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AMA Q4: How much do you plan your stories over a whole series of books?

(As a reminder, this is a question I received in my first blog-style Ask Me Anything.)

Matt Ud asks, “Be honest: How much do you plan your stories over a whole series of books? Does that change based on your style and experiences between books?”

The short answer is that I have a rough idea, but not the full picture.

I only have one series right now, the Translocator Trilogy, and I thought it was a short story when I started it.

As I worked on it, I realized it was a novel.

As I worked on it some more, I realized it was a trilogy.

For me, stories have always evolved as I worked on them. The characters get deeper. The plots get more intricate. The motivations become more clear.

I need to know where I’m going—where I want to end up—but I don’t need to know all the details.

When I realized The Auriga Project was the first book in a trilogy, I took a step back and tried to sketch out an idea of what would happen over the course of the three books—some people call the plot over the course of a series the “meta plot” or the “series arc(s)”.

But I certainly didn’t know all of the details that ended up in The Alien Element. I didn’t even write out a synopsis for each chapter of The Alien Element until March of this year.

So I plan as much as I can and trust in the process for the rest.

Maybe other people won’t agree, but I’ve always found that as long as you know where you’re headed, keep an open mind, and work hard at writing words in a certain order, the rest will happen on its own.

AMA Q3: What kind of stuff do you read? Etc.

(As a reminder, this is a question I received in my first blog-style Ask Me Anything.)

Jess Hutton asks….

This is a long one, Jess, so let’s do this rapid fire style, one by one.

What kind of stuff do you read?

I go through phases. Right now I’m reading lots of classic sci-fi novels like Arthur C Clarke, but also contemporary sci-fi books like The Atlantis Gene and Nomad. I always seem to have a writing book open, too. Right now it’s Immediate Fiction.

Have you felt like your reading improves or inspires your work?

100%. I love reading. After I finish writing a book, the first thing I want to do is read something good to recharge. Good books inspire me, and make me kind of jealous. Bad books teach me things.

Who’s your favorite author? Why?

Hard to say, I have so many… Stephen King, Norman Mailer, Ursula K Leguin, Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, Brandon Sanderson, Franz Kafka… an incomplete list.

I don’t believe anyone has a single favorite author. Readers read LOTS of books.

Were you a reader growing up or more into other things?

Oh yeah. I devoured fantasy and scifi books growing up, too. No wonder I end up writing them. In college I got turned onto the classics, and philosophy. I even like literary books, sometimes. But SFF is in my blood.

How has content strategy (that order, planning, high-level amazeballs work that we do) changed or affected your approach to fiction writing?”

For those that don’t know this about me, in addition to being a science fiction author, I’m a freelance content strategist, which means I help tech startups tell their stories—write articles and documents and advertising copy for their businesses, and implement strategies that help grow their audience or customer base.

It’s made me more organized, that’s for sure. And more able to see the big picture. Small things add up over time, details matter, and data needs to be analyzed in different ways to glean new insights. Content strategy teaches you to test assumptions, to experiment, and that’s helped me in self-publishing.

Knowing all the web stuff, like WordPress and SEO, has certainly been a boon. Being tech savvy has made it a bit easier than it might have been to master all the tools necessary to produce professional quality ebooks and paperbacks.

On the other hand, publishing books is SUCH a different business than offering content strategy services to my clients as a freelancer. You’re dealing with intellectual property and retail sales instead of offering hourly or per-project services. It’s a very different business and I’ve had to change how I think. Four books in, I’ve had some success but I’m definitely still learning and trying something new every day.

AMA Q2: How do you stay fit as a sedentary author?

(As a reminder, this is a question I received in my first blog-style Ask Me Anything.)

Kate Baray asks, “Since I know you irl, I know you’re a fit guy even though you type at a computer all day. As a very sedentary author, I’d love to hear your tips on dealing with the special physical challenges writers deal with.”

I’ve gone through my own struggles over the years with fitness. When I was 16 a sports-related injury began to cause me chronic pain in my lumbar spine. I already knew I had scoliosis, but this particular injury has flared up and been exacerbated over the years by desk jobs and the sedentary lifestyle this causes.

It’s only recently that I managed to get my pain under control, and even now, every day is a constant battle to make sure I exercise enough, stay limber, and take care of myself in a way that prevents the pain from recurring or the injury from flaring up again.

After twelve years dealing with this chronic injury, and roughly seven years of various types of desk jobs, I’ve got two pieces of advice.

1. Learn to listen to your body

I’ve found that I can predict when a bad spell is coming on if I listen to my body. If I work too long at my desk, or lift something heavy with bad posture, or overdo it at the gym, I can tell. Learn from these mistakes, and make sure you don’t do anything to make things worse.

If you notice after three hours, you start to get sore, go outside and walk around the block before coming back to your desk.

2. Develop your toolkit

When I don’t listen to my body and I overdo it, causing the chronic pain to flare up again, I fall back on my toolkit.

Walking

You don’t need to go to the gym to exercise. I use a Fitbit to track my steps and try to walk 10,000 steps a day. I find that’s usually enough to keep me moving and free of pain. My back never hurts from sitting too much if I’ve also walked my 10k steps that day.

Just like your writing muscle, your body is built to move. Let it.

I also try to go to the gym 2-3 times a week to really get my heart rate up and do strength conditioning. I lift light weights with a focus on core strength. I also go to the climbing gym when I can. Core strength, for me, goes a long way to fighting the chronic pain issues.

While I’m at the gym, I try to do some cardio. I can’t run (bad on the back) so I use an elliptical or bike or rowing machine.

Stretching

Don’t just exercise, also stretch! Hold for 30 seconds. Don’t be lazy or skip this, it’s important. People underestimate how much being limber helps prevent pain and other problems caused by a sedentary lifestyle.

Standing desks

When I’m at work, I use an Uplift sit/stand desk and try to stand half the day. When I discovered standing desks, it was a difference maker for me. Even when I worked in a calling center and I was the one weird person standing all day long, it brought my pain down significantly. I used to go downstairs to a quiet room on my lunch breaks and spend 20 minutes stretching every day, too.

You don’t need a fancy standing desk. I used a cardboard box on top of an ikea desk for years, and it was better than sitting.

Overall, I’ve just found that moving regularly—not necessarily hard exercise or sports, just simply walking—stretching, and trying to limit how much you sit makes a huge difference all on its own.

 

Ask M.G. Anything

Greetings, space cadets!

I’m taking questions. Ask M.G. Anything! I’ll write blog posts for the best 20 questions that get submitted to me.

For those of you who don’t know me well, I write sci-fi thrillers like The Auriga ProjectThe Republic, and other works in speculative worlds. Some are post-apocalyptic, others are near-future with a dystopian edge, and some are pure space adventure.

What my stories have in common is page-turner pacing, a drive to explore alternative futures for humanity, and characters who face choices where the right answer isn’t always clear—or where doing the right thing comes with an unexpected cost.

Still need ideas for questions you can ask me? Okay, I’ll play ball.

Ask me about my new book The Alien Element. Ask me about my biggest fears. Ask me about the places I’ve traveled, science fiction tropes, writing habits, my book buying addiction, beer, whiskey, productivity, rock climbing, dog training, World Cup soccer, what I had for breakfast this morning, the universe and everything,

For those of you that don’t know me well yet, apart from writing books, I run a freelance content strategy business. I’ve been an Amazon bestseller, a rafting guide, and I spoke at SXSW once. I’ve traveled across Europe, India, Turkey, the U.S. and Canada…

I could tell you stories, man.

Ways to ask me questions:

  1. Leave a comment on this blog post
  2. Email me at matt at mgherron dot com

Don’t let me down.

Writing is a muscle

Deliberate writing practice, writing sprints

Now that I’m finally bearing down on this July-August challenge, determined to finish the cowriting novel, I’ve been doing word sprints again — that’s 20 or 25 minute sessions where I’m allowed to do nothing but work on the book.

If you’re sprinting, you’re only allowed to work on the story. The goal is number of words, as many as you can do. Nothing else—no internet, no talking, no disrtractions. At the end of the sprint, you check and report your word count (to yourself or a friend, but keep track somehow).

What I’ve noticed after a few weeks focusing on marketing/publishing stuff (not to mention client work for my day job), is that my fiction writing muscle has weakened.

I get tired faster. My average word count per hour is down. My stamina for writing is lower overall. And that’s after just a few slow weeks!

This just goes to further prove my theory that writing is a muscle. Like a muscle, you have to use it or it atrophies.

And fast.

I know I can get back to where I was. There are certain things you can do to write at your peak, like sprints. I simply haven’t been very diligent about doing those things in July.

Part of it is because it’s summer and I’ve been spending a lot of time doing other things, too. It’s The Time of Great Forgetting as Dean Wesley Smith calls it. The other part is that I just haven’t been pushing myself.

I’m getting back into it. I bought Freedom to help me block out distractions. And I have a word count goal to finish this novel by July, my old reliable 1k a day.

1k a day may not be as fast as some people write, but it works for me.

Treating writing like a muscle, doing sprints, recording my progress, and focusing on 1k a day has give me 3 novels so far.

About to be 4. Don’t knock it ’til you try it.

Photo by Evan Clark on Unsplash

White space

Finally hit white space on the cowriting project

I’ve been plotting and world building and revising the cowriting novel project for the past 4 weeks, ever since I turned in The Alien Element. Yesterday, I got to the end of revisions and hit white space.

And today I got to write new words.

It’s like emerging from a dense forest into a sunny glade. I can breathe again!

I love writing on the whole, but revising is my least favorite part. That’s why I’m a planner for the longer stuff. I make a plan and execute on the plan. Rather than a pantser who may find the story in multiple drafts, I prefer to get it right the first time…or at least as close to right as possible.

Because I hate revising.

In my experience, revisions are the most time consuming and least enjoyable part of writing. So the process I follow is all about removing revisions from the process to the furthest extent possible.

It’s not always possible, I admit. But I’ve found that with proper planning I can at least minimize the number of tedious, time consuming revisions I must do. The proof of this is that the longer I write, the more planning I do and the less revision is required. The proof of this is that each new book takes me less time to write than the last.

So I’m excited to have hit white space on this project. I estimate that I have to write another 18,000 or so words to reach the end of the book.

The new short term goal to motivate me will be to get it done by the end of July. I’ll aim for 1000 words a day so I have some padding.

Got my 1000 today, so that’s a start.

Halftime huddle on my 2017 writing goals

It’s halfway through the year, so I thought it would be useful to take a step back and get some perspective on the writing goals I set myself in January. Especially after the setback of the July-August challenge.

2017 writing goals

The 2017 writing goals document I wrote in January is ten pages long. I decided not to blog about it at the time, which I regret. But I can’t go back in time so I’ll summarize it for you.

I had two main goals:

  1. Publish new fiction every month in 2017
  2. Write a lot of new material

Let’s dive into these one at a time.

1. Publish new fiction every month in 2017

I actually started the streak in December 2016 with a short story. Here’s everything I’ve published since the streak began.

As you can see, I’m doing great on this one! Even exceeding my goals due to the serial release of TOTR and the anthology in April.

August is locked down with release of The Alien Element, and I have specific plans for September-December. Got some work to do, but this goal is well within reach—as long as I stay focused.

2. Write a lot of new material

What new material did I want to write in January 2017? I had these projects listed on my original doc. Here’s the list and status of each.

  • Finish Tales of the Republic – Done
  • Write Translocator 2 – Now called The Alien Element, the book went out to ARC readers today.
  • Write 30 short stories – Heh. Oops. Not doing so great here. I think I’ve written 2 new short stories this year. I have more planned, but 30 seems unlikely. That’s okay. Not as good as I’d hoped but them’s the breaks.
  • Write a nonfiction project – I ditched this sometime in March. My goals changed when I realized I was trying to do too much with too broad a focus. Changing goals with new information is a good thing, and I have no regrets cutting this project. If it’s important, it will come back on my radar in the future.
  • Write a blog every week – Doing better lately on this one. I feel like I’ve found a groove here this month. I’m publishing several blogs a week with ease, because I’m writing about topics with a clear focus (on books and new releases, with fiction samples thrown in when possible). Only seems to be a hand full of people reading the blog regularly (if you are, hello!) but the more I put into it the more it will grow.

Time for a gut check

At the start of the year, I had an unfinished novel, vague ideas for Translocator 2, and a handful of finished short stories.

I’ve made a whole hell of a lot out of that meagre start. The unfinished novel came together and became Tales of the Republic, which is fast on its way to selling its first thousand copies. The shorts I had already written got produced and went live in in January, February, April and July.

And I’m dancing a jig over how fast The Alien Element came together. I’ve hit ALL my deadlines so far. The journey to write that book was grueling at times, but rewarding. I know the kind of writer I want to be, and this project has shown me a glimpse of him.

Something unexpected is that I also started a cowriting project I mentioned the other day, a sci-fi mystery novel. That’s what I’m working on in July between marketing/new book production tasks. I didn’t foresee this project when I made my writing goals at the start of the year, but I’m glad it happened. We’ve agreed to keep the book name and partnership under wraps for now, but I’ll share more about this when it’s ready.

The second half of 2017

For the second half of this year, I’ve got the cowriting project to finish, 4 post-apoc stories (and the subsequent collection) to put together, and Translocator 3 to draft. That last one won’t make it through edits in 2017, so I am targeting early 2018 for its release.

I honestly didn’t know if I was going to be able to fit T3 in this year, but it’s looking like I might, so that’s incredibly inspiring.

Wow, that’s a lot

It’s a lot. I know. It is.

If you can believe it, I’ve got bigger plans for next year. For instance, I haven’t touched audiobooks with a yardstick, and people have been asking for them.

Mostly, this post is a reminder for myself to keep my eye on the ball. The most important thing for me at this stage in my writing career is to produce new work. The challenge to publish new fiction each month has shown me that I can make it happen.

There’s always room for improvement, but I’m getting better all the time. A little more practice, a few more books, a little bit of luck… who knows.

I’d be curious to know which projects sound most interesting to you, and if you do a check-in like this on your goals. Leave it in the comments.

Copyedits in for The Alien Element

Yesterday afternoon, my editor got back in touch with copyedits for The Alien Element. Right on schedule!

I hustled to get them all entered today. This is a simple but slow process where I take the changes back in to Scrivener, which I’ll use to produce the ebook version.

It was after dinner, nearly 11pm before I was done. Then I went out for a long walk to stretch my stiff back and legs.

A solid day. Tiring, but productive. Good to know I can do copyedits (and some minor revisions) for a full length novel in a day.

Tomorrow I’ll format the ebook and get it out to ARC readers. If you’re on my ARC list, look for an email in the next day or so! If you want to read this book early in exchange for an honest review, get in touch with me by email or leave a comment here.

Teasers for the book are starting to come out, too. Read Chapter 1 of The Alien Element on the blog there.

In the home stretch now!

July…er, July-August challenge

Checking in on the July challenge, in which I planned to finish a cowriting project (a sci-fi mystery novel), write 4 post apocalyptic stories, and publish a bunch of new stuff all by the end of July.

How am I doing? Haha, well, I could be doing better. But all is not lost!

I’m firmly on track with all the publishing and marketing stuff. Not Alone went live a few days ago, The Auriga Project is getting updated to the official “second edition” at this very moment. The Alien Element is still with my editor, but coming back soon.

On the writing side, I wrote 1000 words today on the cowriting project to finish a difficult section. I’m about halfway through what I wanted to get through by now, although I expect smoother sailing from here. After I get to the end of the current manuscript, there’s about 20k more words that need to be written to finish the story.

Given my schedule, I know at this point that I’m going to need more time.

Both the writing and the publishing side of things have taken longer than I expected this month. It didn’t help that I had a week long vacation smack dab in the middle of the challenge. I am REALLY slow at writing book descriptions.

Very probably, I’m not going to get to the short stories this month. Or if I do, it will only be one or two of them toward the end. I need the rest of this month to finish the cowriting project novel. The short stories can be written in August, and I can still get the collection published by the end of the year.

How about we start calling it the July-August challenge, instead? 😀

A setback, but not a loss. Still on track to publish something new every month this year. I just signed a contract for new sci-fi anthology. And The Alien Element is coming in August.