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.

The Bright Side of 2016

This year, according to popular imagination, has been a particularly bad one. Zika. Celebrity deaths. Brexit. ISIL. And, of course, the horror that was the U.S. Presidential election. An annus horribilis, to be sure. And yet, it is a mistake to view the year solely through that lens.

Dwelling solely on these negative events leads to tunnel vision, so that we don’t see what is good in the world and in our lives. For me, it was a very good year:

  • I completed the first draft of Target Striker faster and with higher quality than any novel I’ve written previously.
  • I got to travel, making trips to San Diego, Santa Clara, Atlanta, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and Estonia.
  • In Puerto Rico, I fulfilled a long-time dream of visiting the Arecibo Observatory.
  • I experienced professional successes, including teaching well-received workshops on Scrum, attending the Agile Alliance 2016 conference, facilitating meetings of the Tampa Bay Scrum Masters Guild, and finding a new job.
  • I got to attend four Copa America Centenario games, including the final match.

In addition to the major items, the year was filled with smaller joys: good books, evenings spent with Carolyn, and board games with friends, to name only a few.

Was everything in 2016 good? Of course not. But it is too easy to dwell on the negatives, and give in to despair.

2017 promises to be a year full of challenges. Among other things, the United States will install an authoritarian, white-nationalist government against the will of the majority, and good people will have to find the strength to resist it. It’s important not to lose sight of all that is good in our lives, so that we can draw strength from those experiences and memories.

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!

Friday Five: Things I’ll do while I look for a new job

I was laid off due to a corporate restructuring this week. I’m sure I’ll have a new job very soon. Until then, I have some things I want to do:

1. Write at least 1,000 words per day. I’m about 30,000 words away from finishing my latest novel. It’s been slow going when I could only do 300 or so words each morning. I have an opportunity to wrap this story up. I need to seize it.

2. Interview people in preparation for my next novel. Another thing I haven’t had time for is research for the novel I have in mind for my next project. I’ve got people willing to help me and now I’ve got the time.

3. Play guitar. It’s been ages since I’ve had one my guitars out of the case.

4. Catch up on my reading. I have at least a dozen books just on soccer in my TBR stack.

5. Hit the gym every day. I’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months going to the gym. I want to maintain those gains.

Friday Five: Hopes for 2015

1. That I finish the first draft of my current work-in-progress by the end of February…
2. …and major revisions by end of summer.
3. That an agent signs me as a client based on that novel…
4. …and sells it to a publisher.
5. That the Rowdies become the first team in the NASL’s modern era to win the Soccer Bowl twice. (Because it’s not always about me.)

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.