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

How to do a developmental edit: understanding how it works before you hire an editor

You’ve likely heard the term “developmental editing” tossed around. The term will vary from editor to editor, much like how “hot yoga” can mean a lot, depending on which studio you go to.

This is because editing has become the Wild West of publishing. We can thank the rise of online publishing for this. Before the 1990s, editing services were mostly limited to the traditional publishing houses. Editors who freelanced on the side were mostly helping writers strengthen their books for submission.

There was no need to look past the “editor” hat and talk about developmental editing, substantive editing, or structural editing.

But that’s all changed with self-publishing. It is now the new frontier for authors who aren’t just strengthening manuscript for a publisher. Self-publishing authors have to emulate the steps involved in a publishing house, and in fact, they have the opportunity to do even better by hiring the right team and understanding the process well.

The most important first step is understand what a developmental edit is.

To put it in perspective, let’s talk about three kinds of editors you might encounter.

The cheerleader editor:

Many authors who pay for developmental editing end up disappointed because of what I like to call the cheerleader editor.

They might receive an abundance of comments like:

  • “Oooooh, I love the suspense here! Great plotting.”

Or:

  • “This scene is dragging, really need to rewrite.”

You might get some suggestions, but you’ll mostly find their edits consist of fixing typos, cutting repetitive words (i.e. overuse of “that”), tweaking commas, and occasionally reordering phrases.

But these are the kinds of edits you mom, spouse, or good friend could give you. They are what you might expect from a beta reader you’ve asked to read for input on your book. They aren’t worth $60/hour.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with an editor who adds compliments, or adds comments about pacing and assess reader engagement. I personally make sure I add these into every editing job I do. There’s nothing like an uplifting compliment when you are wading through hundreds of critical edits. It reminds you that, though your editor is doing their job well and thoroughly, they are still thinking about the value of your story and enjoying it.

Side note: an editor should always be honest, otherwise what are you paying them for? When I’ve encountered a story that’s falling flat and giving me nothing to cheer for, I stop while I’m ahead and prepare an editorial letter for the author suggesting revisions. The only thing worse than paying an editor $60/hour for a meticulous developmental edit is paying them $60/hour for a developmental edit on a book that you’ll later wish you’d put away for a while, or not published at all if you’d been better advised.

The show-off editor:

At the other extreme is the show-off editor. Their comments might look like this:

  • “The character arc here is failing to execute due to how the tension between plot and theme are intersecting. I recommend you consult Joyce and Wilde for structural comparisons, and draw from archetypes.”

Or:

  • “The symbolism in this scene is very powerful. Great choice of imagery to match the idea of an ascending spirit, as per the overarching theme of the book. Conjures images of Proust.”

These are the kinds of comments you’d expect from a pretentious book reviewer, or a literary critic, or someone making notes for their university literature class. These comments are absolutely useless to a writer who is trying to determine exactly what revisions they need to do in the limited time they have without pulling their hair out and throwing their computer out the window.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with an editor paying attention to symbolism or theme, or mood or style comparisons. Just like adding compliments, it shows additional perspective if an editor can, when relevant, point out how your novel is fulfilling its genre expectations, or how well your writing executes the tension of a suspenseful scene.

Side note: in a developmental edit, an editor will summarize global comments in categories, such as genrecharacters, plot, scene execution, and craft. You can expect to see some analysis and comparisons to other existing books, consideration of genre expectations, analysis of plot holes, and discussion on your craft habits and craft conventions. There might be some notes in the manuscript accompanying the edits themselves, but these should feel secondary. You will have a sense of the edits that are local, i.e. assessed for each specific line given the context of that line, vs edits that are global, i.e. broader perspective notes tacked in a given place, but which apply to a larger arc.

For example, sometimes when I have an overarching remark on a plot issue that’s developed across a sequence of chapters, I will put a comment right on the header of the first chapter and say in the note something to the effect, “This comment applies to the chapter 12-16 arc. I will label comments related to this in bold font with the label ’12-16 note’.” What this allows me to do is communicate clearly with the author how that exact comment fits, in a global sense, with other specific comments unified under one specific editing issue.

The Goldilocks editor:

Somewhere “just right” in the middle between the two extremes is the Goldilocks editor. You’ll find these sorts of edits:

  • “I rearranged these two sentences because we want to ensure cause before effect.”
  • “I’ve rephrased this to avoid the passive construction, and disembodied description (see editorial letter on disembodied description habits).”
  • “You can cut this sentence. The thought is already implied by what she says in the previous sentence, and reader will infer via subtext. Especially here, you want to avoid over-narrating because it slows the pace of the dialogue.”

You’ll notice that one thing all these edits have in common: they refer to specific in-line changes and suggestions. They augment real edits you can work with. Your editor isn’t just phoning it in and telling you, with a hand-waving ease, “You need to rewrite this, it’s boring.” Your editor is giving you a prescription.

That’s a good word because of the analogy. If you went to a doctor with a health concern and the doctor just told you, “It sounds like you might be having warning signs of a stroke,” then sent you home, that would be useless. You aren’t going to the doctor just to be told you have a serious medical condition. You’re going to the doctor, and paying lots of money, so that you can find out what’s wrong and how to fix it.

$60/hour is not a small sum of money. It’s on the cheap end for editing, as some editors with big house experience charge up to $200/hour or more. Whether $60/hour of $200/hour, you aren’t paying just for a diagnosis. You want an expert editor with expert skill who will sweat and toil expertly over every single sentence of your story, think of every paragraph and sequence of paragraphs, of every scene and chapter, of all the plots, character arcs, reader promises, of the line-by-line tension and narrative drive that must persist every single line from line 1 to the final line when the reader closes the book and thinks, “Damnit! When is the next book coming out?”

Caveat: the difference between voice rape and editing:

Rape is a strong word and I will apologize if this word offends you. But it is the correct type of word to describe the crime of an “editor” violating an author’s voice and vision with their own.

Developmental editors will cut. They will rearrange. They will rework phrasing. They will fill in “example” prose to highlight a certain type of phrasing they want the author to provide (a principle called a “minimum viable edit”, which means, if you like what they did, you could hit “approve” and you’re ready to go).

A good analogy is how the editors work on a movie.

In film, the director will create a wealth of shots during filming. It’s a jumble and there’s no way those shots are anywhere near the final movie. When the editors take over, their job is to refine the excess of shots and piece them together into the movie that is going to keep the audience on the edge of their seats minute after minute.

For the most part, the editors are cutting, splicing, and organizing. The whole time, they are doing so critically and carefully. Sometimes, they will realize something is missing. That means the crew and director might be going back for some last-minute shots. The editors push for whatever it takes to get that final movie working.

Never once, though, do the editors make new shots themselves. They don’t deviate from the direction of the film. They are using their expert skill to work with the mastery of the directors, producers, actors, sound and special effects crews, and everyone involved.

Your developmental editor likewise will get in there with a strong hand and in some places, if needed, hack relentlessly. They will not change words and phrases just because they think “this one is better,” but they will provide a suggested change if certain words or phrases you used were confusing or break the narrative drive. Each and every time, and every single edit, you should be able to see their justification, and, most importantly, that the edits are suggestions — minimum viable edits which act like doctor prescriptions you can follow, yet which you can modify if you feel they don’t quite work.

At the end of the day, when I’m doing a developmental edit for an author, I am thinking purely about the author on the receiving end of my edits and the experience they are going to have. That means I’m thinking about efficiency on their end. I want them to have a sense of what they have to do, and if ever they disagree (and everyone is going to disagree, since I’m not telepathic), they know what I’m thinking and can provide alternatives that gel with their vision.

Putting it all together:

Contrary to what many people think when they think about developmental edits, a developmental editor isn’t just following a check-list. There is no hard line between when a specific edit is best made as a comment with examples and suggestions, or when it’s best shown through a cut or rearrangement with comment to justify. If there’s a typo that gets crushed in the process, you can’t blame your editor for loving the Law of Grammar, but of course, this should be the exception, as the copyeditor who will work on your book after the developmental edits are complete will be tasked specifically with sound grammar, punctuation, and clarity.

Think of your developmental editor as your first line of defense. All the heavy lifting happens here, and the biggest bogeymen are going to be chased out of the closet, all corners of consideration carefully dusted.

The goal of a developmental edit is to produce a manuscript that the copyeditor will delight to pick apart further as they focus less on story, and more on clarity and final form. And that in turn will produce a manuscript that’s almost print-ready, which your proofreader will go over with fresh eyes to make sure it’s bullet-proof. A developmental edit done will will mean the copyeditor can delight at what they do best, and not wonder, “Why wasn’t this edited?” and likewise, a proofreader will not wonder, “How did these issues slip through the previous two editors?”

There are so many nuances in how to do a developmental edit that the only way to keep learning them is to keep reading more articles on specifics. For my part, I will write more (please leave requests in the comments, or email me), but want to start with the basics in this article about what it is and how it works.

And, of course, I am but one editor coming up for air to share some tidbits, so enjoy these and add them to your growing collection of resources, as you become a smarter self-publishing writer in this Wild West of opportunity for authors looking ahead to the 2020s.

Posted in developmental editing, Writing Tips | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Checklist before you publish your book

You’ve just finished your book and you’re ready to self-publish. You don’t have a lot of money, so hopefully you can do most things yourself. If you had a dream checklist that would help you feel more confident, what would that be?

Let’s start with 3 common issues that I often see come up for authors I have worked with over the years.

1) Too much telling, not enough showing

Many writers receive this input in a critique group, or from consultant edits. This is a lazy kind of comment, because it ignores the nuances of the writing craft. However, as with all tried-and-tested advice, there’s a reason this one has stuck.

Narration that focuses too much on itself places a distance between the reader and the story. This is telling. As the writer, especially the first-drafter discovering your story for the first time, you are prone to lots of telling because it helps you get the story down.

Narration that backs away and fades into the distance presses the reader close to the page. Your nose is touching the ink, your eyes paint images. This is showing. You’re letting the reader do the work. You’re trusting them to paint the images the words will conjure.

But it gets complicated, because of this question we must ask, each and every paragraph:

When is it appropriate for the narrator to vanish, and when for the narrator to come in and be a part of the story?

This will come down to the specific narrative mode you use. Narration is the manner by which your story is being told. Don’t just think about third person limited, or omniscient. This isn’t narration. Narration takes in more than that: who and exactly how are the very words being laid on the page coming from story to reader?

Are these the words of a bard who, at the end of his life, decided to pen his chronicles? Or is this a first-person account of a traveling detective’s side-kick, pertaining to events in the not-so-distant past? Or, is this the grand nighttime tale told by a creative grandfather before the fire, free to wander wherever his imagination fancies?

Take this story you’re reading right now. Point of view and genre would say this is a nonfiction blog post written in a variety of second and first person.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s really happening, that I, the author, am aware of: the narrator (me) is an editor writing email advice to another writer who asked if he can write helpful revision/editing blog posts to her prompts. That’s the story unfolding — a story about how to write better. And with this come all my nuances, including the nature of how I’m telling it: a writer sitting at his desk at 4:08 p.m. (with a cat to the right judging him…well, me, technically). A writer trying to figure out blogging and trying something different each time, and here we are on this one, let’s see… (And any typos left behind, assume the cat walked across my keyboard.)

As you might notice, this narrator leans more toward telling right now, but it helps, because it reminds you I’m in the room with you. (As is the cat <3.) This isn’t just the story, but also the personality of the guy telling it to you.

Who is telling your story, and how? Before you can unpack the question of whether you should show or tell in a certain instance, you’ll need to understand just how your narrator would tell your story.

Show, don’t tell, is a good rule of thumb, but remember: a master seamstress has more than just her thumbs to measure thread, especially on a complex project where even a hairsbreadth of error will ruin the cloth.

Pro tip:

You can always convert showing into telling, and telling into showing. Think of these are two sides of a coin. Right now, if you wanted to, you could strip back your narration and show us more inside the sensory and internal direct experience of your character. Conversely, you could take a very descriptive paragraph about facial movements and just write, “She smiled.”

Readers will not be thinking about if you’re telling too much, nor if you’re showing too much. They will notice though if you’re telling when you should be showing, or showing when you should be telling. The trick is figuring out when you want immersion in the present, or when you want some distance.

When in doubt, try to connect to the narrator of the story, as though this is another person at the keyboard with you, or floating on your shoulder full of wisdom. Ask just how they would want to spin this tale, then let that lead your creative fingertips.

2) Too much info-dumping

We all know info-dumping. It’s another word that causes anxiety at a writing critique session.

I once heard someone call it a “data-dump”. That’s a better term because it gets to the point:

You, the writer, are carrying lots and lots and lots of data about your story. This includes details of your characters, the plot, and the setting, all growing to life like a garden on fast-forward as you type your way through your early drafts.

Our instinct is to write down what we need to write down, especially the first time through. Where else is it going to go?

That leaves some fun when it comes to revision.

Imagine your first draft as messy, unbrushed hair. Each revision is one passage of the metal brush to get out all the tangles. Info-dumping is one common tangle that will tug your brush many times.

I’ve written before about the difference between a draft and a revision. Think of a revision as a lazy comb: instead of yanking out all the tangles, pain and all, you smooth out everything else. Typos, repeated words, bad grammar, contradictions, things that catch your eye, moments to shine, moments you quickly zip up your fly.

None of these will change your story on a deep level. Worse: all the time you spend fussing with this final-stage stuff is time might be pointless because you’ll end up deleting whole scenes, even whole chapters.

A draft is that ruthless tug of the metal brush, and with that tug comes out all the nasty snarls. It means rewriting, cutting, cutting, cutting, especially cutting. Lots of info-dumps come out in this process.

Info-dumping takes on many forms. The obvious one is a big paragraph made of more than 5 sentences that wanders completely off topic. So you entered an ancient castle. Wonderful. What atmosphere. Now you describe in great detail all the furniture, down to the last layout, and while we’re at it, why not add in something about the history of this place, because it’s so cool.

That one’s a bit obvious. Think of all the times in a conversation when someone has wandered off onto a topic that got them really excited, and then they’ve lost you and you’re just nodding, looking for an opportunity to change the topic. That’s an info-dump.

But info-dumping can be even more insidious.

When you’re writing a book, every single line counts. You need line by line tension that pulls the readers eyes down like a magnet. Give the reader some slack, and they have a moment to think about the hundred other things they have to still get done, that you’ve managed to somehow make them forget all about because you write so damn good.

That effect is the effect of well-brushed hair. The result is nothing left behind that doesn’t drive the story forward, not a single tangle. Ornamentation is fine, if that ornamentation is full of life. Exposition is fine if curiosity, so strong in your protagonist that the reader feels it, needs it, has led them both to it.

As you work your drafts, get in the habit of recognizing your story in a binary form:

  • The story
  • Not the story

Pro tip:

Comb through your manuscript and apply this binary assessment, much like a metal brush through hair. I like to use Scrivener because it allows me to make a separate note that I can nest under a given scene’s file. I always call this “dump” because it helps remind me that “not the story” goes in the dump. If you use Word, you can achieve this effect by making a separate Word file and using Alt+Tab to bounce between.

Now, in each place where you cut “not the story”, try to bridge the gaps between “story” preceding it, and “story” following it. Write what the story needs. Move on to the next place you spot “not the story” and repeat.

Don’t get discouraged about “not the story” vanishing from your manuscript. Remember: valuable things can be found at the dump, and us writers believe in grassroots recycling. I like to organize my dump files as they come together. In fact, these usually turn into categorized information that eventually move onto my organized wiki for character and world-building details.

The key point is: don’t let info-dumps drag you down. They served a purpose. But now, in your next draft, they can serve a new purpose as they become the roots of your own mini-wiki, which you can consult later. And be rest assured: if the story needs them later, in some other form, it will tell you.

3) Developmental edit recommended

I’ll close off on this point for today because it’s worth talking about what a developmental edit is. Let’s start with what it’s not:

  • A family member or close friend reading over and making notes for you in your Word file
  • A beta reader going over the book and giving edits/suggestions
  • An edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.

Developmental editing is done by an editor. This is someone trained in the editing process who will analyze your story’s structure, character development, and plot, and give you both global suggestions (delivered in an editorial letter), as well as specific suggestions (mostly by way of comments in the manuscript).

A developmental edit will require rewriting. Sometimes, a developmental editor will fix obvious typos or make craft suggestions, i.e. spotting repetitive words or clumsy sentences. Mostly, though, they will be focused on the story as you’re telling it. If you have an info-dump, you’ll hear about it. If the line-by-line tension vanishes somewhere, they’ll point you toward it so you can tighten the rack. If you show when you should tell, or tell when you should show, they’ll be sure to tell you (or show by way of example).

A developmental edit will be mostly diagnostic, with some prescription. The editor’s job is to point you toward rewrites, giving you enough to work with, but not to do the actual rewriting.

Developmental editing happens early. Think of this like the metal brush in tangled hair. Copyediting and proofreading come after a developmental edit. This means all the rounds of revision and drafting to follow, based on your developmental editor’s notes, will be done. There’s no point polishing a diamond if you’re going to throw some of it away. Developmental editing helps you mine out all the diamonds and get rid of empty rock, so that copyediting can be about polishing the keepers.

Pro tip:

You can do a developmental edit yourself, though in saying this, I am reminded of the knife-juggler who tells people, “Don’t try this at home.” See my earlier post on how to do a developmental edit, for those on a budget, but if you end up with cuts and scrapes, you know where to find me.

Along the same lines, you can also train a beta reader to assume the role of developmental editor, using the guidelines in that post. I also plan to write more detailed follow-up posts on this DIY approach in future, so stay tuned.

Please share any questions or your feedback on info-dumping, showing vs telling, and developmental editing!

Posted in John's blog, Writing Tips | 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