Category Archives: writing

Writing By the Week

Yesterday, I mentioned how I completed my first week on the second draft of my novel, and provided the number of words I produced for the week. It occurred to me that in the past, I’ve been reporting mostly daily word counts and trends, and never weekly, so this morning, I took a quick look at my data to see how things look at the week-level as opposed to the day level. Here is a plot of the words counts for every week I’ve been writing, going back to the week ending March 3, 2013:

Word Counts by Week

The red line represents my average over the last 59 weeks, a number that comes to about 5,800 words/week. As you can see, last week, I broke my overall average for the first time since back in January. Those 10-, 12, and 13,000 word weeks you see last summer was back when I was racing to finish the first draft of the novel.

I took one more quick slice of the data, plotting it as a histogram, and came up with the following:

Word Per Week Histogram

From this, you can see that I’ve written between 4,500 – 6,000 words on 21 different weeks. I’ve written between 6,000 and 7,500 words on 15 different weeks. There is only a single week where I’ve written less than 3,000 words, and three separate weeks, I’ve written more than 10,500 words.

There are some hard limits here. As I’ve mention before, my biggest obstruction is not a lack of ideas or will, but time. I only get about 45 minutes/day to write, on average. If I could slowly work that 45 minutes up to an average of 80 minutes, I could come close to 2,000 words/day (14,000 words/week). But it will take time to get there.

Week 1 of the Second Draft of the Novel

Last Sunday, I finally got started on the second draft of the novel I wrote last year. Second drafts are complete rewrites for me. In the first draft, I tell myself the story, figure things out, and then completely rewrite it in the second draft, based on what I know. I try to make it into an interesting story for someone other than me. Often this is where the characters come to life and the story finds its voice.

I wrote 6,000 words last week, breaking 1,000 or more words on 4 of 7 days. The last time I had a week in which I wrote more than a 1,000 words/day four times was back in January. That said, I struggled. I think I was trying to find the right voice, and I ended up getting into my head, the way a pitcher can get into a hitter’s head when they think too much at the plate.

I flailed around quite a bit on Wednesday and Thursday and bombed on Friday. But I tried not to let that get me down too much. I took a deep breath, and spent much of Saturday allowing the story to play through the background of my day. Yesterday evening, I sat down to write, and got 1,500 words, and I think I found the right opening. I’m not certain, since I’ve flailed around quite a bit, but it was strong ending to a tough week.

And so, while I wrote 6,000 words, only 1,500 of those words are words that will (for now, anyway) stay in the second draft. This isn’t completely out of the ordinary for me. I tend do this in short stories as well, although not as much. I feel like I have a bit more of a command of that form than novels, but I’m learning as I go.

For week 2, I’d love to get 7,000 words, but I’ll be happy with whatever I get, as long as the story is taking shape, is interesting, and continues to move me.

The 9 Phases I Went Through to Become a Writer

I submitted my very first story back in early January 1993 and I have been submitting stories ever since. Back when I started, I wanted to believe that one day, I’d sell a story, but I didn’t quite dare to. It’s funny to look back over the path that persistence takes you through. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, if for no other reason, to show what I went through with the thought that others go through the same thing.

I’ve identified 9 distinct phases to the evolution of my writing career. They are not all equal in duration, and some of them overlap, but I went through all of them, and continue to go through some of them.

1. The Newbie (1993)

I decided that I wanted to be a writer, and that was enough. I was in my junior year of college and I told everyone around me, whether they wanted to hear it or not, that I was a writer. I wrote a dozen stories in rapid succession without knowing anything about how to tell a story. I wrote sex stories and sent them to Playboy thinking that is what the magazine published. I wrote science fiction stories and sent them to the science fiction magazines. I wrote a story about a cat and sent it to Cat Fancy.  I collected, with glee, my first rejection slips. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was writer, dammit.

The big lesson for me here: read the market guidelines! Otherwise you’re just wasting time (and in the early-mid 1990s, postage).

2. The Fanboy (1994-1996)

I read a lot of autobiographical work by my idols, and decided I was going to be just like them. When I was in my Piers Anthony phase and received a rejection, I took Piers Anthony’s attitude that the editor was an idiot. Moreover, I didn’t just want to be like my idols, I assumed I already was. If Isaac Asimov could write a good story in an hour and sell it two hours later, well, by God, so could I. After all, I had all of the experience of three or fours months. And I had the rejection letters to prove to anyone who asked that I was a Real Writer.

The big lesson for me here: I am not Isaac Asimov or Piers Anthony. I am me and I had to figure out my own strengths and weaknesses and not pretend others.

3. The Impressionist (1996-1997)

Have you ever had a friend who claimed to be a great impressionist, and who, after making such a claim, went on to do a Ronald Reagan impersonation that sounded exactly like your friend and nothing like Ronald Reagan? Well, I felt like I was the Rich Little of science fiction, and my favorite impression was Harlan Ellison. During this phase, every story that flowed from my pen was written in what I perceived to be the Voice of Harlan Ellison. This is incredibly painful and embarrassing to admit, for as you might imagine, my impression of Harlan’s writing was like that friend’s impression of Ronald Reagan. But when I finally burned through this phase, I turned the first major corner in my evolution as a writer. I’d gotten the newbie, the fanboy and the impressionist out of my system. I had become, in fact…

The big lesson for me here: Voice needs to emerge naturally in a story. If you try to fake it or imitate another writer’s voice, readers can tell.

4. The Beginner (1998-2002)

I deliberately began to set aside attempts to be like my heroes and write like my heroes and instead find my own voice. I also began to write stories that, at last, had distinct beginnings, middles, and endings. If only I could have started from here, but the truth is, I think I had to go through those first three phases, if for no other reason, to learn first hand how to do things the wrong way. It was during this phase that I received my first two personal rejection slips. The first came from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, back when she was editor of F&SF. The second came from Algis Budrys when he was editor of Tomorrow.

The big lesson for me here: Editors really do read what you submit. And they take the time to provide feedback on those submissions they feel warrant it.

Continue reading

The Elusive 10,000 Hours

A week or so ago, I calculated how much time I spend writing each day, based on 400 days worth of data that I’d collected1. The data showed that I average about 42 minutes and 15 seconds of writing time per day. I have written every day for the last 267 days, and I’ve only missed 2 days out of the last 410. So I am writing every day.

This is the first period of time in my life where this has been true, although I have been writing stories now for more than 20 years. Prior to 2013, I wrote in small, dense scraps of time, producing one, or maybe two stories a year, and spending perhaps a total of 20 hours writing for the entire year. However, from February 27, 2013 to the present moment, I’ve spend about 289 hours of my life writing.

In the big picture, it is not all that much. In that same span of time, I’ve spent about 2,400 hours of my life at the day job. I’ve spent approximately 2,700 hours sleeping. The time I have for writing is roughly 1/10th the time I spend at my day job and 1/11th the time I spent sleeping.

I was thinking about this in the context of the 10,000 hours that it supposedly takes to become an expert at something. 10,000 hours sounds like a lot, but in practice, it really isn’t. If you could work at something–say, writing–for 8 hours a day, you’d hit your 10,000 hours in less than 5 years. Even half time, you’d still hit your 10,000 hours within a decade.

But I don’t have that kind of time. I can spend, on average, about 45 minutes/day on my writing. Occasionally, I can spend more time, but that is offset by the days that I spend less time.  Which means that even writing every day of the year, which I do, I’m spending less than 300 hours a year writing. It’s not difficult to take that number and figure out how long before I hit my 10,000 hours. Excluding everything that came before last February as marginal (I’ve written more in the last 400 days than in the last 20 years put together), it will, at my present pace, take me nearly thirty-eight more years to hit that magic 10,000 hours. At which time, I will be 80 years old.

This assumes, of course, a steady-state, and that is unlikely. I try to set goals that are obtainable when it comes to my writing, things that are in my control. Rather than have a goal to sell 10 stories or win some award, I pick things like: average 1.5 hours of writing per day by the end of 2015. Where will the time come from? That is part of the challenge. I don’t want to take away from family time. That leaves other areas of my life. I’m not giving up my day job, and I’ve more or less optimized my sleep. That leaves little wiggle room.

So I’ve started to prioritize what’s important. I started the second draft of my novel a few days ago, and I recently gave up my book review column at InterGalactic Medicine Show, and yes, the two are related. This was a paying writing gig, but the time it took can be redistributed toward my writing. Then, too, I am constantly on the lookout for ways I can automate things so that I don’t need to spend time on them.

I try to keep my goals modest, but I would love it if I could reach the stage where I could write 2 hours per day. That’s 2.9 times what I currently manage, and that means cutting my time to hit 10,000 hours from 38 more years down to 13 years. Now we’re talking. I’ll be around 55 years old and much closer to thinking about retirement from the day job. And with the practice and expertise I will have gathered from 10,000 hours of writing, who knows, maybe at that point, I’ll be able to support the family with my writing.

Notes

  1. 412 as of today.

Beginning the Second Draft of My Novel

Yesterday, I started writing the second draft of my novel. I finished the first draft back in mid-September. I wrote 1,200 words, and overall, it felt pretty good. I think I’m still trying to find just the right voice, but I feel it coming on, and I imagine I’ll have it soon.

What surprised me most is how quickly I was able to get back into the mindset of the novel. Between finishing the first draft and starting the second draft, I wrote four other stories, and several nonfiction pieces. I thought it might be difficult to immerse myself back in the world that I created, and the characters that live there. It turned out to be surprisingly easy.

Moreover, I find myself in the mental “zone” of the story. I think other writers get this, but I’m not sure non-writers will understand. It basically means that my mind is firing on all cylinders, whether I’m actually writing the story, or just thinking about it as I walk, or go throughout my day. The focus is there. It’s like a pitcher who is throwing a perfect game into the sixth or seventh inning. I’m cruising and it feels great.

It has a wonderful secondary side-effect: it serves as a constant release value for stress. I’ve mentioned before how writing each day, even if the writing isn’t great, is always a stress reliever for me. Being in the zone for this story is like having a constant stress-relief valve open to relieve the pressure in a constant stream.

Bottom line, I was a little nervous to get started, but once I did, it felt great. I wonder if this is how writers who have been writing novels for a long time feel when they start on their second drafts?

Derek Jeter’s Philosophy of Preparing for Baseball also Applies to Writing

When I was watching the press conference prior to the Yankees home-opener against the Orioles last week, I saw Derek Jeter interviewed. He was asked at one point about his success in 1996 and not being able to predict his career path then, but how could he be so confident that he would focus on baseball and not get caught up in any distractions. What he said in response resonated with me, because in many ways, it was what I think about writing. (The question comes at the 6:45 mark if you want to jump right to it.)

What Jeter says (with a little cleaning up on my part) is:

I came up in a culture where you were never promised a job. We had to perform in order to keep our job and that’s the mindset we had going into every season… If you didn’t do your job, the boss would get rid of you. So every spring training, every off-season, I trained and prepared for the opportunity to win a job. So I never take anything for granted.

I very much believe in this philosophy when it comes to my own writing. Almost no writer is promised a job (e.g. a story sale, a novel sale, etc.) at the outset of his or her career. You have to earn it. For a rare set of people, this may not be difficult. There are geniuses in all walks of life. But for me, it meant 14 years of practice, 14 years of persistence, and 14 years of enough self-confidence to believe that I could eventually do it. And as Jeter points out, that is just the beginning. “If you didn’t do your job, the boss would get rid of you.” I put in my best effort on every story that I write. Not all of them are good enough and I don’t win every job.

Still, I practice every day. I write every day. I try new things in my stories, and while I am no all-star, I think I am making steady improvements. What Jeter says is something that I thinks irks some new writers trying to break in and make their first sale, be it a novel or a story. There is a belief out there that writing really isn’t that hard, that there is some formula or trick to getting published–or, if self-publishing, being a success. If there is, I don’t know it. The only trick I know is working as hard as I can at something I love. As Jeter says, I never take the job for granted, never assume that a story of mine will be published, and never assume that just because one story had a measure of success, another deserves equal success.

For me, however, I like the hard work. The satisfaction of seeing a story in print and knowing how much of an effort you put in to make it a success is worth every minute of effort.

My Next Writing Project: Starting the Second Draft of the Novel

Tomorrow, I will start writing the second draft of the novel I wrote last year. As a brief recap: I started writing the novel last February, without actually knowing I was writing a novel. I wrote the story with some fits and starts until it finally caught, and then continued to write, finishing the first draft in mid-September. It was the first novel draft I ever completed. It came in at 95,000 words.

I took a few months off to write short stories, and during that time, I wrote 3 complete stories, one of which I subsequently sold, and a fourth story, a novella, which I’ve been working on ever since. Also during that time, I wrote several pieces of nonfiction.

Beginning in December, I started to re-read the novel I wrote, going through it slowly and deliberately, and taking a lot of notes. By the time I’d finished that re-read, I had accumulated around 15,000 words worth of notes. I had originally intended to start on the second draft back in December, but I was working on other things, and spring really seems like the right time to start on something new. And so, tomorrow, I’ll begin writing the second draft of the novel.

One good thing about having all of the writing data that I’ve captured is that it makes it fairly easy to predict when I’ll finish a project like this. Over the course of the last 409 days, I’ve averaged 834 words of fiction per day. Using that number, and assuming the novel will come in at around 90,000 words, you get 108 days, which, if I start tomorrow, means I’ll finish on July 30, 2014.

This assumes that I will write every day, which is a safe assumption. As of today, I have written for 264 consecutive days, and 407 out of the last 409 days.

Still, I’ll add a two week buffer to that July 30 date, since I may write some nonfiction articles during that time, and that buffer puts me at about August 15, 2014.

That said, the draft could be done sooner for two reasons:

First, during the time I was working on the first draft, I average 910 words/day, somewhat higher than my overall average. The 910 words/day brings things closer to 99 days, or July 21.

Second, while writing the first draft, I didn’t really know the story. I don’t work from an outline. I thought I knew how the story would end, and just figured it out as I went along. This has become my usual process for first drafts. For second drafts, I’ve now told myself the story, and I know what the story is about. Second drafts are always complete rewrites for me. I am trying to take what I did in the first draft and make it interesting for readers. The first draft, therefore, becomes an outline of sorts, along with the notes that I took on reading the draft. Armed with that knowledge, I think it will be easier to get through each day’s worth of writing because I’ll actually know what I’ll be writing about, instead of sitting around trying to figure it out.

Continue reading

400 Days of Writing

As of today, I have written for 400 of the last 402 days, beginning back on February 27, 2013. And, while there were two days that I missed since starting (both while I attended the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop last July), my streak of consecutive days of writing stands at 256 days, or seven-tenths of a year–without missing a day. The last day on which I did not write was July 21, 2013.

Some stats

256 consecutive days puts me just shy of 10% of my goal of 2633 consecutive days of writing. But 400 out of the last 402 days seems astonishing to me, when you consider that I probably hadn’t written 400 days over the previous 20 years or so that I’ve been writing.

Here is what 402 days of writing looks like:

400 Days of Writing

It amounts to a grand total of 339,000 words, and an overall average of 845 words per day. Every day. Looking at the 7-day moving average brings out some additional interesting features of my writing:

7-day moving average

Those mountain range-like spikes beginning in the fall represent the time I was working on the second draft of various stories. I tend to write more each day when I’m working on second drafts because, unlike the first draft, I’ve already told myself the story and am simply now trying to make it an interesting story for the reader.

Some thoughts on writing every day

I was asked recently if I writing every day means even writing on the days when I feel uninspired and write badly. I think the implication (although I may be reading into this) is that it shouldn’t count if you are writing just to get words down for the day. After all, if the writing is bad what is the point?

I pondered this quite a bit and have a few thoughts:

1. When I sit down to write, regardless of how tired I feel (which happens occasionally) or how uninspired I might feel (which happens far less frequently), I sit down with the intention of doing the best possible writing I can achieve. Put another way, I’m never just sitting there to put anything but the best words on the page that I can manage.

2. Writing is a stress reliever for me. When I sit down to write–more often than not in the evenings–the stresses of the day melt away as I work on my story. It may only be for 10 or 15 minutes on some nights, but I’ve found that since I started this well over a year ago, I’ve been sleeping better than I can remember at any time in the past.

3. My best isn’t always good enough. But practicing at something every day will make you better. I find it interesting that people can abide someone who practices at the piano every day, but who looked askance at a writer who writes everyday and considers it practice. Geniuses excepted, storytelling is a learned craft, one that requires just as much practice as anything else.

4. Routine is reinforcing. Baseball players are not superstitious because they believe that their quirks (not stepping on a foul line when exiting the field, tapping the bat on the plate three times when getting ready to hit, etc.) bring them luck, but because the routine of it helps to reinforce muscle memory and put their mind into the frame of concentration needed to perform their job on the field. The same is true for writing.

5. You have to do what works for you. Everyone works differently. I work well writing every day, and I only wish I’d discovered this 20 years ago instead of last year. Just because it works for me doesn’t mean it works for others. I like to think that I’ve long since matured beyond the notion that my way is the right way and everyone should be doing it this way. My way is the right way–for me. Your mileage may vary.

But back to that original question for a moment: if the writing is bad, what is the point? I’d say that when the writing is bad is when I should be writing the most. How else would I learn to improve except by writing?

Enjoy these posts? – Tell a friend

Recommending readers is one of the highest compliments you can pay to a writer. If you enjoy what you read here, or you find the posts useful, tell a friend! Find me online here:

Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Blog | RSS

Or use one of the share buttons below. Thanks for reading!

 

Fighting with a Story

I have been hacking one heck of a tough time with this story that I’ve been working on. I started the story months ago. I got through about 70% of the first draft before realizing there were some serious problems.

Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly standard process for how I work on my stories, mostly by trial and error. I eventually landed on the process similar to how Stephen King works, which is to write a first draft telling myself the story, and the second draft telling the reader the story. Coming from a software development background, my story drafts all get version numbers in their file names. So, the very first cut at a first draft is version 1.0. If I need to start over taking a different approach in the first draft, it becomes 1.1. The first cut at the second draft is 2.0, and if I need to start over with a different approach there it becomes version 2.1, 2.2, etc. You get the idea.

Since I’ve been using this method, I’ve never gone beyond 1.3 in the first draft before nailing it, or giving up… until now.

Last night, I began draft version 1.7 of this story I’m trying to write. Yes, I’ve restarted the story seven times. Version 1.0 grew to about 12,000 words. That was the farthest I managed to get. Each subsequent attempt has been stalled well before reaching that point. I’ve tried lots of different approaches (well, 8, if you count the first one) and none seem to work.

In the ordinary course of events, I’d tell myself that this meant I simply wasn’t ready to tell this particular story and move on to something else. Indeed, I set this story aside to work on other things–but the idea of the story kept coming back to me. It don’t know if this makes sense to non-writers, but this story is screaming to be told.

I mention this for two reasons:

First, I don’t want to give the impression that just because I’ve figured out a way to write every day, means I write well every day. Nor does it mean that the words flow easily every day. With this story in particularly, it has been difficult to come to the keyboard each night because I’m afraid that I won’t make any progress, or that I’ll be forced to start over yet again. But I still write. I still force out the words, although it is sometimes like pulling teeth, and sometimes, even though the story isn’t working, new little facets emerge that help provide a new angle to what I’m trying to do. Perhaps the most important thing to take away here, is that, for me, even though fighting with a story like this can be frustrating, it is still fun. It’s a challenge. How am I going to pull it out in the end?

Which leads to my second reason for mentioning this. Throughout my career as a software developer, there have been numerous times when I’ve been thwarted on a problem by some thorny code or algorithm. Sometimes, I’ve just given up and looked for some other way to solve the same problem. But occasionally, I come into the office determined. I sit down in front of the computer and mutter, sometimes aloud, “I’m not budging until I’ve solved this problem.”

Continue reading

How I Generated the Models and Charts for My Activity/Sleep/Writing Correlations

In case anyone was curious about how I generated the models and charts in the previous post, I used Mathematica. It took only a few lines of code to calculate the models and generate the charts. Here is the code I used:

data = Import["C:/Users/rubin/Downloads/WritingWalking.xlsx"][[1]];
data2 = Import["C:/Users/rubin/Downloads/WritingWalking.xlsx"][[3]];
data3 = Import["C:/Users/rubin/Downloads/WritingWalking.xlsx"][[4]];
sleepdata =
Import["C:/Users/rubin/Downloads/WritingWalking.xlsx"][[5]];

lm = LinearModelFit[data, x, x];
lm2 = LinearModelFit[data2, x, x];
lm3 = LinearModelFit[data3, x, x];
lmsleep = LinearModelFit[sleepdata, x, x];

Show[ListPlot[data], Plot[lm[x], {x, 0, 2500}],
AxesLabel -> {"Words", "Steps"}]
Show[ListPlot[data2], Plot[lm2[x], {x, 0, 2500}],
AxesLabel -> {"Words", "Steps"}]
Show[ListPlot[data3], Plot[lm3[x], {x, 0, 800}],
AxesLabel -> {"Words", "Steps"}]
Show[ListPlot[sleepdata], Plot[lmsleep[x], {x, 0, 2000}],
AxesLabel -> {"Minutes", "Words"}]

That’s it. The data itself comes from two sources:

  1. Step and sleep data come from my FitBit device. I exported the data for the 300 days in question to an Excel spreadsheet.
  2. Word count data come from my Google Writing Tracker scripts.

How Physical Activity and Sleep Affects My Writing

Over the last 5 days or so, my writing has been going pretty well. Writers have different explanations for this phenomenon. My “muse” is alive. I’m firing on all cylinders. I’m in the zone. But these are all vague, unscientific explanations for an explosion of creative brain activity. It can be helpful to isolate patterns to see if anything external to writing itself could affect writing output or how writing “feels.” Since I capture a ton of data about my writing, my physical activity, and my sleep, I thought I’d look into this.

Does physical activity affect my writing?

Over the last week and a half or so, my walking has been up. I’ve averaged about 17,000 steps per day, well above my daily goal of 15,000 steps. These walks invigorate and energize me, and I couldn’t help but notice that when my walking was up, my writing is also up, and seems to go much more smoothly.

So I culled the last 300 days worth of data for writing and walking and looked to see if there was any correlation between them. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be.

Writing Correlations

Figure 1: 300 days of writing and walking

Figure 1 above plots the number of steps I take each day against the number of words I wrote on that day and creates a linear model fit to see if there is a correlation. Each point on the plot represents one day. The x-axis is the number words written. The y-axis is the number of steps taken. The line represents the linear model. It is almost flat, meaning there is no real correlation between these value. The slope of the line itself is slightly positive, and given its value, this would be considered a “weak positive” correlation, but when I say “weak” I mean really weak.

You can see some interesting features. On days where I write a lot, there appears to be a tendency for me to walk a lot, too. But again, it is a weak correlation.

Next, I decided to look at days where I exceed both my writing goal (500 words/day) and my walking goal (15,000 steps/day). That resulting in the following:

Writing Correlations Above Goals

Figure 2: Writing and Walking above daily goals

In Figure 2 there is a slightly negative correlation between writing and walking on days where I exceed goals for both. In other words, on these days, the more I walk, the less I write. I suppose this makes sense. I might be more physically tired. If walking takes up more time, there might be less time for writing.

Finally, I looked at days on which I was below my goal for both writing and walking.

Writing Correlations Below Goal

Figure 3: Writing and Walking below daily goals

In Figure 3 you can see this data has a much stronger positive correlation, although based on the actual slope it is just barely into the territory of a “moderate” positive correlation. On these days, the more I walk, the more I write.

How does sleep affect my writing?

I’ve been sleeping pretty well over the last 10 days and so it is naturally to look at that data as well. Here, what I did, was looked at my total minutes asleep, and how much I wrote the following day. Here is what the data looks like for the same 300 day period.

Writing Correlations with Sleep

Figure 4: Words written and minutes asleep

In Figure 4 you can see a weak positive correlation between the number of words written and the number of minutes I slept the night before. The more I slept, the more I wrote. During that time I averaged 435 minutes of sleep each night (7 hours, 15 minutes) and write 840 words/day. The weak tendency in this model is that if I slept longer (say, 8 hours) I would write more, in this case, the model predicts 863 words, only about 23 words more for 45 additional minutes of sleep. Like I said, it is a weak correlation.


In this case, the data doesn’t point to any one thing that I could change in order to get more of the really good flowing days of writing stacked up one after the other. Sleep helps a little. Walking helps a little. But in neither case do they make a significant difference. At least for me.

Enjoy these posts? – Tell a friend

Recommending readers is one of the highest compliments you can pay to a writer. If you enjoy what you read here, or you find the posts useful, tell a friend! Find me online here:

Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Blog | RSS

Or use one of the share buttons below. Thanks for reading!

Moments of Truth for Writers

Back in 1997 or maybe 1998, I took a customer service training class from a fantastic company called Ouelette & Associates1. The class focused on customer service for technical people, IT, etc. It was a seminal course, taught by an amazing instructor, Anita Leto, and it lead to a completely new way of thinking about the interactions I have with others. A central tenet of the course was something called “moments of truth,” a phrase that comes from a book of the same title by Jon Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavia Airlines.

A moment of truth is an outcome of every interaction you have with someone else, no matter the form it takes or how big or small it is. In the customer service realm, the interactions are, of course, with customers. There are generally two outcomes: a “positive” moment of truth and or a “negative” moment of truth. In thinking about interactions with customers you always strive to make positive moments of truth. The course (unscientifically) posited that it takes ten positive moments of truth to wipe out a single negative moment of truth. Not scientific, but concept rings true. You have a bad experience with an airline, and wild horses and free trips might not drag you back to fly with them again.

As a professional freelance writer, I’ve been thinking about moments of truth in my interactions with other writers, readers, editors, publishers, anyone really. I look at Facebook occasionally, and am often dismayed by how many negative moments of truth I see out there. I’ve avoided Facebook more and more for this reason, but having spent more time than usual on it yesterday, it got me thinking about my own interactions as a professional writer in the same way I have interactions as a professional software developer. I aim for positive moments of truth.

This goes from the story level on up. When I write a story (or a blog post, or an article) I try to make it the best it can be. I want it to be a positive moment of truth for the reader. I am not always successful. Occasional typos slip in and readers (almost always kindly) point them out to me. I used to think, ah, well, not a very big deal, I’ll do better next time. But I realized that while a few little typos might not bother me, they act as negative moments of truth for the reader. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters is that I’ve caused a negative moment of truth for a reader.

A story is an objective thing and some readers won’t like a story for highly personal reasons. Those are negative moments of truth, as well, although they are far beyond my control as a writer. These I just have to leave with, in the same way I live with customers that can never be pleased. What I do have control over, however, is further interaction with those readers. Once a story of mine is published, I feel that it is no longer mine, in the sense that I’ve said what I wanted to about the story and moved on. A reader may not like a story, may despise a story. I usually just let that stand. No need to muddy the water and risk a negative moment of truth by replying.

That said, if a reader writes to me to tell me that they didn’t like a story, I will reply with regret, and say that I can understand that, I don’t like everything I read either, you win some, you lose some, etc., etc., but thanks for at least giving me a shot. It’s remarkable the effect this type of reply has. I may not have gained a new reader, but I’ve gained a fan nonetheless.

My professional interactions go far beyond readers, however. Even before a story gets to a reader, it goes to an editor, who may have her own thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. Interactions with editors are just as prone to negative moments of truth as they are positive ones. When I first started out writing stories, I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, and I liked his author notes. In them, he made it sound like if an editor bounced a story of his, they were an idiot. I might have taken that same attitude early on out of simply naivete, but I haven’t thought that way in 20 years.

Continue reading

Notes

  1. I cannot recommend O&A highly enough. In the years since that first course, I’ve probably taken half a dozen other courses, ranging from project management, to requirements gathering, to testing, and they have all exceeded my expectation.