I started writing (and this website) with modest goals. Set up a writing routine. Get published, somewhere, anywhere. Have at least one-hundred people read my stories. Work on the craft, become a better writer. Consistently publish on this website.
Over the last one-plus year, I checked off those boxes. Quality is difficult to measure, but I definitely have routine, had 2 pieces published (one in a paper journal… impossible to know how many people read finishedThe Inspector’s Legacy, but we’ll take the check mark), publish 2-3x/month to this site, and worked on drills, classes, prompts and feedback to improve my writing.
Time to reset. The number one goal is to publish more. I’ve come close to having work published, but this ain’t horseshoes. Writing a few thousand words per week is pleasant… having real, consistent feedback and readers is better. Publishing 2-3 short stories per year is the number one goal.
The second goal is to self-publish a novella. I’ve mentioned Crystal Grove for months, and is still a work in progress. But I’d like to go through the work of self-publishing, promoting, etc. It’s a weird story, and I’m not sure I’d start it again now, but it needs to get out there and off my plate.
The previous goals are concrete and measurable. The next few are grayer. I want to pick a few genres/areas and try to get notably better in the space. Better define who I am as a writer, establish the range of places I can publish, understand what those audiences expect, etc. And this goal supports the publishing target as well.
Another goal is better relationships with editors. Both types; the developmental and line editors needed to whip a story into place, and the gatekeepers at journals. To date, I’ve used editors at Reedsy. Their feedback is good, but only for the story itself, not for a larger view of my work.
I hope these new targets build a foundation for the final, longer-term goal. To build a practice and give meaning to a post-working-stiff life.
I just finished This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Highly recommended, an incredibly unique story and book, and I suggest going into the story completely blind (don’t read any reviews or plot summaries. Note, this is neither). At the end of the story, the two authors exchange acknowledgements.*
The people who played a role (and if the kind words are to be taken at face value, large roles) stunned me. The book is two-hundred pages long with generous fonts and margins; it could easily be condensed by fifty pages. A short book. Not only are there two authors, but friends and family who provided advice and support, agents and editors, subject matter experts, language geeks, managing editors, copyeditors, stylists, publicists… wow.
This is very different than the lone author, Hemingway hunched over his typewriter in Key West, a solitary man banging out masterpieces. It seems the co-authors worked together in a gazebo and threw around ideas. Probably agreed on an outline and beats together. I don’t have any information on the mechanics of their partnership, but I can see the advantages to working together. Better ideas. Instant reaction, excitement around concepts. And, assumedly, external validation from the team listed above. Amazing to get feedback on an idea, a concept, a scene, a character arc before writing. It hadn’t occurred to me authors could get that sort of information BEFORE putting words on the page.
Reminds me of what I’ve learned about Koppelman and Levien, via Koppelman’s podcast. They will work on story arcs and outlines together, with all of the validation and excitement inherent in sharing a vision. I don’t know much about writing for screenplay’s, but assumedly the studio signs off on an idea or concept in advance… another form of validation. Do these check’s and balances remove doubt while writing? The voice that says the plot is dull, the characters weak, the pacing off, the whole concept isn’t worthwhile? It seems freeing.
I’ve written before about the need for feedback loops and editors, or at least trusted readers. Their value looking at a first draft is obvious… but getting feedback even earlier blows my mind. I’m waiting until I feel like Crystal Grove is readable before showing it to anyone; minor plot points are in flux and lacking quality. But what if there are major flaws, or poor assumptions, or the idea just stinks? This changes my view on when to share work and how collaborative some art really is.
reading acknowledgements and thank-you’s as well as author’s introductions is a new habit. Neil Gamian’s notes are so interesting in his short story collection and any additional color or context from the author is fascinating.
I’m on the road, visiting friends in Portland, Oregon. We had wine last night at Muse Wine Bar. While enjoying a Ploussard, a mixed group of runners assembled outside the nearby Portland Running Club. The runners, dressed to work out, greeted each other, stretched, laughed, took a group picture, started together, and came back in small and medium-sized groups forty-five minutes later. More stretching, circles of sweaty people chatting, having beers, talking about the run, the weather, whatever.
I’ve been a runner my entire adult life but never joined a running group, mainly because of living in the suburbs and my early morning running preference. I could see the camaraderie forged through shared experience. Initially, I was jealous that I wasn’t part of a similar group, and upset that I hadn’t been able to run for 3 months because of a mysterious groin injury. But it made me think how these runners found their tribe, and how I need to find mine.
When I started doing triathlons, everything I knew about training for tri’s came from Triathlon Training and slowtwitch.com. At a race at the end of my second season, a guy from the newly formed Jersey Shore Triathlon Club noticed my running times and said I should train with the club over the winter. I joined and began to mountain bike in Allaire park with serious recreational athletes. On my first ride, I struggled to keep up and fell a dozen times and was the last person in the group… but we talked shop at every break, made plans for more training later in the week, discussed gear and cross-training ideas. I called my wife from the parking lot and excitedly told her I had found my people.
The Portland running group reminded me of that feeling, of belonging to a tribe of peers. It elevated me as a triathlete, made me faster, confident and more invested in the sport. I need to find the same in a writing community. A group of peers to elevate me, keep me honest, have bitch sessions and whine, exchange publishing ideas. And to keep me invested.
I had hoped Scribophile was that group. The issue is uneven feedback and lack of focus. I joined a sub-group for beta reads; it was helpful to discuss in real time someone else’s impression of your writing but inconsistent in terms of genre, commitment, ability, etc. I appreciated them and their writing, but didn’t see a future with them. I also looked for local writing groups; there is a women-only group that meets in my local library and a quasi-group called Project Write Now.
I loved the stories about Chuck Palahniuk’s famous writing group. Authors sitting around a dining room table, reading and sharing thoughts. As the article mentions, each member of the group contributes a certain strength. The chance to get feedback, to bounce ideas, to share the thoughts and fears around writing.
The best next thing is to form a group myself… except I don’t know any authors. Not one. Check that, I do work with a guy who wrote a book and is working on a memoir, but he lives in downtown Manhattan and only writes non-fiction.
There are groups in Manhattan, and I (maybe??) will return there multiple times a week, but they don’t work logistically (meet in late evening/night, long after the last ferry home). I’m sure tried-and-true ways exist to form a writing group. I need to research them.
Until then, it’s still time to double down on guardrails, outlines, pre-work.
Many authors list editing as their favorite part of the process. After the shitty first draft is in place, the fun part can begin. Turning something crappy into a delightful story. This is where my inner critic comes out in full force… and lets me know the story isn’t interesting enough, or the characters are weak and undeveloped, or the plot questions aren’t strong. I’m fighting this right now with a story (tentatively called “Mags Hotel”); I had an idea for a short story, from a daily writing prompt (the story starts with the main character hearing something they’d never thought they’d hear again…) for Mags, a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world, who wakes up in a hotel with food and air conditioning. I wanted to explore two things; the mystery of the hotel, why was she there, etc. And, to have a deeper exploration into her transformed self… that she was more alive living on her own in the woods than she was as a project manager before the apocalypse. I’ve written it twice, but didn’t lay out an outline or decide what the big questions were in advance. Now it seems damn near impossible to fix what’s on the page.
But I will. Avoiding the work and worrying is exhausting, So I’ll borrow the same approach I used in the real world. Come up with a better system, where I work on outlines in advance. And, while still in outline form, I’ll ask the hard questions about narrative questions and themes and building tension… I need to acknowledge that this takes time and effort and focus, more than the actual fingers on keyboard part. I watched a small snippet of James Patterson’s MasterClass (I don’t think I’ll watch the whole thing, his process is very different ) but he made an interesting point… he takes a month to a month and a half to come up with an outline for a novel, and then continually revises and adds to the outline. That’s a very different mindset to my old approach… I viewed the outline as something to get out of the way and used as a loose guidepost.
And break down these tasks into bite-sized chunks. Violated my own rules by having “Edit process” as a to-do task. Too broad, too vague. A checklist of discrete tasks for each story should make each step more approachable.
Hopefully, I can follow up here in a few months with my new, new system, with questions and outlines and steps to complete stories quicker and better. And to chip away at the Resistance. Sharpen the saw .
I follow several authors online and via podcasts. One book that each author revered is “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield. I read it four or five years ago. The key point of the book is to acknowledge, control and push back against a blocking force he calls the Resistance, and to conduct writing or any artistic venture like a professional. I didn’t think I had a problem with Resistance as I have a steady daily routine. All good, right? But lately I’ve had a hard time sitting and doing the real work of planning and editing. It’s Resistance, just not in its classic form.
From Wikipedia: “Resistance is described in a mythical fashion as a universal force that has one sole mission: to keep things as they are… It is the force that will stop an individual’s creative activity through any means necessary, whether it be rationalizing, inspiring fear and anxiety, emphasizing other distractions that require attention, raising the voice of an inner critic, and much more. It will use any tool to stop creation flowing from an individual, no matter what field the creation is in.”
Pressfield tells stories about himself and other creatives unable to sit at the keyboard and get the words out. As aforementioned, I don’t have a problem banging out my words each morning. My resistance, I realized, is in the rest of the process.
Early on I wrote how I used to start stories with a deep, involved outline, then a backed off that practice… ending up without an outline, just an idea of what I was writing next. I hoped this would allow me to experiment and follow plots and characters wherever they might lead. And it has… I’ve cranked out a fair amount of work. But my pieces suffer from the same problems; lack of obvious structure, strong, interesting character arcs, etc. Elements that need to be planned out.
When I complete the shitty first draft, I’m reluctant to do the hard work of capital-E Editing. Major revisions, cutting entire scenes or characters, re-writing pages that don’t work. I’m happy to whittle away at sentences, but the comprehensive work and the big questions… that’s where I run right into the Resistance. I have 4 stories right now, 3 short ones and the novella, that need serious edits. Complete pieces, somewhere between the first and third draft done but I have, well, Resistance to doing the big edits.
I’m the oppositeIn “real” life. I’m a planner and an organizer; in my full-time job, I spend more than half of my week on strategic work. I’m always planning and laying out health or fitness or travel project as well…
I didn’t think about genres when I started writing. I never said, “I want to write a Contemporary Realism story.” Instead, I pictured an IT worker in a small engineering firm dealing with a hack. Same with Crystal Grove; I began with the idea of Reiki and crystals in the backyard. To date, I’ve written amongst three genres, Contemporary Realism, Magical Realism and Post-Apocalyptic (and a sub-genre, post-industrial).
Should a developing author follow their ideas and inspiration or focus on one genre? Both King and Grisham are best known for one genre (horror and legal thriller, respectively) but successfully write other styles as well (fantasy, realism, Christmas tales, etc.). The vast majority of authors stay with one genre, sometimes employing a nom de plume if they veer outside of their self-defined lines.
Sticking to one genre has advantages. It allows the author to become an expert. Read the best writing in the genre, know the tropes and expectations of the reader. When I posted a few chapters of Crystal Grove on Scribophile, one reader commented that my description made the piece sound like a haunted house story and she chided me for not meeting her expectations. Understood. This focus provides a chance to write better in that genre and build an audience. If an author has fans, most likely they read only in that genre and may not follow you as you hop between types.
I worry, though, that writing in one genre is too limiting, especially early (career-wise). I follow inspiration wherever it lands. If I had a powerful vision of a fantasy world of swords and goblins, I’d like to pursue the idea, likewise with a romance or office mystery. Counterpoint is I could always shoe-horn these other ideas into a genre. And it’s restrictive to limit the world of the possible to one set of ideas and tropes (although guide rails are very important).
I’ll continue to dabble in the different genres for now. If any of my stories ever caught on, I’d change my approach. One of my goals as a writer is to have one-hundred non family and friends read my work. I’d focus on a genre if I ever crossed that barrier and gained a fan base.
I’ve discussed my consistent writing routine. As of July 2021, I’ve followed this daily schedule for a year and a half, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was lucky enough to work somewhere stable and could do my job remotely. If things continue on their current trajectory, September will bring a big change; back to the office 2-3x/week.
Setting aside the larger impact of returning to the office, I’m worried about the writing. I’m not sure if I’ve gotten much better over the last year and a half, but I’ve learned a lot about the process. And embraced the Julia Cameron “Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality,” mantra by generating words every day. But this consistency is in jeopardy. I tried to write daily before the pandemic but had to skip days because of work and the commute. Also, not writing first thing in the morning, with a spacious, empty mind, is hard. I tried to set aside twenty or thirty minutes in the office, but it was impossible once the workday started. Even at home I struggle with creative work in the middle of the day; it’s like the two sides of my brain need a few hours away from each other to act correctly. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s Maker vs Manager it’s not the same problem, but in the ballpark.
Of course, I’ll generate more experiences and content being “out in the world”. Writers need content, ideas and stimulation. To quote Cameron again, “filling the well”, or the process of self-nourishing. People watching. Exposure to something other than the walls of my house. This will start this month and ramp up over the summer…it’s not dependent on commuting into Manhattan every day, but that forced interaction helps. I dreamed up the story of a health inspector in post-apocalypse Manhattan while sitting on a bus waiting to enter the Lincoln tunnel.
The opportunity to write and focus on creativity during the pandemic has been a gift. I don’t think I’d have 2 published pieces and a handful of in-progress stories without the time and space to work.
I should have generated more, published more, got more feedback and made more progress, though. In these last few months I can put a dent in that regret. Finding a home for the Valley, finishing Mags Hotel and completing the complete first draft of Crystal Grove by September would put me in a better spot.
Careful readers of chawner.net have noticed repeated mentions of Neil Gaiman and his work. I was late to the party; I never read, watched or listened to his work until recently. About a year ago, I read Oceans at the End of the Lane and was blown away, a masterclass in story telling, mood, scene, etc. Reading Oceans while struggling with my first try at magical realism totally changed the way I wanted to write that story (so much so it’s still not done). His ability to create a feeling and pick just the right level of narrative voice blows me away.
I also read Neverwhere, American Gods, Anansi Boys and a few graphic novels; primarily because they are marvelous stories, but also to absorb what I could. He teaches a Masterclass, which I recently purchased. I went through the videos and loved them; now I’m re-watching them and churning through the workbooks – synopses of the lesson, supplemental reading, writing exercises and ways to work the lessons into your WIP.
Neil covers a wide range of topics. I’ve found his instruction on characters and dialogue the most useful. When I create stories I default to character and situation. A young woman who’s business is threatened by her old boss. A health inspector who discovers his boss is involved in a conspiracy in post-meltdown NYC. An IT employee whose company is hacked. But I don’t think in terms of the character’s wants, needs and agendas.
Neil drives home the focus on characters. Yes, I’ve read this a dozen times from other authors, but these workshops make the case clear. What does the character want? What does the character need… these are probably not the same. In fact, they may be in direct opposition. And playing out how the character gets what they need, while striving for what they want, is the heart of conflict. Before, I thought too much about external forces providing the conflict. These exercises helped me focus on the internal. My most recent works, The Valley and Mag’s Hotel (working title) developed as character’s journeys. Progress.
Another of Neil’s lessons is treating the characters badly. This isn’t unique (treat you characters badly quote), but his questions enforce the idea beautifully. In one exercise, he asks (based on the character’s wants and needs) what’s the worst thing that can happen. Then, what could be even worse? I’ll never write without working through these questions in advance, even for minor characters.
I also learned about through lines. Basically, a through line maps each incident where your character’s desires or wants are met, thwarted or challenged. And the progression should be logical and inform the progress of the character. Excellent.
To close out characters, he discusses how the wants and needs of the protagonist and antagonist should be in direct conflict. Sure, I learned this in elementary school and wrote this unconsciously into my stories to date. But it wasn’t front of mind, wasn’t driving the story or the dialogue.
Neil’s class has over twenty lessons; we only touched on a few here. I also found his discussion on giving your characters funny hats and writing economy very useful. I’m looking forward to finishing the series and adding what I learned into my next piece.
The flywheel effect is a powerful concept. I use it successfully in other parts of my life. I’d prefer to have a steady backlog of stories to write, stories that need editing (either from me or a professional), my Work-In-Progress (WIP) and a handful of stories out for submission. This allows me to write creatively every day, crucial for my development as a writer. Exceptions are lessons or writing prompts.
I struggle with the non-writing parts. Finding time to make real, creative edits. Outline ideas. Work on characters. Understand to either change a story or create a new one. For this, I need space. Maybe not days, but at least uninterrupted hours. I dedicate a block of time in the morning for writing, but I can’t find the time or space for the editing and dreaming.
Do I spend time on creating the outline and character conflict for the next short story, the one I’m excited to write? Or work through the comments from the pro editor and give me something to submit? Or pick up Crystal Grove, again, now that I have feedback on the beginning of the story… we need to re-work our ideas for this story, tighten up everything to date, and decide how to re-work the rest of the story. Putting together the outline for a new piece or do the Crystal Grove work, will lead to new morning writing.
The worst part is the backlog is draining my morning work. I don’t have a WIP; it should either be the new piece or CG. But I can’t work on them until I put in the time to edit. But if I jump the line and only work on them, I won’t have any submittable work for weeks, maybe months, and the flywheel will jam.
It comes down to priorities; if I want to have multiple pieces out for submission, I need to spend time, even morning time, editing The Valley and sending it on its way. If I value having something to write than I should outline and work on the characters for Meg’s Hotel to kick-start creative writing, even if that means using morning time… if only because it’s a shorter and less complicated story than CG, and I can make those changes faster.
A different choice is a personal retreat. At my first job out of college as a Health Inspector Northern New Jersey town, one of the senior guys had a brilliant theory about vacations; it took almost a week to get your head out of the office and to relax, and you tensed up a few days before returning… so, if you only took a week or two, you couldn’t properly unwind. He always took a 3-week block each summer to get that prime one and a half weeks of true relaxation. I’m not looking for relaxation, but the same principle applies to creativity and mindful work. Simply not working (the day job) and dedicating time, either at home or in a remote location, could be enough. Just putting space between my analytical, stressful work life and the creativity and focus needed for writing gets us more than halfway there.
But life at home, especially with a quarantine-full house, is distracting. Family, chores, to-do lists, invitations to fall into the familiar routines, leaves a limited window for quiet, creative focus. Maybe two hours a day. During a quick few days off last week, I tried to correct for this by looking for places locally to hole up for a few hours. The only place I could find was a nice local cafe, but they were very busy and served lunches quickly, so I could only linger for so long. Local libraries and colleges were still closed.
The ideal self-made retreat has to involve travel. I could do it with one other person, maybe, but ideally by myself. I don’t know what the ideal length is; over three days, less than a week. Ideally, a small, quiet cabin in the woods. We keep heading back to Upstate NY for our local trips, so a small secluded cabin. Simple kitchen and bedroom, maybe a studio or a loft. A tiny house could work, I just need ample space to write comfortably. Preferably lousy internet connection.
The agenda would be simple; an expanded version of the current morning routine, maybe 1500 or 2000 words. This pushes whatever workout we do to later in the morning, but that’s okay. So wake up, Morning Pages, meditation and 2k words, followed by a workout. Breakfast in there somewhere, simple morning oats or something similar. After the workout, reading and a nap. Followed by editing and maybe another try at words on the page. Add another walk, preferably from the cabin, in nature. Quiet evening, either go out for dinner or cook something simple, followed by reading with a fire.
This dream schedule does two things: it puts hours into writing, consistent and focused over a short period. It also doesn’t do the long list of work or home tasks and interactions; there’s nothing to pull my head out of the writing space. And the time I’m not writing or focused, my mind can wander and think and grow.
A guiding principle for this dream was Neil Gaiman’s quote on how he comes up with his stories. Talking with Tim Ferriss, he said, “Yeah, ’cause I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as n’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.
What I love about that is I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You sit there and you’ve been staring out the window now for five minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. You’re going, “Well, actually, let’s all write something.” It’s hard. As a writer, I’m more easily — I’m distractable. I have a three-year-old son. He is the epitome of cuteness and charm. It’s more fun playing with him than writing, which means if I’m going to be writing, I need to do it somewhere where I don’t have a three-year-old son singing to me, asking me to read to him, demanding my attention.
I think it’s really just a solid rule for writers. You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.”.
If a self-made retreat did nothing else, it would give me time to allow my brain to be bored.