Reflections on Writing as the Year Falls

In the last four years, I've written four novels and a collection of novellas. When I'm not writing, or teaching, or parenting, or husbanding (my other jobs), I spend a lot of time thinking about the writing. 

I would like to share some of my thoughts about the writing process and the writing life, and meditate for a few minutes about what it means to me (and what it might mean to you, if you let it) ... I'll do that with the help of some great thinkers about writing.

Writing is often hard and frustrating work, but it's not magic. I've spent my whole life reading a lot, and thinking about stories ... sometimes a story comes to me, I take notes, outline my ideas, and if I still like the story, begin writing.

I almost always go into writing a story not knowing everything about the characters and conflicts involved, but so that I can find out more about them ... and myself. When my writing process is at its best, I come out the other side changed somehow (and hopefully so do my readers).

Often the seeds of the stories I tell in my writing come from imagining myself, or someone else, in an untenable position ... how would they/I get out of the situation with their body and soul intact?

If a story cannot stretch me as a writer and a person, as well as my readers, I have some trouble picturing a good reason for the investment in time on anyone's part.

I recently finished the first draft of my fourth novel, and the above quote is now being hammered home daily ... during meetings with my reader, while trying to work through the first round of edits, while imagining the rough work in front of me as finished novel.

I write drunk, as Ernest suggested ... not literally, but close enough.

I have done the pre-planning and outlining months ahead of time, and when the time comes for my annual writing spring, I get into a zone/mood/state of caffeinated tension/relaxation.

I let the words, the story come out of me as fast as my fingers can move ... sometimes as much as five thousand (or more) words a day. I don't sweat spelling or grammar or even completeness of thought (sometimes I leave a blank spot in the page with a note about how the scene should end, to be fixed later).

Something about this process, this release, works for me, and I'm able to disconnect the careful and self-conscious parts of me, and just write ... just tell the story.

Later, after I've finished the first draft and my reader has gone through the rough work with a fine-toothed mind, I sober up and start to look at each word and sentence and paragraph and page and scene and, eventually, the book/story, as a whole.

We work together to fix/make linkages and connections throughout the story, to enhance continuity and the feeling of place and people, to round off any edges too rough for my readers to read through without hanging up on.

It takes an entirely different approach, possibly another kind of mind or writer, to make this part of the process work, and luckily (for me) I have a partner in the process who makes up for what I lack, and together we manage to craft a nice story (if I do say so myself).

One of the things that amazes me every time I produce a story is the truth of Neil Gaiman's statement above ... readers can always identify when something in a story doesn't ring true, but hardly ever offer the right fix for the problem.

I think the problem with the second part of that equation (there's nothing wrong with the front end of that particular equation .. it's a sort of magic that allows for readers' crap-detection) is that readers weren't involved in the 'drunk' segment of the process, the writing.

Something in the sub-conscious, or unconscious, connections that are made during the writing of any story tend to make the fixes unavailable to people who didn't do the writing ... they can, and thankfully do, make useful suggestions about what is wrong, and then stand aside to let me (and other writers) re-immerse themselves in the story to try and fix things.

The above is a poem/statement made by Donald Rumsfeld, while serving as Secretary of Defense ... it captures imperfectly, but wonderfully, the feeling I get when approaching both the writing and editing side of my storytelling endeavors.

As I march forward in this process for the fourth time, grafting and pruning and fixing and (sometimes) ignoring, I can feel something huge looming ahead of me ... a change in my life, my writing, my process, the ways in which the various parts of my writing life and the rest of my life fit together.

It's scary and exciting and scary, and if I think about it too much, it might swallow me whole ... but I cannot ignore it.

There's an ominous presence lurking in the closet, sometimes under the bed, occasionally just inside the woods when I take the dogs out late at night; waiting for me to acknowledge it, so it can swoop in and ... hug me and make everything better, or rip me apart and feast on my marrow (I don't which, possibly both).

The only thing I can do until the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns make themselves known is to keep writing drunk and editing sober ... you keep reading and I'll keep writing.




95k in the first draft ... now for the hard work!

Yesterday at about noon, I finished the first draft of my next novel, tentatively titled "Thunderstruck", in the back of my favorite coffee shop in downtown Saranac Lake (Origin, if you were wondering). It is nearly 95 thousand words, and my experience (based on writing the last three novels in the series) is that the final product will be a bit longer when all is said and done.

I sent the document to my first reader in multiple formats shortly after finishing, and then this morning printed out a copy for an initial read-through ... there's something about reading and marking and flagging a printed copy that just isn't there with electronic forms.

95k words translates to 204 pages in 8.5X11 paper, and probably a bit more than 300 pages in the size that I tend to print my books, but that's a discussion for much later in the process (maybe January).

What happens today is that my reader/minion begins working her way through the novel, looking for story continuity, character development, unintended cliffhangers, slow stretches, nonsense, and the too-frequent use of the word "frangible" ... we're trying to find and fix big-picture issues with the book on this go-around.

Once she's done, and we've had a talk/meeting/drink/debrief, I'll head back to my lonely writer's garret to try and cut and prune and graft and polish the first draft into a second draft. If all goes as planned, I'll then share that product with a slightly broader audience, and go through the same thing again. Eventually, with sufficient 'rinse and repeat'-ing, I'll end up with a story that pleases most of the people most of the time.

It's important to keep the Neil Gaiman quote above in mind ... readers can find the problem with your work, but very seldom can they give you the secret to fixing it (that's all on you, or in this case, me).

It's a long process, but it's generally more fun than going to the dentist, and in this instance, I've got what I think is a pretty good story to work with as base material.




The finish line

I'm almost done writing the first draft of my fourth novel, and I'm terrified ... like always.

What if it's not any good? What if people don't like it? What if the ending makes people want to throw fruit at me, or worse, just scratch their heads.

What if ....

I generally defer to Sir Stephen (I knighted him myself more than three decades ago when I devoured everything of his I could find over a summer vacation) in all things writing, but in this case I strongly disagree.

The scariest moment is always just before you finish!

In the months leading up to my (now) annual writing sprints, I get to know the story I'll be writing quite well. I'm quite well acquainted with main and secondary characters, storyline, setting, and the arc my story will be following long before I ever start typing. I may not know exactly what happens at every twist and turn ahead of time, but I can see the beginning, numerous waypoints along the journey, and roughly where/how the tale ends.

I've written three novels prior to this one, so I know about beginnings and middles, know I can do the writing involved in a monthlong writing sprint ... but the endings still give me the wiggins.

When I get to the final days of writing - the last few thousand words, after the climax, tying up loose ends and aiming for neatness - that's when I'm scared.

I'm probably three to four thousand words from the end of "Thunderstruck" (which is how I've been thinking of the novel, although I'm not sure that's the name it'll wear when it hits bookstores, hopefully in January of 2016), and I know which ends need tightening, which threads may require some trimming/neatening, and have a few ideas for things that I need to go back in and fix before I put the first draft down for a nap.

Once I'm done with the first draft, I generally put the thing away for a week or two to let the madmen in the back of my head think about it, while I consciously think about something - anything - else.

I'm always nervous about the last day (or days) of writing, and find myself second (or third, or fourth) guessing myself. I am suddenly overcome with doubts about characters, worries about subplots, new ideas for twists and turns. 

I've been writing this novel with gusto and abandon and joy, and now find myself tiptoeing up on the ending, slightly unsure and hesitant. 

I wrote to a background accompaniment of brash and bold music, and too much coffee, and now feel my fingers scrolling past my writing mix and wandering down towards Mozart or Bach.

I'll bear down and finish the thing this weekend, enjoying just the right amount of peace and quiet and stimulus and noise and coffee and music at Origin Coffee, my new favorite spot to write in Saranac Lake.

If you want to see a writer in anguish/turmoil, then swing by sometime between 6:30 and noon ... I'll be there, figuring out how to close down the amusement park I've been enjoying all summer long.

Send me a shot (of espresso!), wave, smile, give me a thumbs up, send some luck my way ... I'll be grateful.

Thanks for all of your support!



19 days into my fourth Camp NaNoWriMo!

This is the fourth time I've written a novel in the summertime using the NaNoWriMo method, which basically involves a month-long writing sprint to produce a rough draft.

This method has worked well for me because of my teaching schedule during the school-year; it allows me produce a rough draft when I have the time to devote hours a day to writing, and then to work for the rest of the year with beta-readers and editors to put the rough draft into shape, and get it ready for publication.

I've done some of the writing at home, working at my standing desk in the living room, with the dogs watching me, but most days I've been heading to Origin Coffee, a new coffee shop in nearby Saranac Lake, and working from when they open until midday.

This week, though, I've been lucky enough to have my parents up visiting, and been able to work a few mornings up on the roof of the boathouse of the camp they've been renting. It's a lovely spot to write about the Adirondacks from ....

I spend my mornings watching the morning light hit the far shore, mist rising from the lake, and herons flying by.

I've found that I have an easier time each year meeting my writing goals during my month-long sprints. My first year I aimed for 1600 words per day, and often struggled to make it. This year, I've been averaging 3800 words each day of writing (and unlike in years past, I gave myself permission to miss the first few days of the month and the occasional day along the way).

I can feel the story coming together more effectively/efficiently in my head, and on the laptop screen, at least somewhat because I have gotten comfortable with the idea that the rough draft I put together during the sprint is not remotely a finished product.

Getting the bones of the story down and out of your head makes it possible to work with beta-readers and editors of various sorts, which will in turn allow you to bring the story from where it is in the rough draft to where you would like it as a rough draft.

I drink a lot of coffee during my writing sprints, and not just to stay awake in the face of long days. I find that being in a stimulated state helps me access my creative side in a way that I have trouble doing without the extra caffeine in my life ... the first week after the month-long coffee-immersion is a little tough, but my body and mind soon adjust to the change.

I'm a big believer in the idea that the simple act of writing is the single biggest factor in improving both one's ability to produce words on the page, and to craft/create meaning (and stories) from these words ... I'm nearing a million words written in the pursuit of my writing in the last four years, and would recommend writing over workshops and classes every day of the week.

I estimate that I have about 15000 to 20000 words left before the rough draft of this summer's story is completed, then I'll put it aside for a few weeks before taking a peek at what I wrote. If I have the time, I try to bang off some of the rough edges before I pass it along to my first reader.

After my writing sprint is done, I generally find myself sore and tired and head-achy from so many hours in the same position (my teaching day/job is mostly spent walking and talking, not sitting and typing). I also find that I feel yucky from not eating as well, and getting much less exercise during the month, but I'm looking forward to re-starting my running regimen and trying to drop some weight this fall.

Thanks, and wish me luck in the rest of the writing sprint!



Thunderstruck: the first draft

I've been thinking about writing my next novel, since I finished principal work on the last one.

I knew the basic shape of the story, and what I wanted to say with the story, but hadn't really started doing much actual work on it until this Spring.

I use a workbook I made with CreateSpace a few years ago to help me planning my writing ... story arc, characters, setting, sub-plots, etc.

I wrote a short scene one morning at the end of June, just to get a feel for the antagonist, reasonably sure I'd dump the vignette once I really got going on the story in the deep summer.

My July was busy and scattered and great, but not ideal for writing, so I waited until we all got back from the exotic places we'd been, settled back into life in Lake Clear, did some laundry, and had a bit of space to do some serious writing.

Starting August 4, I was able to spend 4 hours each morning at Origin, a local coffee shop, writing like a highly caffeinated madman ... I'm out to (or up to, depending on your perspective) 17,000 words as of this morning, and the words are flowing well (better than I had hoped, really).

I'm not sure if it's the summer, or my having written three previous novels, or the coffee, but the writing is going well, so I have no desire to jinx anything ... I'll keep doing everything I've been doing for as long as I can.

I don't know that what I'm writing is good, it's probably not ... but I'm enjoying the way the story is coming out, and am confident that with the generous/forgiving/expert help of the readers I use, I'll be able to fix things by the time we've struggled through a couple of drafts.

What I do know is that my life is different, and better, now that I'm a writer ... I'M A WRITER!

For those interested in the numbers, Here Be Monsters was about 80k words, Caretakers was close to 100k, and Between the Carries was around 90k ... Thunderstruck feels as though it'll come in between 90k and 100k

I just wanted to check in and give a quick update to people who read/follow my books and work and life ... thanks, and keep reading!



Living on a Barge in Paris

We came here with no expectations about what our life in Paris would be like.

A week, more or less, living on a small barge on the Seine, downriver from most of what most people come to Paris for ....

Other barges and ships motor by day and night, and the good ship "Tortilla Flat" rocks gently in their wake.

Giant fish leap and splash by the side of the boat at all hours ... I think they're catfish, but Gail read an article that mentioned large specimens of the pacu, a introduced relative of the piranha, have been pulled from the waters of the Seine by fishermen (she likes her option better, and since we're not going swimming, what does it matter?).

We found on our first night here that it stays light until after 10pm, so we tend to stay up later here then we would in Lake Clear (one of the other places we live). 

The evenings are so pleasant after the bright and hot day that we stretch ourselves, staying up into the early hours, listening to music and watching boats and people and drinking too much cheap wine and watching Paris-themed movies I brought along on my iPad and listening to the piranha jump and (presumably) gnash in the water by the boat.

I've found that while living on the barge, and in Paris, I often don't wear my watch or know what time (or often, what day) it is ... this is generally a good thing. I sleep until I wake up in the morning, make coffee and enjoy it, along with bread from the day before on deck with whatever book I'm reading at the moment.

Gail and I like to think of ourselves as travellers rather than tourists, a small, but pretentious, difference ... for me the nuance lies in a focus on the journey more than the destination. 

We make plans to see/do things everyday, but use those plans as an initial trajectory, from which we invariably vary ... as something grabs our eye(s). We spend a lot of time on foot, exploring the neighborhoods surrounding our barge, and the neighborhoods surrounding those neighborhoods.

We've been eating lots of meals on the barge, breakfasts every day, and then generally one or the other of the main meals (only an amateur limits themselves to three meals when in Paris ... we tend to eat five times a day, and drink, to hydrate or dehydrate, whenever we're awake). 

We get bread everyday during our wanderings, produce when something takes our fancy, and cheese or charcuterie when seduced by it (the produce is beautiful, the cheeses and charcuterie are sexy/sexual ... true story).

{Ostentatiously Long Sentence Alert, OLSA}
We've been to the great museums, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and will be heading down into the Catacombs, but our lasting memories of Paris will be of the tiny and quiet and empty and ancient streets, old and beautiful buildings, friendly cafe owners tolerating my horrific French while we soak up Orangina and Vin Ordinaire and the sights and sounds of the backstreets, getting lost and found and lost again exploring the pocket-parks scattered all over this ancient city, and the hours Gail and I spend everyday sitting on the deck of the barge, enjoying the feel of the world passing by around us, and our own company.
{I warned you}

Gail's taking a mid-morning nap downstairs in the cabin while I've been writing this, but I think I can hear the old teak groaning under foot as she contemplates a second start on the day (the first start only lasted long enough for coffee and a chocolate croissant) ... we're going to explore the 15th Arrondissement for a few hours with a nominal goal of finding a cafe/brasserie and some parks we'd read about prior to flying over.

Someday this trip's going to end. You can't live on a barge on the Seine forever, or at least we can't. 

I can feel my other life, the one on land, in a house in the woods, calling me ... but we've got a couple of days left, some more exploring and tasting and sitting and drinking to do yet.

My plan is to travel far and wide in this glorious old city until it's time to turn towards CDG and home ... I'll have a bagful of stinkified clothes, no souvenirs to speak of, sore feet, and a head crammed full of sights and sounds and smells and tastes and the feelings of hot sun, cool breezes, rough stone, hard rain, crusty bread, sharp/cold wine, and sensuous cheeses and fruits.

It was good and true and wonderful, even the parts that weren't.


(the gangway linking our barge to land)

(a swan training academy that swims by the barge a couple of times each day)

(Gail reading on a quiet morning on "Tortilla Flat")

(details noted on late-evening walks along the Seine)

(you have to walk/crawl/climb backwards down this stairway to get to our cabin)


19 Tech-tools Invaluable To My Writing

I read articles about these great writers, and how they produce novel after novel using only a fountain pen and legal pads ... that's not me.

I do some of my planning with pen and paper, but the majority of my writing (including this blog entry, which may or may not qualify as writing) couldn't, wouldn't, get done without a ton of technological support and gear and infrastructure.

I'm certainly not saying that everyone has to write the way that I do, but it works for me, and that's what I can speak to ... below you will find a list of the tech I use, and a description of how I make it work for me.

Chromebook - The first and foremost piece of tech that is involved with nearly every day and every aspect of my writing is my laptop. The Chromebook is cheap ($184), light (2 pounds), small (about the same size as a copy of Wired magazine), and can run for six hours without a charge (meaning that I don't bother with the plug/cord for most remote writing sessions). It does a great job for document creation, email, web-surfing, basic image manipulation, and maintaining my website ... it's not designed for video editing or serious gaming (but neither am I).

When my current Chromebook dies, (I've written/published about a half-million words on this one), I'll buy another just like it for a sixteenth of what a macbook would cost.

Earbuds - I have a pair of iKross Earbuds that I got from Amazon, and they meet my needs perfectly. They're comfy and tiny and block out sound when I'm writing in noisy places and even have a microphone so I can use them for phonecalls.

iPhone - My iPhone serves primarily as DJ in my writing enterprise, but also as a research tool and yes, communications facilitator (Twitter, FB, Blogger, and even a phone).

iPad - I use my iPad as a backup writing device (more on that later/below), research device, and general writing support system. I have a bluetooth keyboard case, which I prefer to typing on the screen.

Amazon (and Creatspace, and KDP and ACX/Audible) - Amazon and an array of services that they make available to independent authors make what I do as a writer/publisher possible. They're the 800 pound gorilla in the publishing, and self-publishing, industry, and they make it easy to publish your work in a variety of formats and share it with the world. 

When I've written and rewritten and rewritten and edited my stories, I publish them in print using Createspace, then Kindle format using KDP, and I've worked with voice actors to produce two stories (and am currently working on the 3rd) in audiobook format using ACX. With these services, and Amazon's online storefront, I can sell me book in print and ebook and audiobook in my hometown as well as the most distant corner of the planet.

These services are designed to be affordable and easy to use for independent writers, and they really are ... it's possible to publish your books using all of these services without spending a penny. In addition to selling in these 3 formats through Amazon, CreateSpace lists my print books with the major distributors, and ACX lists them with Audible and iTunes.

Google docs - Google docs is the online (and offline, but don't worry about that) word processor that is supported by the Chromebook platform, and is the application I've used to write my last half-million published words. It's easy to use, and immensely portable/transmutable to other formats and platforms (my wife edits in .doc format, and I generally share files in PDF). It's great and free and gets better every day.

Pandora/Music - I listen to music in the background when I'm writing. Sometimes it's my own(ed) music, sometimes it's Pandora. Pandora lets me craft radio stations based on my mood and needs and wants. I pay for the upgraded version (about $36 per year) which gives me more control over the operation of my stations and music. 

I like music in the background when it's quiet at my house or in a library, and music to drown out the sounds of people in the cafe I frequent for writing, and when I write in the lodge of the ski-resort I take my son to in the wintertime. Pandora makes it work all day without being boring or repetitive.

Facebook/Blogger/Twitter - I use these three social media services as the primary interface with the world (by which I mean fans, potential readers, interested media outlets, and googlers, not the planet Earth). Facebook is an easy way to update people about what you're doing, writing, thinking, planning. I use Blogger to post longer thoughts, communiques, poems, pictures, and to host the website that represents me as an author. Twitter is a short-format communication device that reaches new audience members through the use of keywords using hashtags. All three of these work differently, for me and the audience they reach, and a nuanced approach to their use (which I sometimes manage) should allow for effective communication between between writer and the eyes and ears of the world.

Dropbox - Although Gdocs already saves my work remotely, Dropbox gives me another way to save and share my work (which is always a good thing). It also allows me to create folders with samples of my work that are easy to access and read and download for anyone who cares to do so.

Memo app - It doesn't matter which app you use, I've used a number of different ones, based on which features I want at the time. I have one installed on my iPhone because I often have an idea while driving or when remote from a pen and paper, and can just talk my thoughts into the thing for later transcription.

Date and Time Calculator app - I use an app that helps me figure out dates and the passage of time through the past and future ... it's cool and useful and way easier than doing it with pen and paper.

Google/Wikipedia - I have yet to get through a writing/work session without doing some online research, and Google and Wikipedia are the first places I generally go. Once I get a basic feel for the subject I'm exploring, I'll usually go further afield to get more detailed information, but often I can get what I need without having to drill down too far.

Google Maps and Other Navigation apps - I like to walk or paddle around the spaces that I write about, but I supplement this firsthand experience with lots of mapwork, to get a feel for the relative distances and directions between and among the things and people I'm writing about.

Sunrise/Sunset & Tide apps - There are lots of these apps out there, many of them good, many of them free to download. I like knowing what time the sun rises and set in the stories that I write, so I always have one of these apps on my iPad or iPhone.

Noisli/Coffitivity/sleepsounds apps - These two apps provide some background noise for those times when I don't feel like music or silence. I find that I most often use them when visiting NYC (or similar), and need to break up potential distractions.

OmmWriter/Hanx Writer apps - These two apps are what I use when for some reason I don't have my laptop, and need to get some writing done on my iPad (with the aforementioned keyboard case). They both provide a relatively distraction-free and simple interface for writing.

Writer Lists app - There are number of them available in the app store, but they all have lists of names and places and prompts and tips for writing ... I like to take a spin through mine when I'm bogged down, and need to disengage from the keyboard for a while.

Pomodoro app - I have tried a couple of pomodoro apps, and they are all pretty similar ... the basic theory is that you will be more productive at a given task if you do it in 25 minute chunks, with a short break between each chunk, and a longer break between every 4-6 chunks. I could probably manage to keep track of this on my own, and sometimes ignore the timer when I'm rolling, but it's a good basic rule.

Flipboard app - I love Flipboard. It's a news aggregator that allows me to find and read and share articles on an infinitely wide variety of my interests. I read dozens of articles every day, share some to FB or via email, and save other for later reference to my own magazine. I'm a big believer that writers must be readers, and this is a great way to find lots of great stuff to read.

There are lots of other devices and websites and apps that I use in the commission of writing, but these are among the most useful to me ... and 19 is a great number ... it's a centered triangular number after all!

Thanks for reading, and I hope something in here helps you in your writing!