When the Writing Finally Clicks

I have been struggling along with the first draft of this novel since late March. I had hoped to have the draft finished by the end of June, but it had been a difficult story to write. With short stories, I push through the first draft without looking back. With novels–for which I have far less experience–I have found myself starting, and restarting, which is a bad sign for me in the first draft.

But, I haven’t given up. I decided that the only way to learn how write a novel is to write one, and if that means start and restarting until the story clicks, then so be it.

The story finally clicked.

If you have ever wondering what that click looks like, what that ah-ha moment when the light bulb burns suddenly bright looks like, I think I have a pretty good illustration:

When it finally clicked

You can see my struggles pretty clearly over the previous 24 days before the story finally clicked. When it did, my writing shot up from a average of under 400 words/day to where it stands today, at about 1,100 words/day. Zooming out, this become more obvious:

3 months of writing

I started things right around March 27. The first few days were great, but you can see that slope of decline as I got mired in problems, and had difficult pushing forward. That led to a second attempt, and once again, a spike, but that spike was short-lived, and the daily writing declined. Then, six days ago, the story clicked. I found what I think is the right way to tell it, and I have been pushing forward. The story has taken off.

How do I know? Well, aside from what the data tells me, it is what I feel. I am eager to sit down to write each day, and when I do sit down to write, the time flies by. Over the last 6 days, I’ve average about 40 minutes/day of writing and it flashes by in the blink of an eye. What’s more, I come away with a good idea of what I will write the next day. I have a good vision for the story now.

Since late March when I started this story, I have written 44,000 words. However, I only have about 10,000 words of usable story written so far. For some people those 34,000 words that make up the difference might seem wasted. For me, they were the practice I needed to get to the point where the story clicked. I’m fairly confident the story will move much more swiftly now that it has clicked. But I don’t think I ever would have made it to this point, if not for those 34,000 words worth of flailing.

Quickly break in a new baseball glove [video]

I have been lax in my efforts to break in the Little Man’s baseball glove, and that has made things more difficult on the field for him than they should be. So this weekend, I decided I would figure out the right way to do it quickly. A Google search led me to the Glove Guru, and a video where he shows the way the pros break in gloves. It uses nothing more than hot water, and a hammer.

I tried this on the Little Man’s glove yesterday morning using a regular hammer in place of the special tool that the Glove Guru used (the hammer was dull so it wouldn’t tear the leather) and after about 10 minutes, the Little Man could easily open and close the glove–something he was unable to do before I started.

Another win for YouTube videos!

Stephen King’s Favorite Stephen King Novel

Yesterday I sat down to watch a Stephen King talk from back in January of this year. It took place somewhere in Florida and it was for a library down there. In the question and answer session that followed the talk, King was asked what his favorite Stephen King book was.

I watched with interest, but I was fairly certain of his answer. In many places in recent years, King has often said that his own personal favorite is Lisey’s Story. So I was surprised, and delighted, when King answered that his own favorites were “probably It and 11/22/63.” As it happens, my favorite King novel (and favorite novel period right now) is 11/22/63 followed pretty closely by It.

Tastes change over time. I know this from experience. My favorite book from 10 years ago is different than what it is today. But I was particularly pleased that King recognized those two books as his own favorites. I’ve enjoyed most of what he has written, but those two books are a cut above the rest as far as I am concerned.

Conversations with the Little Man: The Negotiation

While in the car driving home after picking up the Little Man from school yesterday, the following conversation took place between the Little Man and Kelly:

Little Man: What are we having for dinner?

Kelly: Chicken and broccoli.

LM: No broccoli.

K: You need to eat broccoli if you want to have a treat after.

LM: Okay, but just one broccoli.

K: 3 pieces.

LM: 2 pieces.

K: Four pieces, or no treat.

LM: 2 pieces.

K: 4 pieces.

LM: Four pieces is too much.

K: You need to eat your broccoli if you want to have a treat after.

LM: How about three pieces?

K: Fine, you can eat 3 pieces of broccoli.

At this point there is a brief pause and I can see the Little Man in the rearview mirror furrow his brow.

LM: Hey, wait a minute, that was a bad decision.

And at this point, Kelly and I burst out laughing. The Little Man started laughing, too, despite the “bad decision.” And he ate his broccoli.

Issue 45 of IGMS is out and my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” has the cover!

I am delighted to announce that Issue #45 of InterGalactic Medicine Show is out today, and that my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” is the cover story for this issue. This is the first time any story of mine has been the cover story. What’s more, the amazing cover art for this issue was done by Eric Wilkerson, who as it happened, also did the cover for my favorite IGMS story, “Sojourn in Ephah” by Marina J. Lostetter.

As Edmund Schubert write in his editorial, this is my 4th story in the magazine, but my very first cover story. Edmund published my very first professional story way back in 2007, and I am so glad to have “Gemma Barrows” appear here.

Nine Days in May: 26 Years After the Los Angeles Unified School District Strike of 1989

Twenty-six  years ago today–May 26, 1989–was a bittersweet day for me and my friends. It was the last day of an extraordinary nine days in May when the teachers union of the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike. I was in 11th grade at Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School in Reseda, California, and it was spring in Los Angeles–probably the most remarkable spring of my teenage years. What teenager doesn’t dream of getting out of school for two weeks and spending that time hanging out with friends.

I’ve written about the strike before, and the 26th anniversary of the end of the strike would have passed by me unnoticed, if it wasn’t for this week’s Big 80s on 8 countdown on Sirius XM this weekend. The countdown was for this week in 1989, and as I listened to the music from the countdown, it was like listening to an anthem for the strike.

The years have both eroded my memories of those nine extraordinary days, and tinged them with the nostalgia of youth and vigor. What I am left with is a kind of idyllic, Ray Bradburyesque of a spring in Los Angeles. The music plays a big part of it. Pirate Radio–KQLZ–was in its amazing infancy, a mere 3 months old, and playing great rock and pop of the day, including its signature, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n’ Roses.

During that two week period, my friends and I would meet at school in the morning to plan our day. The teachers would be standing out in front of the school holding up hand-made signs that read NO CONTRACT, NO WORK, and I’D RATHER BE TEACHING. Occasionally, a substitute would cross the picket line and enter the school to jeers of “Scab!” from students and teachers alike. And then we were off–to one of our friend’s houses nearby. We’d watch MTV–Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video was popular at the time (“I can think about baseball and swing all night, yeah!”). When the weather was particularly good, we’d head to the beach. We’d go to the movies. We’d hang out, and our little gang seemed like the best thing in town.

It really was a remarkable spring. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out around the time of the strike. Earlier (or perhaps later) that spring, we spent several weeks at Cal State Northridge working on a project, and getting an idea of what it was like to be in college. I remember spending a lot of time in the student center, eating junk, and watching Tone Lōc videos. Meanwhile, when we were in school, we were reading books like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust.

For me, at least, the strike had nothing to do with better pay for teachers, better contracts, better terms, or anything like that. It had everything to do with the freedom to spend those days with my friends, doing whatever it was we wanted to do. The theme of our 11th grade magnet program in 1989 was “school without walls” and the nine days of the strike gave us plenty of schooling without walls. For a brief time, we were in some kind of twilight, almost grownups, but without the worry of a family or career.

Sometime late during the week of May 21, 1989, we heard that a settlement had been reached, and that we would be returning to class on Tuesday May 30–Monday was Memorial Day. It was a bittersweet day, but we had nine days of freedom that most 11th graders don’t get, so it would have been criminal to complain about it. More than a quarter century later, the strike still remains a bright spot in my memory, which must say something about the impact that it had on us at the time. What’s more: the friends that I hung out with during those halcyon days are still some of my best friends today.

Long Weekend and a New Story

We spent the long Memorial Day weekend up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with my sister and her family, and my mom. The kids got to spend most of the time at Dutch Wonderland, and we spent the weekend trying to keep up with them. We also took a horse and buggy ride through an Amish farm, and I had some homemade root beer, which was excellent. This is our third year in a row getting out of town on the official east coast opening of summer, and heading up to Pennsylvania, and like the last two years, it was a great success.

I managed a little bit of writing on the novel draft, but I also started a brand new science fiction story. I’m not entirely sure where it is going yet, but I will say that the main character is a somewhat overwhelmed project manager who finds himself over his head on a new assignment. And in case anyone wonders where I get my ideas: recently I have felt like a somewhat overwhelmed project manager in over his head on a new assignment.

It’s actually a nice change of pace from the novel draft, and I think I’ve been ready for a chance of pace for a little while now.

My Summer Reading List, 2015 (Sort of)

Obviously, we still have a month to go before summer officially begins, but a few nights ago, I jotted down the following list of books, all of which I am interested in reading in the near future1.

  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (reading this now)
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Finder’s Keepers by Stephen King
  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris2
  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris3
  • Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • One Summer by Bill Bryson
  • Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow
  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

What’s on your list?

  1. I say “near future” but my experience has been that when I post lists, I sometimes stick to them, and sometimes ignore them completely. What I read next can sometimes be a spontaneous decision.
  2. A re-read, although it’s been more than 13 years since I last read this book.
  3. Also a re-read.

STORY SALE: “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” to InterGalactic Medicine Show

With the contracts signed, I am delighted to announce that my newest story, “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” will be appearing in an upcoming issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show.

This is my second baseball science fiction story to appear in the magazine, and still the baseball stories are not out of my system yet. I’m not certain which issue it will be appearing in but I’ll post an update when I know.

I wanted to give special thanks to Juliette Wade, Bud Sparhawk, and Jay Werkheiser; they all provided excellent feedback that really helped make “Gemma Barrows” a much story.

Fighting words, or musings on pantsing vs. plotting

My friend, and fellow science fiction writer, Bud Sparhawk has some fighting words for me this morning. For context, before continuing, you should go read his post. Bud and I have given several talks on online writing tools, and pantsing vs. plotting at various science fiction conventions. Today, however, Bud made it clear that he feels plotting is the superior form of writing. While I can’t deny that it might be superior for some, I can say that it doesn’t work well for me. And so let me take up each of Bud’s jabs one at a time to give a little of my perspective of this heated debate1

“Life is largely unplotted…”

Bud writes:

Jamie writes by the seat of his pants –which is akin to running with scissors IMHO– while I choose the wiser and more prudent course of carefully plotting my works.

While it is probably beside the point, I was always taught that there is a right way and a wrong way to run with scissors. Or perhaps, a safe way, and a dangerous way. On those rare instances where I run with scissors, I opt for the safe way, holding blades curled in my fist to prevent myself from stabbing anyone, especially me.

But Bud also goes on to say that he chooses the “wiser” and “more prudent” course, and that is carefully plotting out everything he writes.

It might be wiser and more prudent for Bud, but it just doesn’t work for me. When I try to plot out my stories, the result is stories that are too neatly plotted. Everything fits together too well. Coincidence rears its head more often than it should. In other words, the stories feel plotted.

Instead, I have become a big believer in Stephen King’s suggestion that life is largely unplotted. For me, planning out too much makes the stories feel artificial. I prefer a more natural approach where the plot develops from the situation the characters find themselves in and the actions that they take. This has worked well for me. The stories I write organically, without planning every step of the way, have sold faster, and in general been more successful than those that I have carefully plotted out.

Practice makes perfect

Bud goes on to talk about my prodigious output, although he exaggerates slightly. While I have been aiming for a 1,000 words/day, I average about 850. But I do write every day, and haven’t missed a day in 656 days now. In those 656 days, I’ve written 575,000 words. So Bud is right; I write a lot.

But then, my plotting friend goes on to say:

Instead, due to his hasty and impetuous headlong dash to finish something he has to throw out most of his words, edit with a chainsaw, and rewriting practically everything.  From this I draw the conclusion that writing by the seat of your pants is wasteful of time and talent. (Emphasis is mine.)

Here is where Bud and I part company. Would a music teacher say that it is a wasteful to practice your scales? Would a medical school professor tell students it is a waste of time and talent to intern? Would professional baseball player say that it is a waste of time to practice hitting in the batting cage? Would a flight instructor tell a student pilot that it is a waste of time time practice takeoffs and landing?

Then why do we think that it is a waste of time for writers to write. Bud is correct: I write a lot, and much of it gets re-written from scratch. But I don’t see it as wasteful of time; I see it as the practice I need to develop my talent. I know of no other way to become a better writer than to write. For me, the proof is in the numbers. Prior to writing every day, I sold 1 story on average every 3 years. Since my writing streak started, I’ve sold one story or article every 45 days.

Pantsing and plotting are not opposites

I find that people think pantsing means that opposite of plotting–no planning at all. For me, at least, that is not the case. I know where my story will start, and I have an idea of where it will end. Then I start writing, working my way toward that ending. The planning happens more informally, more in realtime than it might if I plotted it out. Sometimes I hit my mark, and the story ends where I imagined it would when I started. Other times, the story surprises me. The same is true for those, like Bud, who plot everything out ahead of time.

But I also need the writing experience to be a discovery for me. Plotting out things ahead of time has the same effect on me as talking about my stories: it spoils the excitement of the story.

The most important thing is to write

Bud is a more experienced writer than I am2 and can put that experience to better use than someone with less experience. But as I see it, the only way to gain experience is to write. It doesn’t really matter whether you are a plotter or pantser. What matters is that you find the process that works best for you, the one that feels right, the one that encourages you to keep at it day after day after day, through the rough patches, and through the rejections. The most important thing is to keep writing.

  1. Not really heated. Bud and I are friends and this is, of course, all in good fun.
  2. Isn’t that a great way of saying he’s much older than me?

Progress Update on the Novel Draft

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on the progress of the current novel draft that I am working on. For a refresher, recall that I am trying to write 4 novel drafts between March 2015 and March 2016 (a first and second draft for 2 different novels).

I struggled for a while with the first draft of the first novel. I went through 7 restarts because I couldn’t make the story work the way I wanted. I came close to giving up and moving on to something else, but I really like the story, and I decided to press on. I’m glad I did. I think I figured out the trouble I was having. It fell into 2 categories:

  1. Point of view. All along, I was writing the novel as though it was a set of notes in a notebook of the main characters, who was telling the story to some unknown audience. I kept running into problems because it felt like the main character was deliberately holding back information for no good reason. It felt unnatural. It took a long time before I figured out was that I needed to tell the story from another character’s viewpoint, one who doesn’t already know the whole story. Then it took more time to figure out who this character should be. But I finally did it, and I think things will move much better now. In fact, I think the story will be a better story because of this.
  2. Framework. I have only written one other novel draft. Part of the reason I’m trying to do more is to get the practice and learn how to do it. But writing at length has been giving me trouble. Not because I can’t do it, but because I feel like I’m adding too much filler to the story that isn’t necessary. I felt like I was handling something too big. So I began to wonder if there wasn’t some way of telling the story using smaller, more management chunks. Thanks to changes in #1 above, I found a way to do this. As it now stands, I am writing the novel as a series of 5 novellas, each one flowing smoothly into the next. Each novella is essentially a stand-alone story, that allows me to work at a length that I am little more comfortable with. But in truth they are all tightly integrated, and with the exception of the first novella, you couldn’t really read a later one without having read the first one. In that sense, the novel is more like an episodic series of novellas. This, too, seems to be working better for me.

I had planned to finish up the first draft of the first novel at the end of June. I don’t think I am going to hit that mark now. More than likely, it will be closer to the end of July or early August. Of course, that throws off the rest of the schedule I had planned. On the other hand, this is intended to be a learning experience for me, and I am learning a lot about how to make longer stories work. To that end, I am very pleased.

I have no idea if this story will ultimately work; I really won’t know until I complete the second draft. But it is a story I like a lot, and I am sticking with it until it is finished.

For those wondering, I wrote about 25,000 words total in starts and restarts on the current novel draft before finally figuring out what I was doing wrong. Some folks might see those 25,000 words as wasted. I see them as invaluable practice as I attempt to learn new aspects of my craft.

Make sure you have the latest version of the Google Docs Writing Tracker

I have had some reports of DocsList errors from folks using the Google Docs Writing Tracker. This is because those functions have been deprecated. Several months ago, I updated the master branch with code that uses the newer DriveApp object model. I have been using that code for a few months with no errors. If you are seeing errors in the last few days caused by DocsList objects, I recommend you pull the latest version of the scripts. That should fix the problem. Please see the readme for additional details and instructions.