A New Goal, a New Day

As you all know, this is the year I got serious about writing every day.  I set a daily word count goal of 250 words a day (91,500 words per year), which I knew I could meet.  Now, 250 is not a lot of words per day, but I knew I’d be better off setting a small goal that I could meet than a big one that I might not.  After all, success breeds enthusiasm, which breeds more and greater success, but failure breeds discouragement (you can see more about my reasoning here).  I wanted to succeed, and that motivation-boost was more important than the raw numerical output.

Well, everything was going just fine until a couple of weeks ago.  You see, right around the end of April I met my yearly writing goal of 91,500 words.  At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make a new word count goal (equal to the number of the days remaining in the year times 250, plus the 91500 I’d already written) or just enjoy being “over 100%.”

Well, I basked in my success for a few days, but by the end of the month, a malaise of demotivation (and not the funny posters) started setting in.  Fortunately, I knew the cure: setting another quantifiable goal.  Specifically, 250 words per day for the rest of the year (May-December), plus the 91,500 I’d already written.

So, now you see the new goal (in the upper-left corner of my blog).  I’ve left the old word count up, however, because it’s fun to see how much further I’ve gone than my original, New Year’s Resolution goal.  I’ve learned in life that consistency is the key to any victory, and I’ve finally managed to apply that to my writing, thanks to an achievable goal, a spreadsheet, and a little word count meter (thanks, Svenja Liv).  This consistency of writing has allowed me to finish a number of unfinished projects, which has given me the inventory necessary to actually start indie publishing as a business, not just a far-off dream.

Tempest in a Teacup

So, some people may ask why I’m so intent on going “indie” instead of sending out my novel for one of the big dogs in New York to publish.  It’s a good question.

Part of it is my own personality.  I’m not lazy, but I have very little patience for sitting on my hands waiting for someone else’s approval.  I’d rather be able to launch it when I want to, with whatever cover I put together or hire out, which a “cover blurb” I write.  When I eventually do Print on Demand, I’ll design those, too.

Part of it is that I just don’t need the advance.  I’ve got a good day job, one I’m not really interested in dropping anytime soon.  I’m financially stable.  I’ll be glad for the money I make, and I intend to continue to write and blog and build what Dean Wesley Smith calls “The Magic Bakery.”

The thing is, I’ve been writing pretty seriously since I was in tenth grade, and I feel like I’ve gotten good enough that someone other than my friends will want to read it.  It’s time to publish.  Not to start the multi-year waiting game of sending things off.  Not risk getting stuck in a tar-pit contract that binds me to an agent, or worse, includes a “non-competition” clause that prevents me from going to another publisher with my next books.

I mean, seriously, with agents taking this attitude, there’s no way in hell I’m going to step into that.  J.A. Konrath said it best here: the big six aren’t the only game in town.  As Zoe Winters wrote, unless you have massive success already (like, for example, Amanda Hocking), you’re not likely to see a favorable contract as a first-time writer, and by the time you have that pull, you don’t really need New York.  Sorry.  I don’t need the advance money and I really don’t need the danger.

I’d rather have my freedom than their money.

Actually, I’d rather have my freedom and my money.  Wish me luck.

A New Era

In my last post, I mentioned that Blood for Blood was the first book of my “New Era.”  I imagine that either sailed right by you or left you asking ‘what new era is this dude talking about?’  Well, here goes:

Prior to 2009, I had pretty much lost my love of writing.  I didn’t have a firm grasp on how to do plots, I spent more time rewriting than writing, and I “polished” things until they were homogenous lumps, because that’s what I thought I was “supposed” to do.

In other words, I had no story, and I had no voice.

It’s no wonder I lost my love of writing.  Fortunately, and I have no idea how it happened other than divine intervention, I stumbled across Dean Wesley Smith’s blog.  Being liberated from what writing meant, I was able to start writing again.  I did, and I found that I really enjoyed it.  I was writing, mostly longhand on paper, with very little editing (pen and paper allows for very little editing: sometimes I think word processing applications are as much hurdle as boon to writers today).  I actually created the character of Benedict during this time (Spring 2009, as I remember).

It started with a quote from Stephen Jay Gould, which I heard in a statistics class.  “Central tendency is an abstraction, variability the reality.”  I understood its meaning in relationship to the stats we were studying, but the lyricism of the quote set off the writer in me.  I imagined a figure in a “long black coat” (to quote Bob Dylan – or, if you prefer, Joan Osborne) staring down through a skylight at a scene below, ready to intervene, saying or thinking of that quote, almost philosophically, thinking how everyone he’s ever met has been, at heart, some kind of freak, “searching and yearning for acceptance, hurting others, from time to time, to ease our own pain,” remembering people (vampires and humans) he’s lost, killed, or pushed away.  Then, he jumped down into the midst of six vampires to rescue one human.

I ended up not using that scene in any of the novels, though it’s featured in a “supplemental material” novella I’m working on.  But it was my first image of Benedict, my first sure sign of who he was – part Bob Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat, part Nick Cave’s man with the Red Right Hand, part Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, part Stephen King’s Gunslinger, part Andrew Vachss’s Burke, part Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, and part Christopher Lambert’s Russell Nash – weathered, but with the strength of youth, largely alone, deadly, unattractive but somehow magnetic, a man of his word to a dangerous degree, torn between protecting the weak and upholding his oath of vengeance.  If mortals have nightmares about vampires, then vampires have nightmares about Benedict.

I knew that writing Benedict’s story would require me to go places I had been hesitant to go before, to write, as Nietzsche said, in blood, and not worry too much about who might get offended.  I also knew I needed to get more serious about writing regularly.

Eventually, the other important characters joined the story.  Augustine Sanguinis, the vampirelord, and his half-human daughter Anastasia, arrived from a story I’d written many years earlier, called “Dawn.”  The Sanguinises were nice enough to bring a lot of worldbuilding with them (don’t worry; that’s the last ‘nice’ thing they’ve done).

It then became clear that Augustine and Benedict were brothers, and so the theme of a thousand-year war between brothers was brought in (I had tried to write a story about that several years earlier, but didn’t have strong enough characters to make it happen.  Well, now I do).

So not only did I finally have the right leading man, but I had all these elements and supporting characters I’d been wanting to write about in the past, but didn’t know how.  Everything was ready for me to get started.

The only problem was, I still didn’t know how to do plots.  Fortunately, someone on Dean Wesley Smith’s site told me about Algis Budrys, and his wonderful book Writing to the Point (which I talk about  in more detail here).  It was absolutely the perfect remedial text for a wannabe writer who can’t do plots.  I mean, BAM!  I read that short little book, and it was like Popeye eating his spinach; I immediately figured out how to plot the Benedict stories.

Of course, that didn’t mean I’d mastered the art and craft of writing.  Once Blood for Blood was done, I realized I’d inadvertently put a frankly horrible message in there, so I trunked it for several months.  Then I realized how to fix it, simply by adding a few scenes, changing a couple of scenes, and placing it as the first book in a trilogy.  The dark outcome, the nihilistic message, vanished when it became ‘the first third of the story’ instead of ‘the whole story.’

I still had, and have, a lot to learn.  The point is, I’m finally learning, creating, building, and writing … and loving it.

This is a new age, and nothing I wrote before will be brought forward, except as raw material.  The Blood Oath Trilogy (Blood for Blood, the work-in-progress Blood Guilt, and the not yet begun Blood Oath) couldn’t exist if I hadn’t carved Dawn and the unnamed two brothers stories up, and there simply is no comparison between the quality; Blood Oath was worth the sacrifice.

More than that, the new happiness I have in my writing (both the process and the product) is worth any past works, writing theories, or practices I’ve left behind, a thousand times over.

Lagniappe: That Little Word-Count Meter

(I know I normally post on Monday, and I plan to post again next Monday.  In the Gulf South, we call this Lagniappe, or a little something extra.)

No, I’m not three months late for NaNoWriMo (or nine month’s early for this year’s), but I do have a daily writing goal, and I’m using this meter to make it public.  Thanks to Svenja for programming the meter.  You can click on the actual meter or follow this link to set up your own.

My daily word count goal (fiction only; blogs and such don’t count) is a gargantuan, world-shaking … 250 words.  One double spaced page.  I know, I know: it’s a herculean effort, but I think I’m up to it.

Seriously, though, I chose 250 words because of something Zoe Winters wrote, this post, actually, and this followup, back in August.

To make a long story short, a 1,000 word per day goal was discouraging, even intimidating, but Winters found that she could motivate herself to write every day, consistently, if her goal was short and easily reached.  She said she could do 250 words in 15 minutes.   It usually takes me 30, but who doesn’t have half an hour?

When I made my New Year’s resolutions, I knew one of them would be to write every day.  Thinking back to those posts, I set 250 words per day as my goal.  It’s absolutely attainable, even with my work schedule (even if at my busiest, I can take the time to write 250 words).

The thing is, just like Zoe Winters predicted, when I get started writing, I don’t want to stop at 250.  I’ve averaged over 800 words per day this year.  Will that rate continue?  I don’t know; I’m quite certain my work load will be increasing in the next couple of months.  Still, I’m very happy with how it’s going.

So if you want to write every day, I’d suggest setting a small goal, one that you know you’ll reach.  Success, and especially excessive success, feels a lot better than failure.  Writing 900 words feels like a failure if you have a 1,000 word per day goal, but that same 900 words feels like a triumph if you have a 250 word goal.  Success is encouraging, and reinforces good behavior.  Failure is discouraging, and pushes you to give up and abandon your goals, making it harder to press on.

And check out Zoe Winters’s blog, and her books as well (I’ll be discussing her one nonfiction work, Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author soon enough, as one of my “Honorable Mention” books on writing).

The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part Two

This week I’ll talk about a book I heard about in a discussion on Dean Wesley Smith’s website, the late Algis Budrys’s, Writing to the Point.  I’d always had a tremendous difficulty in putting together good plots, especially endings, until I read Writing to the Point.  Budrys lays out the basics of plotting, with incredibly clear examples, and does it in all of 64 pages.  Seriously, this is the author’s Book of Five Rings.

It sounds ridiculous, a writer who isn’t good at plotting, like a drummer who can’t keep rhythm or a skater with poor balance.  But I was there, and I think a lot of new writers spend time in that dark valley: you’re bursting with ideas, characters, and themes, but without a plot, you don’t have a story.  Without an internalized plot that you understand, you don’t have direction, and your writing goes in circles, wandering in the wilderness for forty revisions (well, yours might not, but mine did).  King Solomon said, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  Well, without a vision, my writing perished.

Combined with my buying into the myth of endless rewriting, this sucked me into an endless series of rewrites and revisions, and every time I finished one pass, I realized I had even more work to do on the next pass.  No matter how hard I pressed the gas, I always got further from my destination.  It seems like that would be an obvious sign that I’m going in the wrong direction, doesn’t it?

Writing to the Point was road map, GPS, and a passenger-seat navigator all rolled into one.  Within the first couple of chapters, Algis Budrys laid bare everything I’d been doing wrong, and showed me how to start doing it right.

I don’t think I’ll get in too much trouble if I give the basic seven-point story structure Budrys describes.  I’ve even heard online that it predates him, but you know how (un)reliable blogs and forums are. J

1) A character (or characters).

2) In a setting or context

3) With a problem (or a goal)

4) Basic attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal (calling the police, or realizing the police aren’t equipped to deal with a zombiepocalypse, for example.  This is mostly there so the readers know the characters aren’t carrying the idiot ball).  Clearly, this can’t work, or you don’t have much of a story.

5) Two or three escalating attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal.  Of course, these have to fail to resolve the problem, but they don’t have to be ‘failures’ in the sense of nothing getting accomplished or the protagonists being defeated.

6) The climax of the story.  Budrys calls this “Victory or Death,” and it’s the time when the main characters either stand or fall.

7) The denouement.  Budry calls this “Affirmation.”  Essentially, the reader needs to be assured that the conflict is over.  The goal has been achieved, the problem has been solved, or the character has failed utterly.  It’s done.

I’ve found this outline useful for writing everything from short stories to novels.  I’ve not yet written a novel with a single 7-step structures, but both Blood for Blood and Blood Guilt are composed of several of these story-structures with an overarching theme and timeline.

Part of being a writer is actually writing successfully, and plotting is absolutely foundational.  I can hardly express how helpful Writing to the Point has been for me on this point.  I think every writer, especially new and beginning writers, should read this book.

PS – On a related note, Writing to the Point is allegedly out of print, and people are trying to sell it on Amazon.com for $45, which is better than the $200 they were charging a year ago.  Even though the advice is well worth the price, don’t pay $200, or even $45 for a used copy: Action Publishing has new editions for $10.50.

The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part One

I thought I’d take a moment to sit down and talk about my writing process a little, namely, three books that transformed the way I write.  In the interest of keeping the blog entries short and to the point, I’m going to talk about one per week.

The first book is Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, which sprung from ongoing discussions on his website (in fact, those discussions are still available on the website, so you can sample it for free).

Smith and his wife. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, are both extremely prolific writers who have made an excellent living doing what they love without ever becoming household names.  This is important because it means they have the credibility of having made it without relying on luck.

There’s an element of luck involved if you write a single series and become a super-wealthy household name: even if the books are good, you have one product (one series) to sell to editors, meaning it can take a very long time to break through.  And if you get a low-end deal with no publicity, you’re not likely to make J.K. Rowling money, even if you’re as good as she is.

On the  other hand, Smith and Rusch, have made a career-long living (and not a ramen-noodles/efficiency apartment living, either) writing without having an explosive breakout.  They do things that can be replicated by the great luckless masses, through intelligent planning, hard work, business savvy, and honest self-evaluation.

What does J.K. Rowling have to teach us about writing?  If you did everything exactly like she did, if you managed to write as well as she did, would your book series make you a billionaire?  Unlikely.  Lighting doesn’t strike twice, and the Harry Potter series has already been written.

On the other hand, you can get consistent electricity if you wire your house correctly and pay your power bill.  If you wire the house just right, and install wind turbines and solar panels, you can even get electricity without having to pay the power company.  Lighting doesn’t have to strike, even once.

Runaway success is not something you can control.  You can hope for it, but you can’t control it.  Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch talk about things you can control as a writer.

So while my literary hero is still C.S. Lewis, my publishing heroes are Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  And R. A. Heinlein manages to score an honorable mention in both categories.

In addition to his own excellent advice, Dean Wesley Smith introduced me to Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

From Heinlein (1947) “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.”

Supposedly, Heinlein added that he was happy to give away his rules, even though they allowed new writers to reach a point where they could compete with him, because he knew that hardly anyone would ever follow them.  That may be apocryphal, but it certainly is true.

Even before I read it in Heinlein’s rules, Dean Wesley Smith introduced me to the idea that an author does not need to rewrite, and, in fact, rewriting can be a trap.  New writers are struggling just to be good writers, so what makes them think they just automatically have the skill to be good editors, too?  Rewriting can polish all the personality out of your writing.  Fix all the typos and misspellings and send it off/e-publish it.  Don’t send it off with typos and misspellings – proofreading is NOT rewriting, and NOBODY is saying not to proofread.

Now, maybe this isn’t right for everyone, but it was tremendously liberating to me.  I had basically given up on writing, after spending YEARS spinning around the black hole of a novel I could never get “right.”  When I read Dean Wesley Smith’s chapter on rewriting, I ended up abandoning ship on that novel, letting the vortex have it (as long as it didn’t suck me down with it), breaking free, and starting to write the Blood Oath (Benedict) series.

Rewriting is a tempting trap, especially for new writers, because it’s something that “everyone does,” and of course all those “how to write and publish a novel” books written by agents and editors recommend extensive rewriting [That reminds me of Dedeaux’s One Rule for Books About Writing and Publishing:  If the person who wrote it isn’t making a living writing fiction, leave it on the shelf.]  But Dean Wesley Smith taught me that rewriting is NOT the same as writing.  You’re not making progress, you’re just chewing your literary cud.

Now, I’m being extreme for the sake of being extreme, but I was SO trapped in the purgatory of rewriting, doing only harm to the already shoddy books I’d written, that I consider Dean Wesley Smith’s explanation of Heinlein’s rejection of rewriting to be nothing short of life-changing.

Now, Smith doesn’t suggest that you just let your first draft first book be where it all ends.  The goal is to keep writing, constantly identifying areas that need improvement, and trying to do them better in each new thing you write.  The idea is that like any other skill, you can train yourself to become a better writer (he has several articles about how to do that).

Rewriting won’t help you become a better writer – at best, it will allow you to make a given work look like it was written by a better writer.  Only writing will make you a better writer, and then only if you focus on fixing your weak spots.  For example, I began with plot (see next week’s post on Algis Budrys’s Writing to the Point, and the following week’s post on Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years), and now that I have built up those writing muscles, I’m working on sensory details, trying to write them in as I write.

It may be that I’ll never get the sensory details at 100% first-run.  When I write a conversation, I tend to write the words as they flow, often leaving out any indication of who’s talking (I know who’s talking).  When the conversation ends, I go back and write the rest of the scene.  Is this rewriting?  I don’t think so because I know the scene isn’t finished, and I rarely change the dialogue after it’s written.  It’s a personal quirk – all writers have them – but I find that dialogue feels more natural if I write it at conversational pace, with my fingers flying across the keyboard, thinking of nothing but what’s being said.

So maybe I’m a hypocrite.  I prefer to think that every author is different, and we all have to forge our own paths at least a little.  I’m mostly following in the footsteps of Heinlein, Smith, and Rusch, with regard to writing style, but ultimately, I am I, and no one else.

Extra, extra: Read All About It!

I want to formally announce my first novella series, Blood for Blood, is up at Amazon’s Kindle Store.  I’ve got Book One: No Beast So Fierce and Book Two: Innocent Blood up already, and I’m proud, honestly.

It’s not the same feeling as getting a short story published by someone else, that sort of immediate “other-approval” dopamine burst.

It’s not the same feeling as facing a gauntlet of agents, slush-piles, and transoms in order to get into a system that will allegedly take care of you … but we all know won’t, not really. [1]

Indie publishing is a completely different feeling, a sense of complete responsibility for my own success of failure.  There is literally nobody else in the world to blame but myself if this doesn’t take off: I wrote it, formatted it, did the covers, uploaded it, and publicized it.  I wasn’t my own Trust First Reader, but I fixed the errors she found.  There’s nobody taking a percentage for the life of the book, nobody “handling” or “managing” me, nobody pushing the book for six weeks and then yanking it from the bookstore shelves to make room for the next one.

Bottom line, sink or swim, this is all on me.  On the one hand, it’s scary, because it strips away all the excuses, every reason not to do it, every reason to delay or procrastinate.  I have to face my fears or just give up and walk away (no chance).  And that’s liberating.

1]  L.M. May had a great post on writers and learned helplessness. Dean Wesley Smith has been writing about writers wanting to be taken care of for quite some time. Here’s one about agents in the old model.  Here’s another about the future of agency and e-books. Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote a great article on trust in the publishing industry that might also apply).