Writing fast

So it’s the end of March and I’m looking at where I am with my writing. My goal is to write 300,000 words during the course of the year. Publishable words, that is. Certainly the goal is changing as I go, and feedback on the rejections, the hold-requests and acceptances is helping with my focus (I did add into the goal that I also want to publish 300,000 words during the year – not counting reprints).

One thing I hadn’t figured on, however, was a big change in the structure of tutoring: much more online, more hours and more deadlines spread through the year. I had been looking at having big blocks of time between the portfolios to really focus on writing, and those blocks have turned out to be very small. This spread has, at the moment, meant that I’m writing alongside the tutoring and so, somehow, still maintaining my minimum of 1000 words a day (I do have a day job as well as the part-time tutoring in case you think I’m just goofing off).

I have written a complete novel, seven stories of various lengths (from 665 words up to 13,000) and I’m currently half-way through the next novel. The first novel has been (self) published, as have four of the stories (two under pen names) – one of those on MicroHorror, rather than self-published (that’s the 665 word flash fiction piece). The other stories are on submission with publishers, or still being tinkered with (I might be writing pulp, but I’m going to fine-tune the literary story for the national competition).

So, a quarter of the way through the year and I’m just a little ahead of a quarter of my publishing target (80,000 words published) and more than halfway towards my total goal: more than 150,000 words written so far. I’m surprised, stunned and stoked that it’s going this well this early. I don’t know if I’ll manage another 150,000 in the next quarter (tutoring does hot-up a little), but the momentum is there. And I still have more ideas than I have time to write.

Writing well and writing badly

As I progress through my “year of writing pulp”, I’m certainly learning a lot about myself as a writer. As with any writer, I have ups and downs and I have stories that are more successful (in the storytelling sense) than others. Sometimes it’s easy to feel down when a story isn’t working out. I begin to wonder if I’ll ever have another decent story in me. I guess I’m always measuring against my last best story. And that may be two or three (or more?) stories back.

The reality is that (as with most writers again) I feel like I’m getting better in general. See the graph of story quality here, with the zero to one hundred as the quality measure and the left to right as progress over time. In the early days most (ie, all) of my stories were lousy (say, a fifteen on the quality scale – at least they had reasonable grammar), but over time I’m getting better at the process of storytelling. Sometimes I stumble a little and drop down the quality line, but the general trend seems to be towards the upper end. (You understand, of course, that the ‘quality’ graph here is a purely arbitrary thing, for the sake of illustration. It’s not something I can measure in a scientific way).

This thought perhaps comes out of struggling with a chapter of my new novel that felt dead and lifeless and was a struggle to write; and then going into the next chapter which almost burned up my keyboard it was coming out so fast and easily. A novel is different to a story (that dull-ish chapter has a place in terms of pace and the mindset of the character), though I can see how some of my stories might have been dullish in places (or right through).

Pace is still something I’m learning about – recent rejection letter feedback suggested that one of my longer stories, while very good, did “drag quite a bit in quite a few places”. That’s kind of the opposite to some other feedback on another story (an accepted one – “Pan Am 617 Heavy”, which you can read here at Bewildering Stories) that pointed out (rightly) that the story was “somewhat relentless: the action is non-stop and neither the characters, nor the reader, seem to get a moment to breathe” (I’m paraphrasing those comments here). That kind of feedback certainly informa how I’m looking at my action/pulp stories now: time to breathe without dragging. It seems like good writing advice all around.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to improving on my last best story.

Book in hand, typos… in hand

The proof copy of the paperback edition of The Tunnel arrived today. It’s very cool, I’ve got to say, to hold the physical result in my hands (as you can see from that goofy grin). The idea of a proof copy, I guess, is that final check before it gets properly published. I knew there would be some tinkering with the cover to do, but what I didn’t expect was to open it up and spot a typo immediately. This is after three proofreads (one by me, and one by someone else [who’s not to blame at all!] and another by me). It’s just a silly thing too – an “at” when it should be “as” – which makes that sentence (“And as Morgan was leaving…”) make no sense at all. Guess I’m going to have to proof the whole thing again. I might have to do that backwards. At least I know that the ebook version is correct (checked it just now – I guess I got the paperback proof printed before that final proofread. Silly).

Tutoring begins, writing slows

Well, I knew this day would come and I’ve planned for it, I just hadn’t been sure that I’d be quite as far ahead of my writing goals, nor that I would be able to time the beginning of tutoring to fit with exactly what I’m writing. (I tutor in, you guessed it, creative writing).

I’m deep into the next novel (well, 18,000 words), but took a break a couple of weeks ago to write some short/long stories. I should finish the third of those today or tomorrow, then I’ll go back to the novel. That novel will be in three parts, with a long passage of time between each (the first part set in 1996, the second – which I’m about to start – in 2002, and the third will be current), so a break at the end of the first part feels healthy: the characters will have developed and that break should give me a slightly different perspective.

For the next four or five weeks I won’t be able to keep up my 1000+ words a day as I’ve been doing all year (actually much more on average, my lowest daily count was 1010 words, highest over 5500 – the total is just on 130,000 for the 75 days of 2012). It’s going to be hard to slow down, I think, but will likely help with the novel – it might be a little more considered and evenly paced. 500 a day would be nice, but it might be more like 250. Still, that’s about a page. I definitely want to hit 150,000 words by the middle of the year, and do think that with the breaks in tutoring it will be quite possible. It would be good, I think, to get this novel finished by then, and be thinking about the next one.Oh, plus a couple of stories in there too.

On the reading side, I’ve just finished Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s City of Ruins – a sci fi adventure following on from Diving into the Wreck (and numerous stories). It was a fun romp. It seemed to start a little slow, but picked up quickly and became utterly compelling. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series – (Boneyards) – which is actually already out.

Now I’m finally picking up John Irving’s Until I Find You, which somehow I missed reading when it came out. I loved Last Night in Twisted River which I did read when that came out over a year ago – actually one of my favourites of his. I expect I’ll enjoy this one. I know I’ll be reading it slow (see notes on being busy above), but actually, that’s just fine.

2012 writing goals

Following Jeff Ambrose’s post on his word count goals, I’ve been looking at what I’m keen to achieve in 2012. Similar to Jeff, I can write around 1000 words an hour, though with a full-time job, and a part-time job (which I may or may not have again 2012), I’m pretty committed time-wise. Add in family time and so on I figure I can manage to write like this:

1000 words a day. Some days it will be 2000, some days – as when I get to take a retreat – it might be 8000), but say an average of 1000 words a day. That’s finished, polished, ready to publish words. I’ve been thinking about some of the things Dean Wesley Smith has to say about too much rewriting and revising, and realize that many of my stories are strongest in their first-draft version and that too much polishing might strengthen the writing, but weaken the story. I’m going with story and will trust my writing to be coherent. I will still have readers, do proof-reading and spell-checking. This does contradict what I said in an interview with Shells Walter, but I guess I’m coming from a new place now.

365 days in the year. Tutoring takes four blocks of three weeks. I write a little bit during these periods, but not enough to count on. So that leaves 280 writing days.

280,000 words then. Okay, I’m going to make that 300,000 – a bit more of an even number to shoot for. For twenty days I’m going to have to write 2000, rather than 1000 words. In some ways it sounds kind of low – 1000 words is easy, but I liked the thoughtful way that Jeff was very practical about his goals, figuring in a little bit of life as well.

300,000 words. How will I spend that?

If I write two novels at 75,000 words, that’s 150,000. A couple of short novels at 25,000 words – novellas, I guess – so that’s another 50,000. Say five long stories at 10,000 and ten short stories at 5,000. That’s 300,000. Some of the stories will be shorter, some perhaps longer. Maybe one of the full novels will be 60,000 words. I’ll keep at that target of 300,000, adding in some stories as I go.

I know some of the stories I want to write. Three for short story contests in New Zealand (actually all have word limits around 3,000 so there is a little space for more stories). Four stories for international competitions. Stories to sent to the pro mags, and some to put up with Triple V Publishing.

I have ideas for the novels, enough to write an outline and get underway. Once I have a start point, and an end in mind I’ll just go.

I guess I should do monthly progress reports too.

Anyway, thanks Jeff and Dean, for helping to point the way.

Frantically editing the novel

Late post here – I spent the weekend editing the novel and re-writing the last chapter. Mostly the edits are okay – minor changes to sentence flow here and there, for the most part it seems to be working, though that may all change when the editor looks at it. What did need a lot of work was the ending – it was all over too suddenly, so I have rewritten that from scratch. The 400 word final chapter has become three 500 word chapters and rounds it out much better. Of course it’s still draft material, and will take some revising, but it fits the pace and tone better so I feel a little closer to the end. I do want to get it submitted before I’m too caught up in tutoring. That was my weekend.

Writing retreat – a new approach


I’ve been back for about ten days now from my nine-day retreat to the Foxton Beach writing house and I’m still working through what I achieved. I went with a very different approach to other times I’ve been on retreat. Usually what I do is have a specific project to write and I’m starting on a first draft – whether that be an adult novel, a young adult novel, a long short story or what-have-you. I go in with just ideas, perhaps an outline, and start writing.

This time I took a bunch of first draft manuscripts with me. I had ten stories. About half were flash-fiction (under 1000 words), the others longer (though nothing over 3500 words). These were rough manuscripts that varied in quality from fairly complete and structurally sound, to wobbly attempts where I’d just been keeping up the momentum of writing. Often I just have one or two manuscripts underway at once – often I’m too impatient to put things aside for a longer period (which any 101 writing book/course/etc. will tell you is what is important: put it aside for a week or a month and come back with fresh eyes).

Here’s the upshot.

  1. One of the stories has been abandoned entirely – I will use the idea and scenario for a full rewrite, but the pacing, tone and resolution were all too far out of whack to be able to mould or revise the existing story into any semblance of sense.
  2. Three of the stories need to sit for a while longer.  In part because I need to do some more research on boxing, on free-diving, on deep sea pressures, but also because there are some other issues that I will need to take some time with.  Overall, though, they are structurally fairly good, the characters and situations work and I’m pretty happy.
  3. Three more of the stories are pretty close to ready.  The structure is good, the pace about what I’m looking for.  What they need now is polishing to make the writing flow.
  4. The last three are done.  They were close to what I wanted from the beginning.  I spent the time at the retreat working on their endings and some polishing.  In the time since I’ve come back, I have done that final polishing and have submitted these three to various publishers.  One has already been accepted, yay (for Lame Goat Press’s Flash! anthology of flash fiction).

That’s it. I’m stoked about how productive the retreat was – using the space to do editing and reflecting was, I think, a more productive use of my time than had I gone in with a blank page (not to say that blank page is bad, just that this approach worked for me this time).

So now my task is to keep tinkering with those last six plus one stories.  I have drafted one new story in the meantime, and begun work on a from-scratch rewrite of the dud story from point 1 above.  Of course there is still the question of the novel.  My Galley proof arrived yesterday, so I will be working through that to make sure it’s working for me before I do the final submission to the publisher.

Reading for writing #1 – plot

Writing involves lots of elements – voice, character, style, plot, structure, etc. I find that whatever I’m reading at a given moment influences how I write, so I try to be a little more targeted when I’m working on a big project. During the outline phase of my novel, I tried to read more for plot, to get a sense of pace and how things fit together. These are some of the books I read during that period:

Reading for plot:
Jack Kilborn, Afraid. This is a pacy thriller with a twisted plot, lots of strands. Sometimes a little unbelievable, but it’s all good fun. File under Rollercoaster.
James Patterson, When the Wind Blows. Again, pacy, action-filled, slightly stretching credulity, but loads of tense fun. I read this without realising that it was kind of linked to the Maximum Ride series.
Matthew Reilly, Seven Ancient Wonders, I already mentioned Reilly in an earlier blog. Also under Rollercoaster.

The plot in the draft did diverge somewhat from my intitial outline, but of course, that was influenced by other things as I worked.

Next “Reading for writing” post – style

Writing a novel – the sountrack: individual albums, post 1

My earlier posts about the music I listened to as I wrote, were broad genre strokes, to give a general sense of what was inspiring my writing musically. I thought I’d do some about specific albums:

Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne is a few years old now, but it strikes me as one of the few albums around that’s pretty even – not like one of those with two awesome songs and a boatload of filler. Part of what makes the album so good is how the guys borrow freely: it’s an unabashed rock but sometimes it’s a little emo (Mexican Wine), sometimes a little bit country (Hung up on you). Certainly I have my favourite tracks – Bright Future in Sales, Supercollider – but it’s an album I can just stick on, crank up, and write to for an hour. The subsequent albums Out of State Plates (b-sides) and Traffic and Weather didn’t quite do it for me, but Fountains of Wayne, finally, have a new album out – haven’t heard it yet, but I have high hopes.

Currently listening to: True Blood Soundtrack. Nice mix.

Story endings

I was going to continue my reading list, and write about endings a few posts from now, however I’ve just finished the first read-through of my novel’s draft. Bleh. Endings. Lots of work to do now.

Endings seem like a tricky thing. Some writers can write brilliant endings, others not so much. Right now I know where the story needs to go, and it does tie up okay, all the threads are brought together and resolved. At the moment it does seem that I will need to do much work on those last couple of pages as I will on the whole rest of the whole book. Whew.

John Irving is one of those authors whose endings I admire. Irving says he starts with the end and builds the story towards that: “I always begin with a last sentence; then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin.” He rarely changes as much as a comma in that sentence. My favourite of his novels – A Prayer for Owen Meany – is a prime example. The end of the book is extraordinary: even on re-reads when I know what’s going to happen, the end moves me to tears.

Often when I’m writing a short story, I try to do something similar – have a final sentence in mind and write the story to reach that point. I often feel that these have been my most successful stories – see Eddie’s on Fire or Breathe In where I’ve had an ending in mind and looked back for the start of the story.

So what am I going to do with the ending of my novel? The end I had in mind when I began, isn’t quite the end that I’ve arrived at. It works, to an extent, but it needs to be right. I’ve started work on it, developing and extending – the main problem was it was all over too suddenly: 300 words, and not especially good words. The final scene probably needs 1000 and every one has gotta shine like a diamond. It has to be a singularity. I have my work cut out for me, but I will make it.

The last sentence? That might take as much work as everything else. Combined.