I’m Feeling Much Better Now, Thank You!

See, here’s the thing: I’m an overachieving perfectionist. That’s sometimes hard to see if you look at my life from the outside, but it’s very, very true. The chaos that crops up in my life is often the result of aiming too high and learning my physical limitations a little too late into the game. I take comfort in knowing that I’m not alone, but that’s pretty damn cold comfort when I’m closing in on a deadline and realize I just can’t make it. Many of my books have died an early death because of this problem with overshooting and then not being far enough along in my career arc to execute.

The Corridors of the Dead was supposed to represent an easing of that perfectionism – it’s far from a perfect novel, and it’s intended to be that way, because in the past when I’ve labored to create the perfect book, I got too knotted up in my own intentions and robbed the story of my own unique voice. I figured voice and authenticity should come before any storytelling perfection. Those techniques can come later.

Then I got into Room 3 and realized it had a shot to be something special. Suddenly, I forgot my goals in Corridors and all of my problems came rushing back. Drenched in the cold sweat of fear, I started reading too many advice columns about what writers should and shouldn’t be doing, and my intentions came second to making this ultimately personal, somewhat niche book, into something for everyone. Continue reading

Be Like the Squirrel: Marketing of the Dead

I finally finished the Art of War for Writers the other day, and since it’s been so influential on this site for such a long time, I thought I owed it at least a bit of a nod. I really enjoyed it; in fact, if anything, it’s almost too dense, as trying to keep in mind all of its teachings is a difficult affair at best. It’s probably something that I’ll need to revisit every now and then, to see how my own perception of some of the wisdom contained within. I thought about going back to review some of what I’d written about the book on this site, but it was way too much to sift through. Even if you’re a writer who rarely reads books about writing, I’d say it’s worth a purchase.

I’m moving on now to a book about self-publishing, which I’m sure will arise from time to time. It’s already given me the inspiration to create a (semi) daily marketing plan of how to reach out and become a little more ingrained into the writing and reading communities.

Which brings me to the real topic of today’s blog, which occurred to me as I was brushing my teeth this morning – funny how and where inspiration strikes. Once upon a time, the idea of putting together a novel seemed nebulous and intimidating. So I evolved a process to go at the goal with smaller, incremental goals. Then it became the act of putting together a coherent novel. So I refined that process and broke things down into even smaller steps. Now I’m at a stage where I have a pretty decent process that works for me and keeps me writing five to six days a week at around 10,000 words a week.

Bringing us back to the ever-tense tooth-brushing, I know this is where things get real. As I was brushing I was thinking about marketing the novel and my “brand” itself and how I had kind of gone about it in a haphazard way. Oh, sure, the website has given me a platform and presence of sorts, but I need to expand it. That’s when it occurred to me to use the same concept that I used for evolving my fiction writing: break it down step-by-step. Make it into smaller goals.

So I pondered…how do I do that? Writing I know. Writing I get. For me, it seems easy enough to look at how a story or an essay is composed, break it down into its component parts, and examine how I could apply those parts to my own process. I think Stephen King said something once about how examining a plot is like taking a look at a fellow mechanic’s work under the hood, and that analogy works a lot for me. I can look at that and just sort of get what they’ve done.

But marketing…well, that’s another beast. It’s not that I don’t think I’m capable. I’m pretty sure I am, but I’m not a natural at it. It’s something that I’m going to actively have to work at learning, and I’m only just starting to get that. With that in mind, where to start on marketing myself?

The answer, I think, is in approaching marketing like my writing. One of my most faithful tools is the weekly word count. I’ve noticed my skill level jumping appreciably week-over-week as I hover around that word count. So why not apply the concept to marketing? Set daily (or cumulative weekly) goals that aren’t too rigid or interfere with my writing, and try to hit those targets as best as I can. It has the benefit of being consistent, keeping my brand from being forgotten, and also of being fairly non-intrusive on my writing life.

So I set up some simple goals today, and will see how well I can live up to them – and if they are, in fact, effective. After that, it’s a matter of tweaking them, just as I have with my writing process.

There’s probably a lesson about life itself to be learned there, trying what works and throwing out what doesn’t, breaking larger goals down into smaller ones and then being adaptable to changes when they come, making the process of achieving just about anything a living, breathing organism.

But that might just be an extrapolation that’s out of this site’s scope. Just an idea. Who can say if it’s something to be expanded upon?

And since it’s Friday, the song which I’m referencing in the title…

You are not…: Examining “Snowflake”

Yesterday I was talking about finding the middle ground between plot outlines and writing by the seat of your pants, and during some research I discovered something called the Snowflake Method. I promised to come back here and take a look at it, and here I am. Aren’t you just lucky?

The basis of the Snowflake approach is that it’s all about design. The creator, Randy Ingermanson, has essentially taken an engineer’s approach to novel-writing by breaking plots down using the same method that he used for software development. I admit, I balked at the concept at first. “Who is this software engineer to tell me how to craft novels?”

But then I actually read his Ten Steps of Design and the philosophy behind them and realized that, not only did he have a pretty good basis for creating those steps, those steps actually reflect a lot of what I already do. I don’t want to pull too much traffic from the guy’s site, as that’s not what I’m here to do at all, but here is the rationale behind his method:

 But before you start writing, you need to get organized. You need to put all those wonderful ideas down on paper in a form you can use. Why? Because your memory is fallible, and your creativity has probably left a lot of holes in your story — holes you need to fill in before you start writing your novel. You need a design document

The ten steps take the story from an initial pitch-style sentence for the core concept of the novel (this is what I sometimes start with; sometimes it’s a scene that’s been in the back of my mind like an itch I just can’t reach) and turn it into a paragraph describing setup, roadblocks, and targeted ending. That moves onto the characters and, by the end of the first week or so, the theory is that you’ll know if the story is broken and needs work. You then continue to expand on what you’ve already created, adding sentences to the paragraph, and more description of the characters.

He also predicates his story structure on having “three major disasters and an ending”, which is just a good a structure as any, I suppose, and a pretty simple way to build enough of a story to entertain the reader. It’s something for me to consider in the future, I suppose.

He goes on to advocate using it not only for just starting out on a novel, but also trying to resurrect a horrible first draft and get to work on a novel rewrite. I have to admit I’m considering using it for the former, as I have a 75% finished novel from a few years back that could use a good rewrite and then be issued.

Oh, being a software engineer, he has also written a piece of software for the purpose of following the snowflake method, but I definitely balk at the price, as it’s $100 without a discount for buying Fiction Writing for Dummies and $50 with that purchase (effectively $65 or so,  depending on where you get the Dummies book). Compare that to Scrivener, which I am currently test-driving, which will be about $40 once the Windows version is ready to go.  It’s just hard to justify that kind of purchase when the process is rather easy to follow on your own.

Overall, though, I like the process, and it seems like a good hybrid between outlining and writing by the seat-of-your-pants. It gives you enough to get started, but doesn’t require you to go overboard with plotting every single move. I tried to stay safely non-specific about some of this stuff because, well, I can understand. I’ve put a lot of work into my own writing process and if I was going to market it, I’d at least want other writers to direct traffic to it. I’d definitely recommend at least checking out the article and seeing if it’s for you, though; I’m going to incorporate some of the stuff that I liked into my 0wn process.

Okay, so the second part of what I wanted to talk about today comes courtesy of, yet again, the Art of War for Writers (have I pumped this book enough yet?). In the book, he suggests viewing your writing as a business and, as such, having a basic business plan and set of goals. Not just for the basis of trying to be businesslike, though it helps I’m sure, but to help narrow your focus and understand just what it is that will help you to achieve your goals. It struck me because I’m kind of reaching that point in my own career. I’ve had an explosion of ideas and concepts, and I see so many paths that I could follow.

One of the most interesting suggestions in the book is to envision yourself ten years from now and imagine what you would want to see looking backwards at your career from this moment. Don’t be afraid to dream too big or crazy – it’s just a general map of where you want to go. He also suggests getting as specific as possible, looking not just for general stuff like “be the published author of X mystery novels” but also “these novels reflect my view on human nature”, etc. There was a time that I would have hated the concept, but today I love it. I’m going to start putting it together very soon, in fact, and will probably post it here.

Last item of business is that I think the sequel for Corridors of the Dead – City of the Dead – is beginning to percolate up from my subconscious. For the last few weeks I’ve had this scene of a man in a sword fight with another man on a snowy plain, and one of the men is suddenly cut down by something from behind. I wasn’t sure what at first. Then other details started to fill in, such as the identity of the unseen killer. Why they were out there in the first place. Etc. Only in the last few days did I start to figure out the identity of the protagonist in the scene, and the purpose for which I was seeing it. Now the elements of the sequel are starting to fall into place nicely, and this scene provides a good method to start the sequel by hitting the ground running. The best part is that I have time to develop other scenes in the novel in the same organic fashion, as Entanglements stands between now and City of the Dead. Still, I’m excited. I think it’s going to be a good one, and that’s all you can really ask for.

In My Body – About Mind and Matter

I’m not sure why I started thinking about today’s topic, but it came to me a few days ago. I was pondering the question of a living made with one’s body versus one’s mind, and the values that Western society place upon those differing lifestyles, especially as it relates to writing and creative arts in general. This is relevant to me because I grew up in a blue-collar, rural town, where one was expected to eventually make a living with one’s body. The concept of making a living with one’s mind was foreign, even to me – until I started to realize I really could do it, but that’s a story for another time. The one hope of getting out of the grind-house of poultry and manufacturing plants was sports. I guess it only makes sense; grow up with the concept of your body as a meal ticket and sports just becomes a natural extension of the mindset.

I loved playing sports, too, don’t get me wrong. I would have given anything for a career in Major League Baseball, but by the time I was 12 I was figuring out that I was different. Where the other kids hoped for athletic scholarships, I hoped for science or art scholarships. As time went on I became more and more convinced that writing would be the way for me, and so here I am, after a long, arduous path.

I saw an angry post on reddit last night about how, roughly paraphrased, writing, no matter the caliber, should never be a paid profession: people should do jobs that “matter” and write on the side. His position was basically that writing is not worth much, and that everyone should do it – it’s innate.  I take some exception with that position, as yesterday’s post shows that writing is hardly innate to the human condition, but that’s neither here nor there, and I could ramble on for pages about how his position is incorrect. What intrigues me the most is his position on whether quality writers have a right to make a living off of their writing (he does agree they should get paid at least).

It’s probably not much of a surprise that I disagree, for the most part. I’ve gone on at length about how it seems that writers and other artists are the gatekeepers for a given society’s dreams – that is what is innate to humanity, I think, not the ability to string words together on a page. But the question of whether a “needed” physical job is more valuable than writing, there’s where I’m not quite sure. I have no question that a farmer is more valuable than a writer, inasmuch as we can define the person by their job, but is a physical job ultimately worth more than one practiced in the mind?

Take the architect versus the actual construction worker. Who is more valuable there? Sort of a chicken-and-egg question. I suppose that’s the conclusion I have to draw about “mind” jobs versus “physical” jobs. The most interesting part of all this is how Western Society values these jobs. Common sense tells us that the blue-collar jobs are valued more – at least, that’s what it’s like coming from my paradigm, even as a white-collar worker, but words are one thing and the actual money another thing entirely. You see who gets paid more and gets better working conditions, although artists are sort of the middle ground between the two worlds.

In the end, the bottom line, for me, is that good writers do offer a valuable service to society. Obviously it’s not a necessary job, but for how many other jobs could you say the same thing? Quite a few, I’d say. I mean, I won’t delude myself; I don’t expect to make a full-time living with my fiction writing. I’d be thrilled, but I’m certainly not expecting it. However, as a technical writer, I have absolutely no doubt that my skills add value to the jobs performed within the company and that I’ve helped to make companies stronger in my own way. Some might call it selling out, but I see it as using my talent wisely, and in the end, all we can really use is our gifts – whether they’re physical or in the mind.

Today’s featured blog is the Memory Writers Network, a blog dedicated to providing a writing resource specifically for those who write memoir and biographical stories. My friend Rob is squarely in this category, and I think he should at the very least check this one out! Hint hint!

Word Counts and Ambition

Today’s entry is a mishmash of concepts and ideas that have been banging around in my skull for the last few days. The first issue is the question of success and ambition, one that struck me when reading another piece in the great book Write Good or Die. The author of this particular piece, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, spoke about how a writer may achieve what looks like success to someone from the outside, and yet internally feels nothing like success. You can read the piece, by the way, on her site – right here. Read it. There are a lot of other important points that won’t be a part of what I’m talking about but that writers need to understand and which will eventually be addressed here as well.

What concerns us today, however, is that hollow victory feeling. This struck a nerve because it’s something that has been present in my own writing for quite some time. I’m quite aware of the good fortune in my life – after all, even though I work as a technical writer, every day is spent doing some form of writing, and getting paid to do so. Yet it’s always felt a little hollow. Lack of gratitude? No…I apparently enjoy my “day job” more than most others. But no matter what accolades, there is always this lingering feeling that there should be something more. That something more is success in fiction writing.

Now, however, I am working toward something better in fiction writing, and the question arises again: what is success? Is it winning an award? Is it making the New York Times Bestseller List? It’s a tormenting question, but it’s important to examine it. Let’s look at this categorically:

  • Getting an agent? Maybe. There are still some feelings to be worked through here. Sometimes feels like a necessary evil.
  • Publication? Absolutely. Even self-publication. This feels like an inevitability at some point, but it represents crossing a new barrier.
  • Winning an award? Yes. That would feel like success.
  • New York Times (or Amazon) Besteller List? Hardly. Sales figures are nice, but being a big music nerd, I’ve never viewed them as any sort of artistic validation. They’re simply a measure of whom is reached by a work, and some work is not meant to sell to anyone. That’s more than valid, it’s pretty damned wonderful.
  • Other? Honestly, it comes down to intent versus results. Does this book have potential for mass appeal? If so, does it attain some measure of that? Then it’s a success. Having said that, it occurs to me that I define success not by career milestones but by the milestones of a given story. For example, I don’t believe my current work would ever attain mainstream success; it’s far too niche. Gaining a modest audience and modest sales would be an astounding success. The next planned novel, however, will have a wider appeal, and I would hope it would gain more readers. Perspective, then, seems to be key.
So there we have it. I suppose the accusation of one of my college writing teachers remains true: I’m one of those “artistic types” for whom expression is more important than commercial viability. It was an affectionate accusation, by the way, and no reason to get offended over it. Guilty as charged.
The other issue is the question of daily writing goals and metrics to measure those goals. I had been maintaining writing hours in a spreadsheet, but ran into a problem yesterday when it became apparent that my writing time is becoming more efficient. Feeling drained but having written for a shorter period than usual, it was time to figure out what was going on – it dawned on me that I had burned through an entire chapter, not to mention writing a somewhat lengthy blog entry. Time to check word count – close to 3,000 words! According to this blog entry, that’s a more than reasonable daily goal.
So we run into the issue of improving skills and efficiency versus the old metrics. If I’m working fewer hours but the net effect is the same – exhaustion – then perhaps it’s time to start measuring by word count as well as time spent. Perhaps this is the other side of the word count coin, the tyranny that I’ve complained of in the past. We will see how this experiment plays out.
Tomorrow, I want to talk about the perils of First Person, as I’m trying to learn more about it.