Category Archives: courage to write

A Writer’s Doldrums, or the Poison of Doubt

It’s probably some sort of literary postpartum depression thingie, but since publishing Princess of Fire I haven’t had much energy for writing. At most I’ve doodled a few hundred words here and there on different projects, none of which have yet gelled. Somewhere in the distance looms Princess of Stars, for which I absolutely have no energy at the moment. On top of that, real-life has been handing me a few tasks of an urgent nature, which means even less time and energy for scribbling.

Publishing always causes me to reflect on my writing, i.e., it engenders doubts about whether I know what the hell I’m doing. With Princess of Fire the self-doubt was especially sharp and bitter– I stumbled through the book’s four drafts and had to finish with a extra-hard push to redeem a host of lingering crimes. Then typically, in my exhaustion, I make the mistake of reading really good writers, like Hilary Mantel or Patrick O’Brian, and the distance between my feeble efforts and the prose of those who are real writers wraps itself around me and threatens to squeeze the life out of me like some anaconda of inadequacy. Cognitively I know that comparing yourself to other writers is one of the worst things you can do; nevertheless, I do it a lot.

Somehow, though, my sense of inadequacy never quite quashes my need to write. There are those who view the need to write as an addiction, and I can see some truth in the idea. Fortunately, it is generally a positive addiction, if there can be such a thing. So, eventually, I am sure I will once more crank up the narrative machine and feed my need.

And maybe– just maybe– I will someday write something decent.

Later.

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A Princess of Fire update– a glimmer of dawn

Think of a company of men– soldiers or explorers, perhaps. They are trapped in some nightmare country which is covered in darkness, and they struggle through a chaotic landscape, not even sure if they have a goal, much less in which direction in the featureless dark it may lie– and then, slowly, they see a gleam beyond a line of broken hills, and realize it is the dawn.

That’s how I feel at the moment about Princess of Fire.

The book is now at 120,000 words, and in the last couple of days I have come to the growing realization, as I sometimes do with a draft, that I am within striking distance of completing it. My best guess is that two or three chapters, 15,000 to 20,000 words, will do the job.

I am not out of the nightmare country yet– but dawn glimmers.

If I can stay focused, I should be able to finish the first draft before the end of the month. I say should be able to, because I hesitate to make a definite pronouncement– all my definite pronouncements about this book have been, over and over again, wrong, wrong, wrong. Even my commitment to do a minimum of 500 words a day failed– I did some math, and from October last year through the end of January I averaged a pathetic 216 words a day on this book– less than a single double-spaced page with one inch margins, if you put it in old-school manuscript terms. The book has come in spurts and surges, with long gaps in between of ennui and depression and spending time on other projects.

But 20,000 words– to engage in some un-typical self-praise (I won’t do it again, I promise), I can do 20,000 words, even 20,000 words that make sense, in very short order. Being this close, in fact, creates the additional motivation that it would be a shame not to complete the draft, seeing as how I’m this close.

Finishing the first draft, of course, will only be the end of the beginning. When the draft is complete, the hard work of straightening out the narrative and filling plot holes, cutting unneeded bits, correcting names and timelines and characters, and fleshing out action (a 140,000 word novel that may need fleshing out. Oh, let me think about that one…) will begin. But, as I have mentioned in previous posts, a complete fist draft is the one critical mental milestone I personally have to reach to ensure that I will carry a novel to final draft status. It is the sine qua non— “without which, not”– of my writing process. There’s a reason why I date-stamp my novels with the date I finish their first draft.

So– back to work for me. When– not if, God willing, but when– I finish this draft, I am definitely throwing a party. Even if it’s just a bag of Cheetos and a slice of pizza, I will be celebrating. I will keep you posted.

My End of the Year Surge – Day Three

For the first two days of my surge, in which I am attempting to write 2000 words a day on Princess of Fire until midnight on December 31st, my results are somewhat mixed– somewhere north of 1500 words for Monday, and about 1930 for yesterday, for a total of just about 3500. A shaky start, I admit– but perhaps it is not too surprising. My normal daily output typically falls somewhere between 500 and 1000 words, with about 700 a day an approximate average. Pushing myself to three times that output, even for a short period, doesn’t come naturally.

It also occurs to me that not every day in the next eight may be equally propitious for writing. Tomorrow, in particular, may turn out to be a serious dead-zone– the family has expectations of me, including going with them to see Into the Woods. I will not be afforded the opportunity to sequester myself in writerly seclusion…oh, no….

Hopefully I will get a deal more done today, and on the other side of Christmas, the weekend looms, promising to afford me plenty of opportunities to catch up on my total. So long as I can stay away from World of Tanks….

More bulletins to follow.

A milestone…

I am now at 100,000 words for Princess of Fire. I passed my previous high-water mark of 96,000 words a few days ago, but I wanted to wait to pop an (imaginary) cork until I cleared 100,000. I have, thank God, completely recouped my losses from the Great Word Massacre of August, and I am finally chewing into the central action of the novel.

It’s a great feeling.

Looking back over my history with the Divine Lotus series, I realize I should (maybe) cut myself a little slack. In the first place, I have never been one of those writers who can pound out 90,000 words in four weeks. I have a tendency to plod, which is what made the wildfire phase of Princess of Fire of about a year or so ago all the more remarkable. I also tend to lose my way, to doubt, to pull back and retrench in the course of composing a first draft– just look at the process I went through with Princess of Shadows. Throw in how easily distracted I am sometimes (writing this series coincided with my becoming entangled in the coils of Halo, of which I have previously written), and the necessity of making a living with a day job, and it can take me years to complete a novel. This has been as true of my trunk novels as it is of the Divine Lotus series.

As best I can recall, Princess of Wonders took me at least a year to get to a first draft, and probably longer. Princess of Secrets took another two years, almost to the day, to reach first draft status. Getting to a first draft for Princess of Shadows required another three years and eleven months, although, of that time, I was actively writing the novel for about thirteen months (the intervening years were much consumed with other projects and in trying to secure an agent for the first two Divine Lotus books, a tale of woe unto itself). For each of those books you can easily add another six months for a final draft.

Speedy I ain’t. How some writers churn out three books a year I’ll never know.

So, speaking hypothetically, if I got a first draft down for Princess of Fire in another three or four months (remember, hypothetically), and then spent another six months editing it, with a finished book seeing the light of day in September 2015 (nearly two years from when I started the first draft), it would really be nothing out of the ordinary. Looking at it that way makes me feel better.

Still a lot of work to do, though….

Later.

A tentative report of a possible, maybe, kind of, breakthrough (perhaps)….?

I don’t want to be premature about this.

I don’t want to jump the gun.

But it is just possible– just within the realm of possibility– that I have (thank God) scored a breakthrough with Princess of Fire.

I previously made a deal with myself to make sure that I wrote at least 500 words a day on PoF before I succumbed to other temptations, such as World of Tanks. I must now tell the truth– in the last few weeks that deal has been honored at least as much in the breach as in the observance. There were days I couldn’t drag myself to my writing. I was more focused on Horse Tamer than Princess of Fire, and altogether too fixated on my personal victory rate in World of Tanks. My lack of overall progress is evident when you consider it took me two months to go from 84,000 words to 91,000.

But then…I wrote a section that served as a piece of connective tissue between two previously written segments– and then it occurred to me that I should move a certain event forward– and then other previously written sections began to fall into place, like blessedly self-organizing puzzle pieces, until suddenly I had connected thirty single-spaced pages into a single, reasonable coherent narrative, which has brought me to the point where I have actually begun writing the missing middle of the novel, the piece that has eluded me for seven months. Along with moving that critical plot point, I think I finally, finally figured out a structure on which to hang that middle– a day-by-day breakdown of the action which hopefully will build tension to the breaking point at the right moment. In retrospect it seems obvious, but I am a very slow person in many ways.

As a result, my production appears to be taking off; in about three days I’ve gone from 91,000 words to over 94,000. And the writing is suddenly fun again, which it hasn’t been in a long while.

Having said all that, I need to exercise some caution. First off, what I’m producing is typical first draft material, with plenty of details that will need to be ironed out later. I haven’t resolved every remaining plot issue, either. But I seem to once again be able to do something I have not been able to in seven months– write a passage, accept that it is imperfect, and move on. It’s not only liberating, it’s much closer to my normal writing process. After months of chasing my tail– or, to use a word I first learned from John Scalzi, ‘flailure’– I suddenly feel as if I am on track once more.

I have grown too cautious to issue any predictions of time-frames for a complete first draft (never mind publication), but my confidence that I will, eventually, finish this novel is seeping back.

More bulletins to follow….

A new normal

The last few posts I’ve hinted at coming changes in the way I write, blog and publish. It’s time to stop hinting and lay out the new normal.

The last nine months or so have been rough in a lot of ways—unemployment, financial worries, ups-and-downs in the personal space, some health issues which, despite being minor, nevertheless dragged on for some time. When I got a new job, it turned out to be very demanding, rather frustrating, and with a long daily commute. I spend a lot of my time tired and distracted, and all of this has affected my writing.

The period has not been all bad—in that span of time I re-edited two previously published novels, published a third, and made significant progress on a fourth. I also started writing more short fiction, mostly for flash fiction challenges, and found it an enjoyable exercise, especially since I have previously told myself that I couldn’t do short fiction. Even so, the last three-quarters of a year has seen a lot of wasted time, frustration and second-guessing.

I also recently passed my third anniversary as a self-publisher. I’m big on landmarks in my life, so this seems a good time to step back and assess where I am with this part of my writing adventure. And there is no point in beating around the bush.

By most measures, my self-publication effort has been a failure.

Certainly it’s a failure in financial terms—my sales have been typically just one tick about non-existent. Forget paying the mortgage, I’m nowhere close to paying the electric bill. Last month, when some wonderful individual in Germany bought all three books in the Divine Lotus series on the same day, it instantly shot my monthly sales up by about one hundred percent. And, believe me, I was grateful.

Consequently, self-publishing is also a failure for me in building an audience. Very few people know of my work. I’ve gathered only a few reviews, albeit mostly positive. My books haven’t made a splash at all; in fact, there hasn’t been even a noticeable plop.

Whatever the reason for this failure– lack of marketing skills, bad writing, not writing in a hot genre, an Illuminati plot– it’s become apparent that one of the hopes I entertained when I started self-publishing, to earn at least a supplemental income, is not in the cards and probably never will be.

As a result, there have been moments in the last few months when I’ve gotten pretty blue over my self-publishing, to the point that, once or twice, I’ve considered abandoning the effort altogether. Worse, in my darkest instances of self-doubt, I wondered if I should be writing at all. Each time I have managed to talk myself off the ledge—but I am ready for a change in direction.

The plain fact is that, whether I am paid or not, I still want to write. Story-telling is one of things I do, one of the things I care about. And I still have a lot of stories in me, whether or not I have the skill to tell them well, and whether or not anyone will ever want to pay me for them.

So, here’s the new plan.

First, for the time-being, my Divine Lotus novels will remain on Amazon, and I will publish Princess of Fire and Princess of Stars there when they are complete. I don’t anticipate publishing them on any other platform in the foreseeable future (Princess of Wonders was on Smashwords for a time, but the returns there were even worse than on Amazon, so I pulled it). My best guess at this point is that publication of Princess of Fire is nine months away, and that of Princess of Stars at least three years, and I have no clear idea what project will follow them.

Whatever novels I commit to writing after Divine Lotus will probably go on Amazon, as well. I certainly have no plans to start submitting them to agents or publishers again. I have been down that rock-strewn, washout-riddled road too many times before, and unless some agent/publisher comes looking for me with a truckload of money, I will not consider it. Instead, I have decided to try my hand at writing short stories for traditional publication.

This is where I started writing for publication, years and years (and years) ago, and I was a miserable failure at it. Part of the problem was my native tendency to write long; the other problem was that in those early days (BCP—before cell phones. I’m not kidding) I had not learned the basics of telling a story. Since then a huge amount of prose has passed through my word-processor. I have also made a conscious effort to study writing, both in my reading and by sitting at the feet of some very talented people. Now I want to try my hand again.

Whether or not that effort pays off, I also intend to expand my fiction on this blog. I have been doing a fair amount of flash-fiction lately, and the response has been encouraging. Dinosaur Planet, sadly, appears to have petered out (I couldn’t quite capture the B-movie quality I was looking for), but I may rethink that story line. More to the point, I’ve discovered a great deal of freedom in blogging. Somehow it gives me implicit permission to try new things. I might try publishing in serial form some of the other ideas romping around in the back of my head. I might even do—not too loud, now—more poetry.

Okay, that may be going a little too far. Forget I said anything about poems. Just us prose authors here….

But that’s the new plan. I’m kind of excited about it.

More bulletins to follow….

The writer’s needful– Part Two– The foundation of courage

Cowardly Lion: What makes the Hottentots so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? Whadda they got that I ain’t got?

Dorothy, Tin Man and Scarecrow: Courage!

Cowardly Lion: You can say that again.

Of the writer’s needful things, perhaps the most counter-intuitive is courage. What’s so scary about writing? Writers just scribble down words, right?

Actually, though, if you have to really ask that question, you either haven’t been writing very long or you are just not paying attention.

Writing is lonely, scary and usually without immediate reward. In the first instance, you have to face the blank page. Whether it’s a piece of paper, or an empty computer screen with a blinking cursor, the first blank page is a horrifying challenge that frequently overwhelms writers. What if my stuff is not good enough? What if I sound like a jackass? If I actually put something on the page, will it be okay, or will I be revealed as a complete fraud? This is why writer’s block is so very terrible– usually it rears its head when something has challenged the writer’s (often) fragile grip on the self-confidence they need to start stringing words together– and getting back that confidence can be a terrible struggle.

A second source of fear is what others will think. Writing, if you’re doing it honestly, is baring your soul to potentially thousands or millions of strangers. We don’t usually think of it in such terms, but writing is a form of performance art. And the consequences of going onstage and blowing your lines (so to speak) can be devastating.

Once again, these are not original thoughts with me. One of the best books I know on writing, Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write, approaches the whole subject of writing as a problem in courage, how to find it, how to keep it, and how to use the fear of writing, or of what you are writing at the moment, in a positive way to empower your writing. I recommend this book to anyone who writes. Others have compared writing to a hero’s journey, or a warrior’s path. Whatever the metaphor, it’s widely understood that writing for public consumption is scary and difficult.

The only people who appear to be oblivious to this truth seem to be 1. very new writers who don’t know enough to be scared out of their wits, and 2. writers so sure of themselves (whether that certainty is justified) that they ride blithely above the terror that infects mere mortals. Both groups can be blind to what that fear is trying to tell us– that there are terrible pitfalls and hungry lions littering the writer’s path.

How, then, do you get past the fear? Mr. Keyes outlines any number of methods, and the precise constellation of techniques will vary from writer to writer. Personally, I get a lot of mileage out of telling myself that whatever I am writing at the moment is either a ‘doodle’, as if it’s a little squiggle I’m drawing on the margins of a notepad during a boring meeting, or that it’s just a draft, and all the evident problems with the piece will get resolved in subsequent drafts. I’ve also learned the hard way that perfection does not flow out the tips of my fingers; this encourages me to keep going even when I hate what I am doing and I’m sure I’m the worst writer since (insert your least favorite author here. I’m not going put mine in because I’ve already beaten up on Fifty Shades of Grey enough this week. Oops).

One lesson about fear that The Courage to Write highlights is that fear can actually be fuel for our writing, that if you write honestly about something that scares you, your writing takes off. Honesty of emotion, and tackling things that make you uncomfortable, can make for great prose. It’s a lesson, frankly, that I am still trying to internalize– it’s just too easy for me to keep things safe. But until I get past that reticence, I suspect my writing will not be all it could be.

One other aspect of writing that I group with courage is the necessity of growing a thick skin. Writers need this, and usually it’s one of the hardest items to acquire. Others might classify it with persistence, the next needful thing I intend to talk about, but I think of a thick skin as being able to take the critique that makes you feel like talentless cow-flop, thank the critique provider, and move on to the next critique. It’s the ability to pull the fiftieth rejection of your novel out of the mail, read it to see if it contains any helpful suggestions, file it and then send your novel out again the same day. It’s taking the one and two-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, again reading through them to see if they can help you make the story better, and then moving on, while keeping your ego in neutral and not responding to the reviewers, even if they’re obviously malicious (in fact, especially if they’re malicious, but that could be a whole other blog topic). If all that doesn’t take courage– like crawling forward while enemy bullets spatter around you– I don’t know what does.

So, brothers and sisters, if you’re scared when you write, good. It means you’re aware that you’re in danger, and that you need to find ways to press ahead. It may also mean that you’re closing in on something good. Pay close attention and listen to what your pounding heart is trying to tell you. You may score a major victory.

Next topic: Persistence.

Later.