’ve been diving head-first into both of these problems — and I think I’ve recently whipped the Cover Letter Problem(TM) — I’ll tell you. It’s not that you don’t know how to write anymore. It’s not even that your novel is too complicated to compress into a blurb/XY-page synopsis.

The real problem is that you are practicing a new skill, one you may not have used very much:

The skill of summarizing.

You may have last encountered this in 10th grade as an English assignment — summarizing (perhaps) MOBY DICK or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I bet it wasn’t easy, was it? All the class snickering. Half of them copying off of each other. None of you even partly interested in the assignment. If you are very lucky you may have even had to summarize a book more recently, say in English 101 or History of English Literature. You probably tried harder then, banging your skull against the dogeared copy of ABSALOM ABSALOM or TAMBURLANE until Athena tried to climb out of your forehead. You may have even got an A.

But one day you start writing a novel and thinking about selling it or getting an agent, and you sense this “Cover Letter” demon and “Synopsis” monster lurking in the dark and unknown future, and you wonder, “How do I tame them? How do they not just eat me? Where do I even start?” But you’ve still got a long road ahead, so you put it off.

Then one day the novel is done. You’ve patched all the plot holes, polished the prose, charisma’ed-up the characters, eliminated the loose ends. “Well,” you decide, “I can’t wait any longer — I have to have a cover letter and a synopsis.” So you dive in. First things first, start at the BEGINNING. And when you come up for air, you read the thing and you’re pretty damn sure IT SUCKS.

What’s going on, anyway? You know how to write. Everyone’s impressed with the novel (or at least they’re pretending to be.) Maybe you’ve even sold a couple of short stories by now, possibly been nominated or even won an award. But still You. Can’t. Get. This. Damned. Thing. To. Work.

Yeah, I couldn’t either.

But then I realized: my novel, with its unusual setting, four different factions, and shifting alliances (eventually culminating in one glorious conflagration where everyone tries to kill everyone else) — well, it just doesn’t fit the coverletter format. Or the synopsis format, either. At least… not the way I’m using them.

You see, I was lost in the detail. I was trying to recreate by intercut book, in order, sometimes scene by scene. But these formats don’t easily support that sort of summarization.

I realized at last that I only have to convey the spirit of the story, not every twist and turn of the plot. To summarize, indeed, I was forced SIMPLIFY the plot.

The only way to condense this book, make it fit into the space needed, and still be entertaining was to cut out seemingly-pivotal characters, entire story arcs, perhaps even important factions. Cut, cut, cut away the fat until only the skeleton remains.

The cover letter was finished first, a couple of days ago. And when I read it, it feels pretty damn good — and I’ve never been able to say that about a cover letter before. As for the synopsis, I’m still hack-hack-hacking away.

But at least I think I know what shape the corpse should be before I pour the lightning in… Here, hold a tendon.

[Update since the original post: The synopsis feels pretty darn good when I read it, too. It’s alive… IT’S ALIVE! *mad laughter*]

WIP: Buckling Down and Plotting it Out

Been failing to plug away at the novel, which usually means I need to fix something. In this case: the plot.

I’ve been seat-of-the-pantsing the current Work-in-Progress novel long enough. I like it, I’m interested in it — I’ve bought-in, as they say. Phase 1, falling in love, is done. Time to have an idea where I’m heading.

I sat down tonight and cooked up a pretty solid-looking plot. 60-or-so scenes in mind, following a three-act structure.

It’ll change, of course. I’d be scared if it didn’t. But it also helps me know all is not void and darkness. Yes, just like the working title of this one, “Sometimes There is Light.”

[Greatest Hits] On Writing #4: The Secret to Consistent Productivity and Getting Things Done — Momentum

[To satisfy both goals of 1) moving all my on writing articles over here from LJ and 2) providing more high-quality posts to readers, I’m offering up a second On Writing post this week, one of the classics]

Once you start writing stories or a novel or poems or even essays, if you write every day you develop a head of steam. Not only does writing become a habit, but you don’t feel right if you don’t write. You feel off balance, leaning forward, like you’re standing atop a racing train and suddenly it’s pulled the brakes. You’re going to fly off. Get lost in the sky. Crash.

I’ve been feeling like that. Unfulfilled. Off balance. Uncentered. Because I haven’t bee writing and I haven’t been submitting short stories.

Well, I’ve got good news to report — not only have I started submitting stories again (I was at 0 out-to-market), but I wrote 4,211 words yesterday on a from-scratch rewrite of my WOTF Semifinalist short story “The Eye of God.”

It was one of the first things I wrote after I started writing again, and I was never completely happy with it. I tried rewriting it a few times, just a once-over edit, but it never really worked. I always knew it needed a rewrite from scratch and a different voice. Well, yesterday I was finally gripped with a passion to fix the story — and now there are only two scenes left. Two very difficult scenes. A steep hill for my train. Sure, it’s off to a racing start but that hill is still scary.

But I can do it. I can do it. I can get up that hill.

And you know something — you can too. We’re all little-trains-that-could, here. Maybe you’re writing something that’s beyond your skills and it feels stuffy and stilted, maybe you’re plagued by self-doubts about your editing prowess, maybe you’re a pro looking for a better writing process because you feel unfulfilled, or maybe you’ve always wanted to write and you’ve just never started.

Well, my advice is to just shovel some coal on the fire and get the engine started. Get the wheels turning. They may creak, they may be rusty, but get them turning an the rust will come off and the creaking will get better. Get your train started. It doesn’t have to be an Olympic start. Plenty of time my train just starts limping ahead 100 or 200 words at a time. That’s fine.

Because momentum BUILDS. As long as you keep the coal shovelled and keep water in the boiler, those wheels will turn — and that train will MOVE. And if your train is moving, eventually you will get to the destination.

On Writing #14: Synopsis and Query – The Art of Summary

The art of the query letter and synopsis is not summarizing your entire book. This is what took me forever to learn. It’s about IGNORING VAST SECTIONS OF YOUR BOOK. Boiling things down to the fewest characters possible, the fewest events possible.

My most successful query letter so far has almost no plot information at all, just a very quick reference to the the story to get a feel for it, and then my credentials. Just enough to hook, no more.

My synopsis, similarly, has very few character, very few plot developments. I rebelled against this at first, I felt like I was almost writing a different story, but then I realize that summary more about CHOOSING WHAT YOU LEAVE OUT than choosing what you leave in. This is because you have to leave out almost all of the book. A short summary CANNOT hold you entire novel and still make sense, unless almost nothing happens in your book.

My synopsis ended up being very high-level, much more high-level than I thought it would have been when I first started trying to write a synopsis. Eventually I realized that I needed to emphasize style and voice and a few main characters — because really, anyone reading the synopsis is just trying to get a feel for the book. So you’ve got to put the “feel” in, but you don’t need anything else. (But don’t forget to put the ending in! There are no secrets in a synopsis!)

So, dear reader, I am saying you need to cherry pick your novel. Make it make sense, but show surprisingly little of the plot (especially in the query letter). But I have this warning too: be careful how you summarize. Summary is a completely different type of writing than what most of us are used to in fiction, and it’s very easy to emphasize the WRONG parts, and make the story seem like something it isn’t.

Here are two examples:

1) (via David Brin on facebook)
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
— Marin County newspaper’s TV listing for “The Wizard of Oz”

2) The infamous “Shining” trailer on YouTube

I think these talk for themselves, but let me say it one more time to let it sink in: Summary is about DECIDING WHAT TO LEAVE OUT. Think about it. What did the summarizers leave out of the above examples?

Ok. ‘Nuff said.

ZOMBIESQUE now in bookstores!

DAW’s ZOMBIESQUE anthology, including my story “A Distant Sound of Hammers”, is now shuffling mindlessly through bookstores everywhere.

This is the first story that I’ve sold three times (first print rights, anthology rights, audio rights) and I’m pretty proud of it. It’s also the first to hit a bookstore shelf.

A tightly compressed, slightly modified, and free audio version of the story is available on Drabblecast here.

But the original “director’s cut” (as it were) is in Zombiesque. You can buy it from Amazon here. Give it a shot!

On Writing #13: Momentum and Focus — And a Trick to Keep Novels On Track

Finishing the rough draft of a novel is all about momentum and focus. It’s about not giving up halfway through, not giving into the temptation to go write something else when you’re almost done.

Novels are big. You have a long way to go until the end, and chances are things won’t be perfect after the first pass (there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — a famed “first draft” novel — actually went through several revisions before publication, and I have sneaking suspicion this happens to all of them).

Basically, don’t worry about making your novel perfect the first time through. It’s probably not going to happen. The key is to keep slogging on. Don’t let your momentum wane or you might get stuck. Don’t give into temptation and go write a different book or you will (most likely) never come back to this one.

I hear you ask, dear reader: But how? How do you keep going when there is so much still broken?

I use three relatively common techniques (and while I have not sold a novel yet, I have, at least, finished several, and gotten a full in front of an agent).

A) I revise the previous session’s work before starting new words. This is probably the most common technique out there, and it works for many of us (everyone is different, of course). I simply re-read and edit-as-I-go all the words I wrote last time. It gets me into the voice again, and into the flow, and it helps keep the total number of continuity errors down.

B) I keep a “Fix Later” list. Sometimes there are really big changes — changing the sex of a central character, inserting a character/theme you’ve just invented throughout the rest of the story, or maybe I’m worried that someone’s pistol is anachronistic or changing brands — edits that would require some research or maybe even days of work to fix. In these situations, I usually just jot down a few notes about what I think is wrong on my “Fix Later” list. Then I put it out of my head and pretend it’s already done. It’s kind of like Wile E. Coyote running on air, and it’s probably the most important technique I learned to actually finish a novel.

C) I fix the ones that give m nightmares. Sometimes B) is not enough. Sometimes your brain starts to feel out of balance and can’t “pretend” anymore that all the edits have been made. In these few situations, I go back and make the edits that are bugging me ASAP. Best practice is to keep these times to a minimum, less the momentum of your novel die.

My current novel editing process:

1) When the “very rough” draft is done — meaning that I have have finished writing the last chapter — I work through all my “Fix Later” list. This takes a while. As I go, I find more scenes that I don’t like and places where I’m missing info. I make a list of these too. Then I fix them. Once all these basic edits are done, I have a first draft.

You say: A first draft! You must be done, right?
You must be ready for beta readers?
What do you do with a first draft then?
Well, the primary rules is — I don’t show it to anyone. It’s only a first draft, and not even really that. It’s the first take of the first draft.

2) Now I search the first draft for overused phrases, -ly words, etc, and make sure I need them. If I HAVE to have them, I leave them. Otherwise they end up dead on the floor. I now have the first draft, second take.
So you’re done, right? Beta reader time?

3) I now read the whole first draft to myself, ALOUD. Reading aloud really helps me catch rhythm mistakes, missing words, awkward phrasing, and (unintended) grammatical errors.

I also usually can see the major clunky bits of scenes, and I end up either adding description or taking away stuff I don’t need. Lots of scenes get rewritten from the ground up.

Once this is done, I have a second draft. And before you ask, no it’s not done.

4) Now I read the second draft aloud to my wife (or other willing victim, though I have yet to find one). The performance of the piece makes me note where things still don’t move smoothly. Also, she will catch flaws as well. When this is done, I have the third draft.
Ahh, beta readers now?, I hear you ask.
Yes. Now you’re right.

5) This third draft goes to beta readers. After I incorporate feedback from them, I have a fourth draft and (hopefully) a submittable novel.

But if you’re hoping this is the end of the story, let me burst your bubble right here: I haven’t sold a novel yet, but I’ve heard that this is just the beginning of edits. The agent may request changes, then the editor at the publisher, then there are page proofs, galleys, etc.

My advice: Write a novel you love, or you may end up sick of it.