‘Tis the Season to… Not Do Much At All, Really

It’s an odd sort of time, January, especially in the Southern Hemisphere where you’ve got the whole summer thing lumped on top of the Christmas/New Year things. It’s like no matter what you think you’re doing, your brain doesn’t really believe you’re seriously trying to do anything until at least February – and not even then, if it’s hot.

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Helpful Books for Writers

Being a passionate reader as well as a writer, I have inhaled a large number of books about writing over the last (cough) years.


Here are ten I have found particularly helpful – though it’s worth remembering that your process may be different and therefore Your Mileage May Vary.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
This book isn’t about writing per se; it’s about being a writer, a person who writes – and how to not be a person who wants to write but doesn’t. It’s not by any means a new book, but in my opinion it is darned good stuff. It’s encouraging, it’s practical, and it’s one of the books which frequently appear in the pile under my bedside table.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Technically a screenwriting book, it is worth reading if only for the wit and enjoyment. Though fiction writing can be looser in structure than screenwriting, a lot of the lessons carry across (the Pope in the Pool is my personal favourite).


Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
If you feel you are lost in a swampy thicket of “I don’t even know where I am or what I’m doing here or what this book even is” then this is the book for you. I was first drawn to it by the structural aspects, but got a healthy dose of all the other essential elements of a successful book.

Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke
How to plot for character-driven writers and how to character for plot-driven writers. A painless extraction. I feel it improved both my project in hand and myself as a writer in general.

Please Understand Me IIDavid Keirsey
A handy tool for when you’re mulling over your characters, considering each type’s values and how they function as leader, spouse, parent or child. I don’t advocate using it as a tool for creating your characters out of whole cloth, but it can help you fill out the dimmer corners.

Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties more or less prevalent in Conduct and Speech
The Irresistible Novel
by Jeff Gerke
You will never come to the end of people telling you how every last detail of your writing should be done: rules, rules, rules. Jeff Gerke cuts through all that by pointing out that the only must is that you must keep your reader’s interest. And then he lays out a whole range of choices you need to make and gives you the information needed to make those decisions yourself.

Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell
You get to the end of your epic first draft. You celebrate. You take some time off to let it settle, maybe work on something else for a bit. And then you come back and you look at that massive indigestible mass of paper. And what do you do then? You make yourself a cup of tea and you settle down with this book, is what.

Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran
Basically the best book on self-publishing I’ve read to date. Currently in its third edition, but the first edition (2011) is freely available for download from his website if you want to get a feel for it (it’s under a CC-BY-NC-ND license). Mostly about ebooks (hence the title) but with a helpful section on print-on-demand as well.

The Kindle Gazer, after Lilla Cabot Perry
How to Market a Book
by Joanna Penn
What I like most about this book is that it doesn’t make you feel guilty for not being the world’s top salesperson. She lays out the many and various options for marketing your book and then lets you decide what will work best for you.

Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb
The how and why of blogging and other social media for authors. I haven’t necessarily implemented everything in her book, but it’s encouraging stuff and makes it all seem possible.

So there are my recommendations – what are yours?

Lessons from (PseuDo)NaNo

  1. 50,000 words is a lot.
  2. I can do it.
  3. It isn’t easy.
  4. 7.8 is a really big earthquake (big enough to have its own Wikipedia page).
  5. I can’t produce creative writing on three hours’ broken sleep.
  6. Strangely, I can write scene outlines and blog posts in those conditions.
  7. A supportive spouse is worth their weight in gold.
  8. Rewards are good.
  9. The right rules can help.
  10. Sometimes you’ve just got to stop bashing your head against the wall and read.

Yes or No
50,000 words is a lot. I don’t know why exactly the NaNo people picked that exact number, but I went along with it. My final word count – well, that depends. (Lesson #11: I am better at writing than maths.) I made a note at the end of each session of how much I had written, and at the end of each day I added them up and then added them to my running total.

So far, so good. But here’s where it gets weird. Adding those daily totals together in a spreadsheet produced a different total to the running total in the planning document. Thinking myself terribly clever, I cunningly checked them against the actual number of words in the text, only to discover that that was a different total again.

So, the final word count is somewhere between 51,244 and 51,445, neither of which is shown in the chart below. (Chart made with LibreOffice and technical helpdeskry from the Caped Gooseberry.)

november

Not exactly the steady progress of the professional writer, is it? Allow me to decode.
First week: all went well. Knitting-in-order-to-think is a lifesaver. That spike on day four is largely due to the fact that I was editing a scene I pulled from the first draft, rather than writing a new scene altogether. It helps.

Second week: lower totals, but hanging in there. By this time, the Caped Gooseberry’s bronchitis was in full swing, and the completely missing day mid-week may not have been totally unrelated to a certain large country’s election results coming in.

Third week: Well. You see that tiny little snibbin of a blue dash, just above the 15? That’s Monday the 14th. 61 words. In my defence, I was shelled out of my bed just after midnight by a 7.8 earthquake and didn’t manage to doze off again until after dawn (for an hour or two). Despite the ongoing aftershocks, I decided I had to get some work done. 61 words was all I managed.

In Case of Earthquake, Do Not Tweet [cartoon]You might charitably suppose that the total emptiness of the following two days was due to ongoing aftershocks, but not really. Tuesday I spent in preparation for Wednesday, when I drove the Caped Gooseberry down the recently-reopened motorway to have his wisdom teeth out. (OK, I spent part of Tuesday in preparation. The rest was spent keeping an eye on earthquake updates.)

By Thursday of week 3 I was about 7,000 words behind, and starting to panic. I managed to write a reasonable amount in between changing the ice-packs on my dearly beloved’s distorted face and bringing him soft things to eat. Mercifully, on Friday I was able to use another section of the first draft (suitably rewritten) which did a great deal for the health of the word count.

From there it was just a matter of steadily trudging on, scene after scene, one bite at a time. What happened on Monday 28th I don’t know. It was a beautiful day, I felt good about the story, it was gathering momentum – and I just couldn’t get going. I scraped through 761 words in the morning, had other commitments in the afternoon, and spent the evening in that unpleasant condition where you know you should be doing something but you’re too tired and the more you fret about it the more tired you get. (And then you go to bed and lie awake for hours.)

Rembrandt Saskia in BedOf course, I had a scheme of rewards planned out to boost the motivation: settling down with a book once I’d hit the word-count for the day (but not before); and three chocolate mint biscuits for each 10,000 word milestone. I also had three rules: make a pot of tea, commit the work to God, and think before writing. (I arranged for some plain knitting to facilitate this, resulting in approximately 4,737 stitches knit, though not all during thinking-time.)

Committing the work to God was a big one for me. I have been trying to make a habit of finishing what I start, and writing is an area where that wasn’t happening, despite my assurance that this is what God wants me to be doing. So for me, this was not just a test to see if I could do it, or a natty way of breaking the back of the second draft. It was an act of obedience. And as is so often the case with obedience, productivity results.

I am glad to find that I can be this productive, and I have every intention of carrying on with it. Not, perhaps, to the same extent (reaching 2,500 words per day involved a certain amount of robbing Peter to pay Paul) but something close. Maybe 1,800 words per day, or 2,000. The point is to be making steady progress (Exhibit A: Week 4, above).

hole-205448_640I would like to leave you with these words from Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”