Rows to Hoe

The last six months have been a strange time for me. I won’t bore you with all the details, just take my word for it. For the literary among you, it felt like my whole life was moving in a widening gyre. The salient detail here is that I wasn’t doing much writing. Oh, I’d write that occasional blog post or chip away at a story here or there, but there was none of the sustained writing I was doing a year ago. I’m happy to report that that situation has finally started to correct itself.

I’ve been working on some new things recently. I’ve got a new Contingency Jones story in the works, along with a new Sam Branch short story and the beginning of a new Branch novel. I’ve been working on a couple of TV show ideas that might one day see the light of day. And I’ve been revisiting the machinima idea that I was working on last year. There’s been some revision to the scripts for the first five episodes. I’ve acquired a theme song for it, as well as looking around for some royalty free music to use as incidental music inside the episodes. I’ve also been doing some fresh video capture with my brother for the first episode.

I’ve also been, oh so very slowly, doing a little more work on the audiodrama idea I was working on last year. That one is harder because it isn’t just the writing. There’s a lot of moving pieces in an audiodrama that I don’t necessarily have total control over. Suffice it to say, work is happening on that.

In other news, I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology. It’s awesome and you should read it! Also, I’ve started to learn to code in JavaScript. Yeah, I knew you’d be excited about that. 😉

Fear of Failure

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photo credit: zetson via photopin cc

Here’s a universal truth for you: everyone fears failure. Here’s another universal truth for you: failure is inevitable. I believe those two truths are responsible for more people not pursuing their dreams, writing or otherwise, than almost anything else.

We fear failure, rightly, because it’s emotionally difficult. Those sloppy, ill-considered, early attempts at something new don’t seem to measure up. We look at our heroes, compare our work to theirs and are struck by shame or inadequacy. We just aren’t good enough. We’ll never be that good. What the hell were we thinking even trying this new thing?

That negative self-talk leads to one inevitable conclusion. Go back to what you know. Go back to what you’re good at and never try something new again.

Of course, there is also the inevitability of failure. We go into most new things cognizant that we probably won’t succeed the first time or the second or probably even the ninth or tenth times we try. That inevitability paralyzes us because we also know, going in, that we’re going to feel like crap when we do inevitably fail.

The thing about failure is that it’s largely a matter of perspective. The first novel I tried to write…in point of fact, the first three novels I tried to write were awful. I’m talking awful on an epic scale. Aside from a few concept level things that I cannibalized for other works, there was almost nothing redeeming about those books. By my current standards, those novels were failures. The operative phrase in that last sentence is “by my current standards.”

At the time, I was writing as well as I could. From my perspective, then, those abandoned attempts at novel writing were not failures. The words I put on the page were trite, contrived, pretentious, clichéd and derivative words, but no more so than any other novice writer cutting his or her teeth. They were not failures, but learning experiences. Incidentally, if you can avoid being self-critical, all failures are learning experiences in the long run.

Since I took my first swing at novel writing, I’ve had a lot of practice at writing. If I had to take guess, I’d say a couple million words worth of practice. Practice taught me a lot. Study of the craft hasn’t hurt either. I’ve probably read tens of millions of words in the intervening years, which was a learning exercise in itself, as well as reading some excellent and not-so-excellent guides on craft. All of that has given me a very different view of what comprises good writing.

Here’s another truth, the sting of failure fades. It doesn’t necessarily fade quickly, but it does fade. The sting of regret, on the other hand, lasts for a lifetime.

Hubris Is Not a Bad Thing For Writers…Except When It Is

photo credit: nWoSyxx via photopin cc

photo credit: nWoSyxx via photopin cc

In most situations, hubris is catastrophic. It leads you to overestimate your competence, which undermines your credibility. This inevitably leads to job problems and, potentially, to problems in your personal life as well. For writers, though, hubris may not be such a bad thing. In fact, it might be essential for aspiring novelists.

Slaving away in solitude for months or years, depending on your process, requires a special kind of arrogance. You need to believe, deep down, almost zealot-like, that you are writing something extraordinary…something people will want to read…something that people will want to spend money on. Devoting that kind of time and energy to a project, especially for indie authors and first-time novelists who lack a fan base to shore up their egos, in short, requires hubris.

You need overweening pride in yourself, in your work, in your imagination and there is nothing wrong with that. Without that hubris in play, most books would go unwritten or unshared. You can’t do without it and you shouldn’t try. The problem with necessary hubris, and you had to know a problem was coming, turns up after you finish the first draft.

That same hubris that let you sustain the work can also lead you to believe that it doesn’t need the attention of an editor, or that the novel doesn’t have structural issues, characterization issues or simple language issues. You are, of course, wrong about that. No matter how well-crafted your novel’s first draft is, it needs work. Always. Period. Do not pass Go; do not collect your Pulitzer.

The hardest part of being a writer is seizing your hubris by the tail and hauling it in once the writing is over and the revisions begin. You need to be able to put away the pride and look objectively at the work. If this sounds a bit schizophrenic, well, it is. You’re a writer. Get used to cognitive dissonance. It’s what you signed on for. Think of your hubris like a tool. Not every tool is right for every job. Hubris is a tool for sustaining the process. Objectivity is the tool for seeing it through to the end.

The Difficulties of Writing a Novel Organically

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photo credit: rthakrar via photopin cc

Writing novels is hard work. Everyone who thinks otherwise is either not trying hard enough or has never tried it at all. None of which to say writing novels isn’t fun. It is, with the possible exception of some manga series and Aaron Sorkin’s run of scripts on The West Wing, the most expansive form of fiction a writer can embrace. You get to take all the space you need to tell the story you want to tell. That is incredibly liberating, but can also be problematic for an organic writer like me.

I don’t like outlines. I never have. I used to drive my professors crazy in college with my obstinate refusal to write them. Seriously, unless I was looking at a full letter grade drop on a paper, I just didn’t do them. For me, outlining is a lot like giving myself spoilers for the whole book.

Once I know, I mean really KNOW, how it’s going to turn out, I lose fire for the story. It becomes an exercise in following instructions (even if they are from me, to me) and nothing sucks the joy out of writing faster – for me – than extensive directions.

So, when I go to write a novel, I don’t outline. At most, I try to have an idea of where the novel needs to end, in general, and then I write. Granted, I try to write in a way to aims at that end point, but the rest is a mystery. The whole process becomes one of discovery for me, which I find exhilarating and fun.

Writing a novel that way does, however, pose difficulties. For example, I never know how long it’s going to be, which means I can’t anticipate how long it will take to write. I find out how long the book will be when I write the last sentence. That makes it very difficult to make announcements about when the next book is going to come out, since I have to finish before I know how long edits will take.

That uncertainty proved especially problematic as I worked on the latest installment of my Sam Branch series. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. The page count swelled to 250 pages. Then it went to 300…350…400. Just before I got to the 400 page mark, I was living in active fear.

I literally didn’t know how the book was going to end or, at least, not how to get the characters there, with over 100,000 words already written. Fortunately, insight hit and I managed to wrap it up around the 450 page mark, but it was still huge. In fact, in my head, it had swelled to monstrous, unwieldy size.

Surely it couldn’t hold the attention of readers at that length. Surely, it must be bloated with useless, unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. Had I, setting out with the best of intentions, spent the better part of a year writing 450 pages of crap that I would need to throw out?

My lack of an outline also denied me the comfort of knowing that I had stayed on task. All the assurance I had were my instincts that the book was written to the length it needed to be. No longer. No shorter. As it turned out, my fears were the only things bloated beyond all proportion or reason. My alpha readers all enjoyed the book, festooned with typos and grammatical errors though it was.

While I firmly believe my novels are better without outlines…since I quite probably wouldn’t write them if I wrote outlines…it makes it hard to play fair with readers. I can’t tell them things they want to know, because I sincerely have no clue. Of all the difficulties of writing organically, I find that one the hardest.

When Is It Time to Quit on a Story, Character, or Book?

Every writer of books is plagued by stories of how some author submitted a novel to 30 or 40 or 57 agents or publishers before finding it a home, only to go on to experience huge, decades-spanning success. It makes us wonder if we should be submit that story or novel to just one more place, because this next place could be the one that says yes. While I can’t give you any hard and fast rules about this –there is no equation — I do think there comes a time when we need to abandon old projects for new ideas. Here are my general parameters.

You’ve Been Trying for More Than 5 Years

I have this one story that I’ve been going back to, revising, tweaking, and editing for more than ten years. I’ve submitted it to dozens of magazines and it has been universally rejected. I’ll be honest. It breaks my heart a little that I never found a home for that story. I think it’s probably, on balance, one of the most powerful and well-written things I’ve ever done. But, after ten years and so many revisions I cannot count them anymore, I’m retiring that story from active submitting. It will, however, probably see life in some other context.

You’re Bored

Granted, every writer gets bored at some point during the writing process. It happens. That’s not what I mean. What I’m talking about is that moment where you realize that you’re phoning it in because you just don’t care about the story or characters anymore. When you stop caring, it’s time to let that idea go, because reader boredom won’t be far behind.

People Who Know Are Telling You It’s Bad

It’s a hard thing to hear that an idea is bad or a story doesn’t work or a novel isn’t compelling. The only thing worse than that is to push forward with it anyways. If one person tells you it’s bad, you can probably blow it off. If your writer’s group, your friends, an agent and an editor all say it’s bad, put that one in your drawer and forget about it. The odds that all of those people are wrong are infinitesimally low.

There may be other times when you should quit, like if it’s impacting your health, but the above three three are the times that I believe you should always quit and move onto a new idea. Sometimes, no amount of effort or revision can save an idea and absolutely nothing can save a book from the author’s boredom.

Do you have any personal guidelines for when to abandon an idea, book or character? Let me know about them in the comments below.

A Pre-Release Marketing Mistake

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photo credit: ktpupp via photopin cc

Timing is everything, so the saying goes, and I’ve learned that lesson recently in the pre-release phase of my new novel.

A while back, I promised a short story/prelude to the novel around the end of February/early March. Just as importantly, I delivered. What I wasn’t anticipating is that the short story ramped up some serious excitement among some Sam Branch fans.

Here’s the problem…that excitement, while terrific, came too soon.

The novel isn’t ready for release. It’s not even close to ready for release. I’m just about ready to start on my first serious post-writing read through. As other novelists know, that is a time-intensive process that can take weeks, if the novel is really clean, and months, if the novel needs a lot work. Even in an ideal situation, the new novel probably won’t go live until sometime in May or June.

So, while I felt personally good about releasing that short story when I did, because I said I was going to, it was a mistake from a marketing standpoint. I should have waited until I was no more than a month out from publication to release the story. If I had, it would have whetted the appetites of the fans and helped to build momentum for when the book does go live.

Instead, I’ve run the risk of annoying those fans with a long wait until they can read the book. As mistakes go, it’s probably minor, but it’s a still a mistake that I intend to learn from and one I hope you avoid.

The Periodic Update Thing that I Do

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photo credit: Daniel*1977 via photopin cc

Since I always have a lot of irons in the fire at any given time, some of which I mention on here or on other social media, some of which I don’t, it becomes necessary to provide the occasional update on my various and sundry projects. To that end, here are the updates:

The Big Project

Okay, the big project, the one I get asked about a lot, is the new Sam Branch novel. The novel is not dead and not even close to dead. It’s just taking a lot more time and gestation that I ever imagined it would. It is long ladies and gents. I mean it’s really long. Like 400 typewritten pages long and growing. Fortunately, I have a pretty clear sense now of what needs to happen to finish it, which I was still pretty hazy about 50 pages ago. I swear I’m closing in on done.

The Website

Many months ago, I proclaimed that the Sam Branch website was going to get updated. I meant it, despite no visible evidence that it was happening. There was stuff and things and life that got in the way. The death of a web designer’s computer, for example, and me working on the new novel and painting the new cover and the work that pays the bills. You know, life and stuff and things. The moment is upon us, however. I got the new files and installed them on the server. There is still one or two glitches to work out, but you can go and see the almost finished, shiny new version of the site here.

Audiobook?

I also mentioned, a very long time ago, that I was recording an audiobook version of the first Sam Branch novel, Falls. The project is not dead, either, I simply refer you back to the aforementioned life and stuff and things. It will happen. The notion has taken hold in my brain again and I’ll be making a concerted effort to record 1-2 chapters a week until it’s done. I may even post a few preview chapters for your listening pleasure, so keep your eyes open.

Short Stories

As I mentioned in a previous post about fiction and voice, I’ve been working on some short fiction. One of my goals for 2014 is to place 3 short stories in magazines. To that end, when my brain needs a break from novel writing, I work on short stories. Some of them are partially written. Some of them are finished, but not edited. Some of them are out for submission. There is one, however, that will be coming to you very soon. It’s a little prequel to the new Sam Branch novel and I’m expecting to make it available to you all around the end of the February.

So there you have it, some of the bigger things I’ve got going on. Now, as a little treat, I give you a link to Neil Gaiman reading Green Eggs and Ham. Why? Because it’s Neil Gaiman reading Green Eggs and Ham. Seriously, do you need a better reason?

3 Tips for Avoiding Formatting Hell

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Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As the default word processor for most writers, Microsoft’s Word program does a lot. In point of fact, it does so much that most people only use a tiny little fraction of the available functionality. Ironically, the thing it doesn’t do, isn’t particularly good at, and often makes more difficult is preparing a manuscript for publication.

While signed authors can simply turn over a file or hard copy to their publisher, who no doubt employs someone whose sole job it is to take that formatting nightmare and turn it into something that can be printed, indie authors must do this work themselves. More often than not, it is only at the end of the process that these authors discover that all that fiddling they did with fonts, spacing, title adjustments and so forth has created a monster. So here are three tips to help you avoid formatting hell

  1. Forget that the TAB key exists – Years ago, when I was taking a touch typing class, I was actually trained to use the TAB key to create indents for paragraphs. This training has caused me more problems than I care to mention in the formatting process. TAB does awful stuff beneath the visible layer of the document and can cause utter havoc in a PDF conversion process. If you need an indent for sanity (I do), set a left indent in the page layout tab that automatically inserts one when you hit enter.
  2. Avoid the Styles option – Word allows you to do all kinds of neat things with Styles, like create fancy chapter headings. You will need to do this eventually for some publishing outlets, but you don’t want to be going through trying to manually change Style Options for 30 or 40 chapter headings. Trust me on this, I’ve done it.
  3. Create Master Files – It might seem obvious, but you should have a master file. In fact, you should have 2 master files. One master file should be a copy of your original completed manuscript (for later reference) and the other should be a final version with all edits and changes in it. Once you have these two files, you should never alter them. Copy and paste the entire text into a new file to do outlet specific formatting.

While there are lots of other things you can do to avoid formatting hell, these three should save you a lot of mental anguish in the long run.

Writing Fearlessly

One of the biggest challenges I face in writing fiction is the temptation to doubt my own intuitions. As someone with an organic writing process, giving in to that temptation to doubt my intuitions can be crippling. I typically start out with only the vaguest idea of where the story is going and, most of the time, a wildly and painfully wrong idea. I know this and know it well. Yet, recently, I’ve found myself struggling with that doubt. Some 20,000-ish words into my new novel, I’m still waiting for that clarifying, ah-ha moment where the major plot points crystallize into something like a plan. By this point in my last two books, I knew where things were going and a lot of the why things were going there. I had a handle on the major themes and even a pretty clear idea of how long the books were going to be when they were done. This time, I know none of those things.

Here’s the weird part, when I can get past all those niggling doubts about my intuitions, the words keep flowing from the subconscious vault where I apparently store them. Scenes come together, characters interact and the story moves forward. Perhaps the problem is one of trust. The first two Sam Branch books followed a general sort of pattern, which is fine. The conflicts in those books were substantively different and if I leaned on a pattern to get from point A to point Z, I find it doesn’t bother me. Going into this novel, though, I knew that the structure of the story would be different. It had to be. This meant that I would be charting new ground in terms of process and couldn’t rely on my old tools to see me through. It was a leap into the unknown and one that I made willingly. Like all such leaps, it does come with a healthy dose of terror.

I know my old process would result in a finished book. It would probably result in one that entertained my readers. It would probably even be one that I was proud of in a shallow way. Writing a book, any book, even a formulaic book, is a feat of endurance. I’d know it was a cheat, though. As a writer, you only have a few choices. Stagnate and work with what you know, quit, or evolve. Evolving as a writer means ruthlessly pressing forward against that terror we all feel when faced with change. It means testing your ability to tell a different story or a different part of the story in a different way and trusting your readers to take that ride with you. In the end, it means writing fearlessly and accepting that your intuitions are not leading you down wrong paths, at least most of the time.

Of Things Mundane and Not

Mundane:

So, following the very annoying necessity of switching hosting services, I found myself in the unenviable position of needing to repost all of my old blog entries. Even when one posts as sporadically as I post, the task took a while. I did take the opportunity to excise some posts that had limited relevance, such as announcements about giveaways that have come and gone. A few posts didn’t make it back up because I only had partial versions of the posts saved in word documents or had no record of what those posts contained. On the off chance I find those posts in a complete form, I will add them back to the blog with a note about when they originally appeared (or as near as I can tell, as I have done with all of the old posts), so as to avoid confusion. A few posts got put up out of order, but I don’t foresee that being a particular problem as most of the posts exist perfectly well as stand-alone texts.

Not-so-mundane:

The giveaway of the new Branchverse short story, Smythe, went well. I anticipated very few people having an interest in it, short stories just don’t compel the same size of an audience as they once did, and was pleasantly surprised when more than 15 copies were picked up by readers. If you missed the giveaway, it’s still available on Amazon here. Amazon sets a minimum price of 99 cents for all ebooks, whether it’s a short story or a novel, so that’s the post-giveaway price. It does run approximately 28 pages, though, so you get something for your dollar.

The new, as yet to be officially titled, Branch novel is also moving along. I’m between 50-60 pages into the book, or around 20,000 words, which puts me near the 20% finished mark, all other things being equal. I’ve been aiming for a steady pace of writing for the new book and, so far, it seems to be working. While there is something gratifying about coming back to a new book every few months and knocking out 40 or 50 pages in a mad, 24 hour writing spree, it’s hard on the body and inefficient. So, I’ll only resort to that if I must. 🙂