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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

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.

Good music for writing

An impromptu collection of some of my favorite albums to write to.

I’m never at a coffee shop without headphones. Music helps me focus. It’s a reliable way to block out distractions when needed, which is most of the time.

My choices of tracks for writing are instrumental or electronic. Almost none of the songs on these albums have lyrics.

The moods range from rhythmic rock jams to brooding melodic vocals with crooning guitars. Lots of Jazz thrown in and scrambled up the way it should be.

I’ve been listening to these albums for years—they don’t go stale for me.

In no particular order…

Ratatat – Magnifique

Absolutely anything from Ratatat’s playlist makes for good writing music.

Mogwai – Atomic

Mogwai is hit or miss on writing music but I like this one

Chequerboard – The Unfolding

I listened to this album for a month straight.

Jazztronic Playlist on Spotify

This playlist helped me find a bunch of new stuff.

Amon Tobin – Bricolage

Stoney Street. Easy Muffin. Chomp samba! Even the names sound like jazz. Love the names, love Amon Tobin.

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.

Strike while the iron is hot

My story board reminds me to strike while the iron is hot. It helps me keep published stories from this year, works in progress, and ideas at eye level. If I have a new one, I throw it up. The squares are sticky notes so they’re easy to fix and replace. Old ideas dry up and fall off. Placeholder titles grow stale and get replaced. 

The five on the right are new this year. Let’s see how many make it all the way over before 2017 cools off.

Refilling the Well

Photo by Sterling Morris: https://unsplash.com/@sterlingrmorris

I didn’t write much this weekend—too busy taking care of myself and my health, refilling the well of my energy so that I can write better than ever when I return to it tomorrow.

This is important to remember. The work will be there when you’re ready to get back to it. But if you regularly sacrifice your health, mental or physical, in order to bust out some words or push through a wall, eventually you will pay for it.

I’ve seen writers mentally snap and quit writing altogether to go back to manual labor jobs.

I’ve seen writers gain twenty pounds in a month because they pushed on when they shouldn’t have.

I’ve seen writers get carpal tunnel syndrome, back problems (I deal with these myself), and heart problems.

But the truth is that your health is a PREREQUISITE to writing. You can’t work well or at all without your health, so your health must comes first, always.

I began my journey as a professional writer about six years ago, and have made either part or all of my living as a writer since then. And one pattern I’ve noticed over time is that the Well of Inspiration eventually runs dry. It can’t be avoided.

When you’re just starting out, though, it’s hard to tell when you run dry because it feels just like any other blocker.

First, you think you just need another cup of coffee.

Next, you think maybe it’s a story problem. You go back to the concept; or you read through again, searching for the thread.

Then you open Facebook or Twitter and scroll through the endless feed, hoping to distract yourself, and that the inspiration will come back to you. Eventually, after staring at the screen for so many hours, you have to give up for the day.

The true test, of course, is when you come back to it the next day.  Finally, you look at the blank page and feel that blankness echoed in your own mind.

Your well is empty. Time to take a couple days off and do the things that refresh and energize you.

For me, those things are to read for pleasure, go hiking in the woods with the dog, play Tak with friends, attend a sketch comedy show at a local theater, and visit to a winery in the Texas Hill Country.

It can be very difficult to take the time you need—especially if you’re on a tight deadline. I told Shelly yesterday that since I have trained myself for years now to write every single day, taking a whole day off makes me feel like a worthless slug.

I am reminded of a scene from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Roark, the brilliant young architect, is a sort of ubermensch character. He has an enormous capacity and energy for work, and of course he is an artist in his field. But what struck me most was the scene near the end of the book where the newspaper mogul Gail Wynand brings Roark on a months-long cruise on his expensive yacht. Wynand is testing Roark—hoping to see the young architect crack under the pressure of not being able to work. Hoping to see him break.

But Roark manages to lounge in the sun, to be a completely lazy slug, with the same commitment he gives his work. Howard Roark tells Wynand:

“I’m not running away from my work, if that’s what surprises you. I know when to stop—and I can’t stop, unless it’s completely. I know I’ve overdone it. I’ve been wasting too much paper lately and doing awful stuff.”

And on the yacht, Rand writes of her hero: “Roark did not speak of buildings, lay for hours stretched out on deck in the sun, and loafed like an expert.”

We should all aspire to that kind of commitment on our off days. Fill your well. Read, lounge in the sun, do laundry, or just be lazy.

Do nothing with the same dedication you give to your work.

Steady As You Go

Photo by Andrew Ridley: https://unsplash.com/@aridley88

I completed the second draft of Tales of the Republic on Sunday—a full week past the crazy insane Jan 15 deadline I set. So it took longer than expected, but I got it done. And I would have blogged about it sooner, but writing and freelance work and life (and trying not to mold my ass too firmly to this chair) has kept me busy.

What’s amazing about setting a crazy deadline is that I was forced to adjust my process to fit the deadline, rather than the other way around. Instead of asking, “how long will this take?” and picking a date at the end of that span of time, I picked the date I WANTED it to be done and then said, “now how the hell am I going to make this work?”

The task expands to fill the time allotted—or shrinks, depending on the point of view. I made it work—sort of.

My story tracker from Christmas Eve (one month ago) says I was at 30% complete—after 3+ months of editing! A month later, the draft is done. The difference? A deadline. Three months for 30% vs. 1 month for 70%. And I’d wager that I suffered more in the despairing 3 month crawl than I did in the 1 month sprint. None of it would have been possible without the crazy deadline.

Again, so I remember it: I wouldn’t have finished the book this month without that deadline.

So the lesson here is to set a crazy deadline, stay the course, and go after it. Steady as you go. Even a week late is progress worth celebrating.

After submitting the manuscript on Sunday afternoon, I went to North Austin to have beer and cigars with friends. Then on Monday morning I nailed down the concept for my next story. It’s for a “monster” anthology, and the idea is a ton of fun. I’m 2k words into that now, and I’m aiming to finish it before the week is up. Easy! Can you believe that a short story feels like a vacation after that book? Fun! Energizing! Not to mention new.

I have one other scifi story to finish before Tales comes back from the editor mid-February. And once those edits are cleared out, I’ll be digging into Translocator 2, my next scifi novel. It’s going to be a blast. I’ve been working on Translocator in the background for a while so I’ve got a ton of ideas. There will probably be another crazy deadline involved, but the crazy this time will be trying to double my daily word count since I’ll be writing new drafts. I’m sure I’ll talk more about that project when I get there.

Stay tuned here if you want more fiction. Wendigo is coming out next month. In the meantime check out the fantasy short story I published last month, which you can find below the story tracker.

Story Tracker

Novels

Tales of the Republic … Status: 2nd draft complete–out for edits … 84,671 words

Short Stories

“A Body of Work” … Status: Writing … 2,694 words written / 6,000 estimated total words

“The Boy and the Basilisk” … Status: Writing … 2,286 words written / 7,000 estimated total words

“Wendigo” … Status: Queued for post-production … 12,000 words

“Centurion” … Status: Out for submission … 3,000 words

“Earworm” … Status: Out for submission … 3,000 words

Nonfiction

Practical Fiction … Status: Planning … 500 words

Just Published

Bogged Down with Perspective

Photo by Jamie Hagan: https://unsplash.com/@dearjamie

It’s Jan. 17th, so time to fess up.

I’m at 87% complete on Tales of the Republic, which means I missed the Jan.15 deadline I set for myself. It’s two days past now and I still have about 11k words left to finish the book.

Now, considering where I was a month ago, and how impossible that deadline seemed, that’s still incredible progress. Leaps and bounds beyond what I was doing before. It’s important to keep that perspective in mind.

However, I readily admit that it bothers the hell out of me to miss deadlines, so I want to spend a second exploring why that happened.

I promised these blogs would be raw and uncut. I find it really difficult to talk about this, but I want to explore it because that directive means I owe you the bad along with the good. I also don’t want anyone reading these to get the completely mistaken impression that writing is all puppies and rainbows. I do a decent job celebrating the wins, but it’s just not like that all the time. Sometimes writing is messy and hard and full of little failures. The important thing is to not let them hold you back, to examine them and keep working at it and keep making progress.

So what happened?

There are 7 episodes in Tales, and I got bogged down in the middle of Episode 6. In hindsight, I should have known this would happen. Episode 6 and 7 were in rough shape compared to the first five episodes of the book. I rushed to the end when I wrote the draft, and didn’t cycle back to clean it up too much. These last two episodes simply needed more work, and I should have given them more time.

Add that to the complication of the climax, and it’s no wonder I bogged down.

Next time I will try to remember that.

I didn’t stop working. That’s also important to note. I kept pressing on. I banged my head against the keyboard and spent the same number of hours at my desk working.

I made progress, just slower progress. Moving the meter 14% in a week (about 12,000 words if you’re following along at home) counts for something, right?

So by that math, even at a slower pace,I should only need about another week to get to the end. My goal is to do one better and aim for the weekend, so another 4-5 days of work.

I’m glad I wrote this, actually, because when the book is done, I will be able to look back and see how what felt like a complete FAILURE at the time was transformed into a success.

A kind of alchemy.

Time to get back to it. See you on the other side.

Story Tracker

In among the novel editing, I also managed to write a new short story of 1,000 words called “The Vault of Fallsbard.” I’m sending that one out to magazines right now.

Novels

Tales of the Republic … Status: Revising … Second draft, 87.8% complete
(74,636 words revised / 85,000 estimated total words)

Short Stories

“Wendigo” … 12,000 words … Status: Queued for post-production

“A Body of Work” … 2,694 words written (6,000 estimated total words) … Status: Writing

“Centurion” … 3,000 words … Status: Out for submission

“Earworm” … 3,000 words … Status: Out for submission

Nonfiction

Work-in-progress for writers … 500 words … Status: Planning

 

The Last Quarter

Photo by Christophe Ferron: https://unsplash.com/@christopheferron

I come to you 8 days from my deadline on Tales. I’m at 73.5% complete as of my last reckoning, which means I’m nearly in the final quarter.

And things are getting hard.The pressure is on. The anxiety is building.

The last 2 parts are the least polished out of the whole book, and missing the most content, which means I not only have to edit and polish the words, but create new content to fill in the gaps—missing scenes, mostly, and a few changes that I can’t seem to avoid making.

I’m still trying NOT to rewrite what’s there, especially if the content mostly does its job. My focus is on patching what needs to be fixed. But with the gaps I need to fill, and how I seem to have made some serious story errors as I wandered around trying to find the end of the book, there is an inevitable bit of rewriting that must happen this week.

It makes sense that the last two parts of the book would be the least polished. I spent the least amount of time on them. I went over everything that came before 2, 3, 4, even 5 times. The last two parts were written basically in one go. And then they got broken out into two parts, with lots of holes, after the first edit, when I realized what needed to happen to give the structure some balance and symmetry.

So I have anxiety because I have about 12 scenes to write and polish in 8 days, and some are brand new scenes, and it is arguably the most difficult task yet because it’s also the end of the book, where everything needs to come together like I had planned it from the start.

Ha ha. Right.

All the pieces are in place, though. It’s mostly a matter of mastering my anxiety long enough to sit down and get to work.

So I just wanted to report here to let you know that I’m on track, approaching the final quarter, but that my work is not yet done. I could use a little encouragement now—and also someone with a switch to stand next to my desk and smack the back of my hand each time I type “Facebook.com” into the browser.

Also, to remind myself not to be afraid of the deadline—the deadline is the main reason I have made such stunning progress in the last month. Even if I miss it by a few days (which I DON’T plan on doing), it still counts as a win in the grand scheme of things.

Okay, that’s probably enough kvetching. Time to get to work.

Jan. 3 Writing Update

Photo by André Sanano: https://unsplash.com/@andresananoJudging by the state of my inbox, this is the day when everyone returns to work. Since that means my life will soon become very full again, and I’ll be even shorter on writing time, I wanted to take this opportunity to mark it: I made massive strides on Tales of the Republic over the holidays.

I’m at about 60% complete on this round of edits now, even having adjusted my target for the manuscript upwards by 5k words, to 85k words total. For me this kind of progress is huge.

The word count adjustment is due to the fact that I keep adding words as I go. There are several missing scenes to write yet in the finale, but the extra 5k should cover them.

But I’m not dwelling on it, just barreling ahead. I’m enjoying myself too. I usually hate edits, so to feel joy in editing is a relief, to be honest. Part of that is a change in my process, but a bigger factor is a shift in my mindset. I’ll be writing more about that soon in future posts.

After I get to 100% on the edits, the book will go to a copyeditor, then back to me a few weeks alter for proofing and post-production. After that, it will be out the door. I’ll tell you more about the launch as we approach. Finally seems like I’m in the homestretch on this one.

The Nonfiction Work-in-Progress

I didn’t make progress on any other fiction since my last update, but I did solidify and then expand the outline for the nonfiction project. I’ve also got an ebook cover for it…and that means I have a working title: Practical Fiction. It’s going to be a nuts-and-bolts type of book focusing on the writing process.

Basically it will cover all the “tools” (mindsets, habits, ideas, and exercises) that I’ve relied on to transform myself into a writer—tools that I found lacking in the many many books on writing that I have read. Tools that I picked from many places and gathered together into my own practical system.

Writing seems simple on the surface. Sit down and type words, one after the other. But as most new writers know, it’s more complex than it seems. This will be the type of book I wish I had found ten years ago, when I was just getting started.

Not rocket science, and most of it not even new information. It’s out there. The challenge is finding it and making it into a system. So the book is my attempt to put it all together for you and for me. To describe my system and try to show someone else how to use it. And as it always goes, I’m sure I’ll learn some new things myself while I’m writing it 😀

New Urban Fantasy Story

Last update for today: this month’s story, “The Door Below the Comic Store” is being published now (if you’re reading this at the time of posting). To get notified when it’s out and receive a free ARC (Advanced Review Copy), be sure you’re on my newsletter! I send free books and deals to readers there as well.

I’ll post again when it’s ready. Have a good one!

Story Tracker

Novels

Tales of the Republic … Status: Revising … Second draft, 60% complete
(50,731 words revised / 85,000 estimated total words)

Short Stories

“The Door Below the Comic Store” … 6,000 words … Status: Publishing

“Wendigo” … 12,000 words … Status: Queued for post-production

“A Body of Work” … 2,694 words written (6,000 estimated total words) … Status: Writing

“Centurion” … 3,000 words … Status: Out for submission

“Earworm” … 3,000 words … Status: Out for submission

Nonfiction

Work-in-progress for writers … 500 words … Status: Planning