Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
In today’s post, I wanted to continue the theme of last week’s entry, and talk a bit about another aspect of self-care: boredom. Firstly, I want to recognize that I’m not breaking any new ground here. Though our aversion to boredom may have something to do with being unable to block out the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that attempt to constantly bombard us, it’s well-accepted that that same lack of distractions can also spur creativity. What I did want to talk about though was my own personal recent experience with the relationship between boredom and creativity.
I’m generally fairly inseparable from my phone. Not to the point where I might be constantly texting all day, but at the height of Pokemon Go I did fall down the stairs once, and the less said about that, the better. Waiting rooms, walks to and from the bus stop, and washroom breaks have historically been accompanied by either my Reddit feed, or whatever flavor-of-the-month mobile game I’m playing at the time. Too many hours have been spent playing Disney Emoji Blitz, as my Disney obsession is well-documented.
I am very well aware of the fact that the hours spent on my phone are, by and large, “wasted time”, in the sense that while they’re entertaining (and I think time spent enjoying yourself is not technically wasted time) there are no long-term benefits derived from it whatsoever. It’s similar to eating cookies – it’s not “wasted” food but a lot of the time you should probably eat something other than a cookie. Same with mobile games; I acknowledge that I can be doing something more useful but boredom is unpleasant and games are just so darn fun. There, I said it. I know some of you are probably more disciplined than me, but for many, this should sound familiar.
Over the last couple of weeks I found myself in a lull between games – nothing spoke to me enough that it made micromanaging inventories and daily tasks worth it. Of course, there were no shortage of Reddit updates to get into as that front page is theoretically infinite, so I will give myself some credit for consciously choosing not to pull out my phone and actually enjoy the scenery of the beautiful campus I work on.
This will sound stupid in both how obvious and cheesy it is, but boy does it feel good to lift your head and just walk for a change. It helps that it’s summer and therefore not raining here every day to the point where you’d sooner drown yourself in the nearest puddle. What I found though, is that even if we only took the walking part of my commute, which is about ten minutes each way from the bus loop to my office, I had twenty extra minutes in my day to allow my mind to wander. And, being the kind of mind that I have, it invariably wandered to my writing.
It’s no coincidence that it was last week that I finally finished the first draft of Chapter 2 of Drops of the Black Sun, which had been slow going since spring. The first sketches of Chapter 3 are already populating my Moleskine notebook, along with notes for the current draft of Wake the Drowned, and bits of dialogue for the bedtime story I’ve been telling my kids since January. In fact, that same notebook that I’ve had since December and was only half-full a month ago is now almost complete. I don’t remember the last time I had such a burst of creativity on multiple projects. I’ve even managed to take this week to design a flag for the Human Interstellar Dominion in Drops of the Black Sun, just because my brain happened to have had some extra capacity to work on it.
I have gone at length about all the different ways you can deal with writer’s block and one of the obvious solutions was staring right in the face the whole time … literally. That said, I’m not going to pretend that I will reduce all my phone use to a minimum, or that I won’t at some point, for however long, slip into another game that gets me with its dopamine microdosing. Nor do I want to make the argument that writers that do shun technology to that extent necessarily make better writers. Quite the contrary, I think a writer impoverishes themselves by deliberately shunning anything that is enjoyed by a large number of people. I don’t believe in the artist as a creature unto themselves and I strive to see how people tick.
What I do want to acknowledge is the benefit of boredom. Even for a few minutes a day. Make an effort to spend time away from your desk, to let your brain breathe without being subjected to the myriad of stimulations tossed at it like slop to hogs. Take a moment to listen to what your brain has to say, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Recently I’d tweeted something about the fact that one of my most satisfying moments in editing are deletions. This has stuck with me since then, and I’ve been taking a more critical approach to phrases, sentences and passages that I’m editing and I feel like I’m onto something here, so I thought I would expand on this.
I’ve previously talked about writer’s block and the various ways I deal what that stubborn bit of writing that just won’t let me be. But what if making it perfect isn’t the answer? What if making it disappear is what makes your writing stronger?
At first, this sounds like a quitting attitude, and I do agree that a deletion decision needs to be critically assessed. It’s tempting to interrogate yourself and ask whether you’re just giving up on something and whether a better writer would be able to write their way out of this one. But good writers delete, and you should too.
Secondly, I acknowledge that deleting your own writing hurts. This is your baby, come from within the depths of your creative process, and now you’re expected to unceremoniously sever it and discard it? As traumatic as the experience might be for you, there’s a reason why “kill your darlings” is a bit of writing advice that’s been driven into the ground. Sometimes, no matter how attached you are to the smaller piece, its removal might be an overall benefit to the whole. And if you really do think it’s a good line that just happens to be in the wrong place in the wrong time, save it somewhere else. I have a whole file with deleted sentences and paragraphs to use to inspire myself later. It may find a home a yet.
So let’s look at this in the context of the actual deletion I made last week. This was in Wake the Drowned, the novel I’m currently editing, and the protagonist, Charlie, is struggling about whether or not to enter a room and help another character, but then this character says something completely inappropriate, and the protagonist leaves instead. The immediate next sentence after the protagonist makes his decision and is described as leaving the room is as follows: “There was no need for Charlie there.” While there is nothing wrong with that sentence by itself, something didn’t feel quite right.
My first suspicion was that it didn’t show my character’s motivation or decision making enough. After all, the preceding sentence never explicitly states that Charlie couldn’t or wouldn’t help this other character or why. So I fiddled with the following alternatives: “There was nothing Charlie could do then” or “Charlie realized there was nothing he could have done” or “There was nothing Charlie could do for [character] now.” While about as short and punchy as the original sentences, all of these options didn’t sound right. So I went with a more complicated structure to the tune of the following: “Despite what twisted Charlie on the inside, if he’d cross the room then, he would soon discover that [character] had now sunken out of reach of his help.” This seemed to somehow make things much worse.
So I stared it for a few minutes, wondering why this little sentence, with its expression of hopelessness in a hopeless situation, was bothering me so much. And then I just put a fat red line through it, and read the paragraph again.
Now the scene ended with Charlie leaving the room, without any epilogue-type commentary. That’s it. Here he is contemplating helping, the character saying something inappropriate, then Charlie leaving. Sure, I can add extra details about what Charlie felt at the moment, but what would that accomplish? He left. The reader understands what the decision implies, and if Charlie’s exact train of thought isn’t set out, what’s the big deal? So I figured out what was wrong with the sentence. The sentence couldn’t be editing or improved, because the problem was that it should never have been there in the first place.
I’ve always struggled with the mother of all writing advice: “show, don’t tell”. I don’t pretend that I truly know what it means but I caught a glimpse of it at that moment. “There was no need for Charlie there” was doing precisely that – telling us what Charlie felt, instead of showing us that he left.
There is, of course, the lingering possibility that I made the wrong choice. Perhaps some beta readers will feel like something is missing from this paragraph. And if that happens, I would need to rethink my choices. At this point, I found the red strikethrough to be liberating. I liked the sentence and how it sounded and how it capped off a previous much longer sentence. But ultimately I decided that it detracted from the work, and out it went. I’ll move past whatever pain that causes, because the next sentence calls.
Pretty much the same day that I posted my last entry, it had become out of date. For those that don’t want to reread it, the lightning fast summary is that I explained that the reason I was so slow writing Chapter 2 of Drops of the Black Sun is because I was afraid of losing track of the lore and needed to find a user-friendly way of cataloguing it. So at the end of the entry I concluded that Excel was the way to go, and since I had been populating my spreadsheet for a couple of weeks by that point, I thought I had settled on a strategy.
This all came crashing down later that afternoon, where I hit a particularly lore-heavy part of my story and realized that the spreadsheet was becoming a disaster. Just look at the below, and consider that this is about four pages into an idea that’s hundreds, if not thousands, pages long:
I’m not entirely sure I why I failed to realize this amount of information will completely overwhelm a table, but I’m not shy about admitting when I was a doofus.
So this doofus needed an alternative, and so I went back to my original concept of a wiki-type file. This time I got off my lazy ass and Googled whether and how you can create internal hyperlinks in Word. You can, and it’s especially easy when you use headings. So now instead of saving time and moving on with my writing, I’ve been busy transferring all the data I already put in Excel, and then organizing into something that I can actually work with.
So far, it’s working much better. Sure, it’s already 17 pages long and 500 words even though I still haven’t quite gotten through half of Chapter 1 yet. And sure, deep down in my gut there is this feeling that once the document grows too big, it will implode on me. But this is the best I can do with the resources I have available. And I know “Word” is a bit of a taboo world in writing circles, but I figured I’d give you a tour anyway.
So here you can see where the wiki inspirations shines through. I’ve got category pages that list all entities in the category, and then links coming off that list to the actual entries.
And here you see a sample entry with the information table at the top – some of the columns are placeholders in case I come up with other characteristics by which I want to distinguish planets from each other. The yellow highlight is a reminder to myself that this fact hasn’t actually made it into the work yet. So there you go, a sneak peak at a minor detail. As you can see, I also want to track where the entity has been mentioned in case I want to read up on what was actually said, rather than what made its way into this encyclopedia entry.
And here we see a sample of an entry that’s more “filled-out”, with the table above and the subheadings a bit more populated. “(BI, C1)” is a shorthand for “Book I, Chapter 1” and operates as an internal “cite your sources” function. Again, so I can check back and figure out what the hell I was actually talking about.
So there you go, my adventures in worldbuilding continue, and hopefully I won’t have to change course any time soon. Meanwhile, going to go wish on a star that I can actually start writing this again soon.
There’s much to enjoy about being a writer, much more than there is to not enjoy about being one, but if there’s one thing writers enjoy the least, it’s writers block (he says, stepping away from the screen for a few minutes because the next sentence is refusing to come). I spent a previous entry discussing a serious bout of writer’s block I recently experienced and how I managed to overcome it. But writer’s block is a creature of many faces. In its most gruesome form, it disables the writer completely and words flow to the page like juice hand-squeezed from a stone. And then there’s its less sinister cousins that detonate in the middle of the page, leaving gaps in the narrative. It’s these little buggers that I want to talk about today, and how I try to deal with them.
One thing to remember about these little spots of writer’s block is that each one of them aspires to become the eldritch horror that consumes your entire craft. They feast on your confidence, and grow as it shrinks. The inability to complete a sentence can grow into the inability to finish a chapter. With an unfinished chapter you begin to question whether your work will ever be completed. And if this work, which you’ve planned for years and written for months, needs to go into the dustbin, then perhaps you were never cut out to be a writer and your father was right, you should go back to school and get an MBA and spend the rest of your life drinking tepid water from the cooler because the AC wreaks havoc on your throat. Sound familiar? Then I feel for you.
There are ways, however, of reducing the chances that the little bastards will achieve their goals, and I want to set out a few of them below:
1. CUT YOUR LOSSES
Ideally, your writing simply flows and you don’t have to put much thought into what comes next. In practice, there are plenty of reasons to pause: finding the next word, phrase or thought, or perhaps finding that what you’ve just written sounded much better in your head. That’s fine. But sometimes these pauses swell.
You know your writing better than anyone, so you’re the best judge of when a normal pause turns into something more. You can feel the doubt start creeping in and wondering why you’re not able to conclude such a seemingly simple thought.
So my advice is to step away as soon as you can. Don’t let the little snag become something bigger than it needs to be. Go for a walk, get a drink of water, find something else to do however brief or however long. Just let your brain step away from the conscious cycling through a problem that leads to a distorted emphasis on the problem, and let your subconscious brain take over and focus on a solution.
You’d be surprised how many of these mini-blocks can be dislodged by diverting your attention elsewhere, and you could do something useful in the meantime instead of staring at a computer screen or a piece of paper.
The next two strategies take a similar approach, but maintain emphasis on your writing.
2. WRITE SOMETHING ELSE
This is why I find it useful to have several projects on the go (including this blog, because if anything allows for an unmitigated stream of consciousness rant, it’s a blog entry, so, I’m sorry, I guess?). I can always unplug myself from one project and work on the other. And sometimes these shifts last weeks if not months. But the result is that if you do happen to lose your infatuation with a particular project, it doesn’t turn into a tragedy, because you have something else to nourish in the meantime.
I’m aware that some would argue that this leads to jumping from one project to the next without anything crossing the finish line. These “completionists” think a project has to be seen to its bitter end no matter what toll it takes. And while there is merit in occasionally finishing a project, because a finished project is an entirely different learning experience than just writing parts of one, it presumes that this strategy means nothing will get done. It does get done, but slowly. Ultimately you’re the best judge of what works for you, so if you think you’re the kind of person that will just get distracted by the next shiny new thing, perhaps this one isn’t for you.
3. LEAVE GAPS
This is basically the same as the previous strategy, but instead of having to look outside of the current work, you look inside it. The jumps could be as big as working on another chapter at a completely different part of the novel, or it could be working on the next paragraph while the previous one sits unfinished.
Oftentimes, I have a general sense of how a scene is going to go and all the little interactions, actions and descriptions that will form it. However, sometimes transitioning from one to the other can be a challenge. So if I ever get into trouble and a transition is not immediately forthcoming, I just skip right over to the next little bit and I continue. Coming back even fifteen minutes later might be enough to tie the two portions together, or sometimes I have to sleep on it and the transition comes so smoothly that I’m surprised it gave me trouble to begin with. I find it much easier to drop a tricky line and come back to it later than to puzzle it out and force a solution.
4. IMAGINE YOUR WAY OUT
This is a mental trick I’ve used that is not always successful, but when it works, it feels a little bit like magic. I find it more suitable for stubborn sentences than whole paragraphs, but if you find that this works for you, I would be curious to hear your success stories.
So whenever I encounter a sentence that for whatever reason I’m not able to complete, I try to imagine what comes next. Sounds stupid, right? Like, what the hell are you doing with your writing if you’re not imagining it? But I’m not talking about imagining a scene. I’m talking about imagining the writing itself.
I try to put myself in a specific state of mind where I try to picture myself reading a book that I’m really enjoying, but not a real book that I’ve already read. This is a great book by an excellent author and I’m enjoying reading it because it’s one of those works that I just wish I’d written myself. And so once I have this little scene laid out in my head, I read the last couple of sentences that I wrote before the snag, and then once I reach it, I let go, and allow my mind to picture the words or the sentences that would come next.
What would I expect of a high-quality work?
It doesn’t always work, or sometimes it needs a couple of false starts to work, but when it does, oh man, like I said, it’s magic. It feels as though some other part of my brain tells me to step aside, takes over, and shows me what is to write well. Of course, it was me all along, but imagining already completed writing takes the edge of the stress of conjuring something into existence. It also you to treat the writing as already there, and you’re merely showing it to yourself.
I would recommend to everyone to try this for yourselves because this has helped me imagine my way out of writer’s block on more than one occasion.
So there it is, hopefully you’re able to integrate one or all of these strategies into your writing and remember, don’t accept that writing is suffering and wherever you can, try to find the joy.
A year ago, shortly before I started this blog, I was a writer with only a single published credit to my name – a third-place finish in a contest run by a trade journal. Just under a year later, I have three literary journal publication credits, and recently reached a new exciting milestone – my first publication in a physical printed journal.
Yesterday my copy of the Nashwaak Review Volume 40/41 arrived, and it contained one of the most exhilarating things for a writer – my name in print. Although I talked a bit about my short story “Nightfalls” and its acceptance last year, I once again want to thank everyone involved with the Nashwaak Review at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick who saw merit in my story and thought it was worthy to be published in their journal. Without your hard work and dedication, writers like me may never be able to find a platform to share their writing.
It was pretty exciting showing the journal off to everyone, and particularly pointing out to my kids their dad’s name in the journal. They’re both huge bookworms and it was such a special feeling showing them that their dad contributes to these things, too. The older one assumed it was a published version of the bedtime story I’ve been crafting for them for weeks, and I said maybe one day. Because this is a print publication I’m not able to share it with you directly, but you may find it at your local library if you’re in the New Brunswick area, or else order it from them directly. Either way, I wanted to talk a bit more about the story itself, hopefully serving up some helpful advice along the way.
Without retelling the whole story here, I first want to touch on what Nightfalls is about. The premise is that one day, the sun sets and it never rises again. Eventually, the light from the moon and the stars also disappears, and humanity is forced to create its own cycle of day and night by regularly shutting off all the lights and plunging the world into impenetrable darkness.
The story follows the protagonist, Jonas, as he struggles with his own feelings of hopelessness, despair, and apathy in a world cast into inexplicable darkness, until he discovers something that may just bring back a light of hope into a dark world. As you can see, an element of magic realism that was present in my first publication, Ursa Major, and to a lesser extent in Slippers, is also present in this story. It seems to be my most successful genre so far, which has got me to rethinking my writing lately.
Often I hear of new writers who say they’re bursting with creative energy, but they don’t know what to write. I think “Nightfalls” is the perfect example of the fact that inspiration can strike from anywhere. I was driving down a dark highway from a friend’s wedding, contemplating my existence up until that point, and wondered what it would be like if the streetlights up ahead were the only light left in the world. Granted, the formation of the story itself was more involved than that, but that is essentially all it took – a single thought on the drive home. So if you want to be a writer, and you’re searching for something to write, don’t try to have the next great novel implanted firmly in your head before you write the first word. All it takes is a single image, as ephemeral as a shooting star, to start putting your story together.
“Nightfalls” ended up being deeply personal to me. Though starting off as a casual thought it quickly grew into something bigger. If I recall the timing correctly, I had just graduated with my Bachelors and was ready to go to law school. I attended the wedding of a good high school friend and ruminated on the difference between my high school self and who I had become four years later, perhaps convincing myself I was now so mature when the next decade would bring arguably even bigger changes. I needed to both self-reflect, put a lid on some things, and do something kind at the end of a long journey. So I ended up gifting this story to my married friend and her husband.
While not a love story, “Nightfalls” is about hope, and every long-term relationship should be built in some way on hope. Hope for a limitless future with your partner. The story is about finding light at the end of a tunnel, and when you end up with someone you love as much as you love the whole world, that’s what it should feel like – that everything before was a little bit bleaker.
Nightfalls was written ten years ago and it showed its age. My writing had advanced significantly since then, and it underwent a couple of “post-completion” revisions over the years. My wife has long tried to convince me to leave my old writing alone. She is right of course but there was something about some of those old stories I couldn’t let go. So as I picked up my publication efforts in earnest earlier this year, I thought that now that I was in my thirties I would give some of them a final coat of polish, promising myself that if they didn’t get published in this form to just accept it and move on. I don’t know about you, but I develop a sort of familial attachment to old completed works, especially ones that have sat in the “good” pile for so long. It brings me immense joy to finally see it succeed.
But at the same time, I wound up sitting on conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I know I need to move on and not dwell over things conceived and written when I was essentially a different person. Yet on the other hand, I want to bring these stories to life and share them with the world. I think what it ultimately comes down to is the same thing that applies to any writing rules, and that is that there are no hard rules that are applicable to everyone in every situation. That’s why I recommend taking each piece of writing advice you sea not as a piece of a puzzle or another step in this grand instruction manual of writer-hood, but rather as an ingredient to throw in a pot. Some ingredients you use more, others less, the flavours interact with each other in different ways, and at the end of the day, you get the kind of writer that you’re comfortable with. So do you in the best way only you know you can.
I love New Year’s. As a Russian person I am pretty much obligated to obsess over it and structure my entire year around what happens on New Year’s Eve. There’s the Russian saying that “How you greet the New Year is how you will spend it” and this is just a hotbed for all sorts of neuroses and superstitions, which we Russians also excel at. And speaking of Excel, judging by my posts talking about bullet journal entries, it should come as no surprise that I have all sorts of spreadsheets that I use to collect data on my writing.
One such spreadsheet is my words-per-day log, which I have been keeping since 2005 though with a significant gap covering 2011-2015. That said, at the end of this year, I now have 9 years-worth of numbers, and since it’s just past New Year’s, and my obsession extends to all kinds of year-end lists and reviews, I thought I would download some of that obsession onto you and do a year in review about how much writing I had done this year
At a cool 100,000 words, this has been the most productive year since I started tracking. There is of course the disclaimer about the missing years but I doubt any of them came close. 2018 leaves second place (with only 69,000) in the dust. That year was 2008 and I spent the better part of the summer getting almost 50K words into a novel that I ultimately abandoned. Reaching this 100K milestone makes it a bit tough to have the 2019 top this output, but what’s life without a couple of challenging goals?
My most productive day was October 10 at 1634 words. Wish I knew what it is that I was eating on that day so I can replicate this success, but oh well. I have not broken 2,000 words since the long care-free days of having a lot of time on my hands during summer. That’s fine, there’s always next year and it’s not like I’m going to beat myself up over it. Sometimes I have a day where I feel like I could go north of 2,000 but other responsibilities come calling and that’s okay. Writing may be your life, but life is still bigger than your writing. Your muse won’t retire just because you told it that you need a break for a day or two.
Speaking of fickle muses. I spent 147 days not writing at all this year, most of them weekends, because face it, after I’ve put the kids to bed at the end of a long day all my brain is good for is to maintain vital bodily functions. This amounts for a seemingly horrifying 40% of all my days, but again, you can stare at the raw numbers and beat yourself up over it, or you can accept that you did your best in the circumstances. Sure, keep your eye on opportunities where you can write more, but I felt as though I had a decent writing year, and I’m going to go by the feeling, rather than the stats.
On a similar note, the least productive month were August and December with 14 days of not having written a thing. Both of these were due to going on vacation, and for some reason I have a really hard time getting down to writing, even though I have so much to say. I guess the best alternatively is to write about it when you get back. And either way, those months might seem weak, but 14 days is still getting to write any other day, and if you’re like me and hold down a day job, writing every other day is a pace to be proud of.
I know these kinds of numbers seem antithetical to the whole “write everyday” creed but man, love is such a complicated beautiful thing it's hard to find time to do the same thing every day even if it is something you love. Lesson here? Relax, right when you can and when you feel like it. Don’t make it a chore. There are plenty of those that will set hard targets for you making it sound as though you’ve completed failed as a writer if you didn’t meet those goals. I want to make it quite clear that I don’t subscribe to this kind of gatekeeping in writing.
Writing for me is a constant journey. It’s not just a hobby, or something I’ve set out to do merely to challenge myself. It’s one of the ways I see myself. And this is the main reason why I don’t encourage defining yourself with words and goals. They’re a fun part of record keeping, and a nice way to motivate yourself, but they can’t grow into more than that. I once fell into the trap of defining myself by my production and the only thing that did was hurt my production. If you see yourself as a kind and funny person, would you accept someone telling you that you need to do x number of good deeds per week or make x number of jokes a day to be allowed to see yourself as such. No. Your trait belongs to you, and so you get to define what it means for yourself.
That little word in my bio here, or on Twitter or Instagram that lists me being a writer alongside a father and a husband, and, to a certain extent, a lawyer, is not just a useful descriptor but goes to the essence of who I am. “Writer” is part of me, and like any part of a person, that part grows with me, it adapts with me, it responds to me as a person. So this year has not only been about putting words on paper, about starting novel projects or getting short stories published. It was also about learning and growing and moving forward wiser and hopefully better. I embraced my need to outline before I can launch myself into a project. I ruminated on where writing fits into my life and my relationship with my loved ones. I’ve worked out a way to get out of some instances of writers block.
So in the end, I’m super excited about the words I will commit to paper in 2019, about the projects I will start and I will finish (fourth draft of my novel, perhaps?), but most importantly, I look forward to all the things I might learn, and to share them with you here.
For those of you that have been following me over the last year, you would have seen me talk about how seriously I have taken my publication efforts this year. To be clear, I don’t have any finished novels as of today, so these efforts have focused on my short stories.
In 2018, through perseverance in the face of an endless string of rejections, many lunchtimes spent in front of Netflix and publisher websites and with, of course, a little bit of luck, I managed to get my short story, Ursa Major, published on the Passages North website.
I’ve received another three acceptances since then, though none of them have yet to culminate in actual publications, but by early summer, I found that I exceeded my own expectations for the year. And I’m glad that left me flying high, because it seems that my well of good luck was tapped dry. Since then it’s been an endless string of rejections, and because of my very concerted efforts to keep sending submissions, the rejections have been a real deluge in the latter half of 2018 (by the way, the busiest time for these has been Christmas, so … thanks for that, I guess?).
So this is when you stare at all those unfortunalies and regretablies and “pls delete this number” (okay, that one didn’t happen but I’m not the only one who reads this in between the lines, right?) and dig deep for a little self-administered pep talk.
Firstly, you’re never alone. Not to say that you can’t indulge in complaining and self-pity once in a while just because everyone experiences it, but that you don’t have to feel so lonely about it. You’re not the most miserable writer in the world because you received three rejections in one week. We’re all out there doing more or less the same thing, pouring our hearts and souls into a piece of writing that we then willfully submit for the judgement of others.
Sometimes we’ll get unequivocal but politely-worded ‘no’s, but sometimes even in the rejection we’re able to find a ray of light. It was one of these instances that prompted me to write this post – three short words that can act as a hook to hang my hopes on.
A couple of months ago I mailed a short story to a fairly prestigious journal (I don’t want to name names because I’m not sure what the etiquette is on that but let’s just say if they ever publish me I will be pretty dang ecstatic). I checked the mail on New Year’s Eve and found an envelope that was addressed to me in my own handwriting. I still get this giddy feeling of excitement and dread any time I get one of my self-addressed envelopes back, and it makes me miss the days when most submissions were done by mail rather than through Submittable or other online submission portals.
As I’m opening the envelope, I can tell the contents is pretty thin so I kind of know what to expect at that point, and out falls a small piece of paper that accounts for their form rejection letter. The name of the short story is handwritten at the top, the generic rejection text apologizes for the form letter, but at the bottom of the note they added a short message: “Try us again”.
I don’t live in a world of four and five-star Amazon reviews, or bestseller lists, or author signing tables. I live in a world where three short words like “try us again” can mean the difference between looking down and looking up. It means there’s an editor out there who chose not to publish my story, but gave me hope that it was mostly the work of serendipity. They, who read hundreds if not thousands of short stories a year, asked me to send them one more, and that to me means the world.
It’s a funny feeling, trying to build some wings out of such a small phrase, but therein lies my advice to you. I think there is a temptation among writers, especially those starting out, to glamorizing the suffering of the art. We shouldn’t derive inspiration from the grind, or from proving ourselves or others wrong, or from whatever sense of suffering and conquest we feel as we write.
Instead, look for the brightness that breaks through the dark. Did someone like your turn of phrase? Did they complement you on your vocabulary? Did they point out how concise that email was? Did anyone ever say to you “well said” or to “keep writing”? Take every single one of these instances and build yourself a fire. Even if you’re not finding traditional writing success, this is what makes you a writer. The world isn’t able to ignore what you are and in that you can find comfort.
Don’t clutch those rejections tightly but let them flow through you, discarding them like autumn leaves ready for the spring buds. So with that simple note that arrived on the eve of the new year, I have my motto for the next one: try us again. And with that, I will keep trying. I will continue my existing efforts of getting published, I will write more new stories, and I will try new things that may or may not succeed. And I encourage you to do the same: forget Yoda’s “Do or do not, there’s no try” and build all those tries into a ‘do’.
Talking about writer’s block feels a bit like talking about being tired. We’re all tired, we’re always tired, talking about it won’t fix it, and in the end, no one cares. However, given that it has been scientifically proven that if a writer doesn’t spend at last half their waking hours lamenting about writer’s block, they literally detach from the cosmic plane and stop existing, I feel I need to put my quota in lest I suffer such a gruesome fate.
For me, writer’s block doesn’t feel like a wall, rather, it’s more like a writer’s valve. Some days, the valve is open full blast, others days, it’s a moderate stream, or a trickle, or we’re in complete shutdown mode and I’m staring at an empty Tweet for five minutes convinced that I have lost the ability to communicate. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve suffered through one of these partial shutoffs. It’s not like I couldn’t write anything, but my production was slowed. And when I did write, I generally didn’t feel good about the product. I mean, I know that’s what editing is for, but it still doesn’t feel good, you know?
As the calm rational individual that I am, I go into full panic mode every time my fingers don’t go berserk the moment they hit the keyboard. Am I sleeping enough? Of course not. Am I eating atrociously? Absolutely (screw you, never-ending Halloween leftovers). Is work super busy and invading my thoughts? Wouldn’t be myself without it. Yet none of this really any different than the status quo, so what’s the problem. Why is my creativity so sluggish that the new novel that I was so excited for just a month ago now has placeholder dialogue like “Sergei says something” and “Then Andrei says something”? I couldn’t answer it, until yesterday.
So what happened yesterday? Despite having no sleep, snacking ferociously and being up to my eyeballs in work, I had a breakthrough in that same dialogue, and managed to move the conversation through poking fun of the protagonist and discussed shitty pirated Russian dubs from the 1990s. It wasn’t perfect but I was happy with the result since the scene was now moving along after a couple of weeks of grinding to an almost complete halt.
So here’s my theory: my reading feeds my writing. Now, it’s a pretty common sentiment that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader, and I subscribe to that. I’m not going to put some arbitrary gatekeeping minimum that writers should read, but I do believe a good writer needs to read. Yet this idea hasn’t quite hit home as it did now.
For about the last month, my leisure reading has consisted of finishing up a biography I had been reading on and off since last October. Now, we’re talking about a 730 page dense tome written in a very different writing style than fiction. So the period of me reading this biography in earnest coincides approximately with the length of my latest bout of writer’s block. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to crap over non-fiction. While the bulk of my reading comprises fiction novels I do enjoy the occasional non-fiction book and biography and find them both educational and useful in my craft. But dig this: the moment I finish this book and read the first twenty pages of The Hate U Give, the very next day the valve is opened and my writing pours out.
Of course, this could be pure coincidence but I choose not to see it that way. As much as a biography is great writing it’s not the writing I do. It doesn’t really contain dialogue, it doesn’t set the scene in the same way, and the “plot” while mostly linear has its own ways of meandering that’s not reflective in fiction. Maybe it is a little worrying that my “writing muse” is so fickle that it leaves whenever I spend more than a couple of weeks not reading fiction, but hey, writers are a fickle folk. For me, this has been a lesson to not stay away from reading fiction for too long, unless I want to see that writer’s valve tighten on me again. Variety is the spice of life and maybe here I need to take a more organized approach at keeping myself spiced up. Some might balk at any suggestion that I should regiment myself, but if Douglas Coupland can recommend eating dark chocolate to get those writing juices going, then I will fully endorse reading good fiction as a possible cure for writer’s block.
As I’m sure a lot of other writers do, I like to embrace some of the stereotypes that are associated with being a writer. Since I’m a creative type, this must mean that I thrive in a little chaos, since over-organization will stifle my creative spirit. While I might feel as though this is true, I also know that if I fully submit to my propensity towards the “creative mess” or “tvorcheskiy besporiadok”, as they say in Russian, nothing will get done. The only solution to this is to organize myself … creatively.
In an earlier entry I described one of the ways in which I do just that – when I turned thirty, I downloaded a lot of my organization into a bullet journal, which tracks and logs various aspects of my life. I went into detail about my exercise tracker, which alas is not as colourful now that the autumn months and my wife’s new school semester have kicked in, but today I want to talk about one of the entries that specifically relate to my writing:
As you can see, the reason I chose to talk about this entry now is that I had just completed a six-month spread of May through October 2018. If it looks familiar, that’s because I featured it briefly in that introductory post, but I figured I’d go into more detail here.
Primarily this entry is organized by month, day, and type of activity. The activities are broken down into eight categories – used to be seven but I recently added the eighth and finally filled-up that empty column.
Of the eight activities, three are purely “content creation” – novel, short story and blog. That is, any time I write new words for any of these, I earn my check mark for the day. This interacts with my “Words per Day” bullet journal entry, but I can discuss that one in greater detail later. Note that I don’t break these up by works within the categories. For example, I’m currently working on two novels, but any additional words to a “novel” are just categorized in this column.
“Editing” usually relates to the three categories described above. Any time I take a draft of whatever has already been written and start tweaking it, the check mark for that column was earned. It was my choice to collapse the editing across genres into a single column, but I suppose you can be extra and subdivide each of the genres into “writing” and “editing” columns.
“Outlining” was added quite recently as a result of my realization that I need to outline in order to get any projects off the ground. So I wanted to separately track this activity in order to make sure I’m not lapsing and that I’m working towards having a robust outline by the time I need to launch into a new project. Due to the nature of outlining, both editing and adding words to an outline would earn me a check mark for this.
“Poetry” is also one of those categories that collapses outlining and adding words. I feel it’s kind of pointless counting the word count for poetry because it tends to be shorter, and because I find that for me 95% of the work on it is revising. Not that I know much about poetry. As you can see, poetry doesn’t get much love. I had to flip back all the way to January 2018 before I could locate the most recent check mark. But I have to admit that sometimes I get a feeling or an idea that seems to beg to be expressed in verse, and off I go to my handy poetry notebook where I jot down some words and then edit them again and again and again until I’m too intimidated to go back and try to sift through the scribbles to find some finished product.
And this bullet journal entry remains as a reminder that this notebook exists somewhere and I should probably go back to it and finish the poems some day.
And speaking of using the journal as a reminder to do things, the “blog” column is exactly that. It existed for over a year before I actually put this blog online, serving as an almost daily reminder that I have been meaning to undergo this task. So I would say not only does this spread serve as a tracker, but it could be used for goal-setting as well.
“Side Project” is really the “miscellaneous” category. This can range from things like work memorandums that I deem to require a sufficient amount of creativity to working on my alternate North American history project that I have no intention of utilizing in any way except for fun. For this reason “side project” also often contributes to the word count tracker when it can’t be fit into any of the other categories.
This leads us into “Publication” which is meant to capture those times that I work in some way or another on career management. Presently, this involves spending time on my short story publication efforts, such as searching for new journals or submitting the stories, either online or through the mail. It can be a daunting task sometimes, especially in the face of all the rejections that steadily trickle in now that I have so many stories submitted somewhere. It can be a discouraging task, but this bullet journal entry assists me in keeping focus and not staying away from the efforts for too long.
So that about wraps it up. As you can see, this bullet journal spread helps me keep on track, to set goals and to see which parts of my craft I may have been neglecting. Not to mention that it provides me with statistics about my own writing, and statistics are fun no matter how much my Psych stats prof tried to convince me otherwise. It could easily be adapted to whatever kind of writer you may be – if you never plan on touching a short story in your life, no need to include this column. Hopefully this might inspire you to pick up your own bullet journal and give it a shot, or set up your own spread that works for you.
Wanted to also make a quick note on the title of the entry. It’s a reference to some of the material in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. While not a magic number, he posits that is about how many hours most experts require to actually become masters at a certain activity. Oh, and it’s the title of an awesome Macklemore song. Pretty sure I’m yet to clock my 10,000, but this’ll help me get there.
I have recently put the finishing touches on the third draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. It’s been a process that has lasted almost two years, so I hope that not only did I improve the manuscript, but actually managed to learn something along the way. So without further introduction, here is an arbitrary number of writing tips I have distilled out of the editing process for draft 3.
Tip 1: Just let it spill out
Self-editing as you go is probably one of the worst sins a writer can commit against themselves. I still find myself, during what should be a breezy first draft, questioning “is this scene dragging on too long?” or “wouldn’t this be better in another part of the book?” or “does this aside actually serve any purpose?” These are all extremely valid questions and answering them will go a long way to improving your work. However, they shouldn’t be asked at the writing stage and are best left for the editing stage.
I spent years writing the first draft of the novel. And then another year editing it into the second draft. You’d think with all the self-editing I did along the way, everything would have come together by then. Wrong. So much of draft 3 did not just involve editing for phrasing or brevity. I was moving around chapters, adding new chapters, merging chapters from different parts of the book into each other. All that time that I spent overthinking as I wrote was largely wasted, because difficult decisions are being made right now.
So when you’re writing that first draft, just write. Put down every scene you think of writing onto the page. At least now it’s there, saved, and ready to be dealt with later. Then, when you’re editing, apply a liberal does of the following tip, and then you’ve done yourself and your work a great favour.
Tip 2: Be merciless
My first draft clocked in at about 95,000 words, and after the first set of revisions, the second draft came it at around 73,000 – that’s almost a quarter of the original manuscript gone, so I thought I was in a good spot.
The third draft of the novel included additional chapters and material that amounted to approximately ten thousand words, yet the length of the manuscript remained unchanged. That means through this edit, another 10,000 words came off the books. Now a full third of the original was gone. Granted, this process was gradual and didn’t feel so drastic, but think about what this means. Imagine writing 32,000 words and then just … deleting them.
Not everything you write will be gold, and part of editing is panning for that gold so that the end product is a distillation of your writing. Imagine yourself as an athlete with the ability to take away some of your failed attempts. Imagine the career you could have. This is presented to you as an option in writing, so it would be a crime against yourself to not seize the opportunity. Cut. And don’t let the writer you used to be dictate what your writing should look like.
Tip 3: There no such thing as too slow
Slow and steady wins the race. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. On the surface, all platitudes to make yourself feel better about procrastination, but I found them to be strangely true.
Yes, looking back at the fact that I finished writing the first draft in 2015 and it’s been more than three years later and I’ve only made it through two major revision cycles may sound a wee bit discouraging, but what’s the rush? I’ve got a day job, a family, *gasp* other hobbies. I can’t afford to throw myself in, to marry myself to the “writer’s lifestyle” whatever that might mean to you. So why should I be hard on myself for taking my time?
I’m in my early thirties. I’m still learning life, still reading, still improving my writing. They still make “Top 40 Writers Under 40” lists so I’ve got a lot of room here. No one wins a lifetime achievement awards for a decade worth of work. No one writes an autobiography before they’re twenty. Okay, that last one may not be true, but you get the point.
Tip 4: You are not an ostrich
It’s easy to breeze through an edit, correcting typos, changing wording, maybe even tweaking dialogue to make it more natural. But then you get to a page, or maybe a whole scene, and something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the pacing, or maybe it doesn’t serve the plot, or maybe the tone is wrong or the characterization is inconsistent. Maybe it’s just a feeling that something is amiss. Do you a) wrack your brains about how to fix the problem, or b) do you stick your head in thee send and pretend you didn’t see anything.
I’ve certainly done the latter with some of my previous edits and have paid for it in this draft. I’ve already got my eye on the next draft and have a feeling I know what I need to tackle. For years I’ve ignored an uncomfortable feeling about a certain aspect or my story. But now that we’re squarely in 2018, I find myself needing to make some significant edits to avoid what I find to be cultural appropriation.
I won’t be happy until all those wrinkles are ironed out. So why dodge it? If something doesn’t feel right, try to figure out why, and how to fix it.
Tip 5: You didn’t marry your outline
I’ve already lamented about how I seem to be unable to start a project without a robust outline in place. While this so far appears to be a prerequisite for me to actually get writing, the outline is just a skeleton of the work. But bones break, get re-set, limbs are amputated, okay, maybe the choice of metaphor was a mistake, but in any case, what you thought your story would look like before you even started writing it should not dictate how your story should develop.
I’ve already gone at length about at the transformations Wake the Drowned has taken over the years, and it only really took off once an outline was in place. So I owe that much to it. But I recently found one of my early outlines for it and almost laughed at how much it has changed.
For this particular draft, I found significant “dead zones” in the plot, or as I like to call them “doldrums” where there’s neither moving action nor character developed (I’ll go into more detail about my plot graphs some other time). I worked hard to whittle these down and yet the problem was right there from the beginning – so much of my outline was basically “and then Charlie walks around for a while and basically does fuck all”. How I thought that would make for engaging story, I’ll never know.
So once the first draft is complete, the outline has served its purpose. Your story is now an organic entity in your hands and you need to help its development. If that means throwing your original plot twists into the dumpster, that’s fine. Save them onto a file somewhere on your computer so you can maybe go back and be inspired by them later.
So that’s about all the drops of wisdom I have to share – felt like juicing a turnip with your bare hands. Hopefully this will make the road through draft 4 a less painful affair.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.