The Subtle Art of Resistance part 2

View from Fire Tower
Catskills Fire Tower View

part 1

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 .

The Subtle Art of Resistance

Falls and Bridge
Falls and Bridge

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…

part 2

The Genre Dilemma

New Paltz Signpost
New Paltz Signpost

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.

Looming Regret

Outcropping in Shawgunks

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.

Magical Writing Class


Careful readers of 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.

Unsticking the Flywheel

*not actually a flywheel

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.

Dream Retreats, pt2

Running Gear
Running Gear

Read pt1

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.

Dream Retreats

I’ve mentioned my writing routine; 500 words per morning and 2-3 hour-long blocks during the week to edit or other writing activities. I do most of my writing during these morning sessions. And, frankly, it’s the time I have, with a non-writing full-time job and family. Of course, I dream of more.

Hugh Howey spoke about this approach. He said it was alright, but he found he discards the first five hundred words of the day… treats them almost as warmup. My experience varies; sometimes, if I know what I want to say, it can manifest quickly. Also, I do 750 words per day with morning pages which clears the mind for writing and serves as a warmup. Regardless, some days it feels like it takes a few hundred words to get things going.

One of the pandemic mini-vacations we took last year was to a cabin in the Catskills, the week before Christmas. The kids were remote learning, and carved out a few days from work. I treated it as a mini-writing holiday and set aside more time to write in the morning and made sure each afternoon included a block of editing. This focus, combined with staying somewhere new, payed off immediately. I wrote Wasted Crisis, edited Crystal Grove, generated more ideas and had fewer blockers. Ever since that trip, I’ve been yearning for a writing retreat.

I’ve never been on a retreat of any sort; the closest I came was a 2-week baseball camp when I was 14. There are two choices; a formal, instructor-led retreat with workshops and other people or a solo adventure. I’ve researched on both.

I looked for local (within driving distance) and “dream” scenarios. I’m only looking at one’s that are more open, not the writer-in-residence thing, with rigorous applications and acceptance criteria. Not yet! Most request samples but it as long as you pony up the fees, you are set. I can use the mentoring and feedback, and I’d love to interact with other struggling writers. From a distance, there looks like a lot of upside… workshops, lessons, critiques, reading other’s work, etc. Especially for someone who needs help.

I’d need a WIP or something to work with before joining a formal writers’ retreat. My albatross, Crystal Grove, would be an excellent candidate if I could join one now.

Read Part 2

Be careful what you ask for, Pt 2.


Read Part 1

They don’t have teams waiting at the ready to respond. They don’t run table-top exercises, don’t invest in security, or IT at all. To a small shop, IT is a cost center to manage costs on and forget. And maybe get a cool app. So both technical, security-savvy reviewers carried their worldview with them. I vacillated between ignoring them and wondering if I didn’t set up the situation correctly. In the end, I added more information about the size of the firm and the limited scope of the hack (only to one app, not the entire system).

The third part of feedback was the most useful. The story, as submitted, had an open ending. I gave Megs an opportunity to save the day and left her choice open to interpretation The reviewer argued this was the most interesting part and reminiscent to how the hacker held the fate of the company in his hands. And now so did Megs. What would she do with it? He added more questions to further drive home the point, but that was the most important part.

I agreed with this assessment, and it highlights a few of my weaknesses. Not enough character thought/development/issues. While writing, I focus on the plot and what’s happening… the most interesting part to me. But, of course, readers love characters and want to see them struggle. Struggle with a problem, struggle with morality, ethics, doing the right thing, self-motivation, etc. This feedback was a great way for me to go back and add some more elements into the piece. I did and the story is stronger.

The hard part, though, is working these changes into the story, one I’ve read ten times in the last few months. My skill in editing is the simple stuff… I may not craft great sentences and prose (yet!) but I recognize problematic areas. I can make in-line edits and tweaks all day long. What I haven’t been able to do very well is integrate larger ideas or edits. These edits are a skill and something I need to work through. In order for Megs to come to this conclusion, she needs to think and express certain things early on… can’t just plop some thoughts at the end and call it a day. I tried adding a new ideas and thoughts here and there. When I read it, though, it feels just like that… “feelings” tacked on that don’t mix in well with the rest of the flow. I can’t tell if this perceived weakness true or a reaction to having read the piece so many times the additions just jump out.

In the end, even with my frustration around the technical feedback, having a writer/editor look at the piece was invaluable. The goal now is to incorporate this of feedback into my normal writing routine.

Update: I submitted this to After Dinner Conversation contest and received Honorable Mention. More on this later!

Be careful what you ask for…

In earlier posts, I listed “lack of feedback” as a blocker for progressing as a writer. Spitting out words every day? No problem. Writing better every day… is hard without real, actionable feedback. I submitted a short story for a contest with modest expectations… it didn’t win, but the editors offered, for a small fee, a two-page critique. Feedback.

The story (which I’ve re-submitted to other pubs based on the below feedback) called Wasted Crisis, features Megs who works in IT for a medium-sized constructions and engineering firm. They get hacked and blackmailed; she needs to marshal her limited resources to find a way out of the situation. And, maybe, improve her standing with the firm. I submitted it the day before the deadline.

The critique had three key areas of feedback, with varying degrees of relevance. I didn’t follow the submission rules correctly (included my name and information on the first page of the manuscript -of course this is required for many submissions, but shame on me for not verifying)… so, they never read it for the contest. If I submitted it earlier, they’d have sent it back and asked me to remove that identifying information. Two lessons learned. And a waste of one of the three critiques.

The second referred to my technical description of the problem. As background, I’ve worked in technology as a programmer for over twenty years, and the last ten in corporate IT. I’m not a security expert, but am well-versed in hacking, vectors, and know first-hand how companies react to hacks. The reviewer just got a certification in IT security. Basically, he had a problem with the description of the hack and what it meant. I had this story critiqued on scribophile as well, and had a wide range of reactions from reviewers there… in its original form, I included more technology that the non-technical readers had trouble understanding; they glossed over the technical “stuff”. I couldn’t let that happen…. the story is not an in-the-weeds breakdown of how to handle a hack, the hack is the backdrop to show how the character solves a problem and the moral and ethical issues she encounters. One reviewer on Scribophile, though, was also an IT security expert, and gave similar feedback. It’s very interesting… both of the tech reviewers jumped to the same conclusion… that this fictional firm ran and acted like the corporations they worked for/with. They clearly brought their biases with them. And, to be fair, their comments were correct… just not applicable to my story. The key difference between my story and their real-life experiences is the scale. Megs (my protagonist) is almost a one-woman shop. Cheap family business (if you’ve ever worked for a family business, you’ve seen this).

Part 2 coming next week…