Onward! Even When Your Fiction Writing Stinks

02-27-13 OnwardIf I have learned anything about writing fiction this week, it’s that the magic genie comes and goes. I’m talking about the magic genie that makes your writing worth someone’s putting an eye to.

Monday was painful. I had to squeeze fiction in amongst a bunch of other stuff and what came out was corny or wooden. Tuesday was much the same. But then, on Wednesday, something happened. My imagination woke up, the cork came out of my word-bottle and the next thing you know I was writing about pirates-turned-gladiators-in-Hell and a prison where the inmates are encased in solid blocks composed of some – let me exercise some delicacy for once – especially unpleasant materials. I had action, sights, smells, characters, plot movement—joy! Thursday and Friday continued this happy pattern.

So what does this have to do with you, dear reader, who is perhaps, like me, a time-challenged part-time fictioneer?

Everything. Well, okay, a lot.

The one thing I did on each of this week’s five working days was sit down and bang out some fiction. Stinky, glorious, whatever its quality, I hammered on it. That happened for a few reasons, handily revealed by hindsight:

Habit. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve become accustomed to the routine of carving out about an hour or so five days a week to work on the not-so-great American novel. So part of getting through this last weird week was just reflex, one I’ve developed through some early discipline.

Big Picture. I kept reminding myself that this is the first draft. It’s okay for the first draft to be rough—okay, terrible—in places, or even all the way through. I’m just at step one of a lengthy, multi-step process.

Permission. I followed the advice of J. A. Konrath and gave myself permission to write crap. It never fails to surprise me how that little attitude adjustment will help you keep going.

Associative Causality. That sounds important, huh? Let’s say it again, together: “associative causality.” Ooooh. We are smart. Actually, I’m not smart enough to come up with a term to encapsulate the notion that because our thought processes proceed by associating one thing with another, that even crummy writing produces thoughts and ideas that eventually cause your brain to spit out something halfway decent. This is just a pompous, ten-dollar way of saying I realized that if I kept going, something good would happen. I just didn’t want to call it “optimism,” okay? Too cheer-leader-y.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck with your genies, folks.

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Overcoming Obstacles in Fiction Writing and Life

02-21-13 cellWarNotebooksI’m late to this party, but I’m going to join it, anyway.

Earlier this year, Duolit (selfpublishingteam.com) posted an article about about Julie. Julie is the author of the the Cell War Notebooks, a chronicle of her battle with cervical cancer. Julie lost her battle, leaving behind a daughter, Luka. The book is still being published and all proceeds go to Luka.

The folks at Duolit proposed that on January 31st, its community of readers write posts about overcoming an obstacle, include a link to the Cell War Notebooks, and publicize the post via social media.

I have an old friend who is suffering from cervical cancer right now. I don’t know how it will turn out and I can’t do much about it, but I can do this.

First, the link to the book: http://amzn.to/W17WN4

Now, about overcoming an obstacle…

One of the chief obstacles I find among the aspiring novelists in my writing group is time, or, rather, lack thereof. One friend has an invalid wife to care for, in addition to his day job. Another just had his first baby (with the help of his wife, of course). Another has care of her young children. We’ve all got responsibilities of one kind or another that make fitting the writing in difficult.

How to overcome this obstacle? We sacrifice something else. In my own case, I sacrifice taking a normal lunch break to relax, socialize, or catch up on work. Instead, I get away to a coffee shop, the library, or an empty conference room and spend about an hour writing. My friend with the ill wife does the same thing.

One member of our group tells a tale of when her three children were very young. She would lock herself in the bathroom for short periods and write in a legal pad braced on the toilet seat while the kids shouted for her outside. Many writers carry their work with them and write in snatches whenever the opportunity arises—at stop lights, at baseball practice, while waiting at the dentist’s office.

In the past, I despaired of writing because I was convinced I had to do it in blocks of at least two hours, so I could get warmed up and then produce a satisfactory amount. When I finally let go of my perfectionist ways and started doing what I could, instead of what some false ideal told me I should do, the creative dam broke and now I’m three-fourths and 80,000 words into my first novel’s first draft.

Before I could find time, I had to give up and attitude, an unreasonable belief, that writing had to be thus-and-so. If you’re unable to find time for your art (even if it’s not writing fiction), step back and check yourself for such an illusory barrier. If you can identify it, you can work to give it up or work around it. Then your creative work will take off. It might go more slowly, but it will go.

Finding time for writing is nowhere near the obstacle cervical cancer is. I’m grateful I don’t have to face such a thing. May all those suffering from serious illness or issues similarly daunting find healing and peace. May all those seeking time for their art overcome their blocking attitudes and find the time they need.

The “Ikea Effect” and Re-writing Fiction

Ikea store frontThe other morning, after dropping my son off at school at 0-dawn-thirty, I heard a report on NPR about something called “the Ikea effect.” In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years—which is fine, if that’s your choice—Ikea is a chain of stores that sells housewares, including a lot of furniture. The unusual thing about Ikea furniture is that you purchase it in a box, unassembled, take it home and—you hope—put it together yourself.

Some researchers at Whassamatta U. or some such institution did some research and discovered that while people who buy new tables like them, people who buy new tables from Ikea and put them together love them. They love the tables more intensely and for longer.

Why? Because they put some effort into them.

If you’ve ever put one of these things together, from Ikea or anywhere else—my kit was a desk with a hutch—you know that you had darn well better love the thing, because it was such a pain in the buttocks to construct.

By now you’ve probably guessed what this has to do with fiction writing. We don’t just pour knuckle-flesh, blood, time and our cussword vocabularies into our craft. We pour our hearts into it, our deepest emotions, a measure of our souls. Even something that might seem less than deep to the reader has come out of our boundless, crazy need to create worlds on paper with the magic of words.

So, naturally, when we’ve finished writing some slice of fiction, we tend to love it with a passion that makes an Ikea table-lover look like somebody who… well, somebody who really, really likes a dumb table.

There’s a problem here and that’s the strong temptation to send our literary babies off into the big world before they’re ready. I know, I know, you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating (and besides, I wanted to write about the Ikea effect because it was cool, and it’s my blog). Let that manuscript sit in a dark drawer for six weeks, at least, after you finish it. Then, and only then, drag it back out, read it and improve it. Time will separate you from your passion for the thing.

And that’s not all. Get your writing group or some beta readers to give you impartial feedback and then rewrite yet again. If you’re able to and your manuscript is a big enough deal, have it professionally edited—not just proofread, edited—and rewrite again. Then rewrite some more.

Okay, so maybe you’ll do fewer rewrites, maybe more. I’m not trying to dictate a process. But it is undoubtedly very important to put some emotional distance between yourself and your fiction before you polish it, so you’re not blinded by the Ikea effect.

The world has plenty of wobbly, lopsided tables already. Let’s all be sure we don’t add to them.

Roadmap to Your Fiction Writing Destination

Road mapAs I have not yet reached the pinnacle of literary glory yet, or even the foothills, really, I find myself in need of keeping a day job. Fortunately for me, my day job is a good one, with nice people to work with and interesting things to do.

One of my duties is to be Keeper of the Product Roadmap. The product roadmap is the document where the group I work with keeps track of where our product is going in the near term, the middle term and the long term. As the keeper, I get to run the meetings where we apply our collective wisdom to the best future for our baby and put the results into a nifty format that helps us keep track and take action.

As I was tweaking my roadmap the other day – it’s cool, with lots of colors and things that happen automatically – anyway, as I was doing that, I started thinking about writing, as I often do. (Not that I was slacking off, boss! It was just for a minute, I swear!)

What if I was a one-man roadmapping committee for my novel? For that matter, what if I became a one-man roadmapping committee for my entire fiction-writing career?

One thing about a roadmap – it changes, so I don’t have to worry about getting stuck somewhere I don’t want to be. If I find I’m on the wrong track, I can adjust.

The roadmap for the novel is my plan, consisting of over 60 scene outlines. I am always looking at this thing, but until now it’s been in a kind of purposeless way. Now I am thinking that at some regular interval or other I should review it to see if it still makes sense. Then I can make any needed adjustments at the plan level, before I write.

As for roadmapping the whole fiction career, I haven’t even bitten that one off yet, but I’m thinking about it.

I could go without a roadmap, just pursuing fiction by whim or by notes on the back of envelopes and napkins. I might get somewhere that way, but it might not be the place I want to be – that happens so easily when you don’t have goals.

On the other hand, with roadmapping I can set goals, like when I want to complete novel #1, how many copies I want to sell in year one, etc. I can also think about the next novel and the ones after that. Will I make a series from novel #1? Will I write something separate but related in genre and subject matter? Will I write something completely different from what’s gone before? How do branding and marketing figure in? And, perhaps most importantly, what are my values, hopes and dreams?

You can keep your roadmap in whatever format you like, as:

  • It tells you what’s you want to happen
  • It tells you when you want it going to happen – start and finish
  • You can easily change it

It can get more complicated than that, but you’re a clever writer, so that should be enough to get you started. I’m going to get started myself, and perhaps return to this topic with some more thoughts on the matter.

Better put that on my roadmap before I forget.