May 30, 2024 / 4 Comments

Five by Five

Tomorrow’s another big birthday for me. I think Patton Oswalt called it “the double nickel” a few months back when he also hit said milestone. I’m probably going to spend it doing something silly. Maybe random toy shopping. Maybe playing games. I’m probably going to watch a Godzilla movie or two and try to keep up that tradition.

Anyway, I often try to mark the day by offering you some semi-useful thoughts on writing in general. More the whole big idea of writing and being a writer than the nutsy-boltsy stuff I tend to blather on about most of the time. And this is going to be one of those posts. Apologies if it’s a little long.

So, for my 55th birthday, here’s five things I wish I’d known at various points in my writing journey.

1) You’re never too young
For a long time I thought I wasn’t old enough to tell stories. I was writing well before I hit my teens, yeah, and even submitting some of it. But that was all just being young and stupid and not knowing any better. Once I started taking my writing seriously, I felt like I needed more experience—in just about every way possible—before anyone was going to give me any consideration. And I didn’t shake this feeling until well into my twenties. It took me a long time to believe my work was going to measure up to all these other folks.

What I discovered much later was that so many of those people I’d admired as writers hadn’t been much older than I was when they started out. Some of them had only been a few years older than me at that point. It’s not so much that they’d been drastically more experienced, they’d just been willing to take a few chances. Not wild, longshot risks—there’s still a wide swath of property between “brave” and “foolish”—but they decided to try rather than wait until they’d hit some self-imposed limitations.

So don’t rush to do something as soon as you can… but also don’t wait to hit some weird benchmark you read somewhere on the internet or just made up yourself.

2) Don’t worry about getting it perfect
I went through a long phase of trying to get everything perfect. Of trying to make it all, y’know, real writing. And I was usually trying to do it on the first try. I’d spend hours on each paragraph, trying to find the perfect phrasing, the perfect word, not moving on until I’d gotten things just right.

Of course, what this really meant was it was taking me ages to do anything. My first complete draft of The Suffering Map took actual years (plural) to get done. Because I was so wrapped up in what it should be like by the time it was done, I wasn’t acknowledging how many more steps there were before it was done.

It’s something a lot of folks have to get past, but the truth is… there’s going to be a second draft. I’ll get to clean and polish and, yes, pick better words. In fact, they’ll probably be much better because I’ve had time to think about them in context rather than obsessing over this single phrase in chapter three for an hour or so.

Which means for the first draft, I can just write. Not sure about that word? Just say “fast” for now and we’ll find the perfect word in the next draft. Not sure about her name? She’s “Phoebe” for now and if a better name comes to me I’ll start using it then. It took me years to realize this, but once I did my productivity probably quadrupled.

3) Finish things
For the longest time, the biggest thing holding me back was that I never finished anything. Which sounds silly but… there it is. All those early submissions I made to Marvel? I was sending in the first issue of what was clearly a multi-issue story. And in complete honesty, I had no real idea how the rest of it would go. A lot of the early “novels” I’ve mentioned here? Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth? All that Doctor Who and Boba Fett fanfic? The Werewolf Detective? The Trinity? None of them were ever completed. Still haven’t been. I’d just rocket from one thing to the next. Usually just writing the fun, cool parts before I got bored and moved on.

Weirdly enough, my first real, serious interest came from a completed script for Deep Space Nine, which got me half an hour in a room with Ron Moore, and then later another half hour or so with Hans Beimler. Later, when I actually finished a novelThe Suffering Map—I started getting interest from agents.

Yeah, some of the fun goes out of writing when I made that jump from “writing the fun parts” to “writing all of it.” But it was also a huge moment when I realized I’d actually finished an entire, start-to-finish book manuscript—something Drusilla Campbell once told me less than one out of a hundred people who call themselves writers ever do.

And, off my own experience, I’d guess it’s something 99 out of a hundred agents and editors want to see.

4) You’re never too old
Every now and then someone starts talking about ageism in publishing. Or Hollywood. Or comics. A friend’s dad once told us, right after college, that if you haven’t made your mark by age 25 it was never going to happen. End of story.

And it’s easy to see why people feel this way. Society loves youth (sometimes, but that’s another discussion). You don’t hear about a lot of forty year old breakout stars. Forbes doesn’t do a “Sixty under Sixty” list. And yeah… publishers aren’t always as eager to publicize their *cough* more mature writers.

But the simple truth is, there are countless stories out there of people over the age of twenty-five writing their first book or making their first movie and finding success. I sold my first novel at 39 and it didn’t see print until just before I turned 41. This keeps happening, even as people say it doesn’t happen. I mean, just think about it. Can you honestly picture a publisher saying “Damn, this is the most page-turning, uplifting manuscript I’ve ever read and we’ll sell a million copies, easy… but the author’s forty-three.”

I think—and this is just me spitballing with a bit of evidence—that a lot of ageism complaints come from people who aren’t willing to change or adapt. “This is how we did it thirty years ago and it worked just fine then!” When I used to read scripts, I got some that were clearly very old scripts that had gotten a fresh coat of paint to update them. But often this “update” made it clear the screenwriter didn’t understand a lot of the terms they were using and that they were… well, old.

(seriously, how do you not know how an iPod works?)

Look, I’m minutes away from turning whatever-that-double-number-is years old. I grew up in a very different world than most of you reading this. Different views and values. Different technologies. And very different ways of telling stories. I’m trying hard to be better when it comes to writing the world as it is, not as it was—in so many ways. It’s not about whether I can do it, or if anyone will let me do it–it’s about whether I can learn to do it or not. Am I willing to change and grow, or do I want to keep insisting it’s 1988 and complaining that nobody else understands how things should work?

5) Do it because you love it
This may feel obvious, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how many folks I’ve met who look at writing for all the wrong reasons. They think it’ll be easy. That they’ll get rich quick. That it’ll get them invited to all the cool parties. They think it’ll get them a movie/ streaming deal. I’m talking probably hundreds of people I’ve personally been in the presence of.

On a similar note, there’s a lot of people who write in certain genres or formats because of… well, all those above things. It’s not what they’re interested in, but scribbling out a romance will be easy, right? First person is what everyone’s buying. Fantasy means I can just make it all up—it doesn’t have to make sense. Thrillers are where the big money is right now.

I tried chasing the boom for a while. I tweaked my writing to what I thought it needed to be to succeed in this genre or that style. And doing this led me down a lot of dead ends. Stories I didn’t enjoy writing. Stories I wasn’t all that excited by. Stories that went nowhere.

Again, the response to my work got a lot better when it was my work. The kind of weird, twisty stories I liked. The kind of characters I liked. All written in the style I enjoyed writing in. Because I really, truly believe readers can tell how the author felt about a story. They know if I had fun writing this or not. If I was excited about writing it, and about them reading it.

So don’t worry about meeting someone else’s expectations or about what’s hot right now. Write the things you want to write. Tell your stories the way you want to tell them. They’ll be stronger, they’ll be more authentic, and that love you have for them will show through.

Anyway, that’s all the old man birthday wisdom I’ve got for you. Hope some of it was useful or encouraging. Or at least entertaining. All birthday thanks can be given in the form of action figures or rum. If you don’t know how to get action figures or rum to me, you don’t need to worry about it (but thanks of the thoughts). Please don’t sing. I really can’t stand that.

Next time, I’ll probably talk about some of the people I’ll be talking with at StokerCon tonight.

Until then, go write.

November 30, 2023

In Conclusion…

And here we are, in the final hours of NaNoWriMo.

I didn’t actively (or even loosely) participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Too much editing to do. But it’s been a productive month, and in a lot of ways that’s what this is all about.

Well, it’s not exactly what it’s all about.

Back at the start of the month, I said “NaNoWriMo” is a bit misleading because we’re not really trying to write an entire novel in a month. We’re trying to write the first draft of a novel in a month. A rushed, mistake-filled first draft at best.

And really… even that’s kind of misleading. Because what NaNoWriMo counts as a novel—a 50,000 word manuscript—is so small most publishers wouldn’t consider it. Even books in what are generally seen as “shorter” genres (like horror, romance, and mysteries, for example) have a low end of around 75-80K words.

So if the goal’s to get an even slightly passable first draft this month, pretty much everybody would fail. I mean, just in general I’m betting most folks who do NaNoWriMo don’t hit that 50K benchmark. That’s a lot of words in one month. Said as a professional who knows a lot of other professionals. It can be done, yeah, but it’s tough.

I’ll also take the next step and say half the folks who do hit said benchmark… well, their manuscripts probably need so much work they’re effectively going to be rewriting the whole thing in their next draft. Correcting. Cutting. Improving. Expanding.

Hopefully they admit they need another draft

Anyway, this is sounding so let me share two points I hope you’ll take away from this month of manic writing.

First, don’t think of this in terms of winning and losing. Think of it more like one of those mud run/ obstacle course things where the goal is just to get to the end. Yeah, someone’s going to get there first and someone’s going to get there last, but the big thing is getting there, even if it turns out it might take me a little longer than that guy. A friend of mine just did one of those races and she was nowhere near first but she finished the course and she was damned proud. I keep telling myself I want to run a marathon one day, but I’ve got no illusions about ever winning a marathon. I’ll be nowhere near the front of the pack, but I just want to know if I can do it.

So don’t worry about benchmarks or schedules. If you wrote new words this month, you did it! If you managed to write them almost every day this month—damn, you’re amazing. You did something most people just talk about doing.

Second, how much did you write? How many new words got put down? Twenty-five thousand? Thirty? Maybe twenty? Maybe forty?

Y’see, Timmy, what I should take away from this is how many words I wrote this month. because now, for future reference, I know how many words I can write in a month. In a month with a big holiday weekend, no less. Now I know exactly how long it’s going to take for me to finish that 100,000 word first draft. I’ve got a solid, attainable goal, and I know it’s attainable because I just showed myself how much I can write in a month.

So maybe you didn’t write the first draft of a book this month. But you proved you can write it. And if you can write a first draft—even if it takes two or three or six months—that means you can write a book. A finished, polished, ready-to-show-off-to-the-world book.

And that means you won NaNoWriMo. Congratulations!

Next time, I’m going to answer a question from the comments and talk about plotting.

Until then, go write.

And serious congrats again on winning NaNoWriMo.

November 29, 2018 / 3 Comments

Next Time, Gadget! Next Time!!

            Wow, November’s almost over.  Where’s this month gone?  Hell, where’s this year gone?  Can you believe Black Panther only came out a little over eight months ago?  Seriously.
            The end of November also means we’re closing in on the end of NaNoWriMo.  About, what, a day and a half left?  Maybe a little less, depending on when you read this?  I hope it’s going well for you.  I’m sure you kicked ass, but I hope you realize that.  Whatever you got done this month is an achievement.  So many people talk about writing, but you went out and did it.
            How much did you get done?  Thirty thousand words?  Forty five?  Sixty?  Are you one of those inhuman folks who closed in on ninety thousand words (an average of 3000 words a day—I know lots of pros who’d envy that kind of stamina).
            Which brings me to one of the best things you’ll get out of this.
            Let’s say you ended up with 45,000 words.  An average of 1500 a day.  Not a novel, but it’s halfway there, easy.  It’s a good solid novella as is, and there are some markets opening up for that sort of thing.

            But here’s the thing…

            If I did this once, I can do it again.  Those 45,000 words are inarguable proof that I’ve got the ability to produce words at a good rate.  At a professional rate!  Which means I could do it again in December and boom look at that! A ninety thousand word manuscript, if I keep going on the same thing.  That’s a novel.  Any publisher on Earth would call that a novel.
            Are they 90,000 perfect words?  Ehhhh… probably not.  But it’s a very solid first draft.  And if you produced a first draft, it means you’ve got it in you to do a second and third draft.  You can’t deny it.  The proof is right there.
            Even better—you can do it again!  Maybe in March and April.  Keep up that same rate and there’s another 90,000 word first draft.  Hell, maybe next time you’ll be just a little faster.  Now that new manuscript’s 100,000 words long.  One.  Hundred.  Thousand.  Words. 
            And we both know you can do it, because you just did it now during NaNoWriMo.  And you can do it again.  And again.  And again..
            A bunch of times here I’ve mentioned my early attempts at writing novels.  The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street.  The Trinity.  Even the wonderfully goofy, very early-oeuvre masterpiece Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth.  One thing they had in common was that I didn’t finish any of them.
            Another thing they had in common is that nobody bought them.  Nobody was really interested in them.  Because they were incomplete.  I didn’t have the stamina—or the confidence—to finish them.

            The Suffering Map is the first thing I finished.  It’s the first thing I wrote that made it to second and third and fourth drafts.  It’s also—no coincidence—the first thing of mine that got any interest from agents and editors.

            Did they buy it?  No, of course not.  It’s still awful.  I mean, let’s be honest–it was my first finished book.  There was so much clumsiness in it, on so many levels.
            But I finished it.  So I knew I could finish another one.  A better one.
            And I did.  I wrote my next book in almost a third the time.  Or a tenth, depending on how you want to look at things.  And that book sold.
            Being able to produce words is a huge accomplishment.  Having the discipline to keep doing it is fantastic.  And if you’ve managed to do ninety, fifty, or even just ten thousand words this month, you’ve proven you can do this on a regular basis.
            So, congratulations.  You just won NaNoWriMo in one of the most important ways you can.
            Next time, I thought I’d bounce a couple character ideas off you.
            Until then… go write!