Productivity in a Time of Madness
People have wondered how my writing is going. So, here it is:
I’ve been stuck inside my house since mid-March.
I’ve got three kids, two cats, and a dog, all trapped in said house with me.
I’ve been teaching a 7yo to read, potty training a 2yo, soothing a 10yo’s anxieties about missing a Zoom meeting and getting in trouble. There has been a lot of crying.
I’ve been making lunch for everybody, especially for my wife, who has spent about 9-10 hours a day, every day trying to make sure my state’s transportation systems are safe, funded, and provided with all the PPE necessary to save lives.
The president is a fascist traitor. No, that’s not a political opinion.
Cops are tear-gassing and beating people protesting police violence all over my homeland.
The fireworks – always prevalent – have been going off all night, every night since early May.
A global pandemic has killed 115,000 of my countrymen at this point, with only more on the way.
And during all of this, I have managed to write two short stories, a rough draft of a novel, and a textbook chapter.
So, the question is: HOW?
Let’s first recognize my privilege: I am still employed and I don’t need to worry about food or paying my mortgage or anything. My family is supportive of my writing – especially my wife. My 10yo daughter has been crucially helpful in wrangling my toddler, allowing me to spend about 4 hours any given day (in 2-hour spurts) at “work” up in my office. Oh, yeah – I live in a house large enough to have a room to myself I can call an office. I also do not suffer from any particular mental illness I am aware of – I do not battle depression or anxiety, I am not a victim of trauma. I am extremely fortunate.
Beyond this, though, I find that the global catastrophes are motivating me to write rather than preventing it. For one thing, writing is an escape for me – I crawl inside my book or my stories and live there for a while and forget about everything in the world. It isn’t that I’m not worried about the world outside, but I have found that pretty much the only thing I can do is to sit down and write through it all. I sort of need to, in order to feel normal.
I say all this not as a kind of humblebrag, mind you. If anything, doing this has made me feel strange and almost disconnected. The vast majority of people I know are having trouble staying motivated, distracted too much by the outside world to focus. It sort of makes me wonder if my capacity for empathy is broken or if I’m being unusually selfish by locking myself away as I am (to the extent that I am). But…I can’t help it. I have to write to feel normal. I have to tell stories.
And furthermore: remember that this isn’t a race. I am writing well right now, fine, but soon enough you’ll be writing better than I am. And what does better/worse even mean in this context? We are all doing what we can. Me? I’m huddled up with my laptop in my office writing as much as I can – that’s how I’m coping. You? You might be coping some other way. Regardless of how, though, we are going to make it through this. We are all going to have stories to tell. And we are all going to have the time to tell them one day.
So, don’t measure how you’re writing against how anybody else is. As somebody who can’t write at any other time than the summer months (because of my day job), I keenly feel that sensation of falling behind, of not being able to keep up, of losing your focus. That’s me, eight months of the year. How do I deal with it then? I do a little work here, a little work there. I plug along at a snail’s pace. I focus on short fiction and editing and keep my expectations low. It’s frustrating, but I get there. You will too.
Good luck, my writing friends. It’s nuts out there. Keep dealing as best you can. You have my admiration and my support, always.
FOMO: Writer’s Edition
So, another summer draws to a close. Another fall – my least favorite time of year – looms. Sigh.
There’s a lot of stuff I don’t like about the fall (I’m deathly allergic to most of it, for one thing), but chief among these is the fact that I basically see an end to my dedicated writing time. As a college professor who teaches a lot of freshman composition courses, I have a pretty gigantic workload of student papers to grade and classes to teach and lectures to prep for and so on. I just don’t have the mental real estate to write very much on top of that (though I do a little, it amounts to one writing day a week, and even that is often compromised by my responsibilities). Frankly, reading and grading literally thousands of pages of student work every semester turns my brain to goop and there’s nothing I can do about it.
(and please, SPARE ME the whole “you can just assign less work for them!” comment. Just assume I take my job seriously and what I assign I consider actually instructive. I also don’t find the “throw the papers down the stairs to grade them” thing particularly clever, either.)
Now, if I sound a little salty about this, it’s because I kind of am. Not because I don’t like my job (I actually do, most of the time), but because I always finish every single summer feeling as though I’ve failed as a writer somehow. I look around at all my writing associates who have different work lives than me and a different writing process and know that for the next six or seven months or so they’ll be cheerily writing away and submitting stories and finishing novel drafts and I’ll feel like I’m stuck on the sidelines, unable to compete. And yeah, it’s not a competition – I know this intellectually – but it often feels like a race. A race I’m losing. People are out there living that authorial lifestyle and I just…can’t. I’m watching my friends go on without me.
But that’s all bullshit.
Each summer for the past several years, I have completed a novel draft and revised a separate novel. Each summer I tend to finish a handful of short stories that I then set about submitting for publication. Each summer I seem to publish about 2-3 stories, usually in professional markets. Each year for the past several, I have published a novel. Ordinarily that should (and often is) enough for me to hold at bay the persistent brain weasels that tell me I’m not doing enough or working hard enough.
This summer has been, by my own admittedly unreasonable expectations, not a terribly successful one. Why? Well, I did not finish a complete draft of any particular novel and the revisions I made to another novel have been sent back for more revisions and so I feel like I haven’t completed that, either. Basically, I’ve been beating myself up all month; I feel like a failure. And, just to show you how unreasonable that is, let me list out what I actually wrote and/or published this summer:
- A failed draft (meaning I need to start over again) of a scifi novel (working title The Iterating Assassin): 55,000 words
- An incomplete draft of a humorous urban fantasy novel (working title One Dollar Wishes): 25,000 words
- 1 complete revision of The Day It All Went Sideways (time travel novel): 88,000 words and a second incomplete second revision of same.
- 1 novelette (“Season to Taste”) at 8500 words
- 1 novelette (“Stanley Armageddon”) at 8200 words
- “What the Plague Did to Us” in the July/August Galaxy’s Edge
- “The Masochist’s Assistant” in PodCastle (episode 586) – this a reprint from the story of the same name in F&SF a few years back
- Short story “Three Gowns for Clara” to F&SF
So, okay, that works out to 103,000 new words written, about 100,000 words edited (not counting the number of little rewrites I’ve done of those stories and other things), two things published, and one top-shelf pro sale.
Yeah, and what am I complaining about, exactly?
That’s just it, though – this way I feel, this sinking feeling in my guts that makes me feel like I’m never going to manage to publish something again and nobody in the world is ever going to care – is flagrantly irrational. All writers, no matter where they are in their career, feel this incredible weight of self-doubt each and every day they aren’t writing. And also when they are writing. That’s because this is an uncertain business, one that refuses to conform to regimented schedules and predictable outcomes. It sucks that way.
But, honestly, that’s also what makes it magical. If this shit were easy, everybody would do it. Right?
Anyway, that’s what I tell myself sometimes. I’ll let you know if it ever works.
So Many Good Openings…
I’m good at starting short stories. Really good, I’d say. I have snappy first paragraphs, cool set-ups, neat ideas and then…
Then they tend to stall.
I never seem to know where these damned stories are going. So what if there’s a T-rex loose in the mall? Who gives a crap, anyway, and isn’t that just going to wind up being the same as the plot of the latest Jurrasic Park movie? After that occurs to me, I get disenchanted and then stop because, well, I don’t want to be derivative. I want to be original.
Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself in the first draft. I want the story to be brilliant. I want it to sell to the best markets and get all the praise from (whoever) and win all the awards and make me the guy who is known for writing brilliant, well-selling, praiseworthy, award winning stories. And, of course, that’s a huuge amount of pressure.
But that can’t be it, because I try to do the same thing with novels and I have no problem diving into writing a novel. I just sit my ass in my chair and start churning out words, day by day, bit by bit, until a draft is done. Even revision in novels seems easier – there are so many moving parts, so many modular pieces, that altering it seems almost intuitive. Well, at least compared to short stories.
The source of all this whining is that I just finished a novel draft and now it’s an opportunity to write some more short fiction and get it out the door before the semester begins and all my writing time pretty much vanishes. I mean, how long can it take to write a 4000-6000 word story, right? I cover that in about two days while writing novels – no sweat!
I sit down, crack the knuckles (not really – just a metaphor) and start typing and I get about 500-1000 words in and…
I feel like I should be able to write a draft of 2 short stories per week. The reality is that a single one takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes goddamned years to see through.
Right now I have seven or eight stories with openings and no middle or end. I’m stalled on all of them. I’d call it writer’s block, but I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I just don’t think any of my ideas are any good. I find them boring. I don’t want to write boring stories.
I guess that’s what people mean when they say “writer’s block.” I should just put my head down and power through. That’s what I do in novels. Why is it any different for short work?
Well, it’s short – there’s no time to waste, no room to spare. I can’t dick around for twenty pages and then go back and cut it out. Well, no wait – I can dick around for twenty pages and then cut it out, but I don’t want to. I want short fiction to be a faster process than the longer stuff. I want to churn out stories every week. But writing short fiction is work every bit as much as writing long fiction is – more, if you ask me. People ask how long it took to build Notre Dame Cathedral, but do they ever ask how long it took to perfect the wheel? Sure, it’s smaller. But smaller doesn’t mean easier.
So, I’m going to go back and read the start of a bunch of stories now, see if any new ideas have developed. See if I can get these things through to the end.
Don’t hold your breath.
The release date of Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, The Far Far Better Thing, has been pushed back to November 20th. Though a copy of the text has been on my editor’s desk since March, he’s swamped with work, it seems, and I’m pushed back in the queue. We thank you for your patience.
Developing an Idea
There is a question all writers are asked all the time. In fact, if you’ve ever published anything – or even if you haven’t – I can more-or-less guarantee you’ve been asked this at minimum six times this year. I would even go so far as to argue this question is a primary reason somebody might decline to identify themselves as an author at a party with mixed company. The question is this:
Where do you get your ideas?
This question is totally understandable. All writers see where the questioner is coming from when they get this – obviously somebody who doesn’t spend their spare time coming up with weird little stories to entertain people might wonder how on Earth this process occurs. The problem is, though, that the answer to this question is too vastly complicated and esoteric to clearly relate. For instance, when I am asked this, I often feel like asking a series of follow-up questions:
Do you mean general ideas or specific ideas?
Do you want to know where the ideas originate spatially, mentally, or temporally in relation to one another?
Are you asking what my artistic influences are, or how I come up with ideas I term as original?
Also, what constitutes an “idea?” Like, what if the story originated with an idea I didn’t end up using? Do you want to hear about that?
Are you asking out of curiosity, or do you, yourself, wish to generate your own ideas and want tips as to how?
And I could go on. A lot of times, when asked this question, I shrug and say “a weird childhood,” even though that is not really true in many ways. Mostly I do this to see how seriously they want to know because, like, if you actually want to know, I can talk to you for hours and hours. And hours.
Like, you should probably get a beverage and comfortable chair.
For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m going to skip past the original, general concept “idea” – the bolt of lighting, if you will, that strikes you and gets the wheels turning. Let’s just assume that happens by whatever eldritch psychic alchemy blesses all creative people and move on to what, for me, is the more interesting stage: Idea development.
What Do I Do With This Stuff?
It occurred to me recently that I really think goblins are cool and that I don’t read enough stories about their petty, vicious, mean-spirited little lives, brief though they are. This has begun to simmer on a back burner in my head. Let’s talk about next steps.
What kind of story will this be?
This is the first question I ask myself. What is the tone I want to evoke? Is my goblin story going to be funny, sad, mysterious, scary, angry – what? What, basically, will be the most fun for me.
How can my story create this mood or tone?
I begin to think about what my goblins will be like, in broad strokes – not so much individual characters, but things like culture and environment that would have shaped their behavior. If I’m trying to write a scary story, how can I combine the elements I want (scary and goblin protagonists) in a way that seems plausible, believable, and entertaining. This is where I stare to come to grips with the world itself. I start to map out big ideas – who has the power? Who doesn’t? Why is the world this way? How do the goblins fit into this world? Is this world evoking the proper mood or tone to fit the kind of story I want to tell? If not, how can I change it to do so?
Whose story is this?
This question and the next question sometimes swap positions with me, but a lot of times I get to character next. So, I’ve got this funny/scary/angry goblin world – who is my main character? How do they fit inside this world? What is the conflict they are seeking to resolve (i.e. what do they want?). If I have a boring main character, I don’t have a story, do I? My characters morph and change a lot before they actually appear on the page. It’s like forging something or maybe sculpting/whittling – I’ve got a raw hunk of material that needs to be honed and shaped into something useful and beautiful.
What happens in this story?
Next is plot (or sometimes plot is first). Just because I have a person living in this world doesn’t mean there’s a story yet. This is often a place where my ideas stall – okay, so I have a goblin character living in a goblins world doing their goblin thing but that’s not a story. Slice of life tales I find pretty boring, frankly. I want action. Honestly, silly as it is, I often find myself coming back to this meme:
Fake Leo Tolstory is kinda right, guys. I mess around with those three basic ideas and see if I can come up with something new and interesting.
Who is telling the story?
The last step I go through when developing an idea is this one: who is telling the story? Whose voice will best evoke the tone and mood I want? Is this going to be Third Person or First Person (please note that I cannot stand second person and won’t do it)? Will I have multiple POVs or just one? I can’t write anything until I know what the story is going to sound like in my head. My style is a bit fluid; I alter it to suit the tale. Perhaps this is a bad idea, but it’s one that makes writing fun and challenging and interesting for me.
Once that is in place – once I know whose story it is and what is going to happen and who is telling it and where it is set and what kind of mood I wish to evoke – the only thing that’s left is writing the damned thing.
The hard part, in other words.
Yes and Dragons: Gaming/Improv Podcast!
I was recently interviewed for the podcast Yes and Dragons, which discusses how improv/improvisational theater and RPGs intersect. In the interview, I discuss how improv, gaming, and writing intersect quite a bit, and it was a really fun interview. Go and check it out and, if you liked it, check out the other episodes of the podcast, which will be releasing once a week going forward.
Oh, and there was something amiss with my microphone during the interview, so it sounds as though I’m talking inside an airplane hangar. Sorry.
Anyway, give it a listen! If you’re interested in any one of those three topics, I hope you will find it enlightening or otherwise useful.
Writing From a Place of Anger
I’ve been pissed off at the world lately. Each day brings a new outrage, a new soul-crushing horror, and while I wouldn’t say it’s directly harming my capacity to write, it is having an effect on how I want to write. Emotions – the writer’s emotions – transfer onto the page. They kind of have to, right? If we’re to be writing in a genuine voice, then some aspect of our emotional sphere is going to show up in what we write.
Now, typically, I have written from a relatively calm emotional state. If I’m too upset, I can’t concentrate on the words. But the flares of anger of late have dulled into glowing hot coals that just simmer there, deep inside me. I should note that none of this anger is directed towards my friends or family or coworkers or students – this is a broader kind of rage, targeted at the political sphere more than anywhere else. Venting my rage, then, at the people around me could never be justified – they have done nothing and do not deserve it. Also, of course, venting into the Void (i.e. Twitter) is hardly cathartic and certainly not constructive.
The outlet remaining to me is my writing.
I am no fan of angry political screeds thinly veiled as fiction. I find those things generally tedious. But, of course, I am nevertheless tempted to vent my frustrations at the world in some kind of story, anyway. This story would be ugly and unkind, I have no doubt. It wouldn’t really be the kind of story I want to be a part of. But it’s still there, gnawing at the edge of my imagination. Write me, it growls, let me out.
I don’t, though. Because I’m not ready yet. Anger, you see, isn’t enough. You can’t write a story that’s nothing but anger and expect it to work. Not enough range for a novel, too crass for a screenplay, and too on the nose for a short. I need something else. I need the hope that tempers the anger, I need the calm rational voice to make the story more than just a primal scream of rage. I need the voice of civilization.
I’m still trying to find it. I guess that means I’m still too angry.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should just let loose.
Novel Revision in Three Metaphors
Your Novel is Like a House of Cards…
Each piece supports another, each card an integral part of a larger whole. How do you proceed? Can you remove cards from the middle and not have it all fall down? Carefully, carefully slip the offending Joker or deuce from its place. Start at the end and deconstruct backwards – this stupid scene at the end, where did it come from? Trace it back, dig out the rot. Make yourself a smaller tower, a sleeker manse – yes.
But then…wait. No! Not that one…
And then it’s all gone. Your edifice, flawed at its heart, lies flat on the table. Time to start anew. Marshal your strength, steel your resolve. You’re going to have to do it over again.
This is not the first time it has fallen.
Your Novel is Like a Wild Stallion…
It breathes, living and beautiful. It is strong, vital. You made it – with sorcery and wiles you yourself cannot recall the knack of – and yet it cannot stay this way. It must be tamed, somehow. It must be made suitable for others, not just for your own special touch.
And yet, is it not alive? How can you change it without killing what it is? You grasp the mane tightly as it bucks. You try to soothe, but this is not something it will submit to. It loves itself. It loves the free way it tramples prose. The meandering paths of plot and pacing are its familiar paths, wild though they are.
So you build fences and walls. You wield the whip, so terrible the crack, so that it learns respect. And all this while you bleed inside. This is not what you wanted. Not what you intended.
Why cannot the wild thing live free and alone?
But no. That is not what you intended either. It must be broken. The stallion must be broken if a steed it will make. And break it you shall, come what may.
Your Novel is Like a Tree
This thing was not of your doing, you know it. You merely planted the seeds, you watered, and you waited. Day after day, tending the shoots, it has grown into something pretty, but also imperfect.
But how to fix it? Pruning here and pruning there – a careful snip. There is no going back now. The old tree will never return, and you know you cannot grow the same tree twice. And still it grows in ways unexpected. How can you keep a living thing from growing? How dare you?
And what if it dies? No one has use for dead trees, except as fuel, or perhaps sanded down into boards and dull furniture. Stacked in a lumber yard, forgotten.
So you are careful. Respectful. Debating over every cut – how deep an injury will this cause? Because there is no going back, no more seeds to plant. This is the tree, one way or another. And yet it’s still not right.
Perhaps another little cut.
No, still not right.
And so it goes.
The Writing Groove
Everybody’s writing process is a little bit different – I want to make that clear at the outset, here. Anybody telling you that you have to write at such-and-such a time or at such-and-such a pace is full of it. I, for instance, roundly reject the notion that you must write every day. Horseshit, I say! I used to try doing it that way, and my productivity was abysmal. Then I stopped worrying about writing every day and started focusing all my writing efforts on particular weeks or months where I would have fewer distractions (the summers, semester breaks, vacations, etc.), and my yearly productivity basically tripled almost overnight. I now write a novel and anywhere from 5-10 short stories a year, and have published *about* a novel and 3-5 short stories a year for the past few years. So, what I’m saying is that my system seems to work.
No matter what your writing process is like, though, I think we can all agree that the primary obstacle to producing those words is the challenge of sticking your butt in a chair and writing them (whenever and however that is done). It’s hard work, writing, though very few people who aren’t writers think about it as such. To them (the “norms,” let’s call them), we are eternal dawdlers and daydreamers, sitting in our comfy little offices and wasting our time telling make-believe stories for short money. “Get a real job,” is the sentiment (even though almost every single writer I know has a “real” job in addition to their other, evidently fake one).
Such people must be met with stiff resistance, friends. Don’t let them get away with such slights. You tell your uncle that you have taken the week off to write and he says “so you’re free for lunch?” The answer is “no, I’m working.” Writing is work. You do it for pay (well, unless you don’t, and don’t intend to, in which case a lot of this doesn’t necessarily apply). There are literally endless distractions and interference that can keep you from writing those words, from earning your (admittedly meager) pay. You must resist them.
For me, the very best tool I have against distraction is routine. During my writing periods, I get up, eat, get the kids to school/daycare, go to my office, and dive in and write for a few hours. I take breaks, usually at the scene breaks in whatever I’m working on. I work until lunch, then after lunch I put in another hour or two, and then, after approximately 5-6 hours of writing in a day, I’m spent and I read or do something else for a while before I pick all the kids up from school again. This is my approximate routine, and it works very well. Your routine may well be vastly different, but I bet, once you get into it, it works similarly as well.
I call this zone – this place where you are set in your routine, churning out the words on a regular basis – “the groove.” It takes me a few days to really get into the groove, but once I’m in it, I do not want to come out again. I resent disruptions to my routine – I don’t want to switch who picks up whom from school with my wife, I don’t want to run errands of any kind, I don’t want to have to deal with things that don’t fit into the groove – because it’s just so damned easy to get knocked out of it.
Once, I was on a deadline and we had scheduled a trip to Hawaii to visit my sister and meet my new niece. This was a 10 day stay in Honolulu with family, on the beach, hiking volcanoes, going surfing.
I was distraught.
I know, I know – what kind of psychopath is upset by a trip to Hawaii?
The writing kind, is what. What if I couldn’t concentrate? What if I couldn’t put my butt in the chair and produce those words? I’d miss my deadline (unacceptable to me). I fully realize that other people don’t understand this. Right now, there’s a significant portion of my reading audience scrunching up their nose and going “seriously? Hawaii? Poor baby.”
But I am being serious. Distractions are the #1 most dangerous thing to a writer, by far. Other than your own personal obsessions, there is almost no reason to sit in front of that computer and infinite reasons not to. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe you hear the phone ringing. Maybe somebody’s at the door. And on and on and on…
The good news is that I managed to produce plenty when on vacation in Hawaii. How did I do it? Routine! My wife would take the kids out in the mornings to do something fun and I would stay in the little apartment and type away. Then, in the afternoon, I would enjoy Hawaii – the beach, the ocean, the city, and so on. It worked, and if it can work there, it can probably work anywhere.
Get in the groove, people. Fight to stay there. Write those words. Conquer your writing goals!