November is National Novel Writing month. I've never taken part in the event; as I understand it, the goal is to write at least 50k words of a novel during the month of November. I think there may me a website where some people post their progress; I'm skipping that in favor of my traditional weekly blog post of writing progress, though I may also do some daily updates on Facebook.
I'm somewhat nervous about taking on this task. As readers of my other blog know, I'm taking part in a weight loss challenge that ends in December and for the last two months I've shifted my obsession from writing to tracking every calorie I eat and exercising regularly. It's surprisingly time consuming to eat healthy. You can't just have an off night where you say "screw it" and pop a frozen pizza in the oven or bring home fried chicken from Bojangles. Cheryl and I are good cooks, but our old cooking style was heavy on bacon and butter and pasta. We've been expanding our talents, eating a diet heavy in non-starchy vegetables and lean meat. A lot of research and planning goes into each meal. To be honest, my head isn't really in a writing space, because instead of using my idle daydreaming time thinking of future books, I'm spending most of my idle daydream time imagining new ways to make cauliflower taste good.
So, I'm approaching the novel I'm starting tomorrow from something of a cold start. Unlike 90% of the novels I've finished, I really am not sure where this book ends. I've got a decent core cast worked out, a pretty awesome premise, and some cool ideas of what I need to work into the novel. I even have my big moral question I want to tackle, and some audacious concepts that are either going to make this novel one of the most interesting books I've written, or else an utter flop. My biggest problem is that I really haven't a clue how to handle the implications of my more daring ideas. I mean, sure, in the end, I know the bad guy needs to get beaten and the heroes must prevail, but it can't be one of my novels if the ending is that straightforward. I often muddle things by making it fuzzy as to who the heroes and villains are. Is Greatshadow a hero or a villain? How about Pit Geek and Sundancer? Or even Bitterwood? But, my new project has a pretty definite hero facing off against an unmistakable villain. Figuring out an ending that people won't see coming from ten chapters away is going to be a challenge.
This book is also a departure for me since it's not a superhero novel nor an epic fantasy. I suppose it will be marketed as steampunk, since there are zeppelins, but for the most part it will simply be a grand adventure. My characters will plunge into the unknown... and, starting tomorrow, so will I.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
November is National Novel Writing month. I've never taken part in the event; as I understand it, the goal is to write at least 50k words of a novel during the month of November. I think there may me a website where some people post their progress; I'm skipping that in favor of my traditional weekly blog post of writing progress, though I may also do some daily updates on Facebook.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Okay, I've adressed the why, where, when, and what of writing faster. In this last post, I'm going to focus on how to write fast.
1. Measure obsessively. You can't know how many words you currently write in a given time frame unless you count them and divide your count by the time you spent writing. Ug, I know, math. If you wanted to do math, you'd be an accountant, not a writer. But, if you want to increase the speed of your output, you need to know how many words you type on average in the first place. This won't be a number you can get just by sitting down and typing for a single hour. You'll need to collect data over weeks and months to get a good sense of your current speed. My hunch is, you'll notice that your speed is improving as you continue recording data, since the simple act of being aware of how quickly you can write will help you stay focused on putting out words, and help you avoid distractions like going on Wikipedia to find out what material they use to build blimp frames and realizing three hours later that you've not typed a word.
2. Set deadlines and treat them seriously. I've measured my own writing speed enough to know that I average 1000 words an hour. This means that, if I'm writing a 120,000 word fantasy novel, I need to spend 120 hours with butt in chair. My last contract called for me to turn in books every six months. Since I need half of that time for revision, this meant I had to write my first draft in three months. Since three months is roughly 12 weeks, this means I need to write 10,000 words a week, which means I need to set aside ten hours each week of butt-in-chair time. Ten hours is a surprisingly large amount of time to carve out of my life due to my day job, personal relationships, and simple daily chores. But, that means it's especially important to look ahead each week and schedule what hours you're going to be dedicating to writing. If you don't plan out these hours in advance, and guard them jealously, you'll never get anything done. Writing isn't just a hobby, it's work. If you have a day job, your spouse and children and friends understand that there are hours in the week when you go off to work for certain blocks of time and won't be available. You need to make sure they have the same attitude toward your writing hours, and the first step toward this is to make sure you have this attitude.
3. Tell the world about your goals and your progress. I announce my deadline for completing a draft on my blog and do a post every Sunday night saying how many words I wrote the previous week. Other people might announce these things on facebook or twitter. If you avoid the internet, tape a chart to your refrigerator for your family to see. If you announce your goals, you have more incentive to keep them. And, if your friends and family see constant, steady progress, they will begin to understand that this is something important to you, not just some temporary fad you're going through.
4. Write it wrong! Perfection is the biggest enemy of first drafts. You get confused about what a characters motives are, or aren't sure if some plot point is plausible, or just feel like the way you've describe the room the characters are standing is is boring and clunky. The temptation is to sit and work on a single paragraph for an hour until you get it right. Avoid this temptation. Writing isn't a performance art. If you're certain you just wrote the most tangled, inarticulate sentence ever recorded in the english language, don't worry about it. You get a second chance before you have to release the story into the wild. Even a third, fifth, and ninth chance, sometimes. If you saw one of my first drafts, you would find it littered with parenthesis that say (fix) or (look up) or (word). Because, sometimes I know that the paragraph I've just written is clunky. Or, I need to look up who was president in 1903. Or, I'm pretty sure I've just used the wrong word. (Higg bossum? That can't be right.) But, if I hop onto the internet or grab a dictionary, I know I'm likely to notice that I have an email, or be tempted to check what the weather is going to be this weekend, or get distracted by a headline telling me nuclear war has broken out. Once I'm locked in to the story, I need to stay in the story. I can address all my doubts and questions when I rewrite.
5. Never look back! Similar to item 4, but subtley different. In item 4, I want you to avoid the temptation of spending a lot of time getting what you are writing right now perfect. But, a second danger is the obsessive need to go back to stuff you've already written and tweak or fix it. For instance, perhaps in Chapter three, you realize that the reason your protagonist is so afraid of water is that he kept slipping into the toilet when he was potty training, but in the first chapter you said it was because he'd flipped his canoe over in summer camp, and you know feel like that was kind of lame. So, easy, all you need to do is go back to the first chapter and rewrite the paragraph where you revealed this information. Except, if you do this, you'll notice other stuff in the first chapter you want to change, and spend the two hour writing block you'd set aside to power through chapter three doing nothing but tinkering with chapter one. Then, a few weeks later, you're going to hear a story on All Things Considered about a teenager who gets attacked by a crocodile in her bathtub and you'll think, "Yes! That's the kind of back story that really will bring my character to life!" So now, you go back and change all the stuff you wrote about potty training, and have to go into every other chapter to make sure that you mention that your protagonist is missing his left hand because of the crocodile attack, but then you get caught up because you had a scene where he's talking to his friends in the bar while playing pinball, and you aren't sure if you can play pinball one handed, so you decide to go back and change his missing hand to a missing ear. Only, you've already mentioned, like, ten times that the character wears glasses, and contacts would probably make more sense for an earless man. Eventually, you're sick of the whole project because you've been working for a year and are just on chapter six. The best way around this is to not even look at what you've already written. Forward is the only direction on a first draft. You can't really be certain of everything you need in your first chapter until you've written the last chapter.
6. Here. Now. I've been writing for a long time, and even I get can get confused and unsure of how to start a scene or a chapter and wind up staring at a blank screen for ten minutes. My fix for this is pretty simple. Instead of thinking about everything I need to put into a scene or a chapter, I instead take a deep breath and think about the single moment in time and space that the character is occupying. Sometimes it's mundane; I've started scenes with characters getting out of bed and making breakfast. I've started scenes with a character going to a post office to check their mailbox. Sometimes, it's a bit less mundane. I start Greatshadow with the hero in mid-air after he's been thrown out of a high window and he's plunging toward the ground. The important thing is that you form a mental picture of your character, his surroundings, and what he's doing, and just start from there. Maybe you only spend 100 words describing what's going on, but once you've got 100 words on the page, the thousand that follow should flow more freely. And, if you get stuck: Here. Now.
7. Understand your power zones and steer toward them. Every writer has different things they are good at writing and other things they aren't so good at writing. Some authors have a gift for crafting a scene between a mother and a daughter that unfolds for a full chapter without a single word being spoken, yet you emerge from the scene feeling as if you know everything about the characters. I am not such a writer, and so I don't include many of these scenes in my books. I would just get bogged down trying to write them, and my readers would get bogged down trying to read them.
What I am good at are conversations and action scenes. Once I get two characters on the stage of my page, I can turn them loose and just record their conversation. Grabbing the closest novel I have at hand, Burn Baby Burn, I flipped to a random scene and found Pit Geek and Sunday discussing what might have happened to their former boss and debating what they should do with their lives now that he's probably dead. This fills up six pages, and I really think that the personalities of the characters show through. It's easy for me to write page after page of conversation because, if it's structured right, one thing naturally leads to another. One character asks a question, the other character answers, the first character comments on that answer, the second character objects, the first character asks a follow up question, and boom, boom, boom, back and forth, give and take, and before you know it I've got a couple of thousand words cranked out. Action scenes are have a similar flow: Character A shoots at Character B, who jumps into the river to get away, but Character A steals a motorboat go give chase, and but now Character B has crawled from the river on the other side and is flagging down passing cars, but when one stops it's Character A's henchmen, and suddenly there's ropes and ether involved and before I know it a dozen pages are behind me. Your particular power zones are likely to be different than mine. You may not even know what they are yet. You can't really discover them until you've written a lot. The more you write, the faster you'll learn.
8. Little by little, the work gets done. Sure, I love the days when I sit down and bang out an entire chapter in an afternoon. But, there are times when I don't have an full afternoon, or I'm just stuck, uncertain of what comes next, even after my little "here and now" trick. So, it's late at night, I know I have to be at work early in the morning, and I know that my energy levels are just too low to produce anything of value. The bargain I usually make with myself is to just open the file and write one more sentence. Sometimes, that one sentence sparks me to write more. Sometimes it doesn't. But, the next time I sit down to write, that's one sentence I've got behind me. A book contains a finite number of sentences, and that one sentence brings me a step closer to the final number. It's tiny, almost invisible progress, but it counts. A single raindrop doesn't hold much water. A lot of them together be a flood. The big things can't happen without the tiny things.
9. Don't let others read your first drafts. This is a very tough one for beginning writers to adhere to. You want to know if what you're writing is any good, or perhaps you know it's bad and are hoping someone can tell you why. Well, duh, it's bad because it's your first draft. Here are the arguments for not letting readers read your first drafts: First, the desire to have your work read is a tremendous mental pressure. You can use that pressure to motivate you to finish the damn book so that others can actually read it. If you have people read every chapter or scene you write while you're still writing, some of that pressure gets vented. Second, readers are a precious thing. Do not abuse them by showing them work you haven't polished through at least a second draft. Odds are, your earliest drafts are going to be read by people close to you, perhaps a spouse. If you put a raw draft into their hands, they will no doubt say nice things about it, but they may perhaps also suspect that you are so far from being a writer that this little phase you're going through will certainly pass soon. If you put something polished and competent in their hands, they're going to start believing, hey, you really are a writer, and will be more understanding and supportive of why they have to wash dishes and do laundry that night because you're going to be hunkered down writing.
10. Whenever possible, try not to run dry. There's a temptation, when the words are flowing, to write until you reach the end of a scene or chapter and stop there. Sometimes, you almost can't help it; you're just tapping out words in the heat of the moment and then suddenly your character will say the perfectly ironic comment that puts the whole chapter into perspective and you understand that this is where you stop. Even one more word will ruin the chapter.
But, there's other times when you've already put a couple of thousand words on the page and you'll reach a moment of great tension, when something big is about to happen. These are excellent times to walk away, because you know that when you sit down to write again the pump is already primed. There's a scene in the middle of Nobody Gets the Girl when a kid with a handgrenade runs toward the characters and pulls the pin. When I was writing, that's where I stopped for the day, with a live grenade waiting to go off. I had zero problems returning the the book the next night and picking up exactly where I'd left off. Not every book can be structured this way, of course. I'm certain there are many genres of literature where hand grenades play almost no role at all in the story. But, if you were writing a romance, you could stop just as the characters start to kiss. If you were writing a novel about a circus, you could stop the moment the elephant breaks his chains. It's a gimmick, but it's amazingly effective for making sure you can maintain momentum over the course of muliple writing sessions.
Using the word "gimmick" in the previous sentence leads me to the last point I want to get across in these essay. While there are a few gimmicks that might help increase the speed and quality of your output, the reality is that the only certain way to improve your skills is through years and years of practice. You will be a better writer five years from now than you are today, assuming you use those five years to keep writing and keep pushing yourself to get better and better. You need to keep two seemingly contradictory mindsets in your head at once. You need to both feel a sense of urgency toward your current project, a feeling that you need to get as many words on the pages as possible as quickly as you can. But, at the same time you need to be patient and keep a long term view of your writing career beyond your current project. Right now, I'm focused on the novel I'm starting in November, and thinking of it several hours a day. But, I'm also thinking of the two novels I plan to write after this, another dragon novel and another superhero novel. I'm mentally cataloging the characters I want to explore and the big plot points I can build these books around. So, when I start one six months from now, I'll be ready.
But, even beyond my next two books, I spend a lot of time thinking about other possible books that I might work on over the next five years. It can take a while for my initial ideas to mature. My two most recent novels are books I first thought of in 2004 and 2007. If I had written those books immediately after thinking about them, they wouldn't have been as good as they turned out to be. I not only kept refining and improving my ideas, I kept refining and improving myself. Writing exercises the mind, and with enough exercise and a steady diet of good books and new experiences, your authorial brain will grow leaner, faster and stronger.
Before I finally have my list of tips on "How to Write Fast," I'm going to tackle one more topic: What to Write. Because I think a fundamental stumbling block that stands in the way of some writers is that they just have nothing to say. Or, more accurately, they do have things to say, but either lack the courage to say them or they get so distracted by all the other elements that have to go into writing that they fail to push their stories across the threshold from entertainment to art.
It's certainly possible to crank out successful books and short stories that exist purely to entertain. And one there are dangers to any writer using his or her story for the sole purpose of making an argument. I actually enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, but I'm the first to admit that the characters are either vile, one dimensional straw men or virtuous one dimensional supermen. You won't find a complex human character or a single line of dialogue that feels authentic anywhere in the pages of the book.
What you do find are big ideas that challenge the prevailing morality of our culture. Whether you like the book or not, Rand was plainly someone who thought at length about the problems she saw and wasn't afraid to take a stab at changing the world. Another writer who did the same thing, only much, much better, was John Steinbeck with Grapes of Wrath. Outrage drips off of every page of this book. Steinbeck is chronicling man's inhumanity with a cold and honest eye, and you'll find few straw men within the pages. Steinbeck writes much deeper characters driven by emotions like love and anger. Atlas Shrugged is a book of the head, while Grapes of Wrath is a book of the heart. Both stay in print to this day because, despite the fact that they books are diametrically opposed in their views of the world, both authors had the courage to take a stand.
Books don't have to examine political themes to be great. Moby Dick has nothing to do with politics, but is instead willing to look at the darkness inside us that can drive men both to madness and to greatness. A Christmas Carol is about the things that harden a man's heart and the possibility of redemption. The Wizard of Oz reminds us that we are often blind to our own true natures.
My earliest stories tended to be built around a twist ending or some gimmicky idea. The weatherman at the local news station with the completely precise forecasts? He's secretly Thor, god of thunder! The detective investigating the murder of his own wife? He's the killer! Yeah, yeah, whatever. It was a phase I had to go through. My writing didn't really take off until I moved past my twist endings and started thinking of most of my stories as being built around a moral question. So, my first professional short story sale, "Empire of Dreams and Miracles," raises the question of whether the certainty of death makes life more meaningful. My first sale to Asimov's, "To the East, a Bright Star," explores whether kindness makes sense in the absence of hope. My first published novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, keeps circling back to whether genuinely good intentions are capable of corrupting a man even more deeply than bad intentions.
Some people don't want to tackle these sorts of questions because they worry they will come across as preachy. I definitely can point to my own body of work at stories that probably crossed the line from having an interesting theme into the realm of clunky propaganda. Other people are afraid to reveal their own true natures on the page. I was friends with an aspiring writer who kept sending me pretty boring stories. One day I was at his house and saw this big stack of paper and asked if it was a new project. He told me it was actually an old project, something he'd started but abandoned. He let me read it, and I was blown away by how good it was. It was the story of an unwed mother who gets forced into a loveless marriage with a man who isn't the father, and pretty much every line in that story felt real, both tragic and hopeful, with the most fleshed out characters I'd ever seen from this author. It tackled huge moral questions, both of some of the hypocrisy inherent in the different sexual expectations of men and women, and of the ethical lines that seem so clear in abstract but that blur beyond recognition once put to the test of real life. I asked why he'd abandoned it, and he told me that the story was based on his mother's life, and he could never publish it while she was alive. That was his choice, and a decent one, but he never got the chance to finish his book after she passed away because he died before her, with the greatest story he had inside him forever untold.
It's not just fear of offending a loved on that can hold a writer back. Fear of being judged also can push you away from telling the best stories you can. Perhaps you've got this great idea for a story and the hero you're imagining keeps insisting that he's gay. But you worry, if I write a story with a gay protagonist, will people think I'm gay? Or, perhaps, if you're not gay, you worry that you're going to get something wrong, and the character will feel false. There's also the risk that, if you're honest, you might learn things about yourself that you didn't really want to know. A friend of mine once pointed out that a lot of my stories are about a central character doing a terrible thing then having another important character forgive them even though they'd done nothing to earn that forgiveness. Once she pointed it out, it triggered a long chain of introspection that left me staring at my own worse sins and trying to judge whether I might be too eager to brush off the harm I'd done to others.
Writing great themes isn't just a matter of looking at the world and noticing things that trigger your outrage (or, a valid alternative approach, finding things you want to celebrate). Writing also requires a heroic level of honesty about yourself, where you constantly dig a little deeper into why you are who you are. Sometimes you'll discover things that shock you, even outrage you, while other times you'll find that you do have virtues and values that served you well when you faced your toughest chanllenges. You need to understand the origins of both your vices and your virtues if you really want to populate your stories with fully realized characters who aren't just puppets having their strings pulled by the plot.
The most frequently given advice for writing is, "Write what you know." To know what's inside your characters, you have to know what's inside yourself, and report your findings fearlessly. If you can do this, you'll always have something worth putting onto paper when you finally sit down to type. In my experience, writers block is never a problem when I actually have something I need to say.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
The next topic I want to address in my "How to Write Fast" class is the issue of setting. Not the setting of your story, the setting of yourself in a time and place that are conducive to productivity.
Let me first get the disclaimer out of the way: There's no wrong time or place to write. If you have the power of focus that allows you to sit in a room with the television on and twitter streaming in a window on your computer while you're listening to the Dresden Dolls at full blast on headphones, well, more power to you. I also recognize that some people go to coffee shops to write in public while sipping expensive beverages and actually manage to crank out work. That's great, but, at the risk of offending those of you who actually do this, I suspect the yearning to write in public is an artifact of beginning authors seeking validation. Since so few people read your work, the temptation is to write in public so that other will witness it and say, "Wow, there's a writer!" At least, I know that was my motivation twenty years ago, when I used to lug my laptop to coffee shops. (And I mean lug. My first laptop weighed thirty pounds. Most of that was due to a battery the size of a shoe box that could power the device for upwards of twenty minutes. State of the art!)
But, my own experience is that I need a certain amount of silence to write. It's not always easy to hear the voices in my head, and a television playing in another room can be enough to pull my thoughts away. I currently write in a home office where I can sit upright at a desk and work on a full sized keyboard on a large, high quality monitor. It's nice that I can close the door and keep the cats out and feel a bit more focused. But, I've only used the office for writing my last book, Witchbreaker. Before this, I wrote mainly sitting in bed with my laptop balanced on books. I still use a pretty large laptop. For me, it's essential that I use close to a full sized key board, since I've got big hands.
I write more during the day than in the evenings, but this hasn't always been the case. I used to be the king of late night sessions, starting writing at 10 at night and going until 4 or 5 in the morning. The key reason I would write during those hours was that anyone else in the house would be asleep. I was also more able to get by on two or three hours of sleep when I was in my thirties. Now, I fade pretty quickly as the witching hour approaches.
These day I have a schedule that gets me home from work almost two hours before my wife gets home. That means that, if I'm disciplined, I can count on a full hour of productivity. My wife can testify that I'm also the king of turning "I'll wrap up in five more minutes" into three more hours of typing. When I'm "hot," and the words are flowing, I'm a big believer in getting as much on the page as possible while I'm inspired.
But, of course, I'm not always inspired. I would go so far as to say that I'm frequently not inspired when I sit down to write. My inspiration always comes when I can't make use of it, like when I'm in the shower or driving to work.
Luckily, there are three phases to writing, thinking, drafting, and rewriting. For drafting and rewriting, I have to have butt in chair. There are no short cuts or gimmicks that eliminate the reality that, if you want to write a lot of words, you have to sit and type a lot of hours.
Of course, you're probably so busy that you're questioning where those lots of hours are going to come from. The answer is that you have to make them. My schedule isn't an accident; I don't like getting up at 5:30 in the morning to get to work so that I can leave work earlier in the day than my wife does, but I negotiated working that schedule specifically to make sure I'd have some time with just me in the house. The other big pool of hours that a lot of people have that they are reluctant to let go of is their entertainment time. You probably wouldn't want to be a writer if you weren't an avid consumer of stories, in books, movies, television, even video games. I used to be an avid collector of comic books. I brought home a stack of about twenty books every Wednesday and spent all evening reading them. I quit cold turkey several years ago and have no regrets. I used to play a lot of video games. I'm kind of a computer geek; I enjoyed the stimulation and immersion you would get from a well designed fantasy role playing computer game. But, these games would eat up hours of time, so they had to go. I got rid of my TV at one point for the better part of a decade, and though I have one now I perversely stay away from shows I'm certain I would enjoy. When Heroes was on the air, friends kept telling me I'd love the show. I'm sure they were right! I'd also enjoy the new Dr. Who, Dexter, and the tv version of This American Life. The safest way of keeping myself from getting hooked and spending the twenty two hours it takes for a series to unfold is just never to watch a single episode. If you watch three hour-long dramas a week, over a season that's 66 hours that you could have been writing. If you can write 1000 words an hour, that's a respectable-sized novel.
Everyone's life is different, but, in my humble opinion, I think that if you're serious about writing, the minimum time you can devote to it in a week would be five hours. I manage to claw and scrape my way to ten hours usually, and when I start my next book in November, my goal is to shoot for fifteen.
Whoever, keep in mind that this is just the "butt in chair" part of writing. For every hour of writing I do, I probably spend at least two or three hours thinking about what I need to write. Luckily, this is what those inspired moments while you're driving or mowing the grass are for. When I drive to work, I normally listen to the radio. But, if I'm working on a new book, I usually drive with my radio off so I can be alone with my thoughts. My mind also is excellent at thinking up new aspects of a story while I'm in the shower. Basically, any activity that has my body doing a routine chore leaves my mind free to wander. Daydreaming is a key component of creativity, and boredom is highly fertile soil for daydreaming.
How do you capture these daydreams and turn them into stories? I've tried a lot of different things with mixed results. For driving, I've tried using voice recorders to make notes, but I find that tinkering with the recorder distracts me and throws me out of my imagination zone. I have used 3x5 notecards in the past to great effect; I would even (foolishly) write notes on a stack of cards I kept on my dashboard as I was driving. I kept notecards in my bathroom, and would lean out of my shower sopping wet to jot down cryptic thoughts like "radioactive Jerusalem," or "cyanide would solve this problem." I sometime stumble across one of these old stacks of cards and wonder what the hell I was possibly thinking at the time.
These days, I have two methods I use for recording my ideas. The first is that I normally travel with a notebook or legal pad. When we're going someplace, my wife usually drives and I often jot down things like a list of scenes I still need to write, or factual details I need to investigate. And then... I almost never read these notes again. By the time I'm back at the computer, I've usually figured my story out enough that I can just start typing and let the story go where it goes. All those hours I spent daydreaming about the story aren't wasted, they just fade in my mind and emerge when needed while I'm working. I feel like there's a Darwinian struggle for survival when I trust my ideas mostly to memory. The weaker ideas gets forgotten, while the stronger ones survive.
Twenty hours of daydreaming to produce ten hours of writing seems like a lot of time to carve out of a hectic life. And, it is! But, the daydreaming can take place while you're doing other stuff. Again, just ask Cheryl how far she's gotten into conversations about, I dunno, groceries before she realized that my brain is in story land. I can't count the number of times when a waitress has practically had to bang the table with her fist just to get me to realize she's asked me if I want more tea. My coworkers know that if I'm not making eye contact and actively acknowledging them, I'm just not listening. Would I like to be a little more engaged with my immediate surroundings? Sure. It's kind of scary when I sometimes realize that I've just driven an hour to my mother's house and have no memories at all of the journey because I've been letting my mind wander. I don't necessarily like that people I don't know might think I'm aloof and/or scatterbrained.
But, there's no way around it. If you want to write fiction, you have to daydream, or you won't have anything to write when you sit down. When and where do you daydream? Everywhere and every moment you can possibly get away with it. If your brain is properly stuffed with daydreams, you escape the trap of needing inspiration to write. Even if you aren't necessarily excited about it, you do have ideas in mind about where the story has to go next, and you can just plug away. The amazing thing is, the sessions when you just sit and slog out sentence after sentence to try to get a scene onto paper so you can move on to a part of the story you're more interested in very frequently turn into your best scenes. And even if what you write while you're not inspired is a dud, don't despair! Writing stuff the wrong way is just the beginning of the journey. Real magic can happen in the rewriting.
Coming up: What to write fast, leading into how to write fast!
The first question I feel I should tackle in my "How to Write Fast Class" is a pretty fundamental one. Why should you want to write fast? What are the advantages? Are there costs and trade offs? Won't sitting down and banging out a thousand word in an hour whether you feel like writing or not lead you to hackery?
There's a myth perpetrated some by Hollywood and some by institutions of higher education that good writing should be a struggle. In the film "Throw Mama from the Train," Billy Crystal's character spends the whole movie agonizing over the first sentence of his novel, trying to figure out the word he needs to write. The night was moist. The night was humid. The night was sticky, etc. In literature classes, there's a tendency to glorify writers who spent twenty years struggling to build their magnum opus, treating each word like a dot of pigment in a pointillist painting.
Of course, many of the best loved writers in history were extremely prolific. Shakespeare left behind 38 plays and almost certainly wrote many more that are lost to history. Twain, Dickens, and Dostoevsky churned out words as if their lives depended on it... or, more accurately, their livelihoods. Isaac Asimov put out nearly 500 books in his lifetime. And all this before word processors, when authors still wrote long hand or tapped on typewriters that were prone to jamming and where correcting a single misspelled word was a laborious process. Leave out a word from a sentence, and you had to retype a whole page!
Today, the technology exists to let us produce work as fast as our brains can generate it. Of course, the second half of that sentence is the tricky part. Thinking of what to write and developing it sufficiently to be of any value once it's down on paper does take time. Writing for me is like working a sudoku. I know that I've got 81 different elements that have to go into the final product, and I know that there are ways I can put these elements down that will produce something that works, and other ways I can put them down that will create an incoherent muddle. So, one of the first keys to writing fast is to slow down and think--but that's the subject of another essay. For now, let's return to the question of why writing fast is advantageous:
- Practice makes perfect. It's true of learning to play the piano or hit a golf ball, and it's true for writing. You're going to be more fluent and polished when you are typing your second million words of fiction than when you were typing your first fifty thousand, assuming you're capable of learning from your mistakes and absorbing the feedback of others.
- Momentum matters. My first novel took me two years to write, and it's a mess. One reason it's a mess is that I would take off weeks between writing sessions, and during these weeks I'd second guess myself and think about how what I'd written could have been better. So, I'd go back and restart and rewrite from the beginning before moving forward. When I did move forward, I'd again think of new ideas that would force me to go back and make changes. Spending two months on a novel instead of two years helps eliminate the tweaking and tinkering that can keep a book from being finished. Because:
- Humans need deadlines. It's just in our nature. If you're not under contract for a book, you have no actual date certain when you need to have a project completed. This means that your book gets pushed aside for all the other things in your life that do have deadlines. The good news is, you don't need a contract to have a deadline. My writing really started improving once I joined the Writer's Group of the Triad and started going to meetings twice a month, once for a speculative fiction group, and once for a novel group. This meant I had two hard dates each month where it was expected I would turn in something, either a short story or another chapter or two or five of a novel. Later, I joined an online group that held a lot of writing contests among the members where we would have to write a story for Halloween or Valentine's Day or whatever. Eventually, I learned to make my own deadlines completely independent of other people. I would tell everyone I knew that I was going to finish a novel by a certain date, and I'd do it. Even today, when I'm writing my drafts, I announce on my blog what my benchmarks will be and keep a public log of whether I'm meeting those goals. Without a clock constantly ticking in the back of my head, I would never get anything done.
- Speaking of the clock in the back of my head, one reason I'm a faster writer in my late forties than I was in my late twenties is that I've become exquisitely aware of my own mortality. Yeah, I go to some pretty dark places in order to make myself write. I've had people close to me die in their thirties and forties, and most of the men in my family pass away in their early sixties. I've got a finite number of hours in my life in which to make works of art that will outlive me. I can handle the thought of death a little easier if I think that my words might still be read after I'm gone.
- Speaking of being read, the faster you write, the faster people can read what you've written. Writing without being read is just authorial masturbation. You might be able to build the body of your story from the raw clay of your imagination, but you need a reader to breathe life into it. Maybe you have someone who reads your chapter as you write them. Fine, but they still haven't read your novel until you've finished it.
- Permit me to bring up the unpleasant topic of economics. I know, I know, you should write for the pure joy of writing, without letting any thought of actually selling your work sully the process. But, if you should one day decide to sell writing in order to bring in a little extra income, you will quickly run into the first economic reality of writing: It's piecework. I come from a family with some experience in the textile industry. In a factory making pantyhose, you get paid not for how many hours you sat in front of a sewing machine, but for how many pairs of hose you sewed together over your shift. Writers, alas, are pretty much paid by this model. You aren't paid for the hours you've spent writing. You're paid for the number of completed projects that an editor buys from you, at least until you pass a threshold where you also start earning money from royalties. There are a handful of writers who can produce one book every three or four years and sell well enough that they make a good living from it. But, most of the writers I know who are successful are also writers who are prolific, putting out a minimum of one novel a year, and often two or three, sometimes under multiple pen names.
- Finally, the one good thing about the piecework payment plan of writing is that, once you do start getting paid for your work, your confidence skyrockets. Until you start selling your writing, it's very difficult to gage whether or not your writing is any good. Your friends might enjoy it, but they probably get your in-jokes and are able to find your voice in the story. Other beginning writers might share critiques with you, but their critiques of your story often are thinly veiled critiques of their own struggles with writing. Editors aren't gods. They are certainly capable of buying horrible stories, and more than capable of allowing a brilliant story to sit in a slush pile nine months, then reject it because they didn't like the first line. But, while individual editors are something of a dice roll, if your work is any good and you get it in front of a dozen editors, something is going to notice it's worthy of publication. Once you make that first sale, you move from the realm of writer-wannabe to published author, and you start having more faith in your work. Your odds of making that first sale are vastly improved if you are sending out a dozen stories a year instead of one. Writing is a bit like being able to print your own lottery tickets. The more you play, the better your odds of winning.
I will grudgingly concede there's the risk of hackery if speed is your primary goal. We've all read authors who seem to keep writing the same book, caring less and less about quality with each iteration. But, a hack with a hundred pulp novels has far more readers than the tortured artist who can't get to the end of his first sentence without wiping the beaded sweat from his forehead. And, I suspect that most people interested in the topic of "How to Write Fast" are are long, long way from any danger of becoming hacks. If I do suddenly notice a proliferation of people writing ten novels a year, I suppose I can organize a class called "How to Write Slower." For now, it's just not something most writers need to worry about.
Monday, October 22, 2012
To help spread the word about Burn Baby Burn, I've created a Goodreads Giveaway for the paperback edition of the book. I have five signed copies of the book ready to go to the lucky winners. It's absolutely free to enter just by following this link. You have to be a member of Goodreads to enter, but, if you're an avid reader, joining Goodreads is a pretty smart move anyway. You can enter through October 29. I'll be mailing the books out by Halloween most likely, so you can have a copy of this hot book in hand as the chill November nights set in.
Picking the favorite novel I've written is kind of like picking a favorite child, but when I reread Burn Baby Burn in the course of prepping the paperback edition, I really think it's the novel I'm most satisfied with of anything I've written. When I'm writing for mainstream publishers, my novels have to fall within certain contractual word count ranges and the story I turn in is often constrained by the story I've pitched and sold before actually writing it. Since BBB was a labor of love that I intended to publish on my own, I feel like it's the kind of sharp, tight novel that I most enjoy reading. Some of my favorite novels, like The Grifters or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are pretty skinny, but most publishers demand longer word counts to have more shelf presense. I think my epic fantasy novels are pretty well done, but they usually have a dozen or more important characters, which can water down the impact of the characters I love the most. In Burn Baby Burn, the whole focus is on Pit Geek and Sundancer, two supervillains who are basically fighting the whole damn world. They are quintesential James Maxey characters--damaged idealists, smart and funny and a little insane. They are killers and outlaws not because they are wicked but because they are virtuous, willing to bear the scorn of others rather than compromising themselves. I feel for these characters very deeply, and I hope that comes through in the writing.
Oh! I should also mention that the first quarter of the book is available free to read online at Goodreads if you want to see what I'm talking about. The excerpt runs through Chapter Four, which chronicles the first bank robbery Pit and Sunny team up on. And if you can't wait until November to read the full book, don't forget it's available to download now for a mere $4.99 from your favorite ebook supplier.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
One year ago, I released Burn Baby Burn: A Supervillain Novel as my first ever direct to ebook self-published project. While I've released other ebooks, they were all of previously published material. This was the first time I ever took the gamble of releasing an entire novel completely on my own. I was working entirely without the safety net of a traditional publisher.
I'm happy to report that the gamble paid off. Before the end of this year, BBB revenue will probably exceed the money I made on the advance for Nobody Gets the Girl, and, if the Nobody track record is anything to go by, will still be earning me income ten years from now.
But, any time I talk about the book at cons or when I'm teaching classes at the library, I always run into people who say they'd like to read the book but don't read ebooks. I've finally remedied that situation by doing my first ever self published trade paperback. If I may say so myself, the book is kind of gorgeous. I have over a decade of typesetting and design experience in my day job, so I was able to put together a professional looking package that, frankly, looks a heck of a lot cooler than the ebook since I was able to use better fonts and can control the look of each page, versus ebooks where the book looks different on every device it opens on.
I decided to keep the price on this project low for a trade paperback, a mere $8.99. It's got a real ISBN and everything, so you can go into any bookstore and order a copy, though you probably are unlikely to find it on the shelves since I lack the sales team of a "real" publisher. But, the book is already available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in the Createspace e-store. For what it's worth, I get about a buck more in royalties from the last link, but know that a lot of people prefer to order lots of books at once from Amazon to get free shipping, so do what's best for your wallet.
If you feel lucky, I plan to do a Goodreads giveaway once the book shows up in their databanks. I also have three proof copies available if anyone would like one to review on the book site of their choice. These proof copies are slightly different from the final product... for one thing they have "proof" stamped on the last page, and I also changed the final body font to be a bit larger since my first font felt a tiny bit small to me. But, if you want one of these review copies, drop me a line at email@example.com and I'll fling one your way.
I'm heading for Capclave this weekend. It should be a great con, with John Scalzi and Nick Mamatas as guests of honor.
Comic relief (Ends at: 4:55 pm)
Panelists: Doug Fratz, Larry Hodges, James Maxey (M), Lawrence M. Schoen
How much comic relief can you put in a book before it gets shifted into the humor category? Does humor hurt or enhance a serious novel? Does it throw you out of the story if you expect Song of Ice and Fire and get a line right out of Xanth? What are examples of writers who get it right/wrong?
Character abuse (Ends at: 11:55 pm)
Panelists: Meriah Lysistrata Crawford, Dave Klecha, James Maxey, Allen Wold (M)
Do your characters have human rights? You put them through hell, don’t they deserve a little love? Authors relate how they treat their characters and discuss what is the line between interesting development and abuse.
Doublespeak (Ends at: 10:55 am)
Panelists: James Maxey, James Morrow (M)
The proliferation of information beyond the control of any one authority is a good thing that can topple dictators and hold powerful corporations accountable. But, falsehoods can be spread just as easily as truth, and seemingly neutral, objective data can and is manipulated by people with political agendas. How are we to navigate the growing maze of truthiness that surrounds any subject?
Publish or Perish? (Ends at: 2:55 pm)
Panelists: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Neil Clarke (M), Katie Hartlove, James Maxey, Sean Wallace
How is publishing changing in the Internet Age? What has caused the explosion of the small presses? Are publishers still adding value in selecting, editing, and proofing books or are authors better off self-publishing? Aside from Baen, are publishers doing anything to establish an identity and attract a consistent base of readers?
Multiple Personalities (Ends at: 3:55 pm)
Panelists: Ron Garner (M), James Maxey, Alan Smale, Allen Wold
Introverts extroverts and creating a persona for public consumption. Many authors need to be in the public, even if they would prefer to be reclusive. How do you overcome your fears and hangups. Additionally, how much of your controversial beliefs should you share. Are ideals worth the loss of sales?
Then, a reading at 5, and the mass signing Saturday night. Nothing on Sunday.
By the way, consider this to be a pretty damn good schedule. I don't have anything scheduled during peak meal times, and am completely free Sunday. A big part of the fun of cons is hanging out with friends, so this schedule gives me plenty of free time.
If I could tweak anything, I would have preferred to moderate the Doublespeak panel. Not because I don't think James Morrow will do an great job, but because I think he's probably the more interesting guest between the two of us and I'd rather be asking him questions than having him ask me questions. I'm stunned only two of us volunteered for this panel. I really thought it was a very interesting topic. So interesting, in fact, I'm going to go do a blog post about it at jamesmaxey.blogspot.com right now.