Tag Archives: Advice

Dusting Off Old Stories

Unless everything you write is divinely inspired, breathed onto the page straight from your thoughts, you’ve probably got something sitting in a drawer.

These days that drawer is an old folder on a hard drive, a buried but not forgotten document of a project that once captured your imagination, and which perhaps someday you will bring into the light of day. What day we are waiting for can vary greatly. Sometimes we are waiting for the skill to tell a better story, other times we are waiting for a story’s moment to arrive, and sometimes we’re just exhausted, burned out from years of work with little payoff.

For me stories get put in a drawer not because I don’t love them, but because I only have a fixed amount of time to work, and I need to spend my efforts pretty ruthlessly on the projects I am passionate about, and that I can finish. I have rough drafts from two years ago or more that I realistically won’t be able to work on for at least another eight months. It bothers me, and those stories fill my thoughts often, but as I’ve been turning my attention to one of those works I’ve really come to appreciate the freedom that comes from a little distance.

My current project Surreality was first conceived shortly before my wife and I met, about seven years ago. Its first draft was finished shortly after we were married, and its revisions have been carried on in the midst of a cat running up on my porch on beggars night (and not leaving since), the marriages of several of my friends, and across at least four computers. But since about July 2011, during a summer of furious writing for the first draft of DM, Surreality quietly faded into the background, subsumed entirely by the fractal book, gone but not forgotten.

You can’t just dive back in to an old project. You need to warm up to it, get to know the world again, which in my case meant re-reading the current draft. Reading with an editor’s eye, or as close to an objective one as I can get, I could see the sections that were working, and more importantly those that weren’t.

We fight passionately sometimes about scenes, about characters, about clever lines we’ve written. We don’t like to think that our first idea is not our best idea, because so much of writing relies on instinct. We know where to carry the story forward, we know the next thing we need to say.

At least we do the best we can with the skill we have at the time.

But there’s a danger that we can get locked into the story as it is, without seeing how we can make it better, make it clearer, and still get across the point we were trying to make. Time spent in a drawer makes both writer and story more humble. What’s the worst that can happen if you change a chapter here or there? It can just go back to the drawer, but if the change makes the story better, it might just see the light of day. And you might be pleased to discover how much of the story still holds up.

After finishing reading my draft last week I’m writing an outline to plan my rewrites. I’ve been a guy pretty resistant to outlines, more of a fly by the seat of my pants writer. I know the destination, and a few of the stops along the way, but the rest is a mystery to me until I write it. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a good habit for rough drafts, but for this project anyway an outline seems warranted. It will help me to formalize what I’m keeping, and what I’m replacing, and hopefully serve as a bit of a spur to action.

I’ve taken pages of notes on what to cut, what to keep, and what to tweak. And best of all, I’ve been having new thoughts. I’m seeing the old characters in new lights, learning things I was unwilling or unable to learn years ago.

How have you revived old projects? What’s kept you from looking at a story for years?

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How to keep from checking your sales stats every 5 minutes

If I thought writing the blog made me obsessed about stats, I had no idea what I was in for when I actually published something. It’s even worse now that the book is on three different stores (more if you count all of Amazon’s countries, made my first couple of UK sales but still waiting on Germany). The book’s been out about five weeks now, and I thought I’d share some of the tips and tricks for trying to maintain at least part of your sanity:

Tips for keeping yourself from hitting “refresh”

1) Read your book. You’ve spent so long writing it, take a moment to actually enjoy it. Wait. Was that a typo? Forget what I just said!

2) Schedule a dental appointment. Preferably one that involves a root canal.

3) Play with your cat.

4) Take the dog for a W-A-L-K.

5) If I check the UK stats that’s in a different time zone right? There’s like a six hour difference or something. That’s not five minutes.

6) Tell your wife every time you check the stats.

7) Drive to Cleveland, stand in the public square, and protest the NSA. Chances are they’ll at least buy a copy if they haven’t already.

8) Take a hammer to your keyboard or your forehead, whichever costs less to replace.

9) Drive to work (most peaceful 70 minutes of my day, especially the morning).

10) Crash your host server (written as Kindle Direct Publishing stats seem to be down).

11) Organize your 2400 eBook library. Decide which books should go on the Nook and which on the Kindle.

12) Throw up your hands in frustration as your Nook forgets your shelves AGAIN!

13) Beta read for a friend.

14) Create a new fractal.

15) Watch Star Trek all day.

16) Wait. Kindle’s back up. What was I saying?

17) Futz with your Goodreads/Wordress/Facebook page.

18) Thank your beta readers, your blog readers, your reader readers.

19) Make lists.

20) Tell your wife you love her. Worth more than any sale.

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Filed under Books + Publishing, Internal Debate 42, Writing

25 Tips For Blogging

My dad started a blog a couple of days ago which got me to thinking about what I’ve learned in these 20 months of blogging. And so, like many before me, I thought I’d give my tips on blogging and building an audience. If I were Brian I’d be blogging about blogging about blogging (gauntlet thrown).

Maybe later.

In the meantime here are some insights in no particular order:

1) Blog 3-4 times a week. More is clutter. Less is too long a wait.

2) The best posts are 300 – 600 words long. Much longer and readers give up. Shorter and you haven’t really said anything.

3) Blog for at least two months without stopping. Consistency reassures readers you’ll be around.

4) Post at about the same time each day. Mornings give people the most time to notice and read your post.

5) Write whenever you want. That’s what scheduling a post is for.

6) Skip Fridays.

7) Always post on Monday.

8) Make it easy to follow your blog. Use the widget.

9) Use 5 tags for each post.

10) Like books, the title and first sentence are what grab readers.

11) List posts look easy but take longer than you think.

12) It’s a blog, not a diary.

13) Follow and comment on other blogs to find your audience.

14) Keep your blogroll short and selective. It should reflect the blogs you think are worth reading, but should not be a list of everywhere you’ve been on the web.

15) Write for 40 minutes, then stop.

16) Don’t go back and change old posts unless there is a glaring error.

17) Don’t obsess over stats. They are often random, and only give a clear picture after a long time.

18) Reblog sparingly.

19) Tweek the site periodically as you learn new tools.

20) Reply to comments whenever you can.

21) Don’t moderate comments unless you start seeing abuse.

22) Many of your followers are bots. Don’t worry about it.

23) Take breaks when you need them but let your readers know. Try not to take more than a week off.

24) Keep an ideas notebook for slower days.

25) Don’t be afraid to break from theme, but remember your audience.

Hope this helps. Any other tips you guys have?

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Side Stories

I’m not a fan of deleted scenes, or “unrated” cuts of films. Both in movies and in books, being able to cut away the chaff is a necessary skill, one that is an art-form in its own right. Most of the “outrageous” scenes are not more raunchy or more interesting, they are just different, and they were cut for a reason.

But I do like side stories. Animated films do this a lot. You’ll watch a main film, but there will also be a short with the characters from the film in a completely different circumstance. Over the Hedge has a particularly funny short where a family of porcupines play with a boomerang.

What’s the writing equivalent to this? The short story.

Recently I did a scene piece for the blog called “Dust” which features a character in an upcoming (maybe 2 years?) novel of mine. This little story takes place many years before the narrative of my main story, but provides an additional insight on some of the origins and feelings of one of the central characters.

This is something that short pieces can do that novels cannot. The short story allows us to experiment, to cut snippets in time rather than proceed down a linear progression. Taken as a whole we can sometimes get an even more complete glimpse at our character. If nothing else we gain some new insight on how they react in a new situation, and that can always inform us in drafting or perfecting our novel.

Try this for a writing exercise. Take two characters from your novel and put them in a completely different situation. Maybe if they’re in an action book, have them casually sharing a coffee or walking through the park. Maybe if your book is a romantic one throw them in the middle of some gun play. Or explore a moment before they even met each other, a moment where they almost but did not quite meet, and explore how things would be different if they had met at that moment.

I’m sure most who are married have thought about whether we would have liked our spouse (and vice versa) if we had met them at a different moment in our lives. For your characters the timing of the moment they come into contact is just as important as it is in real life, and exploring alternative meetings can lead to new interactions.

The point is, side stories give us a chance to get outside our narrative. Scenes that you cut provide insight as well, but in the end they are often strides along the same path as the rest of a novel. Short pieces outside the framework of the novel, or even the novel’s universe, can allow characters to shine in a whole new way.

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Setting The Write Goals

I want to write more in 2013 than I did in 2012.

The new year is a time when many writers reassess their goals and take some time to make a plan for the year. Me, I’m not a planner. Don’t get me wrong. I try it almost every year, and fall off the wagon in a few weeks. I’d like to be one of those authors who can work off outlines, and keep to a set writing schedule, but something in my nature resists that.

But trust me, there is still hope for people like me, and all of you who are trying to figure out what your goals should be for the year. In that spirit, I thought I’d share a couple of the things that have worked for me:

1) Keep it simple – I have at least 5-7 projects in my head at any one time. It can be a temptation to create a plan that incorporates all of them. Trying to do too many things at once can spread us thin, and decrease the quality of our work in any one project. We all want to succeed tomorrow, and this self-publishing world seems to increase the pressure to keep putting something out there, but it’s a lot better to get one or two things done than to start 5-7.

2) Keep it concrete – Simply put, 1000 words a day is better than writing an hour a day. That can be more or less than an hour, but it is a set amount to shoot for each day. If we make our writing goals by time alone, then we risk squandering our hour with distractions, or cutting ourselves off when we’re on a roll.

3) You are not alone – Most of us try to have relationships with other people. It makes us better character writers, and just plain better people. There’s a somewhat romantic notion in devoting ourselves so fully to a thing to the exclusion of all else, but the else doesn’t tend to love us for it. I do believe there are some professions that might be better off not getting married, but writing isn’t one of them. Make sure to structure time with your loved ones into any plan you make. Otherwise, what was it all for?

4) Don’t be afraid to drop goals – I’m not saying give up, but rather, reallocate your time to things that are working and lose the things that aren’t. Or it may even just be a matter of reducing time spent in one thing, and increasing it in another. I used to write this blog four times a week (my “Daily Show” schedule). Ultimately at least one of those posts ended up being “filler” and I was feeling exhausted when I tried to work on my external writing projects. I’ve been writing three times a week for half a year now, and I think not only has it improved the quality of the blog, but the quality of my other projects. You have to be willing to reassess rather than just sticking hard nosed to a goal.

5) Pray about it – For me, faith comes into not only why I write, but how I write. Personally, I’ve never felt it was a good idea for me to make decisions about what I work on without God. I’m not saying that I don’t make my own decisions, but there is something about the reflective process that is necessary when making any important decision. And trust me, any serious writing project is an important, potentially life altering decision. Take it seriously.

6) Track it if you must – We all like ticking off the little boxes when we finish something. Just make sure you’re not spending more time making and serving the list than doing the actual work. That’s why I’m a fan of the concrete but lose goals of 1000 words a day. Easy to check, quantify, and get back to work.

7) Be patient – You probably aren’t going to write your bestseller tomorrow. If you’re a blogger, your first, your tenth or even your hundredth post might not be Freshly Pressed. Writing is a lot of hard work, refining your craft, and plain old output. Success will come to those who put the time in, and who don’t worry about it to much. Relax and just enjoy the writing. You already probably work for money, and maybe you want to make money off the writing too, but it’s not going to be any better than your workaday job if you don’t remember to have fun as well. While I don’t think we should trick ourselves into thinking the writing life is an easy one, I think we should enjoy the fruits it has to offer, independence, community, and the ability to create something new.

Good luck in the new year. What are some of your goals for the year?

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Novel Sprinting

Should a book be written in a slow burn, or one focused burst?

That’s one question many writers mull over this time every year. In two weeks NaNoWriMo begins (National Novel Writer’s Month), a one month race to 50,000 words. For many writers this is more than they write in a year, and yet it’s a tempting goal, especially for someone just starting out.

I’ve tried NaNo three times technically, though I only ever met the goal last year. In addition to thanksgiving, my anniversary and my wife’s birthday are in that month. I won’t be participating this year, in large part because I’ve been doing a sprint on another book throughout the last six months and could use the breather. But for those who are considering it I thought I’d offer a few brief tips:

1) Word counts don’t increase overnight – NaNo requires you be able to write an average of 1667 words a day (in my case I needed 2000 since I was losing a number of days). Even if you blog every day, that’s probably only 500-600 words. You need to build up to 1667 slowly, writing for a month at 800 words a day, then kicking it up another 100 words or so. That’s why October isn’t the best month to decide if you’re doing NaNo this year or not. It’s like running a marathon without any training.

2) Make it as easy as possible to write – For me this means giving up the romantic notion of writing a novel on paper. Typing is simply faster, and with a small laptop computer or a tablet you can write pretty much wherever you are.

3) Do it in an hour – It may seem crazy to write 1667 words in only an hour, but unless you have the ability to take a lot of time away from friends, family or work, this is the longest reasonable period of time you can add to each day of a month. Again, it’s certainly possible to write at this pace, but it takes training.

4) Use NaNo for whatever you want – It doesn’t have to be a fresh project, it can just be a burst of drafting on a current project. NaNo is a great kick in the shorts for getting a first draft done. Just make sure you take on board that it is a draft, one that will need revising before sending it anywhere.

5) You don’t have to do it in November – In fact in the long run you shouldn’t. Writing at a sustained, steady, yet prolific pace is something that is valuable any time of year. With self-publishing and eBooks a lot of the secret to success seems to be getting a lot out there (as long as it’s good). If November doesn’t work for you, try April or June.

6) Writing in Groups is fun but slower – Get whatever you want out of socializing with other writers. NaNo is a great time to encourage this communication. But realize that this time is either adding to the amount of time you’re taking away from each day, or cutting your writing time even shorter. Choose a few focused events rather than always trolling the forums.

7) If at first you don’t succeed – You guessed it.

Good luck to anyone who tries this year. I have a feeling I’ll be joining you soon.

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Should I Stay, Or Should I Go?

Or put another way, should I soldier through my word count goal for the day, or call it a night?

Is it a good idea to write when we don’t “feel like it”?

I think we can separate that question into:

1) Should I write when I am not  in the mood to write?

2) Should I write when I don’t feel like the writing is working?

I think the answer to the first question is a resounding YES. Getting any significant writing project done is not a question of moods. I’m often in the mood to play video games or watch TV. These are not bad things, but if I have set aside time to write, then I should write.

The second question is not a mood question, but rather a self-aware evaluation of the work you’re doing that evening. Just as moods oscillate, so does the quality of your work. Is it a good idea to keep going just to get your word count and get a passage you’ll ultimately cut in revision?

Answering that question requires the ability to evaluate your own work, both relative to what others do and to what you are capable of. When you get stuck ask yourself these questions:

1) Is it filler? Am I advancing the plot or idea being presented?

2) Am I learning anything new about how my character operates, or how my story should go?

3) Does my butt hurt from sitting in this chair too long? (i.e. Do I just need a change of environment?)

4) When can I plan to get back to this?

I think if you have a solid answer to this last one, then it is okay to walk away, play a video game, or shop at your favorite book store. Working on a non-fiction project does give you a lot of work to do that’s non-writing related so you can always hop on that, but for fiction in the draft stage, if it ain’t working, it ain’t working.

The important thing is to get back to it as soon as you can. Don’t make a bad day something you have to live with for the next week. You’ll be surprised how well things will work with as little as twenty-four hours distance. But don’t beat yourself up about stopping either. Revision is hard work too, and a lost day of writing may end up saving a day of headaches in revision.

When do you walk away?

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