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Intentional and Unintentional

So I’ve been struggling writing what I guess is the second-to-last part of Valkyrie Project 3 (as yet untitled). This sort of fear of the unknown has significantly dampened my enthusiasm for writing this story. So, this morning I said “Suck it up!” and just sat down and pushed my way through a scene for almost an hour, doing a lot of internal character “thinky” stuff while in my mind I did my own “thinky” stuff about what Ana was going to do when she was done lamenting her circumstances. (That’s a whole different story) I had to go through a ton of iterations (just mentally) but I finally hit on something that I really like. Now when I think about it, I’m acutally excited to go back and fill in some foreshadowing and write a couple other scenes I’d been putting off!

Also, in searching for an appropriate image to go with this post, I kind of realized that I’m unintentionally writing an Urban Fantasy novel. I think in some sense, that’s what I’ve been doing all along… Just writing really techy urban fantasy. Which also makes sense since Shadowrun was one of my favorite settings growing up (even though I only actually played the game like once).

For a more quantitative update, I’m up to 61,000 words, which means I’ve done 11,000 words for VP3 since my May 2nd post at 50,0000. Only 2,444/month, but that’s better than the 926 I averaged in the 6 months before that. My rough goal based on what I know I need to write is 83,000, so if I continue at 2,444, that’s 9 months. Yikes. Luckily, the next 3.5 months include NaNoWriMo and a generally higher overall output (yes, I track this on a spreadsheet). I’ve been averaging 6,000+ so far this year; just haven’t dedicated all that to VP3. Now that I’m in a better headspace about it, I should be able to crank out 22,000 words in the next 2 months. Does that mean it’ll be ready for revisions? I don’t know. I might find a bunch of scenes that I’ve left out once I read through it. TVP and WTP were both closer to 100,000 words, and VP3 feels like a bigger book than either of those, so I have this nagging feeling like I’m missing some connective tissue around all the bones of the story.

Okay, that was a lot more than I initially intended to write, so I’m going to stop there. Back to the words that matter. ūüėÄ

PS: Sorry for the lame blog post title. This started as a Facebook post where you don’t need a title… Which is probably what led to the scattershot braindump.

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Yet Another NaNoWriMo Recap: A Writer’s Season Never Ends

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I still haven’t “won” NaNoWriMo, but every time I do it, I get a little bit closer. And even though I never win, I learn a lot, which is what allows me to get even closer on the next try.

That said, let me share my “tips” such as they are, which in this case are intended mostly to encourage fellow writers who might be perennial “losers” like me.

For me, it’s NeWriMoMo

It’s a subtle difference. I am sure there are plenty of NaNoWriMo purists out there. “You must start at the beginning of a novel and write 50,000 words of that novel.” Sure, that’s cool. If you don’t write during the rest of the year and you haven’t developed a more customized, personalized approach. For me, NaNoWriMo is just a time when I put aside pretty much everything else and just focus on writing. NeWriMoMo: “Ne”ls “wri”tes “mo”re than he does in other “mo”nths. If you can crank out a book in November, then go on to revise and publish it and have a one book per year output, more power to you. There’s no way I can do that. First off, I’ve only ever gotten 35,000 words in a single month, which is barely half of a short novel. Second, I’ve found that I like to bounce around between books when I get stuck. I know that this is anathema to a lot of writers, and most especially to writers who like to give advice. They want to write a book straight through and finish and have it published, and I understand that. But this is about me writing more than I usually do. It’s about trying to get 50,000 words. I don’t expect anything from NeWriMoMo to be even close to publishable (after revision, sure, but not in any relatively short time frame).

Think about the mathematics of it (because that’s what I do). Say I write 10,000 to 20,000 words across 2 books in an average month (20,000 being on the very high side). If, in November, I write 10,000 words across 5 different books, then it’s still 10,000 more words than I would have had on 2-3 of those books and about what I would have done on the other 2-3, so it’s still a net positive. I’m not hurting myself compared to my normal output.

Perhaps it’s a poor analogy, but it’s kind of like when people talk about the “Fat Burning Zone.” I’ve seen advice that people should run slower when working out to keep their heart rate in the “fat burning zone.” That’s great for people who are just getting started running because it allows them to actually get into it and do it. But for people who have been running a while and want to really burn the fat, running faster will burn more calories. Even if that means you’re burning more calories which are stored in carbohydrates and protein, you’re burning more calories overall, so you typically end up burning more fat calories as well. (Of course, then it also helps if you eat a higher proportion of carbs and protein so that you don’t just get back all the fat calories you worked so hard to burn, but still, like my writing, it’s a net positive)

And besides: I prefer Christine Carter’s approach of “The Easiest Thing” (from her book The Sweet Spot). The idea is: in order to get yourself to start doing a new habit, start with whatever is the easiest possible thing. I believe one of her examples was, if you want to start running, put on your running clothes and go outside. If you don’t feel like running, you’re already in your clothes and outside, so maybe you’ll just go for a walk? Or maybe you’ll just go back inside. (I may be totally mangling that example, but it’s the idea I’m going for) Same thing with my writing. What’s the easiest thing in writing? Sit down at my computer and look at Scrivener (I leave the app open so I don’t even have to click to open it because that would make the easiest thing a little bit harder). Once I’ve gotten that far, I know the next easiest thing is to write a sentence. And once I write a sentence, the next sentences start to come. And sometimes they don’t. If that happens, I’ve got other projects to look at. I’ll flip through open projects until one of them strikes me.

Okay. Yes. I know this is not the best way. But it’s only during NaNoWriMo that I allow myself more than 2 (or 3) projects. During my normal writing I’ve usually got 2 fiction projects (usually similar in genre so I don’t have to context switch as much), and 1 sort of non-fiction. During NaNoWriMo, I’ll usually add another fiction project from a previous NaNoWriMo that I only work on during NaNoWriMo, and another fiction project which is brand new so I’ve got plenty of open road ahead of me.

I know this works for me. It’s not just a whim. It’s a defined method/process I’ve created to increase my output in a systematic way. So besides allowing yourself to just break the rules of NaNoWriMo by working on a novel that’s already in progress and/or working on several different novels, my advice is to be aware of how you work and don’t restrict yourself to working one way just because you think that’s how writers are supposed to do it. Writers are artists, but at the same time, they have to produce something if they want to sell it. So the ability to create that balance between the creative and logical sides of your brain is important to develop.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas, your process, and your life. When I first started drinking protein shakes, I tried making them by – as the name suggests – shaking them. It didn’t work. They came out all clumpy and borderline undrinkable. So I switched to using a blender and they turned out much better. “Great story Nels,” I can hear you saying, but that’s not the end. Not much later, I found a better tasting and even healthier protein powder. But I continued using the blender and didn’t even think to go back and try the shake method with the new powder until my wife final got lazy smart enough to just be like “I’m just going to shake one and see if it works.” Lo and behold! It worked like a charm bracelet on the horn of a unicorn. Now, imagine that your books are different kinds of protein power and your writing process is shaking them up. The process that makes an unreadable word soup out of one book might make something smooth and delicious for your reader’s brains with that same process. But you won’t know unless you try.

A Writer’s Season Never Ends

At the end of NaNoWriMo, I’m still trying to write 800+ words/day to reach my goal for the year. Part of that is because I spent a lot of time earlier in the year revising Weathering The Past (Book 2 of The Valkyrie Project series), and part of it is because I was tired after all the revising and let myself off the hook a little too much.

But a Writer’s Season Never Ends. As much as I’d like the revision of a book to be the playoffs and the publication to be winning the championship, I don’t yet have the rhythm to make that analogy work. And while it might actually be a decent analogy if you stretch it a bit, writers don’t really have a regular season either. The off-season and the regular season are pretty much the same. You don’t get to take a break. I read an article in Chicago Magazine about Jimmy Butler’s off-season and his schedule of waking up at 5am every day and practicing three times a day sounds a lot like my writing schedule. I’m writing this post at 5am, and I write on the train or at lunch and – especially during NaNoWriMo – I force myself to write more after work even when my brain is dead and my words/hour rate slows to about 100. There’s no part where you show off in front of an audience (certainly not while traveling the country). If that sounds like a book tour, then it means the regular season comes after the playoffs and the championship and so the analogy is fundamentally broken. In which case, I’ll repeat it again: A Writer’s Season Never Ends.

But don’t worry too much. Because if you attempted NaNoWriMo – even if you didn’t win – it will be much easier to keep writing now. After reaching for 1,667 words per day, trying for 800 seems almost pedestrian. It’s like playing ball against Jimmy Butler for a month and then going back to play at your local gym.

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Bonus Tip

Get Hulu Unlimited. During November, I had to try to keep up with Blindspot and Agents of SHIELD (pretty much the only two shows I watch anymore). With Hulu Unlimited (aka No Commercials), I was able to crank out an episode in less than 45 minutes while I did elliptical; multi-tasking which allowed me to get back to writing that much faster. Before the no commercials option, I would be there for at least 50 minutes, which is a long time on the elliptical, believe me. Or I’d have a show with 5 more minutes that I needed to watch. (I had to watch them in November because even with Unlimited, the episodes still expire so you have to keep up within the last 5 episodes). Outside of working out, it’s totally worth the $4/month for the time savings on watching shows with my wife. I haven’t actually calculated the ROI in terms of amount paid for time saved, but at about 13 cents a day, it doesn’t take much. And no, I don’t work for Hulu or any TV networks or anything else affiliated with Hulu. I just happen to like TV as well as being efficient.

Writing Playlists – Valkyrie Project

Writing Playlist Covers

As Weathering The Past nears readiness for publication, I’m trying to figure out ways to market it without just pimping the book directly; to say something besides just “buy my book!”

So, to give you an idea of the different aspects that went into writing the second book in the The Valkyrie Project series and, honestly, just to share some music that I really like, I’ve made the playlists that I used when writing Weathering The Past public on Spotify. (Since Spotify is free, I believe anyone should be able to listen just by giving them your email address – or a fake email if you really want)

I think (okay, I know) most writers have playlists that they use when writing to get them in the right mood or mindset. I don’t remember seeing any post more than just a single album, artist, or playlist for their writing, though. I’m guessing they have them, but they’re just trying to be concise. Since the scenes in my books vary in tone and emotion (I hope!), it definitely helps me to have a particular playlist to help with the kind of scene I’m writing.

For Weathering The Past, there were three main types of feelings that I wanted to get. Not all of the scenes match up to one of these three exactly, but for the most part, I found that three lists was a good number to work with. The first… well, there is a lot of action in the book. So, I needed a playlist that would get me psyched up. I considered using Barney’s Get Psyched Mix from How I Met Your Mother, but it’s a bit heavy on the 80’s and I like to stay current on my music. So, I seeded a playlist with some classic Get Psyched songs and then slowly evolved it, adding new songs to replace ones that I got tired of, to end up with the current Valkyrie Project – Amped mix. You’re lucky because I went through a bit of an EDM phase in the middle, most of which has been culled, replaced with songs that I think are generally more palatable.

The next most prevalent emotion was ‘tension’ or ‘drama’. This generally meant slower, quieter, and mostly instrumental tracks. Selections from a lot of movie and video game scores. Some of these were used for action scenes as well, but the kind of action scenes where something very dramatic is culminating or coming to a head. I think you’ll get a good idea of what I mean when you hear it… Valkyrie Project – Dramatic.

Finally, there is the Valkyrie Project – Emotion list. This was used for scenes where I was trying to rip tears from the eyes of readers. I don’t think there’s as many of those in Weathering The Past as compared to The Valkyrie Project, though. That was a conscious effort on my part to make it a bit lighter, include more ‘fun’, and go with more of the scenes that would fit into the ‘Dramatic’ playlist rather than ‘Emotion.’ Based on feedback from the early readers who have finished both books, I don’t think I did as as good a job of that as I wanted, but the overall feedback was very positive for the second book, so I’m not going beat myself up too much.

As I begin work on the third book in the series, I will continue to listen to and to evolve these playlists, so go ahead and ‘Follow’ them to take advantage of Spotify’s excellent notification system.

By The Numbers

Number

This is probably more appropriate for a simple “Ask the Twitterverse”, but this way I can make it more than 140 characters since there’s some follow-up…

Writers: What numbers do you track with regard to your writing?

I listen to podcasts where they interview writers and a lot of them mention at least something related to word count goals. I also read 2k to 10k: Writing Better, Writing Faster, and Writing More of What You Love, and Rachel Aaron talks about how she tracked her time and writing output fairly meticulously (at least for a period of several months).

I also get more obsessed with numbers during NaNoWriMo and also when it gets toward the end of the year and I have a lot of numbers to work with.

Anyway… Here are the raw and/or calculated numbers that I try to track on a year-to-year basis:

  • Total words for the year
  • Average words per day
  • Average words per week
  • Highest word count day (and date) during the year
  • Highest word count week (and date) during the year (as kind of a back-of-the-napkin analysis of productive times)
  • Words per individual project (since I’m usually working on 2-3 things during the year)
  • Total words in November (for NaNoWriMo, obviously – to compare to previous years)
  • Word count by week (I forgot to do this for 2013, but it seems like a good way to identify productivity patterns and use that to enhance my scheduling)

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Besides tracking numbers to be able to do retrospective analysis, I also use them during the year (along with some basic spreadsheet functions) to calculate things like:

  • Words needed per day to hit goals (~111,000 words this year)
  • Words needed per day to match last year’s total
  • Words remaining until 1,000,000 written total (since March 2011)
  • Current average per day and current average per week

It’s always fun at the beginning of the year when a big day of writing pushes my average to numbers that are totally unattainable on a year-long basis… or at the end of the year when a similar day cuts down the number of words needed to hit my goals like a Hammer of Dawn tearing through a Berserker. (Can you tell I haven’t played video games recently? I should have a GTA or Destiny related metaphor here…)

Anyway…

Is there anything else I’m missing that other people keep track of?

Colourful preschool numbers

Interval Training for Writers (and other Professional Development)

tl;dr Applying the principle of interval training to my writing will allow for a nearly 50% increase in output while still giving me time to keep current on technology relevant to my daily (non-writing) work.

I’m doing a little (or large, I guess) experiment this year. Initially it started as a way to balance my writing output with what I repeatedly hear is an important part of a mid-list writer’s life: The Day Job.

So in order to allow myself periods where I focus intensely on writing, editing, learning about writing, reading fiction for inspiration, and not feeling guilty about dedicating more time to writing than to professional development, I adapted a technique I learned in high school cross country training.

Fartlek:

Fartlek, which means “speed play” in Swedish, is a training method that blends continuous training with interval training.

The idea of interval training is probably more familiar than that of continuous training since it’s used in a lot of popular workout programs. It involves doing periods of high-intensity reps with a short rest in between. Fartleking (sp?) is like interval training but instead of resting, you just don’t run as hard you had been. That’s an important analog for my plan because I don’t want to try to write a whole bunch over a short period and then not write for a while. I think just about any writer will tell you that’s basically asking for failure.

For the last 6 months of 2013, I worked on a schedule that I broke down by days and then morphed to a weekly set of goals that allowed a little more freedom in terms of what I did on a given day.

But then in November, I did NaNoWriMo. (And even though I didn’t win, aren’t we all winners?) I realized that I could definitely push myself to write more than I had been in the months leading up to November. But instead of trying for 50,000 words per month (or even 27,000 like I did in November), I compromised on a schedule that would allow me to balance professional development in the workplace with development of my writing skills. By fartlekking my writing, I get to push my writing muscles past where they would normally go, but then I pull back give myself some time to recover from the exertion and mental fatigue that comes with the focus it takes to push those muscles. During that recovery, I continue to “run” but I also engage a different set of muscles (though muscle confusion is a whole different training philosophy).

Starting with a slow warm-up in December, I had my first push in January and am now backing off again for February. January yielded just over 18,000 words, which is double what I averaged per month in 2013. So, if I can do that much in my sprint months and then fall back to my average of 9,000 in off months, I’ll have about a 47% increase over last year. And assuming all goes to plan, I’ll still have a day job (with the all-important health insurance).

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