Multiple Sessions Lead to Better Output

I continue to plug away at writing the third book in “The Usurpers Saga” — tentatively titled The Kraken Bone. It’s going well. I just completed the 25th chapter this morning. I’ve got a number of flashback sequences pre-written, so I actually have more of the first draft done than just 25 chapters of narrative, and the characters have made it to their destination where the titular artifact lies. (Like the other books in the series, this one follows a quest format.)

It’s all going very well, and I’m excited to finish it in the next couple weeks.

One of the things that’s enabled me to hit a flow this time is a new approach to how I’m writing. I try to write a chapter a day (which is not new; I’ve always done that), but I don’t force myself to do it all in a single sitting. If that happens — like it did this morning — I’m happy. But more often, I find myself tiring or just plain running out of steam after only 500 to 1000 words.

Rather than force myself to continue, I save and quit, moving onto something else for awhile.

This used to be anathema to me. I wanted to work on a project, check it off as completed, and then move onto the next thing on my to-do list.

But life hasn’t exactly been cooperating with that plan lately. I’ve been insanely busy, trying to run down freelance work and spending a lot of time working on marketing (both actively advertising and taking continuing education courses to learn to do it more effectively). Last year, I published a new book every month. I poured my energy into expanding my catalog. This year, I haven’t published anything yet (although I have two books in process), but I’ve been focused on marketing what I have.

And writing in multiple sessions has really energized me. It allows me to stay fresher. I write for awhile, then I work on other projects. Then I go back to writing. It keeps my brain alert, and I’m getting a lot more done this way.

Life rarely goes according to plan. That makes a plotter and organizer like me struggle to roll with the punches. But that flexibility — that willingness to adapt and adjust with the things that come your way — often leads to better success.

So I write early in the morning. When I’m tired or unfocused, I quit. Later in the day, with a bunch of other things checked off the list, I return to it. It’s working, and I like it.

It doesn’t matter how the words come out as long as they do. Multiple sessions is making that happen.

Unblocked

The curtains of confusion are gone. Much (though certainly not all) of the stress that had been inhibiting my creativity has vanished.

I am terribly relieved.

I can tell I’m feeling better, because my productivity has surged. I’ve gone from writing maybe 1000 words a day, to 2500-3000. I’m not having to fight to make the thoughts come or the plot develop. It’s happening naturally.

Last week was a true marker. My editor sent The Armageddon Clock back to me for changes. So I wrote 2500-3000 words of the next book in “The Usurpers Saga” in the early morning, and then edited 10 chapters of TAC over the course of the day. It was easily the most productive week, I’ve had in a long time.

My goal for this week is another five chapters of the new book, and a rewrite of TAC.

I’m sure I won’t be able to maintain this pace for long. Life will get in the way, and I’ll get some freelance gigs that’ll eat into my production time.

But the problem of stress-induced writer’s block appears to have cleared. I feel like a writer again. I feel like myself again.

I’m relieved. And I’m joyful.

Something New

I’m trying something new.

My current work-in-progress, the third book in “The Usurpers Saga,” is told through a series of flashbacks. That’s not especially new in and of itself. (Francis Ford Coppola perfected it in The Godfather, Part II.) I’m using a well-worn tactic to explain the motivations of my two main characters, fill in the history of my world, and explain how they come to the places and decisions they do at the novel’s climax.

How I’m writing it is new (to me,

anyway). Rather than writing those flashback sequences as they occur in the sequence of the narrative, I writing them whole cloth as separate short stories.

For one thing, they’re a little too long to just fit neatly into the chapters where they go. They run about 3000 words — long enough that I risk losing the main thread of the story if I just insert them as-is. I intend to break them up into 1000-1500-word chunks and spread them around the novel.

But writing them that way threatens to break the flow of those mini-stories. I might miss some important connective or causal material.

So I’m writing this novel in a way I’ve never done before. When it is time for a flashback sequence, I type “[INSERT FLASHBACK]” into the manuscript and keep going. At another writing session, I sit down and write out that whole mini-narrative.

Those views into the past have been fun. Many of them concern the adventures of Zod and Gothemus from their younger days. Some of them were hinted at in The Sword and the Sorcerer, and I’m getting the opportunity to flesh out my world’s history in the form of quasi-fables.

Of course, all that’s forcing me to keep a pretty good map of where I’m going. With a complex, multi-part narrative, it’s easy to lose track of where something should go and to wander off-course. It’s entirely possible some parts of these historical pieces will end up getting cut.

But even if that happens, they’ll still inform my understanding of the world I’m writing in and the motivations of the characters.

Anyway, this is kind of a new process for me, and while it’s exciting, it’s also daunting.

Eventually, I’ll have to put all the pieces together in the right order.

Stress Hampers Creativity

You’ve no doubt been told stress is bad for the body. It can cause everything from simple headaches to heart attacks to gingivitis.

It’s also bad for the mind.

Maybe that seems obvious. After all, stress is a mental thing. It may be caused by external stimuli, but the pressure is exerted in the brain. People under stress experience — whether they realize it or not — diminished cognitive function.

And that’s a bad thing for artists. Art, regardless of medium comes from inside. It’s expressed physically — whether by words, paints, performance, etc. — but it germinates in the mind.

The author imagines the story. The painter sees the picture in his or her mind’s eye before transferring it to canvas. The dancer hears the music, internalizes it, and then expresses it physically.

The brain has to be working for that function. When it becomes over-worried, the doors into the artistic soul — that special place inside all artists have but don’t truly understand — closes. No matter how you try, you just can’t get back in.

Making art requires peace, quiescence, relaxation.

A couple weeks ago, I was recalled to Kansas on an emergency. I brought my computer with me. I often find having work as a distraction is helpful from the stress of the situation, and there is usually a lot of downtime where you sit around with nothing to do.

So I figured I’d work on the new novel in the hours I had to sit around and wait for something to happen. I opened the computer, cracked my knuckles, and prepared to lose myself in the world of The Usurpers Saga.

Nothing happened.

I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think where to begin. I had notes to guide me, but I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to happen next. Hell, I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to happen first. I couldn’t keep track of what was happening in the chapter I was supposed to be writing. For that matter, I wasn’t sure what was supposed to be happening  in the whole novel!

I very rarely get writer’s block. I don’t believe in it. Writer’s block is defeated by writing your way through it.

But I couldn’t come up with the first word to type. I was like Billy Crystal in Throw Momma from the Train. I knew the night was sultry, but I didn’t know that was the word I needed.

The maddening part of the stress I’ve been under is that I’m really excited about this book. I look forward to writing it, to telling this particular story and exploring the themes in it.

But stress.

Stress keeps me away from the computer. Stress keeps me from writing when I’m at the computer.

It’s bad for the mind. It’s bad for the artistic soul.

I’m working on reducing my stress levels. I’ve managed to eliminate a couple of the stressors in my life. I’m planning to write again today. Because the only way to defeat writer’s block is to write through it.

But stress. It’s my number-one enemy right now.

Back at It Again

I’m at it again.

This week, I began a new novel. The Armageddon Clock is currently with the editor, and I like to stack projects so I’m not wasting productive time.

So with my creative plate momentarily clear, I’ve begun writing the third book in The Usurpers Saga.

Zod the Fearless (Calibot’s uncle from The Sword and the Sorcerer) receives a proposition from Lord Kremdor (the puppet master, who aided Lord Vicia’s rise to power in A Contest of Succession). He’ll help Zod steal the throne of Sothernia in exchange for Zod agreeing to align himself with Kremdor. Depressed and dissatisfied with life after his brother’s betrayal, Zod agrees.

The plan involves a quest across the ocean to the Dread Islands to retrieve a powerful artifact capable of summoning and controlling the legendary sea monster, the Kraken. Zod receives assistance from Kremdor’s agent, a changeling named T’Lenn Dartha, and from a thief he rescues from execution.

Getting started is harder than it sounds, though. I was exhausted from all the work I put in last week for SPACE, and I’ve had a lot of follow-up tasks that have been consuming my attention since the show ended.

But I managed to knock out 500 words on Monday and another 500 on Tuesday. I’ve got the first chapter pretty well sorted out. Time to move onto the next.

This is the same thing that happens every time. The start is slow. I have to get my mind framed for the story. After I’ve forced myself to sit down and write the first few chapters, the floodgates open. The story starts to consume me, and it becomes easy. It’ll flow out of my fingers faster than I can follow.

But for the moment, I’m in the start/stop/force-myself-to-do-it phase.

That’s okay. I’ll get past that. It’s nice to be writing again.

 

Trapped: Navigating Another Writing Obstacle

I’ve begun the next draft of The Armageddon Clock. That’s a good thing.

However, I was really hoping to finish it today, and there’s no way that is going to happen.

Often, a rewrite is a simple process. After I’ve gone through the manuscript and made notes, rewriting is just a matter of going through the book chapter by chapter and making those individual changes.

Like everything else with this novel, it hasn’t been that easy.

Without giving anything way, Wolf gets into trouble in the very first chapter. He’s caught breaking into an enemy facility, and he fights one of the principal characters of the novel before escaping.

In earlier drafts, I strongly hinted that this was a trap, baited with juicy intel to attempt to capture Wolf. But after this opening chapter and despite Wolf working (unbeknownst to him) with his assailant for most of the rest of the book, the concept that this opening sequence was a trap is never mentioned again.

That doesn’t make any logical sense. If they were trying to capture Wolf at the beginning of the novel, wouldn’t that have some bearing on how he was treated/viewed through the rest of the book? And what happens when he finds out?

In my edit, I had decided to explicitly make the opening sequence a trap. But as I started the rewrite, it occurred to me that this would change how Wolf was perceived by the other characters.

So I can’t just go through, looking at my notes and making changes. I have to reread certain chapters to make sure there aren’t sections needing a rewrite that I hadn’t previously noted.

And that takes time.

The great irony of this book is that it’s about a countdown to Doomsday, but it’s taking me forever to get it done. It’s already taken at least four times longer than I anticipated, and my editor hasn’t even seen it yet.

Still, I’ll be working on it today. I expect to make significant progress.

I just thought I’d be done by now.

The Case for Superman

There’s a new Superman movie out today that people have been hating on for months. It’s kind of a strange world when we can hate something for how terrible it is months before we even get to see it, but that’s the Brave New World of 24-hour news cycles, social media, and geek culture being cool.

In the film, traditional paragon of virtue Superman is the bad guy, and masked-vigilante-inflicting-his-childhood-psychosis-on-those-he-thinks-are-evil Batman is the good guy. (That oversimplifies the plot, but go with me here.) Director Zack Snyder has been pilloried for not understanding whom Superman is, dating back to his first film on the subject, Man of Steel.

One understands Batman’s worries in the film. Metropolis was razed by the battle between Superman and General Zod. And Superman is, for all practical purposes, a god. There is some reason to fear this guy flying around doing his super stuff unchecked.

But that’s not what Superman is about.

Ever since Frank Miller’s seminal work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, there has been a growing trend to make superheroes more real, more relatable. And frequently, making them human means making them dark. Their motives are questionable. The unintended consequences of their actions are dire. The idea that they have this incredible power is frightening, not inspiring.

Eventually, this trend found its way to Superman. He’s indestructible. He can shoot lasers from his eyes. He can destroy pretty much anything. Superman isn’t a hero; Superman is a terrifying force of nature — a hurricane or a tornado. What if he comes barrelling down on your town? What if it’s your loved one caught in the crossfire of his titanic battle with some other super dude he thinks is bad?

Perhaps this trend grew from the paranoia that descended on American culture following 9/11. Between the 1980’s and ’90’s dogma that you couldn’t trust the government and the post-9/11 fear that the bad guys could be anywhere, it suddenly seemed impossible to believe anyone could keep us safe. The only person you could rely on was you. So a nearly omnipotent super-being becomes a terrifying concept.

Regardless, Superman came to be seen less as heroic and more as dangerous. This is the view Batman takes of him in Snyder’s new film.

But that’s not who Superman is.

There is another equally wrong interpretation of Superman going around that strips him of his heroism. This one is also due to his invulnerability, but the reasoning is different. In this theory, Superman is not heroic because, if you’re invulnerable, it takes no courage to rush into danger.  “Superman’s not heroic. Superman’s not brave. If you can’t be hurt, you’ve got nothing to fear. Therefore, your actions aren’t courageous.”

That’s total bullshit.

What those who advance this theory and the Superman-is-dangerous one fail to understand is that Superman chooses to act in defense of humanity.

Superman doesn’t have to save anyone. He could just let life happen around him. The planes could crash. The aliens could invade. The tidal waves could crash into the coast and sweep away thousands of lives.

But wherever he can, Superman refuses to let that happen. He fights against it. He knows he is a god, and he chooses to use his power to protect mortals, demanding nothing in return. Nothing.

Likewise, Superman knows he is a god. He could subjugate humanity. At the very least, he could knock over a small country and rule it. He could steal gold or jewels or money or whatever he wanted and be confident that, short of finding some Kryptonite, there isn’t one thing anyone could do about it.

But he doesn’t. Superman chooses instead to defend humanity. Rather than rule, he serves.

That takes courage. That takes the kind of moral/ethical fiber that few people have. By choosing not to conquer or destroy, by choosing to protect, Superman demonstrates real courage. He doesn’t have to do any of the things he does. He does them only because it’s the right thing to do.

Because the truth is, there is no Superman. There is Clark Kent in a cape. Superman is not Kal-El, son of Jor-El of Krypton. He is Clark Kent, son of John and Martha from Kansas.

These simple farmers took in an orphan. They showed him kindness. They raised him. They taught him their values — that you have to protect the weaker, that you have to serve humanity, that your purpose on Earth (whether you were born here or were rocketed to Earth, the last son of a dying planet) is to make it a better place to live. For everyone.

Superman is a paragon of virtue. Superman is not a dangerous god, who could bad at any moment. He is an inspiration. He is someone to admire. He is, before anything else, human.

Superman is a hero.

And because he has godlike power, he is among the greatest of heroes. He chooses good.

If comic book writers and movie directors want to humanize this strange visitor from another planet, that’s how to do it.

Because that’s who Superman is.

Done, Not Done

Finally!

After months of rewriting an old manuscript, I’ve at last completed the first (sixth) draft of The Armageddon Clock.

Regular readers of this blog know I’ve been struggling. I thought this book would be easier. I had a complete manuscript. I just had to tune up the prose and add in a bunch of things to fit it into established continuity.

But what I actually had to do was add 13 chapters and 22,000 words. To fit it into the established timeline and get rid of the embarrassingly bad writing, the book needed a lot of surgery.

So it was with great relief that I typed the final sentence last week. Yay! Done!

Except, of course, it’s not done. Now I have to read the newly minted sixth draft, edit it, and rewrite it into a seventh draft before sending it to my editor.

So, I’m back at it. I’ve edited 12 chapters so far. Thirty-eight to go.

For a book about a countdown to Doomsday, this is taking an unusually long amount of time.

The End?

Any writer will tell you, writing “The End” is a really satisfying experience. Sure, there’s a lot of editing and rewriting that has to occur, but “The End” feels good. There’s a sense of accomplishment there. Writing a book is hard, and making it to the final words means you’ve done something pretty significant.

I kind of thought I’d be there by now.

My current project is The Armageddon Clock, the final book in the Wolf Dasher series. As I blogged back in January, I’m working from an eight-year-old manuscript that needs some surgery.

I didn’t realize then that the situation was even trickier. In addition to a lot of the prose needing improvement and the old show-versus-tell problem, many of the chapters are too long. The Dasher books are meant to read like an exciting espionage thriller. That means shorter chapters with cliffhanger endings.

I prefer my chapters to be around 3000 words at the longest, and somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words is ideal depending on what’s happening in the narrative.

But I am finding 4000- and 5000-word chapters. And this makes a problem for my writing process. I’ll map out a plan to get two chapters done that day (since I’m rewriting instead of writing). And then one of them will be 5000 words long. So I realize I’ve got to move some of it to a new chapter. Suddenly, my plan to make it through two chapters of the original manuscript results in only one, even though I churned out two chapters of finished product.

Furthermore, The Armageddon Clock was the first Wolf Dasher novel I wrote, but it will be the sixth and final book in the series. So I have to make a bunch of changes and add things that happened in the first five books.

So sometimes, I’ll have a 2500-word chapter, but I need to add a scene to bring the book into the established continuity. And by the time I’m done, that chapter is 4000 words long. So then I think some of this needs to be moved into its own chapter. Or maybe the new material needs to be on its own.

The original manuscript was 37 chapters long. The current one has 35 and the heroes haven’t found the villain’s lair yet.

I can see the ending, but it keeps moving farther away from me. I’d planned to release this book this month, but I haven’t finished writing it yet.

Authoring a novel is an adventure, and each adventure is different.

But this one feels like it’s taking forever. I want to get to the end. I want to move to the next phase — editing.

The book needs to stop moving the finish line on me.

Bringing Order: Approaching my Memoirs from Three Sequences

One of the interesting things about being a writer is seeing a story evolve. You begin with an idea of it in your head, and as you type it into the computer, it grows, changes, morphs into the finished book. And then you edit it, and it changes more.

But what if the story actually happened? What if you’re recounting life events, not making up fiction?

In October of 2014, I began writing a series of mini-memoirs. Over the course of a year, I would pen eight of them. Each was a humorous essay about some aspect of my childhood in the 1970’s. Rather than tell a chronological history of how I grew up, I grouped the books by subject matter. There’s the one about my obsession with superheroes. The one about trying to catch Santa Claus every year. The one about all the dogs we had growing up, etc.

Each is a self-contained piece that doesn’t require you to have read any of the others. Because I was writing humorous essays, there are lots of digressions and little anecdotes that don’t advance the main story.

In other words, reading them all offers a semi-complete but disjointed history of my early life.

So what order do you read them in?

The short answer is, “Any,” but somewhat by accident (and a little bit by design), I’ve offered three distinct paths.

Original Publication

Secret Identity Cover Lo-resThis is the most random path, but there was some method to the madness. I published the books in a particular order that had little to do with the progression of a story arc and more to with marketing reasons.

I led with “Secret Identity: My True-Life Adventure as a Superhero” because I felt it was the strongest. There was a traditional narrative, and the idea of an eight-year-old kid sneaking out of the house after bedtime to fight crime in a cape and mask (while living in the suburbs) was a pretty strong hook.

After that, the calendar dictated my release order. I published the Christmas one in December, the baseball one in time for MLB Opening Day, the Star Wars one in time for Star Wars Day, and so forth.

Thus, if you read them in the order I published the books, you get a fairly random but amusing journey through my childhood. There is little reason behind jumping from one adventure to the next, but you can see the evolution of my style. With each mini-memoir, I grew more confident in how to write them, and you can see me adopting and refining a particular style as I went on.

The books were published in the following order:

“Secret Identity”
“Naughty & Nice”
“Domestic Disturbance”
“Swing and a Miss”
“Rocketed to Earth”
“Are We There Yet?”
“Animal House”
“Gridiron Glory”

Legend in my own Mind

legend cover lo-resI had always intended to collect the minis into a single, more coherent volume, and I did so in December, publishing the collection under the title, Legend in my own Mind. I reordered them to have a partially chronological progression and wrote connecting material to tie it all together. The result is a narrative that puts my overactive imagination front and center.

It also makes my brother (and the accompanying sibling rivalry) and my father (with his Ohio sports loyalties and Depression-era values) critical supporting characters in the story of my youth. Read separately, Dave and Dad are occasional background characters in my adventures. But within Legend in my own Mind, they are primal forces that help drive the action.

“Legend” orders the chapters thus:

“Domestic Disturbance”
“Secret Identity”
“Swing and a Miss”
“Naughty & Nice”
“Animal House”
“Gridiron Glory”
“Rocketed to Earth”
“Are We There Yet?”

Marketing Circle

are we there yet Cover lo-resFollowing the publishing of Legend in my own Mind, I updated the backmatter of each of the mini-memoirs with an excerpt from and an ad for one of the others. Like the ordering of the chapters in “Legend” I chose a very deliberate sequence.

I grouped the minis by subject matter and style. “Secret Identity” leads to “Rocketed to Earth” because they both deal with me imagining myself as a hero and acting on it. “Rocketed to Earth” leads to “Swing and a Miss,” because my Little League baseball team figures in RtE. That leads to “Gridiron Glory,” since SaaM is about baseball and GG is about football. Because sibling rivalry is prominent theme in “Gridiron Glory,” the next book is “Domestic Disturbance.”

And so on. Each books leads to another. And I envision them all as a circle. You can jump in anywhere you like on the daisy chain and read your way around the whole story. The last book leads to the first book, no matter where in the loop you jump in.  So the order looks like this:

“Secret Identity”
“Rocketed to Earth”
“Swing and a Miss”
“Gridiron Glory”
“Domestic Disturbance”
“Naughty & Nice”
“Animal House”
“Are We There Yet?”
“Secret Identity”

So there you have it. Three ways to read the same story, and they all evolved over the course of publishing my childhood memoirs. Pick a path and dive in. Adventure in the decade of Nixon, Ford, and Carter awaits!