Keeping Momentum

IMG_0163This blog was once intended as a practical, “behind-the-scenes” view of the writing process.  It has, I’ll admit, morphed away from that intent.  I still, however, do have that underlying urge to occasionally share my own hard-won experience and advice in writing.

Today’s IWSG topic gives me an excuse to play to that (occasional) urge: “What steps have you taken to put a schedule in place for your writing and publishing?”

To tackle this one, I have to — with more than a hint of sad revulsion — briefly put on my big-boy pants and flash back to my days as a sales and marketing monkey.

In the old days, when I used to manage staff and projects, I would create timelines and plans with all kinds of measurables and delivery dates.  I knew, every time I checked that schedule, exactly where any project stood at any particular moment.  I also knew, within reason, when any element, major or minor, was going to be finished.

I do something similar with the writing.  Err, I try to do something similar.

At the end of my normal prep process, I have a detailed timeline and a list of all the scenes in that particular story.  That list includes the day/date of the scene, the setting and the characters involved, as well as notes on things like tone, perspective, and some background on what has gone before.

After I create that plan, however, the schedule is…well…the schedule can pretty much kiss my ass.  Hey, I left the world of cubicles and meetings and schedules for a reason, goddammit!

I write whatever scene strikes my fancy at any particular moment.  I’ve found that jumping around the story like the caffeine-addled squirrel that I am allows me to match the scene to my mood and inclination.

As strange as it may sound, that little tic actually makes the entire project go faster.  Recently, I tried forcing myself to write things in order, and it turned out to be a serious failure.  A failure from which I am still trying to recover, I might add.  Writing a fight scene when I was feeling mellow and laid back…writing a love scene after a bad day…writing exposition and setup when there was chaos around me…these things were not a recipe for success.

Now, the above is pretty idiosyncratic to me, but there is something in there that can apply to almost any writer: don’t write to your word-count, write to your story.

If your plan is solely to write 1000 (or 2000, or 5000) words a day, then that is exactly what you are going to do…write words.  Whether or not you advance the story is another thing entirely.

It is far too easy — and far too common — to get so caught up in the “measurables” that you lose sight of just what those those measurable really represent.  Call it the writer’s version of “forest for the trees.”

Thinking of my story in terms of scenes, however, is something that works quite well.  Each scene is (roughly) a day’s worth of writing, and represents a discreet and significant unit of the story itself.  If I stick to the plan of writing one scene a day, I am certain to advance the story…and to get my necessary work done.

Honestly, it also plays into psychology…or at least into my particular psychology: finishing a scene provides a more significant sense of accomplishment than simply ending the day with 2,500 more words written.

My last bit of advice on this, and perhaps the more important one, is this: momentum is king.  Writing — again, at least for me — is very much a game of momentum.  A regular rhythm of producing at least one scene per day builds not just your story, but also your confidence and the flow of your words.  Break that momentum?  Stop that flow?  Not only do bad things happen, but you make it vastly harder to start again.

Look, for most of us writing isn’t all that different from pushing the Sisyphean boulder up the hill. Take a break and that damned rock can roll right over you on its way back down.  But if you keep pushing…

…if you keep pushing, you find the next hill.  And the next hill, like the next story, is always better.

Fixing Things

You ever have that nagging feeling that you forgot something?  Your keys…your wallet…your cond…ahem, never mind.

Nagging feelings, that’s what I was talking about.  Yeah, that’s it, nagging feelings.

I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt ’em, or something like them.  Shit, I know it’s a pretty regular thing for me — mostly because I usually did forget something.  There was this time I was going to the airport for a flight to Japan, and I forgot my passport…

That sucked.

You know what sucks worse, though?  That nagging feeling that you forgot something in your story.  That feeling that the 68,000 words you’ve already written don’t include something important, something fundamental to a major character.  And I don’t mean an idea you came up with recently that you have to go back and insert…  No sir, I’m talking about a subplot that is crucial to the development of that character, a subplot that was supposed to be included from the very beginning.

I hate myself right now…especially since this whole subplot was an effort to make right some of the wrongs I did to this particular character in the first story.

I’ve mentioned before just how much I dread the editing and rewrite process, as necessary and valuable as it is.  Now I’m not even going to wait until the damned story is finished!

Plot-wise, however, it is a good time to take a break.  I have some planning and thinking to do about the rest of the story, and a great deal of prep-work.  Oh, and some cutting…definitely some cutting.  Finishing out at 135,000 (projected) words is not a particularly good idea, I think.

Maybe that’s what sets writers apart from “normal” folks: we (usually) get do-overs.  We get to go back and fix our mistakes.  We get to excise what doesn’t work, and to develop and emphasize what does.

If we — well, if I — could do that in our “real” lives, things would be a hell of a lot better!

The caveat I will give to the above goes back to my photography habit.  In this “digital age,” there is a tendency to say “I can fix it in post.”  Beginning photographers often use the ability to edit and modify images after they are taken as an excuse to “spray and pray” in order to get a few semi-decent pictures that later can be “fixed.”

That is, to be blunt, bad photography.  It’s bad technique, it’s bad art, and it leads to bad development as an artist and a photographer. When I shoot pictures, I do my best to get everything right in the lens.  It’s a challenge I have set for myself, and it does a great deal to make me better.*

*Sadly, I don’t generally apply to this the “snapshots” I take with my cell phone.  I’m not a huge fan of using the thing as a camera, anyway, so I don’t spend a lot of time getting “everything right” with it.  Although, I should add, it IS a hell of a lot better to haul around when hiking than a full size DSLR.

So, here’s my question: given that I have to go back and do some editing — fix some things in post, as it were — is that habit any better for a writer? Or is it just as bad form, just as bad technique…and just as bad for development and improvement as an artist?

Shit, I hate questions like that. They make me uncomfortable, and I don’t particularly want to be uncomfortable.

I do, on the other hand, want to be better as a writer…and the only way to get better is to set yourself a higher bar.  I’m jealous of those folks who can get a story right on the first (or even the second) try.  I’m jealous of them, and I pretty much hate them, but goddamit, would I love to be like them (in that regard, anyway)!

The 4 W’s: What

Look…you know I’m a character-centric guy. You know anything I write starts (and ends) with the characters, and the plot is just the Charlie-Brown-pine on which I hang the lights and ornaments and decorations that make it an actual Christmas tree. You know because, well, I’ve talked about it often enough…

So, for me, the what of my stories isn’t some big plot point, some stand-alone crisis & climax & resolution…it’s the story of the protagonist(s), and how they deal with with those plot points. I know it sounds semantic, but I can assure you that it’s not. It most assuredly is not — it is a very real difference in emphasis, and in execution.

Let me put it like this: as much as I love Star Wars, why did I hate The Force Awakens? Because the characters — with the exception of Finn & BB8 — were forgettable, 2-dimensional cookie cutters that meant not one damned thing to me. There is no bigger Mary Sue in the damned universe than Rey…and don’t even get me started on the uselessness that is/was Kylo Ren. Quite simply, the characters in that movie were there simply to serve the plot; they had no meaning and no life in and of themselves.

Contrast that with Rogue One. I bought into Rogue One…I bought all the way in. The characters in that movie existed, they meant something. They had more depth, and more reality, than the entire cast of TFA put together. Jyn and Cassian were, quite simply, more believable — more important — than Rey and Poe.

And that makes all the difference.

So, when I plan and design the what of a story, it is not a plot into which I insert my characters. Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact: it comes from the characters themselves.

I’ve mentioned before the rather extensive background work I do before I ever start writing a story. Part of that is just to help me fill in holes and answer questions…but just part. No, the majority of that comes because I need to think and live — I need to experience — my characters’ reality before I truly know where things are going. I need, when you get right down to it, to let them talk to me.

A real world example:

The story that evolved and grew into Wrath & Tears and Silence (and the planned third story, tentatively titled The Flicker of Ghosts) started life simply as a planned series of short stories I nicknamed Project Dock Rat. It was anticipated to be nothing more than the serial adventures of a homeless kid, scraping by as a thief with the help of his best friend.

There was nothing in the original conception about society’s sins, nor the exploitation and violence and ruthlessness that are so a part of the real world. There was, equally, nothing about suicide, or suffering, or the despair of the hopeless.

Then I thought and worked through the two main characters (a third got axed/changed…long story, there), the two who became Connor and Oz.

I had no idea when I originally dreamed up the idea that the protagonist would come to be a reflection of my own survivor’s guilt, nor that his best friend would come to represent those I’ve lost to suicide. I had no idea the story would come to mean something very personal to me.

But it did.

It became not the “adventures of a homeless kid,” but rather the story of Connor’s attempt to save his own soul…and Oz’s failure to do the same thing.

THAT is the what of a story, to me: the reality and evolution of characters that matter.

Yep, I’m Late…Again

Normally I get the week’s blog posts written early. I like to have two or three ready to go so, when the time comes to actually get something up, I don’t have to worry about it.

This ain’t one of those days.

I had all weekend to write. I had all weekend to focus and concentrate. I also had all weekend for Halloween events.

Well, for Halloween events and hangovers. There may even have been some drunk texting…and all I’ll say about that is that, for the next zombie crawl & party, I’m locking my damned phone in the car.

Ahem.

‘Nuff said.

People who know I write love to ask, “What are you working on now?”

I hate that question.

I hate that question because the answer is always either insufficient, or confusing. Or both.

Responding with “Same book” just results in people looking confused and asking why it isn’t done yet. But God help me if I mention that I’m also exploring an idea for a completely different story.

Then the questions start: “What’s the plot?” “Who is the main character? The antagonist?” “What’s it all about?”

I don’t know, yet: THAT’S WHY I’M EXPLORING, DAMMIT!

And Silence isn’t done yet because, well, I’m having a hell of a time getting my focus back. I’m at the point in the plot where things are, err, “muddled”. I need to go back and clarify a number of points, as well as add a handful of scenes to play up a specific arc and theme I want to address.

Until I get all of that thought through and finished, I’m stuck.

It is times like this, of course, that I meet or hear about those writers out there who finish two or three books a year. Yeah, because hearing about that really helps! Look, I’m a one-story-a-year guy, and that ain’t gonna change…no matter how guilty and insufficient those “speed-writer” types make me feel.

Really…am I the only who feels that way? And when the hell did writing turn to the “faster is better” dynamic, anyway? Isn’t, uhh, ”better is better” the way to go?

Crap, this is why I need to bury myself and just go back to writing…thinking too much makes my head hurt.