This article is about writing...
I am at the stage with a novel I've been working on for a while (called Succubus) where I have given it a much as I can. I have written three drafts but I know in my heart it is not quite ready to publish. I have written the best story I am capable of but I am reluctant to send it off into the world. I feel like I need some feedback before I can make that final revision. Should I try to round up beta readers? Should take the advice of successful indie authors and hire a professional editor?
Beta readers seem like a nice idea but I don't know where to start. And wouldn't I get the kind of advice I would give? Meaning, the advice I can already offer myself by doing another read-through of my own story? So I reached out to a few editors to try and understand what they do and how much it costs. They were nice and helpful. One even did a free edit of the first few pages and pointed out some excellent fixes. But I find myself reluctant to move forward.
When I challenge my reluctance, cost is the bigger part of it. Quotes range between $1,500 and $2,500 depending on the editor. I know its a worthy investment. I know that if I were published traditionally, my work would be edited by the publisher. But I'm having a tough time with the cost for a few reasons:
- I feel selfish spending that kind of money on myself, on my pet passion, on my project.
- There is no guarantee that if I make this investment, it will get me a finished, publishable novel.
- When I think about the work (and look at the kind of results a professional edit would get), I wonder if I have done everything I can with the book yet. Have I given it my best and most-perfect final edit?
- Investing that much also kicks the financial equation for the book out a ways as well. I've invested time, sure, but spare hours, found hours, early hours, hours that if I don't make a ton on, I can live with in the pursuit of my goal. But spending real, hard, family cash that may or may not come back is tough for me.
So what do I do?
A sign from the car world
My brother is a mechanic. A very good mechanic. He's worked at it since he took an aircraft mechanic's Associates Degree in high school. He's advanced enough to be the head mechanic on a semi-professional rally-care race team that competes nationally on television in the RedBull RallyCross series.
I have an old pick-up truck that I picked up from my mother, who no longer needed it. It was rotting in the damp Seattle climate and now lives in the brittle dry of my Southern Arizona driveway. It doesn't have air-conditioning, or modern safety equipment, but I drive the truck weekly and love it irrationally. I call it Hank. Hank the Tank.
I am not a mechanic although I try to maintain the truck myself as best I can. In the past year, for fun (and because it needed it), I've replaced the alternator, water pump, power steering pump, brake master cylinder, had the carburetor rebuilt, replaced all the major tune-up parts (spark-plugs, wires, coil, distributor cap, etc.). I've adjusted the timing, changed the oil, bled the brakes; all tasks within grasp of the average, shade-tree wannabe. Despite my efforts, the truck runs frustratingly rough, takes forever to warm up, and squeals like a hog being murdered if I drive faster than 64 miles per hour.
My brother was in town for a night last week. He flew in to pick up a second-hand truck and trailer for his rally-racing team. After he concluded his transaction, I picked him up, we ate at an Irish bar, and I brought home to hang out. He asked about the truck and I whined about how imperfect it was. "Well let's take a quick look," he said. "What else are we going to do? Just sit and watch TV."
The Truck Whisperer
The 65mph squeal hinders how I use the truck, keeps me local, off the freeway. I've pondered and tinkered and posed the problem online. To no avail. I finally came to the conclusion that the noise was some kind of hard-to-isolate vacuum leak and given up hope on anything other than an engine rebuild would fix it.
My brother spotted the problem in about sixty seconds. The tension in one of the belts was different enough from the tension in another, that the imbalance left that belt vulnerable to slipping under heavy load. "See this belt (the power-steering belt)?" he said. "It's only contacting about 15% of the pulley that drives it. At high RPM, that's slipping and causing the squeal." He adjusted the tension. Squeal went away.
The crappy running engine was surely not something as simple. I pointed out my rebuilt carburetor, the tune-ups I did, the brand-new air filter. I bragged how I cleaned up all the vacuum hoses. "I've done everything," I said.
He took a quick drive. Checked my adjustments. Removed a vacuum hose that had a check valve on it. Blew air through it. "This is backwards," he said and reversed it. The idle smoothed out. The truck ran cleanly off a dead stop. And since, has run so much better. "That's connected to the idle advance on the distributor," he said, and explained what that does.
He's the truck whisperer. His fresh eyes and lifetime of accumulated experience meant he was able to work through my truck problems in a highly-efficient and compressed manor and resolve something that stumped me. He's kind and tells me I've done well with the stuff I worked on myself but I have no illusion that I could ever be as good with these things as he is.
And this relates to writing how?
His work on the truck was the answer to my question about whether or not I should invest in having my novel professionally published. I am in the same place with my writing as I am with being my truck's mechanic. I can put my blood, sweat, and tears into my novel and get it to be the very best versions I can make it but I accept that I am a novice, someone trying to work out how to get the job of writing novels done and done well. I want to be proud when I publish, to know I did everything I could to do my best work, so I owe it to the story, to myself, and to anyone who will be gracious enough to buy and read it, to let a professional fresh eyes and a lifetime of experience polish my work before sending it off into the world.
by Steve Medcroft
Christopher knew they would be coming for him soon.
He sat on the wooden porch in front of the trailer with his back to the door. His head throbbed. He wore threadbare Ninja Turtles pajama bottoms and nothing else.
The television in the room behind him was left too loud as usual. It was tuned to a re-run of a five-year old episode of Saturday Night Live; two actors as mentally-challenged children annoyed a group of adults at a dinner party.
The trailer-park was dimly lit by the yellow light from the lamps out on the main road and the flashes of blue thrown through his trailer's doorway by the television. Christopher tapped the last Marlboro Lite out of a soft pack he had taken from Father's jacket pocket and fished a purple Bic lighter out of the front pocket of his pajamas. He held a flame to the tip of the cigarette. He lingered on the first draw and filled his lungs with the sweet smoke. He exhaled with a sigh. His head dropped with the weight of the past few moments. He noticed a three-dot spatter of blood just above the waistband of his pajamas, wiped it with his thumb, then put his thumb in his mouth. It tasted like a penny.
A car with an ill-tuned exhaust passed by on the street and he looked up again. Cool air tickled his skin. He shivered. He realized he hadn't felt anything in the last few minutes, like his mind was an appendage that had fallen asleep and it was just getting its feeling back.
Christopher knew his life had just changed in an irreversible way. He also knew that it was inevitable. His fourteen years of living led up to this one moment of fatal violence. He knew that from this moment forward, he would live a completely different life. A second life. He wasn't sad about this fact. He wasn't happy either. It just was. It couldn't have been avoided from the moment he awoke to who he who he really was, the day he figured out the difference between the existence he was living and the existence he was supposed to live.
I struggled to make progress with my writing for a long time. I felt like I didn't have the time or energy after all the other things I had going on in my life to do the work. I also forgot to give myself permission to indulge in the selfish act of pursuing my own goal alongside or even above my professional and personal commitments and obligations. That all changed at the beginning of the year when I set out on a journey to work every day at my goal to become a professional novelist. I am now in my eighth week of my writing-every-day challenge and things have been going very well so far. Since tracking my writing, I can see that I have accomplished more in the last eight weeks than I did in the entire previous year.
I am happy with my progress on a number of fronts:
- I wrote 67,000 words of new draft material. Most days, that meant first-draft text on my current WiP. Some days, it meant writing out complete beats ahead of finishing the text. But it was enough work to turn the 20,000-word start that I felt stalled on into a novel-in-progress I am excited about. The lesson from this is that I can write at a pace to produce a first draft of a new novel in 8-12 weeks (something good to know for planning out the production goals for the coming months).
- By keeping track of my words-per-hour production, and writing at different times of the day, I learned that I am capable of 1,500 words-per-hour when I am working from a good outline with beats and that even though I can produce at the same pace no matter what time of day I write, I am happier when I produce new words early in the day.
- I completed the first draft one of my works in progress (WiP) called The Singer. What I originally planned to be a 30,000-word novella is now a 75,000-word novel. I finished that draft two days ago. This means I have two completed drafts in the production pipeline and I'm now free to start production on another.
- I have almost completed the second draft of another WiP called Succubus. I've read through and marked up the entire 320-page manuscript, making and executing several pages of notes and revisions along the way, and I'm 200-pages through typing in the changes. At this pace, Succubus will go to Beta Readers (assuming I can find some) in the next two to three weeks. The lesson here is that I can review/edit 20-25 pages per hour. Again, good to know for setting realistic production planning.
- By working at my writing every day, I am learning to approach writing novels as a process with several, distinct phases. I used to feel like I had achieved a major accomplishment when I reached the end of a first draft but I didn't have much of a plan beyond that. After reading the War of Art by Steven Pressfield and watching YouTube videos featuring interviews with people like Steven King and Lee Child, and reading the amazing shared-experience and knowledge from the great writer-teachers of the modern age (Chuck Wendig, Rachel Aaron), I now approach the process of writing like a work project. Production of a novel has a number of phases. Writing a first draft is only one phase. The process also includes the Breaking Story Phase, The Writing Beats phase (outlining), the First Draft, Second Draft, Beta Reader, Restructure Draft, Cover Design, Professional Edit, Proof-read, and, ultimately, the Publishing stage. Marketing and promotion are the final phases but the goal line to celebrate is the Publishing stage (getting the work up to the level where it can be considered a stand-alone work to be enjoyed by an actual reader).
- I adopted and use the Pomodoro method for getting work done. You've probably read about this online if you've ever Googled for tips and advice for being more productive? The Pomodoro method is a technique of working that encourages intentional, directed working focus on one task. You use a timer and work on one task for a predetermined time then take a short break. Then repeat for as many cycles until your energy flags and you are no longer able to stay focused. The technique was developed by developed by Italian Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. The method is called Pomodoro because it encourages the use of a simple timer, like a kitchen timer, and the standard Italian kitchen timer is shaped like a Tomato (and pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato). The standard practice is a 25-minute Pomodoro followed by a five-minute break but you can vary the lengths to suit your working style. I'll write more about my experience using the technique in another blog entry but I found it extremely useful and found that...
- ...I learned that I don't need to dedicate a ton of time to reach my goals. If I average the time I spent each day reaching my goal of 1,000 words of new fiction, (as well as continuing to move other projects through the entire novel-production process and executing some copywriting assignments I picked up), I only worked for 90-minutes per day. That's it. 90 minutes. I used to think that I didn't have time to get my goals accomplished. I used to think that if I allowed myself to pursue fiction, I would be stealing time from my business (and therefore from my business partners and family). But really, I just needed to give up a little dead time (watch less TV or miss a few bike rides), and focus when I worked on being efficient. Now, I understand that time is a non-issue when it comes to challenges in hitting my goals. Now it is a game of will and ability to learn and get better as I continue to move forward.
I have had some challenges I'd like to address:
- On some days, I failed to write new fiction when I had copy-writing assignments due (an opportunity to make a little side money and write that came to me at the end of last year). On those days, when I had to deliver, the two or so hours I have found to work on writing went to that client. Luckily, this was only three or four days but not producing new fiction on those days was anxiety-producing.
- One some days, I failed to deliver 1,000 words. When I look at the data and reflect, they were days when I didn't get a start in the mornings. Laziness, preoccupation, the first hint of burnout, whatever the reason, I pushed the writing goals to the end of the day and by the time I got to it, I did just enough (or not enough).
- One mistake I am learning from is that I didn't have my next project ready when I finished the current WiP draft. About five scenes from the end of the first draft I was working on, I had a couple of missed days in a row. I started to kick myself until I dug into why I was stalling. I realized that I was scared to finish mostly because I knew I didn't have the next project tee'd up and ready to go. Now, in my process, about two thirds the way through a first draft, is a reminder to start fleshing out the next idea so it can be ready to roll right into once I type 'The End.'
- I have neglected exercise as I put writing first. I used to cycle four times a week or more. Mornings mostly (because I live in the desert and we ride early in the mornings to avoid the heat). I have been fanatical about writing first thing. But I need and love exercise. And, I believe, its vital to thrive as a human being. So I am committed to riding on weekend mornings (where I can the write as soon as I get back because I don't have the day job pressures waiting for me) an done day during the week.
- Another thing I did not anticipate was that this additional two-hours-a-day workload has increased my mental stress levels. If I don't watch what I eat and be conscious about when I'm letting the stress build, I tend to get sick or run-down; both of which impede my writing. Again, getting back to exercise could be the answer to this one, but realizing that writing exacts a toll is great because it means I can address it going forward.
What I plan to do the next eight weeks:
- I need to write fiction immediately. I have not written new fiction in three days now while I formulate a new story in my head. I need to get that story broken and the first few scenes beated out so I can stay in the habit of writing fiction every day. Otherwise, I fear, I will stall starting up again and weeks or months will suddenly disappear from my life with no progress toward my goal. Even if I ultimately don't use these pages, I need to write.
- Move Succubus out to Beta Readers so I can get notes back for another pass. I need to find some beta readers first. And write a short into with expectations of what I am hoping for (questions that require me to examine the story, comments about structure, mistakes but not grammar, style-choice or spelling errors). Do you know anyone who'd be interested in being a beta reader? Contact me.
- Start the second draft of The Singer. I would like it to cool a bit before I get back to it but as soon as Succubus is off to beta readers, I need to keep the production pipeline moving by doing the read-through, mark-up, and edit of The Singer.
- Make sure I spend some time dreaming up story ideas in an organized way. At the current pace, I'll need a new story to work on about June 1st. Rather than wait until then and hope one good idea comes along, I'd rather have ten ideas to pool from.
- Stick to a morning routine. Get up a little earlier. Get the words in before anything else needs my attention. 'Nuff said.
Are you working on an artistic goal? What's you approach? What's your progress? What have you learned?
My lifetime goal is to be a novelist; a working, regularly-published fiction author. In order to take the pursuit of this goal seriously and put the dream into action, and after reading Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, I am challenging myself to write every day in 2016. But because 'write every day' can be interpreted so many way and I have a history of writing a draft of a novel only to let the work drop when life gets in the way, I decided I had better thoroughly design the rules of the challenge. Those rules include writing a minimum of 1,000 of fresh, new text every day and to spend some time editing/reviewing and updating previously finished drafts until they are publishable.
My writing challenge:
- Write at least 1,000 words of new, first-draft fiction six days a week, every week, for all of 2016. I define first-draft fiction as wholly new text. New pages of first drafts of novels, completely new chapters or scenes scenes in completed drafts. It is not blog posts, journals, short-stories, but not word count growth during re-writes of existing drafts.
- I will also work every day to move completed drafts to publishable stage every day (review, edit, type changes, send to beta readers, polish, send out for professional editing and proofing, contract for a cover, publish. I have several to work with. Some that may need to be completely re-written. Some that I need to be honest with myself about and leave them as unpublished.
- To always have the need for new text, I will also create and maintain a pipeline of story ideas so when one draft is finished, I can move to the next immediately. Which means I must have a story outline ready before I finish the draft of the current story.
- I will put writing first every day. Which means that I will write first thing, before I start in on my day job, before I clean the house, run an errand, look at Facebook. reply to emails that can wait, etc. When it can't absolutely be the first thing I do, I will be relentless and selfish in taking my writing time so that I don't go to bed having burned my weekly day off on a Wednesday instead of saving it for Sunday when I can do something fun withe the day.
- I will do all this without letting my day job or family suffer. They can accommodate but not be directly affected to the point of pain. And something in my life is obviously going to give for me to invest the two or three hours a day this challenge is going to require. but if I put writing first, and my job and my family are my priority anyway, the things that will give are the things I'm probably wasting precious writing time on anyway (television, Internet browsing, more television, Internet streaming television).
- I will track my production diligently so that I can be completely honest with myself (and those I hold myself accountable to) about whether or not I am reaching my goal.
- I will learn and apply something new about writing fiction every week. And not just the natural lessons I'll learn by working at writing daily. I mean take a lesson from one of the many, many gurus who freely share their thoughts and wisdom on how to approach this chosen field professionally. Like Chuck Wendig. Like Rachel Aaron. Like Jeff Goins. Like Steven Pressfield. Like (you tell me who).
- Be accountable for meeting my goal. I keep a spreadsheet record of my daily work. if you want to help me be accountable to this goal, contact me and I will share the spreadsheet with you so you can question me, hound me, pester me, or encourage me as you see my progress.
It will be tough. I am sure I will be faced with crisis days, days where I want to chuck the goal, where the thought of chucking the goal will be supported by my psyche and my family and my friends and probably even forgiven by any strangers that choose to help me by holding me accountable to my goal. But, when I complete the year, imagine the production: I will have written at least three complete novels to bring my lifetime total unpublished novels to eight (or more). I am excited that I will have advanced one or two of them to the published level. I look forward to learning a ton about writing by the end of the year, hopefully to the good.
So far, I'm thirteen-days into my challenge and have reached the goal every day. I didn't even take a weekly day off yet. I'm nervous about the challenge. I'm daunted by what I've taken on. But I am going to kick this challenge's ass (in case you were wondering).
What about you? Have you taken on a challenge like this for yourself? How did it go? What could you share about your experience? What would you change if you did it again?
... and it amazes me how much gets done in so little time.
A year ago, searching for wisdom on the Internet about writing fiction and modern fiction publishing, I came across Rachel Aaron. Her blog was a great find; besides punching out a successful indie career, she writes openly about the daily work of writing, her journey from a 'want-to-be' to a fiction writer making a living at it.
She amassed so many writing process articles that she eventually released a compendium in eBook form called From 2k to 10k, about how she'd applied thought and technique to her daily work to increase her writing production, a shift she credits in allowing her to succeed (more writing meant she wrote better and more efficiently, she produced more finished work, she had more chances to draw readers, who then discover her older work, etc.).
One technique that she writes about early on her blog and in the book is that she believes you should start tracking your writing output. Keep a record of what you produce and when you produce so you can optimize way you work to produce the best results in the most efficient timeframes. For her, she says this process was about getting her word counts up to finish novel-length fiction on the faster timetable that the short attention span of the digital and indie book buyer. turn projects into finished works faster to keep her readers engaged with her as an author.
When I read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and immediately embarked on my put-writing-first and write-every-day crusades, I remembered Aaron's lesson on tracking your writing, re-read her old article, and sat down to create a way to quantify the work I am doing on a daily basis.
All those years of Microsoft Excel pay off in my writing.
I created a spreadsheet and thought about what data I wanted to capture. I knew I wanted the information to motivate me to focus ion the right things, to hold myself accountable against the goals I set, and to analyze so I can take my fiction writing to the professional level.
The first thing I wanted was a simple word count for first-draft writing. When I say I am embarked on a mission to write every day and put writing first, I mean that I plan to add news pages to a first draft every day. So for each morning's writing session, I enter the following: The name of the project I'm working on, the time I start, the time I stop, and the new word-count total for the project when I'm finished. From this, I can extrapolate the amount of time I've worked, the total net new words added to the project, and the words produced per hour.
Because I want to keep working on first-drafts every day and you can't publish first drafts, I recognize that I need to spend time daily editing, reviewing and making changes to drafts of other works-in-progress. So I created a second set of columns: time started, time finished, total pages edited/reviewed/proofread.
To meet the goal of writing new draft material every day, I need a maintain a constant pipeline new stories ideas. I don't want my momentum to crash when I finish a draft. I immediately want to start on a new story. I created a third set of columns to keep track of time spent outlining. As well as keep track of time spent on the business side of writing (creating content for other writers and readers so I can (next step) begin to build a social media and email following to share my fiction with.
In fact, the only time I am not recording is time spent learning. Because that's happening all the time (when I read before I go to sleep at night, when I have a chance to listen to an audiobook on writing, when I get a few minutes to web surf when the day job slows down).
Who knew so much could be gained for so little invested.
I have just wrapped the first week of keeping track of my writing production so I will hold off on conclusions just yet but so far, a routine is developing. I write early in the morning for 75 minutes to 2 hours. I edit previous novel drafts in the evenings for an hour of so. I am shocked by how little time this actually takes.
Sure, some things have had to make way for those three hours to become available for writing. And looking back on my routine before I started tracking, I would say those three hours were spent in front of the television. The production I've yielded in those two to three hours day has been, to my eyes, amazing. In one week, I wrote 15,000 words in my current novel, edited 150 pages of my latest work-in-progress - which means the novel under edit might make it all the way to publishable stage by Summer and the new novel will be in second draft in just a couple of weeks. Which also means I get to start on my next one already!). Amazing progress in such a short time.
The other way I gain by tracking my daily production is that I find it very hard to leave those data fields unfilled. Maybe this is a little Asperger's coming through but I do not want to go to bed without being able to fill in that line of information. Same with a day off from writing. Who says I should write seven days in a row? The spreadsheet does. Why not take a day off every once in a while? Spreadsheet says no.
By keeping track of the investment of time I am making, I can be realistic with myself about what I can accomplish, what I am actually producing, and I can be forward-looking about my writing when planning future novels. if you don't currently keep empirical records of your writing production, I highly encourage you to read Rachel Aaron's book and start today.
See above for a screen shot of how I laid out my spreadsheet. Thanks again to Rachel Aaron for the inspiration. If anyone wants this spreadsheet for themselves, just hit the Contact Me button.