One Bite at a Time

Duck taking single stepAllow me to begin this post with a few timeless proverbs:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Laozi, philosopher)

“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” (Creighton Abrams, general)

“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying small stones.” (Chinese proverb)

“How do you write a novel? One word at a time.” (Me, but somebody else probably said it first.)

I recently started a job that takes up a lot of my time, usually a normal workday plus two to four hours. It’s a good job in most respects, and glad to have it, but it does eat into my leisure time.

Time I might ordinarily spend writing.

Too often, people stop writing or don’t write at all because they believe they have to devote large chunks at a time to the pursuit. I know this, because I was one of those people for a long time. Then, somehow, I discovered the magic of small steps.

When I started my novel, I had to manage my time, so I set aside one hour a day, Monday through Friday. It took a while, but now my first novel is finished and I’m shopping it to agents. I have also started my second.

That second novel is going to be written under even greater time constraints than the first one was. I’ve had to cut down to one page a day, about 300 words, which takes me about 30 minutes to write. If I keep up at this pace, I can have a good 300 pages done in a year, maybe more (maybe less, but I hope not).

I had a brief Twitter conversation with a lady a while back who told me she made time for writing by always having the project with her and writing in tiny spaces of open time, like when she was stopped at a traffic light. Wow. Talk about small steps.

Don’t hang around waiting for those big chunks of time. They might never do so. Write a page a day, 10 minutes a day, a sentence a day. Get your novel written one word at a time.

Thanks,

Carson

 

Nascent Novelists: Don’t Let Fear of Failure Stop You

 

tunnelThe Tunnel

The time just before starting your novel is like standing at the mouth of a dark, strange railway tunnel, preparing to enter. You don’t know where the other end comes out; you may think you know, but you can’t really be certain until you’ve walked the whole way through. You don’t know exactly what awaits you inside. There might be bats, or rats, or giant spiders. A speeding train might appear out of nowhere, hurtling toward you, glaring with its one bright eye. It might even race up behind you and smash you flat before you even have a chance to turn around.

Putrid Failure

Scariest of all, failure might be waiting for you in that tunnel, by which I mean failure to finish the novel. Fear of failure can be so large and awful its putrid stench can reach out of the tunnel and wrap itself around you before you even set foot inside. It can make you freeze to the spot, where you’ll stay for a long time, maybe the rest of your life, wishing you could go in, but not quite finding the will to take a step. It can make you turn around and walk away, thinking anything that smells that bad can’t possibly be worth getting close to, much less grappling with. It can make all those voices in your head that say you’re not good enough and that this writing business is a waste of time drown out every creative impulse you ever had.

A mighty slayer of dreams, fear of failure is. (Is that a Yoda quote?)

failureBridgeAcceptance

So what’s a writer to do? Or an almost-nascent novelist, standing on the hairy cusp of doing and not doing?

I suppose there are many different answers to this question, but here’s mine:

I said, “Okay, I’m going to fail. Fine.” Once I accepted the worst, failure lost a lot of its power. It didn’t smell as bad or look as big.

I took a step into the tunnel and started walking, one slow step at a time.

And I failed. I came up with stinky plot lines. I created characters that wouldn’t work. Settings both preposterous and unappealing bloomed from my keyboard. But each time I failed, I patched up the disaster or razed it and rebuilt, and then moved on to the next failure.

After several years of doing this, I came out the other end of the tunnel, into the sunshine, with a finished novel. Failure and I had made an odd friendship over all that time, and as I walked away from the tunnel it stood at the entrance with a long face, waving.

“Don’t be so bummed out,” I said, “I’ll see you right down there,” and I pointed. Not far down the track stood another tunnel.

I ran for it.

 

My Pal, the Subconscious (and my Smart Spouse)

041016subconsciousNot Writing… Consciously

For the last week, I’ve been camping on a barrier island in the Florida Keys, running around with a group of Boy Scouts, including my son. We explored, we fished, we snorkeled, and we ate – a lot. I discovered the joys of sleeping in a hammock, after years of tossing and turning on the ground. It was a joyful time spent with the young person I love the most.

I did not think about writing my novel once…

…not consciously, at any rate. But when the sand started to come out of my ears at the end, I discovered the novel was still there. I hadn’t been thinking about it, but somewhere in my brain, the story was churning away, telling itself to my subconscious.

When we left on the trip, my second novel (working title, “The Farthest Hour”) was giving me some small measure of fits. I had to get my heroine out of a compound surrounded by a formidable wall – thick, tall, and topped with a myriad of pointy bits. I was getting her over said wall, and there was plenty of action, but on the whole the result was, well, kind of meh.

The Subconscious to the Rescue041016mindtriangle

My clever wife had suggested that I send the character under the wall instead of over. It was a good idea, but somehow, I couldn’t wrap my imagination around it and I had to leave that loose end dangling when I left for the wilderness. Then, with the island trip over, my subconscious knocked on the door of my waking mind and presented me a silver platter with a vision of the idea. Not only could I take my heroine under the wall, I could use the scene to build up two or three characters whose roles in the story have to this point been uncertain. In addition, I had an image of what “under the wall” would look like and what it would take to get there – think miserable prisoners and metric tons of stinky muck.

Certainly, going underneath the wall has been done numerous times before, which opens me to charges of being trite, but if it’s good enough for George R. R. Martin (in one of her early conquests, the forces of Daenerys Targaryen go under the city walls via the sewers to attack) and J. R. R. Tolkien (they went under the mountain, remember?), surely it’s good enough for me, And surely I can make it my own.

What’s In It for You?

So, what’s the point for my fellow fiction writers, especially those of us who ply the craft part-time? I’d say there are bound to be times in your life when writing is just not going to fit, no way, no how. But that doesn’t mean your creative process has to stop altogether. Let your subconscious chew on things for a while, and hopefully when you return to creating fiction you’ll have some choice ideas on your plate. (It also helps to have a clever and beautiful wife.)

Tweaking the Subconscious

Here are a half-dozen ideas to keep your brain-pixies percolating:

  • Don’t worry about not writing; the time will come (with some attention on your part, but attention is not worry).
  • Keep an ideas list.
  • Knock out a 5-minute mind map of ideas once in a while.
  • Keep a swipe document with you when you watch TV and jot down good ideas you want to use.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • In bed, before you drop off, think about your novel; it might prime the pump of your subconscious.

I wish you the best. See you next time!

 

A Novel-Writing Easter

keyboard fingersKind of About Writing

Well, great God almighty, noveleers, it’s been a hell of a first quarter here at the house of Carson Craig.

There may not be a load of stuff about writing in this post, but there’s going to be a little, and I think it’s important.

The Day JobdayJob

At my day job, content-spinner for a big corporation, my whole work group started the new year all excited about a wealth of new post-fodder we were about to come into possession of, and new people coming in to swell the digital might of our chattering band. All this was thanks to some reshuffling of corporate principals and powers.

Then, on the first Friday of the year, we were all informed that instead of enhancing our efforts, said reshuffling had resulted in our entire group becoming redundant, meaning: no job for you! We were given two options: 1) Stay 30 days, get a severance package, and say goodbye. 2) Enter the 60-Day Dance of Death; that is, take 60 days to find another job inside the company and, if that doesn’t happen, get severance package and say goodbye.

What with a teenaged son to feed and a self-employed spouse to insure, I took the Dance. I was fortunate. On day 57 I landed a job. Deep breaths were taken. Brows were mopped. Scotch was drunk.

The 60-Day Dance sucked. But, upon reflection, there was more to it than suckage.

easterEaster Day

Now I am sitting here writing this post and it is Easter Day. Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s fairly likely you’re aware this is a day when we (I’m an Episcopalian—“Catholic lite” should give you a rough idea) celebrate Jesus’s return to life after being stone dead for three days—or more like, two and a half days, maybe, since he is crucified on Friday, buried on Saturday, and then busting out of his tomb on Sunday.

Whether or not you believe this literally happened, the story itself is about amazing and wonderful things coming out of complete and total garbage. Jesus dies a horrible death, but comes back to life and soon inspires his followers to start a new religious movement.

My experience is nothing compared to that, but I did find that flowers quickly grew in the muck of the 60-Day Dance.

Co-workers from my entire, long tenure at this company came out of the woodwork to help and touched me with their concern and generosity.

My wife and son impressed me anew with their love and patience with me, a person who is often not so easy to live with.

People prayed and meditated for me. They asked me how it was going and supported me. My neighborhood community. My Boy Scout community. My church community. My workout community. My writing community.

I got a cool new day job. It’s kind of technical and kind of customer-facing (big company customers), which is very cool.

And now, here’s the writing part. I discovered that I really could write fiction under conditions of adversity. On the days—and there were many—when I felt absolutely drained of imagination and ability, I was still able to sit at the keyboard and knock out paragraphs, the majority of them somewhat serviceable. I think that means I probably have the intestinal fortitude to stick with the art.

So, yay. A writer’s life for me, at least part-time (for now).

Maybe you’ll have a writing Easter one day. I hope you come out of it okay, and I hope it makes you a stronger writer.

See you next time.

  • Carson

 

Tools for Novel Writing: Not a Journal

list-post1Not a Journal

Keeping a journal? Feh. This blog is about as close as I get. I know there are lots of writers who are into setting down their observations, thoughts, feelings and grocery lists in journals, and that’s okay, whatever scuffs your linoleum, but to me a journal is something for which you write all the entries the night before you’re supposed to hand them in to the professor.

But there are some things I like to keep track of. Actually, a lot of things, since my personality combines an attention deficit with a love of organization. If I don’t stay organized, my head tends to explode from the pressure of a thousand different priorities, each one angling for the number one spot in my mental parade.

So it is with writing. It’s important, I think, to save your writing notions in a list somewhere; otherwise, they’re going to get lost. You may wind up saving a lot of stuff that’s fit only for the compost heap, but you’re likely to save a few gems here and there, and those make the whole thing worth it. You may also find instances where two or more lame ideas, when combined, make something great.

I have two writing-related lists I add to from time to time. One is “Novel Ideas” and the other is “Swipe List.”

novelIdeasNovel Ideas

The first is obvious enough. Whenever an idea pops into my head for a whole novel, or part of a novel, I open up the list and stick it in there. Here

The first is obvious enough. Whenever an idea pops into my head for a whole novel, or part of a novel, I open up the list and stick it in there. Here are a couple:

Character forced to leave family, town, everything, due to attack. Parents make her/him flee. Lives for revenge, to get inheritance back.

The Extreme Medium (character is a fortune teller, brands herself as this)

The first one is pretty ordinary, trite, even, but it’s there because it might be useful one day. The second one popped into my head one day, I’m not sure why, but I love a silly pun, so I saved it. So, hmm… maybe Betty’s town is attacked when she’s a little girl and she has to flee; all her inheritance is ripped away. As an adult, she becomes The Extreme Medium and uses her otherworldly pals to get justice for herself and her fellow victims from the oppressors who attacked her town so long ago. Or maybe not.

ASDLABS_Just_Steal_It-300x200The Swipe List

The Swipe List is one I’ve just come up with recently. I try to have it handy on an electro-gadget somewhere while I’m watching TV. I’ll also pull it out when I’m

The Swipe List is one I’ve just come up with recently. I try to have it handy on an electro-gadget somewhere while I’m watching TV. I’ll also pull it out when I’m reading, if I come across a theft-worthy idea. Lots of are ideas that have been used umpteen times, but you can always reswizzle an old concept to make it your own, and I find it beneficial to have a go-to list of proven ideas to draw from. Here are a couple of items:

A decoy to draw the good guys away from the real thing (or to draw the bad guys away from the good)

Coming upon a room or home that was abandoned in a rush, years before, and seeing the stuff there unmoved, dusty, with something significant there, perhaps

The Swipe List is also helpful because it makes me play closer attention to how shows and movies are put together, and attention to structure is always a good exercise for a writer.

I recommend keeping these lists, or whatever lists work for you, in some kind of Internet-based environment that you can access from any connected device. I use Google Docs and Dropbox, myself, but there’s Evernote, Box, OneDrive, and a host of others. Although much of the stuff you save will be trash, a few things will be treasures, and when you look through the lists, you’ll be able to tell them by the sparkle.

Please be so kind as to share a comment on your own listing practices, or even your journaling practices.

Until next time, keep dreaming stuff up and writing it down.

Ten Ideas for Your Novel-Writing Process

ten ideasTips for the Novel-Writing Process

I’m still a nascent novelist, but I’ve been working on novel #1 for about four years and, in addition to the light at the end of the book-tunnel, I can also see I’ve picked up a few ideas about getting from first page to last. I hope there will be at least one or two here you can use. Here goes…

Inspiration

Inspiration comes in two flavors. The first is plain old Basic Inspiration, that fire in the belly that makes you want to write a novel. The second is Story Inspiration, that idea that lands in your head and won’t stop banging on the interior of your skull until you start making it into a story. Both are critical, but you can’t expect them to just show up. You have to encourage them, so read (fiction, non-fiction, the newspaper, everything), see movies from all decades, take walks, write a free-form journal for an hour a day, examine your navel – do whatever you can to turn up your creative flame.

Commitment

Writing won’t happen unless you decide, for sure, no B.S., that you’re going to do it regularly, according to some kind of plan. Lots of people encourage writing every day, and that’s probably idea, but if you can only write on Tuesdays and Fridays, commit to doing that. If you have to carry around a notepad and get down a couple of sentences whenever you’re at a stop light or caught in another of life’s pauses, do that. Whatever it is, do it. Sometimes the writing will go well, sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. Make the commitment and stick to it.

Time

For me, finding time is the hardest part. I try to get in an hour a day, five days a week, more if possible. I’ve made this work in various ways: getting up early, writing at lunch hour, going into work a little late so I can write from 8 until 9. You may well have to give something else up. In my case, I gave up sleep, deepening my relations with co-workers by not going out to lunch, and increasing my work pressure by arriving at an awkward time. (To write this post, I’m giving up my Sunday afternoon nap. Woe is me!)

Space

You don’t have to write in just one space; you can have several. I am lucky to have a basement office I can hide away in, in addition to a coffee shop just down the road. Personally, I find my work goes best in a place where I feel very much at home and where I can arrange the physical requirements of my work – PC, trackball, coffee — pretty easily. And if you’re writing at home, I highly recommend having a door you can lock.

Quiet

This is so important to me I made it a separate item, even though I could have put it under “Space.” All the writers I know require some level of quiet in which to create. Noise distracts the mind, and an unfocused mind is a poor one for creating fiction. If I can’t find a place with the requisite degree of silence, I pull out headphones and turn up a white noise recording; white noise drowns out ambient sound without being distracting.

Soundtrack

Having quiet doesn’t mean having absolute silence, just a degree of it. It’s helpful, I think, to have some sort of background noise that puts your mind at ease without distracting you. White noise, as mentioned above, is good, but my favorite is instrumental down-tempo/chill music, which is pretty much a deep beat with an overlay of soothing sounds. It has the effect of keeping me alert and relaxed at the same time. Sometimes, I don’t even use that; right now, I’m composing to the sounds of the space heater at one end of the room and the dehumidifier at the other. (Yes, it’s a swanky home office I’ve got, all right.)

Rewards

Writing is work, often hard work, so give yourself a doggie biscuit when you finish a session or hit a milestone. One of my favorite rewards, especially if I’m home alone, is to crank up the guitar amp and play very loudly. I’m also highly in favor of cookies; almost any kind will do. Sometimes, if it’s the right time of day, I’ll have a scotch. Figure out what means the most to you and go for it. Have a brain, of course; rewarding yourself with a shot of bourbon after every paragraph is not the way to go here.

Breaks

Take breaks, especially if you’re in a long writing session. Dale Carnegie, in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (You should read this, whoever you are.), writes that a U.S. Army study discovered that soldiers who took a ten-minute rest every hour were more productive than those that worked straight through that time. I have a sort of internal clock that tells me when I need to get up from the keyboard. You may need to set a timer. Whatever works, just give yourself regular breaks; they’ll keep you and your writing fresh.

Method

I like having a method for my writing. In fact, I like screwing around with the method almost as much as the writing itself. This gets into the old thing of writing by the seat of your pants vs. writing by a plan, or somewhere in between. Choose something that works for you. I am finding that I like to plan, but at a certain point, the planning hits a wall because I can’t think of the next thing. At that point I start writing, changing the plan as the story evolves. The subsequent parts eventually present themselves (I hope).

Permission, Forgiveness, and No

In a world where there are so many “oughts” and “shoulds” clamoring for your time and attention, it’s hard to write without thinking you should be doing something else. These thoughts usually run something like, “Am I crazy, sitting here writing this novel maybe nobody will ever read? Shouldn’t I be mowing the lawn or something?” You won’t write too well if you are thinking about the dad-burned lawn. So, first, give yourself permission. Say it to yourself. You could even look in the mirror. “Carson, you have my permission to write.” On the heels of permission, it’s helpful (for me, at least) to add forgiveness. “Carson, I forgive you for writing instead of mowing the lawn.” You also have to claim the power of “no.” If you’re going to write, you have to draw boundaries, and “no” is what boundaries are made of. So, to whoever is calling for you to do something else, say something like, “No, I am not going to mow the lawn now. I am going to write fiction.”

Special Bonus Idea! Enjoy yourself!

Sometimes I read blogs or whatever from writers who say how hard and unpleasant it is to write a novel. I have to shake my head at this. It’s extremely unlikely any of us is going to make big bucks from our fiction work, or even enjoy a large readership, so if you’re not enjoying it, why do it? Do whatever you can to make your writing more enjoyable. Some of those things are listed in the paragraphs above (which I’m sure you’ve read with rapt attention). Get a comfy chair. Work with a cup of tea or coffee to sip. Work on the porch on a nice day. Most of all, enjoy the process of watching your story take shape on the page. Don’t judge it too soon or too harshly, just putter with it and enjoy each moment. And that’s probably the best advice in this post.

Thanks for reading; see you next time, I hope.

 

Tools for Novel Writers: Proofreading

proofreading-tipsProofreading on the Cheap

I am, it must be said, a cheap S.O.B. I will drive twenty miles to a station where gas is a penny less, I will squeeze a dollar until George Washington squeals, and I will wash old aluminum foil so I can reuse it. So, now that it’s time to proofread novel #1 (“Thin  Spots,” soon to be languishing in obscurity on an online venue near you), I got some quotes, discovered people actually did want to charge money for the privilege of reading my work, and decided that perhaps I could do it myself.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a chance in Chernobyl I can just sit down and proofread nearly four hundred words of my own prose. I’m just too close to it and I’ve read it too much.

But I still want to get off cheaply if I can, so I started looking for tools.

Tool 1: Grammarly

To me, Grammarly looks like MS Word spell-and-grammar check on steroids. It looks though your document and suggests corrections based on standard usage. You can get the deluxe version, or whatever they call it, for about thirty bucks a month, so I sprang for that and was able to download a plug-in for MS Word. I used Grammarly to cull through the document for me and it was pretty okay. Not as good as a human proofreader, but pretty okay. It’s a computer program, so it can’t tell when, for example, you’re using a comma in a non-standard way in dialogue. On the other hand, in passages of exposition and such, Grammarly found a passel of legitimate comma foulups, some double words, a few spacing errors, and a smattering of other things. All in all, I’d have to say the book it more polished for having been through the Grammarly grinder.

Tool 2: NaturalReader

NaturalReader is a software program that reads your text out loud. It has a paid version that comes with various bells and whistles, but I’m using the freebie, and it works perfectly well for my needs. Said needs are simple. I need to hear somebody else read the book out loud to me so I can polish up the prose. I set the reading speed to “-3,” which slows the robot voice some, and then sit and listen with the Word doc on one side of my monitor and NaturalReader on the other. When the reader sounds out a phrase that clashes in my ear, or sets the little subconscious madman in my head to shouting better wording at me, I pause the reader and make the change in the document. I read the change back to myself, and if I’m pleased, I save the doc; if I am not pleased, I hit the Undo arrow.

Tool 3: Big Monitor

I recently invested in a twenty-three-inch monitor. It’s plenty wide and is the device that allows me to put Word on one side and NaturalReader on the other. It also allows me to have my beat sheet in view while I’m writing. You can get one of these for a little over a hundred bucks. If you can’t come up with a Benjamin all at once, save up for it. You’ll be glad you did.

Tool 4: A Real Proofreader

After all of this, I think I’m going to hire a real, live human proofreader after all. If they send me back the doc with few or no changes, that might mean I’ve hit on the magic proofreading sauce with Grammarly and NaturalReader. If I get the document back with lots of changes after using these tools, I’ll know next time to just send the thing straight to the human. It’ll hurt, because I’m so cheap, but I’ll do it.

A Final Word

Just so you know, Grammarly is not the only proofing program out there. You can read a fine summation of some popular tools at http://www.bloggertipstricks.com/online-proofreading-tools.html. NaturalReader also has competition; you can read about more reading robots at http://elearningindustry.com/14-free-text-to-speech-tools-educators-tts-teachers.

How do you get through the proofreading phase? Leave a comment and share your wisdom. Thanks!