Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
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.
I often find that being a writer is a game that involves a carrot and two sticks. One stick dangles a carrot in front of you, the carrot being complete and utter satisfaction with your finished product. And the other stick is self-doubt which flagellates you as you hobble along towards the carrot you vainly try to convince yourself is pointless to reach. Anyway, that was the obligatory woe-is-me artist rant with a further obligatory disclaimer that I don’t think every writer is destined to think their writing is garbage, but we’ll never expect our writing to be perfect, which is fine, because that’s the carrot that takes us to our ultimate destination.
In an earlier entry, I described some ways in which I keep myself motivated to keep writing. In this entry, I want to talk a bit about one of the tools I use to get myself to improve that writing, and that tool is word clouds. My preferred online word cloud tool is WordItOut, but feel free to find your favourite.
There’s two ways in which word clouds could potentially help you, though one of them is less useful for longer pieces.
The first, is trying to see if you’ve used any unusual words more frequently than you intended and as a result lessened their impact. For example, I read a history book a couple of years ago where I found the word “embryonic” used three times within a hundred pages to refer to a fledgling political movement. The first time it was a neat way to describe it. The third time felt like someone’s thesaurus malfunctioned.
The way you can avoid this problem with a word cloud is throw your text in, and then study the words that appear at the bottom when sort by frequency. That way you can pinpoint the impactful words whose use short be minimized. Of course, the longer your work is, the more words you have in that low range, so it might be a tonne of work with little payoff. But try it anyway to see if there’s maybe words you really like, but whose use you should spare. Yes, it will be painful to do, but overall your writing will have more punch.
The second method I’ve come to use for all my writing is using the word cloud to visualize which common words I overuse, and then track the progress I make in freeing myself from them. For example, check out this word cloud from the first draft of a story about the interaction between two Russian schoolchildren.
That “about” sits there pretty heavily in the dead centre of the generated cloud. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with using the word ‘about’ – it’s a useful word, but if it’s appearing in a story so much that it takes centre stage here, then it has become a crutch word or a “junk” word. It’s the kind of word that doesn’t by itself detract from your writing, but if you challenge yourself to reduce its frequency, you may finds yourself writing simple things in more creative ways.
Same with that “like” hanging out in the top right corner. A very useful word for similes, but its heightened frequency could mean either that your writing is turning into simile soup or that you need to look for different ways to introduce comparisons. For instance “he was angry like a raging inferno” could be “he was a raging inferno”; “ash landed like snowflakes on the pond” can be “snowflakes of ash landed on the pond”, and so on. I’ve once read a page of my writing that had four “like” similes across four paragraphs. Believe me, by the third instance, your eye notices it, and the writing no longer sounds polished.
Mind you, I don’t mean that these words have no place in your writing. On the contrary, eliminating all use of them would be both burdensome and risks making your writing gimmicky. These are simply words that require a second look, and sometimes you’d be surprised by the results.
Nor does every large word in a word cloud require a second look. While I eliminate most character names and other plot-heavy words to clean up the word cloud, sometimes you’re left with something like the following word cloud of a sci-fi story about a human writer in an alien publishing business.
“Yes” sits here like a Christmas tree topper, looking completely out of place. But then I realize that one of the characters in the story has a very peculiar way of talking that relies on repeated uses of the word “yes”. I made sure I wasn’t using it so heavily that it might annoy a reader, but I certainly wasn’t going to cut down its usage in half to achieve some artificial goal.
Same goes for “human” in the same word cloud. However, “through” did catch my eye. Apparently a lot of the movement in the story was “through” something, and I’d figure I’d make the movements a bit more varied, or eliminate it altogether where the description of movement didn’t add anything to the story.
So how do I actually get to the result I want here? Let’s take a world cloud from an early draft of a short story about parallel universes and the local housing crisis (name me a more iconic duo …).
I particularly like this example because it highlights some of my archnemeses: “like” (dead centre), “just” (bottom right) and “only” (bottom left). These have been my junk words since I started this word cloud strategy a few years ago.
So what I do after I generate the word cloud is I open my Word document, and use the “Replace” function. Except instead of replacing the word itself I got to the “More” tab and then “Format” and then select “highlight”. By putting in “just” in the “Find what” field and “just” with highlight in the “Replace with” field, every instance of “just” in the story is now highlighted. I go through the list of my words, doing around 6 or 7 of the top ones to not clutter the writing with highlighted words, and then print it off.
Now that the fugitive words have been highlighted, I notice them more during my editing, and eliminate them where I can. After I finish the next draft, I repeat the process. Sometimes the same words are in the top seven, so it’s a similar deal. Sometimes another word sneaks to the top and now they’re on the hit list.
Keep doing this until you’re satisfied with the draft, and then behold, the word cloud for the final draft of the same short story.
In hindsight, I should have eliminated “Glenn” from the earlier wordlist, but even then, you can see the results. “Like” which is in the bottom centre, has shrunk. “Only”, which is now in the bottom left corner, is considerably smaller. And “just”, which is hiding above “like” is no longer even remotely significant. I don’t know what it is with me and that word. Maybe it’s a quirk of my way of talking but it tends to seriously clutter my writing. When I edit, I find that the majority of its appearances can be deleted without editing anything around it, so I’m pretty ruthless.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that between the two clouds “think” and “know” have moved in, and I definitely had those words on my list during later drafts, but sometimes you do have to call it a day.
And you know what the best part about this process is? I know I mentioned “just” as my biggest Achilles heel, but take a look at the first two clouds in this entry. “Just” is not a significant word there despite these being clouds of first drafts. By continuously drawing my attention to those words, I am naturally eliminating them from my writing. I don’t slave away trying to find better ways of saying something without using that word, but rather, I have a decreased urge to write it in the first place.
So that’s my bit of advice to you. It certainly won’t make or break your writing, but I found it a very useful tool, and I hope you will too.
I’m flying pretty high right now. I received some good news on the eve of my first week off in eight months and that is that my short story, Ursa Major, got posted on the Passages North bonus content website. I’ve shared the news of its acceptance in an earlier post, but now it’s become a reality so I wanted to let you guys know that you can read the whole thing here.
Once again, a big thank you to the folks at Passages North who saw something in my story and decided to share it with the world. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.
I recommend reading the story before you move on with this entry, as I’m about to write about my writing, which will either be the really easy, or I’m about to have regrets.
Firstly, I want to say, I have no idea how this whole thing started. This is probably the most unusual of my stories, but looking at Nightfalls, the other story that’s scheduled to be published in December, it’s perhaps not entirely out of character. Just one day I happened to be brainstorming and thought of the first line in a form quite similar to the final version. What if someone had an appointment with a bear?
The next natural question was of course why would someone have an appointment with a bear? No, scratch that. My first thought was whether I was losing my mind, and when I reasonably concluded that I was probably still sane, that’s when I went deeper into the story.
The next inspiration came from Babylon 5, my favourite sci-fi television show whose praises I have sung before and will sing again at any given opportunity. Very early in the series, a character named Londo Mollari of the Centauri claims that his people have recurring dreams of their death, and G’Kar, one of the other main characters in the show, was the man he always dreamed would choke the life out of him. If you want to find out more, better watch the series, but I won’t spoil it here. It was just such a delicious plot device to examine choice and destiny, it seemed perfect for a story where a pre-scheduled meeting can be arranged with a wild animal. There’s one more very subtle B5 reference in there. Let me know if you can spot it.
So with the first line and that element in place, the story kind of rolled along. But it’s a prime example of never shying away from seeking inspiration wherever you can find it. The layout of the cabin in my mind was mostly based on this vacation home in Egmont, British Columbia where we hosted my best friend’s bachelor party. The childhood dream sequence was based on the first nightmare I can remember, except there the villain was a wolf (there’s a Russian lullaby that very nonchalantly tells you not to sleep on the edge of a bed or a grey wolf will chomp on your side. Thanks for that, motherland). And that bit where the narrator bites his own arm to fool the bear into thinking he tasted gross, was based on my own night-time ingenuity, except it actually worked while dream-me smirked: “Stupid bear; I’m delicious.”
As much as the mostly nonsensical narrative was fun to write, before it was done I had a pretty good idea of what it was about. And I decided to double down on my interpretation, trying to hammer the point home like a screw. By the time the first draft was done, it was about 25% longer than the final product. It didn’t feel right. So don’t worry, it never does. It’s okay to question your writing because sometimes you produce a block of misshapen stone. But that sculpture is still hiding somewhere inside.
So I trimmed all the parts where I thought I was beating my reader over the head with what I was trying to say. Philosophical thoughts that perhaps sounded good on their own (or horribly pretentious, I guess we’ll never know since into the dustbin they went) sounded shoehorned-in when read in context.
So off I went, murdering my darlings without shame until arriving almost at the version that you now see.
But something still didn’t feel right. Like a picture hung on the wall that’s stubbornly askew. And so it sat, in a form that I thought was final, for a few weeks, with me occasionally reading the last couple of paragraphs trying to figure out not only what it was missing, but what it ultimately was trying to say. The theme was there in my head from early on, but not its essence. Like many of my readers, I too was confronted by a work that just came out me and offered no explanation and apology. It was a different sort of feeling. Normally I’d set out on my writing with a goal in mind and tailor it to that goal. But this was different. The writing came first, and the goal one day just clicked into place.
I can’t tell you how I figured it out, mostly because I don’t want to tell you what “it” was. I’ve got my own interpretation and I think most interpretations are as legitimate as mine, unless completely antithetical to my writing. In any case, I arrived at my own personal version of what the ending was about, and realized that I needed one final brushstroke to bring it completely in line with that vision.
And thus the penultimate paragraph was formed and sealed the oddest tale I have spun to date.
I’ve had people tell me the story made them laugh, others who said it made them pause. Others still who rightfully chastised me for sending them into the dictionary – my vocabulary here was admittedly self-indulgent. It’s been really cool to see people react to my writing. It’s one of the reason why I write, not just for the pleasure of it but to see the effect it has on people.
It’s like being in a relationship and feeling your partner’s body react to your touch. I feel a similar intimate emotion when others comment on my writing. So I hope Ursa Major had an effect on you, whatever that might be.
There are constantly shifting periods within my life that my wife lovingly calls “side-projects” but most of which she wants to call “What the hell are you even doing you’re a grown ass-man.” This is why I married someone who knew me in high school, because if she could like me through that, she would be able to handle anything. These side projects are as varied as they are ill-advised. For instance, for three years, I drew a webcomic (it was terrible and needs to be burned with fire but I had fun). Or how about that time I built a little house with popsicles, carpenter glue, and a pocket knife, and used our clunky second-hand CRT television as a work bench?
These little flights of fancy stick to me too easily, so it’s no surprise that when my wife and her sister were one evening going on and on about bullet journaling, my ears pricked up.
Graphs are an obsession of mine. If there’s anything that I learned in high school that came to any use in my later life it would be learning to use Excel in Ms. Hubbard’s Info Tech class. Whether it’s our car’s mileage, the success of national hockey teams or my words per day output since 2005, there is a chart or graph on my computer that covers it.
So when I found out that someone invented a paper journal (despite my affinity for Excel, I am still a sucker for physical media) whose dot pattern could help track a bunch of my goals and habits, I hit up our local bookstore and impulsively bought the only one that was available at the time, despite its slightly nauseating colour and the fact that the entire lineup appeared in the same store only a couple of weeks later.
My entry into the world of bullet journaling also coincided with an important life milestone. Despite my best efforts and pleas that had fallen on deaf ears, I was turning 30. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the way I handled my 20s, but I was determined to “Do my 30s right”, and if I could track sleeping, eating, exercise, language learning, productivity and a bunch of other crap found in self-help seminars, and put it in a neat little notebook, well then there was something right with the universe.
For those of you that are familiar with certain aspects of bullet journaling, you’re probably asking: “But Michael, you can’t draw for crap, what the hell are you doing getting into the girly art of bullet journaling?”
Firstly, I resent that first accusation. I’ll have you know that my stick people have the most intense expressions. Just look at this son of a bitch over here, judging you silently (may have been a product of 5 hours of intense sketching.
And secondly, there is nothing inherent to bullet journaling that requires artistic flourishes or stickers. Outdated gender norms aside, there is nothing preventing anyone from becoming a bullet journal enthusiast. I mean, sure, did I immediately go to Michael’s and buy a set of 20 Staedtler coloured pens? And did I update my hideously overpriced Micron pen collection? Maybe. But I didn’t need to do any of these things. I could just as well have pulled out a Bic pen and set to putting my bullet journal entries together.
So, what exactly went into the goal of doing my thirties right? With two young kids, one of whom was five months old at the time, it comes as no surprise that sleep was an important factor. Kids will eat away at enough if it without any effort on your part, so I figured I could tackle getting to bed on time easily. It’s not the easiest thing to do to go from 12:30 am bedtimes on weekdays and 2:30am on weekends only four years ago, to desperately trying to get to bed before 11:00 pm every day just so you wake up a semi-functional human being. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not whining. Kids are the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life. But they take their toll, and I needed to track to make sure I wasn’t exacerbating the problem.
Okay, given how that went, perhaps that wasn’t the best example to lead with. Another endeavor that I started to immediately track was my feeble attempts at learning Spanish through apps and reading literature I don’t understand. I recognize my failure as a Canadian in my inability to speak fluent French and then hopping on to trying to learn another language. But I will blame my teachers for compromising my love for the French language and my eternal fascination with Cuba for my attraction to Spanish. I put together an entry that tracks my use of the Memrise and Duolingo apps and whether I read or listen to any Spanish that day. As you can see from the tracker below, my results have been streaky.
Here you have another entry that doesn’t show the most stellar track record. But that’s the beauty of it. Even if I hit my lows or my busy periods, the fact that I’m still tracking this keeps pulling me back, and I’ve never fully given up on my goals. That’s kind of what I discovered on this journey, there’s only so many hours in a day, so there’s only so much you can do. Requiring perfection from yourself is about as unfair as requiring perfection from others, but as long as you keep trying at least the journey would be fun.
So now you’re thinking, “Thanks Michael, I don’t need a journal to tell me I don’t sleep and for my own sanity’s sake I won’t track my caffeine intake. So how will this help me in my writing?” Ah, there’s another advantage to bullet journals – you’re only limited by your imagination. Anything you want can be tracked, if you’re brave enough.
Take this spread here, which tracks my general types of writing output. This hits on everything from novels, to blog posts to time taken for my publication efforts. Even my hesitant forays into poetry are tracked here. Sometimes it’s hard to see what we’ve done, especially when jumping from project to project without taking anything to completion. But here I can quickly see where my time goes, and be assured that I’m putting in my hours to chip away at the coveted 10,000. Not a magic number, necessarily, but I thought it would be nice to take inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he talks about how most experts at something tend to clock at least 10,000 hours in that activity. It's also a pretty sweet Macklemore song.
And that’s not the only writing-related bullet journal entry that I have. Since about 2005 I have been tracking, on-and-off, my writing output in terms of words per day. I know some people feel that this turns writing into a chore, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why I would stop for long stretches at a time. But I found over the last couple of years that now it aids in motivation, and going back at the end of the month and seeing production in graphic form encapsulates what I had done nicely. So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to do this in bullet journal form, where I would track the days using colour-coding based on how many words I wrote, with a little legend on the side to help me remember what the colours mean.
As you can see there is a significant bite taken out of the middle of 2017, and I elaborate on this a little bit in an earlier blog entry. But aside from that stumble, I think it’s pretty neat. You can easily see how 2018 has been significantly more productive than 2017, due to several factors of maintaining a good streak, having a variety of projects, and being in a good general state of productivity since November 2017, which again is covered in said blog entry. I want more days to be in the blue rather than in the green, but with work and other commitments it’s tough to fit that much writing into my day.
So there you have it, a bit of an insight into one of the many things in my writing toolbox. I would encourage you to pick out a bullet journal of your own and see where it takes you, or otherwise find a way of tracking and visualizing your progress. But remember, steer clear of anything that will suck the joy out of your art. Track to write, not write to track.
Despite having written for a long time, half my current struggle is not my writing itself but rather how I write. The most recent battle has involved starting my next novel project. My first and currently incomplete novel had finished its first draft stage two years ago. Since then, it has undergone one massive revision and is currently going through its second one. Editing is its own kind of challenge and reward but it isn’t as fulfilling to me as putting new words on paper.
I have been able to satisfy my appetite with a few short stories in the meantime, but I’m feeling about ready to launch into a new novel, and have spent months failing miserably at it. There’s close to a dozen ideas I’m itching to rip into, but I also have the approximate confidence of a field mouse staring down a parliament of owls.
So what’s the problem? And I mean, other than the fact that I think my plots are a snooze-fest, my characters are flat and my prose is self-indulgent? Well, the problem is that in my mind none of those novels feel like they exist. I see them as nebulas floating in the cavernous universe of my mind, and once I try to distill them into something tangible I get a few drops, not the roaring hot ball of a star.
The answer, according to my epiphany which like many of my epiphanies may turn out to be an episode of self-delusion, is outlining. I can’t not outline. And I hate it.
The answer, according to my epiphany which like many of my epiphanies may turn out to be an episode of self-delusion, is outlining. I can’t not outline. And I hate it.
But why hate it? Because like any writer, my mind latches on only to such evidence that can be used against me at times of insecurity. Take the following tweet from one of my most admired writers, J. Michael Straczynski, who played no small part in my childhood as the creator of Babylon 5 (seriously, free up your whole week and enjoy the ride if you can get your hands on this show):
Now here’s someone who has come up with one of the most brilliant multi-season arcs of a TV show telling me he avoids outlining because his characters act on their own accord. In my situation, on the other hand, I feel like my characters are comatose unless the plot drags them kicking and screaming into doing something interesting.
And then there’s an uplifting post on the New York Book Editors blog which gut punches you by telling you that “planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival” and that “the less you know before you start, the more you stand to uncover as you write.” So great, if I choose to outline, my novel will likely be a predictable limp fish that will likely be euthanized by discerning publishers.
And then there’s the description of “Macro Planners” by Orange Prize winning author Zadie Smith, who says you will recognizes a writer who plans and outlines excessively “from those Moleskines he insists on buying”. This seems needlessly personal:
So now that I’ve been officially relegated to a walking stereotype, why continue to rely on outlines? I certainly see merit in the argument that a robust outline takes some of the magic out of it – once plot elements and characterization has been summed up in bullet point form, it might feel like there’s nothing left to the process. Neil D’Silva went so far as to say that outlining “makes the writing formulaic and there’s no adventure left in it for me” So why do I insist on it?
Because I’m not sure if I’m able to write any other way. Let’s take my first novel for example. When I first starting putting it to paper, I set out to write a longish short story. About 8,000 words in, and having barely scratched the surface of the plot, I found myself staring at a project I hadn’t anticipated. It grew in spurts and starts, climbing approximately to 25,000 over the course of the next four years. Not exactly the most efficient pace, is it?
And then, I decided to outline the whole sucker. I spent a few brainstorming sessions laying out the chapters, arriving at approximately 20, with a whole fleshed-out paragraph for what was going to happen in that chapter. And that’s when the ball started really rolling. I was able to focus on my present writing but keeping an eye to the future and the past. Sometimes when I was stuck on a current chapter, but inspiration struck for a later scene, I would skip ahead and start writing that out. It was great insurance against writers block. I had reworked my initial summary significantly, but I feel like that’s what really got me to the finish line.
But that was just my first novel, right? Amateurish stuff where crutches are needed before I could learn how to be a proper writer? That’s what I assumed. So for my next project, I took an idea that had been percolating in my head for years – I had a vague plot outline for the work but it was entirely in my head. I thought it would be a great start. Over 5,000 words in and I’m convinced it needs to be burned with fire. Nothing has happened, the plot has barely trudged forward, and I personally want to strangle the main character to death.
But maybe I haven’t gotten deep enough. Maybe the issue is I had that outline in my head and it’s stifling my creativity. So I tried again from scratch. Now I took something that was only formulated as a vague idea and I was about to write it furiously. I stared at the page for a half hour. Nothing happened. Then I tried with a different idea, and nothing happened. So what the hell?
As writers, we’re all different, and we need to embrace those difference. Forget the hard and fast rules. The same Book Editors of New York piece also concedes that if outlines help get you started, you should keep them. And I think that part is key. The outline may be the skeleton of the work but the work itself should be organic. It should be a living creature that changes and evolves into something new. It could be a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly but the blueprint for that butterfly was still contained in the caterpillar.
I will probably share my exact outlining process in a later blog post, but I can already tell you these can come in various shapes and sizes.
You can have a sheet full of bullet points that just keeps you on track. Or something that follows the rise and fall of all the plotlines to ensure they’re tied together. Or you can have an outline that sketches out the structure of the finished work in a very technical sense – a breakdown between three Acts, each occupying a certain percentage of the work (often 25/50/25), a major inciting incident, and the elegant sinusoidal curve of action that alternates between successes and failures.
A lot of great works can be broken down into this kind of structure, but then you’re faced with a chicken or egg problem – did we distill the structure out of great works with effective plot, or was there some kind of conscious or semi-conscious effort on the part of the authors to get their works there?
The important lesson I had to learn with outlines is that’s it’s okay to rely on them. And it’s okay to wing it. It’s okay to be the writer you’re comfortable with being, because in that blanket of comfort is where your creativity will flourish.
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.