Ten Years After Murder in the Grove

Ten years ago today, I arrived in Boise, Idaho, to attend my first writer’s conference: Murder in the Grove. I had come because Robert Crais was the keynote speaker. I was a huge fan, and I had some vague idea that I would ask him what I needed to do to become a best-selling author. He would give me a checklist. I would follow it. I would become famous.

Or something like that.

It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. I did meet Robert Crais, and I couldn’t have been prepared for how gracious he was. Somehow, I ended up at his table for dinner on Friday night (where he refused to let anyone pay for drinks). He was happy to give all the advice I could absorb about the craft of writing. But there is no defined process to becoming a best-selling author, and he couldn’t give me a checklist. All he could tell me was that I should write about what spoke to me, study and improve my craft, and don’t quit.

Ten years later, I still haven’t given up, even though there have been times I wanted to. I’ve improved my skill. I’ve honed my craft. I’m getting there. Maybe best-seller status will happen, maybe it won’t—there are so many variables beyond my control. What’s important is that I continue to enjoy what I’m doing. My current work-in-progress is the best I’ve ever written, and the next novel will be even better. I’ll keep writing what speaks to me. I’ll keep learning. And I’m not going to quit.

Maybe mediocre is good enough

Recently, I did a bit of home handyman work. My wife had asked me to fix the door to a built-in cabinet. The door really wasn’t the problem; the frame it was hung from had rotted away. Somewhere in our house’s checkered past, water must have gotten in, or something. I rebuilt the frame and re-installed the door. I did, by any objective measure, a crappy job. But it was good enough. The cabinet is usable. I could move on.

Compare that attitude with my perspective on writing. I agonize over every sentence. I am certain that every page is terrible. It pains me to show my work to my critique group. I grind away at stories until I’m sick of them, hate them, hate what I’m doing, and make myself depressed.

Why do I find it difficult to write something that’s “good enough?” Why can I not be satisfied with that standard? 

Recently, one of my coworkers said, “You’re kind of a perfectionist, aren’t you?” I admitted that it was true. But clearly, as the cabinet example shows, not in everything. Pretty much every home repair or woodworking job I’ve ever done has been mediocre at best (there is one notable exception). Why am I willing to accept that, while I beat myself up for falling short of perfection in writing?

I think it’s because I’m supposed to be good at writing, but I’ve never had any expectation that I was good at handyman stuff. When I set out to do any kind of home repair, I expect that mediocre is the best I can do. With writing, I know that I have talent and skill, so I demand too much of myself.

Maybe it’s time I scaled back my expectations for my writing.

The Social Media Sabbatical

On October 10, I started a one-week social media sabbatical. I logged out of Facebook and both of my Twitter accounts on all of my devices, then deleted the passwords from my password manager. I felt that participation in social media in general, and Facebook in particular, was detrimental to my mental health and cognitive abilities. A week away from it all would do me good.

On the first day, I had frequent urges to log back in and post about the fact that I wouldn’t be posting. I took these urges as evidence that I had made the right decision. The urges diminished after the second day, and over the next week, I was amazed to discover how much free time I had. The stack of magazines on the coffee table? I read them all. I had time to de-clutter the garage. I wrote more. I picked up my guitar for the first time in at least six months. And I often had time left over at the end of the day.

More importantly, my ability to focus returned. I began studying a new programming language. I retained more of what I read, and comprehended it more easily. When I wrote, my prose was clearer and better.

I also felt more relaxed without the constant barrage of political memes and manufactured outrage.

When the seven days expired, I was reluctant to give up these gains, and I didn’t log in for several more days. I used the @dreadpiraterowdie Twitter account for Rowdies games, then logged back out when they ended. I’ve been back on Facebook for a few minutes each weekend. I’m not going to say that social media is all bad, but I’m happier with it taking up less of my head space. Meanwhile, planning for my new novel is coming along rapidly, and I recently wrote a 750 word piece of flash fiction off the top of my head. I haven’t done that in years, and it’s much more satisfying than reading yet another political meme.

First Draft Complete

Yesterday, I completed the first draft of Murder on the Pitch, a novel I began on June 16. I’ve never written a first draft that quickly, nor enjoyed doing it so much. My last effort produced an unsalvageable mess after a painful, three-year slog.

I have tried a variety of ways to prepare to write, ranging from not planning at all to rigid outlines, complete with scene sketches. I always went off the rails within a few chapters. If I pushed ahead with the plan I had, the result was a disorganized mess. If I stopped to re-plan, I felt frustrated because I wanted to be writing, not planning. And a chapter or two later, I’d go off the rails again, anyway. This time, I tried Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. Obviously, it worked.

With the Snowflake method, it never felt like I was planning. Each step re-told the story in increasing detail that allowed me to uncover hidden assumptions and unforeseen contradictions that I could correct on a limited scale. Each iteration helped me discover new ways to develop character and plot and made the story better.

I made one modification to the method. After creating a four page synopsis, Ingermanson recommends making a scene list. I tried it, and it felt like previous, failed attempts to plan. Instead, I expanded the synopsis once again, doubling its length. It helped. The four page synopsis contained a few problems that would have required drastic changes and knocked me for a loop if I’d discovered them while writing the first draft. When I completed the expanded synopsis, I felt ready to write, confident that no major flaws lurked in the story.

I still discovered new things along the way, but I understood the story so deeply after so many iterations that new ideas were easy to weave into the story. Each day, before I started working on the draft, I wrote for ten minutes about what I would write that day. The draft kept chugging along. I enjoyed the work. And when life force me to step away for two or three days, getting back into it was never a problem.

Now that the first draft is done, I’m going to set it aside for a while. I’ll have a free-lance editor look it over in the mean time, and I’ll develop the foundations for a new novel. Around January, I’ll start revising Murder on the Pitch.

Statistics for those who are interested in that sort of thing:

Number of days from start to finish: 108
Number of days I actually wrote: 80
Final word count: 74,405
Average words per day, inclusive: 689
Average words per day on days I wrote: 930
Worst day: 114 words
Best day: 1825 words

Writing Stats

I started the first draft of Murder on the Pitch on June 15, with the goal of averaging 750 words per day, and completing a 70,000 word first draft by mid-September.

Total word count as of this morning: 36,126
Total days: 50
Average words/day, overall: 723
Days skipped: 10
Average words/day, excluding skipped days: 903

At these rates, I’d be on track to complete the first draft by the middle of next week. It will take longer, though, because it looks like the first draft will most likely come in at around 90,000 words. It’s not a bad problem to have, I suppose, but I’m looking at a mid-October finish date now.

Also, I need a better title. Here’s hoping one will come to me in the next 75 days or so!

A manuscript for the drawer

Last month, I attended Sleuthfest, where I had requested an appointment with an agent so I could pitch my novel, The Chained Curse. When I registered, I thought it would be easy to revise the draft, and that the plot was basically sound. Neither assumption was true, and by the time I arrived, I didn’t feel confident about the quality of the novel. I considered skipping my pitch appointment, but I had paid for it, so I went. As I talked, I realized that the plot was even weaker than I had realized.

Afterward, I gave it serious thought, and I’ve decided to retire this story. I spent three years working on it, and I no longer feel like it is important, or worth telling. I could probably salvage it, but I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time. I don’t want to waste one minute more.

Here’s what I learned from the experience.

No more “seat of the pants” plotting.

When I started working on Curse, I knew what the bad guy wanted, what my protagonist wanted, and what the ending would look like. I told myself that I would let the story emerge from the actions of the characters. That worked well for the first two chapters. In fact, the first forty-one pages are among the best I’ve ever written. The problem is that beginning on page forty-two, the plot goes in the crapper. Without a plan, I meander and introduce new elements that sound cool but don’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the story, and I never quite figure out how to tie it all together.

I’m a planner. I need to construct the framework of the story before I start to write. My plots will still emerge from character, but I need to let that happen while constructing the framework, and then build the prose around that structure.

No more paranormal stories.

It was a nightmare keeping the metaphysics from disrupting the story. I don’t remember how many times I discovered that something I’d established as fact early in the story meant that a later plot development wouldn’t work. Necessary changes would cause fractures throughout the plot structure and require a lot of rewriting to put right. It wasn’t fun.

While I have lost faith in The Chained Curse, I haven’t lost faith in my talent. Like I said, the first two chapters of the novel are good. I write crisp dialog, and my style is strong. My problem has been with keeping the plot structure sound. I think I have a handle on that as I prepare to write my next novel, a noir tale set in the world of second-division pro soccer.

I am what I say I am

I’ve been tearing it up vis-à-vis word count lately, turning out about 500 words per day for my novel. Which may not sound like much, but given how little time I have to write, it’s amazing. I can generally devote 90 minutes max to fiction a day, five or six days a week. So I’m pleased with my output lately.

I’m even more pleased because until three weeks ago, I was lucky to get 500 words in a week. I’d gotten bogged down over a plot detail that I thought I needed but just couldn’t make work. I was considering giving up on this manuscript. I was considering giving up on writing fiction entirely. “If I’m not writing,” I told a friend, “Then I’m not a writer, res ipsa loquitur.” Because I have the kind of friends to whom I can say “res ipsa loquitur” (not to mention “vis-à-vis”) and not have them slap me silly. I have great friends.

My friends told me what a loss to the world it would be if I stopped writing, because they are great friends who are willing to lie to me right to my face.

When I took the last week in October off, I set a goal of writing twice each day, with a target of 500-750 words for each session. I decided that background and planning would count, since I wasn’t going to add much to the manuscript until I worked out some plot problems. And I did it. I wrote, and as I wrote about the problem, I found a way to get past it. I created a matrix of characters and their possible means, motives, and opportunities to have committed the crime. I turned that matrix into a chain of plot points. Then I created plot points for my two subplots and wove them all together. And while I was doing all that (and ever since), I added to the manuscript a little each day. Ever since, I’ve been on a tear. This morning I wrote 520, which put my total over 45,000–halfway to the target length I established for the first draft.

I guess I can keep calling myself a writer.

Chabon on Success

In “Meet Michael Chabon,” in the back of Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, I found this great note about success as a writer:

Chabon’s success traces to three requirements: talent, luck, and discipline. “Discipline,” he says, “is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.”

Here’s hoping for luck and talent, while I work on improving my discipline.

RTFM

Yesterday, I ordered Breathing In, Breathing Out, a book on how to keep a writer’s journal. It seems silly, doesn’t it? You keep a journal by… keeping a journal. You know, pick it up and write in it. Simple as that. Yet I can’t seem to do it. Every time I start a journal, I don’t do anything but chronicle my days. That’s dull, and it doesn’t serve the purpose I’m after. I want to maintain the kind of literary sketchbook I can use as a well for inspiration. That goal might as well be a Grail Quest, but when I stumbled onto a review of this book, it looked like it might be the answer to my prayers. The worst that can happen is that I fail again. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire me to start posting here more often, too.