Tag Archives: writing

Five Years of Writer’s Block

First admit you have a problem

Of all of the stories I’ve written, my favorite thus far is “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” The story was published as the lead story in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show in May 2015. I finished writing the final draft of the story on Friday, March 13, 2015, and submitted to the magazine’s editor, Edmund Schubert, that same day. Just under two weeks later, Ed emailed to let me know he was taking the story. I’ve never been a superstitious person. I never noted (until now) that I finished the story on Friday the 13th. And besides, what did it matter? I sold the story, and it ended up getting the cover of the magazine, and some nice reviews as well.

I haven’t finished writing a story since. 

“Gemma Barrows” was baseball fiction, and baseball fans love their stats. Friday, March 13, 2015 was 2,137 days ago (according to Alexa, who hadn’t yet been born at that time).

I’ve attempted to write stories during that time. But I’ve never finished one. I’ve never really gotten close to finishing one.

At the time I sold “Gemma” I was coming off of what, for me, was a hot streak. I was selling most of what I was writing at the time, fiction and nonfiction. I was also drifting away from what first got me writing: science fiction. More and more my stories were “science fiction” for the purpose of having convenient markets to sell them to. But the stories were less and less science fictional. For some reason, after “Gemma Barrows” my lifelong interest in science fiction waned dramatically. I mostly stopped reading science fiction. And the stories I attempted to write, while containing a fantastic element here or there, were not stories I’d consider to be science fiction.

Whatever the reason, after March 13, 2015, I found that I had problem: I could no longer finish writing a story.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat

That is not to say that I could no longer write. I had, and still have, no problem writing nonfiction pieces, including the pieces I write here on the blog, and elsewhere. I also had plenty of story ideas. My writers block is not for lack of ideas, it seems. And it is not to say that I stopped writing stories. I just couldn’t finish what I started.

In fact, in the nearly six years since that day in 2015, I have often felt like Phil Conners waking up morning after morning to find that it is still February 2. This began with a story that I started to write (so far as I can tell from my notes) way back in December 2013, but that I started on in earnest in 2014, even before I wrote “Gemma Barrows.” This was another baseball story, and was more or less straight fiction, with one small fantastical twist. I wrote and I wrote, and then I stopped. I didn’t like the pace of the story. I knew where it was going, as I do with most of my stories, but I felt wrong to me.

To get myself back on track, I created a new document, and retyped the opening paragraph, which I liked, and which I felt had a great hook. I then tried rewriting the story from there. But it still didn’t work. I tried this again, and again, always keeping the same opening but writing beyond it without looking at what I had done before. I made three attempts, six, twelve. Looking at that folder just now I see a total of 61 drafts between 2014, and my latest attempt on December 13, 2020.

I’d long since given up on the opening I was so committed to. I’d changed just about every aspect of the story, writing and rewriting, trying different things. But never getting past a certain point. I told myself that I just wasn’t experienced enough to tell this story, and I should wait, maybe write about something else.

I started another story, one that had been floating around in my head for a few years. I conceived it as a 3-part novella, and I wrote the first part quickly, and in style and voice different from what I normally write. I reallyliked it. I submitted the first part to my writers’ group—the first submission I’d made in a long time—and got positive feedback from them on the story. I setup a lot in the 4,400-word first part, and there would have to be a big payoff. But for some reason, I could never move on to the second part.

I’d sit down after days or weeks and tell myself that in order to get that voice back in my head, I’d need to rewrite the first part. Re-type it, really. I’d open the draft in one window, open a blank document beside it, and retype what I had written. All 4,400 words. I did this more times than I can recall. I switched word processors and did it again. I wrote out the 4,400 words long hand in a Leuchtturm notebook. This dragged on over several years. In moments of desperation, I’d wonder to myself if the first part wasn’t the entire story. Did I really need anything more?

Growing even more desperate, I decided to return to the draft of the one and only novel I’d ever written from back in 2013. Maybe it was finally time for me to turn that first draft into a second draft. I started reading the first draft, but no new writing ever came from it. Instead, I turned my attention to a fantasy story I’d written but never sold. Maybe I could rewrite it as a play. (A play? Seriously? I’d never written a play in my life, nor had I ever had the desire to write one. What was I thinking?) Or, if not a play, maybe I could expand it into an epic novel, a la Brandon Sanderson? Nothing came of that either, thank goodness.

I couldn’t move forward. That seemed to be the crux of the problem. I couldn’t finish what I started, and when I finally did decide to move onto something else, it was not onto something brand new, but something old that I felt I could make better. Six years of this cycle: Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Distraction

I still thought of myself as a writer. After all, I’d sold about a dozen stories, and three times as many nonfiction pieces, right? I filled the time I should have spent writing with writing-related tasks. I told myself the problem was that I didn’t have a good environment for writing. I should do everything in plain text with a simple text editor. When that didn’t change things, I told myself I needed more structure, and went back to Scrivener. When that didn’t help, I started using a Freewrite I’d gotten, thinking that writing on a device like that, completely offline and distraction-free would be the ticket. None of it worked, of course.

I distracted myself with other writerly tasks. I decided I would archive all of my previous writing as far back as I could manage to go (another journey into the past, instead of the future). I had Word files from 1992 including the very first story I’d written when I decided I wanted to try selling stories. I would get all of these files archived, and at least be able to look back over the hundreds of files and demonstrate to myself that I hadbeen able to write.

I distracted myself by writing a set of scripts that would look at the git commits I made of my writing each day to generate word counts, so that I could track my progress. The scripts worked surprisingly well, but scripts like these are really only useful when there are, you know, words to count.

I told myself that the enormous amount of reading I was doing was all laying the foundation that would make me a better writer.

The fiction we tell ourselves

When I was young, my grandfather would often quote Hamlet, saying, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” As I got older, he found what I always took to be an amusing and ironic corollary. He’d say to me, “There are only two people I never lie to: myself, and my doctor.”

I might not be able to finish writing a story, but I could still tell myself stories. Could I ever! Tall tales! Fish stories! I’d tell myself that I was a better nonfiction writer than a fiction writer, anyway, so don’t sweat the fiction. Focus on the nonfiction.

I’d tell myself that I had the perfect outlet for my nonfiction right here on the blog. I’d write posts about writing even while struggling with my own fiction writing. What I’d do, I’d tell myself, is not worry about the fiction and focus on the blog, make it into one of the premier blogs on the Internet.

I remind myself of all the times I’d read about other authors struggling with their own writing. I’d tell myself that quality meant much more to me than quantity. I’d always been a slow writer when it came to fiction. I could finish these stories if I wanted to. Heck, I’d been finishing stories since that first one in 1992. But I didn’t just want to finish, I wanted to write the best possible story I could write. I wanted to take it to the next level. I wasn’t writing stories for the science fiction magazines anymore, I told myself, I was writing for Harper’s—that was my new goal. I justified this by reminding myself that when I started out, I wanted my name on the byline of a story in Analog just like Isaac Asimov wanted to see his name on a byline in Analog’s earlier incarnation, Astounding. I wanted my name in Harper’s just like E. B. White had his name there. Even here I was fooling myself. The stories I was reading in the science fiction magazines, before I have it up were at least as good as the fiction I’ve read in Harper’s.

I kept (and still keep) my membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America active, telling myself it is yet another sign that I am a writer, proof-positive for anyone who needs evidence–namely me!

I’ve told myself all kinds of stories over the last six years. None of them were true. There’s the old adage that a fiction writer is a paid liar. By that definition, I’m up there with the best of them. Except, instead of lying to my audience, I’ve been lying to myself.

The next page

The truth is, I’ve been struggling with my writing for the last six years. I can’t finish a story. I can’t even move past one. I hesitate to admit this publicly because I fear it comes across as just another excuse, just another distraction, just another gimmick to fool myself into thinking that I am writing.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. But what if the problem has no solution? If I am being completely honest (this above all else), part of me hopes that by writing this post, my problem will go away, and I’ll find that I can write again.  I doubt that will be the case. Writing fiction is hard for me. That’s the way it should be. Why do it if it is easy?

I suspect that writer’s block is different for every writer who experiences it. No one piece of advice will get me over the wall, except, perhaps, stubborn persistence. Writing fiction isn’t about word counts, or word processors, or document formats or union memberships, or contracts. It’s about facing that blank page in whatever form it may take and turning it into a story that you are proud of. Right now, that blank page seems daunting to me in a way that it never has before. Right now, I feel intimidated by all the good writers that are out there who manage to fill that blank page, whatever their other day-to-day challenges might be. It is easy to say to myself, “just sit down and write a story.” It is even easy to begin to fill that blank page.

The hard part, for me, is filling the next page. And the one after that.

R.I.P. James Gunn

I learned this morning that science fiction Grandmaster James Gunn has died at age 97. His novel, The Listeners, set the standard for first contact stories. He created and ran the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Lawrence, Kansas. His Road to Science Fiction anthologies offer an eclectic range of stories that chart the history of the genre, in U.S. and around the world. And unlike most science fiction grandmasters, I had a personal connection with Jim, and he had a direct influence on my writing career.

In the summer of 2008, I had sold 2 stories. I learned that James Gunn was running an online version of his famous science fiction writing workshop. Outside of creative writing classes I took in college, I’d never done any kind of writing class or workshop, but I knew of Jim’s reputation, and decided to give this one a try. The course lasted 6 weeks, I think, and a group of writers would meet virtually, to learn, discuss, write, and critique stories, with Jim as our leader and instructor.

At the end of the course, Jim gave high praise to a story I’d written for the course, and suggested I send it to Analog. Analog was the top magazine in the field for hard science fiction, at the time, and had been around longest. It was legendary in my mind, and the hardest possible market to break into. I’d sent a dozen stories or more to Analog in the past, always resulting in brief, form letter rejection slips.

Still, Jim was telling me to submit, so I did. And to my surprised, I didn’t get a brief form letter rejection slip, but a lengthy note from Dr. Stan Schmidt, longtime editor of Analog, passing on the story, but providing valuable feedback. I was thrilled, and immediately set to work, putting to use what I learned in Jim’s workshop–and taking advantage of the friends I’d made in the workshop to critique what I’d written–writing another story. I submitted it to Analog and once again, received a lengthy rejection slip from Stan that could almost be read as an acceptance if you held it up at just the right angle.

I kept plugging away, encouraged by the rejections. In the summer of 2010 I’d written a story called “Take One for the Road” which I submitted to Analog. It was out for longer than usual, and as the 60-day mark approached, I grew increasingly anxious. My son was a little over a year old, and I was downstairs with him when I saw an email in my inbox from Stan Schmidt. He was taking my story! I had sold a story to Analog. I jumped up and screamed so loud, that my son, frightened, burst into tears. The story appeared in the June 2011 issue of the magazine.

After that, I began selling stories more rapidly to a variety of magazines. I also started selling nonfiction pieces. Over time, I not only sold a couple of stories to Analog, but was also asked to write 2 editorials for the magazine.

To this day, I credit Jim Gunn and his workshop for the adjustments they introduced to my writing that led to this breakthrough. I was delighted to tell him (and my classmates) about that first sale to Analog, and he was cheerful and supportive in his return.

In 2013, at the World Science Fiction convention in San Antonio, Texas, I finally got to meet Jim in person, and made a point of thanking him, and letting him know that it was him, and his workshop that got me past the final hurdle and taught me to learn of to tell a good, print-worthy science fiction story. I am forever grateful to Jim, grateful that I was able to attend his virtual workshop, grateful for his support, and especially, for being able to meet him in person and thank him for all he had done for me. I will always think of myself as a Young Gunn.

Rest In Peace, Jim.

We Are Buying a Saltwater Farm in Maine

I know this will come as news to most of my friends, family, and readers, but we have decided to leave the city for the countryside of Maine. I plan on buying a saltwater farm there, preferably somewhere in or around Brooklin, Maine. While it is true that I could work remotely, I feel that a working farm will keep me busy for many hours of the day, and so I plan to support my family by writing a monthly syndicated column of my farming adventures for a national magazine. As it is always good to have a backup plan, if the syndicated column doesn’t pan out, I’ll write about my farming adventures here.

I was inspired to this feat of daring-do by a fellow scribbler named Elwyn Brooks White, who attempted a similar experiment between 1938 and 1943. You can read about his experiment in the pages of Harper’s under the banner “One Man’s Meat.” Elwyn, who most people know as “E.B.” and who friends called “Andy” for reasons only Cornell graduates would understand escaped the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for Brooklin, Maine for many of the same reasons I plan to escape the hustle and bustle of Arlington, Virginia. E.B. was a writer, and I am a writer, so I should have no problem running a small farm. After all, avoiding writing is a big part of every writers repertoire, and what better way to avoid writing than by raising chickens, sheep, pigs, ducks, and possibly a cow or two.

When I proposed this plan to Kelly she said, “What do you know about farming?”

“Well, I’ve read One Man’s Meat at least three times. What else is there to know?”

“It gets cold in the winter,” Kelly said, “can you chop wood?”

“I can split logs with the best of them,” I said confidently.

“We don’t even own an ax!” Kelly said.

I was ready for this. “A decent ax costs about $50. I’ve just finished this story that I am sure Harper’s or The New Yorker will love. They’ll pay me ten times that much at least? Then I can buy the ax.”

“What if they don’t like the story?”

“What’s not to like about it?” I said.

“Make a list,” Kelly said.

“A list of what?”

“A list of all of the things you need to get done in order to move to this saltwater farm in Maine.”

“And then what?”

“And then we’ll talk.”

I decided to take Kelly up on this challenge. Here is my list:

1. Find a saltwater farm for sale in Maine.

I did some searching for “saltwater farms for sale in Maine” and found several that seemed to my eyes reasonably priced pieces of property that fit the description. Each listing, after indicating said reasonable price, then indicated something less reasonable: SOLD. This begs two questions: first, why show the property if it is sold? It doesn’t help anyone. The realtor might think it helps them by indicating they are good at selling property, but it only serves to annoy me and makes me think the realtor is smug. And second, what is this sudden demand for saltwater farms in Maine? I suppose I’ll have to come back to this item. In the meantime…

2. Get our house ready to put on the market.

True, we bought this place a year ago with the idea that we’d be here for the long haul. I hate moving. I hate packing, I hate unpacking. I hate looking at properties. I hate it when people come into my house to assess whether it is up to their standards. I use the term “hate” sparingly, but I hate all of these things. Still, the idea of owning a saltwater farm in Maine is appealing. But before we can think about putting this house on the market there are a few other hurdles to overcome.

3. Find a national magazine willing to pay me a large sum of money to syndicate a monthly column that will support me and the family in our new endeavor.

Hmm? Well, in addition to writing here on the blog, I’ve written a column for the Daily Beast. I’ve written an article for 99U, and of course, there was that review column for Intergalactic Medicine Show. I’ve written two guest editorials for Analog Science Fiction. I’ve had stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. The bottom line is that people have, in the past, happily paid me for my writing so there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t continue to do so in the future. Until now, all of this writing was done without the aid of an agent, but if I am going to support myself (and my agent) through my writing, I probably should look into getting one.

4. Find an agent who can get me a syndicated monthly column in a national magazine.

My friend and mentor, Barry N. Malzberg once told me that if you can get an agent, you probably don’t need one. He should know. He worked for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency for a long time. I’ve heard that Bill Murray–yes, that Bill Murray–doesn’t use an agent. He has a phone number and answering machine and checks it every couple of weeks or so. I kind of like that approach. Isaac Asimov rarely used an agent, and the 10 percent I save on commissions can go toward paying down the mortgage of the saltwater farm. Or is it fifteen percent these day? Did E.B. White have a literary agent? I can’t be sure, but I don’t think he did when he had his saltwater farm in Maine.

5. Write something worth being nationally syndicated.

I mean, how hard can this be, right? I read everything that John McPhee writes in The New Yorker and he has written a lot. E. B. White wrote for the New Yorker. His wife was an editor there and his stepson, Roger Angell was also a writer and editor for the magazine. Andy wrote about dogs and sick pigs and collecting eggs. He wrote about the occasional hurricane and snowstorm. He wrote reminiscences of summers in Maine as a child, to say nothing of the stories he conjured of pigs and spiders in his barn. Look, if you have any ideas of something I might pitch for a nationally syndicated column, let me know.

6. Clean out the stuff in the attic.

I don’t know exactly how this happens, but attic junk accumulates. In our old house, we had a few boxes of clothes in the attic. In our new house, I had install some extra attic boards to store all of the stuff we have up there. We have clothes every one of our kids have outgrown. We have boxes of stuff that I don’t know what’s in them. How is it that we have more stuff in the attic of our new house than we did in our old house? You know what, I need to make sure there is a large barn on the saltwater farm we purchase in Maine. The loft of said barn should be more than adequate to contain anything we might decide to hoard well into the future. I just discovered two boxes of papers in my attic that were once in my parent’s attic. How the heck did that happen?

7. Scan in all the papers in the attic.

One way to pare down the stuff in the attic is to scan in all those papers from when I was in kindergarten that my mom saved. In addition to giving these back to me, she also returned all of the Mother’s Day cards I’d made for her throughout the years. I’m not quite sure how I am supposed to take that. Even if I scanned in a dozen pages a day, it’s going to take me years to get all of these papers scanned in and organized. I guess that’s alright. It gives me time to figure out what I should write for my nationally syndicated column, and possibly attract the attention of an agent.

8. Paint the house.

Before we put the house on the market, we should probably have the interior painted. For whatever reason, these days realtors seems to be recommending a calming gray for interior walls. We had our old place painted in these colors just before we sold it, and indeed, it was calming. But we’re trying to save money to buy the farm, so to speak, so I suspect Kelly will say we should paint the house ourselves, meaning, I should paint the house. I painted much of the interior of our old house when we first moved in and swore an oath that I would never undertake such a torturous endeavor again. In a review of the job I did painting the house, Kelly also agrees I should never attempt it again.

9. Put the house on the market.

It’s true, Amazon is putting their headquarters in our town and home prices are rising. It is also true that we are in the midst of a pandemic. I doubt our house would sell within the first 24 hours on the market as our old house did last year. If it didn’t sell in 24 hours, it would feel like a real defeat. And then there are the real estate agents who want to take chunk for their efforts. If it wasn’t so complicated, I’d try to sell the house without an agent but I’d almost certainly screw something up. Selling the house, as we learned last year, is great incentive for finding a new house–in this case a saltwater farm in Maine.

10. Start packing.

We may still have boxes from last year and–no, I’m sorry, no, I can’t do it. Saltwater farm or not, I cannot pack up a house on year after we moved into it. I swore to myself a year ago that packing up the old house was the last time I’d pack for a long, long time. I’m sorry, I really am. I know you were all looking forward to what would have been an award-winning syndicated column in a national magazine. I know you all looked forward to reading about my adventures as a saltwater farmer in Maine on the blog. But I draw the line at packing up my things. Especially my books. It took me the better part of three days while Kelly and the kids were off at the shore with friends to get the books sorted in the proper order on my shelves. I am not going to put myself through that again.

Consider this post a formal announcement to all my friends, family, and readers, that we have not, in fact, decided to leave the city for the countryside, rumors to the contrary. Don’t pay any attention to what you might have read in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. We are not moving. We are staying in the house we bought a year ago. I mean, come on, who in their right mind would pick up and leave for a saltwater farm in Maine with the idea of supporting a family by writing a nationally syndicated column without an agent, or even an idea? Pure rumor drudged up by the media. Put in a way that too many Americans will empathize with: fake news.

New Writing Project

Today, I am beginning my final attempt at writing this story that I have tried to write off and on for nearly 7 years now. It is, I think, a novel, but I won’t know for sure until it is finished. If I can’t do it right this time, I’m giving it up as too difficult for me. That said, I’m not giving up without a fight. I have a plan this time, which I didn’t have in my previous attempts. I also have a secret weapon that I hope will make this last attempt a success.

The plan: I’m giving myself a season to write the first draft and a second season to write the second draft. Start today, I plan to be finished with the first draft by August 31. At that point, I plan to take the month of September off from writing and not even look at what I wrote during that time. Then, beginning on October 1, I’ll start the second draft with an aim to finish it by December 31.

The secret weapon: this time, I have an outline.

That may come as a surprise to longtime readers. In the spectrum of plotters versus pantsers, I’ve been a proclaimed pantsers for a long time. Indeed, all of the short fiction I’ve sold was produced without outlines of any kind. And therein lies the rub: I have, to this point, written only one draft of a novel, way back in 2013. I never moved beyond that first draft because it seemed relatively incoherent. I’ve made numerous attempts at the story I intend to start today, and all have failed. In considering why this may be so, I decided to swallow my pride, and assume that at least part of the problem was that for something so big, I need an outline to provide waypoints for where I am going. My pal, Bud Sparhwak, will be pleased.

Armed with an outline, I plan to get started today and see how things go. I’m feeling pretty good right now, but that just may be the excitement of getting started. We’ll see how I’m feeling in mid-July, when I am deep in the middle of this thing–and on August 31, I’ll know once and for all if I am capable of writing this thing.

I don’t plan on doing any updates along the way. There just isn’t the time, and given my schedule, any time I can spend writing, I want to spend working on the story. But I will post an update by August 31, letting you know one way or another, if I succeeded in completing the story.

Never having used an outline before, I don’t know what a novel outline is supposed to look like. Mine consists of many sheets of yellow legal paper with a rough outline of all the chapters, and more pages that break each chapter down into things that I think need to happen. There’s also random notes scribbled here and there and various arrows point this way and that. I could have typed it up, I supposed, and brought some more order to it, but I like the chaotic feel of it. It feels like I am less locked in to a specific line of events, and have a kind of fuzzy map of how things are supposed to happen. If the outline works, and the story is a success, maybe I’ll post those pages someday as an example of an outline that worked–for me at least. (I suppose, it would be equally useful to post the outline if the story doesn’t work out, as an example of something that doesn’t work, but I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to do that.)

I’m trying not to think in terms of metrics on this go around. You can do the math and figure that for a 90,000 word novel, I need to write about a thousand words per day, on average. If my past experience is any guide, I’ll be well ahead of the curve in the first week or two, then I’ll hit the curve for a while, before falling off. I’m hoping that outline will serve to protect me somewhat from that falling off, but only time will tell.

So what’s the story about? I’m not really sure myself. I usually can’t answer that question until after I’ve written the first draft. But from what I know right now, it’s about baseball, and growing old, and the strange effects of… well, if I ever sell the thing I don’t want to spoil it so for now, you’ll just have to use your imagination.

Repeat After Me

Post ideas

I read in the New York Times that Roger Kahn died. The author of The Boys of Summer (the #2 book on Sport Illustrated’s 100 Greatest Sports Books, right after A. J. Lieblings The Sweet Science) was 92 years old. Earlier in the week I read obituaries for Gene Reynolds (M*A*S*H), and Kirk Douglas, who at 103 appears to be out-survived only by Olivia de Havilland. All of these obituaries made me want to write about obituaries.

This, however, exposed an increasingly frequent problem I encounter when writing on this blog: I’ve written about obituaries already. In fact, I’ve written about them more than once. In 2016 I wrote about them in “How I Read the Newspaper.” I touched on the subject again in 2017 in a post aptly titled, “Obituaries.” I returned to the subject last year in “Morning Routines.”

I’ve written about 6,500 posts for this blog—about 2.5 million words, spanning more than 15 years. Since I tend to write about whatever comes to mind instead of focusing on one particular subject, it sometimes seems as though there isn’t anything I haven’t written about. When something occurs to me that seems like it might be worthy subject, the first thing I do these days is a search of the blog to see if I’ve written about it before. I am frequently surprised that I have.

Having written about a subject before doesn’t automatically prevent me from writing about it again. Two conditions typically push me to write again on a subject: (1) I have something new to add; or (2) it has been a long time (a few years at least) since I last wrote about it. Readers come and go, change and evolve, so why not write about it again?

The first condition is most common. Having something new to say is useful. What’s new is often a change of opinion on a subject over time. The classic example of this is my opinion of audiobooks. In January 2012, I wrote a piece on audiobooks where I stated, quite forcefully, that audiobooks were not for me. Reading that piece now is painful now, especially my snobbish reasoning for why I though audiobooks weren’t for me. Eight years, and over 400 audiobooks later, my opinion has changed.

As a kind of experiment, I tried to think of subjects that I might not have written about (or that I had completely forgotten I’d written about) over the years, and then search to blog to see if I had or hadn’t. Here is just some of the results:

At times it seems I’ve written about everything but the kitchen sink. Except—I’ve written about that, too.

Notably absent here is political writing. This sometimes surprises me, given that my degree is in political science and journalism. The truth is that it seems everywhere I turn, people are writing about politics, and anything I have to say has been said before. I don’t particularly enjoy writing about politics, either. I’d just as soon write about something more obscure, but fun: like my inability to locate a paperclip when I need one.

Perhaps all of this is just to say that, while I try my best not to be too repetitive here, some repetition is an inevitable byproduct of the thousands of posts I’ve already written. I ask for your patience with this as I blunder on into the future.

Writer Envy

Books by John McPhee, Stephen King, and E.B. White

I sometimes wonder if professional baseball players envy their teammates. Does a career average player look to a superstar and wonder: Why can’t I be that good? What’s holding me back? Envy isn’t an emotion that I am proud of, but sometimes that painful awareness of a talent I don’t possess and someone else does creeps in.

The truth is, I envy all sorts of writers, not for their success as much as their pure natural ability and talent. Stephen King is among my favorite writers, and I envy his ability to tell a good story, which for me is the single most important part of writing fiction. I envy Ray Bradbury’s lyricism. When I have tried to write like Bradbury, it always feels forced and phony.

I envy the nonfiction writer’s ability to research their material. E.B. White is among my favorite essayists and I envy the easy of his voice. Another of my favorites is John McPhee. I envy his abilities as well, but I envy something about him even more: I envy his travels, his ability to embed himself with whatever subject he was writing about and make it a part of his life. John McPhee has the rarest of talents: he can take any subject and make it interesting.

I know I shouldn’t be envious. I should be thankful for what abilities I possess as a writer. Those abilities, such as they are, were nurtured by parents who encouraged reading. They are almost entirely developed of brute force, and stubbornness. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I submitted and submitted and submitted, until finally, editors started to buy my stories. No shortcuts for me!

As a writer, I am rarely satisfied with what I write. At best, my writing seems “good enough” to send out, and on occasion, it is published, but I often look at what I write, and mentally compare it to those writers that I look up to as role models, and it seems always that we are in different leagues. They are major league superstars, bound for the Hall of Fame. I, on the other hand, bounce around the minor leagues, never quite getting to the level of the majors.

I desperately want to make that leap. I can imagine it, and perhaps that is half the battle. When I was much younger, and just starting to write, I used to daydream that one day, in my wildest imagination, I might actually sell a story to Analog. It seemed impossible, like winning the lottery. Eventually, I did sell to Analog. I could imagine it, and as impossible as it seemed, I made that leap.

The next leap seems much more difficult to make, and it has stymied my writing since late 2015 when I sold my last piece of fiction. I’ve been unsure of my writing ever since. I find myself writing the same pieces of story over and over again, to claim to myself that I am writing, when all I am really doing is going in circles. Part of my problem is that I am not sure where to go from here. Part of my problem is envy and fear. I want to tell stories like Stephen King. I want to write like E.B. White. I want to embed myself in my research like John McPhee.

I suppose there is a danger in comparing yourself to someone at the top of their profession, especially when I am close to the bottom. I try to look at it optimistically: I have a lot of room to grow. But it is a hard hill to climb when you don’t have much time in the day to practice your craft.

This year I have set a modest goal for myself: to get back to writing every day. Even if it is only for five or ten minutes, try to write something every day. I considered a tougher goal of writing a story a month–12 stories in the year, far more than I have ever written before. But that seemed self-defeating. The first step is to get back into the habit, to start flexing those muscles again.

I have a smaller, more subtle goal as well: to try to be less envious of other writers and instead, to appreciate their talents for the beauty they create instead.

I’m Writing This Post on My New Freewrite

I have often daydreamed about buying a typewriter and using it to write all of my first drafts. With a typewriter, I’d have no distractions from email, or social media. I wouldn’t be tempted by the apps on my computer. I’d slide in the paper and start typing. Of course, things like typos and corrections would be more problematic than on a word processor. Then, too, I wouldn’t have an electronic archive of those first drafts, just the paper copies. I suppose I could scan those. Finding the right typewriter is tricky, and maintaining it is trickier.

Enter my new Freewrite by Astrohaus. The Freewrite is billed as a “Smart typewriter for distraction-free writing.” So far, I’ve put a couple thousand words through it, and I think that is enough for some initial thoughts. First, the device itself.

The Freewrite is about the size of my circa 1950 Royal QuietComfort DeLuxe manual typewriter, although without as high a profile. It is significantly lighter than my Royal typewriter, and rests easily on my desk. It has a built-in handle for carrying around, and a full-sized keyboard that feels comfortable to use. Its e-ink screen is divided into to parts: a large upper screen where the text I write appears, and through which I can scroll back and forth to review; and a smaller status window that can show me various pieces of information about what I am working on.

The Freewrite seems to address many of my concerns about using a typewriter: It saves everything I write locally, but can also connect to WiFi for the purpose of syncing documents to a cloud service like Dropbox, Evernote, or Google. The synced documents appear in Word format, and I can use Markdown when typing on my Freewrite to create the basic formatting I want in my document.

The screens on my Freewrite.

What I like about the Freewrite is that it is designed for drafting. There are no distractions. I don’t get email notifications; I can’t check Twitter or Facebook. It is simply a tool that allows me to focus on the first draft of whatever it is I happen to be writing, much as a typewriter would do.

Indeed, the Freewrite has no arrow keys. I can’t go back and edit something I’ve written, only add to it, and that is by design. The idea is to focus on writing and worry about editing and revising later. Not having the arrow keys takes some getting used to, but I kind of like it. It is leading me into a whole new process for writing, one which I haven’t completely settled on yet, but the basis version is:

  • Write first drafts in Freewrite.
  • Print and mark-up the first drafts from the Word documents created by the Freewrite.
  • Revise and edit in Word for final copy.

There is a switch on the Freewrite to allow me to switch between one of three folders that my documents get synced to. Right now, I have them set up as follows:

  • One folder for fiction.
  • One folder for blog posts (like this one).
  • One folder for correspondence.

I really like the simplicity of the device. I like its portability, too, although I haven’t taken it out with me yet. Part of this is that the opportunity has not yet arisen. Part of this is because the tool is designed to promote distraction-free writing, and I fear that upon seeing the device, people will be curious about it and ask me lots of questions–and I will get very little writing done.

As a use it more, I’ll have more to say about the device and how it is affecting my writing process. For now, consider this post the first official thing I’ve drafted completely on my new Freewrite.

Me and my new toy.

All I Want for Christmas Is To Be A Syndicated Columnist

With Christmas just a few weeks away, I’ve been daydreaming. When I daydream–something that occurs with increasing frequency these days–I often find myself having imaginary conversations with people. Sometimes these are people I know, and other times they are constructs, like characters in a story, that allow the conversation to progress the way I want it to. Recently, in on one of these daydreams, someone asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” Without hesitating I replied, “All I want for Christmas is to be a syndicated columnist.” Perhaps the most telling piece is that, while the conversation was imagined, I spoke those words aloud.

When I grow up, I want to be a syndicated columnist. I love to write, and I need to make a living, and it seems there should be some way to combine those. Of course, I’d need something to write about, and then there’s the matter of people to read what I write. These are details, of course, but perhaps we should consider them.

What would I write about? Given that I have been heavily influenced by the writers like E. B. White and Andy Rooney, it seems like some kind of hybrid would be in order. I am not as much the farmer as E. B. was, and I am not as cynical (usually, anyway) as Andy Rooney was. So perhaps something in between. White wrote a monthly column for Harper’s from 1938-1943 or thereabout. I could write a monthly column. Andy Rooney had a column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers 3 times a week, I think. And of course he had his 3 minutes at the end of 60 Minutes. (Whenever Rooney was on vacation I called the show 57 Minutes). I think my syndicated column should be somewhere between three times a week, and once a month.

Both Andys (White went by the name “Andy” to some of his friends) wrote about ordinary, everyday events, but in their own distinct ways. Indeed, Andy the Second was heavily influenced by Andy the First, and if you don’t believe me, spend time reading some of their stuff. I can probably write about ordinary, everyday events. Occasionally, each of the Andys would write something more controversial. I could probably manage that from time-to-time as well. Indeed, it would be a great way to generate letters, and I’d finally have more than one correspondent to whom I could write real letters.

I imagine there are qualifications one needs to meet to become a syndicated columnist. First and foremost, one must be able to write, and preferably (though not a showstopper based on some columns I have read) write well. I don’t have many talents, but I’ve never had a problem putting words down on paper.

It would probably help if the writing is entertaining in some way. If readers respond to the writing in a positive way that is always a good thing. It also helps sell advertising. I like to think that my writing is entertaining, but who am I to judge.

I suppose it is a plus if a columnist is a journalist, or has some background in journalism. My degree was in political science and journalism, although really my degree was in learning how to learn. An editor would probably want some kind of c.v. for a prospective columnist. You know, have you ever done anything like this before? My c.v., humble as it is would read something like:

  • Wrote a monthly review column for a science fiction magazine.
  • Wrote a technology column for The Daily Beast.
  • Have written a blog since 2005 with 6,468 posts (including this one). Some people even like what I write and occasionally tell me so.

It occurs to me that the kind of column I would like to write is more or less the some kind of thing I write here. How would I pitch that to an editor? In my daydreams (there I go again) I picture that scene in Seinfeld, when Jerry and George pitch their pilot to NBC and when asked what the show is about, George tells them it’s a show about nothing. Well, my column wouldn’t be about nothing, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the stuff that sells newspapers.

I think this blog may be the closest I come to writing a syndicated column, and I guess I should be thankful for what I have. The editor and I see eye-to-eye. No one has ever pushed a deadline on me, or told me I couldn’t say that because it would scare off half the readers (or worse, the advertisers). I have no advertisers to answer to. Really, when I think about it, the only difference between this blog and a syndicated column is maybe a few million readers, and a paycheck.

It’s disappointing, really. It means that the next time I go out walking and start to daydream, and some faceless construct asks me, “What do you want for Christmas?” I’ll have to come up with something else. Maybe a salt farm in Maine?

Capclave 2019, Day 1

Yesterday, I attended the first day of Capclave, the Washington, D.C. area local science fiction convention. This has been my local convention ever since I started to sell stories. I haven’t been writing much the last few years and so I haven’t been attending conventions, but I decided to attend this convention for two reasons: First, Robert J. Sawyer and Martha Wells are the guests of honor, and second, I’ve started to write again, and it would be great to catch up with old friends.

Rob Sawyer was the GoH at the first science fiction convention I ever attended, RavenCon in 2007. I had just sold my first story, and Rob was incredibly nice to me. I think the last time I saw him was at the Chicago Worldcon, and it was great to get to see him again yesterday.

Chatting with Bill Lawhorn, one of the Capclave con-runners, we tried to figure out when I first attended Capclave. I thought it was in 2010, the year that Connie Willis was guest of honor. Bill read through the list of earlier Capclave’s and I was fairly certain I hadn’t attended those.

I was wrong.

Searching the blog this morning, I found that I attended Capclave 2007 when Jeffrey Ford and Ellen Datlow were guests of honor. I was not a panelist then–indeed, the first time I was ever on a panel was at Readercon in 2008, I think. But I sat in awe on many of the panels as people whose names I’d been seeing on books and in the magazines talked.

At that 2007 Capclave I attended a workshop led by Edmund Schubert, Jagi Lamplighter, Jeri Smith-Ready, and Allen Wold. In the years since, I’ve sold more stories to Ed Schubert than any other editor; I attended the Lauchpad Astronomy workshop for writers in Laramie, Wyoming with Jeri Smith-Ready (her husband, Christian Ready helped run it), and yesterday, I moderated a panel that included Allen Wold among the panelist.

I had a late lunch with my pal, Bud Sparhawk, who has to be one of the most prolific “retired” people I know. It had been a few years since I’d seen Bud and it was great to catch up with him.

I had my first panel at 8 pm, “Before the Beginning,” a panel on what happens before a writer starts to write a story. It turned out I was moderating this panel, which included Sunny Moraine, Ian Randal Strock, Ted Weber, and Allen Wold. It was a light audience of maybe a dozen people, but I think we had a pretty good discussion. It was the first panel I’ve moderated in several years and I was a little nervous about it, so I made sure to prepare ahead of time. For those curious, here are my notes (the stuff handwritten, are things I scribbled down during the panel):

I’ve got two panels lined up today, neither of which I have to moderate, fortunately. Looking forward to another fun day.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 8: The Voice and POV Dance

It has been a few days since my last post. I’d been traveling for work, and spent much of the weekend working as well so writing the last few days has been minimal. Yesterday was Day 8, and through Day 8, I am 811 words ahead of pace. That sounds good, but things are a bit deceiving, and this is where setting a daily writing goal can be problematic.

Although I’ve written 4,800 words, only the most recent 1,700 are part of the novel now. The other 3,100 words have been tossed because they weren’t right. (They weren’t deleted, as I don’t delete, but they have been crossed out in the manuscript. So despite having averaged 600 words per day over the first 8 days of writing, I have only 1,700 words of acceptably story to show for it.

You see the flaw in a plan like this, right?

Fortunately, for me, this is fairly common at the beginning of a story. I stumble around a lot trying to find the right point of view from which to tell the story, and trying to find the right voices for that point of view. I started in first person, thinking that was how I wanted to tell it, but quickly realized that wouldn’t work, at least, not for the entire story. There are things the reader needs to know that the viewpoint character doesn’t know, and that is hard to do in first person without some kind of special talent, like telepathy, which this particular character does not have.

So I switched to third person, and rewrote. But I struggle more with voice in third person than I do in first. Moreover, I decided that I was going to move between characters, although never within a scene. So I needed to come up with distinct voices for each of the character viewpoints thus far.

Finally, I couldn’t figure out where best to start the story. I think I mentioned that it takes place in two distinct time periods separated by about 60 years. I tried starting at the beginning (in the earlier time period), but couldn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter quickly enough. The sense of overall urgency in the story was lacking. So I tried again, this time from the latter time period. That seemed to work better. Yesterday (my best day so far) I wrote 1,700 words covering the first two scenes, and I think I have things finally going the way I want them.

As one who does not outline (pantser instead of plotter), I also finally have a sense of the general direction the story is going. Right now it looks like there will be three overarching “parts” to the novel. The first and last will take place in the latter time period, with the middle part (a fairly big part, I think) taking place in the past.

I haven’t written yet today, but I know what comes next, and I am eager to write it, and that is always a good sign.

This difference between how much writing I do toward the first draft, and how much stays in the first draft is tricky, however. If I am aiming for a 90,000 word first draft, it is completely conceivable that I’d write 100,000 words or more, only 90,000 of which end up in the draft. To that end, I’ve added another element to my logbook for my novel. This is a green bar. Each day, that bar will indicate a cumulative count of how much of what I written is in the first draft. Stuff that I’ve cut won’t show up in this measurement. As of today, therefore, things look like this:

Introducing the green "draft total" bar.
Introducing the green “draft total” bar.

I expect to get in some decent writing this week, and over the weekend. Next week I am traveling again, so we’ll see how things go.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 3: Reading While Writing

More than 24 hours passed between my second and third writing session, but still three days in a row. I wrote yesterday early in the morning, before 5 am. Today, I just finished my day’s writing at almost 7 pm. I managed 620 words, so that’s three days above my 500 words/day quota. Today’s writing felt a little choppy–I felt like I was throwing a little too much out there at once. But I resisted the temptation to go back and change anything,. Right now I just need to keep moving forward.

On the plane out to L.A. I finished re-reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I think I’ve read this book 7 times now. It is the only book on writing I have ever read and found value in. I re-read it now and then for inspiration, especially when starting something new.

Having finished it on the plane, I needed something else to read, so I started reading Mary Robinette Kowal‘s The Calculating Stars. I stopped reading science fiction several years back, not for any particular reason. I just wanted to read other things, mostly nonfiction, but other types of fiction as well. But I will be attending Capclave next month, and it seemed like I should have read something recent in the genre, especially since I will be on panels there.

The book, so far, is amazing. I’m always impressed when writers do a good job at something technical. One of the main characters in Mary’s book is a pilot, and as a former pilot myself, I was impressed with Mary’s descriptions of flying. But the story is very good, too, and therein lies a problem for me.

When I am writing a story, I really can’t read fiction. I usually avoid it. But Mary’s book is so good that I just have to keep reading. And I suspect, by the time I finish it (maybe tomorrow on the plane home) that I’ll want to jump right into The Fated Sky, sequel to The Calculating Stars.

All of this is to say that Mary’s book is very, very good. So good, that I am breaking my own rule of avoiding reading fiction while I am writing fiction. The rule exists not so much because I am afraid what I am writing will be influenced by what I am reading. Instead, I worry that, given my limited time, I will choose to read her novel instead of work on my own. It’s fine to skip a day here or there, but if I start to skip too much, I start to lose the continuing of what I am writing.

In any case, three days into my own novel, I’ve got about 2,500 words written, and I think I might be closing in on the end of the first chapter. I don’t know how other writers think in terms of chapters. I generally write and number scenes, but as I go, I get sense that several scenes fit together in a collection that is properly called a chapter, and that is how I label them. I think chapter one will be done tomorrow or maybe Friday.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 2: Early Concerns

I was so tired yesterday, after not sleeping much the night before and being up early for my flight to L.A., that as soon as I finished writing, I crawled into my hotel bed at about 6:45 pm and collapsed. That meant that I was up early, despite getting 9 hours of sleep. So before heading into the office, I took advantage of the time to get in some writing.

I added the second scene to the novel, just shy of 1,000 words. I jumped viewpoints in this scene, and am set to do so again in the next scene, before jumping back to the original view point in scene 4. As many of my stories are first person, third person is harder for me. As I write, I worry that the different view points are not distinct enough from one another. In other words, instead of having to find the right voice for the story–which is always the hard part for me at the beginning–I have to find the right voices. And those voices need to be distinct enough from one another so that they come across as different people.

My other worry is that the story is interesting enough to keep a reader’s attention. This is a slippery slope for me. In the past, I worry about this too much and end up going back and starting things over to find what I think is a more interesting approach. I do this again and again and write a lot but make little real progress. I am trying to learn from that here, and I keep reminding myself that this is the first draft, and until it is finished, no one but me is going to see it. Let me just get the story down and I can decide if it is interesting enough to hold a reader (and make it more interesting, if needed) in the second draft.

It did feel good to get in my quota (and then some) before my day even gets started. I’m eager to write the next couple of scenes, and that is always a good sign. There’s a chance I’ll get some more writing in this evening, but for now, after two days, the score is about 1,800 words written compared to 1,000 words of baseline. So I’m nearly 2 days ahead of schedule at this point. That’s a good way to start.