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.

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Don’t write for the market, write for the heart

I recently read several writing articles that had tried and tested advice from those writers who have been fortunate to make a living on their craft. You’ve probably heard it too:

Write for the market. Figure out what readers want and give it to them. Somewhere in that, write what you enjoy. Learn to cut, change, alter, all based on what sells best.

This advice is, to me anyway, just plain dumb. Not because it’s practical, but because it defeats the whole point of what writing is about.

Telling writers they should conform based on what they think will sell is like telling people they should adopt a diet of canned beans. “Every nutrient and vital substance is here in this can. You can now cut out all the garbage and eat only what you need.”

Readers have shrinking attention spans today, this might be true. But if writers only write for what readers expect, and what they expect readers will expect, then what a sad death to creative diversity.

Write from the heart. I don’t think you can ever go wrong with this.

Even if you suck at writing, writing from the heart will keep you coming back to the keyboard. It will keep you thinking, “How can I get better at this?”

Even if your book(s) flop(s), well, you keep coming back, because the heart never runs out of energy. It never runs out of ideas.

Even if you have to scramble and go in debt and your life is a mess, you’ll always know you’re living for your deepest passion. You’ll do whatever it takes to give the time you need to write and improve. You’ll have the drive to lose sleep now and again, knowing that sacrificed dream time went into actually bringing dreams to life.

Wouldn’t it be nice to make a living off book sales. When the winners write history, they’ll give you all sorts of tips, but those tips ignore the “losers” who are writing their own history, possibly a history of tomorrow. In my mind, we are the winners, and our day is coming, which is why I’m so passionate about writing to be true to you, to your vision, to your passion.

There are so many kinds of fiction being written that change the life, even if in small ways, of readers here or there. These are the largest piece of the pie. The writing that has a sticker attached to it is only the tip of the iceberg. The mass market bestsellers capture many and many and many, but so has the obscure, almost forgotten fantasy book that happened to be on a hospital bookshelf and captured the heart of someone terminally ill who found comfort in it in their last days.

The problem with a diet of canned beans is you fart a lot. The same is true if every writer pushed themselves to write only for market and get to the top. The farts in this case are figurative.

I say don’t waste your time chasing markets. Invest your time chasing your unique vision and passion. Self-publish. Screw the traditional model, unless it fits in somewhere. Self-publish because there’s no censor on your vision and your voice.

Being self-published doesn’t mean being shitty, like the stereotype goes. It doesn’t mean being hasty and popping out a half-cooked muffin. Take your time and hack the process. Hire good editors and beat the shit out of your manuscripts, however necessary, to get something that’s been well-discerned and honed. Forgive yourself if it still flops because not every pancake turns out perfect. Make a whole batch, because tastes differ, and the pancakes get better the more you get used to the griddle and its nuances. And remember: a flop isn’t necessarily a flop. 30 copies sold are still 30 people who might be changed, in some way you might never imagine.

The griddle isn’t just the act of writing a draft in isolation. It’s the cogs of publishing: editing, revising, formatting, designing, publishing, marketing, getting read and listening to readers. You don’t need a big company to do it for you. I run an editing company and have several amazing editors who help self-publishing authors (http://www.storyperfectediting.com).

It costs money, true, but you’re better to spend money getting your work out to readers so you can start mastering those pancakes than you are in isolation with no sense of who will read your work and what it will take to be ready. Writing draft after draft in isolation is like mixing the ingredients for a batch: mix all you want, but the batter is still raw.

Write, publish, repeat. You’ve probably heard this advice before because it’s the title of a popular writing book. It’s catchy for a reason: suddenly you kick your ass out of the expectation that you have to write one perfect book and break in, and instead realize that actually, this is like scratching through a steel wall. Instead of scratching, go around the wall and start searching for drain pipes. There is a way in and it doesn’t have to lead to bloody keyboards.

When I dream of the fiction of tomorrow, it’s a fiction that is so far outside any box you can’t even place it anymore. No more cookie cutters, except when referring back to the history of how fiction evolved, those “turbulent times in the 21st century when the novel went through various limiting expressions, stemming from postmodern movements in the 20th century, before finally becoming so tangled and branched that categories no longer make sense, as is the case today.”

In the context of this dream, I don’t aim to be anything other than a writer who chases wild visions, whose voice will be sharp and alive, honed and strong. And I will be an author, because I’ll go through the process of write, publish, repeat, every time. I will have readers, even if the party room with my name on it is small and I have to find other ways to pay the bills.

Wouldn’t it be great to make a living off writing. But meantime, it’s great to live for writing, with no other ambition than to keep telling stories, and never stop.

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Why bother reading?

If you’re reading this, then I’ll ask you right now:

Why?

Why bother reading at all? Why are you taking time out of your day to open this up and read these words by some guy?

If you’re still reading, I’m honoured. You must have a reason you kept going.

I’ll try not to disappoint you.

See, I don’t know what to blog about when I’m not allowed to blog about writing. I like this challenge.

Reading is close to my heart. I can’t read enough. I’m convinced if everyone read for 4 or more hours a day, the world would be 10 times better.

It doesn’t matter what you read. If you’re on a high horse about a perfect program, that’s pretentious.

When I read, it’s to become less ignorant. I used to read to get more smart. What arrogance (in hindsight, it’s innocent naivety, but if I had a time machine, I’d go back and give my smart-ass past self a slap).

I think the greatest value I’ve found in reading has been reading things I already know. Correction: things I think I knew, but really, on setting away my pride and actually just opening my mind to be refreshed, I realize actually, I didn’t know like I thought! Ah, those are the best.

What’s a tam? Oh, it’s a round hat, or something to do with hardware. *stops and consults dictionary* Ah! A tam-o’-shanter, named after a Robert Burns hero in a poem of the same name.

That might make you roll your eyes, but to me, who never knew that before, it blew my mind.

I’d like to think that I’m not the only person like this. I’d like to think that we’re all ignorant in different ways. I’d like to think there are two kinds of reading: reading where you’re the co-pilot, and reading where you’re the pilot.

I believe reading as the pilot is bad. This is where you go wherever you want. You read what interests you. You filter out what doesn’t interest you. You skim or skip things you think you already know (but actually don’t, but you’ll never know that because you won’t steer your plane that way to discover it).

I believe reading as the co-pilot is the way for us all to share our tribe energy, as a human collective. That sounds nuts I’m sure (remember: I’m not allowed to spend long on these posts, nor to revise, so you’re getting raw John in his pyjamas again). However, compared to some of the rants on fake news feeds or other discussion forums, I’d like to think I’m completely sane.

Reading as the copilot is this:

Your eyes are open and you are taking in everything. It’s a meditation. The object of focus is whatever words are in front of your eyes. When you catch your mind wandering (ie skimming or getting bored), notice that and begin again. Return to what you’re reading, and process it. Change from the inside out. Trust the pilot, that she knows what she’s doing, and you’re taking everything in to ensure the trip is sound.

Maybe that’s a bad metaphor, but, well, I’m in my pyjamas, so forgive me.

There is so much about the world we don’t know. The worst is what we assume we know, but actually don’t know correctly. The enemy is ourselves, that impatient urge to grab the steering wheel. The need for control, and so we read, and we read into corners and become opinions rather than beacons of truth that percolate light for others.

We live in the age of fake news, fake information, thirdhand and fourth-hand sources, and worse. I think there is a way out, and it starts with the individual, specifically, the one who says “I don’t know what I don’t know” and from that place, begins anew; and with that wisdom, begins to read, begins to change.

And we can change those around us, with this, in small ways. I truly believe in the power of books and scholarship and collective wisdom, of combing the sources rather than dangling in the branches of skewed discussion forums and hurried articles with agendas. If you’re still reading, then you’re sharing some of my light, and I hope it will compel you, as I was compelled, and if not, then on you go. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’m just some guy writing a blog post.

But maybe I’m right, in which case some day there might be some value to this. I certainly can say every story I tell, everything I do as a writer, is infused with this belief, this insight that’s been growing in me some time now. This post will be buried and forgotten, but it’s only a small glimpse, because there will be more (but you’ll have to pay money for that).

“What do I read?” you might ask. It’s not so much what you read, but what attitude you bring with you when you read. It’s not enough to think you know nothing. That’s just a part-step. Going all the way means you admit that you don’t even know if you know nothing, or if what you know is true or part-true. With a mind like this, you become a child at heart, and inside: curious, without limit.

There’s no end to what you can be when you reclaim this. And when you read, you gain power, so much power: because everything you read can make you better, make you more empathic, more compassionate, more understanding, more angry at the hate in this world that should all end, more aware of history and how the world we live in today has been becoming what it is, and continues to be so. You learn, like being a student all your life. You don’t become hardened in your heart and resentful, because you also see hope, and if not that, then at least the reason for it. With that hope, even if you die and still the world is a bad place, you die at least yearning for it to be better.

And that’s all I have time for today. It’s time to read this week’s newspaper. Time to change a little more, and repeat tomorrow.

Until next time,

Happy reading.

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Holding an actual book

I will make two promises on this new approach to blogging:

-I will not talk about religion

-I especially will not talk about politics

But I will occasionally lapse into musings, or some of the things that keep me up at night. This is my blog and the place to pick my brain, after all.

Here’s one:

The value of holding a physical book in your hand.

This has a lot more meaning than might be obvious.

No, it’s not just about the psychology of how reading a book in print invokes different kinds of memory and experience (ie tactile). For me, it’s about what the gesture represents, more than anything else.

I’m typing this post up on my phone. Before this, I was reading my way through a print book (The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith). When I read a book, I by far prefer to read something physical.

It goes a step further. When I take notes, I write them on a cue card with a pen. When I look up words, I collect them by writing out the definition in a small-page binder. I do this for all notes, even when I’m reading through Wikipedia.

I’ve tried typing things up at my computer, but it’s not the same. It’s like reading at my computer: a different experience.

A few weeks ago on the BBC Global Podcast, which I listen to when driving, I heard an interview with experts discussing consciousness. The leading argument in question: panpsychism.

This is the idea that your chair is conscious. This blog post you’re reading right now is also conscious. In reading it, you are communing with it in your own way, like having coffee with a friend, except in a language of exchange much deeper than that.

If I wrote this blog post out by hand, it would have a different consciousness, the same way as J.R.R. Tolkien would be the same essential person if born as a woman instead of a man (but be completely different and unique).

What is consciousness? Such a deep question that keeps me up and often keeps me pondering.

So the book I’m reading, it’s just a book, printed by a printer, the words set in place by an author, tailored by collaboration. The ink came from a machine, spattered on the page by fine motor control and precision. That ink itself came perhaps from a chemical factory, or maybe even (at least in part) from the ocean itself as in the old days. The paper came from trees, and those trees grew in the forest, took in water, spread their roots. So many things come together to make that book. All these things, perhaps, may be the life and soul of its consciousness, if this new possible theory to explain consciousness turns out to be true.

Imagine that. Your day is a conversation with things in a language you don’t even know you speak. You are surrounded by life in manner beyond your comprehension.

Is it any wonder why a simple thing like taking a deep breath, closing your eyes and focusing on it, can be a life and world unto itself?

Oh the possibilities!

I still don’t have an answer for why reading a physical book translates to be something different than digital. Maybe I’m old fashioned. Or maybe I’m too attached to a dying trend. Or maybe . . . it’s not so much attachment as it is listening, listening to this older way that lives and breathes in the printed, tangible thing, a way that refuses to die, a way that asks us to remember, in our deepest hearts.

Here’s to the book, the printed book. Here’s to it being the last furniture remaining in our completely digital homes of the future. Here’s to a pillar to remind us always of what we are, like trees in the forest, bigger and older than us, in which we are immersed.

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Reclaiming my blog

It’s 12:10pm. Here I am, writing a blog post, in my pyjamas.

Exactly how it should be.

No plans, I won’t even read this for typos (okay, maybe once, or…twice). It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog post and the reason I haven’t written one is because I kept thinking about what to write, which led me in circles.

I realize I need to reclaim my blog.

Have you ever done something you thought was right, only to later realize it was glaringly wrong, and feel deeply embarrassed afterward? That’s how I feel about this blog.

First off, I’m no expert on writing. Let me absolve myself of that. You’ll find if you dig through my feed, an awful lot of posts on how to write. Let me be clear:

I don’t know a damn thing about how to write. I’m making it all up as I go. I try to fuck up a little bit less each time, and that’s progress. I try to learn and I love to describe what I’m learning, but I also know some people like masturbating in the corner and that’s not good manners (especially at a writing convention). So for that, I apologize.

I also am not smart, or wise, or any other kind of hybrid guru with expensive snake oil. I read a lot not to get smarter, but because I’m dumb and I hope I’ll become less dumb (it’s working). There’s really nothing to brag about here, just another writer showing his notes. So if you’re a new reader and you’re scrolling through my feed, you’ll see traces of my Wikipedia geek-a-thon, as well as my orthorexic Ultimate Reading Curriculum post. I still do that, and it works for me, and I like it, but really, opinions are assholes, and I have learned my manners now.

I don’t know what I’ll be blogging about, but I know one thing: future posts will be written like this, off the hop, ideally in my pyjamas before the night’s wind down reading (tonight it’s the November issue of National Geographic).

One of my editing clients once told me in another life I must have been a comedian. So maybe I’ll try to connect with that. George Carlin is my all time idol, though I’ll rein in the f-words if I try to find my voice in that direction (you have to buy my book for those). I can already feel a rant or two (but let’s save those for another night).

It’s 12:23 and that’s longer than I should be spending on a blog post. This really is like an email to a good friend. The microphone is up and I can’t edit what I say, so here it is. I’ll save all the editing for the books or courses you can pay money to read. There certainly is enough of it.

Goodnight all, and welcome to my blog with more cobwebs cleared away.

Now, time to get less dumb.

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Welcome to 2019! A new year, a new take on blogging

It’s a new year, and with that comes new opportunities. To start, I’m going to change how I blog.

Over the holidays, I was inspired by fellow fantasy author Bruce Blake. (Check out his blog here.) I’ve been following Bruce’s posts for several years. Like me, he’s a laid back Canadian who mostly wrote about fantasy or writing.

Bruce has done some amazing work. Be sure to check out his books if you wander over. When I go to his Amazon author page, I get inspired. This guy tells some great dark fantasy. Blood of the King (the first in the Khirro’s Journey series) is a tale of hope amidst darkness and corruption. It’s even got a Necromancer. This one’s on my to-read list.

But it’s Bruce’s new spin on blogging that caught my attention. More specifically, it was this declaration he made:

“Fuck writing.”

That’s right. Fuck writing, I couldn’t agree more.

By that I don’t mean fuck writing, and neither did Bruce. (Read the full post here.) The writing happens, and it’s beautiful. The thing to fuck in this case is all the pretentious “how to write better” and “how I write” stuff that’s cluttering the blog feeds like deadwood.

But I want to take this fuck a level higher. Fuck social media and humble bragging about word counts and what your MC just got up to in your WIP. Fuck writing about how you wrote your book as though you’re in a Writer’s Digest interview (unless you actually are). Fuck telling people why they should care about your book. Let the book do that work instead.

All these things flashed through my head the night I read Bruce’s post, but they’ve since festered. I nearly quit writing several times in the last few years. All occasions were related to being exposed to the “buy my book” buzz. Dread that hung on for days at a time, striking often monthly, that sense of comparison to other writers and thinking who am I kidding? It still goes on, but I’ve found better anesthetics, at least enough to keep me moving forward.

And the whole time, I went on blogging as though this struggle were secondary, as though I have to perform here with as much flare as what I try to do in the writing (and rewriting (and rewriting (and..))) of my stories.

Thank you, Bruce, for giving me a new perspective, one that’s helped me enter 2019 with a new spirit in this thing called blogging.

Here were my plans for 2019 on this blog:

-write a blog-based course on how the editing process works for writers

-write about the history of the epic fantasy genre

-write about how I make maps

Let’s play Abraham and Isaac for a minute.

All of the above is pretentious, and might not make it through the fuck writing filter. Who am I to tell you how editing works? Who am I other than some Wikipedia and Google hack to tell you the story of how the epic fantasy genre evolved? Who am I to tell you how to draw a map?

Now, hold back the dagger for a moment.

I can say a lot about how editing works. I started out as an apprentice editor in 2012 for a small press, then ventured into full-time freelance editing in 2014 when I started my own company. In 2016, we incorporated and presently our team numbers over 12 (almost 20 if we count everyone who lends a hand once in a while). I’ve seen hundreds of manuscripts go from finished draft to fully edited publication. I didn’t just see this, I directed it, using what I learned when I got started. I’ve been every kind of editor, from draft coach, to writing mentor, to developmental editor, to copyeditor, to proofreader. I’ve been a ghostwriter on 2 memoirs. I put all these hats on myself before learning how to train others to wear them under my direction. I learned what I did by reading books and articles on writing craft and the publishing business. This has carried me even further, driven by a passion for how the publishing process works and how to provide the best possible services for self-publishing authors (as well as for our newer startup publishing divisions). I’ve done the copywriting for nearly 100 publications. I’ve overseen cover art production and marketing plans for more than 70 titles. I’ve even been acquisitions editor and know the submission process as one who has been on both sides of the fence.

So, I could write about the steps involved in editing, though it would only be from my perspective. It would not be about writing, but about what I’ve learned, in the spirit of being helpful.

Item #2 gets the dagger, though. I write epic fantasy because I love it, because though I am 36 years old, there’s a part of me who still is that 8-year-old staring at the map to Wilderland, a boy who hated reading but was willing to learn how to do it just so he could see what kind of story went with that map. A boy who has never looked back (and is gradually getting better at reading as a result). So, there’s no reason to write about the history of the fantasy epic. I’m busy reading and learning about it, and writing my own epic to add to the body of work. My energy needs to go there. If I live to 100, I’ll still be that 8-year-old boy, intrigued by this world that feels ever-beginning, the prose that forever evolves like a fractal, the wonder that lurks between the lines.

Without even getting to it yet, I’ve already redeemed item #3. Drawing maps! Imagine this in my best Bilbo Baggins voice: “Oh, how I do love maps!” Yes! I could write endlessly on that.

But the fuck writing filter has helped me strain something important away: how to draw a fantasy map is quite a bit different from the kind of show-and-tell this is turning into. I will write that series of posts on how the steps of editing work, and I will write about the evolution of the map appearing at the front of A Thousand Roads next month (a 20+ year personal story), but in all of this I will be about sharing candidly about what I learned, and trying to be helpful.

Which brings me back to Bruce. Beyond his powerful declaration, is the candid style of being humble and honest. And real. So real your sentences don’t read like they were finely tweaked and perfected to attract a certain market, or appeal to a certain reader.

If you’re still reading this, then it’s because you’ve chosen to follow this blog, or you visited and wanted to check out who this John Robin guy is. But you’re reading it because you want to know more about me, and it’s pretentious to assume otherwise.

So, going into 2019, you can expect more informal posts like this. My fantasy novel is coming out in print next month! I’m excited! But you’ll get that between the lines of my posts. I’m going to assume that if you’re interested enough to read my thoughts here, then you’ll decide on your own if you want to check out my book. This is the age of Google at our fingertips, after all.

I’ll be posting all about things that are actually interesting (I hope), not things I hope you’ll find interesting. I’m following my heart with blogging, just like as a writer I’m following my heart slaving away on tome-length epic fantasy (when that is the worst career choice any sane writer could make).

There’s something fun about this, and I think for the first time since I started blogging back in 2014, I’m actually getting what blogging is supposed to be.

My name is John and I’m a writer, but you know that already, so stay tuned for more more about me, the kind of stories you won’t get anywhere but here.

(Pardon any typos. I blame the cat who is right now curled at my feet, his second choice after losing the cuddle war for the keyboard.)

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A Thousand Roads is out!

This is my official book release blog post!

That’s right, after 6 years of work and 7 drafts, A Thousand Roads is now available for readers. You can find it on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble. Please go buy a copy and help me spread the word:

               

A Thousand Roads is the story of a boy who grows up under the sway of a mysterious blood magic. Necromancy and rites of darkness should be terrifying, but to him, they are the call of destiny. Intrigued by tales of the Dwarf Men and the Dragons who made the world, he is determined to learn about his power and its secrets, while somehow leading a life free of the corruption and intrigue tangled about him like a spider’s web…

Please reblog this and help me reach other fantasy readers, or share on Twitter.

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