One week left and right on track

An Empire in Disarray
Phase:1.0 Draft
Due:4 weeks ago
70%

I’ve got exactly one week left on my deadline for An Empire in Disarray (book 8 of Sons of the Starfarers), and surprisingly, I’m actually on track to finish it on time. You have no idea how satisfying it will be if I can actually pull this off.

People tell me that I’m a prolific author, but I never feel like it because I almost never hit my own deadlines. For a long time, I thought that was because of a lack of discipline, but I’m starting to discover it’s more of an issue with my prewriting. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m retooling my writing process, especially with the prewriting, and it’s making a tremendous difference.

This WIP is a proof of concept. For the last book, Victors in Liberty, I’ll see if I can replicate it. Over the next few WIPs I expect I’ll refine it even further.

Guys—if this actually works, I may be able to triple my creative output. Triple it. Instead of taking years to write novels, it will take months. Instead of agonizing over lengthy revisions and multiple drafts, I’ll be writing clean first drafts that are ready to send to the editor without making a second pass.

All this time, I’ve been using a needle and thread, and now I just got a sewing machine.

So yeah, I’m pretty excited. Also, An Empire in Disarray is on track to be finished by Christmas. I’ll still do a standard revision pass, just to make sure it’s publishable, but still.

Huzzah!

Pantser vs. plotter? There is no such thing

I have come to the conclusion that the “pantsing vs. plotting” way of thinking about writing is as impractical and useless as nature vs. nurture, or talent vs. learned ability.

Are you a pantser who discovery writes from the seat of his pants, or a plotter who has to outline every character, every plot point, and the whole world first? Well, that’s about as useful as asking whether you were born stupid or whether you were taught to be. Probably a combination of both.

The pantsing vs. plotting dichotomy is something I learned early on, when I was just starting out as a writer. At the time, it seemed like a useful distinction to make. Beginning writers tend to make a lot of mistakes, and those range from world-builder’s disease (where you spend all your time outlining instead of actually writing), to rewriting the first chapter into oblivion, to writing yourself into a corner and having all your characters scream at you. It’s amazing how many things you can get wrong. By dividing these things up into pantsing problems vs. plotting problems, it was helpful to figure out how to fix those.

But then you start to identify with one side or the other, and that leads to an entirely new set of problems. Because the truth is that to write well, you need both. A pure pantser often writes himself into problems that he can’t easily get out of, or misses key elements that render the rest of the story moot (like “if only these two people would talk with each other, the obstacles to their romance would all go away” or “if only Hermione would use the time-turner to stop Voldemort from becoming the dark lord, no one else would have to die”). In contrast, a pure plotter often writes stories that are too mechanical and predictable, telegraphing every plot turn and reducing every character into an avatar for some theme or idea.

So, while thinking of it in terms of pantsing vs. plotting may be useful for the beginning writer in diagnosing the areas they need to work on, I’ve found that it’s not particularly useful for the professional writer. In fact, it can be damaging.

For the last several years, I’ve considered myself to be a pantser. Discovery writing is my mojo—give me a few good ideas and the barest outline of a plot, and I’m off to the races. Except… I always tend to stumble and fall in the middle. In fact, I often have to throw out entire chapters or set a story aside for months at a time, to “let the ideas percolate.” For the last several years, that’s been my modus operandi.

Until now.

With Son of the Starfarers, I’m working on a set of very tight deadlines to finish the damn series as quickly as I can. It took way too many months to write book 7, and I can’t afford to take that much time for the last two books because that’s time I’m robbing from other projects (like Edenfall or Gunslinger to the Galaxy or The Sword Bearer). As a pantser, I can write any book if given an infinite amount of time, but that’s not practical. I need to find a new way to write, one that maximizes my efficiency.

And I think I’ve found it. I’m still tweaking it, of course, but it involves <gasp!> outlining. But wait—I’m a pantser, not a plotter! Except, it turns out, that I’m not. Because no one is.

Pantsing vs. plotting does not describe the writer so much as the method of writing. It’s not a question of where you fall on the spectrum, it’s a question of whether this particular project requires more discovery writing or more outlining. And it turns out out that there are ways to outline stories that actually make your discovery writing better. Every battle plan falls apart upon contact with the enemy, but you need the plan to know which direction to march your troops.

In the next few weeks, I’ll go over some of the new outlining methods I’ve been trying out. It took me almost five months to write A Queen in Hiding, struggling over multiple drafts, but it’s been only four weeks since I started An Empire in Disarray and I’m more than 2/3rds of the way through it, with a clean first draft, and I’m on track to have something finished and publishable by the end of next week. There are still a few kinks in the process to work out, but I think I have it down well enough to share.

So if you consider yourself a “pantser” or a “plotter,” and you’re still struggling to write as much or as well as you’d like, I’d urge you to revisit your basic assumptions about your writing process. That’s what I did, and it’s made all the difference.

Mid-August update

It’s already mid-August? Where in the heck did the last eight months go? Feels like the election drama from last year never really died down.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t about politics. Not enough time in the day to follow the latest circus sideshow in the Emerald City of Oz. Time has been on my mind, though: specifically, how to write 10k words a week (minimum) while catching up on the massive list of publishing tasks. I think I’ve found the answer.

I already get up every day around 7am to get ready for my part-time day job. Recently, I started getting up at 6am to put in an hour of writing first thing in the morning. The goal isn’t to pound out words so much as to get the mental gears turning, so that later in the day (such as lunch break) I can pick up very rapidly where I left off.

So far, it seems to be working. Plus, it’s a whole lot easier to sit down and write at the end of the day when you know you’ve already got more than a thousand words under your belt and can hit that daily word count goal with just another few hundred. My writing productivity is improving significantly, and as I continue to work out the kinks, I believe it will continue to improve.

On the writing front, I’ve put A Queen in Hiding on the back burner for the moment, and have instead moved on to Gunslinger to the Galaxy. This one is from Jane’s point of view, and so far, it’s a blast. Should be finished with that WIP by the end of September.

On the publishing side, there’s all sorts of stuff going on. I’ve got a cover artist for The Sword Keeper, and the preliminary sketches look really amazing! Also going through the edits and getting the metadata worked out. I’ll probably write the author’s note over the weekend. By the end of next week, it should be up for preorder with a release date of September 23.

My goal is to get to the point where I’ve always got a novel on preorder. Another goal is to have print books and audiobooks for every title more than 15k words, but that’s going to take some time.

This would all be so much simpler if I didn’t spend 30 hours a week at a day job. Time, money, or youth: you can only pick two of the three, and if you’re under 40 one of them has to be youth.

That’s what I’m up to these days. Expect to see some exciting stuff in the weeks ahead!

Mid June update

So it’s the middle of June, and I really should have finished Patriots in Retreat by now, but it’s been difficult to stick to any kind of writing routine, and the story is at that place where everything seems broken and writing through it is like slogging through a swamp.

Call me crazy, but I’m starting to think that’s not healthy. In Brandon Sanderson’s English 318R class at BYU, he always said the most important thing was to power through and just finish the damn thing–that you can always go back and “fix it in post”–but while that’s good advice for a new writer who hasn’t ever finished anything, I don’t think it works very well for my own writing process.

I think that what I need to do is take every weekend to cycle through the entire story from the beginning, not necessarily to rewrite it all, but to bring it into line with the stuff that unfolds later. Invariably, when I get to the three quarters mark of my WIP, it feels like the whole thing is barely holding together and that I’m writing myself into a train wreck.

For the last several years, I’ve tried to just write through that, only for one of two things to happen: either something else catches my interest and I decide to put the WIP on the back burner for a while, or it actually does turn into a train wreck and I have to set it on the back burner for a while in order to approach it with a new set of eyes.

Needless to say, neither of those outcomes is very productive.

Now, I don’t think Patriots in Retreat is broken. I think there’s actually a really good story in there, but it needs a little more excavation in certain parts before I can pull the whole thing out in one piece. This was my first time in years experimenting with the cycling process, and I don’t think I did it enough. Next WIP will be another experiment.

Long story short, I will probably have to push this one back another two weeks, which is going to push the release schedule for Sons of the Starfarers back another month. I’ve got another short story I can use to fill in the gap, but it is a bit of a personal disappointment.

Why is it so difficult to keep my own self-imposed deadlines? Am I really that flaky and unreliable? Not in other aspects of my life. Maybe my writing process really does need a complete and fundamental overhaul. Should make for some interesting future posts.

In any case, that’s what I’ve been up to. I really really really want to write a couple of short stories in a universe that may turn into a recurring one, but those will have to wait until Patriots is finished (hopefully early next week). On the publishing side of things, I’ve got a new short story and short story bundle out—more on that tomorrow! Lots of other stuff too, but it’s mostly behind the scenes, so not worth talking much about atm.

Patriots in Retreat will be finished soon, it’s just in the “this sucks and I’m a horrible writer!” phase. Which, hopefully, I’ll find a way to remove from my writing process altogether, because it isn’t healthy. When I figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know.

What it’s like to write after a life interruption

Stage 0: Procrastination

I guess I should write… but first, I should check my email. Also, there’s a couple of publishing tasks I need to do. I’m also kind of hungry, come to think of it.

Wow, those publishing tasks took a lot longer than I thought they would. I could start writing now, but I’d only have half an hour, and what can I possibly get done in that time? Maybe I should just relax for a bit and play this addictive online game…

Stage 1: BIC HOC

All right, no more excuses. It’s butt in chair, hands on keyboard time!

What’s wrong with my chair? Did someone put a magnet in it? It seems like my butt gets repulsed every time I try to sit down in it. I can knock off a couple of paragraphs, but then I have to get up and pace for a while. Or do some chores. Or—

No! I’ve got to focus. But man, it feels like I’m pulling teeth. The words just aren’t coming. It’s been more than an hour, and how much have I written? Holy crap, that’s pathetic.

Well, it’s the end of the day, and I only managed a few hundred words, but that’s better than nothing I guess.

Stage 2: Progress

Is something different? It still feels like I’m pulling teeth, but my writing time is only half over and I’ve already passed a thousand words. Also, that last scene was kind of awesome. I could probably improve it in the next pass, but it turned out better than I thought it would.

I’m still way behind from where I need to be, and I have no idea if I’ll ever make my deadline, but I’m slowly making progress. Not bad. Let’s lie down for a while or go for a long walk and think about what happens next. This is actually turning out to be a pretty good story.

Stage 3: Acceleration

It’s getting late and I really should be doing other things, but I’ve got a great idea for this next scene and I just have to write it.

What’s that? My emails are piling up, and my to do list of publishing tasks has been neglected? Yeah, yeah, I’ll get around to that, but first I really have to knock out this scene. And what if I changed this one three chapters ago to foreshadow it? Then I would also have to change how that one character reacted when the big reveal happened on page 128, and…

Wow, that was incredibly invigorating! I feel like I’m reading this story for the first time. The words are really flying, but that actually doesn’t matter because this next chapter is the big one and I’ve got to focus on that. No time to count how many words I’ve written!

Stage 4: Peak Creativity

I can’t wait to wake up in the morning because the next chapter is going to be totally awesome. I spent my whole shift at the day job thinking about it, and it’s really going to tie the plot and thematic elements together.

What is this character thinking right now? What is it like to be in her shoes? Does this other character have any idea what she’s feeling right now? Is he too caught up in his own concerns? Where did those concerns come from? Obviously, they came from the difficulties in his childhood. Let’s take a few moments to work that out. What’s the story behind how this character came to be who he is today, and how does that impact everything else in the book?

All right, time to take a quick break and refill the creative well. What’s this? A mountainous stack of emails and publishing tasks? Let’s chip away at it for a while, and maybe write a blog post while we’re at it.

Enough for now. Back to writing!

Life Interruption

Oh crap. Time to go back to stage 0 again.