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[process] Finding the time to write (redux)

Ah, such an evergreen topic. This question never goes out of style.

The extremely talented Theodora Goss asked it again on her Facebook yesterday.

How do you all find time to write? Seriously, I’m starting to wonder how people do it. I know you’re supposed to make time, but out of what, thin air? It’s frustrating . . .

The comments there are worth reading. Being me, I answered thusly:

By practicing fierce time management and prioritization. Last year I underwent major surgery, six months of chemotherapy, worked full time without ever taking a leave of absence, parented a teen aged daughter, traveled a reasonable amount, blogged about 250,000 words and wrote about 250,000 words of first draft fiction. I did not watch tv, went to very few movies, never went clubbing or to concerts, never played any computer or online games (and only minimal, low impact gaming on my smartphone, mostly in time-kill situations) and read a lot fewer books that I would have preferred to. It can be done.

I want two follow that up with two possibly contradictory observations.

First, it’s all about choices. And I mean this without drawing any value judgments.

We all choose all the time. We choose the things we need to do to survive, to be entertained, to be fulfilled. For my own part, I choose to ensure the roof stays over my head, that I’m available to my daughter, that I take care of my health. I choose to maintain my friendships and cultivate my emotional relationships.

But after all those things are done, I choose to write. Writing entertains me. It fulfills me. It pleases me. I’ve invested into writing the time and energy I used to spend on tv, gaming, repairing old cars, non-essential housework, and whatnot. Time comes from choices.

Secondly, never compare. (Several people made this exact point in Dora’s Facebook comment thread.) My life isn’t yours, my choices aren’t yours.

For example, I have two distinct advantages that many people don’t have. Primus, I work at home, so there’s no commute. That an hour a day you spend in the car or on the bus? I can spend it writing. Related to that, my work hours are heavily front loaded so that I’m almost always free by 3 pm. Which gives me the afternoon and evening for both Dad time and writing time.

Secundus, I am a fast writer. So even if I only take that one hour, I can be pretty productive. That’s just me. Everybody writes at the pace they write at. Trying to be faster for the sake of being faster is a mug’s game. There can be other good reasons to try to be faster, such as daring to be bad, or getting out of your own way. But speed for the sake of the time in your day seems foolish somehow. Which, I recognize, is easy for me to say given the relatively blistering speed at which I write.

But my point is, don’t compare yourself to anyone but yourself. “Am I writing as much this month as I did last month? Last year? Am I okay with that answer, whatever it is?”

So where do you find the time to write? From yourself. If it’s important enough, you’ll organize your life to do it. If it’s not that important to you, don’t sweat it. Write when you can. That’s all any of us do in the end.

[process] Muddling in the middle

In the last nine days, I’ve written 24,500 words on Their Currents Turn Awry. Since I started with 66,600 words from last year’s writing, I really only need another 50,000 to 60,000 words to finish this draft. In other words, I’m already a third of the way there.

But I’m also firmly in the middle. And I’m hitting a muddle in the middle so classic that it makes me laugh at myself. “This boring.” “No one wants to read this.” “Why am I writing this?” “Look, there’s some bills that need to be paid!”

One if the reasons this strikes me as funny is that Sunspin as a whole is organized in arcs or chunks. Each chunk is 60,000 to 80,000 words long, roughly. Each chunk has three segments of 20,000 to 30,000 words each. There is no chaptering. So within each segment, I have a middle. Within each chunk I have a middle. Within each book, I have a middle. Within the four book series, I have a middle.

Are you sensing a pattern yet?

Right now I’m approaching the middle of the second chunk of Their Currents Turn Awry, just past the middle of the book, and approaching the middle of the series. It’s as if my muddle in the middle were a nested set of Ptolemaic epicycles and they’re all coming together.

So, hell yeah, I’m muddling. This is where I know not to decide the idea is boring and stupid and go chase some other shiny, cool idea. How do I know not to do this? Because I am an experienced writer.

Everybody’s middles suck. At least to them, while they’re writing. Giving up at this point is the biggest mistake newer writers make. And it’s a mistake that tempts at least some of us older writers.

Luckily for me, my desire to see how the story comes out waaaaay trumps the middle-muddling going on.

[process] Going into book mode

Well, I’m back on first drafting a novel. Which I haven’t done since last summer/fall. As my close friends and family know, when I’m drafting a novel I get a little weird. I assume this is true of most writers.

I call this “book mode”.

What happens is I focus obsessively on the writing process. My priorities shift where I’ll pass up most things other than the items at the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Working the day jobbe to provide food and shelter, parenting my child, tending my most important emotional and social connections.

Everything else sort of fades into the background. It becomes difficult to socialize casually with me. My responsiveness to email and social media drops off a lot. My pleasure reading drops close to nothing. I sleep less, take fewer showers, seek meals which require a minimum time to acquire/create/cook and to consume. I tend to be thinking the world of the story rather than the world of real life. It’s a much deeper immersion than I go through when working on short fiction, for reasons which seem obvious to me.

All in all, this makes me a bit spacey, slow and goofy. And distracted. Did I mention that I’m writing a book?

So if you’re a friend or someone who loves me, well, I apologize. This is part of having a writer in your life. As most people reading here already know all too well from their own experience, I’m sure.

Do you go into book mode? What does it do to and for you?

[process] Watch that first step, it’s a doozy

Diving into a substantial project for the first time, or back into it if I’ve been off for a while, always includes a moment of challenge for me. There’s a point where I say to myself, “Whoa, I can’t do that.” For Pete’s sake, I’ve written nineteen first draft novels. It’s not like I don’t know how to do the work at this point. There’s just a sense of biting off part of an elephant. It’s biiiig.

This happened to me yesterday as I geared up to once more start laying down significant first draft word count on Their Currents Turn Awry, Sunspin volume two. I’d spent the previous couple of days reading through the 66,600 words of draft I already had in the can. That effort got me back into the headspace of the books, the terrain of the characters. Yesterday, though, I needed to step off the edge and take the plunge into the next 70,000 words or so.

For one long, slow moment, teetering at the edge, I felt like chickening out.

I didn’t. I never do. But the temptation is always there, right at that launch point.

In fact, I went on to write 4,500 words of first draft yesterday. Two character segments. With gunfire, and crashed spaceships sinking into the waters of a frigid mountain lake, and murder at a production studio. It’s not like it wasn’t fun, or interesting, or engaging, or entertaining. Writing (almost) always is those things for me.

I just get a little spooked by the size of my ambitions sometimes. Then I remember that I am bigger than the story, that I must be bigger than the story. It is contained within me, and only I can let it out.

The multitudes are marching. I will be for a while plural.

[process] Analyzing the writing of Calamity of So Long a Life

As I mentioned over the weekend, Calamity of So Long a Life is finally off my desk and out into the world. More about that when there’s more to report.

Now that I’m embarking on Their Currents Turn Awry, this seems like a good time to review what I’ve done with Calamity. Checking my production information, I find the following:

150.0 hours of writing (includes the synopsis, and about 65,000 words of Currents)
90.25 hours of revision
240.25 hours total

If I fudge out 32.5 hours for the work that has turned into the first part of Their Currents Turn Awry, using an assumed base production rate of 2,000 words per hour, that still leaves me with the following:

117.5 hours of writing time (includes the synopsis)
90.25 hours of revision
207.75 hours total

I can further fudge out 75.5 hours for the work on drafting Calamity of So Long a Life, in order to break out the outlining process from the drafting process, I get the following:

42.0 hours of writing time (outline)
75.5 hours of writing time (first draft)
90.25 hours of revision
207.75 hours total

In effect, I wrote the first draft of Calamity of So Long a Life at roughly the same clip I’ve been drafting for a long while, since I deliberately applied the brakes to slow myself down. As I have discussed a number of occasions, that’s 1,800 words an hour, with bursts up to 2,500 words an hour. I average about 2,000 words an hour over a large scale project.

One thing that is different about this book is that I expended a very large amount of time on the outline, both in up front effort and in ongoing tweaks once the project was underway. As it currently stands, the outline is about 120 pages long, totaling 28,400 words in its own right. I haven’t even accounted for all the time on the outline prior to 2011, as I’d been prethinking and making notes on Sunspin for several years prior to that.

Another thing that is different about this book is that I’ve greatly expanded the amount of time spent on revisions. For productivity planning purposes, I used to estimate 100 hours to write a 200,000 word first draft, and another 50 hours for revisions. In other words, revisions consumed 50% of the time that a first draft consumed. What has happened on Calamity is that revisions now consume 120% of the time that the first draft consumed.

Even in just drafting this blog post, I am surprised by these numbers. I hadn’t realized how much time I’d sunk into revisions. It’s not surprising in retrospect, as I added two major steps to my process as compared to prior books. But still… As for the outline, I’ve known all along that Sunspin has been requiring a radically different investment in that part of the process. And it has really paid off.

Both of these trends are almost certainly very good things. Is it taking me longer to write a book with the expanded prep time and the expanded revision time? Obviously. Considerably longer. But writing isn’t a horse race, and nobody gives out medals for being fast. Because I believe that by taking all this extra time both before and after executing the first draft, I’m writing a much, much better book.

Or at any rate, I really hope so. If I’m not improving, I’m doing it wrong.

First drafts have always been the most joyous part of the process for me. They still are. Discovering the story, seeing it unroll onto the page, is where I get my greatest writer yayas. All this time spent on the synopsis and the revision? That’s me maturing and developing as a writer. Giving you more reader yayas, ideally.

I’m already applying these expanded processes to both Little Dog: Son of a Bitch (co-authored under [info]bravado111‘s guidance) and to Their Currents Turn Awry. I haven’t yet seen validation from the market, the critics or the readers, but I really believe in these changes, and trust that others will, too. And as always, I’m looking forward to whatever happens next.

This is a fun, fun career.

Note: I know some people take considerable exception when I make these very metrics-driven process posts. Please understand that I use this kind of thinking in two places.

One, when I’m budgeting my writing time a year or two ahead, so I know what I can produce in what time frames.

Two, after the fact, when I’m looking to derive lessons learned from a project. As in this post right here.

When I’m actually doing the writing, in the flow, I barely think about this stuff at all. Story comes first, always. But in order to be a competent, deadline oriented professional, it’s important to me and my process to understand the underpinnings. Hence the quantitative analysis.

[writing|process] Talking about doing it, and a return of the “hand of cards” theory

Yesterday I guest taught at Travis Heermann‘s literature of science fiction class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. That was a lot of fun. I gave a very short lecture about alternate history, then we did a bit over an hour of open q-and-a. Though I do wonder when the college kids got so young?

This was a literature class, not a creative writing class, but there were a fair number of craft questions. About a third of the students are aspiring writers, so that makes sense. This got me thinking once more about the “hand of cards” theory, which I have previously discussed here: [ | LiveJournal ] and elsewhere.

Basically, the “hand of cards” is the idea that all writers start out with a more or less random assortment strengths and talents. ([info]matociquala calls this “the box it came in”.) Much like a poker deal, this could be a weak hand, a mixed hand, or, rarely, a strong hand. As we work to improve our skills and achieve publication, we upgrade our low cards one at a time, switching focus as we go along.

What I’ve never quite done is pinned down what those cards might be. The suits, as it were. I’m pretty sure we’ve had this discussion before, but I can’t find it right now, so here I throw out some ideas, and ask you guys to comment or contribute your own.

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Prose style
  • Narrative voice
  • Auctorial authority
  • Dialog
  • Sensory detail
  • Gender/ethnic/orientation authenticity (specifically meaning: not your own default settings)
  • Action sequences
  • Emotional resonance
  • Thematic depth
  • Control of language (or possibly precision)

Some of these obviously overlap. I’m not wedded to any of them, though a number are fairly obvious. What have I missed? What have I got wrong? What would you add to the list?

[process] Mature characters with backstory

Saturday evening I was texting with [info]bravado111 (urban fantasy author J.A. Pitts) about how much we both liked Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent | LiveJournal ]. John observed that the book read like the fourth volume of a series, and compared it to the original Star Wars movie, now known as A New Hope.

This got me on to thinking about mature protagonists, a topic which has already been on my mind somewhat of late. Mature characters come with their own backstories, their own histories. (For that matter, so do infants, but in dramatic narratives, people with fully formed life histories are usually more interesting.)

Among my books, Rocket Science, Mainspring, Escapement, Pinion, Green, Endurance and Kalimpura all center around young protagonists. Death of a Starship and the Flowers books deal with people in middle age. (The Before Michaela Cannon, core protagonist of Sunspin‘s ensemble cast, is 2,000 years old, so she’s a bit of an outlier.) With those younger protagonists, a major aspect of the story being told is their own journey to maturation and discovery of their life path. The older protagonists have a lot of backstory and implied action embedded in their preferences, desires, choices and reactions to the unfolding of the plot.

Certainly that latter effect is what Saladin achieved in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Hence [info]bravado111‘s reaction. Those characters had been around a long time, had experienced many prior adventures, had lived.

What I’m now chewing on is whether I think it’s a bigger challenge to write a youthful protagonist or to write an older protagonist. How does this affect the reading experience? Green and its subsequent volumes would be very different books if she were middle aged at the time of the action. Some of the key underlying themes of Sunspin would be null and void if Cannon weren’t literally the oldest human being who had ever lived. And Ahmed’s Doctor Adoulla Makhslood wouldn’t be anything like he is if he were still living in the bloom of youth.

Food for thought, indeed. What’s your take, as either a reader or a writer, on the age of protagonists?

[personal|process] The day that was

You’d be hard pressed to tell that yesterday wasn’t a vacation day. I did manage a full shift at the Day Jobbe, but I also taught at [info]the_child‘s eighth grade class, put in 90 minutes on Going to Extremes, and squeezed in an entertaining if unsuccessful aurora hunt last night with [info]the_child and [info]mlerules.

So about that day…

Yesterday on my lunch hour, I went to [info]the_child‘s class yesterday and talked about creative writing for publication. That makes me sound so organized, doesn’t it?

Going in, I did have a stack of my books for show-and-tell, and an outline of what I was going to speak to. The first round of questions largely derailed the outline, but that was fine. They were smart kids asking smart questions. And me, I’m pretty quick on my feet. I still managed to cover everything I had originally planned to. It was joy to talk to them. Ghu, I love Waldorf education.

I’ve left the kids with a homework assignment. We developed a character in a setting with a problem as a writing prompt, and they’re to give me flash fiction stories next week based on that. Third session with them, I’ll walk through the stories as if I were editing an anthology, talk about what I see, how I’d select them and order the table of contents, and so on.

Smart kids make me feel smart. And I managed not to embarrass my daughter, at least insofar as she’s been willing to confide in me about the experience. I think it was maybe a little strange to be receiving homework from her dad, though.

Then yesterday evening we got a wild hair to head out to the Columbia Gorge and look for the aurora borealis. The sky had been pretty clear throughout the daylight hours, and this had been the warmest day of the year so far. In other words, we weren’t going to be wet and miserable. I was already tired by the time it got dark, but what the heck. I’m trying to have fun here, people.

We knew the odds of seeing the aurora were pretty low at this latitude, but we thought the trip would be fun in its own right. So [info]the_child and I hied ourselves in the Genre car to pick up [info]mlerules and we drove out to the Columbia Gorge. Once we got off I-84 onto the old scenic highway, we dropped the top and cranked the tunes, and enjoyed the drive up to the Portland Women’s Forum park and Vista House. Those are both on top of the southern flank of the Gorge, with good views of the northern sky.

First, we had to stop and look at the dragon.


That’s the (nearly) full moon in the trees behind.

When we got up to the Women’s Forum park, we realized the northern horizon was occluded by clouds. We pooted around a while to see if they were moving on, and enjoyed the full moon some more.


Oddly, the mountain was hiding. (It does that sometimes.) We did meet a fellow in the parking lot when we arrived who said he’d seen a few colored flashes in the north, but we never managed that. The light from the moon was amazing, and the Gorge at night is incredible to look at. Unfortunately, our camera isn’t good at night time photography. [info]the_child did get a neat shot of I-84 running through the Gorge.


After a while we headed down to Vista House, but the wind was sharper and colder there, and the northern horizon no less occluded, so we punted and headed home.

Though I stayed up too late, it was a lot of fun. Maybe some other time for the aurorae.

Photos © 2012, B. Lake

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[process] Teach the children well

Today is my first of three (or possibly four) guest teaching appearances in [info]the_child‘s eighth grade classroom. The theme of my multiple dates there is creative writing in a commercial career. I’ll be talking a bit about my own career as an example, walking them through the building blocks the writing and submission process as practiced by professional writers (or at least by me), and taking them through a writing assignment for flash fiction which I’ll then use their stories to edit a sample anthology.

It ought to be fun. I love doing this, especially for kids. And it’s especially neat to be doing this for my own daughter’s class. (Also, if you’re in Portland or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest and want me to do this for your child’s classroom, let me know. We may be able to work something out.)

[process] Listening to the book

As recently discussed [ | LiveJournal ], I have added a step to my novel manuscript revision process. I know from experience that reading a manuscript aloud always helps me find copy editing errors, infelicitous wording, word echoes and so forth. But I also dislike reading aloud at length, and especially all by myself.

The tension between knowing what was right and being pretty strongly avoidant about it was troubling. Something had to change. After much dithering, I finally had the MacBook Air read me the entire book aloud, using the GhostReader application, as recommend by commentor rip.

The voice in GhostReader is functional but primitive. It took me a little while to get used to the flattened, mechanical tones. Then I experimented with the reading speed to see how fast I could set the playback and still be able to make notes without having to pause the application.

What I did then was open GhostReader in one window and the Word document of the manuscript of Calamity of So Long a Life in another window. I simply listened, and whenever something struck me as wrong or off, inserted [brackets] in the text. Occasionally, if the fix was very easy, like a missing simple word, I would just make the correction on the fly. I didn’t try to sort out the larger issues, just marked them for later read through.

While I suspect that reading the whole manuscript aloud would have been more effective, I think I got 80% of the value of the readaloud by listening to GhostReader without wearing out either my voice or my patience. Also, this meant I could work on the book in public spaces and on airplanes without looking like a crazy person. Even coffee shops, despite what [info]scalzi says about that.

One of the minor problems of the process was when I went back through the manuscript, sometimes I’d have trouble figuring out why I marked a section. The answer to that, of course, was just to read it aloud to myself. Another minor problem was sometimes I’d go on a word hunt when I’d realized I’d used a crutch word, and then hit that point of neural fatigue where the word became a meaningless string of letters and stopped making sense in situ.

I’m extremely pleased with this outcome. GhostReader (or some equivalent) will be an important part of my writing from now on. It adds a layer of time and attention to my revision process, but that layer is worth a great deal more than it costs me. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend trying it out.

[process] The virtues of writing regularly

Yesterday I was having an email conversation with [info]mlerules about structure, goal setting and accomplishment in one’s daily life. It occurred to me, literally for the first time, that writing is what provides me with this framework.

And such a framework it is.

As it happens, I believe that everybody benefits from having purpose in their lives. Many of us get this through work, or if we have them, raising children. But I think we also need some purpose that simply rises from within ourselves. Essentially, that’s what hobbies are. Mother of the Child gardens extensively, and produces visual and fabric art on an ongoing basis. My dad researches genealogy and family history. People do everything from build hot rods to volunteer at soup kitchens.

In all those cases, we’re doing something for its own reward. And writing can very much be that way. I certainly get my cookies from finishing a story, or making a sale, or getting a positive reader reaction. That’s not fundamentally why I write, but it’s certainly part of that structure/goal/accomplishment cycle.

Over the past decade, I’ve managed to rewire almost my entire personal life around my writing. It’s even infiltrated my parenting and my Day Jobbery to a degree. What I see now, in this discussion with [info]mlerules, is that writing has become a key component of my life satisfaction, my happiness, and even my day to day mental and emotional health.

It’s kind of a nice thing to open my eyes and notice.

[process] Sequel-itis, or the part 2 blues…

Yesterday afternoon, [info]the_child‘s basketball team lost their first round playoff game. It was heart-breakingly close, a very good game, but in the end, the other team pulled it out to beat them by three points. After dinner with friends, we stayed up late (and tired!) and watched Kung Fu Panda 2imdb ], which we’d rented over the weekend and is due back Real Soon Now. Meanwhile, I’m thinking ahead to the second book of Sunspin, Their Currents Turn Awry.

All of these things are essential part two of something else. The playoffs were a coda to her season. Kung Fu Panda 2 follows on the success of the first movie. Currents, well, we shall see.

It’s hard to do something twice. I learned this writing both of the Mainspring and Green trilogies. The demands of the sequel/part 2 are very different. The challenge for the creator is how to maintain and build on whatever magic the original had, while still doing something new and interesting. So I worry a bit about Their Currents Turn Awry and the final two books in Sunspin. Once a reader has encountered Calamity of So Long a Life, their expectations are set. They have a view of the world that I have to both satisfy and expand upon.

Luckily for me, while very, very few movie sequels live up to their original (off the top of my head, the Toy Storyimdb ] cycle is the only movie series that truly pulled this off), there are plenty of sfnal and fantasy examples of successful series and trilogies. Writing is not the playoffs, and we’re not worried about box office take. Not exactly, at any rate.

Still, there’s nothing like a story the first time out of the wrapper, when you’re experiencing it like never before. How to keep that magic going…?