Why writing every day may still be the best advice

A week ago, I blogged about how writing every day may not be the best advice. I pointed out how following that advice had helped me when I was first starting out, but it had also hurt me later on. I pointed out how sometimes it’s better to work smarter than harder. After all, why throw out 80% of what you write if by taking a little time to properly outline things, you can write a clean first draft?

Well, I’ve been reading a book called The Compound Effect, and it’s made me rethink some of those ideas. The main point the book makes is that it isn’t the big things that make the most difference, but the small, regular things compounded over time.

Is it still a good idea to work smarter? Yes, definitely. If by taking the time to prewrite a book, you can avoid throwing out 80% of your work, then by all means that’s more important than hitting your 2k / 3k / 10k words for the day, or whatever. But here’s the thing: there’s a smarter way to write every day too, and it has to do with momentum.

If you’ve been in a writing rut, it’s very hard to go from 0 to your daily word count goal in a single day. Over time, that goal becomes a ceiling instead of a floor. It’s all very psychological. Your writing time fills up with procrastination or busywork, to the point where it takes all your energy just to hit that daily goal.

All of that changes if instead you say “I’m going to write 500 / 200 / whatever words more than I did the day before.” Even from a rut, it’s not that difficult to go from 0 to 500 in a single day. And once you’ve hit 500, it’s not difficult to hit 1k. Compounded this way, you can soon break through that ceiling and still have energy to hit everything else.

It’s an interesting approach to daily writing goals, one that I’m trying out right now. But for it to really work, you do have to write every day, otherwise the compounding never happens.

When I first started this blog back in 2007, I used to write a lot about momentum. I was very much a novice writer, but even back then I could feel how much easier it was to write when I was on a streak than when I was starting from zero—and a streak can start with a day of just a few hundred words.

The things to avoid are busywork and useless guilt. If your writing goals have become a ceiling that you just can’t break through, perhaps it’s time to recalibrate. Work smarter AND harder.

And now, for no particular reason at all, here’s a Sabaton music video.

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.

The timelessness of novels

Every few months, an article about the “death of the novel” makes the rounds on the internet. This subject, the impending doom of one of literature’s most enduring forms, is a perennial favorite for bookish handwringers everywhere. If it isn’t ebooks that’s going to kill the novel, it’s millennials, the internet, our dwindling attention spans, or one of a hundred other things.

As a professional writer, though, I am awestruck by the timelessness of the novel. Think about it:

From its origin with Don Quixote in 1605, the modern novel has endured through social and political upheaval, global pandemics, the collapse of numerous societies, the most devastating war the world has ever seen, genocide and holocaust on an industrial scale, and rise and fall of half a dozen global empires. The world today would be unrecognizable to a person from Cervantes’ time, yet the novel has endured.

Movies didn’t kill the novel. Television didn’t kill the novel. Video games didn’t kill the novel. On the contrary—numerous franchises from Star Trek to Halo have a thriving line of novel tie-ins. When the ebook revolution was just getting started, people thought that so-called “enhanced novels” would dominate the marketplace. They failed to realize that all of the added audio-visual content was a distraction for most readers. Plain text is not a bug, it’s a feature.

It’s important here to make a distinction between novels and other literary forms, such as novellas and short stories. The other forms have endured as well, but not with anything approaching the popularity of the novel. Short stories are great for exploring an idea, but not so good at immersing the reader into another world. Novellas are great for telling an intimate story about two or three characters, but not nearly as good at conveying scope or intrigue.

There’s something about a novel-length story that captures the imagination in a way that other forms just can’t. Whether it’s the large cast of characters, the intricate world-building, or the interplay of numerous subplots, novels are more immersive, and therefore have the capacity to be much more satisfying. Little wonder, then, that the novel has endured.

I’ve seen this in my own books, too. Over the years, I’ve done relatively little to promote my full-length novels, and yet they still chug along with a steady month-to-month trickle of sales. When I do promote them, such as with this month’s free run of Genesis Earth, the results are astounding. My full-length novels also tend to receive much higher reviews.

In my second year of self-publishing, I got impatient and switched to novellas. While I don’t think that was a mistake, it did not provide the foundation for a lasting career. The Star Wanderers novellas did well for a couple of years, but I don’t think they’re going to endure in their current form.

I love writing novellas, but the books that I’m proudest of are all novels. Where novellas entice, novels satisfy. Where novellas tell an intimate story, novels possess greater depth. As such, I think it’s time for a change.

In the next couple of months, I’m going to prune back my catalog a bit. The Star Wanderers series will still all be up there, but I’m going to remove the individual novellas from sale, keeping the omnibus editions instead. This will pave the way for a sequel novel, Children of the Starry Sea, which I’ve already started work on.

I will probably remove most of my older short stories, and some of the derivative works. I don’t want to clutter my book pages with my earlier practice work, or anything that looks too obviously self-published.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with Sons of the Starfarers just yet. I’ll definitely finish the series, but I’m not sure whether to do the other two omnibus editions or to just release each individual book in print. I’m toying with the idea of releasing the last four books in rapid succession, to build some momentum for the series, but it would take some time to write them, which means that Patriots in Retreat (Book VI) would be delayed for maybe a year.

I’m definitely going to turn Genesis Earth into a trilogy. No idea when the next book, Edenfall, is going to come out, but I’m going to do as thorough a job with that book as I did for Genesis Earth, which means it may take a while.

Novels take a lot longer for me to write than shorter books, but the end result is generally worth it. The trouble is that without a busy release schedule, sales tend to dwindle as you fall out of readers’ minds. I’ll try to make up for that by upping my marketing game and running more free and group promotions. In the meantime, anything you guys can do to spread the word would help!

I’ve got a couple of really awesome projects that should be coming out before the end of the year: The Sword Keeper, Gunslinger to the Stars, and a bunch of other stuff that’s really going to branch out my catalog. I’ve also got a couple of short stories that should be appearing in some new markets soon. Be sure to keep an eye out, and let me know what you think!

Lindsey Stirling, Nichieri, Susan Boyle, and thoughts on discoverability and greatness

I saw a couple of things on Youtube that made me think recently about the importance of quality work, especially in the arts.

I’m a casual fan of Lindsey Stirling–I’ve watched most of her videos, put them on in the background from time to time, and get a kick out of following her career. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she’s a Youtube sensation who combines violin music, dance, and dubstep/electronica, often in some interesting and beautiful places. This is her most popular video, and probably her best work so far:

Her career is interesting because it follows a path very similar to a lot of self-published authors. She started by putting out videos on Youtube, built up a huge following that way, turned down a number of deals from traditional record labels and put out her first album herself. Now, she’s touring all over the world, collaborating with a bunch of other Youtube artists, and doing a lot of other amazing stuff completely independently.

The other day, I was really surprised that she was on America’s Got Talent back in 2010. Apparently, this was before she got really big, and the connections she made while on the show helped her find success later on:

Two things stood out to me from that video.  First, the judges were right–even though she was pushing herself, this was not her best work, and it showed in a way that was rather glaring. I hate to say that because I like so much of her stuff, but it’s really true–her performance fell short.

The second thing that stood out to me was her response to the criticism. It must have been incredibly painful to stand up there in front of everybody and get hammered like that, but she still managed to smile, be gracious, thank the judges, and focus on the positive without being confrontational. That takes class.

When I was in Georgia, I watched a lot of TV, especially on the Rustavi 2 channel. One of the most popular shows is Nichieri (ნიჭიერი), a talent competition show set up much like The X Factor or America’s Got Talent. Even though I didn’t really understand anything the people were saying, I could still really tell when a contestant did some truly amazing.

There’s something about greatness that makes you sit up and pay attention–something that makes it stand out on its own. It’s something timeless and stirring, something that drives you to keep coming back to it, or at least to remember it long after it’s passed. With poor quality stuff, like bad writing, clumsy performance, or the like, you tend to forget it (unless of course it’s a spectacular failure, which in a weird way gains a sort of greatness of its own to a certain extent). But good quality stuff sticks with you–indeed, it’s almost like it becomes a part of you. It certainly becomes part of the culture.

When it comes to talent shows like Nichieri, The X Factor, and America’s Got Talent, the greatest moment has to be Susan Boyle. Everything about it is just perfect, from the awkward, homely way she started out to how she blew everyone away with her stellar performance. She didn’t look like she had it, and she certainly didn’t act like she had it, but she did, and she knew it. She didn’t settle for anything less than her best, and she didn’t let anyone else put her down.

In a lot of my discussions with other indie writers, we talk a lot about discoverability. We’re all anxious to be read, to be heard, to be discovered–to get our shining moment. The thing is, though, that moment is not enough if you don’t have quality work. It’s not going to keep you down or “ruin” your career, necessarily–Lindsey Stirling has come a long way since her disappointing performance on America’s Got Talent. But that’s only because she produces quality work.

I think I need to spend a lot less time trying to boost my discoverability and a lot more into producing the best work that I possibly can. The thing to remember, though, is that quality is subjective and you can’t please everyone. As Lindsey later said, “A lot of people have told me along the way that my style and the music I do … is unmarketable. But the only reason I’m successful is because I have stayed true to myself.” You can’t compare yourself against others, either–you can only really compete against yourself.

How do you know when you’ve done your best? That can be a little tricky, partly because it’s a moving target. I think Genesis Earth and Bringing Stella Home represent my best work at the time, though when I look back at those books I see things that could be improved. I tend to think that Desert Stars is my best work to date, though I’m not so sure anymore. Do I only think that because I struggled so much and for so long with that book? Just because something is a joy to create doesn’t mean that it’s any less than something you toiled and suffered over.

Star Wanderers was both a gift story and an experiment. The novella format was new to me at the time, so I did a lot of learning on it. Outworlder, Dreamweaver, Homeworld, and Deliverance came to me in a white-hot creative heat, but Sacrifice and Reproach were a real struggle. Is there a discernible difference in quality between them? Not that I can tell. I do think that the later stories hold together better on their own, though. I didn’t really hit my stride with the novella format until I started branching off into other characters’ viewpoints.

This is all on my mind because my next big project, Sons of the Starfarers, is something that I really want to do right. I don’t just want to write it for the sake of putting it out there (though I recognize that writing quickly doesn’t always mean sacrificing quality). I don’t just want to put it out so that I can make my work more “discoverable,” though that’s certainly a motivation. I don’t even just want to do my best. I want to improve my writing and storytelling so much that this becomes the best thing that I’ve ever written.

At LTUE a few years back, Tracy Hickman said that as writers, it is important for us to believe that we have not yet written our best book. That’s so incredibly true. You have to always believe that you can do better, not to make you depressed when you look back, but to make you enthusiastic as you look forward. Imagine what would have happened if Lindsey Stirling thought that her performance on America’s Got Talent was the best that she’d ever do! Her career hadn’t even dawned yet.

I think it’s the same with me. I’ve gained a little exposure, suffered a few setbacks, and experienced a small measure of success, but the big stuff is yet to come. And even though I may not want to be the next Brandon Sanderson or Orson Scott Card in terms of popularity, I do need to shoot high in terms of quality. Before I work on my discoverability, I need to make sure that I’m putting out some truly amazing stuff. I need to shoot for greatness.

Midichlorians vs. the Philotic Web, or a new dimension to Brandon Sanderson’s first rule of magic

I got into an interesting discussion today with my brother-in-law about science fiction & fantasy, specifically about whether explaining something too much takes away from the sense of wonder that is so critical to those genres.  It started out with a discussion of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, which (surprisingly) he actually kind of likes, and eventually got on to Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic.

I was trying to explain why The Phantom Menace was so broken, and after hemming and hawing over various things came to the midichlorians.  That, more than anything else, threw me out of the story.  By explaining the Force in such a banal, insipid way, it undid all the magic of the previous trilogy and completely sterilized it.  There was no sense of wonder after that point–explaining the Force completely killed it, just like over-explaining any magic system always kills that sense of wonder.

… or does it?  Because there are quite a few wonder-inducing magic systems that get explained in great detail.  Take the Philotic Web, for example.  In Xenocide, Orson Scott Card explains, in great detail, how the physics behind the ansible system works.  And yet, by doing so, he increases that sense of wonder to the point where Xenocide is one of my favorite of his books.  Why?  Because it introduces a bunch of implications that lead to even more questions, more mysteries.

With The Phantom Menace, of course, that isn’t the case–the midichlorian thing is basically a clumsy ass pull that fails in the magic department just as hard as Jar-Jar Binks does at comic relief.  But it doesn’t fail because it over-explains things, it fails because it explains the magic in a way that doesn’t allow room to explore the implications.  As much as I hate to admit it, Lucas could have pulled off the midichlorian thing if the implications had been relevant to more things in the story than just a simple plot point.

This is where Sanderson’s first law comes in.  Basically, Sanderson’s first law states that there’s an inverse relationship to how well the magic can induce wonder versus how well the magic can advance the plot.  In order to advance the plot through magic, you have to explain how the magic works to some degree, and that’s going to take away from the sense of wonder.

But as we’ve just shown, that isn’t always the case.  Sometimes the sense of wonder gets even stronger the more the magic gets explained.  This is especially true in science fiction that follows the one big lie approach, where one thing (wormholes, reactionless drives, time travel) is truly fantastic and everything else more or less follows the laws of physics as we understand them; in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief, the story is basically forced to explore all the implications of the magic, often to great detail.

In other words, explaining the magic isn’t always like building a wall–sometimes, it’s like building a door.  Yes, it lays down a boundary that closes off the imaginative spaciousness that a story really needs to convey that sense of wonder, but if the explanation leads to new questions–new mysteries–then that sense of wonder can be maintained.  Instead of walling the reader in, it throws the reader into a maze with countless secret chambers to explore.

The relationship between plot-based magic and wonder-based magic is not linear, as Brandon Sanderson’s first law implies.  Rather, there’s a second dimension that has very little to do with his law, and learning how to traverse that dimension is key to maintaining the sense of wonder in any story.

I haven’t figured out a pithy way to explain all this yet, but I’m going to, hopefully within the next few days.  If you guys have any thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share.  I’m definitely interested in hearing your perspectives on it.