Category Archives: Writing

The writing life, tips, tricks, foibles, pitfalls and experience from one author’s perspective.

Try as you go

I’m working on an expansion of Fractals You Can Draw transforming it from a pamphlet I wrote in the space of a week to something that could be used in a 6-9th grade math class. I want the book to serve not only as an introduction to fractals, but as a gateway to other interesting areas of math, and even world culture.

But at the core, the book still needs to be fun to draw.

I’m heavy in the research phase of this book and for the last few weeks I’ve been studying a traditional form of drawing native to Southern India (in the Tamil Nadu region) called Kolams.

KolamAttempts

Kolams have a lot to teach the casual math enthusiast or the serious math student about fractals, symmetry, context-free grammars, hexadecimal encoding and countless other subjects. They also can be kind of tricky to draw as you can see from my increasing lack of skill from top to bottom. All of these are theoretically able to be drawn free-hand as one long continuous line, but it takes practice.

I keep free-hand notes in part to test the difficulty level of what I’m expecting people to draw. Even in the original series I drew a couple of the images, and the little red-haired girl handled the other two, which gave us both a sense of how long it took to draw each image and some of the difficulties involved. I’d known how to draw all of the fractals in that series of posts for years, but it took actually trying to draw them by hand before I really knew how they worked.

What I’ve learned from drawing Kolams is that it takes a lighter, freer touch than is my natural inclination. And maybe gel-pens that smear easily aren’t the way to go either. You can make some pretty images very quickly, but you need to get a sense of the flow as you draw, or you can easily go off track (as I did multiple times on the bottom image).

More generally it is important for the writer to be able to take a step back and engage with whatever they’re writing as a their final target audience. Especially when you’re down the rabbit hole of research, it can be easy to lose a sense for how easy or difficult a particular subject is, and you need to take the occasional application step back. This is good not only for assessing the level of difficulty, but also in solidifying the theory behind what you’ve been studying. There were properties of how Kolams were drawn that didn’t gel in my head until I’d tried to draw a few.

You are your first beta reader. It’s still important to get outside perspectives, but trying things yourself helps you discern what should actually be included in the first place, and what should be left out. Engage with your work in different ways: read it aloud, read it out of order, try to actually follow your how-to directions without any outside info, color in your coloring book, etc. Whatever your genre, there’s more than one way to look at your book, and there’s value in gaining that new perspective.


You can read the original Fractals You Can Draw series here or check out my other book from Green Frog Publishing, Adult Coloring Book: Fractals (adultcoloringbookfractals.com) with cover art by the little red-haired girl.

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It’s Turtles All The Way Down

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Have you ever had only 20 minutes to write a blog post, and you realize you have nothing really to say that particular day, but it’s been a couple of days since you’ve said anything so you just write whatever comes to you? It’s important to check in every once in a while and let people know you’re still out there and to give a gentle reminder and plug for the various books you may have written, even some of the older ones people might have forgotten about but that are totally still worth buying. You can’t tackle anything too ambitious, with a lot of pictures or thought. We’ve all got a couple of blog posts floating around in our heads that we’d love to do if we ever sat down and had an 1.5 hours to format them and make a really good argument, but today isn’t going to be that day.

Then, just when you’ve started writing your twenty minute post, you realize that what you really want to write about is the thought process behind writing a twenty minute post. Maybe you want to get people to try to relate to who you are as a writer at that particular moment, or to offer some tip for people dealing with this situation. Sure it feels a bit meta to be blogging about blogging, but that’s only a couple of layers removed and you might really have something valuable to offer. We all have to figure out how to create quality content on a deadline, and being in the middle of an actual crisis may give you a special insight into how to help others get out of it.

Thinking about how to deal with writing a twenty minute post gets you to thinking about the best ways to give writing advice. Should you only be talking about the things you’re dealing with at a particular moment or should you write more reflective posts on the tips you’ve discovered after years of learning? Writing about what you’re dealing with at the moment can be a good way to choose topics, but it might not be the best way to offer any real insight. After all, you might just be guessing how to get yourself out of a situation without any real idea if that solution would even work. Perhaps you should write a blog post about the best ways and times to give writing advice. So we’re writing a blog post about writing an advice blog post on how to write a blog post in twenty minutes while trying to write the post in twenty minutes.

But we can go one layer deeper. We haven’t even begun to deal with the existential question of why writers write, and what’s the difference between a writer and an author. Are bloggers writers in the same sense as people who write books? If the majority of the writing you actually do is just nonsense falling out of your head without being applied to your current work, can you call yourself a writer? Sure words are magically appearing in front of you as you play the keyboard like a piano, or a well … keyboard, and that might be writing. But is it good?

Oh, I almost forgot. We could wonder if writing about how to give advice to writers is actually art, and whether such writing is considered professional or amateur. It could all be a meta-meta exercise designed to kill time and give the illusion of creating something interesting, when in fact we’ve been up our own butt for some time now.

Ooops … time’s up!

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Why I have a box full of old drafts

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Yesterday I argued that you should throw away your darlings and never look at them again. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I don’t really follow that advice.

In my basement storage area I have a large box that contains old printed drafts of my books. There are early copies of my first novel Atlantia, half drafts from Dark Matter, and of course a ton of Surreality material. In the beginning I told myself I was saving this stuff for “security.” Wouldn’t want anyone stealing my ideas, after all. Later on I decided that these artifacts might be interesting to others if I ever became a big name author, stuff that new writers might even be able to learn from. Now I think it’s just a box I’ll have to run through the shredder at some point.

I have binders full of old stories, notebooks with handwritten ideas, original composition notebooks from 7th grade (first time I ever filled one of those things up with my own work), and countless other bits of detritus. And this doesn’t even begin to count my digital files. I have 6-7 drafts of Surreality each separately saved and available in eBook format. They were helpful when I was moving from draft to draft, and I never deleted them.

I occasionally thumb through this stuff, more for amusement than anything else. Sometimes I worry that I had all my best ideas in high school and that the rest of my life is being spent executing them. Looking back at old work provides pretty clear evidence this isn’t true, but it also makes me realize how long some ideas have been floating around in my head.

It’s interesting to see things you intended to put in a story, and never did. I write notes less because I intend to read them back, but more to move a thought to a different part of my memory. I think all of these details, even the ones that don’t make it to final page, inform the writer’s perception of the character. Keenan might have a weird love of Abba (because he’s y’know . . . human), but it’s a detail that might never be officially stated in a book. And yet I can keep writing him in scenes knowing that “Dancing Queen” is playing in his head.

And old work can reassure you that the core of the story is still there, and that you’ve improved upon it in the final draft. I reread the rough draft of Surreality when I finished my final edit. The process of revision can be exhausting, and often leave you wondering if you’ve really made things better, or if you’ve just changed them a bunch. Because it doesn’t always feel as fresh as the creative process, editing can leave you numb and less objective toward the work. Reading the old draft can be reassuring. You can see clear evidence that you kept the bits that mattered, and cut the junk away. Maybe you’ll find something you took out that deserves to be put back in, but more likely than not, looking back can show you that you’re moving forward in a good direction.

And while many old ideas and passages grow stale with time, others can take on new meaning. An idea I would have written one way a decade ago, might be something completely different now. And the converse is also true, something I thought was brilliant at the time can turn out to be a terrible idea now. Sometimes looking at old material shows us things about ourselves we’d rather not remember, blind-spots in our writing that hopefully we’ve matured enough to fix.

I still don’t exactly subscribe to the idea that saving old bits for later is good for writing new stories, but I think there’s a lot that can be learned from having this trove of old info to dig through. Every now and again I think it’s healthy to “take stock” of who you are as a writer, and where you want to go. These boxes of old material might be just the way to do it.

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Kill your darlings (and make sure they stay dead)

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We all know variations of the “kill your darlings” quote, but there’s a companion to the quote I see almost as frequently. It can be boiled down to…

“Save your darlings for later. You never know when you might find a place for them.”

This seems like a hoarder’s mentality to me, an approach toward writing that assumes that everything you’ve ever written has a place somewhere. I believe this is objectively false.

There’s a popular notion that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. A writing variation that’s a favorite of mine converts that to “write as much as you are tall.” For me that would be a stack of paper 6’4″ tall. Considering that a ream of 500 sheets is about 2 inches and the standard manuscript page is 250 words, I need to write about 4.75 million words before I’m any good. Hopefully, that number is a bit absurd, but I think we can agree that getting good at writing takes time, practice, and well … writing.

I think a lot of ideas are like flowers. From the moment we cut them they have a set amount of freshness before they start to wither, die, and grow mold. I’m not saying that ideas can’t be timeless, but I think most of the things we write have a shelf life. If they make it to the end of a novel drafting process, then there’s a good chance they’ll survive for a long time. But if they’ve been cut out of a book, and stuffed in a drawer for later use, they may never find a place to fit in.

And that’s okay.

I wonder if this advice, to “save things for later,” is given to novice writers as a way to make cutting things out easier. It assumes something that I just don’t think is true for the passionate writer:

“You might run out of ideas.”

I’m more worried that I won’t have time to write all the books I want to write than I am about not knowing what to write next. In fact I’m pretty certain that no matter how many books I finish in a lifetime (I’m shooting for 30-40), I will always wish I had written more. At the very least, it makes sense that I would want to write books using some of my best ideas, and these are usually fundamentally different things than the “darling” moments in books that just make me smile.

What I’m writing now is a product of my life experiences and the writing I’ve done before. Because I’m changing as a writer, it can be hard to look back at something I’ve written ten years ago, five years ago, or even three years ago. The piece you’ve cut out is a time capsule of who you were as a writer when you wrote it. If you’re growing as an author, with time this fragment will seem less and less like your writing.

Share a drink or a last meal with these little bits of personal whimsy, then put them before the executioner’s ax. Revision can be ruthless, and it should be. If a moment doesn’t add to characterization, useful description, or moving the plot forward, then it probably needs to go. Being able to tell what is good and what is not is part of being a better writer, and that means throwing some things out completely.

But I do save every draft, every little thought, in notebooks and drawers for years (as do most authors). Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little about why, and how ideas can still be useful.

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Squirrel Rant: Group Rules

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Turns out I haven’t done one of these since 2012, though I’ve probably written a few posts that qualify.

Here’s the basic rules for reading this:

  1. Read this entire post in a high-pitched chipmunk like voice a la Foamy. Here is a relatively SFW outing from Foamy to demonstrate the format.
  2. Assume the contents are due to a particular bout of crankiness and are not directed at individuals unless specifically mentioned.

So I’ve been joining a lot of Facebook groups lately as a way to broaden my circle, make new writing connections, get advice, and do a little *shudder* self-promotion.

Now at the outset I’m going to say that I HATE spam. One of the reasons I don’t love my twitter feed, and need to make adjustments to it, is that I feel like I’m being barraged with book ads. Twitter is particularly aggravating because I get little context other than the picture, and many of the ads are pretty badly constructed.

But this rant isn’t about Twitter, it’s about Facebook.

Now I’ve been trying to read the rules of these groups pretty carefully. I don’t like to step on toes, and I don’t want to do something spammy. If a group doesn’t like self-promotion, or isn’t geared to selling things, then I won’t try to sell there. That’s a good way to get banned.

Some groups broaden promotion out to anybody who is selling anything.

Here’s the context. I was answering a question about self-publishing and the need for freelance editors. I stressed some rules for choosing good editors (i.e. Make sure they give you a free sample edit, and see if they’ll work with you on price or edit a smaller portion of your book). At the very end of my post I shared a link to an editor friend of mine who edits my books and who I know does a good job (and is willing to work with at least some self-publishers). A few minutes later somebody commented that the link was probably not allowed. Not being a fan of how Facebook does previews, I cut it, but left the pertinent details to find said editor in the post.

Later on somebody said I should remove the editor’s name because any mention would still be promotion. Since I’m not on Facebook all the time, I didn’t do this till this morning, but I did remove the pertinent part of the post (sorry Brian). At the same time I made the comment that I draw a distinction between SPAM (i.e. trying to sell you something) and NETWORKING (i.e. trying to help you get in touch with somebody who will help you professionally). In this particular group, however, there is no such distinction.

Here’s the thing. I get the idea of groups that don’t want to be sold to, and I’m largely in favor of it. In fact, even as someone with several things to sell, I find self-promotion tacky. Marketing is the hardest thing any writer needs to learn how to do. At the same time I feel like intent should be taken into consideration. My post did several things:

  1. It addressed the actual question in detail and from experience.
  2. It suggested someone who might be a good editor at the very end.

If me promoting someone bothered you, you can just ignore it. Since I was able to remove it from the post without subsequent editing, obviously it wasn’t content critical. And as a self-published author it can be hard to find a freelance editor who does good work and is willing to work with you, especially without paying the big upfront costs. My intent was to help someone out, and yes, maybe throw my friend some work. I fundamentally feel like there’s a difference between that and just someone who posts their services without engaging with the discussion.

As someone who is trying to advance in the business and craft of writing I want to meet actual people. I want to build connections and get advice from people farther down the road. Again, I get the idea of rules, but fundamentally I’m against legalism. Intent matters.

I realize I’m letting myself get bent out of shape about a largely peaceful Facebook discussion (hence the title Squirrel rant). But the takeaway for me is I want to find groups who can have substantive discussions, and will also make some suggestions on who does a good cover, or an edit, or who they’ve used for marketing that’s helped, and will not get worried that people are promoting or being sold to.

Know any groups like that?

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Show Your Work

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I’ve been reading a lot of math papers lately.

I’m a computer scientist by trade, and theoretically should be able to speak this language. In fact, we take so much math as computer science engineers that we can’t double major in applied math since that’s already built into our coursework (something that would have shaved at least half a year off my college life if I’d known it sooner).

Some of those later courses were tough, but even math students at the most basic level have encountered knowing the answer, but not knowing how to get to the answer. On a particular test problem where I ran into this situation, I wrote “Poof! And the magic occurs!” between the problem and my answer. Suffice it to say, that was insufficient explanation.

Math writing is inherently logical. You define your terms, make your propositions, prove your theorems, then move on to the next property of whatever you’re studying. The problem occurs when you forget to define your terms, or leave out a step, or assume everyone in the universe has the same base knowledge as you.

I spent at least an hour last night trying to figure out how to change Fibonacci words into generalized Fibonacci snowflakes. I was missing one crucial piece of information that I finally had to track down in one of the cited papers, that all the addition in these equations was mod 4. The moment of finally watching something work the way you expect it to can feel a lot like magic, but a lot of trouble might have been saved on my part if the author had bothered to work out the interim steps in the paper. There were many other places where they had done this, but this one lacking piece of information was right in the middle from one really cool graphic to another.

So how do we apply this more generally?

Constructing a story, particularly a mystery, is a lot like proving a math theory. You discover evidence, make some conclusions, and prove your theory. Sure, a good mystery has some misdirection. You don’t want the reader to arrive at your conclusion too quickly. But you want your solution, your ending, to be the satisfying and logical progression of what has come before. Put another way, you want your ending scene to be “earned” by what you’ve written before it.

The problem as writers is that we always know this universe of our story better than our readers, to the point that sometimes we don’t know if we’ve said all we need to make it clear to others. You may know a character’s motivation, but if you leave no sign of it in the book, then the reader doesn’t know why they should care. Bad mysteries often introduce a surprise villain at the end of the book, rather than in the first 20%, cheating the reader of the opportunity to engage with finding the solution.

I don’t think this means you need to beat your readers over the head with facts already in evidence. But if something is important to things you’re going to write later, be sure you’ve actually said it the once. Beta readers and editors are especially helpful in finding these sorts of flaws, as is having an outline where you work out all of these connections ahead of time.

And incidentally, and separately from the main point of all this, writing in a technical language is not always better than the vernacular. I understand that academic papers serve different functions and are targeted at different audiences than more general work. But math doesn’t have to be obscure. Part of the reason I’m slogging through all this work is to write something I can share with everyone. This is something to keep in mind when you’re tempted to insert a lot of techno-babble or overly sophisticated words into your stories. Sometimes telling a story clearly, plainly and succinctly is the best way to go.

Just make sure to show your work.

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Financial Writing Goals

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It can feel a little icky to have writing goals that involve money. Most of the goals I’ve created over the years have been about words per day, books completed, or projects undertaken. In other words, purely artistic goals. But the truth is one of the unspoken, pie in the sky, long term goals of mine is to be able to live off the writing, or at the very least have the writing make things easier.

This year I have two main goals or mantras:

  1. Earn more than $500 (net) from writing.
  2. The writing funds the writing.

Goal 1 is about breaking out of the bottom third of author yearly earnings (according to The Guardian in 2015). It’s not a huge amount of money in the grand scheme, and the hourly rate is abysmal, but it’s a start. Four months in, this looks like an attainable goal, particularly if I can get some work selling shorter pieces.

Goal 2 is about investing in the business side. Selling books to a bookstore funds buying another order of books. Selling coloring books funds research material for my next book. Amazon profits go to buying writing supplies and notebooks. This goal is not strictly fenced in by any means (I’ve raised nearly $90 toward the writing just by selling things I no longer need), but it is a broad principle intended to keep expenses in check. Keeping the cost of writing a book below the money earned from it would be a great place to be (it took the first fractal book at least a year to reach this point).

Both of these goals drive writing and creative decisions throughout the year. Over the weekend I created a short story to submit to a magazine, which in turn might drive some people toward the universe of Surreality. I’ve subscribed to a number of Facebook groups that show listings for paid articles and am working up some submissions. This feeds the artistic side in that it demands versatility, requires the ability to get work done in a timely fashion, and keeps the brain creative and from getting into ruts. In other words, money goals can drive creative goals.

I won’t be hugely disappointed if these goals are not strictly met. Just shooting for them puts me into places I might not have tried without them. And earning some money makes this feel more like a profession, and less like a hobby.

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