What do you want to do with your life?

When I was young, sometime during high school, I told my parents that I’d realized what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer and I had proof of both the ability and committed desire to do so: I’d already written 30,000 (Or was it 10,000? Memory is so slippery.) words on one story which I’d read aloud in my Senior (Or was it Junior?) English class. Raised as I was I realized that writing was one of “those” professions–those which my parents didn’t think of as “real” jobs. But I was certain if I proved my determination, surely they’d get on board. So after proving it to myself, at 17, I told my parents I knew what I wanted to be: a writer. My Dad laughed, guffawed, in my face. Then I counted off on my fingers the reasons why I was serious. He sniffed derisively, said “keep your day job,” and left the room.

I persisted. I’d realized that my parents really couldn’t force me to go to school–short of bodily carrying me there every day (which my dad did do at least once)–so I started staying home from school and writing. I worked hard, preemptively attempting to ensure that my parents at least saw me “working” a full day. I assumed that if I put in a full day of work, that surely it wouldn’t matter what domain it was in. I didn’t realize that my parents cared not about hours applied, but about hours applied for a paycheck. They wouldn’t have cared if I spent every waking moment writing if I wasn’t earning a steady paycheck immediately doing so. It’s weird, when you think about it: culturally, we have a much easier time accepting the value of a job at McDonalds then jobs where the rewards are less tangibly connected to the efforts invested. And I get it, somewhat. I have seen friends and relatives pursue degrees in music, theater, musical theater, film, and photography; Most of them attempted to make a living in their area of expertise, but most have “washed out.” They’ve gotten tired of hacking together a life out of various poor paying gigs which–while in their area of expertise–aren’t what they imagined for themselves when they were in school. One friend, who I thought had immense potential as a screenwriter, went to LA, placed well in some screenplay contests, met his now wife, and now lives in Arizona working in I.T.. I hope he still writes. Another friend, a talented director, got video-related jobs after college, but was barely skinning by on three or more gigs. Cobbling together a living that way just isn’t much fun after a while–especially when your dreams of being a director really don’t make it any more rewarding to set up and coordinate conference calls. He went back to working in a skilled labor position, exactly like he had held through college. Only one of my friends seems to be “making it” in a way which is relatively close to his abilities and desires. He is a commercial producer and director in North Dakota. I’ve seen some of his stuff, it looks incredible.

Anyway, the point is I get that the odds can be stacked against ones success in many creative pursuits. But I honestly don’t feel they’re unassailable for those willing to do “what it takes” to make it. In Hollywood they have a saying, “no one fails, they just give up.” But that’s how I feel now, more and more; It’s not how I felt then. Then I put a lot more stock in my dad’s all knowingness. Somehow, while I consciously rejected much of what he said, subconsciously some part of me was subverted by it. Ultimately, when it was clear I was not going back to high school, my parents insisted I get a full-time job or move out. I had no car and no GED. I found a job working for a real jerk at a lumberyard. He was so mean, I only lasted a week. My mom didn’t believe my account until much later–after they gave me an involuntary one-way ticket to elsewhere–when she went to the lumberyard and was so poorly treated as a customer that she cried.

My free one-way ticket to anywhere took me to Utah, where I figured I’d have an excellent familial support network. And it began a very long chapter in which I worked many jobs, got married and divorced, eventually went to college, and met my second (and much more compatible) wife with whom I’ve had a daughter and built a very rewarding rich life. But all along the way there was the dream of writing. There were also numerous obstacles. I didn’t want to be stuck working menial jobs for the rest of my life–as I felt confident I would without a degree–so eventually, when I was motivated enough, I completed a Bachelor’s of Science in Economics with Honors. The idea was that I’d then be able to get a “good job” where I could make a comfortable wage while writing. Honestly though, after graduating and going to work for a bank, I realized that I didn’t really like banking or even many of the jobs my degree made me suited for. I went back to graduate school in Computer Science thinking that I wanted to get into Web Development. I thought if I could get into something Computer Science-y, that I’d finally have it made: I’d have the excellent, rewarding day job which would provide a stable robust income while I pursued my passion in writing on the side.

Two years later, I’ve taken several Computer Science classes and moved to San Diego with my family. I’ve found another decent paying job at a bank. Honestly, I think I would enjoy something more Computer Science-y still. But the whole point of this lengthy post is that just this week I realized I’ve become adept over the past 20 years at putting obstacles in front of my dream of writing. Furthermore, I realized that I’ve been beating around the whole damn bush for a very long time. Ever since my dad said that there was no future in writing, I’ve continued to want to be a writer, but also been largely unfulfilled and frustrated doing anything else. I realized I haven’t treated Writer as a valid occupation. That I’ve been agreeing implicitly with my dad: that writing is some long-odds gamble where even the lucky don’t make a living.

But then I discovered a book called Write. Publish. Repeat.. Intuitively, even before I began to read, I suspected what I’d find within the book. And sure enough, the authors ascribe to the “no-luck” approach to making a living as a Professional Writer. Essentially, their approach boils down to write, publish, repeat. If you write and publish enough (assuming your work is quality and well-edited and presented), you will eventually have enough books out there making sufficient income to be able to live off of. Under the old system, sure, the odds were a lot longer, but now, if you’re willing to work hard enough, successfully making a living as a Professional Writer is not only possible, it’s likely. And that’s when it clicked.

I don’t need to focus on any other steps between me and my ultimate goal; And I need to stop thinking of it as some long-off pipe-dream. I need to think of Writer as a valid profession, a real career; And I need to stop putting up obstacles between me and executing on my goal. I don’t need to spend the next 5 years building my web development skill set and experience just so I can get a web dev job. Because in 5 years, in all likelihood, I’ll be making my living as a Professional Writer.

It’s just weird how for so long I’ve wondered what I really should be doing with my life when the answer was always right in front of my face; I just didn’t want to see it and believe it. To agree that writing is my real career goal is frightening. It’s scary because it doesn’t allow me to hedge anymore. And it’s scary because some significant part of me still believes that odds are stacked against me and that effort expended (as when I was 17) doesn’t count. That at the end of the day, even if I’m putting in the hours, it will all be for nothing. And it’s just downright scary to put aside a much surer thing (web dev) and take a leap of faith and attempt what, for many, is the impossible.

I’m facing down demons from my youth here. It’s going to be an interesting ride. But I’m excited to do a lot of writing, tell a lot of stories, and make some money off my products. Worse case scenario, I continue to make a decent living at the bank, release some books which will be read by at least a few people, and have a legitimate side-income to show for my efforts. Perhaps it will fund a comfortable retirement for us at a minimum… We’ll see. I’m excited to find out after all these years if I, or my dad, were…are right.

P.s., And in the meantime, just to be clear, I’m going to stop cultivating my interest in web development. Which is not to say that I will never do web development, but just that it will be my hobby after I’ve become a Professional Writer. The additional benefit is that it will give the coming Front-End Revolution (I predict a seismic shift from Back-End oriented systems built on Ruby on Rails or PHP to Front-End systems using Ember, Meteor, Angular, Dart, and the like) time to mature. When I do learn web development, it’ll be for FUN and because I have some “app” ideas I want to build for my own use.

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I’m still here, really!

It’s been a long time since I posted a new entry on my writing blog. My excuse is that I’ve been busy. In the past year I started a Master’s in Computer Science at one school and then transferred to another. I also held four jobs last year (just how things worked out), with the most recent starting in September of last year and lasting until August of this year–at which point they asked me to become a contractor. Now I work for myself, as a contractor, while also looking for gainful employment in San Diego. This time last year we were in Bozeman, Montana. The year before that, we were in Salt Lake City, Utah. Before we came to San Diego, we thought we were moving to Austin, Texas…but after a week there we just could handle the heat so we kept going and eventually settled down here in Solana Beach, California. We’re less than a mile from two beaches and tons of great shopping and food, and it’s beautiful and temperate. So the changes have been coming hard and fast, and they’re not over yet.

Hopefully the last major change for a while will be the acquisition of a new full-time job, and getting up to speed in that position. The whole process of looking for, interviewing for, and starting a new position is always scary as hell. For me, anyway. I don’t think it shows, and I don’t think I’m abnormal, but it makes me nervous meeting so many new people, and just hoping beyond hope that someone hires me soon and starts paying me money so that my wife, me, and our daughter can continue eating and paying our rent and the rest of our mountain of bills. It’s a tenuous time for us. But, I’m sure one of the opportunities I’ve been pursuing will come through, it’s just hard being patient while they meander their way to resolution. That, and it’s scary knowing that eventually one *will* come through, and I’ll have to start my new job which will involve yet more new people, learning new things, and trying to “add value” as soon as possible and do a good job. It’s also scary because my wife, me, and our daughter have been blessed to spend most of the last year or so together…I’ve been working from home and doing an online Master’s program, so we were basically always around each other. It has been precious. But when I get a new job, it’ll likely entail me working a lot outside of our home, and I’m not looking forward to being apart from my family 50 hours week (including commute time). It makes me grumpy even thinking about it. But so it goes. We need to pay our bills, and if a job which can pay those bills is outside our home, that’s just the way it is. It won’t last forever, and we can move forward on our plans to start our own businesses and procure and independent life which would enable us to all spend a ton of time together. Getting a “real” job is just part of our strategy right now. A necessity. Nothing more.

On the writing front, nothing much has been happening. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I, as a writer, would like to see in a truly innovative writing application. Some of the best I’ve scene are Scrivener and Yarny, but neither of them are innovative. They’re effective writing tools, but nothing earth shaking. I have the sneaking suspicion that we can do better. We’re essentially still using an interface reminiscent of the typewriter and early word processors: typing words on a (virtual) page. But we’re no longer bound to that motif. What other ways of writing could be more effective? Allow our ideas to run and roam more freely? Assist us with structuring and designing our stories, and characters? So far the best I’ve come up with is something I call Scene Writer. It hinges on the idea that all stories are in fact scenes. What if we just wrote scenes and transitions between scenes? Do you have any ideas for innovative ways of “writing?” Anything which you’d love to see in fiction writing software which hasn’t ever been done yet?

Soon I’ll get back to writing. It’s just very difficult for me to do with so much changing under our feet. Writing, for me, requires stability. Unless there’s a minimum of stability, I have a hard time digging deep and rummaging around my heart for material that matters to me.

The Daily Grind

I’ve been feeling a bit morose about my writing lately. I’ve been doing it religiously–even when I’m so sick (now) that I can barely keep my protagonists straight from my antagonists–five minutes a day, always. But I find myself opening Scrivener, finding an appealing section of my outline to embellish, and jumping in. The problem is, while I *am* writing real content with the intention of finding out what my story is about in all its nuanced glory, I also feel like I’m kinda bullshitting.

For example, tonight I did some writing about the various countries/continents/peoples that inhabit the world of The Unchosen. I discussed how they were similar to various countries and ethnicities that people our world, and that having more than the main countries around–in the periphery of my story–is necessary to make the world my story is set in seem more authentic.

After writing for about ten minutes and calling it a night, I felt kind of like a fraud. Like here I am writing every day, but nothing that really matters. I’m not writing my actual story, just the outline. And I’m at nearly 40,000 words in my rough sketch outline so far.

Here’s the consensus I’ve come to so far: it doesn’t really matter because this is just a phase in my writing. Phase 1) Dump everything down, muse about it, dump some more. We could call it the DO LOTS OF DUMPING phase. The whole point of this phase is to get a sense for the texture of the story, the characters, and the world. It’s not necessary or even helpful at this point to be specific about plot points. I’m merely hanging tapestries, painting backdrops, hiring above and below the line talent, and scouting locations.

In Phase 2 I’ll get more specific. Whenever I get to that point, and it appears to still be a while off yet, I’ll take my Wandering Outline (what a great name), boil it down to the essentials, and get specific.

If that wasn’t clear enough (and I realize it might not be). Here’s what I mean:

Phase 1) Get everything out, even if one sentence conflicts with the next. Muse about every possible conflict, every possibility, etc. Don’t worry about cliches and stereotypes. Put every idea you get down in this phase: creating the Wandering Outline.

Phase 2) Cut out the fat, trim the gristle. Here we go back through our Wandering Outline and trim out the possibilities that we don’t like as much as others that we keep. If, in our Wandering Outline, we have a character who’s a princess and a prince depending on where we discussed them, we decide what exactly we want them to be. Prince? Princess? Something else? In Phase 1 we put down a ton of material, much of it which conflicts with other material. We do our best in Phase 2 to make decisions. And we attempt to be more concise. Rather than blabbering on about the world dynamics, we try to simplify our discussion (for example) of which countries/peoples/ethnicities are in conflict and why.

In short: Phase 1 is all about the big picture. Phase 2 is all about the details and specifics.

Thoughts on this post? I’d love to hear them! Share below…

What’s Up, Abe?

For this weeks post, I thought I’d share some of the changes I’ve made in my process, as well as just generally muse about what I’ve learned as a writer in the past month.

Since August 12th–when I started tracking my word count and progress–I’ve written at least 5 minutes every day. For those who’re keeping track, that means I’ve maintained the Five Minute Rule for over a month. What’s more, as you can see on my Word Count page, my progress stands at 26,591 words. That’s a lot of expression!

Since becoming aware of the Five Minute Rule, and practicing it myself, I’ve discovered that many other writers credit the rule with getting them writing and completing their novels (etc.). Based on my success applying it so far, I’m certain I’ll be yet another writer who will credit my success to the rule. The thing is, if you haven’t read about it elsewhere, the most beautiful thing about the rule is–as one other writer said–“everyone has five minutes a day.” You may realistically not have a half-hour or an hour, but EVERYONE can find five minutes a day–even if it’s just the time you spend sitting on the toilet. Yes, I went there. And, as another writer I read (in Immediate Fiction, I think) described, you can actually write a novel in five minutes a day. It’ll take longer than if you were able to write ten minutes a day, but it will get done, and far faster than you imagine. Seriously, if you haven’t given the Five Minute Rule a go yet, try it out. I think you’ll find yourself writing for more than five minutes, and being far more productive than you would be not following the rule. For me the rule is helpful because five minutes doesn’t seem that intimidating. When I think about it, I think, “Sure, I can write for five minutes. It might suck and be difficult and messy and gross and irritating, but I can do it.” Back when I was trying to make time to write for a half-hour or a couple hours, I didn’t get much done and I felt muy bad about myself as a failed writer. There were two things going on then: finding two hours is muy dificile (very difficult), and the idea of writing for two hours is muy intimidante (very intimidating). On the other hand, finding and writing for five minutes is menos dificile (less difficult) and muchas menos intimidante (much less intimidating). Also, I personally found that often when I’d sit down to write for five minutes, I’d accidentally write for ten minutes of more–sometimes a half-hour even. Just getting started seems to be half the battle, and thinking of it as five minutes only, gets my butt in the chair and my fingers typing.

Also in the last month: initially when I began writing I used Yarny (Yarny.me). It’s a fantastic web app for writing. It’s appealing to look at, very intuitive to use, and just generally a delight. However, since it is a web app you access through your browser, you must have internet access to use it. This turned out to be a problem since some of the times I was able to write were at work, where internet access doesn’t access for my laptop itself, and where my phone gets poor data signal which makes tethering to it a no-go. If the laptop were able to directly connect to the internet through a cellular data connection (not via a tethered connection which has to run through the phone before going to the internet), the connection there at work might’ve been sufficient. But over the tethered connection it just didn’t work. I contacted the creators of Yarny to ask about features they had indicated months ago (maybe even last year) that they were/are working on. Specifically, I asked about offline support–since this was the primary feature I needed to be able to use Yarny anywhere. I received a nice reply back thanking me for using Yarny and reassuring me that they had some “exciting features in the pipeline” but were currently busy preparing for Nanowrimo. I appreciate the nice response, but I can’t build my personal writing plans on hopes and dreams (all that hopey changy stuff). I have to deal in what is, or what will soon be. And since they couldn’t/didn’t indicate that anything regarding offline support would be changing any time soon, I went in search of other options.

Luckily, about this time, school started again, and I was able to be awarded financial aid for the purchase of a computer for my Master’s degree. It’s got to last me for the next four years, but I am now the proud owner of a Macbook Air 11.6″ 2012 (MBA). It’s fully-loaded, BTO (built-to-order), with the i7 Ivy Bridge processor, 8 GB ram, 512 GB SSD hard drive. It’s screaming fast. And the extremely pricey, but very roomy SSD hard drive means that I have tons of room for media, program installation (which is good since I’ll be installing lots of Windows programs on the MBA via Parallels), and file storage. So far I adore this little machine. Oh yes, type on it is small, and that might bother some, but for me I love that I have a tiny, incredibly powerful/capable computer which can do anything and everything I need, wherever I happen to need to do it. At a drop of a hat I can do some writing, or programming (I use NetBeans), or whatever. The keyboard and trackpad are exceptional, the screen is fantastically clear, crisp, sharp, and bright; and the machine itself is extraordinarily well-made and very svelte looking. Yes, I still loathe Apple’s business practices. But they do make one hell of a machine. Oh, and their buying process is one of the most satisfactory I’ve ever encountered: When I ordered I was told that my MBA would ship nearly a week later. I ordered on a Thursday and was told it would ship sometime between Wednesday and Friday of the next week. To my surprise, my MBA shipped out of Shanghai, China, on Monday and arrived Tuesday. This is an exceptional example of “under promise, over deliver.” The set my expectations, and then exceeded them–making me one startled and happy customer in the process. Also, one last note on the MBA: I actually prefer Windows machines (especially Windows 7). I find that OS to be far more efficient for multitasking than the OS X for one primary reason: the Windows taskbar. Being able to mouse over a stack of Window icons in the taskbar and see thumbnails of all running instances of a program (say, various open Word documents) is remarkably useful. You mouse over the stack, they fan out into thumbnails and you chose the specific window you want and it takes you right to it. On OSX it’s a much more tedious process of finding your way to the exact Window you want. I’m sure I’ll get faster at using it, however, as I continue. So, OSX aside, I looked long and hard for a Windows machine which remotely approximated the quality and specs of the MBA 2012 line of products. And yes, for the record, I did look at the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon, the Asus Zenbook Prime, and the Dell XPS 13. The Carbon wasn’t truly available yet even though it had some excellent specs, fantastic build quality, and awesome design (it seemed to have some massive problems with shipping delays leading to a lot of uncertainty as to when a new buyer would actually receive their new Carbon). The Zenbook Prime was reviewed well by the “experts,” but featured many bad user reviews on Amazon, NewEgg and so on. Many users of the Zenbook Prime told about how they had ordered a Prime, received it, found it to have problems, ship it back, get another one, find it to also have problems, ship it back, get another one, find it had problems, ship it back…Basically, on Amazon, whereas the MBA had predominantly 4 and 5 star reviews, the Zenbook Prime had reviews distributed equally from 1-5 stars. Not a good sign. As reviewers said, Asus seems to have some real issues with their quality control. That put me off the Prime. The Dell XPS 13 was reputed to be Dell’s best laptop ever. It’s said to be extremely well-designed and constructed, with reasonably good performance. On the negatives side though, it doesn’t feature the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, or even the current generation i7 Ivy Bridge CPU, and it also comes with a maximum of 4 GB of memory (this is another reason I wasn’t interested in the Zenbook Prime UX31A: it too only came equipped with 4 GB and could not be upgraded to more). Also, the XPS 13 was said to have only an “okay” screen. All in all, in my shopping and comparing, only the MBA could be ordered in the small footprint (11.6″) with a great screen (not IPS by any means, but an exceptionally good LCD panel), light weight, and all the modern specs that I desired. I paid $2200 with the educational discount and received a $100 gift card for apps, music, and movies/tv on the iTunes or App store. It astounds me that at no price was there a competing PC offering. Even the Lenovo Thinkpad Carbon X1 was available only initially in an i5 Ivy Bridge CPU coupled with 8 GB of ram. Supposedly they will be releasing the option to get the i7 Ivy Bridge with 8 GB of ram in October. Still, how is it that Apple is the only one offering such incredibly mobile computers with awesome specifications? Whereas Windows OEMs are fighting over the commodity space. I’m surprised that at least one Windows OEM doesn’t pull an Apple and try to make themselves the purveyor of high-end Windows PCs and laptops: very fashionable and well-made machines that exhibit astounding performance and portability at prices which compete with Apple. But no, instead everyone seems afraid to compete with Apple–as if they have a monopoly on Awesome.

Anyway, so the MBA is a fantastic piece of hardware and I will get used to OSX eventually. It’s not bad, and the multitouch gestures on the trackpad really do help with getting around in a very magical and effective way. It’s kind of cool.

Having a Mac opened the door to Scrivener 2.3.1…which is significantly more advanced than its Windows or Linux counterpart. On Mac it’s a mature, stable, and fully-featured platform. On Windows and Linux (I bought it for Windows a year or so ago), it’s not as refined, not as fully-featured, and not remotely as stable. Especially on Linux it’s just a pain to use and unstable to boot. But on Mac it’s a joy. Since Yarny wasn’t going to be bringing out offline support any time soon, I copied and pasted all the writing I’d done in Yarny into a Scrivener project and started doing all my writing there.

Let me tell you: I love the combination of Scrivener and the MBA. I’ve written several thousand words so far in Scrivener on Mac, and it’s been a blast. I’m looking forward to continuing developing as a writer on the MBA using Scrivener.

The last thing I wanted to talk about was about how the process of writing continues to surprise me. I guess I came at writing with some pretty specific pre-conceived notions which haven’t served me well in the past. One of the main notions I had was that writers simply start writing their books. Only recently have I become aware that many professional writers outline extensively before they start “writing.” I’ve only recently become aware that my notion is actually referred to as “pantsing” in writerly circles, and that it’s a controversial topic because some writers swear by it, and others swear by outlining. After I read an excellent book on outlining by K.M. Weiland, I realized that what was holding me back was not knowing what to write before sitting down to write. For me the missing piece was learning about some outlining methods which fit my personality. I guess I’d known about outlining previously but had had a very specific notion that outlining was rigid, bullet-points, and dry. What K.M. laid out was a free-flowing, organic process for discovering and developing your story in a nuanced way–through outlining. I loved her description of the Sketch Outline: basically where you just pour out all your thoughts on the story in a free-flowing manner without editing, without criticizing, without second-guessing. You spit it out and muse on what you’ve spit out. And you spit out some more, and muse on it. And more, and so on. You ask lots of questions and run off on tangents and do whatever basically feels natural in exploring your story, world, and characters. At some point you have such a nuanced and detailed idea of your characters, world, and story that you’re able to start constructing a scene by scene breakdown of the events in the story. This is like putting up the structure of a house–which will later be filled in with walls, paint, windows, carpeting, wood floors, and then people, pets, furniture, etc.

Using this technique has freed me: both from worrying that I wasn’t doing “writing” right if I didn’t just start writing my story right away; and from the worry that if I didn’t start out immediately bullet-pointing and planning my book scene-by-scene, I was doing outlining wrong. As a writer, I’ve discovered that it’s enough, at this stage, to simply exercise my creative muscle and tap into my creativity regarding my WIP every day for five minutes or more. As I do it, it gets easier. And as I pour out my thoughts on the story, I discover ideas and nuances I would never have conceived of. My story and the characters and world it is set in are becoming more interesting and dynamic by the day.

So please, if you’re like I was–not writing because I couldn’t find the time, or because you’re worried about having to actually start writing either the story right away or a bullet-pointed outline–give yourself a break. Either using Yarny or Scrivener or a word processor, just create a document entitled something like, “Rough Outline.” I call mine the “Free Flowing Outline.” Then, every day, date your entry and start musing over some portion of the story which interests you. Never allow the part of yourself that thinks, “this is stupid,” to interrupt the process. Forge onward, gently stilling the voices of doubt and judgement in the back of your mind. Just write, and take great joy from following little strands connecting various characters, and various locations, and various ideas. Don’t sweat your grammar or spelling too much. Feel free to take off on tangents, ask yourself questions, ask your characters questions, have your characters talk to each other, peer into your characters heads and thoughts, and basically run wild. This stage, as I see it more and more, is the “run wild” stage. The real fun, play phase, where you’re letting your story be everything it can be including everything it can’t be. As I’m discovering, 26,591 words in, this “Rough Outline” can be easily as long as the book which will be created from it. And actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if my Rough Outline weren’t, say, twice as long as the book I’m shooting to write (85-90,000 words). And that’s okay.

The Point

…Is to keep writing.

I’ll admit: having started school (a Master’s in Computer Science; My Bachelor’s is in Economics), continued working part-time, and attempting to be a decent husband and father (to a seven-month old precious little girl), I’ve had a very difficult time keeping up with my writerly responsibilities. It’s difficult to find the motivation, energy, and interest in writing my weekly blog posts (I’ve decided doing two a week simply isn’t feasible. I’m going to start doing one a week whenever possible), do my weekly Critters Workshop review, and do my nightly writing for at least 5 minutes.

I frequently feel quite guilty because I’m not doing as well at the above as I’d like. But everything I have going on really makes me feel torn in multiple directions simultaneously. There have been more nights when it took me until the wee morning hours to finally bring myself to pull up Yarny, start the timer, and crank out a few hundred words. And there have been nights when I just had nutt’in. I put my fingers on the keyboard, think of my WIP, The Unchosen, and come up dry.

On those nights, whenever they happen, I’ve given myself permission. Number 1, I’ve given myself permission to suck. Number 2, I encourage myself to simply–at this stage–pour out any and all ideas that come to me and explore them (it’s like drilling an oil well: don’t stop until the damn thing runs dry). Number 3, I’ve given myself permission to write nothing which has anything to do with the story. Sometimes Number 3 results in 5 minutes of me complaining about how much I just want to be in bed, or how tired I am, or how guilty I feel about not being a better husband, father, employee, writer, student, etc. Sometimes I ramble about how excited I am about something I read in the news. And recently, more than one night I wrote a couple hundred words about my attempts to identify the best laptop for my needs as a computer scientist and writer. Aside: I prefer Windows, but after much ado, I discovered that no sufficiently powerful, capable, portable, quality machine existed in the Windows camp. Consider the Dell XPS 13. It has a great form factor, excellent construction, and a reputably good keyboard and trackpad. However, by comparison to the Macbook Air the screen was said to be “not as good,” and the top-end XPS 13 only came with a last-generation intel processor, last generation of integrated graphics (Intel HD 3000), and only 4GB ram. Likewise, the Asus Zenbook Prime was well-reviewed by the “experts” but very poorly reviewed by actually users (on Amazon.com). Also, the 11.6″ Zenbook Prime with the 1080p screen has apparently never, somehow, been released in the U.S. Basically, there was not a Windows computer available at any price which was the equal of the Macbook Air 11.6″. The upcoming release of new Windows 8 machines may change that–but if history tells us anything it is that Windows hardware makers just DON’T GET IT. They seem unable to create products that approximate Apple’s laptops in quality, style, and price. Let’s be honest. I spent $2200 on a maxed out 11.6 Macbook Air, but I doubt any Windows laptop maker would be able to provide the same specs for that price: current-generation i7 Intel CPU, Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, 8GB ram, 512GB SSD hard drive, and a fantastic keyboard, trackpad, and screen. My new Macbook Air 11.6″ should arrive by Wednesday morning! My only hesitation is that, while I’ve never crashed the operating system, in past usage of a Mac, I successfully crashed multiple applications on it every single day. Not very impressive. Solid OS, crappy applications? Or does the nature of the OS make it difficult to create resilient applications? Anyway, I’ll install Windows 8 via Parallels on it so I can run whatever Windows programs I deem necessary.

ANYWAY. Yes. When all else fails, I simply tell myself I MUST write for at least 5 minutes. Something. Anything. And I have for the past month. If you’re keeping score, via My Word Count page, you’ll note that the last month has seen me produce 21,177 words! That’s a lot of written expression! And, while it’s not structured since I’m in the unstructured, sketch-outline phase of brainstorming my book, a lot of it is pretty good. At this rate the sketch-outline/brainstorm of the book will almost be as long as the actual book itself when finished! Crazy. But, it needs to be recognized, that I am in my infancy as a writer. I’m still learning a lot about which methods and techniques work for me, and which don’t. So far I think the free-form outline process as been a great success. It allows me to simply open the doors to my creativity and let whatever my subconscious has come up with come out. But as a “newbie” at this, it will take some time before I discover my own unique efficient way of crafting engaging entertaining novels. What I’m doing now is a great way to start. I highly recommend it.

What has worked for you? Please comment below…

Writing is Acting

In really entertaining fiction, the writer gives the reader a vivid picture of events as they occur through what his characters see, feel, and think. Creating this vivid fictional experience is exceptionally difficult–so difficult in fact that many commercially successful novels succeed in spite of lacking this riveting “deep perspective” experience to the reader. I’m talking about the difference between:

Adam felt enraged. Blake hadn’t won but he thought he had.

And…

His pulse pounded in his veins. His face and chest clenched into a vise. I’ll get that prick, oh yes I will. Look at that smirk on Blake’s face. He actually thinks he’s won.

See the difference? In the first we’re told what happened with all kinds of narrative distance. In the second we experience the event (whatever it may be, I just winged this one) as it feels to Adam, and hear some of his thoughts. It gives us a lot more of an immediate experience and reveals a lot more character.

The beauty of this approach is that stories gain nuance when we only observe from one characters POV at a time. If we only have access to what they know/see/feel/hear/think in that moment it leaves a lot out… And all that which is unobserved, not considered, not thought of, could bite them in the butt in the end. It creates a tension and presents opportunities for characters to misunderstand each other, misread situations, and so on.

I doubt there are many writers who would argue with the above. Mostly, I imagine, writers struggle with tapping into their characters and delivering that deep immersion experience.

Creating an immersive experience of your characters and story world is done by acting. In other words, you put yourself in your characters shoes.

Try this. Pick a character and think about everything you know about them. Good. Now, close your eyes and focus all your attention on that character: their likes, dislikes, fears, features, ticks, possessions, goals, etc. Imagine yourself slowly becoming that character. If they have a dog, so do you; If they have coffee at the artsy place on the corner of 3rd and Thomas every Thursday morning to hobknob with the hippies, so do you; If their nose is crooked from a fight they got into with their sister when they were you, seen it on your face. Become them. Now, imagine their bedroom, and them asleep in their bed (or cot, or bed roll, whatever). Dive into them as a spirit fills the husk of a body. Then animate them. As your physical eyes remain closed, open the eyes of your character in your head. Lay there in that place and look at the ceiling. Listen to the sounds around you. Do any thoughts come to you? Rise from the bed and look around your characters room. How is it adorned? Walk from the room and explore the world you (the character) live in.

This is a basic exercise which can be applied in any scene or setting and with any character. If your character is in battle, dive into his body and observe the conflict through him. When you return to yourself, write what you discovered.

In my reviews of other writer’s work, the greatest challenge a talented writer faces is really crafting scenes and interactions through the actual experience of the characters involved. This is probably because sometimes we writers focus on what needs to happen (plot) more than we address how it happens. In many ways that sort of writing is just mannequins going through the motions prescribed by the author.

You know you’re falling prey to the clinical detached form of writing in you encounter in your writing the words felt, feel, thought; Or, if you find yourself narrating events, rather than describing them intimately from within your characters.

What other techniques do you use to make your writing visceral and immediate? I’d love to hear about them! Comment below!

All The Things I’ve Tried

I have tried many many different tactics to get myself to write and develop a meaningful story.

Think about trying some of the following, if–like me–you’re new to the game and looking for inspiration:

1) Write at LEAST five minutes a day, every day, no matter what. Trust me, you can do this one.
2) Revisit your story as you lay in bed, drifting off to sleep. This nightly connection helps remind your subconciousness to percolate on your story as you sleep. Plus, I like being connected to my story.
3) Have your Sketch Outline (what I call a free-form, flowing, informal style outline) broken out by chapters, or acts, or parts, or however you think.
4) Also keep a “freewrite” section, where–when structured ideas don’t come ready-made to be plugged into your Sketch Outline–you put musings, thoughts, random wandering and writing about stuff related to your story. Hell, on one particularly challenging day when nothing came to me for my story, I just wrote in that section about the quandary I’m facing trying to decide which new computer to buy (I think I’m going to go for the 13″ Macbook Air, as my wife wisely suggests). But most days I’m able to either write in the Sketch Outline section, or in the even more informal Freewrite section which could also be considered my “Percolation” section. It’s where I explore ideas without censoring myself in the slightest bit.
5) Write what appeals to me. Many times, when I sit down to write, I imagine walking up to my story and meeting it as it is at that very moment; or opening an ornate old door on the magical world my story is set in and peaking in to find out what’s going on there… But whatever metaphor you use, I find that using a metaphor to approach my story helps me discover what aspect of the story has been percolating in my absence and what’s to be put on paper. Today it was a discussion of how a revolution works. Does someone just decide to revolt? Answer: No. So what happens? Pressure gradually builds until a match lights the tinder which has been carefully piled high. It seems to me that very few revolutionaries start out thinking of themselves that way. And that is exactly the sort of thought I wrote in my freewrite/percolate section tonight.
6) Keep track of when you write and for how long (I use a free/intuitive service called Toggl.com). This helps you know when you’ve achieved your five minutes. Often I find that once I start time flies by and before I know it, Toggl tells me I’ve been writing for fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s time for bed. Well, I tell myself it’s time for bed. Toggl only tells me how long I wrote.
7) Keep track of your productivity. I find it is VERY motivating to be able to see that, yes, I did my time every day AND to see my word count grow over time. And yes, I value keeping track of my Sketch Outline/Freewrite writing. It’s not any lesser an effort than the story itself will be when I write it.
8) Look at things from every angle. Don’t allow yourself to make assumptions. Hah. Yeah right. Okay, so initially you’ll make assumptions. Note them. When you’ve made assumptions, or exercised your cliche-bone, these are the opportunities to really enrich your story. Like me with my realization that I had a whole bunch of revolutionaries in my story and no idea how the revolution had started… I didn’t even know how a historical revolution like the American Revolution started. I mean I knew the hyperbole (we wanted our independence and freedom SOOOO badly that we were willing to fight and die for it…which is only partly true), but I didn’t know the step-by-step, paint-by-numbers path to that revolution. Turns out that even hundreds of years ago, humans being humans and following their incentives is what led a bunch of people who had no plan to revolt, to revolt. Surprise! Having discussed and researched this area of assumption will make the revolution aspects of my story more believable–even to those who don’t know any more about revolutions then I did.
9) And this is related to #8: Constantly shift gears. The only way to keep building a story is to bounce from aspect to aspect, turning them upside down, inside out. Look at your characters, who they know, who they don’t know, what they know, what they don’t know, where they live, where they wish they lived, the religions, the architecture, the government, the mythology, the texts, the schooling, the geography. Relentlessly examine every last iota of your story. Doing so will reveal new opportunities to develop your story in unforeseen, worthwhile, dynamic ways.
10) Talk to someone you trust. But only as much as you need to get unstuck. And make sure they understand that your story will shift many times as you mold and shape it and the character who is passive may become active; and the angel you describe one night, might be a diabolical villain the next. It’s quite the roller-coaster being around as a writer shapes their story, it takes a special person to enjoy the process without becoming frustrated that the ground constantly shifts between their feet.
11) Go for a walk or do the dishes. Seriously. There’s nothing like doing something repetitive and straight-forward that precludes writing to fire my idea-center. Sometimes procrastination and simply giving ourselves permission to do so are immensely helpful. If you find yourself procrastinating: forgive yourself, do your five minutes, and call it a day.

This post is about all the methods I’ve attempted as part of beginning to write. Five minutes a day. Keep track of how much I write, and when and how long I write (Metrics). Don’t be rigid. Whatever comes, comes.

Real Characters

We in fantasy are renowned for our use of stereotypes. Granted, there are exceptions, but many fantasy works feature stock characters. These stock characters are often the primary element of a story which detracts from its impact and entertainment value.

You know the ones I’m talking about: beautiful, handsome, daring, infinitely resilient, endlessly whiny, destined characters. The stock nature of many of these characters is either 1) physical, or 2) emotional. Both types play a sour note in many a tale. The irony is that other than stock characters, many of these tales also feature well-imagined, exotic lands and places; complicated cultures, societies, and religions. In other words, everything but the characters is vivid and riveting.

But what can be done about these drab, run-of-the-mill characters? Much.

Start by looking around you at the people in your life: coworkers, friends, acquaintances, bosses, ex-bosses, the guy behind the counter at the gas station. All our rich sources of inspiration for much more dynamic, real, characters. And don’t forget yourself. You pick at yourself inwardly and externally; you twitch, wince, scowl, and faun. Inwardly, your thoughts differentiate you even more from someone who otherwise could be your physical carbon copy. And this is where you have to dig fearlessly. Really get to the core of your own idiosyncrasies and bequeath them on your unfortunate characters.

Beginning today, start a mental diary (or physical, your choice) of all the idiosyncratic stuff you observe in the people around you. Note physical oddities as well as mental and emotional discontinuities. The more you observe those around you, carefully noting what makes Patrick unique from Corey, or Corey unique from Al, the more you’ll find your growing thesaurus of foibles spring readily to you as you write.

By imbuing your fantasty characters with the stuff you see in the banal real world around you, I guarantee your characters will become more dynamic, more engaging, and a heck of a lot more interesting. Your story will be the better for having characters which don’t distract from the rest of the very cool world you’ve created.  In the Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss) and The First Law Series (Joe Abercrombie) are both excellent examples of generally well-written fantasy which feature exceptionally interesting, unique characters.

Getting to the heart of it (Part 1)

As I’ve been wrestling with the beginning of my WIP, I’ve been trying various strategies for discovering other characters and situations which must organically exist in my story.

One of my first efforts was to get in deep with the characters in knew about. This worked, but only insofar as I learned a lot about my characters and a couple other intimate connections who will matter (a father, for one). But there were still many holes in my story sketch (or outline, as it were).

My next thought was to draw up a conflict /tension diagram. Mine was on a single sheet of paper with all the entities in my story written around the border. Then I drew red or orange lines between the entities representing first-order conflict or tension, and secondary sources of tension. A useful exercise, but not one which yielded much immediate fruit.

My next exercise, on that approach will be to dig into each entity and see what forces are at work within them (the military, for example). While I suspect this approach will be useful (let’s be honest, every approach is useful to a degree), I’m afraid I’m still not going to unearth the other characters I’m looking for.

This is why I have another idea, another possibly useful approach: free write a day (or week) in the life of each character that I know about. Hopefully, as I do so, I’ll discover which other characters they come in contact with and whether those characters are minor, major, or one-offs.

The point is that writing, I’m discovering, requires the author to be immensely adaptive… Always looking for another angle to try in search of the characters and substance or their story. Whatever methods work for you, or a specific story, are inherently good because they move you on your way, one step closer to your story. So keep on digging, trying new things, attacking every angle, until you find what you need.

What works for you? Please comment below!

But I don’t have time to write… (part 2)

My last plan didn’t work so well. As anticipated, when life is already rocking and rolling in the morning, it’s difficult–nay, impossible–for me to buckle down and write, even when the opportunity presents itself.

But you’re only beat when you cease to try, try again.

My initial mistake was in shooting too high. Yes, 2000+ words a day (5000-10000 ideally) is the eventual goal. But when I’m just trying to get started and build the writing habit I need to start small. Rather than trying to block out two hours a day, start with five or ten minutes. Or simply require yourself to write a smaller amount, like one hundred words, two hundred words, or a couple sentences. The goal is simply to write consistently.

Along those lines, my new plan: write ten minutes, every night, right before bed. But, recognising that I have a strong dislike of missing out on bedtime with my wife (I’m a sentimental chap), here’s the twist: I’m going to write IN BED. I’ll grab my laptop, set it on a very dim setting so I don’t keep her or the baby awake, and write for at least ten minutes every night. This way I get to have my cake and it it too. I’m not alone in another room thinking how much I’d rather be in bed with her, and I’m also getting SOME writing done. And every day I write SOMETHING is a good day, a day I AM a writer.