Nothing like a deadline to inspire

My current novel was actually writing pretty quick (48k words in 5 weeks!), that is until I hit a wall. Like smacking-head-first-and-falling-on-your-ass-and-can’t-get-up kind of hitting a wall. I’ve faced this in various ways over several novels now and the solutions are always some form of tough love, sit in the chair and churn out words until things start making sense again.

But I was stuck, stuck. Nothing was coming. So, I switched from drafting new words to editing the 48k I had already written, hoping the process of reviewing the past work would help illuminate where to go next. Nope. Nice thought, but nope, I was still stuck after that.

Then a sudden looming deadline reared it’s ugly head, causing much stress, and a frantic rejiggering of schedules (I like schedules, not so much when they’re suddenly thrown into chaos). But one result of this, is I no longer had the luxury of not writing if I were to get this book done on schedule. The fear of not hitting the schedule was greater than the fear of not getting the book “perfect,” which is what I realized the problem was.

So rather than spending time figuring out the “perfect” ending, I just plowed ahead telling myself, if it wasn’t right or I didn’t like it once it was done, I could let the schedule slip if I needed to and fix it then. This was very freeing. The power of the deadline, and the permission from myself to suck, let me wrap up that novel over the next ten days. Done! And–I love it. It fits the book and the series perfectly.

The crazy part is, I’ve faced this with every book to some degree. That fear, and just having to trust yourself that once it all comes together it’ll be much more coherent and fun than the 500-1000 microscopic word chunks you work on in spurts. I don’t know why I forget this book to book. I’ve been thinking I need to make some framed signs of these things to put in my writing space to remind me. But …

Book 3 of the Sunken City Capers series is done! Now it just needs some editing love. Sigh.

 

Writing Fails

Last time, I wrote about in some detail all the different ways that I harvest time throughout the day to actually get some writing down while having young children and a career. That post actually grew longer than I thought it would, and halfway through writing it I realized, I arrived at being able to harvest that time through trial and error. So this post will detail some of those errors.

First error: writing on my daily commute. My wife and I share a car, and she prefers to drive. This leaves me with twenty minutes each way to potentially get some writing down. It was quickly apparent that writing on the return trip home was an awful idea for two reasons. One, I was generally way too tired for creative work after working eight, nine hours. Two, writing is like rolling a boulder, it’s easier to make progress once you get started. After eight hours in the lab, the boulder was plum stopped. Writing on the morning commute was a more viable option, as it was a continuation of my morning writing sessions and the boulder was already effectively moving at that point. However, I wasn’t a great fan writing at this time and at times it made me carsick. I decide to ax it and use that time more effectively to talk and bond with my wife, which turned out to be prescient decision as the kids have grown older–they’re currently in a phase of never stop jabbering. So sometimes it feels like our commutes are the only time we get to talk.

First error part b: writing on planes. This is so hit or miss. And it depends on the task that needs to b done. Drafting? Is the seat empty next to me? Yes: write away! No: how aggressive is the person with the arm rest? How large are they? How big are the seats? Next up is the rogue in front of you, did they put the seat back? No: write away! Yes: how bad do you need to get write writing done vs. the arm cramps involved in writing in a squished situation (as I’m currently writing now—freaking goob). Editing on the computer from a hard copy? Forget about it. The only way that’s possible is with no one next to you. About the only task that is reliably possible on a plane is editing on hard copy. So, I still try and eek out some writing tasks on the plane, but I don’t plan anything extra.

Second error: Staying up late from an evening session to “ride the wave.” In this situation, I’ve managed to fit in a evening session and now it’s time to go to bed, but the writing is going so well, the end of chapter or scene is in sight, so I make an active choice to “ride the wave” and continue writing. This is almost always a mistake. I think the only time it’s not (for me) is if writing the last chapter of a novel or ending a story. The result ends up being that I’m too tired the next day and I miss the morning sessions and then I am too worn out for any other sessions. I gain an extra 30, 45 minutes at night, but lose almost 2 hours the next day. It’s just better to leave some quick notes about where to pick up in the morning and go get good night’s sleep.

Third error: Drinking alcohol while writing. Another one that’s almost always a losing proposition for me in terms of productivity. To be clear here, sometimes I make the active choice to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer while writing, but the key word there is enjoy. It’s a leisure activity I know full well will impact my total words for the week. I’m not as young as I once was, and even one drink these days affects my sleep which puts the morning sessions in peril. Also, I’ve found with alcohol that there’s a steep cliff in productivity after two drinks. Even during the second drink, my mind starts wandering way too much that I end up just listening to music (which I do while writing) while sipping a drink—which is not a bad way to relax. But if words is what I’m after, alcohol is a bad choice.

Fourth error: Working on two or more projects at a time. I’ve found for me and “my process” (snicker) it’s better to focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise, it starts to feel like I’m spinning my wheels and not making progress on either project, which can be discouraging and lead into a downward spiral. It’s far better to just push the schedule to the right if it needs to and buckle down on one project.

So there you have some of things I tried that didn’t work for me. None of this is to say it won’t work for you (although I’d strongly discourage substance abuse as a writing plan). I think the important part is to try and experiment. Keep what works, toss the rest. And be mindful that both of those may change over time.

Harvesting Writing Time

Last time I wrote about the wonderful opportunity I had to hole up in a hotel for a weekend and do nothing but write the whole time. One of my takeaways from that weekend was how much easier it was to gain, and maintain, writing momentum when there was nothing else to occupy my brain space. Pretty obvious in retrospect. But now that I’m back into the flow of things, I wrote about how it felt like writing was like watching a moving in five or ten minute chunks over several days, frustratingly slow and disjointed. And I lamented that there was little I could do about it, as I had already harvested all the possible time out of my day I could to get writing done.

So this entry I thought I would record for posterity how I manage to scrap together the time I’m able to at this point in my life. This year also happens to be the first year I started tracking how much time I’ve been spending between certain writing tasks, so I actually have some numbers to go along it.

As mentioned throughout this blog, I wake up early to get the lion’s share of my writing done. And I am not a morning person. Never will be. I look forward to the day I can follow my body’s natural circadian rhythm, but for the foreseeable future that just isn’t possible. The saying is true that “you make time for things that are important,” and writing is important to me. So I set my alarm for four a.m. every morning and drag myself to the computer screen (coffee in hand of course).

I’ve had the best success with writing in short sessions (30-45 minute chunks) with short breaks in-between (to check email, make coffee, go to the bathroom, etc.) and then daisy chain them together. So I start every morning with a 45 minute session, and then depending on time (when I actually made it to the computer—more on that below) and what is going on that morning, I’ll add in another 30-45 minute session. So I generally log between 75-90 minutes every day first thing in the morning.

The alarm might go off at 4 a.m., but with a baby I can count on waking up with once a night, a dog with terminal cancer that needs to be let out once a night and a toddler with random nightmares thrown into the mix, quality sleep is hard to come by. And though the spirit is willing, sometimes the body has its own opinions about what’s best for it. For a stretch there I had a terrible time getting up, and overslept to 5 a.m. (the horror!). It got so bad, that I started researching alarm clocks to try and find a solution. I finally settled on “Sleep Cycle” which is able to track your sleep cycles and wake you up at the optimal time in a given window you set. I don’t know if it’s a placebo effect or what, but I love it. It’s not a silver bullet for waking me up, but it’s close. I’ve been far more consistent waking up on time using it. And it logs your quality of sleep and how long you sleep. For the record I average 6 hours 14 minutes a night and never log better than 75% quality sleep. So if you ever meet me and I look like I’m about fall asleep, now you know.

But back to eeking out writing time throughout the day. The early morning writing sessions are the only static, consistent time I can count on. But I have a handful of other times I’ve been able to find on occasions. The first of those is my lunch break. It depends on what’s going on at work, but sometimes I can use my lunch hour to leave work, find a nearby coffee shop, and write for 30 minutes. It doesn’t happen every day, but I actually really enjoy that time, and in a words-per-minute sense, it’s my most productive time. I think because I only have 30 minutes (I set a timer) before I need to stop and get back to work, that helps give me focus so as not to waste the time.

And then, as you can imagine, the only other time to write is then in the evening after the kids go to bed. But this can get dicey on when they go to bed. Because don’t forget—I have to wake up X amount of hours for the morning writing sessions. So some evenings, I can squeeze a session in, but it depends upon the combination of how long a session would be before I need to get to bed and fatigue. My general cutoff is, if the session would be over 20 minutes (regardless of fatigue), then it’s a go. I’d say I’m able to pull this off maybe two to three times a week. Generally, by the time the kids are tucked in my wife and I are both almost always running for the bedroom to go to sleep.

That’s a typical weekday, and the weekend is actually very similar. Except instead of work in the middle of the day, it’s spending time with the kids, which I don’t regret in the least. You make time for the things that are important, and those two little girls are substantially more important than writing.

Hmm, this post is already rather long for me, so I think I’m going to cut it off here. So with the times I outlined above and according my handy-dandy tracker, I’ve averaged 2 hours 12 minutes a day so far in 2016. Not too shabby.

This post I wrote about what works for me in terms of writing. Next time I’ll write about all the experiments/methods that didn’t work for me personally.

Writing Momentum

This past weekend I had a wonderful opportunity to hole up in a local hotel by myself and do whatever/whenever it is that I wanted. It was an amazing Christmas gift from my spouse. So of course I slept when I was tired, ate when I was hungry, and wrote every spare moment I could. It. Was. Amazing.

First off, sleeping with no dog (who has terminal cancer and I get up with at least once a night), no baby (who gets up at least once a night) and no toddler (who’s actually pretty good at this point) was extraordinary. I didn’t have to get up once through the night. This hasn’t happened in six months since I was on vacation in England. Second, no alarms were set. None! That hasn’t happened in … years. Years. I get my writing done first thing in the morning, so I have to set an alarm to make sure I’m up before the rest of the house, or when on vacation, before activities start for the day. I slept until my body told me it was time to wake up. The last time I can remember that happening was in grad school at Penn State. But it was right back into the trenches of sleep-interruptus-ending-in-alarms for me as soon as I got back. So this past weekend was a blip of sleep paradise for me.

I wrote a lot for me that past weekend, 4.1k words on Friday, 5.1k on Saturday, 3k on Sunday. To put that in perspective, my highest day in 2016 to date was 2.8k, and for 2015 was 3.5k. So I shattered some old records and in the process learned two important lessons. You hit the goals you set, and writing momentum is a great thing.

You hit the goals you set, so you should set your goals high is one my takeaways. Before the weekend started I set a goal of 10k words over the weekend, with Saturday being a 5k day. I had never written that much in a single day, but I wanted to push myself. I hit that goal. But what I found in the process, was my mental state was keyed into that goal. It controlled my pacing and once I hit that goal in the evening, it felt like my mind then checked that box and let all the exhaustion come crashing in. I set a high goal for myself and I hit it. But now I’m left wondering if I should’ve stretched higher. I suspect I could’ve.

The other lesson I learned is novel writing is like riding motorcycle for me, the faster you go the more stable it is. When I had whole days dedicated to writing my current novel, the story flowed easier, I was able to remember where I left off of faster in-between sessions. It felt like connections, plot points, character reactions were all easier when everything was fresh in my mind. Now that I’ve been back a week, the novel writing feels disjointed, like I’m watching a movie in five to ten minute chunks a day. And there’s frustratingly little I can do about it at this point. I carve out what time I can every day and that’s all I get. I’ve already harvested every spare moment of a typical day, and most days, things intrude even on those times (like right before I wrote this blog post, my dog had a seizure and I lost a half hour to taking care of him and cleaning up the mess).

So I had a wonderful weekend away that taught me two important lessons. One I can apply immediately, while I have yet to figure out how to apply the second to my everyday life. If I ever figure out how to weave the writing momentum into a disjointed, jammed pack day, I’ll let you know.

2016 Targets

I’m actually glad I delayed writing this post to February as I’ve already revised my initial targets for the 2016 year. I’m spent January finishing up a novel that took a bit longer than I anticipated.

In other words, already my schedule is slipping—so I remade the schedule! Writing is supposed to be fun. There’s no reason to stress myself out about it.

So for 2016 the new targets are:

  1. Write two novels to completion.
  2. Start a third novel with a goal of having 75%+ done before the new year.
  3. Start publishing the Sunken City Capers novel series
  4. Read six fiction novels.

Number one shouldn’t be too difficult, depending on how long the novels go. I’m a bit concerned that the word count will creep up as the novels progress, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes. In the same vein, it should be reasonable to start a third novel this coming year, the high-bar target would be to finish it. And I’ve set a launch date of October 4, 2016 for the first novel in the Sunken City Capers series, which I’m really excited about. The last blog post has more details on that.

Number four is a new target for me. I’ve never before set a reading goal for a year, mostly because I never had any trouble reading so it didn’t require any conscious effort on my part. It does now. With a full time job, young children, and trying to get a writing career off the ground, spare time is at a premium. If it weren’t for the Fantasy workshop and the associated reading list last year, I’m not sure I would’ve read much fiction at all. I have been reading a fair amount of non-fiction as research material, but it’s not the same as reading fiction. So this year, I’m going to make a concerted effort to make sure I consume and fill up my creative well with some entertaining fiction in the mix.

Announcing Sunken City Capers Novel Series!

I’ve been dying to write this post for months. And as you can plainly see, this post is, once again, not my 2016 writing goals. That post is written and will finally be posted next time (promise).

I’ve rebranded Underwater Restorations to Sunken City Capers, and changed all titles accordingly. I think the new series name better conveys the underwater heist element, and hopefully the science fiction component. And if you’ve hit my home page you can see what has me all excited, the first Sunken City Capers novel cover (!):

shuffle_full

I’m ridiculously pleased with how it came out and can’t wait to hold a physical copy in my hands. The very talented Ravven produced the cover, and she was fantastic to work with. I can’t recommend her enough.

I’m currently building an eARC team for the release of The Solid-State Shuffle, so if you would like a free e-book advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review on Amazon come October, sign up! Reviews need not be glowing or lengthy or detailed, only honest. Even just a few, quick sentences are helpful. So sign up if you’re remotely interested, the welcome email will have more details and you can always unsubscribe if you decide it’s not a good fit.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the next covers in the series. And next time, I promise, I’ll post those 2016 goals.

2015 Lessons Learned

It seems to becoming a pattern on this blog that whatever I say I’m going to write about in the previous entry, I invariably don’t. So, not wishing to break with the established pattern, I’m not going to write about my 2016 goals as previously promised.

Instead, as the post title suggests, I’m going to catalog the lessons I learned from 2015. As I sat down to brainstorm what my 2016 targets should be, I naturally started thinking about previous years targets and how they’ve built upon the lessons I’ve learned from previous years. It was then a natural exercise to think over the lessons learned in 2015 (rather than just the accomplishments) and record them.

Lessons learned:

  1. I can write novels—plural. Corollary: I’m a novelist.
  2. Don’t work on two novels at once.
  3. Changed opinion on tracking word counts as a measure of progress (I like it now).
  4. Don’t rush the publishing process.

Lesson 1. I wrote a bit last time about how I had never written a full-length novel before 2015. So proving to myself that I could in fact not only write one novel, but almost three in a year, was a confidence booster. One things that I figured out in the middle of writing my first novel in 2015, was that I’m a novelist. Novels are my natural length. I have a very distinct memory of a writing session where I had this thought: this is so much easier than I was prepared for. It’s easier for me to write novels than short stories, novelettes, or novellas (takes longer, but easier). In retrospect, this should have been obvious. My entire reading life (except for Sherlock Holmes) has been reading novels. I’ve been training my subconscious for this since I was eleven. Pacing, character development, plot, all so much easier when I have room in a novel to breathe.

Lesson 2. When I set my targets in 2015, I made a schedule. I like schedules—a lot. I should not, however, be a slave to them. The first novel of the year ran long and I ran over my schedule. So instead of buckling down and finishing that project, I started the second novel and tried to timeshare. This did not go well. Not only were my attentions divided, but what progress I was making was lost in the feeling that I wasn’t making any progress on either project. Which led to undue stress. I should’ve just finished the first project up before starting the second. I lesson I intend to never forget.

Lesson 3. Back in 2013 I wrote about how I do not like tracking word counts as a measure of a progress. I think that opinion at that point of time was informed by writing mostly short stories and not having a great method for tracking word counts. 2015 was the first year I used the awesome spreadsheet titled 2015 Tool for Writers by Christie Yant (as of this post 2016 wasn’t available yet). It was also the first year I wrote a novel. When the target length of a manuscript is 80k words spread writing over several months, tracking word counts let’s you know your progress, let’s you feel like you’re making progress, and let’s you keep an eye on fast the novel is writing and project forward to a potential completion date. I’m now a fan.

Lesson 4: I originally planned on publishing the first novel in the Underwater Restorations Universe in December of 2015, having only just finished it in September. Two months is not enough time. All things didn’t come into focus and it was causing way more stress than it was worth. I started writing as a stress reliever, so the fact that it was causing me that much stress was a red flag. When that realization hit, I delayed publication for almost 10 months until October 2016. Which seems like a lengthy delay, but the extra time lets me get everything lined up properly with a minimum level of stress. So, I’m pretty happy about the delay actually.

Those are the lessons learned in 2015. With that in mind I refine my 2016 targets and share those next time (maybe).

2015 Recap

So I intentionally waited until after Dec. 31, 2015 to write the 2015 wrap up blog post. It was coming down to the wire and I wanted to give every extra moment to writing to try and hit my 2015 targets. My 2015 goals are detailed here, but to recap, 2015 was declared to be the year of the series for me.

The 2015 targets were to write only in series, and to write 3 novels. I’m really excited to say that I am came very close to hitting both targets. I had one workshop in April that made it impossible to not write in a series, but other than that, the first objective was met.

As for 3 novels–I just have to go into some details because of how awesome nearly hitting this target was. Before 2015 the most words I had written in a year was a ~100k, and all of that spread over short stories, novelettes and novellas. The longest piece I had written came out to about ~33k. A novel by definition is 60k+. I knew the novels I wanted to write and thought they would come out to be about 80k, 60k, and 80k again, for about 220k on the year, more than twice my previous yearly word count. It felt a little crazy to set those targets, and set the goal of writing not your first full-length novel in a year, but three.

I can proudly write: I wrote 2.95 novels. Pretty dang close. I should need only another week or two to finish up that third novel. The first novel came in at 109k and took me two months longer than I anticipated (mostly because the beefed up word count). I went right into writing novel number two and thought I could finish (and publish it) before the end of the year. I finished it in September and there was a push to try and publish one of those novels by December. But ultimately I decided to wait on that rather than rush it. Then NaNoWrimo hit.

Thanks to NaNoWrimo, I started novel number three a few days before Nov. 1, and of last night, I have over 60k in the manuscript (and two-thirds already edited). I think another 2-4k should wrap it up. Since I wasn’t sure this third novel was even going to happen, I’m super pleased to almost be done with it. Feels like a bonus.

2015 stats: 250,626 words written, 4 short stories completed, 2 novels completed, 1 novel 95% done, self-published 3 titles, 1 short story published in a short fiction market. Not too shabby.

2015 was a fantastic year for other reasons that I’m recording here for posterity:
1. Second child born! I was prepared for a nose-dive in productivity, but she’s such a sweetheart it never happened.
2. In-laws moved to town (see 1.). They are an amazing help, that make a lot things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be.
3. I lost 30 lbs. I feel a lot healthier and a large part of my wardrobe is opened back up to me (cheaper than buying new clothes). This wasn’t a goal at the start of the year, but kinda snuck in halfway through the year.
4. I won an award at the day job. I’ve never won anything before, so I’m still pretty stoked about this.
5. I got to spend an amazing two week vacation in England. It’s already influenced my writing. I love traveling for this reason.

2015 was my best year yet for all these reasons. I’m excited to see what happens in 2016. Next blog post, I’ll write about my 2016 targets (once I flush them out in more detail).

 

 

NaNoWrimo 2015 Done

Well, it’s now December. Which means Christmas music is unavoidable on the radio, non-stop advertisements are assaulting us, and NaNoWrimo is over. There are a lot of exhausted writers out there, and many, many manuscripts in need of some editing.

Including mine.

I set a new personal best of 40k words for the month. It was looking a little dicey toward the end of the month with Thanksgiving and all, but fortunately I went over the nice round number of 40k. I actually liked the energy of the month and the non-guilt associated with trying to write a lot (everybody’s doing it!) that I’m going to aim to do this twice a year. Once in May and then again in November–I am extraordinary lucky to have a supportive wife and in-laws that help immensely to make this possible.

I’m two-thirds of the way through the second book in the Underwater Restorations series and plan to wrap it up this month. This would mean I wrote a full novel in two months, which would be awesome. Day job is a bit crazy for the next week, but I still think once that settles down I can finish this book up. While the day job is crazy, I’m going through and editing what I’ve already written and I’m struck by two things. One, I forget a lot of words like “a” and “the” and screw up homonyms a lot. But two, damn this a fun story. Isa and Puo crack me up.

I’m going to get back to reading. Next week will be the last blog post of 2015 and I’ll do a wrap-up of the year before rolling out next year’s targets. I’m already excited to write the wrap-up post, I was thinking about it the other day and in a lot of ways 2015 was an amazing year for me. More on that next time!

Nanowrimo Continues!

I wrote last time about how I’m (kinda, sorta) participating in nanowrimo this month for the first time. I got off to a great start and set a new personal best week the first week with 13.7k words. But I didn’t expect to keep up that pace, as that week was a bit of anomaly as my parents came for a visit and sucked up my kids for lots of Grandma/Grandpa time that left me with extra time to write.

The following two weeks were more normal weeks for me and as of this post I’ve written 31k in November. My previous best month was 34k, so it seems likely another personal best is likely to fall in the next few days. Of course, we’re now transitioning to the holiday portion of November, so I expect my word counts to drop as I get out of my regular routines and family actually wishes to spend some time with me. But I’m pretty sure I can top 34k.

My new target for the month is between 35-37k. A high-bar target would be 40k. I really would like to get to the transition to the third act in my current novel before December. December is shaping up to be a demanding month that will eat into my word count, so the more words I can fit in this month, the better shape I’ll be in December with the potential of finishing this novel–which would be fantastic.

We’ll see how it goes. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving everyone! *Dives back into writing*