A Thousand Roads is OUT!

For those of you not on my newsletter, this is the BIG DAY. After 7 years of work, A Thousand Roads is OUT. No need to repeat myself, so I’ll link you to the newsletter. Sign up if you want to be on future updates (links in the newsletter).

Click the image to open the newsletter:

My newsletter is periodic and focused specifically on my epic fantasy writing and progress on that, whereas this blog will continue to be a freer forum discussing anything from living under the reign of two cats to gardening to the occasional reflections on writing life or writing tips.

Posted in Fantasy, John's blog | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Time in, words out: a writer’s tug-of-war

How do you measure progress at the keyboard?

Many writers like to use word count. A good day’s work is measured based on how many new words you write.

Some writers prefer page count. This is the same as word count, in the sense that it’s based on how much you produce.

Other writers prefer to track time. This is especially true when trying to track yourself during a later draft, or an intensive revision to an editor’s edits.

Regardless of which method you use to measure progress, you’ll always come up against a conundrum, which I like to call the “time in, words out effect”.

Let’s imagine three writers: Joe, Mary, and Angela.

All of them compare their writing progress at the end of a day.

Here’s Joe’s:

  • 5,000 new words on his manuscript

Here’s Mary’s:

  • 4 hours sitting at the keyboard, got through 18th chapter of 6th draft of book

Here’s Angela’s:

  • 10 new pages written, 6 hours total, reviewed 70 pages of old draft and threw away 60 pages

Who of the three was more productive?

It’s tempting to say Joe was the most productive, because writing 5000 new words is pretty impressive.

But writing 5000 new words say nothing about how good those words are. How many of Joe’s bad writing habits are just being repeated and reinforced by writing quickly? How much “lazy writing” is going on in those 5000 words because Joe is in a hurry to write fast to meet his quota? How many poor writing choices are in that 5000-word span of writing because his brain clocked out 1/2 way through and he would have been better taking a break for the day?

Mary’s time at the keyboard might seem better, because it’s based on quality, not quantity. Because Mary isn’t pushing herself toward an artificial goal, this means if she takes 25 minutes on one paragraph to seriously think it all through (it is a 6th draft, after all), then so be it. Mary’s focus is on disciplined time sitting at the computer screen, solving the problems before her one at a time.

The only problem this can present for some writers who follow a similar strategy is, how do you determine if the time logged is truly productive? A word count goal can be great because it helps you determine if you’re producing at an adequate rate or not.

I personally like Angela’s approach the best. On the surface, saying that she took 6 hours to write 10 new pages sounds a bit slow. But when she added that she reviewed 70 pages of her previous draft then discerned from that the best 10 pages to go forward on, I can see her process.

Much of the hard work that makes good writing is rewriting. Much of rewriting involves carefully thinking about the effects your writing is having on a reader. This can’t be measured in word count or page count. Stopping to intuit exactly what touches a sentence needs, or what new direction a paragraph or even a scene needs to take, carefully thinking about what the heck is wrong here then nailing that right on the head and, on top of this all, finding the perfect remedy, well, that’s fucking hard work. It’s a tug-of-war between producing new material and checking yourself against integrating deadwood.

However you measure progress, the key, I think, comes down to one idea:

Butt in the chair, eyes and mind on the story.

Do that, and the results, though fun and helpful to measure, are secondary.

What kind of writer are you? How do you like to measure progress? I’d love to hear in the comments!

 

Posted in John's blog, Writing Tips | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The art of rewriting: getting the most development mileage from your edits

I work with an amazingly talented writing client. Every week for 39 weeks now, he’s submitted his novel-in progress, usually 10-20 pages each week.

We’ve made it through draft 1. We took a short break where I did an analysis of the entire draft and made some road-map revision notes for a draft 2. We jumped right into draft 2, once the creative energy was cooking and we decided we were both ready, like boxers on a time out, focused, ready for round 2.

We’re now almost 2/3 through the 2nd draft, and the transformation is amazing.

One technique where this writer excels is the ability to rewrite. I’ll talk more about what I mean by that. But first, a bit of context.

Near the end of draft 1, we had a moment of despair, the round 1 knockout where you don’t think you’re getting back up.

“Should I just scrap this draft and write draft 2 as a fresh take?” was the question that came in, with just a few chapters to go.

“No,” I reassured. “Get to the end. Give yourself permission to write a crappy draft, knowing you can rewrite and make the next one better.”

Get all the cards on the table was another analogy I gave him. Throw everything down, so you an see how it all adds up. That includes the fuck-ups. The only thing worse than a bad draft is an unfinished one.

He persevered. And the end was impressive despite the qualms. What it allowed us both to see is how all the momentum generated by the draft came together. It allowed us to see this author’s vision for his story, and where all his characters would end up.

It let us see just what draft 2 had to be.

With this comes the art of rewriting. Let’s talk about what that means, because I often find many writers I converse with use “revision” and “rewriting” interchangeably.

Rewriting is a part of revision. What most people think of as “revision” though looks like this:

The cat went down to the street, and walked back to the pub with a pint.

(revised:)

The cat went to the street, returning to the pub with a pint.

Rewriting, on other hand, looks like this:

The street was dark. In the shadows, the cat crept, unseen by humans, a pint in its hand. No one realized, in their day-to-day bustle, that the world of cats was as advanced as that of humans.

The first example of “revised” text shows a common problem writers face when revising: getting locked in the grid of your words. When you pass over your manuscript trying to “improve” you usually take it as a given that you have to keep your old words. You see where you’re impressed with yourself, but not where others won’t be. If there’s a dialog between characters, you keep that dialog. If there’s a particular plot, or order of events, you keep that too.

Rewriting, though, means you can do whatever you want. There are no limits.

Usually, to rewrite, you need an objective professional, like an editor. This is the best way to truly push you to make the more radical changes that require rewriting. This is the way to turn okay writing into amazing writing.

In the above example, I imagined, as a writer, that my editor had gone over that passage and said, “Why the HELL is a cat walking with a pint to a pub?” And I imagined what kind of rewriting I might do, especially if this were the opening to a story about cats who have sentient lives analogous to humans, in a sort of Harry-Potter-esque parallel universe. I definitely don’t think that writing was amazing, but it illustrates the point well enough.

What my weekly writing client excels at is this art of rewriting. This week, and in many of the previous weeks, he’s doubled down on my prompts to treat draft one as, essentially, a very large outline of how the book could possibly work.

It’s let us develop a good strategy:

When going over a next draft, form a binary orientation to your story:

  • This passage is GREAT and is the gold worth saving
  • This passage ISN’T GREAT and must be rewritten so I can find more gold worth saving

Revision, then, is the art of passing over and over and rewriting the latter parts, until there are none of them left.

With this art of rewriting, your protagonist can go on a whole new adventure that develops her inner character journey within the expectations of the genre plot. In the case of my client, his novel is a detective novel, but it’s also heavily about personal transformation brought on by the external conflict. Knowing this, my writing client has doubled down week after week making new narrative choices.

-New characters speak who didn’t speak in the last draft. GOLD, worth keeping.

-Passive reflection turns into moments of transformation. GOLD, worth keeping.

-The forces of antagonism emerge in new character confrontations, heightening conflict. GOLD, worth keeping.

There are still some notes on how to improve, as we go through this draft, but because we’ve learned to trust this rewriting principle, it’s now a no-brainer when I leave in a comment, “This is a draft 3 prompt.”

Permission to fail means ability to focus on the success now that matters, and trust that failure now can be fodder for success to come.

Wherever you’re at in your manuscript, I hope you also are enjoying the power of rewriting, and the art of refining, as one draft leads to another, and slowly, gold predominates the amazing story you soon will be ready to share with the world.

Posted in John's blog, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Your perfect writing week vs your real writing week

You can’t be perfect with your writing every week.

As much as we want to hit our word count goals, or make progress in our current draft just like we said we would, the fact remains that when we make these kinds of promises we are just guessing.

That said, you can still become good at guessing. Here’s one way I’ve learned to do it quite well:

  • Record your progress week after week
  • Keep a running list of your results for 5 sample weeks
  • As you get well past 5 weeks, keep the 5 sample weeks that most accurately reflect your performance

For example, I record exactly how much time I spend on reading and writing every day. I keep the tally for the week on a small sticky note I attach to my phone case. Every Sunday, I total my week.

I’ve been doing this for about 20 weeks now, and because of this, I’ve been able to notice the following:

  • On a “very bad week” I only get in about 17-18 hours total
  • Typically, I get in a little over 20
  • Occasionally, I can get in over 25 hours
  • Very, very rarely can I get more than 30 hours, even though my goal is 33 (20% of the 168 hours in the week, according to the Pareto Principle)

What I like about this method of tracking is, it’s realistic. I’m not beating myself up week after week for “failing”.

I learned this method by analogy from how I do my workout.

I follow a fixed routine of sets that cover a variety of exercises, i.e. deadlifts, bench press, barbell row, etc.

I do 5 sets of each:

  • 1 light weight (~50-70 reps)
  • 3 medium weight (~30-40 reps)
  • 1 heavy weight (~5-10 reps)

I track my progress on a spreadsheet. Instead of pushing artificially, I simply track how I do, then next time I complete my sets, I compare my results. I shoot for the same, or slightly better. If I do worse, that’s okay, because sometimes you have to fall back and build back up.

But I’m not shooting for artificial results that aren’t based on the reality of how I’ve seen my body perform.

Writing is the same. Your goal is, week after week, to figure out what you can put in to move forward.

This week was a “failure” for me, if I believe in the mindset of shooting for the “perfect standard”, 20% of my time committed to reading and writing. If I looked at it that way, I’d feel bad that it’s Sunday and I’m well short of even 20 hours.

But under this healthier mindset of tracking and comparing, I can see that, actually, I got 18.5 hours of reading and writing done.

That’s 18.5 hours of work. That’s better than 5 hours. That’s better than 10. That’s better, even, than 15.

Sure, it’s not 20. Sure, it’s not 25.

But procrastination is a greedy monster. It will eat you, if you don’t eat it first. So whatever you carve out, it’s better than the zero you’re guaranteed if you don’t take a small step forward.

The beautiful thing about starting small and learning just what you can do, is you start doing. Starting doing is the first step toward doing more.

The other danger though is doing too much. With this comes burnout.

It’s Sunday. Sure, I could push and get in 4 hours, burn the midnight oil. I’ve done it before, and know I have it in me.

But I’m mentally exhausted. The only thing I’ll get out of pushing for 4 hours today is 4 hours of written words, and 4 hours off a good sleep that will recharge me to have a great day tomorrow. 4 hours toward starting Monday on the wrong foot, and 4 hours toward possibly screwing up the week.

Instead, there is no fail for me. There’s simply the act of logging the hours, and checking out where they fit in my running list of 5 sample weeks. Learn and accept.

Hey! Actually, jotting this week’s “failure” down I see this is far from my worst week ever.

So there we go. Sunday is done, the next week is coming. And this next week is going to be amazing. I can already feel it, especially with the great sleep I’m going to get tonight, and all the energy zinging in my creative batteries.

Fellow writers, remember that regardless of what kind of week you have with writing, it’s never truly a failure. Look for progress, even if it’s small.

Ask yourself: where has your writing practice evolved since the same time last week? How have you grown and improved as a writer, in your vision and skill, not just the words on the page?

Here’s to a great week, and many more to come!

Posted in John's blog | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Iliad: a review

I do not usually post my book reviews on my blog, though Goodreads does have a link to past reviews (right-hand column). As I’ve run out of things to blog about, at least for the present, I figure I’ll start posting book reviews here as well, for further visibility.

Enjoy!

>>>>

[read the review on my Goodreads page]

This book was an epic undertaking for me. In total, I recorded 137 hours of reading time that went into processing it fully. Even A Clash With Kings, a 1300 page epic fantasy, took me 50 hours to read, so this truly was the most complex read I’ve done to date. (For what it’s worth, though I am a slow reader, a typical “simple” genre fiction or nonfiction novel usually takes me about 5-8 hours to read.)

Reviewing this book is difficult. A review about the book itself feels pointless, since this is one of the oldest books in existence, and a foundation of not just the epic fantasy tradition, but much of literature, even culture. Enough has been written about it, so I cannot add anything that I feel is useful. My review then would be more about my experience of 137 hours with Homer and his words, as presented by the brilliant and meticulous translator, Robert Fagles.

That itself is probably what stands out most in this copy of the Iliad I read. Put together by Penguin Classics, the book gave me the experience of getting lost in analysis of Homer’s hypnotic poetics. I might have taken 137 hours to read and analyze this text, but that’s a fraction of the time Fagles spent over the 2 decades of his research he committed to writing the translation presented in this book. Some purists would say without reading the Greek, one cannot truly appreciate the Iliad, but Fagles has given enough notes (including a glossary with notes on every name, including pronunciations), that as a writer reading to improve my writing (and not a classics scholar), I did not feel in reading the English prose that I was missing the appreciation for the source material. The essay by Bernard Knox at the beginning is itself a masterpiece, 60 pages of analysis that set my expectations correctly when I began the translation proper, without which I would have felt I was just jumping into some poetry that would invoke soon images of Brad Pitt on the shores of Troy.

Reading this book was a true maturation process for me personally, in that it has instilled an endurance for me with reading itself. Whereas my past tendency has been to feel I should be rushing faster through books, to read more, this book taught me the importance of doing the opposite. True, there are millions of books, and there are so many to read. But does it really matter if you’ve read 2000 books, or 5000, or 700 that you know intimately like your own soul? What does it mean to read, to sit and immerse yourself in text and the existential experience of it?

That was the main takeaway for me from reading this copy of The Iliad. How fitting for a book whose origin might indeed have been the origin itself of writing stories down using the new invention brought to Ancient Greece by the Phoenicians, which later would become our Latinized scripts. How fitting to contemplate just what it means to sit and read a book when reading a book whose author was taking an innovative leap — daring to write down what could only be spoken, daring to capture the fleeting, the auditory and dramatic experience that would ever change unless it was copied into a form that would live longer than the short life of mortals. How fitting for me, a writer struggling to do the same, to sink into this foundation, and emerge a butterfly.

I look forward to reading many more books, but will read none of them the same thanks for the experience of this book, this rite of passage. Onward I go to Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, Vicious by V.E. Schwab, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Middlemarch by George Eliot, the Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Leguin. The Iliad and Homer will shine like a bright sun, and will draw me inevitably back to the Greek world, via the Odyssey and other works translated by Robert Fagles, such as the Aeneid and the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus.

If you are considering reading some of the classics, especially a book like the Iliad, I highly recommend this translation presented by Penguin Classics. It presents a powerful intermediate between old, stuffy and outdated translations, and modernized, simplified texts that lose context. This book is fucking hard to read, but in the form it’s been presented by Fagles, it becomes a labor of love, not unnecessary torture.

I now have a column of books in my office by Penguin Classics, inspired by the experience reading this book, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which will help me tap into some foundation reading amidst my diversified pile over the next 8 or so years I spend writing my next book. I am truly grateful that Penguin has put together the classics in this form and that I discovered them through this version of the Iliad.

So here I conclude a different kind of review, about the value of reading a book, rather than the book itself. Those 137 hours will instead go into decades of inspiration that has rocked the universe of my fiction-making mind, and that defies any attempt to distill it into a review, but for those who want it, I would add:

Most ideas I had about what I thought the Iliad was were wrong. Basing it on the movie Troy, or even the slightly more accurate Troy: Fall of A City put out by Netflix, misses the mark. This book is not about a war or heroes or Greek gods. It is about the rage of Achilles, and that as a metaphor to appreciate the tragedy of war as it was perceived in the ancient world at a time when agricultural innovation was evolving into a new problem: that of alienation of neighbour from neighbour, through the guise of the great city and its walls and its deep treasury to be looted. How we rage over what has been denied us, and so exacerbate that into full-scale wars and impersonal conflicts, when in fact, like Achilles and Priam clasping hands, the true solution — uniting in compassion, empathy, understanding, setting aside ego — eludes us until the moment when it is too late. What a tragedy, that whole matter, and it is this itself that is Homer’s point. Not that there is a solution or a way out, but simply that this conflict has to exist when we, in our roots, evolved from cooperating tribes trying to work together to survive, and stopped learning how to share, and forgot how to be one family. What a tragedy, this rage of man against man.

A powerful book, and relevant in our day today, and in any future day so long as we live in strife and xenophobia and egotism, a true mirror into the collective human soul, as captured immortality by Homer’s hypnotic brilliance, to take that daring leap and write down a story, that it might live on and on, in many a heart and mind, that we might be forced to contemplate this fundamental, most important truth — this horror and injustice, this rage of Achilles — for many generations to come…for as long as it is relevant, living on like the glory of Achilles promised when he chose vengeance instead of long life and peace.

Posted in Blood Dawn, Fantasy, John's blog | Tagged | 2 Comments

Learn Something New Every Day

In the last year, I have learned a lot about myself as a writer. Probably the most unexpected lesson: I enjoy writing educational nonfiction.

I’ve written 12 courses now on the platform Highbrow (click here to see all my courses). I’m presently finishing my 13th. Writing these courses has been a great way to balance the longer time commitment of writing a fantasy epic by writing shorter projects in a different genre.

I started writing for Highbrow because I was a student of their courses and enjoy the format. The setup is great for anyone who wants to learn something new every day:

  1. You sign up for a course of interest (they have 300+ courses, which you can view here)
  2. Every day for 10 consecutive days, you receive a short lesson (500-700 words). It only takes 5 minutes to read
  3. If you sign up for a year, you can take 36 courses. This means you can have something new to learn every single day

Highbrow is also continually growing. It was mentioned by Writer’s Digest last year as an important resource for writers and has been recognized in the New York Times and Time magazine.

To this day, I keep my Highbrow course queue full and continually learn something new. Right now, I’m working through a course on the mad world of Roman Emperors. Probably my all-time favorite course was How to Read and Retain More.

If you decide to try Highbrow out, but are worried about getting overwhelmed with 10 emails each course you sign up for, remember you can always open and star each email, then read them later.

If you’re a writer interested in teaching through writing, Highbrow also is looking for good writers to become teachers. Check out their call for more teachers here. They have 400,000+ subscribers, so your lessons will get traction. The Highbrow team is also great and will work with you to help you pick a popular topic. They edit and produce your course, so you need only focus on putting together great material and doing your research.

If you’re not sure of the format, I recommend you take a few courses and see. Here are my latest courses:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I really can’t recommend Highbrow enough, and will write for them as long as they are willing, and I’ll keep taking courses as well.

Speaking of which, time to get back to work on my 13th course, this one on meditation techniques. As fall gets closer and the 2nd draft of Blood Dawn approaches, this is the perfect way to recharge my batteries and push that writing to a new edge.

Posted in John's blog, Writing Tips | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Every word is not enough

As I come up for air from 7 months of intensive revision, I come up with some perspective.

Writers are told that every word must count. As I’m learning, that’s not enough.

It’s difficult in draft 1, 2, or even 3, to make every chapter count. But making every sequence of paragraphs count is even harder, and that’s not even par. Making every paragraph count, and then every sentence, well, that’s just getting started. It’s no wonder I’m on draft 8 of my book, 1300 hours in, 7 years later, 6 editors and counting, and just now am I starting to get to grips with how to economize on every sentence.

There’s a reason we kill our darlings. Not just because we have to be evil writers, but because almost is never good enough. It’s not putting out a book we bank on, but putting out a book that will be remembered. This is tough work!

Making every word count, even that isn’t enough. Every syllable matters sometimes, and beyond that, every single character. Visual clutter will lose readers. To make a book work, every single line of text must carry the reader from the beginning to end, so much so they’d rather lose sleep than stop reading.

I used to think there was a formula to this. Draft 6 = sentence perfection, draft 7 = word perfect, and so on. This is simply not so. Sometimes, to get every word just right, it requires insight gained from 8 takes, getting it wrong every time, but getting other things right, and then that insight, being there in that moment when you finally get it, exactly what this paragraph needs, and all the words that flow are gold.

Never give up. Your story might feel rough and you might feel like a crappy writer, but gold is just shiny rock when it’s trapped in ore. Some writers prefer to keep writing 1st drafts, in hope they’ll eventually get it right, or throw their hands in the air at draft 4 and say, “Good enough, time to publish.”

I don’t think there ever is good enough. A book can always be better. We publish so we can share, but there’s a reason authors release 2nd editions, and 3rd and 4th.

I also don’t think one should just revise for revision sake. I’m on the 8th draft of my book, but only because the 7th draft left an enormous loose end that I simply had to fix, and knew it wouldn’t come to me without a rest. Going over draft after draft without writing other things in between is like being a dog chasing your tail. Fixing words and typos does not improve a book. A new draft can be as radical as a new book, built from the previous mould, but that requires perspective gained from writing other things. Even as I write this, and know my book will be published soon in print, I know it needs a 9th draft, though that will come near the end of the year, when I go over it all again to record it as an audiobook. Less and less will change, of course (even now I am limited in changing anything to the story that would change the presently published ebook), but there will be those moments where silver is spotted, and thrown away for gold, or some debris slipped past my tires eyes (I’ve been working on the 8th draft since December, and so far have clocked close to 200 hours of labor).

I might sound like a perfectionist. I’d say no. I’m a novelist, and I’d think any other kindred spirit out there would relate. Art is never finished, only abandoned, and it always gets better, our vision honed sharper though it.

In a way, it is a live performance, the audience waiting. You never know what could happen next, what improvisation might surprise. At any rate, 8 drafts and 7 years of work will produce a pretty good book, and I’m excited to unveil it in print format soon.

Those on my newsletter, get excited! The big announcement of the date is coming. But meanwhile, let’s find out how that last Game of Thrones episode is going to play out.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments